Category Archives: Reading and reviews

Review: The Writing Retreat (Julia Barth)

Imagine knocking your first novel right out of the park and becoming an overnight success. Then you have a bit of a setback, with your sophomore effort suffering…well, the sophomore effect: not great reviews, fewer sales, and people wondering if you can even come near, much less match, the success of your first book. The next time out, though, you’re back in that rarefied air, and before you know it, you have a string of bestsellers under your belt. That’s Roza Vallo, who runs a writing retreat every year for five promising female authors under the age of 30.

One of those writers heading to the retreat is Alex, who started a novel but didn’t finish it, and has been blocked for over a year on what to write and how to write it. She doesn’t think she has a chance to get one of those five coveted spots with one of her favorite authors, but as luck would have it, she gets her chance. The only thing that threatens to sour her mood is that her ex-BFF Wren will also be there. She’s resolved to not let this hamper her in her quest to best the block and start making her own way in the literary world.

Off she goes to the retreat, meeting the other women and the mansion, which has its own story. I had already not been liking needy, whiny Alex all that much. When she reaches the mansion, she meets the other women, and all of them have some rather forced, awkward conversations. They head to their respective rooms to clean up for dinner, where they meet their odd host and mentor, Roza. Roza tells them they will all be writing an entire novel during their stay. Of those, she will select one, and the writer of that one will be given a seven figure deal for their book. They will all meet every day, and all of them will also meet one on one with Roza.

I don’t mind novels about novels – Misery by Stephen King is one of my favorite books. Alex, who still has no idea what to write, prowls the library in the mansion, and finds a spark in an account of a crime that happened right in this very mansion. This starts to gel for her, and she begins to write, as do the others, all of whom are under the same deadline to produce as Alex. The book she writes, the excepts of which are given to us, the reader, just was not interesting to me at all – I’m not a regular reader of paranormal stuff. Still, she’s writing, even if she is still fairly whiny.

The aspiring novelists could be rearranged, renamed, and reassigned with virtually no loss or confusion, as they’re not that deep. Roza as a character is not just eccentric but seriously odd, and in fact, a criminal. Spiking peoples’ drinks with LSD is not okay. She also seems to be weird just for the sake of being weird and also speaks like someone from the 18th century.

A giant storm has isolated the mansion from the rest of the world, making it a locked room mystery, effectively. Strange things begin happening throughout, Alex discovers Roza isn’t exactly on the level, and the book devolved for me into cliches and tropes – including the one thing we always shout at characters in movies about to descend into a dark basement: don’t go down those stairs. But, that’s exactly what happens.

The last 20% or so of the book has some decent action as well as actual murder, so all was not lost, although the ending was not entirely pleasing and left things open-ended and a bit vague. The rationale behind what’s going on was something I’d already guessed long before the writers even got to the mansion, thanks to a scene where the author might as well have drawn a giant red circle on the scene, in case it wasn’t obvious enough.

Overall, it isn’t a terrible book. The writing is fine, although I wish there had been something to differentiate the women in the group, as they all sounded a lot alike, and their personalities alone really were not enough. It isn’t a great book – too many cliches/tropes, and a lot of “female empowerment” gong on, which is fine, but something that slowed down the story. It is something you can read in an afternoon and not feel like you wasted any time, which is a major point in my scoring system.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Bullet Garden, Earl Swagger #3 (Stephen Hunter)

The D-Day landings have been a success. The Allies are now in France. But they’re not making a great deal of headway because of one dreaded word: snipers.

The areas between the hedges are being called the bullet garden, thanks to snipers working seemingly without any limitations, picking off soldiers at will. It’s clear that to get going inland, the Allies are going to have to solve this particular problem.

Enter Gunnery Sergeant Earl Swagger. He is not, at this time, working as a sniper. Injured in the Pacific campaign, he’s now instructing fresh new Marines at Parris Island, dealing out hard truths. He’s talked into going to Europe for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) to flush out the snipers gumming up the works. He agrees, is giving a commission as a Major in the US Army, and put on a plane.

He’s given a staff, some offices, and told to get to work, which he does – much to the chagrin and annoyance of another officer, who doesn’t like any other fiefdoms clogging up his own fiefdom. Swagger isn’t one much for office politics and tells his staff – primarily, his second in command, who in reality outranks him, and his aide de camp – to ignore the other officer, as he’ll handle it. He does this as well, in a subtle way, the amusing lesson worthy of being taught to office workers in modern times.

In the meantime, in a sequence I personally thought funny as hell thanks to the crazy reasoning he gives, Swagger puts together a profile of the snipers to his boss and a couple of other brass, which they accept as sound. I’ll leave it at that so as not to spoil it, but I urge you to think hard on it as the book continues, to see if you can spot the reason why before Swagger explains it.

Swagger is then given a field team to go sniper hunting, which includes two young soldiers who left Harvard to join, and whom we met in the opening chapters. While some readers may be able to figure out the how of the snipers striking as they do, it’s much more difficult to get to the who of the group – and I certainly didn’t guess their identities.

There’s a subplot about a romance and a spy in the office, but the latter was dead easy to spot. That aside, it’s a terrific read and well worth the time to invest.

Four and a half out of five stars, rounded up to five.

Thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Dark Circles (Caite Dolan-Leach)

Synopsis? Great! Title? I like it! Story? Not terrible, but convoluted and I don’t think yet another entry into NXIVM or other batshit cults was entirely necessary. I could forgive this if the book was better written, but it just didn’t do it for me. It is slow – VERY slow – to start, and while it does get some giddyup going about half-ish way through before barreling on to the end, some of the supposed secrets are just so weird and silly that by that point I just cared about getting through it, having decided that 2022 was going to be my year of zero DNFs.

Young actress gets shipped to rehab after doing bad-but-not-terrible things. While there, she stumbles on to a “this place ain’t right” vibe, and when she gets out, decides to become a podcaster (at least it wasn’t “become a youtuber”) in the true crime arena. First out of the box: the cultish rehab, where women have died under mysterious circumstances. By the way, Editor, whoever you are: leaving the ads in a printed representation of a spoken podcast? What in the world were you thinking?

The main character was really, really difficult for me to care about. At all. When the meat of the story got going, I managed to put her aside, but authors, please: you don’t have to have a character who is entirely unlikable. It’s very hard to care one way or the other whether they meet their goals or not, or if they die after ten pages or three hundred. There’s middle ground there. Find it.

Two out of five stars. Sorry, author. Not this one, not for me.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Inconvenient Heiress (Jane Walsh)

Famine to feast. Friends to lovers. What more could one ask?

A tad more chemistry, perhaps, but it isn’t difficult to believe that two women, lifelong friends – one a painter, one unexpectedly in charge of all her siblings after their parents died – who have always been close would be able to inch that “close” gap to nothing.

Arabella is the artist, living with er brother and his very pregnant wife, painting and selling a bit here and there, and generally fine with life,if starting to chafe a bit at what else may be out there in the world for her. Caroline, riding herd on her siblings, can only imagine what her life could be once all the kids are grown and gone on to their own lives.

Enter a courier, with good news: the Reeves have inherited not a vast fortune, but certainly more than they’ve ever sen in their lives. Caroline, ever the worrier, frets that someone will turn up, laying a greater claim to the monies than her little clan has. This turns out to be unfounded, although she now finds herself the unwelcome spot of attention in a pool of fortune hunters. She’s more concerned about getting her sisters properly married – without allowing them to tarnish their reputations in the process.

It’s a fun read, and if you know the typical arcs of these stories, you’ll find no surprises, really. It was fun watching Caroline saving her siblings from themselves, often with help from Arabella and others. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Three and a half stars, rounded to four.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Doomed Legacy – Rick Cahill #19 (Matt Coyle)

We’ve known for awhile that things are going downhill for poor Rick Cahill. A title with the word “doomed” in it – well, things aren’t looking good.

PI Rick Cahill, previously diagnosed with CTE thanks to all the various head injuries he’s sustained over the years, is not getting much better. He isn’t dead – not quite yet, anyhow – and this leaves him some time to work, be there for his family, and all those things in life people wish they did more of when they lay dying.

But he isn’t doing much in the way of working beyond doing mundane, routine things that keep him of the streets, behind his desk, and bored out of his mind. That includes things like background checks on new hires for various companies.

A business acquaintance contacts him, requesting a rather secretive meeting at an out of the way location. Why? Cahill isn’t sure, but agrees to it anyway. He humors her, as she talks to him about – what else? – background checks for her company, something they’ve always done through him, but she’s found a couple of irregulars: employees whose checks were done through another company with whom she’s not familiar and never heard of.

Cahill doesn’t think much of it, and tells her he can look into it, but it’s probably nothing. He can tell she isn’t happy, and when she ends up dead – the presumed latest victim of a violent, serial rapist in the area – he isn’t very happy either, especially when he’s explaining to the police (again) why he’s on the scene, discovering another dead body (again).

With guilt weighing on him, Cahill accepts a contract from her mother to look into her death.

Thus begins Cahill as we know him: obsessed with the case,he goes up against cops, what seems to be the evil company now doing those background checks (and who may very well be doing much more, sinister things), threats, attempts to pay him of the case, and all the things that put strain on his already strained marriage – and put his family in danger, again.

There really are two stories here, both equally good, both devastating: the actual investigatory job, at which Cahill excels, and the fallout there is to his family and how to deal with it, at which he does not. While he’s capable of unwinding the former, the latter seems beyond his grasp, and it’s rather sad, really.

Another excellent entry into the series, which makes its inevitable end, whenever that may be, sadder.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Oceanview Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Lucky Hitler’s Big Mistakes (Paul Ballard-Whyte)

First thought: terrible title. Each time I returned to the book, I disliked it more.

Second thought: history is not just something that happens *to* people. Everyone exerts a force, no matter how small, on history, which in turn reacts in some fashion. Taken over a long enough span of time, we could construe any number of events in our own lives we could deem as “lucky” – and thus beyond our control, as the author seems to think some of Hitler’s “luck” was. Certainly there are some elements he could not control: the end of WWI, for instance. Other things, though, like the Reichstag fire, which the author seems to lie down at the feet of “luck”, Hitler having nothing whatsoever to do with it, ignore that it’s quite possible Hitler had a hand in it, as well as other things. It’s easy enough to point at events well after the fact and deem them luck.

I would accept instead of “luck” that Hitler (and Stalin, and Mao, and [insert other dictatorial names through history here]) benefited from a confluence of events that served to propel him to the top of the Germanic mountain. However, we must never forget that he willingly took advantage of these things. A lax prison sentence, which came with his own personal secretary, for instance, Hitler used to polish off his horrific screed Mein Kampf. Hindenburg’s ill health? Vaulting into the Chancellor’s office and from there to dictator. Terrible penalties assessed on Germany following WWI? Stoked ultra-nationalism and decrying anyone “foreign”. And so forth.

It’s also terribly simple to look back in hindsight and see the big blunders Hitler made. Simpler still to use those as stepping stones to decide how Germany could have won WWII, even though, as I said, history is not made in a vacuum. There are times when the author sounds quite bullish about Nazi chances to dominate and conquer all of Europe and much of Asia, if only Hitler had done XYZ instead of ABC. If Hitler had ordered the destruction of the soldiers at Dunkirk, he could have invaded Britain. If Hitler had listened to his generals, he could have taken Moscow. Could he? Really? While I agree that wiping up the beaches at Dunkirk would have gone a great deal of the way in securing the western front, equating that with an automatic W on invading Britain is not a step I would take as a given. Ditto taking Moscow as a death knell for Russia. Make no mistake, Hitler made a great number of blunders, some incredibly large – but again,we’re looking at it in hindsight. We could say the same about any time, any place, any conflict.

Third thought: the author spends a lot of time on the same points, over and over. In one instance (the exact memory of which escapes me, as I just did tick marks on the repetition) I saw the same point repeated five different times. We get it. ABC was a mistake, undoing the “luck” Hitler had back in year YYYY. The point was made, move on.

The result is a book that at times reads a bit like a student giving a presentation. Fair play to the author for writing the thing, but it could have done with some editing.

And a much better title.

Two out of five stars. Sorry, author, not for me.

Thanks to Pen & Sword Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Reclaiming Love (Amanda Radley)

Two lesbians enter a Scottish island….

Just kidding. Kind of.

Sarah, a go-getter type, has been tapped by her company to run a top-secret experiment. That experiment? To see how a small underwater data center concept works. It’s been placed into the waters off the island, and connections run to a shed behind a small house,where she is to stay for the duration of the experiment. he house is something probably described as “quaint” in real estate speak, and it is – but it needs a lot of work.

Enter Pippa, the island’s resident handywoman. She agrees to start repairing all the things that need repairing, and there’s quite the list. Each thinks the other is a bit rude/standoffish. Always a great start.

Things are progressing well on the house until Sarah, who has told her mother that she’s gone to the island with her new (also nonexistent) girlfriend, finds out her mother decides this is a perfect time to come visit and meet. Sarah knows this is a disaster in the making: one, there’s no girlfriend, and two, her mother would certainly not like the offshore data center.

Desperate, Sarah asks Pippa to stand in. Pippa, dealing with the death of her wife, tells her no, she can’t do that. But she will take Sarah up to pick her mother up from the ferry. After listening to Sarah’s mother, she suddenly steps and introduces herself as the new (fake) girlfriend.

Sarah’s mother is a real piece of work, and not a Very Nice Person. But Sarah and Pippa keep up the charade, and naturally start falling for one another. This is an age gap romance, so bear that in mind.

There are a variety of goings-on, and eventually Sarah’s mother does her main thing, which you’ll recognize when you see it. Sarah and Pippa have some issues, Sarah’s mother leaves, Sarah and Pippa….well, you’ll have to read it.

Not a bad way to pass a couple of hours, but as I’ve said before with Radley’s books, they tend to end a bit too abruptly for me.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Bold Stroke Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Red Queen, Antonia Scott #1 (Juan Gomez-Jurado)

We begin the book with a kidnapping, and it doesn’t slow down very much from that point: a kidnapping, multiple murders, a corrupt cop, a forensics genius, a mysterious organization, an arrogant cop, and an aging journalist. There’s a lot going on here. Unfortunately, there are too many coincidences, a heroine that is described as special, which turns out to be a genius-level intelligence [aired with some kind of monstrous and odd medical experiment that turned her into an Asperger’s like character who is much like Sherlock Holmes or The “Bones” character from the tv series, based on a book series. Antonia Scott is her name, and she blames herself for her husband’s injuries during a police operation, which left him reliant on machines to keep him alive – basically, in a vegetative state.

She is teamed up with Jon Guitierrez, the aforementioned corrupt cop – because he was accused of planting drugs in the car of a suspect – who is also a fat gay man who lives with his mother. Toss a trope on that bonfire of pile of crimes and such up there. Jon is approached by a man who belongs to a super secret organization that works on particular crimes. He recruits Jon by, one, offering to pay him, since Jon is currently suspended, and two, telling him that all he has to do is convince Antonia to get in a car and then drive her to a particular address.

This unlikely pair is assigned to look into the case of a young man who was abducted and killed, then staged in the house of a super-rich family. It’s also a case of mistaken identity, as the young man is not the son of woman they were attempting to extort. And this is the point at which Antonia’s bizarre behavior and manner of seeing the scene begin. She also draws several conclusions that seem to be a bit premature. Whatever the case, they are then pulled out of that and reassigned by the mystery man (codename: Mentor).

The pair are then told to start looking at another crime, this time the kidnapping of a woman who is the daughter of what sounded to me like a billionaire. Interestingly, he has receive a all from the kidnapper(s), with a bizarre directive for him to say something publicly that would be highly embarrassing. They learn that in the other case, the woman who runs one of the largest banks in Madrid (and it seems all of Spain) has received a similar call and demand. Obviously neither of the two want to submit to these demands.

What follows from here is a series of leaps of logic, actions taken by Antonia and Jon that in any reasonable law enforcement organization would result in them not just being taken off the cases but tossed into jail. As it turns out, the ranking investigator from the local police – the typical arrogant local law enforcement dude with a giant ego who thinks himself always right – kicks them out of the crime scenes. They ignore him, naturally, returning to both scenes when the locals are gone.

There come some coincidences, and a bunch of flashbacks too tell us how Antonia changed from just a very smart woman into some kind of crime scene whisperer/savant. I won’t go further into the plot in current (book-wise) time. But I will say that the astute reader who takes in the details will be able to determine the kidnapper/murderer as well as the incident that started everything and pretty much how the book will end.

I will add this warning: the kidnapped woman is put in a cell of sorts that is rock and does not have the vertical clearance for her to stand up, basically making it a long stone box. If you’re claustrophobic, this might be an issue for you, as it was for me.

There were a lot of ideas here, and I think the idea of Antonia and what she can do is quite interesting. But it seems to have made her some kind of superhero. For instance: when the pair need to bribe someone, and don’t have the funds to do it, she teaches herself a card game, goes to an online gambling site, and wins enough to pay of the guys they need to get information out of in less tan half an hour. It’s all just running around from that point to reach the end.

It is an ok read. Not great, not the worst I’ve ever read. For the middle of the road it took, it’s a three. I’ll read the next one, probably.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Lightning Rod – Zig and Nola #2 (Brad Meltzer)

Brad Meltzer follows up 2008’s The Escape Artist with another pairing of especially skilled mortician “Zig” Zigarowski and former Army artist Nola Brown – the “lightning rod” of the title – as they investigate the death of career Army officer Archie Mint, after Mint is killed in what is presumed to be a botched home invasion.

Zig is called out to do some reconstructive work on Mint’s face, as that is one of the places he was shot, so there can be an open casket at the funeral, which is being held in a gym. Zig spots Nola, and wonders why she is there, while she spots Zig and wonders the same thing.

While preparing Mint, Zig noticed a few odd things, and this is what propels the mystery/thriller aspect.Zig starts nosing around and it leads him back to Dover Air Force Base, where he previously worked, preparing dead military personnel for their final trip home. He’s also looking for Nola, to determine why she was at Mint’s funeral.

We do get further character development of Nola, learning more about her, even as we’re told she’s been living off the grid for the past two years -after she and Sig investigated the events in The Escape Artist.

Nola’s twin brother, now a police officer, also wants to find Nola. Actually, it seems everyone wants to get their hands on her, for good reasons and quite a number of not so good reasons. Ditto for Zig.

As they work their way into what is going on, the stakes get higher and higher until the revelations of the connections between all of the characters.

While the main body of the book is good, and captivating, if you’re in a mind to ignore a few things and in the mood for a decent thriller. The same could not be said, at least for me, about the ending. I don’t mind when series continue going – I am, as we all know, a huge fan of good series books – but this one just didn’t settle well for me. It does appear there will be a third book at some point, and that book may answer some questions about this book’s ending. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take four years to arrive.

Three and a half stars rounded up to four out of five stars.

Thanks to William Morrow and Custom House, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (Gabrielle Zevin)

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” is the first line of a speech by MacBeth that is more recognizable for the ending versus the beginning, but that’s the point in Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin: all possibilities exist in tomorrow. There are, as Marx the actor says in this book, infinite possibilities, infinite lives. However, as also shown in this book, when tomorrow becomes today, there are only singular endings for us as we make decisions minute by minute.

Sadie and Sam meet in the hospital one day. Sam is there for surgeries and rehab on his foot, which has been crushed and mangled in a car accident; Sadie is there to visit her sister, who has been stricken with cancer. Sam, who has not said a word since the accident, responds to Sadie, and they bond over their love of video games. Thus begins a friendship that we get to develop over the next three decades.

They drift apart after their hospital visits, but meet again almost a decade later – a chance meeting on the subway. Both are attending Ivy League schools, and both are still keenly interested in gaming. They join forces and writer, then release, a game that becomes wildly popular. Although Sadie played a large part in the game, it’s Sam who gets the lion’s share of attention, although initially this does not bother Sadie – she’s more withdrawn than Sam – but as the book continues through their years, it’s apparent that it does, at least subconsciously.

While they’re developing their first game, Marx, an actor and Sam’s roommate, becomes Sadie’s friend as well, and now there are three of them, dealing with what we would today call a viral success. Their task now: write a followup that is also successful.

The dynamics of their relationships with one another follows what is probably the most realistic friendship arcs I’ve read. Friendship is not just besties to broken/fractured/lost to time and back to exactly the same deep friendship that existed before. As Heraclitus tells us, we do not step in the same river twice. As people change, so do their friendships.

Their second release suffers a bit from the sophomore effect, but is still well received. Initially, the three work toward their previous bond, but Sadie and Marx become closer than just friends, which puts a strain on that third bond with Sam.  So, they fracture again, more deeply this time.

Then, tragedy strikes the three, which pushes that last friendship to a brittle, thin string and their company to be run by others. The last two part ways, meeting again in a virtual world and then once more in the real world before the book closes.

It’s somewhat of a long book, at just over 400 pages. That doesn’t seem so much once you’ve burrowed into the text, especially if you’re a gamer or even moderately interested in them. If you are neither a gamer nor particularly interested in video games, each page may feel a bit like trudging through mud. This book is absolutely thick with gaming, coding, actual games, game history, and other nerdly things. The writing may very well pull the hesitant reader through, however, as it’s engaging and intelligent, with point of view changes coupled with interesting structural choices throughout.

While I was not really a fan of the virtual world piece just before the end, the remainder of the book I found to be excellent. That minor ding aside, this is a five star read for the reader willing to invest the time.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Knopf Doubleday and NetGalley for the reading copy.