Tag Archives: reading and reviews

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: 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.

Review: The Lost – Mace Reid K-9 Mystery #3 (Jeffrey Burton)

The Lost is billed as a K-9 mystery, and this appealed to me. I’m a dog lover, and a mystery lover, so what could go wrong?

As it turns out, this particular book is heavier on the mystery than the dogs, which was a bit disappointing. The mystery itself is fine, although it seems unnecessarily complicated.

A billionaire is attacked in his home, and his former supermodel wife and young daughter abducted. Mace Reid is called out with his dogs, and the wife is found dead at the rear of the property. The daughter, however, is not found, and the hunt is on for the daughter.

The plot proceeds from there, with various agencies joining in. For Reid and his cadaver dog Vira, there isn’t much to do, and when he is involved, it feels forced, because he has no reason to be involved. He’s (sort of) in a relationship with Kippy, one of the members of the law enforcement team, so tangentially, we get Reid and Vira in those moments, when Kippy is telling him what’s happening, in order to keep the reader informed. Not my favorite way, and of course we all know “show, don’t tell”.

The narrative switches back and forth between the bad guys and the good guys, so there’s no mystery in the whodunnit other than if law enforcement can catch up to the bad guys and spoil their plans.

It’s not a bad book, but if you’re looking for a focus on dog sand their utilization in bringing the story to a conclusion, you might be, as I was, a bit disappointed.

Three out of five stars.

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

Review: Sierra Six – Gray Man #11 (Mark Greaney)

I am, generally, a huge fan of origin stories – assuming they’re not of the generic, giant trope-y type. You know those. Those are the ones where the lead had a perfect life before violence came to visit. Let me assure you, writers and readers alike, that there is no perfect life, and the perfect lives upended by sudden violence, with a vow of revenge afterward are, in a word, boring. I want to see the lead struggle with something before struggling with another something.

Which brings us to Sierra Six. This is book eleven in the series, and by now, we’ve seen Court Gentry go from CIA hit dude to member of one of CIA’s back ops teams Sierra Golf (Court’s call sign: Sierra Six) to private hit dude with the CIA and Suzanne Brewster (his last boss before she punted him) on his trail, trying to take him out. What is Court doing these days? Taking private contracts, of course. It isn’t like the guy is going to retire to a beach and drink Mai Tais.

Before we go on: if you’re a reader jumping in at this point in the series, do yourself a favor and go to book one and begin there. About half of the things in this book will not make a lot of sense, or will appear to have no bearing at all on the other half of the book. Besides, it’s a great series and a lot of fun to read.

But we open, in Sierra Six, twelve years ago. Zack Hightower – a familiar enough name to readers of the series – leading Sierra Golf on an op to take out a terrorist and any other bad guys around him. It isn’t giving anything away to say that Sierra Six gets smoked after opening a hatch and finding a nest of bad guys, all with guns pointing up. This is not the first Sierra Six they’ve lost, either. They’ll need a new one. This mission, however, is over, and they get out, back to base.

They get Court, who is used to working alone and initially doesn’t fit well with the team in training. Eventually, he gets himself on track, and Sierra Golf is ready to go find the bad guy and try again. This is the mission in the past.

Back to the present (book time present). Court is on a contract, staking out a small villa, watching for the chance to get to that villa when the target has arrived. He does so, and is about to kill the man when h realizes this guy should be dead. But he isn’t, Court misses the chance, and has to escape.

He’s been helped by a young woman operating a drone. She’s captured by the bad guy’s minions, and now we have the mission in the present: rescue the young woman and kill the terrorist before he’s able to do any further evil deeds.

By now, most readers will have surmised that the mission in both time periods concerns the same bad guy, and it does. From here to the end, I won’t be giving away a ton of details of what happens in the book.

What I will say is this: I’ve tons of books. If you’re reading this on Goodreads, you can see the numbers, and these are only the things I have read since joining Goodreads plus the things i could remember reading prior to that time. The actual number is likely twice, perhaps twice and a half that. Why do I mention this?

It means I’ve read a number of books that are self-contained origin stories. Many series that have the same main characters will have them. Stephen Hunter took us to Vietnam for Bob Lee Swagger’s origin, for instance. The Hobbit is itself ab origin story for the Lord of the Rings. Comic books – well, they’re rife with origin stories, for both heroes and villains.

This is not to say that every character needs an origin story that encompasses everything in their life to point X or that begins at their birth (Superman), although sometimes some information about their childhood is helpful to know – Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down when he was a boy, for instance. What we, or at least I, want to know is what changed this character deep down within themselves. Mack Bolan’s family is killed by his own father over despair about debt owed to a Mafia loansharking operation, leading Bolan to begin a campaign against the loansharks and then against the larger Mob.

Most of the background we get on series characters comes in pieces via narrative of the events in the current book-time. In Gregg Hurwitz’s excellent Orphan X series, we get pieces of how Evan Smoak, literal orphan, and later Orphan X, came to be. Sometimes, it’s just a paragraph or two, sometimes, it’s longer, as when he’s thinking about Jack, who basically became Evan’s father.

What I don’t think I’ve ever read, though, is a book that so effortlessly and (more importantly) readably (is this a word?) combines both an origin story and a current story told in an alternating fashion, where both parts, the past and the present, have very real stakes and are both incredibly well done – to the point where either of them, on their own, would be an excellent book, but where together, they are even better than a single book on each would be.

There are no wasted characters. We don’t have Joe Smith show up in the story, only to have nothing to say or do that impacts anything. There are no wasted, throwaway scenes or dialogue. The twin stories are compelling, the action (as usual) fantastic, even if having someone jump from a construction crane, during a monsoon, onto a level of an uncompleted office building, or having them pole vault using bamboo taken from a scaffolding are perhaps stretching things a bit. There is an absolutely extraordinary helicopter chase through mountainous terrain that will leave you breathless, and not from the altitude.

There is, alas, also loss. That loss is often the most compelling – and indeed, most propelling – event for the character. While some may argue that Court’s loss in this book is unrealistic and too brief to be meaningful, I’ll say that it is sometimes the briefest of connections whose severance wounds us most deeply.

An absolute five star read. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Berkley Publishing and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Like a House on Fire (Lauren McBrayer)

I am, much like Merit in Like a House on Fire, conflicted. On the one hand, there are things that irritated me about this book: the perfect/oblivious nature of the two people who are most important in Merit’s life, for one, and others that I’ll get into. On the other hand, it’s a bit of an outlier (in a good way) in the genre, with certainly a bit more gravitas about questions that are part of the genre, which I’ll also get into. I wound up giving it the higher rating based on the latter.

Spoilers ahead.

Merit is a married mom of two who has been out of the workforce for awhile. The goal of becoming a fulltime mom at home was to pursue her painting, hopefully to have gallery showing and then make art her career. That didn’t exactly pan out the way she wanted and hoped for, so it’s handy that she has an architecture degree and experience to fall back on. She lands a job at Jager+ Brandt, apparently right out of the gate (how handy!), were she meets Jane, her boss.

Jane is dazzling. Smart. Funny. Impeccably dressed. Quick-witted. All the superlatives. Perfect in every way. Jane hires Merit, and on her first day, takes Merit to a client meeting, where Jane is impressed with ideas Merit is adding to the mix.

They work long hours together, of course, and the women develop what is described as a deep friendship. This was the first stumbling block for me. It seems their friendship involves working long hours and copious amounts of alcohol after. In fact, I’m having a very difficult time recalling any time these two are together on the page outside of work or medical appointments where they are not drinking. I’m not a teetotaler, and I’m fine with some social drinking. But there are instances in this book where they just get completely shit-faced, and it seems as though Merit in particular wants to blot out the parts of her life that don’t involve Jane when she is with Jane somewhere.

Merit’s husband Cory, who seems like a nice enough, if a tad oblivious, guy, doesn’t get any marks of approval from Merit, who dings him – in her mind only – as forgetful, often lazy, and unwilling to share the burden of raising two very young children and helping take care of the household. One of the things that annoys me to no end in some fiction is a conflict that merely exists for a character to have a springboard to decisions they make when the conflict could have been solved or at least dampened a little if the characters just had a discussion about whatever it is. Maybe the outcome would be different, maybe not, but I’d think that Merit, married to Cory for 14 years, and who seemed to actually care about the guy, would have invested a tiny sliver of time in tamping down some of her resentment by just having a sit down with him.

It’s a slow, long burn of a book. If you come to this book looking for meet cute and sexytimes starting by the third chapter, you will be sorely disappointed. At least a year passes in book time (ding: the time passage is not altogether clear) before Merit hatches a plan to cheat on Cory with Jane. There’s no graphic sex in this book either, so if you were disappointed above, you’ll probably be disappointed by this as well. I’d say that Merit’s (infrequent) sex with Cory is more graphic, simply because there’s a handy appendage to mention (never fear, it’s only a mention).

Merit finds herself more and more attracted to Jane, and apparently Jane to Merit, although this is not well developed or clear. The two carry on an affair behind Cory’s back, through the turbulence of having two small children to raise – the duties for which seem to fall increasingly on Cory and a nanny while Merit figures out what she wants.

There’s a miscarriage, a fatal heart attack, and a ton of Jane and merit calling one another “bitch”, as if they are in a high school clique or have been watching far too much Real Housewives or Sex and the City than is healthy. A couple of times, sure, but thy do this far more often than you’d expect from a woman in her late 30s and another woman almost 60. Did I mention this is an age gap story as well? It is.

At the end, Merit decides to call it off with Jane, which I will say was written quite well, and is devastating. There is then an epilogue that is five years later, and while I was fine with the result, it annoyed me that we didn’t get any of the “how we got here” narrative after investing so heavily in everything that came before. It was almost as if the author ran out of gas or couldn’t figure out the “in between”, as I call it, to get the readers from point A to point B for the ending. It does work – of course it does, it’s a standard of the genre – but it felt rushed after everything before had been examined at length and in depth.

I wavered between three and four, but went with four stars out of five, as a nod to the genre and how this floats a little above most of the books of the same type.

Thanks to Penguin/Putnam and NetGalley for the reading copy.

 

Review: Kagen the Damned #1 (Jonathan Maberry)

Kagen Vale, leaders of the guard and personally responsible for the security of the royal family and more specifically the royal children of Argentium, wakes up hungover and disoriented. Eventually, he pulls himself together enough to understand that there’s an active attack against his land by the Hakkians, who use magic that was banned in Argentium. When he arrives at the royal wing, he finds all of them, right down to the babies, killed in various gruesomely described ways. He decides at that moment that he is incompetent, terrible at his job, and damned.

I’m a firm believer that what matters when tragedy strikes, or when some life situation goes terribly wrong and bad, that what matters is owning your responsibility in it, if any, and that true character is shown by how one acts after such tragedies occur.

And his personal mindset of mind had a very large issue with Kagen and his nonstop whining, drinking, and lamenting about how he sucked at his job. I started calling him Kagen the Whiny, and promised myself at about the 35% mark that if he didn’t get his shit together, I was going to make this a DNF. The author pulled out of the nosedive shortly thereafter.

While Kagen was drinking and whining his way about this fictional world, other characters were also introduced – some appeared and hen vanished until almost the end of he book. I get that Kagen is the main character and so much of he book time is devote to him, but we got some pretty detailed narrative time with the other characters, including a young nun destined for a sacrifice, so I was expecting a bit more from her at some point before the end of her journey.

There are various side characters who show up, either for Kagen to fight against and kill, or just to give us some information about what’s happening in the rest of the world instead of the usual “As you know, Bob.” stuff where someone just talks at he main character. I hope some of them show up again later, because they were just as interesting (sometimes moreso) than Kagen.

But Kagen is back to himself by now, halting he drinking, and even invading a vampire witch’s tower, where he is “captured”, but not killed, as every other interloper has been. There’s a prophecy, of course, and she lets him go because of that prophecy.

And that brings me to another issue I have with this kind of book in general. Kagen was obviously taken out of action by a woman who drugged him. My question: why not just poison him and take him out of action entirely?I understand the value of humiliation some people require others to feel, to know that they have been bested, and with barely any effort, but in things like this, a better leader would have weighed the value of having Kagen gone versus his humiliation and gone with the former.

In any case, throughout the book we pop into the heads of other characters wandering around this world, so we get a good picture of what has happened and how the occupation of Argentium is ongoing. It presents a good reference point for the reader, and avoids head-hopping within any one individual scene.

There is a lot, and I mean a LOT of violence in this book: torture, rape, general war and individual fighters killing one another – all are here, and all described in very detailed ways. If you can’t handle fictional blood, or don’t like descriptions of rape and torture, stay far away.

It occurred to me after finishing that the whole magic question came across as the usual 2nd Amendment stuff here in the US. One side (Hakkian) had and used all the magic (guns) and one side (Argentium) had no magic (guns) because of very strict laws. Of course the Hakkians quickly overran Argentium. I’ll let the reader make the conclusion there.

Overall, not bad for an afternoon read if you can get past the main character whining his way through the first 30% so and don’t mind gore.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press ad NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Can’t Look Away (Carola Lovering)

Do you want to read some high school-level drama, except populated with adults with lots of money and zero worries in the world?

You’re in luck.

Molly and Jake, a writer and musician respectively, lock eyes one night at one of Jake’s gigs, and the next thing you know, they’re a couple. Of course, it doesn’t last long, because this sort of love usually doesn’t. Molly, irritated that Jake wants to work more on his music than on their relationship – because it has to be one or the other, it certainly cannot be both in the world of Lifetime movies (which, fair warning, this is). What I find interesting is that anyone who has an artistic bent – like Molly, supposedly a writer – could not understand another person with an artistic bent not wanting to give up their art.

But that’s all academic, because they break up and go their separate ways.

Years later, Molly is now married to Hunter and has a five year old who loves Frozen. I totally get the latter; my nieces were obsessed with it. Much as I adore Idina Menzel, every time there was a reference to the movie, all I could hear was Idina singing Let It Go, and it was a bit of an overload.

Molly, Hunter, and their little girl live in a wealthy enclave amongst other similar families. Molly’s having trouble fitting in with the other wives in the neighborhood, until Sabrina shows up. She’s married, but her husband has not yet joined her. Molly hits it off with her immediately, and from there, the two are pals. We then get the usual Lifetime-esque interactions between the wives who have always had money, before they married their wealthy husbands, and the duo of Molly and Sabrina.

The narrative is told by rotating through Jake, Molly, and Sabrina, and it doesn’t take long (or a genius) to figure out one of them is a psycho stalker. There isn’t a lot of suspense to be had in the book, but there is loads of “woman perceives another woman has wronged her and seeks revenge” drama going on. I’m not generally a fan of those, but swank enclave drama does interest me somewhat, so I did finish this to its disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying ending.

Everything wraps up neatly, bow on top. If you like your thriller-wannabes or drama-filled tales ending very tidily, or if you’re a big fan of Lifetime movies, this is your book.

Warning: there is a lot of swearing in this book, with the f bomb going off every 20 seconds it seems. I read mysteries, hardcore thrillers, and things of that nature, so I wasn’t put off by it. If you’re sensitive to it, you might want to give it a pass.

Two stars out of five.

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

Review: Our American Friend – Anna Pitoniak

Thinly – very thinly – veiled Melania Trump fanfiction, at its heart.

Sofie Morse, a journalist covering the White House, gets tired of i all and decides to retire. She’s invited, however, to write a biography. Of the First Lady, Lara Caine, by the First Lady, Lara Caine.

Lara Caine is simply Melania, with some details altered (Caine was born in Soviet Russia; Melania in Slovenia), some not (both are former models). Caine has a whole pack of baggage, including a former KGB dad (Putin) and the whole thing was unpalatable, really.

Morse, of course, as a reporter, gets wrapped up in the story, which runs from the 70s to current times, and stops being able to tell where the line should be.

I finished it, grudgingly, to see where the mystery slash thrillerish thing went. There aren’t a lot of twisty turns or things that make you go hmm. The whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, as the ending wasn’t worth the buildup.

If you think you admire the former First Lady, it may be more your style. It certainly was not mine.

One star out of five.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for the reading copy.

 

Review: Hideout – Alice Vega #3 (Louisa Luna)

Alice Vega is part Lisbeth Salander, part Jack Reacher in this, the third in the series that bears her name.

Thirty years ago, Zeb Williams is a football player, and during the infamous Cal-Stanford game, takes the balls, runs off the field, and vanishes. Over the years, his disappearance has become the stuff of legends, replete with Bigfoot-like sightings. in the present day, Alice is asked to find him. For what purpose, she does not know. After initially declining, she eventually agrees to take it on, and starts out to determine where he is and what happened to him.

I’m a fan of cold cases, and I appreciated the way Alice started very methodically working through and puzzling out the details – and occasional red herrings – of Zeb’s disappearance. She lands in the tiny southern Oregon town of Ilona, a place that has seemingly become awash in traitorous white supremacists called the Liberty Boys (a not terribly subtle reference to the Proud Boys, a very real group).

As she digs, the stakes grow ever higher, and her partner Max Caplan is not and cannot be a greater presence in the case, dealing as he is with his own issues. This doesn’t deter Alice, and even after getting beaten up and told to leave town, she doggedly continues her quest to find the missing Zeb.

This is the first book in the series that I’ve read, and I didn’t feel I was missing anything crucial by not having read the first two. There’s obviously some kind of (broken) relationship between Alice and Max, and I suppose if I had read those earlier books, or if Max was involved more in this story, I would have more than a vague idea about that; however, the lack off true backstory on that didn’t bother me in the least.

The story is told with a good balance of physicality and cerebral pursuits in tracking down the missing man. Alice is also not a character who gets beaten up and then is ready to go fight more after just shaking it off. There’s a reality of her being a mere mortal that I appreciate,

Four and a half stars, rounded to five. Recommended.

Thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday for the reading copy.