Tag Archives: reaing and reviews

Review: Fresh Grave in Grand Canyon (Lee Patton)

Very nearly DNF this. SPOILERS

My initial reaction: this book made me a little angry. Category-wise, it was billed as a mystery. The summary makes it seem a mystery. Do not be fooled. It is not. Well, most of it is not. And the people…

Ray O’Brien volunteers to go on a rafting research trip with his pal Jenny Bridger, who is leading a science-gathering, after she winds up a man (person) down. It’s a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. His role? Not much: just help out. His stepfather was some kind of psycho, so of course his academic life is consumed by studying the neuro effects of that. He meets Duke first, who is skinny dipping in the same water hole he just got out of. Of course there’s an instant attraction. Two tropes: violent, abusive past, and instalust if not instalove.

The larger group: Jenny, the team leader, who of course is apprehensive about her first team lead job, feeling guilty about missing her daughter Amelia’s graduation, because the trip has to start the same day. Trope: working mother has to choose between job and family. Other trope: she’s divorced.

Carol Carne, longtime activist volunteer and pediatric nurse, and her husband Jack, fat, rude insurance salesman, and of no value to the trip, really. Trope: alcoholic, bigoted, horndog husband ogling a teenaged girl; saint of a wife who abides him.

Duke, Park Ranger, who served in the military as a peacekeeper in the Balkans and lost his left arm there. Trope: Tough guy with a sensitive heart of gold. And also PTSD.

Annette & Tess, two female students,also volunteers. Trope: Sexy Tess draw’s Jack’s eye.

There are a few bigoted RVers next to the crew as they get feed and do final prep for rafting. Of course they are crude, and Jack joins in with them. One of them calls Tess a n******, and Duke a “crip”, furter suggests there are quotas being met. Trope: the bigotry of the world one might think to escape on a rafting trip, but alas, rude,crude, bigoted Jack is along for the ride.

Glen, the river guide, who is given over to pontificating about how people are destroying the planet. Carol does this as well, but it seems Glen is the one carrying the trope of ecoterrorist onto the river.

Tycho, an oarsman, brought by Glen. Trope: the cute boy the girls moon over. Also given to ecorants, because he lives with Glen.

Hannah Pinch, camp cook and Jenny’s soon-to-be ex-mother in law, with whom she has a better relationship than she does with Faith’s son. Trope: yeah, that.

Faith Brittle, director of a Montana college’s Women’s Studies Program, oarswoman and guide. Trope: Militant feminism and demonization of men.

Take all the tropes, put them on boats, and send them down a river. Have Trope Bigoted Jerk get tossed out of his raft on the first rapids sequence. When they stop for the night, get a little lecture about Trope Men are B-A-D, have some discussion about bullying, how people are ruining the planet, and discuss Duke’s enlistment in the Army and deployment. Oh, throw a little science in there now and again, since that’s supposed to be why they’re there.

Wash, lather, repeat.

Finally, at the 70% mark, get around to the murder that’s featured so prominently in the blurb. Jack’s either had his head hit, or he’s hit his head while falling/stumbling or something. Tess is on the beach, and for some reason her bikini top is loosened or off. Duke is first to the scene, and he reties Tess’ top, then for some odd reason, drags Jack’s body about ten feet or so. And this is the part where I got mad, after sitting through all these social things the author clearly wanted to say. o they need to be said? Yes. Are they important things? Absolutely. Did they need to be said like this, instead of in, say, a nonfiction book, instead of with a half-hearted murder thrown in? Nope.

In a world obsessed with images and videos, and the one time you would absolutely want to take either pictures and/or videos, and preferably both – like when there’s been a murder (maybe) or a death by misadventure (maybe) – no one in your entire party thinks to do so? Or at least, with all the science nerds in the group who are used to drawing mud layouts or strata, at least make some sketches of the scene, not a single brainiac thinks to do so? Come on. Nothing at all is done to preserve the scene. But you know what does happen?

Everyone with the ability and in the right place to do so wants to take the credit/blame for the murder of a terrible man. Carol, his wife, she wants the blame. Then Glen, then Duke. There’s even a brief discussion of Tess having done it, without remembering. Jenny decides she and Ray will talk to everyone, but by this time, they’ve all been talking amongst themselves, and both of them act like they’re never spoken to another human being in this instance.

In the end, they dig a shallow grave – the “Fresh Grave” of the title – put Jack in it, and move on, intending to get to a particular spot in the river, which is the next it of civilization (sort of, it’s the next station on the river). There is a Canadian group about a day behind them. Do they wait and say anything to the Canadians, or ask them if they can use their satphone to call ahead (Jenny’s crew lost theirs into the water when shooting some rapids; Duke finds it, but it’s a goner)? Nope. They let the Canadians go ahead an then they mount up and head downriver.

Keep in mind, this is all at the 70% mark when Jack is killed. That leaves next to no time, book-wise, to get to the bottom of it, and the only bottom of it we have is a bunch of conflicting confessions. in the end, no one is blamed, they report Jack’s death as misadventure, and that’s it.

I wanted to like it. Small group, killer among us, rafting in sometimes dangerous conditions, with a hundred things that could go wrong, and basically cut off from civilization? That should be a great story. Unfortunately, we got a lot of social justice and environmental stuff, and the afterthought of a murder. None of the characters really moves past the trope tied around their necks except, ironically, Jack, who winds up killed because he’s the epitome of a bunch of things wrong with the world today.

As a sidenote: the Ray/Duke romance is not, really. They share one kiss, and usually snuggle up in their sleeping bags when stopping for the nights, but every other chance to be alone is interrupted. There’s a slight hint of things going somewhere at the end, but Ray lives elsewhere, so who knows. This is an undeveloped subplot.

It seems the author couldn’t make up their mind as to what they really wanted to write. If it was about all the social stuff, I’d give it maybe 3.5 stars. As a mystery, I’m giving it two stars out of five. Sorry.

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

Review: Deadly Little Lies (Stephanie DeCarolis)

It took going deep into this book for me to care at all about these characters.

Why? Because quite frankly they sounded like (and acted like) privileged white women. Juliana, who is the primary character, is also depressing as hell, always worried about her husband finding out the dirty/deadly little lie from her past. When the past comes up to bite her in the rear, instead of just telling him, she pushes him far, far away, which pisses him off. And rightly so. It’s one thing to keep a secret in general. But this is the guy you wanted to spend the rest of your life with, and you don’t tell him anything at all?

Not the mysterious text that says “Remember me?” from a college classmate who died. Not the sense that someone has been in your apartment. Not the point you realize it’s fact that someone’s been in the apartment, not the threat written in lipstick on your bathroom mirror. Not that you never gave your school your address, email or physical, and how the invitation to the reunion showed up. Not the fact that three other women you went to school with all have the same mysterious things happening.

Truthfully, I wanted to chuck it after the nth time Jules starting moaning about her cushy little life with a secret instead of doing anything constructive about it.

The narrative flashes between now and then (“then” being their college days and the bitchy little clique they formed). I had much more sympathy and like points for the men and women they stomped on.

The four women all go to the reunion like idiots, blithely following a note that tells them to be somewhere at a certain time, without any of them letting their husbands know. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s this.

The premise was good. I simply did not like the execution.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to HQ and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: A Convenient Arrangement (Aurora Rey, Jaime Clevenger)

Jess, a columnist for Sapphisticate (great name!), an online mag for lesbians, writes about lifestyle stuff when her boss says she should write about cuffing. I may very well be in the minority that I know what this is and that it has nothing to do with BDSM or role-playing in the bedroom, but then again, my head is full of all sorts of things like this that make people not want to play Trivial Pursuit with me.

Cuffing just means hopping into a short term, winter relationship, with or without sex, to get through the season, with the two parties going their separate ways by spring. A way to pass those months and all the festivities that go with them with a temporary partner since a ton of things for the season are usually for couples.

Case in point (kinda) is Cody, super butch mom of one, and a professor seeking tenure. She’s told by a couple of people that it probably would be a good idea to get an in with the female president of the university, who is married to a woman. Can’t hurt, right? Cody reads the article Jess writes, and leaves her a voice mail (awkward and cute) about being her cuffing partner for the season.

It doesn’t hurt that they meet at a fall fare where Jess is dressed up as a giant pineapple and is great with all the kids who come by to take a shot at knocking stuff down.

They agree to be each other’s plus one, lay out some ground rules (no pressure for sex, but if it comes up later, they can talk about it), and we’re in business. Cody has a date to go to school functions with someone, and Jess gets content for her column. It is, to coin a phrase, a convenient arrangement.

Of course, they’re both hot, and there’s some smoldering going on. They continue on, Cody making inroads with her ultimate boss because Jess and the president’s wife get along like a house on fire. Jess adores Cody’s son Ben, and he her. There are some Moments when it looks like they will hook up only to be interrupted by Ben, or something else. Readers who are not fans of kids or interruptus will be unlikely to be happy.

Cody and Ben wind up going with Jess to her family Thanksgiving, an everyone has a blast. Jess’ family love both of them, and they are quite taken by the mob of people.

But then, oh no! People in their 30s who can’t communicate! Cody gets a call from Anastasia, her ex-wife who has shown zero interest in Cody, and the other mom wants Ben to come out at stay for two weeks. Jess agrees to go – they look forward to being in a hotel room without a kid – but Jess gets a special request to interview a politician in DC and then an interview with an outfit in Philly, where she submitted a resume. Jess doesn’t tell Cody about the Philly connection, which by this point is a no-no: I couldn’t figure out what was to be gained by Jess not telling Cody, since by now they’re in love with one another.

We all know that there is a HEA at the end, because that’s the genre and not a spoiler.

No major complaints about any of it, and Ben really steals the show. Again, if you’re not okay with a kid being one of the most important things in someone’s life, this is no the book for you. There are no drawn out, steamy sexytimes here – most are fade to black. It’s an easy read and everyone is normal.

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

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

Review: Damnation Spring (Ash Davidson)

This is not a book most people will find easy to like. It’s slow to start, people seem to be completely oblivious to certain things, and chapters can seem repetitious at best. However, sticking to it should find readers of literary or eco-literary fiction enjoying it.

It’s the late 1970s in the US, and Rich Gundersen, along with his much younger than he wife Colleen and their young son live in a very small town where the economy is almost all logging.

Rich has worked for the Sanderson company forever as a topper (the person who gets to climb to the very tops of trees to cut off branches and/or the actual head of the tree in order to install lines to pull felled trees up the mountain). He has also lasted longer than both his grandfather and father did in this punishing, physical work for the same company. His best friend is Lark, an eccentric old man who worked with Rich’s father – in fact, whose topping of a branch killed Rich’s father when it landed on him fro a couple hundred feet in the air – and who looks out for Rich as he can.

When it’s Rich’s POV, we get a lot of logger jargon, as one would expect from a logger. We also get to know Rich’s dream, which had been his father dream before him: cutting the 24-7, which is not a convenience sore but a redwood that is 24 feet, seven inches in diameter. Without telling Colleen, Rich takes all of their savings, gets a loan, and buys over 700 acres of land that includes the 24-7. It abuts land that Sanderson owns, and Rich thinks that when Sanderson cuts in an access road, Rich will be able to use that as he feels the redwoods on his property, and become wealthy in the process.

Colleen has suffered a miscarriage one of many, the exact number of which she has not told Rich. When it’s her POV, we get a snapshot of her typical day: worrying about Rich. Dealing with her sister Enid and her passel of kids. Colleen’s an amateur midwife, so cannot be blind to the strange things happening in other womens’ pregnancies: stillborns, miscarriages, massive deformities, like half a brain, or no brain, in one case. Many people in the community, including Colleen herself, suffer from random nosebleeds.

Rich and his brother in law shoot a deer who appears to be pregnant, only to find a basketball-sized tumor inside it. Someone loses a calf after it’s born with deformities. Another person’s bees are all killed by the spray.

The company sprays herbicides in the area, to keep pesky weeds at bay where trees are being harvested. It smells slightly of chlorine and when it’s in the water, either directly or via runoff, it’s described as having an oily sheen. (I think this last may refer to including diesel fuel in the mix, to help weight down the spray.)

Issue number one for me: there’s no hint in this small town that anyone picks up on these things being connected. They may not have gone to college, for the most part, but not all of them are idiots.

The book moves back and forth primarily between Rich (now worried about the anti-logging hippies will close down the patch he and his crew are working for Sanderson as well as broaching the quarter million dollar bet he’s made on their future) and Colleen (who seems to be condemned to be condemned to forever driving her sister Enid and her brat pack of kids around and making pancakes or eggs), but we also get chapters from their young son’s POV here and there, making observations the adults never would.

Into this small town, one major industry setting, walks Daniel, Colleen’s high school boyfriend. He now collects water samples from around the area for testing purposes, as not only are the salmon dying, so are other things (like human and bovine babies, born or not, like bees) and it appears that people are also suffering from things (like nosebleeds and respiratory illnesses). other environmental impacts are also present (mudslides from cleared areas, runoff of soil and herbicides into the drinking water).

Once he enters the picture, the book fully transforms into eco-lit. Daniel knows Colleen and her family drinker from the spring that runs near their house, and he wants her to take samples so he can send them off to be tested. She declines, because of course she does: she’s a logger’s wife,and testing the water may reveal things she doesn’t want to see. Eventually, she gives in and starts collecting in secret.

Daniel tells her everything is contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin – AKA dioxin. He’s also been sounding the warning bell around town, and trying to talk to people, only to find doors slammed in his face and his tires slashed, among other things. There’s a scene in the book where the (only) gas station attendant in town refuses to sell him gas.

One couple speaks up about the contaminants in their water and food. They’re quickly ostracized by the rest of the town. Another couple speaks up. They too, get the cold shoulder. There’s even a house belonging to one of the couples that is burned down. Colleen eventually appears at one of the meetings Daniel is hosting. A reporter happens to catch her saying something, and after it’s reported, she and Rich start to get that same cold shoulder. Rich is angry with her; he’d told her to stay out of it. After all, this is their livelihood in danger, and his larger dream as well. Rich gives a passionate speech about how loggers are environmentalists at a town meeting, to which people applaud, but they are still cold toward Rich and Colleen as they leave.

I’ve lived in small towns, and can say the book captures that often claustrophobic feeling of living in the same place, doing the same jobs for generation upon generation. The snubbing and shunning of neighbors is also presented quite well.

We then go speeding toward the end. Rich finds out he didn’t check the fine print on his purchase. But there are a couple of things that bothered me about the end.

One is the deux a machina in relation to one of the larger items in the book. The other is the actual end, which I didn’t like at all. I didn’t think, after 400 pages of Rich shown to be a careful, conscientious man, that he would do what he did.

The book could have used a bit of tightening, especially with the repetitive nature of Colleen having to chauffeur Enid and her kids around.

Overall, I found the book to be exceptionally written from a narrative standpoint. We expect to see Rich do all the logging things, and he does. We expect Colleen to be the stay at home mom and look after her child and sister, and she does. There are a number of passages that are a joy to read. The book does give us a good look at an entire town living around and in an environmental nightmare.

4.5 stars out of 5, rounded down to 4 for the issues noted.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Hell’s Half Acre, Coffin Cove #2 (Jackie Elliott)

Hell’s Half Acre is the second book in a series that takes place in the cheerily named Coffin Cove, I have not read the first book, but this gives enough background that it is unnecessary.

Coffin Cove is a tiny town in Canada, rife with the sort of issues that tiny towns have, and where almost everyone knows your business. The number of characters is large, but they are not all dumped on the reader at once.

Coffin Cove has elected a new mayor and ousted the guy who was mayor for what seems like forever – and like Kwame Alexander, seemed to think that in his position he could grift off almost any deal to enlarge his real estate empire.

Meanwhile, the new mayor has plans: revitalize the town to bring in more business and more tourists. Then the former mayor’s son goes missing, and Andi Silvers, disgraced big newspaper reporter turned small newspaper reporter in Coffin Cove is assigned to cover the investigation.

There are a number of twists and turns, and quite a deep dive into the town’s past – including why there is an area of land within the town called Hell’s Half Acre.

The RMCP is called in to assist, and it seems as if the lead investigator has a bit of history with Andi in the last book. Some of that background is provided to ensure the reader has a good picture of their relationship.

When a body turns up in the area of Hell’s Half Acre, it’s clear that the body belongs to the former mayor.

Meanwhile, a stranger appears in town, presumably a developer looking for projects within Coffin Cove. And, the body count starts rising.

Andi continues to investigate the disappearance just as the police do, and that investigation reveals some very nasty things about the small town – as anyone can tell you, sometimes the most sordid tales come from small towns.

The book reaches a crescendo as the good guys close in on the bad guys.

It’s a solid book, with a nice characterization of Andi and her reinvention as a small town reporter. Some of the other characters don’t get much more than broad strokes, to let us know of they’re nice or not, and (seemingly, to me) how sad or not we should be at their deaths. I also had issues with some of the writing. I think it could have been tightened up just a tad, and there were some redundant or “telling us again, in case we missed it”, identifying Summer as the mother of Jade, the new mayor in one chapter, and then in the very next, telling us again “Summer was Jade’s mother.” Yes, we know,because we’re already been told.

The culprit is pretty easy to see, and if the reader pegs the bad guy early, the rest of the book is still good, to watch the net close in.

I’m giving it four out of five stars.

Thanks to Joffe Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Watch Her – Hester Thursby #3 (Edwin Hill)

Watch Her is the third book in the Hester Thursby series, and I will say up front that this is an exceptional mystery. While it is not necessary to read the preceding books, it would likely add even more depth to a cast of characters so already fleshed out they could, in another, magical world, simply walk off the paper and into the real world without missing a beat or seeming out of place.

Hester is an information-digging, crime-solving dynamo. Paired with Detective Angela White in a nonofficial way, Hester blazes through the book, listening to what people tell her and what they do not. Her musings on what she has been told, and what she tells other people – including Morgan, with whom she lives – are some of the finest indirect action I’ve seen in a mystery. Nothing gets bogged down, the internal dialogue doesn’t veer into infodump territory, and those dialogues are organic, exactly how I would imagine would think them through.

Hester has been hired by a wealthy family to perform what is, to her, a simple task: sorting through information to complete a project and present her conclusions. The only speedbump winds up being a police report about a breakin at that wealthy family’s house that sounds off to both Hester and Angela, and which launches us into a decades-old mystery, with a current mystery as a chaser.

There is a rather large cast – this is just a note, not a particular warning, since paying attention will keep you squared away on who is who, how they’re related, and what animals they own.

It seems that everyone in this book has a secret: the circumstances surrounding a drowned child, a secret (or not so secret) affair, a cop who did something no cop should do, a woman who has not been out of her house in years.. I’m curious as to whether the author was playing a bit on the title – Watch Her to Watcher is not a big step to make when secrets start spilling out toward the end.

The ending wraps up nicely, the only loose end being the now strained relationship between our two leads due to the events of the book. I’ve no doubt they will patch things up in their next outing, something I am looking forward to, whenever it comes out.

The only ding I’d give it would be the “Chicken Day” painting, full of blood. It’s a reference to processing meat chickens, which I myself do each year. Certainly there is some blood, but it doesn’t look like your average slasher flick.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to Kensington Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Little Bandaged Days (Kyra Wilder)

Little Bandaged Days follows Erika, mother of two, moving to Geneva, Switzerland with her husband.

The books takes a rather strange construct, with Erika identifying and interacting with other people by using their initials – including her children. I suppose this is some kind of experiment about Erika pushing people away, but it got fairly annoying the deeper into the book I made it. These sorts of literary experiments can be done well and give a good payoff at the end, but this book fell short for me.

Erika doesn’t know the language, and makes no effort at all to learn it. She allows herself to become more and more isolated from the world in which she finds herself, and while I get it’s supposed to be about a woman slowly losing her grasp on her own mental health, I just can’t feel terribly sorry for anyone who knows they need to change x in their lives in order to have a better life, but makes zero effort to change anything at all to get to that betterment, or at least make progress on it.

This popped up for me in the mystery/thriller category, but it’s clearly a general/women’s fiction novel. It reads as if someone stepped up for a dare of writing about a woman spiraling into mental illness with the extra challenge of not naming names.

I did not like the ending, which I will not spoil, and this really sums up my review of this book: didn’t like it. Clearly, it was not for me. Sorry.

Two stars out of five.

Thanks to Abrams and NetGalley for the review copy.