Review: “Pretty Girls Dancing,” Kylie Brant

Pros: Very ‘real’ characters; made me tear up
Cons: One character background
Rating: 4 out of 5

Kylie Brant’s Pretty Girls Dancing concentrates on how devastating it can be to a family when the worst happens. Whitney DeVries disappears without a trace. But this doesn’t just ripple throughout her own family. Another family, the Willards, lost their eldest daughter Kelsey in a very similar manner seven years earlier, and Whitney’s disappearance threatens to shatter what fragile peace they’ve eked out for themselves. It also exposes just how false that peace really is. Kelsey’s younger sister Janie has extreme social anxiety. Her mother Claire wanders about in an alcoholic and pill-induced haze, while father David buries himself in work and a secret side interest. Will Whitney’s disappearance do the same thing to her family? Will Whitney be found alive–or at all? And is it possible Kelsey is still alive too? (After all, even though her disappearance was attributed to the Ten Mile Killer, unlike most of his victims her body was never found.) Will Janie and the rest of the Willard family hold together through this latest reminder of their own tragedy, or will it finally tear them apart?

The mystery is a good one, with plenty of hints and red herrings as to the kidnapper’s identity. We aren’t left in suspense as to whether Whitney was indeed captured by the Ten Mile Killer–she was. He puts her through grueling dance routines all day and whips her when she fails any of his rules, insisting she call him “Daddy” and show him proper gratitude for his efforts. We’re mostly left to wonder who of the various possible men is the kidnapper/killer, and how Whitney’s own story will end. Meanwhile Janie is the closest thing to a main character I’d say, even though we see things through a variety of characters’ eyes, and she’s a compelling character. She’s already made great strides with her crippling anxiety, but that doesn’t keep her from having a hard time of things when Whitney goes missing and she sees her parents fall apart even further than they already have.

Many thrillers concentrate on the hunt for the bad guy, but this one is much more about his effect on his victims’ families. The characters are very ‘real,’ with believable quirks, flaws, and strengths. Probably my only quibble in this area is that the only female agent involved had a history in which she tried to get into bed with the main (married) male agent and left him wondering if she had slept her way up the ladder. It would have been nice to have more character detail than just someone’s implication that she’s a slut. However, on the good side, the ending made me tear up a bit in several places, and that’s a sign of an emotionally riveting tale. All in all, this was a good read.

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Recipe: Eggnog Gelatin

I am an eggnog fiend. I love making it, but I find that there are decent brands available in the supermarket too if I’m not up to doing it from scratch. For this recipe you’ll need four cups (one quart) of eggnog, homemade or store-bought. This recipe assumes you haven’t already added liquor to it; for the liquor in the recipe I used apple ginger whiskey.

  • 1 quart eggnog
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons unflavored gelatin*
  • 1/2 cup liquor of your choice (rum, whiskey, bourbon, brandy, etc.)

Pour 1/2 cup eggnog into a mixing bowl that will be big enough to hold all ingredients. Sprinkle the gelatin on top and allow to sit while you do the next step.

Heat 1 1/2 cups eggnog until scalding–i.e., very hot but not boiling. Whisk into the gelatin mixture until the gelatin is all dissolved.

Whisk the rest of the eggnog into the dissolved gelatin. Whisk in the liquor. Pour into serving dishes or a plastic food storage container and refrigerate overnight or until set.

*3 teaspoons will yield a very soft-set gelatin that feels like eating a cloud, but it won’t have that classic firm, smooth jello feel and look. Decide how much gelatin to use based on whether you’d rather have that soft-set feel or the firm-set look.

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Review: “Terminal Alliance,” Jim C. Hines

Pros: Hilarious, riveting, moving; fantastic characters and world-building
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jim C. Hines’s Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse Book One) is every bit as fun and fascinating as his other series (the Princess novels, the Magic Ex Libris novels, the Jig the Goblin novels) even though the overt setting is very different. In the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series, humans have had their apocalypse. Someone accidentally loosed a virus upon the world that turned humans into “ferals” (kind of like zombies, only not dead). Aliens figured out how to cure small numbers of humans at a time and have been restoring them to health. In return the humans serve as marines in an alien alliance, protecting people from all sorts of bad guys. Marion Adamopoulos, or “Mops”, is the head of a Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team on the EMCS Puffership, a military vessel. She and her team of janitors are the only ones who don’t fall under the influence of a bioweapon that turns their whole crew back into ferals. The janitors have only their cleaning supplies, their skills, and Mops’s smarts to fall back on as they uncover a plot that could wipe out the entire human race–and then some. And something going on within the alliance they serve could result in all of their crew being “put down” rather than saved.

I love watching the team use their cleaning supplies and knowledge of unusual shipboard systems to fight the bad guys at every turn. Watching them try to run the military ship is also highly amusing–they spend most of their time running through tutorials led by “Puffy,” the Pufferfish’s friendly tutorial-giver. They also end up dealing with some highly interesting glitches due to their lack of experience. Hines turns their lack of military background into a source of both hilarity and creative obstructions.

This isn’t, however, a one-note joke in which the only interest comes from the creative concept. It has constant action, excitement, and danger. It kept me riveted the whole way through. The world-building as a whole is also quite interesting, with a handful of alien races, all of which have their own quirks and interesting individuals. I never felt as though they were monolithic or stereotyped. The humans, too, have changed a bit over time which lends extra interest to the overall plot. It only takes the one book for Hines to start blowing open the assumptions he’s already built about the world. I’m already eagerly awaiting the next installment!

From both a sci-fi and a humor perspective, Terminal Alliance is a fantastic book with great characters, wonderful world-building, a riveting fast pace, unusual secrets to uncover, and some great laughs. I highly recommend it.

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Review: “Into the Drowning Deep,” Mira Grant

Pros: Fantastic tension, characters, and attention to detail
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep is a follow-on to her Rolling in the Deep. In that installment, a ship called the Atargatis sets sail to film a mockumentary about mermaids. Unfortunately it encounters the real thing and discovers that reality is much more deadly than fiction. The vessel was found adrift and empty, with only a few hotly-debated pieces of film to indicate what had happened. Now, seven years later, the film company is sending another vessel. This one is much larger, with many scientists on board. There are special security systems, and the company has hired two big game hunters and plenty of photogenic security to keep people safe. The scientists on board include Victoria “Tory” Stewart, whose sister Anne was an ‘on-air personality’ on the first boat. Also Jillian Toth, who is the scientist whose research dictated the Atargatis’s path. Olivia has what would have been Anne’s job, and a pair of deaf sisters named Heather and Holly (with their hearing translator and older sister Hallie) have their own relevant areas of expertise. The timing of the new expedition is based partially on Tory’s research, which has turned up sonar of what she believes is the mermaids mimicking the sounds of the Atargatis.

Into the Drowning Deep is not a short book, but it kept me hooked from the very beginning. It’s riveting and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Early on Heather takes her submersible down into the very depths and comes face-to-face with the mermaids themselves. The level of detail wrapped me up in the events and the tension just grabbed hold. Did I mention the unbearable tension?

That was how you found things, in the sea. Be delicious.

I’m still surprised at how well this book held up for its full length. In some places it seems like there aren’t many big things happening, but it feels like it’s teeming with activity. The detail and characters have a great deal to do with that. Each death hits home, even when we haven’t known someone long or don’t like them. Everything feels real.

The presence of Olivia as a reporter for the entertainment company running the show allows her to extract explanations from the scientists that are somewhere closer to sound-bite than info-dump. Even once people stop caring about speaking to the camera, the fact that the various scientists are often in semi-related fields keeps things smart but brief. It’s a perfect compromise.

One of the details that most interested me was Hallie’s place in things. Sure, she came as a translator for her sisters, but she came for herself too. The mermaids have a signing language (they know that from the scraps of footage from the first attack), so she’s there to hopefully analyze and learn some of that language. All of the characters have plenty of a role to play; no one feels extraneous. The characters were also individualistic enough that I never had trouble remembering who was who, which can get challenging in books this long.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in recent weeks, and I’ve read some good ones. I’d absolutely recommend anything by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire). She takes my favorite genre, horror, and amps it up completely!

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Review: “Mink Eyes,” Max McBride

Pros: Slow unraveling of an interesting plot
Cons: Some overwrought language
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: Publisher provided book for review.

 

First, I have to get this out of my system. I’ve read a fair amount of erotic romance, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quote quite this bad:

…the genitals’ cry of loss…

I just… I can’t stop laughing, and I really don’t think that was what the author was going for! Pardon me while I regain my composure… ahem.

Max McBride’s Mink Eyes is a tale of private detective Pete O’Keefe. He’s just keeping his head above water, and is starting to have to make hard choices as to what jobs he will and won’t take, which of his employees he’ll put in charge of what, and so on. His lifelong good friend and lawyer sets him up with a new job looking into, of all things, a mink farm. The man running it had been convincing people to invest in pairs of minks that would “do what came naturally” (produce lots of baby minks) and thus also produce lots of pelts to sell. Now it seems he was running a Ponzi scheme in which he was using the money from each new investor to pay off the old ones, and of course he allowed people to re-invest. Apparently his latest investor was much more of a heavy-hitter, and now that the place is out of money, the scam artist is nowhere to be found. The investors hiring Pete include the father of the scam artist’s wife, Tag, and Pete concentrates on finding her. He may be about to end up in over his head, however. He has had trouble with drink and drugs in the past, and he isn’t a stellar father to his 10-year-old girl. Add in a femme fatale, some well-armed goons, and a whole lot of temptation and things could go downhill in a hurry.

The initial pace yields a sort of gentle, rolling feel, especially at first. It’s thoughtful and provides a somewhat different view of private detective work rather than the stereotype of the lone gunman. Instead, Pete is an ex-druggie, ex-hippie, ex-Marine (Vietnam) who has never quite lost some of his idealistic fantasies and who has battled some serious depression. Actually, he still deals with it within the scope of this story, and yes, it does make the story itself rather depressing for a while.

Finally Pete gets shot at while he’s with his daughter, Kelly, on Halloween night, leaving him little choice but to go in search of Tag again, who first seduced him and then ran off without him earlier in the tale. He hunts down and has to face the idea that the bad guys who are after Tag are much worse than he expected, and he’s almost certainly getting in over his head. I like the fact that the story doesn’t downplay how out of his league he is.

This might not be the best thriller ever, but I love the idea of a mink farm Ponzi scheme. There’s just so much whimsical creativity in that. And that gentle, rolling pace for the first while is unusual and interesting. As long as you don’t mind wallowing in a bit of someone else’s depression–which isn’t always what one is ready for–you might enjoy this read.

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Review: “Darkness at the Edge of Town,” Jennifer Harlow

Pros: Lots of interesting dysfunctional characters
Cons: Undercover choice leads to some difficulties
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: Book provided by publisher for review

 

Jennifer Harlow’s Darkness at the Edge of Town: An Iris Ballard Thriller sees ex-FBI agent Iris Ballard going home, the one place she really doesn’t want to be. Her brother has fallen prey to the influence of a cult, deserting his fiancee, emptying out their bank accounts, and moving onto the cult’s farm. Iris needs to find him (no one seems to know where the farm is–just a house that is used as the cult’s ‘Temple’) and convince him to go home. But it doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in even deeper than she thought. He’s gotten one of the cult members pregnant and has married her. When Iris is just about ready to give up on her brother and allow that he seems to be happy there, she finds out the cult is being investigated by the DEA. Now she’s terrified that the hard-headed DEA agent will act too swiftly and get her brother, among others, killed by the paranoid cult leader/drug runner.

I was a bit surprised that Iris went to visit the cult “undercover,” using a fake name and identity. Her face is all over the news, and if she expects to run into her brother then her cover will be blown as soon as he sees her. Either way, it seems like a foolish choice. It seems to be mostly luck that allows this to work for as long as it does. When she does inevitably get recognized, her deception undermines her credibility with her already-estranged brother, which she should have seen coming.

There’s some adult material as Iris allows the Temple to think they’re recruiting her. It’s a nice touch that the man who tries to seduce her actually seems to believe he’s fallen head-over-heels for her, thanks to the head of the cult’s careful suggestions.

There are plenty of interesting dysfunctional characters, especially among Iris’s family and friends! I like the sheriff who was her mentor in particular. On the other hand, the DEA agent is very stereotypical–so determined to screw with Iris that he risks the lives of everyone in the cult by pushing too hard too fast and ignoring everything Iris tells him. Also, while the bad guy has an interesting background (he was Amish, is gay, and has a wide variety of interesting events in his background), his current personality as shown is that of a pretty one-dimensional bad guy.

Despite my minor misgivings, this is a fascinating story of the ways in which a cult can grab hold of people who need something good in their lives.

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Review: “A Demon Saved,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Katherine Kim’s A Demon Saved (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 3) Michael gets stabbed and poisoned while saving May’s life (it’s a good thing that’s his job since he does it so much), and the poison is new and particularly deadly to demons. Even though it’s believed that the demons’ ancient enemies, the nefil, no longer exist in the earthly realm, one of them shows up to help. Anna is a healer and does everything she can to help Michael–apparently it’s her student Milquert (?! makes me think milquetoast every time I see it) who’s gone off the deep end, re-entered the earthly realm, and wants to kill not just every demon but every human who has been “tainted” by a demon. Which, thanks to Michael’s membership in the Temple, now means all of the Temple humans. It’s a good premise.

The book could still use a good copyeditor who can catch the stuff that an automated spellchecker won’t. Sometimes I’m impressed at how little action it takes for the book to be interesting, while at other times I’m bored by the lack of progress or action. I still appreciate that the author allows May and Michael to be partners without being lovers, but I would have liked to see more physical chemistry between Michael and Anna–it was hard to buy into their feelings for one another because, unlike everything else, the author didn’t dwell on them.

SPOILER Warning: Michael missed so many obvious clues of a trap that was set for him that it was quite frustrating. He’s generally much smarter than this. I’m also surprised, given how careful he’s been to never have a child before now, that Anna mysteriously becomes pregnant just after they get together. I mean seriously, has he never heard of a condom? If that’s always worked for him before now and now suddenly didn’t, that should be pointed out as something odd. End spoilers.

On the whole Katherine Kim clearly has skill and talent, and I hope that she keeps improving. I’d like to see more of her work, but it still needs development.

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Review: “A Demon’s Sanction,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Katherine Kim’s A Demon’s Sanction (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 2) Temple Priestess May is having to defend Guardian demon Michael to other Temple personnel rather than being paranoid about him herself. The demon-living-as-a-human has been May’s Guardian for some time. The both of them have been sent on a number of missions already, some of which were quite dangerous and would usually have called for multiple teams. They suspect some of the Temple Elders want to get Michael killed so they don’t have to worry about having a demon in the Temple. An argument between May and Oliver in particular gets a bit old. It’s difficult because, as readers, we already are in Michael’s head and we know he’s a good guy, so the arguments are harder to sit through and they get old fast.

There are still spelling and grammar issues here, again of the sort that aren’t likely to be caught by an automatic spellchecker (a good editor would be handy). Its/it’s again, wrong words, missing words, etc.

Since paranormal/urban fantasy novels are full of growly, “alpha” characters, particularly when it comes to demons, it’s really nice to meet one who’s a bit bookish and sad. I’m also grateful to the author for not throwing romance into the mix between May and Michael–while I like a good romance, it’s just nice to have some variety and to see characters be partners without having to mix sex into things. Along those veins, I also adore the idea of seeing Michael as a “failure” of a demon.

One trope that made me shake my head was a lesser demon (an Imp) who practically slavishly fell at May’s feet when she gave it a silly name. It’s just a bit obvious and overdone.

Dialogue and arguments take up too much of the space in these books. I hope the author gets a better handle on the use of detail and various levels of action to round out a tale. I remain convinced, however, that there’s some definite talent on display here and that the author is worth following for that reason.

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Review: “A Demon’s Duty,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

A Demon’s Duty (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 1) by Katherine Kim is about a demon named Michael who’s been hiding behind a glamour of humanity in the human world. He never liked the endless political and deadly machinations of the demon world, so he fled when his brother tried to kill him. He’d much prefer to study alchemy, read, and just relax when possible. That last one is made impossible when he stumbles across the aftermath of a battle between a Temple Priestess, her Guardians, and a pack of Hellhounds. After finishing off what’s left of the unusually massive hounds, he ends up taking on the magical vow of a Guardian and promising to protect May, the Priestess. There is no precedent for what’s happening, and May has no idea whether she can trust him or not.

These books show definite talent, and I believe that everything I disliked about them is something that can be fixed with time, practice, and a good critique group. This is why even though I don’t love the books, I read and will review all three.

There are some spelling and grammar problems, missing words, misused words, its/it’s confusion, etc. Mostly it looks like errors that would be caught by a good editor but not by an automatic spell-checker.

There’s a cut to a flashback that was awkward and confusing. It’s also weird that the book starts after one of the main points of action has ended. The great thing about a beginning is that you can deliberately start it in the middle of the action if you’re publishing in a genre that makes sense for. That would have made much more sense here. Instead the opening is extremely talky and sluggish and acts as an extended info-dump. I made it about a third of the way through the book before it felt like anything much happened.

Kim does a good job of using some fairly simple worldbuilding to create an interesting backdrop. She also neatly portrays Michael’s separation from humanity and the confusion he feels around people.

May does come across as too stupid a couple of times. In particular she spends much too long jumping to half-founded conclusions about Michael. It made me want to shake her a bit, and Kim goes to too great a length twisting things up to make her concerns seem legitimate, keeping them apart as teammates artificially.

It probably sounds like I should have rated this lower, but I meant it when I said I can see skill and talent here. I’d like to see more despite the flaws.

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Review: “The Girl Who Lived,” Christopher Greyson

Pros: Fascinating and disturbing setup
Cons: Faith is very self-sabotaging
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Christopher Greyson’s The Girl Who Lived, Faith has been in and out of mental institutions ever since most of her family was killed. Her father supposedly stabbed her sister Kim, her best friend Anna, and Anna’s mother before shooting himself. Only Faith was there–and she saw someone else do the killing. No one believes her, not the police, not her mother, and not Faith’s therapists. Faith finally gets out shortly before her 23rd birthday (which will be the day after the tenth anniversary of the killings). Her mother has set everything up for her–AA meetings and a sponsor, survivor’s group, therapy, an apartment, a used car, and some possible jobs. That sounds great, except that other than the killings themselves, her mother is the single toughest part of her life. Her mother wrote a book about Faith’s travails after the killings called “The Girl Who Lived,” leaving Faith’s troubled life an open book for everyone in her small town. And her mother has a very emotionally detached view of Faith. Even Faith’s new therapist has read the book and is in a practice with Faith’s mother, making it difficult to establish a relationship of trust when she didn’t get to choose what to divulge to him.

Faith immediately falls off the wagon with respect to alcohol, so the cops don’t believe her when she sees “Rat Face,” one of the two men she spotted at the cabin on the night of the murders. Her car gets stolen (only to be found a couple of streets away), her house gets broken into (with no apparent damage or theft), and she gets stalked through the halls of the school where she has her survivor’s group meeting (only no one else sees anyone). The cops and her mother get more and more skeptical as she gets more and more convinced she’s being stalked. And trying to track down Rat Face only puts a target on her chest.

Faith is very self-sabotaging. It’s entirely understandable, but it still gets a bit frustrating now and then. I kind of wanted to grab her by the shoulders and give her a shake a couple of times. In some ways that’s probably a sign of a good character, but frustration isn’t really what I’m looking for when reading!

In this age of tell-alls, reality TV, and YouTube videos that chronicle our most intimate moments, it’s good to see an exploration of what the behind-the-scenes down-side can look like when it happens to someone.

SPOILER warning: I will say that it’s good we do eventually get a reason for why the serial killer feels the need to play with Faith instead of just offing her. It’s something more than just oh, he’s crazy. End spoilers.

I enjoyed this serial-killer thriller, and even shed a few tears near the end. I’d be happy to read more by this author.

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