Review: “Killing Maine,” Mike Bond

Pros: Fascinating exploration of environmental damage and how that hooks into corrupt politics
Cons: You’d better really want to read all about those conspiracy theories
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher for this review.
Expected publication date: 7/20/2015.

 

Hawkins (Pono to his friends) finds out that an old military comrade–Bucky–is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. He heads straight from Hawaii to Maine, where he meets up with Lexie. Lexie is Bucky’s bitter wife, who had been with Hawkins until it looked like he’d be in jail for 20 years (he was set free before long, but by then Lexie was with Bucky). Hawkins has never liked Bucky (who was partially responsible for Hawkins’ brief stint in jail), but Bucky did once save his life, so Hawkins owes him.

Instead of a simple murder mystery, Hawkins gets pulled into a big to-do between wind turbine companies and the corrupt legislators who take bribes from them. Soon there are more deaths, and the local cops seem to want to pin them on Hawkins.

 

Mike Bond’s Killing Maine is more about how Maine is slowly dying through the efforts of large corporations who buy legislators by the dozen. Most of that fight revolves around wind power. Are the turbines killing endangered birds? Are they keeping everyone nearby from sleeping and giving them constant headaches? Is it true that their presence is largely irrelevant and useless except as a ‘green’ project legislators can say they’ve contributed to?

Bucky shot up some of the turbines, then hid his gun. Someone found it and used it to carry out a murder, leaving Bucky in the lurch. Hawkins’s investigations take him forward, backward, and sideways. He hooks up with Abigail, whose husband was murdered–Pono has a knack for falling instantly in love with forceful and/or bitter women, and by the end of the story he has several he has to juggle. The fact that he actively cares for/loves these women rather than trying to play the field is a great bit of personality-building. Hawkins suffers from incurable curiosity, so he gets into everything and gets picked up by the cops off and on (they, of course, are looking for a reason to toss him back into jail).

Hawkins is a surprisingly interesting character. On the one hand, he presents rant after rant about political corruption and how that relates to wind turbines. On the other hand, unlike the rants in most books, these come out feeling like they came from the heart of the character, rather than being inserted by the author. That’s actually pretty surprising, and kept me reading where I otherwise might have stopped.

I don’t know if these arguments also come from the author’s mind. I don’t know how much of the information presented on wind power and its consequences is true, and how much is conspiracy theory. It does give the story a rather different ‘feel’. Although I’m usually turned off by lecturing, the fact that it came out in the character’s voice and personality rather than being a bald-faced insertion by the author made it tolerable for me. At least toward the end it had more and more action injected into the story, so it still held my attention.

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Review: “Alive,” Scott Sigler

Pros: Psychologically fascinating
Cons: Overly reliant on secrets and surprises
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher for this review.
Expected publication date: 7/14/2015.

 

Scott Sigler’s Alive (The Generations Trilogy) starts with a woman waking up in a coffin. She bashes her way free, only to find a room full of similar boxes. Some of them have young corpses in them; others hold people like her. They all believe it to be their 12th birthday, but they’re also all clearly too tall and adult for twelve. Em (so called because her coffin was labeled “M. Savage”, starts organizing and herding the rest of them. Each person has a tattoo of some sort on his or her forehead. It quickly becomes obvious that the ‘circle-stars’ are meant to be fighters and protectors. There’s another problem, however, beyond the fact that they don’t know who or where or what they are: there’s no food or water in their room. They go searching and meet up with a great number of surprises.

 

Although I’m dying to dig further into the meat of things, it’s really difficult to say much about Alive without spoiling the constant little (and occasionally huge) secrets. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is a story that relies on the idea that the reader knows as little about what’s going on as the characters do, and you’re meant to make discoveries in a pace with Em.

The characters are great to watch. They all start out with the vague lack of memory, a symbol on their foreheads, and a last name/first initial from the coffins they awoke in. Slowly they discover (and sometimes adapt) their purposes as they search desperately for food and water. All around them they find the signs of a war long past: skeletons buried in dust. I like seeing how they become more fully realized human beings through their thoughts, actions, and reactions.

I wouldn’t say the final reveal shocked me, but it certainly satisfied the promise of the story’s buildup. The pacing and violence pick up as the story progresses, pulling me in as the reader.

Without adding much more, I’ll say that Alive is a great read. The character arcs are my favorite part of it, and I look forward to seeing other books in the series.

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Review: “My New Roots,” Sarah Britton

Pros: Lots of pretty pictures and some creative healthy dishes
Cons: Variable quality
Rating: 4 out of 5

My New Roots: Inspired Plant-Based Recipes for Every Season, by Sarah Britton, is a good cookbook–it just isn’t a great one. It’s big on plant-based foods, and (in many cases, though not all) raw foods, things which I could certainly stand to eat more of. The pictures are lovely and the recipe layouts are decent and easy to use. The recipes certainly sound enticing: roasted red pepper walnut dip; sorrel hummus; buckwheat crepes with creamy string bean slaw; pear apple blackberry crumble; rooibos-poached pears with raw chocolate olive oil sauce. Most ingredients are easy to find, particularly with all the farmers’ markets and health-food stores cropping up. Chia seeds are fairly easy to find now, and you can raid rooibos tea bags for what you need for the pear recipe.

Many of the recipes use maple syrup as a sweetener. I prefer to use honey where possible–the sweetener is usually a small enough amount in these recipes that the flavor of the syrup would be lost. I grew up in Vermont, so I’ve had all sorts of maple syrup, and I wouldn’t waste it on something where I wouldn’t be able to taste the maple flavor. Particularly given how expensive it can be.

We made three recipes out of this cookbook. Usually lately I remember to take at least one photo of each dish, but in this case I forgot for two of them. Of course the one I remembered to take a photo of is the least photogenic: a lentil salad. The recipe is called “The Best Lentil Salad Ever”, and is good enough that I won’t scoff at the name. I would absolutely make this again, and probably will–it’ll make a great lunch salad. It’s one of those recipes that look complicated when you see the long list of ingredients, but almost the entirety of those ingredients are spices that go in at the same time. There’s a really nice complexity of taste here.

Lentil Salad

Lentil Salad

Next we tried the “Fully Loaded Breakfast Bars”. They include gelled chia seeds, oats, a little leavening, a bean puree, applesauce, dried fruits, and so on. The taste was decent, but the texture left a lot to be desired. These were very dry. They weren’t too bad to eat, but we certainly don’t intend to make the recipe again. These are just… odd.

We’ve been getting a CSA (farm share) this summer, so we’re never entirely sure what we’ll be bringing home. This last weekend we got radishes and a particularly sweet and tender variety of turnip. We ended up making the shaved turnip and radish salad with poppyseed dressing. It’s a lovely little salad, but I’d probably look for a different one next time. I think I’ll always prefer my asparagus roasted rather than raw (I don’t think I’ve ever had it raw before this recipe, actually). I doubt I’ll make it again, but I could see making variations on it–maybe raw pepper instead of asparagus.

We did find some good recipes in here, but those ‘breakfast bars’ have made me wary of the author’s other, similar types of recipes. This is a lovely book, and we’ll probably try out a couple more recipes from it, but I don’t think it’ll end up in our bundle of cookbooks we use repeatedly and frequently.

 

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Review: “In Conquest Born,” C.S. Friedman

Pros: Fantastic characters and constant striving
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

I realize that C.S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born has been around for quite some time and isn’t in any way a ‘new’ book. I read it first a very long time ago, and when I found it last week I realized I wanted to read it again, to see if it measured up to my memory of it. In short, it did.

 

Anzha is an incredibly powerful telepath who was permanently damaged by the horrific death of her parents right in front of her. She developed a deep and dangerous hatred of the Braxana, who arranged that death. While the Azeans–Anzha’s people–hold telepathy as one of their greatest gifts, the Braxana kill any child who displays psychic tendencies. The two races have been at war nearly as long as anyone can remember. Anzha, however, is a throwback to some odd race–instead of the light hair and bronzed skin of an Azean, or the pale skin and black hair of the Braxana, she has light skin and blood-red hair. The Azeans believe this is tied to how powerful a telepath she is, and they set her up to wander, hoping she’ll find the race whose heritage she shows. Meanwhile, Zatar, a powerful Braxana, manipulates both members of his own race and others in order to fulfill his ambitions and his need to protect his people. Anzha and Zatar use the war that surrounds them as their personal battleground, gradually coming to focus on each other rather than entire races.

 

I absolutely LOVE the characters in In Conquest Born. They have so many layers, some of which aren’t even revealed until close to the end. The characters are full of life: ambition, desire, fear, and hatred so strong it takes on a life of its own. Even the side characters reveal surprising depths. I always wanted to know more, and secrets came to light with great regularity.

The pacing is fantastic. I sat on the edge of my seat wanting to know how everything would come out. And while the ending was satisfying, I found it difficult to set the book aside. It has the gleam of a military SF novel, but its focus is on the wonderful characters. I need to track down more of Friedman’s books if this is any example of her work. I went into this hoping to find out that the wonderful book I read twenty or so years ago still looked brilliant with an adult eye, and I loved it every bit as much as I did then. I so rarely re-read books, but this one was worth the effort. The characters constantly strive–for life, for pleasure, for recognition, and mostly, for hate. They’re larger than life; their emotions are larger than life. Friedman does a fantastic job of making that work for her. Even characters who vanish for large parts of the book end up feeling fully fleshed-out, and they never feel like a deus ex machina since they were set up earlier. They help to keep the world feeling real and busy and full of life. The ways in which they’re treated by Zatar or Anzha says so much about those two characters as well.

The world-building is wonderful. We have two such different races in the Azeans and the Braxana, and yet you can feel the underlying shared human similarities. Both Anzha and Zatar are unusual members of their races in one way or another, which just brings out the racial issues so much more clearly. I would love to read more books set in this universe.

I set out to find out if the book was as good as I remembered, and frankly, it exceeded my expectations.

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Taking a not-really-break

I was doing some cleaning the other day and came across a few books that I haven’t read in decades. They were some of my favorite books back in high school or whatever other point I was at, so I’m going to re-read a few of them and see what I think of them after all of these years spent reading other stories. First up: C.S. Friedman’s “In Conquest Born.” Hopefully I’ll be done with it in time to review it tomorrow.

Posted in News & Musings, Reviews

Review: “No-Churn Ice Cream,” Leslie Bilderback

Pros: Some truly delicious ice cream!
Cons: Problems in flavors and instructions
Rating: 3 out of 5

No-Churn Ice Cream: Over 100 Simply Delicious No-Machine Frozen Treats is a promising title by Leslie Bilderback. Sure, I have an ice cream churner, but while it works, it doesn’t always work as well as I’d like. The ice cream never comes out quite as firm as I’d like, and the bowl never accommodates as much as it claims it will. Therefore, “No-Churn Ice Cream” completely caught my attention! Looking through the book was very appealing. There are ice creams (with suggested variations), gelatos, sorbets, sherbets, as well as topping/accompaniment suggestions.

Scoop of coffee sherbet

Scoop of coffee sherbet

First we tried the cappuccino sherbet. I love sherbet, I love coffee, and I love coffee-flavored sweets, so this sounded like a match made in heaven. In this case you combine a few ingredients (sugar, milk, coarse-ground dark roast coffee). You heat things up, let the coffee steep, and when it’s cooled completely you strain out the coffee. You add a very small amount of salt and lemon juice. Then you put it in the freezer, stirring frequently until set.

To get this out of the way: we used exactly what the recipe called for; I even already had it on hand. I always do coarse-ground for French Press, so that wasn’t a problem. I happened to have dark roast in the house so that was fine. I used my favorite drinking coffee, thus I already know I love its flavor. Given that, the gaping question that remains is this: How did this turn into something so vile that I took one taste, spat it out, and ran off looking for something to take the taste out of my mouth? The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the steeping time was far too long, and perhaps the coffee grounds should have been removed sooner. Other than that–I’ve got nothing except the absolute knowledge that I will never make this recipe again. I threw it all out, actually, which is rare for me. I hate throwing out food.

Strawberry cheesecake ice cream on biscuits

Strawberry cheesecake ice cream on biscuits

Since strawberry season was a thing here recently, we decided to make that our next ice cream flavor (although we went for the ‘strawberry cheesecake’ variation, which adds 4 oz of cream cheese). First, I will say that it’s delicious and I very much like it. The method uses heavy cream whipped to soft peaks to work air into the ice cream instead of churning it. Essentially you’re making a frozen mousse, and well, I like mousse, frozen or not! For some reason this version came out a little too solid in the freezer. I’ve had to chip away at it to eat it. I do recommend serving it on a biscuit or shortcake. After all, it’s primarily strawberries and whipped cream, two of the main components of strawberry shortcake.

Unfortunately, the recipe itself for the strawberry ice cream has a confusing error or two in it. At the beginning of the recipe it has you take three cups of strawberries, combine with lemon zest, juice and water, and essentially turn the strawberries into jam that can be folded into the ice cream. Later on in the list of ingredients we found “1 cup strawberry jam (storebought or homemade).” So jam showed up in two separate parts of the recipe, with instructions that only tell you to add it in once. We skipped the extra cup listing of strawberry jam and used the jam we’d created specifically for the recipe. That’s the only interpretation that really worked.

Toasted coconut steeps

Toasted coconut steeps

Next we decided to try for coconut ice cream–I’m a big fan, and I’ll take any excuse to toast unsweetened coconut (it goes great in so many things!). We didn’t find any apparent mistakes or confusions in the recipe. We toasted the coconut, steeped it in warm coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk with a few other minor ingredients until cooled, then drained the flavored liquid, combined it with the now-familiar whipped cream, and froze it. This recipe was divine. It came out perfectly, to the letter. It didn’t set too hard, the flavors are intense but not too much so, and I’ve probably already gained ten pounds just by looking at it and smelling it!

After the sherbet we were sure we’d never use the cookbook again after I finished making recipes in order to review it. The strawberry left us thinking, well, this might be worth it. The coconut was sooo good that we’re more than ready to dive back in… but no coffee flavors, and no using recipes with screwed-up directions. It’s actually fairly impressive that the one ice cream was good enough to make us overlook the others.

Many of these recipes include variations. Some look heavenly (the cream cheese in the strawberry ice cream), while others are a little too adventurous even for me (berry ice cream served with blue cheese). Ms. Bilderback says that you can mess around quite a bit with the fat amounts–such as substituting whole milk for skim or vice versa–and that it’ll come out fine either way. I have some doubts about that, but at least it does encourage experimentation.

These have to be the fattiest ice creams I’ve ever had, but they’re oh-so-worth-it! I recommend freezing in really small plastic containers so you can resist the urge to get a huge bowl!

NOTE: Free cookbook provided by publisher (St. Martin’s Press) for review

Posted in Cooking, Reviews Tagged with: , , , , ,

Review: “Innocent in Death,” J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Great suspense and drama
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Craig Foster, a well-liked young teacher, is found dead in his classroom, the victim of a horrific poisoning. He’s found by two young students, Melodie and Rayleen. The only smudge in his good life that Eve can find is the fact that he confronted another teacher, Reed Williams, about sexually harassing behavior, and since that didn’t blow up in anyone’s face it seems doubtful that it’s the reason for his death. It’s particularly strange since the method of death involved the poison ricin, not something most people could get their hands on. Still, Williams is the most obvious suspect in the investigation. Just to keep things interesting, an old love of Roarke’s shows up in town, Magdelana, and she seems determined to put the moves on Roarke. Obviously Eve isn’t going to take this lying down!

 

Innocent in Death is book 24 (!) of the “in death” series staring homicide detective Eve Dallas, her fabulously wealthy husband Roarke, and a growing cast of side characters. Most books in the series include some or most of the following:

  • Death, suspense, and mystery
  • Lovely, semi-abstracted sex between Eve and Roarke
  • Mention of Eve’s and/or Roarke’s painful, abusive childhoods–sometimes these get very dark
  • Plenty of snark and entertaining dialogue
  • Character growth for Eve, Roarke, and/or some of the friends and coworkers that surround them

You’ll find all five of those in Innocent in Death. What’s a bit different, however, is the unusual amount of tension between Eve and Roarke. Magdelana (Maggie) is doing everything she can to seduce Roarke and drive Eve away. Our favorite couple can’t see, at first, the ways in which she’s manipulating them, and things between them blow up on a new scale. It’s terrible to see, but it happens on a believable level, especially when you’re talking about two people with such powerful emotions and stubbornness. As a fan of the series, of course, it’s tough to watch them go through it!

As usual the language is florid in an enjoyable way, with larger-than-life personalities and relationships. On the one hand I didn’t find it that hard to guess at who the culprit would be. On the other hand, there was enough uncertainty–and enough red herrings–that I couldn’t really be sure until the ending, which worked out well. As usual, Eve’s attempts to coax out a confession make for a fascinating back-and-forth. I also truly felt for Eve and Roarke as they try to work through Maggie’s attempts to push them apart.

Innocent in Death is a great installment in J.D. Robb’s/Nora Roberts’s “in death” series.

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Review: “Rising Darkness,” Thea Harrison

Pros: Great pacing and dangerous stakes
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

It’s going to take me a long time to catch up on old review books. This time I picked Thea Harrison’s Rising Darkness to dive into; I really enjoyed her Lord’s Fall recently. At least this time I came in on the first book of the series (A Game of Shadows), which makes things easier.

Mary is an ER doctor, but lately she’s been looking… ill. She doesn’t want to eat, and thinks she’s hearing voices in her head. Her ex-husband and friend Justin insists she go to a doctor herself. Instead, Mary goes for a drive. Not much later she sees a news item (on a bar’s TV) that shows her entire house on fire. She’s being stalked, and her only hope is to join up with Michael, a dangerous and oddly familiar man who’s tracking her as implacably as the bad guys are.

 

Michael falls into the huge, angry killer erotic romance stereotype at first, but he shows more nuance later. The bad guy has some quirks that add depth to him; it’s easy to see him as both man and monster, which is excellent. Ultimately I enjoyed the characters in Rising Darkness.

I found the pacing delightful. Things get plenty scary for Thea nice and early, escalating in quick bursts throughout the story. The stakes feel sufficiently high, and danger abounds. I got pulled in far enough that I stopped taking notes as I read, which is a great indicator.

There are some dark bits. A remembered scene of horrific torture hit me harder than I’m used to; if you’re not okay with that, or the presence of the passionate, delightful sex scenes that offset the darkness, then look for another book to read. There’s only one thing I didn’t like about the sex scenes: reincarnation is an ongoing plot point throughout the book, and apparently there were times when Mary and Michael lived as parent and child, or as siblings. That added a disturbing little incest vibe for me.

I enjoyed Thea Harrison’s Rising Darkness quite a bit, and look forward to reading later books in the series.

NOTE: Review book provided by publisher

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Review: “Zoo,” Patterson & Ledwidge

Pros: One of my favorite genres
Cons: Oh god, it hurts
Rating: 2 out of 5

Zoo, by Michael Ledwidge and James Patterson, falls right into my favorite mix of genres: bio-thriller, adventure, thriller. In it, animals mysteriously start attacking humans all over the globe. Jackson Oz, who’s been predicting something like this for years, suddenly finds people taking his work seriously. Oz ends up working for the government along with a cadre of other scientists, trying to figure out the why behind the attacks. Animals are coming together in greater and greater numbers, and civilization itself becomes endangered.

 

At first I really enjoyed this book. The genres appeal to me enough that I can enjoy the basic story even without great execution. I loved the stakes of the story:

If I was wrong, I was crazy. If I was right, the world was doomed.

It’s hard to go wrong with those options! I also enjoyed some of the humor, and while the writing was rather florid, that’s a thing I can overlook in this type of adventure/thriller story. I wasn’t thrilled with Oz’s chimp companion; I thought that plot point went out of fashion a couple of decades ago. That said, the authors handle it well enough.

The authors switch back and forth between past tense (any time they write from Oz’s point of view) and present (any time they write from someone else’s PoV). It’s weird and a bit confusing. There’s also a five-year jump at one point, and while ultimately I think the authors made the right choice there, it too seemed confusing at first.

Unfortunately, the book jumped the shark partway through. I mean, dolphin. Jumped the dolphin. When dolphins started leaping into a boat en masse I lost it and laughed my ass off. From there the book grew more and more over-the-top.

The authors sometimes break the pacing with a bit of lecturing or moralizing, and they wrote many of the side characters as stereotypes. My real problem, however, came at the end of the book.

Spoiler Warning: Given the structure of this kind of thriller, I don’t think this spoiler will ruin much of anything, but I include the warning for those folks who want to avoid any kind of tip-off. The climax of the book totally lost me. Given the chemistry of how the characters attacked the problem, I found it completely and utterly unbelievable how quickly the whole world-wide problem melted away. It made no sense. I disbelieve that the kind of changes they’re talking about could act so swiftly, particularly when you’re talking about animals that live in the middle of nowhere. End Spoiler Warning

I enjoyed Zoo reasonably well up until The Dolphin Incident, and it broke down from there. Ultimately I can’t recommend it.

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Review: “Fanatic,” Jamie Lohmeyer

Pros: Tension increases later on
Cons: Slow start
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Jamie Lohmeyer’s Fanatic is a suspense in which author Michael Viola returns to his home town and finds himself embroiled in a murder case. Richard, a high school bully who made Michael miserable, has been viciously killed. While Michael fights to keep out of the mess, he gets dragged deeper and deeper.

Just to get this out of the way: the grammar isn’t great. A number of words are used improperly. It reads as though the author used a number of terms s/he has heard but not seen in use, such that s/he occasionally picks a word that sounds like the right one, but isn’t.

Male Mary Sue characters seem much rarer than female, but Fanatic proves Mary Sues aren’t exclusive to women. Everybody has or has had a thing for Michael, or at least it certainly feels that way. Everything centers around him.

It took more than half the book before I felt that we really leaped into the plot, and I hit 75% through before I felt pulled into the events. Unfortunately, one of the bad guys pulled the ultimate cliche–explaining everything to the main character:

“I’d like to tell [everything] to you from the very beginning because I don’t want you to be confused about anything.”

Some elements of the climax of the book seemed a little anti-climactic, and the denouement went on a bit too long.

Fanatic is okay, but not great.

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