Review: “Lie With Me,” Sabine Durrant

Pros: Fascinating plot weaving
Cons: Main character is definitely not sympathetic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me tells the story of Paul, a selfish and self-centered novelist who’s still riding off of the reputation he gained years ago. Whether it’s wooing young paramours, house-sitting for friends and claiming their posh pad as his own, claiming to be doing well while having to move back in with his mother, etc., he can’t seem to keep from lying about even the littlest things. He sees himself as a basically honest person of course, it’s just that “[t]he selfish response to events was so much more straightforward than the morally correct.”

He runs into an old friend, Andrew, whose name he can barely remember, and, desperate to find a new place to live that didn’t mean living with his mother, he falls in with Andrew and Andrew’s friends. In particular he sets his sights on Alice, who’s older than his usual type but who’s a single mother living well. He even convinces her to take him to Pyros in Greece with the rest of the group on an annual vacation. He went there once a long time ago–in fact, that’s where he met Andrew–but he remembers little of the drunken trip.

If you think this is a setup ripe for plot twists and mysteries, you’re right. There’s also a young woman who’s been missing for years, the fact that Paul is a privacy-violating klepto, his Alice’s son may be a rapist, and what really did happen all those years ago, anyway?

There aren’t many sympathetic characters in this one. Tina, Andrew’s wife, is the closest thing there is to a sympathetic character. Andrew seems to be constantly a bit too close to Alice, Alice runs alternately cold/warm and seems to be up to something with Andrew, and Paul is a lying, skeevy guy who’s just as happy to ogle his girlfriend’s teenage daughter as his girlfriend. Paul is very well-drawn, though; it’s easy to buy him as this liar who nonetheless sees himself as a basically honest and straightforward person. While he starts to fall for Alice despite himself, it doesn’t make him much more likable as he still does everything based on what it’ll get for him. He constantly calculates and maneuvers.

This wasn’t my favorite book (I prefer to have an at least semi-sympathetic character to enjoy), but I have to admire the planning and calculation of it.

NOTE: This book was provided free for review by publisher

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Review: “Two Girls Down,” Louisa Luna

Pros: Love the quirky and messed-up characters
Cons: Vega’s too-perfect hacker plot device, I mean, colleague
Rating: 4 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

In Louisa Luna’s Two Girls Down, two young sisters, Kylie (10) and Bailey (8) go missing from a car in a parking lot. Mother Jamie Brandt hires private investigator Alice Vega against the wishes of the local police department, and Alice hires local disgraced ex-cop Max “Cap” Caplan. At first she wants him just for his local connections, but gradually he impresses her with his own talent and skill in the private investigations arena. The problem is that his former boss is just looking for a reason to screw with him, and certainly has no interest in sharing information with a couple of PIs. So far there’s little to no hint of what might have happened to the two girls.

Most of the beginning of the book establishes the characters and the relationships between them; it doesn’t involve much forward motion in the mystery of the missing girls. The characters are great–there’s a lot of personality to them. In particular I like Jamie Brandt. She’s “not a bad mother”. She isn’t great, but she isn’t terrible. She’s human. She makes mistakes but she loves her girls. It’s a very realistic portrayal of a family living with the terror of knowing that the longer it takes to find their missing members, the less likely it is the girls will ever be found (or found alive). Similarly, a drug-selling ex-boyfriend of Jamie’s is an interesting character. He eventually yields some clues, but again, he’s just a flawed human, not somebody amazing or terrible.

I do have problems with one character. “The Bastard” is Alice’s hacker friend. We only ever see her online interactions with him and the information he sends her. So there’s very little to build character on, and anything he sends her that propels the plot forward ends up feeling largely like a convenient plot device. Particularly because so often, he is the one to move the plot forward when all else fails.

On the whole I enjoyed Two Girls Down. There’s plenty of mystery, good characters (with that one exception), and excitement at the end.

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Review: “Year One,” Nora Roberts

Pros: Combines several now-popular end-days structures and takes them further
Cons: Jonah should have seen an attack coming
Rating: 5 out of 5

When Ross MacLeod pulled the trigger and brought down the pheasant, he had no way of knowing he’d killed himself. And billions of others.

The opening line of Nora Roberts’s Year One: Chronicles of the One, Book 1 hooked my attention and kept me riveted. The original ‘biological event’ that kills billions of people builds up immediately, sparing no one no matter how much effort Roberts has put into a character. It’s quick and brutal, leading also into the survivalism phase of the story. Where some get entire trilogies out of just these two phases, Roberts blazes through them. She knows she has other fish to fry. We get into a tale of community-building, which is something I’ve seen less often, so it kept me interested. Just when we’re expecting to walk through all the positives and negatives of world-building, two things go to hell. The magic level ratchets up (yes, magic–I’ll come back to that in a minute) and an attack on our burgeoning community sends a key character spinning off on her own, trying to find a place where she can safely give birth to her prophesied baby.

Unlike most other tales of the end of the world, this one has magic. Fairies, witches, sorcerers, good magic, bad magic, small magics, huge magics… it’s all there. Some people appreciate these people’s newly-hatched abilities (especially when we’re talking healing, or encouraging food plants to grow!) while others blame the magical folks, who are all immune to the disease, for its ravages. Many people believe the “Uncannys” caused the plague, even though most of them had no idea they were anything unusual until the plague came along and triggered their skills or physical alterations. The magic is what makes the story of Year One different from so many otherwise similar stories of the end times coming upon us.

As usual for Roberts, she paints wonderful characters. Whether it’s a fairy scavenging junk food for her friends, a reporter who went from nobody to somebody as everyone between her and the main desk died, a paramedic who sees people’s injuries or deaths in their faces, or a Wiccan who suddenly finds she can light candles with her mind and throw force from her hands in times of need, everyone feels like a potential main character. I did feel like the savage raiders were a bit cliche until we finally find out more about what’s behind them. I’m happy that not all of the good guys are Uncannys and vice versa–there are plenty of good ‘normal’ humans and plenty of evil Uncannys. The one problem I had is that since we have an Uncanny named Jonah who can see people’s deaths coming (even if they’re not going to suffer a natural death), we should have had warning of a major attack on the community. He should have seen upcoming injuries and deaths in people’s faces.

I’m having trouble waiting for book two–this is why I prefer to wait to read a book until the whole series is out!

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Review: “Mumma’s House,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Excellent haunted house tale
Cons: The ceremony was a tad weird
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Mumma’s House introduces us to a most unusual haunted house. This isn’t the stereotypical empty, unlived-in building. Instead, it belongs to a longstanding family and is ‘ruled over’ by a ‘Mumma’ selected in a terrifying ceremony. June was supposed to become the new Mumma when she got old enough, but she was too scared. She’s gradually gotten to the point where she only lives in a couple of rooms of the large house together with her son, Gus. Each year at least one person from each family branch must come participate in another ceremony or they lose claim on the house. The idea is that whichever branch is left standing gets the huge house. However, not everyone is so sure they want it. June is contemplating moving out of the house and giving up all claim on it. One of her relatives has a new idea, however, involving finding a codicil to the will that supposedly another family member is hiding that would change everything. In the meantime, the members of the large family have to survive long enough to bring their various machinations to fruition.

I love Mumma’s House. It’s one of the very few haunted house stories I’ve ever read in which there seems to be genuine interest and plot to the haunted house, rather than just turning it into a random monster. It has a personality that makes it believable that it wouldn’t kill off the characters randomly. After all, the family and the house belong to each other.

The only times I have been targeted, I was the most interesting thing [the house] could play with.

The inner geography of the house changes constantly. Sometimes the house seems to try to absorb a person, pulling them in with a blanket or the like. June can tell who is in the house by concentrating, and her son, Gus, is learning to do some of the same. I love the characters; none of them are squeaky-clean and some of them have been doing some dark things in their quest to get hold of the inheritance.

If you love horror, and have any interest in haunted houses, but want there to be story that draws a remarkably ‘lifelike’ haunted house, then Mumma’s House is a great read. My take on Hamill’s writing goes up and down depending on the book, but I think this is one of his best.

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Review: “The Chalk Man,” C.J. Tudor

Pros: Fascinating
Cons: I was left with a few confusions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

C.J. Tudor’s The Chalk Man is a fascinating tale of a decades-old maybe-solved murder and a new danger. In 1986, a group of friends (Eddie, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky) had a hell of a year. Mickey’s older brother died in an accident. Nicky kept showing up with bruises on her. Eddie helped to save a girl hurt at the fair, and the new (albino) teacher, called the Chalk Man, who also saved her, fell in love with her. When Elisa (the severely injured girl) was found dead and cut into pieces, everyone assumed the Chalk Man, now considered a perv instead of a hero, must have done it. In 2016 someone sends the friends a piece of paper with a chalk hanged man on it, leaving everyone keyed up. Mickey comes back to town and wants to write about the whole experience, hoping Eddie will help him. Meanwhile Eddie, a klepto by nature, may have his hands on a clue or two that others aren’t familiar with.

There are one or two small questions I didn’t quite find the answers to. For example, the kids start using chalk signals in different colors to communicate with each other, but there are several occasions when white (a color not chosen by any of the kids) marks show up and cloud the issue. I didn’t quite figure out who left them in a couple of the cases.

There’s plenty of fascinating background material going on that gets swept up in the plot. Eddie’s mother performs abortions, and Nicky’s vicar father is the bane of her existence. Chloe, Eddie’s lodger in 2016, has some weird family stuff going on that may impact him. While the Chalk Man was an easy villain for the police to pin the blame on, Eddie isn’t convinced. Fat Gav’s family is better off than the others, creating some tension in the mix–complicated by the fact that in 2016 he’s a cripple, thanks to an accident when Mickey was driving impaired. There are a number of little mysteries bound up in the whole thing, and the worldbuilding, characters, and plot all swirl together beautifully. I found myself riveted to the pages the whole way through.

NOTE: Book supplied by Blogging for Books for this review

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Review: “Mercury’s Son,” Luke E. T. Hindmarsh

Pros: Interesting milieu and plot
Cons: Navel-gazing and info dumps
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Luke E. T. Hindmarsh’s Mercury’s Son depicts a totalitarian, dystopian future Earth (not too unusual these days). In this case, wars between the Earth and Lunar colonies resulted ultimately in the destruction of Earth’s environment. The remaining humans live primarily in Enclosures, but those suffer from severe overcrowding. People’s place in life depends on their place in the sort-of caste system. There’s some confusion, I found, in the caste system. The Temple wields a great deal of power using a religion that posits that humans are a sort of virus responsible for harming the Mother (Earth). Many of the laws and punishments seem to be wrapped up in that (setting a fire, for example, can get you recycled). Yet scientists are among the elite, despite the fact that the Temple views science very negatively as having gotten us to this state. (Many parts of the world are seriously uninhabitable due to radiation or still-active aggressive nanytes.)

Valko is what’s called a Moderator–a law enforcement officer who acts without emotion and who uses a device (together with an empathy-enhancing drug) to allow him to read the last thoughts of the dead. He investigates the death of a scientist whose brain was partially destroyed, making it impossible for him to read much of her memories and leading to his receiving a strange neural shock. After that, he finds his emotionless demeanor slipping as he slowly begins to feel empathy at times when he isn’t using the drug and the device. The murder yields few clues, and soon he finds another body–a very famous scientist has been killed using the same manner of death. Once again, trails dry up quickly. Satoshi, Valko’s Sergeant, an augmented war vet who has no memories of most of his life, and who is entirely loyal to Val, tries to help him sort out the quickly deepening intrigue. Meanwhile, Valko’s kensakan (lower-level law enforcement officers) are mired in a mix of sloth and corruption.

The middle of the book gets mired in navel-gazing on Valko’s part as his mental abilities grow and his consciousness expands. It also gets bogged down by huge historical info-dumps that delve into minutiae of the war, some weird scientific research, and so forth. The beginning held me with its structure wrapped around an interesting murder plot, but the middle got very abstract and strange. While (in general) it’s good that some of the info-dumps come out in dialogue, Hindmarsh’s dialogue isn’t as good as his narrative, so some of it felt awkward and weird. I’ve never said this before that I can remember, but I actually feel that this book would have benefited from more flashbacks, as long as those flashbacks had clear purpose and were used to tighten up the prose.

The totalitarian regime didn’t entirely hold up for me. It’s gotten to a point where people have beacons implanted in them and can be tracked at any time, yet it’s hugely easy for the main characters to slip in and out of all sorts of places without raising alarms. Frankly I feel as though it’s already easier today for many of the things they did to be tracked and figured out. Perhaps it would have been better to make the government a little less one-sidedly harsh and evil, both to keep things fresh and to allow better reasons for why things might get overlooked.

In general I enjoy this book, but make sure you aren’t looking for a fast-paced novel. Things become very intellectual in places and there are some cracks here and there.

NOTE: Free book provided by author for review

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Review: “Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple,” Peter Likins

Pros: Nice whimsical mystery
Cons: Rape does not go with whimsical
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Peter Likins’s Academic Affairs: A Poisoned Apple takes place in 1930s Alabama at a religious university. The opening is a bit rushed and confusing, but we find out that the Dean of Academic Affairs has been murdered using a poisoned apple! The Sheriff is determined to “follow the apple,” which would seem to be the obvious tack to take, but it quickly becomes clear that neither the secretary who had access to the Dean’s office (Miss Lavinia) nor the college girl who always brought the Dean his apple (his lover) had any real motive, nor was either the type to do something so drastic. Suddenly the list of suspects goes from none to many as it’s discovered that the Dean was also more than a little handsy, having assaulted and even raped young female professors. There’s also a male professor being accused of plagiarism, and there are compromising photos of the Dean chasing a naked woman locked in his desk. Just to make things even more confusing, it doesn’t take long for people to realize that the poisoned apple might not have even been the real murder weapon.

The milieu is folksy old ’30s Alabama, for good or ill (maybe a bit of both). My favorite detail is the family Sheriff’s office–father and two children. It would have been easy for the characters to be completely stereotyped, but they had some decent nuance to them as the tale progressed, which was nice. There’s also a set of women working in concert from Sally’s Salon because they know the Sheriff and his crew don’t have a clue; that’s a fun parallel plot that I would have liked to see more of. The fact that we don’t see enough of it makes some of the last-minute revelations come out of left field, when ideally in a mystery you don’t want too many reveals of the ‘we just didn’t tell you this’ variety. My least favorite detail is that an overall folksy/whimsical tone is exactly wrong for a tale that involves rape. It’s particularly tone-deaf right now, when sexual assault is such a tender and important topic.

I’d be willing to read Likins’s work again, but only if he steered clear of rape and sexual assault as topics. I don’t think he’s capable of handling them properly in today’s climate.

NOTE: Free book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “Paradox Bound,” Peter Clines

Pros: An unusually good time travel tale
Cons: One plot device that could have been a plot point instead
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Peter Clines’s Paradox Bound is my new favorite time travel tale. There are just so many potential problems and pitfalls in time travel stories that I don’t generally enjoy reading them, particularly since historical fiction also isn’t my favorite genre. I’ve loved other Peter Clines stories enough, however, that I was absolutely willing to give this one a try.

Eli Teague lives in a little town that’s so backward he has to drive to a nearby town just to find an IT job. Several times during his life he’s interacted with a woman named Harry (short for Harriet) who drives a very old car that runs on water. She dresses as though she’s straight from a group of Revolutionary War reenactors. Finally events come together such that he ends up tracking her down while running from a faceless, suited man who seems to be hunting Harry and others like her. He joins her in her hunt for the missing American Dream, which was stolen from its resting place. Now the faceless men who were responsible for guarding the Dream have turned to instead hunting down other searchers who are looking for it for their own reasons. After all, it’s rumored that the one who finds it can help to shape the future of the Dream. Of course, no one knows what it looks like or how to find it, and they’re all using little slippery spots to cut through bits of history here and there looking for traces of its passing. A whole society of these people has sprung up, some of them famous historical figures, others just searchers like Eli and Harry.

The details surrounding the searchers and their habits that have sprung up are fantastic. For example, people have painted poker chips with their monograms they can give someone to indicate they owe them a favor, that can thus be cashed in before or after that favor was handed out (time travel-wise).

SPOILER WARNING: The one detail I had trouble with was a certain favor owed by one person to another. It was the sole favor that person had ever given out, and played a significant role in the plot, so some idea of how the person earned that favor would have made this seem to be more of a plot point than a convenient plot device. End Spoilers.

The concept of the founding fathers having convinced an old god to forge the American Dream is just masterful and fascinating. I’m not a history buff, but I really enjoyed the ideas here. And of course, the notion of the American Dream and what it means to us is very timely right now. This is a clever time travel adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously but delves into fascinating areas.

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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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