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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Review: “Terminal Alliance,” Jim C. Hines

Pros: Hilarious, riveting, moving; fantastic characters and world-building
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
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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