Category Archives: books

Review: Much Ado About Barbecue by Sally Kilpatrick

Much Ado about Barbecue

Sally Kilpatrick’s latest novel, Much Ado About Barbecue should come with a warning label that you’re going to crave some good barbecue. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing — unless you don’t have access to good barbecue, that is.

Emma Sutton and Ben Cates have been rivals all their lives. It started in kindergarten when Ben pulled the chair out from under Emma and continued throughout their educational history, including Emma’s underpants winding up on the school flag pole. So, when Emma returns to town after a series of disappointments in her life, she quickly finds the rivalry resuming thanks to Ellery’s barbecue competition. Both families own barbecue joints in town, each praised and respected for differing ways of cooking the meat. Ben has reluctantly embraced using a smoker, while Emma’s family still does whole-hog pit barbecue.

There is a bit more to the rivalry between Ben and Emma than the competition for who has the best barbecue and juvenile pranks. Emma has repressed large portions of junior high school due and she holds a deep secret about possibly raining on Ben’s dream of playing baseball at the next level. Needless to say, these two are probably the last two people you’d imagine ending up together.

And like the main dish of the book’s title, the potential romantic entanglement is one that roasts slowly, marinating in its own rub of family secrets, long-held resentments, and misunderstandings. Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of characters from Jeremiah, the long-time pitmaster as Emma’s family barbecue joint (and a character I’d love to see get his own novel) to Ben’s sister, Shero.

Between family secrets, the slow-simmering enemies-to-lovers story, and a colorful cast of characters (including several familiar faces from previous Ellery novels), Much Ado About Barbecue proves to be another winner from Kilpatrick. Filled with the types of characters you’d expect to me in a quirky small town, Much Ado works much like the barbecue does — as a satisfying, enjoayble meal that left me fully satisfied and yet somehow wishing I had just a bit more room for another bite or two.

Taking a page from Shakespeare (maybe you’ve heard of him), Kilpatrick gives us her spin on Much Ado About Nothing in her quirky creation of Ellery. As with her other novels, Much Ado About Barbecue is a delightful gem and most likely destined to end up on my list of favorite books I read this year.

Add this one to your to-be-read pile, folks. Just don’t do it on an empty stomach.

Highly recommended.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. No bribing of barbecue was done or needed….

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Audiobook Review: Prelude to Foundation by Issac Asimov

preludePrequels are difficult. Just ask George Lucas or Brannon Braga.

While there is a great opportunity to fill in the backstory for characters and do a bit of worldbuilding, it feels like the risks often outweigh the rewards. A prequel series can also be limiting in how many surprises or revelations an author or creative team can throw the fans way before fandom starts crying foul or screaming that this detail or that one has violated continuity or a long-held character belief.

But long before Star Trek and Star Wars were looking to their past, author Issac Asimov was taking the opportunity to fill in a few gaps in his Foundation novels. Asimov’s output of the ’80s seemed to be almost obsessed with finding ways to connect various threads across his novels and short stories. And so it was that we come to Prelude to Foundation, a prequel to his popular, award-winning series that explored the early days of Hari Seldon and some of the steps in the creation of psychohistory.

Less sweeping in scope than the other Foundation entries, Prelude to Foundation focuses on an early adventure of Seldon in the days after presented a paper on psychohistory. As the Galactic Empire begins to crumble, multiple parties see Seldon’s psychohistory as their opportunity to gain, keep, or consolidate power. Most of the original Foundation trilogy puts Seldon on a pedestal and gives us the image of a wise figure forecasting the fall of an Empire and doing his best to shorten humanity’s coming Dark Age. Continue reading

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Review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes

Have you ever got to the end of a book and wondered — what the heck did I just read?!?

If not, then you might want to pick up Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes because it’s got one of the most WTF endings I’ve read in quite some time. In fact, the ending is so WTF, that any conversation about the book is going to naturally have to go into detail about it. You are suitably warned.

When single-mother Louise meets David in a bar, the chemistry between them is electric. But, he’s married, so Louise ends up not pursuing more than a semi-drunk flirtation with him. Things get a bit more awkward when it turns out that David is the new doctor at the counseling clinic where Louise is employed part-time. Despite a conversation in which both of them declare that seeing each other is a bad idea, the chemistry continues to be there.

Things get even more complicated with Louise runs into Adele, David’s wife. The two strike up a friendship, though Louise conveniently omits that she flirted with Adele’s husband and that she and David have started an affair (apparently behind Adele’s back, though the first-person chapters from Adele’s point of view make it clear that she not only knows about this, she’s also manipulating both sides for….well, more on that later).

If you’re thinking we’ve even reached the depths of the WTF, we aren’t even in the same zip code yet.

Through flashbacks, we find out that Adele has an interesting past — her parents died in a fire, she’s wealthy but she’s signed over all her money to David, and she spent time getting mental help while David was in college. It’s at the institution that she meets Rob, who she gets close to during her time. They get so close that Adele invites him to come to stay with her should Rob’s family kick him out if and when he backslides from his drug habit.

If you’re wondering who Rob is and why Behind Her Eyes keeps flashing back to him and turns over a good bit of the novel’s real estate to him, the answer becomes clear in the final pages. And it’s once the answer becomes clear that the question of whether or not you love the novel or want to throw it against the wall in frustration will be answered. Continue reading

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Some Quick Reviews: All Systems Red, The Thursday Murder Club, All Creatures Great and Small

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I’ve been hearing a lot about the Murderbot Diaries from people I trust within the literary community, so I decided it might be finally time to get the series a try.

Murderbot is a half-human/half-cyborg creation that has hacked its own software to give itself freewill. Murderbot turns around and uses that free will to begin binge-watching daytime television. Quite frankly, Murderbot would rather watch TV than help the human survey team explore the planet they’ve been assigned.

Turns out that in the future, the government still goes with the lowest bidder and may not always be upfront about the dangers involved. So, the human team is facing some unusual dangers out there.

The premise of a killing machine gone rogue to binge-watch TV seems uncannily relevant as we continue to face the pandemic. Murderbot’s snarky sense of humor and first-person narration are well done. The novella suffers a bit when it comes to giving us a fully realized crew — there are only about two crew members who get any character development. And the novella is just long enough so the fun doesn’t wear off.

I’m intrigued enough to want to read the second installment and see what happens next. Continue reading

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Review: Trial and Error by Robert Whitlow

Trial and Error

When I first read Robert Whitlow, I was impressed by the authenticity of his novels — not just the legal thriller aspect, but also the journeys and arcs he put his characters through. Over the last two decades, I’ve read just about everything Whitlow has written. While I’ve enjoyed watching him stretch himself as a writer, there’s still something comforting about him returning to his roots with his latest novel. Trial and Error.

Seventeen years ago, Buddy Smith became a father. He got to spend a few days with his daughter before she and her mother vanished. Buddy’s spent the last seventeen years trying to find his daughter, all while building a legal career in his home of Milton County. Buddy’s passion is renewed when he finds evidence his father was supporting the mother of his child financially for years but kept it a secret from Buddy and his mother.

Clerk of the court and local softball team coach, Gracie Blaylock is on her own journey. She’s been Buddy’s friend since high school and she’s been praying for Buddy and his family for years. With the introduction of a new sheriff’s deputy who specializes in missing persons, could Gracie’s prayers be finally answered in ways she does and doesn’t expect?

Whitlow’s early legal thrillers centered on good people who have to make difficult choices. The one thing that always stood out about Whitlow’s novels was the authentic journey his flawed characters go on during the course of the novel. Whitlow does feature the story of a person’s conversion, but it’s not presented as a moment in which all of that person’s problems are swept away. There may be a peace that comes over that person and a new perspective, but it’s not like waving a magic wand to make all the issues and problems go away. (I’m looking at you LeftBehind novels).

Of course, part of the secret is that Whitlow gets you to invest in his characters so when the pivotal moment comes, you feel it along with the character. Whitlow also doesn’t have everyone magically gets saved on the same timeline. There’s a character of a visiting judge who is challenged by Gracie and begins to examine his life, but we don’t see a conversion from him. (It may happen off-screen, but Whitlow doesn’t tell us one way or the other)

Whitlow’s characters shine through as do his legal storylines. There are multiple stories going on and Whitlow expertly weaves them together. I found myself turning the last page of this one feeling fully satisfied with Trial and Error as a stand-alone story but that I wouldn’t mind going back to the world of Buddy and Gracie again, should Whitlow be so inclined.

This is one of the best novels Whitlow has written in a long time. Highly recommended.

I received a digital ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Is This Anything by Jerry Seinfeld

Is This Anything?In his introduction to Is This Anything?, Jerry Seinfeld tells us that question is what comedians ask each other when trying out new material.

Given that this is a collection of five decades of Seinfeld’s material, it’s safe to assume that this book is something.

As a fan of Seinfeld, largely thanks to his classic sit-com, there are large chunks of the material included in the sections for the ’70s through the ’90’s that I could recite from my multiple viewings of Seinfeld. These portions of the book are like a warm security blanket and I may have smiled a bit more, simply hearing Seinfeld do these bits in my head.

Since he retired all of his routines after Seinfeld came to a close (I imagine it would be easy for him to sell out arenas just to hear him do the familiar bits in person), Seinfeld has been building up his act again with new material. That makes up the final third of this book and it was what caught my interest the most this time around. Seinfeld’s observational humor is still fully intact, but seeing him observe on marriage, kids, and growing up was a lot of fun. It also made me wish that I could see Seinfeld up on stage doing these bits, instead of just reading them on the printed page. (I did dabble with the audiobook but it felt a bit off for him to do his routine without an audience laughing. I don’t necessarily think a laugh track is essential, but hearing the swells of laughter in the crowd is something I missed).

In short, if you’re a fan of Jerry Seinfeld, this one is a no-brainer. Pick it up, read it, enjoy it and then dust off your Seinfeld DVDs for one more journey through the classic sitcom. If you’re not a fan, I’m not sure there’s as much for you here — unless you want to watch Seinfeld “evolve” over the decades in the types of bits he does (I did notice a lot of his bits now are longer than they were when he started out). There are a few introductions in which Seinfeld talks about humor, comedy, and his relationship with it. I did find myself wishing we’d got a bit more of his self-reflection in the book.

And if you want to know if he’s included your favorite bit, there’s a handy index in the back. All-in-all, not a bad thing.

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An Open Letter to J.K. Rowling on Why I DNF Troubled Blood

Troubled Blood (Cormoran Strike, #5)

Dear Ms. Rowling,

I’ve been a fan of yours since the earliest days of the Harry Potter franchise, reading everything you’ve written — yes, I even waded through all of The Casual Vacancy. And I appreciate that you want to write a more “adult” mystery series under a pen name. I’ve read and enjoyed each of the previous installments of the Cormoran Strike series, though I have to admit each one has come with diminishing interest. That could be that each volume in the series seems to have grown in length over time.

I’m not necessarily complaining about investing my time and attention into a longer mystery story. I’ve read everything Elizabeth George has written and loved just about every second of it — yes, even that one in the S&M club that a lot of fans tend to place low on the list of favorites.

But, I have to confess that when it comes to the latest Strike book, Troubled Blood, I’ve had a difficult time becoming and then staying invested. Like George’s books, I look forward to checking in on the latest developments in the lives of your detective protagonists. But, in between the checking in on my old friends, I’d like there to be some kind of mystery and/or investigation going on. And after two-hundred and fifty pages of this tome, I’m starting to feel like you forgot that crucial element of the mystery novel.

I get that Strike and Robyn are taking on a cold case and it’s not going to be nearly as exciting as following-up on a recently committed crime. But, hey, my guy Michael Connelly has turned his protagonist Harry Bosch into a cold-case investigator and I’ve been able to not only enjoy those books but also stay engaged with them. Honestly, there are only so many times I can hear the internal monologue from Strike or Robyn about being attracted to each other but not acting on it before I want to fling the book aside in frustration. (Not that this would be easy to do mind you because this thing weighs in 900 plus pages).

I know that you’ve taken a lot of heat over some of the elements of the mystery — and I’d love to say I saw what all the controversy was about and could form my own opinion. Certainly in the quarter of the novel I did read, I saw elements creeping in that bothered me a bit but, again, I couldn’t finish this one, so I can’t speak to whether the allegations are valid or not.

And to be honest, I was so underinvested in this one that I just couldn’t even bring myself to skim it to find out.

Part of me wants to know if and when Robyn and Strike will or should act on their simmering attraction to each other. But that wasn’t quite enough to continue to invest effort into a book that I found tedious and without a significant hook.

In fact, it makes me sort of feel like I may be done with this series unless the next installment shows evidence of better editing. And before you get started, let me also point out that Stephen King, one of the biggest selling writers in history, has repeatedly stated that his books got better when he found a publisher who wasn’t afraid to edit him.

Sincerely,
Michael

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Review: This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry

This Will Be Funny SomedayOne of my great literary pleasures of 2020 was discovering Katie Henry’s works. Henry’s young adult novels feature quirky teenage protagonists facing issues and dilemmas that most of us would struggle with as adults. The characters are all frustratingly relatable because, as readers, we can see how they could and should change themselves to make interacting with the world a bit smoother and easier. But, like all of us, they can’t or aren’t ready to make that change just yet.

Henry’s third novel This Will Be Funny Someday may be her best offering so far, which is high praise given how much I enjoyed her first two novels.

Sixteen-year-old Izzy has always felt a bit out of place. In her family, she sees herself as the odd person out when it comes to the matched pairs — her parents and her older twin siblings. At school, Izzy is protected by her relationship with her boyfriend, though even that has come at the cost of alienating her best friend. Izzy has deep-rooted issues when it come to assigning herself value — whether it’s the (misconception) that she ruined her mother’s career when her mom discovered she was pregnant with Izzy or the emotionally abusive nature of her relationship with her boyfriend. Continue reading

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Review: Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Then She Was Gone

Driven to raise her math grade from a B+ to an A, Ellie begs her mother, Laurel, to hire a tutor for her. The tutor does her job, but Ellie begins to get an odd vibe off her and decides to end the lessons. A few weeks before her exams, Ellie mysteriously vanishes.

A decade later, Laurel is beginning to piece her life back together. Divorced, she’s met a new suitor who seems like the perfect guy. He has two daughters and one of them, Poppy, is the spitting image of Ellie. Is Laurel seeing a ghost or is there something more sinister going on here?

All of that sounds pretty exciting, right?

This is why I’m a bit sad to report that Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone isn’t nearly as exciting or thrilling as a whole as the individual components make it sound like it should or could be. Part of the issue is that once Jewell puts all the pieces into play, there aren’t any huge shocks or revelations to come. I’d figured out a large part of what was going on long before the book begins to pull back the curtain on where Ellie went, who Poppy really is, and just how the math tutor ties into all of it. I kept waiting for something darker or more sinister to come of the story and nothing really did. Maybe I’m too conditioned by other suspense thrillers with a dark streak to really fully enjoy this one. But I did find myself reading more to see if my suspicions were correct than because I was fully invested in the story unfolding.

That’s not to say this is necessarily a bad book. It’s just one that disappointed me a great deal, especially after hearing positive reviews from other readers who share my tastes.

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July Reading Wrap-Up

We’re in the home-stretch for 2020!  Here’s what I read last month.

And yes, I know one of my photos above has two books in it that I haven’t quite finished yet.   I got a bit too zealous in the photo taking.

Physical Books

  1.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
  2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
  3. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
  4. The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth
  5. The Dilemma by B.A. Paris

Ebooks:

  1.  A Good Marriage by Kimberly McCreight
  2. Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone
  3. The Wife Who Knew Too Much by Michelle Campbell

Audiobooks:

  1.  Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks by Eric Saward
  2. Not That Kind of Guy by Andie J. Christopher
  3. The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen

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