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Review: Run Rose Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

Run Rose Run

Whenever I think of people I’m proud to say hail from my home state, Dolly Parton is one of the first people that comes to mind. Her program to ensure that every child in our state gets a free book once a month from birth to age five led to us referring to her as “Aunt Dolly” when each new book showed up for the first five years of my daughter’s life.*

*On a related note, going to the mailbox without the hope that a new book might show up just isn’t nearly as much fun.

So, when I heard that Ms. Parton was publishing a fictional novel, part of me was excited to see what kind of story “Aunt Dolly” might tell. My hopes for the novel were tempered when I heard that she was co-authoring the book with best-selling machine James Patterson.

But I still picked up Run Rose Run with a bit of optimism and hope.

After finishing the book, I’ve come away with a couple of thoughts. One is that the producers of Nashville should have put Dolly on the payroll to write for that show. The other is that Ms. Parton and Mr. Patterson are not two great tastes that taste great together. Continue reading

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Review: Gideon Green in Black and White by Katie Henry

Gideon Green in Black and White

Before the lockdown for Covid-19 hit a couple of years ago, I went to the library and checked out a bunch of books that I thought might be interesting. Included in that pile was Katie Henry’s Heretics Anonymous. I was completely hooked on the story and quickly reserved her next novel, only to be equally enthralled by it.

And so it was that Katie Henry went onto the list of authors who I will read anything they publish.

With her fourth novel, Gideon Green in Black and White, Henry has hit a new high. Sixteen-year-old Gideon Green is a retired private detective, content to stay in his room watching noir films on his TV and occasionally coming out to go to school and interact with his dad. When his old friend, Lily, shows up at this door asking him to come out of retirement, Gideon is reluctantly pulled into an investigation that is bigger than either he or Lily imagined and that just might be a pivotal point for him. Continue reading

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Audiobook Review: Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility

At multiple points, while listening to Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, I keep asking myself if she’s a Star Trek fan. I ask this because allusions to Star Trek: Voyager were prominent in Staton Eleven and some of the themes and broad strokes of Sea of Tranquility echo the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “All Good Things.”

Or maybe it’s just that I’m such a Trek fan that I’m finding connections where none were necessarily intended.

Whatever it may be, those thoughts didn’t in any way diminish my enjoyment of Sea of Tranquility.. If anything, it enhanced it a bit.

Like Station Eleven, Tranquility is a literary science-fiction slow burn as Mandel introduces multiple characters across multiple time periods and slyly slips in details that will pay dividends as layers of this literary onion are slowly peeled away. Mandel gives us a time-travel story less interested in the mechanics of traveling through time but instead looking at the character impacts that time travel and paradoxes create upon various characters. A dense crowd of characters including the time traveler, a musician, and an author on a book tour inhabit these pages, each of them given a moment to shine. I won’t give away too many of the details here because that might ruin some of the well-earned surprises that Mandel sets up over the course of the story. Just know that if things start slow, there’s a reason and that your patience will be rewarded.

Mandel’s story of hope and optimism in the wake of dark days or overwhelming real-world circumstances is the kind of a breath of fresh air that I need literarily. The sense of human connection that develops over the course of this story was utterly compelling and delightful. I know that Station Eleven was adapted for the screen by HBO — and I couldn’t help but wonder if this one might also be developed for the screen as well. Given the nature of the story and its time-travel implications, I’m not sure it could or would work as effectively.

Give this one a chance and just let it wash over you. I found it compelling, entertaining, and enthralling.

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Audiobook Review: Doctor Who and the Revenge of the Cybermen by Terrance Dicks

Doctor Who and the Revenge of the Cybermen: 4th Doctor Novelisation

“Revenge of the Cybermen” was never intended to be the season finale for Doctor Who’s twelfth season. It became the “de facto” end to the season when the BBC decided to hold over the already produced “Terror of the Zygons” for the next season in the fall.

So, if you’re expecting an epic, spine-tingling end to Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor, you may be a bit disappointed. I’ve detailed my disappointments with the serial itself elsewhere, so I won’t rehash those here. Instead, I will attempt to review the Target novel version of this one.

Early on in my Doctor Who watching days, I checked the adaptation of “Revenge of the Cybermen” out of the library a lot. It was one of a dozen Target books reprinted in the United States under the Pinnacle banner — and to my mind, that meant it had to be one of the best the series and range had to offer.

Alas, “Revenge of the Cybermen” isn’t one of the best, but I wouldn’t say this adaptation is one of the worst that Terrance Dicks ever gave us. It does its best to translate the televised story faithfully to the printed page, though at times you can feel Dicks’ frustration at trying to make the (supposedly) emotionless Cybermen interesting on the printed page. This comes across a good bit when various Cybermen speak or when Dicks is forced to try and explain away why they’re acting emotionally when (technically) they shouldn’t have any emotional reaction to things.

Dicks does a bit better in translating the epic Vogan conflict to the printed page –or at least he helped this fan identify who was who in the conflict a bit better than the televised version did. Dicks seems to understand when to minimize certain aspects of the story (the gaping loopholes in the Cybermen’s plan) and when and what to expand and play up. He even tries to find an explanation for why Voya is able to toodle about the galaxy, though there is little explanation of why it comes so close to the Nerva Beacon.

All in all, it’s a good job with a script that was full of gaping holes to begin with. There isn’t a lot of depth given to the supporting cast, but this is far from the later fourth Doctor adventures when it feels like Dicks is only being given enough time to translate a shooting script to the printed page.

As an audiobook, this one works fairly well, though the nitpicky fan in me found it hard to hear Cybermen speaking in mechanical voices as opposed to what we saw in the original version. It’s an interesting choice and one that creates a consistent feel to the Cybermen audiobooks, even if it doesn’t line up with the televised version. Nicholas Briggs does solid work, even trying to give us his own take on the fourth Doctor, which is good but he’s no Jon Culshaw.

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Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society

Redshirts was John Scalzi’s homage and love-letter to all the tropes and cliches of the original (and still the best) Star Trek.

With his latest novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society, Scalzi brings the same level of love, homage, and poking fun to monster movies involving large creatures destroying large swaths of our world.

I’ll admit I’m not as steeped in the world of kaiju as I was Star Trek, so I probably missed a lot of the deeper nudges and easter eggs that Scalzi includes in this book. However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy another great offering by one of my favorite writers.

As 2020 begins, Jamie Gray’s professional career is set. Heading into his performance review, Jamie sees great things ahead at his tech company that offers an alternative to UberEats or DoorDash. Jamie is blindsided when his boss not only demotes him but takes away his opportunity at a huge financial windfall that could see Jamie up for the foreseeable future. Instead, he’s offered the chance to be part of the team delivering meals to people.

At first, Jamie is dead-set against it. Then a real-world pandemic sets in and Jamie finds himself unable to find other work and so he begins delivering meals. While delivering one, he meets an old friend from college who needs a guy to “lift heavy stuff.” The pay is great and Jamie jumps at the chance — only to find himself on a plane to Greenland and a whole other universe that includes real-life kaiju creatures like the kind we’ve all seen in movies.

What follows is a fascinating, fun story that, like all good science fiction, brings up more than its fair share of big ideas and world-building. You can be forgiven if you don’t notice that as Scalzi is tickling your funny bone that he’s also engaging your thought processes along the way. In his afterword, Scalzi compares this book to a pop song–an entirely accurate description since a lot of the books will get stuck in your head and pop up when you’re least expecting it.

Overall, this is yet another winner by an author who’s been on a heck of a streak since Old Man’s War debuted all those years ago.

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

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Review: Beautiful Bad by Annie Walker

Beautiful Bad

Can we agree that the unreliable narrator has been used so much in recent mystery/suspense fiction that it’s starting to become a cliche?

Part of what makes The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Gone Girl work is that the reader becomes invested in the characters in the story, so when the reveal comes that our narrator is unreliable, it’s a clever shock that (looking back) we should have been coming.

Alas, Beautiful Bad overlooks the lesson of having the reader invest in the characters, so when the various twists and turns start to pile on late in the story, they’re not so much earned but seemingly feel inevitable — and not in a good way.

The story starts off in media res, giving us details on the police showing up to the home of Maddie and Ian, where something bad has happened. It then jumps around in time, showing us the unfolding drama that led up to the night in question in which (wait for it….) someone died under mysterious and problematic circumstances.

Jumping around in time, the story catalogs the romance of Maddie and Ian (if you can call it that), how it split two best friends Maddie and Joanna and then offers glimpses into Maddie’s therapy sessions following a life-altering incident. Honestly, part of my problem with the book comes down to the central love triangle of Maddie/Ian/Joanna (and there’s even Ian’s crazy ex-girlfriend who keeps lurking about, but the less said about her, the better), never really gels into anything all that interesting.

A lot of it stems from a lack of investment in any of these characters — and more a desire to reach into the page and tell everyone involved to grow the heck up already. The story and situations make it difficult to believe that Maddie is attracted to Ian, much less that these two would wait around for each other for seven-plus years before getting married and starting a family.

And then, we get to the twists and turns of the second half of the book. Maddie has a mysterious accident while camping that leaves her permanently scarred physically and emotionally. The novel offers hints of what might have happened that night in an attempt to keep readers second-guessing what we know about the characters and situation. We even get a chapter or two from Ian’s point of view so maybe we can understand a bit of where he’s coming from in this situation.

It all keeps drawing us back to the night in question and the death of a character. Honestly, by the time we get there, I’d pretty much sussed out what was going on. But I was less interested in finding out the impact on the characters than I was in seeing if I’d deduced the solution correctly as I went through the final third of the novel.

There are some flashes of something more to this novel in isolated moments. But this one is probably the literary equivalent of a Lays’ potato chip — vaguely satisfying while you’re chewing on it, but it isn’t going to provide much long-term nutritional value.

I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did.

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Review: 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

56 Days

A chance encounter in the local grocery store leads to a growing attraction between Ciara and Oliver, only for this budding romance to be threatened by the early days of Covid-19 and their local lockdown. Rather than risk losing this newfound connection, Oliver invites Ciara to move in with him — after only dating for two weeks.

Weeks later, the police are called to the apartment they shared. There’s a body in the tub and the other person is missing.

So begins the saga of Catherine Ryan Howard’s 56 Days. It’s tempting to call this one a Covid-19 mystery, but doing so probably sells the overall story a bit short.

Over the course of the story, we move back and forth in time and perspective — from the detectives looking into the case to chapters told from Oliver and Ciara’s points of view. Howard deftly toys with reader expectations, creating assumptions and then slyly pulling the rug out from underneath you as new revelations or details unfold. At first, it’s a clever twist or two that keeps the story moving.

And then, we get to the second half of the book, where assumptions are turned entirely on their ear and while looking back they weren’t necessarily unexpected turns, the turns still left me scratching my head, thinking, “Well, that’s an interesting choice.” For the sake of not ruining things, I won’t go into too great a detail on it, except to say that I can’t quite determine if the final twists were really great or just a really interesting choice by Howard. I will give her credit though — she’s kept me thinking about this book long after I finished and even recommending it to several people just so I can see what their reaction to the final third of the novel is.

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Audiobook Review: Firestarter by Stephen King

FirestarterBack in the ’80s, my local library had a special section filled with materials for teenage readers. Not only did it have spinner racks full of books, but there were also magazines targeted at developing minds like Starlog and Mad Magazine.

I was aware of Stephen King, though I hadn’t yet dipped my toes into that horror master’s body of work just yet. So, when Firestarter appeared in the spinner rack one day, I decided that it might be time to put aside my worries of being scared to the edge of my seat and give Stephen King a try. And while I wouldn’t say Firestarter is exactly a top-ten classic from King, it made enough of an impression that I picked up another King novel, then another, and now, over thirty years later, I’ve read pretty much everything that King has written.

Now with a new version of Firestarter headed to our screens, I decided it was time to revisit my first King novel, though this time I did so on audio.

Eight-year-old Charlie McGee has a gift — she can start fires with her mind. She got this ability from her parents, who participated in a college experiment sponsored by the mysterious governmental entity known as The Shop. While Andy, her father, has low-level powers that allow him to impose his will upon subjects, Charlie is the focus of the Shop and its leader, Cap. Her power could be a decided advantage to whatever government gets control of her — assuming that Charlie can control them, that is.

Andy and Charlie are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of the Shop agents. As the net closes in on them, the two are pushed to their breaking point and it could lead to disastrous consequences for all concerned.

I’d forgotten large chunks of Firestarter, so it felt like (at times) I was reading it for the first time. What struck me most this time around was the bond between Andy and Charlie and seeing how far Andy will go to protect his daughter. As a father to a little girl, Andy’s motives and actions come to make complete sense, up to and including the sacrifices and risks he’s willing to take to keep Charlie out of the Shop’s hands. There are some great passages in her that demonstrate this, especially in the first half when Andy and Charlie are on the run.

The novel loses a bit of momentum in the middle third when the Shop finally catches up to them and takes them into custody. King tries to establish their main adversary in John Rainbird, a disfigured man who wants to understand death, but I never quite found myself connecting with Rainbird in quite the way I’d hoped. I can see that King is trying to create a villain who believes he’s the hero of this particular tale, but I’m not entirely sure it succeeds.

The middle third is all about moving pieces into place for the final explosive showdown. We get a preview of it in an early battle between Charlie and the Shop, but it’s the final battle where everything goes for broke.

King’s use of flashbacks to fill in details is an interesting one — especially since a lot of the flashbacks come from Andy’s point of view. The initial experiments and the day that the Shop tortured and killed Andy’s wife, Vicky, are particularly chilling and well done.

And yet, I still can’t help but come away from this one thinking it could have been a bit tighter. It feels like we spend a lot of time between battle one and battle two — and that time feels like it’s treading water a bit.

I still say this is a good entry point to the world of Stephen King, though it’s not necessarily a favorite.

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Review: Long Way Gone by Charles Martin

Long Way Gone

Novels about flawed male characters aren’t anything new, per se. But there’s just something about Charles Martin’s stories about flawed guys that get under my skin, in all the right ways.

It’s been a while since I dipped into Martin’s pool, but based on my reaction to and enjoyment of Long Way Gone I will be returning sooner rather than later.

Cooper O’Connor has a musical gift. Honed with his father on the revival tour, Coop has dreams and aspirations of making it in the world of country music. And so, leaving his father behind, Coop sets out to Nashville to make his dreams come true.

Martin’s retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son is every bit as affecting as it should be. This isn’t necessarily a beat-by-beat copy of that story, but instead one told in the broadest of all strokes about the power of the bond between fathers and sons. Along the way, there are triumphs and heartaches — many of them achingly foreshadowed if you know the parable.

But never in the telling of the story does Martin stray too far off course and have his characters or his story not feel utterly authentic. Coop’s meeting the love of his life in up-and-coming singer and their story arc is utterly compelling as well. Even when the two meet up again years later after Coop left Nashville in what he saw as a disgrace, the big beats feel absolutely earned and authentic.

At multiple moments in this book, I felt a lump in my throat. This is a powerful, entertaining novel that has lingered with me for a while after turning the final page. It’s a story about the power of love, music, forgiveness, and a lot of other good stuff in between.

Highly recommended.

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Audiobook Review: The Arrangement by Robyn Harding

arrangement1For her first Father’s Day, my daughter gave me an engraved keychain that says, “A girl’s first love is her father.”

Listening to The Arrangement, the image of the keychain kept popping into my head time after time. I couldn’t help but feel like the young woman at the center of his novel desperately needed a positive father or father figure in her life. And that she was seeking out the father figure in all the wrong places.

Natalie is a struggling art student at a prestigious school in New York City. Struggling to pay rent and keep up with her studies, Natalie slowly finds a mountain of debt piling up on her and with seemingly no way out. Estranged from her father (he left when she was ten) and not having the greatest relationship with her mom and step-dad, Natalie is averse to taking out a student loan to finish her course work since her field of children’s book illustrator may make it difficult to pay off said loans.

Natalie finds the solution in a friend from class who seems to live in the lap of luxury as a sugar baby to rich men who want beautiful women to be seen with them around town. For a fee, a Sugar Daddy can take these women on expensive dates, trips, etc. It’s not even really prostitution (at least as Natalie justifies it to herself) because the transaction is about companionship, not physical intimacy. (But make no mistake, there can be physical intimacy if both parties desire).

Natalie sets up a profile on a sugar babies website and meets Gabe, a wealthy older gentleman, who lists himself as single but is actually still married to his college sweetheart and has a teenage daughter. Gabe is stepping out because his wife has just survived cancer and he’s not quite as attracted to her in the same way. Also, her sex drive has diminished, and divorcing her would be costly both financially and socially. Continue reading

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