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Review: Sparring Partners by John Grisham

Sparring Partners

Like Stephen King, John Grisham has earned a spot on the best-seller list for just about anything he chooses to publish. And similar to King, it appears that Grisham isn’t content to crank out the same book year after year to his adoring fans (I’m looking at you as the biggest culprit James Patterson)

This time around, Grisham offers up three novellas he says were written during the lock-down instead of a full-length novel.

Here are my thoughts on each of them.

Homecoming
Grisham returns to his world of Ford County and Jake Brigance. As a big fan of Jake’s, it’s nice to get to spend a hundred or so pages with him and the cast of characters Grisham has created. “Homecoming” centers on Mack Stafford, a former lawyer who got tired of his life in Clanton and disappeared three years before, leaving his family behind. He also took a large chunk of several settlements as well. Mack wants to come home three years later and see his family again. He reaches out to Jake and Harry Rex about coming home and the wheels start turning. Continue reading

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Audiobook Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Book LoversNora Stephens reads the last chapter of a story first. As a literary agent whose life is consumed by all things literary, Nora likes knowing where the story is going before starting the first page. Her younger sister, Libby, will not only barrel into a book without any preconceptions, often not even reading the back cover so she won’t ruin the surprises along the way. When Nora and Libby decide to spend a few weeks away from the hustle and bustle of New York City in the small town that served as a literary basis for one of Libby’s favorite books that Nora edited, their hope is to reconnect before the birth of Libby’s third child. But what they find is something else entirely unexpected.

Emily Henry’s latest novel, Book Lovers deftly deconstruction the tropes of small-town romance in a delightfully entertaining way.

If her life were a romance novel, Nora would be the heartless, big-city girlfriend who gets dumped for the small-town girl with a heart of gold. In fact, Nora has been dumped four times for that, including on her way to meet with high-profile editor Charlier Lastra. When Charlie dismisses the latest offering from her client before they place their drink orders, Nora chalks it up to being off her game due to the previous rejection and being late.

Two years later, she runs into Charlie in the small town she’s visiting with her sister, and the sparks inevitably being to fly. Things are helped when a new manuscript has Charlie and Nora teaming up as editors, bringing the two into each other’s orbit on a more regular basis.

Book Lovers is a slow dance of a story, slowly revealing layers about its characters and deconstructing the small-town romance story in an entertaining fashion. As with her previous two novels, Henry puts realistic, grounded obstacles to each of the relationships at the heart of Book Lovers. Whether it’s the secrets Charlie is holding about his family and growing up in a small town or the secret that Nora and Lilly are keeping from each other, each revelation is earned by Henry over the course of the story.

As a stand-alone story, this one succeeds on every level, offering a satisfying story. Henry sows the seeds of the eventual resolution in the story’s early goings, allowing this reader to see where things could go before some of the characters do.

An entertaining journey, Book Lovers is yet another feather in Henry’s already impressive cap. Needless to say, I will be back for whatever she offers next.

The audio version of this one is well performed by Julie Whalen, who brings June’s first-person perspective vibrantly to life. She also does a superb job of crafting all the other characters we meet in Nora’s story to life as well

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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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Audiobook Review: The Enemy by Sarah Adams

The Enemy (It Happened in Charleston, #2)re

June and Ryan have been rivals since high school, each trying to one-up the other in a never-ending series of pranks and gotchas. But twelve years have passed since that almost-kiss at graduation and both parties are looking forward to seeing each other as part of the wedding party for their best friend’s wedding.

June wants to rub it in Ryan’s face that she’s part-owner of a successful donut shop in Charleston while Ryan wants to see if the embers that have simmered for June all these years might just combust into something more.

And so begins Sarah Adams’ The Enemy.

What unfolds over the next several hours of this audiobook is alternating passages from June and Ryan’s points of view about driving each other crazy and maybe trying to admit there is more to this relationship than just being rivals. Early on, June comes across as a bit harsh and rough around the edges, but Adams wisely fills in the backstory of what’s led June to this point and her “one date” rule for all men. Ryan, it turns out, is almost too good to be true and if there’s one flaw in this story it’s that we never get any major or minor negative points for Ryan.

Adams knows how to simmer the ever-growing romance between these two, all while keeping the story pretty PG-13 along the way. There’s lots of kissing, pining, and description of Ryan’s abs and arms, but that’s where it ends. Adams wisely leaves some things up to the reader’s imagination. She also doesn’t have these two rush into things, allowing the embers to smolder over the course of the novel. She also manages to put in a few realistic speed bumps to the relationship that are completely grounded in her characters.

All in all, this one is a fun, diverting story that is probably different from my usual reading choices. But it was a nice break from murder, mayhem, spaceships, etc. and it kept my interest for the entire run time.

The audiobook features Connie Shabshab bringing June’s chapters to life and Lee Samuels bringing Ryan’s chapters to life. Both readers give an added layer to their characters, as well as create unique voices for the various other players in June and Ryan’s lives.

If you’re looking for a fun, slow-burn romantic read, The Enemy could be exactly what you’re looking for.

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

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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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