Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton @KiraJaneWrites @petkoff @HachetteAudio @GrandCentralPub

Hollow Kingdom
Kira Jane Buxton
Narrated by Robert Petkoff
Hachette Audio, August 2019
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

From the publisher—

S.T., a domesticated crow, is a bird of simple pleasures: hanging out with his owner Big Jim, trading insults with Seattle’s wild crows (i.e. “those idiots”), and enjoying the finest food humankind has to offer: Cheetos.

But when Big Jim’s eyeball falls out of his head, S.T. starts to think something’s not quite right. His most tried-and-true remedies – from beak-delivered beer to the slobbering affection of Big Jim’s loyal but dim-witted dog, Dennis – fail to cure Big Jim’s debilitating malady. S.T. is left with no choice but to abandon his old life and venture out into a wild and frightening new world with his trusty steed Dennis, where he suddenly discovers that the neighbors are devouring one another. Local wildlife is abuzz with rumors of dangerous new predators. Humanity’s extinction has seemingly arrived, and the only one determined to save it is a cowardly crow whose only knowledge of the world around him comes from TV.

What could possibly go wrong?

Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton is unlike any other zombie book I’ve read and I’ve read quite a few in my time. The story is told by S.T., a very well-educated crow (educated via the tv, internet and his human), and he first realizes something is wrong when Big Jim’s eyeball falls out.

Yeah, I know, sounds gross but…

This is the tale of how S.T. and his bloodhound, Dennis, set off to save the domestics who’ve been left behind, trapped, when the virus swept through humanity. Along the way, they encounter many other animals, wild and domestic, and a lot of them join in the mission. Most of the commentary is from our trusty crow but there are interludes from such creatures as an octopus and a polar bear.

There’s a great deal of humor and a few sad scenes that really tapped into my emotions but very little time is spent on gory zombie details so you don’t have to be concerned about that. This is all about the animals and the author clearly has a point to make, several points, in fact. BTW, this is not a kid’s or middle grade book despite all the animals, birds and sea creatures because S.T. can occasionally be foulmouthed and there are a couple of scenes in which animals get hurt (but even those have redeeming qualities).

The narrator, Robert Petkoff, does a great job with S.T.’s voice as well as a few others (especially the octopus) and his sense of pacing and comedic/emotional tones are spot on. My daughter read the print edition and was just as entranced. I know, Hollow Kingdom sounds, er, strange but I was completely captured and this is going on my list of best books read in 2020. A sequel, Feral Creatures, is in the works and I can hardly wait.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2020.

Book Review: Spirit Animals: Hunted by Maggie Stiefvater

Spirit Animals HuntedSpirit Animals
Book 2: Hunted
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic, Inc., January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-52244-1
Hardcover

The orphaned, scruffy, wise-cracking Rollan; the painted, oft expressionless warrior Meilin; and Conor, the shepherd boy, had been tossed together without a choice. The small group was wary, at best. Abeke, with her bizarre elephant hair bracelet; had been “tricked” into aligning with the power-hungry Conquerors, and was not a welcome addition to the trio.

The four youngsters had only one thing in common, but it was paramount. Having recently come of age, sipped the sweet Nectar Ninani, each bonded with, not just any spirit animal, but one of the Four Fallen. There is but one tiny task. To save the world.

The success of the mission hinges on the cohesiveness of the team. The multi-faceted concept of trust is brilliantly displayed as Abeke must earn the trust of the group; Rollan must learn to trust, and Meilin must choose whether to trust her spirit animal or her own intuition.

This action-packed, mystery-filled adventure is completely captivating with colorful characters and carefully hidden life lessons. Ms. Stiefvater’s delightful descriptions of the determinedly cheerful Lord of Glengavin paints the picture of a red-bearded giant whole-heartedly, enthusiastically and unabashedly, displaying his wide range of emotions from toddler-like temper tantrums to giddy joy.

Hope springs eternal as feisty Dawson, young sibling of the horrible Devin, craftily displays whose side he is truly on. His abrupt, almost apologetic, kindness is endearing and serves to soften the utter rottenness of his fellow Conquerors.

The mysterious, heavily tattooed Finn is the honey on this November-Cake of a novel. The burden of scouting for the quarreling new Greencloaks doesn’t seem to rattle him. He patiently teaches them how to code; sending messages by pigeon. Gradually and quietly, his story is revealed. Subtle mentoring moments threaded throughout the adventure tie perfectly together at the story’s end.

Of course the last sentence isn’t true. The author is Maggie Stiefvater. And Spirit Animals is a series. As Hunted answers some questions, many mysteries remain unsolved, new quandaries have appeared and…..well, let’s just say the reader will be ecstatic to know that Blood Ties (Spirit Animals #3) is available.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2015.

Creatures On Tour

Tim Rowland's Creature FeaturesTim Rowland’s Creature Features
Tim Rowland
High Peaks Publishing, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-9761597-3-5
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

 

When Tim Rowland’s earlier book of his animal essays, All Pets Are Off, was published, readers immediately clamored for more. Their preference for animal stories over the political columns Tim’s also known for is understandable: animals are way more fun to read about than politicians. Especially now.

 

So here’s a new volume of over 75 warm and funny essays, from the introduction to the farm of bovines Cleopatra and Heifertiti, the Belted Galloway beauties, to the further antics of Hannah the English Bulldog and Juliet the tiny Siamese, along with assorted donkeys, pigs, goats, horses, chickens, geese-and of course, more of the joyful bouvier des Flandres named Opie-that’s sure to provide loads of smiles and even outright guffaws.

 

Books that feature animals and their antics are right up my reading alley—in fact, you might say I’m a complete pushover for them. Mention one to me and I’m all over it, maybe because they’re almost always highly entertaining and bring both laughter and tears. I’m glad to say that Tim Rowland’s Creature Features is no exception.

Mr. Rowland’s stories revolve around the small farm he and his wife had in Maryland and it’s clear this farm was just like the one I have always secretly wanted, a handful of animals that might be found on any farm. In this case, though, the farm animals are clearly part of the family, much like the pets that live in the house. I loved reading about Juliet, the long-suffering cat, and her canine companions, Hannah and Opie, but I was every bit as entertained by the antics of the trio of perpetually loud and bad-tempered geese and Magellan, the easy-to-please pig who’s probably the only really sane one of the bunch and is the answer to the question of what to do with the overwhelming homegrown crops of zucchini.

Then there’s the tyrannical miniature horse, Doodlebug, and Cappy, the very large horse who believes a paricular fruit is out to get her. A pair of very likeable heifers who view a visiting bull with disdain and a few alpacas who spend their time spitting add to the fun but I think my favorite of all is Chuckles, the rooster who came up with a very clever way of escaping the freezer.

Little Farm by the Creek is a place I would have been delighted to visit but, failing that, the author’s stories are the next best thing. This is a collection I’ll be re-reading frequently. My daughter and her two cats share my house with me and my cat; two days ago, Sassy, my daughter’s 18-year-old kitty, passed away and Tim Rowland’s Creature Features has brought a good deal of comfort at such a sad time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2013.

 
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Tim RowlandAbout Tim Rowland:

Tim Rowland is an award-winning columnist at Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Maryland. He has written for numerous history and outdoor magazines and news syndicates nationwide.

He has also authored several books, most recentlyStrange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War and including All Pets are Off: A Collection of Hairy Columns, Petrified Fact: Stories of Bizarre Behavior that Really Happened, Mostly, Earth to Hagerstown, High Peaks: A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene andMaryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine & Mountaineering

Tim is also keeper and lackey for a wide assortment of mostly non-useful, freeloading critters, aided as always by his trusty (well, mostly trusty) companion Opie.

Tim Rowland’s Website: http://www.timrowlandbooks.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TimRowlandBooks 

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/tim.rowland.9

Buy Tim Rowland’s Creature Features:

Amazon.com- Paperback
Amazon.com- Kindle
Barnes & Noble- Nook
Tim Rowland’s Bookshelf

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Book Reviews: A Christmas Home by Greg Kincaid, The Morphine Murders by LJ King, and Drop Dead on Recall by Sheila Webster Boneham

A Christmas Home
Greg Kincaid
Crown Publishers, November 2012
ISBN 978-0-307-95197-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Todd McCray, hero of A Dog Named Christmas , is now twenty-four years old and working at a local animal shelter, where he meets and quickly becomes best friends with Laura, a young volunteer. Laura, like Todd, has disabilities of her own, but her struggles are more physical than developmental. Their friendship is sealed when Todd—with the help of his trusted companion, the tenacious Labrador retriever named Christmas—trains a beautiful dog named Gracie to help Laura with the day-to-day life tasks that are difficult for her.

Life seems good for Todd, but all is not well in his hometown. Struggling families unable to make ends meet are abandoning more and more dogs, and the shelter is swelling to capacity.  The local government is struggling to meet its obligations too, and in early December, on the cusp of another holiday season, Todd’s boss delivers the bad news.  Due to funding problems, the shelter will close its doors before the end of the year.  But what will happen to all the animals?

As the Christmas holiday approaches, Todd has limited time to find homes for all the dogs. Not to mention that he needs to secure a new job and figure out what to do when his friendship with Laura takes an unexpected romantic turn. All this seems overwhelming unless you’ve got a loving family, dedicated friends, and a couple of very special dogs behind you. In which case, nothing is impossible.

I confess, I like sappy Christmas movies and that’s how I was first introduced to Todd and his family and friends, especially  the Labrador retriever that came to mean so much to him. The Hallmark movie was ” A Dog Named Christmas” and I have enjoyed it several times since it first came out in 2009. What I didn’t know until I received this ARC is that the movie was based on a novel of the same name. A Christmas Home is the third of a trilogy, following Christmas with Tucker.

The storyline of A Christmas Home follows that of the first book, concentrating on Crossing Trails’ animal shelter and, in this volume, its loss of public funding at a time when communities across the nation are struggling economically. At its heart, though, is the tale of two people with disabilities and how they learn to “fly”, to move on and to dare to do the impossible because they believe they can do so. It is also the tale of the families and friends who care so deeply for them and must find the courage let go, to have faith that they have instilled the strength and confidence needed for these two young people to live full lives despite their disabilities.

Such a storyline can hardly hope to be anything other than ultra-sweet but author Greg Kincaid handles it well and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a fine example of what “comfort fiction” really is. I took a good deal of pleasure in spending a little time with folks—and animals—I would be happy to call friends and to experience, if only for a little while, the humanity and caring of Todd’s community.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.

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The Morphine Murders
LJ King
First Edition Design, May 2012
ISBN 9781937520885
Trade paperback
Also available in Hardcover

From the publisher—

Raina Prentiss never imagined that she would investigate a homicide beyond the comfort of her couch, armed with a remote, but that’s exactly what happens when she inadvertently finds circumstantial evidence connecting her boss to not one, but two local murders. With the reluctant approval of her police lieutenant boyfriend, Danny, she launches Mission Bottle to obtain her boss’ DNA.

She recruits her co-worker, Tyler, to divert their boss’ attention while Raina sneaks around and swipes his water bottle. But a simple waft of Tyler’s scent, or the heat from his body, transports her back to the feeling of the feather-light pressure of his mouth on hers, teasing her, taunting her, during the passionate kiss she found herself entwined in a few weeks prior.

With no DNA found at the crime scenes to match to their sample, Raina together with Tyler, and Danny and his detectives, continue to investigate. Because of her easy access to her boss, Raina is convinced that she is the key to obtaining proof and solving the case. Determination blinds the risks incurred by hunting a killer, as Raina uses inside information from Danny to plan her next mission. Having jeopardized her relationship, her job, a friendship, and maybe her life, Raina goes full force into the investigation without a badge, superpowers, or a vampire boyfriend.

Sometimes, I come across a book that baffles me a bit and this is one of them. Every single review I can find is a 5-star, some complete with exclamation points, and I just don’t get it. There’s much to be liked about this book but there are also some noticeable flaws, at least to my way of thinking. Let’s get those flaws out of the way first.

Plot and narration inconsistencies are a problem and, in this book, they are much too frequent. As an example, “Through the blaring siren and the barking dog, they saw the call indicator…”. That first phrase should lead to them hearing rather than seeing something. In another scene, the lead detective carries on a conversation with his captain after storming out of his office. In a third, a member of the police knows a particular individual had possession of an item missing from a victim’s home but doesn’t think that individual would hurt anyone so she doesn’t stop Raina from going to talk to him. In another instance, the main character informs her detective boyfriend that there have been serial killers in New York, as though the police would be surprised by this. The list goes on.

Far more importantly, though, is the fact that I found the main character, Raina, to be remarkably unlikeable and she takes narcissism to a new high. Raina is absolutely sure she knows everything there is to know about criminal investigations because she watches all the shows on TV and she doesn’t care that her behavior is making things a lot more difficult for the police, including her boyfriend, when she withholds evidence from them. After all, she must use that evidence first! Even worse than her bullheaded meddling in the investigation is her complete disregard for loyalty and fidelity and her very obvious belief that her own happiness and satisfaction take precedence over that of her boyfriend and a co-worker for whom she has the hots, never mind the fact that the co-worker’s wife has been in a  coma for all of a week. Her behavior in a certain scene is inexplicable and totally reprehensible and, for me, was the last straw. Unfortunately, other characters fare a little better only because Raina leaves such a negative impression. Some of the police are nearly incompetent and a pair of university students are just silly.

On the positive side, and this is what makes the negative aspects so disappointing, is that the author has crafted a very good mystery. I did identify the killer too early but that didn’t matter because the suspense of what would happen next and how the killer would be stopped carried the story. There were a number of red herrings that were not at all obvious and I found myself frequently wondering if one lead or another would take the police in the right direction.

When all is said and done, this author clearly has the ability to create a nice puzzle and really just needs an effective content editor.  I hope that all the rave reviews will not prevent her from taking advantage of what could turn her future work into something quite admirable.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.

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Drop Dead on Recall
Sheila Webster Boneham
Midnight Ink, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-7387-3306-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When a top-ranked competitor keels over at a dog obedience trial, photographer Janet MacPhail is swept up in a maelstrom of suspicion, jealousy, cut-throat competition, death threats, pet-napping, and murder. She becomes a “person of interest” to the police, and apparently to major hunk Tom Saunders as well. As if murder and the threat of impending romance aren’t enough to drive her bonkers, Janet has to move her mother into a nursing home, and the old lady isn’t going quietly. Janet finds solace in her Australian Shepherd, Jay, her tabby cat, Leo, and her eccentric neighbor, Goldie Sunshine. Then two other “persons of interest” die, Jay’s life is threatened, Leo disappears, and Janet’s search for the truth threatens to leave her own life underdeveloped – for good.

I’ve never been to a dog show, although I’ve often thought I’d like to do so (or perhaps a cat show). In the meantime, I enjoy the various shows on TV and can easily imagine the drama and shenanigans that must go on behind the scenes. I don’t usually imagine murder but I also don’t think such a thing is impossible, especially when the desire to win runs high.

Drop Dead on Recall is a delight, a good mystery with characters I came to like very much. I can relate to Janet having to balance work with concern for her mother’s failing health and, in this particular case, her sleuthing actually makes some sense. While most mystery novels offer some information on topics tangentially involved with the crime, Ms.  Boneham provides all kinds of interesting tidbits on pet care, poisons, photography, dog training, etc.,  and she does so very well, giving just enough to let the reader understand what’s going on but not so much that it seems like lecturing.

I also completely fell in love with the pets in the story, especially Jay and Leo (Australian Shepherd and tabby cat, respectively). These two are actively part of the tale (but not in human-like ways) and they add immeasurably to Janet’s appeal. So, a good mystery with plenty of diversions, likeable human and animal characters, a little knowledge I didn’t have before—what more could I want?

Well, how about good writing? Sheila Webster Boneham has experience writing nonfiction but that background doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to write a novel. Happily, in her case, it did and the result is smooth prose that flows easily with a distinct lack of construction errors such as grammar and  plot cohesion.

All in all, this author is a welcome addition to those who write pet mysteries and I’m looking forward eagerly to her next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.

Book Review: City Girl, Country Vet by Cathy Woodman

City Girl, Country Vet
Cathy Woodman
Voice/Hyperion, September 2012
ISBN 9781401341718
Trade Paperback
Issued in the UK with the title Trust Me, I’m a Vet

From the publisher—

London veterinarian Maz Harwood has learned the hard way that love and work don’t mix. So when Emma, her best friend from vet school, asks her to look after her practice in the English countryside for six months, Maz decides that is just the change of scenery she needs. But country life is trickier than she could have imagined.

It is one thing to trade her smart heels for wellies; it’s another to deal with unwelcoming locals, an intense rivalry with the town’s other vet practice, and worse yet, the realization that her friend’s practice is in as bad a shape as Maz’s own broken heart. Things get even more complicated when she meets her rival’s dashing son, who is totally unsuitable as a prospect… or is he? Can Maz win over the locals, save the lives of her patients, keep Emma’s practice from going under… and find love again?

Comfort fiction. Sometimes, I have to escape from what I spend most of my reading time on and comfort fiction is what I want. City Girl, Country Vet fills the bill in a lot of ways with just a few very minor quibbles.

I’m inordinately attached to stories about veterinarians in rural areas, usually preferring real vets’ tales about their own experiences (thank you, James Herriot!), but fiction is OK, too, and I imagine some of this story might be based on real life since Ms. Woodman started out as a small animal vet. There’s something about the rural atmosphere and the animals and the people who, let’s face it, are just not the same as urban folk, and visiting with them is always a pleasure. This particular book threw me a curve by featuring a protagonist who, for most of the story, reminds me of Joe Btfsplk, the comic strip character who’s followed everywhere by a rain cloud and is a terrible jinx. Poor Maz, she can’t seem to do anything right and antagonizes or disappoints practically everyone in the small village during her temporary job as a relief vet. That was actually kind of refreshing and certainly took away the threat of sappiness that some vet-related books fall prey to. On the other hand, this black cloud seemed to go on too long and I sometimes found myself wondering if Maz would ever find at least one or two bright spots to relieve the angst.

Luckily, a hint of impending romance serves to lighten the mood and it’s the kind of romance I like—understated, no sex (not that I have anything against sex, mind you, but I prefer it in the background), a good deal of will-he-won’t-she, and an ending that’s only moderately predictable. I also found the village denizens thoroughly entertaining even if a teeny bit stereotypical.

Then there are the animals. The village of Talyton St. George has two vet practices, one that does small animals only and one that does small and large. The large animals make several appearances but it’s the small animals that steal the show and life and death are both present. Being a rational human being, I suspect anyone that reads a book like this is already an animal lover and the author does not disappoint us—a hamster named Harriet/Harry, a dog named Robbie, a cat named Tripod, a dog named Petra, a pony named Skye, a cat named Ginge, and so many others are all utterly charming and bring a smile to the reader’s face along with occasional tears.

A shocking tragedy that endangers animals and humans alike brings the story to a turning point and I found the denouement most satisfying. The author could have easily ended things there but, happily, she didn’t, and several sequels are already out in the UK with the fifth coming out in December 2012. I hope the US publisher will put these on a fast track because I’m eager to read them all.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.


Book Review: A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

A Dog’s Purpose
W. Bruce Cameron
Read by George K. Wilson
Tantor Audio, 2010
ISBN 978-1-4001-1645-4
Unabridged Audio Book
Also available as a Forge trade paperback

A puppy plays in the woods with his mom and his siblings but this is not an entirely idyllic scene. The puppy and his family are feral and the mother dog has taught her puppies to be afraid of humans but the worst happens—all but one are captured and taken to a shelter. This is a private shelter, though, not the pound, so there is hope for their future. And so begins the tale of a dog who lives through one existence after another, remembering his past each time.

There’s no such thing as an animal-centric novel that doesn’t make you cry as far as I know and this one is no exception. It’s a natural cry, though, meaning that the moments of sadness revolve around the dog’s deaths and that is tempered by the humor and joy that occur during each of the dog’s lives. Along this journey, the dog learns much in each life—discovering love, saving a boy’s life, working in search and rescue, having a great adventure—but always feels that something is missing, his true purpose in being a dog.

Told from the point of view of the dog, the reader/listener is treated to the full gamut of emotions from fear to joy to pure happiness and the narrator, George K. Wilson, does a nice job of making the dog’s “voice” seem natural. This is no cutesy tale with an animal who talks to humans but we hear his thoughts, including his very entertaining interpretations of what humans mean by certain words and gestures. This is a story that will engage any reader who appreciates dogs—just be prepared for those occasional two-tissue moments.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2011.

Book Review: A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

A Dog’s Purpose
W. Bruce Cameron
Read by George K. Wilson
Tantor Audio, 2010
ISBN 978-1-4001-1645-4
Unabridged Audio Book
Also available as a Forge trade paperback

A puppy plays in the woods with his mom and his siblings but this is not an entirely idyllic scene. The puppy and his family are feral and the mother dog has taught her puppies to be afraid of humans but the worst happens—all but one are captured and taken to a shelter. This is a private shelter, though, not the pound, so there is hope for their future. And so begins the tale of a dog who lives through one existence after another, remembering his past each time.

There’s no such thing as an animal-centric novel that doesn’t make you cry as far as I know and this one is no exception. It’s a natural cry, though, meaning that the moments of sadness revolve around the dog’s deaths and that is tempered by the humor and joy that occur during each of the dog’s lives. Along this journey, the dog learns much in each life—discovering love, saving a boy’s life, working in search and rescue, having a great adventure—but always feels that something is missing, his true purpose in being a dog.

Told from the point of view of the dog, the reader/listener is treated to the full gamut of emotions from fear to joy to pure happiness and the narrator, George K. Wilson, does a nice job of making the dog’s “voice” seem natural. This is no cutesy tale with an animal who talks to humans but we hear his thoughts, including his very entertaining interpretations of what humans mean by certain words and gestures. This is a story that will engage any reader who appreciates dogs—just be prepared for those occasional two-tissue moments.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2011.