Book Reviews: Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff and Runway ZomBee by J.A. Watson @JasonGraff1 @WaldorfReaders @JollyFishPress

Stray Our Pieces
Jason Graff
Waldorf Publishing, October 2019
ISBN 978-1-64370-012-0
Trade Paperback

Stray Our Pieces by Jason Graff is Realistic Fiction, but it feels more like a Memoir of a stay-at-home-mom/wife. Gloria has absolutely no ambitions right now. No desire to be Super Mom. She doesn’t keep their home spic-and-span or super organized. Neither is the kitchen her place to shine.

Gloria isn’t so much bad at household chores and duties as she is so completely uninspired, in general, that her days are spent physically doing nothing. Well, maybe rushing through the bare minimum, on a great day. Mentally, she seems to be almost consumed by her own inadequacies. Not to the point of addressing them, more along the lines of looking for someone, or something, to blame.

Her story is not shared straight through. Rather, the time-line fluctuates, allowing the reader to see the younger, happier, energetic and inspired Gloria compared to the adult she allowed herself to become. In a roundabout (but definitely right) way, we learn about Gloria’s past and begin to understand her newfound place in the present.

I’ve not read many books that weave a world without a life-changing event. A plot around people who, from the outside looking in, seem to be the perfect picture of normal cannot be easy to create. But, regular, every-day living where there may be pain and aching emptiness, alongside joy and contentment, is certainly easy to understand and relate to.

Reviewed by jv poore, March 2020.

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Runway ZomBee
A Zombie Bee Hunter’s Journal
J.A. Watson
Jolly Fish Press, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-165-8
Trade Paperback

Raksha’s parents, although proud of their daughter’s ambition, were adamant: two separate, summer-long activities are out of the question. The Science Squad project is essentially a grand-finale. Earning their final badge is important, but the possibility of advancing to the final competition in Hawaii is especially enticing. And Raksha is definitely down with learning more about the Zombie fly/bee infestation…however gruesome the observations may be.

Entirely on the other hand, this admittedly out-of-the-blue fashion camp seems simply serendipitous. True, she could attend another time. After all, she meant to sign up for the fall in the first place. But, if she sticks with the summer session, she will also have a chance to finesse a new friendship with Shonda.

She will do both. Secretly.

Having a best friend like Hannah certainly helps Raksha juggle her double duties; but things quickly become complicated. Raksha is fully aware of the fact that Mari Gonzalez, fellow Science Squad Member and Archnemesis, loves to see her fail. She has no idea that the petty teen would stoop to sabotage.

There is so much to love in this Science-y, Middle-Grade marvel. Written in field-journal format, complete with self-corrections, this catchy little caper makes a quick read. Raksha may have gotten herself into a tight spot, but she is resilient, cunning and all kinds of creative getting out.

And, now I know about zombie-fly infection of honeybees and why that matters.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2019.

Book Review: Surviving Doodahville by Ashley Fontainne and Lillian Hansen

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Title: Surviving Doodahville
Authors: Ashley Fontainne and Lillian Hansen
Narrator: Rebecca Roberts
Publication Date: May 24, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Southern Fiction, Romance

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Purchase Links:
Audible // iTunes

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Surviving Doodahville
Ashley Fontainne and Lillian Hansen
Narrated by Rebecca Roberts
RMSW Press, May 2019
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook

From the authors—

The summer of 1983 – the era of big debt, big hair, and big dreams. Seventeen-year-old Kassandra Lawson is excited about starting her senior year of high school. She has a crush on a local hunk, and her best friend, valley girl extraordinaire Liz Hendricks, insists on helping her snag the hot guy – for sure!

July starts out uneventful for Kee and her parents. Her father, Kevin, is a partner at a CPA firm, and her mother, Gail, works as a secretary at the police department. The small family lives an idyllic life in sunny Hacienda Heights, California.

1983 also brings upheaval and strife for the Lawson clan. A death in the family forces Kevin and Gail to make the painful decision to pack up and move to Kevin’s hometown of Daltville, Arkansas.

Each faces daunting challenges adapting to their new life. Gail and Kee aren’t quite sure they can handle the culture shock. They encounter social and racial issues they never faced on the West Coast, strange food, weird dialects, odd customs, and wicked secrets that have the potential to destroy their family.

More than just a coming-of-age story, Surviving Doodahville explores family bonds, racial barriers, and just how much a person is willing to sacrifice for others. The tale is full of humor, action and a touch of mystery, making it a fun romp into the past.

Well, dagnabbit. I made it all the way to the last chapter with nary a sniffle and then I turned into a near-sobbing wretch 😉

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Rising high school senior Kee and her parents are living the California dream so when circumstances lead Gail and Kevin to decide to move to Daltville, Arkansas, she’s devastated and pretty sure life is over. Then again, fate has a way of making one take a second look and Kee soon thinks her parents’ betrayal doesn’t hold a candle to another pair of betrayals.

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Off they go to what can only be called a stereotypical Southern backwoods town complete with racism, secrets, years-long feuds, overblown morality…and a tremendous amount of charm and possibilities. Kee soon finds that high school in this redneck town isn’t entirely terrible and her small family can help bring about some major changes.

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Romance and friendships blossom in Surviving Doodahville but, at times, I couldn’t help feeling a kind of superiority that these Californians exhibited towards their new neighbors. It was a bit like Kee, Gail and Kevin were the shining examples for goodness and light and that Daltville could only be lifted from its darkness by these more enlightened transplants. Still, a number of the townspeople were good solid citizens and very likeable indeed so I didn’t think the “preaching” was overdone. Truthfully, back in the early 80’s, a lot of what is wrong in Daltville was also wrong elsewhere and still exists today. Now, as in those days, good people matter and can make a difference.
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Side note: The cover is very appealing but I’m puzzled by the sign that reads “DooDah Ville”. Which is correct, DooDah Ville or Doodahville?
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Rebecca Roberts is new to me as a narrator and I was impressed by her performance. Ms. Roberts has a very pleasing tone and does accents/dialect really well. Most of all, she’s believable as a teenaged girl and she added a great deal to my enjoyment of this book.
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Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2019.

About the Authors

Award-winning and International bestselling author, Ashley Fontainne, is an avid reader, becoming a fan of the written word in her youth, starting with the Nancy Drew mystery series. Stories that immerse the reader deep into the human psyche and the monsters lurking within us are her favorite reads.

Her muse for penning the Eviscerating the Snake series was The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Ashley’s love for this book is what sparked her desire to write her debut novel, Accountable to None, the first book in the trilogy. With a modern setting to the tale, Ashley delves into just what lengths a person is willing to go to when seeking personal justice for heinous acts perpetrated against them. The second novel in the series, Zero Balance, focuses on the cost and reciprocal cycle that obtaining revenge has on the seeker. Once the cycle starts, where does it end? How far will the tendrils of revenge expand? Adjusting Journal Entries answers that question—far and wide.

The short thriller entitled Number Seventy-Five touches upon the dangerous world of online dating. Number Seventy-Five took home the BRONZE medal in fiction/suspense at the 2013 Readers’ Favorite International Book Awards.

The paranormal thriller entitled The Lie won the GOLD medal in the 2013 Illumination Book Awards for fiction/suspense. A movie based on this book, entitled Foreseen, is currently a feature film available on video-on-demand from Amazon.

Ashley delved into the paranormal with a Southern Gothic horror/suspense novel, Growl, which released in January of 2015. The suspenseful mystery Empty Shell released in September of 2014. Ashley teamed up with Lillian Hansen (Ashley calls her Mom!) and penned a three-part murder mystery/suspense series entitled The Magnolia Series. The first book, Blood Ties, released in 2015 and was voted one of the Top 50 Self-Published Books You Should Be Reading in 2015 at http://www.readfree.ly.

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Lillian Hansen is the proud mother of Ashley Fontainne and a grateful daughter of parents who raised her to love and respect the principles upon which America was founded. Lillian is the granddaughter of a brave young woman who immigrated to the United States from Denmark at the age of 18 without speaking any English, who built a career, a family, and became a proud U.S. Citizen.

Lillian values the diverse, life-enriching experiences squirreled away in her memory banks and is fond of all four-legged critters, especially cats. Lillian lives in Arkansas and Surviving Doodahville is her third novel.

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About the Narrator

After a career in finance, Rebecca Roberts became inspired to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an actress. Her ingenuity and ardent desire brought her to voice-acting which has rapidly grown into her thriving audiobook narration and production company, Atlantis Audio Productions. She has narrated and produced over seventy audiobooks for indie authors and major publishing houses. Rebecca delivers her stories with a mature and intelligent style characterized by a believable tone, and versatility in creating memorable and individual characters with her various accents and vocal qualities. In short, she narrates with her whole heart. Rebecca is a native Floridian, proud mother to three sparkling children, and wife to the man of her dreams.

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Giveaway

Surviving Doodahville Ebook
Runs July 21st to 28th⎮Open internationally

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Book Reviews: Every Night I Dream of Hell by Malcolm Mackay and The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Every Night I Dream of Hell
Malcolm Mackay
Mulholland Books, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-316-27177-6
Hardcover

From the publisher:  Nate Colgan would be the first to admit that his violent reputation makes him very good at his job – and bad at everything else. After eighteen years spent working on the sidelines of Glasgow’s criminal underworld, there’s no question he’ll accept the central position that Peter Jamieson’s crime organization offers him, despite his better judgment.  The organization isn’t as strong as it once was:  its most powerful members are either dead or behind bars, including Jamieson himself, and the time is ripe for change.  Change begins with an execution – – a message for Jamieson’s supporters – – which promptly sets the various factions within the organization against one another.  Colgan’s position as “security consultant” means his duty is clear:  identify the killer and find out who’s wiling to seize power at any cost – – even if it means igniting a war.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the law, DI Michael Fisher conducts his own investigation into the murder. Both men can’t help but wonder: Why do these events coincide with the return of the mother of Colgan’s child, Zara Cope, a disreputable woman who seems to have an uncanny ability to attract trouble and troublemakers?  A dark and thrilling crime drama, Every Night I Dream of Hell takes us deeper into a world of violence, fear, and double crosses.

Early on we meet Kevin Currie, a major part of “The Organization,” a guy “in his late forties getting slowly fat and jowly.”  Colgan, a member thereof since he was 18, is now replacing the man formerly Jamieson’s hitman, a line Colgan himself “had never crossed.”  Actually and directly causing the death of another was against his principles, as odd as that may sound, as Colgan is and can be as brutal as necessary.  An insomniac, Colgan thinks “the only world darker than the one I lived in was the one I slept in. . . I was always waking up growling at the darkness, scared of the things I was yet to do.”  He says of himself “I’m not an ugly man, a little weathered and starting to grey at the side of my dark hair, but not wholly unattractive and certainly well built. I’m smarter than most in this business, but not exactly a bundle of laughs.”

To call Colgan “morally complex,” as some readers have done, is an understatement.  The novel is hard-boiled, filled with dark humor, and Colgan is a fascinating protagonist, if one wants to so characterize him.  This is the fifth book written by Malcolm Mackay, the 2nd standalone after The Glasgow Trilogy, and is, as the earlier ones, highly recommended.

Not to detract from that sentiment, it should perhaps be noted that there is a five-page long list of characters provided at the beginning of the novel, and that is a good thing, although I must admit I did not refer to it as often as I needed to – the plethora of characters at times [many!] making it difficult to keep them straight in my mind.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2017.

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The Long Drop
Denise Mina
Little, Brown, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-316-38057-7
Hardcover

From the publisher: William Watt’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law are dead, slaughtered in their own home in a brutal crime that scandalized Glasgow.  Despite an ironclad alibi, police zero in on Watt as the primary suspect, but he maintains his innocence.  Distraught and desperate to clear his name, Watts puts out a bounty for information that will lead him to the real killer.  Peter Manuel claims he knows the truth that will absolve Watt and has information that only the killer would know.  It won’t come cheap.  Manuel is an infamous career criminal, a degenerate liar who can’t be trusted and will say or do anything to make a buck.  But Manuel has something that Watts wants, which makes him the perfect target for Manuel’s consummate con.  Watts agrees to sit down with Manuel, and before they know it, one drink has turned into an epic, forgotten night of carousing across the city’s bars and clubs that exposes the thin line between a yarn and the truth.  The next time the unlikely pair meet is across the witness stand in court – – where Manuel is on trial for the murder of Watt’s family. Manuel calls Watt to the stand to testify about the long, shady night they shared.  And the shocking testimony that Manuel coaxes out of Watt threatens to expose the dark hearts of the guilty and the innocent.  Based on true events, The Long Drop is an explosive, unsettling novel about guilt, innocence, and the power of a good story to hide the difference.

It won’t be a spoiler to state that the eponymous “long drop” is a reference to the method of the hanging process which was still the sentence of choice in murder cases when this case occurred, although capital punishment has since been abolished.  I am probably among the majority, at least in the U.S., when I confess ignorance of this crime, trial and the outcome thereof, so this True Crime novel was my first awareness of the apparent scandal that surrounded the case in the country where it took place.  Manuel, 31 years old at the time, and his trial, become a sensation.  The killer sought here “attacks women in the dark, hides in dusty attics, waiting for people to leave their homes so he can steal their mother’s engagement ring, lies on pristine linen bedclothes with dirty boots on or drops food on precious rugs and grinds it in with the heel of his shoe, spoiling a modest home for spite; he drags women down embankments, scattering their shopping in puddles, telling their three-year-old son to shut the f*** up or he’ll kill their mum.”  A rape charge against Manuel ends in a unanimous decision of Not Proven.  But there are still 8 murder charges against him, including that of two 17-year-old girls.  The trial is recounted in very convincing form by the author, whose previous books I have found extraordinarily good.  The chapters alternate between early December of 1957,and January of 1958, when the crimes occurred and May of 1958, when the trial takes place.  The characters are very well-drawn, especially that of Manuel and his parents, as well is Laurence Dowdall, “Glasgow’s foremost criminal lawyer”.   Another terrific novel from this author, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2017.

Book Review: Holding by Graham Norton and Trafficked by Peg Brantley

Holding
Graham Norton
Atria Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-7326-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste.

So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.

Time didn’t pass in Duneen; it seeped away.

When it comes to meandering, laidback crime fiction, this one is it but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There’s not much in the way of excitement but I found myself quietly entertained and disappointed only because felt that individual characters could have been rounded out a bit more.

PJ is an odd duck, sort of drifting through life in his small Irish village, wishing for more but not motivated enough to do anything about it. When human remains are found, he thinks solving the case could lift him out of his dreary life a bit but he doesn’t actually have much to go on nor does he really know how to properly investigate. Still, he wants to try in his clumsy way if only he could manage to keep a step ahead of the big city police sent from Cork to investigate and he does have one advantage—he knows his village.

As in all small communities, everyone knows everyone else’s life history and speculation about these remains immediately calls to mind in the rumor mill the strange disappearance of a young man, Tommy Burke, nearly twenty years ago. The gossip starts up in fine fashion and, soon, PJ is looking into the long-ago story of a guy and two girls. Pretty soon, his habit of walking around the village to observe and get to know the people begins to pay off and he just might get the better of the very patronizing Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne.

Three lonely sisters are just a few of the characters who do get a lot of attention and their personal stories give a good deal of weight to this otherwise mildmannered mystery. In fact, in some ways, the mystery takes second place to the village itself and all of its inhabitants, especially PJ himself. This is a man I’d like to get to know better and I hope the author will give us a sequel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Trafficked
A Mex Anderson Novel #2
Peg Brantley
Bark Publishing, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-9853638-7-1
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Sex trafficking.

Not Thailand. Or the Philippines. Or Russia.

America.

Rich or poor, black or white, girls disappear across this country every day, pulled into the nightmarish world of prostitution and drugs.

Mex Anderson is back, tasked with finding three missing girls before it’s too late. Three girls. Three girls who could live in your town, your neighborhood, or in your own home.

Jayla Imani Thomas is fifteen. A smart kid from a poor part of town who has to fend for herself. Jayla is headed for college and a better life than her mother had.

Alexis Emily Halston is seventeen. Money provides everything she wants or needs except functional parents. Alexis has the world by the tail and she knows it.

Olivia Emma Campbell is twelve. She’s a middle child who dreams of being a veterinarian when she grows up. But right now “Livvy” just wants someone to notice her, maybe even to love her.

Caught up in a cruel system fueled by lust and money, all three young women must find the courage within themselves to survive. And Mex must come to terms with his own loss and face his demons head on—or he might not have the strength to save them.

Sex trafficking is one of those topics “nice” people don’t want to think or talk about; it’s more comfortable to pretend that sort of thing is so distant from our own lives that it has very little real meaning. Sure, it happens in third world countries or in really bad areas of countries like our own, but it doesn’t affect us, right? Yes, we know all about prostitution and how rampant that is, even close by sometimes , but that’s not really sex trafficking, right?

Wrong, so wrong.

The three girls depicted here could be your neighbor, your own child’s best friend, the daughter of the organist at your church. In other words, they’re completely normal girls who, for one reason or another, are at risk, and Jayla is on the verge of being dragged into the life when we first meet her. The betrayal by her friend might seem dramatic license but it happens a lot more than we want to think.

Mex and Cade have a story of their own and Mex, in particular, knows the pain of loss. The two of them have emotional ties and things they’re trying to work through but, with the help of Mex’s friend, Darius, they are intent on saving these three girls. Of course, the upshot of any saving they can do is that there are many, many more girls like them still trapped in a horrific existence.

Although this is certainly a bleak topic and there’s a lot of darkness in the story, there’s one thing that brings a light of hope and that’s the girls’ resilience, their determination that they will not lose their souls. I really think Trafficked should be on every middle and high school reading list so that these kids (and it’s not just girls) can have some sense of the dangers out there. Well done, Ms. Brantley!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Reviews: Ghost Month by Ed Lin and A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton

Ghost MonthGhost Month
Ed Lin
Soho Crime, August 2014
ISBN: 978-1-61695-326-3
Hardcover

This novel is as complicated and inscrutable as the Chinese, and probably could have been split into two or three books.  It is a detailed history of Taiwan, a deep look at the culture and its people from the original aborigines to its more recent takeover following the civil war on the mainland and the settlement of the forces led by Chiang Kai-shek.  Then it is a love story of sorts.  And lastly, it is a mystery.

The story takes place during Ghost Month, a period in which the dead are commemorated.  A haunting time.  The plot tells of the love of Jing-nan and Julia ever since they were toddlers and what happens to them when they grow up.  They pledged themselves to marriage, but then left for the United States and college on separate coasts with no contact.  When his parents died, he was forced to take over operation of the family food stall at a night market.  She returns to Taipei only to be shot dead, and he undertakes to find out why and by whom.

While the writing is clear and concise, I found the various digressions overwhelming, making it hard for this reader to maintain any kind of pace. It might have been a better read if the novel had been simplified, omitting a lot of extraneous albeit interesting information of the peoples and history of the island.  The book is recommended for those who enjoy such a deep and penetrating picture of Taiwan.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2015.

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A Dark and Twisted TideA Dark and Twisted Tide
Lacey Flint Novels #4
Sharon Bolton
Minotaur Books, June 2014
ISBN:  978-1-250-02858-7
Hardcover

Still reeling from her recent harrowing experiences, Lacey Flint chooses to cease being a detective and reverts to working in uniform, albeit on a boat patrolling the Thames River; also living in a boat in a small inlet and taking up swimming in the polluted waters. But there is no way the author lets Lacey avoid danger and the taste of detecting. So it comes to pass one day that she encounters the remains of a female while swimming. And thus hangs a complicated tale.

Three more bodies turn up and Lacey becomes part of the investigation, which is full of twists and turns. It appears that the victims were from Afghanistan and smuggled up the Thames to some hidden location near where Lacey’s boat is docked. So the investigation initially is centered on a case involving people-smuggling. The question, of course, is why. A subplot involves Dana (Lacey’s boss) and her significant other, Helen, in their quest to have a baby, bringing them to a fertility clinic, setting the stage for another character to play a role in an ending that boggles the mind.

The author is famous for constructing novels full of surprises, and this one is no different. It is full of red herrings keeping the reader off balance and turning pages to find out what happens next.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2015.