Book Reviews: Sci-fi, Mystery, and Other Necessities

The Bronze Skies
After fleshing out all corners and eras of her massive Skolian universe, Doctor Asaro goes back to the beginning in the second book in the Major Bhaajan series. The first was so amazing it’s gonna be a tough act to follow, though it just might have.
I was particularly excited when the blurb mentioned Jagernauts were involved, so I was really hoping Digjan was in this! Nope, Dr. Asaro is just teasing me as usual. Instead it’s a much more seasoned psychic warrior that’s on the warpath, so Bhaaj is called in to find her before she can make another attempt at murdering one of the most important people in the empire, leading into one of Dr. Asaro’s favorite subjects, AI. In what might be called a glut of “robots will rise up and take over” stories nowadays, this one stands out, even from her own previous books like the Alpha series.
Archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, sociology, and of course the inevitable high-level math and science are all happily present here. The best parts, however, are the small moments, especially when she’s helping her people: trying to get a permit for one to sell his wares aboveground, arranging a martial arts competition between her students and an academy, and so on. They really round out her character, making her more than just a detective. At the beginning of the first book she didn’t have much personality, though she grew throughout that story; here she’s even more human, to the point where she’s even telling jokes full of sexual innuendo. It’s a bit startling, considering how tightly wound up she was in the first one. Even more so, she finds out more about the powers she’d been afraid she had at the end of the first.
This story also expands the already large scope of the undercity, but also introduces the above world other than Cries, the legendary planet where human life was transported from Earth so long ago. In the scope of the three huge space empires it’s pretty insignificant, but somehow harder to grasp. I’d been hoping this would lead to finding out what alien race seeded the planet with humans in the first place, but despite the clues in what they left behind it didn’t go that far. It did give us an archaeological site that sounds like it came right out of a video game, and the special Jagernauts that guard it. I anticipate many more stories coming out of that.
So in the end Bhaaj—Calaj too—saved the universe every bit as much as Soz, but just like her, no one will ever know. . .
4.5/5

Beg for Mercy
Mercy went from growing up in a brothel to becoming an assassin, but retains enough humanity to chuck her assigned job when she finds a conspiracy that’s much bigger and more dangerous for what remains of the western United States. Along the way she gets involved with a legendary figure that shares a common enemy.
Yes, this is a dystopian romance/erotica, though that last part was minimal. Not unheard of, but definitely rare.
Not sure about this one. The many factions made it hard to follow, and Mercy was just too stubborn to root for. At one point she puts herself out as bait to catch the bad guy, having conveniently forgotten about the bounty on her. The action was realistic, but the sex scenes didn’t pack as much heat.
3/5

The Unity
A military leader in a sprawling authoritarian space empire questions his oath when his second-in-command tries to kill him. From there the story sprawls all over the galaxy, with a huge cast of characters and ships, far too many to keep track.
There are some nice moments, like the intro and background for Dr. Aravantis; short but sweet, and most importantly memorable. His creations were also a delight to get to know, but the negatives far outweighed them. I had huge problems with the conspiracy, and especially all the killing, alternatively making me annoyed or sad, and I don’t like that. Most of the circumstances were unnecessary, and the dead are hardly grieved over at all. In fact, the whole book seems devoid of emotion. It definitely didn’t make me want to read the sequel.
2/5

Girl, Wash Your Face
I picked this up because I’m a huge fan of Rachel Hollis, though that’s her fiction rather than her lifestyle website. So this work of self-help was new territory for me, but I was quickly relieved to find her amazing humor was still there.
This book feels like a bunch of blog posts, which for all I know is true. At the beginning there’s a section on the true but tired platitude of taking care of yourself before you help others, which by now is so overused it’s hardly a new concept. She does manage to weave several points together, which does help.
This would have been just as good without all the religious stuff thrown in. I feel the earnestness; I don’t believe anything written here is less than genuine. But I can’t be sure if that belief is there because I’m a big fan of her previous works. Nevertheless, it’s more than worthwhile reading for those who aren’t familiar with her Girl series and have no preconceived notions.
3.5/5

Egyptian Enigma
Having enjoyed this author’s previous works, taking place mostly in Australia with fictionalized history tours to the old civilizations of Mesoamerica, this entry tackles Egypt, possibly the only place that would have even more fodder for stories like these. Though it follows the pattern of trying to solve an old archaeological mystery, this book has less in the way of modern conundrums. Most of the story involves who’s in the sarcophagus, but other than a stolen notebook and a break-in, there’s no real mystery until the end, and that’s only a setup for the next book.
The one thing I love the most about this character is her memory palace, and the way it works as a library. If she wants to remember something, it comes up as though brought to her by a librarian. Pretty cool. Just as fun is her amazingly diverse family, if you don’t count all the cats.
It’s funny that the author takes the time to write out the Welsh dialogue, as it’s never pronounced like it’s spelled.
Despite liking Egyptian archaeology very much, I’m not enjoying this nearly as much as I did the previous books, with the flashbacks in Mesoamerica. But if nothing else, this book rekindled my interest in the 18th and 19th dynasties of Egypt. And all the references to Buffy, Firefly, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. . . seriously, this writer is from my tribe.
Long recipes and glossary at end, along with dedications. Wait, my archaeological crush Dr. Kara Cooney was in there and I missed her? Ouch. Please don’t tell her.
There was one point I disliked. In one of the sections taking place in ancient Egypt, the rulers tasks her scribe to check the records to “seek guidance from the ancients.” He does find something similar in the past, but it never occurred to the ruler that, in this time where anyone could be a suspect in the conspiracy, this guy could make up anything he wanted. . .
4/5

The Treachery of Russian Nesting Dolls
I do hate coming to a series late—this is the fourth—but it sounded too intriguing to pass up. It starts with a bang in the red-light district of Amsterdam, and the most unusual foot chase you’ll ever read.
The main character is intriguing, which is more than I can say for the plot, which did not invest me at all. The mystery-solving had its bright spots, but then the writer ruined it by not giving me a chance to solve the case; the clue that did it was not given to the audience till after. Not fun.
Second off, I didn’t like the roller coaster ending, mostly because I didn’t see the point of it. Maybe there was something in the previous books that led to that big moment, but it doesn’t seem likely. The author has an agenda we’re not privy to, other than his obvious hatred for the latest Russian baddie in power.
2.5/5

The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times
This is a picture book that wants to be more than that.
The first part reads like Intro to Human Anthropology. There’s an intriguing observation about shapes, the round and the square in Liberia shown as examples. One gorgeous photo brought good memories of Stonehenge, before it was fenced off. The Big Dipper-Great Bear-laptop thing was a bit forced, though that was quickly overshadowed by the most beautiful shot of a spiderweb ever.
This is definitely not something you should read in one sitting, with numerous philosophical discussions that will make you pause to think. This isn’t a coffeetable book that gets opened to look at pretty pictures; the photos here serve to highlight the text.
3.5/5

Love and Laughter
Right at the start, when the author introduces herself, she writes, “In the pages that follow, we’ll talk frankly (because I don’t know how to be anything else!). . . My name is Beth Liebling, and I’m a sappy, emotional, hopelessly optimistic romantic. I believe in happy fairy tales and forever love.” She also mentions that she’s a divorce lawyer. . .
A very conversational intro leads to exactly the same in the main part of the book. It’s important to go into this expecting it to be fun rather than a serious discussion about sex, though the title should have been enough of a clue. At one point she compares romance to going to the theater, then being in a play with your partner. It’s a little trite, but her enthusiasm is infectious.
There’s artwork, sometimes small shots of lingerie as chapter headers, but other times full drawings that seem cartoonish, which works in this setting. Some of the jokes are hokey, and sometimes she goes out of her way for a joke that isn’t really there, but on the other hand I prefer earnestness to sullen any day.
And that’s it exactly. More than just fun, it’s optimistic. I can easily imagine her responding the exact same way in person at her shop.
4/5

;o)

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Book Reviews: Lawyers, Profilers, Assassins, and Diplomats

Derailed
This is a small prequel to a novel I’ve already read, in which a “chosen one” teen had to fight dark forces to save the world. . . stop me if you’ve heard this before. This story tells about the first meeting between the probably doomed lovers, events that were mentioned in the previous book. Syl has a huge crush on violin-playing Rouen, going to her concert and then heavily involved in the train crash that brings them together and separates Syl from her friends.
Gotta admit, it feels kinda weird reading this after the main event. What I most liked about the main book was the humor, and that’s as evident here. It does explain why the dark fae can’t sense her, but I would have liked more on Glamma. More than anything, I wasn’t able to really picture the train crash and its aftermath, which made it difficult to follow.
3/5

Proof
Second book in a series about a former hacker/now-ethical lawyer who keeps finding herself in huge conspiracies but can never back down. This one is different in that she’s no longer with a huge law firm, now doing the attorney version of the down-on-her-luck private investigator. In this story she realizes her late grandmother’s watch has been stolen, and tracking it down leads to much bigger crimes that threaten her life and those of her friends.
I love how this author, in both books, takes a small detail and turns it into an entire plot. That takes skill and imagination. But unlike the first one, this time it felt a little more convoluted than it needed to be. I didn’t like it as much as the first, especially in the beginning, but since it was on nursing homes and that’s important to me right now, I kept reading. Thankfully in the end that didn’t turn out to be an issue. There were some intriguing new characters and everything wrapped up in the end.
3.5/5

Profiling Nathan
Cold female FBI agent falls for tattoo artist to whom she’s delivering a message. Not very likely, but that’s what makes these stories fun, right?
Right off the bat she says, “I was recruited during my last year of college and started training at Quantico right after graduation. That was sixteen years ago.” By I quickly forgot that, because she reads younger. As for him, he’s got quite a past, including some fantasy elements that tie in to the rest of the series, which I have not read, but that only comes into play here once.
Throughout the entire story it was hard to pinpoint if this was a procedural or a romance; turned out to be the latter, as there are many scenes that were strictly getting to know each other and didn’t advance the plot at all. This is especially true of the entire nudist colony setting. After finishing the romance part, it sets up for the next sequel.
I really like that this isn’t a 300-page epic like most in the genre, filled with thoughts of “I want to, but I can’t!” The romance, plus the murder mystery/serial killer plot that I figured out by chapter four—writer made it a little too obvious—took about 120 pages.
4/5

Twisted Threads
An abstract intro with rhyming couplets does nothing but prove that this author is quirky.
A Japanese mafia assassin—female and reluctant—gets one last assignment before she can be free. All she has to do is figure out which one of the passengers on a cruise ship killed a family member of the boss. Who would have guessed that an assassination mission would somehow turn into a star-crossed romance?
Unfortunately there were far too many characters introduced when the story gets to the ship. With all the setting and introductions I was completely bored. Halfway through a mysterious figure is introduced, as if there weren’t enough characters already. The last part got confusing and ever so complicated, too convoluted. Still not sure what happened or who did what. Not at all surprised at who showed up on the plane at the end.
On the other hand, the writing was pretty good. There’s one point where the main character is “eating” a tear. That’s awesome. I did like the main characters, her more than him. Snippets about her past were confusing, but that’s probably because this is part of a series that I haven’t read.
All in all, a shorter, tighter book would have been better.
3/5

Undiplomatic Episodes
A career diplomat for Great Britain discusses some of his adventures and accomplishments in a surprisingly conversational and occasionally humorous manner.
I started this book in August; I finished it in December. Part of that is attributed to its awfully slow start. Until the end it’s a chronological autobiography (the last section is on epic parties) and the dullest parts are at the beginning, especially his school years. His time in Iran, for example, was a thousand times more interesting.
Here’s a nice example of his writing style: “This was at a time when the Cold War was still going strong and the Russian bear was still very much growling.”
But there were some moments that didn’t ring true. . . not that I thought they were lies, but I can’t believe he was that cheery during certain mishaps. Only in retrospect can it feel like a great adventure.
Bats, roaches, giant toads, claustrophobia=least favorite parts.
There’s a much needed break in the middle, photos and drawings and a couple of maps.
I’m not trying to make light of it, but as someone unfamiliar with the whole thing, it seems like it doesn’t take much to get knighted.
All in all it was mostly fun and well told, although it was sometimes tough getting through the lists of food served at parties, what the royals were wearing, or what birds were spotted. I particularly enjoyed the travel descriptions, especially when he talked about places I’ve been and loved, like Dubrovnik, Finland, and Australia. Never got to see much of Iran outside the archaeological sites, so learning about that was fun too.
But I will forever question his sanity, because of that bat cave expedition. . .
3.5/5

Little Book of Lagom: How 2 Balance Your Life the Swedish Way
There are a lot more uses for Goldilocks now than there used to be, even astronomically speaking, and this could be one of them, as it is a philosophy of “not too much, not too little, just right.” Having visited Sweden often, I can attest that a lot of people really do think this way. . . which is one of the reasons I visit so often.
There’s tips to make your home more energy-efficient. There’s a crafts article on how to turn an old t-shirt into a tote bag, as well as other clothes that can be reincarnated as draft stoppers or rugs. The part about storing your clothes vertically in the drawers was a revelation, as was the advice to eat before shopping for groceries. On the other hand, the recipes meant nothing to me, as almost every one has ingredients I’m allergic to or can’t stand. Same with the garden.
Like many advice books, there’s a lot of what’s usually called common sense, even if it isn’t. . . common. It really doesn’t feel much different than other similar books, simply using the Swedish connection as a way to supposedly differentiate.
3/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Dresses, Crimes, Fire, Cows, and Aliens

A Dress the Color of the Sky
A depressed self-loathing woman who can only find self-worth in sex with strangers checks into a harsh addiction clinic, wanting to save her marriage and do better for her teen son. As soon as she gets to group therapy, the story goes into flashback mode: childhood filled with abuse, moving away from daddy across the country, leaving her ducks behind. She makes a friend, and has her brother, but not exactly what you’d call a great support system. It all shows how she came to be so screwed up, but as necessary as they are to explain how she got to where she is, they sure are tough to get through.
In contrast, the chapters in rehab come across almost slice-of-life. . . if you live in a rehab facility, that is. (For the record, I don’t. . . really! I swear!)
I get why this book was written, but it’s so depressing! It’s sad, but it’s tough because there’s also a lot of funny sprinkled here and there. It took me forever to read, because every time something bad happened to her, I had to take a break.
A few days after finishing I was still conflicted. Had I known what this would be like, I would not have started it. Stories like these are just too difficult for me. But I finished it. I can’t really say I liked it, though there was nothing wrong with the writing. One of the discussion questions at the end asked which half of the book I preferred, and I can wholeheartedly say the present rather than the past. Every time I felt happy for her progress in therapy I got plunged back into her history of abuse. Just too rough.
2.5/5

Twisted Crimes
An elderly couple go to the wrong funeral and end up dead. DCI Sophie Allen—my current police crush—eventually shows up to find out why. Though the reason for the initial crime seems ridiculously slight, there’s no doubt such things do happen. That reason also makes it more difficult for the police to solve it, giving the whole team a chance to shine.
Halfway through I realized that, other than the hike with her husband (which was really work-related), there hadn’t been anything about her family in this one. Considering the previous editions and especially the last few, it seemed glaring.
I love this series. Despite the seriousness of the crimes, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The very last scene wasn’t necessary, but I’m glad it’s there. Also glad the bad guys got what was coming to them, taken down by women, and not just Sophie this time.
4/5

Evil Crimes
In this installment of the fantastic series, DCI Sophie Allen and her squad, as well as cops in other jurisdictions, track a serial killer the likes of which they’d never seen before. There’s a huge twist a little past halfway, where it seems the investigation is over, but it continues on to a great climax that I would not have expected.
Even without all the newcomers in other parts of the country, there’s a lot of detectives to keep track of, and I’ve read every book in the series! Even though that’s realistic, I wish there could have been less people to keep track of. But that’s a minor point.
The writing is as smooth as ever, Sophie is as spectacular as ever, and Rae’s really making her mark. I like that Rae’s transition, while mentioned a few times, isn’t treated as a big deal. But more than anything, it takes an excellent writer to make you have sympathy for the story’s devil.
I’m not going to say this is the best of the series, but it is my favorite.
4/5

Proving Ground
A new security agent, full of insecurities and the weight of being a legacy, is on a stakeout at an airport and then follows her prey to an illicit meet, where everything of course goes wrong. Wouldn’t be much of story if it didn’t, right?
There’s decent surveillance tradecraft in the opening chapter. . . until the end, of course. Unfortunately that’s pretty much the end of that stuff as the plot settles into a mostly usual “girl back in town dealing with family and ex” story. Then it’s about survival.
From the beginning the stubbornness is off the charts. Though there might be such people here and there in the world, most really don’t behave this way in real life, become they end up doing something that teaches them better. . . or gets them killed! Stuff like this makes me like the characters a lot less. For instance, at one point toward the end, when she’s about to do the job she’s been trained for, he again tells her she shouldn’t be doing this. I actually screamed—inside my head—“Dude, shut up! She’s doing this, so either help her or get out of the way!” I was actually wondering if there was anyone in this book who wasn’t stupidly stubborn.
But the absolutely worst moment—trying not to spoiler—happens when she’s rescued but neglects to tell anyone about (something really bad) that’s going to happen. Argh! Why didn’t she? Because then she couldn’t be the hero at the end! This sacrificed any chance I could have had of finding her competent. Also, the cool and calm bad guy, as he was established early on—and what a coincidence that she ends up in exactly the same place he does—is shown being anything but at just the right time for her to notice. Very contrived scene.
Although I enjoyed the writing, I couldn’t help but feel there was too much introspection, in what is a short book anyway. There’s always some, of course, but there was so much thinking here, often hashing out the same ground, that it probably took up half the book. And everyone’s stubbornness didn’t make me feel like rooting for them.
2.5/5

Holy Crap! The World is Ending!
“It was a fairly warm night, a typical summer evening in Southern California.” You know that when a book starts like that, things are gonna get crazy. There’s also what might be the weirdest intro ever, but it sure did the job of preparing me for what was to come.
Which was basically: Earth is about to be destroyed; there’s a way to save humanity; some aliens want to, some don’t; aliens are among us, some of them very sexy; a seemingly ordinary girl is the Chosen One to save the planet.
It’s really cutesy, and somehow it managed to go through the entire book without overdoing it, which might be the most impressive thing. Things get crazy, but oddly enough after a while they get a bit predictable, but at least it’s funnier than previous tries of this kind of story. Even the fact that Part 2 starts at 89% made me laugh. But the most humorous stuff has to be the funny/weird tiny full-color drawings. The cow will haunt me despite her innocent look, especially the one where she’s holding a rose and a bottle of alien wine. . . while wearing a space helmet. In another she’s holding an ankh; I don’t know if I find that more weird or more normal.
I love the contents of the ark of the covenant, so much better than Indy’s version. The historical stuff all goes together nicely. . . if, you know, aliens.
Somewhere along the line the author decided to redeem Inanna, and boy did it work! Big time! I love her now.
Okay, a lot of research went into this. Felt a bit giddy whenever I recognized something, like Gilgamesh. The material is obviously taken seriously by the author, which is why it’s such a surprise that this book was just so darned funny, and fun. You hear a lot about wacky adventures, but this one actually lives up to the billing. More than anything, I have no idea if I would run away screaming or fall in love if I ever met Amber.
4/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Crime, Clothing, and Care

Hunger Moon
“It is loose in the country. Everywhere, now. In the very highest corridors of power. There will be a showdown.”
The series was leading to this from the start, but it couldn’t be any more timely. Cara tries to stay away from all men because there’s a price on her head, but in the meantime other women have taken up her just but gruesome cause. It all leads up to a confrontation with possibly the worst bad guy of them all.
“He’d even at one point suspected his own Agent Singh.” Been waiting the whole series for my girl Singh to make her mark, but I sure didn’t expect it to be like this, though I’ll bet Epps will like it, once he gets used to it.
Like Anne Franks’ diary, this is a painful read. Scarier than her earlier horror works, so difficult to read because it’s so plausible. But it’s brilliantly written, Ms. Sokoloff’s best work to date.
4.5/5

The Informed Patient
This definitely lives up to its title, although by the end of it a more truthful name would be “The Overinformed Patient.”
As one example, the section on IVs and catheters was way too long. There’s no way an explanation of every little nuance was necessary. Same with the description of every kind of chest tube; far too detailed for readers who don’t have a degree in medicine. So many procedures are mentioned this becomes more of a reference book. Some sections are repeated, more than once; at one point it’s acknowledged. This book feels like the first draft came out too short and needed padding.
I applaud the author for the idea, but it’s still not explained down enough for regular people. In fact, the last tenth of the book is glossary, because no one expects the readers to know all the medical jargon tossed around. This is not the kind of book you read, remember, and pass on. There’s so much here that, while a little dumbed down, is hardly comprehensible.
I’m going to treat this as a reference book, ready to be looked up as needed.
3/5

The Crime Book
I didn’t know DK did anything but travel books, though this follows the format set by those.
The most intriguing fact hits right at the beginning: the first known homicide occurred 430,000 years ago.
This book turned out to have a pretty standard design, in the form of a reference book: one- or two-page chapters on famous criminals or crimes, with panels featuring similar acts. Each chapter is led with a meaningful title and an even more meaningful drawing, a caricature of the crime in question; my fave was the horse and the can of paint.
Some of the categories really aren’t, more like broad labels: celebrity murder, desert murder, and so on. Don’t expect anything in-depth here, merely something to pique your interest so you can explore the fascinating crime further on your own. Other than to let the reader know about a particular case, there’s nothing here that can’t be found in other books or the internet.
3/5

Killer Fashion
Subtitled: “Poisonous Petticoats, Strangulating Scarves, and Other Deadly Garments Throughout History.” But despite all that, it’s easy to think of this as a comedy, albeit a dark one.
Simple rhyming couplets accompany an illustration in each story. . . and just to keep the rhyme motif, they’re mostly gory. Best rhyme: “boast” and “ghost.”
If you hate your mother-in-law, give her artificial silk.
The long history of asbestos was intriguing.
Mercury poisoning was known as the “mad hatter’s disease.”
Beauty—supposed beauty, anyway—sure had a heavy price; from belladonna eyeballs to lightning bras to strangling corsets to high heels to lead makeup. . .
Despite how it eventually turned out, I love that a new hairstyle came out of falling off a horse.
Poor Jean Harlow. . .
The scariest part, even if it was a sign of the times, was the newspaper editorial that stated, “What of woman’s mission to be lovely?”
Ends with ten pages of sources.
If you’re into fashion and macabre—if you like your humor black and morbid—this is for you.
3.5/5

Full Service Blonde
“Once I decided to go to Las Vegas, no one could have talked me out of it.”
It’s amazing how different this book is from the other by Megan Edwards I’ve read, Strings. That book was so fantastic I have no doubt it left a high mark for this one to strive for, and it came up far short.
In the end it felt like a whole lot of nothing. Copper goes everywhere but doesn’t do much. Some threads pick up halfway through, but this writing doesn’t remind me at all of the other book. It felt more like a slice-of-life than a mystery.
Strings seemed to take forever to read, but in a good way. This one took forever in the more usual sense.
The two main storylines made everything more complicated than it needed to be. I liked Copper, but I didn’t like Sierra, or many of the other characters, even the ones I was supposed to like. All the relationship stuff—hers, her parents’, etc.—just felt like too much, or the mystery she eventually solved too little.
2.5/5

101 Protocols for Online Dating
Stuff to do–and not do–when looking for love in all the electronic places.
A lot of the stuff offered is common sense, but we all know that common sense isn’t. . . common.
I wonder why the author decided to call these protocols, like it was some top-secret dossier in a spy movie. Sounds silly this way.
I guess if someone went to the trouble of buying this book, they might be inspired to take its advice, but as I said earlier, a lot of these are common sense. Some I flat out disagree with. Others are too self-serving, becoming the person the author warned us to avoid. But more than anything, there was nothing earthshattering here.
2.5/5

;o)

Book Reviews: Racing, Cops, Post-Its, and Future War

Take Out
As much as I love Judge Deborah Knott and her incredibly extended family down in the South, I’ve always preferred this author’s Sigrid Halard series, even if it is based in Noo Yawk. It’s so much fun revisiting this universe after so many years away. All the quirky characters are here, especially the clumsiest cop that’s ever existed, the Bohemian photographer/mom who’s always a hoot, and of course Roman; if you’ve read any in this series, nothing more need be said.
This time out the squad is searching for the food-poisoning murderer of two apparently homeless men, with ties to various people on one city street. Also featured on this block is a diner and a getting-close-to-your-client business that isn’t what it appears to be; you’ll see. As always, the characters are more interesting than the plot, but it winds its merry way to a satisfying conclusion anyway. Classic Maron and Sigrid.
One note—at the end the author says this:
“Although the first eight books in this series were written in what was the current “now” at the time and with absolutely no regard to aging my characters, this book takes place in the 1990s, a year after Fugitive Colors but before Three-Day Town.”
Wish she’d said that at the beginning!
4/5

Start Your Engines (Racing Hearts #1)
Ten years ago, a racing crash killed their best friend, and put the male protagonist in the hospital. Though the cause was a cut tire, the female lead blames herself, and he blames her too, so now that they’re forced to work together on the same racing team they have to figure out how to deal with those residual emotions, as well as romance blossoming between them.
Had to laugh at how this author made up names for the races, the tracks, even the series. In Tammy Kahler’s Kate Reilly series, everything is true to life other than the names of the racers, so it’s an unusual contrast. And I’m always amazed when a writer throws in the name of a favorite movie or a band I know, in this case Halestorm.
So all in all, thoroughly enjoyable. Not the same feeling as other racing stories, like Tammy Kahler’s, but then this is a romance, not a mystery. There’s an amazing amount of psychology going on here, from the usual racing stuff to PTSD. Would have felt just the same without the romance, but then I don’t think I’m the target audience here; lack of communication rather than the usual miscommunication was the problem that popped up this time.
One thing that annoyed me was that at the beginning of chapter two there’s too many male characters introduced at once! Easy there, tiger. But that was really–well, almost–the only negative. Though the driving scenes are short and undetailed, almost treated like afterthoughts, the behind-the-scenes stuff was fun. And it’s set up for a sequel.
But I would be remiss if I did not point out something that bugged me. Though it’s made obvious that the one-dimensional villain and his cronies cause crashes and otherwise screw with the protagonists, they never get punished. There’s not even a mention of the race stewards—if there are any—checking the video evidence. And while it’s said a few times that Gabrielle checks her social media, nowhere does it say how the internet feels about the jerk antagonist. Those details would have made me feel better about the ending. At times it feels like, despite setting this in the world of auto racing, the author has no interest in it, just using it as a backdrop.
3.5/5

The Post-It Note Affair
A woman bored with her marriage finds a Post-It in her purse, which changes her life in two ways: the message buoys her spirits, and she’s totally invested in finding out who put it there, hoping it’s the hot new guy at the office.
This book starts with musings on what love is, which turned out to be pretty interesting. What’s not as intriguing is her description of her husband: “full of energy, a great listener, and he utterly adores me.” I think she just described a puppy. She pretty much says so later: “But maybe that’s why it’s just gotten, well, boring. Living with Stephen is like having a really great pet. Did I just think that? He’s everything you could want in a companion.”
Luckily it gets funny at times. “I strolled into work proud of the fact that I arrived on time. Of course, no one seemed to notice. I didn’t even get a prize for that. There should be prizes for that.” Written nicely as far as style goes, but then comes a scene where she manufactures drama with her husband. . . ugh. There’s no coming back from that on the likability scale.
This is written from the woman’s point a view, a woman who’s bored with her marriage to the point where she flirts with a guy from work. That’s fine. But, and let’s not mince words here, at times she treats her husband like crap, just because he’s boring in comparison to the new guy. Never once does she try to communicate with him about it, or figure out a way to make things better. Everything’s about her. It’s incredibly rare that I don’t like a female protagonist, but here it is. And I hardly ever complain that a story is too short, but that’s the case here. I figured out who was really sending the notes early, so I wish there had been more to make me wonder. The way the story’s written leaves only one real possibility, but also serves to make her even more unlikeable. The only thing that saved it from a lower grade was the humor.
2.5/5

Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield
This review is a bit difficult for me, as I read an excellent book with the same title some years ago. Despite all attempts at not comparing, I have to admit some expectations seeped through, and the fact that they turned out to be on completely different paths didn’t help.
That other book was talking about weapons of the future, and there’s a little bit of that here: sonic waves, lasers, and other non-lethal newfangled inventions that DARPA’s working on. Twice the author lists historical military breakthroughs, but in both cases misses one of the most elementary and essential: stirrups.
But other than that small section on tech, this book is really one long surprising treatise on the philosophical, moral, and ethical implications of war in the future, rather than a description of actual warfare. There isn’t much about the tactics necessary to fight the new enemy that has made terrorism synonymous with warfare, for example. In fact, the ideas presented are not new, such as the chapter on leadership, and have always been a part of warfare since the Ancient Greeks. Perhaps he sees a need to remind people of it, and that’s fine up to a point, but the author belabors these opinions time and time again. If I’m smart enough to pick up this book, I’m smart enough not to be beat on the head over and over with the same kick. Plus it’s more likely a case of preaching to the choir of anyone interested in reading this book. For instance, he makes the point that people who are unaffected by war—in this case the American people—don’t care about the issues surrounding it. I wrote a paper on this very subject years ago, about Bosnia and Croatia and the bombing of Serbia, and I’m not exactly a military expert, so I have to say I learned very little here.
2.5/5

;o)

Netflix Fun: Department Q: Keeper of Lost Causes

Overview
Ever since the Dragon Tattoo made its mark on the world—no pun—there’s been an explosion of mystery books, movies, and TV shows from Scandinavia. I think I’ll call it EuroNoir, when you add in the new waves from Germany and France.

Writing
Great, another brooding damaged cop. He’s great with facts and conjecture, not so much with people. I’d make a sarcastic remark about that being new, but why bother?
The plot is both difficult and, ultimately, ingenious. It’s hard to believe there are people crazy enough to plot such an elaborate revenge after so many years, especially over something that happened as a child, but then this villain was clearly never in his right mind. On the other hand, he did have a clear view of what killed his parents, and I have to believe the cause of the crash could have been written better; even a little girl couldn’t have been so dumb, and how come she wasn’t wearing a seat belt?
As I will mention more below in the directing section, the opening scene, involving a shootout, was all kinds of wrong. The three cops deliberately do not wait for the backup they know is coming. Once inside they find a dead body and put away their weapons. I was actually shouting at the screen, “You haven’t cleared the building yet!” and a second later guess what happens.
There isn’t all that much that’s funny here, but at the same time it wasn’t nearly as dark as I thought it would be, especially considering the first part and the hostage situation.

Directing
There’s a big fail at the very beginning: the shootout is simply not well done, in that you can’t tell who gets shot—other than the bald guy—or where they come from. At first I thought it was the main character who caught the bullet in the head, but even had he survived that he didn’t have a scar after that. More to the point, I should not have had to wonder.
But props are deserved for the shots in the pressure chamber. It would be a pun to call it atmospheric, but even if the interior views were not done inside an actual chamber, they were appropriately claustrophobic.

Acting
Think Dr. House, if he was even more weary yet dogged.
Though the lead is good, probably the best performance goes to his assistant, Assad. Considering how the main character was at the beginning, it’s telling that by the end he and Assad are almost buddies—he even cracks a smile—especially after all the crap Assad has to put up with from him.
Another contender for best performance has to go to the victim, who stayed strong enough after three years of captivity and atmospheric pressure to shoot him the finger. It was hard to reconcile the character in the flashbacks where she’s a young vibrant politician to how she was by the time she was rescued, but she does a great job in showing the fortitude. It’s almost insane.
A special mention also goes to the actor playing the victim’s brother, a mentally impaired young man who then had to suffer through the added horror of seeing his sister abducted. There’s a moment where he goes from almost catatonia to screaming in horror that you can’t help but be amazed. . . once your heartbeat settles down.

Cinematography
As to be expected from this type of movie, it’s dark and brooding, showing parts of Copenhagen tourists don’t see. This is one of my favorite towns, and while I didn’t expect shots of the Nyhavn or the Little Mermaid, I didn’t recognize one single vista, not even in the establishing shots. Other than their brief trip to Sweden, you don’t see the beauty of Scandinavia.
But once resigned to that, it’s easier to make out individual choices. There are some shots, for example, that come right out of the horror genre. Almost as creepy are some of the establishing shots in the insane asylum, though the garden certainly looked cheery in the sunlight. Perhaps the most intriguing set was the basement office, with its labyrinth-like stacks of beige files; at times it looked like a sepia filter.

Music
Right away the tone is set with the creepy atmospheric music accompanying the opening credits. Other than that there’s nothing to talk about, as I don’t remember hearing another note the whole way through. . . which is not to say there wasn’t any music, it simply didn’t penetrate my brain.

“Feel”
After a slow start the movie gets better and better, until by the end you’re rooting for them to find her. It helps that it stops being about the detective and his hangups—other than a few brushes with Assad—and narrows its focus to the mystery.
6.5/10

;o)

Book Reviews: Empathy and Emojis

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?
Many years ago I saw Alan Alda on a TV show, something about scientific frontiers. While that’s mentioned in this book, he focuses on one particular subject, that of empathy.
It all started with an encounter at the dentist’s, where the man couldn’t get his point across to his patient because he couldn’t stop thinking like a dentist. From there Mr. Alda moved to doctors, stating, “People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another.” Another great quote is, “Not being truly engaged with the people we’re trying to communicate with, and then suffering the snags of misunderstanding, is the grit in the gears of daily life.” There’s some fascinating points where he talks about using acting practices to get doctors and others to communicate better. It didn’t take long for the realization to hit: “Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication.”
Here’s a little hint to make this book more interesting: read it in his voice, feel it reverberating inside your skull.
Most of the chapters are small, some only describing an encounter, story, or lesson that led to his conclusions, but it seems to work fine. In explaining how to better explain things, he explained everything really well. Even a book about making communication accessible can be full of jargon, but thankfully this one wasn’t.
4/5

Emoji Adventures Book 5: The Pet Unicorn
Told in first person by a kid/emoji named Annie, this story revolves around her and three others—Dot, her sister with heart-shaped eyes; Kevin, her evil twin; and Billy, a soccer-playing poop—who try to find a unicorn to claim the missing poster reward, only to find it cooler to have an actual unicorn to play with.
It takes a while to get to the first photo, with the quartet inside the fro-yo shop, showing them to be actual emoji heads on stick bodies, with hands to hold ice cream cones (but no stomachs). And yes, Billy is a poop emoji. Annie is a cute brunette with a big smile. Once I see it I can accept this ridiculous reality and treat the story as it was intended. On the other hand, the unicorn is full-bodied, not an emoji (how many times do I have to write that word?). Not forgetting other parts of social media, the chapter titles are hashtags. (Dumpster pasta should have been a hashtag too.) And of course they literally live in Emojiville.
There’s plenty of humor here, which is really the only thing it needs. Examples:
“The Ancient Egyptians were a lot more sparkly than people think.” I know exactly who to spring that line on.
“All I want to do is take this unicorn to a field of flowers and braid its mane.”
“Shakes her mane around like she’s at a heavy metal concert.” But later it’s said that unicorns like Taylor Swift, which pretty much explains everything.
And I’d gotten so into thinking of them as kids that I didn’t get their disgust when the unicorn licked Billy.
Quite an enjoyable little story, though I can’t help but think it would have been just the same without the emoji conceit. If there’s a moral here, it’s on the last page: always take the reward money. The author lists his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at the end; bet he gets inundated with emoji suggestions for the next book. And I can’t help but wonder if the upcoming Emoji movie is based on one of these books (is Sir Patrick Stewart really playing the poop?).
4/5

101 Things to Do Instead of Playing on Your Phone
I love it when the title tells you everything you need to know. However, I’m reading this on a tablet, so it was a little hard remembering it’s meant to be a physical book, which makes things like Draw a Selfie and Coloring very difficult, though not as impossible as Cutting out the Paper Airplane.
Kids’ games abound, my faves being I Spy and Cloud Zoo. Smile at someone, see if they smile back. Play Fashion Adviser has too much opportunity to turn to the dark side. I particularly like the Giving Awards one, though the fun in it is coming up with the right awards.
But there’s also quite a bit of stuff like Write Your Grocery List for Tonight’s Meal or Bucket List where it’s the same as doing it on the phone, and would be simpler. Still, most of it is fun stuff, as well as things to think about.
4/5

Wolf
A philosophy grad student at Northwestern, who despite seemingly being a good girl keeps getting into perilous dumb situations and poker games, comes across the dead body of her advisor just as he was planning to ruin her career. In addition to that there’s a Russian mafia plot that makes things convoluted, with too many characters to keep straight and flashbacks that spoil the flow.
But the author’s main purpose in writing this story is the rape culture and drugging found in colleges today, especially at frats. There’s an avenger that kicks ass—literally—but unfortunately she’s not the main character. Instead we get Jessica, the Montana cowgirl philosopher with a love of Nietzsche, who at least three times in this story passes out, either stone drunk or drugged. Yet at the end there she is getting drunk again. Did the author really intend to make her protagonist seem so stupid? Or is it trying to impart the belief that even the smartest can fall prey to drugs and evil guys. . . over and over and over? Still, you’d think that, short of admitting she was an alcoholic, she’d learn not to drink so much. It’s hard to respect people, especially those who think of themselves as so intelligent, who can’t figure things out.
Despite that the writing is pretty good, with plenty of droplets of humor. There’s a cute mention of Star Trek: The Next Generation near the end that fans will love.
3/5

;o)