Review: “Heart-Shaped Box”

Ebook Review: “Heart-Shaped Box” By Joe Hill

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In “Heart-Shaped Box,” retired rocker Judas Coyne keeps a collection of oddities and occult artifacts.  Tempted by a post on an online bidding site, Judas purchases a ghost and the dead man’s suit.  The suit is delivered in a heart-shaped box and the ghost turns up, bringing with him, with him a cold chill of unease.  We soon learn that the ghost and the online posting were not coincidences – they are the beginning of a revenge plot from the family of Judas’ ex-girl friend, who died tragically after Judas broke up with her.

The ghost, we learn is the ex-girlfriend’s stepfather and a man who specialized in ghosts and mind control.  This makes him an extremely powerful and terrifying enemy, bent on making Judas kill not only himself, but his young goth girlfriend as well.

I really can’t go any further into summarizing without giving away the nail-biting suspense and plot twists that make this novel so good.  I bought this book, because I’ve heard a lot of good things about Joe Hill recently – be it from reviews, an article in “Writer’s Digest,” or from friends.  The biggest reason I had to try this book is that Hill’s daddy is none other than the daddy of suspense – Stephen King.  Seeing as it is October, the month for thrills and chills, I departed from my usual romance genre and into the world of the creepy crawly…

…And I was very pleasantly surprised by Joe Hill – his writing is excellent and impressive, considering it is his debut novel.  Not only does it appear that genius for suspense must run in the family, I think that Joe Hill may actually be (gasp, I know this is sacrilege to the thriller genre) better than his dad.

Believe it or not, I do depart from my mainstay of romantic fiction periodically and in one of those departures, I went on a serious Stephen King bender (to be fair both horror and romance give a lot of “low brow” thrills and chills, of which I am a huge fan).  I loved “Salem’s lot” and “The Stand.”  I also read “The Shining,” and while the build-up was really, reeeeeally good,  I felt the pay-off/climax was kind of disappointing (especially after all that awesome suspense).  Joe Hill does not have that problem in “Heart-Shaped Box.”  Hill is able to sustain suspense and horror through the entire book and hits the ending just right.

I give Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box” a solid 4.5 stars out of 5 – an excellent Halloween or spooky read.  Just make sure you read it with the lights on (and with your dog by your side to protect you). 🙂  I’m definitely checking out more of Joe Hill’s novels after NaNoWriMo and I hope you do too.

Review: “Gingerbread Man”

Ebook Review: “Gingerbread man” By: Maggie Shayne

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Run, run as fast as you can.  You can’t catch me, I’m …  yep, that’s right, the “Gingerbread man.”

The “Gingerbread man” is a romantic mystery/thriller and despite the silliness of the title, I downloaded it for a modest $0.99 because 1) it is Halloween, the time for mystery, scares, and gore.  2) I love mystery/romance novels.  Why?  What’s more exciting than trying to catch a killer or solve a mystery?  Well, when the heroine is in the arms of a dark and mysterious hero – yum.  And finally 3) as a result of reading countless (and I mean countless, because I’d be embarrassed to try to assign myself a number) romance novels, I’ve become used to ridiculous titles.  If I’m at a brick and mortar bookstore, I usually thumb through a few pages to see what the writing looks like.  However, a drawback of my love affair with Amazon is that I can’t thumb through enough of the book to get a good feel of the author’s style.  As a result, I gave in to my $0.99 and average Amazon review of 4 stars rule….and bought it.

In the beginning of “Gingerbread man,” Vince (a Syracuse detective) and his partner, find the bodies of kidnap victims.  Vince, who is torn apart by this discovery (especially after promising their mother that he would find them), is told to take a mandatory vacation.  At the scene of the crime, Vince finds the children’s book, “The Gingerbread man,” which was taken from a small town library in 1983.  Vince tells his department he’s on vacation and travels to this small town in search of clues.  It is here that we meet our heroine, Holly, who is dealing with her little sister’s kidnapping 18 years earlier.  Vince comes to town and stirs up Holly’s emotions on her sister’s kidnapping by telling her that the man who confessed to her sister’s crime lied and that the killer/kidnapper is still out there.  Vince presses Holly to remember details of her sister’s kidnapping and the two try to find clues to uncover the real killer/kidnapper.

When I started reading this novel, I thought (based on the $0.99 price) that it was the work of an emerging author.  The idea of the story works for the genre and the pacing wasn’t bad, but the writing wasn’t tight – the dialogue for the detectives didn’t sound quite right and there was a lot of repetition.  Basically, the things that you might see in your own writing after the first draft.  It happens to all of us and it just means that in the second draft, you have to focus on trimming the fat.  Or, bribing friends and family members to help you edit.  However, this author is listed as a New York Times and USA Today Bestseller.  So, I’m not really sure what happened here.  Maybe her editor quit? ….or hates her?  The repetition got so bad that after getting halfway through the book, I started to worry that reading this entire novel would impact my own writing.  As a result, I skimmed the rest of the book, mainly because I’m stubborn (I paid for this book, dammit) and I wanted to see if I was right about who kidnapped the sister (I was, ha!).

Outside of a tightening of prose, there were a few things that bugged me. 1) The heroine’s name is Holly (because she was born on Christmas) and her sister (also born on Christmas, but years later) is named Ivy.  Ugh.  This might have been cute if I wasn’t already cranky with this author’s writing style.  2)  There weren’t a lot of “clues” as to who the real killer/kidnapper was.  This is important in a mystery novel – you should leave the reader with some clues (even if they’re crumbs) to either figure out who did the crime before your big reveal or upon looking back, will realize that it couldn’t have been anyone else.  That isn’t the case in the “Gingerbread man.”  I figured it out because there are a finite number of people in the book and I’ve read a lot of mystery novels.  3) I saw the “big surprise ending” coming.  Boo.

I give this book 1 star out of 5 for annoying repetition, bad editing, need of better dialogue, lack of clues, and overly cutesy heroine/sister names.

“Little Red Writing”

Cute book review: “Little Red Writing,” by Joan Holub and pictures by Melissa Sweet

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(This book is obviously not my usual, but it was so cute that I couldn’t resist…)

I’m sure that many writers have, at one point in their life, perused the many books or articles that attempt to tell us how to write or how to write better.  Sometimes non-writing friends think to give writers these during the holiday season.  I’ve bought a few of these books and even gone so far as to buy a writer’s companion kit – including daily prompts or pictures to get my creative juices flowing.  While I liked the daily prompts, countless books on how to write better often leave me feeling frustrated.  Half way through, I’m thinking – “this person is just lecturing me!” Or, “rules were made to be broken!” “How many books has this joker actually written?”  And finally, “why am I reading this when I can be writing?”  While some writers find these books helpful, I generally find them constraining and suffocating.  The one exception that I’ve found is Stephen King’s “On writing,” which is insightful, well-written, and terrifyingly brilliant.  Okay, it’s not actually terrifying, but it’s Stephen King, so it feels weird not adding that into something he wrote.

Now, this colorful little book doesn’t give you any real writing advice that you don’t already know.  But, it is a short and sweet journey into the creative process through our main character – Little Red, a brave little pencil that is writing a story for class.  The story book illustration and the story itself soothe my sometimes cranky author’s heart.  Little Red makes sure to use exciting verbs instead of boring ones, cuts through an adjective forest that she almost gets lost in, uses conjunction glue to pull sentences together, and fights the Wolf 3000 (the meanest, hungriest pencil sharpener of them all) before saving the day.  🙂

I think this will be my go-to feel good book when I feel lost in prose or have become frustrated with my glacial writing pace –  like an “oh, the places you’ll go,” type of book for struggling writers.  And, it also doubles as an actual children’s book for when you read nighttime stories to your children/nieces/nephews/cute puppies/bored cats.  🙂 All-in-all, I give this book 4 out of 5 stars for originality and sweetness.

Review: “Black Hills”

Book Review: “Black Hills” By: Nora Roberts

image“Black Hills” is a mystery/romance novel that follows the story of Lil and Coop.  The two meet as children, when Coop’s parents send him to visit his grandparents in South Dakota, while they jet off to Italy to save their shattering marriage.  Coop, sad and upset at his parent’s treatment, finds refuge on his grandparent’s farm and finds a best friend in a neighbor, Lil.  The two see each other on and off over the next few years.  They begin a sweet, summer romance when Coop visits South Dakota just before Lil starts college.  Lil falls hard and fast for Coop, but inevitably, the long distance in their relationship (Coop lives in NYC) gets in the way.  Coop breaks it off and breaks Lil’s heart (what a jerk, but don’t worry, Lil will make him work for it later).

Years later, Coop returns for good when his grandfather hurts his leg.  Meanwhile, Lil has done very well for herself – earning a doctorate, opening a wildlife refuge, and making a name for herself in her field (yay for heroines that are smart and capable!).  But trouble lurks – a serial killer has set his sights on Lil and our hero and heroine have to work through their feelings on their past before moving into the future.

Typical of Nora Roberts, whether she’s writing a romance or thrillers under her other pen name (J.D. Robb), the book is fast paced and the characters are alive.  As with most of her books, I highly recommend this one if you like romance and thriller/mystery wrapped up in one package.  Five stars. 🙂

As a side note, let me just say that no one writes a romance novel like Nora Roberts.  She is one of the most prolific romance novelists that I know of and the good stories just keep coming.  In each of her books, Roberts shows a beautiful attention to detail – whether it be in painting the scenery, building characters, and even giving the reader background on interesting information (like animal conservation efforts, in this book) that the hero/heroine specialize in.  So many writers both love and hate to write (I’m one of them), and it causes them to skip over some of the flavor that can make a novel more vivid for the reader.  Nora Roberts is able to give us the poetic prose that enriches a story, without it weighing down the action and devious plot twists that make her mysteries so thrilling (and so page turning that I want to stay up half the night reading).  Girl, you are inspiring!  And I can’t wait for her next one to come out. 🙂

Review: “Beg (Songs of Submission)”

E-book review of “Beg (Songs of Submission)” by: CD Reiss

imageIf you couldn’t tell by the title or the cover art, “Beg” (about 100 pages) is the first in an erotic novella series.  It is the story of Monica, a struggling/aspiring singer, and the multi-millionaire, Jonathan (I know, I know.  But if we discounted every book with a wealthy character in it, we would cut out a large part of the romance/erotica genre).

In its summary, “Beg” is compared with the likes of that infamous saga, “50 Shades of Grey.”  As I could not get past the first few pages of 50 Shades (because the writing was terrible), I can’t vouch for this novella’s similarities.  This story is told in the first person from Monica’s perspective.  In addition to fleshing out Monica’s character fairly nicely and in a short novella, the author adds interesting side characters that populate Monica’s life.  This allows the novella, in a sub-genre that notoriously lacks substance, to have more depth than I was expecting.  The novella was free, a fast read, well-paced, and had a surprising amount of substance for an erotic short.  As a result, I give it a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars.  If you’re unaccustomed to the erotic genre, this is not a bad story to start in, as it shouldn’t send you running for the hills screaming.  It does, obviously, have graphic adult content and if that’s not your cup of tea, I wouldn’t recommend you buying it.

I have to confess that while I’m no stranger to erotic fiction, I don’t read very much of it.  I actually decided to get the free kindle version of this novella because 1) it was free (I’ve downloaded the most inane books because they were free) and 2) the silliness of the cover art – it actually made me cackle in glee.  I mean, look at it: have you ever seen a flower have that much fun?  This brings me to another growing trend in the romance and erotic genres – cover art fruit and flowers.  Never in my life have I seen so many sweaty, plump, and succulent pieces of produce – not even in commercials designed to make me buy them.  The whole thing makes me erupt into a fit of giggles (I am, in fact, waiting for a certain bookstore to kick me out when this happens) and gives me the urge to open my refrigerator to make sure my produce is adequately cool and not beaded in sweat.

“Mirrorlight (Once Upon a Time-Travel)”

E-book review: “Mirrorlight (Once Upon a Time-Travel)” By: Jill Myles

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“Mirrorlight” is a romantic short story about Cora, who is asked to babysit an old castle in England.  When a mysterious man begins to appear on the other side of a mirror, Cora becomes determined to learn more about him and how to get him to keep coming back (age-old romance novel problem, I know 🙂 ).  Sparks fly when Cora and our mystery man learn they can touch each other through the mirror.  But can Cora keep a relationship with a man that’s from the past?

A lot of romance novellas have been popping up on Amazon and I believe that it is a great way for emerging authors to get their names out there and their stories read.  Most of the time, these novellas are free or sold at a cheap $0.99.  I tend to download them for fun and to give a new author a chance.  The beauty of them is that if the story is not to your liking, there’s not a lot of love lost (with the low price) and not a lot of time lost either (as you can generally plow through one in a few hours).  The drawback to the novella form for romance is that a lot of times, assuming the characters don’t already know each other, the falling in love part can be very rushed and/or sickeningly sweet.

That was not the case in “Mirrorlight.” Instead of falling for the hero right away, (thankfully) she was a little concerned and mostly curious when our dark hero shows up on the other side of the mirror.  The story was nicely paced for the short novella form and heroine/hero bond doesn’t seem too rushed or overly silly.  There’s also funny little neighbor in the story, who helps fill in the gaps on the history of the castle and the mystery man for our heroine (and the reader).

All in all, I’d say this is a good start for this author as well as a fun and enjoyable read.

Reading and writing smut in public

On the hazards of reading and writing romance

imageI’ve recently become open about reading romance novels to more than just the friends that giggle with me in the romance section of various book stores, and more than that – I’ve become open about the fact that I like to write this genre.

Reading romance novels in public can be difficult in its own right.  For some reason, strangers and friends find the need to look down on you in disdain for reading what they deem to be low brow literature.  Some friends or coworkers smirk or shake their heads when they learn of my reading habits, while others mutter, “I thought you were smarter than that.”  Ha!  No other genre is more looked down upon than romance.  The girls at http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com talk a lot about this issue in their book, “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels” (which I highly recommend to anyone who loves romance novels).  In my opinion, most of the people that look down on this genre:  1) think only dumb or silly girls read it, 2) have never read a romance novel,  or 3) haven’t fully explored all of the subgenres (What? You say you like Amish people?  Well buddy, I assure you there is at least one romance novel for you.  You like books on murders, the regency time period, and petticoats?  Lucky you, because there are a ton of them).

Over the course of my business travels, I’ve uploaded many a romance novel onto my iPad.  I find that reading ebooks stops a lot of the pointless hassles that are accompanied with burying your nose in a book with a cover that displays models in mid o-face.  But reading on the iPad has brought its own hassles, people leaning over to see what I’m reading or flight attendants reading over my shoulder.

Worse still, is admitting that you write romance novels.  Some people, when they learn that I’m a writer, are very supportive until they find out that I write romance.  Then, throats are cleared, bodies fidget, and noses turn up.  I think the thing that makes them the most upset is the whole bit about adult content and sex.  Adult content turns up in all genres, but obviously is more likely to be present in romance (second place to fantasy writers, you dirty elvish freaks :p).  Personally, I enjoy books with adult content (be it sex, struggling, or what have you), because I like my stories to be messy.  It’s the messy bits in a story that really reach out and grab you.  Like life,  books would be boring without the messy stuff to balance out the poetic prose and the neat and tidy.

I’ve learned to not be embarrassed when other people frown at what I read or write, but it has taken me awhile to get here.  Today, if people look shocked when I tell them what I write, I let my lips curl into a fiendish smile that one of my heroines might wear and begin to defend my genre.

Review – “The Good Daughter: A Mafia Story (Vista Security Origin)”

Ebook review: “The Good Daughter: A Mafia Story (Vista Security Origin)” By: Diana Layne

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*Warning: spoilers below*

There are two couples at the center of this origin novel: Nia/Sandro and Marisa (daughter of Mafioso)/Dave (FBI agent).  Nia and Sandro are married with one child (and another on the way), while Marisa and Dave seem to fulfill our need for a budding romance.

Pieces of Nia and Sandro’s courtship are told in flashbacks, which are juxtaposed against the story of Nia’s kidnapping by Marisa’s mafia family (in an attempt to get to Sandro) and our heroes/heroine’s attempts to save Nia.  Prior to this kidnapping, Marisa decides to help the FBI gather evidence against her mafia family after witnessing many of her father and brother’s crimes.

The action and pacing in this novel weren’t too bad.  Although this is an origin novel and therefore a part of a series (groan), I think it was mischaracterized as a “romance novel.”

The biggest reason why this is not my idea of a romance novel, is that in a flashback, we learn that Dave attempted to rape his childhood friend, Nia.  During this scene Dave cannot be stopped, despite Nia fighting back, until his older brother happens upon them and stops the act.  As a result of this flashback, I believe that FBI agent Dave is no longer a hero/protagonist.

The author’s inclusion of an attempted rape scene exposes a dark secret of the romance genre – the hero raping the heroine, commonly known as forced seduction.  This does not happen in most romance novels anymore, but it does exist in many of the older, historical novels.  Rape is not about drunken mistakes or about unrequited love (as the author seems to allude to in the scene with Nia and Dave), it is criminal and about the abuse of women.  What is perhaps the most frightening of all, is that some reviewers of the ebook on Amazon refer to this scene as Dave simply “making a mistake,” or worse yet, they ignore the scene completely and declare that the author has created an excellent hero.  I completely disagree.  This event is catastrophic and terrible.   FBI agent Dave is not a hero or a good guy, and quite frankly,  is a character that I have lost interest in.

I generally dislike to give a completely negative review, but as a result of the author’s supposed “hero” attempting to rape someone, I rate this book as extremely disappointing and would not recommend it.

Review: “Armed and Fabulous”

E-book review:

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“Armed and Fabulous” by Camilla Chafer:

I got this book off of kindle and at the time, I believe, it was free or fairly cheap, now it’s $2.99, which is a sort of testament to how enjoyable this book is.  “Armed and Fabulous” is the first in a series about Lexi Graves, a temp turned sleuth that is investigating a crime (with the help of her fun best friend) and tasked with the annoying honor of planning her perfect sister’s baby shower.  It is hilarious and similar in style to the Stephanie Plum series (like the movie “One for the money,” only much funnier). This book works well as the first in a series or even as a standalone book.  I really enjoyed it – and give it a solid four out of five caffeinated beverage stars for its page turning excitement and hilarity.  🙂

And that says a lot, as I’m not generally one for series.  My usual problem with them is time and commitment – I know, it’s shallow – but, I like the end of a book to be THE END, not just a cliffhanger or a dangling string.  There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – there are series that are engaging and wonderful (like Harry Potter).  Then there’s that consistency issue that a lot of series have, where halfway through, something happens that just doesn’t make sense in the realm of what we know of the characters – like with Sookie and Bill (what do you mean, he was never really in love with her?).  Though to be fair, I love the Sookie series and love Sookie with Eric.

But, with a romantic series – it’s a whole different ball of wax.  We see the heroine go back and forth (and sometimes in more directions) like a ping-pong ball – and we all can see the set up.  There’s bachelor #1) who our heroine will end up with in the first book.  But, hang on – there’s a darker and even more mysterious man, that our heroine is also drawn to and (gasp) she ends up with him in another book.  It’s kind of annoying after the fourth or fifth iteration, when our fun and funny heroine still can’t make up her mind.  Again, there are of course exceptions to every rule (like Sookie).  But I guess I just prefer my heroine to be done with her wanderings, at least by the end of a trilogy –  like in the Sleeping Beauty series.

What does seem to work (for romance, at least) are the series that center around a group of friends or siblings – you get to hear all of their separate stories, but still check in with the characters that you loved in the last book (usually, they’re pregnant – but I’m sure I’ll post more on that another time).

Book Reviews

Before I loved to write, I loved to read.  I credit my love of reading to my mom, who only gave in to a plea to stay up past  bedtime if the time was spent reading.

Of course, it wasn’t until middle school that “suitable” reading material was supplemented by sneaking romance novels from my mom’s stash of them in our basement – unbeknownst to her, of course.

I love to read a wide variety of fiction (I sometimes even branch out to non-fiction), but I have recently turned back to romance.  I am also a fan of emerging e-book authors, which I find on kindle.  I enjoy these ebooks because, first, they tend to be cheap (we did only recently exit a recession and I read a shit-ton of books) and second, I like the idea of taking a chance on someone new.

So, I’ll be posting a few reviews of ebooks and also regular books that I’ve happened across in trolling through bookstores (whether they be brick and mortar book stores or online).