Friday, August 30, 2013


Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond
Algonquin Books, 2004
Kindle eBook, 284 pages

A self-professed candyfreak, Steve Almond set out in search of a much-loved candy from his childhood and found himself on a tour of the small candy companies that are persevering in a marketplace where big corporations dominate.
From the Twin Bing to the Idaho Spud, the Valomilk to the Abba-Zaba, and discontinued bars such as the Caravelle, Marathon, and Choco-Lite, Almond uncovers a trove of singular candy bars made by unsung heroes working in old-fashioned factories to produce something they love. And in true candyfreak fashion, Almond lusciously describes the rich tastes that he has loved since childhood and continues to crave today. Steve Almond has written a comic but ultimately bittersweet story of how he grew up on candy-and how, for better and worse, the candy industry has grown up, too.
Candyfreak is the delicious story of one man's lifelong obsession with candy and his quest to discover its origins in America.

My Thoughts:

In Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America author Steve Almond tells us three important facts in the prologue:
1. The author has eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life. (pg 1)
2. The author thinks about candy at least once an hour.  (pg 3)
3. The author has between three and seven pounds of candy in his house at all times. (pg 6)
Almond also admits he has a stash of 14 boxes of Kit Kat Limited Edition Dark in a warehouse as well as other secret stashes of candy in case of an emergency.

Obviously Almond has established his candy street creds to be the self-titled candyfreak, although he admits:
"I am not blind to the hypocrisy of my conduct, nor to the slightly pathetic aspects of my freakdom. I am, after all, in my mid-thirties, suffering from severe balding anxiety and lowerback pain. I am not exactly the target demographic." (pg 8)

Besides being a candyfreak, Almond began to reminisce about favorite candy bars that were no longer made, the Caravelle,  or candy he had when he lived in California that is not available in Massachusetts. This lead him to investigate some of the independent candy companies that are still in business. He met the owners, toured the factories, saw the steps they took to make their candy, and, naturally, received numerous free samples. His visits include trips to: Dorchester, Massachusetts  where Necco wafers and candy hearts are made; Burlington, Vermont  and the Five Star Bar; Sioux City, Iowa's Palmer Candy, maker of the Twin Cherry Bing; Kansas City's Sifers' Valomilk, Boise, Idaho's Idaho Candy Company, maker of the Idaho Spud; and California's Annabelle Candy Company, maker of the Big Hunk, U-no, and Abba-Zaba.

Almond also interviews some other interesting characters.  Steve Traino, another candyfreak, buys and sells discontinued items online on the nostalgia market. Ray Broekel, who wrote two books on the history of candy bars has a collection of memorabilia and is the industry's historian. The history of the candy bar is also the history of the big three: Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. Their power has greatly endangered the local independent candy makers - that and the cost to have your product displayed on store shelves, slotting fees, which are ridiculously high.

I found Candyfreak wildly entertaining. Almond was hilarious at times. His genuine interest in candy and how it is made as he describes the candy-making process at various factories was palpable and palatable. If there was one drawback to  Candyfreak it was that the tours of the factories, while focusing on different products, also seemed to be very similar experiences.  
I very highly recommend Candyfreak



Every now and again, I’ll run into someone who claims not to like chocolate or other sweets, and while we live in a country where everyone has the right to eat what they want, I want to say for the record that I don’t trust these people, that I think something is wrong with them, and that they’re probably—this must be said—total duds in bed. Page 16

I suppose I was aware, in an abstract way, that there were men and women upon this earth who served in this capacity, as chocolate engineers. In the same way that I was aware that there are job titles out there such as bacon taster and sex surrogate, which is to say, job titles that made me want to weep over my own appointed lot in life. But I had never considered the prospect of visiting a chocolate engineer. I could think of nothing else for days. Page 103

“What you’re eating,” Dave said, “is a dried cherry, infused with raspberry and covered in a Select Origin 75 percent dark chocolate.” He held out the bag. “Have another.” 
Here is what I wanted to say to Dave Bolton at that precise moment: Take me home and love me long time, GI.“ Page 104   

In some sense, though, this decadence is a return to the pre-Columbian days of cocoa, when the bean was viewed as a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl and considered the domain of royalty. Five hundred years later, Theobroma cacao (literally: food of the gods) remains the single most complex natural flavor in the world. Flavorists have been trying to reproduce the taste for decades—and they’re nowhere near doing so. This is because chocolate is made up of more than 1,200 chemical components, many of which give off distinct notes, of honey or roses or even spoiled fish. There’s even one chemical in chocolate that’s cyanide-based. This is to say nothing of chocolate’s oft-touted psychoactive ingredients, which include caffeine, theobromine (increases alertness), phenylalanine and phenylethylamine (both known to induce happiness), and anandamide, which is similar to THC (yes, stoners, that THC). In truth, most of the brouhaha over these chemicals is trumped up. They only occur in trace amounts. The main reason chocolate is the ultimate physiological freak is because it’s half sugar and half fat. Page 107

I will leave it to the reader to determine just what sort of “diet” would encourage the consumption of these ingredients, though it bears mentioning that this product is but one in a tsunami of pseudo–candy bars, variously called PowerBars, Granola bars, Energy Bars, Clif Bars, Breakfast Bars, Snack Bars, Wellness Bars, and so on, all of which contain roughly the same sugar and fat as an actual candy bar—with perhaps a dash of protein sawdust thrown in—but only half the guilt, and stand as a monument both to shameless marketing and the American capacity for self-delusion, particularly in matters related to consumption (see also: frozen yogurt, fat-free chips, and low-calorie lard). Page 135

Most of our escape routes are also powerful reminders; and whatever our conscious motives might be, in our secret hearts we wish to be led back into our grief.  Page 250

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In the Company of Wolves

In the Company of Wolves: Thinning the Herd by James Michael Larranaga
Create Space, 9/1/13
eBook, 350 pages
ISBN13:  9781478320418
Quin Lighthorn was released from a mental institution in order to help the FBI with an undercover operation—or so he thought. As part of Lighthorn’s undercover job, he becomes an intern at Safe Haven, a firm that pays out a portion of a life insurance plan to a terminally ill person so long as that person makes the firm the insurance policy’s beneficiary. Within minutes of his first day on the job, Lighthorn witnesses a murder. From there, the plot begins to unravel.

My Thoughts:

In the Company of Wolves: Thinning the Herd is the first book in a new series by James Michael Larranaga. Quin Lighthorn begins his job as an intern at Safe Haven, a firm that specializes in viatical settlements - buying life insurance policies from terminal policy holders for a reduced amount. What the firm doesn't know is that Quin is an undercover bounty hunter for the FBI - or is he? Quin has left a mental health facility to take on this undercover assignment.

Since Quin claimed to previously work for the forestry department tracking wolves, each chapter is organized as a time and day, and opens with a fact or reference to wolves and their behavior. In the novel Quin's co-workers at Safe Haven are all compared to wolves and wolf packs in the hierarchy and behaviors they exhibit too.

Let me just say right up front that Quin is an unreliable narrator but you aren't going to know that immediately. Now, I can roll with that, but the number of twists and turns and additional information that suddenly popped up frustrated me. I was intrigued with the additional information the first few times it happened. I can accept an unreliable narrator and changing perspectives of the plot as more information is revealed, however, at a certain point the number of new revelations became slightly ridiculous.

And let me go on record to say that Quin's therapist violated all sorts of HIPPA regulations. The college and professor violated FERPA laws. Any professional can't just spout off and tell anyone everything they want to know about their patients or students just because they ask or because they made up a good story. 

Setting those misgivings aside, Larranaga's novel held my attention right to the end and I followed along as it twisted and convulsed right up to the "to be continued" ending. Take heed of this fact if it's going to bother you that all the questions aren't answered.

This is a hard one to rate. It started out strong, dwindled perilously low, and slowly redeemed itself to rise again. I'm going to Recommend In the Company of Wolves: Thinning the Herd, maybe even highly because I am still interested in reading what happens next.

Disclosure: My Kindle advanced reading copy was courtesy of the author via Netgalley for review purposes.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Random House: 9/3/2013

Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385528788

Bringing together Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, this thrilling conclusion to Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction trilogy points toward the ultimate endurance of community, and love.
Months after the Waterless Flood pandemic has wiped out most of humanity, Toby and Ren have rescued their friend Amanda from the vicious Painballers. They return to the MaddAddamite cob house, newly fortified against man and giant pigoon alike. Accompanying them are the Crakers, the gentle, quasi-human species engineered by the brilliant but deceased Crake. Their reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is recovering from a debilitating fever, so it's left to Toby to preach the Craker theology, with Crake as Creator. She must also deal with cultural misunderstandings, terrible coffee, and her jealousy over her lover, Zeb.
Zeb has been searching for Adam One, founder of the God's Gardeners, the pacifist green religion from which Zeb broke years ago to lead the MaddAddamites in active resistance against the destructive CorpSeCorps. But now, under threat of a Painballer attack, the MaddAddamites must fight back with the aid of their newfound allies, some of whom have four trotters. At the center of MaddAddam is the story of Zeb's dark and twisted past, which contains a lost brother, a hidden murder, a bear, and a bizarre act of revenge.
Combining adventure, humor, romance, superb storytelling, and an imagination at once dazzlingly inventive and grounded in a recognizable world, MaddAddam is vintage Margaret Atwood—a moving and dramatic conclusion to her internationally celebrated dystopian trilogy.

My Thoughts:

He tries to explain why the lights go on, but they’re puzzled. It’s obvious to them that the light bulbs are like lumiroses, or the green rabbits that come out at dusk: they glow because Oryx made them that way. (Location 811-813) 

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood is the third and final part of Atwood's dystopian speculative fiction series that began with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. While Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood took place during the same time period, MaddAddam continues the story on from the point the first two novels left off. MaddAddam is being released on September 3rd.

Having read the first two novels, I would encourage everyone to read them first before proceeding on to MaddAddam, however several reviewers feel MaddAddam can stand on its own merit. (Okay, let's be honest, anything Margaret Atwood writes can stand on its own merit.) There is a review of what happened in the first two novels at the beginning of MaddAddam that neatly summarizes the narrative in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, leading up to the current action.

The story of Jimmy, the Crakes, Toby, Zeb, Ren, and Amanda are all continued. This future depicts a society that has been wiped-out by a plague created by Crake. In the backstory we know that before the waterless flood, corporations ruled. Gene splicing and genetic alterations were common. Now human beings as we know them are almost all wiped out and the genetically altered wildlife and plant life flourish. I'm unsure about how much of the story to tell because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who is planning to read all three books. If you look at today's headlines, though, Atwood's speculated outcome doesn't seem far-fetched at all.

Can I just say "Wow!"and "Bravo!" In MaddAddam Atwood did an astounding job continuing her story telling, mythology-making, and world building until they reached a credible conclusion. Yes, the big themes are heavy, cautionary, and serious and there are many profound statements and observations:

"But hatred and viciousness are addictive. You can get high on them. Once you’ve had a little, you start shaking if you don’t get more." (Location 323-324) 
"Perfection exacts a price, but it’s the imperfect who pay it."( Location 719)
But there are also many humorous, lighthearted moments. Take these two exchanges between Toby and the Crakes:
"I am doing this thing with my hands on my forehead because I have a headache. A headache is when there is a pain in your head.
Thank you. I am sure purring would help. But it would also help if you would stop asking so many questions.
Yes, I think Amanda must have a headache too." (Location 1486-1489)

"Stupid means things Crake didn’t like. There were a lot of things Crake thought were stupid.
Yes, good, kind Crake. I will stop telling this story if you sing.
Because it makes me forget what I am telling.
 Thank you.
So then Adam’s father..." (Location 1815-1819)
And two more tidbits:
"Too bad Chuck was dead, in a way – he must’ve had some good sides to him, maybe he liked puppies – but now there was one less asshole in the world, and wasn’t that a plus? A checkmark in the column of the forces of light. Or darkness, depending on who was doing the double-entry moral accounting." (Location 1021-1023)

"Romance among the chronologically challenged is giggle fodder. For the youthful, lovelorn and wrinkly don’t blend, or not without farce. There’s a moment past which the luscious and melting becomes the crusty and wizened, the fertile sea becomes the barren sand, and they must feel she’s passed that moment." (Location 1501-1504)

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best.

Book Trailer


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Edelweiss for review purposes. However, it should also be noted that while I'm thrilled to have received a review copy, I per-ordered my own personal copy of MaddAddam and am anxiously awaiting it's arrival.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Returned

The Returned by Jason Mott
Harlequin; 8/27/2013
Hardcover, 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9780778315339

"Jacob was time out of sync, time more perfect than it had been. He was life the way it was supposed to be all those years ago. That's what all the Returned were."
Harold and Lucille Hargrave's lives have been both joyful and sorrowful in the decades since their only son, Jacob, died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966. In their old age they've settled comfortably into life without him, their wounds tempered through the grace of time…. Until one day Jacob mysteriously appears on their doorstep—flesh and blood, their sweet, precocious child, still eight years old.
All over the world people's loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. Not even Harold and Lucille can agree on whether the boy is real or a wondrous imitation, but one thing they know for sure: he's their son. As chaos erupts around the globe, the newly reunited Hargrave family finds itself at the center of a community on the brink of collapse, forced to navigate a mysterious new reality and a conflict that threatens to unravel the very meaning of what it is to be human.
With spare, elegant prose and searing emotional depth, award-winning poet Jason Mott explores timeless questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility. A spellbinding and stunning debut, The Returned is an unforgettable story that marks the arrival of an important new voice in contemporary fiction.

My Thoughts: 
What would you do if your dead loved ones suddenly came back to life?  That is the premise for The Returned a debut novel by Jason Mott. Harold and Lucille Hargrave's only child, Jacob, tragically drowned on his eighth birthday in 1966. The couple, now in their seventies, were questioning whether or not the Returned were real people just before Jacob, still 8 years old, is returned to them by Agent Bellamy of the International Bureau of the Returned. Harold and Lucille have to decide if they want to accept Jacob's return and accept him as their son or as a miraculous imitation of their son. And, as they struggle with the meaning of the Returned, more and more Returned are coming back, threatening to overtake the real living people, which isn't going over too well with some factions.

The numerous questions and emotions that would be swirling around in a world where loved ones come back for a time makes this a gripping premise for a novel. What was, perhaps, left unsaid could be shared. Hugs could be given. In some cases, closure could finally be found. But, alternately, how would the world cope with countless people returning to life, looking for their families or loved ones, not to mention overwhelming the resources available? And spiritual questions would naturally arise too. The logistics of a worldwide event of this magnitude are almost too numerous to list.

Mott, primarily known for his poetry, brings a special  love of language to the pages of The Returned. Simultaneously, the depth of emotions, dysphoria, and moral questions that emerge make the reader confront their own beliefs concerning the mystery of the sudden appearance of the Returned. Would it bring out the best or worst in you? Don't expect any explanation or extensive character development as the event and the plot drive the narrative. Mott ultimately provides little explanation for the Returned, focusing more on the emotional turmoil that would occur.

Apparently The Returned may be part of a series. It has been optioned to be developed as a TV series by Brad Pitt's production company.

Very Highly Recommended
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Harlequin via Netgalley for review purposes.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Etched in Sand

 Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra
HarperCollins: 8/6/2013
Trade Paperback,
306 pages

In this story of perseverance in the face of adversity, Regina Calcaterra recounts her childhood in foster care and on the streets—and how she and her savvy crew of homeless siblings managed to survive years of homelessness, abandonment, and abuse
Regina Calcaterra's emotionally powerful memoir reveals how she endured a series of foster homes and intermittent homelessness in the shadow of the Hamptons, and how she rose above her past while fighting to keep her brother and three sisters together.
Beautifully written and heartbreakingly honest, Etched in Sand is an unforgettable reminder that regardless of social status, the American dream is still within reach for those who have the desire and the determination to succeed.
My Thoughts:

 Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island by Regina Calcaterra is the true story of the abuse and neglect the author and her siblings suffered  through - at the hands of their mother and in a system that wasn't working as it should. Regina notes that her childhood made her very aware of how people in power can impact the lives of others and this knowledge helped lead her to her present day career in public service. 

Regina has two older sisters, Cherie and Camille, and a younger brother and sister, Norman and Rosie.  Regina makes it clear that their mother, Cookie, was a drunk who  was always avoiding the cops. She abused and neglected her children, abandoning them for weeks at a time. She stole, wrote bad checks, and always had a series of warrants out for her arrest. While Cookie's "aim is to put in as little effort as possible to get what she can from whom she can, including the system (pg.31)" Regina (and her older sisters) wanted to keep themselves out of the system entirely. 

These children were in an impossible situation. With their mother there was rampant abuse and neglect for certain, but in the system (foster care) lurked other very real potential dangers. As I was reading this powerful memoir, I literally had to set the book aside several times. It was so frustrating to see a system that wasn't working or groups that were unable to work together or across state lines. 

It was encouraging and inspirational to see how Regina overcame the odds. As an emancipated teen in the system it certainly appeared that she would be lucky to escape from her childhood without any long term trauma. To see how hard and tirelessly Regina worked to overcome her background is a testimony to her determination. The determination she had to try and keep her siblings together or in contact with each other was touching.

At the same time, Regina is trying to confirm that her father really is the man Cookie has always said is her father. He won't admit it is true but the evidence seems to confirm Cookie is telling the truth. It was good to see a conclusion to this question, although the fact that she had to ask it is heart-breaking.

In Etched in Sand Regina writes about her childhood in the present tense with a simple straightforward honesty which makes the narrative feel more raw and tragic, if that is even possible. We know she survived this horrific childhood to become the successful adult she is today, but while reading about some of the abuse... It's probably for the best that it is written in this manner, a recounting of the facts as she experienced them when a child.

This is a well-written personal account of a woman who overcame a deplorable childhood. It might be difficult for some people to read about the abuse, but for those who can, the triumphant conclusion of Regina's story today will outshine the appalling facts of her childhood.

Very Highly Recommended


Regina Calcaterra was appointed executive director of New York State's Moreland Commission on Utility Storm Preparation and Response by Governor Andrew Cuomo after she assisted in the recovery of Superstorm Sandy in her capacity as chief deputy executive for Suffolk County. She has provided commentary on politics and policy on national and local media outlets since 2000 and is a passionate advocate for the adoption of older foster children.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The One I Left Behind

The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon
HarperCollins, 2012
eBook,  422 pages

The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town. Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.
Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again.

My Thoughts:

"It seemed the cruelest thing a person could do—to invent hope where there was none." (Location 5832-5833)

In The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon, Reggie Dufrane is a cutting edge green architect, but back in 1985 her only friends, Charlie and Tara, were two other social outcasts in Brighton Falls, Connecticut. 1985 was the year her mother, Vera, was abducted by the serial killer called "Neptune." Neptune would kidnap the woman and then leave her severed right hand in a milk carton on the steps of the police department. Five days later the woman's body would be discovered, nude, in some public place. Vera's hand was left by the killer, but her body was never found. Reggie grew up living with her aunt Lorraine, and left Brighton Falls right after high school, never returning.

Chapters alternate between Reggie Dufrane in 1985, at age 13, and in 2010, 25 years later.

Reggie's relationship with her mother was complex and Reggie may not remember everything exactly as it was. Her "earliest memory of her mother began with her mother balancing an egg on its end and ended with Reggie losing her left ear. (Location 318-319) Vera was likely an alcoholic, but most certainly she wasn't able to provide a stable home for her daughter without living at the family home with her sister. Reggie feels alienated and unloved, which is part of being 13, but certainly losing her mother at such a vulnerable time further influenced her development.

Reggie "didn’t believe in clutter or in holding on to things that didn’t have significant meaning, so her bookcase held only the books that she referred to again and again, the ones that had influenced her: The Poetics of Space, A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, Design with Nature, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, as well as a small collection of nature guides. Tucked here and there among the books were Reggie’s other great source of inspiration: bird nests, shells, pinecones, interestingly shaped stones, a round paper wasp nest, milkweed pods, acorns, and beechnuts." (Location 260-265)

"Reggie had always been a quiet kid, even with her own family, and part of the reason for this was that she never knew the right thing to say. Words didn’t come easily to her, they were stumbling blocks rather than lines of connection. And only later, after the fact, when she was replaying conversations in her head late at night, did the right words come—a cruel joke, too little, too late." (Location 1923-1926)

Reggie had been getting phone calls for years that she attributed to Neptune.
She’d been getting the calls for years, first at home, then college, then in every apartment and house she’d ever lived in. He never said a word. But she could hear him breathing, could almost feel the puffs of fetid moisture touch her good ear as he inhaled, then exhaled, each breath mocking her, saying, I know how to find you. And somehow, she knew, she just knew, that it was Neptune. And one of these days, he might actually open his mouth and speak. She let herself imagine it: his voice rushing through the phone like water, washing over her, through her. Maybe he’d tell her the one thing she’d always wanted to know: what he’d done with her mother, why she was the only victim whose body was never found. The others had been displayed so publicly, but all they ever found of Vera was her right hand. (Location 270-276)

In spite of the harassing calls, Reggie is thriving in her present day orderly life until she receives a phone call in 2010. Her mother, Vera, has been found alive in Massachusetts. She's been in a homeless shelter for the past couple of years under an assumed name, but now she is dying and she has finally admitted her real name.

“No, Regina. It seems they’ve found your mother. Alive.” Reggie spat out the coffee, dropped the cup onto the floor, watching it fall in slow motion, dark espresso splattering the sustainably harvested floorboards. It wasn’t possible. Her mother was dead. They all knew it. They’d had a memorial service twenty-five years ago. Reggie could still remember the hordes of reporters outside; the way the preacher smelled of booze; and how Lorraine’s voice shook when she read the Dickinson poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” (Location 291-296)

"Reggie wondered if she and her mother would even recognize each other. She tried to picture the stump where her mother’s right hand had been—the hand that had once tapped out the rhythm of every song on the radio; the hand that held hers ice-skating on Ricker’s Pond. Reggie pushed her hair back, fingers finding the small crescent moon of scars behind her prosthetic ear. Maybe, she thought, feeling her own scar tissue, they’d know each other by what was missing." (Location 599-604)

Reggie finally returns to Brighton Falls after her 25 year absence, but her attempts to discover Neptune's identity are amounting to nothing, since Vera seems mentally incapable of remembering anything. Vera and Reggie's return also heralds the more sinister return of Neptune.

The One I Left Behind is a complex novel with the kind of phenomenal character development that helps drive the plot and allows suspense to build gradually as the events in 1985 and 2010 are played out in the alternating chapters. I was doubly impressed with the plot and the character development. McMahon does an exemplary job of keeping the action and tension building while exhibiting an astute ability to capture the voice of Reggie at both 13 and 38 in a believable way. Clues to Neptune's identity are slowly revealed, moving the plot forward as the darker aspects of all the personalities involved are also exposed.

Very Highly Recommended

After very highly recommending Jennifer McMahon's Don't Breathe a Word, and now The One I Left Behind, I believe McMahon has just elevated herself into the position of an author I will endeavor to always read.   


Saturday, August 17, 2013


Eyewall by H.W. Buzz Bernard
Belle Bridge Books, 4/15/2011
Trade Paperback, 246 pages
ISBN-13: 9781611940015

St. Simons Island, Georgia, has never been hit by a Category 5 hurricane. Until now. No one predicted the storm's sudden force. A crippled Air Force recon plane, trapped in the eye of a violent hurricane. An outspoken tropical weather forecaster, fired from his network TV job before he can issue a warning: the storm is changing course and intensifying. A desperate family searching for a runaway daughter on Georgia's posh St. Simons Island, cut off from escape as the hurricane roars toward them. A marriage on the rocks; an unrequited sexual attraction; a May-December romance. All will be swept up by the monster storm. Get ready for a white-knuckle adventure.

My Thoughts:

It seems like Eyewall by H.W. Buzz Bernard should have been a guaranteed winner, after all it features a category 5 hurricane making landfall in Georgia. I'm a long-time weather geek and have followed storms and systems with rapt enthusiasm for years.  Additionally I gave my highest endorsement to Bernard's second book, Plague  so I was really looking forward to Eyewall. Alas, there were a few flaws in this debut novel. There were also a few things he did right.

Hurricane Janet starts out as a category 1, but it soon begins to intensify due to rapidly changing weather conditions. Bernard's story basically follows three different men: a weather channel  expert forecaster Dr. Nicholas Obermeyer; Air Force Hurricane hunter Major Arly Walker;  vacationing family man Alan Grant. As Obermeyer fights his boss to air an evacuation warning when he realizes the hurricane is strengthening, Walker and crew fly into the storm unaware of the danger they are facing. Grant and his family are on St. Simons Island, which is now the targeted area where the hurricane will make landfall.

All of the weather information, the changing conditions are based on solid information and years of personal experience, so this was a definite plus in Bernard's novel. The crew flying into the hurricane and what they experience, is all very captivating and riveting. The Grant family... not so much.

I didn't like one character associated with the Grant family and found that whole storyline annoying at best. One reviewer somewhere mentioned that he felt this might be more of a guy's novel. He's right. There is not one woman I have ever known who wakes up very early in the morning, worried about the approaching hurricane, and then decides they want to make coffee for their man, bring it to him,  and then talk like a pirate wench while initiating sex. And oops, while this scenario was playing out their 15 yr. old daughter slipped out of the house to meet a strange guy she met online. Now they must rescue her. I won't even go into the other issues I had with this group.

I was good with the other characters, but good grief, the female characters were all a joke. Okay, Donna the shrewish wife of the Major was so over-the-top in her venomous comments it was cartoonish. And, again, what's with the fantasy material? In the event that a young woman and her older co-worker are fired from their forecasting jobs because they have tried to warn people about an approaching catastrophic storm and they head to his place for breakfast, what young woman is going to start making eggs, excuse herself to go to the bathroom, and come out in her sexy underwear to seduce said older co-worker? Really? really?

Toward the end I had to ignore a couple of other events/actions that had me shaking my head.

In conclusion: the science is solid, and presented in a way that is easily understood and follow even if you aren't a weather geek, and following the flight into the storm and the subsequent crises was gripping-nail-biting suspense, but there are a few problems that prevent me from going more than Recommended.


AIRBORNE, 175 MILES SOUTHEAST OF THE GEORGIA COASTLABOR DAY SUNDAY, 0800 HOURS Dead ahead of the aircraft, a massive redoubt of roiling clouds, the eyewall of Hurricane Janet, billowed toward the heavens and poked into the underbelly of the stratosphere. Between the aircraft, an Air Force Hurricane Hunter, and the towering wall, layers of white and gray clouds, innocuous outliers of the storm, cluttered the skyscape. But the eyewall itself was obsidian, foreboding. opening

“Don’t be such a dick head. At least admit it was our decision. I thought we agreed your career in the Reserve was shot to hell. No more promotions. Stuck in-grade.”
“It doesn’t matter, I love to fly.”
“The point is, not only is your Reserve job in the toilet, so is your bank job,” she snapped. “Your real job.”
“I’m an assistant vice president.”
“Dime-a-dozen. You should be an executive vice president by now, climbing the corporate ladder, investing your extra time at the bank instead of tootling around in cloud formations with your tin-soldier flyboy buds.” Location 251-263

For thirty years, he’d studied rapidly intensifying hurricanes, and over the last ten had forged a theory, the essence of which he’d scribbled onto an old-fashioned paper checklist. Inflow, outflow. Stability, instability. An upper-air low pressure center here. A high pressure ridge there. On and on. Twenty-two factors. Until this morning, he’d never seen them all positive, all favorable. Now he was looking at a monster-in-the-making.  Location 468-473

Again McSwanson fell silent. When he finally spoke, his words came out wrapped in a growl. “Although I know it’s a stretch, just give it to me straight. What are ya seein’ that nobody else is?” 

Obermeyer started to speak, but to his surprise, no words came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. “A cat four or five landfalling somewhere along the south Georgia coast by early evening.” Location 1048-1054

"You gotta squeeze people off that island like they were coming out of a sausage grinder at warp speed. You’ve got Andrew’s big sister coming at you.” Location 3825-3826

“It’s not a mother-thing, it’s a woman-thing. Don’t you know it’s a female prerogative to comfort, to soothe, to give approbation?” Location 5763-5764

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Color Master

The Color Master: Stories by Aimee Bender
Doubleday: 8/13/2013
240 pages


...a wondrous collection of dreamy, strange, and magical stories.
In this collection, Bender’s unique talents sparkle brilliantly in stories about people searching for connection through love, sex, and family—while navigating the often painful realities of their lives. A traumatic event unfolds when a girl with flowing hair of golden wheat appears in an apple orchard, where a group of people await her. A woman plays out a prostitution fantasy with her husband and finds she cannot go back to her old sex life. An ugly woman marries an ogre and struggles to decide if she should stay with him after he mistakenly eats their children. Two sisters travel deep into Malaysia, where one learns the art of mending tigers who have been ripped to shreds.
In these deeply resonant stories—evocative, funny, beautiful, and sad—we see ourselves reflected as if in a funhouse mirror. Aimee Bender has once again proven herself to be among the most imaginative, exciting, and intelligent writers of our time.
My Thoughts:

The Color Master: Stories is a newly released collection of short stories by Aimee Bender. Presented in three parts the 15 stories are all infused with a sadness (Bender also wrote The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake), as well as a dream-like quality in which the ordinary can take painful or unconventional turns.

More and more I find myself becoming a fan of the short story. There are stories in this collection that certainly would help that evolution along, but there are also several stories that were disturbing. My favorites were Tiger Mending, Faces, The Fake Nazi, Lemonade, Bad Return, Wordkeepers, The Color Master, and Americca.

The stories in the collection are:

Part One
"Appleless" was disturbing as a group of people who are only eating apples become entranced/obsessed by a woman who doesn't.
"The Red Ribbon" chronicles a wife who decides to make her husband pay for intimacy.
"Tiger Mending" follows two sisters into Malaysia where one is to mend tigers whose skin is shredding.
"Faces" is from the point of view of a boy whose concerned mother is trying to understand why he doesn't remember his friends' names or faces.
In "On a Saturday Afternoon" a young woman invites two male friends to her apartment and then plays a game that requires them to get intimate with each other while she watches.

Part Two
In "The Fake Nazi" an elderly man keeps turning himself into authorities for war crimes he couldn't have committed.
"Lemonade" follows a teenage girl at a mall - trying to fit in.
"Bad Return" delves into the friendships of women.
In "Origin Lessons" a professor explains the vastness of the universe.
"The Doctor and the Rabbi" tackles belief and how one lives their life.

Part Three
In "Wordkeepers" people are completely forgetting the names of common things, perhaps due to technology.
"The Color Master"
is based on a 17th century fairy tale where dress makers must make shoes/clothes to resemble
In "State of Variance" a woman who only sleeps an hour a night tells her son that he has a face that is too perfect, too symmetrical.
In "Americca" a family is disturbed to find useful but odd items mysteriously appearing in their home.
"The Devourings
” is another story based on an earlier fairy tale. A human woman marries a male ogre, who accidentally eats their children.

Highly Recommended - if you enjoy magic realism and can handle some provocative content.

AIMEE BENDER is the author of the novels The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—a New York Times bestseller—and An Invisible Sign of My Own, and of the collections The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures. Her works have been widely anthologized and have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in Los Angeles.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from Doubleday for review purposes. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books, 2011

Kindle eBook, 386 pages
YA novel

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. And a strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience.

As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children who once lived here - one of whom was his own grandfather - were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a desolate island for good reason.

And somehow - impossible though it seems - they may still be alive

My Thoughts:

In Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Jacob Portman is a teen in search of himself. Oh, he knows he's the only son in a wealthy family with a future in the family drugstore chain, but, as he shared with his grandfather, he wants a less mundane life full of adventure. Jacob's grandfather had shared stories of his own childhood when he was a war orphan at a strange home for peculiar children with special abilities, but then, his grandfather also worried about the monsters so Jacob thought it was all just a fantasy.

"I felt even more cheated when I realized that most of Grandpa Portman’s best stories couldn’t possibly be true. The tallest tales were always about his childhood, like how he was born in Poland but at twelve had been shipped off to a children’s home in Wales." (Page 9)
More fantastic still were his stories about life in the Welsh children’s home. It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died. Everyone lived together in a big house that was protected by a wise old bird—or so the story went. As I got older, though, I began to have doubts." (Page 9)
And I really did believe him—for a few years, at least—though mostly because I wanted to, like other kids my age wanted to believe in Santa Claus. We cling to our fairy tales until the price for believing them becomes too high, which for me was the day in second grade when Robbie Jensen pantsed me at lunch in front of a table of girls and announced that I believed in fairies. It was just deserts, I suppose, for repeating my grandfather’s stories at school but in those humiliating seconds I foresaw the moniker “fairy boy” trailing me for years and, rightly or not, I resented him for it. (Page 16)
It wasn’t until a few years later that my dad explained it to me: Grandpa had told him some of the same stories when he was a kid, and they weren’t lies, exactly, but exaggerated versions of the truth—because the story of Grandpa Portman’s childhood wasn’t a fairy tale at all. It was a horror story. (Page 17)

When his grandfather is murdered under suspicious circumstances he gives his last instructions to Jacob:

I asked him what happened, what animal had hurt him, but he wasn’t listening. “Go to the island,” he repeated. “You’ll be safe there. Promise me.”
“I will. I promise.” What else could I say?
“I thought I could protect you,” he said. “I should’ve told you a long time ago …” I could see the life going out of him.
“Told me what?” I said, choking back tears.
 “There’s no time,” he whispered. Then he raised his head off the ground, trembling with the effort, and breathed into my ear: “Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.” I nodded, but he could see that I didn’t understand. With his last bit of strength, he added, “Emerson—the letter. Tell them what happened, Yakob.” (Page 33)
 Jacob has nightmares about his grandfather's death and ends up traveling, with his father, to the island his grandfather had talked about for years and spoke of in his dying breath.
"I thought mom would object—three whole weeks!—but the closer our trip got, the more excited for us she seemed. “My two men,” she would say, beaming, “off on a big adventure!” I found her enthusiasm kind of touching, actually—until the afternoon I overheard her talking on the phone to a friend, venting about how relieved she’d be to “have her life back” for three weeks and not have “two needy children to worry about.” ( Page 63)
"And that is how someone who is unusually susceptible to nightmares, night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and Seeing Things That Aren’t Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end." (Page 99)
Ransom Riggs has throughout the books old photographs to illustrate the story, which is what made Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children create such a buzz when it was initially released. It's a unique concept and the photos add a delightful creepiness to the story, however this is more a mystery/fantasy rather than a horror novel. Actually, it becomes a genre-bending novel in the second half. There are some plot holes, especially in the second part of the novel, when he's on the island.

Viewing the photos might bother some people if you're reading this as an eBook. If desired, you can look online to see the photos larger/clearer. It didn't really bother me on the Kindle. (Actually this has bothered me more with nonfiction books.)

The narrative actually started out stronger than it finished, but, all in all, I'd highly recommend it. There is a sequel, Hollow City.

Other Quotes:

“I didn’t know you could fry toast,” I remarked, to which Kev replied that there wasn’t a food he was aware of that couldn’t be improved by frying. (Page 72)

“When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking. Know what I mean?”
(Page 84)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Strong Rain Falling

Strong Rain Falling by Jon Land
Forge Books, 8/13/2013
368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765331502
Caitlin Strong Series #5

 Mexico, 1919:  The birth of the Mexican drug trade begins with opium being smuggled across the U.S. border, igniting an all-out battle with American law enforcement in general and the Texas Rangers in particular.
The Present:  Fifth Generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong and her lover Cort Wesley Masters both survive terrifying gun battles.  But this time, it turns out, the actual targets were not them, but Masters’ teenage sons.
That sets Caitlin and Cort Wesley off on a trail winding through the past and present with nothing less than the future of the United States hanging in the balance.  Along the way they will confront terrible truths dating all the way back to the Mexican Revolution and the dogged battle Caitlin’s own grandfather and great-grandfather fought against the first generation of Mexican drug dealers.
At the heart of the storm soon to sweep away America as we know it, lies a mastermind whose abundant power is equaled only by her thirst for vengeance.  Ana Callas Guajardo, the last surviving member of the family that founded the Mexican drug trade, has dedicated all of her vast resources to a plot aimed at the U.S.’s technological heart.
This time out, sabotage proves to be as deadly a weapon as bombs in a battle Caitlin must win in cyberspace as well.  Her only chance to prevail is to short-circuit a complex plan based as much on microchips as bullets.  Because there’s a strong rain coming and only Caitlin and Cort Wesley can stop the fall before it’s too late.

My Thoughts:

Strong Rain Falling by Jon Land is the fifth book in the action/adventure series featuring female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. Normally Caitlin or her good friend Cort Wesley Masters are the intended target when/if the shooting starts, but much to their surprise and horror this time Master's two teenage sons, Dylan and Luke, are unmistakably the planned victims. Caitlin must figure out why the boys are being targeted and how it ties into two different massacres that happened on the same day but decades apart. It seems Caitlin's famous Texas Ranger grandfather and great-grandfather hold a key to her present day case from one they worked on in 1919. 

 The murderous plot leads back to the Mexican drug cartels of 1919. Unknown to Caitlin a complex plan for vengeance has been set into motion by the present day surviving head of her family's business, Ana Callas Guajardo. Caitlin's own massive and dangerous guardian "angel" Guillermo Paz is there to help her at every turn, while Masters is also searching his contacts to figure out why his son's specifically are being menaced. 

 Land's starts out running and quickly becomes a gallop as clues are uncovered and questions answered even as the body count rises and, it seems, nowhere is safe in this fast-paced complex thriller. 

 The characters are just as complex as the plot. It is always refreshing to see a strong female characters well written and Land has done a credible job with Caitlin and Ana. It's good to see a strong woman (or is that Strong?) as a Texas Ranger working things out on her own terms, not taking guff from anyone, and figuring out what is happening.  As for other characters, Paz's self-searching that has him "auditing" college classes to hear about philosophers and then challenging the professors was very entertaining. In comparison, the DHS officer (Smith, Jones) was comparatively slimy.

 For those of you who haven't read any of Land's previous books in the Caitlin Strong series, don't let that stop you from reading Strong Rain Falling. Let me admit right now that this is my first Jon Land book featuring Caitlin. Previously I had read several novels with his main character Blaine McCracken. While you won't be privy to all the intricacies of the back story established in previous novels, Land provides enough details to get you up-to-speed quickly. Certainly I didn't feel lost and unable to figure out how everyone was connected. 

Very Highly Recommended

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Tor/Forge Books via Netgalley for review purposes.