Friday, August 28, 2015

Weekend Reading: X by Sue Grafton ~ It's Going DOWN!

I hate waiting for new releases.  And I hate having to wait until my week is clear to dive into them.  Sue Grafton, undoubtedly, is an author of these cases.  I think it's clear how I'll stop EVERYTHING to get my hands on her stuff.  The second she ushers in a new Kinsey Millhone book, everything has to stop.  However, with a work schedule bracketing a block of days, and a car that just couldn't do anything without a replacement crankshaft, I suffered through the week just to wait until today.  I have ALL weekend to read the latest Kinsey Millhone hard-boiled mystery.  That's Friday, Saturday, and Sunday all with Kinsey.  With groceries in the fridge and a car that's finally fixed, I'd say nothing else even matters.  Believe THAT.  So in keeping this short, it's time to revisit my best friend and favorite fictional private-eye, Kinsey Millhone.

"The betrayed spouse of a wealthy business man, a hot-tempered woman who was probably too quick to file for divorce and is still out for revenge on the husband who bedded her best friend.  She is now plotting to steal a valuable painting her ex doesn't even know he possess.
The newly ensconced elderly couple in the house next door, needy and seemingly helpless.  In fact, the neighbors from hell.
A banker's box holding a recently murdered private investigator's files.  Secretly stashed in a false bottom is a padded mailer containing personal items: a small Bible, a red-bead rosary, a child's birthday card with four one-dollar bills, a studio portrait of a little girl on her mother's lap–perhaps the child for whom the card was intended?  And falling out of one file folder, a piece of graph paper with lines of numbers–a code or cipher that, when broken, contains the names of six women.  One, a suicide according to the coroner's office, died twenty-eight years ago; a second, a woman who sued a coworker for harassment.  The only link: Ned Lowe, husband of the dead woman, the target of the lawsuit.
And a remorseless serial killer cunning enough to leave no trace of his crimes.
Once again breaking the rules, Sue Grafton wastes no time identifying this sociopath.  The test is whether Kinsey can prove her case against him before she becomes his next victim.
Sue Grafton's X: Dark and chilling and clever, but as well, infinitely wise in the matter of human misbehavior, or why we are often our own worst enemy."

A Short Night Crawl

Picture a lone truck-stop diner during an ugly storm.  You have a cook, waitress, and police officer huddled inside for shelter and to attend stranded diners.  Somewhere down the road–according to the relaying radio frequenting updates on the storm–a local motel recently found itself caught in a shooting spree.  Innocents are gunned down, and the killer is still on the loose.  Meanwhile, back at the diner, a ragged and dusty man stumbles through as the storm reaches its peak.  Suspicions arrive from those already inside.  Could he be the hotel killer?  Still, they maintain a cool head.  Asking for a cup of coffee, the diner employees serve the strange and twitchy guest.  As for the police officer , he watches the patron with a long gaze. 

All this appears strange, mysterious, and lightly-suspenseful.  But then a platoon of dead, zombified war veterans comes swimming out of the storm to attack the diner.  And out went bits of my grasp on the story.  To be fair, Night Crawlers deserve another, slower re-read within its 33 pages.  But from my initial read, I really just thought it was okay.  I would be interested in reading something lengthier from McCammon, though.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pawing Through the Past

Pawing through the Past is feline and canine detectives, Mrs. Murphy and Tee Tucker’s, eighth cozy mystery.  This time around, their ”mother," Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, stresses herself over her upcoming twentieth high school reunion.  The class of 1980 are trickling back to the small town of Crozet, in preparation. For them, it's time to catch up with one another, share memories, and find themselves on somebody's hit list.  And however dreadful as that appears, it’s only about as burdensome as Harry’s role on the reunion’s organization committee.  Nevertheless, with her alumni finding themselves plucked off, Harry and her pets take it upon themselves to investigate which 1980 Crozet High graduate is behind the killings.  The old saying of "the more things change, the more things stay the same" is just about right for this case.  And Brown does the “change” with a literal and almost unforeseeable twist.
As always, I enjoy this series.  It’s just a winner for the light, cozy mystery reader in me.  Still, as it regards the progression of the series and overarching character developments, not much has changed per the previous entry.  Also, while some entries are better crafted than others, Brown never lets up with her mystery’s set-up and theme.  She always gives her characters a fresh (sometimes too out there) direction...  
And Pawing through the Past played with various directions.  Some, I feel, if I list it’ll give away the entire book.  So for the sake of remaining vague, Pawing is a vengeance story told through the familiar social commenter filter (usually expressed by the animals) known in Brown’s material.  And that pushing filter couldn’t be truer here.  However, just for a brisk lap, think about what happens when you bully someone too far.  Think about how that experience sticks with and changes a person until he or she becomes consumed by it.
I really wish I could say more, but I’m biting my lip because it’ll give everything away.  There’s a twist about the culprit–and one that I suspected almost instantly.  That doesn’t change how fun, humorous, and crazy the book was, though.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

GUEST POST: Apparition Atlas by Mark P. Donnelly & Daniel Diehl

Apparition Atlas by Mark. P. Donnelly & Daniel Diehl

Title: Apparition Atlas
Author: Daniel Diehl & Mark P. Donnelly
Genre: Paranormal/Non-Fiction/Travel
Length: 540 pages
Release Date: September 1, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-1515263166
IMPRINT: Gaia’s Essence

SYNOPSIS: Have you ever had an encounter with a ghost? Would you like proof that the deceased continue to visit the world of the living? Do you have the courage to stand face-to-face with visitors from the afterlife?

Apparition Atlas: The Ghost Hunter’s Travel Guide to Haunted America provides seekers of truth with a definitive guide to more than 200 publicly accessible, verified haunted locations in all fifty states. Introductory chapters discuss the many different types of apparitions and explain everything the novice ghost hunter needs to know to search for things that go bump in the night.

Sometimes the spirits of the dead manifest themselves by slamming doors or through blood chilling screams; other times they come as glowing orbs of ectoplasm that float through walls, and occasionally they appear in their human form–fully formed, semi-transparent and terrifyingly real. Let us take you on a journey to places where close encounters with the departed occur with frightening regularity.

Guaranteed to make you doubt everything you believe about death being the end of existence.

What is a Ghost?

       While working on our new, nonfiction book, Apparition Atlas: The Ghost Hunter’s Travel Guide to Haunted America my co-author, Mark Donnelly, and I came across this provocative quote by noted horror writer Peter Straub:

       “Considering that sooner or later everybody is going to die, people know surprisingly little about ghosts.”

       Not until the moment we saw this thought-provoking statement had we considered examining the precise nature of spirit manifestations and including the information in the book.  What we learned is both surprising and enlightening and we think it is worthwhile passing it on to our readers as an independent article.  In our book, Apparition Atlas: The Ghost Hunter’s Travel Guide to Haunted America, this short chapter precedes an examination of the tools and techniques used by ghost hunters.  Following these two explanatory chapters we lead our readers through a cornucopia of more than 200 publicly accessible – and eminently creepy - haunted houses scattered across all fifty states in the US.  But for the moment we will limit ourselves to our investigation into the nature of spirits and hauntings.  Here, then, is what we found out:  

*  *  *  *  *

       Since we are going to spend the remainder of this book talking about ghosts we should probably take just a minute to define exactly what we mean when we say ‘ghost’.  According to Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, the word ghost is defined as: ‘a disembodied soul; especially the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness’.  Well, that seems like a reasonable starting point, but since there are a great number of apparitions described in the following entries, I think we need to consider the definition of the term ghost in a little greater depth.

       Paranormal research tells us that there may be many different kinds of supernatural phenomena commonly referred to as ‘ghosts’ and we must consider this fact when we read the more than two hundred stories of hauntings covered in this book.  The simple fact is, it would seem difficult for any one type of spirit to manifest itself in the dozens of different ways described in the following pages.  So let’s take a look at each of the many forms of ghostly activity and try to explain them or, if not explain them, at least categorize them by type and try to offer some possible explanations for what they are and why they behave like they do.

       Are ghosts conscious?  This question lies at the heart of our attempts to understand the appearance and activities of the manifestations we refer to as ghosts.  While it is undeniable that there are instances where those in the spirit world seem to communicate directly, and in real time, with the living, we must consider the probability that the vast majority of spirit manifestations are nothing more than reflections; echoes of energy patterns left behind by individuals that have left the world of the living.  Those instances where ghosts are reported to communicate directly with the living are notably rare.  Even those occasions where physical manifestations (ghosts that appear in more-or-less their human form) may appear to look at the living and smile or nod, or instances where disembodied voices speak, are probably nothing more than an unconscious repetition of something the individual did or said while they were alive.  The most common explanation for this particular phenomenon is to describe it as a psychic impression of a particular event, or a moment in time, which is then replayed at random intervals much like a tape loop or a clip from an old movie.  It is highly unlikely that the individuals who appear in this type of spirit manifestation are aware of the living.  In all probability they have no consciousness of any kind and are no more ‘real’ than the characters we see when we watch a movie; rather, they are simply patterns of light and dark, endlessly replaying a scene from some long-ago storyline, without having any sense of self awareness, let alone an awareness of their surroundings. 

       This ‘echo’ theory would also account for why ghosts seem to fade out over a period of years or centuries.  Consider that ghosts from the relatively recent past – say the last century or two – are fairly common but those from a thousand or two thousand years in the past are extremely rare.  The authors are, in fact, only aware of one verified haunting from the period of the Roman Empire, that being a column of roman soldiers (in full military regalia, some mounted on horses) which have been seen marching through the crypt beneath Yorkminster Cathedral in York, England.   If, indeed, this type of spirit apparition is an echo of past people and actions then, like the echo of a voice shouted toward a hillside, they will eventually fade away, becoming fainter and fainter, until they eventually disappear entirely.

       What this theory does not account for are those rare instances where ghosts - either fully formed and human in appearance or those which exist only as a disembodied voice - communicate directly with the living, conversing with them as though they were living people.  For this rare and fascinating phenomenon we have no theories to offer.  It is, however, simultaneously comforting to think that conscious life may continue after death, and also slightly unsettling to consider that at least some of the dead are capable of interacting with the world of the living.

       The most common physical phenomena attributed to those from the afterlife are actions such as slamming doors, moving small objects, turning lights on and off and other startling but generally harmless interactions with the solid world of the living.  Most such physical activities are attributed to a type of phenomenon known as a ‘poltergeist’.   Translated from the German, poltergeist literally means ‘noisy ghost’.  While some poltergeist activities can be extreme and terrifying, most of them are completely harmless, if sometimes annoying.  The dangerous kind of poltergeist activity, where furniture flies across the room and humans are beaten or bitten by unseen assailants, generally only takes place in households where there is a human female around the age of puberty.  We have no idea why teenage females seem to attract – or trigger – this type of activity, and it is not universally true, but it has been recorded as a frequent accompaniment of the poltergeist phenomenon.  No one has even made a positive link between poltergeist activity and the appearance of ghostly images in human form; they may be a completely separate phenomena which may, or may not, take place in the same location.  What is certain is that no visible ghost – that is, a ghost which has taken on its former, human form – has ever been seen to move a physical object.  This may prove nothing more than the fact that interacting with the physical world, while simultaneously manifesting a physical presence, requires more energy than a spirit can muster, but it may also be that hose things which move objects are an entirely different type of manifestation than the spirits which take on their former physical appearance. 

       In many instances the presence of ghostly activity includes sightings of glowing balls, often referred to as ‘orbs’, that flit or float through buildings or, on rare occasions, across the out-of-doors landscape in the proximity to a haunted building.  As is true with poltergeists, we are uncertain whether these orbs are directly related to ghosts or if they are some other type of activity entirely, which simply happen to take place at the same locations where ghosts may be in residence.  Similarly, we have no idea what these energy orbs are, what causes them or whether they are in any way aware of the world of the living.

       In many instances ghosts make their physical appearances in the world of the living at predictable locations in the architectural landscape.  Primary among these are stairways, doors, hallways, windows and, most disturbingly, mirrors.  There is a popular theory that these passageways, or openings, in the physical world also serve as openings into the world of the spirits.  Whether this is true, or whether it just happens that most houses tend to have a lot of doors, windows, staircases and hallways and therefore ghosts seem to be attracted to them, is open to question.  In either case, it is an interesting, and somewhat unsettling, theory.

What Does a Ghost Hunter’s Guide Look Like, Anyway?

        It’s a little difficult to explain to our readers exactly what we mean when we say that our latest nonfiction book, Apparition AtlasGhost Hunter’s Travel Guide to Haunted America.  The easiest explanation is that it is laid out a lot like any travel guide published by the major travel companies such as Michelin or Fodors, except for the fact that instead of describing and rating hotels, motels, B&Bs, restaurants and other tourist facilities, it guides the reader to more than 200 publicly accessible haunted houses located in all 50 states.  Like any good travel guide each site is described – both its history and current operation – and contact information is given to ease the traveler in locating, and making arrangements to visit, each particular site.  Additionally, in the same way that the people at Michelin rate restaurants and hotels by granting them anywhere from one to five crowns, we rate the ‘fear factor’ of our sites by granting them from one to five skulls. We believe that this will help prepare our readers for how likely they are to be freaked out by what they just might encounter on their travels.  To enlighten you as to just what these entries look like, here is one sample page from the more than 200 included in Apparition Atlas: The Ghost Hunter’s Travel Guide to Haunted America.


Daniel Diehl - Daniel Diehl has been an author, writer and investigative historian for thirty-five years. For nearly twenty years Diehl has been involved in writing for publication and documentary television production. Mr. Diehl’s work has won awards from the Houston (Texas) Film Festival, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (US) and the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Arts Foundation. Working alone and as a part of the multi-award winning team of Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly, Diehl has produced work in two main categories; trade publication and television documentary scripts. His canon of work includes twenty non-fiction books (which have been translated into ten foreign languages), one previous work of fiction and scripts for more than one hundred and seventy hours of documentary television primarily for A&E Network, The History Channel, History International, Biography Channel and Discovery Network.

Mark P. Donnelly - Mark P. Donnelly is an historian, author, screenwriter, duelist, bon vivant, and constant gentleman. He has authored, co-authored or ghost written over 20 titles in several countries and has scripted and/or produced nearly 200 hours of historical television programming. He can frequently be found traveling throughout the north-eastern US giving lectures and presentations at themed events as well as teaching historical swordsmanship and western martial arts. He currently resides in central Pennsylvania where he enjoys life with his wife and family.
Currently Available at:

Barker's Short and Creepy

Forget about short and sweet.  How about short and terrifyingly creepy!?
How about Clive Barker’s short story, "The Forbidden"?  The story that inspired the Candyman movie.  (Which, besides Eugenio Martín's Horror Express, is probably the only horror movie that got me as a child.)
Nevertheless, color me excited to have read "The Forbidden", without searching for the Books of Blood Volume 5 anthology it originated?  I say that because of my simple interest in reading where the Candyman movie's adaptation came from, and having only a mild interest in expanding on Barker.  Well, after reading "The Forbidden", I have to go back and correct that mishap by finding the anthology for more page-turning shorts.  Clive Barker sold me with this short and, creepily sweet, introduction into his work.  A work tangled with some nicely disturbing prose that sucked me into immobility for a good forty-five minutes.
The similarities between "The Forbidden" and the Candyman movie are almost-but-not-even-closely the same.  One difference is Barker’s story takes place in England, whereas the movie surrounds Chicago ghettos.  Another is the legacy and conception of movie-Candyman comes packaged, whereas the short is up for some deep and complex self-interpretation.  However, the main protagonist and storyline set-up is much the same.  Helen is a university graduate student doing her thesis on graffiti art.  What better place to gather information for her thesis than visiting the ghettos?  A place she clearly doesn't belong.  What she finds is graffiti art referring to some unknown entity titled Candyman.  An intrigued Helen begins to inquire the shifty locals about Candyman.  And she learns how this entity appears associated with a few  murders in the area.  Eventually, her snooping bites off more than she can chew.  Before long, her searching, prying, and poking leads Candyman right to her.  And as if to become a part of his legend, he offers her death as his latest victim.
"The Forbidden" is short, but worth some examination after you’ve had your hands on it.  Underneath the horror, I got bits and pieces of reflection on what manifests (speaking mostly as a mindset) inside economically disadvantaged communities mostly forgotten by governments.  The use of community stories to created threats of danger are like the tools the impoverish use to reject unwanted outsiders. They’re a community that no longer asks for outer assistance.  And yet, they're trapped into silence by an unbeatable mindset that they aren't meant to leave (hence Candyman).
Of course there’s more and plenty other ways to see "The Forbidden."  Still, if anything, just let the story creep you the hell out as Barker's prose drags you under.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Nora Roberts Takeover (NR Haul)

I may have slipped up somewhere–being somewhat of a promiscuous reader.  However, recently I’ve been buying Nora Roberts novels.  Part of this sudden burst of the Roberts stems from something as simple as the aesthetics of these new/re-released trade paperbacks I'm going to show you.  Call it marking, call it subliminal messages; either way they’re beautiful books with their wispy covers, deckled-edges, and French flaps.  They seem to demand for my cloudy belief in romance to try and try again not to float completely away.  Though Roberts hardly–I deeply stress "hardly"–write the kind of romance I can identify with.  I won't get into the differences and distinctions.  Otherwise, I'll lose focus of this post by moving into hotter topics.
Now it’s no question or wonder how I’m obsessed with Roberts’ J. D. Robb brand; the In Death series means the world to me if you don't know by now.  Yet, at one point during my trek through that 40+ book series, I decided I didn’t care for her Roberts writings.  You see, in the past I tried the first book in her Bride Quartet, Sign of Seven Trilogy, and Circle Trilogy series.  And neither of those three panned out beyond the first book.  In a matter-of-fact, I DNF’ed book one in the Bride Quartet series 50 pages in (the character had zero personality worth sticking around with).  At one point I also decided to pass on Roberts' romance thrillers, after a bored-out-of-my-mind tryst with Black Hills back in 2009.

So I suppose there are many variables asking me to attempt to gorge myself on Roberts.  One seems to be her aesthetically pleasing books.  Second, a need for a little romantic reading.  Third, familiarity/loyalty to Robb.  Finally, a general compulsion to provide innumerable chances for her to win me over.
Roberts does contemporary romance and romance with supernatural elements.  So I decided it was best I select books I felt had a touch of something I would find appealing in both areas.  Here's what I came up with!  (All synopsis are provided by Goodreads.)

"The historic hotel in Boonsboro has endured war and peace, the changing of hands, and even rumored hauntings. Now it's getting a major face-lift from the Montgomery brothers and their eccentric mother. As the architect in the family, Beckett's social life consists mostly of talking shop over pizza and beer. But there's another project he's got his eye on: the girl he's been waiting to kiss since he was sixteen.

After losing her husband and returning to her hometown, Clare Brewster soon settles into her life as the mother of three young sons while running the town's bookstore. Though busy and with little time for romance, Clare is drawn across the street by Beckett's transformation of the old inn, wanting to take a closer both the building and the man behind it."
"When Malory Price is issued with the above invitation she is naturally suspicious, especially as Warrior's Peak is a local mansion straight out of a Hollywood movie. But with her overdraft at crisis limit and on the verge of losing her job at a local art gallery, she has little to lose by attending the event.

Only Malory is about to get more than she bargained for. At Warrior's Peak she finds that she and two other women are the only guests of their mysterious hosts. They are told an amazing story of magic, gods and goddesses; and of three demi-goddesses who have been cast into an eternal sleep, their mortal souls placed under lock and key. And in every generation, three women are born who alone have the power to free them - if they are prepared to accept the challenge."
"With indifferent parents, Iona Sheehan grew up craving devotion and acceptance. From her maternal grandmother, she learned where to find both: a land of lush forests, dazzling lakes, and centuries-old legends.


County Mayo, to be exact. Where her ancestors’ blood and magic have flowed through generations—and where her destiny awaits.

Iona arrives in Ireland with nothing but her Nan’s directions, an unfailingly optimistic attitude, and an innate talent with horses. Not far from the luxurious castle where she is spending a week, she finds her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer. And since family is family, they invite her into their home and their lives.

When Iona lands a job at the local stables, she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath. Cowboy, pirate, wild tribal horseman, he’s three of her biggest fantasy weaknesses all in one big, bold package."
4.  Shadow Spell: Book Two of the Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy
"With the legends and lore of Ireland running through his blood, falconer Connor O’Dwyer is proud to call County Mayo home. It’s where his sister, Branna, lives and works, where his cousin, Iona, has found true love, and where his childhood friends form a circle that can’t be broken…

A circle that is about to be stretched out of shape—by a long-awaited kiss.

Meara Quinn is Branna’s best friend, a sister in all but blood. Her and Connor’s paths cross almost daily, as Connor takes tourists on hawk walks and Meara guides them on horseback across the lush countryside. She has the eyes of a gypsy and the body of a goddess…things Connor has always taken for granted—until his brush with death propels them into a quick, hot tangle."

So that's what I got so far.  Personally, I can't wait to see how these books go.  And believe me when I say I'll be sure to post about my experience (my thoughts on Key of Light will be up soon).  Have you read any of these books?  If so, give me a ballpark view into what I'm getting myself in to.  Good.  Bad.  Indifferent.  I would like to hear it all!  Especially from the NR super readers.
Or do you have any Nora Roberts recommendations?  Actually, what's your first and favorite Nora Roberts book and why?  
Share in the comments below.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cornwell's Totem Pole | Win Lamont Sykes

So moved by my Pickles & Scarpetta post, I had to find a means to get this pressuring need for a Cornwell read out of my system. I didn't necessarily want to re-read a Kay Scarpetta book, though. Nor did I want to continue and complete Cornwell's Andy Brazil series; I started it in the summer of 2011 and only managed to finish the first book before I put the series on hold. However, there was one more alternative available–which was to catch Cornwell's two-book series featuring her Massachusetts state investigator character, Winston Garano ("Win" or "Geronimo"). Told in the presence-tense–which is probably better suited where the series serialized as a 15-part series in The New York Times magazine–I have to say that I felt the series started kind of strong. Now before I get into how "strong" it started, let me preface that with "rocky as hell" "weird" and "exaggeratedly present." Not one of those phrases are unoriginal when it comes to Cornwell, or unfamiliar to me when it concerns her writing (trying reading the first book in her Andy Brazil series). Nonetheless, let's get into book one, At Risk, and book two The Front.

At Risk

"A Massachusetts state investigator is called home from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he is completing a course at the National Forensic Academy. His boss, the district attorney, attractive but hard-charging, is planning to run for governor, and as a showcase she's planning to use a new crime initiative called At Risk; its motto: "Any crime, any time." In particular, she's been looking for a way to employ cutting-edge DNA technology, and she thinks she's found the perfect subject in an unsolved twenty-year-old murder—in Tennessee. If her office solves the case, it ought to make them all look pretty good, right? 

Her investigator is not so sure—not sure about anything to do with this woman, really—but before he can open his mouth, a shocking piece of violence intervenes, an act that shakes up not only both their lives but also the lives of everyone around them. It's not a random event. Is it personal? Is it professional? Whatever it is, the implications are very, very bad indeed ... and they're about to get much worse."

Brevity.  It's the number one–and I mean number one–reason why I thought At Risk was an okay read.  Ballpark?  Never.  Engaging just enough?  Certainly. So yes, the brevity in all surrounding areas gave At Risk motion. Whether it's character, setting, theme (I'm not conscious whether there was one); brevity was the book's saving grace. Granted, as I stated before, the series originally operated in The New York Times magazine, through a stream of weekly story articles

Nonetheless, in contrast to some page-filler feats featured in Cornwell's Scarpetta and Brazil series, At Risk did a lot less of characters standing around over-analyzing crime scenes/circumstances throughout a number of pages. At Risk was, in fact, fast-paced. A thrilling fast pace, though? Not so much. Did Cornwell weave a number of character threads and plot points, coinciding with her usual overdrawn and poorly-plotted standards? Yes. However, the muddled trap of page-filler-material didn't tangle up the narrative and motion–which I thought made the book easy to traverse. So you're not stuck in scenes where narrative/information is messy and unloaded like a commercial truck tipped on the freeway (because of ambitiously swerving directions) and characters aren't overstaying his or her welcome inside of a scene.  

But what I really, really want to write about is the way the main characters took the stage.  Why?  Because despite everything else semi-sorta worth talking about, this is what stuck me; spilling into my displeasure of the second book, The Front.

The characters.  I found most of them either on the brink of caricature-esque, dull, or cryptically unusual with the seldom practical individual mixed in. But let's talk about the main character first, Winston Granano. Actually, let me be quite frank in stating how boring he came across. And to be extremely clear, I would freely say that his investigator partner/comrade/colleague assisting him with his investigation was far more engaging and productive.  Now I won't give all honors to said assistant, but dammit did she bring what I came to At Risk for. 

Even so, Winston is bi-racial. He's of Italian and African ancestry, and an unrestrained expression of a sex magnet. That's a winning ticket right there, as outside characters can't seem to help but prattle about his good looks.  And I could agree, I suppose.  Only it got obnoxious after the tenth time, which didn't seem to help the credibility of his character or direction.  Seriously, for a minute I questioned whether he was a efficient investigator, or an efficient investigator after his undeniable sex appeal?  Luckily, he had a grandmother strung on the idea of psychics and hoodoo to keep his character grounded.  Visits with her and her prophecies over his choices were always welcoming. 

Outside of Winston's sex appeal ticket, Cornwell gave him an interesting past to go along with his heritage.  So as the story progressed, I decided that she did a decent job of shaping him out to be a heroically diplomatic justice seeker.  However, I felt his dealings were mostly overshadowed by Cornwell's foxy ambitious district attorney character, Monique Lamont.

Think of Lamont in red Jimmy Choo with matching $16 M.A.C. lipstick. An Armani ensemble of a pencil skirt and loosely buttoned blouse and blazer. An attitude in hand, and ruthlessly crafty when it concerns gathering her goals. She, in all of her limelight-stealing glory, damn near over-road Winston's character. And considering she's his boss, she had him under her thumb from a number of angles. One of those angles were the progression of his career/studies back in Knoxville, where she sent him to the National Forensics Academy pre-At Risk.  She is, quite plainly, a desperately enterprising hot mess. And with all that overdrawn characterization and subtle glamour, Cornwell did Lamont a favor by knocking her down a host of egocentric pegs.  Naturally, Winston came to pick up the pieces. When Lamont uses her tragedy as a chess piece toward her governor-focused goals, you can do little more than notice how Winston becomes her lapdog and struggling voice of reason in the process.  But you never quite get the truth of their relationship.  Is it based on simply respect?  Attraction?  What?

Well, who needs them in the end?

In my eyes, the true hero/star of At Risk was Winston's partner back in Knoxville, Delma Sykes. A little older than Winston, and somewhat driven by her attraction toward him, she's the character who (as far as I'm concerned) did the real legwork.  See, Winston and Lamont were busy trapped in verbal scrimmages about politics and shady political moves. Meanwhile, Delma was the character Winston sought out to gather information on the cold case handed to him by Lamont. That meant Sykes was visiting and speaking with law enforcement members behind the investigation. She was shuffling through their record boxes, tracking down receipts, knocking on doors, beating bushes, and confronting liars.  She, essentially, put Winston's case together for him and Lamont. All the while, Sykes risked her career with time spent uncovering the cold case instead of meeting the demands of the National Forensics Academy.  

Sykes may seem foolish, giving up her time to assist Winston who sat on the edge of Lamont's desk the whole while.  However, I personally found myself piqued as her drive and determination displayed the engine to the book's mystery.  She was the sleuth.  The gem.  The character whom toyed with relatable stakes–even as far as confronting the killer.

So on everything I love, At Risk was her book!  And she was the reason why I even liked it.

Such an odd thing, though. And one that I found severely disappointing when I went into the second book, The Front, and found her character nowhere to be found. Which, quite frankly, is the reason why I don't care to write about The Front. That should tell you everything you need to know about this series.  And how shady Cornwell can be toward her characters.  (Yes, yes.  I say that as a joke.)

The Front

Slick move on me? I know.  However, the book is hardly memorable without Delma Sykes, or a character focused on the project (no matter how mundane and disinterest-breeding) at hand. I mean, we are talking about a crime fiction drama. Nevertheless, there were a few kooky classic Cornwell characters present (one being a woman with a prosthetic leg).  Still, outside of the return of Monique Lamont and Winston's grandmother's brighter role, nothing else really... well... changed from the first book. But seriously, The Front was probably on par with someone's outline. I honestly can't recall anything about this book that I can find worth talking about. Nevertheless, I'll give you a piece of Goodreads' synopsis just in case you can think of something:

"And in The Front, peril is what comes to them all. D.A. Lamont has a special job for Garano. As part of a new public relations campaign about the dangers of declining neighborhoods, she's sending him to Watertown to "come up with a drama," and she thinks she knows just the case that will serve. Garano is very skeptical, because he knows that Watertown is also the home base for a loose association of municipal police departments called the FRONT, set up in order that they don't have to be so dependent on the state--much to Lamont's anger. He senses a much deeper agenda here--but he has no idea just how deep it goes. In the days that follow, he'll find that Lamont's task, and the places it leads him, will resemble a house of mirrors--everywhere he turns, he's not quite sure if what he's seeing is true."

In keeping with all I've just stated, it would be interesting to watch the Lifetime movie adaptation of both books.  Other than that, I'll just let this disappointing series be.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Into Mama's Cradle

Now for a mystery filled with characters closer to my own heart–and ones that make me want to take down a plate of bone-sticking soul food. Mama Rocks the Empty Cradle is book six in Nora DeLoach’s southern, black, murder-solving mother and daughter crime-fighting duo series. While I skipped the unowned book five (I halted over a year because of my slipping reading OCD), I decided to pick this short read up to reinvigorate the completionist in me.  Eventually, I'll go back and order book five before I proceed further.

Mama (real name Grace, often nicknamed Candi) and her daughter, Atlanta-based paralegal, Simone, are solving the murder of a young mother in Cradle. After having a bunion operation, Mama asks Simone to assist her in mundane endeavors; grocery shopping to illustrate one. It’s on one of these routine visits to the local Winn Dixie where Mama’s social services gears rocket to the sound of a screaming baby, a couple of aisles over. Together with Simone, Mama finds old Miss Birdie failing to coddle the wailing baby.  However, it's apparent who the baby actually belongs to, and why Miss Birdie has absolutely no business with this child.  With the baby’s mother hot on Miss Birdie’s trail, it appears Miss Birdie snatched the baby from the mother’s car as she went into the Shell station to pay for gas (basically leaving her baby alone to have been snatched–among other things). Known for having a anomalous reputation around town, Mama and Simone can only wonder if Miss Birdie is connected when the baby's mother is later found burgeoned to death.

And if that wasn’t enough, Mama’s dog keeps coming home with the bones of small children. Where is he digging up these bones? And whose deceased children does the bones belong to?

Told in the first-person, Simone (once again) leads us on the investigation.


This series has the appealing taste of an old, England-style cozy mystery with a Southern Black-American twist. I love this because it’s told in a voice/setting both amiable and familiar to my own–having been born and raised in Alabama (although the series take place a state over in Georgia). Now the books are certainly not the most thrilling or well-constructed mysteries. And they often feel a touch too runny and short. However, they are extraordinarily unique because they are mysteries containing people of color, further niched within the Southern; think fried chicken, sass, slang, flavored limericks, and small-town murders.  Her stories are filled with recognizable threads within black traditions, many expressed by characters in standard old wives fashion.  Furthermore, she does light Morrison-esque plunges into stories of generations gone array, to effect the present.  These stories usually resulting as the engine of the mystery.

And let's be clear, southerners are known for creating individual nicknames.  So you have characters like Cricket, Nightmare, and Eyelet to help usher in the soulful charm of the books.  And their amusing eccentricities doesn't fall into the ridiculousness of a minstrel show.  Thank God.

“Just about that time, Koot Rawlins, a large woman known for being full of gas, swung into the aisle and belched. Koot’s shopping cart was full of lima beans, rice, fatback bacon, and Pepsis. She nodded a greeting but kept walking.”

“When I got Mama back to the house, I gave her two Meprozine capsules and made her as comfortable as I could. Then I fixed lunch–chicken soup, grilled cheese, a diet coke, and a small bowl of ice cream. No sooner had she eaten, Mama fell asleep.”


But on to what’s special about Mama Rocks the Empty Cradle. Nora DeLoach always approaches subjects often judged, unfairly criticized, or unspoken of in the black community. In Mama Rocks the Empty Cradle, DeLoach uses both Mama and her daughter Simone to tackle the subject of black single-mothers, abortion, domestic abuse, and mental illness.  And she does so smoothly, and without the heavy preaching and "example" consequences provided by some of the characters' fates.

It virtually goes without saying how our community avoid psychotherapy as a solution to matters such as depression and stress. It also almost goes without saying that black single mothers gain a broader societal rap than any of their counterparts. The black church often comes to blame, almost asking our pardon from seeking the influence of professional help because of the attaching stigmas.  So what a relief as DeLoach approaches all of this with the patience, tenderness, and wisdom of her character Mama and Simone.  Additionally, she does so without the pounding of religious rhetoric.  The two characters are very sensible and pragmatic in this way; Mama much more than Simone, and with good reason when you consider their differing occupations.

Simone’s thoughts on her friend’s contemplating abortion:

“She was right. This was Yasmine’s decision, not mine. And I knew my friend had not made her decision carelessly, whether I agreed with it or not. I took a deep breath, trying to take the edge out of my voice. ‘I’m not your judge. But I am feeling that having an abortion ain’t the thing to do!’”

Mama’s perspective on the single-mother character and mental illness: 

“’You know, Simone, both her mother and father died in a car wreck when she was only two years old. Oh, she’s got plenty of family to look after her, but she was a very lonely young woman. The day after Morgan was born, I visited Cricket at the hospital again. She confided in me that she’d deliberately stopped taking her pills and gotten pregnant because she wanted somebody to share her life with. She felt that now that she had given birth to Morgan, she would never feel alone again. That’s why I know she was a good mother. I know she’d never deliberately mistreat her baby.’”

And here–despite the slight struggle in the mystery area–lies the diamonds.  Nora DeLoach's series is just too alluring to turn away from–for me at least.  I regret spending a year sitting on my butt instead of ordering book five so that I could continue on.  However, as this read, you can guarantee I'm going back on track.  I'm eager to hear more of what Mama has to say.

Reading Updates & Book-Order ~ On The River

I haven’t done anything all summer but work, read, and try to make sure my new car won’t quit on me while on the road.  Luckily, my best friend (who has also been through much, much more this summer) wanted to put together a trip to Guntersville, Alabama.  The plan: to eat at the famed catfish and seafood restaurant, Top O’ The River.  It was a well-deserved trip from both ends, and was even better with her cousin coming along. 

This was my first time there–although in the past my mom repeatedly proposed how we needed to take the 45+ minute drive to do the same.  She, my aunt and sister went a couple of weeks ago.  Meanwhile, I stood in front of a register for eight hours on a beautiful Sunday (that's me being bitterly melodramatic).  Nonetheless, I finally made it there Friday.  And yes, I took the entire weekend off as a mini-vacation.

Naturally, I have to share some of the pictures as well as the short video I filmed as we waited for the restaurant to open up.  In the video, I just wanted to update viewers on my reading progress.  I also shared some of the recent books I’ve order.  That aside, here are a few pictures I snapped...

Obviously, this picture didn't come out as majestic as it was while present.  But I left it in the mix anyway.  The mountains and river surrounding the small town of Guntersville is pretty cute.  All you'll see is boats, canoes, and trucks; its a community that capitalizes on the surrounding river like it's nobody's business.  For a split moment or two, I felt like I was in Cabet Cove.  Their downtown is a hell of a lot livelier than ours–to be so small.  And there appears to be only one way in and out of the town.

All that aside, this is what the parking lot looked like after one blink.

This is a bad pic of the restaurant.  I'm no photographer, so pardon this.  Nevertheless, there's a story here.  The fact is the restaurant doesn't open until late in the afternoon.  Apparently, it gets so busy that you have to be present and ready as the doors open to get a table.  I snapped this picture quickly, and minutes before the lines started to form as the doors open.  

The building looks pretty small and average sized, right?  Well, it's a whole different story inside.  Not only is it two floors, but the restaurant's floor layout seems like it stretches over a mile.  I loved their wooden booths because they were high-backed (or whatever you call them).  This lended a little intimacy and privacy for me and my friends; further expressed as we pulled up the shades to gain a good view of the river the restaurant sits on.

This is the waiting area, should there be no seating available.  Lucky for us, we skipped this process.  I can only imagine what this area looks like on a Sunday afternoon once church is out.  

The whole time we were there, I felt like this place had a system going.  And that system started with the abundance of staff.  Speaking of which, the service was certainly nice.  I did enjoy our waitress, and am never one to be stingy with tipping.

Now on to the catfish.  I don't know anybody from the South who doesn't prize some good catfish.  And Top O' the River certainly served.  

This plate is the River Special; catfish fillets, hush puppies, baked potatoes or fries.  It was all delicious.  What I loved about their catfish in particularly was how it wasn't filmy between the breading and the filet.  That was a big, big plus.  Instead, you cut right into steaming meat.  Had I requested hot sauce (you know, because I am black), it probably would've took this to the next level.  Instead, I settled with their homemade tartar sauce in absorption of their flavor.  And it won.  Everything you see here, I basically ate.  Of course with the exception of the foil, potato skin, and half a hush puppies.  

Oh!  I've never had pickled onions.  To get your meal started, you're served a dish of these pickled onions, cole slaw, and cornbread.  All of it amazing!

The restaurant also serves steak, chicken strips, shrimp, and so forth.  I had a great time and plan to go back with my family next weekend, as well as return with my friends in the fall.

If you've ever been, share your experience in the comments.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Un-Taxed Used Books

Tax-free weekend saw me taking on a local used bookstore–just to make sure I took advantage of such a money-saving opportunity. With little in mind book-wise (partly because Sue Grafton’s latest doesn’t come out until two weeks), I decided to spend the early part of Saturday afternoon hunting for a few Nevada Barr books. You know, because Track of the Cat served.

So first I got A Superior Death, book number two in Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. It took a little hunting, but I found it in the stacks (not one to give up). Evidently, A Superior Death sees park ranger, and back country amateur sleuth, Anna Pigeon, down at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. The kick is Anna will be scuba diving.  She discovers a crew of dead, buried underneath a wrecked ship. It screams adventure, and I always love a good water-time mystery.

Next I found book number three in the Anna Pigeon series. Ill Wind has Anna at the Mesa Verde National Park, located in Montezuma County, Colorado. Apparently, Ill Wind sees visitors of the park falling sick to some mysterious illness. Top on the accidental death of a child, along with one of Anna’s ranger friends, and we’re in for a mystery with a Native American twist.

Had I found the fourth book in the series, I would’ve grabbed that one next. But I didn’t.

So I browsed a little more trying to catch up on some Alt, Muller, Gaines, Peters, and Neely. I found myself unsuccessful with them all. However, the first book in Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mystery series found me. I’ve heard of Albert, but never explored her character and stories. Led by curiosity, I grabbed the book. 

Apparently, her series takes place in small-town Texas. A 42-year-old attorney named China Bayles narrates the series. And her first investigation revolves around the death of her friend, Jo Gilbert. Jo’s battling cancer, until she’s found dead from sleeping pills washed down with vodka. Claims are that it’s suicide. However, China Bayles knows differently.  Color me excited to start a new series–while saving a penny or two.

Here goes last week's endeavors (since I missed posting them)...

Read any of these books?  Sound off in the comments below!

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