The Summer Holidays Survival Guide by Jon Rance: Heart-warming and Funny Bone-Tickling

The Summer Holidays Survival GuideThe Summer Holidays Survival Guide

by Jon Rance

Kindle Edition, 262 pg.
2018

Read: November 14 – 15, 2018

‘Oh, Dad, how little you know,’ said Liv, her head returning to her phone.

How little I know. I have a feeling this one cold, hard sentence, uttered from my twelve-year-old daughter’s lips, might sum up my life.

Ben Robinson is an art teacher, in his mid-40s, and is trying to figure out how he’ll survive the upcoming summer holidays — 6 weeks with his three kids, and a marriage who’s spark is gone out (possibly for good). Oh yeah, and an aging father with dementia moving in with them, rather than a nursing home. Meanwhile, he’s trying to prepare for a half-marathon, which is about a whole marathon more than he’s ready for.

We get a day by day (or close to it) account of how this goes for Ben. The short version is: not very well. Particularly in the beginning. Ben meddles in his fifteen year old son’s love life (with some really bad sex tips — all of which I’m considering passing on to my kids), cannot understand his twelve-year-old daughter’s social media life (and nascent pubescence), and derails his eight year old son’s summer plans without trying. Things go downhill from there, really.

His dad is having trouble remembering that he doesn’t live in the same home, or that his wife has been dead for a few years — this is a source of strain for both Ben and his father — and the relationship becomes strained. Ben is having trouble seeing his father this way, and his father is having trouble being this way. Both are trying their best, but this

Speaking of a strained relationship, the number of things wrong with his marriage keeps growing, and every thing that Ben tries to do to fix it just makes things worse. He and his wife aren’t communicating well — one of those problems that keeps feeding itself and growing worse.

Throw in an accidental participation in an anti-Brexit demonstration, a road rage incident leading to social media notoriety for one member of the family, teen romance problems, summer-altering injuries, and well — clearly, someone needs to write a survival guide.

As Ben and his family try to get through their struggles intact — and maybe even better than that — there’s plenty of fodder for humor. There’s a lot of heartwarming material, some real laughs and more than a few chuckles. There’s some really effective writing and characterization.

However, there’s also Rance’s need to go for the big laugh. And here, he basically turns Ben into Basil Fawlty — with all the wild schemes, failing schemes, shouting, misunderstandings and slapstick involved. I don’t think any of these scenes or moments worked for me. When he’s going for subtle laughs, or those that grow from character, I really enjoyed it. When the subject matter is serious (or at least non-comedic), Rance is really strong. It’s when he’s obviously trying that he falters.

‘Marriage,’ said Dad. ‘There’s always ups and downs. You just keep riding it, son. It’s like a rollercoaster. You can’t get off, so you just hold on, and do your best to enjoy it.’

‘I’m holding on for dear life, but life is harder than it was, Dad. The world has changed. The rollercoasters are bigger and scarier now. The drops are bigger, the hills higher.’

‘Oh tosh. The world might change, but people don’t. Love is still love, clear and simple. Don’t blame the world for your problems, son. Hold on tighter. Love stronger.’

That’s one of the more earnest moments — and there are plenty of them in the latter part of the novel, all set up well in the early part — and it shows the heart of the book — and there’s plenty of heart. Rance won me over, and got me to put more of his books on my list because of these kind of moments, and the genuine laughs I got from the smaller moments, I’ve got more of his stuff on the TBR.

It’s a nice, pleasant book that’ll tickle your funny bone and warm your heart.

—–

3 Stars

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Small Town Nightmare by Anna Willett: A Creepy and Fast Adventure

 Small Town NightmareSmall Town Nightmare

by Anna Willett

Kindle Edition, 227 pg.
The Book Folks, 2018

Read: November 22, 2018

           She wondered how much she should reveal. Her history was painful, and rehashing it for a stranger wouldn’t really help.

“It’s complicated, but I know he wouldn’t not show.”“Not unless something stopped him?” Damon asked, finishing her thought.

“Something or someone.” As she spoke, they rounded a bend and the road tapered downwards. In the distance she could see a cluster of buildings dotted with patches of open fields and circled by forests. Night Town. The sight of it sent a ripple of gooseflesh running up her arms.

“You think he’s down there somewhere?” Damon had turned in his seat and was studying her as if searching her reaction.

“It’s the last place he mentioned before disappearing.” She gripped the wheel tighter. “If he’s there, I intend to find him.”

When your younger brother, the one you spent a few years raising yourself after your parents’ death, goes missing — you throw caution to the wind to go find him. Especially if you’re a gutsy crime reporter like Lucy. She heads of into a part of the country she’s not familiar with, into a town she’d never heard of, to find out what happened to her brother in the week since she’d heard from him last. Along the way, she comes across a helpful stranger — a drifter of sorts, like her brother — who is willing to lend a hand to the search. Lucy doesn’t care (much) why he’s willing to help, she’s just glad someone is taking her seriously.

When she gets to Night Town (such a friendly, welcoming name, isn’t it?), she’s met with general apathy toward her plight — and maybe a trace of antagonism. It’s tough to say why people are so resistant to helping her — maybe because she’s a stranger, maybe they don’t like drifters, Lucy could come up with a dozen reasons, but that wouldn’t change things. None of the local residents seem inclined to help. It’s a good thing she’s found Damon. One of the men at the local police station seems indifferent (at best) to her problem, but the Senior Sergeant is eager to take a report and do what he can to find her brother.

Now, as is the norm for small fictional towns that outsiders find trouble in, there’s one family that owns about half the town, and employs the other half. Samuel Nightmesser is the only living representative of that family at the moment, so Lucy and Damon look into him (lacking any other ideas, hoping they’ll come to them), while Senior Sergent Day investigates in a more official capacity. We don’t see much of the official investigation, but it’s reassuring to know that not everyone in town is necessarily in Nightmesser’s pocket.

It soon becomes evident that there’s more afoot than a missing drifter, and that someone in town is prepared and willing to take steps to dissuade Lucy from turning over any more rocks to see what’s underneath. The reader knows a bit more than Lucy, and learns pretty quickly that there’s more to some of the people in her life than meets the eye. From there, it’s just a matter of Lucy and her associates putting the pieces together, uncovering all that’s afoot and trying to survive — and maybe help her brother to survive, too.

It didn’t take me long to write in my notes that “this is going to get creepy soon.” It did. I also noted “this is going to have an ugly end.” It did, and not necessarily in the way I expected. I also guessed right about a couple of identities. I think most readers will guess these things around the same point I did. Doing this doesn’t make any of the reveals or the novel less effective. If anything, it helped build the tension, because you were waiting for particular shoes to fall. I should also add, that there were at least three reveals and twists that I didn’t see coming, and one of them took me completely by surprise.

The morbid and creepifying elements of this book are really well done — I’d have liked to seen a bit more of them, honestly (and I don’t typically need a lot of that — but it would’ve helped, I think). Willet has a gift for using that kind of thing to reveal character, not just to advance the plot. I should probably note there’s at least one sentence toward the end of the novel that you should probably not be eating anything while you read. Just a friendly tip — set aside your snacks during the last 20 percent of the book.

The action is fast, the book grabs your attention and keeps it throughout — there’s not a lull in the action and there’s nothing dull within a mile of the text. It’s a quick read (perhaps, too quick) and one that’ll keep you entertained.

I want to stress that I enjoyed Small Town Nightmare, and my guess is that I’m not alone in this. However, it felt rushed. It felt undercooked. If things — details, tension, mystery, relationships, etc. — had been given a little more time to develop and grow; if threads hadn’t been left dangling (or had been cut entirely); if motivations were clearer; I can easily see myself excited about recommending it. But, I can’t do that — I can recommend it, and I do think most of my readers will like it. I’m just not over the moon about it.

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided, which did not influence my opinion, merely gave me something upon which to opine.

—–

3 Stars

Degrading Orbits by Bradley Horner: What comes next for the Star-Crossed Axel and Helen

Degrading OrbitsDegrading Orbits

by Bradley Horner
Series: Darkside Earther, #2

Kindle Edition, 225 pg.
2018
Read: November 12 – 13, 2018

So, in each of the three books by Horner that I’ve read, he throws his readers deep into a technologically-enhanced future that requires a very specialized vocabulary. The books are chock full of what I’ll be calling SF hooptedoodle, which is cool — it can be intimidating at times, it can be overwhelming at times, but it suits his fiction well. Now, in Darkside Earther (this book’s predecessor), Horner told a sweet teen love story surrounded by SF hooptedoodle. Degrading Orbits, on the other hand, frequently feels like a swamp of SF hooptedoodle with a little bit of a human story here and there.

This is all about the fallout from the climatic events from Darkside Earther, how Axel’s parents are trying to save him, the Ring, and their careers (not necessarily in that order). They do this by putting Axel under the care of a security team to protect, heal and train him into being what his parents need him to be.

The biggest part of this protection and training takes the form of cutting off all communication with Helen and the rest of his friends and former life. Axel obviously doesn’t want this, but is unable to do anything else.

Thankfully, Helen, his friends and the large gaming community they’re part of are busy trying to hack into his brain — among other things. We don’t get to see most of what they’re up to, but we do get to hear summaries of it in the brief moments that Axel and Helen get to spend communicating. And it sounds very promising.

My biggest problem with this book is that Helen and Axel have practically zero agency — what they do has almost no impact at all on the events of this novel. And the events of the novel aren’t affected all that much (with one exception) by anything Axel does. Now, it’s pretty clear that what they did do in this novel will have huge impact on what’s to come. But here it was less useful than using a piece of crabgrass to pick a deadbolt. I know that’s how things have to go sometimes, but it’s more than frustrating in a novel.

I liked these characters going in and was looking forward to seeing how they recovered from the previous book. So I was a little disappointed in this one, but I do have every confidence that this was necessary to set up a great finale. I’m looking forward to being proven right. In the meantime, I had enough fun watching Axel get put through his paces and Helen trying to save the day. I even enjoyed trying to suss out what was going on with the SF hooptedoodle.

In the end, while this didn’t work for me as much as I wanted it to, I still enjoyed it and am looking forward to seeing how Horner wraps up this trilogy — I’m sure that this book set up things for that conclusion in such a way that the things that I wasn’t crazy about in Degrading Orbits won’t be as prominent in it. It’s a good book, even with my quibbles — but it could’ve been a little better.

—–

3 Stars

Depth of Winter by Craig Johnson: Walt Goes South of the Border on a Rescue Mission

Spoilers for The Western Star appear below, read at your own risk if you haven’t caught up.

Depth of WinterDepth of Winter

by Craig Johnson
Series: Walt Longmire, #14

Hardcover, 292 pg.
Viking, 2018
Read: September 27 – 29, 2018

“I wish we had more weapons.”

I thought about the fact that we pretty much just had the Colt at my back, the FN, and the collection of antique weaponry in the gym bag. “Me, too.”

He lit the cigar and pocketed the lighter. “You know he is going to kill you.”

“I know it’s a possibility.”

He took a deep puff, savoring the tobacco, and then slowly exhaled. “I’d say it’s a probability.”

With just a little adjustment to what happened at the end of The Western Star, Johnson picks up shortly after Walt takes off on the trail of Tomás Bidarte who has arranged for the kidnapping of Cady. It’s a suicide mission and not one with much likelihood of success — but Walt’s convinced he has no choice and is determined he will survive long enough to get Cady freed. He has no plan (that we know of) to keep her safe after he’s dead, but seems to believe he’ll have made her safe beforehand.

To do this, he elicits some help from a maverick-y US Border Patrol agent and some interesting characters from a blind and legless man who serves as Walt’s guide, his nephew, and a former spy turned doctor to help him get to and infiltrate Bidarte’s compound. The most intriguing of Walt’s new allies is a young man named Isidro, a Tarahumara and a sharpshooter that puts Vic to shame. Both his mannerisms and backstory really sold me on him — more than I expected.

I’ve pushed off writing this post because I’m not sure what to say about it. Yes, it was exciting. Yes, there’s a lot of good action — and seeing Walt out of his element, dependent upon others to explain the world around him and for backup is a nice change of pace.

But . . .

It’s not Walt Longmire. Walt’s an honorable man. A man of law and order (I know, I know…he’s also going to make exceptions where Cady is concerned). He’s a guy who figures things out, he’s not a one man (or one man with strong support) vigilante army. That Walt is hard to find in this book, replaced with some sort of not-quite Bryan Mills-level action hero.

Bidarte’s become some sort of super-villain. Some sort of strange mashup of a James Bond villain and the head of a CBS procedural’s Drug Cartel. And that was hard to take. I also have a hard time swallowing the idea of . . . well, I can’t talk about that without spoiling anything. But there’s an auction — and I can’t buy: 1. the idea of it; 2. the number of bidders; 3. how that all played out. If you read/will read the book, you’ll know what I mean.

I am so glad I got to meet Isidro, and I wouldn’t mind more time with The Seer and the doctor and their families — or even the Border Patrol agent (he’d be a lot of fun with Walt’s FBI or State Police friends). But under very different circumstances. The story is exciting — there’s some good chuckles, a couple of great fight scenes, a lot of heart. There’s a lot to commend this book for. But it’s not a Walt Longmire book to me, and that’s its fatal flaw.

Going into this, I feared it’d be Johnson’s equivalent to Parker’s A Catskill Eagle, a book that had Parker’s character act out of character on his mission to save the most important woman in his life. But I hoped that Johnson would be able to avoid the problems that Parker ran into. I don’t think he succeeded, I’m sure that others will disagree. This one just didn’t do much for me, and the more time I think about it, the worse it fares. So I’m going to try to not think about it again for a while.

I do look forward to seeing Walt back in Wyoming, dealing with some/all of the fallout and repercussions of the events of this book. But most of all I look forward to seeing Walt be Walt again.

—–

3 Stars

Be Brave, Little Puffy by Arline Cooper: A Cute Fish Tale

Be Brave, Little PuffyBe Brave, Little Puffy: Promoting Positive Body-Image and Self-Esteem

by Arline Cooper

Kindle Edition, 28 pg.
Ofek, 2018
Read: November 8, 2018

Puffy is a puffer fish with a little problem — he’s not terribly fond of his spines, if for no other reason than he’s frequently poking his friends with them. He leaves his fellow puffer fish to go on a journey to find other friends — maybe fish he won’t bother as much. Puffy encounters many other fish of various species in his effort to find a new group of friends he can live with. Eventually, naturally, he finds a way to win back his friends, and learn to accept his spines.

Each encounter is captured in a colorful drawing depicting the new species — attractive, fairly accurate and eye-catching.

It was a little wordier than most books for 4-8 year olds tend to be. Which isn’t a bad thing — just something I noticed. The thing that bothered me the most about this book was the pictures. I want to stress that this might just be a Kindle Version thing, and that other formats may not have the issue. But the pictures about each episode follow the encounter with the fish — so the visual aid comes too late. So you have to flip to the next screen before starting to read so you can see or show the fish in question, and then flip back to pick up the narration. Is this a problem? No, but it’s a pain — especially if your child/audience is impatient.

The pictures are also a little on the small side (yes, I know that can be changed for each picture as you go along, But it’d be nice if you didn’t have to do anything) — and they deserve a closer look than is easily possible.

Arline Cooper has the goods — story and pictures bother — to produce quality picture books, hopefully we see more. Quibbles aside, this is a fun book, a book I can see parents reading frequently — and kids demanding frequently. Nicely told, attractively illustrated, with a positive message — that’s a good combination.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, as seen above.

—–

3 Stars

The Green Viper by Rob Sinclair: A strong, twisty thriller that will satisfy

I’ve fixed the html on this post a dozen times, and each time I hit “Update,” things get screwy again. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I can’t fight it anymore. If it looks messy, sorry about that, just move on to the body, and I’ll try again after work today.

The Green ViperThe Green Viper

by Rob Sinclair
Series: James Ryker, #4

Kindle Edition, 326 pg.
Bloodhound Books, 2018

Read: November 2 – 3, 2018

This is the fourth James Ryker novel, but the first I’ve read. This leaves me at somewhat of a disadvantage — but not an insurmountable one. Someone from his past reaches out to him — in an unconventional manner — for some help. Janet Campbell, the widow of the man who trained Ryker, who molded him into the intelligence agent/assassin he’d become is worried about their son and wants Ryker to step in for his sake.

Now, I don’t know if the series has featured Campbell or Charles McCabe (her husband) before — it’s not unheard of for a thriller to introduce an old, dear friend mid-series just to get the protagonist involved in something. I’m sure if they were around early on, returning readers were invested right away. But if this was their first appearance in the series, Sinclair introduced Campbell in such a way that it worked for me as a hook — I was invested because of Campbell more than because of Ryker.

Scott Campbell really never connected with his father, and his life has gone in a very different direction. He was an accountant at a prestigious London firm until recently, leaving under a cloud. He and his girlfriend, Kate Green, left England to get away from that cloud and moved to New York City for a fresh start. Well, mostly fresh. Kate’s father, Henry Green, is a fairly notorious criminal and nightclub owner. To make a little money, Scott does a few odd jobs for Henry (while Kate dreads Scott’s participation in her father’s business). Those odd jobs grow more serious as Green begins to trust him more.

Which is precisely the thing that Janet Campbell is worried about. So, enter James Ryker — a former intelligence officer between gigs. Once he arrives in NYC, he spends some time surveilling Scott and Kate to see what exactly is going on, and then he goes all-i to try to extricate them from the dangerous position that Scott has put them in. Which is a lot more dangerous than Ryker knows, as another drug dealer tries to move in on Green’s turf, and the FBI are preparing to make a few arrests.

What follows is exciting, tense, fast-paced and full of more surprises than I expected. Okay, that sounds like a tautology — with a book like this, you expect a few things to occur that you don’t expect (whatever that might end up being). The Green Viper gave me more of those things that I didn’t expect. A couple of them were pretty big surprises, too — so more and of greater magnitude than I expected.

The characters were well-drawn, but they all could’ve been a bit more three-dimensional. No one that we spent much time with at all was exactly two-dimensional (thankfully, I’ve had too much of that lately), but they all could’ve had a little more. By and large, for a thriller with this many moving pieces the characters were either as well-drawn as you might assume to meet, or a little better. Still, I want more. Characters are what hook me more than anything else in a book, and these were good enough, but I wanted more. Particularly Ryker — he’s the title character, and I really don’t think I know much more about him than I do any of the other characters (I might know Scott the best), and that doesn’t seem right.

The other thing I would’ve liked more of was the actual work done by Ryker. Not just him showing up where Scott doesn’t expect him — but how he got there, why he decides to show himself to Scott then. For example. From Finder to Child to Sharp and beyond, it’s the mechanics of their intelligence work that draws me in as much as the fight scenes or whatever. Sinclair is good at delivering the big moments — gun fights, chase scenes, and the like. But he could do better with the smaller moments — trailing someone, deciding to follow this line of investigation or reasoning. I guess you could say the story’s strong, it just feels like he has to many ellipses in it — let me see more of the connections between the moments.

Basically, I’m saying that I enjoyed the book — but I thought Sinclair could’ve given his readers a little more of everything. It was a good novel, but with a little more it could’ve been really good. The pacing is good, you get drawn in and the story really doesn’t let you go. I technically spent 2 days reading this, but about 80 percent of that was in one sitting — If I’d put off starting by a day, it would’ve been a one-sitting kind of book — start it, get sucked in and ignore the world until the bullets stop flying and the smoke clears. A very satisfying way to spend a couple of hours.

I enjoyed this book, the characters and the world Sinclair has created. Might I have had more appreciation for some of this if it weren’t my first Ryker novel? Sure. Am I curious enough about what I read to come back in book 5 (or go back to books 1-3)? Yeah, I think so — Sinclair’s a capable author and he’s got himself a fun world to play in. You should give this one a try — or one of the earlier books — and I’m willing to bet that you’ll end up agreeing with me, Rob Sinclair’s James Ryker is an action hero worth your time.

—–

3 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided.

Dead Blind by Rebecca Bradley: A gripping thriller featuring a uniquely disqualified hero

Dead BlindDead Blind

by Rebecca Bradley

Kindle Edition, 358 pg.
2018
Read: August 9, 2018

There are two gripping stories in this novel — the primary one isn’t the crime story (odd for a work of crime fiction), but it is the better executed of the two. Which isn’t a slight to the secondary story, at least not intentionally.

Let’s start with the crime — DI Ray Patrick and his team are investigating an international organ smuggling ring. Every time I’ve run into this kind of story — in print or on TV — it has always been effective. Something about the idea of harvesting organs from people (who may or may not survive the process for at least awhile) to transplant into people who may or may not survive (given the less than ideal facilities for such activities) has always disturbed me. Then when my son was diagnosed with renal failure and we were told he’d need a kidney transplant, these kind of stories became more nightmarish for me. So yeah, basically, this was right up my alley.

Thankfully, he’d received his kidney a couple of weeks before I read this one, so it didn’t end up costing me sleep. Incidentally, the facts and figures about transplants, the need for them and the lack of donors, etc. all lined up with everything we’d been told. Yes, there are differences in protocols between the two medical systems, but on the whole, what Patrick and the rest learned matched what I’d learned. When it comes to thins kind of thing in novels, I’m always wondering how much the author fudged and how much came from research — I’m happy to say that Bradley got this right.

So this story — from how the ring operates to how Patrick and the rest investigate is very satisfying.

Which leaves the primary story. Patrick comes back to work from a nasty automobile accident, mostly recovered from his physical injuries. But that’s not the only injury he sustained. Patrick now is dealing with prosopagnosia, aka “face blindness.” Through some clever guesswork, and a whole lot of luck, he’s never revealed it to anyone other than his ex-wife (so she can help him with his kids). Now back at work, Patrick is attempting to hoodwink everyone into thinking he’s okay, because he doesn’t want to risk not losing his job.

On the one hand you want to see him pull off his silly scheme, on the other, you want to see him be the man of integrity everyone thinks he is and be honest with his colleagues and friends. Especially when Patrick’s inability to discern or remember faces jeopardizes the investigation.

Watching Patrick try to remember people via other means while trying to lead an investigation, and deal with the ramifications of the disorder in his personal life gives the book its emotional weight. And it delivers that in spades.

Patrick’s team is full of some pretty well-drawn characters, which also applies for the other people in his life — grounding the more outlandish flavorings of the other stories. I enjoyed the read and found it gripping — looking forward to seeing more from Bradley.

—–

3 Stars