Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #14: Girl Afraid by Ciarán West

I received this book for free through the Cannonball Read several weeks ago. It took me that long to get through it, which really says a lot since I can usually finish a book in a few days. Everyday I would check the CBR5 page to see if anyone had reviewed the book as yet. I needed to know if I was crazy for thoroughly disliking the book, with each page getting worse and worse. I expected this book to be great, as West’s debut was apparently very well-liked (I started it but moved on to something else). As I mentioned in my previous review of a free book (Cinderella’s Secret Diary), I hate to give negative reviews when an author is generous enough to share his or her work with us and to be so vulnerable as to be okay with any thoughts we may have. Alas, I can not say anything good about Girl Afraid. From Amazon, the plot description is below:

Poppy Riley is missing. The man who has her wants no ransom, has made no contact with her family, and has no intention to do so. His plan for Poppy is far more sinister. In a locked room, somewhere in London, the ten year girl old sits and wonders how she came to be there.

Alice wakes up to a call from Frank. He is not a friend, but he knows everything about her. He is not a kidnapper, but he knows how to get Poppy back. The worst day of her life has already started, and he is her only guide through the horror. She knows she cannot trust him, but time is running out.

All over the capital, several men are waiting for confirmation that everything has gone according to plan. Strangers to each other, they are tied by a common interest. An interest in Poppy.

Alice and Frank have less than twenty-four hours to save her. Come and spend it with them. And keep telling yourself: ‘It’s only a book. It’s only a book…’

There are so many problems with this book, I don’t even know where to start. Major spoilers below, so don’t continue unless you want to know!

I guess I will start with the characters. The only sort of sympathetic character is Poppy, the 10-year-old kidnapped to be part of a child-porn video. Her father is apparently a favorite actor and the media is obsessed with this “gorgeous child.” I say “apparently” because we get nothing about him and at some point Poppy says he is on a “rig” which usually implies oilman.. who knows, to be honest. Alice is Poppy’s father’s assistant and sometimes caretaker for Poppy. The treatment of Alice is one of the most misogynistic I’ve ever seen (and yet, just mildly irritating, not even enough to incense or inspire any emotional reaction). Not surprisingly, Frank turns out to be a not-so-good guy and of course he then rapes Alice.

The male characters are also awful – every one of them either a woman-hater, child-molester, or loser. Only Poppy’s handler appears to be decent, and he’s just a hired thug with a long murder rapsheet (hey, but at least he’s not interested in molesting little girls). Alice’s boyfriend is a major character for some reason I can not fathom. He spends 75% of his scenes wandering around London, eating fried chicken, getting drunk, talking to hobos about love, and peeing at least twice (both times talking about how much he hates when men pee next to him)… thrilling stuff. His inclusion makes no sense, adds nothing to the story, and is terribly boring.

The men involved in the child-porn tape are just as bad. To make things worse they all have generic names (i.e., Bob, Bill, Harry, Henry, Don, and Rick) so it is impossible to keep track of them (especially as the story bounces between Alice, Poppy, boyfriend, and each of these men’s perspectives… there are at least 8 perspectives, none lasting more than 5 pages).

The storyline has some potential but just continues to devolve in to something that is meaningless  and utterly uninteresting. Rather than having this be an exploration of motive, guilt, shame, morality, immorality, or anything that would make sense and be thought-provoking given the plotline, West instead focuses on just providing us a blow-by-blow account of each person’s day leading up to the planned rape of little Poppy.  It’s all talk, movement and random “action” without any heart or consequence. The characters are kept separate for the majority of the book and it really suffers for their lack of interaction, resulting in one of the least compelling climaxes ever (seriously? How did the Albanians get involved in the climax?). My guess is that West sought to deal with some shocking material, but simply didn’t know what to do with it. The real shame I think is that the writing style was so pedestrian that I wasn’t even shocked despite the material at hand, just bored.

Again, I feel like I must be crazy because everything on Goodreads and Amazon describes this book as thrilling and edge-of-the-seat and I found it so incredibly disposable. I am hoping someone else reads this one soon so I can get a second/third opinion!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #13: The Good Lawyer by Thomas Benigno

Oooh, another debut novel!! There is something kind of exciting about reading an author’s first (and in this case, only) book. Will you get to see their unique view as an author, and will they leave you wanting more? I certainly felt this way after reading John Perich’s Too Close to Miss and was pumped knowing there would be a follow-up novel. While I did not feel quite as excited for a follow-up from this book, I did check Amazon to see what else Benigno has written and was a bit disappointed that there was nothing else for me to get.

Set in the early 1980s, Nick Mannino is a young and ambitious Legal Aid attorney given the opportunity to defend a teacher’s aid accused of child molestation. At the same time, a beautiful woman is asking for him around the courtroom. When she shows up dead, he can’t help but wonder why she was looking for him. In addition, the “Spiderman” rapist is terrorizing New York City. When a suspect is apprehended, Nick rallies for the case. Soon he realizes there are connections between his two new cases and the dead woman. It becomes a race against time as he tries to figure out the connections before more people are hurt.

Overall, this book is pretty decent. Told from Nick’s first person perspective, we get a nice legal perspective, as well as a solid mystery as he unravels the clues around him. Nick is quite well-developed, and I enjoyed him as a lead. He’s ambitious, but not obnoxious. There are two small subplots with his uncle and his girlfriend that vary in their success. The biggest problem here is with certain unrealistic aspects of the Spiderman (once it’s revealed who he is… some of it just left me thinking it didn’t quite line up). A few other things stood out as odd. One of the characters has AIDS, which was called GRID until August of 1982, and the book is set in February 1982. Nick has a random best friend who is randomly introduced at points, but given nothing to do. At one point, Nick calls on said BFF to drive him around, yet when he gets some devastating news he puts BFF in the passenger seat and Nick himself drives, despite being super wasted. His friend disappears until the end when there is another random appearance.

These are all things I consider to be debut-novel glitches, and honestly these are my biggest complaints. The writing was solid and dialogue interesting and useful. Overall, a pretty solid debut, and I look forward to more.

This is available on Amazon for $2.99

More reviews at my blog!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #12: Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

One of my favorite children’s books of all times is The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. It’s the perfect kid-lite danger, mixed with sadness, scariness, and hope. In fact, I’ve been trying to hunt down the cartoon movie version that I envision in my head (and apparently doesn’t exist?) for years now.

I bought the entire Chronicles of Narnia collection a couple years ago, but made the mistake of buying it in one hard cover book, rather than a box set of individual books. The thing weighs 10lbs, so needless to say I’ve never read it! When the individual books came up on Amazon as $1 or free (either or, don’t remember), I jumped on the chance to get the next in the series, Prince Caspian.

In some ways, Prince Caspian is a re-hash of the original book. Much of the book is spent telling two stories. The first is of Peter, Susan, Edward, and Lucy (the siblings from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) who, on their way back to school, find themselves magically transported to an island. There, they meet a captured dwarf, who tells them of Prince Caspian, the young nephew of the current king (which is the second story). Caspian is a curious mind, and wants to learn all about Narnia, a long-dead kingdom. His uncle is displeased with this, and plots to kill the young prince. Caspian’s tutor helps him to escape, and Caspian quickly comes across the hidden lair of two dwarves and a badger (!!!), finding the old Narnians and discovering that all the legends were true.


The story then follows both the siblings and Caspian as they travel to Aslan’s Stone Table. Along the way, we meet more and more of Narnia’s delightful characters, including the lovely Bruins (bears) and Reepicheep, the warrior mouse. Some of the more shady characters are also introduced (since that’s truly the heart of Narnia, good and evil together), such as crones and werewolves. The siblings have their tifts, as usual (with no one believing poor Lucy, also as usual), but we also see them begin to grow up more and have to face the reality of leaving Narnia never to return. Aslan is also back and there is a battle, so in this way, some things stay the same.

Caspian’s journey was less fleshed out, I felt, and he felt very much a secondary character throughout, definitely not the lead as the title suggests. I totally enjoy that this little boy (in the book) is presented as this hunky man in the movie (which I, admittedly, haven’t seen)

Anyways, the book is a pretty quick read. It doesn’t have the sense of urgency or evil (The White Queen was really the worst), as the first book, nor does it have the deep heart-breaking sadness. I enjoyed it very much though, and thought it had more of a sense of humour and action than the first. My favorite exchange is one with the leader of the brown bears:

“Yes,” said the Bear. “But it was always a right of the bears to supply one marshal of the lists.”
“Don’t let him,” whispered Trumpkin to Peter. “He’s a good creature, but he’ll shame us all. He’ll go to sleep and he will suck his paws. In front of the enemy too.”
“I can’t help that,” said Peter. “Because he’s quite right. The Bears had that privilege. I can’t imagine how it has been remembered all these years, when so many other things have been forgotten.”
“Please, your Majesty,” said the Bear.
“It is your right,” said Peter. “And you shall be one of the marshals. But you must remember not to suck your paws.”
“Of course not,” said the Bear in a very shocked voice.
“Why, you’re doing it this minute!” bellowed Trumpkin.
The Bear whipped his paw out of his mouth and pretended he hadn’t heard.

The mental (and illustrated) image of this huge bear sucking on his paws had me giggling to myself for ages.

Apparently, these books have all sorts of religious overtones, but I must be quite dense, as I haven’t been able to notice these, and don’t really want to either. Sometimes, I like my children’s literature, to be just that! I’ll look forward to remaining the rest of the books and seeing what else will come out of Narnia.

Read more reviews on my blog!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #11: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

I unabashedly love this book. Part memoir and part self-guide book, Caitlin Moran loads up her debut with wacky anecdotes, but also a brash look at her emerging womanhood. She talks porn, masturbation, feminism, cursing, drugs, baby making, random sex, weddings, and abortion. When I read this book over Christmas break, I devoured it in just a few days and was laughing out loud on the plane. I highlighted so much of the text on my Kindle, that you’d think I was studying for a major exam.

I love this cover

I read so many mystery thrillers, and choose books that make me feel escapist and not like I need to think too hard. I get enough of that when I look up Yahoo news and feel my mind boggle over some of the ways people think and view the world. I think that’s why, while much of this book really struck me, I most enjoyed the discussions on sexism and feminism.

I’m a feminist too!

“Most sexism is down to men being accustomed to us being the losers. That’s what the problem is. We just have bad status. Men are accustomed to us being runners-up or being disqualified entirely.”

“In more primitive times—what I would personally regard as any time before the release of Working Girl in 1988—the winners were always going to be those both physically strong enough to punch an antelope to the ground and whose libido didn’t end up with them getting pregnant, then dying in childbirth.”

As someone who doesn’t appear to have a biological clock, even at age 30, and is fortunate enough to not have felt societal pressure in that regard (thank God for still being in grad school… best excuse!), her discussion of the choice to have kids felt so true and real to me:

“Every woman who chooses—joyfully, thoughtfully, calmly, of her own free will and desire—not to have a child does womankind a massive favor in the long term. We need more women who are allowed to prove their worth as people, rather than being assessed merely for their potential to create new people.”

She’s a mom and doesn’t think I HAVE to be one too? Love it!

“While motherhood is an incredible vocation, it has no more inherent worth than a childless woman simply being who she is, to the utmost of her capabilities. To think otherwise betrays a belief that being a thinking, creative, productive, and fulfilled woman is, somehow, not enough.”

This book has been reviewed so much on the Cannonball Read and all over the internet, so I won’t go on too much except to say that I love this book and I can’t recommend it higher to all women and people who love women. Caitlin Moran will get you laughing, crying, and most importantly, thinking. What a woman!

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Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #10: On/Off by Colleen McCullough

The most unique piece of this serial killer mystery-thriller is that it is set in 1965. This is a time before DNA forensic technology, before computers, and before cell phones. Detectives and crime scene personnel had to do old-fashioned detecting, often relying on wit, instinct, and a keen eye. Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico is called in to investigate when a young woman’s body is found in the walk-in freezer of an animal research lab at a prestigious Connecticut University. As he investigates the various staff and faculty, more and more bodies pile up, leading Carmine to wonder whether this is the work of, what we now call, a serial killer.

I started reading this book last year, but gave up half-way through the first chapter, which I believe is almost sixty pages of mind-numbing character introduction (every single employee at the research lab is introduced and interrogated). However, I picked it up again earlier this year, and once I made it through the first chapter, this was easily one of the more exciting murder mysteries I’ve read in a while. The killer is not revealed until the end and it was very interesting to see how all the clues pointed towards this person. The last few pages (and what it means for the story) felt a bit tacked on, although it certainly added an additional dimension. I’m not sure if it was the right choice for this book, to be honest, but it definitely got me thinking.

I think the only part of the book that felt a bit… wasted, I think is the word I want, were the portrayal and handling of race relations. Obviously, this dynamic was core to 1965 America, but certain parts of these did not feel particularly organic to the story, although it was eventually weaved in. Throughout though, I kept forgetting that this was part of the story and feeling a bit jarred when it came back up.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book once I made it past the first chapter!

Read more of my reviews here!

Petalfrog’s #CRB5 Review #9: Caught by Harlan Coben

After pulling off a “To Catch a Predator” ambush on social worker Dan Mercer, Wendy Tynes is poised for fame as a hold-no-punches investigative television reporter. Three months later, however, when a teen girl goes missing, Wendy begins to question all the evidence that she herself gathered. When she delves more into Mercer’s background, she finds a long-standing grudge may be at play, and that Mercer may be as innocent as he always claimed to be.

This is the very basic plot line for this stand alone novel by Harlan Coben. Coben is best known for the Myron Bolitar series and for a couple of his early non-series novels (including Tell No One which was turned into a French film). His Bolitar series is undoubtedly his best work, as there are usually good (often scandalous) mysteries, and Myron and his sidekick, Win, have great witty chemistry. Myron is fairly believable and Win is a handsome sociopathic (I always imagine him as Barney Stinson). Okay, so I guess the fact that I’ve talked for four lines about the Bolitar series says a lot about my thoughts on this book.

In sum, the best part of this book are the cameos from Win. There ya go. Truth. There is truly little to no character development. Wendy is pretty bland, and I don’t think she was ever physically described. The subplot with the Coffee Shop Fathers is beyond annoying (I had to skip entire pages because of the inclusion of a 40-something year old, white, wannabe rapper’s LYRICS). A good chunk of the dialogue was trite and expository. The storyline had so much potential to really explore many dark sides of man, and the things we’re willing to do for fame, fortune, success, or recognition. Alas, Coben went with multiple red herrings (seriously, I thought the end was over about 3 times before it was actually done) which kind of nullified all the story’s potential.

Overall, I stuck with the story. It was fine, but a bit disappointing because I’ve enjoyed his previous writing so much. This almost felt like ghost writing, because it lacked the spark from previous books. If you like Harlan Coben, I’d pass on this one. If you’ve never read him, don’t start with this one.

More of my reviews here!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #8: Cinderella’s Secret Diary (Book 1: Lost) by Ron Vitale

Disclaimer: I received this book for free through the Cannonball Read. I must give thanks to the author for being kind enough to share his work with us.

Unfortunately, despite my disclaimer and appreciation of the author, I have little to nothing good to say about this book. I’ll get my one good thing out the way – the premise is pretty decent. The book takes place a few years after Cinderella’s “happily ever after.” She has escaped the clutches of her evil stepmother and stepsisters, and is now a princess. However, she remains fairly miserable and unfulfilled as the prince neglects her for long periods of time and she cannot produce an heir. She has a volatile (at best) relationship with the queen. She convinces the queen to send her and Clarissa to France, ostensibly to meet with a witch who may help her with her fertility issues. Her two solaces are her best friend, Clarissa, and writing in her diary to her fairy godmother.

The latter is what makes up the narrative basis of the story. Each chapter is written as a diary entry to Cinderella’s fairy godmother. The only break from this is when FG writes back to Cinderella. Cinderella is imploring FG to come and rescue her from her bland existence, to bring joy to her life again. Unfortunately, this narrative device results in a lot of “telling” and not “showing” (as a fellow CBR reviewer pointed out). Everything that is told to us, is Cinderella’s memory of what happened. We only ever know her side, and even that is removed. As a result, we never feel in the moment of what’s going on and are only given Cinderella to side with.

This is another major problem with this book. Cinderella is a character we all know and love, but here she is weak, simpering, bratty at times, and very difficult to root for. She is constantly going for walks at night (I have no idea to what end) and has long reflections on her difficulties, yet these are written in such a vague fashion there is no connection with her as a character. At one point she reflects upon her relationship with her father and stepmother,

I had grown beyond that and needed to think about my own future and not my past. The past was the past and so it is.

Not only is this totally trite writing, but at no point do we get to see her grow past this. Rather, she goes and visits her father and this is shoe-horned in. It would be so much more effective if Cinderella actually had a confrontation with her stepmother, and we saw growth from this. In another example, we are told that Cinderella is in training for (I assume) being a witch, but we learn nothing of this training (perhaps Vitale ran out of ideas?).

There are also numerous instances of plain bad plotting that should have been caught by any decent editor. Early on, it is established that the queen dislikes Cinderella, yet seemingly out of nowhere this little gem is included,

The queen allowed both meetings to take place with minimal protection from the guard. Her continued support I cherished.

Once FG was revealed to Cinderella she continued to write, this time to her in-utero daughter (yes, she gets pregnant, and also somehow knows she’s having a girl). Not only does she write extensively about her love affair which I would consider inappropriate for her child to one day read, but her writings include lots of blah blah about powers, and long discussions with her witch-mentor, Renee. Suddenly, we’re supposed to buy into Cinderella being a witch, despite nothing in her mythology (that I know of) to indicate such. At this point, Vitale really seems to be writing whatever he wants and is using the Cinderella thing as a way to just get people reading… there is no connection any longer to her original story.

The writing itself is also pretty awful. The book is set in England and France, during Napoleon’s rising, so I understand the need for a more particular and proper style of writing (especially when the characters are speaking), but that does not excuse some of the most poorly constructed sentences and dialogue I’ve read in a while. In reference to her pregnancy:

“I feel not as nauseous today as I have on this journey.” Loud bangs on a drum distracted me for a moment, and then I continued. “I am more comfortable today.”

We also get this word smash-up, that I literally had to read several time to decipher what was going on,

Renee has shared with me how the sisterhood can help thwart Napoleon will also be discussed.

Finally, this book is supposed to be a Young Adult book, but quite frankly I can’t see this appealing to anyone except maybe the stereotypical sad, middle-aged cat lady. There is nothing youthful or fun in this book, despite the amount of fantasy. Vitale’s attempt to sell a feminist message and present a strong female characters falls flat. He also seems to lack connection with a female character, in general. Granted, it may be quite difficult for a male author to truly understand and embrace their female characters, but I’ve seen it done. Alas, this was not the case here.

While I did not like this book, I truly appreciate Vitale’s graciousness (and courage, knowing we are not obligated to write kind reviews for the CBR) in sharing his book with us.

Read more of my reviews at my blog!