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

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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!

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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!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #6: Dead Weight (Lizzy Gardner Series #2) by T.R. Ragan

Again… what is with the covers of T.R. Ragan’s books?? These are both awful, just like the first ones! I don’t think I’m a particularly particular cover-person… but Ragan clearly needs a new cover artist.

Anyways, I’m not here to nitpick cover art (too late!). Okay, so Dead Weight, is the second in the Lizzy Gardner series. This book takes place a few months after Lizzy, her FBI boyfriend, and her two assistants (college student Jessica [I think] and damaged high schooler Hayley), thwarted the evil serial killer, Spiderman. This time around Lizzy is dealing with two more typical P.I. cases. The first involves a cold missing person’s case, of a teenage girl who ran away from home and then just disappeared. The second (and the main plot of the book) is another missing person’s case. This time, the missing person is a morbidly obese woman who recently became obsessed with a celebrity fitness guru. Her sister hires Lizzy, convinced guru is responsible for her sister’s disappearance.

The most interesting part of the book is when we follow a friend of the obese women, who manages to get herself kidnapped too, and locked in a crazy fitness cabin. This is pretty weird and unique, but didn’t really pay off. The tertiary plotline involves Hayley, who appears to be losing her mind as she seeks revenge on all the abusive men in her life. It’s pretty bizarre characterization, since I think I was supposed to root for her, but I was more sickened by her actions. This story had somewhat of a drastic tonal shift than the first one. In Abducted, Lizzy and her friends are in constant danger from Spiderman and there is a genuine threat. In Dead Weight, the focus is off of Lizzy and more in the mysteries, which in the end turned out to be a bit boring with no real pressure or consequence to them. I didn’t care for either of the missing women, nor the family members who sought them, so why would I care about the outcomes? I would sum this book up as a fairly standard mystery-thriller, with somewhat boring and unlikable characters, inconsistent plotting, and lack of suspense or urgency. Not my favorite.

Read more of my reviews at my blog!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Dead Man, Volume 1 by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin

The Dead Man, Volume 1 is a collection of three short novellas: Face of Evil, Ring of Knives, Hell in Heaven (each about 100 pages). They are placed as consecutive chapters, presented as one novel. This makes for a bit of a disjointed reading experience, as each is a totally unique story.

Matt Cahill is a small-town lumberer, whose wife passed a few years ago. He’s working on healing his pain, while also managing his asshole best friend, Andy, and a growing crush on his office manager, Rachel. Matt and Rachel go on a romantic ski weekend, where he is buried in an avalanche, and presumed dead. Three months later, his body is found, inexplicably alive! Matt makes a bold escape from the medical hospital intent on researching him, and finds that he has developed some intense perceptual abilities. Namely, he can see evil in people… literally, he can see their faces rotting from the inside out from evil. He is also stalked by the sadistic, supernatural character, Mr. Dark, who seems to be the only one with answers to Matt’s resurrection and new “talents.”

This is the backstory provided in the first novella, Face of Evil (see what they did with the title there? Subtle…). This story sets the stage for Matt to become a drifter, hitch-hiking across America, determined to get to the bottom of what’s happened to him and rid the world of evil. The second story, Ring of Knives, follows Matt as he seeks answers at the world’s most f-ed up mental institution. In the third, Hell in Heaven, he (seemingly) serendipitously stumbles on a small town stuck in the past.

I found these stories interesting, even if disjointed. Matt is a sweet guy, and I wanted the best for him, but at the same time I felt he could have been developed more. I also found it a bit odd that only his axe and his death carried through between the stories. The whole plot point about him escaping the hospital (in the first story) is dropped. There is no mention of Rachel after the first story and no mention of what happened in the mental institution in the third novella. In fact, at some point it is mentioned (in the third novella) that Matt has developed some relatively quick-healing powers since he was resurrected and that this is the first time he’s needed to use those powers… yet, in the second story he was beat up several times and cut with a knife. In other words, there was some lack of continuity and dropped plot points that were a bit distracting. Also, Matt’s quest for information from the second story, is totally dropped in the third, and Dr. Dark barely is a presence in this one. I do feel as if each story can stand on its own, which is both a positive and a negative.

Each story also had some gore and horror, to differing levels. While the first story was gory, it didn’t feel like a HORROR story. The second story was horrifying, gory, and gross from beginning to end. The third was gory, but in an almost comical way. Again, it felt hard to predict what I might get from each story… another positive and negative. Looking on Amazon, it seems there are at least 15 of these novellas with multiple “volumes” of several novellas each. I am kind of curious to see what Matt will be up to next, and if there will ever be a true connecting thread/theme across the novellas, but not sure if I’ll buy more of these unless they go on sale again.

Read more of my reviews at my blog!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #4: Survival of the Fittest by Jonathan Kellerman

Survival of the Fittest is the thirteenth in the Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman, released in 1998. It’s certainly lucky number thirteen, as I think this is one of the strongest books in the series.

The novel follows two primary plot points. The first involves the random suicide of an L.A. police officer. The police officer’s sister hires Alex as her therapist to try and make sense of her brother’s death. The second plot point follows the investigation of the brutal murder of an Israeli diplomat’s teen daughter. The girl was partially blind and had of low IQ. Milo Sturgis is called in to investigate this, now, cold case, and calls on Alex’s help. As they delve deeper into the case, it becomes apparent that eugenics is playing some role in what’s going on.

I clearly love the Alex Delaware series, but I really thought this was a great one. It was very dark in tone, with Alex put in a position of moral ambiguity as he gets more entrenched in the case. It also was very suspenseful, and Alex was in palatable danger in this one. One nice thing about the Delaware series is that Milo and Alex are not in danger in every single case, as happens in most other murder-mystery thrillers. Sometimes the focus is just on the investigation. However, this time, there is a clear and present danger going on, and I thought it was a great risk to take by Kellerman and worked out really well. The many secondary characters are, in typical Kellerman fashion, interesting and engaging. The mystery itself is also very exciting and I felt drawn in throughout the whole novel. Overall, one of my favorite Alex Delaware books.

Read more reviews (including my CBR4) at my blog!

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 Review #3: Abducted (Lizzy Gardner Series #1) by T.R. Ragan

Abducted is the first in the Lizzy Gardner series by self-published author, T.R. Ragan. When Lizzy Gardner was 15, she was kidnapped by serial killer “Spiderman,” and held hostage for weeks. Through her own wits and determination she managed to escape, the only girl to ever survive Spiderman, and soon became known as “the one who got away.” Battling some major psychological demons, she started her own PI practice investigating non-dramatic cases (workman’s comp!). On her downtime, she holds seminars teaching young girls how to defend themselves against a stranger’s attack (don’t get me started on the fact that most attacks against women are done by people they know, but okay!). Lizzy is beginning to feel some relief, as a man who confessed to being Spiderman was recently apprehended and found guilty of the crimes. Her relief is short-lived, however, as a teen girl’s body is found along with a note addressed to her… is the Spiderman back and after Lizzy?

Overall, this book was a fairly decent thriller. It’s not the deepest book out, and the writing is somewhat run of the mill, but it was good enough for me to want to read the second in the series (that review will be coming soon). I was a bit annoyed when, throughout the book, certain lines/points were repeated almost words for word. It is either quite pandering to the reader to assume we’ve forgotten key plot points, or lazy editing. Either way, it drove me a bit nuts.

Lizzy is a damaged character, obviously, but I didn’t find her to be particularly layered or complex. She hits every note you’d expect to see in a book-traumatized person (e.g., nightmares, distrustful) which makes for a somewhat clichéd character, but overall, as a protagonist she’s fine. The secondary characters are also not as deeply written as they could have been. There’s her unpaid, psychology major, assistant who is a real “gumshoe” type with her own personal demons. Lizzy’s sister and niece are boring and stupid to the max. Lizzy’s high school boyfriend Jared, is now (of course) an FBI agent who just so happens to be called in to work the newly renewed Spiderman case. When he and Lizzy see each other for the first time in a decade… well, you can guess what happens. Then there’s the original FBI agent on the case, who is alternately caring and an asshole (an attempt to give him depth with a cancer diagnosis falls flat). Finally, there is Hayley, the spunky, abused teen from a bad home, who inexplicably decides to “bait” herself to the Spiderman. Oh, I guess the Spiderman himself is the last major character. Well, I barely remember much about him or his motivations, which certainly makes him minimally scary, doesn’t it?

I realize I sound like I disliked this book, but really, it was serviceable and there is room for Ragan to grow as an author. She has some good ideas and can execute them well at points, but she is relatively new at the game, and I suspect that she will continue to improve and refine her writing style and who she is as an author.

I’d like to take a moment to talk about these covers. I get that, as a self-published author, most of Ragan’s sales will probably be online, but man, these covers are BAD and will do nothing to draw in a bookstore buyer. The first looks straight out of 1985 and the second is so bland. I hope that Ragan will find a new cover artist in the future.

Finally, I just want to mention that I thoroughly respect the work of self-published authors. They have a difficult road to face, but I think it’s pretty cool there are many avenues out there for them to get their work out to readers. Ragan herself wrote a pretty awesome post on her website on how to self-publish. That link is here.

More of my reviews can be found here at my blog.

Petalfrog’s #CBR5 #2: A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

I’ve long been a fan of the quirkier children’s books. Roald Dahl has always been my favorite. He has a way of putting kids in awful situations and bringing a wacky sense of humour and resilience to them. He introduces crazy situations, and the kids always pull through. So, when I saw the first in A Series of Unfortunate Events was on wicked sale on I jumped right on it.

This book certainly featured kids in an awful situation. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are three happy and life-loving kids. When their parents die tragically in a house fire, they are sent to live with their distant relative, the mean and somewhat sociopathic Count Olaf. The kids quickly realize Count Olaf is working on a plot to get to their extensive inheritance. The story is a quick read (167 pages), and I found my heart breaking for the kids throughout. Some of the situations were almost too upsetting (I am such a softie) for a kids’ book (I could see younger kids being really scared by Olaf and his meanness), and lacked the Roald Dahl wacky humour to balance things out. We’ve got some malnutrition, neglect, face-slapping, and some random (non-sexual) incest thrown in.

Overall, it’s a bizarre scenario and a sort of bizarre little story, and maybe I’m being entirely too prudish about the whole thing (I readily admit). I did feel really invested in the story and the kids, but when they triumphed (of course) at the end, I didn’t find myself wanting to cheer. Rather, I just felt a sense of relief that no more horribleness would happen to these sweet kids in this book (obviously more unfortunate stuff will happen in the rest of the series). I felt the book lacked the light airiness and whimsy required in a book where mean and bad stuff happens to kids. I just wound up wishing it was a Roald Dahl book instead…