Friday, February 28, 2014

Rituals: A Faye Longchamp Mystery by Mary Anna Evans

Release Date - November 2013 Mary Anna Evans Poisoned Pen Press Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth Rituals is the eighth novel in the Faye Longchamp Mystery series. This time, Faye and her adopted teen daughter are in New York helping sort donations to a local museum. Rosebower is an unusual town where the dead still have strong ties to the living, after all it's a town that was founded by spiritualists. This is proven to be all too true when a local medium dies shortly after meeting with Faye and her daughter. Despite being an agorophobic, the medium somehow manages to get out of the room where she was nailed in before the house was set on fire and drive dozens of miles to find Faye and die in her arms. With plenty of suspects, Faye is no longer certain who to trust. It's clear that there are secrets in Rosebower, but who would stoop to murder to keep them hidden? I discovered Faye Longchamp back in 2012 with the novel Plunder. That also happens to be the story where Armande, Faye's adopted daughter, is introduced. Had I not had that background, I may have struggled with this book a little more than I did. I really think this is a series you need to read in order. Faye's husband Joe and young son also make brief appearances, but they don't last very long. The mystery is definitely involving and keeps you guessing. I usually try to solve mysteries as early as possible (a little too much Scooby Doo when I was a kid I guess), but Rituals kept throwing me for a loop and I found it hard to pick out the killer early on. I can't say I liked this entry more than I liked Plunder, but it was still a very enjoyable read. I do, however, recommend getting all of the books in the series and reading them in order.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Venice in the Moonlight by Elizabeth McKenna

Release Date - October 2013

Elizabeth McKenna

Marietta Gatti is forced from her husband's estate after his untimely death. While it's a bit of a shock, this also gives her the freedom she's yearned for. Her late husband never truly loved her, her mother-in-law certainly made it known that she was unliked. What hurts is that her father never responded to her in the years she was in that insufferable situation. She left angry that her father pushed her into this marriage, but he's all she has left. She returns to Venice to find her father and hopefully restore their relationship.

In Venice, Marietta learns her father died, yet those closest to him are saying he has to have been murdered. The police are not doing anything about it, so Marietta begins to investigate his death. When one of his closest friends also dies, Marietta knows something is wrong. Worse, her prime suspect is a man she's becoming quite fond of.

Venice in the Moonlight is a very short mystery/romance. Despite its brevity, it comes off as an intriguing, well-rounded mystery. It's set in 18th century Italy, and I loved the change of pace. Most historical romances take place in England, so I grow tired of the same old setting. Having this historical take place in Italy definitely drew me in. It's more mystery than romance, but that's definitely not a bad thing. All in all, the story, setting, and characters make this a very worthwhile story.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Become an Elite Mental Athlete by David Silverstein

Release Date - November 2013

David Silverstein
BMGI Corporation

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

Become a Mental Athlete is a very short, easy-to-follow guide into giving your brain a workout. Each chapter is short, spanning only a few pages per topic. Topics include:

  • Building mental stamina 
  • Decision making
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Pattern recognition
  • Programs/software designed to help improve memory skills
  • Sleep
  • Stress management
For me, this material is all common sense. Perhaps my job writing press releases and blog for some medical professionals has me a little more in tune with this subject, but everything came down to being things people already know. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for brain health. Stress isn't good for the mind or body. Sleep is important for your mental health.

If those subjects seem like things you never knew, I think you'll find Become a Mental Athlete to be a valuable read. Otherwise, I doubt you'll find any content you didn't already know.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

How to Make Maple Syrup by Stephen and Alison Anderson

Release Date - February 25, 2014

Stephen and Alison Anderson
Storey Publishing

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

I've actually helped neighbors make maple syrup when I was a teen, so I know a lot about the process. Stephen and Alison Anderson, owners of Wisconsin's Anderson's Maple Syrup, have written a very detailed, easy-to-follow guide into maple syrup. It covers everything you need to know from identifying the right trees to preventing contamination.

There are 11 chapters in all. They include:

History of Maple Syrup
Identifying and Tapping Maple Trees
Gathering Sap
Cooking Sap
Filtering and Bottling Syrup
Cooking on an Evaporator
Collecting Sap With Tubing
End of Season Care
Designing a Sugarhouse
Grading and Selling Your Syrup
Making Other Maple Products

Anderson's Maple Syrup is a third-generation business so they do know what they're doing and their advice is sound. The one thing I wanted to mention, if you're in Vermont, Vermont legislators apparently didn't feel dealing with the economy and job loss was enough, and last year, they decided to spend time revamping Vermont's grading system by sticking closer to the IMSI guidelines and eliminating all Grade B ratings saying that consumers do not want Grade B because they view it as inferior quality.

In Vermont, you are no longer supposed to use Grade A, Grade A Fancy, Grade B, etc. Now you use "Golden," "Amber," "Dark," and "Very Dark." No one knows what happens when syrup makers buck the system and stick to the terms Vermonters know. It is worth considering your market though. I've been in Vermont for decades, and I want Grade B syrup. I'll be sticking to local farms that stick to the terminology I know and who offer the Grade B syrup that I enjoy.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Horror Review - The Troop by Nick Cutter

Release Date - February 25, 2014

Gallery Books

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

My review of The Troop has to be mixed. The opening is amazing. A scoutmaster and his troop are on a remote island doing things that typical Boy Scouts do - camping, bonfires, and the occasional scary story or two. What they never expect is to have a stranger come to the island. This stranger is ravenous, skeletal, and near death. This stranger brings with him a horrifying biological weapon that turns the trip into a horrific quest for survival.

The stranger was creepy. Tim Riggs (scoutmaster) and the boys all well developed and engaging. The setting only adds to the chills. That's the part I loved. Once the "biological" weapon was revealed, the story became humorous to me. Once I was laughing at the image of the "monster," it became a little more like one of my favorite horror movies - Tremors. I've spent more time laughing at Tremors than ever taking it seriously. That's not a bad thing but to go from a very chilling book to one that had me snickering did take the creepiness away.

Would I recommend The Troop? Yes, but with the assumption that most readers, like me, will find the "monster" to be more amusing than frightening.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Alice Close Your Eyes by Averil Dean

Release Date - January 2014

Averil Dean

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

I expected to love Alice Close Your Eyes. In the end, it was a case of being oddly fascinated, yet deeply disturbed at the same time. While I found myself not liking any of the characters, I also couldn't stop reading it. So, my hat is off to Averil Dean for writing a story that kept me glued to the pages, even if there were times I just didn't want to go on.

The story begins with Alice. She's broken into a home and is about to leave with a small wooden box filled with the homeowner's treasured items. Before she can make her escape, he comes home and finds her hiding in the closet. Instead of calling the police, Jack Calabrese turns the tables on her and the pair become lovers.

As their relationship heats up, their sexual encounters become steamier, more daring, and often turn towards sadomasochism. Alice wants something from Jack, something quiet dark, but is Jack who she really thinks he is?

As you read Alice Close Your Eyes, secrets are revealed slowly. With each chapter, you learn a little more about Jack and Alice, so I don't want to tell too much more about the plot. The more I read, the more I learned, and the more disturbing I found the story. I admit, I did reach one snippet where Jack compared a raw oyster to that of eating a certain part of a mermaid's anatomy, and while that created a very visual image, I also found myself slightly disgusted and wanted to quit, yet I couldn't quite talk myself into stopping.

That's what I found weird. I questioned why I was reading this book so many times, yet I couldn't stop. I won't say this book would ever make my keeper shelf, because frankly I did find it disturbing and a little too erotic for my taste, but it certainly did hook me from the very first line.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Release Date - January 21, 2014

Christopher Golden
St. Martin's Press

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

I suppose reading Snowblind in the middle of a storm that was dumping two inches an hour might not have been my best move. I grew up reading horror and little I read scares me, but Christopher Golden's story did get under my skin a little more than I intended. Snow and ice sliding off the solar panels, our deck gate clattering in the wind, and lilac branches rubbing against the garage certainly didn't help matters.

In a small town in Massachusetts town, a blizzard of immense proportions hits. Children spot icy, ghostly figures dancing on the wind. An officer's car is hit by an unseen force. People disappear. Since that day, the residents of Coventry have come to fear winter's grip.

Twelve years later, another storm is brewing. Jake Schapiro watched the icy figures pull his brother Isaac through a window before he plummeted to his death. That same night, Jake's mother's boyfriend, Niko, vanished without a trace. No one can believe it when both Isaac and Niko return with ominous warnings about the impending storm. These two are not the only ghosts returning to town. Soon, Coventry is caught up in a storm that could be more deadly than the first.

Christopher Golden drew me in with many incredibly likeable characters, a setting that reminded me of my own town, and then the creepy storm that by itself plays an important character, too. Had it been the middle of summer, I'm not certain this book would have scared me as much as it did, but when I was hearing the wind howl, tree branches rubbing against the siding, and snow sliding from the room, it added atmosphere and really made this one of the creepiest books I've read in years.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Dark Heroine by Abigail Gibbs

Release Date - March 2013

Abigail Gibbs
William Morrow

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

The Dark Heroine: Dinner With a Vampire may possibly be a teen novel given the heroine's age, but I am putting it in the adult section because I found it to read more like a cross of a thriller and a paranormal romance. At times, the descriptions can be quite gruesome and rape is a subject that is broached, so some readers may not like the content. Overall, I enjoyed the story and that's odd since it is all about vampires.

Violet Lee, daughter of England's Secretary of State for Defense, witnesses a horrifying killing spree after separating from her friends during a night out on the town. She's kidnapped and held hostage by the perpetrators, who turn out to be members of a very powerful royal family, albeit a vampire clan. The prince of these vampires, Kaspar Varn, is driving Violet crazy, but at the same time, it's hard for her to ignore her growing attraction to him.

There are a few things you have to realize with The Dark Heroine. One is that these are not the stereotypical vampires people have come to expect from fiction. I like that! Skin does not sparkle when they're in the sun, they do not hide in coffins in daylight, and they do have relationships and families. They have heightened senses, feel emotional pain, and follow their laws. Realistically, the only thing that makes them different to humans is the fact that they do live forever and drink blood.

Violet is only 17 when the vampires take her hostage. They make it clear from the start that she will never be able to leave. The story, particularly the relationship between Violet and Kaspar, builds slowly and does not consume the story. The author seemed focused on building the relationship of every character and the setting for a good portion of the novel, setting things up perfectly for future novels. There's also the set-up for future novels revolving around an age-old prophecy that Violet is unknowingly part of.

I can't say this is my favorite story of all time. I am biased because I'm not a huge vampire fan, but the British wit was clear and drew me in. I liked that Violet was pretty sassy and standing up for herself, even if she felt she was surrounded by brutal monsters. Her determination and sarcastic nature is what kept me glued to the pages.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Rosemary and Crime by Gail Oust

Release Date - December 17, 2013

Gail Oust
Minotaur Books

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

It really isn't a secret that I adore culinary mysteries. I used to be a sucker for Diane Mott Davidson's novels, though they've gotten a little stale for me at this point. I also adore Joanne Fluke, Joanna Carl, Joanne Pence, and I could go on and on, but...

Gail Oust bursts onto the culinary mystery scene with a pretty intriguing starter. I see shades of many of my favorite authors in the story line, but by focusing on spices, I found Rosemary and Crime had enough of a unique quality that I didn't want to put it down, even though there were a few niggles along the way.

Piper Prescott is newly divorced. Her ex seems happy with his new, much younger plaything, and Piper is about to launch her new start, a spice shop in the heart of the southern town she's come to adore. With her best friend cheering her on, Piper is all set for the grand opening of Spice It Up. Unfortunately, things go awry when the renowned chef who is supposed to do a cooking presentation winds up dead. Worse, Piper finds his body and unknowingly touches the murder weapon. When the local veterinarian, who happens to be alibi, disappears, Pipe becomes the prime suspect and needs to clear her own name before it's too late.

Like many other culinary mysteries, the author sets up a love triangle for Piper, and I'm sure it will become more of a focal point in future books. The crime itself, there were times I really didn't get Piper. She was so slow to reveal things to the detective, that it almost seemed like she wanted to be a suspect. If I ever found a body and knew I'd touched a knife outside that could be the murder weapon, I certainly wouldn't leave that as an afterthought when telling the detective everything. This wasn't the only time I found myself groaning that she left out a pertinent detail until after the fact. Hopefully, she'll be a little smarter in future books.

Otherwise, I did thoroughly enjoy Rosemary and Crime. It has the romantic angle I enjoy, a few sassy characters who add humor to the storyline, and a murder that wasn't easy to solve at first. All in all, this is a series I'll be keeping my eye on.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Unleashing Mr. Darcy by Teri Wilson

Release Date - January 2013

Teri Wilson

Book Review by Tracy Farnsworth

Unleashing Mr. Darcy is a one-sit kind of read. It's a modern day take on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and the author starts off by sharing that it will contain snippets of the book and BBC miniseries. I'm one of the rare few who does not go crazy for Jane Austen, but Teri Wilson's story touched my heart.

Elizabeth Scott loves her job, but a disgruntled parent has led to her being on administrative leave. In the meantime, Elizabeth decides to enter the world of dog shows with her young spaniel. Her first show doesn't go as planned. She gets into a verbal sparring match with the sexy judge, Mr. Donovan Darcy.

Donovan is immediately drawn to Elizabeth, but he lives in London, and she's in New York City, so even he knows he'll never cross paths with her. That all changes when Elizabeth is offered a job helping a London breeder with her champion Border Collies. Elizabeth is suddenly living next door to Donovan and sparks are flying.

This is a sweet story with plenty of chemistry, a bit of the dog show circuit, and witty banter. I liked that mix and am curious to see what Teri Wilson has in store for readers with her next novel, Unmasking Juliet.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers From Rookies to Veterans by Rafe Esquith

Release Date - July 2013

Rafe Esquith

I'd say give this man an award, but he already has several. Therefore, I say PLEASE put Rafe Esquith in charge of turning the nation's schools, and some teachers, around. I started reading Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers From Rookies to Veterans figuring it would take me time to work my way through it. Instead, I became so engrossed with all Mr. Esquith had to say that I ended up forgoing household chores in order to keep reading.

What drew me in? That is so easy, he starts talking about a teacher who is planning to take his students to Washington D.C., gained the necessary permission from the district and parents, only to have that trip yanked because of one idiotic official shortly before the trip took place. It's maddening.

The same thing happened to my son's AP Physics class. Their teacher received permission to take his class to a local shooting range with the school's police officer. They would use their knowledge of physics to measure the velocity of bullets fired by the officer. Students were excited, parents were fine with it, the officer happily agreed to donate his time, so the principal gave his okay. A couple months prior to the trip,  the principal suddenly announced that the trip was off until the class raised the money themselves. The teacher knew of a number of classroom supplies that had not been used in more than five years and asked for permission from the department head to sell them to raise cash for the trip. A month later he was charged with embezzling school supplies and fired on the spot. With a month to go before AP exams, the students had no learned everything that would be on the test, and the school's substitute didn't know enough about physics to teach them. As a result, half of the class failed that test. It's a good thing these kids were seniors, because all of them last respect for the school principal and stopped caring about the school after that. Once you've lost your students' respect, you've lost the chance to reach them.

This is only one of the many illustrations found within the book. I've seen the changes to the education system over the decades, and it scares me. I've argued countless hours with teachers who have told me they do not need to correct my daughter's grammar and spelling because spellcheck does it for her. A child should NOT be getting an A+ on papers where she cannot use "their," "they're," and "there" correctly. I had to drill grammar into her because no other teacher would.

By the time I completed Real Talk for Real Teachers, I had decided three things. First, any college student going for a teaching degree should be required to read this book. Second, every teacher currently working in a school should also be required to read this book. Third, every parent should have to read this. It's that good and sends a powerful message that I, as a parent, want teachers to know.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Day Watch by Sergi Lukyanenko

Release Date - January 21, 2014 (Reissue)

Sergi Lukyanenko
Harper Paperbacks

Book Review by Bob Walch

Set in Russia, this fantasy has it all. Magicians, shape-shifters, vampires, witches and other odd creatures fill the pages of this sequel to Night Watch – Book One. To set the scene, two factions of the Others (an order of supernatural beings) have endured an uneasy truce for quite a while as the powers of Darkness and the forces of Light maneuver for dominance and control of the world. 
In Day Watch the reader gets up close and personal with the members of the Dark Others. Known as the Day Watch (hence the novel’s catchy title), these characters have been given the job of keeping the Light Others in check. 
At the heart of this flight of fantasy is Natasha, a young witch who, unfortunately, falls in love with a member of the Light Other. How sad you might think, but it does present some interesting dilemmas for the sultry young woman.

Then there’s a powerful warlock who is suffering from an identity crisis and isn’t sure of his purpose in the war and a top lieutenant of the Day Watch named Zabulon who fears he is about to be betrayed by one of his superiors. 
As these troubled folks interact there’s the interesting issue raised by a special artifact that has the ability to bring the most lethal Dark magician in history back to life. This wonderful object has gone missing and who ever possesses it obviously wields a powerful weapon for doing good or evil.

With a conflict between the forces of Darkness and Light threatening to break out into open warfare, Moscow’s very existence is at stake. As you’ll see, the idea of good and evil here is actually a matter of perspective and which side of the line you are standing behind.
It helps to have read the first novel of the Night Watch series, but if you haven’t that won’t hinder your enjoyment of this volume. If you’re into fantasy, this Russian novel, first published in 2000 and translated by Andrew Bromfield, will probably be much to your liking.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Bingo's Run by James A. Levine

Release Date - January 2013

James A. Levine
Spiegel & Grau

Book Review by Bob Walch

Bingo Mwolo is not only a fast runner but he is also gainfully employed, if you call working for a drug dealer in Nairobi “gainful” employment. The boy delivers drugs for his boss and is kept quite busy until one day he stumbles on a murder that endangers his life.

To protect the young boy, his employer sends Bingo off to St. Michael’s Orphanage where the youngster encounters a group of individuals as corrupt as those he rubbed shoulders with on the streets. 
This street wise boy soon finds an American woman is interested in adopting him, but Bingo is too savvy to believe she really cares about his well-being or desires to make his life better. In turns out Bingo knows a reclusive but talented local artist named Thomas Hunsa and Bingo’s “benefactor” really wants to use the child to strike a deal to obtain Hunsa’s art before anyone else discovers him.

Caught up in a web of deceit and empty promises, Bingo has to come to terms with who he is, his situation and what he wants to do with his life. This is a pretty demanding situation for an adult let alone a young boy. With a little guidance from a caring hotel maid named Charity, the boy manages to see his way clear of the dilemma he finds himself in and perhaps the future won’t be too bleak.

An endearing character who has the ability to make you both laugh and weep, Bingo’s story is one that you won’t soon forget. The picture James Levine paints of Kibera, one of Kenya’s largest slums, is quite graphic but it is an environment that Bingo understands and one he has learned to survive in. It is when the boy leaves this world and enters another he is less familiar with that this novel becomes quite interesting.

The Road to Christmas: A Sweet Holiday Romance Novel by Sheila Roberts

Release Date - September 20, 2022  Sit down and explore the holiday season through four sets of eyes in Sheila Roberts' latest holiday...