Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Book Review: Sugar Run, by Mesha Maren

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

The Rocklodge Motor Inn advertised air-conditioning but the nicotine-stained unit in Jodi’s room could muster only a slight lukewarm breeze. She propped open the windows, splashed cold water on her face, and added ice to her paper cup of bourbon. Unregulated, the hours already dripped like spit, and the cheap floral walls pulsed with indecision – you can do anything – no one’s watching, go out – don’t go out, you’ll fuck up – what’s your plan? Not since she was seventeen had she made any choice that sprang from her own free will entirely. At Jaxton she’d been preserved, safe from her own self. But now here it was, the weight of decision and consequence yoked about her neck again, making her lungs squeeze tight with each breath. She’d barely managed to order food at the Waffle House. The menu had overwhelmed her, and the waitress talked a string of jargon that made no sense.

While there was a feeling of doom throughout the main character’s story in Sugar Run, it was written so beautifully and thoughtfully that you could feel her hopeful emotions, even while knowing that each choice she made directed her further from the happy ending she said she still wanted.

Official Synopsis: 
Book Review: Sugar Run, by Mesha Maren
In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison. When she’s released eighteen years later, she finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom but determined to chart a better course for herself. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian Mountains, she heads south in search of someone she left behind, as a way of finally making amends. There, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother living in a motel room with her children. Together they head toward what they hope will be a fresh start. But what do you do with your past—and with a town and a family that refuses to forget, or to change?

Set within the charged insularity of rural West Virginia, Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run is a searing and gritty debut about making a break for another life, the use and treachery of makeshift families, and how, no matter the distance we think we’ve traveled from the mistakes we’ve made, too often we find ourselves standing in precisely the place we began.


Sugar Run is the story of Jodi’s release from prison after serving 18 years. She’s never been an adult who wasn’t behind bars. While reading alternating chapters between her old life in the late 1980s, and what’s happening in her life since her unexpected release in 2007, the choices she makes seem to make more sense for her, even though the reader can see them only leading to disaster.

The characters felt very real. I felt bad for Jodi and could see the lack of resources that led to her poor choices. I was mostly annoyed at Miranda, who seemed like she started off with more advantages than Jodi, but then chose wrong over right every time, and wallowed in self-pity at the consequences of her actions. I never knew what to think of Ricky, who seemed to not want anyone to really know his whole story.

There are some books that just stay with you, and this is one of those for me. I would love to see another book with Jodi’s continuing story after this debut novel. Overall, I’d give Sugar Run 3.5 out of 5 stars.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley has been blogging about her life in SE Michigan for more than 15 years at SweetlyBSquared.com.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Book Review - For the Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon, by Laurie R. King

Guest review by: Becki Bayley

Los Angeles was the sort of town that, if you aren’t watching television, you might not even know it was Christmas. What’s Christmas to a movie star who has a three-picture deal and graces every red carpet at the Kodak Theater? What’s Christmas to a homeless guy who just wants his next meal? What’s Christmas to a surfer other than a bullshit story about a red and white fat man whose entire gig was to be a mythical creature who gives children toys they don’t need? No, Christmas might be important to some, but to the denizens of Los Angeles, especially those of us working the docks down in L.A. Harbor, Christmas meant only two things: you weren’t with your family and you were getting time and a half.

I’ve never sought out any of the Sherlock Holmes stories to read, so I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed these stories as much as I did. From a graphic story, to a song, and several mysteries based on logic and deduction, the stories were entertaining and fun to read.

Official synopsis:
Book Review - For the Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired by the Sherlock Holmes Canon, by Laurie R. King
For the Sake of the Game is the latest volume in the award-winning series from New York Times bestselling editors Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, with stories of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and friends in a variety of eras and forms. King and Klinger have a simple formula: ask some of the world’s greatest writers—regardless of genre—to be inspired by the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The results are surprising and joyous. Some tales are pastiches, featuring the recognizable figures of Holmes and Watson; others step away in time or place to describe characters and stories influenced by the Holmes world. Some of the authors spin whimsical tales of fancy; others tell hard-core thrillers or puzzling mysteries. One beloved author writes a song; two others craft a melancholy graphic tale of insectoid analysis.

This is not a volume for readers who crave a steady diet of stories about Holmes and Watson on Baker Street. Rather, it is for the generations of readers who were themselves inspired by the classic tales, and who are prepared to let their imaginations roam freely.

Featuring Stories by: Peter S. Beagle, Rhys Bowen, Reed Farrel Coleman, Jamie Freveletti, Alan Gordon, Gregg Hurwitz, Toni L. P. Kelner, William Kotzwinkle and Joe Servello, Harley Jane Kozak, D. P. Lyle, Weston Ochse, Zoe Sharp, Duane Swierczynski, and F. Paul Wilson.


I enjoyed For the Sake of the Game way more than I expected to. Short stories are not generally my jam, and I’d never purposely read any Sherlock Holmes stories before. I may have to reconsider my opinion on short stories—I’ve enjoyed the last couple collections I’ve read.

One of my favorites in this collection was The Girl in the Key of C, which the opening excerpt in this review is from. It is by Weston Ochse, the author of more than 20 books, mostly science-fiction and horror novels. With just a few characters, the story is unexpected and thought-provoking.

I also especially liked The Adventure of the Six Sherlocks by Toni L.P. Kelner (a murder mystery at a Baker Street fan convention) and Tough Guy Ballet by Duane Swierczynski (a decidedly sci-fi mystery and police drama).

Overall, I would give For the Sake of the Game 4 out of 5 stars. Since it was written with inspiration from the Sherlock Holmes canon, I’m sure those who enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories would like it, as well as those like me with minimal Sherlock Homes exposure. The stories were fun, engaging, and varied, with just their inspiration tying them together.

{click here to purchase}

Becki Bayley is an avid reader, school employee, and blogger at SweetlyBSquared.com.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Quick Pick book review: Puddin', by Julie Murphy {companion novel to Dumplin'}

  • Opening lines: I'm a list maker. Write it down. (Using my gel pens and a predetermined color scheme, of course.) Make it happen. Scratch it off. There is no greater satisfaction than a notebook full of beautifully executed lists. 
  • Reason I picked up the book: Dumplin' was excellent, as was the recent Netflix movie, and this is the companion novel to it - Willowdean (star of Dumplin') makes a few appearances, but this is mostly a story about Millie, one of Willowdean's friends. 
  • And what's this book about?
  • The irresistible companion to the #1 New York Times bestseller Dumplin’, now a Netflix feature film starring Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston, and a soundtrack by Dolly Parton!

    Millie Michalchuk has gone to fat camp every year since she was a little girl. Not this year. This year she has new plans to chase her secret dream of being a newscaster—and to kiss the boy she’s crushing on.

    Callie Reyes is the pretty girl who is next in line for dance team captain and has the popular boyfriend. But when it comes to other girls, she’s more frenemy than friend.

    When circumstances bring the girls together over the course of a semester, they surprise everyone (especially themselves) by realizing that they might have more in common than they ever imagined.

    A story about unexpected friendship, romance, and Texas-size girl power, this is another winner from Julie Murphy.
  • Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys YA stories and/or books with a good message.
  • Favorite paragraph: If Malik's nervous, it doesn't show. His head tilts to the side as he pulls me closer to him, holding me tight. It's way too warm out to have this many goose bumps, but my body defies science as Malik's lips meet mine. I almost forget to breathe through my nose as he deepens the kiss and combs his fingers through my hair.

    I can have it all. I decide in that moment. Everything I want can be had. 
    • Something to know: Nothing, really. I hope Netflix makes this one into a movie too! It's such a cute story.
    • What I would have changed: I'll admit that the ending is a LITTLE too "HEA" than I would have expected, but I still liked it.
    • Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5.
    • Where can I find this book? Click here to purchase on Amazon.

    Friday, January 18, 2019

    Book Review: Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows, by Ryan Calejo

    Guest review by: Becki Bayley

    In that split second, the spell broke: The dreamy daze instantly evaporated, and so did my crazy need to follow the lights.

    What the heck was that about? I thought, looking around wildly. But I had no more than asked myself that when the answer came, and all the tiny hairs on the back of my neck prickled like the spines on a porcupine.

    “Violet, STOP!” I shouted. “It’s La Luz Mala!”

    I couldn’t believe what I was saying—couldn’t believe those words had actually come out of my mouth
    but I knew it was true all the same. The lights were almost identical to how my abuela had described them: the wispy, glowing orbs with mesmerizing powers; the strings of tiny lights that lured unsuspecting people into the dangers of the swamp. Even the color was the same – a brilliant Spanish blue! 

    It was crazy to think about
    insane, evenbut this was now the fourth myth we’d encountered – the fourth in just two days! The real question was, why did we keep running into things from my abuela’s old stories?

    I was excited to read Charlie Hernandez & the League of Shadows after reading comparisons of it to the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. I’ve always enjoyed myths, and figured learning myths from a culture different than mine would be interesting too.

    Official synopsis:
    Book Review: Charlie Hernandez & the League of Shadows, by Ryan Calejo
    Charlie Hernández has always been proud of his Latin American heritage. He loves the culture, the art, and especially the myths. Thanks to his abuela’s stories, Charlie possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the monsters and ghouls who have spent the last five hundred years haunting the imaginations of children all across the Iberian Peninsula, as well as Central and South America. And even though his grandmother sometimes hinted that the tales might be more than mere myth, Charlie’s always been a pragmatist. Even barely out of diapers, he knew the stories were just make-believe—nothing more than intricately woven fables meant to keep little kids from misbehaving.

    But when Charlie begins to experience freaky bodily manifestations—ones all too similar to those described by his grandma in his favorite legend—he is suddenly swept up in a world where the mythical beings he’s spent his entire life hearing about seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Hispanic folklore and into his life. And even stranger, they seem to know more about him than he knows about himself.

    Soon, Charlie finds himself in the middle of an ancient battle between La Liga, a secret society of legendary mythological beings sworn to protect the Land of the Living, and La Mano Negra (a.k.a. the Black Hand), a cabal of evil spirits determined to rule mankind. With only the help of his lifelong crush, Violet Rey, and his grandmother’s stories to guide him, Charlie must navigate a world where monsters and brujas rule and things he couldn’t possibly imagine go bump in the night. That is, if he has any hope of discovering what’s happening to him and saving his missing parents (oh, and maybe even the world).

    No pressure, muchacho.

    I found this book interesting and engaging, even without knowing the myths in advance. A glossary at the back of the book was helpful when I came across a few terms and creatures with which I was unfamiliar. I also found the comparison to the Percy Jackson series helpful. The story was indeed about a student who many of the readers could relate to, who then finds himself in some interesting situations that he previously would have classified as just impossible stories.

    Everyone likes to fancy themselves as the hero of a story, and Charlie was easy to identify with as an average student. The other students he interacted with were also easily recognizable from typical student stereotypes. When he stops being ‘average,’ Charlie isn’t sure who to turn to. Afraid that his best friends would just find his life changes to be weird, his lifelong crush is the one person who surprisingly seems to find it all fascinating, and has his back through the adventures. They are off and following clues after finding a mysterious map in a locket left by Charlie’s mom before she and Charlie’s dad disappeared.

    At every turn, Charlie and Violet are finding themselves face to face with another myth told to Charlie by his abuela before she died. Usually it’s Charlie’s memory of the stories that helps them deal with the danger just in time.

    Overall, I enjoyed this book and would give it 3 out of 5 stars. It was a pleasant read, and provided information about cultural myths with which I was previously unfamiliar. It would be a great book for 11- to 14-year-olds of varying backgrounds.

    {click here to purchase}

    Becki Bayley is a mom of two, wife, bruffus lady, and blogger at SweetlyBSquared.com.

    Thursday, January 10, 2019

    Book Review and GIVEAWAY: Hunt Them Down, by Simon Gervais {ends 1/17}

    Guest review by: Becki Bayley

    Hunt began his controlled descent down the stairs leading to the basement. He kept his back pressed against the wall and his gun in front of him but close to his body. When he reached the final step, a chill coursed through him.

    Leila. She was here. I can feel it.

    He listened closely for any sound. Once he was satisfied that the only noise was his own breathing, Hunt moved rapidly, room by room, searching for any signs of his daughter. The first room consisted of a double bed, which had been slept in, a dresser with a large mirror, and a night table with a lamp. A sink and a toilet were tucked next to each other in one corner. A video camera hung from the ceiling in a back corner. A lump formed in his throat.

    Was it here that they kept her?

    While I’m not any sort of operative or secret agent, a lot of the intricacies of their operations seemed a bit far-fetched to me. But Hunt Them Down was definitely a page-turner, and I was eager to find out what happened next.

    Official synopsis:
    Book Review and GIVEAWAY: Hunt Them Down, by Simon Gervais
    Former Army Ranger Pierce Hunt is no stranger to violence. Fresh off a six-month suspension, he’s itching to hit a notorious Mexican drug cartel where it hurts, even if that means protecting crime boss Vicente Garcia, a witness in the case against sadistic cartel leader Valentina Mieles. But things spiral out of control when the cartel murders Garcia and kidnaps his granddaughter and an innocent bystander, Hunt’s own teenage daughter.

    Mieles wants the new head of the Garcia family on a plate—literally. Hunt has seventy-two hours to deliver, or Mieles will execute the girls live on social media. With the clock ticking, Hunt goes off the grid and teams up with Garcia’s daughter, a former lover and current enemy. To save the girls, Hunt will have to become a man he swore he’d never be again: an avenging killer without limits or mercy.


    Luckily, I mostly read just to be entertained, and escape from the doldrums of my predictable life. If I were a deep undercover DEA agent, I can’t imagine someone approving a reporter with his personal cell phone on an important bust. But this is the first scene we’re expected to believe in Hunt Them Down. After understandably losing his temper, Pierce Hunt (our hero agent) gets some time off in the form of a suspension. Then on his first day back to work (at a different office), he ends up in a motorcade that is ambushed. What are the odds?

    This is just the first book in a whole new series about Pierce Hunt. We’re also introduced to his daughter, ex-wife and ex-wife’s new hubby. Hunt also has several friends who are as close as family from his days of being in the armed forces and his illustrious career with the DEA. The characters are well described, but some of their overlapping is incredibly coincidental. Having the same characters as the players in multiple aspects of the plot is quite helpful, as the plots get somewhat confusing.

    I actually really enjoyed this book, with the appropriate suspension of disbelief. Like I said, I don’t guess what’s coming next, I just read to find out. If you’re into action/adventure, this will most likely be a book you’ll enjoy as well. I can’t say too much more about it without ruining the multiple twists and turns for you, so you’ll have to read it for yourself. I’d give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

    {click here to purchase}
    *Note from Liz: Book #2 in this series, Trained to Hunt, will be released on September 24, 2019 - click here to pre-order.

    Becki Bayley lives a life free of too many secrets. She is reliable and predictable—sometimes another word for boring, but usually safe. She blogs and tries to be mildly amusing and document anything worth a few words at her blog, SweetlyBSquared.com.

    GIVEAWAY:

    One of my lucky readers will win a copy of Hunt Them Down!

    Enter via the widget below. Giveaway will end on Thursday, January 17th, at 11:59pm EST, and winner will be notified via email the next day and have 24 hours to respond, or an alternate winner will be chosen.

    U.S. and Canadian residents only, please.

    Good luck!

    1 copy of HUNT THEM DOWN, by Simon Gervais

    Wednesday, January 2, 2019

    Quick Pick book review: Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin

    Quick Pick book review: Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin
    • Opening lines: When she was twelve, my sister fell into a grave.

      We were two children by ourselves in an empty cemetery, old stones jutting out of the ground in all directions. The grass was dead, the same straw color as my sister's hair. I remember the terrific flutter in my chest. How her fingertips barely brushed mine when I reached my little hand down to try to pull her out. It was freshly dug earth, waiting.

      She was laughing down in that hole.

      I was five.
    • Reason I picked up the book: I've read books by Julia Heaberlin before, and they are always fantastic and full of suspense.
    • And what's this book about?
    • Carl Louis Feldman is an old man who was once a celebrated photographer. That was before he was tried for the murder of a young woman and acquitted. before his admission to a care home for dementia. Now his daughter has come to see him, to take him on a trip. Only she's not his daughter and, if she has her way, he's not coming back . . .

      Because Carl's past has finally caught up with him. The young woman driving the car is convinced her passenger is guilty, and that he's killed, other young women. Including her sister Rachel. Now they're following the trail of his photographs, his clues, his alleged crimes. To see if he remembers any of it. Confesses to any of it. To discover what really happened to Rachel. Has Carl truly forgotten what he did or is he just pretending? Perhaps he's guilty of nothing and she's the liar. Either way in driving him into the Texan wilderness she's taking a terrible risk. For if Carl really is a serial killer, she's alone in the most dangerous place of all . . .

    • Recommended for: Anyone who enjoys mysteries with a lot of twists and turns.
    • Favorite paragraph: Old serial killers who roam free have to land somewhere, of course. I've thought about this a lot. They must get tired. Decide to pamper roses or grandchildren. Break hips and suffer heart attacks. Go impotent. Run out of money. Don't see the car coming. Put guns to their heads.

      The killers who publicly beat the system, and the unseen monsters who are never caught and slip around silent, pulsing background music. Screeching oboes and pounding drums. Only a few ever hear their soundtrack, right at the very end, and then it's too late.

      It took a long, long time to find the man I believe killed my sister. Years. Dozens of interviews. Hundreds of suspects. Thousands of documents. Reading, stalking, stealing. It's been a singular, no-holds-barred obsession since I was twelve and my sister's bike didn't make it the three miles in broad daylight from our house to her summer babysitting job. It was
      morning.
      • Something to know: You will probably be surprised at the ending of this book - I know I was. 
      • What I would have changed: Nothing I can think of.
      • Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5.
      • Where can I find this book? Click here to purchase on Amazon.
      *Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley for reviewing purposes. The opinions expressed here, however, are my own.

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