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Book Review: Berried Secrets by Peg Cochran (Series, #1)

August 8, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Berried Secrets by Peg Cochran (Series, #1)Summary:
When Monica Albertson comes to Cranberry Cove—a charming town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan—to help her half-brother Jeff on his cranberry farm, the last thing she expects to harvest is a dead body.

It seems that Sam Culbert, who ran the farm while Jeff was deployed overseas, had some juicy secrets that soon prove fatal, and Jeff is ripe for the picking as a prime suspect. Forming an uneasy alliance with her high-maintenance stepmother, Monica has her hands full trying to save the farm while searching for a killer. Culbert made plenty of enemies in the quaint small town…but which one was desperate enough to kill?

Review:
So I just had to pick this up for three reasons:
1) I love me a punny title.
2) I had just harvested cranberries with my husband friend and her wife on a farm in MA.
3) It’s set in Michigan where my husband is from.

That’s a lot going for it, and I don’t have too high of a bar with cozies (I just want to be entertained, for the resolution to the mystery to not be painfully obvious, and for the main character to be likeable OR someone you love to hate). This one didn’t meet the bar, though, which was a bit disappointing.

The plot itself was good. I didn’t fully guess it before the end, and I liked the small town secrets aspect of it. But the main character. Yeesh. What a judgmental woman. Sometimes it seemed like all she did was judge people who had never done anything to her. And not even just the people in the small town who she judges and then comes to love by the end of the book. No, no. She’s judgey of everyone. Even people she’s known for years. The one repeated instance of her being judgey that really rubbed me the wrong way was the main character loathes her stepmother, and the only reason I can decipher is because she doesn’t like the way she dresses. And she makes snarky asides about that a lot. The stepmother is actually a very kind woman who goes out of her way to help the main character, which makes the behavior even more inexcusable. This may not bother some readers, but the main character struck me as an uptight “I know what’s best for everyone” snob, and I didn’t get the impression that readers were supposed to feel that way about her. She felt very much like a character we were supposed to admire and identify with. So. That really spoiled the rest of it for me.

I didn’t regret the read, but I won’t be going back for the rest of the series. Honestly, there’s enough other cozies out there that I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to read this one, but if you’re hurting for one currently and just love any and all cozies then you’ll probably find a way to enjoy this one, in spite of the main character.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)

Book Review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Audiobook narrated by Candace Thaxton)Summary:
Have you ever heard of Typhoid Mary? The Irish-American cook in the early 1900s who was lambasted for spreading typhoid through her cooking. What many don’t know is that she was an asymptomatic carrier. This was the early ages of germ theory, and most didn’t realize you could pass on an illness without any symptoms. Captured and held against her will on North Brother Island, it’s easy to empathize with her plight. Until she’s released and begins cooking again.

Review:
I grew up hearing the cautionary tale of Typhoid Mary, who was mostly mentioned within hearing range in combination with an admonition to wash your hands. But some people (mainly other children) told tales of her purposefully infecting those she served. These sentences were spoken with a combination of fear and awe. On the one hand, how understandable at a time when worker’s rights were nearly completely absent and to be both a woman and Irish in America was not a good combination. On the other hand, how evil to poison people with such a heinous illness in their food. In any case, when this fictionalized account of Mary Mallon came up, I was immediately intrigued. Who was this woman anyway? It turns out, the mixture of awe and fear reflected in myself and other children was actually fairly accurate.

I’m going to speak first about the actual Mary Mallon and then about the writing of the book. If you’re looking for the perfect example of gray area and no easy answers mixed with unfair treatment based on gender and nation of origin, then hoo boy do you find one with Mary Mallon. The early 1900s was early germ theory, and honestly, when you think about it, germ theory sounds nuts if you don’t grow up with it. You can carry invisible creatures on your skin and in your saliva that can make other people but not yourself sick. Remember, people didn’t grow up knowing about germs. It was an entirely new theory. The status quo was don’t cook while you’re sick, and hygiene was abysmally low…basically everywhere. It’s easy to understand how Mary was accidentally spreading sickness and didn’t know it. It’s also easy to understand why she would have fought at being arrested (she did nothing malicious or wrong and was afraid of the police). Much as we may say now that she should have known enough to wash her hands frequently. Wellll, maybe not so much back then.

Public health officials said that they tried to reason with Mary, and she refused to stop cooking or believe that she was infecting others. This is why they quarantined her on North Brother Island. Some point to others (male, higher social status) who were found to be asymptomatic carriers who were not quarantined. True. But they also acknowledged the risk and agreed to stop doing whatever it was that was spreading the illness. Maybe Mary was more resistant because of the prejudice she was treated with from the beginning. Or maybe she really was too stubborn to be able to understand what a real risk she posed to others. Regardless, it is my opinion that no matter the extraneous social factors (being a laundress is more difficult than being a cook, people were overly harsh with her, etc…) Mary still knowingly cooked and infected people after she was released from North Brother Island. Yes, there were better ways public health officials could have handled the whole situation but that’s still an evil thing to do. So that’s the real story of Mary Mallon. Now, on to the fictional account (and here you’ll see why I bothered discussing the facts first).

At first Keane does a good job humanizing a person who has been extremely demonized in American pop culture. Time and effort is put into establishing Mary’s life and hopes. Effort is made into showing how she may not have noticed typhoid following her wherever she went. She emigrated from Ireland. She, to put it simply, saw a lot of shit. A lot of people got sick and died. That was just life. I also liked how the author showed the ways in which Mallon was contrarian to what was expected of women. She didn’t marry. She was opinionated and sometimes accused of not dressing femininely enough. But, unfortunately, that’s where my appreciation fo the author’s handling of Mallon ends.

The author found it necessary to give Mallon a live-in, alcoholic boyfriend who gets almost as much page time as herself. In a book that should be about Mary, he gets entirely too much time, and that hurts the plot. (There is seriously a whole section about him going to Minnesota that is entirely pointless). A lot of Mary’s decisions are blamed on this boyfriend. While I get it that shitty relationships can cause you to make shitty decisions, at a certain point accountability comes into play. No one held a gun to Mary’s head and made her cook or made her date this man (I couldn’t find any records to support this whole alcoholic boyfriend, btw).

On a similar note, a lot of effort is made into blaming literally everyone but Mary for the situation. It’s society’s fault. It’s culture’s fault. It’s Dr. Soper’s fault. They should have rehabbed her with a new job that was more comparable to cooking than being a laundress. They should have had more empathy. Blah blah blah. Yes. In a perfect world they would have realized how backbreaking being a laundress is and trained her in something else. But, my god, in the early 1900s they released her and found her a job in another career field. That’s a lot for that time period! This is the early days of public health. The fact that anyone even considered finding her a new career is kind of amazing. And while I value and understand the impact society and culture and others have on the individual’s ability to make good and moral decisions, I still believe ultimately the individual is morally responsible. And at some point, Mary, with all of her knowledge of the fact that if she cooked there was a high probability someone would die, decided to go and cook anyway. And she didn’t cook just anywhere. She cooked at a maternity ward in a hospital. So the fact that the book spends a lot of time trying to remove all personal culpability from Mary bothered me a lot.

I’m still glad I read the book, but I sort of wish I’d just read the interesting articles and watched the PBS special about her instead. It would have taken less time and been just as factual.

Source: Audible

3 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: It Ain’t Me, Babe by Tillie Cole (Series, #1)

Book Review: It Ain't Me Babe by Tillie Cole (Series, #1)Summary:
River “Styx” Nash was born into the Hades Hangmen motorcycle club. He always knew he was set to inherit running it, in spite of his speech impediment, but he never expected to be running it at the young age of twenty-six. When a young woman shows up at their doorstep, bleeding and unconscious, he’s reminded of a girl he met at a fence in the woods when he was a boy….a girl who has haunted him ever since.

Salome grew up under Prophet David’s rule in the commune that’s the only home she’s ever known. When her sister dies, she finds the strength to run and somehow ends up in the arms of the man who was once a boy she met at the fence of the commune.

Review:
I’m being a bit charitable with my rating of this read because the juxtaposition of commune and motorcycle club (gang) is one I haven’t seen before, and I do think it’s interesting. Additionally, I do realize that these types of romances are basically fantasy so I try to cut them some leeway. That said, this book is not executed as well as it could have been for its genre. There are some jarring elements that take the reader out of the read, thus leading it to be less enjoyable.

First, it’s poorly edited. There are many clear mistakes such as saying things like “gotta to.” It reads like a first copy, not a final draft. Better editing would have really helped this book.

Second, you have to imagine that the reader who might pick up a romance featuring motorcycles might know a thing or two about them. While everything else surrounding the motorcycles can be pure fantasy, the motorcycles themselves should function like the real world (unless it’s scifi). Motorcycles, though, are treated in the book as basically cars with two wheels, and anyone who’s ridden one can tell you that’s not so, and a motorcycle gang definitely would know better than to treat them that way. One glaring instance of being unrealistic about bikes is when Salome first rides on one. The book sets it up that she has no idea what a motorcycle is. She’s never seen one before, she has zero idea how they work. In spite of this, the only riding instruction she’s given is to “hold on.” Even someone giving the most bare of instructions to a new passenger will tell them to follow the lead of the rider — to lean when they lean and not to counter-lean against the rider. This is basic safety and even a motorcycle gang would give those basic instructions because a passenger who is startled could easily cause the bike to crash and riders love their bikes. Similarly, in spite of Salome not knowing anything about motorcycles, she puts on the helmet with zero instructions. I have never seen anyone who’s never worn a motorcycle helmet before be able to put it on with zero instructions. The strap is complicated and almost always takes guidance. Additionally, we are to believe Salome is riding with someone who cares about her, yet he doesn’t check on her helmet at all. This is not something a rider who cares about his passenger would ever do.

The final thing I found jarring was descriptions of the abuse in the cult. I fully expected there to be cult abuse, but there are repeated flashbacks to the rape of 8 year olds whose legs are being held apart by bear traps. I personally find it extremely difficult to get into a romance that repeatedly flashes back to the graphic underage and violent rape of the main character. It made the book feel like it was at war with itself. Did it want to be a contemporary book about the horrors of cults or did it want to be a romance? You can be both, but that is a difficult book to write, and it’s important to either put all of the abuse in one area of the book (usually where the heroine informs the hero about it) or to make the abuse more minimal (ie maybe the heroine grew up in a cult that restricted her knowledge and movement but that didn’t rape her physically).

Ultimately, while I appreciate the interesting combination of main characters (leader of a motorcycle club and escapee from a cult), I found the execution to not live up to the unique premise. Primarily recommended to those interested in the fantasy of motorcycles with little personal knowledge of them. They will be more able to get fully into the fantasy.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Bees by Laline Paull (Audiobook narrated by Orlagh Cassidy)

Book Review: The Bees by Laline Paull (Audiobook narrated by Orlagh Cassidy)Summary:
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden.

Review:
I like books that mix scientific accuracy with a touch of personification of animals, or in this case, insects. I was expecting it to be weird, because it’s about insects, but oh boy was this book weird.

For some reason, I find the title to be hilarious. I just kept walking around saying to myself, “the bees, The Bees, THE BEES.” You may think that sounds ridiculous (and it does, and I am, indeed, a ridiculous person) but this book really closely matches that experience.

I applaud the author all the research she clearly must have done. I think it only makes logical sense that she invented a religion for the bees to follow that revolves around worshiping the queen. The horrifying dystopianesque rigid structure of bee life also makes sense based on what we scientifically know about them. All of that said, it was still deeply odd to read. Priestesses and chanting and drones and evil invading wasps. It struck me as a cartoon that took itself very very seriously. I would have preferred if it perhaps took itself a bit less seriously. Like (I’m aging myself here) SimAnt.

In any case, the book does take itself very seriously, most likely due to the very real and serious fact that bees are dying out, and reasons for this are reflected in the story, as the colony faces many challenges to staying alive. While I was able to take some of these threats quite seriously, like flowers not blooming at the right time, others were written in such a ridiculous way that I just couldn’t. For example, a giant evil cell phone tower that makes the bees lose their way when they’re out flying. It’s practically personified as a giant evil ominous entity, and I found myself laughing when I knew actually this is really a problem for bees. The book is basically caught in this uncanny valley that both prevented me from being moved by it and from finding it completely humorous. It’s a book that I think needed to sway a bit more in one direction or the other.

I was still at least 4 star enjoying it though until the end. I found the end just so deeply depressing and unnecessarily so (the point was made, no need to go so extreme) that I was left frustrated. I think, having read the ending, that perhaps the author didn’t realize that she was at times veering into ludicrous humor, and she maybe intended the whole book to be a Very Serious Read, when it simply was not.

Overall, then, if you’re a reader who is able to take some ludicrousness seriously, you will most likely enjoy the book more and get more emotional depth out of it than I did.

Now, if only there was a SimBees…..

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante

Book Review: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlanteSummary:
Anne Hutchinson, a forty-six- year-old midwife who was pregnant with her sixteenth child, stood before forty male judges of the Massachusetts General Court, charged with heresy and sedition. In a time when women could not vote, hold public office, or teach outside the home, the charismatic Hutchinson wielded remarkable political power. Her unconventional ideas had attracted a following of prominent citizens eager for social reform. Hutchinson defended herself brilliantly, but the judges, faced with a perceived threat to public order, banished her for behaving in a manner “not comely for [her] sex.”

Review:
I love US History. I have a degree in it, and I particularly enjoy reading about women in US History. I remembered studying a bit about Anne Hutchinson in some of my coursework, so when I saw this book going more in-depth into her life in a used book basement, I picked it up. I ultimately was disappointed to find a book that somehow managed to make reading about a woman with such an interesting life boring.

Anne Hutchinson was what I like to think of as a quiet rebel. She did things like hide the birth of a grotesquely malformed stillborn so that the mother wouldn’t be judged by the community as somehow entangled with Satan or being punished by God. She led Bible studies/prayer meetings in her home, and these groups she led didn’t consist of just women. Men sought her out for advice and knowledge in these groups in a culture where women were only supposed to advise other women. Most fascinating to me was the dynamic between her and her husband. He clearly loved her and gave her basically the reins over their lives. He was known as a quiet person and happily stepped back and let her make the noise. When she was banished, instead of complaining, he just packed up and moved with her to Rhode Island. It’s not that I think that’s the ideal marriage but I do think it went directly against the gender norms of the time, and they were both brave for being true to themselves and what worked best for their own relationship.

However, the writing in this book somehow managed to take such an interesting woman and bore me to tears. I dreaded picking up this book. I eagerly anticipated when the author would quote primary texts because they were exponentially more interesting than her own. The other issue I had with the book was that the author is a descendant of Hutchinson and clearly lets this bias her own perception of Hutchinson the historic situation. On top of this, there’s a lot of talk about genealogy (far too much for my taste), and sections read like someone writing a family history for their own family, not for public consumption. I understand being interested in someone you are descended from, but who you are descended from doesn’t automatically make you a cooler person. People who are proud of themselves because of who they happen to be descended from infuriate me to no end. Do something worthy of being proud of yourself. Don’t rest on your ancestor’s laurels.

Overall, while the historic facts are accurate and Anne Hutchinson herself is an interesting historical figure who deserves to be talked about, the writing of this book is boring and it is colored by the author’s obsession with being descended from Hutchinson. Readers interested in Hutchinson should consider looking elsewhere, perhaps starting with Unafraid: A Life of Anne Hutchinson, which is available in its entirety thanks to Hathi Trust Digital Library.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean)

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman, Cassandra Campbell, Mark Deakins, and Robertson Dean)Summary:
Libby Day testified that her brother murdered her mother and sisters as part of a Satanic cult ritual when she was just 7 years old. Twenty-five years later, running out of money, she agrees to help a group known as The Kill Club investigate the murder. Their members disagree on how actually killed her mother and sisters, and with her connections they think she can help them crack the case. Libby is sure her brother Ben did it, but money is money, and it sure beats a regular job.

Review:
This is my third Gillian Flynn novel, and I must admit it was the one I liked least. I was actually suspicious it was a first novel, as it had that feel–a lot of what works in her other novels is present but it’s less well-executed. However, it actually was published after Sharp Objects (review), so who knows what happened here. Regardless, while I found the mystery intriguing and I definitely listened to the audiobook every chance I got, the plot is not as tightly told nor is the central mystery as believable as it is in her other works.

What worked the best for me was Libby, a childhood survivor of a gruesome murder, as some sort of modern day noiresque private investigator. A woman PI with a personal connection to the murders was just delicious to read. I’d love to see more of that in literature. I also liked seeing a thriller that included a queer person (her aunt is a lesbian) without that being used as a way of othering someone strange or being attached to a perpetrator. Her aunt is a bystander in every sense of the word. She is never a suspect, she provides Libby with a home environment after the murders, and her sexual orientation is just a part of who she is, not a plot point. I also liked the changing perspectives among Libby present, Libby past, her mother, and her brother. I thought it added to the mystery since seeing these other perspectives did not immediately reveal precisely what was going on. I also thought it made it harder to judge her mother than it might be if the reader hadn’t had her perspective.

However, this was the first time that I was both sure who the perpetrator was quite early in a Flynn novel and also that I was disappointed by who the murderer is. I thought there was nothing creative or exciting about it, and honestly it kind of bugged me a little bit. There is also one trope that shows up here that bothered me. It could be a bit spoilery (not too bad) so skip the next paragraph if you’re concerned about that.

*spoilers*
Libby at the end of the book ends up in a scenario that is very similar to the first murders that she survived. It’s basically a trauma survivor finding that all their fears were right by improbably having almost the same scenario happen a second time. I think it was supposed to be scary, but it just irritated me.
*end spoilers*

I also must say that I felt the whole Satanic scare thing was very dated. Yes, I get it that was a huge thing in the 80s and this is a story about murders that happened 25 years ago but something about it just made the whole book feel dated to me. I couldn’t get into it partly because I was certain that the book would ultimately reveal Satanism had nothing to do with it, since that’s just the way that plot point always goes. I suppose you could sum up most of my issues with this book as the plot was too predictable to be much fun.

Overall, if you’re a big Gillian Flynn fan and just want to experience some thrills, this book will provide some of them with the dash of strong female characters you’ve come to expect. However, do expect to be a bit disappointed by a more predictable plot and twist that isn’t all that twisty.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Bellwether by Connie Willis

Book Review: Bellwether by Connie WillisSummary:
Sandra Foster studies fads and their meanings for the HiTek corporation. Bennet O’Reilly works with monkey group behavior and chaos theory for the same company. When the two are thrust together due to a misdelivered package and a run of seemingly bad luck, they find a joint project in a flock of sheep.

Review:
This was given to me eons ago because of how much I love To Say Nothing of the Dog (review) by Connie Willis. This book has a similar sense of humor that definitely kept me entertained but the plot and backstory that ties it all together didn’t hit quite the same loved it nerve with me.

I loved seeing a book set in the mountain range area of the country (Colorado to be precise). I feel like this doesn’t happen often enough in books. I also found there was a real nostalgia quality to the book because it was first published in 1996 and set in its own time-period, so the whole thing just screamed 90s nostalgia to me. This played in well to Sandra’s fad studies. It gave the book a good reason to notice and talk about the fads, and this held up well over time. What originally was a “oh look at this silly thing people are doing right now” became “hey remember when West Coast coffee was first a thing?” I also really appreciated that a social science was featured at the core of a scifi book. Not just that but a scientist of a science deemed more important and sciencey (chaos theory) ends up working with her and respecting her research and its methods. Super cool.

While I thought the research study was cool, I wasn’t as huge of a fan of the competition to receive the grant of a lifetime plot. I appreciated Sandra working to save her job, but the big grant loomed overhead from the very beginning like a deus ex machina. Sandra’s disdain for her coworkers wanting to ban smoking from the building as a fad really didn’t translate well over time. This wasn’t a fad; it was a public health policy, and it rubbed me wrong every time Sandra implied it was like the whole are eggs good or bad for you debate. Second-hand smoke is just bad for you, and unlike a coworker eating an egg, it can actually impact your health if you’re around it. I’m sure it was funnier in the 90s but it didn’t work so well now, and it honestly made me dislike Sandra a bit.

Overall, scifi fans looking for a humorous plot with a female lead, an unusual focus on the social sciences with a dash of 1990s nostalgia will enjoy this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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