Monday, November 24, 2008

"Just After Sunset" by Stephen King

It's been quite a long time since we had a collection of short stories from Steve, and let me tell you, the wait was worth it. This is a very worthy effort from the "king of horror", thirteen tales to tickle your mind (13 being a very bad number - just ask "N." from the story of the same title). There's a little something for everyone, so you're sure to have a favorite by the time you finish.

"Willa" is probably my least favorite story in the bunch, and it's the first one off the block. It's a ghost story of sorts, and it turns out the first one King wrote when he started trying to get back into the short story format. Contrary to popular belief (and King's own belief), writing a short story is not like riding a bike; it takes a while to get back into the swing of things.

"Gingerbread Girl" could be considered a classic girl-in-peril story. Young woman recently separated from her husband escapes to Dad's "conch shack" at the beach, only to find herself in the worst of all possible situations. Very good, had me anxious to find out what happened.

"Harvey's Dream" is perhaps my favorite story here, perhaps because while short, it evokes a very Shirley Jackson-ish kind of horror. Quiet and creepy.

"Rest Stop" presents the story of a mild, meek writer who must call on his pen name's persona to handle a late-night pit stop. Makes you think twice about hitting the road late at night, or at least, going to the bathroom before you get behind the wheel.

"Stationary Bike" was an interesting little tale about taking exercise a bit too far. Loved this one, mostly because I'm not a huge fan of the uber-healthy, no-fat, no-carb, all-organic lifestyle. Yeah, mine may kill me a bit faster, but I bet I have more fun along the way. Like Ben Franklin advised, moderation in all things.

"The Things They Left Behind" is scary and poignant, a good tale about a 9/11 survivor and how he handles some mysterious items of his co-workers.

"Graduation Afternoon" was just weird. Not necessarily a bad story, just weird. Turns out King wrote it based on a dream, and it feels like it.

"N." is King's take on the Lovecraftian tale, but with an OCD twist. Kinda creepy, not really one of his best. Then again, I surprised myself by finally trying some Lovecraft and found out I do NOT like his stuff. Sigh.

"The Cat From Hell" seemed awfully familiar, and after reading his notes, I know why. Anyone remember the old "Tales From the Darkside" movie, the one that had Christian Slater in it? Remember the cat he was trying to get rid of? That would be this cat. The story was obviously adapted a bit for the movie, but damn - it's still a creepy-ass story.

"The New York Times At Special Rates" is another ghost story, but I enjoyed this one more than "Willa". Awww.... who knew that Steve-o was a hopeless romantic?

"Mute" tells of man who unburdens himself of his woes to a hitchhiker he picks up, one who supposedly can't hear or talk. This being a King story, you know it's not exactly what it seems, though...

"Ayana" is a look at miracles and the fact that they can be a burden as well as a blessing. Kind of a nice story.

"A Very Tight Place" would probably be my second favorite entry in this collection. Feuding neighbors have taken things just about as far as they can go. Or have they? One neighbor decides to go to the extreme, but the other neighbor isn't going to go quietly. This one definitely goes for the gross-out; you may never be able to use a Port-a-Potty again.

King is one of the few authors that really enjoys writing in the short story format, and it shows. My husband was thrilled to hear that "Just After Sunset" was a collection, rather than a novel, and with good reason - it's fun to read King's shorter works. Like visiting an old friend.

Friday, November 21, 2008

"How Not to Die" by Jan Garavaglia

The subtitle to this book is "Surprising lessons on living longer, safer, and healthier from America's favorite medical examiner". If you haven't heard of "Dr. G", then you probably don't have cable TV. She first appeared on the Discovery Health Channel (sadly, a station I can no longer get on my TV), and my hubby and I were avid fans. It was sort of like a real-life CSI show: a case is presented, a re-enactment of the autopsy is done, and Dr. G. explains what she finds as she goes, what tests she has to have done, what leads her to determine cause of death, etc. And the cases were pretty interesting! I can remember one woman that was brought in with a gut-shot; she'd been out on her first hunting trip with her husband and the police thought she was a victim of foul play. The husband swore that his wife had tripped and the gun had gone off, that it was an accident. I would never have believed his story myself, and Dr. G. had her doubts as well. But being in the business she's in, she's learned over the years to keep an open mind. Well, whaddya know? The husband was telling the truth, something that Dr. G. was able to prove with the autopsy. Very interesting stuff.

I was thrilled to see a book come out by Dr. G. - finally, all the secrets to staying alive! Except that there are no secrets revealed. It's the common sense sort of stuff, wear your seat belt, don't speed or drive recklessly, take care of your body with regular checkups, don't smoke, don't drink excessively, don't do drugs, etc. Basically, her book is advice on how not to die prematurely. Or, as she puts it, how not to die from your own stupidity. Sounds harsh, but you know it's true - pick up one of my fave books, "The Darwin Awards", and you'll know what we're talking about. Guys who "car surf" have a high rate of injuries and/or death - makes sense when you think about standing on the roof of a vehicle moving at a high rate of speed with no protective gear. And let's face it, alcohol is usually a factor in cases like that.

It's an easy read and she does include some of her autopsy cases to make her points. I skipped over some of the material, such as not doing drugs or smoking, as I do not engage in either of these activities. But I was very interested in her chapter on men being stupid, mostly about them not going to a doctor, not taking care of the basic stuff like high blood pressure or diabetes. There are a lot of conditions out there that are very manageable if one does what the doctor asks of one, and you can live a very fulfilling and long life. But not if you ignore your own body.

If you ignore your body and its warning signs, you'll find yourself on Dr. G's table - it's a guarantee.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"The Sonnet Lover" by Carol Goodman

Rose Asher has a comfortable if boring life at the ripe old age of 39. She teaches poetry at Hudson College to students who'd rather be making films, and she's having an affair with the university's president, Mark Abrams. It's not exactly the life she envisioned for herself when she studied at La Civetta, a Tuscan villa attached to the college, some 20 years ago. That was the year she was young, ambitious, and hopelessly in love with a student professor, Bruno Brunelli. Unfortunately, that all came to an end with Bruno's announcement that his wife was pregnant, as well as Rose's aunt dying in the States, requiring her presence at home.

Rose has a favorite student as most teachers do, even though Robin Weiss has forsaken his plans of writing poetry in favor of cinematography and directing. Rose is still proud of Robin and he's just returned from studying at La Civetta himself, something that evokes wistful memories on Rose's part. However, it seems that Robin has a secret, one he wishes to share with Rose, if she'll grant him some time. She puts him off until after his student film premiers at an academic gathering, and it proves to be a fatal error for her; Robin is seen arguing with a young man, Orlando Brunelli, and subsequently falls to his death from a balcony. There were several people near the feuding youths, but most agree that Robin either fell accidentally or jumped. Orlando was accusing Robin of stealing something; could it have been the poems attributed to Shakespeare, the ones he wrote to his Dark Lady? Or was Orlando accusing him of something worse, such as plagiarism? Rose is devastated by her student's death, especially after meeting his father. Convinced that Robin was pushed by someone, she reluctantly agrees to travel to Italy and La Civetta with a movie producer to help look for the lost manuscripts; what she really wants is to bring some peace to Robin's father. And maybe to herself.

Upon her arrival, she discovers that not much has changed at the villa, other than the obvious ravages of time upon a once-grand estate. Bruno is still there with his wife, Claudia, and Rose tries to distance herself from her former love, with little success. There are various Hudson employees there, most of them working on the film in some capacity, and almost all of them with something to lose if it's determined that Robin was murdered. Several red herrings are thrown into the plot, but it's not difficult to see who the "bad guys" are. Goodman does a good job describing the Italian scenery, but I was a bit disappointed in her character development this time. Granted, she sticks with a bit of a formula in her books: older professor/teacher/former student with a lost love must solve some sort of mystery involving a younger generation. Much as I wanted to, I didn't feel much for Rose, and I'm not sure why. I don't know if there were too many characters on the canvas for Goodman to fully flesh out our heroine, or if she just wasn't all that heroic. I also found myself wanting to read more about her and Bruno in the present; the rekindled love is barely even mentioned.

Overall, not one of her best works, but still not a bad book. I'm still inclined to read her next work, "The Night Villa", in hopes that it will show her to be back in fine form. If you like poetry, love Italy, and don't mind a bit of a convoluted mystery, "The Sonnet Lover" might be just the ticket.

"Wolfsbane and Mistletoe" edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner

Wow. I am really surprised at this Christmas collection of werewolf stories. Why? Because there's not a dud in the whole bunch. Talk about an early Christmas present! I love to peruse short story collections by authors I like, mostly because there's at least one or two writers included that I've never read before. It's a good way to try someone out without committing to an entire novel-length work. And while I usually enjoy some or most of the stories, there's usually at least one that I think is just a true stinker; sometimes I don't even finish the story, it's that bad.

This collection? This is a real winner. Not only was I happy about the offerings from my usual suspects, but I was impressed with the newbies, enough that I might try one or two of their books! Most of the authors asked to contribute have written some sort of paranormal story before; there are also those that make a good living doing nothing but the paranormal genre. I was surprised to see a few mystery authors included, but they all turned in very good work, in my opinion. As I said, I'll be looking for some of their books down the road. Can't read about vamps and weres all the time!

The length is also nice, ranging from incredibly short ("Lucy, at Christmastime" by Simon Green, at a mere four-and-a-half pages) to the longest at 40 pages ("SA" by J. A. Konrath). Oddly, there are a few stories that are all 28 pages long. Just a coincidence? Who knows, but with this sort of material, it does seem kind of eerie. There are slightly serious works and also very funny ones. Overall, a wonderful combination to tide you over this holiday season.

The stories are "all-new original werewolf tales" and the contributors are as follows: Donna Andrews, Keri Arthur (someone I don't normally enjoy, but her story was pretty good), Patricia Briggs, Dana Cameron, Karen Chance, Alan Gordon, Simon R. Green, Charlaine Harris (perhaps the story I liked the least but it was still really darn good!), Toni L. P. Kelner, J. A. Konrath, Nancy Pickard, Kat Richardson, Dana Stabenow, Rob Thurman, and Carrie Vaughn.

"I Want You to Want Me" by Kathy Love

Love continues to write about her newest love, New Orleans, and much like her previous vampire series, she sticks with a relative of a character in her previous book, "Any Way You Want It". That light romp introduced us to Ren and Maggie as a romantic duo, and at the beginning of this book, the two have recently married and are off for a hot weekend of, well, you know! Maggie's friend Erika has also moved to the Big Easy in hopes of nurturing her creative talents; Erika is a sculptor who wants to finally take a chance on earning a living doing what she loves, rather than what she has to. (There's a third friend from the original trio, Jo, and I'm sure the next book will be her story). Ren has been gracious enough to let Erika rent one of the apartments in Ren's building, and she believes herself to be alone one night, until she hears strange noises from the apartment right above hers.
Vittorio Ridgewood is Ren's half-brother and he's the source of the mysterious noises. He's come back to New Orleans to solve a mystery, namely the deaths of some twenty or so women that he's known over the years. It sounds horrible until you realize that Vittorio is a vampire, just like Ren, so that means a lot of time has passed between each of the women's unfortunate demises. And most of them appear to be from natural causes, not murder. Vittorio remains convinced that the women he's been attracted to have died because of him, and he's also fairly sure of the killer - his own mother.

When Vittorio and Erika meet, they're instantly attracted to each other (sigh - aren't they always?) But of course, Erika has a big show coming up and needs to concentrate on her work, while Vittorio needs to keep Erika as far from his as possible, lest his murderous mother decide to put her on the chopping block. Will they be able to keep their hands off each other? Will Vittorio expose his mother's evil doings? Will this book be any different than the other Love books?

Um, no. I mean, it's a paranormal romance, so you know it's going to have a happy ending, no problem. You know there's going to be a few hot sex scenes (and they are suitably hot, let me tell ya!) and that the bad guy will be vanquished. It's not great literature, but it IS great fun and an easy romantic read, so go ahead and enjoy yourself. The only real problem I had with the book was Orabella, Vittorio and Ren's mother. I'm not entirely sure what the author was going for, but this went past the whole "no woman is good enough for my baby boy" type of thing. It was actually uncomfortable to read about Orabella's obsession with her son; I kept wondering if he'd make a confession to Erika about sexual abuse in his youth, but nope, that never happened. I think it never happened. Very weird and just kind of icky. Totally explains why Orabella is homicidal but didn't make the book better.

Love writes a good vampire romance, and I would recommend any of her books to my readers. Also, don't miss her earlier works, which are just plain old light romances. They're just as good!

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Don't Make Me Choose Between You and My Shoes" by Dixie Cash

It's the return of the Domestic Equalizers! Yes, our feisty hairdressers/private investigators are back, and this time, they've been invited to the Big Apple by the National Association of Private Investigators. The ladies are nervous about their presentation, and more importantly, flying to New York City, but they're packing their bags and holding their heads high. This invitation means they are legit - being recognized by their peers. And, of course, being in the Big Apple means a chance to shop!

Debbie Sue Overstreet and Edwina Perkins-Martin are the lovely if somewhat bumbling duo known as the Domestic Equalizers. They've actually solved a few high profile cases (sort of by accident really, but a closed case is a closed case, right?), so they're thrilled when asked to be guest speakers at the NAPI conference. There are a few little details about getting to NYC, though, namely Edwina's utter terror at flying. She can get on a plane if necessary, but it requires some "medication" to do so, something that almost gets them thrown out of the airport before they ever get the chance to board. And once in NYC, they feel very much like the proverbial fish out of water, recognizing that they might come off as hicks from the sticks.

If you're familiar with the Dixie Cash books, you know there's always a romance in it, and this one is no different. Since Debbie Sue and Edwina are very much married, the author also introduces us to a fellow Texan at the conference, Celina, a librarian from the tiny Texas town of Dime Box. Celina has been robbed by a con-man on her Greyhound bus to NYC, and when our ladies learn of her plight, they tell her to stay with them in their luxurious accommodations to help her save on expenses. Celina is thrilled; not only does she like and feel comfortable around our dynamic duo, she won't have to pay for her tiny room at the Y. The ladies meet up with Matthew McDermott of the NYPD and a fellow presenter at the conference. Matt, of course, takes an interest in Celina - thus we get a romance.

The mystery part comes in near the beginning when a prostitute is killed. It seems like it's not even part of the plot, but several people at the conference are talking about a string of murders that are still unsolved. Seems there have been 7 or 8 "working girls" who have been killed, and there's practically no evidence for the police to follow up on. A hint is dropped early on that the murderer might be a cop, which would mean that the killer could be there at the conference. And there are some "professional" girls hanging around the hotel, high-class ones at that. Debbie Sue and Edwina meet one of them, Cher, and take a liking to her despite her chosen line of work. Will the Domestic Equalizers be able to solve the case and keep Cher from danger? Will Celina and Matt fall in love and live happily ever after? Will Edwina be able to afford that pair of Jimmy Choo's that she's had her eyes on?

You have to read the book, silly! I like these romantic comedies that the author puts out; they're easy reads and usually have a happy ending. Sometimes that's exactly what I want to read - not great literature, but surely entertaining. Just a little fyi - Dixie Cash is actually the pen-name for the writing team of sisters Pam Cumbie and Jeffery McClanahan. And yes, they really are from Texas!

"Bobbie Faye's (kinda, sorta, not exactly) Family Jewels" by Toni McGee Causey

Bobbie Faye Sumrall is back, and as usual, bad luck and explosions are following her pretty much wherever she goes. The unluckiest woman in all of Louisiana is off on another adventure, and most of the same characters are along for the ride, including the two men in her life. The trouble all starts when Bobbie Faye's cousin Francesca walks in to Ce Ce's Cajun Outfitter and Feng Shui Emporium and says "We have a problem"...

The "problem" are some missing diamonds that belong to BF's Aunt Marie. Seems not only has Marie disappeared, so have the jewels. There's a cryptic message indicating that Marie gave the rocks to Bobbie Faye, but our hapless heroine has no earthly idea where the sparklies are. Francesca insists that Bobbie Faye help her out, for the sake of family, and also to avoid dealing with the wrath of her father, Emile, a sort of Cajun Mafioso.

Of course, this being Bobbie Faye, there are a lot of others out there looking for the diamonds as well. Bobbie Faye learns this when people start shooting up Ce Ce's business; she manages to escape, only to be kidnapped not once, not twice, but a total of three times. Each of the kidnappers wants to deliver a message, some telling her when she finds the diamonds, she has to turn them over to them, not to Francesca, and one actually demanding that she NOT look for the goods. All of them literally drive around the block, then dump her out unceremoniously. In the midst of all this foolishness, she also runs into her paramour from the first book, the gorgeously hot fed Trevor Cormier. Hopefully, he can help her get out of this jam just like he did last time. And hopefully, he'll stick around when the dust settles.

Complicating matters are an investigation by Bobbie Faye's ex-lover, Det. Cameron Moreau. Seems there's a videotape with footage of Bobbie Faye shooting a local jeweler in cold blood, something that Cam knows can't be possible. But the evidence is piling up as fast as he tries to hide it. Could Bobbie Faye really be out for the diamonds herself? It would mean a lot of money in her pocket, a true miracle for a woman living in a run-down trailer with a car that may not make it through its next quart of oil. Can Cam clear his woman? Better yet, does he really know "his woman" at all?

Causey's second work starring Bobbie Faye is action-packed to say the least. Perhaps a bit too action-packed at times, in my humble opinion. I found myself sort of skimming through some of the fights and explosions to get to the character interaction, namely that of Bobbie Faye and Trevor, but also BF and her family. There's a very sweet and touching scene out at BF's family home, one that I wish would have gone on longer; I'd like to know more about the family dynamics. Sadly, Causey runs over that pretty fast in favor of more mayhem. Also, there's a real romantic thing developing between Bobbie Faye and Trevor, and I'd like to be able to have that slowed down a bit and given a chance to blossom. Granted, being on the run can definitely bring two people together, but is it real? I think it is in this case, but it'll be hard to tell until things do slow down a bit. I'm not entirely sure that I want Cameron "fighting" for Bobbie Faye; I think his ship has sailed. But it's pretty common to have the heroine torn between two loves, so I understand why the author is taking that direction. Finally, there were a lot of characters on the canvas here, enough that it was hard at times to keep track of which side someone was on.

All in all, I still liked the book, but thought the author might have been trying a bit too hard to top her first foray into Bobbie Faye-land. I'm going to give it another chance if Causey puts out a third book (and I think she will); hopefully the author will give us a few more chances to really know our characters and a few less explosions.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

"Love is a Many Trousered Thing" by Louise Rennison

Georgia Nicolson is back, and she's got a small problem. She has walked into the Cakeshop of Lurve, and has apparently bought two cakes! Her gorgey Italian guy, Massimo, has declared himself free and wants to be hers. But Robbie the Sex God is also back in the picture, having returned to England from Kiwi-a-gogo land, thankfully without any wombats. What's a girl to do?

Well, if you're Gee, not a whole lot. This is basically the same book as the rest of the series, which means that while I still enjoyed reading it, I'm reading for my girl to grow up a bit and take some responsibility. And, at the end of this book, it looks like she's going to do just that when she has a rather serious talk with Robbie. FINALLY! I mean, I'm all for being a flighty teen and boy-crazy; I went through just such a faze (although I doubt I was ever as flighty as Gee!). But there comes a time when the author needs to move the series along a bit, and in this case, that means making Gee a bit more mature in her actions.

The most surprising thing in this book was Gee's attitude toward her "besty" friend Jas. Granted, Georgia has always been a bit less of a friend in that relationship, but in this book she's a downright user. I was very disappointed, and truthfully, I wonder why Jas hasn't told her off and refused to speak to her anymore. Gee only wants to be friends if Jas will get her info on one of her potential hotties; if Jas refuses, or worse just doesn't know anything to tell, Gee gets very peeved and downright rude towards her. That's not really a good way to portray a friendship, and while I doubt that the YA crowd will be swayed by Gee, it's a bit bothersome to me that the author has moved in this direction. There are more books in the series, so hopefully Jas will grow a backbone and put Gee in her place.

On a more positive note, Dave the Laugh is also featured, and I think Gee might be realizing that one can be friends with a guy you fancy. I'm living proof of that!!