Tour’s Books Blog

February 25, 2014

A Simple Dish

Filed under: Editorial,General,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 4:51 pm
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There’s one place a cook can never hide anything, from skill to freshness of ingredients – in a simple dish.  There is nowhere to go if its wrong.  Everything hinges on a good ingredient, and quick simple preparation.  No sauce, no spices, no heaping pile of herbs, to bury it under.  Just the food.  Unfortunately, somewhere we, as a country, lost our way and only in recent years discovered the joy of being a ‘locavore’.

One of the reasons food tastes better in season is because it’s local and allowed to get riper on the plant, tree, or vine.  Peaches, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes, melons, green beans, corn, you name it and fresh picked is amazing.  My mom taught American history and I can remember her telling us early settlers would have huge pots of boiling water at the edge of the fields to immediately cook the corn, because the sugars turned to starch so quickly and changed the flavor.  Yeah, it really does matter.  Who knew we were ‘locavores’ before there was such a thing?  At the time, everyone was a ‘locavore’.  The very fact it’s named speaks volumes about how much our food supplies have changed over the years.

Millions of people today don’t have the chance to get fresh picked fruits and vegetables, especially home grown.  It’s not like city high rises come with big gardens.  I was lucky, my dad loved to grow food.  I was always more of a flower person, but even I grew tomatoes, bush beans, zucchini, and spinach.  There is simply nothing like picking tomatoes and just standing in the garden with fruit still warm from the sun in your hand, and biting into it.  You immediately start picking up the differences in flavors of each variety and the huge gap between ‘store bought’ and ‘grow your own’.  Best apple pie I ever made was from these smallish apples of unknown variety from the tree in our yard and every year I put up 32 quarts of spiced pears from our over productive Bosc pear tree.

Not all veggies are easy to grow.  Corn needs multiple rows, or circle planting, to get the pollen spread.  You can’t plant members of the extensive cabbage family in the same place each year.  Tomatoes also need rotation or extensive soil amendments.  Spinach, lettuce, cabbage (including broccoli and cauliflower) do best in cooler areas.  Corn, tomatoes, green beans, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant all need lots of sun and water.  Blueberries and raspberries need pruning and proper support – and often netting to keep birds from eating everything.  No, gardening isn’t just toss the plant in the ground and water when you think of it.  It takes a lot of work and is anything but cheap.

Many of us have neither the time nor the space for our own gardens, or the skill sets and patience to keep them properly.  Local farmer’s markets are a treasure trove of locally grown food, and all you have to do is drive there.  Commercial farms must grow produce that can withstand the rigors of transport and storage, not to mention a fairly long shelf life.  Engineers customer design seed to produce durable, stable produce – and they sacrifice the single most important factor – taste and very often texture to improve durability and maintain an appearance.  Local farmers grow tastier foods and pick them close to their peak flavor.

As we all too slowly move into spring (ASPARAGUS!), get local stuff whenever you can.  Farmer’s markets often don’t open till late June, so try and find a farm stand for early stuff like asparagus, broccoli, spinach and other cool weather veggies.  The taste is just so much better.  Vegetables should be firm, crisp, and juicy.  Fruits should SMELL like fruit.  The beautiful box of strawberries – big, perfect, and red, that have no smell, will have the taste and texture of cardboard.  Raspberries, blueberries, same thing.  Just sniff the package.  No strong fruit scent, no sale.  Even melons, sniff them – well, not watermelon, the rind is too thick, but cantaloupe and others should SMELL SWEET and smell like the fruit.  You’re better off with frozen berries than fresh ones that look great and have no flavor.

Vegetables should be firm, not flexible.  Green beans are meant to SNAP when broken, not bend.  Corn – the best eating corn IMHO being Silver Queen – a sweet white corn with a fairly short season – or, butter and sugar corn – a yellow and white hybrid with a much longer season, should have very firm kernels tight to the cob and the crowns rounded with moisture that spits when you break the skin.  The lack of a full ear of kernels usually indicates lack of water in the growing season.  It’s not awful, but make sure what’s there is in really good shape. Cook and eat it fast, and always cook with sugared water, not salted.  Same for peas, even if you buy frozen (the one veggie that’s usually a far better choice frozen than fresh), use sugar.  Why?  Corn, peas, carrots, and onions, especially pearl onions, have high sugar content.  In short, they are SWEET.  They can get tough if cooked with salt, so add a couple of tablespoons of sugar to the vat of water you boil to cook your corn in and use unsalted butter then salt as you eat.  Amazing flavor.  Remember, these are starchy vegetables because their natural sugars covert to starch after they’re picked – and it happens fast, so try and get the freshest you can.

Tomatoes are the quintessential summer food.  For many years feared poisonous because it’s related to belladonna, tomatoes are a native American favorite.  Italian food as we know it today owes a lot to Mesoamericans, along with potatoes, corn (maize), and such diverse things as cashews, pecans, wild rice (a seed), peanuts, other goodies.  Columbus may not have found the gold. silver, and spices he sought, but the food alone would end up feeding millions.

I can make a meal of good bread, fresh tomatoes sliced and salted, maybe with fresh cucumber, and some cheese.  What a great meal on a hot day with fresh lemonade.  When I’d go up and see my dad during summer and early fall, we ‘d go pick our meal from his garden – corn, tomatoes, green beans, and walk in the house where I cook it while he grilled steaks.  As often as not, we’d pig out on all the fresh vegetables and forget the steaks, using them for sandwiches the next day.  Since I often stopped at a neighbor who sold fresh raspberries by the pint from an old card table with an honor jar for paying, we’d have just fruit and ice cream for dessert.  It was incredible.  I never had better in a five star restaurant.

One of the early vegetables, along with spinach, is asparagus.  Now asparagus requires a LOT of work to establish, but once set, beds yield for 20 years or more.  It’s inexpensive and plentiful.  Good, fresh asparagus does not need sauce, and it shouldn’t have shades of grey going on, or be so hard it’s like wood.  To keep bitterness away, get out the vegetable peeler and peel the skin.  Yup, sounds silly, but tastes great.  Learned that trick over 40 years ago watching one of the early cooking shows on PBS and never stopped using it!  I never use some custom asparagus pot to cook it either – who has room for all that crap?  Get out the 12 inch skillet with a glass lid, arrange the spears no more than two deep, add a LITTLE water (quarter inch max), a dash of Kosher salt, and steam quickly – shaking the pans to move the spears around.  Another trick learned from PBS – The Galloping Gourmet, I think. Cooked asparagus should be bright green and barely fork tender when done – depending on thickness, 5 minutes or less.  No hollandaise, it’s unnecessary, and personally, I think it ruins good asparagus.  Use  a little squeeze of lemon or some lemon zest if you like.

Now spring and Easter always meant a ham dinner for us.  I had an aunt born in April who requested the same dinner every year, ham, homemade scalloped potatoes, baby peas, and for dessert, rice pudding with apricot or raspberry sauce, brown sugar shortbread, and cranberry orange nut quickbread.  With drinks, I usually made spanakopita turnovers with phyllo dough, fried zucchini with a honey mustard dip, and usually one or two other special requests.

Fourth of July was grilling time, usually game hens or chicken, cold tri-color macaroni and shrimp salad with a yogurt and mayo dressing studded with pieces of green and red sweet peppers and bits of sweet onion and sprinkled with slivered green onion, a big plate of garden tomatoes, early corn if it could be found, and for dessert a huge deep dish blueberry cream tart made with fresh Jersey berries.

August was steaks, tomatoes, steamed (on the grill, wrapped in foil) new potatoes with sweet onions, corn on the cob, and whole green beans.  Dessert was ice cream and fresh fruit, usually peaches.

Come early September another aunt chose her birthday menu and she liked pork loin.  We’d have corn on the cob and tomatoes again because we wanted all we could get before they stopped being available.  Pan roast new potatoes with onions with rosemary, carrots, and steamed broccoli.

Later in fall I’d cook the meat outside as long as I could before putting the Webber Kettle and hardwood charcoal away for the winter, but all the rest would be done inside.  Apples wrapped in pastry would show up, or a big pan of apple crisp.  Through all those months, the meat was enjoyed, but sometimes forgotten while we wallowed in the seasonal fruits and vegetables we’d be doing without in winter.  Yes, imports keep fresh food in our markets year round, but its no match for locally grown in flavor or texture and you pat dearly for lower quality.

OK, how did I learn all this?  Well, gardening I learned from Dad and extensive gardening books.  Cooking from books.  Yes, Mom was a brilliant teacher and thought Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was a gift from God.  All her cakes were born in a box.  No, I did not learn to cook from Mom.

In learning to cook, I read many books about food, the ones that were most helpful were ones that explained HOW food cooks and WHY you do things a certain way.  When I was really young, A&P offered the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cooking.  Tall, slim hardcover books that were filled with photos, instructions, great reference materials on everything from varieties of apples (and what they are best used for) to basic how to cooking techniques.  It was a surprisingly well done series that I own to this day.  Naturally, I had The Joy of Cooking, but it was Vincent and Mary Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes that really got me going.  Their own recipe for Chicken Sweet and Hot, modified by me (as most are), became a family favorite.  For learning how to make all kinds of desserts, no one does a better job with detailed instructions than Madia Heatter.  Her Book of Great Desserts proves that easy can be amazing, though her Black Velvet Cake was amazing – and took considerable time, patience, and skill.  I’ve been collecting and using regional cookbooks for years.  The Romagnolis Table is just excellent for Italian and their rolled, stuffed veal breast recipe is amazing, one of my all time favorites.

Cookbooks focus on fresh ingredients.  In simple dishes, like scalloped potatoes, you have little room for error.  No, scalloped potatoes are NOT born in a box.  You use thin skinned new potatoes, waxy and very firm, peal them, slice them, DRY EACH SLICE, and the hard part is done.  Butter a large shallow baking dish, finely mince some shallot, place potato slices overlapping slightly in the dish, sprinkle with shallot and bits of butter, salt, and a few grinds of pepper, if desired.  Repeat for no more than 4 layers.  Heat 2 parts heavy cream and 1 part whole milk with sliced garlic.  Strain over the potato layers and bake at 400F till brown, bubbly and the potatoes are fork tender.  The trick?  THINLY SLICING AND DRYING THE POTATOES!  Yup.  Simple as that and using heavy cream with higher solids than milk.  You need to get rid of all that water, so you need to peel and slice quickly, never put them in cold water, have the warm cream mix ready and – BAM – scalloped potatoes.  Some like to layer grated Gruyere in the middle and on top and finish with a touch of nutmeg (technically Potatoes Dauphinoise).  I prefer not to, but go with your choice.  It needs no starch to thicken it, and the waters cook off and natural potato starch with thicken what’s left.  There’s not a lot of ‘sauce’, nor is there supposed to be.

Is there any dish easier than baked potato?  Apparently, we’ve had a whole generation grow up thinking baked potatoes get wrapped in foil.  NEVER, EVER WRAP A POTATO IN FOIL TO BAKE IT!  Baked potatoes should be light and fluffy, the skins crispy and tasty, it should not be hard inside!  Wrapping potatoes in foil leaves the insides, hard, wet, and blah.  They need to release steam as they cook to have the right texture and flavor.  A good baked potato doesn’t need piles of sour cream, cheese, chives, bacon or anything else.  When the potato comes out of the oven, split it open while piping hot and release any additional steam.  Here are simple directions for the perfect baked potato.  Get long Idaho russet potatoes that are heavy and firm and free of eyes.  Scrub them well under cold water and dry completely using paper towels.  Now use a very thin, sharp knife or meat fork and pierce the potatoes through on both sides multiple times so all the steam (natural water content) can escape.  Rub the skin with a little olive oil and set the potatoes on the rack in a HOT oven, about 375-400F for an hour to 90 minutes depending on size.  Immediately split open and let additional steam escape.  Fluff up the filling with a fork and add butter, salt and pepper to taste.  My parents would cut the potato in half, scrape out the soft inside, let us add the butter and salt or gravy we wanted and put pats of butter in the crispy skins.  We weren’t allowed to eat the skins till after we ate our vegetables.  Would we eat fast!  The skin is the best part!

Other tricks?  How about tomatoes?  NEVER REFRIGERATE TOMATOES!  It causes irreversible chemical changes that dramatically lowers and changes the flavor profile.  Never buy tomatoes offered for sale from a refrigerator case.  You’re better off with quality canned tomatoes to make sauce than crappy fresh one.  Peaches – ok, here’s news, fresh peaches, once picked, don’t ripen, they rot.  That’s why they get soft.  Buy ripe local ones and do the sniff test.  It they don’t have a strong peach scent, they’ll be tasteless.  Never use sweet onions in long cooking dishes like soups and stews.  Sweet onions have a very high water content, which is why the spoil, unlike long keeping Spanish and yellow onions.  They literally disappear in long cooking dishes and the their very mild flavor just won’t stand up.  They are perfect for salads, quick saute’s, even for doing foil wrapped steamed veggies on your grill – a place I use them all the time.  But you need to use different ones for cooked foods.  Corn on the cob – you need a big pan of water that you sugar as it boils, drop in the ears of corn, time maximum 5 minutes, remove the corn and eat immediately with butter and salt.  No, you don’t wait for the corn to boil again, it’s cooking in the near boiling water and fresh corn stays sweet and crunchy, never mushy.  The longer you cook it, the mushier and strong the flavor.  Overcooked corn is the most common bad food served in restaurants – along with undercooked veggies that frankly would taste better if cooked a bit longer.

Fresh food, plain and simple.  It will be the best you have all year and is worth the effort to find.  It will be the food experience of your life.  Try and find a good source for crusty bread with a dense, moist interior, a formerly common product now scarce as hens teeth.  There is just no substitute for good bread, the perfect foil for summer tomatoes.  Maybe salt, pepper, butter (I only use unsalted, but my brother thinks it ‘tastes funny’.  Actually, it tastes like BUTTER!), or sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, that’s about all fresh fruit or veggies need.  The flavors are intense – and amazing.  And unforgiving of over-cooking or mishandling.  That’s it.  No elaborate sauce, no complicated preparations needed, no fancy pans or advanced cooking skills.  Now go out and learn how to be a ‘locavore’ and enjoy the simple pleasure of plain, delicious food.

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February 21, 2014

Short reviews: eBooks and ARC’s of Humorous Mysteries and Paranormals

I HATE SNOW!  OK, let me modify that, I HATE WINTER!  There, that’s better.  I hate snow, ice, wind, cold, and short days.  And with snow almost up to my windowsills, I’ve had it with the white stuff.  I keep reminding myself that winter is almost over.  It could be worse.  We could have had all this crap since December. …………….. It’s not working.  Anyone foolish enough to send me a postcard with a beach and palm trees is getting wiped off the face of the Earth.  Not that I’m in a bad mood or or anything, but I HATE WINTER!

Maybe I am kind of in a bad mood, but jeeze, this has been one long, cold winter.  Now I know parts of the country have had it far worse than we have, but when the snow on your lawn is piled about 9 feet high, and your front walk is a sheet of ice, that’s not a lot of consolation.  That thaw scheduled for later this week better happen, because getting rid of all this crap will take a LONG time and it needs to hurry up and START NOW!

It has been good weather for reading, it being kind of the perfect indoor activity that requires no effort at all.  I’ve done a lot of it in the last 6 weeks.  Print and a surprising number of ebooks.  While I don’t much care for reading books on my old Kindle, the Kindle app for my laptop works well for me.  Plus I can get a lot of ‘throw away’ mysteries for low prices and most ARC’s (advance reading copies) are ebooks.  Frankly, I wouldn’t spend a lot on an ebook due to the sharing restrictions, but it is convenient.

So, one of my favorite ‘entertainment’ genres is humorous mystery, and I’ve reviewed the Diner series by Terri L. Austin, the Dirty series by Liliana Hart, and the Deadwood series by Ann Charles before.  This time its the Cueball series by Cindy Blackburn.  While not quite as good as Austin’s Diner books, there were a lot fun.

In addition to the Cue Ball mysteries, I also received 3 ARC’s of soon to be released paranormals and mysteries.  So this post will be all ebooks.  The new releases I bought will wait for a later post.  Now ARC’s have not been proofed, so I hope all the grammatical errors are fixed, but for once, no complaints about the books themselves.  Certainly, many of the self-published books have errors, but then I’m a bit more forgiving on them.  When I’m paying $10-$12 for a trade paperback, I get bit more critical.  SO here we go, new series, new installments, and and ending for one of favorite series.

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  Cue Ball 1  Cue ball 2  Cue Ball Mysteries  Cue Ball 4

In Playing with Poison, Ms Blackburn introduces the core set of characters for the series.  Police Captain Wilson Rye, has seen a lot in his years as a cop, but Jessica Hewitt is something else.  Well, really something else.  Divorced, a romance author of ‘near pornographic’ romances under pen name Adelé (pronounced Add-a-lay, homage to her writing style) Nightingale, and a pool shark taught by one of the best in the game, her late father Leon “Cue It” Hewitt.  Jessie is also briefly a murder suspect when her neighbor Candy’s fiance Stanley staggers into her apartment and dies on her sofa.  Candy is a slightly ditsy lingerie saleswoman, and very sweet girl.  Now Jessie involvement causes lots of unwanted publicity, thanks to obnoxious reporter Jimmy Beak, but that does nothing but cause her book sales to go thru the roof, making Geez Louise her agent very happy.  It also has Jessie playing amateur detective, much to the annoyance of Captain Rye, who is quite taken with Jessie, despite her being 5 years older.  Also in the small circle of friends of the recently divorced Jessie made is Karen, brilliant at woodworking and building custom furniture, and downstairs neighbor in the home turned condo she bought after her divorce.  The original owner of the building, an aged music teacher and cranky old man, Mr Henderson, has the first floor, and finally, bartender Bryce, perennial student and their good buddy from the local watering hole just across the street.

The plot of Playing with Poison is decent, the characters enjoyable and prose light and breezy in the Steph Plum mold, but with the OTT animal nonsense.  I’d give a C+ to B- (3.7*) and say it was worth $2.99 it cost.

Book 2 is Double Shot and it has Jessie going ‘undercover’ for Rye at a bar cum pool dive to investigate a murder.  Despite the far fetched premise, it was a decent read and Mr Henderson becomes is normal cheerful self now that his medications are straightened out.  Again, about a C+ (3.5*) and worth the $2.99 for entertainment.

Three Odd Balls finds everyone except Mr Henderson in Hawaii for a sudden Christmas trip – that Jessie planned for her and Rye, but ended up with not only the whole gang, but her 80-something mother and Rye’s teen son from his first marriage as well.  Strangely, they’re alone at a beautiful, if badly managed resort run by two brothers, one surly and unpleasant, the other cheerful, but none too bright or organized.  Of the four books, I thought this one the best plotted and with the best extra characters.  My score is B- (3.8*) and a suggested read.  At $2.99, it was the best buy.

While Three Odd Balls was the best, Four Play was the most annoying.  The plot was decent enough, but the dialogue was lame with way too many “She’s scary, isn’t she?”  Centered around the death of a much loved high school teacher, who’s body was found on Jessie’s car that she loaned to her former neighbor, now a high school junior.  Jessie also becomes the target of demonstrators who want to ‘ban’ her smutty books – too bad Jessie can’t seem to dredge up a single sex scene for her current novel set in the old West.  This one gets a C (3*) from me.  While all the books have diversions into what are supposedly Adelé’s lurid novels, this one kind of drove me nuts because it’s so focused on her ‘plot plight’ and Jimmy Beak.  The best part is the ending where she catches the killer on stage on camera.

Overall, the series was pretty good and well worth the $2.99 per ebook. I will follow this one.

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Bite Me Laurenston

Bite Me is due out March 25 and I got an advance ebook to read.  Shelly Laurenston writes a really funny apology for the cover art that’s a must read.  The story is one I looked forward to, the one of Livy, the honey badger friend of Toni Jean-Lousie Parker, and Victor Barinov, a bear-tiger hybrid that occasionally works with Dee Ann.  Both were introduced in Wolf With Benefits and, frankly, were the best part of that otherwise tedious story.

Bite Me sees Laurenston back in her usual off-beat form with strong characters, a really good plot (something she usually wings), hot sex, a unique set of supporting characters, and plot twists to keep things interesting.  It’s almost impossible to give a plot synopsis without giving too much away, so I’ll just say a giant panda is added to the cast along a group of honey badgers that are memorable.

Now Livy and Vic Barinov are characters that many people won’t like.  I loved them.  They aren’t the usual type for Laurenston and she really seemed to enjoy writing this one.  Livy is more like one of her female leads in her GA Aiken Dragon Kin books – reminding me of Annwyl the Bloody.  If you like Dragon, Actually, then you’ll like Bite Me.  It worth reading for the visit to Honeyville and jousting alone.  It gets a solid B (4*) from me, in large part do to the well above average plot and unique characters.

I have the print book on order and I left it on order after reading the ARC.  Print is currently $9 on Amazon and I’d say it was a suggested buy for fans of Laurenston’s G. A. Aiken Dragon Kin books as they come closer to characters here than the bulk of her Pride series books do.

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White Magic five and dime

Steve Hockensmith is well known for his Holmes on the Range series of mysteries set in the 1890’s out West featuring Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer.  This contemporary series he co-authors with Lisa Falco, a new author, and apparently the reason the lead characters here are female.

Alanis McLaughlin made a new life for herself, free of her grifter con-artist mother, but her past comes back when a lawyer contacts her to let her know her mother died and she is named sole heir in her will.  It not an inheritance she wants, but she leaves her job the best the best loan seller in a Chicago boiler room operation that’s legit, and heads to a small town north of Sedona where tarot readers and general con-artists fleece willing tourists and locals alike.  Much to her surprise, her mom managed to settle down and actually OWNED The White Magic Five and Dime, a shop full of mystic junk with a room tarot readings where her mom made her real money.  But it’s apartment upstairs that holds the real shock, a young woman who live with

Weaving current events surrounding her mother’s less than legal activities and flashbacks to her unconventional childhood, the story unfolds.   While interesting, I never really connected completely with the characters.  The solution was very well done and unlike far too many mysteries, it was a surprise.  The setting, a small version of new age Sedona, was fairly well drawn and the many side stories had interesting characters.

The White Magic Five and Dime gets a C+ to B- (3.5*) from me.  While interesting and well paced, I never connected with Alanis the way I did with, say, Jonathan Gnash’s Lovejoy or other rather seedy lead characters.  Currently selling at $12-13.50 in pre-order, I can’t rate it a buy, but for lover’s of the Holmes books, it might be worth the price of a used copy or make sure the local library gets it in.  Due for release in July this year.

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Banishing the dar

Banishing the Dark is the final installment of the Arcadia Bell series, one of better and more original urban fantasy series out there, and at just 4 books, one of the shorter ones.  Due for publication late May, I had an ebook ARC.

When we left Cady in Binding the Shadows, she’d killed the head of the Hellfire Club and been dealing with her becoming scaly – complete with tail – and her mom planning on taking over her body, her baby, and ruling Earth.  Seriously, the woman is the biggest egomaniac ever!  She also had to tell her partner in the bar the truth about who she was.  Frightened of what she’s becoming, afraid of hurting Lon or his son Jupe, not to mention the coming confrontation with evil, and very powerful, mother, Cady plans to go it alone, but nether Lon or Jupe are going to let that happen.

Cady is thwarted at every turn.  The one leader who knew the truth of her existence and might offer clues on how to defeat her mother is dead.  Having killed the head of the Hellfire Club, she’s in deep trouble with the locals.  And somehow, she must unravel the complex spell her mother created when conceiving her, it’s the only way to stop the changes and to stop her mother from taking over the world.

The story is not just about events, but how you perceive them, the interpretation of what it means.  And to some extent, it is also about the power of love.  Banishing the Dark was a satisfying, if slightly predictable, ending to a really well written series.  I give it a B- (3.8*) and a must read for anyone who has enjoyed the earlier books, and the whole series is a recommended read for fans of urban fantasy.  I give Ms Bennett credit for a solid, well written, and original series with an equally solid wrap-up.  Too many times these things string past the point where they should end.  This one did not. Kudos.

February 1, 2014

Starting 2014 with a …………. THUD and Some Modest Applause

The year got off to a busy start with a raft of ebook humorous mysteries that I enjoyed and will review separately.  It also started with a bunch of dead tree books that honestly could have been skipped.

OK, I know not every book is good, but seriously, some authors just phone it in these days.  Janet Evanovich is famous for it, cozy writers have formulas that are so predictable, 30 pages in, you’re done.  Now Julie Garwood is doing it.  Yeah, yeah, I know she was hardly a great romantic suspense writer to start with, her early historicals being the best and most polished work she’s done, but seriously, she is plumbing new lows.

Hotshot

In Hotshot, we have a classic Garwood set up of an insanely handsome FBI agent/lawyer/former Olympic gold medalist/champion triathlete (who is likely also an organ donor and loves animals), and woman in jeopardy (who is also a trained chef) – of course it follows they were childhood neighbors and he saved her from drowning when he was a teen and she was a small child.  And naturally they meet at a wedding, Finn MacBain being the older brother of the groom and Peyton Lockhart being the little girl who is now all grown up – and naturally beautiful.  She’s also the woman with a serious problem.  Her dream job of food critic at a well known publication came with more strings than she knew of – namely a boss who is a sexual predator.  But she records him and runs, leaving him thinking he’s erased the recording, not realizing she had a back-up.  So we now have the kind of lame villain of the piece – who is friends with a psycho not averse to killing and married to an equally skanky and amoral woman who is the magazine owner’s daughter.

Enter wealthy Uncle Len who offers Peyton and her two sisters a shot at owning one of his resorts if they can pull off the renovations and increase profit 20% – it’s theirs.  Or they can each have $500,000.  They take the resort on an island off the coast of Florida and Peyton thinks she’s free of the sleazeball former boss.  Soon Finn is back in the picture and the story, which was about a lifelike as cutout dolls manages to go downhill.  Finn is a alpha moron wallowing in angst of ‘I am a loner’ crap.  Peyton is ……….. jeeze, not much.  A quip?  A bit of snark?  Sadly 2 dimensional and the whole magazine thing is just ludicrous.

No real tension, flat characters, only occasionally intelligent, spritely dialogue, and so BORING it was just stupid.  Honestly, there was not one memorable character in the book and the really unbelievable final scene that had me rolling my eyes.  Hotshot was a waste of time, money, and paper.  Only ardent Garwood fans will think this good.  Save your money and buy something else.  A comic book would be an improvement.

My grade is D+ (2.7*) and that’s mostly for a couple of supporting characters.  Skip it.  Purchased used from Amazon for $6 – which is $5.99 more than it was worth.

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takedown twenty

And the current Queen of Phone It In strikes again.  In Takedown Twenty Janet Evanovich does another feather light, plotless piece of fluff.  I honestly would love to give you story highlights, but a giraffe running through the streets of Trenton and being ignored by the area residents is beyond even my wild imagination.  Steph needs to bring in Morelli’s godfather and Uncle, a mob hit man, who jumped bail.  His feared Gramdma Bella keeps giving Steph ‘the eye’ and even Morelli, still recovering from the gunshot wound, won’t help.  He and his cohorts are busy looking for a serial killer of elderly ladies.

The elusive Uncle Lou and the giraffe are the only plot in the book – meringue has more substance.  Plus it’s short.  Maybe 3 hours if you read at a modest pace.  Given the fact book is selling for over $15 new, and it has little to offer, you have a “Give this one a miss” recommendation.  Borrow it from the library – or just sit and read it there, because it won’t take long.  You’ll laugh in a couple of places, just like you would at the Three Stooges, but when it’s over it will disappear in a puff of smoke.

Takedown Twenty gets a D+ (2.7*).  I got the book for free from an online book swap site.  If you MUST read this, buy it super cheap used or borrow it.  Even the mmpb will be over priced at $7.99.  Not worth the money.

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Grendel affair

Lisa Shearin is well known to fantasy readers for her Raine Benares series, but in The Grendel Affair, first in her new SPI series, she enters the wide world of Urban Fantasy.  Combining her fantasy skills with an action/mystery element set in today’s NYC, Ms Shearin has another winner.  Told in the first person by her female lead character, seer Makenna ‘Mac’ Fraser, this fast paced story weaves together a set of characters in a plot that is interesting and a bit different.

Makeena has her degree in journalism, but the only job she can get is with a sleazy tabloid that runs stories about space invaders and leprechauns.  Thing is, as a seer, Makeena does see all manner of paranormal beings for what they really are, not the human illusions they use to mask their true selves, so her stories are actually true – even though no one believes it and she can’t tell them how she knows without running the risk of getting locked up for being nuts.  Many are just ordinary creatures working like anyone else, but some are not.  Some are predators.  Mac gets a job offer for a private security company run by a female dragon lady – that is a real dragon who looks like a very classy lady.  She’s partnered with a former cop, the human Ian Byrne, who shows up just as she’s about to try and capture a nachtgnome at the slightly illegal ‘antiques’ business her sort of friend and snitch Ollie runs.  The night went south when she was almost mugged then attacked by a vampire who knew her name – and chased off by the mysterious would be mugger.

A murder in the office above the shop – a gruesome murder that they should have heard – lands them in jail and then on the trial of what the creatures were after.  The complex plot spins out with action and interest.  A relative short book at just under 300 pages, it’s both entertaining and well written.  Parts of the plot are a bit predictable, but it’s big short-coming the world building.  The reader must buy into the premise that a huge paranormal security business could run in New York City, interfere in police cases, and get very publicly involved in accidents and such, and go undetected by the police and FBI.  Now you either ignore this and enjoy The Grendel Affair, or it will nag at you and you won’t.

The other issue is Mac herself.  Supposedly from down south, she’s a bit ‘girly’ for the role she plays.  Granted, part of the book is about her getting respect for abilities beyond being a seer, a rare gift that few humans have, but part of it is the credibility gap this creates.  The quality of Ms Shearin’s writing mostly covers this and allows the reader to just enjoy the book, but in retrospect, you see the holes.  The dialogue is sharp and witty, the plot fast moving – which helps to hide things – and the ending rather predictable.

The Grendel Affair gets a C+ to B- (3.5*) from with a tentative suggested read.  It’s not top quality, but is a fast, enjoyable read.  We’ll see how she does with characters and world building issues in subsequent books.  At $7.19 + tax, it’s kind of borderline, so buy it used if you can.  Got it free thru a book swap site.  I’ll pass it along.

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Something About Harry

The latest in Dakota Cassidy’s Accidental series of paranormal romance set at Pack Cosmetics.  Harry Ralph Emmerson calls OOPS (Out in the Open Paranormal Support) hotline and gets the anything but supportive, razor tongued vampire, Nina.  The opening scene with the two of them on the phone is a highlight of the whole book.  Harry took an online test that seems to indicate he’s turning into a werewolf, which is very freaky given he thinks he got it from drinking vitamin water.

Only thing is, it wasn’t vitamin water, is was a formulation created by the pack alpha’s sister and research scientist, Mara Flaherty.  Mara has a crush on Harry, a human employee of the pack’s cosmetic business and she made an awkward pass at him at a company party, something that still makes her squirm in embarrassment, so she decides heck with finding a mate, she’ invent a formulation to get herself pregnant (which is without doubt the dumbest plot device ever invented) and puts it in a vitamin water bottle – the one Harry drank right before he started getting furry.  And that is where I kind of lost it.  Mara is a scientist who thinks she needs to drink an elixir to get pregnant?  Did she miss basic biology for mammals??????  OK, it’s fantasy, but still, you don’t get to rewrite something as basic as that for the sake of a plot device.

Anyway, if you can get past that bonehead issue, the book is actually pretty decent, but that’s a BIG issue to get past.  Then you have the tension created by the fact Harry is a widower with a young daughter who needs care as he very unwillingly becomes a werewolf, and the fact that Mara violated pack law by turning a human without permission, something even her pack alpha brother can’t fix.  So the ladies of OOPS step up and try and help – though Nina’s idea of ‘helping’ is a half bubble off plum – and usually pretty funny.

The accidental series is basically lighthearted fun paranormal romance.  The plots often stretch credulity to the break point, but they have good time doing it and they usually have a serious side, as this one does.  If you can check you common sense at the door, they are fun reads, but the plot devices are outrageous, and this one a bit harder because the Mara is a scientist.

Something About Harry gets a C- (2.8*) from me, but gets 4.5* on Amazon.  Obviously romance fans can buy into the premise more easily than I did.  Dakota Cassidy writes well, and has quite a sense of humor.  If you can get past the ‘pregnancy elixir’ thing, this will be a fun read with a surprising twist at the end.  For hardcore fans of Cassidy and paranormal romance this is a good choice, but at $11-$12, I suggest buying it used.  My copy came thru a online book swap site.

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Bitter-Spirits-final-high-res

I’m a big fan of Jenn Bennett’s Arcadia Bell series, so I didn’t hesitate to pre-order this first book in her new Roaring Twenties series.  I have to admit, it is NOT what I expected, but it was still good.   I honestly thought this would a 1920’s Steampunk book, but instead, I got a paranormal romance.

Aida Palmer makes her way in the world with the precarious living of a medium act in speakeasies around the country.  It’s a hard living, but she’s slowly built a reputation and hopes someday she can settle down and eventually have enough private customers to stop traveling and make a home for herself.  For now, a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s Chinatown new where she works is home while she performs at the Gris-Gris speakeasy in Chinatown for SF’s elite.  Winter Magnusson is a bootlegger who is attracted to her.  A widower with a lot of emotional baggage and someone trying to destroy his business.

The book capture’s the atmosphere, setting, and time period well enough.  The bad guy was obvious to me, but then I’m a mystery reader.  The characters are well drawn and like Aida’s spirit and her independence.  She reminded me of two great aunts who actually WERE flappers in their youth.  Well written and supporting characters were good.  BUT …….. this is not anything like her far more complex world of Arcadia Bell.  So, if you’re in the mood for a romance with some woo woo spiritual stuff, this will fit the bill just fine.

Bitter Spirits gets a C+ to B- (3.5*) from me, but 4.5* on Amazon.  At $7.19 is is typical, so try and buy a used copy.  Recommended for paranormal romance fans and those who enjoy Amanda Quick’s Ladies of Lantern Street series.

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Cursed by Destiny

This third book in the Weird Girls series kept up with the strong first two entries – except for dwelling on romantic angst.  Cursed by Destiny finds Celia Weird in the care of Misha, the master vampire she accidentally gave a soul back to.  Alpha werewolf Aric has been ordered to take a werewolf mate for the sake of the species.  Celia is not just a cat, she’s a shifter and has other powers, but she isn’t part of the pack.  Her gifts are a curse placed on her family and each sister is different.  Two of her sisters mated to weres in Aric’s pack, but Aric is like werewolf royalty, and his line must continue – or so the elders insist.  Despite refusing her entry to the pack, the elders have no trouble calling on her and her powers to help put down a demon uprising.

There is a huge problem, it seems someone is trying to kill Celia – blowing up Misha’s car, having the ‘Cathloic school girl’s’ her nickname for a group of female vamps that dislike her, and others want her dead.  And there’s this collective outbreak of demons coming after her like she’s a huge threat to them.  It makes no sense …………. until the very end of the book, which sends the plot down a whole new path.

Cursed by Destiny gets a B- (3.8*) rating from me and recommended reading for fans of the series and the series is suggested for fans of paranormal, like the Arcadia Bell series and the Persephone Alcmedi series.  If it had been more angst free with the whole forbidden love thing it might have scored higher, but that’s one part that’s wearing on my nerves.  I bought Cursed by Destiny from an online book seller for $7.19 and that’s slightly more than it’s worth, but the series is an overall good read.

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