Monday, August 24, 2020

Penned In (Farm-to-Fork Mystery, #4.5) – Lynn Cahoon

Penned In (Farm-to-Fork Mystery #5)Penned In by Lynn Cahoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A solid tie-in Farm-to-Fork Mystery novella with a spooky Halloween vibe!

For their quarterly out-of-the-office team-building meeting, Angie Turner, boyfriend Ian MacNeal, and the chefs and staff of The County Seat are participating in a special Halloween all-night lock-in at the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise. Now a museum and event center with tour guides dressed up as guards, the old building is known to house a ghost or two of former inmates. On this night, in particular, the spirit of Lyda Southard, a female inmate whose baby was taken from her at its birth never to be seen again, is rumored to appear.

The group gets the grand tour, but as they settle into their assigned cells for the night, one of the “guards” is found dead at the entrance to the prison library. With the master door key and the only cellphone in the place missing, no one can summon help. Although the doors will automatically unlock at 6 a.m., Angie, Ian, Dom, and the rest of The County Seat staff are locked in with a murderer.

PENNED IN is a short and fun Halloween-themed novella featuring the recurring characters from author Lynn Cahoon’s Farm-to-Fork Mystery series. With each glimpse, we learn a little bit more about these familiar faces while they're away from their work setting. The action is quick, and the mystery begins almost immediately with plenty of suspects to consider.

I recommend this to readers familiar with the series, but those that want a taste of what The County Seat’s cooking will like what Penned In offers.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley.

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Sunday, August 23, 2020

Ascending (The Vardeshi Saga, #1) by Meg Pechenick

Ascending (The Vardeshi Saga, #1)Ascending by Meg Pechenick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved ASCENDING, a top-notch space adventure and series debut!

The Vardeshi, an advanced, human-like alien race, came to Earth 25 years ago, made a brief, peaceful visit and left, saying they’d return one day. Avery Alcott had grown up dreaming of that day and watching innumerable fictionalized television series and movies dramatizing that return.

Now a young woman, she is studying linguistics in graduate school when she is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. Her major professor has been secretly developing a language training system for learning the Vardeshi language based on recordings made during their visit, and he wants Avery to test its capabilities. Avery is thrilled, adjusts her graduate course load, and jumps in. Finding the language far more challenging to learn than the Mandarin she’d previously mastered, Avery digs in and finally achieves proficiency based on the program. She has no way of knowing if what the professor has created and what she’s learned correctly corresponds to the aliens’ actual language.

Then the Vardeshi make contact again. They propose a cultural exchange: 100 of their people to come to Earth and 100 of humanity’s best and brightest to join the Vardeshi in space aboard the many spacecraft or space stations they have in service throughout the galaxy. One human is to go to the Vardeshi home planet itself.

With Avery’s language skill already in place, the Vardeshi select her as the one representative from Earth to travel to Vardesh Prime. She and the other 100 program candidates undergo a quick but intensive training course to prepare them for their upcoming assignments, and she soon finds herself in space aboard the Vardeshi spacecraft, Pinion. However, instead of going as a mere passenger, the captain of the ship offers Avery the unique opportunity to immerse herself in their language, culture, and daily shipboard life as a member of the crew. Avery agrees and is integrated into the small crew of 10 as one of two ‘novi,’ the lowest, introductory rank in the Vardeshi ship’s hierarchy.

The cultural immersion has its drawbacks: the constant thinking of how to act, finding the correct words, always having to be ‘on’ and ‘in the moment,’ but Avery mentally gathers her inner resources and pushes through. Zey, the other novi, serves as her trainer and soon becomes a friend and confidant. Saresh, the ship’s hadazi, the counselor and advisor to all onboard, is steadfast in his support. But not everyone likes having her there or this whole plan of exchange. Some crew members are blatantly mean and vocal about her and humanity’s inferiority, doing anything in their power to make things tough for her. Others are just dismissive and seem irritated by her presence. And on both Earth and Vardesh Prime, the populations are divided on whether the interplanetary interaction is a wise thing at all. But as Avery continues to gain proficiency in her language skills and duties as a member of the crew, someone else seems determined to make sure she fails and never makes it to Vardesh Prime, by any means possible.

Ascending was an engaging and immersive reading experience from the very first page. Avery is a kind, warm, and likable young woman who is presented with the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream, and she goes for it full-tilt. I thought the author did an outstanding job of describing all the mental issues that arise when someone is immersed in a culture and language so different from their own. In addition, there is a heart-wrenching subplot of being an outsider among your own kind.

The author gives us an Earth that has developed somewhat differently than our current reality, as well as the fascinating alien culture of the Vardeshi. The reader gets a tantalizing glimpse of the other crew members’ home planets (there’s more than one!) as they reminisce about going home during after-dinner musings one night. Hopefully, in future books in the series, readers will be treated to a visit to some of these exotic locations.

The relationships and characters aboard the Pinion are what make this story an exciting page-turner, though. I felt like I knew these individuals by the time the story was going full-on; however, the author never lets you or Avery forget that they are not human. And there is an awareness throughout the story that there could be collateral effects from these two foreign species interacting. They don’t even know if each other’s food could cause adverse and disastrous reactions.

ASCENDING is a top-notch space adventure and is an awesome debut for this new series. I loved it. I recommend this story to readers that like character-driven, soft Sci-Fi tales, with a ‘stranger in a strange land’ vibe. I look forward to reading the next book in the series, Bright Shards, as soon as I can.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from Book Sirens.

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Monday, August 17, 2020

Vis Major by Edward M. Hochsmann

Vis MajorVis Major by Edward Hochsmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A spaceship and its crew in peril is an exciting prequel or side story to the full-length novel Engage the Dawn: First Contact!

While making routine repairs, an unexpected coronal mass ejection from a nearby star, causes a repair drone to collide with its survey ship, killing three crew members, destroying the communication system, and forcing the jettisoning of the ship's endangered core. The damage is extensive and enough to prevent the vessel from traveling to the Confed repair yard. The Ship's Master and crew make the far-from-optimal decision to land on the closest planet and gather the raw materials that will allow them to make temporary repairs and enable their safe journey back for the more permanent work needed.

The planet's population has barely advanced beyond the ability to space travel outside of its own orbit. It was Confed policy that the survey ship must not let the natives discover their advanced spacecraft or even confirm that there were sentient beings and civilization on other planets; the inhabitants were just not ready for that knowledge. So, with the help of some of their own people secretly embedded in the native population, the crew makes plans to settle in a shallow underwater area just off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Originally a subplot in the full-length, soft SciFi novel, Engage at Dawn: First Contact, the author felt this storyline was robust enough to become a standalone novelette. And, boy, was he right! Vis Major has engaging characters and an exciting plot that grabbed me from the opening line – "It was not just a routine solar flare."

The Master and the crew of the stricken survey ship that survive the initial damage from the massive coronal mass ejection from the nearby star are in peril from the get-go. I could feel the tension and concern as they struggle to get their wounded bird to the closest planet to effect the temporary repairs needed to return safely to the Confed shipyard. The author successfully walks that fine line between providing enough technical detail to entertain without sending the less tech-savvy reader scurrying for cover.

I appreciated that once on the planet, the Master and crew took elaborate pains to make sure they remained undetected by the native population, and regretted any harm or damage they inflicted during the process. The Master takes great care to preserve the dignity of two natives that are accidentally killed during their presence on the planet.

The author also nailed the content of the dialogue onboard the survey ship and descriptive passages to move the story forward and still surprise the reader with the slow reveal of what is going on and where the action takes place. I enjoyed the realization when it hit home.

This story can be read as a prequel to Engage at Dawn: First Contact, it certainly piqued my interest, or as a side story to it. The primary work approaches this story from a completely different point-of-view. I recommend Vis Major to readers that like their SciFi to have some tech talk along with emotional interaction between characters. This short novelette has both.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an ARC from Reedsy Discovery.

See my original review on Reedsy Discovery!

The Killing Trail (Timber Creek K-9 Mystery, #1) by Margaret Mizushima, Audible Audiobook narrated by Nancy Wu

Killing Trail (Timber Creek K-9 Mystery #1)Killing Trail by Margaret Mizushima
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Deputy Mattie Lu Cobb is back on the job at the Timber Creek County Sheriff's Department after 12 weeks of advanced training with her new K-9 partner, a German Shepherd named Robo. They are on their way to a meeting at the local high school when they receive a call to investigate "suspicious activity" at the remote cabin in the mountains of the nearby national forest. Arriving the scene, they are met by Sheriff Abraham McCoy himself and the forest ranger that requested their assistance. The suspicious activity is a good-sized pool of blood on the porch of the cabin, and she and Robo are directed to search for its source. Robo successfully follows the trail, and the two discover the body of a teenage girl, half-buried in a shallow grave in the forest. She is being watched over by a large Bernese Mountain Dog that, although shot and bleeding, is faithfully protecting the body.

As her fellow deputies continue to work the scene and wait for the arrival of the assigned homicide detective, Mattie is charged with getting the wounded dog to the nearest vet. Dr. Cole Walker recognizes the dog, Belle, immediately and identifies her owner as 16-year-old, Grace Hartman, the best friend on one of his daughters. Later that evening, Belle gets sick and passes several small balloons filled with a suspicious white powder. Cole contacts Mattie, who returns to the clinic to help with the dog. She also makes arrangements to have Detective Stella LoSasso visit with his daughter the next morning, to hopefully shine some light on why Grace may have been up at the remote cabin. During the subsequent interview, Angela points Mattie and Stella to Mike Chadron, a local dog trainer whom Grace had a crush on. He had been spotted recently at the cabin conducting training exercises with this dogs, however, neither he nor his dogs are anywhere to be found. Mattie continues to ask questions of those that knew Grace fearing that she and Belle had somehow gotten involved with the recent upswing in drug trafficking in the small community.

Mattie, Robo, and Sheriff McCoy finally make their visit with the high school principal to discuss introducing a K-9 inspection program in the upcoming school year. This is the same principal Mattie clashed with during her high school tenure there, and he's not enthusiastic nor supportive of the idea but agrees.

The case moves along little by little, but when Mattie discovers the body of the missing Mike Chadron set up to look like a suicide, the pressure escalates to find the murderer. With a suspicious-looking new health spa that moved into the area at the same time as the uptick in drug trafficking and clues that seem to point at one of Mattie's coworkers, she and Robo have got their hands full tracking down leads and protecting their community.

The Killing Trail is the first book in the Timber Creek K-9 Mysteryseries by Margaret Mizushima. I liked the main character, Deputy Mattie Cobb, and look forward to learning more about her and her past. She grew up in foster care, separated from a much older brother from whom she is estranged in the book, but seems to be nearing a reconciliation. I am hoping that the relationship with the vet progresses positively in subsequent books as well.

The author provides several possible suspects and scenarios throughout the story, which kept me guessing. Still, I got a sneaking suspicion about the real killer early on that had me patting myself on the back at the conclusion. That wasn't a deterrent from enjoying the rest of the story as Mattie follows her instincts and all the clues she uncovers.

The author includes some back story on Robo's training and details regarding how Mattie prepares him to work, such as conducting searches and other exercises. I enjoyed Robo's reactions and reading about K-9 work.

All said I think I would have liked this book much more had I been reading it in book form. The audiobook narrator was competent but quiet and low-key, not a lot of animation in her voice. She has a very polished, soothing voice, and I wouldn't avoid listening to her in the future, but I think this story may have required something perkier to show it to a better advantage. This story has everything for a good reading experience, but for whatever reason, it just seemed to drag on and on until the last hour, where it finally got exciting. Not enough for my husband, though. We were listening to this in the car when we arrived at our destination, with about 45 minutes left. I wanted to finish it inside, and he wasn't interested - he was done with it.

I recommend this book, with the reservation as mentioned above regarding format, to mystery readers, especially those that like animals in the cast of characters. However, Robo remains a dog throughout, and the reader is not privy to his thoughts, feelings, or ideas like in some other series.

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Thursday, August 13, 2020

E by Fraser Small

EE by Fraser Small
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great new young adult post-apocalyptic story with a surprising twist!

Alexandria E. Monroe, “E” to her friends and family, woke up that morning expecting a school day like any other. But as she headed downstairs for breakfast, her mother wasn’t in the kitchen or anywhere in the house. Guessing she was making a quick trip to the shops, E settled down to a bowl of cereal and didn’t worry about it. However, as their regular time to leave for school came and still no sign of her mother, she felt the first little niggling of worry begin, especially when she found her mom’s cellphone left behind in the living room. Too far to walk to school, she was left to hang out at home and watch some television, but then the power went out. When her best friend never contacted her to find out why she wasn’t in school, she really began to wonder what was going on. No one had posted to social media since the day before. No one: the friend, the police, nor the fire department answered their phones. E fell asleep that night on the stairs watching the door and waiting for her mother to return.

When she couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on any longer, E ventured out of the house and headed down to the village. For the first time, she noticed how quiet it was. Everywhere. Not a car, a plane, no noise. That’s where she realized she was completely and utterly alone.

E is a great new young adult post-apocalyptic story with a surprising twist. It follows the main character, E, over a three year period starting when she’s a young 13-year-old to just after her 16th birthday. I thought the author did a great job portraying her as a typical but sheltered teen as she goes through so many stages of loss, grief, and other emotions all on her own. Of course, she changes over the course of the book under the weight of this loss and apocalyptic event, and she uses what talents she has to survive when everyone she knows and loves goes missing. I liked how she went to the local library to research how to do whatever she needed to have done. I liked that the author chose for her to have a hearing impairment, which emphasized how London’s ambient sounds changed so drastically with the removal of human activity.

The action is set in London and the surrounding areas, and I enjoyed the incorporation of recognizable places and things in the story. Even small things like the inclusion of the Oyster card for the turnstiles made this more realistic. Seeing what happens to these known places has its own poignancy.

Because there are no people for E to interact with, the author relies on flashbacks and a series of notes from her fun-loving Uncle Robert to skillfully move the story forward. Animals take on a significant role in E’s new reality. As I read, I couldn’t help but compare what was going on with E emotionally to how people are reacting to the current COVID-19 safeguards, many of whom have found themselves in isolated circumstances, or at least with much-reduced contact with friends, family, or coworkers. As E mentions in the book, her ability to deal with her total lack of others may have been her strength, she was singularly prepared to survive this better than anyone she knew due to her isolation from schoolmates as a child with a disability.

I highly recommend E by Fraser Small to readers of young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. It is well-written, easy-to-read, and held my attention until the very last page. Although I didn’t agree with every choice the main character makes, I certainly understood and rooted for her every exciting step of the way. There is a twist to the story, unlike similar stories I’ve read, and it adds to the enormity of the story’s vast unknown.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an ARC from Reedsy Discovery.

See my original review on Reedsy Discovery!

Monday, August 10, 2020

The U.S. Navy’s On-the-Roof Gang: Volume One – Prelude to War by Matt Zullo

The US Navy's On-the-Roof Gang: Volume I - Prelude to WarThe US Navy's On-the-Roof Gang: Volume I - Prelude to War by Matt Zullo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating look at the beginnings of the U.S. Navy’s radio intercept and cryptological program, and the men that made it happen.

The U.S. Navy’s On-the-Roof Gang: Volume One – Prelude to War, is the fictionalized account of the creation and development of naval radio intercept and cryptoanalysis beginning soon after the close of World War I up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is an awesomely told story of the actual people, places, and events; the fiction is the recreated dialogue.

The story begins in 1921 with a break-in at the Japanese embassy in New York City and the copying of secret diplomatic documents in an effort to find out what the Imperial Japanese Navy is building up toward in the Pacific. They had already instigated aggressive actions against Chinese on the China mainland, and this was of grave concern to the U.S. The FBI and agents of the U.S. Navy had been able to retrieve the code to decrypt Japanese radio transmissions in this fashion.

Meanwhile, navy radiomen had been picking up radio traffic from unknown sources that did not adhere to International Morse Code. Skilled operators, such as Petty Officer Harry Kidder stationed in the Philippines, were able to copy the “dits” and “dahs” from these unknown sources in between monitoring scheduled navy transmissions. Eventually, these reports and Kidder ended up in Washington, DC, as part of the Navy’s Code and Signal Section – “the Research Desk.”

Recognizing how critical the ability to listen in on the Japanese would be in the war that many felt was brewing, the Navy created a training facility on the roof of the Main Navy Building in the nation’s capital. Led by new instructor now-Chief Harry Kidder, eight Navy and Marine radiomen at a time were put through the school to learn to intercept the katakana code from the Japanese.

This new book by Matt Zullo was a fascinating and well-told story. The characters and events absolutely came alive – no dry-as-dust history lesson here. He skillfully wove together history with anecdotal recollections from the people that lived it and created an engaging and immersive reading experience. In fact, I was immediately ready to jump into the rest of the story in Volume Two!

I found it exciting seeing the creation of this secret, new unit with the mission of intercepting and analyzing the contents of the Japanese messages. I was amazed at the feat these guys accomplished just in being able to copy, report, and then convert to usable information the code they heard over great distances and under pretty rough conditions (both physically and atmospherically.) They were taking the ‘dits and dahs’ of encrypted Japanese and eventually translating it into English. Their personal stories made me feel a real connection to these men. I wanted them to succeed, and they did. But some of the things that happened along the way to a couple of them were heartbreaking.

I felt the frustration of these men as they struggled to gain support from those in Washington, DC and, sometimes, even at the various places they had established listening stations. I was shocked when Henry Stimson, Secretary of State under President Hoover, shut down the joint code-breaking operation of the U.S. Army and the State Department (leaving only the Navy’s group to carry on) saying “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

One thing that made the events and history so much more interesting to me were the details that kept anchoring this story to what the world was like during this time. For example, at this time (the 1920s and 30s), telephones were not in every home or office. Households were still using gaslights as not everyone had been able to afford the transition to electric lights as yet. Aircraft carriers were relatively new ships in the fleet. And Hawaii was a territory, not yet a state.

I appreciated the look inside day-to-day naval operations as well. The author provides a helpful key to abbreviations at the end of the book, but there were also little tidbits of information regarding rank, duties, and duty stations worked into the story, too. I learned that there is a universal compartment-marking scheme, a letter-number designation which will tell you where a particular location is on board ship. Also, a major stumbling block to getting candidates for the intercept school and position had to do with the promotion process. Many of the radiomen did not want to train to intercept the Japanese katakana because it would degrade their abilities and speeds in Morse Code, which was a significant factor in getting promoted. And then, as I progressed through the book, I realized what a logistical nightmare and considerations involved in setting up new intercept or direction-finding stations all around the world could be.

I highly recommend this book to readers of non-fiction, historical fiction, World War II buffs, and ham radio enthusiasts. It was engaging, easy-to-read, and totally engrossing. I loved it!

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from Reedsy Discovery.

See my original review on Reedsy Discovery!

Friday, August 07, 2020

Night of the Living Well-Read (Bookish Adventures in Witch-Lit, #4) by Rachael Stapleton

Night of the Living Well-Read: A Bohemian Lake Cozy Mystery (Bookish Adventures in Witch-Lit Book 4)Night of the Living Well-Read: A Bohemian Lake Cozy Mystery by Rachael Stapleton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The witchy book club from Bohemian Lake is off again on its next Gas Lamp Literary Tour, and they find themselves ensconced in a castle in the mountains of Romania. The book they’re reading? Bram Stoker's Dracula, of course! The remaining members of the book club are all back with Nelle Story leading the troop and Sera Popescu, her assistant, providing the on-the-ground support as usual. This trip, however, Sera is not wholly on her own. Her relationship with hunky ghost whisperer, Daemon Wraith, has progressed nicely since the trip to Europe, and he is along as back up.

The castle and its owner, Vladimir Elder, are all the group could ask for as far as atmosphere and hospitality. Nelle’s niece, Gabriela (Rhiannon’s sister), who lives on-site, has made arrangements with the resident Sanguinarine nest (a group of humans who crave and consume blood) for the group to observe one of their initiation ceremonies. But when someone tries to kill Vlad, the head of the nest, during the service, Sera begins her search for answers.

Sadly, Night of the Living Well-Read is the final book in the Bohemian Lake spin-off series, Bookish Adventures in Witch-Lit, but it proved to be an exciting and spectacular send-off! There have been so many secrets kept and uncovered during this entire storyline, but I believe author Rachael Stapleton has tied up all the loose ends in grand style. If you’ve enjoyed this spin-off series or the Bohemian Lake series in general. This is a MUST-READ for all the reveals!

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving a free copy.

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Thursday, August 06, 2020

Better the Devil You Know (Avon Calling!, #16) by Hayley Camille

Better the Devil You Know (Avon Calling! #16)Better the Devil You Know by Hayley Camille
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With husband George only home for a short leave and his memories of the night in the basement of the orphanage slowly returning, Betty must decide whether or not to tell him the truth about herself and what really happened that night. But will the truth destroy her marriage? Then, she receives the word that The Tin Man, the shadowy figure behind The Boudoir Butcher, is looking for a new girl for his next assassination. She and her old friend, NYPD Sergeant Jacob Lawrence, head out to finally meet this deadly killer and take him down.

Everyone's favorite Avon Lady, Mrs. Betty Jones, is back, and this episode draws together a couple of plots from the previous stories. Betty is caught between a rock and a hard place on several fronts, and this story is particularly gripping because of the various moral dilemmas coming to a head: what to tell George, what to do about daughter Nancy and her growing rebelliousness and desire to expand her burgeoning skills, and whether or not to play ball with Donald Pinzolo. The author maintains a firm grip on the continuity of this long-running series, and the sights and sounds of WWII New York still come on strong. Peppered throughout, as in previous episodes, are little tidbits of the culture and cant of the time that makes this series so vivid and unique.

I highly recommend this latest installment in the Avon Calling! series to those keeping pace with the story. To readers not familiar with the series, I recommend it in its entirety starting at the beginning. You won’t be sorry.

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving a free copy.

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