Sunday, January 24, 2021

Rhino Charge (Kenya Kanga Mystery, #3) by Victoria Tait

Rhino Charge (Kenya Kanga Mystery, #3)Rhino Charge by Victoria Tait
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mama Rose returns in an intriguing and complex tale of revenge and murder!

It's 2016 in Nanyuki, Kenya, and Rose Hardie is preparing to attend the Rhino Charge, the annual charity off-road car race through the Maasai Mara preserve and one of the highlights of the Kenyan sporting calendar. Since its inception 27 years previously, "Mama" Rose and her husband, Craig, have been fixtures at the event, volunteering their time to help make the charity event run smoothly. But this year is different as Craig's health has deteriorated beyond his ability to participate, and both know that he'll never attend another Rhino Charge. Rose has asked her young friend, Chloe Collins, whose husband, Dan, is away for work, to come in Craig's stead. This year's race is especially exciting for the friends in Nanyuki. Their neighbor, young Thabiti Onyango, has been asked to join the prestigious Bandit Bush Hogs team as their mechanic.

But strange things begin to happen around the Bandit Bush Hogs camp right away; things go missing, equipment is tampered with, any one of which could disqualify the team from competing. A rival team, the Rhino Force, is suspected of being behind the sabotage, but there is no real evidence to bring forward. The Bandit Bush Hogs can overcome all obstacles and start the race along with all the other participants. However, when negotiating a particularly dangerous slope, the winch strap they are using snaps, sending the car end over end, injuring their driver, an unpleasant young man named Mayur Chauhan, who is also the team manager's eldest son. Miraculously, Mayur escapes with only scrapes, bruises, and a broken arm, who is also the team manager's eldest son. Miraculously, Mayur escapes the crash with just cuts, bruises, and a broken arm, but the team is out of the race. With Thabiti in the hot seat, blamed for causing the accident through incompetence or negligence, Mama Rose gathers together her Nanyuki friends to find the real saboteurs and prove Thabiti's innocence.

This series just keeps getting better and better. Building on relationships forged and plotlines begun in previous novels, reading Rhino Charge was like returning home to old friends. The author introduces new faces, but the recurring cast of characters' continuing lives is the stable and very satisfying foundation on which this cozy mystery series sits. Besides the excitement of the mystery and the sporting event, there are many poignant moments, such as Craig not being able to accompany Rose to the 'Charge' as they have for every previous race. The underlying awareness that there is not much time left for the couple is heart-rending.

Speaking of recurring characters, this particular novel brings Thabiti's sister, Pearl, back into the limelight with her ongoing recovery from incidents in book 1. I loved that she is making a comeback to the storyline. Also, we get a more intimate look into Chloe's life this time as she and Rose become more comfortable and known to each other. Another of my favorite recurring characters is Sam Mwamba. I appreciated that he and Rose shared a moment and a knowing look regarding the fact that murder seems to follow them around.

Kenya's exotic and unusual setting remains fresh, interesting, and inviting. There is always so much to learn during the course of the mystery about the country, its people, and history. Rhino Charge features characters that have immigrated to Kenya from India joining a large population of others there that have retained their culture and Hindu faith. This entry was a true page-turner while relaxing and sipping on my own cup of Kericho Gold Tea.

I recommend this book and the entire series to cozy mystery readers, particularly those who enjoy a more mature and human-nature-savvy sleuth like 'Mama' Rose. The Kenyan setting may especially appeal to readers who liked The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.

Rhino Charge will be available on February 5, 2021 through Amazon.

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

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Friday, January 22, 2021

L'Origine: The Secret Life of the World's Most Erotic Masterpiece – Lilianne Milgrom

L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic MasterpieceL’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece by Lilianne Milgrom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating story of Gustave Courbet’s fabled painting, L’Origine du monde.

In 2011, the author arrived in Paris to begin an extended artist residency and visited the Orsay Museum before settling in on her work. During the visit, she was captivated by the celebrated work, The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, a realistic portrait of a supine woman’s exposed genitals (no face, arms, or legs). She was compelled to apply to be a copyist at the museum with L'Origine du monde as her subject. Over the next seven weeks, she attempted to reproduce Courbet's iconic work, all the while under the watchful and curious eyes of thousands of daily museum-goers. The copyist's goal is to expand their skills and techniques as they try to duplicate the actions of the masters, but Milgron got more than this. She also gained insight into the world's view of what a woman is, what it means to be female, and a deeper regard for her own femininity and sexuality. She also became determined to discover the history behind the museum's mythic painting and one of its most prized possessions.

L'Origine presents the work's journey from Courbet's first imagining through creation in 1866 to its various owners. Due to its controversial subject matter, it was kept hidden out of sight for decades, only shared with a few select friends of each owner, but its existence was whispered about and speculated upon for years. Lost during World War II, it surfaced once again, and through a series of private transactions, it finally returned to Paris, the home of its birth, and became a treasured part of the Orsay's collection.

This fictional account of how the painting came to be displayed and viewed by more than a million visitors a year at the Orsay Museum was a highly satisfying story. Beginning with the author's artist residency in Paris, the trip back through time was both magical and eye-opening. I learned so many interesting things about that time period in Paris when Courbet was active, the Realism movement, his contemporaries, and the effects on the art world by what was going on politically at that time. Some of the painting’s owners were in the thick of a hotbed of political unrest and, eventually, war in Europe.

I especially appreciated Milgrom's recounting of her own experiences at the museum in Paris while a copyist. Her stories of the reactions of the visitors viewing the painting were varied and telling and did cause me to contemplate my own feelings about the work and the subject as well as historic and modern ideas regarding women's sexuality. There are some excellent, thought-provoking questions for discussion at the end of the book.

I recommend L'Origine: The Secret Life of the World's Most Erotic Masterpiece by Lilianne Milgrom to readers of historical fiction and especially to those interested in the world of art or art history.

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

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Deadland by Sawyer Hall

DeadlandDeadland by Sawyer Hall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A timely thriller-horror story about a fabulous new theme park and a virus that gets in with the guests.

Deadland is the latest premiere amusement park to open its gates, and people are flocking to enjoy its offerings. The park is themed on five different cultures’ vision of Hell, and park guests wear a metal smart-wrist-cuff that reads their body’s reactions and tallies their participation points as they work their way through the sections, rides, games, and amusements while trying to avoid being “bitten” by roaming zombies. The guest with the most points at the end of the day wins a fabulous (but unnamed) prize.

On this day, the guest list includes Nick Calvo and his son, George. George is a little younger than the minimum age, but he’s being allowed in as part of a Make-A-Wish-style dream trip. George is in remission from a rare form of leukemia.

Another guest group is the Abernathy family from San Francisco. Sisters Blake and Lola and their younger brother, Asher, are in the park sans parents. The two girls are well-known social media influencers, but Deadland prohibits guests from having cellphones, cameras, or other recording devices inside the park, so they’re focusing more on cute boys leaving Asher to fend for himself.

Then there is Dr. Piper Prescott, a renowned but disgraced virologist and special VIP guest of the park’s multimillionaire creator, Derek Farber. Piper and Derek have a history. Eight years, the Apopka virus, with a 100% fatality rate, had killed the entire population of two remote islands as the whole world looked on. Without knowing how the virus was transmitted and fearing it had already spread from ground zero, a vaccine had been developed, and people were required to get it. However, weeks later, it was discovered that the vaccine had an unforeseen reaction in approximately 10% of the treated population, and millions of people died. Anti-vaxxers seized the day with the result that unvaccinated people were buying forged ‘proof of immunization’ documents on the black market. Piper, the most knowledgeable person about the vaccine debacle (and a staunch proponent of vaccination), appeared at a professional convention to promote her new book on the Apopka virus when Derek showed up and humiliated her in front of her peers. Now he’s offered an olive branch and wants her to come to observe his park, many aspects of which are based on the viral pandemic, and give him her opinion.

George and his nervous father, Nick, are having a great time, though, when they meet up with Asher Abernathy, who is trying to enjoy the park on his own. But while making their way through the first section, Asher becomes visibly ill and, rather than accepting Nick’s help, goes off to find his sisters. Soon after, George gets separated from his dad, and Piper runs across Nick searching for him. The two find the boy lying unconscious and exhibiting the same symptoms Asher, symptoms Piper readily identifies as those of the Apopka virus.

As Piper and Nick desperately try to get help for George, they are detained at the park’s infirmary. Piper begs Derek to put the park into quarantine and call the CDC but not before numerous guests, including the Abernathys and a very sick Asher, leave.

Blake takes her sick brother to the nearest medical facility she can find and contacts her parents to come to help them. Asher appears to be making a recovery when their parents arrive, so their father decides to fly back home with the two girls, leaving his wife and son behind. But when the senior ER doctor, Stick Williams, sees the rash on Asher’s face, something clicks in the back of his mind, alerting him to the possibility that this might be the Apopka virus. He must now work against the clock to get Asher the treatment he needs and quarantine the ER, all the while knowing that he himself is harboring a terrible secret regarding the virus.

Deadland was an absorbing story, heart-pounding and exciting. It is a timely thriller, horror story considering our current pandemic and recent approval to distribute and mass-inoculate with fast-tracked vaccines. (So, it is hitting a little close to home and may not be the right book for some at this time.)

I liked the characters, especially Nick and George Calvo, and rooted for their success throughout the book. Blake and Lola Abernathy felt like real teens with their distractions, worries, and sibling rivalry. Poor Asher seemed like a good kid but we really don't get to enjoy him much before he becomes desperately ill. Dr. Piper Prescott was another favorite character. I liked that she seems to regain her confidence and get back on her feet while under pressure, and I liked that she was a more than competent competitor in the Deadland scoring. I did not understand Derek’s past animosity toward Piper and that part of their backstory.

The separate timelines for the Calvos, the Abernathys, and Dr. Prescott were a little odd to me. The three groups of park visitors were all there on the same day, yet Piper’s story stayed about a half a day ahead of the others until she joined up with the Calvos.

The idea of the visions of Hell as the theme for the various sections of the park was a winner for me but not being overly familiar with any one of them had me wondering about the presence of zombies there at all. I understood the zombies part in the scheme of the game but wondered that they were in keeping with the theme. Parts of this reminded me of the old Fright Nights at Six Flags Over Texas – good times!

I thought the situation with the various personnel at the local hospital was a great addition to the plot. I worried about the young, inexperienced, and inept doctor, and the lazy lab tech actually made me mad. This part of the story kept me guessing who would figure things out and save the day. The hotline story was a total surprise and totally shocking. All in all, the action at the hospital was a real highlight.

I recommend DEADLAND to readers that enjoy apocalyptic style tales, medical thrillers, and even those that would enjoy a pulse-pounding action story set in an amusement park. With the exciting plotting and the page-turning quality of the writing, I’ll certainly be looking for more by this author.

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

See my original review at Reedsy Discovery

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Murder Off Broadway (A Pet Portraits Cozy Mystery, #12) by Sandi Scott

Murder Off Broadway: A Pet Portraits Cozy MysteryMurder Off Broadway: A Pet Portraits Cozy Mystery by Sandi Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Murder Off Broadway is a lovely addition to the Kaye sisters' story.

Sisters Georgie and Aleta Kaye are having a girls' trip to the Big Apple. On their schedule are trips to all the best tourist attractions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Georgie, the artist, and plenty of stops for desserts to satisfy the ladies' constant sweet tooth. But a special treat for the sisters is going to an off-Broadway play at the Heirloom Theatre, courtesy of director Brian Narkles, the cousin of one of Georgie's clients back in Chicago.

Their trip to the Heirloom Theatre starts out fabulously; they are treated like celebrities with a pre-show reception of drinks and desserts with the cast members and a backstage tour with the director himself. But the evening ends abruptly when they discover the lead actress's body with her throat slit. Georgie finds herself, once again, embroiled in a murder investigation. However, this time, instead of her ex-husband, Stan Toon, watching her back, Georgie teams up with one of New York's finest, the handsome and interested, Detective Anthony Romeo.

This 12th foray into the Kaye sisters' crime-solving is as delightful as the previous books. The change of scenery for the twins is fun, and the new love interest for Georgie fresh and exciting. As always, I love that these investigators, including Detective Romeo, though on the older side of mature, are still vital, active, and loving life.

I highly recommend this entire series to cozy mystery readers that enjoy a fast-paced, compact story and senior sleuths. Murder Off Broadway is a lovely addition to the Kaye sisters' story.

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

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Golden Scales (A Makana Mystery, #1) by Parker Bilal

The Golden Scales (Makana, #1)The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The year is 1998, and former police inspector Makana, a refugee from his native Sudan, lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile outside Cairo. He fled his country years earlier when it became too dangerous for him and his family under the radical Islamic regime that had recently overthrown the previous government. He ekes out a bare subsistence working as a private investigator while mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, who didn't survive their escape. His fortunes have the opportunity to change for the better when he is hired to find a missing soccer star.

Adil Romario has been missing for over two weeks without a word or sighting of one of Cairo’s favorite sones. It is as if the young man has disappeared off the face of the Earth. The Dreem Team's owner, Saad Hanafi, is desperate to find Adil for his club's success and personal reasons. Hanafi wasn't always on the right side of the law, and old enemies may be behind the young man's disappearance.

As Makana delves into the mystery, he discovers there may be a link between Adil's disappearance and that of the young daughter of an Englishwoman who went missing 17 years earlier. When the Englishwoman is found dead, Makana, with some support from a friend on the local police force, two agents from Britain's Special Branch out of London, and a young, local reporter trying to make a name for himself, digs deeper and further afield, coming to the realization that Hanafi isn't telling him everything he needs to know to find the missing soccer star.

THE GOLDEN SCALES is a complex and intriguing historical mystery set in moody, atmospheric Cairo. The descriptions of place drew me into the story, where the writing and plot gripped me and never let go. The characters who populate the pages are colorful and well-drawn. I could easily visualize their dress, manner of speech, and gestures. I was invested in Makana's success as if it were my own. The story is action-filled, and Makana investigates like a pro, so I was quite satisfied when the resolution came.

THE GOLDEN SCALES is the first book in the Makana Mystery series by Parker Bilal, a pseudonym of renowned author Jamal Mahjoub, and was originally published in 2012. Currently, there are six novels in the series, the last of which was published in 2017. I recommend this book to mystery readers that would like an intriguing, well-crafted story with historical and political subplots enveloped in a setting that comes alive on the page.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Casindra Lost (Paradisi Lost Missions, #1) by Marti Ward

Casindra Lost (Paradisi Lost Missions Series #1)Casindra Lost by Marti Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An exciting, hard-core sci-fi tale of the original Paradisi manned exploratory mission.

Commander Jerome Sideris, a renowned LETO pilot and engineer, is selected to make the first manned excursion through a wormhole to the Paradisi solar system in the Andromeda galaxy. It is a 3.5-year mission to survey the four planets there that the ten founding families plan to colonize or develop for resources when they leave a dying Earth behind.

Sideris is a loner, which works in his favor as he’s the only human aboard the LETO SS Casindra. His second-in-command is an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) that has dubbed itself AL. Since their mission includes preparing the way for those who will eventually colonize one of the planets, New Eden, the ship carries numerous species of Earth animals to transfer to its surface to acclimate and multiply.

The mission successfully proceeds much as planned, except when AL sends message drones back through the wormhole, they fail to be returned as per the preplanned and critically necessary schedule. The one or two that are returned by Solar Command give no explanation for the lack of response or the lack of promised supplies. With growing worry about what’s going on back on Earth and dwindling resources, Sideris and AL continue their mission as best they can with the assistance of an unusually perceptive ship’s cat named Simba.

Although not an easy read by any means, Casindra Lost transports the reader straight into the mystery of what happened to Captain Jerome Sideris on the first manned mission through a wormhole to the Paradisi solar system. I love the concept of the Paradisi universe of stories developed and expanded on by so many talented writers. This series seeks to fill in the blanks on the early space missions to prepare the way for the ten founders’ families to colonize the planet called New Eden. It can be on its own or after having already become acquainted with the previous works. If you haven’t read any of the earlier tales, though, be prepared to want to!

This story is exciting, but it builds slowly to a great cliffhanger ending. Thankfully (for me), the next book is already available, and I can continue forward to find out what happens next! This was a great story, but I want to be clear that this might not be for everyone. As I said, it is not an easy read as it is chockful of tech talk and (sometimes) too lengthy mission analyses and logistical discussions between Sideris and the AL, the Casindra’s artificial intelligence. Some of the back and forth, though, serves to show how the relationship between the two changes over the course of the mission and how AL himself evolves. There is an underlying theme of what makes an entity alive or a person or human that is thought-provoking but never approaches preachiness or claims conclusions.

Also included in the story are a pair of cats, Simba and Samba, and their offspring that give Sideris some much-needed companionship. Simba is a featured creature, so we’re party to her thoughts and actions, and this was a lot of fun. Later in the story, her actions and understanding of what’s going on around her become delightfully important.

I recommend Casindra Lost for hard-core sci-fi fans who love seeing science fact come alive in their science fiction.

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

See my original review on Reedsy Discovery!

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The New World (The New World, #1) by Chad Wannamaker

THE NEW WORLD: Series 1THE NEW WORLD: Series 1 by Chad Wannamaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great beginning, an engaging story, but I was left wondering where's the rest of the book?

When the small spacecraft had crashed into the lake, Bob Mackey and his brother-in-law, Dan, had gone to see if there were survivors and if they could help. What they found was a dying alien mother protecting her child. With her last breaths, she entrusted the small, furry female to Bob's care, calling her Tammy. It isn't until 11 years later that humans will make contact with others of her race – the jZav'Etch, taller, humanoid cat-like beings.

Bob took the young creature home to his remote station and acreage in the wilderness of Juniper, the planet he called home. Tammy became a part of the family, just one of Bob and his wife, Deborah's, three children. Time passed. She grew up along with the others and is seen as one of the Mackey family, and one of them, by the close-knit community of people colonizing Juniper, a frontier planet outside of the Conglomerated Planets. She's started to notice boys, and they've begun to notice her as well.

One weekend, she and her friends are out beyond the family's station helping her older brother, Mike, build his own place, which he'll eventually move to and start his own business and family. They see another spacecraft go down in a wild, hard-to-reach location. The young people make their way to the crash site where they find a heavily-damaged ship and one critically injured survivor – a jZav'Etch like Tammy! When communications and other utilities are knocked out and shuttles coming to their assistance are shot down, they realize the planet is under attack by whoever was after the newcomer and who are now after them!

What to say about The New World? The writing is smooth and easy to read, but there just wasn't enough of it. The reader is left hanging at a waypoint in the story without a truly compelling reason to read further.

I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the setting. I was most definitely and immediately engaged by what I read. In fact, I was quickly reminded of John Marsden's YA Tomorrow series, which is one of my favorites. But, frankly, the story needed to be fleshed out with a little more detail on the characters, the world-building, and the background situation. We don't know the reason for or the exact nature of the peril the characters and their world are in. I felt we only had a superficial acquaintance with most of the main characters and their lives when the book ended. The story seems to just stop – not in cliffhanger fashion but as if the book's last half was cut off.

I have also struggled to categorize this book. When the series is further along, I might have a better idea, but I think it will have a wide appeal – adults, YA, and middle-grades. It honestly has the feel of an epic middle-age series (except for the few swear words, drinking, and some frank mentions of sexual activity.) I can see this as a great read-aloud book. It also has a YA feel with the theme of searching for one's identity and because of the main characters' ages and life stages.

I recommend The New World, with reservations, to readers that enjoy a YA SciFi story without a lot of discussion of science and hardware. I would also recommend to friends that they wait until at least the next book in the series was available before giving it a read. Having said this, I will be following this author so that I can buy this next book to see what happens next.

See my original review on Reedsy Discovery!

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne HébuterneLoving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With twists and turns at every step, this is a don’t-miss-it historical mystery!

When her husband and mentor, renowned painter, Amedeo Modigliani, dies after a short but brutal illness, Jeanne, 21 and pregnant with their second child jumps out of a window of her parents’ Parisian flat two days later and also dies. As a spirit, she tries to reunite with Modi but eventually ends up returning to the apartment and studio they shared, where she watches people she knew remove her things, even discovering her one last secret artwork hidden in the wall space behind a large cupboard. The painting, one that Modigliani had begun, was of Jeanne and their child, but when he’d rejected his initial work, intending to destroy it and start over, she’d saved it and added his likeness to the family portrait. Dubbed a lost Modigliani, its existence had become a myth in the world of artists and art collectors. But now, she spends her time pacing the floor and practicing the violin, the one thing her ghostly self was allowed to grab and take with her into her afterlife.

Time passes to 1981, and an American art history student comes to Paris to research her thesis on Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, another of the famous Montparnasse artists who happened to live and work on the floor below Jeanne and Modi. But seemingly at every stage of her local research, she runs into persistent whispers of Modigliani, Jeanne, and the lost painting. When a dying woman entrusts her with more than just whispers, she is compelled to follow the story.

Loving Modigliani is a wonderfully imaginative and absorbing story that I honestly did not want to put down. The descriptions of Paris and Jeanne’s life were so vivid I felt I was there. I know I held my breath as I was introduced to the author’s vision of the ‘Other Paris’ – the Paris of the dead. The characters came to life for me as the story twists and turns both in Jeanne’s afterlife story and the art scholar’s search for the lost painting. Nothing is as it seems!

The amount of research that must have gone into developing this story had to have been tremendous – not only the life and times of the well-known characters but also the places and practices of the era, including health care, medicine, death, and dying, and burial. The story definitely benefitted from all the work; it was interesting and exciting throughout. I am delighted to learn about this artistic woman, talented in her own right, who has apparently been kept in the shadows all these years.

I recommend LOVING MODIGLIANI: THE AFTERLIFE OF JEANNE HÉBUTERNE to readers of historical mysteries, especially those that don’t want to get involved in a series, readers that enjoy stories set in Paris, and those that have an interest in the art world, the art scene of Montparnasse Quarter in the 1920s.

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

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