Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Month: January 2015

Swan Deception by Glede Browne Kabongo

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Many thanks to the author for gifting me this book in exchange for an honest review!

SWAN DECEPTION is a story about Shelby Cooper, a woman with a hidden past and an enemy. Her perfect life is disrupted when a stalker contacts her and eventually gets her thrown in jail for the alleged murder of her ex lover. The  family is in turmoil, her husband Jason doesn’t know if he should believe her or not, her daughter Abbie is being stalked by the same person as well, and Cooper’s best friend is all too willing to offer comfort Jason.  Jason and Abbie must work on things in their own way to try to figure out what is going on, what is the truth, and what is a lie.

This is a convoluted read with unreliable narrators, twists and turns, double and triple crosses, and a major surprise when you find out who the stalker really is. The psychological tension builds as the deceptions are peeled away, like the skin of an onion. I truly felt as if I were reading about a family torn apart; the dialogue is authentic and their pain is real. Like the titular swans who mate for life, Shelby and Jason Cooper must remember their love for each other and stay strong.

Occasionally dialogue was not attributed to a specific person during long conversations, and thus I had to go back to see who was speaking, which I found bothersome. Each chapter is told from a different person’s perspective as well, and you may have trouble switching from one mindset to another. There were also times when the story went back in time without adequate warning, and even though I appreciated the backstory, the narrative was a bit jarring until I realized that it was a flashback.

These quirks of the writing should not dissuade anyone from reading this, however. The plot is riveting and I was very curious to see how things would turn out. The stalker discusses how Cooper ruined her life, but never explains what it is until we find out at the end, so there are no clues to be gleaned from knowing the name of the mastermind.  Her character is excellently written as an evil psychopath on a mission, and Shelby alternately had my sympathy and disgust as the story unfolded.

The author slowly doles out bits of information here and there, and eventually the larger picture is revealed. This held my interest throughout the book, and I liked that I was kept guessing, that I could not figure out where things were going right away. Thanks to the rich detail, I was able to understand how it must feel to have a parent behind bars, to be missing from the daily family life.

This was a good read. You can pick up your own copy [easyazon_link asin=”0692249729″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here[/easyazon_link].



The Great Zoo Of China by Matthew Reilly

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Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this ARC in exchange for this honest review.

What if you were invited to a special behind the scenes visit to a theme park greater than Disneyland? That’s exactly what happens in Matthew Reilly‘s latest novel, THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA. Veterinarian and crocodile expert CJ Cameron gets invited to get a preview of the new Zoo of China–where the main attraction is genuine, living dragons.

Of course, these creatures are perfectly safe to interact with, and the safety measures are foolproof. Nothing could possibly go wrong…..


This book started out at a normal pace, and then jumped into overdrive, where it stayed until the last page. When CJ and her traveling companions started getting attacked by the dragons, it was like a roller coaster ride that kept on twisting, and twisting, and turning you upside down until you couldn’t catch your breath. There were so many narrow escapes and close calls I wondered if my heartbeat was ever going to go back to normal.

The comparison to JURASSIC PARK may be inevitable (and the author addresses that in the Q&A session at the back of the book), but it’s not exactly the same.  Where the dinosaurs were meant to merely be watched, Reilly’s dragons were intended to be interacted with, and were trained to act as sideshow creatures, much as the dolphins at SeaWorld are. I thought the rebellion of the dragons against their training was a good impetus for the uprising, plus the hubris of the Chinese to make the rest of the world prostrate themselves in awe at their zoo added to the chaos. I think ZOO has way more action than PARK, and the choice of CJ as the main character was brilliant. There are not enough strong, smart, resourceful female characters in action novels, and she continually kicks major ass all the way through, without losing her femininity.

Reilly’s description of the park’s construction and the Chinese mindset are dead on. I could picture each dragon swooping down, hell bent on destruction, striking terror into the characters’ souls. The seeming inevitability of CJ’s fate, either by dragon or firing squad, kept me enthralled. With so much action and death surrounding the characters, the addition of Lucky, and her burgeoning companionship with CJ added a light and heartwarming juxtaposition to the non stop action. CJ”s brother Hamish provides comic relief also, and the relationship between them is written well enough that it seems truly real.

I completely enjoyed this book, and would love to see CJ as a recurring character in another novel. I”ll also be on the lookout for more of Reilly’s books.

Want your own copy? Click [easyazon_link asin=”1476749558″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here[/easyazon_link] to get on the rollercoaster! This book will be published on January 27th, 2015.


The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

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I received this ARC through NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.

Author Kate Mayfield tells us what it was like to grow up living above her family’s funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, in the 1970’s.  The plot is simple but there are plenty of stories to fill the book.  The author tells her story in first person, and the story spans years as she grows up and comes of age. In all honesty, I almost gave up about 25% of the way through: the first part of the book is slow going, almost Southern-treacle slow. Things happen, but there is not much interest generated, as dead bodies share the same amount of urgency as meals or talking to neighbors.  The only reason I kept going with it was that I was stuck at work with nothing else to read, so I kept going in desperation.

I’m really glad I did. Somehow Mayfield gets out of first gear and her stories take on more energy. We come to realize that it’s not just about growing up above a funeral home and experiencing death on a daily basis–it’s about living with a sister with a terrible mental illness. It’s about learning that  your father is human and fallible. It’s about discovering yourself at the same time that you find out how insidious discrimination can be, in a small town in the 70’s. It’s about secrets, large and small, and finally grasping that the one thing all dead people leave behind are secrets.

As the pages turn I followed Mayfield through the minefield of junior high, and her first crush. Her father’s actions are still nebulous until almost the very end of the book, when we finally find out why he befriended a dotty old woman that the town shuns, and where he really got that mysterious “war wound” . Mayfield stays true to herself, seemingly the only one with a strong head and firm sense of self, overshadowed as she is by a vague older brother, a psychotic older sister, and a mother who stays by her man no matter what wrongs are perpetrated (alcoholism, infidelity). I found Mayfield’s mother the most irritating character there, with her inflated sense of Southern gentility and lack of outward emotion. The author more than adequately describes the stifling atmosphere in her childhood home.

The ending is poignant, as she explains how things finally turn out after the death of her father and everyone goes their separate ways.  I especially enjoyed how she explained her visit to her childhood home, formerly the funeral home, now renovated into an apartment building. I’ve always wanted to go back to my childhood home, and I think Mayfield nails the feeling:

Each time a door opened, I experienced something familiar, but it was like walking with a veil over my face.

The downstairs area, where the business of dying had taken place, was the most changed. One of the apartments downstairs was newly renovated and empty. I stepped onto the new carpet and admired the fresh paint job, then walked through a door into a closet or storage area, a small, narrow room with no windows. We couldn’t find the light switch and stood in almost complete darkness. In the silence a sudden shiver rippled up my spine, and then I knew. This was the embalming room. I was sure of it. I could scarcely breathe. As chilling as it was, it was the most peculiar and familiar feeling, the closest I had yet come to reexperiencing my childhood home.

The sound of the real estate agent’s keys brought me out of my trance and we left. I was shattered.

I recommend this book–move past the slower start and you will be rewarded. Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link asin=”1476757283″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here.[/easyazon_link]

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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Many thanks to the author, Caitlin Doughty, for gifting me this book in exchange for this honest review.

When I first learned this was published I knew I had to read it. As an almost-mortician (I was accepted into American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service many years ago but never went) I really wanted to hear what Ms Doughty was going to say. Her writing is wry and emotional, and it’s easy for the reader to understand her quest to find out why death means so much to her.

The story starts out as she finds a job at a crematorium, then goes off to mortuary school in hopes of learning all she can about the funeral industry. Her motives are such that she wants to oppose the general business/embalming aspect of funerals and death; she believes in a “green” disposal, which may mean anything from cremation to being buried in the earth in a biodegradable container. Doughty feels that our attitude towards death is that of an ostrich in the sand; we prefer not to acknowledge it or prepare for it.  This, she feels, is wrong. If you are able to come to terms with your eventual passing you will not have any fear, and it’s a healthier way of living.

The author illustrates this way of thinking in each of her anecdotes. Beware–this book is not for the faint of heart, as there is a good deal of description of dead bodies, what happens when you get cremated, and some near death experiences of Doughty’s. However, that does not overshadow the main thrust of the story; we can feel Doughty’s mistrust and discomfort at the funeral industry, and are able to learn why she thinks that way.

An incident that happened at a shopping mall when the author was younger sets the background for so much discussion of mortality: she watched and heard a young girl fall to her death from the second floor of a mall, and that stayed with her for many years. She developed tics and habits, to “ward off” death coming for her, and then realized that she could come to terms with it, as we all should. She feels that Americans especially are in denial about death, whereas in other parts of the world people are more comfortable;  she illustrates this by including snippets of information on death and funerary customs around the globe, which I found interesting and enlightening.

Thinking about the end of your own life may seem depressing to you, but it is important that you get your affairs in order and not be afraid. It’s a lot easier said than done, but Doughty pleads her case well. She exudes a feeling of caring and encouragement, and hammers the point home that this is the one thing that brings us all together, no matter what race, color. creed or species you are.

I enjoyed the mix of humor and pathos in her writing, and would love to see something else in this vein. Doughty can be found at the Order of the Good Death online, and also has her own YouTube channel, known as “Ask A Mortician”. She is exactly what the funeral industry needs: an honest voice that demonstrates caring and empathy. I’d be honored to let Ms. Doughty handle my end of life care–would you? Read this book and let me know what you think. You can pick up your own copy [easyazon_link asin=”0393240231″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here.[/easyazon_link]


Pain Management for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses by Mary Ellen Goldberg

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Many thanks as always to publisher Wiley-Blackwell for offering this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Managing pain in a species that cannot speak is often challenging. Veterinary technicians and nurses are on the front lines of patient care, and can be the advocates to relieve suffering and speed healing. After studying Pain Management for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses, the reader will become better schooled at seeing signs of pain, obvious or not; and be able to work with the veterinarian to administer medication and make their patient comfortable. The textbook is formatted logically; first you will read about the advancement of pan management in recent thinking, then learn about careers devoted soley to the relief of pain. how to recognize pain in companion animals, the physiology of pain, analgesics, blocking techniques, surgical pain management, analgesia for emergency and critical care patients, chronic pain management, analgesia for shelter medicine, equines, livestock, exotics, zoo and wildlife animals, nutrition considerations for painful dogs and cats, the role of the technician in physical rehab and alternative therapies, and finally, pain management in end of life care.

Needless to say, this topic is covered very thoroughly from every angle. There are many books out there that will cover companion animals only, but neglect zoo or wildlife. Some veterinary technicians will come in contact with wildlife at some point in their career, and it helps to have some knowledge to better perform as a patient advocate. I especially enjoyed the chapter on acupuncture and alternative medicine; as this is slowly coming to the attention of veterinary personnel.

This book will hold the interest of both the experienced and new veterinary technician, and will be referred to again and again as new skills are needed. The area of pain management is continually evolving, and this is the newest in its field, published in November, 2014.  Another first: this is the only book edited BY veterinary technicians FOR veterinary technicians.  There are many color photos to aid learning, and there is also a companion website with review questions, charts and protocols.

This book filled a niche that was sorely lacking in information. Pet owners and wildlife rehabilitators can rest easy knowing that there is a new source for educating the most important patient advocate–the veterinary technician. Kudos to Wiley for continuing to be the leader in education for techs and nurses. This book is a must add to the bookshelf of any veterinary practitioner who is serious about patient care.

Pick up your own copy [easyazon_link asin=”111855552X” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here[/easyazon_link].

Lightning Review! Joubin’s Head by Justin Key

You can win a signed, limited-edition copy of Joubin’s Head through Hidden Clearing Books here!


In Joubin’s Head tries to pack a lot of story into a small space by suggesting rather than explaining critical details, and by using’s the character’s inner language rather than a narrator to advance the plot. The title character lies helplessly in a hospital bed as something progressively takes dominion over his mind. The true nature of the force that overcomes him is cleverly left up in the air. Is it an alien virus that spreads through the air and infects the mind? Perhaps it’s less sinister, and the entire story chronicles Joubin’s final hallucinations unto death.


The alien half of Joubin’s internal dialogue asks us to doubt what we mean when we say “I.” It makes him a spectator in his own mind, showing him his own memories and taking command of his body. If an alien force usurped access to all of your memories and knowledge, leaving you to be a mere spectator of your own life, are you sure that you would be able to tell? An alien virus designed to “live inside your life” could possibly live your life for you as you watched, without your guessing that you had lost control until the critical moment.


It must not be easy to open and close a narrative with a natural buildup and a satisfying ending in under 1500 words. Justin Key got that job done, though. I’m impressed enough to go check out some of his other work. Here’s a link to another short (but not as short) tale of his on Amazon: [easyazon_link asin=”B00OARG5UI” locale=”US” new_window=”yes” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]Death’s Cafe: The Storm[/easyazon_link].

Biography Review: Russell Long by Michael Martin.

The Short Version

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Russell Long: A Life in Politics starts off even before he was born to one of the most powerful American politicians outside the Capital, Huey Long. We come to know Russell as a man who seems to have ideals: whichever ones suit his purpose. We meet a chameleon who grows more conspicuous and powerful . He skillfully harnessed his father’s controversial legacy to shape his own. Many biographies are stories of rags-to-riches. This one shows us political royalty begetting political royalty. Like father like son.

Cinderella stories and train wrecks are interesting, sure. But at the heights of national politics, all things ordinary are extraordinary. You just need to be close enough to see what’s actually going on. Michael Martin points his microscope at characters who can raise up or ruin thousands of lives with a phone call. More than just a biography, Russell Long is a life-size portrait of some of the invisible forces that shaped American civil rights and economic intervention policy from the 1920s through the 1980s. I had mixed feelings about how Mr. Martin treated some topics, but overall this book was a joy to read, and particularly transformative for my personal understanding of Congressional politics in the middle of the last century.

You in a hurry? Take your coat off, why don’tcha? Keep reading!


My Full Review:

Excellence in the Biographical Craft

I read a lot of really dry books. I like’em that way. I’m all about the information density. Crank it up to 11! Don’t get me wrong. I love good narration and storytelling, but I’ve left mountains of biographies more relatable than Russell Long unfinished. Why did I finish Russell Long, but not the others?

As long as a biography helps me understand the place and importance of the person in the title, I’m happy. There are plenty of ways to do this. Some authors use personal accounts of people who knew the title character to construct a story. These biographies usually have a very personal touch. Their success or failure depends on how easy it is for the reader to get to know the person they’re reading about. Russell Long doesn’t even try to do this, so I won’t judge it on this basis.

This book wants to teach you about Russell, not introduce you to him. Enjoyment doesn’t issue from its style or wit, but from its combination of clarity and insight. Every page is pressurized to the bursting point with information. Russell Long is such a dense piece of pulp that the absence of any one sentence would immediately stand out to most mildly-attentive readers. Even being as dense as it is, however, it’s still easily accessible. Usually, accessibility correlates well with the complexity or depth of the content. I believe Mr. Martin created this outlier by focusing on a narrative structure before thinking in terms of timelines, events, and explanations.

Russell Long’s overall structure is evidence that Mr. Martin took spectacular care to produce an account that covers a wide canvas without becoming obtuse. The lesson other biographers can learn here is that contextual information is not a commodity. What does that mean?

In the Land of the Confusing, Context is King

Some contextual information pairs best with its related content when nestled in with a tangentially related account. We learn of Earl Long’s ultimate fate early, to lose his marbles while in the Senate in 1960. Seemingly a non-sequitur at first, this knowledge casts its foreshadow over Earl’s actions leading up to that year. At no time does Mr. Martin suggest any relationship between Earl’s escalating political aggressiveness and his meltdown. Even so, I would expect any reader to make his or her own judgment about the cause for his behavior, and whether his actions or his meltdown were the chicken or the egg. Regardless of the determination you make, the very fact that I was involved so deeply for so long leading up to the reveal is thanks to a masterful measuring of just the right amount of suggestion early on and an otherwise-innocuous lead-up to the event in question. You could argue that leaving the cause for his meltdown for the reader to intuit is unsatisfying, but remember, this book is interested in the facts. Guessing and wondering is the reader’s half of the contract here. Besides, have you ever called a book that left your brain chewing on its contents long afterward a “bad book”?

Russell Long is loaded with foreshadowing that seems like fact-stating at first blush, but produces satisfying “Aha!” moments throughout the proceeding text. Much of this foreshadowing occurs in the meaty first chapter entirely devoted to the life and career of Huey Long, Russell’s father. Mr. Martin depicts him as a powerful and ruthless Louisiana governor and political boss. Huey was a New Deal-era populist, and early on we come to know Russell as a Truman/Kennedy/LBJ Fair-Deal-era/Great Society-era populist. The account of Russell’s time striving toward and later working within the U.S. Senate during this period stands tall on its own, but it benefits tremendously from the foreshadowing earlier on.

As for sections of the book that trace the cause of a significant even to its effect, Mr. Martin provides context in step with the content. He seldom leaves the reader wondering what motives the actors might have had. Often, when an author does not give particular consideration to the distribution of contextual knowledge, the reader is burdened with wondering if he or she missed something until the author gets around to providing helpful context. The combination of foreshadowing and unconstructive inline explanation makes Russell Long a relatively effortless read.

Small Book, Big Ambition: The Compromise Shows.

In spite of all of the great things that I have to say about this biography, I do have complaints. Mr. Martin’s application of foreshadowing sometimes seems to guide the book’s focus away from very important details in favor of events that mesh well with the scaffold of foreshadowing upon which the biography seems to be built. Mr. Martin glosses over, and sometimes neglects even to account for, very important transitions in Russell Long’s political career. I found the explanation of the machinations by which Russell became Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, for example, to be unsatisfying. In sections describing the use of connections by either Long to usurp the function of government agencies, some more detail regarding how these connections were formed and maintained would have been beneficial.

Am I nitpicking? You may not even think twice about the informational gaps if you give this mainly solid book a read. I’m probably asking too much from a book in the range of 300 pages. If an editor demanded that I tamp down the word count, I might have nixed these details, too. Regardless, fleshing out these details in a longer book would have been well worth the longer read. In the end, every book must stand on it’s own two… covers. Russell Long certainly suffers from several unsatisfactory, unsatisfying, and sometimes missing explanations of what I though should have been key elements of a complete narrative.

The Last Word

To get hung up on any of these qualms would be to miss out on appreciating this book’s most important feature. Before Michael Martin’s Russell Long became available, there had been no quality account of Russell Long’s place in American history accessible to the layperson. The alternative for the average person seeking to learn about the younger Long would be a greatly fruitless Google search. Even Wikipedia, with it hordes of fanatical volunteer editors, hosts relatively little quality, cross-referenced information about this troubled, controversial, and interesting man. The publication of this book fills a conspicuous void, and there’s nothing but good in that.

The information density of Russell Long is actually dumbfounding. That Mr. Martin was able to make such a dense work so easy to read is a testament to his mastery of the biographical form. I swallowed about 300 pages of pure knowledge in hardly more than four hours. (If I’m being honest, the speed was just as much thanks to the “Spritz” reading software I use as to Mr. Martin, but I digress.) If all non-fiction books were like Russell Long, we would all be far more knowledgeable. People would read more books. People would patronize their libraries and coffee shops with equal frequency. Heck. The coffee shops would probably just be in the libraries.


Deadline by John Sandford

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There is nothing better than a new Virgil Flowers mystery. This one has Flowers investigating a dognapping ring, when he is asked by Lucas Davenport (of the “Prey” novels) to look into the murder of a reporter. As Virgil gets deeper into the case, local school board members start dying. It turns out that certain board members had planned the reporter’s death–but are they now killing each other?

The plot in this installment is not complicated, but it’s full of that great Sandford wry humor that has become the hallmark of the Flowers series. There is a down-home, redneck quality to this one that I thought was funnier than most. Virgil’s friend Johnson Johnson (his father named all his sons after outboard motors, and Mercury, Johnson’s brother, got the better end of THAT deal) calls him to help figure out where all the town’s dogs are going. We encounter a cast of characters and situations that personify what would happen if Deliverance was mixed with the business world:  gun nuts, meth heads, embezzlement, backstabbing, and politics.  Even though we know who the bad guys are right from the start, the book will hold your interest as the plot advances.

Flowers is helped out by Johnson, of course, who is by far the most colorful of the characters. He’s willing to shoot his gun off at the slightest provocation, and so is young Muddy, a not-quite-teenager who pops up out of the background to give Virgil some hints on where those missing dogs may be. The dognapping side plot is a lighthearted addition to the murder investigation, and gives Sandford a chance to show off those quirky Minnesota rednecks. Some great conversation is had between Virgil and Johnson:

Virgil went carefully back to his truck, climbed inside, and found Johnson with a high capacity Para-Ordnance .45 in his lap. 

“Jesus, Johnson, what were you gonna do with that?”

“I saw somebody at the window,” Johnson said. “If they shot you, I was gonna hose the place down.”

Virgil thought about that for a moment, then said, “All right.” He looked up at the porch. Zorn had gone back inside, but Virgil could see him hovering behind the screen. “That’s a bad man, right there,” Virgil said. “Doesn’t even bother to trim his nose hair.”

“That is a bad man,” Johnson said.

The writing from chapter 28 onwards is one of the funniest and well written scenes I’ve ever read. There is a mob, dogs running loose, crazed female anti vivisectionists (called Auntie Vivians), gunshots, wrecked trucks, and plenty of other action. Sandford has raised his own bar with DEADLINE and gotten better, hard as that is to believe.  Virgil Flowers is one of my favorite fictional characters, and it feels as though Sandford had a rollicking great time with this one. It’s a great stand alone book, and possibly the best one so far. I hope there are many more in store.

Want your own copy? Click [easyazon_link asin=”0399162372″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here .[/easyazon_link] Let me know what you think.


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