Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns

When I checked this out of the library, I thought there was something familiar about it. Turns out, I’ve read another of Dobyns’ books, called Saratoga Backtalk. Both are ‘Charlie Bradshaw’ mysteries, where we follow private investigator Charlie as he tries to solve crimes in the horse industry. I know that the horse connection had a lot to do with picking them both out, but in all honesty, while reading these novels, you don’t care much about the horses. The reader is too wrapped up in the suspense of the mystery!

In Saratoga Payback, Charlie is officially a retired PI (something tells me there is more to that story but it isn’t discussed in depth in this novel), yet he can’t help getting involved in the murder mystery that actually drops on his doorstep. Mickey Martin is found dead on Charlie’s sidewalk outside his home with his throat slashed and his tongue cut out. Charlie can’t quite figure out why, but he has a hunch that someone wanted Mickey to stop running his mouth, and wanted Charlie to know it too. So, trying his hardest to not meddle in police business, being that he no longer has his PI license and could go to jail for investigating, he takes on the “concerned citizen” role and tries to figure out why Mickey was brutally murdered.

It’s a quick paced novel, and very funny despite the scary situation, what with all the vicious slashing going on. As I was reading Payback, it made me recall why I liked Backtalk. Dobyns’ character driven plots make it easy to follow along but leave enough mystery to keep you turning the page. Charlie’s easy going personality and witty banter with his clients, friends, family, and informants make these novels an enjoyable read.

 

Burn Town by Jennifer McMahon

“There is no someday. We spend so much of our lives waiting for someday, don’t we? There is only right now. This is our someday.”

Burn Town just made one of my top favorite books of the year so far. When I read ‘Winter People’, I remember liking it but not enthralled, but I’m glad I decided to try again with McMahon, because WOW.

Burn Town had me hooked in the first 10 pages. HOOKED. By page 35, I had a running list of questions, and by page 50, I couldn’t take my eyes off the page. There are very few books that I’ve read in one day, yet here I am, adding this suspense thriller to the list. I could not put it down.

The whole story starts with the murder of Elizabeth Sandeski, the grandmother of the main character, Necco (Eva). Necco’s father, Miles, witnesses the murderer take his mother’s life, and years down the road attempts revenge. Thanks to a machine that links the living with the dead, Elizabeth reveals who killed her, and Miles takes matters into his own hands- or so he thinks. Years after that, Necco’s mother has a sort of premonition that the family is in danger again, and Necco learns that she’s in danger just before things get foggy and her memories fade to black.

Now, Necco is on the run again with the help of a high school drug dealer, a circus-crazed cafeteria lady, and a part-time private investigator, trying to figure out who is after her and what happened to her family after “the Great Flood”. Everything Necco though she knew is nothing compared to the truth she uncovers.

Absolutely recommend the read, as long as you can handle the thrill of it!

 

Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach

I’ve been wanting to read Wild Ride for almost four years now. Maybe three months after I moved to Lexington, a friend and coworker was reading it and said it was really good. Fast forward four years, and I finally got the chance to read it, and I honestly think that I wouldn’t have appreciated the book as much as I do now.

See, being in the Bluegrass has really broadened my Thoroughbred knowledge, and I’ve gained a deeper respect for the industry in the area. Despite what you read in the media- because there is always a dark side of each industry- it is truly regarded as the Sport of Kings for good reason. Generations of families taking the chance on the next superstar, and pouring hours, years, lifetimes of dedication (and money) into their horses. Not only have I gained a deeper understanding of the industry, but I’ve also learned my way around (for the most part) Lexington and the surrounding area. I haven’t gone full local (because I still can’t stop acting like a tourist or shake my New England accent), but while reading Wild Ride, I could easily picture the locations mentioned, or the events occurring.

The byline of Wild Ride is “The Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty”, but Auerbach doesn’t just rehash the demise- she delves into the history of Calumet from the very origins of it’s founder, William Monroe Wright.

The reader learns about the self-made businessman who eventually decided to move from Chicago to the Bluegrass and start his own harness horse breeding operation. From there, his son Warren takes over the family operation, despite being at odds with the way his father ran the place. He converts what becomes Calumet Farm into a thoroughbred operation, and an empire is born. Though strong in business practice, the younger Wright had a lot of horsemanship skills to learn, but his progress turned out derby winners and two Triple Crown winners. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse, and when he passed on, his wife and son became benefactors of his estate, and his wife Lucille inherited the farm, along with gigantic sums of money.

Lucille decides to keep the farm, and in doing so blossoms into one of the social elite. She meets Gene Markey and remarries, and the Markeys, adding a touch of glamour that the Wright men did not achieve, take Calumet to up the social ladder. While Lucille enjoyed being  Lady of Calumet, her son Warren Jr. was moved to the wayside. He didn’t care for the farm life, and had many peculiarities that made him difficult to work with. On top of that, there was some discrepancies about him being the legitimate son of Warren Wright Sr. Lucille did very little to defend her son because he was seen as an embarrassment in her circle. This feud caused much heartache for his wife and four children, and eventually the Wright family became estranged to the Markey family, most so after Warren Jr. succumbs to an early death.

Knowing fully about the family feud, Warren Jr.’s eldest daughter, Cindy, marries a man named J.T. Lundy. Determined to run Calumet, he pressures and fights with Lucille to run the farm. Lucille and Lundy stubbornly spar, neither one giving up, until Lucille’s age catches up to her. Through the will of Warren Sr., the farm is finally turned over the Wright children, and because of their disinterest in the farm due to all the past heartache, Lundy takes over in care of the Wrights. From here, as secretary Margaret Glass notes, Armageddon begins with the fall of Calumet.

If you live in the area, you can still drive past the farm, and see for yourself the images that Auerbach describes- the white double fencing, the devils-red trim on white washed barns, the acres of famous Kentucky bluegrass dotted with horses. But the Calumet you see isn’t the dynasty that existed prior to 1990, and reading about the fall brought chills to my spine.

If you’re a horse junky like me, or interested in historical novels (Kentucky history in particular), horse racing and breeding, or crime novels, Wild Ride is a must read.

Abigale Hall by Lauren A. Forry

Alright… there are days where I think I’ve landed a great random pick from the library, and then end up 50 pages in and questioning what I was on when I made my selection. Abigale Hall is a prime example. I’ll be brutally honest: I’m 20 pages in, and I knew this was a supposed to be a Gothic thriller but I really didn’t think much about what that meant.

Gothic thriller = Horror story

I’m the kind of girl who can’t watch scary movies alone because I get nightmares, let alone read and MAKE MYSELF IMAGINE SCARY STUFF.

So, 20 pages in, I’m struggling. The main character seems alright, but she’s got a miserable aunt and a sister who seemed to have some type of OCD with her counting and obsession with repetition. And there’s a lot of repetition with the use of onomatopoeia, which is a fine literary device, but it really drags out the scene- something someone as impatient as me would have a hard time tolerating. And the biggest turn off for me is the diction is heavy… simple sentences made complex for effect in strategic places is enough for me, but I don’t really care to read a paragraph that I have to practically interpret with a thesaurus.

Fed up, I googled other reviews of this book. Most are positive reviews, given between 3 and 5 stars, but the negative notes in the reviews are saying the same things I figured out in 20 pages- that the book drags, lots of repetition, and heavy plot. Those who stuck with it, I applaud you and thank you for the spoilers, because now I don’t feel bad about not having nightmares of…. well, I won’t do that to my readers if I can help it. But needless to say, I’m taking this one right back to the library. It’s just NOT my cup of tea.

The Guardian by Nicholas Sparks

Oh Nicholas Sparks, you wonderful, tear jerking bastahd (sorry for my New England accent there ;p ).

What woman doesn’t love a Nicholas Sparks book? After a string of them and successful movie remakes, he’s a household name for romance novel. But what I loved about the Guardian is that though it’s a romance novel, it’s a thriller. Every quickly-turned page leaves you hanging in suspense and more than once thinking oh no, oh no!

The first few pages, we meet Julie, a recent widow in what seems like the darkest moment of her already hard life. Just when she’s complicating on why she’s trying to go through the motions of moving on, a delivery shows up at her door from he late husband Jim, and Singer enters the scene. Fast forward four years, and Julie has moved past the hurt of losing her husband largely in part to her Great Dane, Singer, and her friends. Mabel, her boss and late husband’s aunt, employs Julie at her hair salon in their small town, and treats her like a daughter. Julie’s best friend, Mike, is a mechanic at the auto shop he co-owns with his brother, Henry. Henry, his wife Emma, and Mike were Jim’s friends growing up.

When Julie decides to start dating again, the local dating scene was pretty slim until Richard walks into the picture. Attempting to sweep Julie off her feet, he lavishes her with fancy dinners, exciting dates, and expensive jewelry. Julie, always cautious, can’t help but wonder if she’s falling for him. But one person always stays in the back of her mind…Mike. Though it’s been clear he’s been in to her for a while, she wasn’t sure if it was such a good idea for them to be together- how would it affect their friendship?

Eventually Julie finally realizes that there was no chemistry with Richard, and that she should take a chance with Mike. Richard doesn’t take this very well… and that’s a huge understatement. But I don’t want to give too many details away yet, so all I can say is eventually, it becomes a race against Richard to keep Julie, Mike, and Singer safe.

Now, I’m definitely recommending this book. It’s a quick, thrilling read, and animal lovers will both love and hate this book, in a good way. I’ve already passed my copy along to a coworker!

 

 

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

I’m going to cut to the chase with this one- what a waste of my time.  This novel is so chaotic and melodramatic. I read it’s 350 pages in 2 days, and the entire time I just kept hoping it would get better…

The main character, Hazel, finds out she is pregnant by her thesis advisor, Karl, a married man twice her age. The affair is messy, to say the least. The day she finds out she is pregnant, she also witnesses the first case of “the Blonde Fury” pandemic, later to become known as SHV (the acronym is explained in the novel if you decided it’s your thing and you want to read it). This happens in the first 20 pages or so. From there, the story shifts from past to present with very little transition notice to the reader (reading in the present, oh now in the past, oh, just kidding present again). As Hazel waffles about how to handle the pregnancy news, she has to figure out how to navigate the pandemic hair disease that they akin to rabies. It’s nuts guys.

I give credit to the author for creating an interesting fantasy outbreak (blondes contracting this disease basically attack people like rabid animals IS pretty good imagery) but to me, the plot is all over the place, the climax is anticlimactic, the character development is just really strange… I could go on. The cover jacket gives the novel high praise for it being satirical, unsettling, and intelligent, so maybe I’m just missing the point. But for those that actually take my recommendation, I’d say you could pass on this one.

North of Montana by April Smith

I pulled this book off the shelf and read it in about 3 days. With about 300 pages, it’s a pretty quick read and a page turner. However..

The novel follows Special Agent Ana Grey of the FBI in an exciting series of events that move her up the agency chain. After a single-handed bust, she’s put on a high profile case involving celebrity Jayne Mason. Eager to impress her boss, she digs into the claims only to find out that the truth is a lot harder to find that she thought. To complicate matters, a parallel situation occurs with a long lost relative, forcing Ana to piece together her questionable family history.

Maybe you can already see the problem post plot description, but if you can’t, let me spell it out for you. Smith created a stereotypical FBI heroine who predictably is off to prove herself in the male world of crime fighting and instead gets wrapped up in her own emotional past. Now, here’s the thing: If Smith had just made Grey a kickass FBI heroine, that would have been fine. Sure, give her a little conflict and some good plots twists. However,  throwing in the family conflict subplot flashbacks distracted from the main plot and made her unbelievably soft, a counter to what Smith set Grey up as in the first chapters. I get giving a character more depth, but if the story was made to be stereotypical, than the depth isn’t believable.

Nonetheless, I’d be interested in reading another novel about Ana Grey, for two reasons: one, I thought she was pretty badass, and two, to see if the next novel follows the stereotypical outline as well. I’ll let keep you posted, folks.