“Broken Heart Attack” (Braxton Campus Mysteries #2) by James J. Cudney

Genre:          Humorous Cozy Mystery
Publisher:    Creativia Publishing House
Pub. Date:    November 25, 2018

I have read a couple of the author’s books and I must say he is getting better and better at his craft.  I do believe that James J. Cudney has the potential to become a household name for those who enjoy light-hearted murder mysteries.  “Broken Heart Attack” is the second book in the “Braxton Campus Mysteries.”  However, “Heart Attack” can be read as a stand-alone book.   One needn’t read the first novel, “Academic Curveball,” to follow along.  The author smoothly informs us that the protagonist, Kellan, is a young widow and a single dad.  (I would love to write more about his marriage because it has such a good twist, but that would be a spoiler).  In book one, he was working as a writer for a murder mystery TV series until he became an amateur sleuth at Braxton College.  He finds a dead body on campus and uses his writing expertise to help solve the crime.

In book number two, Kellan is now working as a professor at the college.  I am happy to report that the characters of his spunky, ringleader-like grandmother, as well as his spunky and sweet young daughter, remain in the series.  Kellan’s young daughter has a larger piece of the writing pie than she did previously.  The father/daughter relationship is easy on the reader’s eyes.   This reviewer hopes it will be continued even further in book number three.   Personally, I would like to see more of Kellan’s family dynamics and issues into the story.  (I actually thought this in “Curveball” as well).  The reader will find tantalizing family dynamics, issues, and major drama, in the characters that make up the Paddington clan.  The possible murder in “Heart Attack” occurred during a play’s dress rehearsal.  Kellan is there along with, Nana D. (the grandmother) and her friends the Paddington sisters-in-law.    It is here that one of his grandmother’s friends dies of a suspicious heart attack.   Nana D. suspects her friend was actually murdered by a poison that caused the heart attack.  So, Kellan is once more back into the crime-solving business.

As in book number one, the story is told in the first person by our professor.  Also, once again the writing is at a top-notch comical level with the character of Nana D.  When she doesn’t get her way with Kellan she is prone to say things like, “I won’t disown you, but I will set you up with every available harebrained girl in town.  I’ll have you fending off more cougars…,” and so on and so forth.  This is to her grandson who she adores.  One doesn’t mess with Nana D.   And yes, once again the novel ends with a cliffhanger leaving you wanting to ask Cudney when number three will be released.

I am not your typical cozy mystery reader because I am not usually a fan of the genre.  But, I do make a few exceptions as with “Curveball.”  This whodunit borders on the tradition of an Agatha Christie read.  At times, the author (who is a friend of mine), doesn’t trust his own talent and tends to explain the plot to his readers especially when writing about potential killers.  But, heck I just said something similar in another review about a book written by the enormously talented and accomplished author, Barbara Kingsolver.  So Jay, aka James J. Cudney, is in very good company.    I do want to add that although “Heart Attack” can be read alone, you would be missing all the fun by skipping the first book in the series.

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“Death by Didgeridoo” Barbara Venkataraman

Genre:           Cozy Mystery/Humor Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000032_00038]
Publisher:    CreateSpace Independent
Pub. Date:    November 13, 2013

One has to love the title of “Death by Didgeridoo,” by Barbara Venkataraman.   I will not explain the reasoning behind the words because that would be a spoiler.  I will share that this is a lighthearted ‘whodunit’ and the first book in the “Jamie Quinn Mystery Series.”  The story revolves around the protagonists, Jamie, her aunt, and her cousin, who happens to have Aspergers.  Jamie reluctantly agrees to represent her cousin who is accused of murder.   Since she is a family law attorney, not a criminal attorney, she is in way over her head.   Right about here, we meet my favorite character: Duke.  He is the wildly colorful private investigator who Jamie turns to for crime-solving help.

I was not familiar with this series when the author reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in reviewing her work.  I seldom read mysteries of any kind.  But, since the book was previously chosen as “Indie Book of the Day,” I gladly accepted.   I am especially pleased that I did so because my favorite character had me laughing out loud more than once.  Venkataraman is at her best with Duke.  Picture a guy who drinks too much, plays the ladies’ man, and has been married and divorced three times.  A male chauvinist who calls all women ‘Darlin’ and is constantly bragging of his sex life—obnoxious right?    But there is more than meets the eye to this character.  Underneath his masculine bravado, he is a sweetie who will do anything to protect Jamie.  He made me think of a male version of the old cliché, a hooker with a heart of gold.

To keep things interesting, all kinds of obstacles derail Jamie’s quest to clear her cousin.  You will have to read the book to learn about her setbacks.  As for the rest of the series, we learn enough about likable Jamie, her family, and Duke to want read the next novel.  Still, “Death” can be read as a stand-alone book.  If you enjoy a good cozy mystery (meaning no gore), then I can safely guarantee that you will enjoy this novel.  To quote Duke, “Life’s grand!  The only way I’d enjoy it more is if there were two of me.”  I am happy to report there are more than two sequels (three in the first book) in this cozy mystery series.

I received this novel from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Genre:           Family Saga/Historical FictionUnsheltered
Publisher:    HarperCollins
Pub. Date:    October 16, 2018

Barbara Kingsolver is a powerhouse of a writer and one of my preferred authors.  “Poisonwood Bible” remains a favorite book of mine.  In her latest novel, she sticks with her familiar themes—environment, religion, and social issues.  The setting goes back and forth between America’s current troubles to America’s troubled past.  In the present, we meet a fictional college-educated, middle-class family who live in the real-life city of Vineland, NJ.  To their shock, a few career setbacks and an ailing parent’s medical bills have caused a downgrade in their economic status.  Kingsolver is at her best when asking “how could this have happened to us?…we did everything right.”  She makes it easy to realize that your life too could turn on a dime.  To add to the family’s woes, their centuries-old house is literally crumbling around them.  Willa, the family matriarch, has learned that their house may have once been the home to real-life Mary Treat. Treat was a self-taught naturalist and correspondent with Charles Darwin.  Willa begins to write a historical preservation grant in hopes that the grant will pay for the house renovations.

In the past, Kingsolver takes us back to when Mary Treat was a working naturalist, which was immediately post civil war.   Her reasons for this time period are clear and very clever.  The troubles for the family in current times begin when Trump announced he was running for president.  Donald Trump’s name never appears in the novel but it is clear that he is “the Bullhorn…who promises to restore the old order…the billionaire running for president who’s never lifted a finger in work…the candidate who brags that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and people would still vote for him.”   The past is my favorite part of the book since it is such a classroom experience without the homework assignments.  I was fascinated to learn that back then, Vineland was created to be a utopian community.  It was founded by nonfictional Charles Landis.   He was a Trumpian-like real estate developer who really did shoot someone in the middle of the street and get away with it.   Landis had a strong dislike for Darwin since the opinion of the times was that Darwin was threatening religious beliefs.  He did not want Darwin’s theories, or any already proven scientific facts to be taught in Vineland’s schools.  Sounds familiar right?  Trump’s (so-called) Christian anti-science moves are spelled out loud and clear.  In an interview with Kirkus Reviews, Kingsolver states, “I chose the 1870s as my alternate world because I knew it was a really difficult, polarized moment in our history…..Racial divisions, urban/rural divisions, North/South divisions—those rifts were ripped open by the Civil War.”

I left out reviewing a few very good subplots for they would be spoilers.  Between the alternating timelines, I preferred the story in the past.  The present-day timeline borders on preachy.   How we long for careers that ultimately fail to bring happiness or sometimes not even financial stability.   How spoiled we can be.  How we want and waste.  All true, but no one likes a lecture in the middle of a story no matter how much you may like the plot and the characters.  Oddly, the past felt fresh.  I enjoyed reading about young America’s growing pains.  How hard the scientific minds had to fight to be heard.   I do have a rather petty criticism on the writing.  The words “sheltered” and “unsheltered” come up repeatedly.   It felt as if Kingsolver didn’t think her audience capable of making the connections.   I don’t believe that in her book ‘Poisonwood Bible,’ (which is about a missionary family in the Belgian Congo) the title words pop up at all.  She trusted that her readers would make the connection that, like a poisonwood tree, religion too can become dangerous when mishandled.   This does not mean that I didn’t enjoy “Unsheltered,” for I very much did.  And, will not think twice about recommending the book.  As usual, Kingsolver gives her readers plenty to wonder about.  In this novel, she does an amazing job of penning an engaging story about human existence combined with a well-researched tale on past and present American politics.

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“The Adults” by Caroline Hulse

Genre:           General Fiction/Mystery The Adults
Publisher:    Random House
Pub. Date:    November 27, 2018

Caroline Hulse’s novel is a dark comedy that had me laughing out loud more than once.  Imagine the dysfunctional dynamics between divorced parents with a seven-year-old daughter.  Both parents now have new live-in-partners.  Now imagine all four adults (two who have never even met each other) going on a Christmas holiday together.  The idea is that the little girl can spend Christmas day with both of her parents.   Good intentions, but even in theory, it sounds like a disastrous plan.  So, what exactly did go wrong?  Well, for starters the book opens with an emergency phone call because one of them has been shot with an arrow.  This is how you will meet “The Adults,” which is a clever debut novel about a blended family vacation.

You will need to read the book to learn who was shot and if he/she survives.  But, I can tell you that the group rents a lodge in a Christmas themed village.  The place is geared towards families with young children.  There are many fun activities.  Make that forced fun for the unhappy adults.  Hulse’s writing is razor sharp, especially around the child’s imaginary rabbit friend that never leaves her side.  Many of the activities must be canceled because they don’t make safety helmets with ear holes for a rabbit.  You can visualize where this is headed.  The story is filled with rabbit tongue in cheek subplots.  When her dad’s girlfriend kills a pheasant (to put it out of its misery while dying) the girl is convinced her imaginary playmate will be the next murdered animal.  This sets up all sorts of satirical scenes.  Think of the movie “Harvey,” and throw in a tad of “Watership Down.”

I enjoyed the author’s array of writing styles.  In-between the narrations by the five, (or six if you count the rabbit), you will also read police interviews as well as most of the village’s brochure.  It is a prose that is similar to, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” but on silly pills.  Is this just another family Christmas novel?  Nope.  This is a snappy, not sappy, holiday book that will be on sale in time for Christmas.  I would buy it as a gift just for the annoying singing Christmas trees alone.

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I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It: A Memoir of My Irish Boyhood” by Tom Phelan

Genre:           Biography and MemoirWe were rich
Publisher:    Gallery Books
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

After reading the Goodreads blurb, I figured this book was a no-brainer for me. The blurb suggests that Tom Phelan’s memoir is in the tradition of Frank McCourt’s memoir, “Angela’s Ashes.”  Considering, I loved “Ashes,” what could go wrong?   The answer is plenty.  I already knew from the book’s title that Phelan’s tale would be much more upbeat than McCourt’s.  But give me a break.  Phelan makes it sound like his growing up poor in Ireland in the 1940s was nothing short of a Disney vacation.

The biography is mostly saccharine.  Phelan never expresses any frustration or even a thought on how his adult life was taken out of his hands.  Rather he jokes that since his childhood he was groomed to become a priest.  Now I get that this is Ireland.  And I also get that families can be very proud when their children devote their lives to the Church.  (It doesn’t hurt that the family’s social status is upped when this happens).  Remember the 1977 movie, “Saturday Night Fever?”  John Travolta played the character Tony Manero, a 19-year-old Italian-American living in Brooklyn.  Remember how upset his parents were when his brother left the priesthood?  It may be different decades, different cultures, but the same pride in having a son as a priest.   So as an Italian-American, when I say I get it, I truly do.  But—and this is a big but—the author seems to be determined that his tale be nothing shy of heartwarming.

Perhaps I am being a little too harsh in my critique.  There is a poetic quality in the author’s prose.   I did get a kick out of all the Irish words and expressions that I read.  I thank the author for the glossary. I did laugh at ‘drunk Uncle Paulie” stories.  Plus, there are similarities between “We Were Rich” and the John Grisham novel, “A Painted House,” a book I did very much enjoy.  Both stories revolve around a back-breaking rural lifestyle.  Both protagonists have loving, wise and demanding fathers.  Both books have the same good vibes about them.   Still, Grisham’s novel reads more realistically.  There are unsolvable problems in “House.”  To be fair, in this memoir, the chapter “Midnight Phone Call” can make you teary.  Yet, the sorrow is expected, which takes out some of the punch.   So, if you are looking for a sweet uplifting story that takes you back to a simpler time, then this one is for you.   Sometimes, even I can be in the mood for such a read.  Personally, I felt set up by the comparison to McCourt.  I guess I was expecting a memoir with more grit.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Genre:          General Fiction   His Favorites
Publisher:    Scribner
Pub. Date:   Aug. 14, 2018

“His Favorites” is a slice of life story about the wealthy with two different plotlines connected by the female protagonist, Jo.  It is written by the acclaimed American author Kate Walbert.  Similar to Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, “Prep,” this tale is a powerful coming of age story that spotlights (no matter how rich you are) the vulnerability and powerlessness of female girls.  Unlike “Prep,” there is no laughter in “Favorites.”  This is a sad story which might have been easier to read with a little tension-cutting humor.  Walbert is also writing on the same female issues that follow girls into womanhood.  The story is narrated by an adult Jo, who is recounting painful memories.  In the 1970s, she was twice traumatized.

At fifteen, she and her two childhood best friends go on a drunken joyride in a golf cart. Jo is the driver.   The ride ends tragically when the golf cart flips over.  Two girls are left laughing and the third girl is left dead.  The author asks the reader to question if the tragedy is a type of privileged entrapment.  The girls are usually unsupervised.  They live on the grounds of a country club.   They know where the golf cart keys are kept.  Did Jo really do anything that most teens in her position wouldn’t have done?   I don’t think so, do you?  Nevertheless, after the death of her friend, Jo becomes the neighborhood’s version of a human pariah—Avoided.  Detested.  The dead girl’s mother, who is like a second mother to Jo, spits on her.  Her parents pretty much desert her.  Scared, alone, grieving her friend and brimming with endless guilt, she is sent off to a boarding school in New England.  I felt real anger at how heartlessly Jo is punished for being a teenager.

The second plotline begins at the boarding school.  It feels as if Jo is once again set up by affluent adults.   Isolated from family and friends she is easy pickings to become the next favorite (there are/were many) of her 34-year-old male teacher.  She has an unwanted sexual relationship with him.  The author now goes into society’s sexual unfavorable biases towards females of all ages.  She nails why Jo or the other girls didn’t say anything to the school’s authorities about their teacher’s sexual misconduct.  Who would believe them?  He is a powerful man and an academic award-winning teacher.  Who would believe them?  Everyone knows that girls and women have embellished imaginations. Who would believe them?  None of the girls actually said no.  They were so manipulated into the relationship that they themselves never realized that they were abused.  Of course, they were but, The Me Too Movement is decades away.  Hopefully, the days of powerful men getting off scot-free are nearing an end.

The reader never learns how adult Jo coped living with so much undeserved shame.  Was the rest of her life a wipeout like another one of the professor’s favorites?   Adult Jo has an unexpected encounter with her.  The other favorite now suffers from a cocaine problem.  (Possible Spoiler) After this meeting, the author teases the reader with the idea, ‘that the power might finally be in Jo’s hands.’  But, we really don’t know.   I have mixed feelings on the novel’s conclusion.  I think I would have preferred going back full circle to the story’s beginning with an explained ending.  But then again, Walbert’s ending gives me food for thought.  In a weird way, it is similar to the last scene in the last episode of another fictional wealthy family—“The Sopranos.”  Does, Tony live or doesn’t he?  We are left with the same question regarding Jo.

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I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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