Review: “One for the Money” (Stephanie Plum #1) by Janet Evanovich

A review by Vanessa

This book is from my own personal library; this review takes a look at the popular novel through the lens of the major motion picture it became.

Stephanie Plum is no stranger to desperation. It’s not like she hasn’t been through the ringer before, but when she loses her job as a lingerie buyer and is forced to go to work for her perverted cousin Vinnie at his bail bonds office, she knows she has hit a new low. But when a big FTA (failure to appear) hits Vinnie’s desk, Stephanie thinks things might just be looking up. The FTA is the man who took Stephanie’s virginity, Joe Morelli, and she’s got a big score to settle with him. Tracking him down and dragging his ass back to jail is the perfect opportunity to do just that, and make some big cash as a bounty hunter. Of course she has no skill-set, no training, no tools, and no cash to get what she needs to get started. Blackmailing her cousin into letting her take the case is just the first step. If she wants to make a real go of this new career, she’ll have to get serious. Enter Ranger. The guy is big and scary to the max, with attitude, gorgeous eyes, and muscles for days; but he’s the real deal, and he’s willing to mentor Stephanie so she has a chance at catching Morelli. Now all she has to do is survive telling her traditional Italian family that she’s about the take on a job where she has to start carrying a gun.
Things get crazy, hilarious, and terrifying quickly when the case surrounding Morelli’s arrest turns out to be far more complicated than Stephanie thought. Luck is on her side when she finds Morelli fast, but doesn’t have the clout to bring him in. Her only option is to follow the evidence, and the trail of criminal activity that Morrelli is tracking to try and clear his name. Maybe she can catch him unaware and force him to bring himself in. But getting more involved means getting into the line of fire of a psychotic murderer, some big time drug runners, and her crazy grandmother who is unnaturally fascinated with Stephanie’s new line of work. She has got to get Morrelli to come in before someone gets really hurt. She just hopes it isn’t her. But maybe with a whole lot of dumb luck, a little strangely accurate intuition, and the right timing, she’ll get her man in the end.
This book is the first in a long series that got its start back in the mid 90’s, and was made into a movie in 2012. For a book series that now spans multiple decades, it’s no secret why it’s still going: Evanovich is a master of character writing. She weaves the story together in sometimes interestingly haphazard ways, but always the characters that drive the action are multi-layered, unfailing entertaining, and admirably lovable or the kind you love to hate. Stephanie Plum is the perfectly inept heroine of her own story; brassy, bold, unpredictable, totally independent, and completely unprepared for everything she gets herself into. And boy, does she get herself into some crazy stuff, often with her hilarious Grandma Mazur in tow. This book made me fall in love with Stephanie and all her wacky hi-jinks, so I was of course ecstatic to learn that it was being made into a movie. But as always when a favorite novel goes Hollywood, there is bound to be some disappointment.
Overall, I have to say I was impressed with how the movie was able to modernize so many aspects of the story, without ruining the essence of what made the original story so great. Throwing cell phones, modern technology, and an update to Stephanie’s iconic fashion habits into the mix could have played out of tune with a story that was written in the 90’s, but they did a good job. What was lacking was the backbone of what made Evanovich’s writing so great; the strength of the characters. Katherine Heigl is no slouch in the acting business, and I certainly appreciated the independence, determination, and attitude that she tried to bring to the Stephanie Plum character. But there is a certain element to Stephanie, an untenable unpredictable ability to bullshit her way through almost anything, that was lacking in her movie persona. Morelli, played by Jason O,Mara, was a bit more satisfying with his passionate anger, and lust filled attitude, but even he was bit too much fiery Irish-man and not enough smooth-and-simmering Italian.
But I was most let-down by Grandma Mazur. The lovely Debbie Reynolds is a wonderful actress, and her brashness on screen was entertaining, but her liveliness was no match for the Grandma Mazur of my imagination; the one who sports spandex shorts to match Stephanie’s coolness factor and somehow pulls it off better than she does; is innocently fascinated with Stephanie’s gun right up to and including when she shoots the gumpy off the chicken at family dinner; and is fiercely loved and protected by Stephanie who feels they are kindred spirits. I still enjoyed seeing the personification of my favorite characters on screen, but I do hope one day they bring it back as a TV series, and spend a lot of time picking out the perfect people to capture the fantastic essence of the characters.

4.5 out of 5 stars for the book
3 out of 5 stars for the movie

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Review: “Agnes and the Hitman” by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Review- “Agnes and the Hitman” by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

A review by Vanessa.

Cranky Agnes is a cooking columnist with an anger problem. She just wants to feed everyone she meets, write her next cookbook, and throw the wedding of the century for her goddaughter. If the men in her life would stop pissing her off, she wouldn’t have an anger problem. There is only one man she trusts, the old mobster Uncle Joey, and it’s him she turns to when a deranged dognapper shows up in her kitchen. But Uncle Joey knows why this sudden string of crazies is showing up at Agnes’s recently purchased (in need of major rehab) beautiful Southern home. So he calls the only man he can trust with Agnes’s safety: his nephew Shane, the government employed hitman.

Shane is too busy with a hit gone wrong to abandon work and rush to protect some little girl his uncle knows; but since it is the first and only time Joey has asked for help in 25 years Shane decides to honor his request. Imagine his surprise when Agnes turns out to be a cranky, comely, take-no-prisoners lady who cooks like a dream and knows how to defend herself: with her best heavy non-stick frying pan of course. Shane can tell something more is up than what Uncle Joey is willing to admit, and he is not going to leave until he can make sure that Agnes makes it through and gets everything she has earned. With an upcoming mob-wedding looming on the horizon, a ticked off rogue hitman on the loose, and the previous homeowner causing all kinds of problems, Agnes and Shane will have to work together to make it through.

As a follow up to my last review, I decided to review the follow-up collaborative novel by the Crusie/Mayer team; and as expected they did not disappoint. The excellent combination of situational humor, action, and searing romance wins again. Cranky Agnes is a totally lovable lady with a relatable dark anger simmering under the surface that makes her both multidimensional and captivating to read. She is both caring and unforgiving, with an attitude that brooks no argument but somehow still manages to inspire loyalty and support from the good people who care for her. Shane is a sturdy, reliably dependable contrast to Agnes. He is a steady, straightforward, problem fixer, which is a contrast in itself considering that Shane is a hitman.

It’s interesting to consider that he ended up in a violent lifestyle, even though his mobster uncle Joey sent him to military school to keep him away from the violent life of a killer. As per usual, the two leads are accompanied by a fascinating and varied supporting cast of characters. The old world Southern mafia is an amazing setting for the backstory, juxtaposed with Agnes’s modern world of cooking. The two blend well and make for a driving story arc that will keep the reader turning pages. The love interest between Agnes and Shane is incendiary, exploding at just the right moment and in the best way possible. Love it!

My rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: “Don’t Look Down” by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

A review by Vanessa.

This book is from my personal collection, one I have re-read often. There was no author request for a review, but sometimes it’s nice to go back to read the ones we love so much.

Lucy Armstrong is a successful advertising director. She loves her job, and she’s really good at it, in spite of everyone else mocking her career in dog food commercials. So why is it she finds herself being pulled in to direct the last four days of what is supposed to be a legitimate movie set, but feels more like a practical joke? Probably because her sister is working on the crew with her niece in tow, and something is just not quite right. Not the way her ex-husband is paying her a ridiculous amount of money to finish the move without even seeing the entire script. Not the way crew members have been disappearing, quitting, or dying unexpectedly. Not the way the lead action star suddenly shows up with a real Green Beret to be his new consultant and stunt double at the last minute. And certainly not the way that Green Beret, J.T. Wilder, can capture Lucy’s attention simply by standing still. Something is up with this “movie set” and with J.T.’s help she just might figure it out in time to help her sister and her niece before things get out of hand.

J.T. was just looking to make some quick money while on leave by being stunt double for a bumbling movie star. The beautiful actresses were going to be a big bonus for the short time he planned to be involved. He certainly wasn’t expecting the director to catch his attention. The lead actress is a gorgeous snack, but Lucy is the whole meal; tall, beautiful, strong, determined, an Amazon worth a second, and third, look. He wasn’t planning on getting that involved, or caring for her and her zany band of crew members like her steadfastly loyal assistant director, or her Wonder Woman-obsessed little niece; but J.T. just can’t help himself.  Especially since his instincts tell him that Lucy has somehow ended up in the middle of something not good, and his heart definitely does not want anything bad happening to her.

What I have always loved the most about this book is that it is so well written by it’s co-authors. The writing is smart, snappy, witty, sharp and heartfelt all at the same time. The main characters are lovable, admirable, and believable while still achieving a very no bullshit kind of attitude. The storyline itself is quick and action packed as well as filled with heat and romance and just plain good writing. I have to attribute this to the individual strengths of the two writers. I have always loved Jennifer Crusie’s ability to write admirably strong women, and blazingly hot men into an entrancing but very grounded romance story. I’ve never read any of Bob Mayer’s individually written novels but his influence in the action and the writing of the male leading character is very obvious, and it adds an element of reality to the perspectives of the two main characters. The love scenes are very obviously Crusie-esque, but many of the scenes written from J.T.’s perspective have a distinctly male voice which is so interesting to read when juxtaposed against the female perspective interspersed with them. I always love when two authors from differing genres can bring the best of their writing style and experience into one book. And this book really has it all.

My rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: “The Dating Bender” by Christina Julian

A review by Amanda.

Samantha Serrano is a twentysomething divorcee whose life has gone off the rails. Raised in the Catholic faith by cruel and hypercritical parents, Sam has been so sheltered from the dating world that she leaps into marriage just to get out from under her parents’ thumbs. Unsurprisingly, her marriage loses its newlywed bliss almost immediately. Still, Sam tries to make it work for more than a year before asking for a divorce, much to her parents’ disappointment (despite the fact that they disapproved of the marriage in the first place). Now, on the advice of a friend and mentor, Sam agrees to give the dating world a spin. First, she has to overcome years of guilt and shame regarding sex, and then she has to figure out exactly what it is that she wants. This is the story of one woman’s journey to a better understanding of her needs and desires, complete with wacky mishaps and unexpected discoveries along the way.

Samantha is a contradiction of a character. On the one hand, her naivete about relationships occasionally borders on the ridiculous. She constantly references popular magazines in regards to fashion, makeup, and relationship advice. She takes the word of relative strangers at face value and seems to have some trouble maintaining female friendships with any depth. On the other hand, she also seems to have a great mind for business and achieves various successes in a male-dominated field. This aspect of her character is unfortunately glossed over and mostly serves as a vehicle for her sexual adventures. While the stories of her dating experiences are both entertaining and cringey, the lack of development in other areas of her life throughout the majority of the book gives the story a shallow feel. A little more backstory for Sam as well as the supporting characters would have gone a long way. A few extra details, such as how she met her ex-husband, anecdotes from her childhood (besides her parents’ cruelty), or about her friendships with women would have filled out the story quite nicely. As it is, Sam evokes rotating feelings of sympathy, frustration, and bemusement. Readers may find themselves rooting for her to gain independence and maturity, rather than hoping that she finds true love and a fairy tale happy ending.

As Sam works through her Catholic guilt and searches for some new sexual experiences, she has her ups and downs. She makes mistakes and learns from them, has some great sex, and makes a fool of herself on multiple occasions. There is nothing shameful about women’s sexual desires and more stories about women gaining and enjoying sexual freedom are necessary, and appreciated. The sex scenes are semi-graphic.

This book is a quick and casual read for those in need of a romance with an awkwardly funny protagonist.

My rating: 3/5 stars.

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Review: “One Piece: Skypeia 25-27” by Eiichiro Oda


A review by Hannah.

One Piece was started in 1997 and is continuing today. There are 81 volumes to date, which is why this series of reviews will be broken up into three volume books. From now on there will be spoilers for what happens in the rest of the series. You have been warned…

The crew is on Jaya, where they read a story about Noland the Liar and they learn what it takes to get up into the ocean in the sky. It takes being shot directly into the sky and hoping you make it to the Emperor Clouds before the Knock Up Stream gives out and sends you plummeting to your death. Luffy is all in with this method; Ussopp and Nami not so much. Everyone else just goes with the flow.

Obviously they survive. Luffy, Chopper, and Robin are still hammers and can’t swim in the cloud ocean. The crew is attached by a masked man and saved by Gan Fall and his “pegasus,” Pierre. The crew sneaks onto Angel Island, meets Conis and her father Pagaya. They learn about Dials, eat sky fish, and try out Pagaya’s waver, a one-person boat that doesn’t need wind. Nami rides the waver to a place called Upper Yard. Upper Yard is an island covered in thick jungle. It’s also where the Kami and his priests live.

The Merry Go is forcibly towed with Chopper, Nami, Robin, and Zoro on board to Upper Yard. Turns out the crew are considered criminals and must face the Kami’s judgement. Zoro, Nami, and Robin leave to explore the island and find a way back to the rest of the crew. Chopper stays behind to guard the Merry Go. Luffy, Sanji, and Ussop barrow Conis’s training waver, a slow crow shaped ship, and leave to find their friends. All will have to face the ordeals of Kami and his priests.

A lot happens in these volumes. There’s politics, fighting, and a campout party with wolves. We learn new things about characters, like Sanji is originally from the North Sea, and the Robin can only use her powers when she can see where her limbs will be.

I like that all of the cloud islanders have cute little angel wings. They all look so sweet. However, their cuteness hides a terrible secret. The new Kami forcibly took over the country. Now any who disobey the Kami are destroyed horribly.

Kami is Japanese for god. In the case of these volumes, Kami is a title given to the ruler of the island. There are several jokes that revolve around prayer, the fighters actively seeking out the Kami just so they can say they fought a god, and Zoro being a super atheist.

The translation is better than it was in the earlier volumes. Jokes feel more natural and there is more Japanese for times when there is no direct Japanese to English translation. For example using “Kami” instead of “God.” If you can just mentally change “Zolo” into “Zoro” and “gum gum” into “gomu gomu” you will be fine.

I feel like this part of the story is mostly filler. There is no personal reason to enter the conflict for any crew member and there just happens to be a civil war that has been waged for at least 400 years that’s about to come to its climax while the crew is playing tourist. Mostly this story arc is a chance for Robin to integrate herself with the crew and for the crew to finish mourning Vivi.

My rating: 3.5/5 stars.

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Review: “One Piece: Baroque Works Vol.13-15” by Eiichiro Oda

One Piece: Baroque Works Vol.13-15 by Eiichiro Oda

A review by Hannah.

One Piece was started in 1997 and is continuing today. There are 81 volumes to date, which is why I’m breaking the manga down into story arcs for the review. From now on there will be spoilers for what happens in the rest of the series. You have been warned…

When last we left our newly minted Straw Hat pirates, they had been tricked by Mr. 9 and Ms. Wednesday, of the criminal organization Baroque Works, into going to an island of bounty hunters. After throwing a party and getting the crew blackout drunk, only Zoro has retained his senses. He decides to test his new blade against all the bounty hunters. During the ensuing battle, an incredible secret about Ms. Wednesday comes to light. She is actually Princess Vivi of Alabasta and she needs the Straw Hat crew to help her save her kingdom from Mr. Zero, leader of Baroque Works, a.k.a. Sir Crocodile, one of the Seven Warlords of the Sea.

After an encounter with the mysterious and powerful Ms. All Sunday, partner to Mr. Zero, the crew will travel to Little Garden, a prehistoric island where two giants are dueling to the death. There they have their second run-in with some of Baroque Works’ top agents and Nami contracts a deadly virus. The next stop is Drum Island in order to find a doctor to cure Nami.

Character dynamics really come into play during these volumes. Sanji and Zoro are rivals who antagonize each other just by existing. Nami is a tyrant who rules the crew with an iron fist. Luffy and Usopp are best friends on a grand adventure. It’s really fun to see how relationships are forming on the tiny Merry Go.

Zoro is the king of drama and impulsive decisions. When trapped, his brilliant idea to keep fighting is to cut off his feet. When that doesn’t work (duh) he chooses a dramatic pose to die in. Sanji is the king of flakiness and snark. He finds a strange building made of wax, decides to break in, and drink tea, while he’s supposed to be searching for his missing crew. Later he answers a phone call from Mr. Zero and during the conversation, gets a hit put out on the one who should have answered the phone (Mr. Three).

The illustration’s eyes, ears, and hands are still slightly too large for the bodies and their torsos are too long. It doesn’t detract from the story or get in the way of the action. What I love about the artwork throughout the series is that it evolves with the characters. As the characters grow stronger, they begin to fill out more. Any change to their appearance is part of the journey.

Some of the translation is better. “Gum Gum” is still a thing and it continues to make me cringe. Luckily it is saved by Princess Vivi calling Zoro “Mr. Bushido.” in the anime she calls him “Bushido-san.” Bushido means the way of the warrior and san is a gender-neutral title. The translation is transitioning from direct translations to adaptive translations. Puns and jokes make more sense.

In the manga, Zoro’s name is spelled with an L (Zolo). In Japanese Rs and Ls are interchangeable because they are the same letter. I chose to spell his name with an R for two reasons. The first reason is that One Piece merchandise with Romaji (the English spelling of Japanese words) spell his name with an R. The second reason is that Zoro is the agreed upon spelling of his name among fans.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: “Hounded” by Kevin Hearne

Review of Hounded by Kevin Hearne

A review by Vanessa.

Traveling the earth for more than two millennia should give one a great sense of wisdom and a very significant mental leg up on everyone else around.  So how is it that Atticus O’Sullivan finds himself square in the middle of someone else’s power struggle?  That is just how it is when dealing with ancient Celtic Gods known as the Tuatha De Danann.  In an attempt to stay away from them Atticus, a very old and possibly the last remaining Druid, has been hiding out in Tempe Arizona for the last several years.  He wants nothing to do with them but when the Goddess of Death comes flying into your life, you listen.  She warns him that an old rival who has been dogging Atticus for many centuries is coming for him.  Even with the advance warning, Atticus finds himself pulled by Gods of old, both friend and foe, into a frightening culmination of centuries of animosity.  His magic is old and powerful, and he has learned to wield it to create strong protections for himself but it may not be strong enough to defeat a God.  His best hope is the magical sword he still holds known as Fragarach, the Answerer.  It has the ability to cut down any enemy regardless of any magical protections, and also happens to be the source of the target on his back.

Lucky for him Atticus is not alone.  His best friend Oberon, who happens to be an Irish wolfhound with a telepathic connection to him, is a loyal soldier ready to fight to keep him safe… as long as there is the possibility of a harem of poodles in the end.  Atticus’s enemy is cunning and has no issue controlling some of the mortals in Tempe to force Atticus to give him the sword by any means necessary; including framing him for a crime and letting the police search through his things to find the sword.  It is a good thing that Atticus has lawyers that just so happen to be a werewolf and vampire.  On intimate terms with the Goddess of Death, the Goddess of the Hunt, earth elementals, a powerful werewolf pack, a coven of witches, and a beautiful bartender who is suspiciously more than she seems, the Druid just might prove very difficult to defeat.

This was a fun read from beginning to end, no doubt.  It had a depth of history and backstory that was delightfully engaging without being entirely overwhelming, although it skirted the line a couple of times.  I found myself laughing right out loud on multiple occasions, thanks to the frequent comic relief provided by Oberon’s telepathic dialogue with Atticus.  The Irish wolfhound was by far my favorite character.  But there was no lack of interesting and engaging secondary characters to choose from.  As my first foray with a male author into the world of Urban Fantasy I was very pleased with the experience.  The book is classified as fantasy of course, but those of us rabid, loyal fans of Urban Fantasy can certainly recognize a fellow of the craft.  The romantic entanglements of the main character do tend to hold a little less depth than one might desire, but it is not a detriment to the story in any way.  Hearne’s storytelling is wonderful; he has given just enough in the first book of this series to get me completely hooked for the rest.

My rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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