BOOK REVIEW: The Next Best Thing – by Jennifer Weiner

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Title: The Next Best Thing
Author: Jennifer Weiner
Genre: Fiction, Romance, Contemporary
First published: July 1st 2012
Finished reading: December 29th 2014
Pages: 448
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“You don’t get perfect-but I was going to grab this happiness and hold it as tightly as I could. I was going to enjoy it for as long as it lasted.”

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I had promised myself to start using my TBR jar again as soon as I finished the Bookish Bingo challenge. I guess that didn’t work out the way I planned… Instead of getting a nice surprise and a refreshing read, I got The Next Best Thing. Which ended up being closer to my next worst nightmare than anything else. Sure, a contemporary romance novel isn’t exactly my cup of tea in most cases and the problem with this book could have been me. Still I struggled and had to literally force myself to finish this book, crossing my fingers things would get better later on. Unfortunately, the tremendous amount of cliches, boring characters and bad storyline in general just make me think I’ve wasted my time reading this book. If you are into contemporary romance, you might like this novel by Jennifer Weiner, who knows? But if you don’t, it’s best to stay far away from The Next Best Thing.

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Ruth Saunders was left without parents and with terrible scars on her face and body after an accident when she was a little girl. She was raised by her grandmother and now that she has grown up, she is determined to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. She moves to Los Angeles with her grandmother and soon discovers it is harder than she thought to get a job without the typical pretty face… And while she gets a job in the end writing for a different show, this is not what her dream is. She has written her own show, The Next Best Thing, and desperately tries to convince the big guys of approving her show. When she finally succeeds and she gets the green light to run her own show, she doesn’t realize things won’t go as she had planned initially. Soon enough the show she had originally written is being altered piece by piece, leaving it without its original message. And there is nothing Ruth can do about it. And not only that, certain men are causing her problems and try to break her heart…

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Even writing the short summary made me realize how much I disliked The Next Best Thing and I wonder how I managed to finish this novel. I’ve heard Jennifer Weiner‘s earlier books are way better, but I don’t think I will give those a try after having read this one. The cliches, bad storytelling and boring characters just ruined it for me. It might have been a case of not-for-me, but unless you love contemporary romance and cliches, my advice would be to stay away from this one.

BOOK REVIEW: It’s Kind Of A Funny Story – by Ned Vizzini

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Title: It’s Kind Of A Funny Story
Author: Ned Vizzini
Genre: YA, Fiction, Contemporary
First published: 2006
Finished reading: December 27th 2014
Pages: 444
Rating 5

“People are screwed up in this world. I’d rather be with someone screwed up and open about it than somebody perfect and ready to explode.”

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This book has been on my TBR pile for quite some time now, and I’m glad I finally came around reading it. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is without doubt a book with a powerful message about (teen) suicide, and it cannot be ignored that a little over a year ago Ned Vizzini unfortunately chose the same fate. His death does make you analyse this novel in a different way and it was hard to put a rating to his words. I have tried anyway. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is well written, the characters feel real and Ned Vizzini was able to mix rather heavy subjects with humor. It’s a book that will leave its mark; It’s Kind Of A Funny is unique, in a good way. Definitely recommended and one of the best books I’ve read in 2014!

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Teenage Craig is what you call overambitious and is determined to do everything to achieve the best possible results and future. He forgets about everything else as he studies practically day and night to get into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, and when he finally gets in, the pressure to continue on this high level becomes too much. His ‘friend’ Aaron gets him into drugs, and soon he is starting to feel down. He stops eating and sleeping, wondering what to do with life, and how to continue. Then one night, he nearly kills himself.

Craig was saved by nobody else than himself. He checks himself into a nearby hospital, and is soon transferred to the mental ward. At first he is not sure if he really wants to be there, but soon he realizes this is the best place to finally confront his current situation and possibly find a solution. He slowly improves and when he rediscovers his talent of drawing maps, he becomes ‘famous’ among the other patients. They are not just any maps, but maps that show what is going on inside different brains…

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It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is not only a moving story about a teenager who is trying to recover from a serious depression; it is so much more. Ned Vizzini was able to create a very unique tale that is without doubt worth reading. The mix of serious themes with interesting prose and humor makes this book a must read for those who enjoy reading contemporary books and are interested in reading about mental health. I sincerly hope Ned Vizzini went to a better place, and I thank him for leaving behind his words and beliefs in the form of this powerful book. Again, a must read!

BOOK REVIEW: Twelve Years A Slave – by Solomon Northup

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Title: Twelve Years A Slave
Author: Solomon Northup
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Memoir
First published: 1853
Finished reading: December 26th 2014
Pages: 288
Rating 4

“Life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.”

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This book was a gift of a friend who knows I always like reading historical books, whether fiction or non fiction. Twelve Years A Slave is not the first book about slavery that I’ve read, but without doubt it is one of the more powerful once. In this memoir Solomon Northup, born a free man, tells us about how he was kidnapped, then forced into slavery during twelve long years and finally rescued from such fate. It’s not an easy read and at times a bit slow in pace, but the message is powerful enough to keep reading. I think most people already suspect how slaves were treated in Southern USA back in those days, but actually reading a testimony makes it hard to ignore such inhumane treatment that was used on black slaves. Like Northup said in his book, it was part of the culture and most slave owners didn’t know any better, but still… Even humane masters as Ford were still seeing slaves as property and forced them to work for them. A heavy, but strong book and definitely recommended to those who are interested in reading more about the life of slaves.

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Solomon Northup was born a free man in the state of New York. He got married, had some children and were able to coope by working hard. Even in the free states, work for black men was harder to find, but both Solomon and his wife were creative enough to scrape together an income. Solomon plays the violin, and when to gentlemen invite him to travel with them to Washington with the promise of money, he quickly agrees to join them. Unfortunately, they deceived him and Solomon was kidnapped, severely beaten and then sold into slavery in 1841. Once crossing the border to the Southern States, he knew that nobody would believe he was a free man without his papers. And those who did, would most likely kill him rather than set him free. So he kept his mouth shut and during twelve years played the role of Platt the slave on different plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon/Platt had different owners during those twelve years and while some, like master Ford, treated him at least with humanity, others were mere brutes and unnecessarily cruel. They actually try to kill him various times when he refuses to be humiliated too much, and owes his life to more humane southerners. Solomon tells us the story of when he manages to escape against all odds and arrive safely back at master Ford’s land, who then protects him from harm. Solomon first works at the cotton plantation, and later is hired to sugar cane plantations as he is way more productive at the latter. He help building new houses and other useful buildings and stands out for his cleverness and violin skills. And then finally he meets the right man that will help him reclaim his freedom…

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If you are interested in reading more about the life of slaves during the years of slavery in Southern USA, Twelve Years A Slave is without doubt a must read. This is not just another testimony written by a slave, in this memoir we see the facts through the eyes of a free man that was forced into slavery. That and the fact that Solomon Northup clearly was an educated man, makes this book that much more powerful. The prose is not always easy to read, but the message makes up for it. Plus, this book was written back in 1853…

BOOK REVIEW: A Christmas Carol – by Charles Dickens

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Title: A Christmas Carol
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classics, Fiction, Christmas
First published: 1843
Finished reading: December 23rd 2014
Pages: 160
Rating 4

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

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I have been wanting to read this classic by Charles Dickens for ages. This year I finally came around actually reading A Christmas Carol and I’m glad that I did. A lot of stories, series and movies have been based on this story about the three Spirits visiting Ebeneezer Scrooge, and it is nice to finally read the original version. I already knew what was going to happen, but still I very much enjoyed reading A Christmas Carol. Recommended to anyone who is or wants to be in the Christmas mood!

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Since I think most people are more than familiar with the story already, I will keep this summary short. A Christmas Carol is about a coldhearted and money loving man called Ebeneezer Scrooge, who thinks money is everything and doesn’t care about affection or charity. He hates Christmas and is reluctant to grant even his employee the day off on Christmas day, and writes off the good wishes as folly. Then, at night, his old (and dead!) partner Jacob Marley visits him with a warning: Scrooge has to change, or things will turn out badly for him.

Three spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come will visit Scrooge and show him what he is missing. He slowly realizes what the spirits want to show him and learns his lessons. Charity and kindness are important and will change lives, not only during Christmas but the whole year. Scrooge is determined to change his behavior and save his soul…

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A Christmas Carol is a short but sweet Christmas story with some strong life lessons. This classic by Charles Dickens is definitely worth reading and perfect to get you in the holiday mood! It is amazing that a story written so many years ago turns out to be timeless…

BOOK REVIEW: The Racketeer – by John Grisham

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Title: The Racketeer
Author: John Grisham
Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
First published: 2012
Finished reading: December 22nd 2014
Pages: 386
Rating 3

“I was guilty all right. Guilty of stupidity for allowing myself to fall into such a mess.”

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I’ve read a few of John Grisham‘s books in the past, so when I came across a copy of The Racketeer I decided to give it a go. I finished it with mixed feelings. It’s not that I didn’t like the story or that the prose was bad, but I just couldn’t connect to the main characters. Especially Max/Malcolm; he is actually turns out to be a first class crook and I was supposed to feel empathy for him? Yeah, that didn’t happen. The story is entertaining enough to keep reading though. It was interesting to read how they were able to deceive the government and FBI, even though the story is fully fictional. All in all a book for an entertaining afternoon as long as you don’t care too much about having a thief as a main character and keep in mind this was ment as a fiction novel.

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Federal judge Raymond Fawcett has been murdered, and the FBI doesn’t have a clue who is responsable. No physical evidence was found in the remote cabin his body was found along with the body of his young secretary, and they don’t know where to start. Former attorney Malcolm Bannister claims he knows the identity of the killer and why the judge was murdered, and sees this information as his way out of The Federal Prison Camp he currently calls his home. The Feds promise to get him out of prison and into witness protection if he shares his information, and soon Malcolm is a free man with a new face and identity.

What the FBI doesn’t know is that Malcolm, now Max, has a plan that will make him a very rich man. At the murder scene an empty safe was found, and Max knows what was inside. Together with Vanessa, the sister of the man he claimed to be the murderer, they slowly put their plan into action to get the contents of the safe. Max leaves witness protection and disappears; the Feds don’t have a clue where he is or what he is doing. And the real killer doesn’t realize he is about to be deceived  and trapped by Max…

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Part of the story was a bit hard to believe, but as Grisham explained, The Racketeer is ment as a work of fiction. The story itself is quite entertaining, which makes up for the lack of connection to the characters. It’s not the perfect read and some of the scenes close to cliche, but it is still worth reading if you like treasure hunts and seeing FBI agents running around in circles.

BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Wind – by Tony Hillerman

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Title: The Dark Wind
(Navajo Mysteries Series #5)
Author: Tony Hillerman
Genre: Mystery, Fiction, Thriller
First published: 1982
Finished reading: December 10th 2014
Pages: 290
Rating 3,5

“Then, as he thought it through all the way, through from the east, the south, the west, and the north, and back to the east again, just as his uncle had taught him, he saw that it might help. Everything must have a reason. Nothing was done without a cause.”

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It’s not the first time I read a book by Tony Hillerman. I read Hunting Badger last year and I remember enjoying the Native American elements in that novel. The Dark Wind is no exception; the same Native American elements makes this novel stand out from other treasure hunt stories. It is quite easy to understand this story without reading the previous books of the Navajo Mysteries series; I haven’t done so myself and I didn’t feel I was missing important information. The Dark Wind is an entertaining, although sometimes a tad slow read that gives you a glimpse of how things work in the Native American community. And exactly that cultural information makes this novel worth reading.

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Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police has been transferred to a new area just as things get complicated. A dead body that shows signs of Navajo sorcery has been found on Hopi land… And as Jim Chee is investigating a chain of strange attacks on a windmill, an airplane crashes close to the crime scene. The crash turns out to be drugs related, and things make a turn for the worse when the shipment of cocaine vanishes without a trace. Chee is convinced everything is connected, but his boss doesn’t want him to get involved in the federal investigation. But they get to him anyway, and soon Chee is not only determined to figure out what really happened, but also trying not to get killed in the process…

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The Dark Wind was an interesting read full of cultural references, and these Native American elements made up for most of the flaws. The pace is a bit slow at points and not all scenes and characters are actually believable… But all in all Hillerman managed to write an entertaining novel that is worth reading, especially if you are interested in the Native American culture.

BOOK REVIEW: Kiera’s Moon – by Lizzy Ford

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Title: Kiera’s Moon
(The Anshan Saga #1)
Author: Lizzy Ford
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance, Fantasy
First published: August 8th 2011
Finished reading: December 5th 2014
Pages: 260
Rating 2

“To his surprise, she was grinning, her multi-hued eyes glowing. He hadn’t thought she would be so eager, given her skill at avoiding all her regular nishani duties.”

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I’m not sure whether me and this book just were not ment to be or if it really is that bad, but I just couldn’t enjoy it. It seemed to be more like a cheesy romance novel than an actual science fiction work, and I couldn’t be bothered by the whole situation of the Anshan planet where the story takes place. The characters in Kiera’s Moon for me lacked dept or were just plain annoying… The way A’Ran and Kiera meet totally unbelievable, and the fact that this dominant warrior and independant woman are ment to be soulmates just a step too far on the cliche scale. I also refuse to believe that the strongwilled Kiera so easily forgives her friend for transporting her to an alien planet where women are treated like property. Or that her friend fell in love and married an alien and consented to go to his planet in the first place. To be short, I found this to be a rather unbelievable cheesy romance story with a little pinch of aliens thrown in, rather than a genuine science fiction story… And without doubt something I wouldn’t be recommending to anybody.

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Kiera’s best friend Evelyn is going to marry her boyfriend Romas after only knowing him for three months. Evelyn tries to convince Kiera to visit them as they go live in  Romas’ home far away. When Kiera refuses, they basically abduct her and take her to Romas’ planet. Romas turns out to be an alien and one of the Qatwals who are at war with the Anshans. When Kiera finds out they plan to marry her to one of Romas’ brothers even without her consent (women don’t have free will), she desperately tries to escape.

The King of Ashan, A’Ran, is held prisoner by the Qatwals when he meets Kiera by accident. He instantly knows she is his nishani, his soulmate and the woman he needs to rescue his planet. He takes great risk to ‘abduct’ her and bring her back to his base. He had never asked Kiera to be his nishani, and she definitely doesn’t agree with her new role. Slowly both A’Ran and Kiera are trying to adapt themselves to the new situation. The Qatwals are furious that A’Ran took Kiera away from them and launch more attacks than ever…

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Like I said before, this was a story filled with cliches and unbelievable from the beginning. The characters were either annoying or felt wrong and the storyline itself wasn’t much better. This book could have been so much better… The idea wasn’t that bad, but I felt it was just poorly executed. As you might guess, I wouldn’t recommend reading this one!

BOOK REVIEW: Eating Animals – by Jonathan Safran Foer

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Title: Eating Animals
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Genre: Non Fiction, Philosophy, Health, Food
First published: 2009
Finished reading: December 4th 2014
Pages: 341
Rating 4,5

“Isn’t it strange how upset people get about a few dozen baseball players taking growth hormones, when we’re doing what were doing to our food animals and feeding them to our children?”

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This is not a book about vegetarianism like the title Eating Animals might suggest. Nor am I are vegetarian or will I ever be; I enjoy eating meat too much to give it up all together. But this non fiction book by Jonathan Safran Foer sure left me thinking about my choices when buying and eating meat. In Eating Animals, he tells us about his three year investigation of what is REALLY going on in the meat industry. Safran Foer decided to investigate after his son was born; he wanted to make sure he was making the right choices for his kid. And after what he found out, he became a vegetarian. Says enough about the results, right? Safran Foer mixes facts with parts of his memoir focused on food, and is able to show us perfectly why he decided to stop eating meat all together. I respect his decision and I will definitely be more careful when buying meat. Eating Animals is what you call a ‘heavy’ read with a strong message, but definitely worth reading! The investigation is focused on the US meat industry, but without doubt the results apply to other countries as well.

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Safran Foer starts his story by explaining to us why he wanted to start his investigation in the first place. Food has always been important in his family. He already had some vegetarian experiences during college, but when his son was born he started to ask himself more and more why we do eat animals. We associate food with certain memories, and while he has some precious memories involving meat, he wanted to make sure including meat in the memories of his child would be the right thing.

The meat industry isn’t the same as a hundred years ago. Before, animals were raised and cared for at family farms, and in general had a relatively good life at those farms. But with the population and the meat demand increasing over the years, things changed. The so-called factory farms were born, and animals were treated more and more like mere objects. Torture, genetical manipulation, cruelty…The chickens, pigs, cows and other animals of today in general don’t have a happy life at all. Deprived of all basic humane living standards, those poor creatures in general suffer ever single day of their short life at factory farms. And the situation at slaughterhouses is not much better. Unnecessary cruelty during slaughter is a thing so common that even family farms that don’t want their animals to suffer have a hard time finding ‘proper’ slaughterhouses. Animals at factory farms are injected with hormones and are genetically manipulated so they grow faster while eating less. Hormones we later ingest when we eat their meat… And that is only the start of possible health risks and consequences of the current meat industry.

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Eating Animals is without doubt an interesting read that really makes you think about where your food really comes from. It is not a light read and people with a weak stomach might not enjoy it. Otherwise it is definitely recommendable to both vegetarians and those who enjoy their meat like me, but want to know how to make better choices when buying and eating animal products.

BOOK REVIEW: Halloween Kentucky Style – by Charles Suddeth

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Title: Halloween Kentucky Style
Author: Charles Suddeth
Genre: Children, Suspense, Fiction
First published: October 15th 2010
Finished reading: November 29th 2014
Pages: 64
Rating 2,5

“Danny’s latest vocal production came to a screeching halt as he gazed upon something that was certainly not in the plans. A huge, horrible figure loomed over him, reminding him of King Kong.”

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I came across this short children story when I was looking for something Halloween themed for the Bookish Bingo. I thought a short read would be perfect, mostly because Halloween has already passed and I didn’t want to waste too much time on a book theme I should have read a month ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really impressed by this story written by Charles Suddeth.  I don’t know if Halloween Kentucky Style was ment to be scary, because it definitely wasn’t. The characters were on the verge of boring and the end wasn’t satisfying at all. Two and a half stars for the effort, but I won’t be reading this to my future children…

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Mike and Timmy are trying to scare their cousins Alice and Rose on Halloween. They enter an old deserted house and think it is perfect for a prank… They invent a story about ghosts in the mansion and ask another kid to play the ghost when they take their cousins on a tour. First they go to the cementry, where they have their first scare… The girls are not pleased and tell Mike and Timmy there won’t be treats if they play any more tricks.

 What they don’t know, is that the mansion wasn’t deserted after all. A homeless man who doesn’t like any company spends some nights at the grounds and doesn’t want any kids nosing around. He is determined to give the kids a scare they won’t soon forget… And when they go to an old mill afterwards, the Halloween tricks are not over yet.

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I guess the good part of the story was that it was short. I didn’t like the writing style and the characters were not exactly likable. I know it is a children story and short stories in general don’t allow for characters with some dept, but still… I don’t think I would recommend reading this to children; there are way better children books out there.

BOOK REVIEW: The Body Farm – by Patricia Cornwell

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Title: The Body Farm
(Kay Scarpetta Series #5)
Author: Patricia Cornwell
Genre: Mystery, Crime, Thriller
First published: 1994
Finished reading: November 29th 2014
Pages: 400
Rating 3

“Sometimes I saw his eyes in my sleep, saw them bright like blue glass staring through a barely opened door leading into a strange, dark room filled with a putrid smell.”

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I didn’t read the previous four books of this series, but I can say now it is not really necessary because you can understand the general story without them. I could have read the first book, Postmortem, first, but since I only own it in Spanish I decided to skip straight to The Body Farm instead. It’s not the first time I read something of Patricia Cornwell and the second time was not much better than my first experience. I did like this novel better than her non fiction work Portrait Of A Killer, but I found The Body Farm rather predictable and I couldn’t really connect to the characters. It’s an ok read and similar to all those CSI series out there, but it lacked the dept, character development and plot twists I would need for it to stand out from the rest. Still, I guess this series would work perfectly for an afternoon or night of easy reading…

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This time forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta is send to a small town in North Carolina as her help is needed in a case were an eleven-year-old girl is brutally murdered. The FBI suspect a serial killer named Temple Gault is on the loose and might have killed the little Emily. It is up to Kay and the other agents to find out who really did this to her. She is soon forced to use all the forensic investigation tecniques out there, and she asks for the help of a research facility known as The Body Farm to investigate a dubious mark on the body…

Scarpetta’s niece Lucy, FBI intern, is in trouble as she is accused of entering a highly secured area and possibly stealing data of a confidencial new computer database named CAIN. Scarpetta suspects something is wrong and soon has to protect her niece as well as finidng out who killed poor little Emily. And one of the detectives Marino is getting really involved with the victim’s mother and asking for trouble… Will everything work out in the end?

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The Body Farm was an easy read for sure, but like I said before, it lacked the ingredients to become a really good crime novel. I just wish I couldn’t have guessed ‘whodunit’ before I was halfway down the book, and some of the other ‘twists’ and characters were pretty predictable as well. It is still good enough to entertain you for an afternoon or night, as long as you don’t expect a literary masterpiece. That said, I probably won’t read the first book for a looooong time…