Book Review: Dead Man's Hand and Skull Creek Stakeout {ARC}

My Imaginary Boyfriend is on hiatus this week - but don't worry, the adventures of Rykel and me will be back next week!

Dead Man's Hand and Skull Creek Stakeout by Eddie Jones
{Books One and Two of the Caden Chronicles}

Amazon Page: Dead Man's Hand
Amazon Page: Skull Creek Stakeout
GoodReads Page: Dead Man's Hand
GoodReads Page: Skull Creek Stakeout
LibraryThing Page: Dead Man's Hand
LibraryThing Page: Skull Creek Stakeout
Author Website

Amazon Summary - Dead Man's Hand:
Nick Caden's vacation at Deadwood Canyon Ghost Town takes a deadly turn toward trouble when the fourteen-year-old finds himself trapped in a livery stable with the infamous outlaw Jesse James. The shooter whirls, aims and... vanishes. Great theatrics, Nick thinks, except now he's alone in the hayloft with the bullet-riddled body of Billy the Kid. And by the time the sheriff arrives, the body disappears.
Soon Nick is caught in a deadly chase---from an abandoned gold mine, through forbidden buffalo hunting grounds, and across Rattlesnake Gulch. Around every turn he finds another suspect. Will Nick solve the murder? Will his parents have him committed? Or will the town's infatuation with Hollywood theatrics conceal the real truth about souls, spirits and the destiny that awaits those who die.
In this new supernatural mystery YA series, award-winning author Eddie Jones takes readers to the Wild Wild West. Perfect for fans of mysteries and crime TV and reluctant readers.
My Thoughts - Dead Man's Hand:

I read this book as one of the five INSPY nominations for the Literature for Young Adults category.  (I was one of three judges.  It was great!)

Going in, I expected a lot from this book.  First of all, it has a great cover, awesome back cover copy, and a lot of acclamations.  Second of all, it's a middle grade mystery - before I widened my reading taste as a result of book blogging, that was my absolute favorite kind of book to read.  While the book was pretty good, I was sad to discover it fell to the bottom of my list - and the other two judges' - when it came time to order the five nominations from best to not-so-great.

The mystery was too confusing and the characters hard to keep straight.  While the series may work with this in the future, this book also doesn't seem like it can really be considered a Christian book on its own.  There's hardly any mention of the Bible or God until halfway through the book, and the few mentions are all from an atheistic and 'factual' point of view.  I thought maybe that view would change over the course of the book; I was disappointed when it didn't.

The characters from the town didn't really seem the greatest or the most realistic.  The whole thing about the online program for using television shows to analyze crimes was a bit out of place and I felt like I'd started reading in the middle of the series - like there should be a story or two before this one to explain the whole website-with-crime-shows thing.  But nope, this is the first book.  I will point out that the western sharp-shooter girl Nick seems to be sweet on was pretty cool; I definitely liked her.

The family relations didn't seem realistic.  Wendy (Nick's sister)'s whining and the parents' nagging were too over-the-top.  At first, I thought maybe this was just how fourteen-year-old boys think.  I tried to get my brother to read the book and get his opinion, but he said it sounded too weird and refused to even try the first chapter.  Just based on that, I'd say this book misses its target audience at the very least - we're talking my fourteen-year-old brother whose favorite books involve action, spies, mysteries, and intrigue.  Three stars, but hopeful that the story will improve as the series progresses.

Amazon Summary - Skull Creek Stakeout:
The good news is, vampires aren't real. The bad news can't believe the news.
Nick Caden is a normal fourteen-year-old kid with a "supernatural" knack for finding trouble, ghosts, vampires, and all sorts of undead--or so it seems. 
After solving the ghost story murder at Deadwood Canyon, Nick lands a job as a roving reporter for The Cool Ghoul Gazette, a website on paranormal or supernatural disturbances. When the editor sends Nick to investigate a murder in Transylvania, North Carolina, the young super sleuth finds a corpse with fangs, bite marks and a stake driven through the heart. If Nick proves vampires are real, his job as an investigative journalist is set for life! But once he begins to peel back the clues surrounding the mystery of Skull Creek Nick finds his new job is not only scary and dangerous but about to suck the life out of him. 
The Skull Creek Stakeout - a story middle-readers and adults can sink their teeth into.
My Thoughts - Skull Creek Stakeout:

{Review is of an ARC}

I was sooo psyched and geared up to see the series take off after an okay first book.

I was not granted these expectations.

The book starts out in the middle of the action, which writers are taught is best.  However, it was a little too in the action; I was having trouble following along.  Plus it felt like there was too much that happened to Nick skimmed over between the first and second book.  Not to mention the family relations are as irritating as ever, and a fourteen-year-old boy flying by himself to stay with his mentally unstable aunt while investigating a murder alone for an online newspaper that honestly doesn't sound completely credible to me, a seventeen-year-old who almost lives online... not off on the right foot.

With the exception of some parts with his aunt, that's basically the way the whole book went.

Almost nothing in the plot felt realistic or believable.  The mystery itself was intricately built to be a completely believable paranormal thing until the last minute - something that happened in the first book, as well.  For the first book I was willing to suspend my disbelief and wait for the explanation at the end, but for the second book I just got frustrated and bored.  I want to know what's really happening, not what vampire tradition or creepy nighttime action it seems to be!


Oh, and then there's the whole part about his first night sleeping in a creepy mansion locked in.  Or the great big wolf-dog I never really understood, other than the fact it was meant to make the story more suspenseful.  Let's not forget the fact this guy was flirting with a lady from the morgue for the whole book, got up and walked away after being hit by a car - JUST WALKED AWAY, comparing it to a sports injury I think - or was buried alive and then dug himself out.  DUG HIMSELF OUT FROM SIX FEET DOWN.

Plus the fact this guy is fourteen, people, not twenty-four!  His age is referenced many times, but I don't buy the way he acts or thinks or the way others treat him most of the time.  I have a fourteen-year-old brother interested in criminal justice who watches police shows and reads martial arts books in his spare time.  I still don't buy this too-adult teenager hanging out with the grown-ups and being left alone to investigate a dangerous murder with his parents totally okay because he's staying with his crazy aunt the whole time.  She can't even finish a whole sentence without forgetting what she's talking about.  Let's be real here.

That spiritual thing?  Other than a few mentions of prayer meeting by his crazy aunt, a reference to Sunday School by a criminal, and a few questions prodding at the idea of life after death (all of which Nick brushes away, never to actually return to) this book still doesn't qualify as Christian.  Neither does Nick.  I give this second book two stars.

My Conclusion:

I feel like this whole review is negative, but it really did seem like a chore to finish the second book.  This does not bode well for a series.  In book one, the whole murder investigation was long-drawn-out and who actually committed the crime is a 'huge surprise,' not at all on the radar for Nick or the readers, but somehow Nick figures it out at the last minute.  Crazy, dangerous meeting alone with the criminal leads to the readers finally learning the who, what, when, where, and why - but of course we have no chance to figure it out ahead of time because the entire stinking book is red herrings.  This was frustrating but forgiveable in book one.  Not so when the same course is repeated for book two.  The plot honestly felt a lot like a vampire remake of the first book.  Replace the sharp-shooter from book one with this older teen who works at a morgue; replace ghost stories with vampire legends; replace a cobwebby western town with a cobwebby creepy mansion; leave the basic plot and the use of graveyards and strange times of morning/night.

I'm not sure how Eddie Jones does in the adult market, but I have to say, I'm disappointed in these middle grade books.  Many times I found myself thinking that maybe, if Nick was in his twenties and out on his own as an actual reporter not traveling with his family, the dialogue and his actions would be so much more believable.  I'm thinking Eddie Jones just isn't used to or isn't cut out for writing for the children's market.  I give this series two and a half stars and sincerely hope that maybe he'll learn from the mistakes of these books and improve them with his future kids' novels.

I purchased Dead Man's Hand to read as an INSPY judge.  Skull Creek Stakeout was given to me for free by DJC Communications in exchange for a review of both books.  All opinions expressed are entirely my own.


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