Tag Archives: mystery

Review of With Malice by Eileen Cook

As if often the case I received this book free for the purposes of review. Despite that kindness I’m absolutely candid below.

The summary on this one is pretty typical; we open with our protagonist unsure of where she is or what has gone on for the past six weeks. Her friend is dead and she stands accused. Yet she can’t remember a thing. The novel unfurls as everyone around her tries to figure out what exactly came to pass.

This is a YA novel and I tend to judge those somewhat differently than I do others in the adult genres. The first question to be asked is whether there’s anything in this novel that I wouldn’t want my own kids to read. On that note, it’s a bit rough in the language department. There is a fair amount of profanity and some reference to sex but it’s nothing major or hard core. It’s just something to watch out for. It should be also noted that the overall arc of this story is NOT a lesson that I would want my children to internalize. It’s hard to be more specific without accidentally creating a spoiler but suffice to say that if my kids behaved this way I’d have to shake my head and walk away.

Secondly, is there anything in this book that’s positive that I would consider a positive message for kids. The book demonstrates the creation of a great friendship built between two people in very different layers of society. That is good to see, but unfortunately the rest is a spiraling maelstrom of jealousy and deceit and people just generally being jerks to each other. So there’s not much positive in that.

Lastly, the question is, will readers find it enjoyable. On that count, they just might, mostly on the basis of the complete deficiency of anything positive to say in question two. If you like them dark and beyond any redemption then this is a book for you. It is a very easily consumed little novel that you could swallow in several hours but the question is will you like the taste in your mouth once you eat it?

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The Stumps of Flattop Hill by Kenneth Kit Lamug

They dared Florence to enter the haunted house on top of the hill. She is frightened, but Florence musters the courage to go inside. As she makes her way up to the top she finds many ghastly things along the way. Will she make it back out or be turned into a stump forever?

The Stumps of Flattop Hill is a macabre tale of a little girl who enters the town’s legendary haunted house in the face of fear. A dark tale for children in the tradition of the Brother’s Grimm, it calls to mind the provocative illustration style of Edward Gorey. Scary and entertaining, this book challenges the idea of what children’s books can be.

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Textually, this one was a bit of a challenge. I read it through once and then started recording. The video is one continuous recording and by about half way through I was starting to think I was going to make some terrible flub but I think I made it. Any rate, enjoy and go buy the book if you’re so inclined

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Edited to Death – Good to see NPR-listeners in a book but not a great plot (3/5)

Firstly and as usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review, this time via a LibraryThing giveaway. Also as usual I give my candid opinions below.

The book centers around a professional writer-cum-sleuth who gets involved in the murder investigation of her editor and close friend. The novel is set in the San Francisco bay area and the characters are very liberal; they listen to NPR, have wine with dinner and enjoy a very socially and culturally diverse group of friends. To me this was joyful and refreshing to see in a novel but if you dislike those who practice what is generally termed an “alternative lifestyle” then you will want to look towards another book.

To the positive side, I quite enjoyed the writer’s depiction of the area and the people in it. It’s obvious that she’s spent some time there and she makes the place sound like an idyllic retirement locale if I should ever be so lucky. Her characters are vividly drawn, diverse and behave in self-consistent and colorful ways that makes them seem like old familiar friends that you’d really want to hang out with. As one who conveys people and place this author is top-shelf.

To the negative, the plot seemed rather flat and trite. I kept reading for the people but the plot seemed like one that has been played out a hundred times in a hundred books. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the story except that it’s been shifted to an unusual demographic. I religiously avoid spoilers so I can’t say much more, especially considering this is in the mystery genre, but at the end I felt like I’d read the script for an episode of CSI.

In summary, I love the writing and I love the locale but the story struck me as rather a non-event. I look forward to more from this author if it should happen to show up on my doorstep.


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Pillow Stalk – Soft and sympathetic multiple murder mystery (4/5)

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As usual I received this book free for the purposes of review. This time it was from NetGalley and despite that kindness I give my scrupulously honest thoughts below.

The book can be summed up pretty simply: a 60s-obsessed interior designer finds herself unwittingly embroiled in a murder mystery in which her petite pastel pillows become the center of the investigation because they just happen to be the murder weapon of choice.

On the positive side, this one pulls you along quite nicely. The characters are unique and stand out wonderfully as they’re primarily caricatures of the sort of people you might see in a movie from the 60s. Nobody is terribly over-developed and the plot skips along quite easily; you could read the whole book in a long afternoon and feel refreshed and somewhat rewarded afterwards. There’s nothing terribly complicated even at the end when the whole thing comes together; just like the cover this is pink and blue cotton candy that melts in your mouth. It should be noted too that even though this is a murder mystery the grittiest thing about it is the bloody knife on the cover. There is action but it’s very soft by the standards of the genre. Those looking for real hard-boiled noir will be disappointed but I tend to doubt anyone looking for that will bother to pick up this book in the first place.

To the negative, the book does tend to wrap up in a furious hurry. Avoiding spoilers, when finally confronted the antagonist goes into a long and unnecessary revelation of his motives and methods that seems very misplaced. The concluding action is rather soft and implausible and doesn’t quite leave you with that satisfied “wow!” that one tends to hope for in a ending. At the very end we’re left with an even less compelling cliff-hanger designed to move us along to the next book that just doesn’t catch my attention. It may very well for a feminine crowd but personally I didn’t really come away with a grand desire to read the second book in the series.

In summary, this one has lots of relateable and sympathetic characters and is a very soft and likable read if you’re not looking for grit and grime in your murder mystery. This is the archetype of the bubbly 60’s suspense novel.


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Secrets Underground: North America’s Buried Past – Varied topics but too much clip art (4/5)

As usual, I paid nothing for this book but instead received a copy for review from NetGalley. Despite that kind consideration I give my candid thoughts below.

“Secrets Underground” is a very accessible yet detailed story of six different locations on the continent that have something buried underground. In some cases it’s actual open passages or rooms and in others it’s just remnants of some bygone era. The average section is about 15 pages long and features 12 photographs from half a page in size to thumbnails so this is about 70% text and 30% color photos. It’s primarily textual and probably appropriate for 10-12 year-olds.

On the positive side, the author has chosen some very intriguing locales and it makes me want to travel more just reading a bit about them. Also, as I said the text is detailed enough to keep a young reader’s interest but very careful to define words that kids probably wouldn’t know.

To the negative, many of the photos are rather small and some pages are decorated with abominable clip art of digging implements. The graphical layout seems rather unprofessional and at times distracting.

In summary, the book lives up to its name and offers widely varied information on those mysterious bits lurking underground. It could use a bit more polish but it’s sufficient to keep kids interest.


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These Week(s) in Review…

There’s no denying that I’ve been massively remiss in posting as of late.  Perhaps it’s better if I post things as they come up rather than trying to wait for the end of the week which will inevitably become several weeks.  Anyway, click on the book covers to view the full review.

 

Firstly, and as usual, it must be noted that I didn’t buy this book. Instead, it came to me for free as the result of a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I give my candid opinions in this review. Also, it should be noted that I’m not a Christian so it may seem a bit odd for me to be reviewing Christian literature. Nonetheless, I’ll review this book based on its literary merits and ignore any philosophical differences I may have with the genre.

On the positive side, the book is very competently executed and it’s set in a period of history that’s always amusing and vastly underutilized in literature. Pittman gives us a colorful and alluring rendering of the era and some fairly interesting characters.

To the negative, the Christian aspects of the novel seem to be an affectation and are poorly integrated. It’s almost as if the author recognized that no mention of religion has been made in X number of pages and therefore has the characters suddenly decide to pray. I have great respect for literature in which the characters make Christian choices and live Christian lives but Pittman’s novel seems to include prayerful interludes just for the sake of staying in the Christian genre. Lastly, the cover art appears to be a fairly horrifying photoshop job. Others in my family saw the cover sitting on the shelf and stated rather quizzically, “Doesn’t really look like your sort of book…?” without even cracking the cover.

In summary, this would make an interesting novel if it would only make up its mind what it wanted to be.

 

On the positive side, the author has chosen a great theme. He takes on childhood illness from the viewpoint of the patient and this always makes for a powerful and evocative story. We all too often fail to realize the weight of such circumstances on the afflicted especially when they’re so young.

Sadly, the negative side of this book far overshadows anything positive I could possibly say about it. The editing is atrocious; the text is filled with typographical and grammatical errors. The dialog is stiff and robotic and the vivid descriptions of the sick child are interlaced with this bizarre science fiction sub-plot akin to “Osmosis Jones” or “Fantastic Voyage”. I’m agog that the author would take the book in such a direction. What could have been a heart-rending portrayal of a dire situation is turned into a literary laughing-stock.

In summary, this book is just not worth the time. Generally, I never give out less than three stars unless the book is unreadable or socially irresponsible. This book is as close to unreadable as I’ve seen in quite a while. I hung on to it tenaciously for a long time in hopes it would have great soul but it turned out to be a train wreck. I like the idea but the execution was completely lacking.

 

Firstly, it should be noted that I religiously avoid reading the back jackets of books, so going into this one I had only the cover and the subtitle “A ghost story” to go on. Because of that I spent a fair amount of time looking for the literal ghost only to find that the ghosts that haunt William Bellman are of a completely different sort than one generally expects from children’s literature.

On the positive side of things, this book is a deliciously subtle story of one man’s haunted life. Setterfield weaves her story and her characters together with a sagacious and haunting assiduousness that pulls the reader gently along from one short chapter to the next. This is an acutely wrought novel with a tenacious grip on realism while still washing the entire scene in an afterglow of the supernatural. I’ve not read anything this well written in quite some time. Our author brings us a tale as unhurried and as natural as life itself.

The only real negative I can put forth is really more of a warning to potential readers. This is a great book but it’s likely not for everyone. For those accustomed to the pablum of easy modern literature, I suggest humbly that you look elsewhere. For those reading by the pool in the joyous light of day, perhaps your time is better spent between other pages. But if you find yourself in a darkened room listening to the rumble of far-away thunder, then this may be the book for just that setting. It is not a gripping thrill ride, but it does take you gently by the hand and pull you quietly into another world where the sky harbors a thousand watching eyes and time does not undo all wrongs nor heal all wrongs.

 

Since this is a children’s book it should be noted that I approach the review from a different viewpoint, focusing on appropriateness for young readers and general coherence and execution.

On the question of appropriateness for young readers, this book has done marvelously. In general I scowl at any children’s book that contains sexual or drug content and this novel contains neither problem. It does have some light violence but nothing that kids won’t have picked up from any mainstream cartoon. In the vein of profanity I don’t tend to judge harshly but this novel even avoids that problem and does so in a clever and entertaining way that’s consistent with the general story line. Dukes’ novel is as pure as the driven snow and somehow still remains very real and entertaining. It doesn’t SEEM sanitized but through some miracle of authorship it really is.

Stepping back and speaking more generally about the novel, the author has provided a brilliant and witty take on what is, I’m am sure, a standard daydream of every young person. Our protagonist has ultimate and unlimited freedom but what happens when suddenly he doesn’t? What tangled complications await in a world with no responsibility and limitless possibilities? In addition to its tendency to provoke deep contemplation, the writing style is witty and made even me, a perennial curmudgeon, laugh aloud in spots. The writer has found that intangible balance between teaching the reader something and entertaining them at the same time. Any teen will stumble upon a hoard of new words begging to be looked up in the dictionary and probably spare at least a few cycles for the complexities of causality and consequences of seemingly simple actions. That lesson is worth the price of admission.

In summary, this one was a rare treat. After a long recent string of losers, ‘Caught in a Moment’ is just the sort of book I’d want my own kids to read. Clean, erudite and with a moral or two hidden in spots for those who will only seek.

 

I’d put this book in the genre of concentric psychological horror. The main character is a published novelist and short-story writer and his stories appear as brief vignettes within the main body of the work. I assume that these stories are examples of Conlon’s own short story work. So this is a novel that is several stories embedded in a larger encapsulating (though mostly unrelated) narrative.

To the positive side, Conlon has an immaculate grasp of how to say just enough about a situation to get the reader’s attention and erect an air of tension in a situation. His imagery is vivid and surreal yet still retains an element of plausibility that is rare in any novel dealing primarily with the metaphysical. Conlon’s work reminds me strongly of Lovecraft in its deep yet inexplicable feeling of terror. The reader is on edge but can’t quite explain why that is so. One factor in which he deviates strongly from turn of the century horror though is his raw and unapologetic portrayals of sexuality. While I would not go so far as to call the results erotic, he is certainly not afraid to deal candidly and skillfully with the topic.

To the negative side, the novel as a whole did seem to lack the incisiveness of the individual sub-stories. As a reader I’m tempted to go back and re-read the stories within the story and ignore the more protracted narrative. In the vein of the larger narrative, it seemed to stumble a bit as it tried to explain the metaphysical aspects of a particular event in the story. I was severely jolted out of my reverie of enjoyment at the first mention of the words “soul catcher” and subsequent explanation. I will say no more for fear of spoilers but know simply there are a few rough spots that are easily enough ignored.

In summary, the novel demonstrates a great deal of artistry. The book is very much worth while though at times skimmable to cut down a bit on bulk. The stories-within-a-story are pure gems and if you read nothing else then take the time to read those. They are easily picked out as they are printed in a different font than the rest of the novel.

 

In a nutshell, this is the retelling of the King Author myth spanning from Author’s birth through his rise to the kingship. As Authurian legends go, this one tends towards the strictly realistic and pulls no punches about the state of the world at the time.

On the positive side, Hume’s writing is beyond reproach. I found myself constantly entertained at her use of appropriate and timely language which pulled me to my dictionary repeatedly and with unbridled glee. This is a book that educates while it entertains. Anything she chooses to write in the future will have my utmost attention. Here is a tale that is woven with intricacy and detail that is unrivaled.

On the negative side, and this is a negative side that is rather implied by my perceptions of the tastes of other readers, this is not a book that speeds along with any great rapidity. The book goes on for almost 500 pages and while I was entranced by the intricacies, I can imagine other readers finding themselves in the arms of a rather intransigent ennui. The book does move slowly but the arc that it traces is an epic one.

In summary, this is a book to approach in an unhurried and open-minded manner. It has much to teach you, not the least of which is vocabulary. It’s not a book for a single solitary rainy afternoon but instead one to be taken a few chapters at a time over the course of a week. It is a book to be pondered over and digested slowly. As epic tales go, this is a fresh and delightful retelling but don’t expect to swallow it in one go. Take the time to savor and learn from what it has to tell you. I look forward to the subsequent volumes. This is a book for the thinkers among us.

 

I’m exceptionally late to the party on this book so I won’t attempt the usual Positives/Negatives bit as I usually do. This book was a real perplexity for me. I spent the majority of the text trying to figure out if the central figure of “Life” (as described in the back-cover description) was an actual physical person or a metaphor for human existence. Unfortunately, even after 486 pages I still don’t really know for sure.

This book has a property that I’ve not found in a title for quite some time. I consider myself a fairly attentive and avid reader but it’s seldom that a book makes me late to work and then late to bed and generally takes over my life. For the few days it took to finish it I did little else but read this book and find ways to compress my other daily duties to accommodate more time for it. I learned during this period just the perfect way to balance a bowl of morning cereal while reading. The only problem with all this is that I’m not actually entirely sure why it was such a fascinating book.

At least in part the ambiguity of one of the main characters has a role to play in this miniature obsession. I love nothing more than a good mystery to be unraveled and even now I’m left rather unsatisfied and confused on this topic. It’s also, perhaps, because I can relate to the main character. She shuts herself off from others with lies and keeps the world at a distance. This resonates with me personally but my weapon of choice is humor and deflection. Books are often very personal and in many ways this one was a mirror. At times a terrifying mirror, but a mirror nonetheless.

In summary, I was utterly enthralled by this book. At least to some extent probably irrationally because I’ve failed to understand the concept of “Life Audits” that may be commonplace in Ireland, but still the fact remains that this book really roped me in. It’s probably a good thing I’m not trying to come up with positive/negative analysis because I’d be hard pressed to criticize a book that consumed my entire life rather joyfully for two solid days.

 

In a nutshell, this is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in half a century on the planet. Walls’ story of her childhood is not only easy for me to relate to but it also makes me just downright angry. Her parents reeked of an abominable failure to be responsible and look out for their own children that just shakes me to my very core. While this is 300 pages of small type this is just the sort of book you could inhale at one passionate gulp sitting outside on a summers say. If you start reading you’ll be lucky to escape before the last page.

Generally, I try to balance my reviews by describing both the positive and the negative of a novel but in this case I’m hard pressed. “The Glass Castle” could easily be described as a modern classic as it sums up with great vividness an all too common situation in the half-century. The free-thinking hippies cum parents who completely failed to give a damn about their own children are all too prolific and Walls describes her own beautifully. My only realistic negative results from the ending which seems clipped and far too succinct. I suppose in this format there’s little choice in the matter but I could have anticipated another 300 pages or complete omission of the end.

In summary, this is by far the best memoir I have read in recent recollection. The author’s view is candid and heartfelt but does not commit the sin of meandering into self-pity like many would in this situation. This title is a best seller with a heart and soul and a pointed comment to any parent who fails to recognize the needs of their own child. I cannot recommend this one enough.

And so ends the weeks that were. As always, click any of the book covers to visit the reviews in question and feel free to vote them ‘helpful’ if you find them so once you get there.

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Forevermore by Jim Musgrave

ForevermoreForevermore by Jim Musgrave

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book because somebody gave it to me for free. In this case, the author approached me directly with a copy of the whole trilogy as one volume. Despite this kind consideration, I give my candid opinions below, as will quickly become self-evident.

Firstly, a few general comments and a readers recommendation. It is suggested that you read this book in the following manner: read the first chapter and allow the oddness of it to roll around in your head for a few moments. Then sally you forth unto Wikipedia and read the real events as recorded by history. Smirk bemusedly at yourself for a few seconds and then continue to read the rest of the novel. Anything less enigmatic than that is left as exercise to the reader.

On the positive side, our author has picked an fascinating episode of history for his target. Saying more than that will spoil the fun but it is my considered opinion that historical fiction is best when it starts out with some reality that is abundantly screwball in its own right and expands upon it in a realistic way. I won’t go so far as to say that this book is a potential truth of the matter, but the thread of the tale has a pleasant glow of vague plausibility to it that fits well with the genre. Furthermore, the book is easy and accessible but still endeavors to expand the reader’s knowledge of history (and vocabulary) without any significant missteps. The author has done his homework, despite what other reviewers may say to the contrary.

On the negative side, the novel does suffer from some fairly significant editorial woes. At times it’s difficult to tell who the narrator of a given passage is and transitions in time and place are sometimes hard to pick up on. The text is rife with historical references but at times so rife that they feel rather forced. I appreciate the author’s research but one doesn’t have to stuff everything he knows about 19th century life into one book. Lastly, during our dramatic climax the book reads more like an Abbott and Costello routine than a serious mystery novel. As a reader I’m happy to accept either but it is generally preferred if the author picks one or the other and sticks with it.

In summary, this is a very well conceived novel but it must be remembered that readers of the mystery genre especially are punctilious beasts that will pick apart every detail of every sentence you write. They have to because they must find the answer before the end arrives. That’s rather the point of reading a mystery novel. So while this novel is generally good, it’s not quite up to the standards of its chosen genre. As a first novel it’s a brilliant initial step though and I look forward to the next two in the series.

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