Book Review: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

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The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

I’m continuing my Sherlockian trend with the first of this series by Laurie R. King!

Sherlock Holmes has retired from the life of a consulting detective to keep bees and indulge in chemistry experiments in the Sussex Downs. Mary Russell is a teenage orphan, forced to live with her penurious aunt until her majority. When the two chance to meet, Holmes is not expecting to encounter a mind equal to his, and Mary Russell is not expecting to find a mentor. This first book chronicles the first four years of their friendship.

This is the first in a series which now contains fourteen books. I’m definitely late to the party. Like most of the other Sherlock Holmes stuff I’m reading lately, the choice was inspired by From Holmes to Sherlock by Mattias Boström. The book is a series of interconnected vignettes rather than one contiguous story. In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, we move from Mary and Sherlock’s first meeting, to their strange friendship, and the beginning of Mary’s training in the art of detection.

In Mary Russell, King has given us a heroine who is fiercely intelligent and independent, and more than a match for Holmes himself. I loved that while she shares a lot of Holmes’ personality traits, the two complement one another rather than existing as mirror-image duplicates. As with any new series, there is always the awkward getting-to-know-you period. But this is a great start to a series, and I’m quite looking forward to binging on the rest of the series.

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Book Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

White Bodies by Jane Robins

Callie and Tilda are twins, though they couldn’t be more different. Tilda is beautiful, outgoing, and a successful actress. Callie is quiet and introverted, and worships the ground her sister walks on. When Tilda becomes involved with successful stockbroker Felix, Callie is at first happy that her sister has found someone so perfect. But after Tilda starts behaving oddly, and displaying mysterious bruises, Callie begins to worry that Felix is dangerous. Getting drawn into an internet site for abused women, Callie becomes more and more obsessed with revealing the truth about Felix. But as the foundations of Callie’s concern begin to shift and crumble, can her perceptions be trusted?

I am now in full-fledged psychological thriller burnout. I have to admit that I feel a bit more justified in my feelings on the subject after reading Emily Martin’s article on Bookriot entitled “Why We Should Stop Searching for the Next Gone Girl” (warning: spoilers for Gone Girls, The Couple Next Door, and The Girl on the Train). Martin makes the point that in the rush to achieve to runaway success Gillian Flynn did with Gone Girl, folks have been cranking out similar stories, each trying on their own brand of mental illness to up the suspense. However, as much as Amy Dunne was a psychopathic bitch, her flaws and intelligence made her a complex and compelling (if horrible) character. As Emily Martin points out in her article, Flynn was able to give us a leading female character who was pretty much unlikeable in every way.

The inevitable consequence of Flynn’s success, according to Martin

. . . is a new and equally problematic female character archetype – the unwieldy off-the-rails woman. This woman is not any more complicated than the “strong female character.” Her craziness is not a personality, and her bouts of insanity that not even she can control allow for absolutely any twist possible that the writer wants to imagine.

And with this, I can finally put my finger on what has been bugging me about this genre recently. None of the recent protagonists of these books have been more complex than their mental illness. And while our current protagonist, Callie, is probably the weirdest I’ve seen yet, simply being crazy does not a compelling character make.

The books also by necessity rely heavily on inevitable plot twist(s), and this one is no exception. The problem is, that while reading these books (much like watching an M. Night Shyamalan movie) we are looking into every crevice and casually uttered word for said twist. With that amount of scrutiny, any surprises the plot might hold are going to be guessed long before the climax; if not from the evidence at hand, then simply by trying to think of ways to make the ending more shocking.

I apologize that this review is less about White Bodies specifically and more about the genre as a whole, but the field is crowded at the moment, and it takes a truly remarkable talent to separate oneself from the pack. White Bodies, unfortunately, does not do this. Callie is simply one more protagonist who’s mental illness is used to facilitate contortions of the plot.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Way to London by Alix Rickoff

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The Way to London: A Novel of World War II by Alix Rickoff

Lucy Stanhope is a spoiled debutante living the good life in Singapore in the early years of WWII. Her mother is a selfish narcissist, and her step-father is a lecherous creep, and Lucy has no problems defying them or society to live the way she wants. However, when the weight of scandal becomes too much, Lucy finds herself packed up and shipped off to Nanreath Hall in England. Going from the tropical luxury of Singapore to the dreariness of war-time Britain is a kick in the teeth for Lucy. When she befriends a young war orphan, the two make plans to escape the drudgery of the country for London. The perilous journey across a war zone will force Lucy to face her priorities in life, and to confront her mistakes.

This is a beautiful, vividly written book. Rickoff has put an enormous amount of effort into packing every page with an incredible amount of historical detail. You can almost smell the tropical flowers on the breezes of Singapore, and feel the clammy touch of the fog in England. The story is slowly paced, allowing plenty of time to take in the story and get to know the characters.

That being said, this book wasn’t really up my alley. I’m not really one for romances (though if I were going to pick a romance genre it would likely be historical romance). It also kind of irked me that as rich in detail as most of the book was, the author is still relying on the “spoiled brat of a woman is made pure and whole by the love of a noble man” trope, which is nearly as bad as “the pure and virtuous woman finds the strength to tame the wild, uncouth man” trope. For all the detail and time spent on the setting and getting to know our main characters, the interaction between Lucy and her foil/savior, Michael, is uncomplicated and a bit flat. You know through all the sniping that they’re going to wind up together in the end, though I have to admit there were other contenders I was rooting for, and one (from her time in Singapore) whose story would (in my opinion) have been a bit more interesting.

So in all, this is a well written book in a genre I don’t have a lot of patience for. If you’re generally a fan of romance novels, or are into the WWII setting, this might be a good title for you to try.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Atwelle Confession by Joel Gordonson


The Atwelle Confession by Joel Gordonson

There’s something odd about St. Clements church in Atwelle, Cambridge researcher Margeaux Wood can feel it. When odd gargoyles are found carved into the eaves of the church during its restoration, her hunch seems to be confirmed. Teaming up with Don Whiby, the architect in charge of the restorations, Margeaux sets out to uncover the story behind the unique carvings. But then there is a murder, and soon another, and the pattern of the murders seems to echo the mysterious carvings in the eves. Furthermore, these murders seem to echo similar crimes committed during the reign of Henry VIII . . .

I really liked the concept of this book. The interplay between Tudor England and modern times was well done. Gordonson gives the reader a wealth of historical detail to work with, and I found the balancing act played by both church officials and highly placed citizenry during Henry VIII’s conflict with the Vatican to be truly fascinating. The mystery itself is original and interesting.

That being said, I found the execution of the book to be somewhat wanting. The characters of Margeaux and Don, and others central to the plot, feel a bit unfinished. There is little to the characters beyond the immediate needs of the story, nothing about wants, desires, or dreams beyond the gargoyles in the church. Additionally, the antagonists seem to have little motivation for being such. They are acting to foil or to harm our protagonists, yes, but why?

There are some nicely suspenseful scenes in this book, with a good creep factor to boot. But I did find that several opportunities for suspense were passed by, possibly to increase the pace of the book. The plot does move quickly, but occasionally feels like it’s stampeding along, sacrificing plot and character development in the process.

I guess my overall impression is one of haste. The plot gallops along, leaving us with quick glimpses of something fascinating. Taking the time to give the reader a bit more to work with, to flesh out the characters, the world they live in, and the (really quite interesting) central mystery would have given this book real punch.

In all, this is a fantastic idea, with a great amount of attention paid to historical detail. Gordonson is certainly able to craft a compelling story. But I feel that as written, we are seeing only the bare bones of a great story.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann


Black Tudors: African Lives in Renaissance England by Miranda Kaufmann

It is said that history is written by the winners. While that is certainly true, the more insidious fact is that history is written by those who hold the pen. What this means in a practical sense is that those with little power, and little influence–whether or not they “won”–are often either diminished in the historical record or left out entirely. One of the great (or terrible) things about the emergence of the internet is that it has given voice to populations who, even fifty years ago, would not have been heard. The internet is going to change how histories are written in the future, the vast amount of data available, and the clamor of voices waiting to speak will need to be addressed by future historians.

But enough digression. We’re talking here about the Tudor era. Very, very few people are literate, even in the upper levels of society. While high ranking men and officials had a decent literacy rate, women, lower classes, and minorities were overwhelmingly illiterate. The upshot of this is that we know quite a good deal about the rulers, the “important” folk, economics, etc. but very little about the daily lives of merchants, yeomen, women (especially poor women), and others not well represented in the written record.

This fact makes Kaufmann’s book incredibly ambitious. There are no known surviving sources written by Africans in Tudor England. Kaufmann instead must play detective, inferring the shapes of these people’s lives through their interactions with higher-status (ie. record-leaving) contemporaries. What Kaufmann has found is the tip of a fascinating iceberg. The unusual wording of law in the British Isles (and notably not in her colonies) meant that there could be no slaves in England  (though people could be, and were, treated as such). As a result, Kaufmann’s history isn’t one of slavery, but about the wide range of professions and lifestyles occupied by Africans in Tudor England. We are introduced to sailors and wreck divers, prostitutes and silk weavers, servants and princes. Some were able to live independently in cities and towns through the country, others were employees or servants. Some tales are inspiring. Others, like the fate of Maria, an African woman brought on board one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship for “entertainment” are horrible beyond imagining.

Kaufmann has been able to unearth or infer quite a bit of information on the lives of African individuals in Tudor England. Her book is a fascinating look at a time before England’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade made the dehumanization of African people the norm. Her work will appeal to historians and anthropologists alike, and is a must read for anyone seeking more information on the role of minorities in history.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Last Hack by Christopher Brookmyre

The Last Hack by Christopher Brookmyre 

This is the eighth book by Brookmyre featuring reporter Jack Parlabane. Expect a spoiler or two for the previous books in this review. On the other hand, if, like me, you’ve never read the previous books, then rest assured that this book can be read as a standalone.

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Sam Morpeth is unstoppable. Really, she’s pretty much a superhero (or supervillain), able to go where she wants and do what she wants. Unfortunately, that super-powered persona only exists online. In real life, she is simply a 19 year old whose mother is in jail on drug charges, and who struggles to keep food on the table for herself and her little sister Lilly, who has Downs Syndrome.

But someone has connected to two halves of Sam’s life. Someone with a devious agenda, and proof of Sam’s past hacks. Blackmailed into performing an act of industrial espionage, Sam in turn forcibly recruits journalist Jack Parlabane, recently returned to the UK, to help her with the heist. As the two come to an uneasy truce, they delve into the underside of the internet in a desperate attempt to discover who is behind the sinister plot.

As I said above, this book can be read as part of its series or as a standalone novel. I was conscious of missing out on a few references here and there, but all in all not much went over my head. Perhaps it helps that the book is less about Jack Parlabane and more about the hacker Samantha Morpeth.

What is really striking about the book is the breathtaking contrast between Sam navigating her real life, and Sam, as her hacker alias Buzzkill, navigating the web. Sam in real life is meek, seeking more than anything to disappear into the background. Her life is horrible, stuck in an impossible position of needing to care for her little sister while her mother is in prison, and being denied at every turn the ability to do so. But online, Sam, as Buzzkill, can use her intelligence, imagination, and anonymity to effect real change in the world around her.

The story itself is fast-paced and technologically terrifying. I found myself getting legitimately paranoid even time I experienced any lag time on any of my electronics. While certainly a work of fiction, the book serves to remind us of how vulnerable we are now that we are all inevitably connected via the internet.

So, if you’re looking for an intelligent technological thriller (with a woman of color as the protagonist, yay!), then this book is a good fit for you!

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Box Review and Unboxing: The Nocturnal Reader’s Box September: Monster Mayhem

So by now you don’t need me to sing the praises of this fantastic box, so let’s just dive right in to all the goodies (and allow me to show off my absolutely sickening collection of books about monsters)

So let’s jump right in to the meat of the box, the books!

I received a signed copy of The Wicked (yay!). Here’s the Goodreads description:

AN ANCIENT EVIL RISES…BURNS…KILLS…

After a fire consumes the Heller Home for Children, the residents of Morganville, North Carolina thought they knew evil…

They were wrong.

Unaware of the turmoil in their new hometown, the Littles–David, Kate, and seven-year-old Becca–are moving from New York City to Morganville in hopes of repairing their own lives, which were recently shattered by an act of sexual violence.

Before long, David realizes that his family’s troubles are worse than he could ever have imagined.

An ancient demon lurks beneath the town of Morganville, an unholy creature conjured into existence by the Heller Home tragedy.

Its name is Moloch.

It is hungry for the souls of the townspeople.

But most of all, Moloch wants the children. It will not rest until it has them.

All of them.

The other book is called Greener Pastures, a collection of short stories by Michael Wehunt. From the Goodreads description:

In his striking debut collection, Greener Pastures, Michael Wehunt shows why he is a powerful new voice in horror and weird fiction.

From the round-robin, found-footage nightmare of “October Film Haunt: Under the House” (selected for The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror) to the jazz-soaked “The Devil Under the Maison Blue” (selected for both The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and Year’s Best Weird Fiction), these beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant stories speak of the unknown encroaching upon the familiar, the inscrutable power of grief and desire, and the thinness between all our layers. Where nature rubs against small towns, in mountains and woods and bedrooms, here is strangeness seen through a poet’s eye.

They say there are always greener pastures. These stories consider the cost of that promise.

And now, the goodies. Still yourself, the Cthulhu Funko Pop is mine, but the box did contain a Michael Jackson Thriller styled magnetic bookmark, an essential oil scent called “Sandman’s Despair”, and a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde pin.

There was also a small journal featuring cover art from The Howling.

And a water bottle with the crest of Miskatonic University  (mine, all mine!)

Of course you’ll need a tote bag to hold all this epic swag! This bag featuring Frankenstein’s monster is fantastic!

And let’s not forget this wonderful bit of artwork, now framed and hanging proudly on my wall!

Like I said before, you don’t need me to tell you how much fun this book box is. I will, however, tell you that you should get yourself over to The Nocturnal Reader’s Box website and get yourself subscribed.

Book Review: The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

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The Unquiet Grave by Sharyn McCrumb

In 1930, successful attorney James P.D. Gardner is an inmate of a segregated West Virginia mental asylum following a suicide attempt. In 1897, the beautiful, reckless, and headstrong Zona Heaster defies her family and marries Edward “Trout” Shue after a whirlwind courtship. Within months, Zona is dead, and her mother, Mary Jane, a stoic West Virginia farmer’s wife, is left bereft, certain that Zona’s new husband is responsible for her death. When Zona’s ghost begins to appear to Mary Jane, dropping hints about the circumstances around her death, Mary Jane sets out to see justice done for her daughter. As the two narratives weave in and out, the story of Zona Heaster, The Greenbriar Ghost, is slowly brought into the light.

I’ve read several of Sharyn McCrumb’s novels and have always been impressed. McCrumb is able to take local West Virginia legends and folklore and create spellbinding mysteries. The Unquiet Grave did not disappoint. McCrumb weaves a story together from two view points: Zona’s (white) mother in 1987, and James Gardner, a (black) attorney in 1930. The story incorporates the roles of race, respectability, and class during America’s Guilded Age.

As usual, McCrumb vividly brings her story to life. You can almost feel the biting winds of the West Virginia Mountain winter. Her characters seem to jump off the page as fully realized people. The story is based upon “The Greenbriar Ghost” legend from the West Virginia hills, but is also painstakingly researched; every character in this book is based upon a real, historical person. This blending of history and legend is what makes McCrumb such a unique writer. In The Unquiet Grave, the supernatural and the factual twine around one another, each a part of a seamless whole.

Fans of historical mysteries should definitely be adding McCrumb’s books to their to-read pile. The Unquiet Grave is a fine example of the genre, and should appeal to most readers.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: That Last Weekend by Laura DiSilverio

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That Last Weekend: A Novel of Suspense by Laura DiSilverio

Five college friends stayed at the same castle-like bed and breakfast every year, until tragedy struck. Pushed away by suspicion and fear, and drifting further apart due to distance and time, they now barely speak to one another. Until, ten years after that fateful night, each receives an invitation to return to the Chateau du Cygne Noir for one last weekend. The demons of the past and the present join forces, and death stalks the chateau. The five friends must confront their past and rip open old wounds to finally uncover the truth.

If all this sounds like a Christopher Pike novel to you, you are not far off (old person question: do people still read Christopher Pike books? Or are you looking up his Wikipedia page right now?). I’m not sure if I’m just burned out on the psychological thriller genre, but I just couldn’t get into this book. I tried, but ultimately, I couldn’t get behind any of the main characters, and reading the book felt a bit like my middle school reads attempted an Agatha Christie radio drama.

But, maybe I’m being overly harsh. I’ve certainly been hitting the psychological thrillers harder than the whiskey recently, and I have to say, they’ve all started to look alike to me. I think too many plot twists may have turned my head. If you’re generally a fan of the genre, or you’re old enough to look back at The Midnight Club with something like nostalgia, then give this book a whirl. I’d like to know if quiet, self-conscious, jogging female protagonists have turned me into a bitter old hag.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.