Book Review: The Sisters of Blue Mountain by Karen Katchur

sisters of blue mountain

The Sisters of Blue Mountain by Karen Katchur

One morning in Mountain Springs, Pennsylvania, B&B owner Linnet sees a snow goose fall out of the sky, dead. Soon hundreds of geese are dead, putting Linnet’s B&B, and the tourism-dependent town in jeopardy. When a dead body shows up on the lawn of the B&B soon after, things quickly go from bad to worse. With her estranged sister, Myna, and her ornithologist father falling further into dementia, Linnet will have to face the demons in her past before those of the present consume her and her family.

This was a slow-burning mystery. The characters of Linnet and Myna are well crafted as sisters estranged as a result of a secret pact made when they were teenagers. Linnet and Myna’s relationship with their father, who suffers from dementia and is growing increasingly erratic, feels very real, as does their relationship with their deceased mother. The mystery of the dead man and the geese builds slowly, offering a long look at a family in crisis.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but I did find that the slow pace of the plot took away from the sense of danger that comes with a really good mystery. A sense of menace is missing from the book. However, the mystery of the sisters’ past unfolding was very well done, and the author’s portrayal of small town life and social isolation is quite vivid. Those who don’t mind slow-burn mysteries will likely enjoy this book.

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

Book Review: The Visionary Mayan Queen by Leonide Martin

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The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque by Leonide Martin

This is a historical fiction novel about Yohl Ik’nal, a Maya queen who ascended to the throne of Palenque in 583CE. The book is the first in a trilogy detailing the early years of Yohl Ik’nal and her reign.

I didn’t finish the book. I had my doubts when it began with Yohl Ik’nal meditating in the jungle, then abruptly mind traveling to speak with a young (Scottish? Scandinavian?) girl who also visited the “realm of faeries.” While I’m not opposed to fantasy, I generally expect historical fictions to trend more towards history than outright fiction.

I also found the dialogue to be stilted and lacking in subtlety. Characters simply state their feelings to one another, or allow the omniscient narrator to tell us exactly what so-and-so was thinking. While Maya culture is formal and regimented, I feel there are better ways to demonstrate this than through awkward dialogue. Along these lines, Martin also gives the reader explanations and translations for various aspects of Maya life, often in parentheses within the paragraph. While this isn’t entirely a bid idea, this approach is more appropriate for an academic work; within a fictional setting the effect is jarring and tend to take the reader out of the story.

Leonide Martin is a scholar of Maya history, and there is no debating her knowledge. However, her strengths do not seem to lie in the fictional realm. A less fictional, more historical/anthropological work might be better suited to showcase her attention to detail and intimate knowledge of  the subject matter. Something along the lines of The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney, which stays mostly within the verifiable history but adds in conjecture by the author would have worked well here.

In all, I feel like the fictional aspects of this book are not as engaging as they could be, and the historical aspects are not well integrated with the fictional portions of the book. Yohl Ik’nal is a fascinating figure, and one certainly deserving of wider attention. Maya history enthusiasts may still want to investigate this book, but this may not be the best for the more casual reader.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. The Visionary Mayan Queen is currently available for purchase.

 

Book Review: The Night Bird by Brian Freeman


The Night Bird by Brian Freeman

Sitting in traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, a young woman has a sudden, violent mental breakdown. Tearing the flesh of her arms, torso, and face, she appears to be running from some invisible horror when she throws herself off the bridge.

And she is not the first. Detective Frost Easton is heading the investigation of similar deaths in the city, all with one common thread: Psychiatrist Dr. Francesca Stein. Dr. Stein’s controversial methods of helping highly phobic patients seem to be falling apart, unless someone is out there, targeting her former patients in a twisted attack. When Dr. Stein begins to receive taunting messages signed by “The Night Bird,” the clock is ticking for her and Easton to find the psychopath before more people die . . .

This is an enjoyable and fast-paced mystery. I greatly enjoyed the use the author made of the fragility of memory and the power of suggestion. The beginning (after the fantastic first casualty) was a bit awkward and stilted, but Freeman quickly finds his voice. Some aspects of the plot and the characters are a bit out there, but that may well be attributable to the story being set in proudly weird San Francisco.

In all, I enjoyed this book, some parts were genuinely creepy, and the requisite plot twists included several I didn’t see coming. Fans of darker mysteries will probably enjoy this novel, it’s not quite as violent or as twisted as a Jefferey Deaver book, but feels similar.

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

Book Review: The Portable Frederick Douglass

The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, Henry Louis Gates (Editor), John Stauffer (Editor)

It being Black History Month (and considering the state of current events), I think I picked the perfect time to read this book. This Penguin Classic Edition is a collection of Douglass’ best and most famous writings.

The book is divided into four parts: Autobiographical (which includes his seminal work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), fictional (his lone foray into fiction is The Heroic Slave, about Madison Washington and the Creole Slave Revolt), Speeches, and Journalism.The material covers from 1845 (Narrative, his first piece), through the 1890s (Shortly before his death in 1895).

Douglass’ writing is straightforward and erudite. His portrayals of slave life are vivid and arresting. His arguments are forcefully made and thoroughly worked out. This man is a born orator, and a succinct and powerful writer. I feel a bit guilty for not having read much of his work before now. It is also unnerving how relevant many of his topics are in the present day.

The Fugitive Slave act of 1850 meant that slaves who managed to escape from the South could still be hunted down, even if they managed to flee to a state where slavery was outlawed. The bar for sending someone back was depressingly low; two white witnesses simply had to attest that the person in question was, indeed, a runaway slave; no hard evidence necessary. Further, their victim was unable to speak in their own defense, the testimony of an African American being inadmissible in court at the time. This brings strongly to mind the sanctuary cities cropping up all over the nation; areas which offer safe spaces for undocumented immigrants to live and work without fear of being ripped away from their lives and families. Had such areas existed in the United States in the era of slavery, the fate of many escaped slaves may have been different.

Douglass also reserves special ire for the Church. While a believer himself, he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the emphatically religious who profess their adherence to the tenets of Christianity, while at the same time treating their fellow man as something less than human. Douglass also has quite a bit to say about those who use the bible to justify their hate and institutionalize bigotry. If this sounds like many of the “religious freedom” laws cropping up in states across the United States, it’s because the arguments are basically the same. Now, however, Christianity is being used primarily to target LGBT+ individuals, and codify a second-class citizenship into our country’s laws.

In these troubled times, it is both wonderful and terrible to read something written so long ago that still resonates so strongly in the present day. I feel that no matter your political leanings, this is an incredibly important book. Hopefully it will be widely read in the coming years. It is always helpful to step back as a nation and ask “Are we moving forwards?” Or are we simply covering injustices in slightly altered costume, under the guise of adhering to tradition?

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. The Portable Frederick Douglass is currently available for purchase. 

Book Review: Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin
Before she was the staid and stout queen of “we are not amused” fame, Queen Victoria was a teenage monarch, with all the trials and drama that situation entails. This historical fiction novel seeks to bring young Victoria to life.

At the tender age of 18, Alexandrina Victoria finds herself ascending the English throne. She has been kept more or less in seclusion her entire life by her overprotective mother and her mother’s scheming comptroller. Embracing her new found independence, Victoria is determined to be her own monarch, beholden to no one. Of course, the intricacies of running a country are challenging for even a seasoned monarch. Victoria must learn who she can trust and who she can learn from to become the ruler England needs.

I really enjoyed this book. Generally, especially in popular fiction, Queen Victoria is left as the Widow of Windsor, the melancholy, withdrawn woman unable to cope with the loss of her husband, Albert. It is refreshing to see her treated as the young, vibrant girl she must once have been.

Being historical fiction, Goodwin takes some liberties with the past to heighten the drama. However, excessive embellishment is not needed, as the unvarnished past provides more than enough material. The book is engagingly written. Victoria jumps off the page as a real person. You really feel for this sheltered young woman, thrown into a job no one thinks she is capable of doing, and unable to trust even her own mother.

I would recommend this book for any lover of history or historical fiction. Any one with romantic tendencies will also enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. Victoria is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: The Chalk Girl by Carol O’ Connell

The Chalk Girl by Carol O’Connell

The Chalk Girl is the tenth book in Carol O’Connell’s Kathleen Mallory series. So it should come as no surprise that this review will probably have spoilers for previous books in the series. If, like me, you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you can jump in with this book without too much trouble.

The book begins with a lovely day in Central Park, following a group of visiting school children and their teacher. An odd, red haired little girl slips in with the group, but she certainly doesn’t belong there, and there’s blood all over her shirt . . .

The girl tells police that the blood fell from the sky, that she is here in the park with her uncle, but that he turned into a tree. The mystery deepens when the body of a man is found, wrapped up like a Christmas present and hung from a tree.

Enter Detective Kathleen Mallory, former street urchin and pickpocket, foster daughter of a police inspector, and all around cold hard bitch. Mallory and her partner have been assigned to the little girl’s case, and as more bodies in trees begin to pop up in Central Park, Mallory must use her considerable detective skills to find out what connection a strange little girl has with these gruesome murders.

This is a dark, twisted mystery novel. Think Jeffery Deaver’s The Bone Collector or the books by J.K. Rowling’s alter ego: Robert Galbraith. The plot twists and turns through the back alleys of the worst of human nature. Weaving together dark family secrets, police corruption, and tortured pasts, O’Connell has provided us with a compelling story. Mallory as a character is fairly unlikeable; she’s rude, misanthropic, and more than a bit sociopathic, yet O’Connell makes you want to root for her (and can I say, I do enjoy a female antihero, they’re so rare).

So I would say that if you’ve read the Mallory books up to this point, you’ll certainly want to continue the series with this book. If you haven’t read the series, this is still a great story, and it will likely make you (like me) want to go back and start the series from book one.

A copy of this book was provided for review via Goodreads Giveaways. The Chalk Girl is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton

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Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton

Cajun Waltz is a Greek tragedy with roots deep in black delta soil. The story begins with Richard (Richie) Bainard, a white musician from Texas who finds himself in Lake Charles, Louisiana in 1928. Richie is a bit of a shiftless layabout, thinking about getting out of the music business and into something a bit more profitable. A chance encounter with the spinster daughter of the local dry goods store seems to offer him a way out, and a violent encounter with some good old boys after a performance with a black musician cements his choice. Richie marries the spinster and finds himself heir to a burgeoning retail empire.

Unfortunately, with a small taste of power and control, we find that Richie Bainard is not exactly a very good person. He is a violent and unfaithful drunk, terrorizing his family, friends, and mistress.

Like any good Greek tragedy, the sins of the father carry forward to the next generation. Here we have the twins: Bonnie, cold and pathologically calculating, and R.J., shiftless and casually violent. And then there is Seth, Bonnie and R.J.’s half brother, partially blinded and crippled in an accident as a child, trying to feel his way free of his poisonous family. Also exiting and entering the plot are the Bainards’ hangers-on, enemies, and victims, everyone’s stories weaving in and out of one another to form a tapestry of a dysfunctional family.

This book is the fictional debut of history writer Robert H. Patton. His style reflects his past; Cajun Waltz is written in the style of novelized nonfiction, and Patton draws on actual historical events and people to give the story bite. In the style of southern gothic tragedy, all the characters in Cajun Waltz (even the protagonists, such as they are) are deeply flawed, and occasionally difficult to sympathize with.The book being set in the 1920s through the 1950s, the issue of race indeed comes up, but is largely discarded later in the book. The book also features two women prominently: Bonnie Bainard (daughter of Richie) and Adele (one of the family’s victims) who choose very different (and not necessarily successful) routes to deal with the casual misogyny (and violence) of both their era, and the Bainard family.

In all, this book is a quick read and difficult to put down once started. I think it speaks well of the author’s characters when I want to reach through the page and slap/strangle a few of them. History buffs, or those into historical fiction will enjoy this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the author via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review.Cajun Waltz is currently available for purchase.

 

 

Book Review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

After Alice Gregory Maguire

 

After Alice by Gregory Maguire

The summer day waxes hot in Oxford and young Alice has gone missing. But enough about her. Right now we’re concerned with the plights of Lydia, Alice’s older sister, Ada, the neighbor girl, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess.

The book opens with the squalling of an infant: Ada’s younger brother, and a sudden, pressing need to be out of the house. Running out ahead of her governess, young Ada heads down to see her friend Alice. Encountering Alice’s sister, Lydia, on the road, she is directed to Alice’s regular haunt. Unfortunately for Ada, who requires an iron brace to walk straight, she encounters a rabbit hole instead and promptly tumbles down.

Miss Armstrong is left to search after her charge, becoming more and more worried when it seems that Alice may be missing as well. Dragging a reluctant Lydia along in the search, she is desperate to find the girls before Ada’s or Alice’s fathers learn the girls have gone. Ada, meanwhile, must navigate Wonderland and its strange denizens to find both Alice and her way home.

All this sounds a bit more promising in summary that it was in reality. I’m a fan of Gregory Maguire, Wicked was a fantastic book, and added a huge amount to L. Frank Baum’s classic. We don’t get that same gift here with After Alice. There are no huge revelations about any Wonderland favorites, nor is the real world plot very compelling. Following Ada into Wonderland, we meet many of the same folks that Alice did, but we gain nothing new in the encounter. After a bit, it seems as though we’re ticking off boxes, making sure we’ve said hello to everyone, but not really speaking to them.

Back in Oxford, we follow Lydia and Miss Armstrong as they search for Ada and Alice. This story line largely seems to go nowhere. The two women search halfheartedly, annoy one another, and compete for a gentleman’s attention. Lydia is sharp where Miss Armstrong is a bit insipid, but neither seems very engaged in finding their missing charges, which is the part I had been keen to explore: what pandemonium might erupt in Oxford when not one, but two children go missing? The answer seems to be very, very, very little.

In all, I feel like this is not Maguire’s best work. I’d recommend this for hardcore Maguire fans, and those looking for even a little bit more about Alice and her world. For the more casual reader: you won’t hate this book, but it left little impression on me.

A copy of this book was provided via Goodreads Givaways in exchange for an honest review. After Alice is currently available for purchase.

 

Book Review: Dead Distillers by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell

Dead Distillers Kings County Distillery

 

Dead Distillers: The Kings County Distillery History of the Entrepreneurs and Outlaws Who Made American Spirits by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell

“WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY ALL NIGHT LONG
OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY, OH WHISKEY UNTIL THE BREAK OF DAWN”

– The Tossers “Break of Dawn”

Meed the Dead Distillers: heroes, villains, and forgotten players from America’s past who helped to advance the science of making hard liquor, or make a quick buck, or fund other pursuits, or all of the above. Spoelman and Haskell are the founders of King’s County Distillery in New York (check out their website at http://www.kingscountydistillery.com) and they have pieced together a visually appealing, accessibly written history of American distillers in short, to-the-point format (dare I say, as history shots?)

In this book, we meet businessmen and bootleggers, patriots and presidents, colonists and chemists. We meet lawmakers and mobs, mobsters and soldiers.Suffice it to say: the distillation of alcohol has been an integral and omnipresent part of American history since the very beginning. Between these pages you will find the likes of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Thomas Lincoln (Abraham’s father). More recently you will find Al Capone, Jim Beam, and Jack Daniels. You will also find less well known distillers, including a fair number of women who made a name for themselves in what was (and largely still is) a man’s industry.

This is a great book, not only for history buffs or whiskey lovers. Dead Distillers gives us a bit of the history I, personally, love: the parts underneath, or just around back, or hidden away. We all know George Washington as the first president of the United States, as a general, and a cherry tree murderer, but how many know he operated a fairly large distillery at Mount Vernon? And, especially in the case of the more obscure moonshiners, and those distillers whose enterprises failed, they aren’t usually in the history books. They survive in newspaper clippings, local lore, and family stories. These hidden histories are a wonderful store of knowledge, and I applaud anyone who chooses to bring these stories to light.

PS – Just as a personal aside (and a Pittsburgh resident) I’m quite happy to see both Pittsburgh’s Whiskey Rebellion (you read that right) and Wigle Whiskey (Pittsburgh’s own craft distillery, named after one of the rebels) get a mention!

A free copy of this book was provided via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. Dead Distillers is currently available for purchase.

Book Review: The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

White Mirror Elsa Hart

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

 

This is the second book in Elsa Hart’s Li Du mystery series. Disclaimer: I did not read her first book: Jade Dragon Mountain before reading this one. However, The White Mirror stands alone enough that the book is quite enjoyable by itself.

The story takes place in China in 1708. We find Li Du, former librarian of the Forbidden City, traveling with a caravan through the high mountain passes that separate China from Tibet. As the weather sets in and the caravan is beset by a snow storm, they find themselves traversing a bridge to an isolated estate, and the only shelter for miles around. On the bridge a monk sits waiting. It is only when the party draws close that they can see the monk is dead, his face painted with pagan symbols, and his hand still gripping the knife that has ripped open his belly. Over the next several days, while the caravan and other travelers are snowed in together at the remote estate, it falls to Li Du to unravel the mystery of the dead monk.

Elsa Hart writes a good, evenly paced mystery. The setting is compelling. You can almost hear the snow crunch under the characters shoes, and you can imagine the vast and almost otherworldly beauty that the mountainous borders of China must have to offer. The characters are varied in their motivations and several good suspects come to our attention throughout the book. This is also a mystery written in a way I personally find satisfying: the clues are all there. As the reader you are aware of everything Li Du is. The mystery, when solved, is solidly based on what came before, not seemingly pulled out of the ether at the last second. Additionally, Hart does a good job of disguising what is important, with no overdone advertisement of the clues.

In all, this is an enjoyable mystery in a fabulous setting. I find myself intrigued enough that I will more than likely go back and read the first novel in the series.

An advanced copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Minotaur Books, in exchange for an honest review. The White Mirror is scheduled for release on September 6th, 2016.