Book Review: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King
I’m really on an Ancient Rome kick. After reading Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George, I went looking for something juicy to follow up. I was not disappointed by Crystal King’s debut historical fiction.

The story follows the slave Thrasius, bought by the disgustingly rich Roman aristocrat Apicius to run his kitchen. Apicius is an already famous gourmand, and he wants to climb to the top of Roman culinary society by becoming an advisor to the Roman Emperor. Willing to go to any expense and any excess to achieve his goal, the book follows Thrasius and Apicius across a sweep of decades.

King has done a masterful job in her debut work. As with any book about Ancient Rome, the drama is high and the casual violence and cruelty is breathtaking.  The world occupied by Thrasius and Apicus is vividly wrought, with a great deal of attention paid to historical accuracy. While Thrasius and his fellow slaves are fictional (identities of Roman slaves are understandably shrouded in the historical record), Apicius and his family (and other high-born Romans in this book) were all real people. Apicius himself is credited with the creation of a series of cookbooks, some of which still survive today.

King carefully crafts her major characters, giving them a multifaceted existence which lends complexity and humanity to the story. King also does a wonderful job weaving a number of disparate historical threads together into a coherent story. The span of decades allows the reader to watch as the characters grow and develop.

Any fan of historical fiction will enjoy this book. King has a wonderful (and rare) talent for blending the historical and fictional aspects of the book together, providing needed background without sacrificing pace. This is a fine drama, and should appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

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

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the early 1920s, members of the Osage tribe, made wealthy through oil reserves underneath their reservation, began to die. Some were shot, either in robberies or apparent suicides. Others were poisoned, tainted whiskey being a favorite vehicle. More than one tribal member simply “wasted away,” their deaths attributed to an unknown illness. One woman, Maggie Burkhart, watched as her sisters, mother, and even her daughter died, leaving her in sole possession of a significant fortune. it was almost inevitable that Maggie would begin to fall ill as well . . .

In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover is under a tremendous amount of pressure to prove the worth of his new Investigative Bureau. With local and state authorities unable or unwilling to investigate the Osage deaths, Hoover sends agents to start what would turn into a multi-year investigation, and would set Oklahoman society on edge.

This non-fiction book is written as a murder mystery in three parts. The first part introduces us to the major players, using primary sources from Maggie Burkhart, her family, and other Osage tribe members of the time. The second part is concerned with the FBI’s investigation and is drawn primarily from the memoirs of Agent Tom White, J. Edgar Hoover, and other investigators. The third portion of the book deals with the author’s own investigation into the murders.

The book itself is engagingly written, and the subject matter has been largely forgotten by history. The subject matter itself is compelling and infuriating; the pervasive and institutionalized racism that allowed these crimes to hide amid a thousand lesser forms of violence is nothing short of appalling. The Osage in the 1920s, while millionaires on paper, were treated more like indentured servants. The government would not allow the Osage to manage their own money, each was assigned to a white “guardian” who held complete control of their finances. The abuses such a system would invite are easy to imagine. In addition, the lack of investigation (for years), suggests a breathtaking lack of concern in the swath of deaths; so long as those dying were not white. Indeed, many at the time seemed to think that the “uppity Indians” had brought such violence upon themselves, solely by being richer than their white neighbors.

This is a fantastic example of narrative nonfiction. Grann has created an incredible narrative from this story. The horror the Osage lived with in the first decades of the twentieth century has been lost to history until now, but it is a story that needs to be told. Fans of Erik Larsen will enjoy this book.

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

Book Review: Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

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Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

This is the ninth book in Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan series. Therefore, there will probably be spoilers for the previous books in this review. Caveat: I haven’t read the previous book in the series, but the good news is that this book can be read as a stand-alone, without having read the previous novels.

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We find our hero, Shan Tao Yun, reluctantly acting as the constable of tiny Yangkar village in Tibet. His appointment more a punishment than an honor, Shan does his best to toe the party line while remaining sympathetic to the native Tibetans under his jurisdiction. When a military convoy stops in town with a dozen political prisoners and an investigator from the Public Security Bureau in tow, Shan braces himself for trouble. Unfortunately, he has no idea just how bad things can get. When an elderly nun is assaulted and local herders begin talking of “the dead walking” Shan heads into the mountainous terrain to investigate and finds something that defies explanation: an ancient tomb with not one, but three bodies inside – the mummified body of a Tibetan saint, the fifty-year-old corpse of a Chinese soldier, and the days old body of an American. With the Public Security Bureau and the army both digging into the town’s affairs, the situation becomes extremely complicated. Shan must find a way to solve the crimes without getting thrown back in prison or being executed.

This was certainly an interesting mystery. Pattison, while an American author, is a world traveler, and has infused the book with his love of Tibet and his knowledge of the conquest of that country by the People’s Republic of China. The intricacies (and atrocities) of politics between Tibet and China are on full display and impact most every aspect of the plot. Inspector Shan is a wonderful protagonist, vividly realized as a man trying his best to walk the tightrope between two very different worlds. The paranoia and precariousness of his situation are palpable throughout the book.

As I said before, this book works well as a stand-alone novel, but I would imagine you get a bit more out of it if you’ve read the previous books. Fans of the series will likely enjoy this book. I would also recommend it to mystery lovers and those into international intrigue.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Skeleton God will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: Wages of Sin by Katie Welsh

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The Wages of Sin by Katie Welsh

In 1892, the University of Edinburgh began to admit female medical students. The pushback from both faculty and the male student body was immense. Indeed, society itself looked down on these women as unfeminine and broken. Enter Sarah Gilchrist, banished from London after bringing scandal to her family name. Cut adrift and dependent on the good graces of Scottish relatives, Sarah is determined to make her own way as a female physician. In order to get practical training, Sarah volunteers at a charity infirmary in the slums. The work is hard, and the prejudices of society are increasingly difficult to bear. However, Sarah is doing well with her studies and her work until one day she recognizes the corpse in her anatomy class as her patients at the infirmary. . .

I always like a good historical fiction, and this one did not disappoint. Welsh does a great job of demonstrating the fine line these medical pioneers would have to walk between Victorian propriety and their dreams of higher education. The hypocrisy of their male counterparts is also brilliantly illustrated. Welsh also does well with her main protagonist, Sarah Gilchrist. The lasting physical and mental trauma from her “scandal” feels very real. While you may occasionally want to reach through the page, shake her, and yell “think before you speak,” she is overall a very sympathetic character. The mystery aspect of the book was well paced, with the requisite red herrings and plot twists.

Fans of historical murder mysteries will find a lot to like in this book, which feels like the first of a series. Historical fiction or murder mystery fans in general will likely also enjoy the book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Wages of Sin will be available for purchase on March 14th, 2017.

Book Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Thirty years ago, Dustin’s aunt, uncle, mother, and father were brutally murdered. His testimony helped to put his adopted older brother, Rusty, in prison for the crime. Now, Rusty is being released from prison, his innocence proven by DNA evidence. But if Rusty didn’t commit the murders, then who did?

In the meantime, it appears that a serial killer might be operating in northern Ohio. Dustin, now a psychologist in Cleveland, becomes obsessed with a series of suspicious deaths after one of his patients brings up his own investigation. As Dustin and his family are pulled apart by both the events of thirty years ago and today, the nature of right and wrong, sanity and insanity becomes more and more muddled.

This was a fascinating book, though at times I found it difficult to read. The story, which weaves between past events and the present day, is mainly from the point of view of Dustin himself, and his adult son, Aaron. The story begins with Dustin learning of Rusty’s release from prison. This knowledge, and the anticipation of retribution from his adopted brother, start off a chain of events leading Dustin down a rabbit hole of obsession. Aaron, dealing with drug addiction, is nearly as unreliable a narrator as Dustin.

As the two men move through the story, the narrative literally fragments, some pages having several competing point-of-views for the same people of the same event. Thoughts and sentences are often left unfinished, as minds drift and alternative thoughts impose themselves upon the narrative. Ill Will explores the fragility of self and the unreliability of perception and memory.

I enjoyed this book. It is a uniquely written thriller, and the plot twists and turns and doubles back on itself often enough to confound the reader. In places, the formatting, especially with the competing narratives, can make the book hard to follow. To me, the book is reminiscent of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, a psychological thriller which also used atypical formatting to advance the plot. And, like House of Leaves, I strongly suspect that this is a book you will either love or hate.

I would recommend this book to someone who likes darker psychological thrillers, but not to anyone who requires concrete endings or neatly tied loose ends. In that regard, Ill Will is a lot like the recently published Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (my review can be read here) in that it is a creepy book which will mess with your head, and the ending will leave you with nearly as many questions as answers. In sum, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it is certainly not for everyone. If you enjoyed either of the two books previously mentioned, then I strongly recommend reading Ill Will.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Ill Will will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

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The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Tea has lived all her life in a small village with her family. Then, when she is thirteen, her brother, who had been called to the army to help protect the kingdom from fierce monsters called daeva, is killed in battle. The anguished Tea refuses to accept his death, and in her grief, she raises him from his grave. It seems that Tea is a necromancer, a dark asha (witch). Fleeing from the superstition and fear of her neighbors, she journeys to the schools at Ankyo where she can learn to harness her powers.

The lessons at these schools (called The Willows) resemble a geisha’s training more than anything you’d find at Hogwarts. Tea learns singing, dance, flower arranging, and how to pick out the perfect hua (magical outfit). She does also learn healing and combat, but the focus is certainly more on the refined arts and entertaining dignitaries.

When the school is attacked by a fierce daeva, Tea knows she is the only one with a chance of stopping the carnage, but the price that must be paid could mean the sacrifice of all she holds dear.

Right off the bat I’m going to stay that this book wasn’t my cup of tea (pun, sorry). I found the focus on the more mundane aspects  (like flower arranging, etc.) to be a bit dull. When the action finally hits, the book is nearly over. That is not to say that this book is bad. There’s quite a bit of good world building here, and the magic system is actually pretty neat, and interestingly done. I feel like this book will appeal more to a true YA audience than me (being old and curmudgeonly). As this is the first in the series, I would be curious to see how the future books pace out. I think the second book will be worth a chance, when it comes out.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Bone Witch will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

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The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

This book is the sequel to Barry’s The Lace Reader, which has been on my TBR for quite some time (I picked it up at a library book sale a couple of years ago and simply never had the time). And while the characters in the Lace Reader do appear in this book, in The Fifth Petal, Barry chooses to focus on a few new characters in her slightly offset Salem, Massachusetts.

In 1989, three young women were murdered on Halloween night, allegedly while performing a satanic ritual. The crime, falling into legend as “The Goddess Murders,” were never solved, and continue to haunt the subconscious of Salem, Mass, ever since. Twenty-five years later, the sole suspect in the original murders is once again involved in an unusual homicide. The incident rips the scab off old wounds, bringing the Goddess Murders back into the limelight. Police Chief John Rafferty, with the aid of Callie Cahill, the only survivor of the massacre, must uncover the truth of what happened on Halloween two and a half decades ago, before more evil befalls the town.

This was an intriguing little mystery. The plots twists in and out of the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692, and the lives of those victims and their accusers. Modern day witches, healers, and psychics abound. Banshees, wronged goddesses, and black magic infuse the plot. The modern day and the darkness of Puritan New England collide uniquely in Barry’s book. The plot meanders a bit, certain elements occasionally make the story seem overlong, but in all this is a tidy and engrossing mystery.

Any fan of mysteries will probably enjoy this book. The inclusion of plot lines from the Salem Witchcraft Trials was a big bonus for me. I had not read The Lace Reader before picking up this one (alas, I didn’t get the chance), but I was never lost. This book can be read as a stand-alone if preferred, though now I am doubly excited to read the first in the series.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Fifth Petal will be available for purchase on January 24th, 2017.

 

Book Review: The Trapped Girl by Robert Dugoni

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The Trapped Girl by Robert Dugoni

 

This is the fourth book in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Hopefully unnecessary caveat: There may well be spoilers in here for the first three books in the series.

When a high school student takes his boat out to an uninhabited island to poach crabs, he has no idea what he’s getting into. Tangled up in his trap line is another crab trap, one with the body of a woman inside . . .

Enter detective Tracy Crosswhite, still recovering from the events of previous novels. Crosswhite, who has a soft spot for young female murder victims after the death of her sister, is determined to find out who killed this woman and stuffed her body in a crab trap in Puget Sound. But identifying the victim turns out to be only the beginning. The more Crosswhite learns about the young woman in the trap, the more intricate and convoluted the mystery becomes.

I’m going to come right out and say it: I did not finish this book. The synopsis sounds great, and for the most part the mystery was intriguing. I was getting flashes of “Gone Girl” while reading certain parts. But I just couldn’t get behind Crosswhite as a main character. We just didn’t have any chemistry. Towards the middle of the book, I found myself skipping over page after page of baby-crazy contemplation on her part, and after a while, I just felt that life is too short to keep reading a book I’d lost interest in.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is not a good book. A mystery aficionado should give The Trapped Girl a try. I have mixed feelings about this book. I, personally, did not like the main character, and I also don’t crack open mystery novels to hear a central female character pine about wanting a child. Yet the mystery, without the added-on drama, was an interesting one, and one that unfolded in unexpected ways.

So, long story short, I didn’t like this book very much, but I certainly don’t discourage others for giving it a shot.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The Trapped Girl will be available for purchase on January 24th, 2017.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
This was a charming, engaging story inspired by fairy tales of the Russian wilderness.

Vasya is the daughter of a Russian lord, and the granddaughter of a suspected witch. Growing up in the vast forests in the north, fireside tales of friendly spirits and dangerous imps dominate her childhood. Vasya knows to leave offerings for the guardian spirits of her home and stables, to placate the water demons and to pay obeisance to the guardians of the forest. When her father marries a high born woman from Moscow, the folk traditions of Vasya’s youth are branded as heresy and witchcraft, and the orthodox church forbids any practice of the old ways.

But something evil is stirring in the deep woods, something ancient and hungering. As the strength of the old ways wanes, it seems that Vasya may be the only one who can stop what is coming.

Fairy tale retellings are in vogue nowadays, but it is rare that an author takes the material and makes it their own. The usual fare simply regurgitates the story while incorporating an excess of teen angst. Arden manages to take the tropes of the fairy tale and make them into a story with familiar elements, but which is her own. It reminds me of the Sevenwaters books by Juliet Marillier, a compelling series based on English myth and fairy tale.

I suspect this book may be shelved in the young adult category, but it will appeal to older readers nonetheless. Fans of fantasy and magic will find a lot to like in this story. In all, this is a very strong debut novel and I look forward to Katherine Arden’s future work.

An advance ebook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Bear and the Nightingale will be available for purchase on January 10th, 2017.

Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

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The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston

I’ve been a fan of Douglas Preston’s fictional work for years, so there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to read one of his non-fiction titles, especially with how closely this fits within my own wheelhouse (my education is in anthropology, and Husband studied Maya archaeology).

Welcome to the jungles of the Mosquitia region on Honduras; an area so remote, large swathes of land have been untouched by humans for hundreds of years. The jungle is thick and forbidding, and venomous snakes, hungry jaguars, and deadly diseases have dissuaded most from exploring the region. But rumors persist. Rumors of a great white city (La Ciudad Blanca), filled with untold riches, brought low in ages past by hubris and curses. These tales of “the El Dorado of Central America” have inspired explorers (ahem, looters) since the time of Hernán Cortés to try to find the fabled city. Repeated failures, plus a good deal of hucksterism, relegated the city to the realm of fiction and myth.

Enter LiDAR, which uses pulsed laser beams to detect objects, and a filmmaker with an obsession.  LiDAR shows its capabilities when it is used to uncover a lost city in the Cambodian jungle, and filmmaker Steve Elkins elists it as the perfect way to prove or disprove the myth of the white city. When scans of the vast jungle reveal structures hidden in a remote and nigh-inaccessible valley, Douglas Preston accompanies a team of scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, etc., are choppered in to study the Lost City.

It sounds like the tag line to a thriller or an adventure story (and certainly could be the plot of one of Preston’s fictional books), but this really happened. Preston tells the story like an adventure novel, needing little embellishment to emphasize the danger and the excitement of journeying into an area uninhabited for centuries. In addition to the story of the lost city, Preston also provides the reader with a brief look at Honduras’ turbulent (frequently due to meddling by the United States) history.

In the book, Preston himself laments the difficulty in walking the line between writing for those without an anthropology background and making sure your work is culturally sensitive and avoids colonial overtones. Overall, Preston does well walking this line, despite the sensationalism of the book’s title. He discusses frankly the controversy surrounding the venture and does a wonderful job presenting an archaeological discovery in an interesting and accessible way. The book is also replete with information relevant to us in the present day. The Maya civilization (the word Mayan is used only for the language) vanished as an entity prior to the Spanish invasion. Instead, the culture was brought low by a combination of environmental degradation and societal inequality (sound familiar?).

In all, this book is a definite recommendation for any lover of history, anthropology, or Central American culture. But I think even the casual reader will find a lot to like in this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Lost City of the Monkey God will be available for purchase on January 3rd, 2017.