Book Review: Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub

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Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub

A graduate student with a passion for jazz finds out that the legendary “Pork Pie Hat,” far from being dead as previously presumed, is alive and well and playing at a dive bar in the East Village. The student goes down to see him play, and the mysterious “Hat” soon becomes an object of fascination. As the compulsion to see him play begins to push aside his coursework, the student manages to snag an interview with the strange and reculsive saxophonist. On Halloween night, Hat tells the student a story from his childhood, of screams in a dark and lonely wood, of mysterious and menacing men in big black cars . . .

I had no idea what to expect when starting this book. At a mere 175 pages, it really qualifies as a novella (or extra-long short story) rather than a true novel. The shorter length, however, is perfect for devouring in one sitting (which I highly recommend).

This is my first time reading something by Peter Straub, but I knew he had written with Stephen King in the past, so I felt like I had some idea of what I was getting into. Pork Pie Hat both confirmed and defied my expectations. Straub’s style in this book is vaguely Lovecraftian (even if the subject matter is not), and overall the book is a creepily atmospheric tale, even if it is given more to “all monsters are human” than the supernatural (but hey, being black in the South in the early part of the 20th century would have been terrifying a;ll by itself).

So, if you’re looking for a quick bite of a story to get yourself into the Halloween spirit, this is a great book for you. Straub does a wonderful job putting you in Pork Pie Hat’s shoes on a dark Halloween night so long ago.

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Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Milly used to be Annie. But everything changed when she walked into a police station and told the officer on duty about her mother. Annie’s mother was a serial killer. Annie got a new foster family and a new name, and her mother is in jail.

But the trial is coming up, and Milly-Annie must face her mother one more time, must be the one who sends her away for good. But with the stress of the trial and tensions in her foster family; is Annie her own person, or simply her mother’s daughter?

This is one of those ubiquitous psychological thrillers which are all the rage these days (young people, grumble grumble). But Good Me Bad Me stands out from the pack for being a truly disturbing read. Honestly, parts of this book read more like a horror novel than a psychological thriller. I’m a fan.

Milly’s past is shown to us in flashes and snippets, with a lot left implied or unsaid. Her mother is truly a boogeyman figure, who looms dark and sinister even when Milly is supposed to feel safe. And yet, Milly’s relationship with her mother is more complicated than monster and victim. Milly hates and fears her mother, yes, but these emotions are tangled up in a truly twisted love of the person who raised her, and a desire to make her mother proud (The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne superbly explored this fucked up family dynamic).

The book loses a bit of steam for me when it goes in for all the high school drama (yes, yes, teenagers are the real psychopaths, this is old news). Though the truly horrific bullying experienced by Milly provides a great backdrop for her struggle between some semblance of normality, or the sociopathic tendencies nurtured by her mother.

In all, this book is a standout in an overcrowded genre. Those who enjoy their books dark, disturbing, and more than a bit fucked up will want to add this one to their to-read lists.

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

Book Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas


A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

This is the second Lady Sherlock book by Sherry Thomas. You should naturally expect spoilers for the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women in this review. If you haven’t yet read the first book, stop what you’re doing and read it now. I’ll wait.

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I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first book featuring Charlotte Holmes. Rather than the trite gender-swapped rehashing of the well-trod Sherlock Holmes stories, I found a smart, witty, and wonderfully realized mystery featuring not Sherlock Holmes, but a woman whose brilliant deductive mind is trapped in the body of a Victorian society lady,mwith all the attendant limitations and societal entrapment.

The second book in the series does not disappoint. Taking place shortly after the first book leaves off, we find Charlotte settling into the life of a social pariah, and enjoying the freedom that comes with being “Sherlock Holmes.” Things go a bit sideways when she is approached by the wife of Lord Ingram, her childhood friend, who is trying to track down her first love. Beyond the obvious conflicts of investigating the case without the knowledge of Lord Ingram, the further Charlotte digs into the identity and history of Lady Ingram’s former paramour, the more strangely complicated matters become. Soon Charlotte finds herself embroiled in hidden ciphers, codes within codes, blackmail plots, poisoning, and espionage. Weaving these disparate threads into a resolution will tax even her brilliant mind.

Charlotte Holmes is simply a great character. She is by no means a female stand-in for the great detective, rather it’s as if Thomas grew her from scratch; a brilliant and analytical mind on par with Sherlock Holmes, but within a person who has had to grow up adhering (to a greater or lesser degree) the societal expectations for a nineteenth-century lady of breeding. Thomas also continues to develop the characters of Mrs. Watson, Lord Ingram, Inspector Treadle, and Charlotte’s older sister, Livia. Though the supporting characters don’t get as much attention as Charlotte, there were several excellent subplots throughout the book. I was especially impressed with the characterization of Inspector Treadle, an honorable and forthright man, trying to come to grips with the existence of women who seek a measure of independence. This could easily have turned into some cliche or overdone condemnation of weak-minded men, but instead we see Treadles honestly wrestling with himself and his preconceptions.

Fans of historical mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and the like should check out this series. If you enjoyed A Study in Scarlet Women you will likely enjoy this book as well. I cannot wait to see what Thomas does in future books in this series.

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

Book Review: Fever by Deon Meyer

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Fever by Deon Meyer

A mysterious illness swept across the world, killing off 95% of the population. Months after the disaster peaked, 13 year old Nico Storm and his father, Willem, drive across the blighted landscape of South Africa, trying to survive in a new and terrifying world. Coming to a small town with hydroelectric power equipment still intact, Nico’s father dreams of creating an ideal, rational society out of the ashes of the old world. The community grows and so do its enemies. Loyalty, honor, and optimism must wage a war against fascism, zealotry, and violence.

This is an epic book, as the post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to. The book spans years, from Nico and Willem’s first days scavenging, through to the development and success of the community that they establish. The book’s true focus is not necessarily on the post apocalyptic world, but rather on the nature of humankind itself. The book is written from Nico’s perspective, and focuses on the defining moment of his life: the murder of his father. By unwinding the story of the post-fever world and the development of a utopian community, we unravel the events which led to Willem Storm’s assassination.

This is a very human novel. There are no monsters or mutants here to provide danger, simply people. In that regard, the book strongly reminds me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The tension and suspense come not from creepy-crawlies out to eat our protagonists, but the very very scary question about what will triumph in a global catastrophe. Will “the better angels of our nature” win the day, or will they fall to the petty evilness that lurks in the human psyche? I think it is this question which makes the post-apocalyptic genre so compelling. Can we put our faith in human nature?

This book was well written and grand in scale. The South African setting provided a new point of view for me over here in the United States. Anyone with a love for post-apocalyptic tales should check out this book.

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

Book Review: Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black


Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black 

The aliens came on Valentine’s Day. They didn’t come in peace, they didn’t offer to share their advanced knowledge, they didn’t even ask us to surrender. They simply, methodically, and ruthlessly began to destroy the planet. 500 years later, and humanity has fought the alien race, known only as “Valentines” or “Romeos,” to a standstill. Our success came by harnessing their own technology, a blend of mechanics and something very like magic called thelemity. But when the nature of the battle begins to change, humanity must adapt with it, or face extinction.

So one of the cover blurbs for this book called it a mix between Harry Potter and Starship Troopers, so naturally I had to read it.  (Confession time: I’ve never actually read Heinlein’s book, though I have seen the 1997 movie starring Casper Van Dien and (sorry) enjoyed it. I’ve been told that this makes me a bad person. I have no argument against that)

So anyway, the book was pretty freaking neat. Yes, most of the central characters are teenagers, but we’re dealing with issues like sex, random violence, dismemberment, planetary eradication, and military discipline, so this really isn’t a book for the young kiddos. Black’s world building is generally interesting, though I will confess to a few eye-roll worthy moments early on. Fortunately, if you make it through the more goofy stuff in the beginning (I’m looking at you, N’workies), then the book really comes into its own. I especially liked the concept of thelemity, which seems like something you’d find in the Warhammer 40k universe. The futuristic-yet-strangely-arcane technology was consistently interesting and well used (and also well explained).

The book is told from the point of view of several different characters, and Black does a great job of giving each their own voice (though some are more aggravating than others, especially early on). I also found it interesting that this brutal tale of war and loss was told exclusively through the eyes of children. Each of these kids has grown up in a state of perpetual war (ahem, sound familiar?), and so the sacrifices and the brutality that go along with such a state are taken, if not in stride, then as the way things have always been. I’m not sure if I enjoy this point of view or if I find it disturbing (probably a bit of both).

So, if you like your sci-fi dark, and your battles with giant space monsters bloody, if you need more lasers, huge guns, and combat exoskeletons in your life, then this may be the book for you.

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

Book Review: Children of the Shaman by Jessica Rydill

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Children of the Shaman by Jessica Rydill

Thirteen year old Annat is a shaman by birth. Within her own people, the Wanderers, shamans can heal, protect, and enter bodily into other realms. Outside her people, however, shamans are looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. Annat is largely untrained in her powers, but when her aunt falls sick, she and her brother are sent to live with the father they barely know.

Annat is finally able to train as a shaman under the tutelage of her father, Yuda, but the family soon turns down a dangerous path. Yuda has been assigned to investigate strange occurrences and brutal murders in a small northern town. Strange, old magic seems to be at play in the area, and soon after arriving, Annat’s brother Malchik disappears. Annat and Yuda’s search for Malchik will take them on a strange journey through a mystical land of winter, where they must find Malchik and stop the evil being responsible for the town’s troubles.

This was an interesting and well-crafted fantasy. The story exists in a slightly offset historical Russia/Eastern Europe, with a good dose of Judaism and Jewish mysticism. The Russian fairy-tale setting is in vogue at the moment, with books such as The Bear and the Nighingale by Katherine Arden, and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo creating well-deserved buzz. Rydill’s inclusion of Jewish history, religion, and folklore set her book apart and add a touch of realism and historical grounding in a fantasy tale.

In all, the book is well written. The character of Annat is well-realized, sometimes to the detriment of the other characters, who can feel a bit flat. The journey through the fairy-tale realm borrows from Eastern European and Russian folklore, and is for the most part exciting and fun reading. I did find that the book began to drag a bit towards the end, but overall I found Children of the Shaman a diverting fantasy.

Fans of the fantasy genre, especially those who enjoyed The Bear and the Nnightingale or Shadow and Bone will likely enjoy this book. Anyone looking for a fantasy featuring a strong female lead (Children of the Shaman reminds me a lot of The Green Rider by Kristen Britain) shoudl also consider this book for their TBR.

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

Book Review: Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

The Revolutionary War is the origin story of the United States. Like every origin story, it carries certain expectations: a plucky underdog comes into power, or comes into the realization of their own inner power, and proceeds to upend the established order of things. The origin story reaches its climax when said plucky underdog is able to defeat the villain, who is the representative of the power of the old order.

That is certainly the popular narrative that winds through most histories of the Revolutionary War. But is this all there is? Hoock’s Scars of Independence seeks to add to the Revolutionary narrative, to complicate and humanize the feel-good legend most of us learn in school. Hoock has little time for the “immaculate conception” origin of the United States, which features a noble and forward-looking young colony rebelling and separating nearly bloodlessly from the stodgy and declining Britain. Rather, Hoock shows us the bloody underside of the fight for independence, a violent and cruel conflict regarded in its time not as a fight for independence, but as a civil war.

In Scars of Independence, Hoock takes us through the escalating violence on both sides of the conflict. We learn about tarring and feathering, prison ships, rapes, whippings, hangings and lynchings. We learn about petty grievances between neighbors turned into war crimes. About prison camps in mines, about the impossible position of Native Americans and of slaves, caught between two feuding (largely white) armies.

This is a fantastic, thoroughly researched history. A must read for any history buffs or Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Hoock has presented an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is seldom dealt with in popular literature. Though this is first and foremost a history book, Hoock’s writing style is accessible and clear, and Scars of Independence is highly readable, even for the more casual reader.

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

Book Review: The Ostermann House by J.R. Klein

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The Ostermann House by J.R. Klein

Michael and Audrey Felton just want to get away. They want a place of their own where they can escape the hustle and bustle of academia in Houston, and simply relax in peace and quiet. Their search for a second home in the country seems to be at an impasse until their realtor shows them a fixer-upper farmhouse going for a song. After moving in, they find they may have gotten more than they bargained for. A walled up room in the basement is discovered, complete with a mysterious nine-sided coin. Strange lights and sounds defy explanation, and someone, or something, seems to be toying with them. Investigating the history of the property, Mike and Audrey learn that the local townspeople seem to regard the house with suspicion bordering on hatred. With events escalating, Mike’s mental state begins to deteriorate. Unable to trust anyone, even himself, he must get to the bottom of the mystery before it is too late.

I really enjoy haunted house stories, and this one had a solid start. From the prologue (reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), to the first look at what lies behind the bricked-in basement wall, to our first encounters with  . . . something, this book delivered quite a few suspenseful, creepy moments.

From this strong beginning, however, the book seems to lose focus. Klein provides plenty of fodder for paranoia and creepiness. The shifting stories of the townspeople, and the mysterious behavior of the local sheriff are poised to make Mike Felton, and the reader, question everything that has come before: is everyone around him lying, or is some outside force messing with reality? Unfortunately, these revelations are treated perfunctorily, reversals of evidence treated in a matter-of-fact, oh-by-the-way manner, and a lot of potential for suspense is lost.

So too, with later encounters with the mysterious presence in the house. Without spoilers, I can say that at one point, Audrey and Mike are both trapped inside the house by a storm, with full knowledge that whatever or whoever has been invading their home is in there with them. This was a supreme opportunity for some truly creepy stuff to go down, but the whole scene is over in just a few paragraphs. This scene and others like it seem rushed, as though the author was barreling along with the plot, and did not take the time to build up the requisite creep factor of the genre.

I also feel that the ending goes a bit off the rails. I pride myself on giving spoiler-free reviews, no I will provide no details. Suffice it to say that exploring outside the bounds of a set genre can lead to unexpected and awesome results, but if not done carefully it can quickly veer into the ludicrous. I found the ending of the book to be a bit absurd, with not one or two but four twists coming in rapid succession. By the final chapters it was hard to recognize the book I was reading as the suspenseful, creepy one I had started with such enthusiasm a few days earlier.

In all, this book started out great and showed a lot of promise. Even with some of the scarier and paranoia-inducing scenes seeming rushed, I still enjoyed reading it quite a bit . . . until the ending. Genre fans who want to read something a bit different might think about picking up this book; I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book’s ending (maybe it’s just me)!

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

Book Review: Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane by Paul Thomas Murphy

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy

In 1871, a young, pretty servant girl was found ruthlessly beaten in a country lane. Jane Clouson died a few days later without regaining consciousness. When the son of her employer falls under suspicion for her murder, the subsequent police investigation and trial spark unrest between the working class and the middle class residents of London. Jane, unremarkable and overlooked in life, became a powerful symbol of the suffering of working class girls, and the easy power of their “betters.”

Pretty Jane is an engagingly written book that straddles the true crime and history genres. Murphy’s style of writing is engaging and flows well, allowing the book to read more like a novel than a history book. Murphy takes the reader along for the ride in an investigation and trial that, in the modern day, would be up there with the OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony trials. Each side bitterly fought for their desired outcome, and the legal push-pull dynamic adds to the story’s suspense. Murphy is more than willing to unwind this suspense out slowly, leaving you to tensely wait to see if there will ever be any justice for poor Jane.

Any history buff will enjoy this book. The narrative style of the writing makes this book accessible and fun for casual readers as well. If you’re a fan of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, this book should be next on your TBR.

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

Book Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

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Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

Dear husband brought this book to my attention after hearing a segment about it on NPR (what a very good husband!). After hearing only a few anecdotes about it, I needed to read it, NOW. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.

Rejected Princesses grew out of a lunchtime chat among Dreamworks animators: Who was least likely to be turned into an animated princess? Out of this seed grew a blog (http://www.rejectedprincesses.com) and the blog sprouted a book (with a second on the way!). The first volume is a massively heavy compendium of 100 women who defied norms, expectations, invading armies, assailants, and politicians. Each entry is roughly 2-3 pages long, and each features a Disney-style illustration of the featured “princess.”

The entries are neatly cataloged with maturity ratings and applicable trigger warnings. This means you can read the more family-friendly entries to the kids, and save the stories of rape, murder, and revenge for later (or never, as it suits you). In this way, Porath has created a book that has something for all ages, while at the same time not glossing over the violence experience by quite a few defiant women. The stories also skip across time, space, and legend. You’ll find biblical queens next to Bolivian revolutionaries next to British suffragettes next to African warriors next to Japanese samurais. You’ll find straight women and women who represent every color of the LGBTQA rainbow. Porath show us that there is a princess out there for everyone.

This book was amazing. Some women, like Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh in Egypt), Harriet Tubman (“Moses” of escaping slaves), and Joan of Arc (the gold standard of defiant woman) I had heard of already, but others like Saint Olga of Kiev (who set a town on fire using pigeons), Calafia (mythical Muslim queen and namesake for the state of California), and Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (Vietnamese sisters who led armies to defeat the Chinese in the 1st century) I had never even guessed existed. The book is jam-packed with these kinds of stories, and the encyclopedia-entry-style of each story means it’s easy to pick up and put down as needed, and come back to your favorite parts. Once you read through the book, there are even more entries on the Rejected Princesses website, so you can head over there to keep getting your fix.

This is a great book for anyone looking for inspiration from some truly badass ladies. Porath’s rating system means that you can share these stories with the little girls in your life, and let them know they can grow up to command their own tank regiment (Mariya Oktyabrskaya), overcome handicaps (Wilma Rudolph), be great at math (Hypatia), and/or decide exactly what they want out life and strive for it.