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: The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

Jude Brighton is missing, and only his ten-year-old cousin, Stevie, seems concerned. Most of the town regards Jude as merely trouble, and write him off as a likely runaway. But Jude isn’t the first disappearance from the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon. Pets have long gone missing from backyards, and years ago another young boy went missing, found weeks later torn to pieces . . . The adults in town seem determined to avoid thinking about these mysteries, and it seems that Stevie may have to take matters into his own hands.

It has been a while since I’ve read a true horror novel, and I came away from The Devil Crept In with a renewed love of the genre. Ahlborn has an excellent sense of suspense, and fills the narrative with enough background menace to keep the reader on edge throughout the book.

In addition, Stevie, our narrator, seems to be suffering from some schizophreniform disorder, adding a delicious uncertainty to everything about the book. Stevie is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and we can never be sure if the things that happen are real, or a product of his mental illness.

Ahlborn is a rare female voice in a genre nearly completely dominated by men. Fans of Stephen King, Nick Cutter, Joe Hill and other giants of the genre would do well to read her work. Ahlborn is clearly able to set her own bloody stake near the top of the hill of horror writers.

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: I am Providence by Nick Mamatas

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Colleen Danzig is an aspiring writer of Lovecraftian fiction. While attending the biggest gathering for Lovecraftian literary types: The Summer Tentacular in Providence, Rhode Island, she finds the hardcore fans more than a little off-putting. When her roommate–a widely admired and equally despised writer named Panossian–is murdered and his face surgically removed, Colleen finds that she is the only one who seems to care about Panossian’s death. Deciding to start her own investigation, she delves into the underbelly of the Lovecraftian fandom, a place where racism and sexism merge with mystical thinking, and more than one convention goer seems to be searching for a book bound in human skin . . .

This is a meta-fiction, a Lovecraft book about Lovecraft folks. There are no cosmic horrors here, though, just the banal horror of truly terrible people. I do like the split narrative between the well-meaning and frustrated Colleen and the dead, decomposing, but still conscious Panossian, which did give the book a touch of Lovecraftian horror. the tone of the book is bitter and snarky, focusing on the trouble that arises when you have too many socially-backward folks in one place. Despite the occasionally sour-grapes-esque tone, Mamatas does bring forward some legitimate problems both with Lovecraft himself and with a subset of his fans (see previous: racism, sexism, etc.).

The plot of the book stumbles at times, switching viewpoints or segueing with little warning. In addition, the various secondary characters tend to be a bit one dimensional, which occasionally makes it difficult to keep these players straight.

The book is quite funny at times, but I would recommend it more for the serious Lovecraft fan, and not a casual reader.

Book Review: Alice and the Assassin by R.J. Koreto

Alice and the Assassin by R.J. Koreto

Alice Roosevelt was the daughter of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Born into the heights of New York Society, and thrust further into the spotlight as a member of the first family, Alice was a determined rebel in an age where proper behavior was paramount for well heeled women. Fiercely intelligent and chafing at the limitations placed upon her by society, Alice drank, smoked, and drove in cars with men. She imposed herself on her father’s policy meetings, offering political advice and helping in diplomatic meetings. Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

R.J. Koreto brings this remarkable woman to life in the historical mystery Alice and the Assassin. Koreto is an old hand at historical mysteries, his Lady Frances Ffolkes series features another strong (and fictional) heroine, and is quite a fun read (you can read my review of Death Among Rubies here).

This book, hopefully the first of several, features seventeen-year-old Alice and her Secret Service bodyguard, Joseph St. Clair. The year is 1902, and Theodore Roosevelt has recently ascended to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz. Alice, wishing to satisfy her own curiosity about the incident, decides to seek out famous anarchist, and associate of Czolgosz, Emma Goldman. However, this meeting seems to disturb powerful factions within the local community, and soon Alice and St. Clair find themselves embroiled in a wide-reaching conspiracy which may threaten another president.

I am a fan of Koreto’s previous work and this book did not disappoint. Alice is well realized, both as a vulgarity-slinging iconoclast and a sheltered seventeen year old who wants to protect her family. Historical details are sprinkled throughout with satisfying accuracy, and those aspects which are fictionalized for the plot roll nicely into the feel of the era.

The book begins with some stutters as the author introduces us to the protagonists and the world they inherit, but rapidly finds its footing. The pacing is splendid, with enough narrative false trails and red herrings to make for an enjoyable mystery. The plot, while fictional, is based on real events, and the final solution to the plot feels a bit too possible for comfort.

In all, fans of historical mysteries will enjoy this book. I would recommend Alice and the Assassin to fans of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series, Deanna Raybourn‘s books,  or the Maisie Dobbs series. Anyone looking for an engaging book featuring a strong female protagonist will also enjoy this book.

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

Book Review: The Sisters of Blue Mountain by Karen Katchur

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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: James Clyde and the Diamonds of Orchestra by Colm McElwain

James Clyde and the Diamonds of Orchestra by Colm McElwain

This book revolves around James Clyde, plucky orphan, and his two friends, siblings Mary and Ben (also orphans). The three, recently adopted by crotchety Anne Brown, are looking forward to visiting with James’ elderly grandfather, Wiltmore Clyde, over the Christmas holidays. Wiltmore has always told James and his friends stories of the legendary land of Orchestra, where three invaluable diamonds are hidden, diamonds that can grant wishes.

The appearance of a sinister man in black heralds an attack on Wiltmore’s house by mysterious cloaked monsters, and James finds out that the stories his grandfather has been telling him all this time have been true. Orchestra is a real place, the diamonds are real, and James is in fact the long-lost heir to the throne. James (with the diamond his grandfather has been hiding since he was a baby) flees with Mary and Ben to Orchestra, where they find themselves embroiled in a long-running war for the rule of the legendary land, and possession of the magical diamonds.

I don’t normally review children’s books, nor do I have children, so I am reduced to giving an adult’s perspective on this book. The bones of the story are interesting, with flavors of The Chronicles of Narnia, the Harry Potter series, Peter Pan, and even the Terminator (yes, the movie, I kid you not). The cloaked monsters, the Dakotas are frankly creepy, and you get the impression  of quite a bit of background waiting to flesh out the story.

Along those lines, some additional world building would have been helpful. The story throws you right in, with little explanation. I generally enjoy getting thrown into the middle of the chaos, but the book does little to explain things later on. James, Mary, and Ben know all about Orchestra and the diamonds, so there is no vehicle for the reader to learn much about the world. It feels like the author has a complete world built in his imagination, but you are only seeing the smallest sliver. The book feels like the beginning of a series, so future books could help to add depth to the land of Orchestra.

However, I think this book will be enjoyed by the ages it was intended for–kids around 10-12. The plot is simple enough for younger readers to not get bogged down, and the resulting fast pace will keep their attention. There are some violent and scarier scenes in the book, but nothing really over a PG rating. Kids who enjoy fantasy books would be a good match for this one.

Book Review: Rigor Mortis by Richard F. Harris


Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Undermines Tomorrow’s Medicine by Richard F. Harris

It seems like every other week a new study hits the news: Red wine cures cancer, coffee is terrible for you, taking vitamins is crucial for good health, red wine might actually cause cancer, caffeine in small amount is good for you, vitamins are worthless. With this whirlpool of conflicting information coming rapid-fire into the public sphere, one could certainly forgive the average person if they stopped paying attention, or even started to doubt everything they hear from a scientific source.

In Rigor Mortis, former NPR science journalist Richard F. Harris seeks to illuminate the systemic problems which underlie this phenomenon. Especially in this political environment, such an undertaking is a double-edged sword. It would be too easy for someone to take the basic concept: that there are structural problems within the field of medical research, and leap wildly to the conclusion that science itself is deeply flawed. However, the current situation within the scientific community needs to be addressed. Improvement can only be achieved with honest admissions of fault, greater transparency, and dedication to change. In this regard, Harris’ book does the field more good than harm.

The current crisis has been labeled one of reproducability. Flawed research, lack of standardized methods, and inadequate analysis, combined with the chaos of working within living systems, result in a nigh-impossibility of one lab successfully reproducing the results of another. The causes of this are multifaceted; lack of training in laboratory and statistical methods, the dog-eat-dog nature of research funding, the press by Universities to “publish, publish, publish” with more regard to quantity of work than quality. Right now, it pays far better to be first to be right.

Harris’ book isn’t just a condemnation of the state of the field, he provides concrete adjustments and changes that can be made to improve the quality of research being done, and shares the stories of those within the field who are working towards those ends. The emphasis here is that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As more and more researchers begin to deal honestly with the flaws of their research and seek solutions, the benefits for medical research, and for doctors and patients, will be profound.

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

Book Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Nora Shaw lives an isolated life, and prefers it that way. She keeps to her schedule in her tiny studio in London, and relishes in the safety that her lack of social contact provides. Then one day, an email arrives, inviting her to her school friend Clare’s hen party. Nora hasn’t seen Clare in a decade, not since she walked out of school and never looked back. Reluctantly dragged into the party, Nora finds that not everything is as it seems. Something is deeply wrong at this party, and Nora must figure out what is going on before it costs her her life.

This is Ruth Ware’s debut novel, and it is an edge of the seat mystery/thriller. Ware paints a scary portrait of revenge and obsession, but as a reader, you’re never really sure who is truly obsessed. Nora herself seems to become more and more unreliable as a narrator as the story goes on, bringing everything that came before into question. The twists are numerous and surprising, once you’re sure you know where the book is going, it throws you in a different direction entirely. The false leads and narrative dead ends keep you guessing throughout the book.

Fans of books like The Girl on the Train and I See You, or fans of Tana French or Gillian Flynn will find a lot to like in this book.

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.