Monday, February 29, 2016

The Madwoman Upstairs ~ Catherine Lowell

Lowell, Catherine. 2016. The Madwoman Upstairs. New York: Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster.  ISBN 978-1501124211. $25.99 USD

For an English major and Librarian, Catherine Lowell’s A Madwoman Upstairs is just about perfect.  A mysterious inheritance, an Oxford, England academic setting, a somewhat revisionist  history of the Bronte family, and a main character, Samantha Whipple, who is the last remaining descendent of that infamous family, all combined in a tale of literature, love, loss and lunacy.  Who could resist?

Samantha, twenty years old, has enrolled as a literature major at Oxford, hoping to move forward from the unresolved grief of losing her father, who homeschooled her, rather unconventionally, until the age of 15.  Her mother left the family when she was young, and her father, infamous for being among the last of the Bronte descendants, raised her on the literature of her historic literary relatives, when he was sober.

This novel is a mystery, as Samantha tries to figure out the location of the inheritance her father cryptically told her he left her; it’s a coming-of-age story, as Samantha learns to be her own person – separate from whom her father wanted her to be; and it’s a story of literature, as the author uses the texts written by Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte to create a narrative on how we understand and misunderstand authors and their intent.  Samantha is an intelligent, lonely and driven character, with a snarky voice that instills some great dialogue, especially between her and her tutor, a blatantly obvious Rochester archetype.  Ms. Lowell has hit the ball out of the park in her debut novel.  Highly recommended!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dark Turns ~ Cate Holahan

Holahan, Cate. 2015. Dark Turns. New York: Crooked Lane Books.
ISBN 978-1629531939. $24.99 USD.

Dark Turns is another novel that was on my Christmas wish list from Amazon (thanks, wonderful family)!  I was drawn to this book because of its academic setting (love academic mysteries!) and ballet dancer main character.  Nia Washington, a talented ballerina, is recovering from a broken heart and taking a break from her ballet touring company to heal from severe tendonitis (which she is hiding from everyone).  She is hired by an elite boarding school as an assistant dance instructor and Resident Advisor for a year.  On the first day of her job, she discovers the body of a drowned student in a nearby lake, which is believed to be a suicide. Nia immediately gets caught up in the investigation by the police, the petty jealousies and mean-girl shenanigans of some of her students, and the admiration of an attractive thirty-something history teacher and advisor.  But all is not what it seems, and Nia has to decide whom to trust before another student comes to a dangerous end.  I did guess the main plot twist before the end, but it did not really dim my enjoyment of the book.  Ms. Holahan has another title coming out in August, The Widower’s Wife, and I will probably give that a try, as well.

Dark Alchemy ~ Laura Bickle

Bickle, Laura. 2016. Dark Alchemy. New York: Harper Voyager Books.
ISBN 978-0062404923.  $6.99 USD.

I am a big fan of urban fantasy, but not so much westerns, so I was a little uneasy about reading Dark Alchemy by Laura Bickle, which would be classified more as contemporary dark fantasy than urban. It ended up being so good that I immediately ordered the second book in the series, Mercury RetrogradeDark Alchemy seems to fall into a genre all its own, with hints of Native American mythology and medieval alchemy running through the book.

Petra Dee, a geologist, travels to Temperance, Wyoming, to try to find information about her father who has been missing for many years. She is escaping memories of a deadly oil rig explosion which cost her a job and the life of her lover. What she finds in Temperance is a run-down trailer, a strange magical artifact, a drunken Native American seer, a coyote familiar, two antique guns and a whole lot of trouble brewing between the local drug dealer/alchemist and a brutal rancher with strange control over some individuals she comes to find out are called The Hanged Men.

Petra has a lot of courage, and her desire to find out about her father’s disappearance sometimes drives her to dive head-first into danger without thinking of the consequences. This excellent first book ends in a cliff-hanger, and pretty dark one at that.  However, with the sequel already published (and more books coming) I am looking forward to more of Petra’s adventures with The Hanged Men and her coyote sidekick, Sig. I recommend this one!

Burying Water ~K.A. Tucker

Tucker, K.A.  2014.  Burying Water. New York: Atria Books.
ISBN:  978-1476774183.  $15.00 USD.

I picked this book out and put in on a Christmas list on Amazon last year and promptly forgot about it once I opened it.  I’m glad it jumped off my bookshelf into my hands last week!  K.A. Tucker is a prolific writer of New Adult books, and came onto the scene with the 2013 publication of Ten Tiny Breaths, which I have not read.  The description of Burying Water reminded me of another New Adult novel I really enjoyed, The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay, which was a 2015 Lariat winner (5 stars on Amazon, with over 1,150 reviews)!

In Burying Water, the traditional plot of an amnesiac awakening in a hospital is enhanced by the alternating chapters which go back in time and quickly impart the identity of main character.  You would think that revealing this information so early in the novel would take away from the story; but it actually propels the narrative and entices the reader to keep turning pages to find out the whole story, which isn’t revealed until the very end.

Jesse is a twenty-something mechanic in Portland, Oregon who agrees to repair a classic car for a Russian businessman, whom he soon suspects is a mobster.  He meets Alex, the very young wife of the Russian, and her obvious abuse by her husband brings out Jesse’s protective instincts.  In the future time-line, Alex awakens in a hospital with extremely severe injuries and has no idea who she is.  She eventually takes the name “Water” instead of the Jane Doe everyone calls her in the hospital, and goes to live with a cantankerous friend of her doctor in a small Oregon town.  Over time, she notices an attractive neighbor working on his muscle car who seems to be more than a little interested in her.

 As Jesse and Alex/Water’s stories alternate, the reader is drawn into not only their lives, but the lives of the surrounding characters. The author adeptly pulls all the plot threads together to a satisfying conclusion, making the amnesia theme fresh and unique.  This book is the beginning of a series, with three additional titles exploring the lives of other characters introduced in Burying Water.  Recommended for fans of New Adult novels, which deal with more mature themes than Young Adult books, and typically are more explicit.

The Crooked House ~ Christobel Kent

The Crooked House: A Novel

Kent, Christobel. 2016. The Crooked House. New York: Simon & Schuster.
ISBN 978-0374131821. $26.00 USD. 

I was intrigued by the premise of this new novel by Christobel Kent, a prolific London born novelist who now lives in Cambridge.   The main character, Alison, is a London accountant with an academic boyfriend who has been hiding her past from everyone.  As a teenager, when she was known as Esme, her entire family was murdered and only she survived, along with her father, whom everyone assumes committed the atrocity.  She moved away from the village of Saltleigh, assumed a new name and tried to put her past behind her.  When her boyfriend is invited to a wedding in her hometown, Alison agrees to accompany him, despite severe misgivings.  The novel moves back and forth between the current events and Esme’s memories of what happened to her family.  Once she is back in Saltleigh, people, places and events conspire to gradually reveal more and more about the night of her family’s murder, and she comes to believe that her father is not the true mass murderer.  Plenty of twists and turns, and an unsettling feeling throughout, made this book an enjoyable read.  I did figure out “who done it” before the end, and the outcome left a bittersweet feel, as Alison’s life has been filled with so much tragedy.  Worth the read, but I was not a fan of the endin

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Career of Evil ~ Robert Galbraith

Galbraith, Robert. 2015. Career of Evil. Boston: Mulholland Book Books.

I didn’t get very far in my first attempt to read the third title in this series by Robert Galbraith, the pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.  I loved the first book, Cuckoo’s Calling, and the curmudgeonly private detective, Cormoran Strike, along with his savvy and determined assistant, Robin.  The second title, Silworm, was a lot darker, with a ritualistic killing that was hard to stomach.  I wanted to give the third title a chance, but the evil thoughts of the serial killer in the first few chapters were too dark and disturbing, so I decided to give it a pass.  Subsequent to a discussion with a colleague who informed me that the book got better, I decided to try again, once the library holds on the book diminished. 

I did end up enjoying the mystery, the interactions between Cormoran and Robin, and the various characters they encounter in their investigation of an unusual mystery: Robin receives a severed leg delivered by motorcycle courier at their office.  Cormoran believes that the leg was sent by one of four enemies he has made, his step-father or one of three criminals he investigated when he was in the army. The novel alternates chapters conveying the thoughts and actions of the unknown killer, Cormoran and Robin.  I, obviously, preferred the latter chapters to the former and had to skim some of the darker chapters.  Maybe it’s my age, but I find I have less patience reading descriptions of evil and cruelty, and I feel that many authors feel they need to keep raising the “shock” value of their novels as we become increasingly desensitized to dark crimes.

I will continue to give Ms. Rowling a chance with this series, and, as she left a bit of a cliff-hanger in Career of Evil, I will be eagerly looking forward to learning more about the main characters in the next book.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Darker Shade of Magic ~ V.E. Schwab (audiobook narrated by Steve Crossley)

Schwab, V.E. A Darker Shade of Magic. Narrated by Steve Crossley. Tantor Audio. 2015. CD.

I chose to listen to this book on CD, rather than read it in print, due to the number of holds placed on it in my library, and I am so glad that I did.  Audiobook narrators can be very good or very bad, just like books in print.  Steve Crossley has an impressive background in theatre and narration, having recorded over 200 audiobooks (according to his website).  The author, V.E. Schwab, set this tale in London, or one of many Londons, so Crossely’s British accent fits the setting nicely.  He has an impressive range of British accents, from the Queen’s English, to Cockney, and is able to clearly narrate the story so that the listener always knows who is speaking.

Kell is a rare Antari, a magical being able to travel between three different Londons: Red, White and Gray.  There was, at one time, a Black London, but magic there became so powerful that the door to that London was closed permanently.  Now there exists only three Londons, and Kell travels between them delivering correspondence among the royal families of Red and White London.  Gray London has very little magic left and most citizens know nothing of the other Londons.  It is in Gray London that Kell meets Delilah, a scrappy pickpocket who steals a piece of black stone from him and sets off this magical swashbuckling tale.  I do think I enjoyed this book more, having listened to it, than I would have by reading it alone, which is high praise for an audiobook, indeed!

Eligible ~ Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld, Curtis. 2016. Eligible. New York: Random House Publishing Group.
$28.00 USD.  ISBN 978-1400068326.

Kudos to Ms. Sittenfeld for delivering an excellent modern adaptation of the classic Pride and Prejudice, which I am sure was a daunting task!  Part of “The Austen Project” which pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works, Eligible is the most recent title published after Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollop, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid,  and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith.

There have been a number of other prequels, sequels, movies and adaptations to, arguably, Ms. Austen’s most famous novel.  I am very impressed with how Ms. Sittenfeld was able to capture the character traits of each of the major players and keep some of the dialogue and diction consistent with the original, as well – especially the hilarious comments made by Mr. Bennett!  In this adaptation Elizabeth is a magazine editor who has been in a long-term relationship with the married Jasper Wick.  She and Jane, who is a yoga instructor,  both live in New York  and agree to travel to the Bennett family home, set in modern day Cincinnati, Ohio, to care for their father who recently had heart surgery.  Mrs. Bennett’s frivolousness, Lydia and Kitty’s uselessness, Mary’s extreme misanthropy, and Jane’s humility and goodness all shine through, like the original characters.  Darcy is just as awkward and egotistical, and is modernized by being a brain surgeon at a local hospital.  The title, Eligible, is derived from a “Bachelor” – like TV show on which Chip Bingley agrees to appear prior to the opening of the story.  There are many other differences, of course, as would be needed in a contemporary adaptation, especially Lizzy and Darcy being able to work out their tension with “hate sex, “ which would not have been appropriate in the time of the original text!

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and will add it to other adaptations the next time I put up my library display called “For Fans of Jane Austen.”  I applaud Ms. Sittenfeld for thoroughly modernizing this tale, yet keeping the characters and story-line consistent to the original.  A charming and engaging read!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Bed of Scorpions ~ Judith Flanders

Flanders, Judith. 2016. A Bed of Scorpions. New York: St. Martin's Press/Minotaur.
$24.99 USD.  ISBN 978-1-250-05646-7.

Judith Flanders’ follow-up to A Murder of Magpies takes the reader back into the British publishing world, this time focusing on intrigue in the art world, as well.  The main character, Samantha Claire, cautiously settled in with her detective boyfriend from the previous novel, finds herself in the middle of a suicide investigation that is more than it seems.  She is caught between an old friend who owns an art gallery and her boyfriend, Detective Inspector Jake Field, who is investigating the suspicious death.  The author provides amusing details of the publishing and art worlds as the plot meanders along like stroll through a museum.  The obscure Colophon, which was a new publishing concept to me, is a fascinating plot point, and the suspenseful denouement is satisfying.  The author is an assured writer, but this second entry into the series didn’t quite capture this reader’s attention as much as A Murder of Magpies did.  However, I enjoy the main characters and the setting quite a bit, so will look forward to the next title, if one comes.