Tuesday, March 6, 2018

FOUR ARCs: The Cottingley Secret; You'll Never Know, Dear; Hounds of the Underworld; These Vicious Masks

ALL FOUR of these reviews are based on ARCs (Advanced Reader's Copies received for free in exchange for an honest review).

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

This is one of those books that explores a historical event---in this case, one that happens to be true---from the perspective of a present day woman exploring her past and coming to terms with her life. The historical event is the photographing of fairies by Frances Griffiths and her cousin Elsie Wright in Cottingley. Starting in the early 1920s, Frances and Elsie sparked worldwide interest and debate regarding both whether fairies are real and, in any case, whether they'd in fact been photographed by the girls. This book considers the perspective of Frances in the form of a memoir read by someone (Olivia) in present time. (Exactly 100 years after Frances first saw the fairies in 1917.)

Olivia is a young woman who has just lost her grandfather and is attending his funeral in Ireland. He has left her the memoir in his passing, along with his house, his bookstore, the care of her grandmother with Alzheimer's, and some debt that he'd failed to mention. Olivia unfortunately has a bit of a jerk of a fiancé back in London and a life there that she's increasingly interested in abandoning.

As Olivia reads the memoirs to herself and her grandmother, she learns more about what matters and what is really important in life, not to mention the Cottingley secret and perhaps even a snippet of her own ancestry.

It was an interesting story, well told and pretty well paced. I often didn't love Gaynor's use of metaphor -- what others have found poetic, I have found clunky and oddly cliched (the metaphors seemed to highlight the cliched feelings/thoughts in their attempt to obfuscate them). I also found some of the contradictions annoying (the biggest one being that the memoir was left for Olivia in a package from her grandfather, as noted in the beginning, and discovered by Olivia in the store after is passing, as stated about halfway through). But overall, despite these hitches, I still found the book enjoyable and interesting. I also thought Gaynor did a great job with the family dynamics and reveals. I almost found Olivia's story more interesting than Frances... it was nice that the story (Olivia's) created for the purpose of exploring a different story (Frances) was independently interesting and engaging.

So all in all, some history, light romance, fairies, family and self discovery, and a quaint Irish seaside town made for an enjoyable read.

Rounded up to FOUR of five stars.

You'll Never Know, 
Dear by Hallie Ephron

I really enjoyed reading this book. It wasn't quite what I was expecting. I was expecting something extra creepy and maybe in the horror camp. This was more suspense, maybe a little lite-horror, some relationship building, and just good story-telling.

It's called "A Novel of Suspense," and I would agree with that. Even though you may (I did) "figure it out" really early in the novel, it still reads really well and still creates a tension and a suspenseful feeling as you quickly turn the pages to find out if you're right, *how* you're right (or wrong), *why* you're right (or wrong), and most of all, how it all resolves anyway.

I love the creepy doll backdrop and I enjoyed the different perspectives from which the book is told. Although I am not always a fan of the back and forth, and certainly not when such perspective is used for convenience, in this book, it really just worked. It was a quick and definitely enjoyable read for me, and I easily recommend to those who are looking for a quick, rainy-day read. A strong FOUR stars!

Hounds of the Underworld by Dan Rabarts

I received this book in e-book format. The only e-book specific complaint I had was the font kept on switching back and forth between font-sizes. It was distracting, but not so much that I couldn't enjoy the story.

First, I would not compare this book or its characters with Sherlock... the analysis and personality just do not match. This is a book set in the not-too-distant future (in New Zealand!) about a young (20s?) headstrong girl (Pandora (Penny)) who wants to be a scientist, darnit, even if her wealthy parents think it's a silly career for a girl to have, and her mess-up brother (Matiu) (30s?) who maybe interacts with people or things that aren't there. She is on an assignment from the police (to be a scientific consult) with her brother as her driver (literally... he's essentially her personal taxi, ordered by their parents who own the taxi company) when Matiu has a foreboding flash that causes him to scream and urge his sister to not get involved with the case. Of course she does. Did I mention she's headstrong? Headstrong never heed good advice in modern literature.

Anyway, because she insists on working the case, he insists on helping her. I believe he's supposed to be the "Sherlock" comparison -- grumpy, but notices things that other people miss? Though he's apparently very handsome and charming when he wants to be. He's described such that I sort of picture a slightly buffer, slightly rougher version of Joel McHale.

So there's danger and supernatural and science and police and detective elements. It was enjoyable and I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next and how it concluded. And I was not necessarily disappointed in the conclusion either. I just found it, overall, a bit unpolished. It reads a bit like a gritty sketch of something more than a novel. And while that sort of works with the type of story, I felt it could use a bit *more* polishing.. maybe not too much, but a little bit more. I do anticipate that this series will settle into itself, though. Since this is the first, there are generally a few kinks to work out. I'd be open to the next ...

THREE AND A HALF of five stars.

These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker

Review based on audio CD.

I've often said that a reader can make or break a book... sometimes, however, the reader isn't your favorite, but the story withstands it. This was one of those instances. The reader for this book stated essentially every non-dialog sentence archly (and a fair number of the dialog sentences too). It was irritating and distracting. Although I understand the main character, and maybe a couple others, were supposed to be, I don't know, sardonic or sarcastic or whatever would naturally result in their thought process coming across that way... it just just fell awkwardly when every single sentence was phrased that way. And I know the reader *could* read in other ways because dialog was read more naturally (except for the more "arch" characters), so I'm not sure why she made the decision. But it was weird.

Nonetheless, the story was interesting enough that I kept listening and eventually *largely* became accustomed to the reading style. I was so into the story, in fact, that I checked out the e-version from the library so I could get through it faster (flipping back and forth between the e-version and the audio version)! (That's one of the down-sides to listening to audio on CD -- you can't speed up the reading to 1.5x speed, which is how I listen to most books.)

It is about a young girl (I believe she is seventeen), Evelyn, whose sister Rose is taken by some unsavory characters and Evelyn's seeking her sister in order to rescue her -- aided in large part by two men who she may or may not have a romantic interest in... or vice versa. I know, teen love/teen triangles. Normally very eye-roll worthy. But it was actually okay for me in this one -- maybe because I liked the rest of the story. And sure, I thought the triangle-aspect was ... confusing and ... contrived. As I usually do. But it wasn't enough to put me off of the rest of the story. And I clearly thought there was one "worthy" contender here, but a triangle can't exist without a second, right?

Aaaaanyway. I don't want to spoil the story, so I won't say much. But there is fun in the discovery of things, in the interpersonal relationships other than the love-triangle, even in some of the relationship development within the triangle, and in the figuring it all out. I will add that there is a "supernatural" element to it all ... though it is "based" in science. I like that sort of thing. I enjoy new explanations for made-up things. :) Overall, FOUR of five stars. Definitely will read (or listen to!) the next in the series!

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang

Partial Review based on partial ARC (Advanced Readers' Copy received in exchange for an honest review).

I won this audio book as a part of the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing. It is a 9-disc book, and I began listening in earnest. Once I finished the first CD, I was delighted. Oh, I thought, this is going to be so good.

Alas. The remaining eight CDs were all blank. :'(
I have contacted the ER program and hope to get a replacement. Meanwhile, I will have to wait until I can get to the physical copy, and that may take quite a bit longer.

Based on the 1st CD, however, I expect this to be a strong and enjoyable book about extraordinary circumstances. I'm not sure who the baby is yet. I'm not sure what happens to Mary yet. I'm not sure how Waylon (sp?) fits into everything yet. But I look forward to finding out! A current 4 of 5 stars.

I've now finished the audio book (checked it out from the library). It continued to be a wonderful, magical read. I loved the characters and thought the readers did a great job of bringing each of them to life. Weylyn is particularly endearing, of course, as I believe he was meant to be. I was surprised that I didn't mind the various narrators each giving him their own version of his personality more... it fit alright and I never felt that it was too jarring. Even though there really isn't much of a plot-arc, per se, I nonetheless enjoyed the love story (and, indeed, that's what it is) and the friendships and family lines. Definitely recommended. FOUR of five stars.

Dark Flowers by Caytlyn Brooke

Review based on **Audio** ARC (Advanced Review Copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review).

I think this could have been a great book, but the various issues left it at good for me. It is touted as Young Adult Horror, and I think perhaps, if I had been reading it myself or if the narrator had been better, it might have pulled that off. Unfortunately, although the actions were horrific at times (very dark things happen), the tone of the book as read was very light and almost instructional. I felt like a Sunday School Church teacher had been trying to teach a lesson to fifth graders rather than someone reading a horror novel to me. It was quite disconcerting, particularly in the context of the book at times. When someone is committing an act of horror, but it's being talked about as if you were being offered "coffee and bars," it's jarring.

There were also issues with the recording -- it skipped at times, repeated little snippets at times, and, as others have already mentioned, omitted an entire portion of the book in the middle. Frustrating. On top of that, the reader mispronounced a variety of words -- the one that stuck out the most was pronouncing "bared" (as in, "bared teeth") as if it were barred. Oops. That definitely also threw me. In addition, because of the format it was sent in, it kept restarting the chapter (and sometimes the whole book), so I had to keep track of where I was at all times in terms of chapter & minutes/seconds in order to not have as much interruption.

But the story was good. Although there were elements that felt "debut" and amateur, mostly, I think it was a well-thought-out teen horror. The creep-factor is strong, there is definitely gore and psychotic or sociopathic behavior, and supernatural elements. At times it felt a little undirected (for example, some things that I felt would go somewhere ended up not really being relevant to the story), but I nevertheless really wanted to know what happened next, and how it all resolved. For me, there weren't really any great surprises, but I thought it could have been a great, quick read. I would read something else by this author. Unfortunately, however, I would try to avoid listening to this reader again.

overall, THREE of five stars.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Review based on ARC (Advanced Review Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

The Roanoke Girls is set up as some kind of mystery  (by the book - from synopsis on back of book) -- Lane Roanoke's mother commits suicide, so Lane comes to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra in a small town in Kansas. Lane "discover[s] the dark truth at the heart of the family" and runs away. Years later, when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing, Lane returns to figure out what happened to Allegra -- did she run? or "something worse"? Lane must now face the "secret" that made her flee while she attempts to discovery Allegra's fate and, at the same time, maneuver the relationships with her grandparents, friends, and ex boyfriend that she left behind.

Well, the "secret" is not really a secret -- although it is not explicitly discussed early in the book, it is fairly obvious what it *is* fairly early in the book. Although I don't give spoilers, I will say that this garners "trigger warners" for some readers. Fortunately, Engel did not feel the need to go into too much detail with her descriptions, for which I commend her. Although it is obvious what is happening, when, and with whom, the heart of the story isn't Engel's ability to shock her reader, but, rather, in her ability to explore one girl's response to such behavior.

I was impressed with the way Engel delved into a sticky and difficult area and show her readers how some would respond in such an extreme situation -- both the common and the uncommon responses. Although I thought some of Lane's thought processes were a bit repetitive and redundant at times (not so much in her *thinking* repetitively, which is likely, but in her presentation of the "shocking secret" as such to the invisible reader in an oddly redundant way), and although I probably would have liked a little more of the snippets we receive into the thoughts of various other characters, overall I thought that this was a great read. Uncomfortable at times, yes but worthwhile and definitely readable.

As for Engel's writing style, I found that I was immediately engaged in the story and found myself itching to return to the book until I was finished reading it. At a time in my life when I am otherwise rather preoccupied, this was a noteworthy feat! Recommended as a quick read with a touch of mystery (what happens to Allegra, not what the so-called "secret" is), a touch of romance, a touch of dismay, and a touch of hope. FOUR of five stars.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Welcome to the Club by Raquel D'Apice

Review based on ARC (Advanced Readers Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review)

This appears to be a blog-turned-into-a-book (and if that's not true, then it certainly reads like one!). I am currently pregnant and read the book as a sort of "welcome" that the title announced. In reality, I think the book would probably be a bit more preferred by people who are already parents, especially those in their first few years of parenting.

What D'Apice essentially does is lay out, in a humorous and often sarcastic way, many "firsts" that new parents experience, such as First Time Baby Accidentally Head-Butts You in the Lip or First Time Your Child Refuses to Eat Something or First Car Ride Alone with the Baby When He's Screaming His Head Off. D'Apice does not generally offer advice, so much as camaraderie. She lets new parents know that all the crazy new stuff they're experiencing is normal, not that crazy, and experienced by others. She thus addresses many new parents' fears and frustrations in a funny, light-hearted way.

I think, for me, although I found it generally humorous and fine, I wasn't really blown away. Although I am a soon-to-be parent, I don't think I'm typical in that I am not really concerned about all these things that could and likely will go wrong... this is likely due to the fact that I'm on the older end of "new parents" and the fact that most of my good friends have children, so I've already "seen it all" (not all, of course, but a lot :)). So, it was enjoyable, a quick read, fine. And I think that a lot of new parents will really appreciate it, but it wasn't my favorite, my most amusing, my most helpful book.

Overall, still, Three and a Half of five stars. Solid and certainly recommended for the new parents who feels overwhelmed and alone.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Eep! It's been a while! Well, here you go... :)

Review based on ARC (Advanced Readers Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

I loved this book. I have struggled with reading lately primarily because my focus is so hard to keep... life and what not. But this book kept me trapped in its pages when other failed!

Brief synopsis: (nothing more revealing than what's on the inside jacket cover) Jason Dessen is a physics professor at a small college in Chicago, married to the love of his life and with a beloved teenage boy. One night, he is abducted by a masked stranger and asked if he is happy with his life right before he is knocked unconscious. He awakens to a life he does not recognize, unmarried with no children, but wildly successful in his career. Any more description is essentially spoiler, so I'll leave it at that....

I'd describe this book as a light sci-fi (there are definitely sci-fi elements, but the science itself is pretty light and in no way overwhelms the story), very light horror (just a little dark at times), thriller. It is fast-paced and the concept does not lose intrigue over the events of the story itself. (This is a peeve of mine - when stories drop their fascinating concept in favor of over-characterization or over-describing scenes, etc.) Jason Dessen is relatable and charismatic; his wife is somehow both perfect and quite imperfect in a way that does not grate; and the other characters (who I'll not name so as to not spoil anything) are lovely and well filled in. It is also a love story that is not sappy and, in my opinion, perfectly shows a scientist's split attentions and focus, while still prioritizing the thing that, of course, would matter the most. (no more details ;))

I have already recommended this book to my husband and mother and plan to recommend it to anyone else who thinks it sounds interesting because I think it won't disappoint! Also, very excited for the movie that is supposedly in development! (Note: This is in NO WAY related to the syfy tv series.)

An easy 5 stars from me!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Curious Beginning: A Vernoica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn

Review based on an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

This is one of those books that fall into the category of "I really wanted to like it..." I really did. I love the cover and I've heard very good things about the author. The plot sounded interesting as well: a young lady in late 19th century London is orphaned by the death of her aunt and decides to set off to continue world travels to study science, with the occasional fling along the way. But Veronica's plans are thwarted by her attempted abduction and the help of a mysterious German baron who apparently knows who she is (and her parents!) and offers to keep her safe. Veronica accepts the help in the hopes of learning more about her past/parents, and she is deposited with Stoker, an ill-mannered, angry, reclusive natural historian. Next Veronica and Stoker know, the baron is suddenly found murdered, and Veronica and Stoker choose to go on the run, hiding and seeking the truth.

Veronica Speedwell is apparently one of those beautiful ladies that every man must admire, and she has spunk to spare. Her character felt more like a caricature of a person than an actual person. She is steadfastly, annoyingly stubborn and insistent on repeatedly getting herself into trouble. I believe this was meant to show spunk, but it just felt immature and idiotic most of the time.

Stoker is supposed to be some sort of manly, gruffy gentleman-in-a-beast's-body sort of thing, which, again, was rather two-dimensional. In light of his actual personal history -- both his upbringing and what has happened since then -- his whole personality felt forced and intended to create attraction rather than a realistic character. I also found Stoker terribly annoying.

And worst of all was the relationship between the two. It was insufferable. If I actually knew these people in real life, I would probably need to remove myself from their vicinity ... as far as possible.

The bit characters were okay -- some were even intriguing. But with the book revolving around Veronica and Stoker and their forming relationship, I just found the whole thing rather boring and uninspired. I would probably recommend to people who enjoy those types of romance stories that are surface and obvious, with cliched tension and resolution. I didn't really think the mystery was much to speak of. It... just didn't matter to me.

Overall, TWO of five stars.