Monday, June 18, 2018

Eureka! The Woman in Cabin 10

If you've been following my blog lately, you will have heard me say more than one time that I am on the hunt for great contemporary mystery writers. Lots of recent attempts have fallen far short of that mark, but Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10 exceeded my wary expectations.

I normally stay away from books getting a lot of hype-most of the time, I find that kind of praise to be misplaced. But I couldn't deny that my interest was piqued by the premise of a murder onboard a ship. I have an affinity for the ship in particular as a breeding ground for strange things in fiction - the limited quarters allows for tantalizing wrinkles in the story, like the one here, in which the journalist Lo Blacklock believes she has witnessed a murder, except for the fact that everyone aboard the ship seems to be accounted for.

In this case, the accolades Ware has received as the next Agatha Christie are not an exaggeration. The tight ensemble cast were all intriguing in their own ways, and their suspicious behaviors were so cleverly written that I could not easily suss out the resolution. I was drawn in by the story's complexity and all the possible trajectories, and that was rewarding - if I'd been able to figure it all out on my own, I might have been disappointed by that.

Something I haven't seen as often, in this genre at least, was the idea of the unreliable narrator. The fact that Lo was drinking heavily the night before she witnesses what she believes to have been a murder was to me a master stroke, and added yet another set of possibilities for the story that took the plot in some unexpected directions.

Perhaps the one downside to this story was its ending - the resolution of the mystery hewed slightly more closely to tropish expectations than I anticipated, given the freshness of the rest of the story, and without giving anything away, there is a tonal shift towards the end of the plot that, while interesting, didn't seem to match what I'd been reading up to that point, and it left me wondering if maybe some other possibility might have been more satisfying.

In any event, I could not put this book down, and that was a great feeling after a long slog of mediocre-at-best works. The next Ware book, The Lying Game, deals with another favorite setting of mine: the boarding school. I'm practically salivating.

K. Rating: 5/5

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*sigh* If not for the fact that I'd get so dizzy I'd likely tip overboard,
travelling like this might be pretty cool

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Queen's Poisoner - A Wondrous Tale

There are two kinds of magic when reading fantasy. The first is the obvious - witches and sorcerers, spells and grimoires, in whatever form they may take. The second kind of magic is one that populates the world with wonder, with lore and mystery, and perhaps, the wonder of a world seen through the eyes of a child. This second kind of magic is harder to achieve, but The Queen's Poisoner has it in spades.

The beginning of the Kingfountain series focuses on young Owen Kiskaddon, sent away from his family to live in the castle of King Severn, a ward given to the king as punishment for his family's disloyalty. But like all fantasy heroes, Owen is not alone for long, as the kitchen workers, a female ward about his age, a royal spy, and the queen's poisoner all work together, sometimes reluctantly, to keep Owen and his family safe from the king's cruel and tyrannous ways.

What I really appreciated about this series was the cohesive theme of fountains as the source of the sacred, and the idea of being "Fountain-blessed" as a sort of analogy to the old world's divine right of kings, as well as to a select few who are gifted with special abilities. It gave the mystical, spiritual elements of the plot something that tied them all together and made them feel complex, important, and intriguing.

That sense of wonder was increased tenfold by the storytelling that revolved around Owen and Elizabeth Victoria Mortimer as they explore the castle, finding forbidden wells, secret paths, and lots of terrific hiding spaces for them to listen in on the political machinations of the grown-ups. I especially like stories centering on mystical spaces, and The Queen's Poisoner has so many good ones to choose from. It's rare that my inclination for such things is satisfied in fiction - that's what makes this book really cool for me. The idea started in this book and, I assume, continued throughout the series, that Owen is one of the rare fountain-blessed piqued my interest. With a secret underwater treasure that no one but him can see, how could it not be?

The characterization is top-notch. Sure, there are some character types at work here - I mentioned the helpful kitchen workers - but at the same time, none of them felt stale. They are all fully developed, and so I as a reader developed compassion for them, finding each person compelling in their own histories and aspirations, especially as their differing motivations coalesce in Owen's favor (or against it, for his enemies). The rotund spy was one of my favorites, and I found myself laughing out loud as a sign of the rapport I'd built with him-he was perhaps one of the best characters, and I enjoyed the snippets of the espion's writing that prefaced every chapter.

It was also satisfying to see the characterization of King Severn shift over the course of even just this first volume. Amorphous ideas of people, especially those in power, are significantly shaped by reputation and rumor even moreso than fact, and I enjoyed seeing that play out here.

One drawback to this book is that I could have envisioned it being a whole lot longer. There are bits of storytelling that felt rushed. The geographic descriptions of certain places left my mind unable to conjure correctly, which was a bit frustrating, although this problem was sporadic. Some places were described perfectly well. What the book really needed was to flesh out its political backstory. I could tell that the author had it all plotted out in his own head, but since I myself am not Fountain-blessed, it was really hard for me to understand relationships and prior events that I felt were being framed as important. I like the way this sort of thing was handled in The Greatcoats series, where you get a few flashbacks about relevant events as you need them. I really could have used something like that here. There are so many players on the political field that without really seeing them in action, it's hard to keep them all straight in my head.

Be that as it may, I will come hungry and eager to the next book in the series, as the adventures of Lord Owen Kiskaddon continue.

K. Rating: 4.5/5

Image result for magic waterfall
C'mon. You know finding magic treasure is pretty freaking awesome.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Babylon Berlin: Visually Stunning, Intellectually Intriguing

Not much about the Weimar Republic has been represented in popular media. (Stateside at least). But the period between World War I and World War II is made fascinatingly vivid in Netflix's latest German production, Babylon Berlin.

Babylon Berlin PosterInspector Gereon Rath, a WWI veteran from Cologne, comes to Berlin, delving quickly into crimes of a political nature- compromising photographs of top officials, contraband trains full of gold and poison gas, attempted coups, and secret attempts to re-arm Germany in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The investigation of these crimes was compelling to watch, especially when the danger for Gereon and his department hit so close to home.

As a historian, I deeply appreciated the nature of these crimes as a way for the show to give a realistic window into the tensions and struggles of this transitional period, and present its audience with a narrative that goes against the grain of larger narratives that connect World Wars I and II so intimately that there is practically nothing of significance in Germany after the Treaty of Versailles except the rise of the Nazi Party. This show very deftly and very boldly flouts that historical simplification.

All of the characters were standouts in their own way, making every minute of the show valuable even without the mains on screen, but still--the mains were spectacular. Again, the historian in me reveled at the most realistic representation of shell shock I've ever seen depicted on film/tv, and the drawbacks and successes of Charlotte Ritter, who comes from less that nothing and works her way into being a first-class member of the Berlin police department. She is assertive, witty, resourceful, sensual, and a wonderful example of a working-class woman at the turn of the century.

To top it all off, Babylon Berlin is a visually striking show, pulling expertly from its source material to add authentic flavor and compelling framing to the period piece. The emphasis on the culture of Berlin, thriving on art and modernity, makes this show something really special. The scenes inside the dance halls were some of my absolute favorites - those kinds of spaces are not well represented so often, yet those are the centers of culture. Babylon Berlin nails it, and with the end of the second season (shown as one long season on Netflix) displaying so much chaos, I sincerely hope there is more of this show to come.

K. Rating: 5/5

Image result for babylon berlin

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Doubling Down: The Desert Spear

How many times have I complained in recent months that the sequels I've picked up don't live up to their predecessors? Too many times, is the answer.  So thank god for Peter Brett's The Desert Spear, the second book in his Demon Cycle Series.

This is a solid continuation of the story begun with the Warded Man, an almost perfect blend of fantasy and horror (my previous review here). That being said, there were still surprises. The story begins with Ahmann Jardir, the leader of the Krasian desert warriors who stole the warded spear Arlen had uncovered in the first book and left him for dead. In this book, we rewind a little bit to show Jardir's life story: being trained as a warrior in a harsh caste-like society, marrying a domineering woman who claims to read the future on demon bones, reclaiming the spear (as he puts it) from Arlen and declaring himself the returned deliverer, and delivering his message to the "greenlanders," impressing the men he hasn't killed in his conquest to fight demons at night while forcing his soldiers on the women during the day to breed more--you guessed it--warriors.

Brett's ability to create vivid characters that you either love or hate is on full display in this book, adding a lot more to the list of people I hate (Jardir's first wife Inevera, Renna Tanner's whole freakin' family), while still treating his previously introduced characters with all the care and attention they deserve. I was frustrated almost all the time with Leesha Paper, the prominent female character and powerful herb-gatherer/master warder in this book. She grows more and more powerful in this volume, eventually becoming the linchpin in Jardir's war on the free cities as he courts her to be his (15th? 16th? I lost count) bride. While seeing her and the wicked witch Inevera butt heads was satisfying, I can't say that Leesha made a whole lot of smart decisions in this book. Though I appreciate the caution she exercised when dealing with murderers and rapists, and she does save her hometown of Deliverer's Hollow from their predations.

But make no mistake - Jardir and his men are murderers and rapists. There seems to be some ambiguity about this in the writing, almost as if the author doesn't want me to come to that conclusion, or at least to come to it hastily - after all, so much time is spent trying to paint Jardir as a sympathetic character. But, as the lowly kafeet Ahben points out, he has failed many a test of character, possibly the worst of which was the theft and "murder" of his friend Arlen, who has become known in the free cities as the Warded Man, proclaimed by them to be the true Deliverer (not self-proclaimed, as Jardir is). This tension was just barely laid out in here: we have yet to see its resolution. When next these two "deliverers" meet, I will be there with bated breath.

Arlen's journey in this book is more of an emotional one, but there's no mistaking that he is becoming more powerful with each passing day, absorbing magic through the wards tattooed into every inch of his skin to combat demons, even while he fears becoming one himself. We get more insight into the core and the inner workings of the coreling princes in this book. The concept that Brett started in the first book has advanced from mindless monsters to calculating beasts with a culture of their own, interfering with people's minds and actions to sow discord. Arlen is struggling to understand what he is becoming, and resists thinking about himself as Arlen any longer. There are some painful scenes that drive this point home for him, but eventually it is his childhood betrothed Renna serves to remind him of who he was, and who he still is. With more self-conviction, perhaps he will become the Deliverer that the free cities, and maybe even the Krasians, truly need.

K. Rating: 4/5
**forgive the misspellings, I listened rather than read**

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dreams of Ice and Shadow Blog Tour!

To celebrate the May 18th release of the second volume in the Frostbite Series, Dreams of Ice and Shadow, I will be doing a bit of blog-hopping the next few days. Here's where you'll find me:

Monday May 14 – Guest Post: An Undying Romance: Vampires in Fiction @ Thoughts on Fantasy 

Tuesday May 15 – Author Interview: Speed Round @ Author's Secrets

Wednesday May 16 – Interview @ My Life My Books My Escape

See you there! If you need to catch up, the first Frostbite book, A Vision in Crimson, will be FREE on Amazon starting on Tuesday May 15.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Naturalist: An Enlightened Thriller

Regular readers of this blog know that I review thrillers very rarely. That's mainly because I am very choosy, and always on the prowl for something uniquely dark rather than something overly formulaic. I may watch Law and Order religiously, but I like a lot more variety in my reading.

The Naturalist delivered. The story focuses on Dr. Theo Cray, a scientist who studies ecological systems and biological patterns. When a previous student of his is supposedly killed by a bear attack, his mind, wired for hard science rather than human relationships, sees patterns that others don't, and thus begins an investigation that takes one disturbing, pulse-pounding turn after another.

I won't go into the details of Cray's investigation, because that would spoil the fun, but I can talk about the myriad things that made this book stand out among its peers.

The first is Dr. Cray himself. At no point in the book was he anything other than a scientist. His analytical mind and broad knowledge allowed him to make logical connections that no other character could, and in that way the "uniqueness" of Theo Cray, and the common trope of "only I can solve this problem," felt very authentic and organic. It also lent a unique quality to the writing style itself. There was a wit in it, as well as lots of actual technical detail that gave insight into the way Theo Cray thinks - specifically, the kinds of scientific hops that his mind makes that, while seeming random at first glance, pull the story together in a way that is more cohesive than most police procedurals or legal thrillers, which also emphasize the "investigation" as the cornerstone of the plot. Cray doesn't have the resources that we're accustomed to amateur sleuths having, and so the turns in the plot are so refreshingly original as Cray moves from one data point to the next. It made for a fresh story, where it could have been very tropish.

Second, the conclusion that Cray comes to early on, that not only was his student killed by a man, but by a serial killer, is laid out expertly. The scale and methodology of the killer as developed in Theo's mind is chilling. And unfortunately, all too easy to imagine being right on the nose. He does this by pulling together very real data about the drug crisis of rural America, older theories about big cats and were-beasts, and the criminal careers of some of the most prominent serial killers.

As if that wasn't enough, Mayne toys with the idea of an urban legend, in this case, Cougar Man. Nice touch. Bringing in a touch of something weird and doing it right doesn't come around all that often. When it does, my mouth waters for more. This is definitely true for the second installment of this series, which hints and the use of another urban legend. I can't wait.

The book did have one fault. Cray's aloof/awkward posturing towards other humans works when he encounters obstacles with law enforcement and reluctant witnesses, but when he did try to make positive connections to people, those characters fell a little flat, and felt like hollow character types, rather than compelling people. This didn't necessary hold back my enjoyment of the book, but it is perhaps an area for potential growth.

K. Rating: 5/5
Image result for grizzly bear
Eeesh!! That's scary enough, without someone pretending to be a bear.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Think I Had it Right the First Time: The Dark Monk

As I moved away from my reading of The Hangman's Daughter and found historical fiction I liked even less, I considered very seriously the possibility that I may have judged the first book too harshly. So I dove headlong into the second book in the Hangman series, The Dark Monk. This time, a priest is murdered in a hunt for Templar treasure. I thought I had every reason to be optimistic.

Nope. I had it pegged on the first go-around.

There's stuff to like about Potzsch's writing - he gets the atmosphere, the historical environment just right, and I like his characters. Not love, but like. But regardless of that, something very serious is lacking.

It's the dialogue: it's repetitive. It's redundant. And it's forced. It's like watching an extending commercial trying to sell senior citizens life insurance. There is something so inorganic about reading people rehash the same scenes and the same factoids over and over again, using the exact same language. The end result is a mystery that doesn't feel like a mystery, or, maybe, a mystery for dummies, because there's not a chance in hell you're gonna miss the important bit. It will be repeated at least half a dozen times. And that really takes something away from the tension and the tone of these works.  It also keeps his characters flat. Stops them from becoming loveable, rather than merely likeable.

It's a shame this isn't more like Name of the Rose in quality. Then I would be head-over-heels for this series. Unfortunately, life is unfair and we all have to live with it. And more of The Hangman's Daughter is a frustration I'd sooner live without.

K Rating: 2/5

Image result for templar