Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: The Dead Play On by Heather Graham

The Dead Play On (Cafferty & Quinn, Book #3)
by Heather Graham
Release Date: March 31, 2015
2015 Mira Books
Hardcover Edition; 336 Pages
ISBN: 978-0778317739
ASIN: B00OY9Z9MW
Genre: Fiction / Paranormal
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

Summary
Musicians are being murdered in New Orleans. But Arnie Watson apparently died by his own hand. When Tyler Anderson plays the saxophone he inherited from Arnie, a soldier and musician who died soon after his return, he believes he sees visions of his friend's life—and death. He becomes convinced Arnie was murdered and that the instrument had something to do with whatever happened, and with whatever's happening all over the city…

Tyler knows his theory sounds crazy to the police, so he approaches Danni Cafferty, hoping she and Michael Quinn will find out what the cops couldn't. Or wouldn't. After all, Cafferty and Quinn have become famous for solving unusual crimes.

They're partners in their personal lives, too. Quinn's a private investigator and Danni works with him. When they look into the case, they discover a secret lover of Arnie's and a history of jealousies and old hatreds that leads them back to the band Arnie once played with—and Tyler plays with now. 


My Thoughts
The Dead Play On was a solid entry into the Caffety & Quinn series.  I have been a faithful reader of the Heather Graham books for quite a while now, and depend on them for their formulaic and predictable plot lines as an escape from my usual heavier hitting reading material.  I think they are fun and usually interesting, and completely go against what I expect in a usual mystery novel.  However, in this one, I was somewhat disappointed as Quinn's overprotectiveness really got on my nerves even though it was interesting to see Quinn and Danni learn to develop greater trust in each other and come to terms with boundary issues.

As always, I am drawn to these books because of two things, the paranormal and New Orleans.  I was not disappointed in the second aspect as it was fun to re-visit Bourbon Street and other areas of the city that I have visited so I could visualize it in my mind.  I stayed right in the area the author described so it was very easy to imagine the scene, especially at night.  As always, the author manages to deliver the 'flavour' of New Orleans, both the darker side and the fun, cleaner side during the day with all of the quirks the city has to offer, including all of the costume shops, the types of voodoo shops, the souvenir shops, and of course, the food.  I have been craving crawfish etouffe for days now.   Unfortunately, one of the aspects that I do look forward to in these novels, the paranormal, was lacking; for whatever reason, the author avoided the paranormal in this one so that creepy atmosphere that tends to exist in her novels just wasn't there and I felt like something was seriously missing.  It was incredibly disappointing, to say the least.

The mystery itself was okay, although I did manage to figure out who it was quite early in the novel; maybe I've read too many of her books and caught on to the formula, but that's not really why I read them.  I have always liked the characters and the banter between them, but in this one, I couldn't quite connect to the them the way I usually do; I didn't really felt empathetic towards any of them, and Quinn was just annoying with his protectiveness, while Danni's friend was just downright whiny.  It got rather annoying after awhile.  |The author did tone it down towards the end so it did get better, but I think the echo of it was still there while I was reading.  

Verdict
The Dead Play On was an okay entry into the Caffety & Quinn series.  I love the New Orleans setting and the flavour it gives these books as the author has a way of describing it that makes you feel as if you are right there.  The plot was okay, but not up to the usual twists and turns that I expected, and I didn't really feel that connection with the characters that I usually do, which is a shame, as there are some interesting secondary characters in this series.  I thought the creepiness that usually exists in one of these novels was nonexistent; it needs to go back to the paranormal roots that is expected in a Heather Graham novel. 
Sunday, April 12, 2015

Guest Post by Bruce DeSilva: Illegal Sports Gambling



By Bruce DeSilva
Release Date: April 7th, 2015
2015 Forge Books
ISBN: 978-0765374318 
ASIN: B00NKB9RSC
Genre: Fiction / Thriller

Summary:
To solve Rhode Island's budget crisis, the state's colorful governor, Attila the Nun, wants to legalize sports gambling; but her plan has unexpected consequences. Organized crime, professional sports leagues, and others who have a lot to lose-or gain-if gambling is made legal flood the state with money to buy the votes of state legislators.

Liam Mulligan, investigative reporter for The Providence Dispatch, wants to investigate, but his bottom-feeding corporate bosses at the dying newspaper have no interest in serious reporting. So Mulligan goes rogue, digging into the story on his own time. When a powerful state legislator turns up dead, an out-of-state bag man gets shot, and his cash-stuffed briefcase goes missing, Mulligan finds himself the target of shadowy forces who seek to derail his investigation by destroying his career, his reputation, and perhaps even his life.

Illegal Sports Gambling

I was first introduced to illegal sports gambling by a scruffy guy who made the rounds of the University of Massachusetts dormitories every Thursday and Friday during the football season, handing out crudely-printed cards with the point-spreads for the week’s NFL games.

I’d circle my picks and return my card to him each Saturday, along with one dollar to cover each game I was betting on. You had to bet on at least three games, but if you wished, you could bet on them all. To collect, all of your picks had to be winners. The more games you picked, the greater the risk and the greater the potential reward.  
I was cautious, usually betting on just three games and never more than six, but I seldom won anything. By the end of each season, my losses always totaled several times more than I’d won.

This was a long time ago, back when the New England Patriots were still the Boston Patriots—so long ago that the first Super Bowl, in which the Green Bay Packers trounced the Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t held until my junior year of college.

Back then, I didn’t give much thought to where the money I lost was going. I know now that the scruffy dude was a runner who turned the betting cards and cash over to a Western Massachusetts bookie every week. From there, some of the money was passed on to the powerful Angiulo crime family in Boston; and quite likely, a share was paid in tribute to Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the ruthless New England crime boss who ran his regional empire from a little vending machine company office on Atwells Avenue in Providence, R.I. 

A few years later, when I found myself writing about Patriarca for The Providence Journal, I didn’t feel all that good about the tiny contribution I’d made to his wealth and power. From then on, I limited my sports gambling to small, friendly wagers with friends. 

But I always paid close attention to illegal sports gambling and the game-fixing and point-shaving scandals it occasionally generated. So when I decided to make this the subject of A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth book in my Edgar Award-winning series of crime novels, I thought I knew a lot about the subject.

A little research told me there was a lot I hadn’t known.

I’d understood that a lot of Americans gamble on sporting events, but I’d had no idea how many. According to surveys, I discovered, about eighty-five percent of us bet on sports at least occasionally, much of it on the annual March Madness basketball tournament.

I’d known that sports gambling was big business, but I’d had no idea how big. Experts estimate that Americans bet three hundred and eight billion dollars a year on sporting events. That’s six times greater than the annual budget of the sprawling U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In other words, most of us are involved in it, and the stakes are astronomically high.
I got the idea for the new novel a few years ago when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, already contemplating a run for the Republican nomination for president of the United States, proposed legalizing sports betting in his state so he could tax the profits. I saw immediately that his plan would face enormous obstacles.  

For one thing, a federal law makes sports gambling illegal everywhere but in Nevada and three other states where it was grandfathered in. So Christie either needed to persuade the paralyzed U.S. Congress to repeal the law or successfully challenge it in court. 

For another thing, legalization had powerful enemies, and those enemies had deep pockets. The NCAA, the governing body of inter-collegiate sports, was dead-set against it, threatening to ban New Jersey arenas from its annual basketball tournament unless the governor backed down. The four major professional sports leagues were adamantly opposed, too (although the NBA commissioner recently softened his position), claiming legalization would damage the integrity of their games. 

Meanwhile, Las Vegas casinos were eager to hold on to their near-monopoly on legal sports gambling, and organized crime organizations were aghast at the prospect of seeing their bookmaking business wiped out.

But legalization also had powerful friends. Some public-employee unions saw it as a way to save their endangered pension plans. Some casino owners outside of Nevada salivated at the chance to dive into the lucrative sports-betting business. 

Hard-pressed governors of other states, desperate for a way to balance their budgets without raising taxes, began following the unfolding New Jersey drama with great interest. 

So I asked myself, “What if?”—the question that has launched every novel that I’ve written.

What if Fiona McNerney, the fictional governor of Rhode Island whom I’d introduced in an earlier novel, proposed legalizing sports gambling in her state? McNerney, a former religious sister nicknamed Attila the Nun because of her take-no-prisoners style of politics, isn’t much like Christie, but they do have one thing in common. Both are combative personalities who aren’t given to backing down from a fight.

The novel’s action explodes when powerful forces with a lot to gain—or lose—if sports gambling became legal, flood Rhode Island with money to buy the votes of politicians. Much of the money is delivered in the form of legal campaign contributions, but some of the special interests aren’t above slipping cash-stuffed envelopes into politicians’ pockets. Just picture all of that money pouring into a tiny, economically-depressed state where the average campaign for the state legislature costs just ten thousand dollars. 

Naturally, all hell breaks loose. Before long, a powerful state legislator turns up dead, a mobbed-up bagman gets shot down, and his cash-filled briefcase goes missing.
Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper (and the protagonist of my three earlier novels) wants to dig into the story, but the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently bought the once proud daily has no interest in serious public-interest reporting. So Mulligan, who’s never been inclined to follow orders, goes rogue, investigating on his own.

Soon, he finds himself the target of shadowy forces that seek to derail him by threatening his reputation, his career, and even his life.

The result is at once a suspenseful murder mystery and a serious examination of one of the major issues of our times—the influence of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. 

The story also allowed me to explore the blatant hypocrisy that surrounds illegal sports gambling.

Should it be illegal when almost everyone takes part in it? Why does nearly every state have its own vice laws against it while, at the same time, their official lotteries rake in billions of dollars from chump scratch tickets and numbers games?

Why do the NCAA and the major sports leagues repeatedly claim that legalization will increase the temptation for criminals to fix games? Isn’t the three-hundred-and-eight billion dollars Americans gamble on sports every year, most of it bet illegally, incentive enough? Actually, legalization would probably reduce the risk, because the amount wagered would be public knowledge. An Arizona point-shaving scandal was exposed some years back only because a red flag went up when an obscene amount of money was bet legally in Las Vegas.

Gambling is one of the main reasons a lot of people follow sports. The NCAA and the professional sports leagues know this, and they profit handsomely from the filled arenas and the massive TV contracts all that interest generates. Isn’t that why they don’t protest when sports writers cite point spreads?

Like any vice, gambling is harmful to individuals who engage in it to excess, but is sports gambling any more immoral than state lotteries and Indian casinos? And illegal or not, most Americans bet on sports anyway. Keeping it illegal does little more than help mobbed-up bookies stay in business. 

As I was finishing my novel, Governor Christie pressed forward with his plan, pushing his legalization bill through the state legislature in defiance of the federal law. He announced that the sports betting would begin first at the Monmouth Park racetrack and that it would soon spread to the Atlantic City casinos.
So, of course, the major professional sports leagues sued to stop him.
Last fall, a federal judge blocked Christie’s plan. Now the issue is headed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia—and quite likely, eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Short bio:
Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won every major journalism prize including the Pulitzer. His fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, has just been published in hardcover and e-book editions.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Book Spotlight: Black Scorpion by Jon Land



A Q&A with Jon Land, author of
Black Scorpion: The Tyrant Reborn
Release Date: April 7th, 2015
448 Pages, Forge Books
ISBN: 978-0765337238


1.  Can you tell us a bit about Black Scorpion: The Tyrant Reborn? I think it’s the most ambitious book I’ve ever done in terms of character, emotion and story.  I say that not only because of its epic-like structure, but mostly because I’ve never written a book before that challenges its characters in so many ways.  It challenges them with truth and the reality of their own natures contrasted against their fates, testing especially Michael Tiranno’s capacity to exceed his own limitations. He has become a classical, almost mythic hero in terms of the losses he suffers and stunning revelations about his own fate he must accept.  All the while confronting a villain just as powerful as he is with whom he unknowingly shares an indelible bond.  Great villains, they say, make great heroes and that’s truly the case here as Michael confronts an all-powerful criminal organization with a plot to do incredible harm to the country and world in the offing.  To stop them, Michael must become a different man than he is when the book starts out, he must evolve, literally, into something more and accepting that fate comes to define both him as a hero and the story as a whole.

2. What drew you to write thriller and mystery novels?  Well, as the great Robert Louis Stevenson once said, You can only write what you would read if someone else had written it.  So when I chose to be a writer, or should I say when writing chose me, I gravitated to what came most naturally to me.  I’d grown up reading all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels while away at camp for the summer, this after falling in love with the early films starring Sean Connery as Bond.  The structure of those films has been more influential in my writing than any other individual factor.  As I got older while in college, I began devouring the books of Stephen King, Robert Ludum, Clive Cussler and David Morrell—all great storytellers above everything else, and I realized that’s what I wanted to be too.

3.  When did you first start writing?  This is kind of interesting, because not until college at Brown University.  And even then I never took a writing class.  I majored in English and American Literature and fell under the influence of some incredible professors who introduced me to the novel, the whole concept of structure.  Around the same time, I realized how much I actually loved the process of writing.  I did a term paper on Huck Finn that the professor liked so much he recommended I try publishing it.  A light bulb went off in my head and from that day I’ve been obsessed with seeing my name in print, especially in big bold letters on my book covers!  I actually wrote my first novel as a senior thesis.  It wasn’t very good, but I proved to myself I could do it and was able to work out all he kinks while receiving course credit for it.  The best of both worlds, you might say and I remain eternally indebted to Brown for providing the liberal educational experience that allowed to be what I’ve become.  It was always about the process and I fell in love with starting with the a blank page of paper and watching what happens from there.

4)  What are your other interests besides writing?   I’m a gym rat, especially when it comes to weightlifting.  Healthy mind, healthy body as the saying goes.  I also remain very active at Brown volunteering in any number of capacities that allow me to remain close to the undergraduate community.  I’m Alumni President of my own fraternity, Delta Phi, and serve as Alumni Advisor to Brown’s entire Greek System.  I’m also Vice President of the Brown Football Association and sit on the board of the Friends of the Library.  Libraries are another passion of mine, as they should be for all writers.  Libraries are ambassadors of the written word and its sustenance and at Brown I organize big events around name authors like George R.R. Martin to share my love for books and the place of books within pop culture as a whole.  I also serve on the board of the International Thriller Writers organization, ITW, because another passion of mine is helping to promote our genre in general and ITW member authors in particular.  ITW’s mission statement is all about the haves helping the not-yet-haves in a very difficult profession and I remain very passionate about that as well.
 
5)  When do you find the time to write?  Well, it’s my job.  When does a doctor find the time, a lawyer or a teacher?  Just because I love what I do doesn’t make it any less of a job, any less of a profession.  I can’t see my name in those big bold letters if I don’t write the book.  I’m very disciplined about my work but, fortunately, I also write very fast to the point where I can finish a first draft in 7-8 weeks.  Of course, great books are made in the rewrite process and that’s where I truly excel.  To me the first draft is about getting it down and the rest of the process is about getting it right.  And that’s the thing about a career as a writer.  It’s not just the writing, but also the promoting, the conferences, the book festivals, the signings, Twitter, interviews, Q & As.  But here’s the thing about me:  I enjoy all of that, every part of it, especially any opportunity I have to interact directly with my readers.

6)  Where is your favorite place to write?  The second bedroom in my townhouse is my office and it’s pretty much where I do all my writing.  The key in this business, any business to some extent, is to find your comfort zone—where, how and when you best excel.  I know where all the bodies are buried in my office and it’s very easy for me to bounce around between different things demanding my attention because I’ve laid all the clutter out in a way that facilitates that. I’ve got everything placed just where I want it and where it needs to be.  If only life could be that simple!

7)  You have written a number of series; is this one of your favorite to write?  Frankly, no, that would be my Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series.  I’m not saying the books in that series are better than Black Scorpion because I think in many ways Black Scorpion is the most ambitious and best realized book in terms of vision I’ve ever written.  I’m talking about the process.  Black Scorpion is work for hire and I have an obligation to serve the needs of the Tyrant character’s creator, Fabrizio Boccardi.  That robs this series, and me, of the spontaneity that defines me as a writer, since I don’t outline.  Writing with someone looking over your shoulder isn’t nearly as fun or gratifying.  But, that said, the end result of both this book and its prequel, The Seven Sins, proves I’m capable of adapting. Fabrizio isn’t a writer or a storyteller and he doesn’t grasp all the intricacies of structure.  But he has wonderful instincts that are right more often than not and form the perfect complement to my experience and talents.  Look, Michael Tiranno is his baby.  He turned him over to me to build but he could never be expected to let him go altogether.  Ultimately, I think we work so well together because our passion is balanced by our willingness to compromise toward telling the best story we possibly can.  It may drive me crazy at times, but the ends justify the means.

8)  How do you approach writing a book like Black Scorpion? It all starts with the hero, Michael Tiranno. I started Black Scorpion with the premise that in the five years since the events depicted in The Seven Sins, Michael hasn’t changed very much.  He’s still pretty much the same man we left at the end of the first book, a tyrant consumed by his desire to expand his empire and holdings.  The whole essence of Black Scorpion is watching him evolve into something entirely different—still a tyrant, yes, but a tyrant for good.  A superhero without a mask or cape.  We watch his view of his entire place in the world change, forced upon him by the shattering truths and tragedy he encounters along the way.  And in that respect his quest changes from the pursuit of riches and power to self-fulfillment and self-actualization. So now, above everything else, Michael Tiranno’s character is defined by his obsession for standing up for those who can’ t stand up for themselves.  Bullies aren’t confined to the schoolyard and he won’t tolerate them under any circumstances.  He’s spent his life trying to find the security he lost that day his parents were murdered and once there he uses the power that comes with it to defend those who need him the most.  My point is your hero defines the very nature of a book with the sprawl and ambition of Black Scorpion.  The book will rise or fall based on how the audience responds to him and you have to approach a book like this with that in mind.

9)  Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?  Thank you, because without you  I’m nothing.  I can only be a writer if you’re reading what I’ve written.  And I remain extremely humbled by the whole nature of the relationship between the writer.  It’s a sacred pact, not much different than reading or telling a child a bedtime story.  It comes with an intimacy that defies explanation.  That a reader is wiling to bring me, through my work, into their lives by letting me entertain them, sweep them away from the mundane world into one of my own creation, brings with it an awesome responsibility and the very worst thing I can do as a writer is disappoint my audience—the moral equivalency of breaking that sacred pact.

10) Tell us where we can find your book and more information about you. To use the cliché, accurate in this case, wherever books are sold or is most convenient for you.  As for me, you can find me on the Web at jonlandbooks.com or follow me on Twitter @jondland.  I promise to keep you entertained there too!




Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review: Dissonance by Erica O'Rourke

Dissonance (Dissonance, Book #1)
by Erikca O'Rourke
Release Date: July 22nd, 2014
2014 Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Hardcover Edition; 484 Pages
ISBN: 978-1442460249
ASIN: B00BAWBPG0
Genre: Fiction / Young Adult / Science-Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

Summary
Every time someone makes a choice, a new parallel world is spun off the existing one. Eating breakfast or skipping it, sneaking out instead of staying in bed—every decision creates an alternate universe in which an Echo self takes the road not travelled. As a Walker who can navigate between these realities, Del is training to help keep the dimensions in harmony.

When Del secretly starts to investigate other dissonant worlds, she get tangled up with an Echo of her longtime crush. She knows she shouldn't keep seeing him. But as Del persists, she uncovers a truth that the Council of Walkers is trying to hide—a secret that threatens the entire multiverse.


My Thoughts
Dissonance is one of those books where the premise of it was quite intriguing.  Imagine, if you were sixteen years old, and you had all of these dimensions / worlds to explore, what would you do?  I was a good kid at school and rarely skipped classes, but I would be sorely tempted to ditch chemistry and physics to explore multiple worlds at my fingertips.  I'm just thinking of all of those minus zero temperatures we had to deal with this past winter and all of the snow - wouldn't be a problem with this skill; just go find a nice beach on an alternate world to go hang out on for a few hours.  

Obviously a lot of research went into this, and many of the terms used were defined for us to make it easier to understand and I really appreciated that.  It is science-fiction though, and like most science-fiction I tend to read, when it gets technical, I just go with it and enjoy the journey, so to speak.  I don't need to understand all of the scientific particulars, which is why I gave up physics when I exited university, never looking back, and I definitely don't read a novel to pick apart the science - I'll leave that for someone else to do.  Personally, I liked the concept of alternate worlds and Echoes and thought the idea was pretty interesting.  

Unfortunately, while I really enjoyed the premise and the science behind this novel, I wasn't as crazy about the plot and the characters.  While I liked the characters, I didn't really feel attached to any of them.  Delancey was okay, but I think I preferred Addie the best as she seemed the most honest of them all.  Del had a major attitude problem, didn't really follow rules very well, and had a problem with authority figures, all of which didn't always make her that likeable.  She did grow on me as the plot developed though, although I still couldn't really connect with her the way I wanted to, and I'm not sure why.  As for Simon, I didn't really care for him at all; he was selfish, vain, boring, and his Echoes were only interested in one thing most of the time.  As most of my readers already know, I tend to be a bit picky in the romance department anyways, and insta-love has never been my thing.   I actually thought the romance was a negative aspect of this book and turned what had potential into more of a romance-dump situation.  I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the romance had been left out of it and Simon and Del had been just friends.  And poor Eliot; I think he's the only one for whom I had any empathy.  Del didn't really treat him very well and was a bit insensitive to his feelings.  

Verdict
Dissonance is one of those novels that really had a lot of potential; the science of the different worlds was interesting and fascinating and the concept of escaping the Consort and surviving in the Echo worlds is very intriguing.  Unfortunately, much of the plot and the character development was overshadowed by a weak romance and some weak writing; by weak writing I mean that some of the things could easily have been cut out as they didn't really figure largely in the story, and the whole Simon thing completely ruined it for me.  Maybe if Simon was more interesting, or the romance was more plausible, then it could have been a very different story.  In the end, while it had a great premise, too many annoyances lowered my opinion of the book, and left me feeling a bit numb by the end.  Will I read Resonance?  At this point, I'm not sure, but I may give her one more shot. 
Monday, April 6, 2015

Review and Giveaway: Helen of Sparta by Amalia Carosella



Helen of Sparta
by Amalia Carosella
Release Date: April 1st, 2015
2015 Lake Union Publishing
Ebook Edition; 416 Pages
ISBN: 978-1477821381
ASIN: B00NAJZDI2
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

4 / 5 Stars

Summary
Long before she ran away with Paris to Troy, Helen of Sparta was haunted by nightmares of a burning city under siege. These dreams foretold impending war—a war that only Helen has the power to avert. To do so, she must defy her family and betray her betrothed by fleeing the palace in the dead of night. In need of protection, she finds shelter and comfort in the arms of Theseus, son of Poseidon. With Theseus at her side, she believes she can escape her destiny. But at every turn, new dangers—violence, betrayal, extortion, threat of war—thwart Helen’s plans and bar her path. Still, she refuses to bend to the will of the gods.

My Thoughts
Helen of Sparta is one of those stories for which I have been waiting for a very long time.  I have never been satisfied with previous versions of these stories as I never felt that the books did the women of these stories justice; I always thought they were brave, courageous, and as powerful as the men in order to survive in such circumstances, and I felt the storytelling never really did justice to their personalities or their stories. (David Gemmell's Troy Trilogy might be an exception.)  It's nice to see a story that views Helen in a different light than one who is selfish and vindictive.

This was Helen's story, from the time she became a woman, to the time of her marriage to Theseus and subsequent capture by her brothers to be returned to Sparta.  I enjoyed Helen's quirky personality, her willingness to want to be more than just a pretty face who captures the attention of kings, someone who gets into trouble rather regularly, a woman who climbs out of windows and sneaks out of her room in the middle of the night, someone who is a bit of a daredevil, as it really rounded out her personality and made her quite likeable.  This is a woman with courage; one who took her punishments when caught, but who argued against them when necessary, and who fought against even the Gods she didn't admire for the nightmares she was receiving about a horrifying future that centered around her choices.  I actually liked that little addition to the story as it gave meaning to the choices she made and why a Princess of Sparta would be willing to leave her family, travel to Athens, and escape a political marriage expected of her since she was a little girl.  Perhaps if she had just stayed put, none of this would have happened in the first place.  Although the scene with Menelaus may give you pause about that one (spoiler).

I was glad to see the Helen and Theseus story explained in much more detail as there are so many conflicting tales in the mythological world about their relationship.  Theseus has always been one of my mythological heroes and I enjoyed reading about him as both a man and a demi-God, one whose father seems to have forsaken him, but who is under the protection of Athena. Theseus does come off as quite noble, but it's something I would have expected of someone of his stature. On the other hand, you can feel his despair as he goes to visit the Gods's shrines on a daily basis asking for guidance and help, wondering if they have forsaken him.  I liked how the myths were woven quite seemlessly into the story; Leda's rape by the swam who turned out to be Zeus, Aethra's liaison with Poseidon which produced Theseus, Theseus's story about his former wives and the death of his son, and so on.  I will admit it's been a while since I've read the myths, so naturally, I spent some time re-reading stories on Agamemnon, Theseus, Menelaus, Priam, Clytemnestra, Tyndareus, Pirithous, and so on. 

I thought the story was very good, and it's evident the author has done extensive research and really knows her background on mythology.  It didn't take me long to figure out that we would not reach Troy in this novel as the pacing was too slow, but I still enjoyed the build-up and becoming re-acquainted with the characters.  For someone who has extensive knowledge on the topic, one might find it too slow for them, but it is good for someone who has little to no knowledge on the subject, or it has been a while since they have submersed themselves with the topic.  For me, I just enjoyed the storytelling from a different perspective, and soaked up the atmosphere of the times.

Verdict
Helen of Sparta was an interesting and fascinating take on a tale that is quite familiar to many people.  I enjoyed reading about a spunkier and livelier Helen, one who makes her choices in order to save her family and her people based on horrific nightmares she is having about the future.  Although it is hard to read knowing her fate, and there is still a part of you that hopes another path awaits Helen, I still enjoyed the tale, getting to know different characters and the role they played in Helen's life.  And while I felt empathy and compassion for many of the characters, I will admit that one flaw I found in the book was a difficulty to feel close grief and compassion for Helen at times, especially during her deepest moments of grief.  Despite all this, I thought the author did a fantastic job juggling the difficult task of combing historical fact with the mythology and even allowing some liberties within the text itself.  It doesn't matter if the Gods didn't actually pop down and visit from Olympus or not, what matters most is that the people believed this is what happened and that is what counts, and this is how it was related.  Kudos to a well-blended narrative, and I definitely can't wait until the sequel comes out. 

About the Author

Amalia Carosella graduated from the University of North Dakota with a bachelors degree in Classical Studies and English. An avid reader and former bookseller, she writes about old heroes and older gods. She lives with her husband in upstate New York and dreams of the day she will own goats (and maybe even a horse, too). For more information, visit her blog at www.amaliacarosella.com. She also writes fantasy and paranormal romance as Amalia Dillin.

You can also connect with Amalia on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter here and here.

Helen of Sparta
Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Review: The Patriot Threat by Steve Berry

The Patriot Threat (Cotton Malone, Book #10)
by Steve Berry
Release Date: March 31st, 2015
2015 Minotaur Books
Ebook Edition; 400 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250056238
ASIN: B00L74ADYG
Genre: Fiction / Suspense
Source: Review copy from publisher

3.5 / 5 Stars

Summary
Cotton Malone, once a member of an elite intelligence division within the Justice Department known as the Magellan Billet, is now retired and owns an old bookshop in Denmark. But when his former-boss, Stephanie Nelle, asks him to track a rogue North Korean who may have acquired some top secret Treasury Department files—the kind that could bring the United States to its knees—Malone is vaulted into a harrowing twenty-four hour chase that begins on the canals in Venice and ends in the remote highlands of Croatia.

With appearances by Franklin Roosevelt, Andrew Mellon, a curious painting that still hangs in the National Gallery of Art, and some eye-opening revelations from the $1 bill, this riveting, non-stop adventure is trademark Steve Berry—90% historical fact, 10% exciting speculation—a provocative thriller posing a dangerous question: What if the Federal income tax is illegal?


My Thoughts
The Patriot Threat is the tenth book in the Cotton Malone series and in this one, we find Cotton and the gang investigating documents questioning the ratification of the 16th Amendment and whether the Federal income tax is illegal or not.  Overall, I found the concept in this novel quite intriguing, and the novel was definitely well-researched, including a lot of factual information mixed in with the fantastical. However, compared to some of his previous novels, I did find that the plot was sort of formulaic, predictable, and there was little to no character development.

The information regarding the 16th Amendment was actually quite interesting.  As a Canadian, I found the concept to be quite fascinating, and as usual, the idea of big secrets that could topple a government is always intriguing.  I tend to enjoy novels where a 'quest' for information is involved and it's not just one shoot-out after another.  I really liked how the author managed to create a believable story and interweave other nations into the equation, creating this huge international problem that could topple and cripple an entire nation.  The concept that one could achieve this without setting off a single bomb is a bit scary, especially if something like this does, in fact, exist.  Players from North Korea, including the powerful Kim family, played a huge role in this novel, and it was interesting to read some more about the labour camps and some of the issues that plague North Korea.  While I did enjoy the historical aspect to this novel however, I couldn't discount the weaker plot points that existed.  I felt like the plot was missing that little something that existed in previous novels and didn't have that spark; perhaps the weak character development and the writing had something to do with it as I didn't feel that connection to these characters, or to the story, that I usually have.  And some of the action did seem a bit out there this time.

I actually think the biggest problem was the character development, and not necessarily the plot itself.  While I have grown attached to these characters over the years, and watched them struggle and grow, I definitely did not feel anything like that in this novel.  It was a bit distracting as I like to feel a connection to the characters; I mean, I should have felt some compassion for Hana, Kim's daughter, but the writing didn't encourage empathy, but rather detachment, and because of that, I wasn't upset at what happened to her when I should have felt sadness and disappointment over someone who had such a rough life. Because of this, I felt the plot was disconnected.  

Verdict
The Patriot Threat is one of those novels over which I had mixed feelings: on the one hand, I enjoyed the well-researched historical background and the mix of colourful historical figures that were discussed, while on the other hand, I felt the plot itself was formulaic and predictable, with little character development or growth.  If I were to make a suggestion, I wouldn't necessarily begin with this one, but start with one of his earlier books to get a good feel for the characters and interesting story lines.  Would I read another one by Berry?  Yes, of course, as I really enjoyed his earlier novels and feel that there is so much more growth in store for Cotton and so many more problems for him to solve.  And please bring back Cassiopeia!!