Sunday, December 26, 2021

Review: The Curse of Morton Abbey by Clarissa Harwood

by Clarissa Harwood
Release Date: October 26, 2021
2021 Thornfield Press
Kindle Edition; 382 Pages
ISBN: 978-1777736927
ASIN: B097Q9TF46
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Gothic
Source: Review copy from publisher
4 / 5 Stars 

Solicitor Vaughan Springthorpe knows perfectly well that Sir Peter Spencer’s offer of employment seems too good to be true: he hires her sight unseen, offering a suspiciously large salary to prepare the sale of Morton Abbey, his crumbling Yorkshire estate.

Once at Morton, Vaughan discovers that someone is determined to drive her away. An intruder tries to enter her bedroom at night, gunshots are fired outside her window, and an eerie crying echoes from the uninhabited second floor. itself.  But with her questions diverted, her progress thwarted, and her sleep disrupted by the crying, will Vaughan escape Morton Abbey with her sanity intact or be cursed by the secrets within?
My Thoughts
The Curse of Morton Abbey was a captivating and quick gothic mystery novel that I really needed to read at this point.  Although it had its usual predictable elements you would expect in a gothic novel, the main character was very different, and I liked some of the choices she made.  Definitely not one of your silly maids who does silly things over which you just roll your eyes and shake your head.
Vaughan is a very unconventional heroine, the youngest of five sisters, having to fight for everything she has earned in her life due to the fact she was born with a crippled foot and being put down her entire life for this very reason.  I liked how independent, practical, and daring she was, but she definitely wasn't silly, making good decisions and being very aware of her own personal safety as well as the safety of others.  During this time period, it is very difficult for a woman to make her own way, but Vaughan was determined to become a woman solicitor; her reasons were not always altruistic though, as she did want to avoid living with her overbearing mother and sisters.  However, it did make you empathize with her plight and root for her all the way.
Out of all the characters though, Nick was probably my favourite as he definitely had the most depth as well the greatest character development.  Every time we met him, more layers were added to his personality, something I really enjoyed, and I never knew what to expect from him.  Yes, he was mercurial, but I spent a lot of time speculating as to his reasons why he was so changeable and was really drawn to his character.  To be honest, I really felt like the author spent so much time developing Vaughan and Nick that the rest of the characters kind of paled in comparison and their characters did not develop in the same way, something that would have added some depth, and some mystery, to this book.

The plot itself definitely has the gothic elements: the atmosphere is creepy; the house is haunted, with all the elements you would expect in a creepy, old house; there is a mystery to solve; there is the mysterious benefactor; there are characters with secrets; and of course, there are the things that go bump in the night.  Personally, I didn't really feel the book was spooky, but I always love the big, old house trope and get hooked on things like that.  The writing is solid, and there were enough twists and turns to keep me interested, even if some of them were predictable.  I did think some things went a bit too far towards the end, and some things were not satisfactorily explained, even to the point of being improbable and forced.  While there were some things about the ending I liked, there were definitely some things that were not explained, at least not adequately. And the curse? Not sure why that was the title of the book.

The Curse of Morton Abbey was a fun book to read, and while somewhat predictable, kept me entertained nonetheless.  The two main characters were very well developed, but I wish the author had developed the rest of the characters as well as it would have increased the tension as well as filled in some of the missing information that left the ending feeling a bit inadequate.  Highly recommend if you enjoy Gothic mysteries with a strong female lead and well-developed main characters. 


Sunday, December 19, 2021

Review - The Awakening by Nora Roberts

by Nora Roberts
Release Date: November 24, 2020
2020 St. Martin's Press
Kindle Edition; 435 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250272614
ASIN: B082RS9D42
Audiobook: B083LMBNFL
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

When Breen Kelly was a girl, her father would tell her stories of magical places. Now she’s an anxious twentysomething mired in student debt and working a job she hates. But one day she stumbles upon a shocking discovery: her mother has been hiding an investment account in her name. It has been funded by her long-lost father—and it’s worth nearly four million dollars.

This newfound fortune would be life-changing for anyone. But little does Breen know that when she uses some of the money to journey to Ireland, it will unlock mysteries she couldn’t have imagined. Here, she will begin to understand why she kept seeing that silver-haired, elusive man, why she imagined his voice in her head saying Come home, Breen Siobhan. It’s time you came home. Why she dreamed of dragons. And where her true destiny lies—through a portal in Galway that takes her to a land of faeries and mermaids, to a man named Keegan, and to the courage in her own heart that will guide her through a powerful, dangerous destiny…
My Thoughts
The Awakening is the first book in a planned trilogy, and while it was a fun and interesting read, I really felt like nothing really happened.  Yes, the main character discovered a lot about herself and her heritage, and definitely grew as a person, but that was really the main focus of the story.  The plot, other than Breen discovering more about herself, was barely non-existent.
Breen Kelly is an anxious twenty something teacher who has to save for every penny she earns due to huge student debt loans.  Growing up without a father has left her struggling to understand the reasons why he left when she was young, and the toxic relationship she has with her mother has given her few answers over the years.  When Breen unexpectedly discovers some information that will help her situation, I like how she takes charge of her life and begins to explore who she really is and who she wants to be. I like how Breen goes from meek schoolteacher to confidant woman as she learns to fight and fend for herself.  It is still unclear as to her mother's motives for treating Breen the way that she did, but I liked the way it was handled in this book.
Breen did have a lot of help along the way, and one of my favourite characters was Marco.  Her best friend is so cool and sweet and I loved it when he made an appearance.  Now, before you go thinking the author has set up a love triangle, no way, as Marco is part of the LGBTQ community and I love the inclusiveness.  He is such an amazing character, to the point where I almost wished he was the main character. 
Then, there is Keegan  Keegan is the leader of the world in which Breen found herself and I think he was supposed to come off as the brooding type, you know the kind who is annoying, but who supposedly has this tender side underneath?  Unfortunately, it didn't work with his character.  He came across as more ruthless, which is fine, as he is protecting his realm, but where I had the issue was his sudden revelation that he adored Breen and loved her.  I was like, what? How did this happen? Nope, didn't work for me at all. I even had to reread the scene to see if I missed something important, but nope. There was simply no chemistry between the two of them so the forced romance felt tropey at best, almost like the author realized she didn't have a sex scene in her book and needed to throw one in.
I did really like the folklore, the magic, and the dragons.  I would have loved more about the dragons.  However, this book could have been shorter as some of the parts did have a tendency to drag and were somewhat repetitive. And really, when it comes down to it, there was no plot other than Breen's character development and her discovery of this other world in which she was born.  There was talk about preparations for war, about war council, but we have no idea what is happening, the politics behind it, the others worlds involved, or anything else political that would be important to know.  But we did get pages and pages of Breen writing her children's book and drinking tea.  I kept waiting for something to happen, but I was doomed in that regard.

The Awakening is one of those books where nothing really happens, but definitely has a lot of potential. I really feel like the author focused too much on fluffy information rather than on information in which a reader would be interested, such as more info on grandpa and Keegan, and the real nitty-gritty stuff  on the political situation, the threats to the realm, the other worlds involved, and why and how. I also wonder if this book would have worked better using different POV as it would have fleshed out the story, and the characters, a lot more.  I will read the next book in this trilogy, but I won't be in a rush to do so.


Saturday, December 18, 2021

Review: What the Cat Dragged In by Miranda James

by Miranda James
Release Date:August 31, 2021
2021 Berkley Books
Audiobook Edition; 304 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593199466
Kindle Edition: B08CTFV6VW
Audiobook: B09B8NJVXR
Genre: Fiction / Cozy Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

3.75 / 5 Stars

Charlie has always believed that his grandfather had sold his house to his longtime tenant, Martin Hale. So when Martin dies, Charlie is surprised to discover the house was not left to Martin but instead belongs to Charlie. As he and Diesel check out the house he remembers fondly from his childhood, he is pleasantly surprised that it is in better condition than expected. That is, until they find a literal skeleton in a closet.

As Charlie delves into his own family history, he encounters many people who might have been motivated to take a life. But Charlie and Diesel know that things are not always what they seem, and that secrets seemingly lost to time have a way of finding their way back to haunt the present.
My Thoughts
What the Cat Dragged In is the next entry in the Cat in the Stacks books, and while Diesel doesn't really feature as predominantly in this book as in previous ones, I really liked learning a lot more about Charlie's family, and both literally and figuratively, the skeletons in his family's closet.
Charlie has always been a likeable character, and while I was a bit annoyed with him in a couple of the previous instalments, I felt like he was more himself in this one, which means he was interested in what was happening in his newly inherited house, but didn't go about interfering in an investigation.  I liked how he used his personal contacts to discover information and as a librarian, was able to delve into some of the history himself and discover information that would be helpful.  As someone who teaches history and has to be dragged out of archives, I love this kind of thing so I may be a bit biased.  
I like the introduction of a new character in this one as well, Martin's grand-daughter, as well as all the old regulars.  I enjoy Charlie and Sean's relationship and can understand Sean's exasperation when his dad wants to investigate or stick his nose into things as he's just worried about him.  Charlie is a grandfather now as well, and I like how he regrets not learning more about his family history when he had the opportunity, a thing commonly heard as you think you have all the time in the world, then realize it is too late and all of that knowledge is gone with the person who died.  While some of it can get kind of preachy at times, I just overlooked it and enjoyed the story for what it was. Having read this series from the beginning, I am thrilled that Charlie is surrounded by family, his family appreciates him and wants to spend time with him, and am looking forward to when he finally gets married. 
The plot was quite interesting, and while it was not hard to figure out who was the guilty party, I enjoyed it because it was definitely far more interesting than the previous entries in this series, a series I was almost ready to give up on.  There were some discrepancies in the historical facts, but I'm not sure everyone caught them.  Having a background in history, I am used to looking for those discrepancies, so I just may be more sensitive to them than others.   However, when you really look at the story, Charlie doesn't really do a lot other than look at historical research, interview a couple of historians, and, naturally, happens to be at the right place at the right time when something does go down.  

What the Cat Dragged In was interesting, and I liked the secrets within the secrets investigation that went on.  I thought the relationships between the characters was nice and I am always happy to see Charlie surrounded by family, and naturally, Diesel is a particular favourite.  However, when you really delve into the book, Charlie doesn't really do a lot, except historical research, even if it was really interesting, and happen to be at places at the right time.  Overall, I definitely liked this book better than a couple of the previous ones so would recommend it and I look forward to continuing the series.


Sunday, December 12, 2021

Review: The Heron's Cry by Ann Cleeves

by Ann Cleeves
Release Date: September 7, 2021
2021 Minotaur Books
Kindle Edition; 382 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250204479
Audiobook: B08XQYN7TK
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

North Devon is enjoying a rare hot summer with tourists flocking to its coastline. Detective Matthew Venn is called out to a rural crime scene at the home of a group of artists. What he finds is an elaborately staged murder--Dr Nigel Yeo has been fatally stabbed with a shard of one of his glassblower daughter's broken vases.

Dr Yeo seems an unlikely murder victim. He's a good man, a public servant, beloved by his daughter. Matthew is unnerved, though, to find that she is a close friend of Jonathan, his husband.

Then another body is found--killed in a similar way. Matthew soon finds himself treading carefully through the lies that fester at the heart of his community and a case that is dangerously close to home.
My Thoughts
The Heron's Cry was a solid mystery, but I don't think it was quite as good as the first book in this series.  I do like the setting, North Devon, and I really like the diverse set of characters. Plus, I was interested in how the author would develop one of the main detectives, Matthew Venn, as I thought his background was intriguing.
One of the strengths of this book is the characters. Matthew and his team are called in to investigate the murder of Dr. Nigel Yeo, but the story definitely doesn't revolve around Matthew.  I like how we get glimpses into the lives of both Jenn and Ross as well, and see how their ambitions plays into how they act and make choices.  Matthew is a bit insecure in his personal life, but he doesn't let that define his professional relationships. I do like how he was able to let loose a little bit in this book, even if letting loose meant he just took off his jacket during a meeting.  But it is little innuendos and inner monologues by the other characters that make this author's writing so interesting. Jenn has two teenagers at home and this case definitely made her look at her own children's online behaviour, something in which all parents should take an interest.  I am not sure what to think of Ross however, as I am not sure if I really like his character.  While he is very attentive to his wife, Mel, some of his thinking almost seems to border on obsession / control and I'm not sure I like some of the things he thinks / feels.  

While the characters were nicely developed and I loved the descriptions of the coastline and the area, the weakness of this book was in the plot line.  Unfortunately, the mystery was quite predictable and the characters spent a lot of the time running around interviewing people.  Normally, I don't have an issue with this, but it got to be somewhat repetitive and boring after a while. And when we do find out who it was, a direction I was seriously hoping it wouldn't go, I thought the reason was weak and didn't quite fit into the rest of the book.  

The Heron's Cry is a well-written book and I really did enjoy the characters and the descriptions of the area.  The novel is definitely atmospheric, and I can picture myself walking through the woods or in the villages quite easily.  Where it fell apart for me was in the mystery as it was predictable and bland, with the characters rushing around interviewing people over and over again.  It's not necessarily the interviewing, it's how it was done, and I definitely did not believe the reasons for why the person did what they did as it didn't make sense with the rest of this novel.  I did enjoy this author's other series however, so I will read the next book in this series to see what happens next. 


Saturday, December 11, 2021

Review: The Family Plot by Megan Collins

by Megan Collins
Release Date: August 17, 2021
2021 Atria Books
Kindle Edition; 320 Pages
ISBN: 978-1982163846
Audiobook: B08SWN2TPZ
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

2.5 / 5 Stars

With her father’s death, Dahlia returns to the house she has avoided for years. But as the rest of the Lighthouse family arrives for the memorial, a gruesome discovery is made: buried in the reserved plot is another body—Andy’s, his skull split open with an ax.

Each member of the family handles the revelation in unusual ways. Her brother Charlie pours his energy into creating a family memorial museum, highlighting their research into the lives of famous murder victims; her sister Tate forges ahead with her popular dioramas portraying crime scenes; and their mother affects a cheerfully domestic fa├žade, becoming unrecognizable as the woman who performed murder reenactments for her children. As Dahlia grapples with her own grief and horror, she realizes that her eccentric family, and the mansion itself, may hold the answers to what happened to her twin.
My Thoughts
The Family Plot certainly had an interesting concept, and I really liked the setting as it was creepy, having all the elements of a mystery story that I really like. And when I read the first chapter, I thought that this book was going to really go out of its way to incorporate that creepy style as it was interesting and bizarre, drawing me in right away to what was happening.  And from there it fell apart. 
I definitely had no issue with the completely weird family situation in which Dahlia grew up.  That it was bizarre is an understatement as she, and her siblings, were home schooled in the macabre, writing reports of serial killers as opposed to learning Math, Science, and English.  Dahlia's mother had apparently lost her parents to a serial killer and wanted to teach her children how to survive in world she saw full of death and darkness.  Okay, I can swallow that, if uneasily.  I can even swallow the ceremonies the family had to remember the victims of various serial killers.  Oh, it was macabre and I will admit to shuddering a bit, but not because of fear, but because it was so over the top.  I really felt like the author was throwing all of this at the reader to try and get a reaction, but when you do too much, the shock value kind of wears thin after a while, and the whole effect just becomes silly. I had difficulty connecting to the characters the way it was written, and really wished the author had used the spooky atmosphere of the house a bit more to develop her characters and the plot. 
I actually thought the title to this book was quite interesting, and quite clever. But the story itself was disjointed and I found Dahlia's inner monologue to be lacking.  There was so much telling rather than allowing the reader to try and figure things out, so it was rather easy to figure out who was actually responsible for the deed.  Except for the first chapter or so, the tension was rather lacking, and while I don't always like the use of dual timelines, I did wonder if maybe this book would have benefited from the use of one, or even the use of different POVs.  

The Family Plot had so much potential; it had the creepy atmosphere, the setting was perfect, and there was the dysfunctional family.  Unfortunately, the plot itself was lacking tension and was kind of bland, and I didn't really like the characters.  Overall, this wasn't really a mystery thriller, but an author's use of creepiness to try to set the scene rather than use tension, and it didn't really work.  I just couldn't suspend my belief in some of the things that were going on. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Review: Beyond by Mercedes Lackey

by Mercedes Lackey
Release Date: June 15, 2021
2021 DAW Books
Kindle Edition; 384 Pages
ISBN: 978-0756417338
Audiobook: B09FCNH8S8
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and "milking" of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy’s mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor's Court.
My Thoughts
Beyond is the long-awaited story of the founding of Valdemar, and while it was a bit slower than I expected, it was still a delight to read.  And what it also did, was create a longing to re-read the entire Valdemar series of books that I haven't touched in many years and sent me hunting through my book stacks to find them all.  
I enjoyed the many characters introduced in this book, but did think a couple of them were far more developed than others.  I like the fact that Kordas was a duke at the beginning, and was quite impatient to find out how he would become a baron, or if the author conveniently forgot that about his status in previous books mentioning him.  Kordas himself didn't disappoint as he was intelligent, compassionate, and quite sly, using his wiles to play the emperor and the system into thinking he was a simple country bumpkin so his backwater dukedom would be ignored and he could go on planning for the day when he could leave the machinations of the court behind.  I loved how he finagled his way through the politics of the court and the descriptions of the events and the whole system just gave me the creeps.  
If you are familiar with the series, you will recognize a lot of the names and other important things from these books, such as Beltran. I found myself looking for these little pieces of information and was disappointed when more didn't come to light; however, considering this is simply book one of a planned trilogy, I am sure there will be more to come, including the companions.  
The plot was a bit slower than I expected, but it didn't really bother me too much as I enjoyed all of the planning that took place in order to get Kordas' people to safety.  I can't even imagine the amount of planning that was involved to undertake such a thing, and we got to witness some of it in the book.  I definitely liked how Kordas showed compassion during the planning and was willing to take chances as things developed and plans had to change as more knowledge became available. I know this sounds vague, but I don't want to give away any surprises, and there were a few that came up in this book that I was not expecting, all of them interesting.  And they are also ones to which I am wondering how they are going to play out in future books.  
The book does have a satisfying conclusion even if it is the first book of a trilogy as the author is known for ensuring each book concludes in its own right.  And while I definitely enjoyed the story because I was interested in another Valdermar story, I was also deliberately looking for links from previous books to see if I could find any.  And the discrepancies, of course.  I don't see how you cannot. I had to remind myself to read it for itself as the plots and subterfuge were great, and I loved all the spying that went on.  And what Kordas discovered when he went to the palace is probably my favourite part of the book, something I looked forward to reading about every time we returned to his POV.   

Beyond was a good start to a new trilogy and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  And while I thought the overall plot was a bit weak, I definitely enjoyed the subterfuge and the spying that went on as Kordas was planning his greatest deception.  The magic system wasn't very well described however, and the legendary companions have yet to make an appearance, although I can't wait until they do.  I honestly don't know how this book will come across to someone who has no knowledge of the previous books, but for me, it was useful to have read them. I can't wait until the next book, Into the West, is released next year.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Review: We Have Always Been Here by Lena Nguyen

by Lena Nguyen
Release Date: July 6, 2021
2021 DAW Books
Kindle Edition; 355 Pages
ISBN: 978-0756417291
Audiobook: B097S6DLZ1
Genre: Fiction / Science-Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher
2.5 / 5 Stars
Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.

Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that's when things begin to fall apart. 
My Thoughts
We Have Always Been Here had such great potential.  I actually really enjoyed the first third of the book and sped through it rather quickly as there was a lot going on, there was mystery, and I thought the conflict between the crew members rather interesting.  I love the thought about being on a spaceship almost as much as being in a haunted house so the creepy ambiance was right up my alley; I also have no problem with a story where I have no idea what is happening. Then, it was as if I had a bucket of water thrown in my face; everything started going downhill from that point and I really struggled going forward and I stopped counting the number of times I rolled my eyes. 
First of all, I didn't have a problem with the characters in the story, but I also never really felt like I got to know them either. The writing style made me feel disconnected from them, their true feelings, and because of this, I didn't empathize with any of the characters and as a result, I didn't really care what happened to any of them.  I think there is a really fine line between keeping things mysterious and creating connections with your audience and I feel like the author maybe struggled with this aspect of her characterization.  I can completely dislike a character, but feel empathy for them at the same time. Not the case in this book. The author was trying to make the main character, Park, feel isolated from the rest of the crew, which she succeeded quite well at doing, but the way it was done made it difficult for me to feel a connection to her as well. 
The plot was on the weaker side, with a writing style that seemed to emphasize description rather than allowing the reader to try and figure things out.  Unfortunately, this made both the story, and the themes, feel rather disjointed, something that really became noticeable about one-third into the book.  The author even threw in some flashback episodes, and while they were interesting, they were really irrelevant to what was happening in the book.  I think there were better ways the author could have shown Park's affinity to androids rather than through these long flashback episodes.  I do think they were there to make the reader show empathy for androids, but all it did was slow things down and take away from the story.  What I did find interesting in the flashbacks though, was the relationship between Park and Glenn; now that would have contributed to the whole sympathy for androids thing for me much more than how it was done.
I love space opera and read them quite a bit, and I don't generally have a problem when an author downplays some of the scientific principles as they are not necessarily hardcore science, but sometimes there are some things that you just can't ignore.  Sending two psychiatrists on a scouting mission with only what, 13 crew members? Problematic. The whole time-space time warp thing? problematic. The ship itself? Problematic. I think there was only one person on board who could fix anything mechanical so if anything happened they would be stranded.  Some of it just didn't jive with the overall description and it bothered me throughout the book.   

We Have Always Been Here has a very interesting concept, and the last quarter of the book does pick up quite a bit and is different from the middle of the book, but the disjointed story line and the lack of character development definitely had a huge impact for me.  And while I liked the ending, I didn't feel like it was resolved, as if the author wasn't quite sure how she wanted it to end. I'm still not sure if the author understands the scientific principles she was describing, but the descriptions did make me roll my eyes a few times. Although I like to explore new authors in this genre, this one just didn't work for me.