Monday, June 27, 2022

Review: The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

by Simone St. James
Release Date: March 15, 2022
2022 Berkley
Kindle Edition; 352 Pages
ISBN: 978-0440000211
Audiobook: B098YCW26K
Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Paranormal
Source: Review copy from publisher

2 / 5 Stars

In 1977, Claire Lake, Oregon, was shaken by the Lady Killer Murders: Two men, seemingly randomly, were murdered with the same gun, with strange notes left behind. Beth Greer was the perfect suspect--a rich, eccentric twenty-three-year-old woman, seen fleeing one of the crimes. But she was acquitted, and she retreated to the isolation of her mansion.

Oregon, 2017. Shea Collins is a receptionist, but by night, she runs a true crime website, the Book of Cold Cases--a passion fueled by the attempted abduction she escaped as a child. When she meets Beth by chance, Shea asks her for an interview. To Shea's surprise, Beth says yes.

They meet regularly at Beth's mansion, though Shea is never comfortable there. Items move when she's not looking, and she could swear she's seen a girl outside the window. The allure of learning the truth about the case from the smart, charming Beth is too much to resist, but even as they grow closer, Shea senses something isn't right. Is she making friends with a manipulative murderer, or are there other dangers lurking in the darkness of the Greer house?
My Thoughts
The Book of Cold Cases is one of those books to which I approached with a bit of trepidation as, contrary to a lot of people, I was not a big fan of Sun Down Motel, and really hoped this one would live up to its hype. It certainly had a lot of elements that I enjoy: haunted, creepy house; eccentric character; mystery and secrets; and, of course, a crime committed in the past.  All of these elements should have lent themselves to a creepy and fun story, but unfortunately, the whole thing fell flat for me and I wasn't a bit fan of this one either.
First of all, while I thought the two main characters were interesting, that was pretty much it.  Neither of them grabbed my attention nor my sympathy so it was difficult to feel empathetic towards either of them.  Dual time lines seems to be the rage nowadays, but I don't think it works in all scenarios as it lowers the level of tension and suspense, and I do feel that was part of the problem in this book.  Both of the characters were okay as far as character development went, but the author didn't really go out of her way to make them likeable or sympathetic so I wasn't overly invested in what happened to them. To be honest, Shea got on my nerves far more than Beth. Furthermore, when Shea spoke about her childhood kidnapping, I actually thought it was worse than it was (not making light of the situation or her trauma), but there was a part of me that kept thinking she was being overly dramatic.  I don't know why I felt that way as her situation was traumatic, maybe it's just the way her character came across the page?
I did like how the Lady Killer was introduced in the book, although I do think that the author's introductions are always quite strong, but they just don't quite live up to the strength of those beginnings.  I like investigative work and actually found those nuggets to be quite fascinating, plus I liked how the information was doled out throughout the book.  What I didn't like was how easily Shea got access to information as it just seemed too coincidental and too easy.  Just because she is a blogger doesn't mean she has access to all these files and all these people; and people aren't just going to suddenly open up to her just because she's asking questions.  There was so much of "I wondered if someone was going to finally ask that question..." scenarios that I got tired of it.  
There were some elements of the paranormal in this story, and the author tried to put a creepiness vibe into it, but it didn't really work with the overall story.   I'm the first person to grab a book as soon as I see anything resembling a haunted house on the cover, but I want there to be a link and reason for it, not just for attention purposes. The reason seemed forced and it just didn't work for me.

The Book of Cold Cases was supposed to be a paranormal story, but I really feel like that aspect of the book was the weakest part, with no build-up and lack of overall story which made the ending quite disappointing.  Unfortunately, this was my least favourite book by this author as I found the whole execution to be somewhat lacking.  While the author's writing style is good, the entire book falls flat with regards to characters and story development.  Unfortunately, this wasn't for me. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Review: Just Like the Other Girls by Claire Douglas

by Claire Douglas
Release Date: January 11, 2022 (First published August 6, 2020)
2022 Harper Paperback
Kindle Edition; 400 Pages
ISBN: 978-0063138117
ASIN: B09291RY5C
Audiobook: B096GC2NZD
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars




She thought she was safe. So did the others . . .

At loose ends after the devastating death of her mother, Una Richardson responds to an advertisement for a ladies' companion, a position that leads her into the wealthy, secluded world of Mrs. Elspeth McKenzie.

But Elspeth's home isn't the comforting haven it seems .
As the walls begin to close in around her, Una fears she'll end up just like the other girls . . .

My Thoughts
Just Like the Other Girls had an interesting premise and while ti did have some twists and turns, there was one abrupt twist that actually ruined the book for me, not because I have a problem with such abrupt twists, but because the story kind of descended into the improbably versus the realistic, with everyone being involved in some fantastical way. There is only so much that you can let go before you finally have enough.

The first half of the book was actually quite interesting, with a few caveats.  I really liked Una and the author definitely set up some moments that were questionable and uncomfortable and made you wonder what was really happening behind those walls.  Una had just lost her own mother and was grieving, so she was unprepared for the mind games and manipulations being played out between the woman, Elspeth, to whom she was a companion, and her jealous daughter.  These family dynamics drive the story rather than the suspense, but it was interesting enough that it worked.  Una was a bit timid, and Elspeth was just...creepy, someone who pretended to be frail and weak just to use that as an excuse to be demanding.  There were some scenes that were uncomfortable simply because the author was trying to set up a creepy vibe and all it did was make me wonder why she had to use those tropes to try and create such an atmosphere when there were so many other things that could be done.  And while I did enjoy this half, I also wanted to shake Una. In an age of digital technology, whereby those under twenty-five pretty much document their whole lives, why would Una not take pictures of everything she saw that was weird or creepy?  Or even have recordings of conversations? While I liked how the author revealed the evidence, I did find Una's behaviour a bit unrealistic, especially upon learning there were two companions before her who met untimely ends.  Why in the world would you meet with somebody, alone, upon learning all of this information and suspecting there are things going on under your roof that are questionable?

Then suddenly we are in the second half.  And this is where the book takes a sharp nose-dive into the 'stretch the belief system to the nth degree' mode.  While I had already picked out the culprit as well as figured out some of the story background with regards to Elspeth's daughter, the way it all came together at the end was a bit pat for me.  The first half was interesting, but I had to really fight to keep going through the second half.  The tension was completely lost and so was the momentum being built in the first half.  I was not opposed to what happened, I just think the rest of the book could have been done a bit differently to keep that tension going.  

Just Like the Other Girls did start fairly strong, and definitely had a lot of potential. The relationship between Elspeth and her daughter drove the first half and I enjoyed the psychological power-play that played out and left Una desperate and searching for answers. Unfortunately, the story didn't live up to its potential as the second half took a steep nosedive into a muddled mess, as if the author was trying to decide exactly what to do with the information, and both the tension and momentum was lost leaving the ending to be disappointing, at best.  As there was a lot of potential here, I would definitely read something by this author again in the future.


Sunday, June 19, 2022

Review: An Impossible Impostor by Deanna Raybourn

by Deanna Raybourn
Release Date: February 15, 2022
2022 Berkley Books
Kindle Edition; 325 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593197295
Audiobook: B097CD2SH4
Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4.25 / 5 Stars

London, 1889. Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian beau Stoker are summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Special Branch. He has a personal request on behalf of his goddaughter, Euphemia Hathaway. After years of traveling the world, her eldest brother, Jonathan, heir to Hathaway Hall, was believed to have been killed in the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa a few years before.

Veronica and Stoker agree to go to Hathaway Hall to covertly investigate the mysterious amnesiac. Veronica is soon shocked to find herself face-to-face with a ghost from her past. To help Sir Hugo discover the truth, she must open doors to her own history that she long believed to be shut for good.
My Thoughts
An Impossible Impostor is the next entry in the Veronica Speedwell books, and I have to say, I was quite happy to say it was an improvement from the previous two instalments in this series. Maybe it had something to do with the setting as I tend to be a sucker for anything that has a Gothic feel to it, and this definitely had that in spades for the first half of the novel, but I also liked the tension between the two main characters as they navigated some interesting information from Veronica's past that was revealed.
First of all, I hadn't been a fan of Veronica's character development in several of the previous books as someone with her character would be chaffing at domesticity and longing for more opportunities to explore, despite her relationship with Stoker.  What I really liked about this book was the exploration of Veronica's feelings as she examined her relationship with Stoker and what that could possibly entail for her future.  And I enjoyed every little nuance, every moment of resistance she had as I felt that was truer to her character.  And when this big twist happened, which actually caught me off guard, I loved it as I thought, great, more complications for a relationship that should have some type of fire to it as their lives were so complicated.   Naturally, it did have a too-pat ending for my liking as I think it would have been fun to see that complication explored a bit more in future books, but you can't have everything. But exploring Veronica's past was a good move on the author's past as I do think it really added to her character development, rounded her out a lot more, added depth to her character.

I did feel like the author sort of neglected Stoker in this story, made him seem...petulant, it's the only word I can think of.  Although I did learn a lot about some creature called a thylacine?, the whole thing between Veronica and Stoker did feel forced, at times, and I wish the author had fleshed out their issues a bit more as their banter and dialogue is often fun to read, and you see how they appreciate each other's quirks, and that would have been a great way to add some depth to their relationship.  However, in the end, I enjoy these two together and readers know these two are meant to be together.
The mystery is a bit slow, but I appreciated the setting, the drama, and the set-up, and the author didn't lose sight of the mystery in the midst of a secondary drama between Stoker and Veronica, which was nice.  It did get a bit more complicated than I was expecting, but it was fun, and although I did think the ending was a bit pat, I enjoyed it.  
An Impossible Impostor was a lot of fun, and finally, we get to learn a bit more about Veronica's past.  I thought the character development was really good and although I thought Stoker was more of a secondary character as the events focused on Veronica and how she handled the big reveal, it all worked out in the end.  This book brought back the magic of the first few books, and I am happy to recommend this to anybody who is a Veronica Speedwell fan.  If you are new to the series, while this could be read as a standalone, I don't recommend it as you will miss important information about the main characters and their relationship development. 


Monday, June 13, 2022

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

by Olivie Blake
Release Date: March 1st, 2022 (First published January 31, 2020)
2022 Tor Books
Kindle Edition; 375 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250854513
Audiobook: B09HN3KXMP
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...
- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.
Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.
My Thoughts
The Atlas Six has one of the most interesting premises I have read in a while, and I was instantly intrigued.  A secret Alexandrian Society? Check. Magic? Check. Danger? Check. And more secrets? Check. It had everything I love in a fantasy novel, so I shouldn't have had a problem reading this, now should I?  Unfortunately, the problem was not in the concept, but in the execution.  It was so character driven that I actually found myself bored at times, and I had to force myself to pick it up and continue.  I think I read two other books while I was reading this one.  
First of all, I usually tend to connect with at least one of the main characters, maybe the secondary characters? The dog? But truly, I found all of them to be exceedingly annoying.  Each of them had secrets, which is something I expected in such a novel, but I don't think I ever got over my feeling of wanting to punch them at one time or another, and I am not a violent person by nature. If I had to choose one of them, I think I liked Callum the best as he seemed to have the best grip on what was happening despite his attitude and because I just couldn't figure him out AT ALL.  I didn't understand his power and I didn't really understand exactly how he fit into it all.  Maybe that's why I liked him so much; and the fact that I didn't want to slam the door in his face every time he appeared in a scene.  
And therein lies the problem in this book.  With a character-driven book, you should see some growth and development in your characters and come to learn more about what drives them as well as learn some of their secrets.  However, very little is revealed about them, their magical abilities including their secrets, which makes the overall reading experience for the reader somewhat frustrating.  Whether you like them or hate them, you should FEEL something for them, but I was truly indifferent to them.  Personally, I have always felt that it is poor writing when an author constantly teases a reader about a character throughout a book, but doesn't reward them for their reading efforts in any capacity. 
The plot itself was quite a slow burn, and when I say a slow burn, I mean "ribs roasting over a pit for hours" slow burn, without the added benefit of having BBQ ribs at the end.  I am never opposed to reading a character-driven story, but it is usually accompanied by some kind of action.  This one is just slow burnnnnnnnnnn. And when something exciting does happening for a brief minute, all it does it get your hopes up that the action is finally starting only to wind up with more slowwwwwww burn.  And it should have been fascinating with hidden libraries (who does not love the idea of a hidden library, you bibliophiles?), a secret Alexandrian library (just the word "Alexandrian" teems with excitement), magical abilities, and a horrifying realization of what 'elimination' actually means.  
The Atlas Six was somewhat of a disappointment for me as it seemed to have so much potential.This author is a solid writer though, and although I can see what she was attempting to do, I do feel like she was trying too hard to make the characters have these educated and sophisticated discussions all the time.  While they were vaguely interesting, having them do it repeatedly took away from the overall feel of the book and made it seem stiff as it sacrificed some of the action and overall storytelling potential.  And honestly, some of the dialogue was just...silly.  However, there were enough good things from this author that I am intrigued and want to see what she does in the sequel. I have a  ARC copy of the sequel in my hands so I am hopeful the next book will focus more on the story.  We shall see. 


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Review: Spirits and Sourdough by Bailey Cates

by Bailey Cates
Release Date: January 4, 2022
2022 Berkley Books
Kindle Edition; 288 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593099247
ASIN: B08M386JM1
Audiobook: B09L58PP3D
Genre: Fiction / Cozy / Paranormal
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.75 / 5 Stars
Hedgewitch Katie Lightfoot works at the Honeybee Bakery in Savannah, and she's always up for investigating her adopted home's rich supernatural history. That's why she's taking a ghost tour for the very first time. But when the psychic tour guide tells Katie that she's being followed by the ghost of a recently murdered woman, Katie realizes she met the victim earlier that day, just before she died. She knows she must bring the killer to justice.
 My Thoughts
Spirits and Sourdough is the next entry in the Magical Bakery Mystery Book Series, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  I actually started this on my Kindle and then the publisher sent me the Audiobook version, so I switched to that format, and enjoyed it a lot, so I finished it that way.  I have really enjoyed seeing how much Katie has grown over the books and is learning so much about her gifts and her powers.  The friendships in this book are heartwarming and I always enjoy learning new things about the secondary characters as well as the main characters.
The solid thing about this book is the characters.  The author doesn't just focus on Katie, but spends time developing her secondary characters as well as introducing new ones to the friendship group which is always nice to see.  I have enjoyed Katie's journey throughout the series and how she has learned to use her magic more confidently; this means also learning to work around stubborn characters such as Detective Quinn when he wants to know how she knows so much about his cases.  You always have to have someone who is suspicious of what you do, but I am glad Katie wasn't necessarily at odd with Quinn in this book.  It was a nice change of pace and honestly, I don't know why there always has to be someone who is suspicious of someone else's \gifts' in books or why the plot has to include that element in it.  

The murder aspect of this book was a bit lacking, and it did slow down the overall pace of the book as the author did not make it a central part of the plot.  There was a lot going on in this book, which was not the problem as I enjoy multiple plots and multiple aspects to a book as long as they all thread together in the end, but I felt like the author wasn't quite sure on which thread to really focus and sort of switched back and forth realizing something had not yet been solved.  This meant the actual mystery took a back seat quite a bit and to be honest, when things did go back to it, I got bored as it wasn't all that interesting.  Predictable, yes.  Interesting, no.   However, the rest of the story was engaging and I was glad to see the author put some focus on the issue with Connell and Declan as I was hoping that would get resolved in this book.  

Spirits and Sourdough was a solid entry in this series, but I did find the murder mystery aspect somewhat lacking. Although there was a lot going, I don't feel like it distracted from the overall book, and as always, I love the baking aspect of the book with some yummy recipes mentioned.  The author's writing style has a way of drawing you into the Katie's world and although the mystery was weak, the rest of the story is...well, magical.  It is very evident the author has put a lot of thought into both the world building and character development, and it is this that keeps me coming back to this series. 


Saturday, June 4, 2022

Review: The School for Whatnots by Margaret Peterson Haddix

by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Release Date: March 1st, 2022
2022 Katherine Tegen Books
Kindle Edition: 304 Pages
ISBN: 978-0062838490
ASIN: B09688W6LM
Audiobook: B09K8T3MDZ
Genre: Fiction /Middle Grade / Science-Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher
3 / 5 Stars
  No matter what anyone tells you, I'm real.

That's what the note says that Max finds under his keyboard.

He knows that his best friend, Josie, wrote it. He'd know her handwriting anywhere. But why she wrote it--and what it means--remains a mystery.

Ever since they met in kindergarten, Max and Josie have been inseparable. Until the summer after fifth grade, when Josie disappears, leaving only a note, and whispering something about "whatnot rules."

But why would Max ever think that Josie wasn't real? And what are whatnots?
My Thoughts
The School for Whatnots had a pretty interesting premise: surround a wealthy child with robots in order to protect him through his early childhood years from the usual torments and negative experiences as well as ensuring he doesn't grow up spoiled and privileged when he realizes exactly how wealthy he is.  Except one of the other 'androids' is actually a child pretending to be a robot as that is the only way she can get a class-A education.  I did read this book in one sitting, and while I really enjoyed the opening chapters, I don't think the themes were explored in depth and the last part of the book fell pretty flat although there were some pretty cool moments in there as well.

The first half of the book was actually pretty good.  I was vested in the friendship between Max and Josie and because Max had so little experience with other children, he didn't realize she was not like the other children in his class.  Because it is not abnormal for two children to seriously bond, no one would think their friendship was unusual.  And that is also where I had issues with this book.  Josie was a very unusual child, very inquisitive, and couldn't sit still.  I just couldn't imagine the adults in this world had so little scientific background that they would not have noticed that her behaviour was so completely different from the others? There was some talk about Josie's schematics being corrupted, but nothing was ever done about it. Even as a child I would have questioned that.  

The second part of the book however, I had to just kind of go with things and try and imagine a child reading this book.  Then, I thought, nope.  It was just too much.  Luckily, I liked the characters although I can't say I was particularly attached to any of them except maybe Josie.  

There were a lot of themes running through this book and I do feel like the author didn't quite explore a lot of them to the depth they could have been explored.  I was especially disappointed that the distinction between the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor wasn't overly discussed in this book as it played a huge role and is something that could have been highlighted a bit more.  Friendship was another theme that could have been explored a bit more, especially the concept of friendship between an android and a child. 
The School for Whatnots had a lot of potential and I did really enjoy the first half of this book.  I liked the concept used to explore themes of bullying and abuse although I do not think the author went deep enough into the topic and some of the issues were too easily resolved.  I would have liked a bit more discussion on the world and the deep economic problems that existed and why.  Overall however, I do think middle grade readers will enjoy this book and get a lot out of it.  

Friday, June 3, 2022

Review: A Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox

by Hester Fox
Release Date:  February 1st, 2022
2022 Graydon House
Kindle Edition; 320 Pages
ISBN: 978-1525804694
Audiobook: B09DQ91T2B
Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Paranormal 
Source: Review copy from publisher
3.25 / 5 Stars
Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore.

But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.
My Thoughts
A Lullaby for Witches definitely had an interesting concept: a haunted house, a mystery, secrets, some difficult relationships,  pretty much everything I like about this genre.  This is why I keep returning to this author's books, but no matter how interesting the concept and how much potential there is in the story, I always come away feeling somewhat disappointed. In this one, I really disliked one of the story lines and really wished the author had focused on Augusta's search for information and her paranormal activities instead.  It took everything I had not to just skip over the chapters featuring Margaret.

First of all, I really disliked Margaret as a character.  I think the author wanted the reader to feel sympathetic towards her situation so that we would be more understanding when we finally met her again later on, but all it did was turn me right off her character.  Her behaviour, her thoughts, and how she dealt with people were just too much and I actually felt sympathy for her paramour which is not how I think I was supposed to feel. The scenes where Margaret was making 'eyes' at him in the store still make me cringe, so awful.  I feel like the author was trying to make her seem independent and strong during a time when women didn't have a lot of independence. Unfortunately, this affected other parts of the book for me as well as the ending as I did not feel any empathy for this character whatsoever. 
Because of this strong feeling for Margaret, I was a bit more receptive to Augusta and the other characters during the present time, simply because it was a breath of fresh air to read about people who were not so narcissistic.  To be honest, I would have preferred the entire book to be about Augusta and her search through the documents to find more information about Margaret as that would have been less cringe worthy and far more interesting.  However, Augusta had the personality of a wet mop.  Despite my dislike of Margaret, she definitely had more personality and spunk.  

The book is written in a dual timeline format and I am fast becoming annoyed by the overuse of this format.  Does it work in certain cases? Yes, absolutely, but not here.  I think it would have been more mysterious if we learned about Margaret as Augusta researched her and through some more paranormal activity.  There was little to no suspense in this book, and I found it to be quite predictable.  The interesting stuff, like Augusta's heritage, was rushed and some of the story line was a bit messy, with little to no explanations for how the character came up with the conclusions they did. 

A Lullaby for Witches had all the elements for a potentially good book, but it failed to deliver on many levels.  While the writing wasn't bad, it had more of a telling style rather than letting the reader explore and figure things out with the main character and the dual time lines certainly didn't help.  There were some huge plot holes that were not explained very well and one of the main characters was not very likeable.  The author definitely does her research however, and puts a lot of effort into making sure the reader has an understanding of the time periods and the settings.  I was looking for that eerie Gothic feeling, and unfortunately, this book did not quite do that for me.