Sunday, August 28, 2022

Review: Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer

by Lauren Belfer
Release Date: June 7, 2022
2022 Ballantine Books
Kindle Edition; 416 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593359495
ASIN: B09G97M5G8
Audiobook: B09HVCVBLC
Genre: Fiction 
Source: Review copy from publisher

2.25 / 5 Stars
When a close relative falls ill, Hannah Larson and her young son, Nicky, join him for the summer at Ashton Hall, a historic manor house outside Cambridge, England. 

Soon after their arrival, ever-curious Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman walled into a forgotten part of the manor, and Hannah is pulled into an all-consuming quest for answers, Nicky close by her side. Working from clues in centuries-old ledgers showing what the woman's household spent on everything from music to medicine; lists of books checked out of the library; and the troubling personal papers of the long-departed family, Hannah begins to recreate the Ashton Hall of the Elizabethan era in all its color and conflict.
My Thoughts
Ashton Hall was a bit of a disappointment as it was touted as a mystery, particularly a gothic mystery, and it was anything but.  It was more of a literary women's fiction where Hannah comes to Ashton Hall to escape from some devastating revelations about her marriage and her husband and to figure out her place in the world and what she really wanted to do with her life.  Honestly, there is little mystery, suspense or thrill in this book, and by the middle, I had to push myself to keep reading.  I enjoyed Nicky as a character as he was quite interesting, but I definitely did not like how his issues were dealt with nor with how they were portrayed. There were parts in which I winced, not against Nicky, but even things his mother would think and say in his defense. And for heaven's sakes, why would Hannah not tell his baby-sitter about his rages? That could be dangerous for both Alice and Nicky.

The plot moves quite slowly, and though it is touted as a mystery, there is really no mystery to Isabelle's death, no real search for clues other than Hannah's glimpses in the past as she hunts through ledgers written by employees from Isabelle's time period.  And while you have no idea who the woman is for a couple of chapters, I spent those chapters trying to reconcile the fact that a 9-year-old boy, no matter how precocious or nosy, would have discovered the remains the way he did, within the time frame of arriving at the castle while those who have worked there for years would have remained ignorant. There is an archivist who works on site, with research students, and no one would have asked about the ruins in all that time? And how easily the stuff was found, no one else would have been able to find it, in 500 years? And they would have asked a person who hasn't finished her degree, who specializes in a completely different field, to research material? So, I'm a little skeptical. 
I did find the search through the ledges quite interesting, but then I love history. It does show that historical research is not all Indiana Jones, but very methodical and while interesting to the researcher, can be quite boring for someone not interested in history. I also loved how the author mentioned anchoresses in this book as they are often overlooked in mainstream fiction and non-fiction. There was some irony in this though, as Hannah had difficulty believing that a woman would choose such a path during the 16th century, a time period when few options were open to women, a viewpoint that just didn't work for me considering she was working on her PhD in history. But I loved the setting, and as soon as you mention ruins and deep, dark secrets along with the words manuscript and discovery, you've got me hooked. However, I was also not a big fan of Hannah as she got on my nerves quite a bit, but at the same time, I was also not a fan of the way the author portrayed her whole situation. And to try to justify it upon learning of her uncle's situation in life bothered me a little bit. I don't care how people live their lives, but there were parts that made me a bit uncomfortable as it seemed to justify cheating.  While Hannah was somewhat conflicted, she did try to justify her actions by feeling she was not doing anything as badly as her husband, and that was the mixed message I was getting from this story line. I just couldn't figure out if the author was trying to promote the idea of open marriages or make them seem like a negative thing. But to make Hannah seem like this great person because she chose to sacrifice her career for motherhood, then make her husband seem so loathsome for his behaviours and actions, and then to twist it even further and have him blame her for everything that is wrong with their son, just makes me cringe.  So many tropes and stereotypes to unpack, it just isn't worthwhile doing.  

Ashton Hall had an interesting premise, but was in no way a mystery.  I did like the author's writing style and would have liked to have seen more of Isabelle's story play a role in the book, but the parallels to Hannah's life were thought-provoking and provided a lot of room for introspection about one's role in life.  However, I wasn't a fan of the way the relationships were handled, nor did I like the way Nicky's issues and problems were discussed and handled. And the pace was pretty slow.  I really wanted to like this book, but there were too many things I just couldn't overlook. This one was just not for me.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Review: Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry

by Jonathan Maberry
Release Date: May 10, 2022
2022 St. Martin's Griffin
Kindle Edition; 560 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250783974
Audiobook: B09GH6S29N
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy / Grimdark
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

Sworn by Oath
Kagen Vale is the trusted and feared captain of the palace guard, charged with protecting the royal children of the Silver Empire. But one night, Kagen is drugged and the entire imperial family is killed, leaving the empire in ruins.

Abandoned by the Gods
Haunted and broken, Kagen is abandoned by his gods and damned forever. He becomes a wanderer, trying to take down as many of his enemies as possible while plotting to assassinate the usurper–the deadly Witch-king of Hakkia. While all around him magic–long banished from the world—returns in strange and terrifying ways.

My Thoughts
Kagen the Damned is one of those books that I am really glad I pushed through to the end. (I am a huge fan of his Rot & Ruin series, so I was happy to see him venture into fantasy.) I wasn't a huge fan of Kagen in the beginning however, and his whining definitely rubbed me the wrong way, but when I reflected on his character development throughout the book, it made sense. The story certainly started with a bang and the battle at the beginning was epic, with the imperial city being destroyed and Kagen fighting to save the royal family as well as his own family.  

Turns out that Kagen is actually a strong character despite his many character flaws, though he isn't very likeable. He is consumed with guilt and anger and turns to alcohol and petulance to stem his guilt, behaving in such a way you just want to slap him. He is supposed to be the most feared captain of the palace guards, but his behaviour just turns you right off his character. Personally, I think the author was trying to show his privilege and what happens to that privilege when everything is taken from you. You can be the best of whatever, but it is through your actions when things are tough that you show your merit, and Kaden needed to learn this lesson. Naturally, he quits drinking, decides to kill the Witch-King, and the reader is supposed to be understanding of his behaviours up to this point. Uh, no.  And for a captain of the guard, he seems to be overly trusting, especially when an entire empire is destroyed so quickly, whereas I would be looking for who betrayed what and whom when something like this happens so quickly and would trust no one.  
There are also a couple of secondary story lines that being developed as well involved a couple of nuns named Miri and Ryssa as well as a woman named Mother Frey who seems to be more of a spy than a leader of a religious house.  I wasn't a big fan of the story line between Miri and Ryssa for a variety of reasons, but I think if I heard the word 'sweetheart' one more time, I thought I would scream as it sounded so condescending.  I did feel overall that the character development for most of the characters was a bit more one-dimensional than I would have liked as the author did tend to focus more on the plot and world-building. It's not than the characters are forgettable, it's just that they are not that complex so I am hoping to dig more into their personalities in future books as we get to know more of the world.
I thought the writing was strong and enjoyed the world-building. It was not hard to understand the culture and history of the world and the historical glimpses of some events from the past made me want to learn more as they were tantalizing. Although there wasn't as much magic as I thought there would be, this was an empire that did suppress it so I am curious as to how it will play a role in the next book as people develop their skills once again or as people no longer keep it hidden.  It should be interesting to see the development.   The story could be bloody and grim, fast-paced at times with a lot happening in a short period of time, and pretty gritty. Yup, I flinched quite a few times. And whhile the ending was satisfying, it did end on a cliffhanger and a lot of threads developed in this book have yet to be resolved.  

Kagen the Damned was an action-packed first entry into what I think will be an interesting series. While I wasn't a fan of Kagen at the beginning, he did grow on me as I learned more about him and his past and his character development was one of the themes of the book, strength is not given, it is earned through one's actions, not privilege.  Turns out this was a dark and twisty story, with many interesting elements, and while I was not a fan of all of them, as in the relationship between Mira and Ryssa, there was definitely enough that I am looking forward to the ARC I received of book 2, Son of the Poison Rose.


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Review: Dark Horse by Gregg Hurwitz

by Gregg Hurwitz
Release Date: February 8, 2022
2022 Minotaur Books
Kindle & Audiobook Editions; 432 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250252302
Audiobook: B094DPKFHX
Genre: Fiction / Thriller
Source: Review copy from publisher

4.25 / 5 Stars

Aragon Urrea is a kingpin of a major drug-dealing operation in South Texas. He's also the patron of the local area—supplying employment in legitimate operations, providing help to the helpless, rough justice to the downtrodden, and a future to a people normally with little hope. He's complicated—a not completely good man, who does bad things for often good reasons. However, for all his money and power, he is helpless when one of the most vicious cartels kidnaps his innocent eighteen year old daughter, spiriting her away into the armored complex that is their headquarters in Mexico. With no other way to rescue his daughter, he turns to The Nowhere Man.

Now not only must Evan figure out how to get into the impregnable fortress of a heavily armed, deeply paranoid cartel leader, but he must decide if he should help a very bad man—no matter how just the cause.
My Thoughts
Dark Horse is the next entry in the Orphan X series, and this is one of my favourites series out there. While not the most suspenseful book of the series, it is definitely a solid entry and a lot of fun to read. The story seemed to focus more on relationships and Evan's growing sense of how to fit into a world he knows little about, except as an assassin.  
Evan's character development has always been one of the strengths of this series.  Both he and Joey have come to a crossroads in their lives where they need to figure out who they are and who they wish to be as well as the people they want in their lives. Having lived a solitary life for so long, with few people he could trust, Evan is slowly learning about having fun and enjoying life.  Unfortunately, having been an assassin for so long, and having been involved in such a secret program, he has enemies all over the place, and in some pretty high government levels, enemies who do anything to see him dead. The author does a great job with Evan as he comes to terms with his more humane side and accepts that his lethal side will always be a part of him. 

Joey and Dog have been favourites of mine since they joined the Orphan X world a few books ago and I always look forward to their appearances.  It's hard to imagine comedic episodes in a thriller novel, but the author manages to do this very well in scenes involving Joey, Evan, and Dog, including some emotional ones. Who knew you could get emotional over a plant and some coloured rocks?  

This one has Evan helping a drug kingpin, one who daughter has been kidnapped by a rival drug cartel. This mission becomes quite complicated, and puts Evan into quite a moral dilemma as he has to decide to help a leader of a drug cartel with questionable morals.  I thought the author did a great job showing the human side of this world, something I didn't think was possible, demonstrating the shades of grey that exist in everyone's world. I even grew to like Aragon, which I never would have suspected.  But make no mistake, the author didn't shy away from the brutality either, especially when Evan infiltrated the Leones compound to rescue Aragon's daughter.  As always, the writing style was captivating, drawing me into the story, dark and quite intense.  While the beginning was a bit slower than usual, the last quarter of the book was intense and a bit brutal.  
Dark Horse is a fun, action-packed book. There is quite a bit of soul-searching for Evan as he is trying to come to terms with his life as an assassin and his newish life as a regular person, someone who is trying to recognize that not everything is black or white.  I felt the author did a great job developing Evan's character and his interactions with the other characters was enjoyable.  While this one started out a bit slower than usual, it definitely ended quite differently and I couldn't put it down. I am looking forward to the next book in this series, The Last Orphan, which I have already received for review. An old nemesis is coming back into play and I can't wait!


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Review: The Children on the Hill by Jennifer McMahon

by Jennifer McMahon
Release Date: April 26, 2022
2022 Gallery/Scout Press
Kindle Edition; 338 Pages
ISBN: 978-1982153952
ASIN: B098441GNT
Audiobook: B099CNNTPN
Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Horror
Source: Review copy from publisher

2 / 5 Stars

1978: at her renowned treatment center in picturesque Vermont, the brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth, is acclaimed for her compassionate work with the mentally ill. Then one day Gran brings home a child to stay with the family. Iris—silent, hollow-eyed, skittish, and feral—does not behave like a normal girl.

2019: Lizzy Shelley, the host of the popular podcast Monsters Among Us, is traveling to Vermont, where a young girl has been abducted, and a monster sighting has the town in an uproar. She’s determined to hunt it down, because Lizzy knows better than anyone that monsters are real—and one of them is her very own sister.
My Thoughts
The Children on the Hill had a very interesting concept, a story inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, one of my favourite books. The story has a dual timeline, one in which we learn about when Gran brings Iris home and her integration into the family, and the other follows Lizzy Shelley as she hunts for clues about missing girls.  I have a mixed opinion about these dual timelines as one always seems to be better than the other, and in horror novels, it often tends to break up that wonderful tension and suspense that gets built up, something you don't want happening in such a novel. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to its premise.

Dr. Hildreth, the grandmother, kind of takes on the role of the doctor from the Frankenstein novel, and while the author tries to set her up as this kind and generous grandmother who has these toxic and creepy beliefs, it fell really flat for me.  I just found her character to be one-dimensional, and there was little to no character development, something that would make me feel like something was really off with this woman, that would make me want to protect the children, that would make me wonder about her secrets.  The children were somewhat better developed, but that isn't saying much.  To be honest, it wasn't quite hard to figure out what was going on with Violet and Iris and I understood the major plot twist quite early on. Once the secret was revealed, I didn't buy into it as there seemed no reason for the personality changes and what actually happened, it just didn't make sense.

The first part of the novel was the most interesting part as I enjoyed learning about the institution, and I definitely like it when the setting includes a big old building with secrets.  However, the pacing of the story was quite slow, with a lot of descriptions of things that I don't think really enhanced the story.  To me, it seemed like filler stuff that wasn't necessary to the story.  And there was one part of the story narrative where I almost DNF the book as it came out of nowhere and really had no context. The creepy atmosphere slowly gave way to plot points that just didn't make sense or were extremely clumsy in their execution, making it very easy to figure out what was happening.  Everything was laid out for the reader and no thinking was required, no build up or foreshadowing that allows for suspense or that wonderful thrill you get when reading something exciting.  

The Children on the Hill had a great premise and a wonderful setting, but the execution fell flat due to poor character and plot development.  The author had a tendency to tell the reader what was happening rather than use subtle clues and foreshadowing to let them figure it out, and the dual timeline took away a lot of the suspense from the story.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this book and would not recommend it to fans who are avid horror readers.  However, as always, you may like this more than I did. 



Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Review: The Ghosts of Paris by Tara Moss

by Tara Moss
Release Date: June 7, 2022
2022 Dutton
Kindle Edition; 384 Pages
ISBN: 978-0593182680
Audiobook: B09HSQNZKV
Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

3.75 / 5 Stars

It's 1947. The world continues to grapple with the fallout of the Second World War, and former war reporter Billie Walker is finding her feet as an investigator. When a wealthy client hires Billie and her assistant Sam to track down her missing husband, the trail leads Billie back to London and Paris, where Billie's own painful memories also lurk.

As Billie's search for her client's husband takes her to both the swanky bars at Paris's famous Ritz hotel and to the dank basements of the infamous Paris morgue, she'll need to keep her gun at the ready, because something even more terrible than a few painful memories might be following her around the city of lights . . .
My Thoughts
The Ghosts of Paris is the second book in the Billie Walker Mystery series, and I enjoyed it quite a bit and had no trouble following along even though I have no yet read the first book in this series.  It did take quite a while for things to get moving, but when it did pick up, there was plenty to keep you engaged and interested.  I am always fascinated by the time period after the war as people try to rebuild their lives and deal with the actions and betrayals of the war, so I found this book, with all of its secrets, to be engrossing.  It's a bit lighter than the typical spy novel, but it was a lot of fun to read nonetheless.
I enjoyed Billie as a main character and liked her spunk as she dealt with the attitudes towards females and female independence during this time period.  A lot of women really came into their own during WWII and achieved so many things, things that were difficult to let go when the war ended and the men returned expecting them to resume the rules and regulations that existed before the war.  Watching Billie explore this new world, trying to deal with those older viewpoints, comments, and expectations, was frustrating and you get an idea of what is was like for women during this time period.  The author really captured the atmosphere and it was evident she did a lot of research to be able to share the feelings as well as the frustrations with the reader through dialogue as well as actions. The descriptions of the clothing, the food, the buildings, that airplane ride, the beliefs, etc... really enhanced the overall reading experience and I enjoyed it tremendously.

I did enjoy this writer's writing style and thought her descriptions were wonderful, but I did think the story had moments where it dragged and was repetitive.  I understand the author was trying to introduce characters and set-up different story lines as well as remind the reader of previous story lines that were incomplete from the previous book, something I did appreciate, but I did have to push through as I wondered when the actual story was going to start.  When it did, it was quite explosive and very interesting.  However, the ending was abrupt and a bit unsatisfactory.  I did learn quite a bit about the LGBTQ community that existed during this time period, both in France as well as Australia, and I appreciated learning more about some of the laws that existed if one were caught; the author did a great job highlighting the homophobia that existed as well.  

The Ghosts of Paris deals with some fascinating issues of the time period, and I appreciated the research the author put into including those details into the story.  I really enjoyed the characters and for the most part, the story lines were interesting; the abrupt ending of one of them left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, and I am still not sure what I think about the other one as I felt it was contrived simply to make room for a relationship for Billie which didn't quite sit well with me.  Overall, I recommend this book to anyone looking for an interesting story set after WWII.


Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review: The Long Weekend by Gilly Macmillan

by Gilly Macmillan
Release Date: March 29, 2022
2022 William Morrow & Company
Kindle Edition; 336 Pages
ISBN: 978-0063074323
ASIN: B0983LK135
Audiobook: B0997YWCZY
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

2.25 / 5 Stars

Dark Fell Barn is a “perfectly isolated” retreat, or so says its website when Jayne books a reservation for her friends. A quiet place, far removed from the rest of the world, is exactly what they need.

The women arrive for a girls’ night ahead of their husbands.Upon arrival at Dark Fell Barn, the women find a devastating note claiming one of their husbands will be murdered. There are no phones, no cell service to check on their men. Friendships fracture as the situation spins wildly out of control. Betrayal can come in many forms.
My Thoughts
The Long Weekend is one of those books that I picked up because it has a lot of elements that I love in a mystery; secrets, isolated retreat, devastating note, suspicions, murder, fractured friendships, and wilderness.  I really enjoyed the set-up to this story, loved the setting as it was as eerie and isolating as I could have asked for, and the concept of secrets and murder playing havoc on emotions was fun, in the beginning.  Unfortunately, this quickly derailed into the unbelievable and suddenly, we were no longer in the isolated setting with one of the narrators sounding so silly, I almost DNF'd the book.  

First of all, I couldn't empathize with any of the main characters, except maybe Jayne, but that was on such a superficial level that I was sort of hoping they would all buy it in the end (a slasher novel finish would have been so satisfactory).  All Emily could do was whine about not being able to reach her husband, Ruth drank and invented these outlandish scenarios involving her husband, and Jayne just seemed so smug in her relationship, almost condescending. I was looking forward to some interesting times at the retreat, but didn't really get too much character development.  I am also not sure why the property owners' perspective was important to the story? All it did was distract from the relationships the author was trying to build between the women and the story line being developed in that plot line. 

The story itself is written in multiple POV, and while I didn't mind reading the women's story lines, I absolutely detested the POV from the supposed villain.  No, you don't know who it is, although there are plenty of clues to give you a basic idea, but the childish voice and the pathetic tone almost made me shut the book.  I like reading from the villain's POV, but not this stuff.  I don't even have words to describe how far my eyes rolled back into my head while reading his justifications.  

Unfortunately, the story line took a deep nosedive once they left the retreat; so much for any murder/slasher scenarios happening on that mountain.  To be honest, I didn't really care that the concept was not that original as I enjoy reading about people being put in isolated scenarios, watching their secrets unravel, and seeing how they react.  With a skilled writer, it is often fun.  Unfortunately, the dramatic episodes just made me cringe and so much was based on coincidence that it became a bit unbelievable.  

The Long Weekend is one of those reads that I managed to scrape through to the end, but barely.  I did enjoy the beginning of the novel, and thought the isolated setting was eerie, setting up for something explosive and interesting.  Unfortunately, it missed the mark completely, and the second half of the book didn't even occur at the retreat.  The villain's POV was childish and unbelievable, and I struggled at this point to continue.  This is one of those books that you need to read for yourself, and if you can get past the tropes and the overuse of red herrings, you may have a different viewpoint than me.  Sadly, this one just did not work for me.