Monday, March 20, 2023

Review: Murder at Black Oaks by Phillip Margolin

by Phillip Margolin
Release Date: November 8, 2022
2022 Minotaur Books
Kindle Edition; 288 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250258465
Audiobook: B09Q767L58
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

2.5 / 5 Stars

Defense Attorney Robin Lockwood is summoned by retired District Attorney Francis Hardy to meet with him at Black Oaks, the manor he owns up in the Oregon mountains.  Hardy wants Lockwood's help in a legal matter - righting a wrongful conviction from his days as a DA. 

Successful in their efforts, Hardy invites Lockwood up to Black Oaks for a celebration. Lockwood finds herself among an odd group of invitees - including the bitter, newly released, Alvarez. When Hardy is found murdered, with a knife connected to the original curse, Lockwood finds herself faced with a conundrum - who is the murderer among them and how to stop them before there's another victim.
My Thoughts
Murder at Black Oaks, the sixth entry in the Robin Lockwood series, was supposed to be an homage to Agatha Christie's locked room mysteries, but definitely fell short in my opinion.  While the actual material of the book was interesting, the execution was lacking and all over the place, from courtroom drama to Gothic elements that were not really convincing nor did they seem to fit the spirit of the story. And some of it was not believable, including the courtroom stuff. 
First of all, while I don't have an issue with multiple plot lines in a story, I do have an issue when they are not cohesive.  I actually felt like I was reading a series of short stories that the author decided at the last minute to tie together into one larger plot. As a result, the overall plot didn't flow very well and was jarring in quite a few places, but, I thought, maybe I could overlook all of that.  Nope, as suddenly, there was mention of a curse, a legend, and suddenly, I was in the middle of a Gothic novel.  Throw in a thunderstorm and no electricity, and yes, you can see where I am going with all of this.  It wouldn't have surprised me if someone was actually bitten by a werewolf and turned.  And trust me, I love Gothic and horror as it's my preferred genre to read, but not like this. Unfortunately, the plot was sort of painful to get through, and there were quite a few instances where I just rolled my eyes and thought about how short this book was and how easy it is to read, so I just powered through it.  

If I had not read the previous novels, I would not have any knowledge of any of the main characters. The character development was not that great and if you changed the names of any of the people, it wouldn't have mattered as no one, not even Robin, had distinct personalities.  I was really disappointed in Robin's character as she seemed so different compared to previous novels, this one almost making her seem silly and out of sync with what is happening. 

Murder at Black Oaks is definitely not one of my favourite novels by this author.  Lack of plot and character development interfered in what could have been an intriguing locked room drama in a spooky mansion. The author did not make use of of his characters nor was there an intertwined plot that was intriguing or interesting.  Unfortunately, this one failed on a multitude of levels.  However, as the previous novels were half-decent, I'm not quite ready to give up on this series yet. I do recommend that if you haven't read anything by this author, you do not start with this novel, but start with the first one in the series.



Sunday, March 19, 2023

Review: Exiles by Jane Harper

by Jane Harper
Release Date: January 31, 2023
2023 Flatiron Books
Kindle Edition; 356 Pages
ISBN: 978-1250235350
Audiobook: B09YJ1 692Y
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher
3 / 5 Stars
At a busy festival site on a warm spring night, a baby lies alone in her pram, her mother vanishing into the crowds.

A year on, Kim Gillespie’s absence casts a long shadow as her friends and loved ones gather deep in the heart of South Australian wine country to welcome a new addition to the family.

Joining the celebrations is federal investigator Aaron Falk. But as he soaks up life in the lush valley, he begins to suspect this tight-knit group may be more fractured than it seems.

My Thoughts
Exiles is the third entry in the Aaron Falk series, and unfortunately, this was my least favourite of the series. This one is more personal for Aaron, but in a different way as it involves his current friend group, a group that grew up together and has intimacies and ties that go back decades.  Aaron, as an outsider, has a unique viewpoint to examine those relationships and find out what actually happened to Kim a year ago. And while I found all of that interesting, it was a slow, slow burn, something I don't normally mind, but the denouement had little excitement and that level of tension the author was able to keep up in the previous two books was missing from this one. 

First of all, I loved the setting of this book. The wine country and festival descriptions were interesting and I could definitely picture myself there, walking amongst the rows of grapes, or by the reservoir. I also liked learning about some of the conflicting traditions that currently exist, such as the teenagers drinking spot on the first night of the festival.  And while it seems all in good fun, the author interweaves the darker aspects of those traditions into the story, something I liked.  We also get a glimpse of the what the adults think of these traditions now their kids are doing them and I find that quite fascinating, having gone through the teenage years with my own kids and the challenges that posed.  

The weakest aspect of this book was the mystery. The story didn't seem to have the same level of tension or sense of urgency of the previous books, and at first, I was okay with that.  But as the story progressed and the level of tension never seemed to grow, I had a hard time continuing the story, even putting it down and finally picking it back up just to see if I was right as to who the murderer was several weeks later.  The story got stuck on the relationships between the characters, and while this was interesting, the mystery itself got stuck within all of that, and then the author would realize this and try to pull the story back to the mystery creating this dissonance.  The story never really delved into the mystery or went into full policing mode, and while I understand some of the reasons why, it did affect the overall story, the tension, and the ending.  

Exiles was a slow-burn mystery that never seemed to really raise the tension level as it focused more on Falk's relationship issues rather than the crime and the mystery.  Personally, I missed the darker tones of the previous novels and higher level of tension and excitement; this one seemed much cozier in nature with too many coincidences that made me grit my teeth.  The descriptions of the setting and the well-developed characters saved this book, but the overall mystery was weak and while many readers may have enjoyed the focus on the romance and the convenient denouement that entailed, I like my books to be grittier and more realistic. Aaron Falk is a great character and I enjoyed the conflict he was going through, but he deserved a better path to his denouement than he got.  

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Review: Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi

by Ronald Malfi
Release Date: July 19, 2022
2022 Titan Books
Kindle Edition; 448 Pages
ISBN: 978-1789098655
Audiobook: B0B3NGMJQS
Genre: Fiction / Horror
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

For nearly two decades, Jamie Warren has been running from darkness. He's haunted by a traumatic childhood and the guilt at having disappeared from his disabled brother's life. But then a series of unusual events reunites him with his estranged brother and their childhood friends, and none of them can deny the sense of fate that has seemingly drawn them back together.

Nor can they deny the memories of that summer, so long ago – the strange magic taught to them by an even stranger man, and the terrible act that has followed them all into adulthood. In the light of new danger, they must confront their past by facing their futures, and hunting down a man who may very well be a monster.
My Thoughts
Black Mouth had all the elements of a horror novel that I love: creepy house, eerie atmosphere, family secrets, messed up characters, and an unresolved situation from the past.  And yet, this book just didn't click for me. Yes, it definitely had its interesting moments, but so much of this book was character-driven, meaning we got to see the main character fighting with his demons most of the time, rather than focusing on the creepy story line. So much of the suspense was lost because of this and as a result, I had to force myself to go back and finish this book.  I think it took me about a month to get through this one.
First of all, I thought this book started out quite well.  The story was interesting, the characters when they were young were fascinating, and I was intrigued by their lives and why they would be attracted to such a figure known as the Magician.  I definitely understood the power of having a secret and how that can empower you to stand up for yourself when you are struggling with so much in your life. The four main characters had some major difficulties going on in their lives, so I liked learning about their struggles and the impact such a person would have on their lives. The Magician was creepy and mysterious and I wanted to learn more about him. So how did it go sideways?
First of all, the theme in this book has been done before, so to really make an impact it needs to have something new, something fresh.  Unfortunately, for a book that causes chaos for kids, there should be much more of a horror element and feel and this book just wasn't that scary or horrifying. whether it be psychologically or physically.
Furthermore, adult Jamie very quickly got on my nerves.  It's not that I don't understand where he was coming from, and alcoholism is a disease which I understand the author was trying to highlight in this book, but the constant focus on that and how it affects people's lives did take away from the overall suspense of the story, and I think there needed to be more of a balance.  Trust me, I'm not opposed to flawed characters, in fact I prefer them, but not when the book is so character-driven, the overall focus of the story gets lost in a character redemption arc.  The author did a great job with his brother Dennis though, and he was definitely my favourite character in this book.  He was a man of few words, but his perceptions were spot on.   While Clay and Mia were well done, I did wish the author had developed them a bit more and allowed the reader to learn more about them as I found them quite interesting.

Black Mouth had all the elements, but something was definitely missing.  For me, there weren't any real moments of dread or tension, and the focus on the main character, and his issues, didn't blend as well into the story line which didn't help the tension or the suspense.  The author is a really good writer however, and this is what kept me returning to the book in the end.  In the end, while there were some strong, interesting parts, the book was too drawn out, and the pacing was very uneven.  I do think fans of the author will enjoy this book.