Book Review: Roll with the Punches by Amy Gettinger


Author: Amy Gettinger
TitleRoll with the Punches
Publication Info: Raucous Eucalyptus Press (2015)
Summary/Review:

I read this book as an attempt to read something I wouldn’t usually read after seeing it in a Kindle deals email and thinking “I’ve never read a romance novel based around roller derby.”  Turns out that this novel is actually about an aspiring author, Rhonda, who has discovered that her novel was stolen and published by a popular novelist and she is now being accused of plagiarism.  Also, her mother is in the hospital and she has to take care of her father who is suffering from dementia.  And there are two men in her life with whom she has romantic feelings: James, a handsome young tech geek from her writers’ group, and Dal, a former student of her fathers.  Also, Dal is Native American so there are a lot of uncomfortable Indian joke.  And there is a roller derby plot squished in there although it doesn’t seem to fit in with everything going especially since the roller derby team also doubles as another writer’s support group.  Whew!  I was curious about the mystery of who stole the manuscript so I read to the end, but ultimately was disappointed by the increasingly ludicrous situations, the two-dimensional nature of most of the supporting characters, and the unlikely way all these different things overlapped in Rhonda’s life.

Recommended booksFurther Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Rating: **

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Book Review: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt


Author: Samantha Hunt 
TitleMr. Splitfoot
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell and Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2016)
Summary/Review:

This gothic mystery tells two interwoven stories.  The first is about the young Ruth and Nat, foster children growing up in a group home under a strange Christian cult leader.  They begin to claim that they can talk with the dead, and with the help of a con man named Mr. Bell, they escape and begin traveling and hosting seances.

The second story is about a directionless young woman named Cora who becomes pregnant by her cruel boyfriend, who is married to another woman.  Her aunt Ruth, now unable to speak, arrives and takes Cora on a long journey across the state of New York.  There’s a lot of mystery and creepiness in this book, although the real horror is the cruelty of humankind.  {SPOILER} The biggest surprise of this book is that it manages a happy ending. {/SPOILER}
Favorite Passages:

“Forget God. Or don’t call it that. I’m talking about mystery, unsolvable mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as love. I say it is.”

Recommended booksChoke by Chuck Palahniuk and
The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clark
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson


Author: Shirley Jackson
TitleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle
Narrator:  Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010)
Summary/Review:

This mystery/thriller focuses on the survivors of the well-to-do Blackwood family six years after most of the family met their end when a poisoner put arsenic in the sugar for their dessert of berries.  The novel is narrated by the teenager Mary Katherine or “Merricat” who had been sent to her room without dinner the night of the poisoning.  Her Uncle Julian survived the poisoning but is severely disabled.  The other survivor is Merricat’s elder sister Constance who did not take sugar on her berries and was tried and acquitted for the crime but is still seen as the villain in the local community.  Only Merricat ventures outside of the family home to do the shopping and there meets with open derision toward her family from the villagers.  This uneasy life is further disrupted when a cousin named Charles moves into the home in what only Merricat is initially able to recognize as an attempt to gain the Blackwood family fortune.  Merricat is an unreliable narrator and she is convinced that she must protect her home using sympathetic magic while her only “friend” is a cat.  I won’t go into the details of the revelations and incidents that follow but it is a moody and creepy novel balanced with sympathetic portrayals of unusual characters.
Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Rating: ***

Book Review: Slade House by David Mitchell


Author: David Mitchell
TitleSlade House
Narrator: Tania Rodrigues and Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Sceptre (2015)
Summary/Review:

Not sure how this one ended up on my reading list as I was totally unprepared for a horror-mystery story.  But that’s a good thing as it’s good to shake things up from time to time.  The basic gist of the story is that a pair of twins have discovered immortality by way of consuming the souls of special individuals.  They must “recharge” every nine years and to do so they must lure in their prey to the attic of the titular Slade House through elaborate connivance.  Each chapter is narrated by a different victim from the 1970s to 2000s and what makes this book work is that Mitchell quickly creates an interesting, believable character to set against the schlocky, horror setting.  It’s an entertaining read.
Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell, and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde


Author: Jasper Fforde
TitleLost in a Good Book
Narrator: Emily Gray
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2011)
Other Books Read by Same Author: The Eyre Affair, Shades of Gray, The Last Dragonslayer, The Song of the Quarkbeast, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Eye of Zoltar.
Summary/Review:

Rereading the Thursday Next series has its surprises in remembering what basic concepts of the Nextian universe have and have not yet been introduced.  Lost in a Good Book is a workhorse of a second novel introducing Jurisfiction, Mrs. Havisham, and Aornis Hades, among other things.  After the “relaxed” pacing of The Eyre Affair it’s also the first book in which Thursday has to jump among threats from Hades, Goliath, the Book World, Spec Ops, and the impending demise of the world.  There’s even a joke in which Thursday is quoted in her memoir remembering the first time she saved the world from destruction which is hilarious in retrospect.  A good follow-up in a great series and Emily Gray provides excellent voice work for the narrative.

Here’s my review and favorite passages from when I first read this book in 2003:

The second book in the Thursday Next series, and like <i>The Empire Strikes Back</i> is better than its predecessor and a stand-out in the series. It also begins a story arc that continues in the next two books. Of course, you should just read them all. The Thursday Next series is just one of the best examples of fantastic, alternative historic, time traveling, satirical, police procedural, and humorist writing out there today.

“Growth purely for its own sake is the philosophy of the cancer…” (p. 97)
“My father said that it was a delightfully odd – and dangerously self-destructive – quirk of humans the we were far more interested in pointless trivia than in genuine news stories.” (p. 141)

Rating: *****

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter


Author:  William Ritter
Title:  Jackaby
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2014)
Summary/Review:

This detective novel set in 1892 in a fictional city in New England openly acknowledges that it is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the opening pages.  Even “Sherlock Holmes with fantastical and supernatural elements” has been done before, but Jackaby remains fresh and entertaining.  The title character is an investigator who can see evidence of the paranormal.  The story is narrated by Abigail Rook, a young woman seeking adventure who steps off the ship at New Fiddleham and quickly becomes Jackaby’s assistant embroiled in solving a series of grisly murders.

The narration wisely stays with Abigail as we see Jackaby slowly become a warmer character, but still retaining an air of mystery.  The story has a lot of humor mixed with moments of horror, although nothing overly terrifying.  It’s a fun story and I will seek out other installments in the series.

 

Favorite Passages:

“Monsters are easy, Miss Rook. They’re monsters. But a monster in a suit? That’s basically just a wicked man, and a wicked man is a more dangerous thing by far.”
This makes them dreaded creatures, feared and hated by any who hear them, a treatment far disparate from the honor and appreciation they used to receive for their mourning services. Banshees themselves are not dangerous, though, just burdened with the task of expressing pain and loss.

That the battles are usually in her head does not lessen the bravery of it. The hardest ones always are.

Happiness is bliss–but ignorance is anesthetic.

Recommended booksThe Diviners by Libba Bray,  The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, The Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray


Author: Libba Bray
TitleThe Diviners
Narratorr: January LaVoy
Publication Info: Listening Library (2012)
Summary/Review:

Evie, an outspoken youngster from Ohio is sent away be her family to live with a strange uncle in Jazz Age New York City and ends up helping him try to solve a series of occultist murders.  An outlandish premise, but we also learn that Evie is one of many characters with extrasensory powers (the titular “Diviners”) and that there’s a man who is part machine, so just roll with it.  The characters are richly defined and help hold together a story that’s a little like Ghostbusters, but 60 years earlier.  The narration of January LaVoy captures the carefree spirit and hidden genius of Evie O’Neill and her comrades in this historical paranormal horror mystery.

Recommended booksStrivers Row by Kevin Baker,  The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Case of the Best Pet Ever by James Preller


Author: James Preller
Title: The Case of the Best Pet Ever 
Publication Info: New York : Scholastic, c2003
Summary/Review:

I read this book out loud with my son. This is a Jigsaw Jones mystery and seems very similar to the Encyclopedia Brown books I read as a child – boy detective, girl sidekick, bully arch rival. I have to admit that this book seemed better written and this volume of the series is very funny as well as a clever mystery. 

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin


Title:  The Westing Game

Author:  Ellen Raskin

Publishing information: New York : Puffin Books, 2004, c1978.

Summary/review:

Another book I read out loud with my son. This mystery for children involved 16 people who are influenced into living in the same apartment building and then are made heirs to the wealthy paper magnate Sam Westing. They are paired up, given clues, and forced to work together to win the game and a prize of $2 million.

The characters in this story don’t behave realistically but I I like the characterization if that makes any sense. At first I thought the characters were rather mean and the subject matter heavy. I wobdered if it was really appropriate for an 8-year-old, but my son was hooked. While I’m not sure I understand why the Westing game was played, the mystery was intriguing. And the ending was much more positive and happy than I’d believed possible. Oh, and my favorite character won the game.
Recommend books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? by Lemony Snicket


Author: Lemony Snicket
TitleWhy Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? 
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Previous Books in the Series:

Publication Info:
Summary/Review:

The conclusion of the All the Wrong Questions series finds Lemony Snicket and all the other characters of the series on a train crossing the sea.  There are many twists, and dark humor, and betrayals, and when the mystery is eventually solved it is more sad than valedictory in the traditional Snicket manner.  A good end to a good series. Creative and fun, and a little bit sad.
Favorite Passages:

“The truth is like a doorknob. You can stumble around in the dark, and when you finally grasp it, you may end up someplace terrifying.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Mysterious New England by Austin N. Stevens


Author: Austin N. Stevens
Title:Mysterious New England
Publication Info: Dublin, NH: Yankee Incorporated, 1971
Summary/Review:

On a visit to Brattleboro this summer I was reminded of the story “Wings Over Brattleboro” from this compilation of stories from Yankee Magazine about the creepy, weird, and unusual in New England.  I remember enjoying these stories as a preteen – although I probably never read the book end to end – so I decided to check it out for some spooky October reading. I was a bit disappointed, as many of the stories are written in the bland, straightforward prose of mid-century magazine writers that don’t do justice to their subject.  But many stories stick out, some I remember from decades ago, and some are new delights.  These include the wandering Old Leather Man,  some eerie ghost tales, Micah Rood’s blood-stained apples, the loss of the Willey Family to a landslide that spared their house,  lots of unusual carvings and structures that predate European colonialism, ghost towns, the Borden family murders, and  of course, a violent bird war over Brattleboro.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz


AuthorAnthony Horowitz
TitleMoriarty
Narrator: Julian Rhind-Tutt and Derek Jacobi
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio (2014)
Summary/Review:

Horowitz follows up on his authorized Sherlock Holmes novel House of Silk with this mystery set in 1891 immediately after Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarity are believed to have fallen from Reichenbach Falls.  The narrator is Frederick Chase, a Pinkerton detective who travels to Switzerland seeking American criminal mastermind Clarence Devereux whom he believes will rendez-vous with Moriarity.  In the wake of the supposed deaths of Moriarity and Holmes, Chase joins up with Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones who displays a skill in deductive reasoning. Based on the title, one wonders if Jones is Moriarity in disguise?  Or Holmes in disguise?  I won’t tell.  Chase and Jones return to London to continue the search for Devereux and find themselves pulled into the brutally violent underworld of expatriate American criminals.  It’s a gripping mystery with a lots of twists and turns, and a great companion to the Holmes’ canon.  The performance of Rhind-Tutt and Jacobi on the audiobook is particularly entrancing.

Recommended booksThe New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Martin Harry Greenberg,Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon by Larry Millett, and A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Shouldn’t You Be In School? by Lemony Snicket


Author: Lemony Snicket
TitleShouldn’t You Be In School?
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Publication Info: [New York] : Hachette Audio, 2014.

Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The third novel in the All the Wrong Questions series reaches a turning point in the overarching story, and contains a lot of surprises.  I like this novel particularly because the many supporting characters introduced over the course of the series come together as a team.  Even S. Theodora Markson gets a turn to break away from her arrogant mien and general incompetence.  While the themes in this novel are dark – children are essentially held in prison and drugged with laudanum, for starters – there’s an optimism that stands out among Snicket books, and satisfying twist at the conclusion.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: When you reach me by Rebecca Stead


Author: Rebecca Stead
TitleWhen you reach me
Narrator: Cynthia Holloway
Publication Info: [New York] : Listening Library, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This young adult novel is grounded in a realistic setting of New York’s Upper West Side in the 1970s with the protagonist Miranda dealing with going to school, a falling-out with a friend, and her mother appearing on a tv game show.  Added to this are mystery and science fiction elements such as Miranda receiving unexplained notes that predict the future and a seemingly homeless “laughing man” having a constant presence on the street near her school.  It’s a good blend of storytelling techniques that deals with children gaining independence, friendship, and second chances.
Recommended booksThe Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, Tunneling by Beth Bosworth, The Time It Takes to Fall by Margaret Lazarus Dean and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Rating: ***

Book Review: When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket


AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWhen Did You See Her Last?
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Publication Info: [New York] : Hachette Audio, [2013]
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The second installment of All the Wrong Questions picks up in Stain’d-by-the-Sea with Lemony Snicket investigating a missing person’s case, putatively with the help of his chaperon S. Theodora Markson.  It continues to be a whimsical mix of mystery novel and humor.  One thing that stands out is that other than Snicket as narrator, the major characters in this novel are all women, which is a refreshing change.  I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket


AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWho Could That Be at This Hour?
Narrator:  Liam Aiken
Publication Info: 9781619695375
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Daniel Handler under his nom-de-plume Lemony Snicket narrated the trials and travails of the Baudelaire children in a A Series of Unfortunate Events.  In this series, All the Wrong Questions, Lemony Snicket tells “his own” story of how as a teenager he became involved in a secret organization, was assigned to the worst chaperon, and begins his first assignment in the town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea.  The book reads as a pastiche of classic children’s adventures and noir detective stories with memorable characters, a lot of humor, and puzzles to solve.  It’s a good start to the series and I look forward to reading more.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Closed at Dark by Rob Blackwell


Author:Rob Blackwell
Title: Closed at Dark
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2014
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

This novella by my college friend Rob Blackwell introduces a new series about Soren Chase, a paranormal investigator.  This story combines parental fears of “stranger danger,” urban legends, and supernatural monsters to create an intriguing mystery thriller as Chase tries to figure out who – or what – is trying to abduct his long-time friend’s child.  The characterization is a bit thin, but I expect it will develop as did the characters in Blackwell’s Sanheim Chronicles.  We’ll find out soon when Soren Chase’s first full novel The Forest of Forever is released.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne


Author: Andrew Mayne
Title: The Monster in the Mist
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
ISBN: B0056A295I
Summary/Review:

I got this eBook as a special deal for Kindle on Amazon, not knowing much about it other than it was a mystery set in Boston in 1890 with a steampunk vibe.  April Malone is a young woman whose mysterious job is to tend an office where no one works and take lessons on various esoteric topics.  All of this is preparation for the arrival of the also mysterious man who just goes by the name Smith who emerges from behind a steel door one day and sets the pair on investigating several disappearances of people in Boston.  Smith is reminiscent of The Doctor from Doctor Who (who also sometimes goes by the name Smith) and the relationship of April Malone and Smith owes a debt to Holmes & Watson, but it’s not entirely derivative.  I was won over by the first part of this book, but less enamored with the latter half.  This is because Smith goes off on his own adventure and while ultimately aided by April, I think the book lacks something when not seen from her perspective as well as the interesting chemistry between the two characters.  This book is the first in a series of Chronological Man Adventures, and I hope that in future installments that two leads stay together.

Recommended booksThe Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch.
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl


Author:Matthew Pearl
TitleThe Technologists
Publication Info:
ISBN: 0739344307
Summary/Review:

Set in Boston in 1868, The Technologists follows the same historical mystery formula as previous works like The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.  This novel centers around the students of the first class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the fictional protagonists intermingling  with historical figures like William Barton Rogers, Ellen Swallow Richards, and Louis Aggasiz (the latter is characterized as a cartoonish villain in the Harvard-MIT rivalry).  Boston is threatened by mysterious technological attacks and the populace – already suspicious of the institute – threaten to close it down.  It’s up to the young students to use their scientific skills to stop the madman and to save the reputation of their school.  The historical details are nice, and the mystery is good enough.  I didn’t see some of the twists in the plot coming, at least.  The growing technological menace get ludicrous though and the characterization is weak.  All in all, an entertaining page-turner of a historical mystery, but no great work of literature.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Give the Devil His Due by Rob Blackwell


Author:Rob Blackwell
TitleGive the Devil His Due 
Publication Info: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
ISBN: 149289656X
Summary/Review:

The third installment of The Sanheim Chronicles completes the story begun in A Soul To Steal and Band of Demons.  As noted, the author is a friend of mine, so I may not be impartial, but on the other hand I was reading this while waiting for a bus and was so engrossed that I didn’t notice a bus had stopped right in front of me.  The series continues to improve and it continues to change.  These three books could be three different genres, and there’s a lot going on in just this one volume from Celtic mythology to the American Civil War.  There’s imaginative world-building too as the characters proceed on an epic journey across the Land of the Dead.  Blackwell also brings back a lot of good characters from earlier novels in unexpected ways, but I shan’t into detail lest it get too spoilery.

Favorite Passages:

“It matters because words have power, and names have more than most,” Kieran replied. “It influences what we believe and that definitely matters. If we say the Land of the Dead is hell, and Sanheim is the devil, then we’ve already lost. How can we free a soul from a land where only the most evil and corrupted go in the first place? How can we defeat a monster that is evil incarnate? This is why Sanheim acts the way he does, why he no doubt tries to make the Land of the Dead seem like our conception of hell. Because it teaches people to accept their fate. They believe they are there because they deserve to be, and the creature that rules them is nothing less than an evil god.”

Rating: ****