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Book Review: Lana’i of the Tiger by JoAnn Bassett (Series, #3)

August 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Orane and yellow hues depict the lagoon of an island.Summary:
Maui wedding planner, Pali Moon, wound up as a key witness against a drug ring, and now she’s been whisked into witness protection, sent to the small boring island of Lana’i, and right at the holidays no less!  The feds seem to be taking their sweet time getting the case to court, and Pali is bored out of her mind, used to the hustle and bustle of wedding planning.  When a small local bed and breakfast advertises looking for temporary help while they go to the main island to have their baby, it seems like the ideal situation.  But when a famous guest’s fiancee turns up dead, Pali finds herself right in the thick of things again.

Review:
I picked this mystery up when I saw it on sale (for free) in the kindle store, in spite of it being midseries.  The punny title made me think it was probably a cozy, and I know those series are totally fine to read out of order.  I was right in that I never felt lost in the story due to starting mid-series, but I wasn’t right about it being a cozy.  Pun-filled title aside, this is an easy-going mystery, ideal for a beach read, but missing the appendixes of add-ons such as recipes or patterns found in cozy mysteries

Pali is a three-dimensional character who jumps off the page, and the supporting characters, while not necessarily three-dimensional, each have enough different quirks and personalities that they are memorable.  That said, Pali may be three-dimensional but she’s sure not likable.  One example, she kisses someone on Lana’i, and then later finds out that her boyfriend may be cheating on her and flips out.  But wasn’t she just cheating by kissing someone else?  The hypocrisy left a really sour taste in my mouth for Pali.  Characters don’t have to be likable, but in light-hearted mysteries where we’re supposed to be rooting for the non-professional PI, it really helps for them to be.

The mystery was fairly good.  I certainly didn’t figure it out until right before the reveal, and the ultimate solution made sense.  This is all I really look for in a mystery.

The setting was probably the best part.  Bassett evokes (what I can only imagine is) the real feel of Hawaii.  Each island visited has its own feel, Hawaiian culture is solidly represented with things like islanders calling all the elderly women “aunty” and locals being able to talk their way onto a ferry for free.  What kept me reading the book was my desire to spend time in Hawaii, combined with a mystery I was interested in the solution to.

Overall, the rich Hawaiian setting and actually mysterious mystery make this a fun beach read.  The main character is three-dimensional but could rub some readers the wrong way.  Those looking for a traditional cozy should be forewarned that this book doesn’t come with any traditional cozy extras.  Recommended to those looking for a light mystery set in Hawaii.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Previous Books in Series:
Maui Widow Waltz
Livin’ Lahaina Loca

 

Giveaway: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (INTERNATIONAL)

August 12, 2014 1 comment

Brightly colored buildingsIt’s time for the sixth giveaway of 2014 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Lots of the indie authors whose books I accepted for review in 2014 also were interested in me hosting a giveaway at the time of my review, so there will be plenty more coming up in the future too.

There are TWO ebook versions of The Running Game (review) available courtesy of the author, L. E. Fitzpatrick!

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick.

How to Enter:  Leave a comment on this post stating what is the first thing you would do with your powers if you were telepathic.

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: August 26th.  Two weeks from today!

Disclaimer: The winners will have their ebook sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: The Running Game by L. E. Fitzpatrick (Series, #1)

August 12, 2014 4 comments

Brightly colored buildingsSummary:
Rachel is a doctor in the slums outside of London.  It’s not a great place to live, but it’s safer than a lot of the other options available.  She’s also a Reacher with telepathic powers.  Since she was a young girl, she learned to hide her abilities and always know her exits so she could run at any time.  But when two brothers show up, one a wounded Reacher, and tell her a mobster sent them looking for her, she has to decide whether to run again or trust the brothers.

Review:
Near-future dystopias will never cease in their appeal to me, and so I was fairly quick to accept this one when I was choosing ARCs to read for 2014.  The book offers a grim dystopia but far less running than one would imagine from the title.

The book establishes the overall dreary setting of a dystopia fairly quickly.  Rachel’s work at the hospital and commuting home from it is dirty and grimy. Society is clearly barely functioning, a fact that is smoothly and clearly established.  It takes a bit more time to learn more about the over-arching world, and the fact that Rachel is a “Reacher,” a person with some form of telepathic powers.  For some reason, the government is seeking to eradicate all Reachers, whereas the church, which is illegal, views them as angels sent from above, metaphorically speaking.  It’s an interesting world but our view into it is quite narrow, so there’s a lot of questions left unanswered.

Rachel is a good, strong character who is well-rounded in spite of knowing little of her backstory.  The brothers, on the other hand, are kind of annoying and two-dimensional.  They and the general crime lords/corrupt cops feel much more cookie cutter than Rachel does.  In a way, they drag her down.  It’s hard to root for her when she chooses to cast in lots with this bunch.

Similarly, the plot focuses in on what feels more like a standard crime thriller plot, rather than a dystopian one.  It’s a good crime plot, but it’s not a dystopian one.  The title implies a much more dystopian style book, such as Rachel using her powers to outwit the government and start a new colony or something like that.  Instead it feels a bit more like an urban fantasy style crime plot that just so happens to be surrounded by society breaking down, somewhere out there.    I think marketing it as a running game, rather than as the crime mystery plot it really is hinders the book a bit.  Readers who would like an urban fantasy style futuristic crime novel might miss it, because it sounds so dystopian.  The title and summary give the vibe of a Logan’s Run or Maze Runner style book, when that’s not what it is.  What it is is a perfectly good futuristic crime novel, but that’s not what it sounds like.

Overall, this is a quick-moving tale of futuristic crime with a dash of telepathic powers and an easily imagined setting.  Fans of near future, fantasy, and crime will enjoy seeing the three intertwine.  Those looking for more of a scifi or dystopian focus should look elsewhere.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: One Death at a Time by Thomas M. Hewlett (Series, #1)

June 26, 2014 6 comments

Man in a hat standing next to a Europeanish buildingSummary:
Jack Strayhorn is a private eye and a member of Alcoholic’s Anonymous.  Only, he’s not an alcoholic, he’s one of the vampires who meet in a secret vampire group that exists under the umbrella of AA to learn how to control their urges and feed on humans without killing them.  He’s just returned to LA, his death site that he hasn’t been back to since he had to run in 1948 after becoming a vampire.  When his current missing person case shows up dead next to a Fae politician, Jack gets dragged into a mixed-up underworld of Faes, werewolves, drugs, and a group of vampires determined to rule the world.

Review:
This is one of the twelve indie books I accepted to be reviewed on my blog in 2014 (complete list).  I was immediately intrigued by the summary, due to its delightful urban fantasy/paranormal take on AA.  The book delivers exactly what it promises, spiced with a noir writing style.

Jack Strayhorn is the perfect paranormal version of the noir-style hardboiled detective.  He’s got a biting, snarky wit, a handsome presence, a sharp mind, and is a bit distant and mysterious.  It’s just in this case he’s distant and mysterious because he’s a vampire.  Making the private eye a vampire makes his character unique in noir, and, similarly, making the vampire a private eye with his focus primarily on crime solving and not paranormal politics gives the urban fantasy vampire a unique twist.  Jack is presented as a complex character, one who we could not possibly get to know fully in just the first entry in the series.  It’s easy to see how he will manage to carry the proposed 12 entries in the series.

Supporting Jack is a wide range of characters who accurately portray the diversity in a large town like LA, as well as the diversity one expects in a paranormal world.  The characters are multiple races and classes.  Whereas some urban fantasy books slowly reveal the presence of more and more paranormal races throughout the series, this book starts out with quite a few, and that is a nice change of pace.  Most urban fantasy readers expect there to be more than just vampires, and the book meets the urban fantasy reader where they’re at.  Even though the book has a large cast, the secondary characters never blend together.  They are easily remembered, and the diversity probably helps with that.

I like the idea of vampires having an AA-like group, but I’m still not sure how I feel about this group existing as some secret under the umbrella of AA itself.  The book even goes so far as to say the the founder of AA was a vampire himself, and used the human illness of alcoholism as a cover for the vampire group.  I like and appreciate vampirism as a disease that some people just mysteriously have at birth as an analogy for alcoholism, but I feel that having it present in the same group as the real life AA groups dampens the realness of actual AA, weakening the analogy instead of strengthening it.  I’ve seen books before have paranormal people get together in AA-style groups (zombies anonymous springs to mind), and in real life AA has spinoffs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.  Prior to reading the book I thought maybe something might be added by having the vampires be a secret organization under AA, but after reading the book, I don’t think it did.  I think the analogy would have been stronger if vampires spotted the similarities of their genetic vampirism with alcoholism and formed a “vampires anonymous” group, inspired by AA.  Something about vampires creating AA themselves as a cover hits a bit of a sour note and weakens the analogy.

The plot is complex, with just enough twists and surprises.  There were parts of the ending that I was unable to predict.  The plot contained within the book was wrapped up sufficiently, and the overarching plot intending to cover the whole series was well-established and filled me with the desire to keep reading.  Unfortunately, the second book isn’t out yet, so I will just have to wait!

Overall, this is a delightful mix of urban fantasy and noir and is a strong first entry for a new series.  Some readers might dislike the paranormal take on Alcoholic’s Anonymous found within the book, but it is secondary to the mystery/noir plot and easy to gloss over if necessary.  Recommended to urban fantasy readers looking to venture into noir or vice versa, as well as anyone who enjoys both urban fantasy and noir.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Hang Wire by Adam Christopher

June 10, 2014 Leave a comment

A red figure hangs like a puppet from red wires on a black background.Summary:
Ever since his birthday party when a fortune cookie exploded in his face, professional blogger of all things San Francisco, Ted Hall, has been passing out, sleeping 12 hours, and waking up exhausted.  It’s disconcerting, especially since there’s a serial killer on the loose.

The circus is in town, and the highwire workers are frustrated with the star of the act, who never rehearses and periodically disappears.  And no one understands why the manager isn’t reporting their missing highwire wire to the authorities, especially since the serial killer is stringing up his victims with a strong, thin wire that sounds an awful lot like a highwire wire.

Bob the beach-living, ballroom-dancing attraction, used to be the god Kanaloa, but the immortals have abandoned humans to their own devices, and he’s not supposed to interfere.  But he just may be the key to all the mysteries occurring in San Francisco.

Review:
I picked this up because it sounded like an urban fantasy serial killer mystery, which is just my speed.  Unfortunately, I found a book with a discombobulated world and plot that builds confusion rather than tension.

If my summary above seems disjointed and confusing that’s because that’s precisely what this book is.  Multiple different extremely odd plots are going on that ultimately do have some relation to each other, but the relation takes far too long to establish or understand.  The book starts with a flashback to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and introduces us to Bob/Kanaloa.  It then jumps forward to the completely dull Ted and the exploding fortune cookie.  It then jumps backward in time again to an entirely different character, who is tied to the circus, eventually.  It takes quite a while to find out what his relation is.  These three disparate storylines that seems to have no relation to each other continue throughout the book.  Bob/Kanaloa’s journey from immortal god to just immortal beach bum would be an interesting book.  But his plot keeps getting abandoned for the other two plots, so all tension and interest is lost.  Similarly, the evil circus organizer would be interesting, but only if his plot was handled with more detail and finesse.  As it is, what he is doing and why he is evil is just confusing, not interesting.  Ted’s plot would not be interesting, even on its own with more detail, because Ted is a two-dimensional, boring character.

Beyond the three disjointed, confusing plots, nothing in this story is ever fully fleshed-out.  There’s the vague idea that immortals were once on Earth and involved but now have left, but the details of the hows, whys, and how this has affected Bob/Kanaloa is left out.  We’re told the organizer of the circus is evil, but we never see his fall from grace.  We see him as a poor pioneer then later as an evil circus worker.  The interesting part of how he got sucked into this evil is left out.  Similarly, two people ultimately become human hosts for gods, but this is basically just announced and moved on from.  The intricacies of how this feels for the human and for the god, why it might be effective or not, etc… is all left out.  This is a bare-bones, confusing plot with little development, which ruins all possible tension.

Just as the plot is created in broad, sloppy strokes, so are the characters.  The closest any come to being three-dimensional is Bob/Kanaloa, which at least made the story readable.  But the rest are quickly laid out with broad character traits, and the story moves on.  There is, for instance, no depth to Ted’s relationship with his girlfriend.  We’re told she’s his girlfriend and he loves her, but we never truly see them together and functioning as a couple.  We get no flashbacks to times prior to the supernatural craziness to see them in a non-stressful situation.  Ted’s girlfriend is there as a plot device, nothing more.

I understand that this is an advanced copy and there will be another editing pass, etc…, however this is the most errors I have ever seen in an ARC.  It was rife with typos, use of the wrong word, and format issues.  Most egregious to me is the Britishisms used by American characters, such as “prawns” for “shrimp.”  ARCs should have already had at least one editing pass.  A reasonable amount of errors could slip through, but not this many.  There were errors on approximately every other page.  Hopefully the final version received a heavy final edit.  Check reviews of the final version to be certain.

This book reads like an extremely rough first draft that badly needs an editor to come through and fix, not just minor typos and grammar, but also plot and characters problems.  It could be an interesting story if it was more fleshed-out, with some storylines dropped in favor of a more solid main one, and with at least a couple of three-dimensional characters the reader can really relate to and root for.  As it stands, there are certain scenes that are well-written and engaging, but together they do not make an engaging, readable mystery.  I normally love books published by Angry Robot, so I found this particularly disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

June 7, 2014 2 comments

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Coin by Glen Cadigan

June 6, 2014 6 comments

A dime sits on a black background between the title and author name, both of which are on a marble background.Summary:
When Richard’s physicist professor uncle dies tragically in a plane crash and leaves him his coin collection, he is shocked to find a brand-new dime from 2012.  The only thing is, it’s 1989.  A note from his uncle states that the coin is important.  Richard thinks the answer to the mystery might be in his uncle’s personal diaries he also left him, but he’s not a physicist and can’t decipher them.  As the year 2012 approaches, Richard increasingly wonders what the coin is all about.

Review:
I had previously reviewed a book by Glen Cadigan, Haunted (review), whose concept I really enjoyed.  When he offered me this novella, I was happy to accept.  This fun novella tells an old-fashioned scifi mystery story in a way that reminded me of reading similar works from the 1800s.

Richard’s first-person narration follows a style similar to that used often in older scifi; it reads as if the main character is writing everything down in his journal for longevity.  It’s a cozy narration style that works well for the slow-moving mystery it tells.

This narration style also helps establish Richard into a well-rounded character quickly.  The reader almost immediately feels an intimacy with Richard as he discusses his sorrow at his beloved uncle’s sudden death, why he was close to his uncle, and his thoughts on the mysterious coin.  The uncle is, perhaps, less well-rounded but only in the sense that the reader comes to know him only through the eyes of a loving relative.  It thus makes sense that mostly his good qualities come through.

Cadigan artfully maneuvers Richard’s handling of the mystery from the days before the internet to present.  Richard first employs old-fashioned research techniques to try to figure out the mystery then loses interest.  With the advent of the internet, though, he regains interest and starts researching again.  This is completely realistic and reads just like what a person might have done.

Some basics physics of time-travel and time-travel theories are included.  They are written at the right level for a general audience reading a scifi book, neither talking down to nor being too technical.

What really made me enjoy the book was the resolution to the mystery.  I should have seen it coming, but I did not, and I always enjoy a surprise that feels logical when I think back on it.

So why four stars and not five?  The novella left me wanting something more.  It felt almost too short.  Like there was something left out.  Perhaps more time spent on Richard’s researching of the mystery or snippets from the uncle’s journals or some photos of the uncle and his airplane might have helped it feel more fully fleshed-out and real.  The old-school narration style was enjoyable but some additions of some of the types of things a person might put in their journal would help it feel more complete.  Even some simple sketches or perhaps a poem by Richard about his uncle, since he’s in the humanities, would have helped.

Overall, this novella is a fun new take on the storytelling method of having a character write in their journal about a mystery.  The science is strong enough to be interesting but not too challenging, and the result of the mystery is surprising.  Some readers might be left wanting a bit more to the story.  Recommended to fans of scifi classics such as The Time Machine or The Invisible Man.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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