Book Review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (2016)

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Review #63

Late one night Elizabeth Sanderson receives devastating news. Her fourteen year old son Tommy has gone missing while out with friends in the woods of a local park. As the days go by with no news and no clues as to where Tommy may have gone, Elizabeth begins experiencing odd occurrences around her home. She comes to believe that the ghost of her son may be trying to communicate with her, to help solve the mystery of his disappearance.

This was yet another book that I had been waiting to read until I was on my annual camping trip. I had heard good things about author Paul Tremblay and had hopes of a creepy suspenseful ghost story to read in the woods. However, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock turned out to be more of a look at how different family members deal with grief, with a few strange happenings once in awhile. It isn’t really a “ghost” story in the classic sense of the word.

The main narrative focuses on Elizabeth and her eleven-year old daughter Kate as they navigate the increasingly fruitless attempts to find Tommy. The different ways that they deal with the frustrations, fear, and desperation come out in wildly varying ways. Elizabeth believes that she may or may not have received a vision from Tommy’s spirit, and becomes increasingly sure of that her son will not be found alive. Grace begins searching through Tommy’s things in an effort to understand the events leading up to his disappearance, and finds some disturbing sketches and diary entries made by her brother in his final days.

The second, lesser part of the plot is from the perspective of Tommy and his friends in the week before he goes missing. The boys roam the woods freely on their bicycles, eventually meeting a stranger who tells them a folktale involving a devil trapped in the rocky hills of the park. Their lives begin to spin out of control, and they attempt to form a plan that will rid them of the menace that has begun to stalk them.

This novel has an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to deliver. Too much of  the narrative is given over to Elizabeth staring at the phone, or off into space. The character of Grace is more compelling, but she is given little to do except go to places her mother tells her not to and listen to angsty music from the ’90s. I kept waiting for Devil’s Rock to pick up the pace and ramp up the tension but it never quite managed. The final act is also delivered in a very odd way that actually served to distance me further from Tommy and Elizabeth’s story.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

I seem to experiencing a pattern of disappointing horror novels lately. Any suggestions?

 

 

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter (2013)

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Review #62

Once a year, Scoutmaster Tim leads a troop of boys on a weekend expedition to small, uninhabited Falstaff Island, off the coast of Prince Edward Island in Canada. This year begins in a similar manner, the boys arrive and scare each other with ghost stories around a bonfire. But when a mysterious stranger turns up, pale, emaciated and desperately hungry, Tim and the boys are soon dealing with a nightmare unlike anything they could have imagined.

I had been sitting on this book for a few months, with the aim of scaring myself silly while in the forests of the Bruce Peninsula on a camping trip. I was hoping for a claustrophobic, lost in the woods against an unknown enemy kind of thriller. The Troop ended up being quite different from my expectations.

This is a novel that is dying for a longer exposition. The introduction of the mysterious stranger, which sets the plot in motion, happens a mere twenty pages into the book. This leaves almost no time for characterization or suspense to build, and instead the Scoutmaster and his troop of adolescent boys are reduced to the barest of placeholders. There’s Kent the idiotic bully. Newton the nerd. Ephraim, who has severe anger management problems. Shelley, the moon-faced sociopath. And Max, the only “normal” one out of the bunch. The boys never stray far from these one-sentence descriptions, which means that I as a reader never grew to care about any of their fates. I found myself wishing that author Nick Cutter had dedicated fifty or so pages at the beginning of The Troop to setting the scene a little more.

Cutter also seems to be one of those horror writers who equivocate loads of gory details with true suspense. There are numerous and graphic descriptions of bodies being broken open, innards exposed, spines being twisted, etc. The problem is that it never really leaves much of an impression. A truly great scary novel makes you feel as if you are right there experiencing the horrors. The Troop felt more like watching a particularly gruesome medical documentary on the Discovery Channel. It was distantly interesting, but that’s about it. Giving that these gross things are happening to a group of children, this theoretically should have upped the fear factor, but due to the aforementioned lack of characterization it still fell flat.

Overall, I was disappointed in this novel. I had been hoping for something along the lines of Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, which built a creeping sense of dread by building the character’s fear along with the readers’. Instead I was left with a rather icky but ultimately dull venture into the Canadian wilderness.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Troop here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008)

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Review #61

Alice Lindgren has no idea how she ended up in the White House. A quiet book-loving girl from rural Wisconsin, Alice dreamed of being marrying her childhood crush and becoming a librarian. But a tragic accident changes the course of her life, and Alice finds herself married to man whose political views don’t align with hers, and whose political ambitions far surpass her own dreams. Alice finds herself struggling to remember who she is in a world of privilege and power.

I connected immediately with the protagonist in American Wife. Alice is a book-nerd who feels more at home within the pages of a novel than she does with others. She is not always comfortable in social situations, and deals with a lot of anxiety when meeting new people. I identified with Alice’s relationship with her grandmother, an equally avid reader who often neglects her family in favor of a world between the pages. I have always credited my grandmother with my love of reading, and the bond between Alice and Emilie was sincerely touching.

The plot of American Wife is a like a slowly moving river that gradually picks up speed as it goes along. It meanders its way through the key points in Alice’s life, showing the intimate snapshots of her life rather than drawing back to see the whole picture. There are wide jumps in time, and the story is not always linear. After a hundred pages or so, a small part of my brain kept asking when the book would be “getting to the point”. But the story of a person’s life doesn’t work like that, and instead Sittenfeld winds us through the aspects of Alice’s life that have led her to where she is now. All those little triumphs and tragedies that make up a person. And although it does move slowly, American Wife is far from static.

I was not aware until completing this novel that author Curtis Sittenfeld is a woman. This explains the focus on the bonds between women in this book. Alice’s relationships with her grandmother, her mother, her best friends, and her daughter are the keystones of her character. As Alice’s life takes her far from her country upbringing, the strength of these relationships are what sustain her through the transition. While reading this novel, I found myself treasuring the female relationships in my life. So many books focus on the “frenemy” circle of female friends, and it was nice to see something so open and trusting.

Much has been said about this novel being a loose re-telling of the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. I had no idea going in that this novel was anything other than a work of fiction, but apparently Sittenfeld took the broad strokes from Bush’s life and worked them into the character of Alice Lindgren. The comparison doesn’t become blatantly apparent until the final act, when Alice and her husband find themselves in the White House, but many of the important milestones from Bush’s childhood and early life are represented in American Wife. Some people have called this a breach of privacy in the lieu of yellow journalism, especially since the character of Alice finds herself in a few situations that the First Lady would certainly not want associated with her person. While I personally did not find that the book intruded on Bush’s life in a deliberately harmful or malicious manner, that would be a judgement for each individual reader to make.

While reading American Wife I chose to distance the character of Alice Lindgren from any resemblance to the former First Lady. Removing the political factor, what is left is a novel with wonderfully written protagonist that I thoroughly enjoyed.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #60

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik (2017)

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Review #59

When her outgoing and tenacious friend Pia suggets a river rafting trip in the isolated woods of Maine, Wini is uncertain and afraid but ultimately agrees to attend. Together with their other friends Rachel and Sandra, the four women meet up with a young man named Rory who guarantees them a rafting trip that is unforgettable and “off the grid”. But their off the grid adventure quickly becomes disastrous when the unexpected occurs.

Reading this novel, I was strongly reminded of Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror film The Descent. The Descent is a film about six female cave divers who find more than they bargained for in the depths of the Appalachian caverns. It has strong similarities to The River at Night. An almost complete lack of meaningful male characters. The love/hate relationship that often exists in groups of female friends. The sense of humility that people feel when confronted with the sheer power of nature. Since The Descent is one of my all-time favorite horror films, I was immediately drawn in to the story of the four woman who venture into the wilds of Northern Maine.

There is also an element of the classic “cabin in the woods” genre. We are given numerous descriptions of the dangers of the region before the women embark on their trip. They stay at a pokey little lodge the night before their trip, and one of the women begins to feel apprehensive about their upcoming expedition. There’s even a scene with the archetypal “guardian at the gate”, in this case an overweight shirtless man and his cronies who have recently shot a deer, who warn the group to turn back, that this river “does not belong to them”. All that was missing was for one of the group members to begin making statements like “What could go wrong?” or “I’ll be right back”.

Despite all the apparent cliches, this genre has maintained its popularity because it’s really good fun. The River at Night is no exception, it promises a suspenseful and thrilling adventure in the woods and that is exactly what it delivers. I was easily drawn into Wini’s narrative. She is a woman nearing middle age who is beginning to realize that she hasn’t accomplished much with her life. Her friends are all in a similar situation, having dealt with disease, divorce, and raising children for so long that their true selves seem to have been lost in the muddle. The rafting trip represents a chance to reclaim a piece of their fearless youth, and it is only once things begin to go awry that they realize how impossible a task they had set for themselves.

Ferencik has an imperfect grasp of foreshadowing which caused me to raise an eyebrow now and then. She will make an ominous statement about future events, only for said event to occur in the following paragraph. That doesn’t exactly keep me on my toes. And some of the troubles that beset the group seemed a bit contrived. But these were minor flaws which did not take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Overall, The River at Night offers a fun and exciting addition to the nature thriller genre. Reading this novel felt effortless, like stepping into cool water on a hot summer’s day.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

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I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

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Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a red herring. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage. Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)

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Review #56

When an eleven year old boy is found mutilated and murdered in a local park, the cops know who their man is. Respected teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland was spotted with the victim getting into the back of a windowless van. He was later seen leaving the park covered in blood. His fingerprints are found on the body. Terry Maitland is immediately arrested in front of a crowd of thousands and brought into police custody. There’s only one problem. Terry has an ironclad alibi. He was out of town on the day of the murder, with fingerprints, eyewitnesses, and video evidence to support his claim. Now, Detective Ralph Anderson must race to uncover the mystery of the man who was in two places at once.

In the past few years, Stephen King has moved away from the strictly “horror” novels that defined his early works and made him a household name. While The Outsider certainly contains supernatural and horror elements, it is first and foremost a mystery. In fact, for the first three hundred pages or so the plot focuses solely on the detectives as they build their case against Coach Terry Maitland, and on Maitland as he struggles to prove that he is innocent of the horrible murder he’s been accused of committing. Only after the tension has been heightened to a screaming pitch do things take a turn for the paranormal.

King is widely regarded as the modern master of the horror novel, far outstripping any other horror novelist in terms of both skill and popularity. This is, in my opinion, because he understands what makes people tick. Instead of focusing his attention on supernatural creatures or strange occurrences, King looks at how people respond and react to the abnormal. His protagonists are fully realized, flawed, and ultimately very human. King also understands that it is often the darkness inside of man, rather than any kind of outward evil, that has the most capacity for harm. The Overlook is just a hotel, it is only by exploiting the turmoil of Jack Torrance that it is capable of wreaking violence on the people residing in it. Christine was just a rusty old car until Arnie Cunningham began fueling it with his unhappiness. King has always demonstrated an innate understanding of people and their fears, and he twists and exploits those fears in his novels.

In The Outsider, Detective Ralph Anderson is enraged and disgusted as mounting evidence points to a respected member of the community having assaulted and murdered a child. Terry Maitland, after all, coached Anderson’s own son. His righteous indignation takes a hit, however; when Maitland behaves equally outraged and indignant. Maitland’s fear and confusion are palpable as he sees community turn against him and begin screaming for his blood. The reader can empathize with both of these men, and the suspense mounts as it appears that they are both justified in their actions. There is irrefutable evidence that Terry Maitland murdered Frankie Peterson. But there is also incontrovertible proof that he was one hundred miles away when Frankie was killed. The wives of both these men act as sounding boards for the frustrations of their husbands, particularly Jeannie Anderson, who consoles Ralph as he begins to question whether or not he’s made a horrific mistake.

There is a strange time-warp going on with King’s writing here. Many of his books are centered in the past, particularly in the 1950’s and ’60’s, and King seems most at home in these decades. Setting The Outsider in the present day, King sometimes seems to have a very tenuous grasp on modern technology. There are several passages that mention iPads, smartphones, and various popular apps, but it almost feels as if they were crammed in as an afterthought rather than as a natural part of the plot. At no point does anyone seem aware that their phones are capable of doing things unrelated to making phone calls. There are also some odd references that do not fit in with the ages of the characters. At one point man in his fifties remembers a dirty version of “Shave and a Haircut” from when he was a teenager. However, in 2018 a fifty year old man would have been a teenager in the late 1970’s, and would probably have been more familiar with disco or heavy metal than jingles from the 1930’s. Another woman muses about John Lennon’s death, which would have taken place when she was still in diapers. None of this detracts in the slightest from the overall enjoyment of The Outsider, but it was obvious enough to make me smirk once in awhile.

Ultimately, this is a novel about the powers of good and evil. As with so many of his books, he also delves into the difficulties faced by the rational mind when presented with something that is utterly irrational. As always, King’s writing style, his mastery of characterization, and his ability to understand what truly scares us make this book compulsively readable. There are two types of seven-hundred pages novels. Those that fly by in a blink and those that never seem to end. The Outsider certainly belongs in the former category.

While this novel will probably not join The Shining, IT, and Firestarter on my list of favorite Stephen King novels, I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the end of the day, I would rather read an “average” effort by King than any other horror writer at their best.

 

 

Book Review: A Court of Frost and Starlight (ACOTAR #4) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

Image result for court of frost and starlight

Review #55

Warning: Contains mild spoilers for Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) series

Still reeling from the violent events of A Court of Wings and Ruin, Feyre, Rhysand, and their friends are looking to recover and rebuild the Night Court. As the Winter Solstice approaches, Feyre is attempting to navigate her first major festival as High Lady. Despite the festivities, the scars are still apparent both on her and the citizens of Velaris.

I am a huge fan of Sarah J. Maas. I’ve read all the installments of ACOTAR as well as her wildly popular Throne of Glass series. Her novels are pure escapist fantasy, blending romance with action in a wonderfully imagined world of magic and beauty. There are a few glaringly obvious flaws in her writing style (I began a tally of the amount of times she uses the phrase “vulgar gesture” and the word “prick”), but I have always found myself transported wholly into the world of Prythian.

I mentioned in an earlier post that the fairies of ancient folklore have been largely stripped of their malevolent power. This series was foremost in my mind when I made that comment. The High Fae of Maas’ novels are magical, powerful immortals who reign more or less benevolently within their own realms, having little or nothing to do with the mortals who live outside their territory. These are the “sexy” fairies as opposed to the devilish tricksters depicted in mythology.

Maas does run the risk of giving her characters what I refer to as “Superman” syndrome. Superman is the most boring of all the superheroes because he is without flaw. For literary examples, one could look towards Edward Cullen of Twilight, or Christian Gray of Fifty Shades. One could say the same about Rhysand. He is handsome, chivalrous, generous, and treats Feyre as a true equal. Not to mention he’s rich. And apparently quite well-endowed. But as I said before, this is all meant as escapist fantasy for young women which wouldn’t be nearly as fun without some deliriously unattainable example of the male form.

I have yet to actually say anything about the plot, but that would be because there simply isn’t much to say. A Court of Frost and Starlight is meant to act as a stopping point on the way to the continuation of the ACOTAR series. At only a little over two hundred pages, it is much shorter than most of Maas’ novels, and does little to advance the overall plot of the series. At some point it began feeling like one of the Direct-to-Video Christmas stories that Disney releases in order to maintain interest in their popular franchises until the next major film is ready to be released. They tell a self-contained story that does not affect the larger story, and therefore can be either enjoyed or ignored without fear of missing something.

For what it is, the central plot revolves around Feyre and her friend’s preparing for the Winter Solstice, a festival that involves much merrymaking and gift-giving. Maas makes an attempt to liven affairs up by giving her readers a few different perspectives. The bulk of the narrative continues to be from Feyre’s perspective, but we are also treated to chapters from the point-of-views of Rhys, Cassian, Morrigan, and (briefly) Nesta. After three novels of Feyre constantly comparing every single thing to a painting she would like to create, I was eager to branch off into the mind’s of a few other key characters. Unfortunately, these alternate narratives are used so sparingly that they seem more like a tease than anything else. We get maybe four chapters with Rhys, three with Cassian, and only two with Morrigan. I’m hoping that the next installment of ACOTAR expands upon this idea though. To be honest, Feyre is becoming a bit dull. She only ever talks about theoretical artwork. Or about how much she loves Rhysand. And let’s not forget more half-assed allusions to painting.

Overall, A Court of Frost and Starlight was a bit like sitting down in hopes of a major meal and being served chicken broth instead. While the chicken broth will certainly suffice, but it left me feeling unsatisfied. Considering that the next installment will likely be released next year, perhaps that was the Maas’ point. To give her readers just a taste, but to keep them wanting more.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find A Court of Frost and Starlight here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!