The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse (CBR8 #10)

This book was like catnip to me.

I have been having trouble the past few weeks sinking into books, which is why there has been an uptick in novella reviews from me. I have no less than three books currently sitting open at home, plus an audio book underway, but this Saturday I wanted to read none of them. It was time for a trip to the non-fiction aisle, and thankfully I had ordered The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse from the library based on yesknopemaybe’s review.

I was always going to like this book. I love cases of mistaken identity. I am intrigued by the very real epidemic of people living double and sometimes triple lives in the Victorian era, and I love a bit of Edwardian gossip (yes, I also watch and enjoy the soap opera that is Downton Abbey). This book contains it all. I’ll let Goodreads do the heavy lifting for the synopsis:

The extraordinary story of the Druce-Portland affair, one of the most notorious, tangled and bizarre legal cases of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. In 1897 an elderly widow, Anna Maria Druce, made a strange request of the London Ecclesiastical Court: it was for the exhumation of the grave of her late father-in-law, T.C. Druce. Behind her application lay a sensational claim: that Druce had been none other than the eccentric and massively wealthy 5th Duke of Portland, and that the – now dead – Duke had faked the death of his alter ego. When opened, Anna Maria contended, Druce’s coffin would be found to be empty. And her children, therefore, were heirs to the Portland millions. The extraordinary legal case that followed would last for ten years. Its eventual outcome revealed a dark underbelly of lies lurking beneath the genteel facade of late Victorian England”

And that’s really only the first third of the book.

Eatwell is a documentarian for the BBC by trade, and the pacing and depth of research shows it. This is definitely a work where the author is intentionally leaving you on the precipice of knowledge, nearly every chapter ending in a cliffhanger that had me continuing to push on even when other things should have been accomplished that day. I think part of my five-star rating is that I was able to read this in a day and that suited the pace of the three hundred pages. Spreading this book out over several days or weeks might have lessened my enjoyment.

This book was originally published in the UK in 2014, but in its 2015 re-release has an additional chapter from Eatwell as she describes what more came to light following her initial research and publication. I found her authorial voice engaging and the story captivating.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Map (CBR8 #9)

Last year I was delighted with Jackaby by William Ritter. It had just the right mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and whodunit to be right up my alley. It’s got a bit of Sherlock mixed with a little Doctor Eleven for a male protagonist and a female protagonist who is smart, wily, and sarcastic in equal measure – and a great example of female agency in print. I immediately added the second book, Beastly Bones, on my to read list for 2016 as well as this fun little novella The Map.

The action of The Map is centered on one day – Abigail Rook’s birthday. She dares to hope that her employer Jackaby, detective of the supernatural, won’t make a fuss. She is let down. The pair are off for parts unknown using magical party crackers to teleport in time and space (I told you, a smidge timey wimey) using a cryptic map that may lead to a forgotten treasure.  Jackaby is going to give Abigail the present of adventure, just as soon as she comes around to it.

In some ways this short story felt much more akin to a television script than it did a novella, and that isn’t really a detraction. You probably need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one, for while certain characters don’t appear on page, they are referenced. The same goes for some of the action. This one also doesn’t give us any new character development, and may not be the best place to meet these characters as this is VERY plot driven, but if you are already into the world of Jackaby it is currently FREE on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for download.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Alone with You (CBR8 #8)

Yes. I read another one. No, I’m not proud.

I find I end up reading the Kowalski Family books in pairs. I had not intended to read another one so quickly, given my less than happy feelings with All He Ever Dreamed. But, I was out, I didn’t have my current book with me, and I had about 20 minutes to fill. Alone with You to the rescue (darn you, Nook app!) and then I had to finish it, because reasons.

This is a very straightforward novella. The action is based around two characters back in the stories original New Hampshire stomping grounds. Darcy, employee of Kevin Kowalski of the Jasper’s Bar from Undeniably Yours. When Kevin asks Darcy to help out with the launch of his new restaurant venture upstate, she’s happy to take on the challenge. Little does she know that the co-owner of the new restaurant is Jake Holland, the perfect guy who slipped through her fingers after their one night together.

Jake is, like all Stacey male leads, a genuinely decent guy. In this story he’s lost Darcy’s number because he got soaking wet helping a stranded driver on the side of the road. The reader is told immediately that this is a good guy and we should be rooting for he and Darcy to end up together. And they do, this is Romance Land, but while expert authors like Courtney Milan or Sarina Bowen can build in a great story to their novellas this outing from Shannon Stacey felt like a heavily summarized version of her longer works (which aren’t all that long to start with).

It was nice to revisit some old characters (Paulie!) from my favorite book in the series, but this one is definitely a pass. At least it fulfilled my Read Harder task of a book fewer than 100 pages.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

My Life on the Road (CBR8 #7)

Okay: confession time. I read this because a) Emma Watson suggested it as her “Our Shared Shelf” group on Goodreads for January and b) I needed a non-fiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes for the 2016 Read Harder Challenge. This was not an “oh! I must read this book!” choice so much as a “well, if a whole group of people are going to read it, I might as well choose this one” choice.

I am just young enough where Gloria Steinem has always been a “historical” figure to me. Her heyday – the work that defines her to millions as a writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer including her work with the National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. Magazine – was already well underway by the time I arrived on the planet in the early 80s. When I became conscience of feminism and the strive for equality, Steinem had already been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca, NY. For much of my life, and for feminists like me, Steinem was a figure, not a person.

Perhaps that is the gift of this book, her first in over 20 years (according to her website), is that it can serve to introduce Gloria Steinem to us for the person she is. My Life on the Road is a collection of stories and anecdotes that highlight the life Ms. Steinem has lead. This book isn’t a proper travelogue (which I’ll admit was what I was truly hoping for), nor is it an autobiography as Ms. Steinem is more interested in telling us the tales of the people her life has intersected with as she has built a life mostly without a home base.

But that is also the weakness of this book. It quite literally feels like a collection of random stories (much like traveling itself). While the really great parts are fantastic, most of the book is middling. I felt simple whelmed, not over or under.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.  You can join us for our first 2016 Book Club choice: Cannonball Reads The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev on March 1st.  Led by yours truly.

All He Ever Dreamed (CBR8 #6)

Over the past several years I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through the Kowalski Family books by Shannon Stacey. They cover the romantic lives of the Kowalski cousins in New England and the people in their lives. I started reading these because Ms. Stacey writes the kind of straightforward, serviceable romance novels that let the reader slow down, read about some characters who aren’t too far from yourself and people you know, but just far enough to be fiction, and have a little happily ever after and steamy times as well. Basically, she’s become my new Nora Roberts since Roberts has been slipping of late.

In All He Ever Dreamed Ms. Stacey aims to deliver a contemporary read with average 30-something characters. There’s also the bonus that neither of the leads are physically or mentally abusive and don’t cheat. But, it was just so-so for me. While All He Ever Dreamed was a cute, fun, light read, it was predictable. Ridiculously so. I have great affection for the friends to more storyline, but something didn’t work so much for me here, and that something was the characters’ emotions. When our protagonists get together it as perhaps the most emotion lacking, lifeless encounter I’ve read, possibly ever. It was definitely a disappointment from Ms. Stacey.

Besides the problems with emotion and a lack of steam, the depth–or lack thereof–of both Josh’s and Katie’s characters was frustrating. I wished we could’ve seen more of Josh besides his desire to leave (he got left holding the bag for his siblings in running their family’s lodge), his propensity to mope around, and then continuing to do nothing but thinking of leaving even after he made his initial choice to stay. In retrospect I also wish Katie had done more than sit around and wait for Josh to come back. I’ve read a lot of romances lately with female leads who display much more agency, and that left a bitter taste in my mouth with these two characters. I should have loved them, but they just didn’t DO anything to win my affection in this outing, which is a waste of the buildup in All He Ever Needed and All He Ever Desired.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest complaint: there was really no story in the A plot. The B plot had a nice arc, but we’ll get there in a minute. The A plot is supposed to be Josh wanting to leave, getting to leave, and returning. Those things happen, but there’s nothing extra to it. Josh is 30, and it’s entirely typical for people in their twenties/early thirties to dream about going to a city, trying on a new career, learning new things, meeting new people, find out what they’re good at etc. In this book, when Josh gets a chance to get away, he does nothing like that. He goes on a six week road trip and wakes up to the reality that he did have what he wanted at home. But, how did he know? And Katie remained the same, which is part of her characterization as steadfast, but with his storyline being so one note, we really needed something more from Katie.

The B plot was better. Focused on Katie’s mom Rosie is the live-in housekeeper at the lodge. In previous books we’ve explored her role as mom to the Kowalski kids, her relationship with her deceased husband, and her coming around to forgive his best friend for actions 20 years ago and build a relationship with him. These characters had growth, development, and used their emotions. If only they were the A plot.

2.5 stars.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

When the Women Come Out to Dance (CBR8 #5)

I’m continuing down my Elmore Leonard path and was off in search of the next Raylan story. Fire in the Hole is the third story, and it’s contained within this collection. When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of Leonard’s short stories, and since Audible suggested it and I’ve loved listening to the other Raylan stories: Pronto and Riding the Rap. (This collection of Elmore Leonard’s short fiction’s title was changed to Fire in the Hole capitalize on its connection to FX’s Justified.)

Let’s get the bad out of the way – this was far from my favorite Elmore Leonard experience. There are nine stories in this collection, and I’ll be honest a few of them I don’t remember 24 hours after finishing the audiobook. That has definitely affected my decision to rate this book at only 2 stars. It was merely okay.

Of the ones I remember  there were several of them were good, and a couple were quite good, and one or two I know I’m just missing  bigger story arcs because these are characters related to other Leonard stories. “Sparks” and the titular “When the Women Come Out to Dance” are solid works. Each cover women taking different illegal methods to get beyond a problem and each are well paced if slightly predictable and generally forgettable. I doubt I’ll be remembering them at all in a few weeks.

“Fire in the Hole” and “Karen Makes Out” each highlight some of Leonard’s most well-known characters: Raylan Givens and Karen Sisco. In “Fire in the Hole” Raylan returns to Harlan County and runs afoul of Boyd Crowder. You know the story if you’ve seen season one of Justified. “Karen Makes Out” happens after the events of Out of Sight, with Karen remaining unlucky as far as finding suitable law abiding male companionship. Each was good, but mostly because I was familiar with the characters.

My favorites in this collection were “Tenkiller” and “The Tonto Woman”. “Tenkiller” tells the story of Ben Webster (grandson of Carl Webster from The Hot Kid if you’re familiar – I was not) on his return to Oklahoma following the death of his fiancée. He runs across a family of criminals squatting on his family’s pecan farm and goes about getting back together with the first girl he loved and getting rid of the nuisance on the farm. Too long and meandering (like this review!) but still quite good. My favorite, a four star story on its own was “The Tonto Woman”. This had the crispest pacing and left the reader satisfied but looking for more. That’s my favorite balance in a short story. “The Tonto Woman” is a day in the life type story of a woman returned from twelve years of captivity and resettling amongst life as a literally marked woman. Or is she going to take up with a cattle rustler?

Amazon describes this collection as a series of short sketches that feature strong female characters in trouble. I don’t completely buy it. Most explicitly because there are no women focused on in at least one or two of the stories. Also, we aren’t given enough time with several of the women to really identify if they are strong or merely opportunistic. I know from my viewing of the Justified television series that I feel the Ava character in “Fire in the Hole” is strong, but I don’t know that I can feel that way simply from what we see on the page. Although, I am glad that the producers decided to keep Boyd around and that he was portrayed by the delightful Walton Goggins. I have the same lack of certainty with some of the others, including “Sparks”.

Read at your own choosing, you’ll be better able to tell your own interest level.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Golden Son (CBR8 #4)

I started my adventure with the Red Rising books last year because both Red Rising and Golden Son had received enthusiastic reviews from Alexis, scootsa1000, and narfna. Red Rising also checked off a box for me in the 2015 Read Harder challenge, as Brown wrote the book before he was 25. With the third and final book in the series being published next month, I figured it was time to get my act together and read Golden Son in order to be ready.

I have A LOT of thoughts about the second half of this book (as Ale and crystalclear can attest to since I’ve been yammering at them over the past few days. But, in order to talk about that stuff, let’s get some boilerplate out of the way. Here’s a synopsis from Goodreads (which leaves plenty vague for those of you who have yet to read either book):

Debut author Pierce Brown’s genre-defying epic Red Rising hit the ground running and wasted no time becoming a sensation. Golden Son continues the stunning saga of Darrow, a rebel forged by tragedy, battling to lead his oppressed people to freedom from the overlords of a brutal elitist future built on lies. Now fully embedded among the Gold ruling class, Darrow continues his work to bring down Society from within. A life-or-death tale of vengeance with an unforgettable hero at its heart.”

Now that we have that out of the way, the front half of Golden Son is setting up what occurred in the two years between the end of Red Rising and the beginning of this book. Darrow and the rest of those we met in the first book, and who survived it, are now part of the larger society of the Golds and are the Peerless Scarred (because of the literal scars on their bodies following the Institute). We find Darrow at low ebb of his social climb and goal of infiltrating the Golds on the orders of Ares, a terrorist of sorts hell bent on bringing down the brutal rule of the Golds and making all classes (or more accurately, colors) equal after hundreds of years of striation.

The plot advances along at a normal pace, and then about halfway through literally all hell breaks loose and Brown just pushes more plot into 250 pages than I remember seeing in QUITE a long time (and I just read Outlander. And it’s good. But it’s also a bit of a slog. More people are brought into Darrow’s inner circle, more friends are sacrificed in any number of battles (Brown is up there with GRRM in the killing of your darlings) that rage as Darrow orchestrates ever increasing battles and wars with the goal of ultimate civil war, and we watch a character struggle with the fact that he must become what he wishes to break down if he is going to succeed at all.

But this is also the book where I was able to pinpoint why I had not gotten into sci-fi in the past. Its not the science, I love the science. I also love the speculation based on history (which Brown excels at). It’s the battle minutia which seems to be an ever present part of many series. I really, honestly and truly, don’t care about what type of gun/ship/weapon/what have you is going to be deployed against your enemy du jour and I certainly don’t need 5 pages describing to me in detail the ship/pod/doohickey that you are going to be using. In his Acknowledgements Brown alludes to his inspiration – Tolkien. Yes, I see it. And once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. I have always felt that Tolkien overwrote his books, and Brown is guilty of the same. I can see his working of craft in the writing. It’s plain as day, and I wish it were a little more nuanced, a little less IN MY FACE.

But there is also so much that Brown gets right in these books.  His focus on the machinations of politics and society, the true meanings and cost of love, loyalty, and friendship all build to a crescendo and then if this were a piece of music the final chapter would have a loud crash cymbal and then silence. Because those final pages are where Brown won me back, and this book went from being a very good 3.5 to a solid 4 star book. While there was A LOT of foreshadowing that left very few surprises in a chapter which resets EVERYTHING, Brown placed the reader in a place of not knowing what the next book could possibly bring. There are some things which are laid out, but we do not know how the chips will fall, at least not completely.

TEAM SEVRO FOREVER.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.