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review 2018-03-26 19:35
Dense, interwoven historic fiction within a conspiracy-mystery frame story
Minds of Winter - Ed O'Loughlin

Remarkable work of historical fiction. Intricate in structure, convincing and meticulous in detail, and surprisingly engrossing in character, this novel avoids typical plot, organization, and closure in favour of more challenging choices.


The modern-day frame story is of two lost souls in the high Canadian Arctic and, oddly, a historic marine chronometer. Nelson's brother (recent) and Faye's grandfather (long past) went missing in the area - but they're not there on a Dan Brown-esque mystery-thriller search for the truth. This case of missing, confused, and obfuscated identities resists such tidy progressions. Instead, the unlikely couple stumble their way into uncertain discoveries of questionable validity based on documents left behind by Nelson's apparently-missing brother. This modern day progression is interspersed with "found" documents and firsthand accounts of explorers, adventurers, and secret-history-movers of the last two centuries prodding at the edges of the unknown on journeys that range from Australia to the Arctic and very nearly everywhere in between. The dots don't connect - or maybe they do - but the real surprise is how enjoyable the ride is.


I don't usually enjoy fiction that lacks the classic rise-and-fall story arc or that evade neatly-wrapped endings, but the unconventional format of this book somehow worked for me. Strong research, a talent for authentic(-seeming) voice, and telling details bring to life far-flung locations and eras long since passed. I couldn't keep track of the location, time, character, and (potential, suggested, unconfirmed) links between the jumps for most of the book - and in fact, once I thought I'd worked out the trajectory, this book happily dumped the drawer upside down on me once more. In effect, the experience is like reading a loosely-linked series of short stories or historic records. I'm not sure if it's the inherently fraught circumstances of so many of the players, the exotically far-reaching locales, or the promise of a mystery to untangle, but this dense, interwoven narrative completely held my attention. Highly recommended read.

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review 2018-03-25 23:16
The Butterfly Conspiracy
The Butterfly Conspiracy: A Merriweather and Royston Mystery - Vivian Conroy

A captivating historical cozy mystery, The Butterfly Conspiracy is an excellent debut to a new series! Suspenseful and thrilling, I was immediately sucked into the Victorian world superbly created, with intriguing characters and a puzzling plot that kept me turning pages.


I liked the dynamic between Royston and Merula. She's wasn't a passive Victorian flower, he wasn't a man strong-arming her into being a passive Victorian flower. Although the possibility for a romance was hinted at, it wasn't overt and took a backseat to the plot. I appreciated that, just like in food, the best flavors are in the background as an enhancement. It also leaves the door open to future story lines, and I look forward to seeing how their relationship develops.


The plot was intriguing; at a zoological meeting, Merula unveils the exotic butterfly she has cultivated. Because she is a woman, Merula's Uncle Rupert agrees to take the credit, but when a woman dies after the butterfly lands on Lady Sophia's arm and she falls over, dead, Uncle Rupert is accused of murder. Determined to clear his name, Merula teams up with Lord Royston, uncovering many motives and suspects while pursued by the police. I have no idea if the method of death is feasible or not, but it wasn't something I've ever seen before and really enjoyed it, as well as the surprising and exciting ending.


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review 2018-02-09 22:36
Dangerous - Shannon Hale

This was great. The setup is diverse science-geek kids become a Power-Rangers-style team of superheroes with mysterious alien-derived powers. Then it goes somewhere different.


Some cool things it included:

-caring parents that remain present and supportive
-kids with goals/girls w/ STEM goals they're pursuing
-decent representation across genders, races, abilities, nationalities & economic statuses
-everyone has a nuanced backstory
-it's not just another 'yay team' clone

-MC is homeschooled (but not a genius), multi-lingual & multi-racial, lost her hand at birth, designs her own prosthetics


There was a dizzying whirlwind of plot, and I think this could have been split into a duology given the amount of twists and developments. I inhaled it almost in a single sitting. Really entertaining and a lot of fresh takes on tropes while still checking all the boxes for thriller/SF/superhero story. So different than Hale's fairytale retellings, but just as excellent.

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review 2018-02-06 18:25
Second Book in Lady Sherlock Series A Downgrade
A Conspiracy in Belgravia (The Lady Sherlock Series) - Sherry Thomas

Wow. I really enjoyed the first book and the second one was a disappointment compared to that. I think Thomas tried to bite off more than could be reasonably followed in this book. Maybe some of it could have been pushed to a third book. Having Charlotte Holmes and Mrs. Watson taking on cases, having Charlotte solving ciphers for Lord Bancroft, and the follow-up to Moriarty and the half-brother we heard about in the last book all thrown together didn't make for an engaging read. Don't even get me started on Inspector Treadles and his nonsense about women. The man goes around ticked that the brilliant Sherlock Holmes is Charlotte Holmes. And then is even more unhappy when his wife admits she wishes she could run her father's business. 

After the events in book #1, Charlotte and Mrs. Watson are still doing their detective business as Sherlock Holmes. However, things become awkward when Lord Ingram's wife comes asking for help in finding her first love. There's a lot of hand-waving away why Charlotte agrees to work on this case, but ultimately that case leads to a larger mystery that I didn't think was put together very well.

Charlotte is still quite good at deducting. But you do read a lot about what she eats, her tea, and how hungry she is at all times. Why Thomas switched Holmes addiction to Charlotte being an over-eater or glutton (I honestly don't know what she is doing with this) is baffling to me. She could have her addicted to something else and or just not at all. Since you already set up that Sherlock Holmes is not real, and that Charlotte's sister Olivia is going to write stories about the man, who cares that you try to mirror every little thing in those stories. 

I can't really get a handle on the other characters. Mrs. Watson barely felt in this one. We do have her teaching Charlotte about self defense which I liked. 

Olivia Holmes is in and out of this one. She's not really integral to the plot, but having her get romantic notions about someone that may be in danger made me just sigh. I am guessing based no how this book ends, he will pop up in the third book. 

Lord Ingram and Charlotte...I don't know. Due to the events in this book one wonders what will happen next. I actually liked the idea of Charlotte getting married to Lord Bancroft (have fun reading about what happens next). At least it would have moved the book to a different place than I think most readers would have expected.

The writing didn't grab me like in the first one and the flow was not good. The only parts I found interesting where getting Charlotte's and Mrs. Watson's POV. I would recommend Thomas cut down on the back and forths to Inspector Treadles in the next one. She could have left him out entirely and nothing would have been missed since he ends up just being a minor player in this. I think we only see him since he will have a larger role in book #3. 

The ending felt vaguely unsatisfactory since you have a lot of revelations that didn't quite make sense to me at all. I even re-read some of the sections again and just gave up. I think books like these have to leave clues that readers can pick up on as well. Otherwise it's not really fun to read. You just have the author throwing out twists. 

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review 2018-01-22 00:00
A Conspiracy of Ravens
A Conspiracy of Ravens - Terrence P. McCauley Over the years, a plethora of very fine novelists from Robert Ludlum to jack Higgins to Tom Clancy to Clive Kusler to Eric Van Lustabader to Gayle Lynds etc. etc. have made the spy thriller genre largely a paint-by-numbers playground. For the majority of these thrillers, readers know what to expect and what they expect is mostly action. Lots of action in series with recurring characters. Often these are interchangeable characters fighting terrorists with a variety of motives and modus operendi including exotic diseases and weapons, a hefty body count, and international consequences for whatever schemes the foes to humanity, liberty, democracy, or religious freedom have concocted. Quite often, the heroes are not only battling the evil-doers of the world but their own supposedly righteous superiors or other government agencies as well.

Still, the field is irresistibly magnetic for generation after generation of new writers, and Terrence McCauley is among the relative newcomers who know how to paint those numbers with exactly what thriller readers hope for. He’s done it twice before with the previous James Hicks novels, Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows. His main man, James Hicks, is now “Dean” of the clandestine intelligence organization known as The University. (Anyone think of Clancy’s “The Campus” here?) The University is so clandestine, the CIA didn’t know about it for decades and isn’t happy to learn about it now. So Hicks has to appease Charles “Carl” Demerest, head of Clandestine Services at the CIA. Hicks simultaneously keeps operational secrets from the agency while occasionally asking them for backup.

The only reason Demerest doesn’t declare war on the University is because they’re the prime weapon against The Vanguard, a shadowy and deadly organization comprised of weapons dealers, drug runners, and money launderers who want to up the stakes by instigating international wars. Before these schemes get off the ground, they hit with deadly efficiency the University’s home base, wipe out their field operatives, and engage in open warfare in New York, Washing D.C., Berlin, and China. Hicks is in their gun-sights as well.

A Conspiracy of Ravens is solid action that is the proverbial page-turner. It demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the uses of surveillance technology that is completely believable as the behemoths of international espionage clash all over the globe with an ever-growing body count. As usual, the story is so fast-moving, what is lost is much character depth. We get many insights into the likes and loves of James Hicks and some of his surviving team members, especially Roger, a more than versatile club owner. On the other hand, we keep hearing Hicks is in love with Mossad sniper Tali Sadden, but we see so little of her, she is the most shadowy, one-dimensional character in the book.

A Conspiracy of Ravens should please any fan of this genre, and fortunately it’s very enjoyable as a stand-alone story. I must admit McCauley was able to impress me in some passages, surprise me in others, especially in the final acts. It’s clear this isn’t the final saga in the series as we’re witnessing an ongoing war between the University and The Vanguard. Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E., move over. You just don’t cut it anymore.

This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Jan. 22, 2018:
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