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review 2017-03-29 21:30
"Summit Lake" by Charlie Donlea - gnarly plot and clever structure kept me turning the pages.
Summit Lake - Charlie Donlea

I read "Summit Lake" in two days. It's a page-turner book with a plot that starts off as clever and ends up as deeply cunning.  I didn't see the ending coming and I enjoyed being constantly offered the chance to guess who the bad guy was and never quite finding out.

 

"Summit Lake" is two stories intertwined: the story of Becca Eckersley, a student in her first year at Law School, comes to be raped and murdered in her parents' vacation home on the shores of the picturesque Summit Lake and the story of Kelsey Castle, a crime reporter recovering from her own trauma, who is sent to investigate Becca's death.

 

The novel is cleverly structured. It starts with the hook of Becca's brutally violent death and then alternates between following Becca's path to her death and following Kelsey's attempts to uncover that path despite an attempted cover up. Charlie Donlea uses the intertwining of the two tales skillfully, sharing and withholding  information to maximise the tension in both time lines.

 

The strength of the novel lies in the puzzle it sets and the skill with which the layers of the puzzle are unwound. This kept me turning the pages and wanting to know what happened next.

 

The dialogue in the book works well but the prose plods and occasionally falls over itself. If the plot had been even slightly less interesting, this would have put me off enough not to have read to the end. 

 

The worst of the distractions could have been fixed by a diligent editor, which somehow made them more annoying. 

 

At the least irritating end of the distractions was the habit of regularising irregular verbs: shone becomes shined, knelt becomes knealed and so on. At the most irritating end the distractions came from the misuse of language:

 

"All of this transcended on her in the seconds it took to fight the door open"

 

"She was tapping the MacBook with efficiency"

 

"She never heard the front door as the knob was tried from outside. The deadbolt held and after three attempts, the door went quiet."

If things like this flow over you unnoticed, you're in for a great read.

 

If not, enjoy the plot and read faster.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-03-29 20:30
Wolf By Wolf
Wolf by Wolf - Christa Lewis,Ryan Graudin,Hachette Audio

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***

 

One-sentence review: the hand of the author was too visible to allow me to fully immerse myself in this one.

 

My favorite part: Brava to Ms. Graudin for showing so subtly and clearly that, no matter how hard one tries, one can never inhabit another person's thoughts or fully understand that person. This was the subtlest theme of the novel, and one I truly enjoyed--watching Yael realize the tiny ways in which human relationships, even when public, are by their nature intensely private, and how another person's mind and life are impossible to grasp, despite intense research and investigation.

 

Premise. The most common praise I've heard for Wolf by Wolf is that it has a unique and fascinating premise. The alternate-history aspect, in which Germany and Japan have won the war, is not in itself unique. (See this Wikipedia article entitled "Hypothetical Axis Victory in World War II.") Even the element of an underground resistance movement that wants to kill Hitler has been done before in this same alternate-history context.

 

So the unique aspects in Wolf by Wolf are the facts that Yael is a shapeshifter, and that she has to win a cross-continent motorcycle race in order to get her shot at the Führer. Unique, perhaps, but these two features actually weaken the novel somewhat in my opinion: 

 

Road Race. For me--and this may not be true for other readers--a race is just not interesting enough to sustain the entire book. It very quickly felt like a series of hurdles: problem introduced, problem solved; another problem introduced, etc. Sometimes solving one problem created the other. Many times, Yael solved the problem simply by revealing her plan or identity to the person involved. (More on that below.)

 

Shapeshifter. Alternate history and historical fiction are a great pairing, but the fantasy element of Yael being able to shapeshift made the history less believable. In every other way, the world was like ours: unmagical. And other than the implied existence of other shapeshifters, nothing else is fantastical in this book. It made me wonder whether a) shapeshifting was necessary to accomplish what Ms. Graudin wanted to achieve, and b) if it was necessary, why this world didn't have more fantastical elements.

 

The science. Because let's face it, the science-fiction aspect was not convincing. When your plot device is medically based, I want some sort of plausible mechanism. You can make it up, but it should be based on something scientific or biological. What sort of injectable agent could possibly cause a person to be able to change their body, right down to bone shape and length, within minutes? The reader is meant to accept this as the premise and move on, but I got stuck in Untransported Land.

 

The hand of the author/author devices. When the author allows implausible things to happen just to keep the story moving, it becomes difficult to stay transported as well. How likely is it that in a concentration camp the gate guard would allow Yael to exit the camp when she tells him the doctor has requested to see her? Wouldn't he accompany her from the gate to the doctor's door? How likely is it that the nurse wouldn't accompany her from the clinic to the commandant's door? Ms. Graudin needed to develop a more sophisticated escape route, rather than ask us to believe these two impossible moments could occur.

 

Similarly, how likely is it that the race organizers have stocked fuel but not drinking water at the checkpoints? They've lugged spare motorcycles to each checkpoint, but no water? This was an author device to get Yael to approach Luka for a favor. And even that is unbelievable: why would Yael go to Luka, her nemesis, for a canteen, rather than to Adele's brother, who has said he wants to protect her? And why would Luka bargain the water for a mere favor, rather than demand that she partner with him, which is what he really wants?

 

Why does it take so long for Yael to ask Felix where he got his information about a "big event" happening at the race. Wouldn't Yael be suspicious of him?

 

How is it that the Russian partners in the resistance don't know Yael's code name, or that she's on this crucial mission, even though the race goes through their territory?

 

The Russian commander says that his life and the life of his men are forfeit if he lets her go, yet if she "happens" to escape "that's a different matter?" Really? He wouldn't be punished in the extreme for his incompetence in allowing an escape? 

 

Linearity. Although Ms. Graudin tries to break up the monotony of the motorcycle race by inserting flashbacks of Yael's origin story (which I did find interesting), it's hard to stop this book from feeling very...linear. There is a hurdle, then a solution, repeat. The solutions are often Yael skinshifting her way out of the problem, spilling her plan--to the soviets, to Felix--or provided by a deus ex machina (e.g. Felix fixes her bike for her).

 

The Soviet side-trip. Why is this in the novel? It achieves nothing in service of the plot. I can only think that Ms. Graudin thought the monotony of the race needed something to break it up. Everything that she achieved (getting the competitors to rely on each other) could have been done another way.

 

Research. There were some errors here:

 

Ms. Graudin painted a picture of Cairo with "carts full of pomegranates and figs." Well, this race begins in early spring (late March, early April) and Egypt's pomegranate season runs from early September to December. Figs are more complicated (they have two seasons, a big one and a small one), but since Ms. Graudin doesn't specify dried or fresh, we should probably cut her some slack by assuming the cart had dried figs.

 

Luka says, "Not such a great bullet point on your curriculum vitae." And the narrator says, "No number of bullet points and biography facts could pin the soul behind her eyes." Unfortunately the term "bullet point" is from 1983, and the advent of wordprocessors.

 

Miriam reassures Yael that Babushka and Mama, both deceased, will be "watching" her escape from beyond. This implies a Christian view of heaven, doesn't it?

 

The writing. The language is meant to be evocative, but sometimes it simply doesn't make sense: "Act like you belong, not a hollow stuffed girl."

 

Sometimes the descriptions are so unspecific as to not be helpful, visually:

 

[To reach the knife in her boot,] she had to bend her body at awkward angles (which might have been impossible if Yael hadn't used her skin shifting to lengthen Adele's arms a few centimeters)...

Tell us how her body is bending, please.

 

Ms. Graudin also likes to serially pair nouns and/or adjectives, which might be fine in moderation, but there's a little too much of it of it. For instance, in describing Luka's lips:

Moving and melding. Soft and strength, velvet and iron. Opposite elements that tugged and tore Yael from the inside. Feelings bloomed, hot and warm. Deep and dark.

And speaking of "soft and strength," she has an interesting habit of using nouns for adjectives (strength instead of strong) and adjectives for nouns ("the tight of his fist"). Pretty, or distracting? I truly couldn't decide.

 

I had questions:

 

Why was the Japanese racer crying, only to be murdered without our finding out why? 

 

What the heck are the rules of the motorcycle race, and how is it timed? We're given some information, but if I had to reconstruct it to hold an actual race, I couldn't.

 

In sum: This was refreshing YA fantasy for not being yet another Beauty and the Beast retelling, and for choosing an alternate history for its "dystopia." I was totally happy to keep reading it, but now that it's done I find I'm enjoying watching The Man in the High Castle more.

 

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review 2017-03-29 15:46
Little Dead Red by Mercedes Yardley (audio)
Little Dead Red - Mercedes M. Yardley
This is a not happy tale. Terrible things happen to innocent people.

Little Red Dead is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood which was never a sweet tale anyway, but author Mercedes Yardley takes the bones of that fable and gives it a very gritty, very modern treatment and turns it into a horrifying read.

Some women have all the luck. Marie is not one of them. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story and am honestly unsure how to even tackle this review. I’ll just say that Marie suffers from two huge losses that leave her devastated, emotionally drained and at her wits end. After a kind man and his wife intervene, instead of succumbing to depression she decides to plot revenge.

This is a well plotted, well executed, bleak and painfully emotional short story – all the things I look for in a story such as this but it is not an feel good read. You have been warned.

Narration Notes: As this story is told from Marie’s POV, I’m not going to lie, I do wish it had been narrated by a woman but that’s my own personal preference. That said, narrator Joe Hempel does a fine job with the darkness of the story and doesn’t ruin the female voices with painful falsetto. I cannot tell you how many times a guy has ruined a female character for me with a cringy performance and vice-versa. I found it hard to tear myself away from the audio and do things like go to work and listen to people who needed to ask me oh so important questions that could not wait (yeah, that’s sarcasm you hear there) because the storytelling was so involving.

I received a copy of this audiobook courtesy of Audiobook Boom.
 
 

 

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review 2017-03-28 15:49
As Luck Would Have It by Alissa Johnson
As Luck Would Have It - Alissa Johnson

Sophie has spent the last 12 years travelling abroad and has returned to learn that her family’s fortune and their beloved estate are now in jeopardy. For some reason that doesn’t require thinking too hard about, it was left in the hands of an unscrupulous cousin. Sophie is approached by a weird little man who updates her on the situation and asks her to spy on her shady cousin and his associates in exchange for the money she now so desperately needs.

 

Why not, she thinks. She’s adventurous and nearly destitute and agrees even though she has absolutely no experience in spying. Now don’t worry if you’re not a fan of spy books because I’m not either. The spying bit isn’t a big thing. Actually, don’t think about the spying and the setup and most of the plot points or your head may explode. Read this one for the refreshing connection between the characters.

 

Soon after becoming a newly hatched spy, Sophie meets Alex. Alex is a Duke and a sexy, sexy rake and he has plenty of secrets of his own. There is an instant and strong connection the moment they meet. No, it’s not that insta-love crapola I’m so sick of reading, this connection is the real thing. You feel it in every bit of witty dialogue they share. This is how connections should be written. Their romance development is fun, sexy and smart. They’re well matched but, alas, this is a historical romance and there must be obstacles.

 

The obstacles come in the way of treachery, secrets, some silliness and Sophie’s worries brought on by a tragic event in her past. She has a hang-up about luck and balancing it out. I get it. My life is very much the same way. Whenever I go to bed thinking life is pretty alright, I wake up to a puddle of pee or something even more disgusting like a beheaded mouse. This is life, is it not? Sophie takes this balancing out of the luck business so far that it quickly begins to feel contrived and truthfully it began to drive me nuts in the last act.

 

So what we have here is a mostly light-hearted romance with amusing characters that’s only marred by several less than mind-blowing reveals at the end. 

 

Narration Notes: Narrator Carmen Rose does an excellent job with this audio version by Tantor. She has a lovely accent which turns slightly snooty whenever necessary and completely fits the tone of the book and each character she portrays. There weren’t any missteps that threw me out of the story and I can easily recommend searching out her performance if you’re an audiobook fan.

 

FTC Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this audiobook in exchange for a review from Tantor Media. I hope they don’t regret it!

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text 2017-03-28 06:49
Reading progress update: I've listened 41 out of 421 minutes.
The Gates (Audio) - Jonathan Cake,John Connolly

This has been keeping me company on the drive to work and has caused outright snickering a few times. It is totally charming. It feels a little like Harry Potter in the descriptions of people, but with these charmingly rambly footnotes regarding history, religion, and astronomy, all done with this very tongue-in-cheek tone.

 

I can't wait to see what happens next. 

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