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Category: Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

[ 8 ] December 9, 2013

imagesReviewed by Colleen Turner

When I first started reading The Luminaries I must admit I was a bit intimidated. This chunkster is 830 pages long, is broken up into twelve parts all labeled with a complicated looking astrological chart and location coordinates and has a classical, Victorian writing style to it. However, once I actually started reading it I found it hard to stop. This crime mystery set in 19th century New Zealand is unlike anything I have read before and, for that and many other reasons, was entirely entertaining and consuming.

The first part of The Luminaries is 360 pages all by itself and begins on a dark and stormy night in a small town on the coast of New Zealand. Walter Moody has fled his past and traveled to this remote location to find his future and, hopefully, his fortune in the goldfields nearby. Quite by accident he stumbles upon a secret meeting of twelve men, all seemingly very different but connected by things Mr. Moody has yet to discover. What follows in this first section is the history of each of these men and their separate connections to the strange events that have recently occurred all on the same night, namely the death of a reclusive drunk, the discovery of a vast fortune in gold hidden in the dead man’s home, the disappearance of a wealthy young man and the believed attempted suicide of a prostitute. Is it possible that all of these events happening simultaneously are a coincidence? As each man shares his knowledge and influence over these events it becomes quite clear that there is much they must discover if they will ever know the truth about what really happened on that fateful night.

The next three parts continue into the near future, showing how the men, now thirteen strong with the addition of Mr. Moody, try and put all the small and intricate pieces of these various puzzles together to discover the truth. As these events unfolded it was exhilarating to see how the pieces fit together and how so much of what had been perceived was in fact not what it appeared to be.

The remaining parts of The Luminaries go back in time to show the reader what really happened and come full circle back to the beginning of the story. I absolutely loved this structure and, for me, it helped bring closure to the events discussed as, whether for good or bad, the reader is finally given the facts as they are. By no means does the above description talk about everything going on in this book. The Luminaries is chock full of strange similarities as well as opposites: crime and justice; greed and generosity; love and hate; the mystical and the elemental. It has heavy astrological influences that, to be honest, I don’t believe I fully understand but which I find completely fascinating.

I think my favorite aspect of The Luminaries is the vast amount of time spent on character and setting development. I found it to be a completely immersive experience and the reader can’t help but feel like they are a witness to the complicated events unfolding.

It isn’t hard to see why The Luminaries recently won the Man Booker Prize. Any reader willing to give it the time it deserves will not be disappointed.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Little, Brown and Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Montana by Gwen Florio

[ 0 ] December 6, 2013

20131122__montana-by-gwen-florio~p1_200Reviewed by Cal Cleary

Journalist Lola Wicks has been working in the Middle East for so long now, she’s more at home there than she is at the Baltimore newspaper that employs her. But when the paper cancels all its overseas coverage and brings her home, she finds herself having a tough time fitting back in with an America that’s seemingly left her behind. She plans to go back to Kabul and work for herself as soon as possible, but first she has to take a trip to Montana where former coworker and best friend Mary Alice has semi-retired. She arrives to find Mary Alice dead, her cabin ransacked, and a local sheriff who lacks the experience or resources to handle a murder. Trapped in Montana until the case resolves, Lola decides to pit her formidable know-how against a tight-knit small town that seems to be harboring its fair share of secrets.

Montana is the debut novel of Gwen Florio, retired journalist and Montana transplant. Florio has a clear understanding of the material, with a lot of detail and journalistic anecdotes filling out what is otherwise a fairly slight story. But while Florio understands the surface material well enough to give the world a confident, lived-in feel, I’m less certain about Florio’s grasp on the mechanics of crafting a mystery.

She’s got a rock-solid premise, but (aside from a bang-up prologue) the set-up is also the weakest part of the book, spending far too much time on Lola trying to leave while the universe seemingly throws every possible bit of information she needs to solve the case right at her feet. Mary Alice’s tiny Montana town is only mildly fleshed-out thanks to the somewhat limited page-count, but its residents are by and large fairly memorable. There are a lot of small setting details, too, that make Montana a fun read. But the mystery at the book’s core is unfortunately a non-starter – it quickly becomes less a ‘whodunnit’ and more a ‘why dunnit’ with a goofy, pulpy conclusion that doesn’t sit too well with a lot of what came before.

Too straight-forward to be an effective mystery and too slack to be an effective thriller, Montana succeeds as much as it does on the strength of its characters. It’s not a mistake that the first half of the book is the weakest; while Lola is an interesting protagonist, she needs people to bounce off for the book to come alive. Florio may have a hard time with the structure of the book, but she did a genuinely good job when it came to bringing together a diverse, fascinating cast of characters. There are a lot of strong moments in Montana, but it stumbles too often to build up much momentum off them. With a little more room to breathe and build its world, this could have been an excellent mystery; as is, it’s passable but not particularly exciting.

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Cal Cleary is a librarian, critic and writer in rural Ohio. You can find more of his work at read/RANT and Comics Crux.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Permanent Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Multiple Exposure by Ellen Crosby

[ 2 ] November 27, 2013

MultipleExposure_zps17829076Reviewed by Caleb Shadis

I enjoyed reading Multiple Exposure quite a bit. I was rather surprised about the simplicity of the story and yet it kept me glued to my seat when I was reading. Most of the book felt as close to ‘normal’ life as one could expect from a piece of thriller fiction. I’ve met women who could easily have been Sophie Medina. Unlike characters in other books, I could believe and understand almost every single decision she made. Most of the time there seems to be a need to make some kind of stupid choice just to up the tension.

The last time Sophie talks to her husband is just before she boards a flight home to London. She works as a photographer for a news agency and has been abroad for a couple weeks. After getting home she finds blood and signs of a struggle in the house. Her husband is missing and she calls the authorities, only they aren’t the local police. Her husband was a spook for the U.S. so she calls in ‘his people’ to have the first go around.

Days later a car is found abandoned in the Alps with some of his blood in it. Not only was Nick a spy, he also had a legitimate job with a small oil company that was working in a poor area of Russia itching to declare its independence. His disappearance could easily be related to either job. Then his civilian boss is found murdered in Italy, and the log books of what was discovered go missing. It appeared to be about oil, which means money.

After months of worry and no ransom demands everyone assumes Nick is dead when suddenly there is a reliable report that he has been spotted walking down a street in Russia. Sophie is thrown into emotional turmoil again. The biggest question is ‘if he’s alive, why hasn’t he contacted me?’.

I felt this was a great story and really enjoyed reading it. It is not a fast-paced thriller nor is it a twisted mystery. It is a simply told story with enough mystery to make one wonder who is behind what? It isn’t quite a cozy but it leans that way. I think I’ll have to keep an eye out for some of Ellen Crosby’s other work.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Caleb is a software engineer and amateur woodworker living in southern Minnesota. He has more hobbies than he has time or money for, and enjoys his quiet time reading.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

[ 3 ] November 25, 2013

Burial Rites AmericanReviewed by Nina Longfield

Set in Iceland in 1829, Hannah Kent’s novel, Burial Rites, tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir. The novel begins with a rumination of impending death. A death by execution. Agnes is a housemaid convicted in the death of her former master. The narration floats from Agnes’ point-of-view, to her chosen confessor priest, Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), to the Jonsdottir family, and even letters and public announcements regarding Agnes’ alleged crimes. 

After being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Agnes is sent to live with family of District Officer Jon Jonsdottir as it was determined the condemned should wait out her final days in the company of upright Christians who inspire repentance. The Jonsdottir family is at first angered to be used as the holding house of this condemned woman of ill reputation, but each becomes embroiled in personal conflict as their regard towards Agnes either darkens or changes to pity, or possibly understanding, as the sentence drags through the summer and into fall.

Agnes’ imprisonment is open and without shackles. She is soon seen as another servant on the farm as the Jonsdottirs see her aptitude in household and farm duties. Throughout her open imprisonment, Assistant Reverend (Toti) Jonsson attends to Agnes’ soul, attempting to bring her back into the Christian fold. It is unclear whether Agnes is seeking to reclaim her soul or offer her side of her story, but Agnes’ story is slowly revealed through hers and Toti’s visits. As summer drags into fall and the weather fouls, the family, Agnes, and Toti are forced into the lounge together but this does not impede Agnes from telling her story as she seems compelled to reveal her past before her days come to an end. 

Burial Rites starts a little slow with the public announcements, letters, and ruminations. This all makes the first dozen pages a bit of a drag and the story difficult to engage with. However, the narrative picks up with Agnes’ transfer to the Jonsdottir farm. Agnes’ transfer, along with the earlier entries, work to pull the reader deeper into Agnes’ story. Within a few chapters, Burial Rites became difficult to put down. Hannah Kent’s writing is quiet, intriguing, and her novel is beautifully written. Burial Rites is a novel to savor.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Little, Brown and Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Deceived by Randy Wayne White

[ 1 ] November 19, 2013

deceived by randy wayne whiteReviewed by Caleb Shadis

Deceived is the second book in the new Hannah Smith series which is a spin off from Randy Wayne White’s Dr. Ford series. Dr. Ford really does have a small role in this book and there were hints that it is taking place between a couple of his books. However, I haven’t read them all so I’m not sure yet where Deceived fits into the larger picture.

Hannah owns two businesses. She has a boat she charters for fishing and she inherited her uncle’s private investigation firm. She keeps her PI license current even though she doesn’t do a lot of work, nor does she really consider herself a PI.

Hannah’s mother who was always difficult to deal with has recently had a stroke which makes her even more unpredictable. Her mother’s neighbor who recently moved in and destroyed a native American site to build a monstrosity of a cement home, has been causing all sorts of trouble. Her latest fiasco was to get Hannah’s mother in trouble for having a vegetable garden.

Hannah has also recently found some family heirlooms missing from the attic…and so have many of the other elderly that live in the neighborhood. When one of Hannah’s mother’s friends is discovered dead and Hannah has an almost fatal run-in with a couple of pitbulls, things start to get interesting and dangerous.

When the cops show up to check on Hannah’s report, they are a little credulous about the story Hannah tells. They lighten up quite a bit once the county DA arrives, who just happens to have recently hired Hannah as a fishing guide. The shared tribulations on that trip and the fact that the DA was attracted to her helped ease the tension. The deceased lady was found with a pile of museum pamphlets strewn about. The DA soon asks Hannah to work for him as a PI to investigate and see if there was a scam going on in relation to the museum.

Overall, I thought the story was pretty good; it was not quite as exciting as Dr. Ford but it didn’t need to be. Hannah didn’t really do anything that screamed “that was really stupid” and the situations she got herself in were fairly believable. The funniest parts revolved around Hannah protecting Dr. Ford and trying to save him from getting into trouble. She believes him to be just a biologist and thinks he would be out of his league dealing with ‘these people’. Those readers familiar with the Doc will know that Hannah has another thing coming!

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Caleb is a software engineer and amateur woodworker living in southern Minnesota. He has more hobbies than he has time or money for, and enjoys his quiet time reading.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Putnam Adult. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The Partner Track by Helen Wan

[ 2 ] November 11, 2013

17286782Reviewed by Cal Cleary

Ingrid Yung is perfect – or at least, that’s the façade she likes to present in the hyper-competitive law firm of Parsons Valentine & Hunt. She’s a ‘twofer’ for the firm, the only Chinese-American and the only woman on the partner track. In the firm’s ‘good old boys club’, Ingrid found success by being twice as good as anyone else for half the recognition. But when a racist outbreak mars the company’s good name, Ingrid is forced to divert attention from a career-making legal deal to the company’s new diversity initiative, a move that frustrates her and infuriates her coworkers.

Ingrid is such a fantastically lived-in character, the sort of narrator whose wry asides really give her world the kind of color and life needed to stand out. The strength of Ingrid’s voice gives author Helen Wan a lot of leeway when it comes to dealing with the sometimes-heavy legalese that dominates the middle portion of the book. Segments that could have been dry and ponderous fly by as Wan deftly blends legal action with interesting, often unpredictable personal drama.

Of course, the strength of Ingrid’s character comes pretty directly at the expense of the rest of the cast. Because we see the world through Ingrid’s eyes, some character reversals and plot twists may seemingly come out of nowhere, dictated more by the necessity of the story than by an internal consistency of character. It only rarely really hurts the book, and even there canny readers will have noted plenty of hints about the character’s true face, but it’s something that may frustrate some, particularly in the book’s too-brief epilogue that places a number of minor characters in major roles seemingly out of nowhere.

But, you know, none of that really changed how I felt about the book in the end. Despite its occasional issues, The Partner Track is a fantastic debut novel, the sort of character-driven legal drama you don’t want to put down even after you finished. The Partner Track isn’t a must-read novel because of its dedication to social justice, but because of its winning protagonist, crisp prose, and addictively enjoyable story. Its progressive, unique point of view is just the icing on top of an already-delicious cake.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Cal is a writer, librarian and critic in Pittsburgh, PA. He has been reviewing books and graphic novels for nearly five years, contributing to read/RANT Comic Reviews and a number of other sites.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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