Category Archives: Penguin

Audiobook Review: While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Publisher: Tantor Media; Unabridged,MP3 – Unabridged CD edition (February 20, 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 1452667896
  • Source: Personal copy

When Elise Darliss’ mother falls victim to the pox, Elise flees her home on a farm and seeks employment as a maid at the castle. It doesn’t take long for her to rise up the ranks from chambermaid to a private maid to the queen herself. The castle quickly becomes more of a home than her place of birth ever did, and for good reason. Growing up, she felt her life so separate and far from that of the castle. As she grows older she matures into a fine, respected lady, a far cry from the life she had before. She forms friendships and bonds with individuals in the highest echelons of the royal family, learning that her life in the castle is one that is earned and deserved.

The reader (or listener, in my case) follows Elise through her life in the castle. War, disease, and power struggles fail to hold Elise back when it comes to protecting those that she loves. Rose, the daughter of King Ranolf and Queen Lenore, becomes Elise’s sole passion in life. Her youth, her vitality, and her innocence are the sparks to warm Elise’s heart.  When Rose’s fate is threatened by the King’s evil aunt, Millicent, protecting her life and securing her future becomes Elise’s obsession.

Blackwell’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty adds great depth and intrigue to the story we all grew up hearing.  Gone are the stories of magic and spells, replaced with horrific tales of power hungry individuals willing to do anything to obtain their spot on the throne.  The growing role and importance of women in places of power added a uplifting, modern spin to this age-old tale.

As I’ve stated many a time before, I’m typically not a fan of retellings. With that said, I have made it a mission of mine to step outside my comfort zone and embrace these retellings as they seem to be appearing quite rapidly. Some have been met with success, others with a less than desired outcome. In the case of While Beauty Slept, however, I was thoroughly impressed with the changes Blackwell made to the story. She added a modern, mysterious spin that had my attention from the start.

Adding to this experience was the dynamic narration by Wanda McCaddon. Elise starts out as a young, uncertain chambermaid and evolves into a well-respected lady of the court. This is directly reflected in the tone of McCaddon’s narration, the listener sensing the growing maturity and self-confidence in her voice. Additionally, McCaddon’s narration would change with Elise’s age, reflecting the change that comes to one’s voice with the passing of time and age.

Although  While Beauty Slept is portrayed as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I personally viewed it as a wholly unique and original story with bits of homage to the classic fairy tale. Readers apprehensive about reading or listening to a fairy tale need not worry. For me, this novel had more characteristics of a historical fiction/thriller than a fairy tale. While the premise captured my attention from the start, it was the vividly drawn characters and unique storyline that captured my attention. Highly, highly recommended.

#Mx3 Review: The Raven’s Gift by Don Rearden

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pintail (June 25, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 014318749X
  • Source: Library copy

John Morgan and his wife, Anna,  are excited to start their next adventure in life as new teachers in a Yup’ik Eskimo village in remote Alaska.  While wary and anxious, they both see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Sure, it will take some time to get used to living in conditions less than what they were used to but the rewards will more make up for their “suffering.”

Not long after their arrival, they hear word of a deadly epidemic striking villages close to them.  Shortly thereafter, villagers, including some of their closest friends, become ill. Due to their remote location, no aid of any sort can reach them.  People are starving around them. John realizes he must make the ultimate sacrifice and make a 1,000 mile trek across the Alaskan tundra to seek help.  On his journey, he meets a blind Eskimo woman and an elderly native who need his protection to survive. In turn, he needs their knowledge of the terrain to survive.  Along the way, John discovers a darker, more disturbing explanation behind this mysterious epidemic.

Told using three different timelines, The Raven’s Gift portrays the village before the epidemic hits, John and Anna’s early attempts to adjust, and John’s attempt to survive the harsh Alaskan elements.  The desolate and bleak setting truly becomes a part of the story, a character in and of itself.   A dark and devastating journey, reminiscent of Stephen King’s The Stand,  The Raven’s Gift will capture and engage the reader from the start.  A truly unique post-apocalyptic tale, it portrays a message that is destined to resound in the hearts of readers long after they read it.  What makes it most terrifying is that it is wholly plausible, a nightmare brought to life in our own country.

This title was suggested as part of my “Operation: Scare Me” challenge. I have to admit, when I read the premise I was doubtful. In the end, wow…was I terrified! If you are looking for a unique post-apocalyptic novel, I guarantee that The Raven’s Gift is the perfect book for you. Highly, highly recommended.

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Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (June 18, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 1594205388
  • Source: Personal copy

Imagine a world in which a few words can illicit a response from an individual, relinquishing their ability to resist commands.  That world is real. In an exclusive school outside of Arlington, VA, students aren’t taught the typical reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, they are taught to persuade, manipulating words as potentially dangerous and powerful weapons. Only the best students move on to become poets, an elite group of individuals who become part of an unnamed organization.

Emily is a runaway who lives on the streets of San Francisco.  She makes a living taking money from those who play her curb-side card game. Her talent of manipulation gains the attention of  the recruiters of this organization. She’s “enlisted” in the school and becomes part of a world in which individuals are no longer referred to as their original names, instead using names like Bronte or Yeats instead.  She soon discovers that individuals can be categorized by personality type and, using a select group of words they are forced to memorize, their minds can become unlocked, dominated by those who utter these words.  Never one to submit to authority, Emily prevents anyone from getting too close to her…until she falls in love.  Submitting herself to this “human” emotion weakens her, allowing her to be controlled, unleashing a power that is horrifically dark and deadly.

Meanwhile, Wil Parke is attacked and ambushed in an airport bathroom. Seemingly innocent on all accounts, his attackers claim he is an outlier, an integral part in a secret war of which he has no knowledge.  He is taken to Broken Hill, Australia, a town supposedly decimated by toxins. There, he and his remaining attacker hide from the nameless organization and its mind-controlling poets. What actually resides in Broken Hill is something so powerful it caused an entire town to destroy itself.

What is this war they are fighting? Wil & Emily are connected, but how? Who comes out the winner in this unknown battle?

I’ve owned a copy of this novel since it was released earlier this year. Admittedly, it’s been collecting dust on my virtual bookshelf since then. I found myself in a book funk, of sorts, after re-reading an absolutely outstanding novel (Oryx and Crake) and couldn’t find a book that would capture and keep my attention.  Then, for some reason, this novel called out to me. I clicked on the cover of the ebook and within minutes my attention was not only captured, but I found myself a victim of Barry’s writing. Like so many individuals in Lexicon, I found myself relinquishing my free will to the power of words, of language. But unlike those unfortunate victims in the novel, I didn’t inflict pain or leave a trail of victims behind. Instead, it forced me to reevaluate the power of the written (or spoken) word.

In Lexicon, words are as powerful as the deadliest of viruses. The general public fall victim to this, manipulated to do things using targeted advertising and politicized media.  I  won’t be able to take another random poll or quiz without wondering how the results will be used. The world Barry creates is tremendously inventive, a mind-altering novel that will keep you thinking long after you’ve turned the last pages.  There isn’t another novel like Lexicon. Never before has a novel elicited this sort of response in me. Without a doubt, this novel will top my favorites of not just 2013, but of my lifetime. Highly, highly recommended.

If words were weapons, which poet would you be? Take this quiz to find out.

 

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Review: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense by Sarah Weinman

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (August 27, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0143122541
  • Source: Publisher

We’re all familiar with modern bestselling crime fiction authors like Gillian Flynn and Tana French, but before them were a host of trailblazing women writers who paved the path for others like them. In Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, Weinman, an authority in crime fiction, showcases fourteen stories from women who set the stage for today’s female crime fiction authors.  Each story focuses on a wide range of women who have turned to the dark side, spurned by anger or abuse (or, in some cases, pure insanity).

It wasn’t until the launch of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1941 that female crime and suspense writers had a venue for publishing their work, in a world dominated by fame writers. After given this opportunity, these women flourished, many receiving Edgar nominations and going on to writing bestselling novels.

Ranging from the 1940s through the 70s, these women wrote short stories about the darker side of domestic tranquility.  From well-known authors like Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson to many lesser known authors, Weinman not only showcases the stories written by these progressive women authors, but also provides a foray into their lives, describing how many of them had first-hand experience of the chilling stories they portrayed. The majority of these stories, while many are over six decades old, stand the test of time and continue to send a chill down readers’ spines these many years later.

What is most remarkable about this anthology is the timing. Female crime fiction authors are at an all time high in popularity thanks to novels like Gone Girl.  Weinman’s intent in publishing this anthology is not only to remind us all of the women who came before but also to detail the evolution of women crime writers, showing just how far women writers in this genre have come. The future is limitless, given the sheer volume of brilliant female suspense writers out there.

A truly inspiring and simultaneously chilling anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is a must read for fans of crime fiction, a book that will have a permanent home in my library. Highly, highly recommended.

Interested in learning more about the authors showcased? Visit the anthology’s companion web site, Domestic Suspense.

Frightful Friday: The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood

Frightful Friday is a weekly meme in which I feature a particularly scary or chilling book that I’ve read that week. The featured title this week is The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood:

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (July 30, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0143123866
  • Source: Publisher

In the summer in 1986, two eleven-year old girls meet and by the end of the day are charged with murder. Fast forward to the year 2011: Kristy Lindsay is a journalist reporting on a series of brutal murders in a small, quiet vacation town. Her investigation leads her to a carnival, the latest crime scene. There, she runs into Amber Gordon, one of the many cleaning crew that can be found once the carnival shuts down for the night. She hasn’t seen Amber in twenty-five years, the fateful summer day that changed both of their lives forever.  Kristy and Amber (known back then as Bel and Jade) have since changed their identities, now living a life with families ignorant of their past “crime.”

As Kristy tries to the bottom of these heinous crimes, she must simultaneously work to keep her deep, dark secret buried. She’s had a fortunate life; Amber unfortunately was forced to endure a path less desirable. Can she trust Amber, a woman who shares the same dark past, to help keep her secret safe?

The Wicked Girls is an incredibly dark and haunting psychological thriller. While the actual details of the decades-old crime isn’t revealed early on, readers know the basic details of the devastating crime that forever altered the lives of two young misfits. As the details of the modern day crime are revealed so are snippets of information from that fateful summer day. Despite what transpired, it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the young girls, caught in a situation that has cornered them into action, much like what is transpiring now in their adult lives. A key underlying element within this novel is social class and just how justice is handed down to those less privileged.

Full of twists and turns, the carnival setting of The Wicked Girls is quite appropriate. Marwood takes her readers on an intense ride throughout the entirety of this novel, alluding to a whole host of culpable suspects, leaving the reader incredibly shocked by the time the actual perpetrator is uncovered. Like many illusions contained within a carnival, Marwood’s slowly laid out revelations will play with one’s mind, permitting even the most deductive of readers – myself included – unsure of just which characters to trust.

I started reading The Wicked Girls in the afternoon and by the evening I had devoured it in its entirety. A gripping, moving, and thought-provoking psychological thriller, I guarantee this is a novel that will have people talking. Highly, highly recommended.

Review: A Tap on the Window by Linwood Barclay

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Hardcover (August 6, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0451414187
  • Source: Publisher

Two months ago Cal Weaver’s teenage son, Scott, died in a tragic accident. The grief Cal and his wife, Donna, have endured is forcing them apart. His obsession in learning what really happened that fateful evening has consumed Cal. He uses his experience as a private investigator to begin stalking those that might have information about Scott’s death.

One evening, as he is trolling around town in the rain, someone taps on the window of his car. A young girl, covered in rain, introduces herself as Claire. Despite the fact that Cal knows that inviting her into his car is a dumb move, when Claire admits to knowing Scott he believes he may be able to get some information from her.  Cal realizes something isn’t right with the situation but it’s far too late.

Call gets pulled into an investigation of murder, an investigation that unveils a wealth of secrets kept by those of authority in the small New York town. Lies, murder, affairs…all being covered up to protect those in power. Once Cal begins to slowly peel back all the secrets he soon discovers his own life is in danger but is willing to risk everything if it means that years of corruption are brought to the surface, including information about what truly transpired the night of Scott’s death.

At over 500 pages, A Tap on the Window is a novel in which you really have to invest a lot of time. While I am a long-time fan of Barclay’s work and typically enjoy his writing, this one seemed a bit to lengthy for me. Scenes and dialogue that didn’t deserve a great deal of description seemed long-winded to me, taking away the intensity that might have existed if the writing was more concise.  That said, Barclay makes up for it with his intensely designed characters.

Cal Weaver has serious anger issues.  While he has recently lost his only son, that only serves as a partial excuse, for his aggression in the field is what caused him to lose his job as a police officer, forcing him to move his family to this small town. Several times he crosses the line in order to get answers, coming far too close to killing in the name of gaining more information. It is this general attitude Cal exudes that makes him a difficult character to connect with, but a softer, more human side is revealed as the reader delves deeper and deeper into the book.  It isn’t until the final pages, however, that we get a glimpse of the genuine, vulnerable, Cal Weaver.

While I did have some issues with this novel, I still recommend it to fans of intense psychological thrillers. Barclay is a truly talented writer, praised by many of the thriller greats. If you have the patience to tackle a book of this length, wait patiently as the storyline unfolds, you will be handsomely rewarded.

Frightful Friday: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Frightful Friday is a weekly meme in which I feature a particularly scary or chilling book that I’ve read that week. The featured title this week is The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey:

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (May 7, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0399162410

When the first wave hit, it wiped out electricity.  The second wiped out entire coastlines. The third spread a deadly plague. During the fourth wave aliens known as The Others sought to destroy all surviving humans. The fifth wave is far more deadly and destructive.

Cassiopeia (Cassie) Sullivan has survived the first four waves. Quickly adapting to her new survivalist life, toting a M-16 her only goal is to rescue her younger brother, Sammie, from The Others. Along the way she is rescued by Evan Walker, a quiet and mysterious loner. His involvement in the fifth wave seems completely innocent at first but the more Cassie learns of The Others plans, the more she begins to question everything and everyone she has ever known. She must do anything she can to survive the alien attack and reunite with her only remaining family.

I’m purposefully being quiet vague in my synopsis of this novel. The beauty, and intensity, of this story is discovering the chain of events as it occurs. A long time fan of Yancey myself, I was once again rewarded with a truly remarkable and engrossing tale of horror and the unknown. Cassie is an incredibly strong protagonist; it is refreshing to see a young girl cast in this role. Secondary characters are so well-crafted that you will forget they are just that, secondary pieces or pawns in a larger scale story. Yancey varies the point of view allowing each of the key players to give readers a truly unique and unaltered portrayal of what could be the end of human life as we know it.

At nearly 500 pages, one would think that this book would take forever to get through. Completely untrue, for I couldn’t tear myself away from this book for a moment, eventually reading it in one afternoon. In addition to the incredibly compelling and terrifying storyline, Yancey writes a truly intelligent and thought-provoking read. While readers are asked to dispel belief in some cases, a large portion of this novel is completely plausible.

Plot twists scattered throughout the novel add intensity to the already fast-moving storyline. You will want to stop, shocked about what was just revealed yet you won’t be able to tear yourself away for one moment, a hunger for more that won’t be satisfied until you turn the last pages.  While this is geared toward young adults/older middle-grade, this is the sort of novel that adults would find to be compelling and enjoyable as well.

Bottom line: The 5th Wave is an intense, tremendously chilling and terrifying read. Highly, highly recommended.

Be sure to check out The 5th Wave website for additional information and content!

Frightful Friday: Children of the Underground: The Children of Paranoia Series by Trevor Shane

Frightful Friday is a weekly meme in which I feature a particularly scary or chilling book that I’ve read that week.

This week’s featured title is Children of the Underground by Trevor Shane:

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Trade; 1 edition (April 2, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0451239296
  • Source: Publisher

In this follow up to Children of Paranoia, eighteen-year-old Maria has just witnessed the brutal killing of Joseph, her lover and the father of their infant son, Christopher. The killer, Joseph’s best friend, Jared, claimed he did it for “the cause.” After killing Joseph, Jared tears Christopher from Maria’s grasp. Maria is now on a mission to locate her son, now nearly a year old. She attempted to contact others like Joseph, those fighting in this nameless war, but they shunned her, told her to forget she had a son and to get on with her life. Unable to do so, Maria tracks down Michael, another of Joseph’s friends involved in the cause, as well as a group known as the Underground, dedicated to “cleaning” the lives of those no longer interested in participating in the war. Together, they must carefully cross the lines waged by war, risking their lives in order to track down young Christopher.

Interspersed throughout the story are journal entries, reminiscent of the entries from the previous novel, that fast forward in time to Christopher’s youth and adulthood. Readers get a glimpse of the life Christopher led, immersed in a war that continues to have unknown causes and no indication of ending. Shane has crafted a truly terrific and chilling concept: a silent war rages, millions of citizens clueless to what is going on around them. Those involved in the war don’t have clear enemies or allies. It is rare to find someone you trust.

This sophomore book has absolutely no inklings or hints of a sophomore slump. As a matter of fact, I think this novel is more intense than the previous. Perhaps, because I am a mother myself, I found it easier to connect with Maria’s character than Joseph’s in the previous novel. Although she is still a teen in age, Maria has been forced to endure a lifetime worth of loss and pain. One wants to feel sympathy for her character, but Maria’s strong will and emotion will not allow it.

The character of Michael was an incredibly unique one as well. Despite being scarred by the war he reenlists, fighting for a cause he does not believe in because he knows it is the only way Maria can get her son back. A killer by trade, on the surface he appears cold and emotionless yet his dedication to finding Christopher shows a softer side.

As mentioned, this is the second book in a series. While Shane does provide a bit of back-story and history of the characters, I do believe it is best to start this series from the beginning. It is imperative to see the progression of the characters and their motives, to truly comprehend the depth of the battle they are fighting.

Fans of a wide range of genres would appreciate this series, from action and adventure to thriller. I see great things ahead for this truly talented writer. Highly highly recommended.

Review: The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Blue Rider Press; First Edition edition (February 7, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0399160876
  • Source: Publisher

Brewster, Rhode Island is your average small town. The majority of the residents were born there and will likely die there, their roots to the tight-knit community are strong. In a matter of a few days, however, numerous inexplicable events take place, starting with the “abduction” of a newborn baby right from it’s bassinet in the hospital. Replacing the newly born infant is a snake. This marks the beginning of a host of horrific activities, ranging from a scalping of an insurance investigator to an attack by a pack of unnaturally fearless coyotes.

The local police, including Detective Woody Potter, are stunned into action. Is it possible that all of these attacks are connected? The strange events started after two young girls were drugged and raped during some sort of Satanic ritual in the woods. One of these young victims was the mother of the missing baby, strangely not concerned after her child’s disappearance, likening it to the demonic child in Rosemary’s Baby.

Something decidedly supernatural is at hand, forcing the small community to reexamine one another in a completely new light. From a young boy somehow caught up in the events to his mentally unstable and incredibly violent stepfather, Dobyns creates a truly remarkable set of characters, all revealed within the first several pages. By the end of the novel, these characters are found to be connected, leaving the quiet town of Brewster forever changed.

It is hard to classify this novel into just one genre, instead it is a wonderful blend of literary fiction, crime fiction, and horror. What makes this novel stand out is that it isn’t simply a story of one small town’s demise at the hands of the supernatural, but instead a truly remarkable character study of the dark side of human nature.  To do so, Dobyns slows down the pacing to what could have been a much shorter book, instead replacing it with extensive detail and examination of each of the characters. Other reviews state the pacing was too slow, the detail too expansive, but to me this truly aided in the brilliance of this novel.

Typically, I’m not one to be won over by blurbs but when my idol, Stephen King, the master of horror, blurbs a book I listen. The power of this blurb is increased when I see that it’s not just your typical one line blurb but instead a page-long rave detailing his love and respect for this novel.

I’ve written some “secrets of a small New England town” books, and in The Burn Palace, it’s as if Stephen Dobyns is saying–very gently–“Hey Steve…this is how you really do it.

 

Typically, if I find myself reading the same book for more than a few days I get antsy. In the case of my reading of The Burn Palace, I savored it for three days, truly relishing in Dobyns’ incredibly skilled writing and his genuinely unique characters. Highly, highly recommended.

 

 

Review: Everything Was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pintail; Reprint edition (December 31, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 0143186817
  • Source: Publisher
Meena is the youngest of six daughters raised by a widowed mother. Her family, native of India, continues to hold on to many of their culture’s customs. A young woman in her last year of high-school, Meena struggles to continue to honor tradition while living the life of an American young woman. Her older sisters were restricted by these traditions but Meena refuses to become a victim of the same fate. She must decide what is more important: tradition or following one’s own heart. The choice Meena ultimately makes has lasting, irreversible effects.

Everything Was Good-Bye is, at its very core, a incredibly emotional, brilliant examination of a young woman trying to seek a voice, an identity, while living in two vastly different cultures. Basran excels at building a truly genuine character in Meena that is both challenging and sympathetic. She so masterfully details the struggles Meena experiences in her strict, traditional Indian home, struggles that many of us outside the culture cannot comprehend. The reader follows Meena as she matures from a young high school girl to a more mature, more independent adult. The growth she experiences is tremendous, solely made possible by her hard-headed desire to live beyond the life planned out for her by her mother. What Meena experiences at each stage of her growth is certainly not easy, for she is forced to overcome more challenges in the span of a few years that many don’t face in an entire lifetime.

Though this novel is brief in pages, the content within is vast, an epic story told in a condensed manner. My challenge as a reviewer is that I want to give much more detail about the storyline, but doing so may spoil the experience for readers. Though this review is brief it is certainly not due to my lack of feelings and response to this novel. My only qualm with this novel was the ending; I wanted to know more about Meena and her future. To me, the ending seemed a little rushed, abrupt, when I wanted more detail. Nevertheless, this title destined to make an appearance in book clubs for Basran’s debut novel will have a lasting effect on its readers. Highly, highly recommended.