Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Dungeon House (Lake District Mystery #7)The Dungeon House by Martin Edwards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Malcolm Whitely is a man at the end of his rope. Malcolm is absolutely obsessed with the notion that his wife has been cheating on him. The bank withdrawals, the inconsistent stories when asked where she's been, and the way she looks at every man who isn't him, all of these are proof-positive in Malcolm's mind that she has been unfaithful. Malcolm has built a successful waste management business and done pretty well for himself and his family. Along with his wife Lysette and sixteen year-old daughter Amanda, Malcolm was even able to purchase a historic mansion near Ravenglass called the Dungeon House. The mansion overlooks the beautiful coastline of West Cumbria as well as historic ruins from the time of Roman occupation. An ideal place of peace and calm, yet Malcolm's world is far from peace and calm for a number of reasons. First, Malcolm's company is in jeopardy from South African business partners who are taking legal action against him for not revealing questionable financial practices before they came aboard. Then there is the growing marital rift between Malcolm and Lysette with regard to his perception that she has been sleeping with someone else. It quickly becomes an obsession with Malcolm as he continually cross-examines his wife regarding exactly who it is that she is seeing behind his back. Malcolm's increasing drinking problem doesn't do anything to help his belief in her infidelity and only serves to exacerbate the issue. When Malcolm passes out drunk during the Whiteley's yearly barbecue for their friends in the community, Lysette ultimately asks for a divorce. This is the final straw in Malcolm's rapid downward-spiral of a life. In a jealous rage, Malcolm grabs his loaded Winchester and aims it at Lysette in a desperate act of retribution. As he is about to pull the trigger, Malcolm sees a strange light shining outside the window coming from the vacant summer house where no one should be. Malcolm quickly regathers himself and we are left with the image of Malcolm with his finger on the trigger and the Winchester aimed squarely at the figure of his terrified wife. Fast forward twenty years and "The Dungeon House Massacre" is a distant but horrifying scar on Cumbria's otherwise pristine history. No one likes to talk about the night that Malcolm Whiteley lost his mind and killed his wife, sixteen year-old daughter, and then himself. Yet two recent disappearances of teenage girls re-open the old wounds of that fateful night. What is even more unsettling is that the two vanished girls have connections to the families involved in the Dungeon House murders. One is the daughter of Nigel Whiteley, Malcolm Whiteley's nephew and the other is the daughter of Gray Elstone, Malcolm's old financial advisor and friend. In the course of investigating these events, Hannah Scarlett's cold case crew begins to look into what happened at the Dungeon House twenty years ago and hypothesize that maybe what occurred there wasn't so cut and dry. Especially since an eyewitness saw a strange individual running from the direction of the Dungeon House around the same time of the murders. Could it be possible that Malcolm didn't murder his family that night and who exactly is the shadowy stranger observed at the scene all of those years ago? And what exactly was that mysterious light that Malcolm saw just before he presumably pulled the trigger? My feeling while reading The Dungeon House was that I did not want it to end. Martin Edwards has authored an engrossing mystery where the events of today are directly tied to people and places of the past. I couldn't get over how intricately connected the plots were between the two time periods. Mr. Edwards does an excellent job of creating doubt in the reader's mind where realistically, there should be none. The opening chapters depict a heinous crime that seems to outline exactly what happened: a jealous husband whose life seems hopeless, finally snaps, murders his family and takes his own life. Yet as we read on we see evidence slowly come forward to potentially cast that scenario in doubt. It has been a long time since I have read a mystery that captured my attention the way that The Dungeon House did. I felt disappointed when it was over, but the ride was well worth it. I had many a late night reading this book and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a complex plot that continually surprises you at every turn. My assumptions were challenged more than once and I was delighted when the final revelation was deftly disclosed at the end of the book. The Dungeon House is a mystery in the truest sense of the word and a book that rewards the reader over and over. Highly recommended.


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AbandonAbandon by Blake Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Abandon opens in the year 1893 with an eerie scene in which a mule driver wanders into the town searching for his missing brother, only to find the mining community completely deserted. This is an odd occurrence since his last stop to Abandon only a week before revealed a town populated with hundreds of people. The scene ends rather shockingly and catapults you into modern times where we are introduced to a brand new cast of characters. All of these characters, for different reasons, decide to embark on an expedition into the ghost town in an effort to discover exactly what caused every man, woman, and child in the town to seemingly fall off the face of the earth. Abigail Foster is a freelance journalist who comes to Abandon to meet up with her long-estranged father Lawrence, a history professor at a local university. Lawrence has been obsessed with the mystery behind the disappearance of the town of Abandon for decades and convinces Abigail that accompanying him on an expedition would make a great story, as well as give them a chance to perhaps heal some animosity that exists between them. Tagging along with Lawrence and Abigail are a psychic and paranormal photographer husband and wife team who lost their child at a very young age, as well as two tour guides hired by Lawrence to lead them through the deserted town. Was there a supernatural component connected to the disappearances? This is just one of the many questions that the expedition team has to face as they embark on their journey. As the story unfolds, we are periodically sent back to 1893 and to the events leading up to the incident so that the reader can essentially experience what the characters during that time experienced. These flashbacks also serve to give us incremental clues as to the potentially dark secrets that put the town on a collision course with disaster. As Abigail and the others conduct their expedition of Abandon, they only begin to scratch the surface of a sinister past that has its roots in the once-prosperous goldmine, when they are violently interrupted by a group of armed men who are also interested in the town for very different reasons. Who are these men and why are they so interested in Abandon? Couple this conflict with a snowstorm that is closing in on the area and the possibility of ever finding out what occurred over a century ago is placed in immediate peril. Blake Crouch has truly delivered a winner of a thriller with Abandon. This is a uniquely multi-layered thriller where just when the reader feels comfortable in assuming that they know what is going on, the author sweeps you back to the 1893 storyline where those assumptions are tested and put into doubt. I thought that the interspersed flashbacks worked especially effectively because they served as an explanation of what was only being speculated at in the modern storyline. It is a real balancing act when using this type of method for a book, but Mr. Crouch pulled it off incredibly well. The author gives small tastes without revealing too much and I always felt like I wanted to continue reading to find out what the ultimate mystery was. I was also caught up in the individual stories of the characters and what motivated each of them to explore Abandon. These are truly human stories that everyone can relate to and prevented the book from being just an "empty" thriller. My only criticism, if you can call it that, was the significant amount of detailed and excessive violence, which is just a matter of personal taste. Just know going in that Mr. Crouch describes every agonizing detail of the bad things that happen to each character. If this does not bother you, then dive into this story because you will definitely be rewarded for your investment. All in all, Abandon by Blake Crouch is a superb thriller wrapped in the mystery of a town that one day simply ceased to be. Going along for the ride to unlock this mystery is half the fun and lends an intriguing storyline to a tremendously entertaining thriller. Abandon is highly recommended for both mystery and thriller fans alike.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

The Beast of BarcroftThe Beast of Barcroft by Bill Schweigart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beast of Barcroft is a ripping-yarn that I would classify in the supernatural thriller genre. At 200 pages, it is a fairly quick and fun read that I knocked out in two days. The gist of the story centers around the small neighborhood of Barcroft, just outside of Alexandria, Virginia. Strange things have been happening in the once-quiet colonial-era neighborhood lately. A local eccentric resident, Madeleine Roux has been slipping deeper and deeper into depression and has allowed her home to become a magnet for vermin and feral cats, to the dismay of the other residents. Not only that, her home is in extreme disrepair. Madeleine's new next door neighbor Ben McKelvie isn't exactly pleased about all of this, frequently complaining to the local animal-control board and authorities. Then one cool November evening, while letting his dog out in the backyard, Ben hears an inhuman growl coming from the nearby woods that couldn't possibly be coming from his faithful pal Bucky. What Ben encounters that night can only be described as otherworldly in nature. A beast that he knows can't possibly exist in modern-day Barcroft has taken up residence and begun feasting on the local residents. What connection, if any, does Madeleine Roux have in the bizarre creature's appearance? It is at this point that Ben enlists the help of a curator from the Simthsonian's National Zoo to help him try to uncover the secret of Barcroft's past and the possible origin of the creature that is on the loose and hungry for blood.
I found this book to be very entertaining and something akin to Blake Crouch in its excitement level. The mystery behind the Beast of Barcroft is handled extremely well and the payoff is worth the ride. The characters are well crafted and even though the story is relatively short, I still felt I had a good grasp of each character's backstory. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good supernatural thriller involving mythical creatures.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Fall of JapanThe Fall of Japan by William Craig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been reading a significant amount of history lately and this is a book that I immediately downloaded off NetGalley when I saw that it was available. Part of the reason why I wanted to read it was because I have read a ton of World War II books, but mostly from the German or allied powers side. I admit that the Japanese contribution has always been a bit of a mystery to me (outside of the obvious Pearl Harbor attack), so this book was right up my alley. The Fall of Japan is a quick read, if you can call a history read quick. I say this because the narrative is so robust that the events as they are described are done in such a way to make you feel as if you are reading a really good fiction novel. I often forgot that I was reading true events that actually took place, and that is a testament to how adept a writer William Craig is. The book starts off with the battle for the Southern Pacific and how the U.S. attempted to gain a foothold in that area from which to establish a launching off point for the Battle of Iwo Jima and other such battles off Japan's coast. What I thought made this novel incredibly effective is how the author transitioned from both points of view of the major Generals involved. It gave a keen insight into what each side thought was paramount in prosecuting the war and allowed the reader to also see the vulnerabilities of these leaders as they had moments of self-doubt. The author then proceeds to describe the moments that turned the tide for the U.S. and ultimately what led to the two devastating atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truly a solid book that I believe everyone should read to get a better insight into the part of World War II that often gets overshadowed by the German campaign.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very good book about 100 people who are chosen to be the first group to colonize Mars. The first 75 pages or so describe the initial journey out within the spacecraft. This section is admittedly a little slow as the reader really just wants to get to the actual landing and beginning of the colonization process. The main characters are gradually introduced, a mixture of mostly American and Russian scientists intermingled with a few others representing Japan and India. Once we get to the landing on the planet, Robinson really shines as he describes as only his brilliant scientific mind can, the geographic characteristics of the planet. Intertwined with the scientific descriptions is a wonderfully compelling story as we are treated to the political struggle that takes place between the different factions chosen to be the first on Mars. There are those who do not wish to see Mars changed at all and will go to any lengths to see that nothing is done to alter the planet's atmosphere and landscape. Yet there is also an even more powerful group whose driving purpose is to terraform the wild planet and make it habitable for future generations. Some of the scenes dealing with the political arguments and struggles between the colonists are extremely intense and touch upon sensitive issues of religion, yet it is handled in a way that never seems judgmental or preachy. Yes, this is a story about the colonization of Mars but at its heart, it is a book about society and the struggle between conflicting ideologies. Robinson has always been a master at getting to the essence of personal conflict and the motivations behind that conflict. Red Mars truly is a multi-dimensional book that entertains on so many different levels. It is easy to see why this book won the Nebula award for best science-fiction novel.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

George RR Martin, How I Really Wanted to Like You

So this is a post a long time in the making.  A little backstory first:  I began reading George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series while working at the now-defunct Borders Books in the late 90's.  I remember reading Game of Thrones and being absolutely blown away.  The writing was crisp, intense, and incredibly smart for a fantasy novel.  The next two novels were just as riveting and came out in fairly quick succession.  At the time I believed that I was in for an incredible ride and couldn't wait for a new book in the series to be released.  What I didn't foresee is that my waiting would become an exercise in unbelievable patience as Feast for Crows took about four years to be published.  Ok, I thought, Mr. Martin is probably very busy with the gaining popularity of the books as people realized just how great a series this was.  He's probably doing a lot of appearances and book-signings I thought, surely he'll get back on track and release the next book within a year or two.  And then the next wait began; a year, two years, three, four, five passed with no new book.  Finally Dance with Dragons was released after what felt like a long prison sentence.  My frustration has now grown to epic proportions as the HBO series has taken even more of Mr. Martin's time as he edits and re-edits the writing for the TV show while allowing the future books to suffer and remain unpublished.  I keep hearing from George Martin fan boys and girls that "greatness takes time" and "you're just an instant gratification guy" and maybe I am to a certain extent.  But what I also believe is that an author should have a degree of respect for their readers.  The fact that this series that I started in 1997 now has only five books completed in 2015, when there were already three completed by the end of 2000, is just flat-out unacceptable in my opinion.  And the saddest part of this whole thing is that A Song of Ice and Fire is such a tremendous series that showcases a writer at the top of his game who could do no wrong with me ten years ago.  Alas, I am not in that place anymore and I must let you go George RR Martin.  I cannot wait another 7-8 years for a new book in this series to be released.  Frankly, the untimely death of Robert Jordan, followed by a mediocre ending of the series by Brandon Sanderson, should show us all how important it is for an author to finish what he or she started with minimal delay.  We were robbed of a great ending to the Wheel of Time and I don't want to see the same thing happen with A Song of Ice and Fire.  However, at the snail's pace that these books are coming out, I fear an unsatisfactory conclusion may be on the horizon for this once-great series.  Whether it be because Mr. Martin has bitten off more than he can chew and can't finish it properly himself, or God-forbid something more serious as with Robert Jordan.  Whatever the case, I'm sorry George.  I really wanted to like you but I can't read your books anymore.  My time is far too precious and I'll read books from other authors that don't take two presidential terms to be released.