The Rat Tunnels of Isfahan by Alejandro de Gutierre

The Rat Tunnels of IsfahanThe Rat Tunnels of Isfahan

by Alejandro de Gutierre
Series: Scorpions and Silk, #1

Kindle Edition, 75 pg.
De Gutierre, 2017

Read: November 9, 2017

I wasn’t crazy. Not like most of the tortured souls I shared the prison with. Some wandered, muttering and bumping into walls. Some sat unmoving for hours, staring into a darkness even the desert sun couldn’t penetrate, their eyes seeing but not seeing, ears hearing but not listening. And a sad few would break; they would weep, and rock, and cry out. These were the broken: shuffling from place to place, barely eating, barely drinking, numbly watching the flesh drip from their bones, oblivious to the blood slowing in their veins.

We know very little about the central (practically only) character in this novella — he’s a prisoner, somewhere in Persia, sometime long ago. That’s about all that we know — for that matter, that’s about all he knows. His imprisonment has left him so psychologically shattered that he can’t remember anything about himself. He has children somewhere, he thinks.

We see him struggle to survive, struggle to get free, struggle to convince himself that he’s not crazy, and return to/rebuild his life. I don’t know much about him, but I like him, and I want to see the best for him.

I don’t think it’s possible for the word “visceral” to show up more in my notes for a 75-page novella than it did here. You feel this story as much as you read it — the almost-alien creepiness of a scorpion, the isolation, the fear, the rat chewing on a toe — all of it, de Gutierre puts you right in the mind of his amnesiac (his having no name helps there).

Until this story spools out a bit more — maybe volume 2, maybe until the end — I’m not sure what I think of the story, plot or characters. I can tell you that I want to know these characters better, I want to find out what happens to them, but that’s as far as I can say on that front. So, I’m left with de Guiterre’s writing — which is just what this story needs. He knows what he’s doing, and has got me hooked, even if I don’t have a clue about what he’s doing. This atmospheric, visceral read will leave you demanding more, soon.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novella from the author in exchange for my honest opinion — and I’m glad he gave it to me, because I wouldn’t have heard of it otherwise.

—–

3 Stars

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Pub Day Repost: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

Miss Kopp's Midnight ConfessionsMiss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

by Amy Stewart
Series: The Kopp Sisters, #3
eARC, 384 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
Read: August 15 – 16, 2017

Without meaning to slight Girl Waits with Gun or Lady Cop makes Trouble, this is the best constructed novel in this series. There’s a unity of theme, stories that complement each other, and a level of (honest) introspection from the characters that we haven’t seen before. That said, I don’t think I enjoyed it nearly as much as I did the others. So it’s a little bit of a trade-off.

We are treated to three stories of young women, one sixteen year-old and two eighteen year-olds, who leave home for various reasons. They all want something more than they can have at home — meaning, a job, excitement, freedom, and maybe something more. One girl did everything right, but sill was arrested for waywardness. One was pretty foolish, and did some illegal things, but was really arrested for the foolish mistake. The third was Constance’s little sister, Fleurette. Constance went to bat for all three — interceding with the law (when applicable), with family (when she could), trying to give them the ability to live the life they wanted to — and each of them pressed Constance’s ability, job and standing as she did so.

While this is going on, Constance is making headlines across the nation — making her both a distraction to her friend the Sheriff, as well as a voice for social change. I know she regrets the former, and I’m not convinced she relishes the latter. If she had her druthers, I think Constance would prefer just to do her job and be left alone. But she is learning how to use her notoriety — or at least her relationship with members of The Press — to help her accomplish her goals.

Constance begins to come to terms with some very unfortunate realities of her life, and begins to grasp what the future may hold for her, both professionally and personally. In some way (I think), she thought she could keep the life she had and just add on her job on top of it. But between her fame, the time she spends away from the home, Fleurette’s aging and getting ready to leave the nest, and everything else going on around the sisters, that’s no longer possible. Her old life is gone, and the new one is too in flux for her to get a handle on it. Assuming that there are more Kopp Sister novels to come, watching Constance figure out what her life will be — and hopefully she gets a hand in shaping it — will be the key to the series as it progresses.

On the whole, this one didn’t work as well for me as the previous books did. But several of the individual elements I found compelling and wanted more of — I wish we got more of the story about Edna Heustis (I don’t need to know what happened over the rest of her life, I just want a clearer picture of the next few months) or her roommate. I’d have liked more interaction between Constance and her boss — we just didn’t get enough of them — and an honest conversation about the future would’ve been nice. I did think the ending of the Fleurette story was handled perfectly — I don’t think I’d change a thing about that whole storyline, really. Still, this novel was somehow less than the sum of its parts, for me — but I can easily see where I’ll be in the minority for thinking that. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, I just should’ve enjoyed it more.

Strong characters, some strong themes (ones you usually don’t see in Detective fiction), and a tumultuous time period (for several reasons) combine to deliver another satisfying entry in this series that’ll please existing fans and probably pick up a few more.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Sometime in the reading of this novel, it occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about life on the frontier (American or, now, Australian) written with a male as the central character — Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, a few others I can’t think of the names of, all female. Clearly, that’s not that important, and even more clearly, I’ve not read deeply in this area — I just found it odd.

Salt CreekSalt Lake

by Lucy Treloar

Kindle Edition, 464 pg.
Aardvark Bureau, 2015

Read: August 29 – 31, 2017

Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.

It’s the mid-1850’s and Hester Finch and her family are settling in the Coorong region, after her father’s finances fall apart in Adelaide (which follows them falling apart elsewhere before). This is clearly their last chance, but with some luck and determination, they should be able to survive — even if they can’t rebuild their fortunes enough to return to town. It’s too much of a step down for their mother, who seems ill-equipped for Australia at this time, much less the Coorong, and Hester has to step up and shoulder more responsibilities for the running of the household and the raising/educating of her younger siblings.

Her father sees himself as a businessman, an entrepreneur, but it doesn’t seem that his abilities match his ambitions/self-estimation. He’s a strong and pious Quaker, with some fairly (for his time) progressive ideas about the status and nature of the natives. Yes, he wants to help them via Western Civilization and Christianity (whether they want it or not), but he doesn’t see them in the same way that many others (including some of this sons) do. At least not in the beginning of the novel — things continue to not go well for him (I’m being purposefully vague here), and as that happens the broken man inside him is revealed or his ideals and hopes are shattered and something else emerges. He becomes the villain of the piece, or one of the many victims of the environment — I quite enjoy the fact that I could argue either way on that.

Space and patience (yours and mine) prevent me from talking about all of Hester’s siblings (there are several) and the others they come into contact with, so I’ll sum up by saying within and without the family display a wide swath of humanity, the good and the bad (and the worst) we have to offer. There is a native (Hester’s word), Tull, who lives around the Finch home that is befriended by the family, who comes to occasionally live with them, work alongside them, is educated with them — and becomes part of the family. Much of the plot revolves around or comes from his presence, his interactions with the Finches and others. Treloar handles the character well — Tull’s not perfect, not all-wise, or a paragon, or anything. He’s just as flawed as the rest of the people in this book (well, maybe a little less flawed than some).

This will be seen primarily as a story about love, or about the clash of native cultures and Western colonization in the harshness of pioneer life, or something along those lines. To me, the recurring theme was pride (I’m not sure the word was used all that much, but man, it was all over the place). People broken by pride, motivated by pride, people corrupted by pride, people blocked by pride — I could probably go on. I don’t think of one thing in this book that was motivated by pride that went well — it was only when pride was ignored or set aside — for love, for the sake of another — does anything actually go well (this applies to Hester post-Coorong, too). It was subtle, but it was profound.

There are enough references to Jane Eyre that the reader is forced to draw lines of comparison/contrast between Jane and Hester (and maybe some of the others, as well). This is a nervy thing for an author to do (not just to Jane Eyre, but any classic of that stature), and it rarely works out well for the newbie. I’m not saying the comparisons are invalid, I just am not sure that Treloar should’ve pushed it. One mention of the book — maybe two (her receiving a new copy and reading it in secret) would’ve been enough just to see that Hester draws some inspiration from the literature she’s exposed to.

There are passages from this book that rank right up there with some of the best I’ve read this year — one scene where Hester is overcome with grief and a sense of futility that’ll just wreck your heart. There’s another involving an injury on the farm and Hester’s tending to the wound (including some stitches), that just curled my toes — really, give me Thomas Harris describing one of Lecter’s snacks rather than make me read that again.* When it comes to pain and hardship, Treloar can write with the best of them.

But I’m not totally taken with her as an author. Early on, Treloar jumps around chronologically between the early months in The Coorang and to various periods of Hester’s time in England as an adult. I didn’t see the point to this move, unless she was going to continue that as a way to develop the story. But she stops that for several chapters, abandoning the future until the last three chapters — when it fits easily. I didn’t see the point to it, it muddied the waters a little and made it hard for me to get invested in what was happening in the 1850s.

And that ties in with my biggest problem with the book — I couldn’t get interested until slightly after the 50% mark. I really wasn’t even that curious about anyone at that point, it was just a matter of me pushing on, wondering if I’d ever get invested. Thankfully, I did. Somewhat, anyway. But that it took so long for me to care about the things that were happening — much less the people they were happening to/because of, says something about the book. There’s a lot to be said for an author taking time to establish the world she’s writing in, to develop the characters slowly, patiently — I’m all for that when it’s done well. But it’s so much easier to appreciate when I’m given a reason to keep reading beyond wanting to finish a book.

Once I did make that connection — my enjoyment of and appreciation for the book ratcheted up. I don’t think the pacing changed at this point (maybe it picked up a little bit), but everything she’d spent 52% or so of the book setting up was set up, so with all the causes in place, the effects started and that was much more engaging.

Regardless, there were some killer sentences (even in the first half) in this book, demonstrating that Treloar has the right stuff. I think she could do more with it than she has, and would like to see more from her in the future. On the whole, this is a good read — and I can easily see where some will enjoy it more than me (I can almost bet those who do are engaged more than I was during the first half), a gritty, stark examination of pioneer living in the mid-19th century with just a hint of hope. Recommended.


* I will always take blood and guts and gore that are clearly fantastic over those that really happened or are close enough to reality to have probably happened several times.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

—–

3.5 Stars

Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart

Miss Kopp's Midnight ConfessionsMiss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions

by Amy Stewart
Series: The Kopp Sisters, #3

eARC, 384 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Read: August 15 – 16, 2017


Without meaning to slight Girl Waits with Gun or Lady Cop makes Trouble, this is the best constructed novel in this series. There’s a unity of theme, stories that complement each other, and a level of (honest) introspection from the characters that we haven’t seen before. That said, I don’t think I enjoyed it nearly as much as I did the others. So it’s a little bit of a trade-off.

We are treated to three stories of young women, one sixteen year-old and two eighteen year-olds, who leave home for various reasons. They all want something more than they can have at home — meaning, a job, excitement, freedom, and maybe something more. One girl did everything right, but sill was arrested for waywardness. One was pretty foolish, and did some illegal things, but was really arrested for the foolish mistake. The third was Constance’s little sister, Fleurette. Constance went to bat for all three — interceding with the law (when applicable), with family (when she could), trying to give them the ability to live the life they wanted to — and each of them pressed Constance’s ability, job and standing as she did so.

While this is going on, Constance is making headlines across the nation — making her both a distraction to her friend the Sheriff, as well as a voice for social change. I know she regrets the former, and I’m not convinced she relishes the latter. If she had her druthers, I think Constance would prefer just to do her job and be left alone. But she is learning how to use her notoriety — or at least her relationship with members of The Press — to help her accomplish her goals.

Constance begins to come to terms with some very unfortunate realities of her life, and begins to grasp what the future may hold for her, both professionally and personally. In some way (I think), she thought she could keep the life she had and just add on her job on top of it. But between her fame, the time she spends away from the home, Fleurette’s aging and getting ready to leave the nest, and everything else going on around the sisters, that’s no longer possible. Her old life is gone, and the new one is too in flux for her to get a handle on it. Assuming that there are more Kopp Sister novels to come, watching Constance figure out what her life will be — and hopefully she gets a hand in shaping it — will be the key to the series as it progresses.

On the whole, this one didn’t work as well for me as the previous books did. But several of the individual elements I found compelling and wanted more of — I wish we got more of the story about Edna Heustis (I don’t need to know what happened over the rest of her life, I just want a clearer picture of the next few months) or her roommate. I’d have liked more interaction between Constance and her boss — we just didn’t get enough of them — and an honest conversation about the future would’ve been nice. I did think the ending of the Fleurette story was handled perfectly — I don’t think I’d change a thing about that whole storyline, really. Still, this novel was somehow less than the sum of its parts, for me — but I can easily see where I’ll be in the minority for thinking that. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, I just should’ve enjoyed it more.

Strong characters, some strong themes (ones you usually don’t see in Detective fiction), and a tumultuous time period (for several reasons) combine to deliver another satisfying entry in this series that’ll please existing fans and probably pick up a few more.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3.5 Stars

Devil in the Countryside by Cory Barclay

Devil in the CountrysideDevil in the Countryside

by Cory Barclay

Kindle Edition, 348 pg.
2017

Read: June 10 – 13, 2017


I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — I prefer liking books, I like liking things. I do not enjoy giving anything other than recommendations — but sometimes, I just can’t do anything else. This is one of those times.

This is a historical fiction but the history is bad. Before we even get to the first chapter — in an introductory note we’re told “By the early 1500’s,” Europe was in a time called the Protestant Reformation. The traditional starting point for the Protestant Reformation was October 31, 1517 — but things didn’t really get moving for a few years. So “by” the early 1500’s is not really accurate. The same paragraph says, “while across the ocean in North America witch-hunts were gaining traction.” Now, I guess it’s possible that some of the Spanish colonies or Native American tribes were conducting these hunts, but I’m pretty sure Barclay intends us to think of the Salem Witch Trials, which started more than a century after the events of this novel. We’re not even to chapter 1 and we’ve got a paragraph with two glaring historical flubs — it’d be difficult (but not impossible) to recover from this. Barclay doesn’t.

With historical fiction, you have to decide on the character’s vocabulary — will you attempt to get it chronologically-appropriate, or will you take some liberties and use contemporary language and ask your readers to suspend disbelief to allow for everyone’s ease? Most take the latter, and most audiences play along. It is difficult to get period-dialogue correct if you’re not immersed in it, and many readers find it difficult or boring to read. While it’s understandable to use contemporary phrasing, I’m not sure I’m willing to buy 16th century people talking about “teenage angst.” Nor should we get people drinking coffee, wearing high heels (at least not among the peasant class), or making references to zippers. These kind of anachronisms are just lazy, sloppy — and it takes the reader out of the moment.

If you’re going to set something during the 3rd generation of the Reformation, and make the conflict between Lutherans, the Reformed and Roman Catholics (and the state powers that use those groups to mask their machinations) core plot points — you should, get the theology right. Which is just the same point as above, I realize — but man . . . when it’s such a major component of the book, you owe it to your readers to put in the effort. (also, Barclay suggested I’d like the book as a “theology nerd,” so I should be expected to look at it as one). We shouldn’t have Roman Catholic priests consulting German translations of the New Testament, nor should we have Lutheran ministers conducting baptism by immersion — particularly not of someone already baptized. Martin Luther, like all the Protestant Reformers, had very harsh things to say about that practice. In general, every religious sentiment (at least those expressed by the devout) was in conflict with the point of view it was supposed to be espousing — most of them not sounding like 16th Century Lutheran, Reformed or Roman Catholic believers but some sort of vague 21st Century theism.

This book is also a mystery. As such, um, it wasn’t really a success. There wasn’t real effort put into finding answers, just finding good candidates to pin something on. At least officially — those who actually looked for answers were stopped by one way or another. If we were talking about a novel about 16th Century politics and the ways they impacted lives of individuals — including crime victims and survivors — this might have worked.

I’m just piling on now, and I really don’t want to do that. So, I’ll ignore the grammatical errors, typos, a handful of words that basically demand Inigo Montoya to tap the author on the shoulder to say ” I do not think it means what you think it means.” Nor will I get into the lazy plots revolving around Roman Catholic clergy sexually molestation or father forcing a daughter to marry a horrible person for his own financial gain.

Barclay can probably produce a decent book — there were some good moments in this book, but not enough of them. This is just not worth the time and trouble.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post — I do appreciate it, even if the book didn’t work for me.

—–

2 Stars

Blackbeard’s Daughter by Diana Strenka

Blackbeard's DaughterBlackbeard’s Daughter

by Diana Strenka

Kindle Edition, 199 pg.
2016

Read: October 6 – 7, 2016


Edward Teach had a rough childhood dominated by a harsh, abusive, taskmaster of a father. He eventually grows to manhood, marries and takes over the family estate — as soon as he can, he takes his wife and daughter to the New World and the freshly established colonies.

The focus of this story turns to his daughter, Margaret — and she has a rough crossing of the Atlantic, and doesn’t take to the New World too well. It’s a dramatic time for British settlers — battles with the natives and others disrupt the lives of the Teaches in dramatic fashion, death, injury, and loss of home and income. Margaret’s world is turned upside down several times, the last time when her father starts going to sea for months at a time, only turning up unexpectedly.

She eventually learns that he’s the pirate Blackbeard (not really a spoiler folks, look at the title) and goes to sea with him for a while. Almost none of this part of the novel works — and when it ends, it’s almost a relief.

There’s a plotline about Margaret and her efforts to help free slaves that’s sentimentally nice, but doesn’t seem to ring true and doesn’t really go anywhere.

I have no idea how close any of this novel comes to matching historical data, it has a ring of authenticity augmented by imagination, but I can’t be sure.

Everything almost worked — almost — but I can’t think of anything that actually did. There’s an earnestness to the text that will draw you in and make you root for the author, but that’s really the best I can say.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Sorry.

—–

2 1/2 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart

Lady Cop Makes TroubleLady Cop Makes Trouble

by Amy Stewart
Series: The Kopp Sisters, #2
eARC, 320 pg.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Read: August 6 – 8, 2016

Miss Constance Kopp, who once hid behind a tree near her home in Wyckoff, N.J., for five hours waiting to get a shot at a gang of Black Handers who had annoyed her, is now a Deputy Sheriff of Bergen County, N.J., and a terror to evildoers. — New York Press, December 20, 1915

The novel’s epigraph tells you pretty much everything you need to know. In the previous book, Girl Waits with Gun, Constance goes to extremes to protect her family from criminals, now she’s moved on to being an official “terror to evildoers.”

Constance begins the novel as a Deputy Sheriff, but political pressure removes her (temporarily she’s assured) and she’s demoted to matron of the women’s jail. She’d been serving in that capacity anyway, but now that’s all she does. She notes, and is probably on to something, that the police are far more willing to arrest women knowing there;s a matron at the jail to watch over them than they were when it was just men. That’s probably not the kind of women’s equality that people hoped for, but I guess you take what you can get. During this time, Constance makes a horrible blunder — one that jeopardizes her career as well as that of Sheriff Heath.

Bound and determined to keep her job (and for her friend and boss to keep his), as well as to see justice done, Constance ignores orders, protocol and (what some would consider) good sense and sets off to correct her error. Doing so will take her out of her comfort zone and into a long investigation that will remind her just what kind of evil lurks in the hearts of men.

Reading about Constance — and some of the professional women she meets in NYC — reminds me of the book I recently read about Nelly Bly and the efforts of female journalists to be taken seriously, and given the opportunities to do more than society page work. Another female law enforcement officer that Constance meets in the opening pages isn’t allowed to do much at all in her role — far less than Constance can (and does). Now this other woman seems content in that, even scandalized at Constance manhandling a suspect, but that doesn’t change the fact that times are changing, and it’s determined women like Constance and Nelly Bly that are going to make them change.

The friendship — and mutual respect — between Constance and Sheriff Heath continues to bloom, and be misunderstood by everyone (with the possible exception of Norma) from Mrs. Heath to juvenile delinquents. But really, there are no romantic sparks (and I expect Stewart will keep things that way — as did history, it seems). I do wish that more people in Bergen County — particularly some of her coworkers (even just one) — most people outside of her home (see especially almost everyone in New York) seem to be encouraging/accepting of a female Deputy.

Norma and Fleurette aren’t as important to the progress of the plot in the sequel — Norma’s stubborn, no-nonsense streak keeps Constance moving when she needs it. Fleurette’s naïveté and desire for a different life fuel Constance’s desire to make the world a better place — at least their corner of it — and to keep the money rolling in. Watching the Sheriff Heath interact with these ladies is a hoot.

I’m not sure it stacks up to its predecessor as a novel — it’s not as deep, the story’s really straightforward, and you might argue the ending is a bit rushed. But, it’s a whole lot more fun to read. Having established the world so effectively in the first book, Stewart can just let her characters live in it. This is a solid crime novel, elevated by the historical circumstances and actual history that undergirds it. Stewart really won me over with this one, I hope we have many more installments to come.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

—–

4 Stars