Title: Suicidal Samurai: Meiji Mysteries Book One
Author: Sarah G. Rothman
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Action
In 1878, a tall Japanese cowboy in a black duster arrives at the port of Yokohama, Japan. Fifteen years ago, Makoto Mori’s family was killed by the Shinsengumi, the infamous corps of Shogun loyalists. Makoto survived by hiding in a ship bound for America. Now, in the Meiji era, he’s come home for revenge. But before Makoto can gather his bearings, he finds a dead man in his hotel, a man who has seemingly committed suicide. The dead man, Watanabe, was an associate of actress Helen Arkwright’s industrialist husband. While she plays detective, the bumbling policeman Kotaro Yamada thinks he knows who the real killer is: Makoto, “the man in black.” As Makoto, Helen, and Kotaro collide, they uncover a conspiracy that threatens the very heart of Japan.
I bought this book last June, when I was at the Local Author’s Showcase at Cumberland County Library, because of all the books for sale, Suicidal Samurai appealed most to me. I love mysteries and I love the Meiji era in Japan. In fact, I lived in Japan for three years and made it a point to study the bakumatsu, a chaotic period when the two hundred year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate came violently to an end and the stage was set for rapid modernization under the Meiji era. I read the first couple of the chapters, and the prose flowed smoothly. It didn’t seem like high literature, but I thought it might be a fun read.
Fifty pages in, the struggle began. There was nothing really wrong with Suicidal Samurai, but there was nothing really right, either. This could be me--I’m very picky--but when I read a book, I want to learn something, to feel something, to experience sights and sounds I can only imagine. When I read Suicidal Samurai, I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other. The prose was competent but did not have an artistic signature. I could see what was happening, but I did not get swept up in the moment. It was fine but not novel, and so I found myself getting bored.
Title: The Witch’s Daughter
Author: Paula Brackston
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy?
In her lifetime, Elizabeth Hawksmith has gone by many names. She was Bess in 1628, when witch hunters claimed the life of her mother. She was Eliza in 1888, when Jack the Ripper roamed the streets of London. She was Elise in 1917, when World War I ripped the continent apart. But through all those lives, the common thread has always been Gideon Masters: the man who awakened her magical powers. Gideon is the reason she cannot die. Gideon is hunting her, slowly but relentlessly. Modern day Elizabeth has settled down in quiet Willow Cottage, befriending a local teenager named Tegan. But when Gideon looms once more, Elizabeth decides its time to put an end to the threat once and for all.
I bought The Witch’s Daughter at the same time I bought House of Echoes, while perusing the shelves of Barnes and Noble. I don’t often buy books from the Fiction section, preferring different genres, but I wanted to try some Historical Fiction and this offered a nice sampler. Elements of witchcraft and immortality offered me a fantasy hook. The first few pages were slow, but the lush description gave me an immersive experience. I decided to give the book a chance.
The Witch’s Daughter reads like four distinct stories, each set in a different time period: 1628, 1888, 1917, and present-day. Aside from Elizabeth and Gideon, none of the characters cross over. With each era, Paula Brackston begins the set-up anew: here is the setting, here is what Elizabeth is doing now, here are the supporting characters, where is Gideon? If you want a leisurely traverse through dramatic points in history, this structure works nicely. If you want plot and a quick pace, well, you’re out of luck.
Title: House of Echoes
Author: Brendan Duffy
Genre: Fiction, Horror
Life in the city has become strained for Ben and Caroline Tierney, so when Ben’s grandmother dies and leaves him property in the remote New England village of Swannhaven, they decide that this is the place for a fresh start. They sink their savings into the Crofts, a magnificent old house they hope to renovate into an inn. But their new beginning is marred when dead animals start appearing in the forest--and on their front porch. Strange cries erupt from the house when the wind blows, and their eldest boy, Charlie, spends more and more time alone in the woods. As Ben, a novelist, begins researching the town, he finds a troubling history of tragedy: mysterious fires, missing children, and a terrible winter of starvation from the time of the American Revolution. It is a history deeply linked with his own family. Alas, Ben is about to discover that not everything in the past stays buried.
I picked up this book at Barnes and Noble, because I was interested in reading a horror book, and I liked the idea of an old inn in a (possibly) haunted woods. After skimming the first chapter, I noted that the prose was smooth and clear, and the strained family relationship intrigued me. I bought House of Echoes, and I’d read a chapter or two in the evening, while taking a bath or before going to sleep.
Titles: An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns
Author: Jonathan Green
Genre: YA, Coming-of-Age
An Abundance of Katherines
Colin has a habit of dating Katherines. They have a habit of dumping him. But Katherine #19 has done a real number on him. On top of that, Colin is a child prodigy who is quickly not turning into a genius adult. To distract him from his woes, his friend Hassan suggests a road trip. They wind up in Gutshot, Tennessee where Colin runs into a girl named Lindsey Lee, gets a head wound, and has a revelation--an idea that will certify him as a genius and possibly win back Katherine’s love. He will create a mathematical theorem for figuring out exactly how long a relationship will last.
Looking for Alaska
Miles Halter’s life in Florida is boring, so he convinces his parents to send him to a prestigious boarding school in Alabama. There he meets his roommate Chip “the Colonel,” who gives him the nickname of Pudge. More importantly, Miles sees Alaska Young, a gorgeous girl with a room full of books and a lust for life. He falls for her instantly. Between the Colonel, Alaska, and the other friends he makes, Miles has the chance to live the life he’s always dreamed: studying, pulling pranks, drinking, and smoking. But something is about to happen, which will change Miles’s life forever.
Quentin (Q) Jacobsen has admired his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman, since they were kids. But she’s a beautiful, popular, daring girl that is totally out of his league--until one day when she spirits him away in an epic adventure of revenge, breaking and entering, and pranks. The next day, Margo disappears. But she leaves behind a series of clues. Quentin is convinced he can solve the puzzle and find her--but to do so, he’s going to have to go beyond admiring Margo and understand her as a person.
Title: The Shadow Club
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: YA, Contemporary
No matter how hard Jared tries, his rival always beats him. Bad enough that Austin is the best runner on the 9th grade team, bound for the Olympics, but he also has the nasty habit of rubbing it in Jared’s face. Jared’s best friend Cheryl understands the feeling. No matter how good of a singer she is, her younger cousin Rebecca always outshines her. While commiserating, Jared and Cheryl hit upon an idea: a club for people who always come in second place. The Shadow Club was just meant to be a place to vent… and maybe play some harmless pranks on the people who wrong them. But when the class weirdo Tyson overhears them, Jared fears everything they built may be in danger.
Since I’ve enjoyed other works by Neal Shusterman (Unwind, Everlost), I decided to pick up The Shadow Club when I found a copy at the used bookstore. Unlike other Neal Shusterman works I’ve read, The Shadow Club didn’t feature fantasy or science fiction elements, but it did carry the author’s signature blend of flawed but sympathetic characters, tight plots, and dark situations with a sprinkling of hope.
Title: Magpie Murders
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Editor Susan Ryeland sets about reading the draft of her client Alan Conway’s latest mystery novel: Magpie Murders. In it, detective Atticus Pund sets about solving the gruesome murder of Magnus Pye and unlocking the sleepy village’s secrets along the way. When the draft ends right before the murderer is revealed, Susan is annoyed. When she learns Alan Conway is dead, she is shocked. When she suspects murder, she goes about playing detective, for justice—and to finally read the end of his book.
What drew my attention about this book, when I spotted it in the library, was that it contained two mysteries in one. The first is the story of Atticus Pund, an obvious rip-off of Hercule Poirot, in an Agatha Christie type mystery. The second is Susan Ryeland’s search for the lost manuscript. Presumably, you need to read the first mystery to solve the second one. It was ambitious, and I was interested to see if it worked.
Title: Sister of Blood and Spirit
Author: Kady Cross
Genre: YA, Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance
Lark and Wren are twins. White-haired Lark was born living. Red-haired Wren was born dead. Nonetheless, the two continue to communicate. Being known as the girl who talks to her dead sister has a way of making Lark’s life miserable. After being labeled the school freak and attempting suicide, Lark hopes to re-enter high school without attracting unwanted attention. Unfortunately, she is soon confronted by a group of students who ask for her help. Among them are Kevin, the medium Wren called out to when Lark lay dying; Mason, the boy who held Lark as she bled out and begged her not to die; and Ben, a handsome boy who seems weirdly cool with the supernatural.
It seems Lark’s new acquaintances have trespassed onto an ancient hospital, where an angry ghost attacked them and left spiritual wounds on their body--wounds invisible to everyone but Lark. Lark realizes the angry ghost has marked them as his own and will continue to suck their spirits dry unless someone puts a stop to it. Lark prefers that person not be her. But when Wren guilts her into helping, Lark will put everything on the line to save a group of people who may become her friends.
I picked up this book at the library because the ghostly themes reminded me of a book I’m currently writing. I liked the concept of supernatural sisters. I was interested to see how the author addressed the afterlife. I wanted to like Sisters of Blood and Spirit, I really did. But I didn’t. Every element felt under baked, and the more I read, the more bored I became.
Although she is an abandoned orphan in the Dusklands at the outer edge of the Amber Empire, Sylvie is born with a “legacy”—a gift of magic. She can spin elaborate illusions, fantasies of her own creation. Knowing that only those with noble blood can wield magic, Sylvie treks to the Amber City to claim her rightful spot in Empress Severine’s court. She hopes to find a place to belong. Instead, she’s thrust into a dangerous game of intrigue and politics.
Ragged and poor, no one takes Sylvie seriously, least of all the Empress. But Severine is intrigued by Sylvie’s power. She offers her courtiers a wager: if Sylvie can polish her legacy by Carrousel, her allies will gain favor and Sylvie will receive position in the court. A handsome nobleman named Lord Sunder with the unnerving legacy of causing pain agrees to sponsor Sylvie, but wagers against her. With no allies, no upbringing, and no idea what she’s gotten herself into Sylvie—newly renamed Mirage—will have to use all her powers to outwit her enemies and beat them at their own game.
On the one hand, Amber and Dusk is not a particularly ground-breaking novel. All the major tropes of the YA/ Fantasy/ Romance/ Dystopian genre are here in full force. Determined heroine with more power than she realizes? Check. Mysterious past that becomes important in the third act? Check. Love triangle? Check. Decadent and cruel empire with a rebellion growing in the wings? Check. If you know the genre, you’ll recognize many of the same elements at work here.
Title: The In-Between
Author: Jaime Lang
(Note: Jaime is my little sister. She did not ask me to review her work, but I wanted to share it anyway. She has made some revisions since I first read the book, which is not reflected in the review.)
Aramyst was supposed to lead an Exceptional-Normal life: to have a nice job, a nice family, and succeed in the American Dream. Then came the rumblings of schizophrenia, depression, and social anxiety, along with the burgeoning realization she was gay (or transgender?). Burdened with this double stigma, Aramyst struggles through the typical markers of young adulthood—friendships, first loves, and fitting in—with a loosening grip on reality and a “demon captain” urging her to suicide. It is only through making peace with herself that Aramyst is able to escape from “The In-Between,” a realm between real and unreal, life and death.
This book isn’t really about being gay or having schizophrenia, so much as it is about the struggle to be honest with yourself. Unable to discern real from unreal, Aramyst learns to mistrust herself—that she is wrong and that everyone else is right. Coupled with an environment that sends the message that being gay is immoral, Aramyst comes to the conclusion that she is evil. She learns to hate and tries to destroy herself—ripping herself apart from the inside out.
Although her journey is dramatic, the telling is simple, almost child-like at times. I was surprised by how much I could relate to this book. Who hasn’t had some inner, negative voice telling them all the ways they’re stupid and how they’ve messed up their lives? Who hasn’t wanted to destroy the undesirable parts of themselves, pretend they don’t exist, will them out of existence? I felt compelled by the author’s honest voice and it wanted to keep reading, even through the painful stuff.
Author: Stephanie Garbar
Genre: YA Fantasy Romance
After seven years of dreaming of escaping to the magic and splendor of Caraval, Scarlett Dragna’s wish has finally come true—at precisely the wrong time. Her invitation to the exclusive five-day fair arrives right as she is about to be married to a count she’s never met. Marriage is the only way Scarlett can think of to keep herself and her impetuous sister Donatella safe from their father’s wrath. Donatella, however, has other plans. When her sister seizes the opportunity to visit Caraval, Scarlett has no choice but to follow her into a world where illusion and reality intertwine, where dreams can be purchased at the cost of dark secrets, and where to win the ultimate prize, Scarlett may have to pay the ultimate cost.
I bought the book because it had a strong concept that had a lot of potential. Not only does Scarlett get to visit this carnival of magic, but soon her sister is kidnapped and Scarlett is forced to play a game with the Caraval master to get her back. Why is Scarlett singled out? What sort of game will she be forced to play? How will she overcome the obstacles to emerge the winner?
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.