Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Essex Serpent

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Cora Seaborne’s husband has passed away. She isn’t terribly upset about this, but she knows she should act the part of the bereaved widow. Cora is a free spirit who enjoys nature and science. A woman being interested in these “masculine” subjects is frowned upon in 1890’s England, but she does not care. Upon hearing about the sightings of the “Essex serpent,” Cora moves herself, her son, and her female companion to the countryside to investigate the serpent. However, Cora finds much more than a mythical beast. She finds love, friendship, and her identity.

If I had to describe this novel in one word, I would choose slow. The pace of the plot and character development is steady but slow, which may turn off some readers. If you want to relax, enjoy beautiful writing, and read about some Victorian romantic drama with a touch of feminism, I would say that The Essex Serpent is a good fit. Personally, while I enjoyed what read, I had to push myself through the first 100-150 pages. I listened to most of the novel on audio book just to get into the story. However, once I become attached to the characters, it became a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Despite my summary and most blurbs going on about Cora, there are at least a dozen other characters in the novel that get not insignificant page time. Most of them are well developed with their own beliefs, personalities, and relationships. (There are a few that I would have liked to see more of, particularly Cora’s son.) There are also love triangles and romantic pairings everywhere. The book is less about the mythical serpent and much more focused on the relationships (both romantic and not) the characters have with one another. This is not a bad thing, but it should be said so that no one gets the wrong idea about the plot. Yes, the serpent is alluded to often and has an effect on the townspeople, but it seems secondary to the lives of the main characters.

I was slightly disappointed by The Essex Serpent, but I had very high expectations for the mythological aspect of the novel. This is much more of a Victorian romance with a bit of folklore thrown in. Still, I would give The Essex Serpent a 3.5 out of 5 stars for its beautiful writing and strong characters.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

Deathless

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So, I really like fairy tales, folklore, and mythology. I also like the fantasy genre. If you give me a fantasy novel that has a lot of inspiration from the fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, I am almost certainly going to love it. Meet Deathless, a fantasy novel with a heavy dose of Russian folklore and fairy tales.

Marya Morevna is a human girl living in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Throughout her childhood, Marya occasionally saw glimpses of what she called “magic.” Her sisters married birds who turned into men before her eyes, and she has seen domovoi meetings within her family’s home. So, when another bird-turned-man shows up at Marya’s door asking for her hand in marriage, she isn’t too surprised. In fact, she expected it and waited eagerly for the day. However, her husband to be isn’t quite what she pictured. What she does not yet know is that her future husband is Koschei the Deathless.

I could say more. I could say a lot more, but just know that this novel is packed with Russian myths, history, and culture. I will admit that a lot of it went over my head in the early chapters. Since I never studied much Russian anything in college, I was torn between looking up the tales and avoiding them like the plague because of possible spoilers. If I could go back in time before I started the novel, I would probably brush up on the stories about Koschei as well as other Russian mythological creatures and figures. Doing this might help add some context to the references and make it easier to picture some of the other creatures/characters. Even though the author takes her own creative liberties with certain details, having some foundation of what she is describing would have helped me at least.

OK, onto the regular stuff. How are the characters, plot, and everything else? Pretty great, actually. Marya grew as a character at a believable and nonlinear pace. She started out as a young, naive girl, and even though she did something brave, strong, or clever, that does not mean she will always be brave, strong, or clever in the future. Sometimes she regressed a bit as she progressed, and I found that to add a lot of depth and realism to her character. She also struggled with morality, power, and relationships. Marya is flawed and imperfect, but it is impossible not to cheer for her and her fiery spirit to succeed. The other “demons” in the story, like Koschei, were lively and well written, but some of Marya’s less important friends and allies didn’t make as much of an impression.

I admittedly struggled with the plot of the novel, but I think that was more of a problem with my own mindset than it was with the book itself. I got into a horrible reading slump at end of November and start of December that made me not want to pick up anything. The beginning of Deathless went a bit slowly as we are introduced to Marya and watch her grow up. When Koschei entered the picture around fifty pages in, the plot sped up, as did my interest. Without my reading slump, I would likely have had no issue with the pace.

Deathless is a very unique read that fans of Russian folklore or general fantasy might adore. My verdict is a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, but I would not be opposed to changing my rating to a 5 when I inevitably reread this one.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Contemporary

Mira Corpora

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This was a weird one. I keep seeing a specific line associated with this book everywhere. This novel is supposedly “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories.” That alone got my attention. I am not a big fan of coming-of-age stories any more, but that’s a unique way to sell your book.

Mira Corpora is a fantastical autobiography. Some of it might be true, but there’s probably at least a little extra magic and drama thrown in. It is written as if the author, Jeff Jackson, went through everything, but it is also implied that some things are made up. I would put aside guessing what is true and what isn’t while you read the novel. Just enjoy the wild ride. It is dark, heartbreaking, and haunting. There are homeless feral children, a missing rock star, and a boy who seeks to find himself by himself.

Mira Corpora is not an enjoyable read in the same way that A River in Darkness is not “fun” to read. At least some of Mira Corpora really happened, and Jeff Jackson is just a kid throughout most of the book. There are some terrible things that happen to him, so I’ll just say that a broad trigger warning is probably needed for this one. If you can get past poor Jeff’s trials, it has a very interesting but meandering plot. Parts were surreal and felt like a drug-induced haze. Other parts are just tragic. The main character’s growth is easy to see. There are part or section headings that tell how old he is, but beyond his age, he slowly becomes more self assured and confident, while the earlier sections have a touch more innocence and child-like wonder.

I’ve really never read anything quite like this, so I am having a lot of trouble reviewing it. Think of something like Lord of the Flies, but with one kid trying to survive, some untrustworthy adults in our often strange and unforgiving society, and scenes that almost make you feel high but also sad. If you’re looking for something truly different and you want a book that is “a coming-of-age story for people who hate coming-of-age stories,” this might be for you. At the very least, the novel made me want to know more about the author’s life. Three out of five stars for Mira Corpora, mainly because there’s a lot to digest, and it was a bit too dark for my mood when I read it.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

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I am back with another Two Dollar Radio book review. You know those “blind date with a book” things where you get a random book? The book might be wrapped up so you can’t see the cover, but a few details, like themes, setting, similar titles, are usually written on the wrapping. Anyway, I bought some surprises, and I was pleasantly surprised that I liked what I got!

Leah Shepherd’s life is rather mundane these days. Her job is to assist poor women and children at a nonprofit organization in Kentucky. She is not married and has no children, but she is active in her church and helps little old ladies. However, when Leah was a young girl, her brother Jacob went missing. His disappearance has haunted her for many years, but now she may have to confront her troubling past. A man contacts Leah at work claiming to be her lost brother.

There’s a mystery in this novel, but I am not sure if I would call it an actual mystery novel. The plot feels too quiet, too literary, and too experimental to appeal to readers who love traditional mysteries or thrillers. The prose in Ancient Ocean of Central Kentucky is very descriptive and very beautiful, but it is also a little on the experimental side because the author does not follow traditional grammar rules. There are incomplete sentences, run-on sentences, and though it is not written in verse, it at times reads like poetry. The feeling of the novel rests on the prose. Short, choppy lines make the plot hurried and urgent, while long, lazy lines evoke the slow, sticky feeling of a warm summer day. The author uses descriptions of people, places, and random objects to paint his settings. The description at times feel random in what is focused on or mentioned, but together, the lines paint a very realistic and lively sense of place.

The plot itself is realistic, but the writing gives the novel a surreal, dreamy quality. Much of the novel is in a kind of stream of consciousness style. Time periods, perspectives, and settings all come and go between paragraphs, but there are many page breaks between the paragraphs, so it does not feel too confusing. This is the kind of novel that you read less for the plot or character development and more for the feeling the words on the page evoke within you. The author gives a clear picture of the characters because he uses the same descriptive style. We may never find out exact answers about the characters’ lives, but we are given just enough details and scenes to ascertain who these people are and what drives them. Leah, of course, is the main focus, but even the nameless women who come into her office seem like real people.

This is a very unique novel in its writing and plot, but I wouldn’t say I felt confused during my reading experience. However, at times I felt like I was taking a peaceful but un-directed float down a lazy Kentucky river in the summer. If this sounds like your kind of thing, go for it. I had a great reading experience with this novel, and I hope other readers also give it a chance. I rated Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky four out of five stars.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

All the Missing Girls

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Nicolette Farrell is back in Cooley Ridge, North Carolina for the first time in ten years. As a teenagers, Nic, Beth, and Corinne tore up their small town. They were always taking risks, causing trouble, and the rumor was that they swapped boyfriends sometimes. Those wild, carefree days came to an abrupt end when Corrine disappeared. After her disappearance, Nic moved away from everything she knew to start a new life. Now Nic’s father is ailing, and her brother has called her back to help sell their father’s house. But soon after Nic returns, another young girl goes missing.

The gimmick of this thriller is that it is told backwards. There are few chapters in “present time” to orient the reader, but then the story skips ahead a couple of weeks. From then on, each chapter tells about the previous day’s events. So, after the first few chapters, we start on Day 15. The next chapter is Day 14, then 13, 12, etc. Slowly everything is revealed about Nic, her past, Corinne’s disappearance, and the new disappearance Nic is present for. This is a creative way to organize the plot, but I felt that the execution was imperfect. I am not saying I could do better, but as a reader, it was sometimes a bit hard to keep things chronologically in my mind when the book/plot was going backwards. Beyond that, there was not anything too special about this thriller. It did the small town mysterious vibe very well though.

Organizational choices aside, how was the rest of the novel? It was OK. There were a good number of twists, and some caught me by surprise. There were quite a few secondary characters that matter to the plot. They are written well enough to not be confused with each other, but none of them stand out. I had to look up some of the characters’ names (including the main character’s) even though I only read the book a week ago. No one was very memorable.

Some of the conflicts in the novel made me frustrated. I am beginning to really hate when characters have disagreements that are easily solved by simply communicating. I realize that miscommunication happens a lot in real life, but sometimes these characters (mainly Nic) would neglect to tell another character something important, only to have it come back to bite them in the ass later or it created some misunderstanding that could easily have been prevented. Nic is a character that has a lot of secrets, but I could not always get behind her actions and decision-making. Still, she was not as frustrating as the main character in The Woman in Cabin 10

So, yes, this was a very “OK” read. It was nothing too special, but I did blow through the first half of the book in one day. Of course, it took me about a week to pick it back up again and finish it. If you would like to read a small town domestic thriller with a uniquely organized plot, you might want to try All the Missing Girls.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

The Woman in Cabin 10

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I love mystery/thriller novels, but I realized I had read all of mine on my to-be-read shelf. This led me to discover a little app called Scribd where I could download and rent audiobooks, ebooks, and magazines for a small, monthly fee (less than Audible with unlimited books, not sponsored of course). Since I was also going on a 12 hour drive, I decided I needed something audible and suspenseful to keep me awake. I had never read anything by Ruth Ware before, but I knew she had been getting some buzz about her novels. So, I chose The Woman in Cabin 10.

Laura “Lo” Blacklock gets a chance report on an exclusive cruise ship for the magazine she has been working at for several years. This could be her big chance to make a name for herself as well as schmooze with rich and influential people. The perks of getting on the luxurious cruise with a press pass don’t hurt either. Lo is installed in cabin nine of the small cruise ship. Before the first night’s dinner on the cruise, Lo meets a strange young woman in the next door cabin– cabin 10. Lo continues with her night of drinking and getting acquainted with the rich and famous passengers, but she never sees the woman from cabin 10 at dinner. When Lo finally lays down to sleep, she hears a scream and a splash from the direction of cabin ten’s balcony. Lo reports what she has heard to the crew, but… no one is registered to cabin 10 and no passenger or crew member is missing.

I liked quite a few things about this novel, but in the end it was a middle-of-the-road read. I liked the closed setting of the cruise ship in the cold sea. The writing was not extremely descriptive, but it set the tone and atmosphere very well. The suspense built at a steady pace until around the halfway point. After perhaps 60-70% of the book, things began to fall apart for me. Up until that point, the plot felt like a very entertaining nod to an Agatha Cristie novel. Then, well… things got weird.

Let’s back up a bit. My main dislike throughout the novel was our main character, Lo. The novel is told from her first-person perspective, so we get into her mind a lot. Despite being in her head, she made some odd decisions that I could not understand her logic for. At one point, Lo is scared and alone in her apartment at night. She has had a traumatic experience with a burglar earlier that day, and everyone makes a point to tell her that burglars commonly return to a place they have burgled before. Understandably, she cannot sleep, but she decides it is a good idea to leave her house with its repaired and improved door locks while in her pajamas after midnight and walk around the city. There are also a few smaller examples of her questionable decision making, like the instances when she gets drunk even though she says, repeatedly, that she should not. She does very little research on the cruise when it is supposedly a career making opportunity. She is assaulted by a man, but cries on his shoulder in the next scene. There were multiple instances of me yelling at the audiobook for her to do something. At times, Lo is frustratingly passive about what is happening around her.

My favorite part of a novel like this is getting to know the side characters and guessing who the bad guys are. The Woman in Cabin 10 did this for a bit, but as I said, near the end it lost its way. The climax felt sudden, and the resolution did not make a lot of sense. Again, Lo made some odd decisions. She trusted people she should not and told other people things she should not. She did not listen to explicit advice from other characters. It is stated that she has depression and anxiety (and perhaps a drinking problem), but that does not explain her lack of logical thinking and carelessness.

The Woman in Cabin 10 was entertaining, but it was not without its issues. I enjoyed the audiobook itself. It was read very well, but Lo’s character made me want to tear my hair out. I rated The Woman in Cabin 10 a respectable three out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

Found Audio

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I went on a small bookshop tour of Columbus, Ohio for my birthday this year. To my surprise, Columbus has a small independent publishing company called Two Dollar Radio. They have a cute, trendy, minimalist cafe/bookshop where you can stop by, have a coffee, grab a bite, study, or buy books. I did the latter, picking up two small, sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks. The first of which is Found Audio by N. J. Campbell.

The note under this title described it as, “Indiana Jones meets Inception.” An audio and recording expert is approached by a strange man with three cassette tapes. The man pays the expert a large sum of money to find out everything she can about the cassettes. The book takes the reader through the content of the tapes and the mysterious events surrounding them. The tapes are primarily a recording of a journalist who is recounting his strangest journalistic experiences. These experiences include a delirious treck through a swamp in the Bayou, meeting a monk in the Walled City of Kowloon in its final days, and a tent city populated by dreamers in the desert.

The “chapters” in the novel include introductory and concluding notes by the author (who supposedly found the audio and transcripts), a note by the audio expert who transcribed the tapes, and the transcript of each of the three tapes. What’s the plot? There really isn’t one. The transcripts of the tapes tell the story of the journalist and his adventures, but what’s the point? Surreal scenes as well as symbolic imagery and thought-provoking ideas leave a lot up to interpretation. The point of the novel is not so much the actual narrative recorded on the tapes but more about the journey of self-discovery that the journalist goes through. The novel is very intelligent and dives into the ideas behind consciousness, dreaming and dreams, fulfillment, and life itself. The characters are somewhere between completely missing to underdeveloped to mysterious. We get glimpses of many characters, but the journalist is our main point of contact as he narrates. His first-person narration lets us get inside his head, but anything beyond his direct experiences often remains a mystery.

If you’re looking for a cohesive plot with a concrete conclusion, look elsewhere. I do not by any means think that Found Audio is a bad book. I really liked it, but describing it as Indiana Jones meets Inception is little off the mark, but in some ways, it is also spot on. Don’t go in expecting an exciting adventure novel. This reads more like a mini Murakami novel with its depth and surrealism. Found Audio is a breath of fresh air, but you should be in the mood to read something experimental. I gave Found Audio 4 out of 5 stars, and I will be picking up more from Two Dollar Radio when I am craving something unique.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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I do not usually buy books new or buy them soon after they are published, but this was an exception. I felt like this book would be a five-star read for me, so I made a point to buy it quickly. It sounded magical, Gothic, and character driven, which are all things that I love in books and in historical fiction in particular. It was also short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So, you know, that must mean something for a debut author… The good news is that I was not disappointed by my assumptions about the book, but the bad news is that it fell slightly short of my five-star expectations.

Mr. Hancock is a merchant from a wealthy family, but as of late, his luck and wealth has taken a bit of a turn. He has not heard from one of his ship’s captains for quite some time. He is worried that the ship might be lost because that stroke of bad luck would cripple him and his family. When the captain shows up without a ship but with some exotic cargo, Mr. Hancock is not quite sure how to proceed. Angelica Neal was a rather famous prostitute, but she found a man to keep her. Unfortunately, that man died, leaving Angelica to fend for herself once again. Mr. Hancock’s special cargo brings he and Angelica together, but they come from vastly different lifestyles. Can the two of them find any common ground when it seems everyone else is against them?

I was correct that this was a character-driven novel. It is a slow, slow burn, which could easily turn many people off. Thankfully, the characters are quite well written, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Mr. Hancock is a rather simple, honest, and innocent man, but he is still imperfect in some ways. Angelica is at times grating with her expensive, luxurious tastes and ill judgement, but by the end, I warmed up to her. Angelica may seem superficial, but in reality, she is a complex character that evolves throughout the novel with her discovery of her true self. Admittedly, I do not think that the other characters grow and change as much as Angelica. There are a handful of other important characters like Angelica’s cold assistant, Mrs. Frost, and Mr. Hancock’s niece, Susanna (Sukie). They are all well constructed and realistic, but if you do not like the characters, you may dislike the novel as a whole.

The author’s writing is very descriptive but not overly embellished. I had hoped that the writing would be a little more lyrical, but it was still very good. There’s a reason that this book has earned some acclaim. One gripe some readers might have is that it isn’t really a very fantastical novel. When the title says mermaid, you expect a mermaid. I expected a bit more magical realism, but there really wasn’t much magic or much “mermaid” in the novel. Don’t go in expected to see Ariel from The Little Mermaid is all I’m saying!

If you expect magic and traditional mermaids, I would advise you to adjust your expectations slightly but not give up on reading the novel entirely. This is simply more of a literary, historical novel than magical realism or a fairy tale retelling. If you love getting to know characters very well, enjoy a well-described historical atmosphere, and like just the lightest touch of magic, you will likely enjoy The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock as much as I did. Four stars!

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

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Another Murakami, another weird and wonderful book. I will start by saying that I still prefer the first Murakami that I read, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but this one was of course in no way bad.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World follows two seemingly separate story lines. In one, we have a man who is a split-brained data processor. He goes into an unconscious-like state in which he processes data for living. He begins to work for a strange professor and his granddaughter, but that is when his life is suddenly turned upside down. In the other plot line, we follow a man in a strange town called the Town. In the Town, there is a giant wall, strange beasts, and dreams that need reading, but no one in the Town has a shadow. Their shadows are sentient, but in most cases, their shadows have disappeared.

Confused yet? Yeah, me too. To be honest, I read to the halfway point of the novel and began to wonder when or if the two plot lines would come together. They seemed so vastly different from one another that I could not imagine how they were related. But, this is a Murakami, so I had faith that it would all make at least a little sense by the end. I wasn’t disappointed. The book is very surreal, so if this is your first foray into surrealism or Haruki Murakami, I’m not sure I would recommend starting here. However, if you can stay confused and simultaneously engaged, this is a fun adventure story with some deep, psychological considerations.

As for the characters, I find them secondary to the plot and overarching metaphor of the novel itself. Still, I liked the professor and his granddaughter. They are both weird, wonderful characters with interesting motivations and personality quirks. Our main characters seem like many male Murakami protagonists in that they are rather faceless and average. The characters in the Town are a bit flat as well, but it seems intentional since they have a part of them missing.

I gave Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World around 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4/5 on Goodreads. An experienced surrealism/Murakami fan will enjoy it, but it may not be for new readers of the genre/author.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Incarnations

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I have barely been reading lately, and I hate it. I apologize for missing a few weeks of reviews. I started a new job, and it has been occupying a lot of my time. But you’re not here to read about all of that, are you?

The Incarnations follows a man who has a not-so-great job. Beijing taxi driver, Wang Jun, lives a dull, modest life with his wife and daughter. One day Driver Wang finds a letter in his taxi from someone who knows all about his life. The letter almost sounds like the writer is stalking him. Driver Wang keeps the letter to himself, but more and more letters find their way to him. The mysterious writer claims to know Wang from their previous lives. The letters go into great detail about who Wang was in his past lives, and they begin to urge Wang to leave his wife. Wang feels himself drawn to the letter writer, but the writer is convinced that Wang is his/her true love.

My favorite thing about this book was its writing. The novel takes place right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The descriptions of Beijing as it prepares to host an international competition are claustrophobic, dirty, frantic, and at times dystopian. Quite a few scenes also take place in China’s past via Wang’s reading of the mysterious letters. The author describes the cruelty, poverty, and riches of past eras just as well as she details modern Beijing. The novel includes many nods to true historical events and people, but it also includes some folklore and mythology.

The characters are well-rounded for the most part, but the characters from the historical sections feel a bit more flat and fairy-tale like. We are led to believe that certain characters are Wang’s past selves, but they do not always feel like present-day Wang. Perhaps the historical characters give insight to parts of Wang’s inner self that he represses, but there is a chance that Wang or the letter writer are unreliable narrators, which adds another layer to the story.

The plot of the book had a lot of promise, but in the end, it did not satisfy my expectations. The historical sections did not feel like they meshed well with the modern parts. Despite how prevalent the historical portions were, they did not feel like they had much impact on the overall plot. Perhaps if there was more of an echo of repeated events and character actions between the past and present sections, the novel as a whole might feel more cohesive. I also felt like the novel ended too soon. I am very interested in knowing the outcome of some of the ending events.

This is a book that definitely gives you a lot to think about. It might even be a solid book club selection. The plot, historical facts, folklore, and daily life in Beijing make it a smart and expansive novel, but the execution could have been slightly tighter. I gave The Incarnations 3/5 stars.