The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Following the death of her mother, Mary Jekyll is now alone and near penniless. Curious about the secrets surrounding her father’s mysterious past and subsequent death, she begins a search for any information about the man who died when she was a small child. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s friend and research partner, may be nearby. Hyde is wanted for murder and there is a reward for information that leads to his capture. Money that Mary knows could solve many of her immediate financial problems.

Mary’s hunt however, leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana. A troubled child, she has been abandoned by her father and orphaned by her mother, and is now left to be raised by nuns. Eager to leave the company of the nuns, Diana joins Mary in the search for Edward Hyde. The two women soon enlist the great Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and with their help find other women like them – women who seem to have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When the investigations point to a secret society of immoral and power hungry scientists, each young woman wonders if the past has finally caught up with her.

As a fan of novels set during the Victorian era, I will admit I was a bit cautious in my initial approach to The Strange Case… In the past I have learned that the writing in these kinds of books can be rather hit or miss. When the writer “hits the bulls eye” with their writing, they capture the feel of Victorian England and draw the reader in to the described realm completely. When the writer misses…sadly, they tend to miss completely.

For me, Goss has done an excellent job and while she doesn’t completely hit the bulls-eye, she is not terribly far off either. In combing through the rich treasure trove of stories of the time, she has taken well known characters and combined them with new and unique ones. As these ladies are the daughters of numerous well known “mad scientists”, their simple existence is completely plausible. That they all exist in the same world, while not probable, is equally plausible. Who is to say?

If there is one thing about the book that I don’t particularly like, it would have to be the occasional “interruptions” from the characters as the story goes along. Having the characters interject with commentary – some before we have even met them – while not detracting from the story as a whole, was something I found distracting. At times it pulled me completely out of the story.

On the whole, The Strange Case… is a decent read. Readers who enjoy some of the more gothic classics, like myself, will likely enjoy this first book in the series. Personally, I will be keeping an eye out for the second book, and hopefully one day a third and a fourth.

 

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Kiss of the Spindle (Steampunk Proper Romance #2) by Nancy Campbell Allen

Doctor Isla Cooper is cursed – literally. Every night, at the stroke of midnight, she falls in to a death like slumber. A sleep that she cannot be wakened from for six hours. To add further insult to injury, the curse has an expiration date. After one whole year the curse becomes permanent and Isla sleeps forever – and the year is almost up.

Desperate to find the witch who cursed her, Isla blackmails her way on to a private airship headed for the Caribbean; the last place she heard the witch was residing. It is only when the ship is underway does she discover she’s travelling with three illegal shapeshifters and one government official determined to hunt and exterminate every shifter in England. And he is willing to travel to the ends of the Earth to do it.

Isla must now juggle her duties to Queen and country by protecting the shifters and keeping their secret while keeping her own curse hidden. All while trying to come to terms to her developing feelings for the handsome airship captain.

Kiss of the Spindle is a unique twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Inspired by the Disney version of the story, it takes the well known movie characters and gives them a slight twist. This is certainly not a bad thing, in fact I believe it makes for a better story.

I found most of the characters to be well thought out and well written, especially the character of Isla. Fans of the original Disney movie will recall that she had almost a minor role in the story. However, in this story, she is not a background character; she even has a hand in saving herself and breaking the curse. And while she did have help in the end, she was still the one to take the first steps towards a cure.

Reading the book, I had a great deal of fun finding the little parallels between this story and the Disney version. The three shapeshifters on the ship take Isla under their proverbial wings, much like the three fairy godmothers do for Aurora. The handsome Prince Phillip with his trusty steed Samson in the story is now handsome Captain Daniel Pickett with his faithful automaton friend also named Samson. Then there is the evil witch Malette, who like Maleficent carries a staff and turns in to a dragon.

Much like the first book in the Steampunk Proper Romance series – Beauty and the Clockwork Beast – the actual steampunk elements takes a back seat to the prose itself. Yes, there are mentions of airships, Tesla lamps, automatons, and the like, but they are not crucial to the story. Remove those elements, replace them with their actual Victorian counterparts, and the story remains strong.

The same can be said for the romance elements as well, they too take a back seat to the main story. Yes, the two main characters do kiss and there is a bit of petting, but it goes no further. Any mention of a more physical relationship is hinted at, but again it is not described in any detail.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading Kiss of the Spindle. The action and likable characters will appeal to most readers. The hints of romance, the slow build of feelings between two characters, will appeal to more. This is a lovely addition to the Proper Romance series and I am looking forward to seeing more.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

The mystery starts simply enough: a young woman is found in a ditch just outside of a small Arizona border town. The young woman is presumed to be an illegal alien and likely was met with foul play trying to cross the border. Before any clues can be found as to who brought the girl harm, her body disappears from the morgue.

To the young CDC operative called in to consult the local police, it is a bizarre medical mystery. And it is only the tip of the iceberg when more individuals start showing up in local morgues and disappearing overnight. What was seen as isolated cases of a strange virus is soon deduced to be something that no one was ready to take on.

I admit, dear reader, that I was looking forward to reading this book. With its eye catching cover and overall creepy title, I thought I would be in for an exciting thrill ride from page one.

Sadly, that was not the case.

Have you ever read a book and with every page you are just waiting – waiting – for the plot to get good? For what was teased on the cover to happen? To become so engrossed in the story itself that you forget what time it is or that you have other obligations like work and family?

While there have been several books that I have read that have been just like that, A People’s History… is sadly not one of them. There is no vampire uprising, at times there’s barely even a conflict between the humans and the vampires (who prefer to be called “gloamings”). Yes, there are minor conflicts; especially when one decides to run for public office, but on the whole there wasn’t much.

At times, reading this was almost akin to watching paint dry.

Reading about the author, it is no surprise to find that Mr. Villareal is an attorney. There is quite a bit of “lawyer speak” scattered throughout the book and there is an entire chapter devoted to the subject. What it has to do in relation to the subject of the book as a whole, I have no idea.

Unfortunately, I found A People’s History… to be bland and boring. Aside from a handful of actions scenes, there was very little to sink my teeth in to. Pardon the pun. If this is to be made in to a movie, which I have read that the story has been optioned by 20th Century Fox, then I hope they take the title and basic premise and leave the rest behind.

Don’t waste your time with this one dear readers. There are better books out there.

Graveyard Shift by Michael F. Haspil

The discovery of a blood substitute and a monumental Supreme Court ruling were two events that changed the face of the world forever. Due to these two events, vampires and other mythological creatures were able to integrate in to society. There was no longer a need for them to hide as they had done for centuries before.

Alex Menkaure is a mummy and former Egyptian pharaoh; and along with his partner Marcus, a vampire born in ancient Rome, the two once hunted evil vampires for a super-secret arm of the NSA. When the program was dissolved the two became police officers in a special unit where they continue to keep the streets safe from the monsters they hunted once before.

When bottles of tainted artificial blood begin turning up on store shelves, the already tremulous relations between humans and vampires becomes even more fragile. It soon becomes a race against time for the two detectives to find who is behind the tainted blood and what their end game is.

There are times when writing a review is the easiest thing in the world; the words just flow from my fingertips and I am (hopefully) able to get my point across when I say how much I liked or dis-liked a book. There are other times, however, where trying to write even a mediocre review is akin to pulling teeth; the words simply do not want to come and each one is a struggle.

Sadly, it seems that this particular review falls more in to the latter than the former. It has been over a week since I finished reading Graveyard Shift and still I do not know where to begin in reviewing it.

Perhaps I should start with the overall plot. Broken down, it comes across as simple enough. For countless centuries vampires and other creatures have existed behind the scenes. A recent turn of events outs them and their existence is finally able to be acknowledged. While there are many who embrace this new truth, there are those who would see things go back to the way they were; where vampires skulked in shadows and humans were afraid of them. Certainly a plot that has been used before, not just in books but in movies and television shows.

The main characters themselves, however are a completely different story. One is a centuries old vampire while the other is a millennia old mummy; both immortal in their own way. Sadly, we aren’t given much on them aside from the most basic information. Haspil spends too much time focusing on secondary characters and the surrounding events as a whole instead of giving us more with the main characters. If this were the second or even third book in a series, this wouldn’t be a problem as we would already be familiar with the two detectives.

Overall, Graveyard Shift is a fairly good book. Marketed as an urban fantasy meets film noir type of story, it certainly meets that description. Gritty and at times bloody, it might not be for the more feint of heart reader. Otherwise, this is a somewhat decent start to a series and I am curious to see more.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

“Are you happy with your life?”

These are the final words Jason Dessen hears before a masked stranger knocks him unconscious. When he wakes he is strapped to a gurney and surrounded by people he does not recognize. A man Jason has never met leans over and with a smile says, “Welcome back, old friend.”

In this new world, Jason’s life is not the one he remembers. He was never married and his son was never born. He doesn’t teach physics at a local college, he is instead a celebrated physicist who has somehow achieved the seemingly impossible.

Which life is real and which is the dream? Jason is finding it more and more difficult to tell. And should the other life be the real one, how is he going to return? The answer lies in a mysterious box and the stranger who accosted him.

Dark Matter is a story about the road not taken. It is a story of “What if…?”s and “What would happen…?”. It is a story about choices, and what one man’s choice can ultimately accomplish.

Jason Dessen is a family man. Married to his lovely artist wife Daniella, they have a teenage son, and for all intents and purposes they are happy. Still, Jason cannot help but wonder if things might have turned out differently. When he and Daniella married, they were both on the cusps of their respective careers. If they had not married, what would have happened? Would Daniella have become a famous artist? Would Jason have become a famous physicist?

What Jason does not know is that there is another version of him that made a different decision to the one he had made. This second Jason didn’t marry Daniella and instead focused on his career. After winning an elite scientific award, this Jason joins Velocity Laboratories where he eventually creates a device that allows travel between the infinite dimensions of the vast multiverse.

While the first Jason wonders if he made the correct decision in starting a family, the second Jason regrets his decision not to. This leads second Jason to actually use his device and cross the dimensions in order to switch places with first Jason and have the family he desired. When first Jason realizes what has happened, he decides to use the device himself in the hopes of returning home.

That last sentence reminds me a great deal of the television show Quantum Leap. In it, the scientist Sam Beckett leaps from life to life trying to find his way home. There are numerous differences between the two stories, but the essence is alike.

On the whole, Dark Matter is an interesting book. The majority of the characters are well thought out and written in a believable manner. Others, sadly, are not and are very one dimensional. For instance, Jason and Daniella’s son Charlie; aside from his age and his love of drawing, there is almost nothing else given about him. This is sad because for Jason, the thought of seeing Charlie again is one of his reasons for continuing his search. Yet we the readers are never let in on why.

There is a good deal of heavy science referenced in Dark Matter. Generally, Crouch does a good job of parsing the information in an understandable language, but there are a few passages that get bogged down with techno-babble. Crouch’s prose is rarely, if ever, ambiguous and aside from some of the science speak, hard to understand. Readers who like an engrossing read will do good to pick this one up. I found it to be an exciting page turner and one that held me from beginning to end.

Hater (Hater #1) by David Moody

The world has gone mad.

A strange and sudden increase in the number of violent assaults on individuals has rocked society. The assaults are brutal and extreme; within mere seconds, normally rational people become frenzied killers. They strike without warning and kill all who cross their path. Christened ‘Haters’ by the media, there are no links between those who attack and those who are attacked.

Danny McCoyne is one such man. An average working class man, he must contend with this new world of terror. Eventually, his only choice is seek shelter, secure his family, and watch as the world outside crumbles. But when any person has the potential to become a Hater; when McCoyne locks the door, is he shutting the danger out or locking it in?

Hater is a unique novel with an interesting premise. That, sadly, is about all I can give it.

I am guessing that we, the readers, are supposed to somehow empathize with the main character Danny McCoyne. As the novel is told from his point of view, this would make sense. We connect with him in some way, and through his eyes we see the story unfold. A good idea, if only Danny weren’t such an immensely unlikable individual.

I do not want to mince words, dear reader, so I will be blunt and say Danny McCoyne is a schlub. In his own words he admits to being “a lazy bastard”, and “I know I should try harder but I just can’t be bothered.” He admits to being bounced from department to department in the three and a half years he has been with his job. He refers to his supervisor as “…sour-faced, slave-driving, unforgiving bitch…”. He either yells at or ignores his children, at times he ignores his wife. In general he is a very self centered man, caring only about himself and how unfolding events affect him.

Looking past the main character, which admittedly is difficult to do, the actual premise is an interesting one. An unknown illness, passed from person to person by unknown means, is turning ordinary people in to rampaging killers. The afflicted person suddenly and without warning becomes ultra violent, attacking whomever is near – be they a stranger or a loved one. Those who are not accosted by the ill individual describe the person’s expression as one of great fear. This is a likely explanation for the suddenness of the attacks; if the person is struck by an overwhelming fear then they are likely to lash out.

Throughout the story small hints as to the illness’ origin are dropped. Some believe it to be a kind of government experiment gone awry and the few clues given seem to point in that direction. We are of course not given the answer just yet as this is only the first part of the story. I am sure the cause behind the epidemic will be revealed in subsequent books.

As I said above, Hater is a book with a unique take on the whole “zombie” epidemic. The execution however is poor. If one can get over how irritating the main character is, they could very well enjoy this book. Pick this one up with that in mind if you feel brave.

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2) by Katherine Arden

Cast out by her village as a witch, the now orphaned Vasya’s options are pitifully few. She can either dedicate herself to a life in a convent or allow her older sister to find her a match with a wealthy Moscovite prince. Either option would mean a life secluded, locked in a tower and far away from the vast world she longs to explore.

Vasya decides to go with the third option – disguise herself as a boy and ride off on her beloved horse Solovey. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, Vasya quickly finds herself in over her head. She must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces – and to remain alive – even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from without and from within.

Picking up shortly after from where The Bear and the Nightingale left off, The Girl in the Tower continues the story of young Vasilisa. Not wanting to be wed to some man she has never met and not wanting to dedicate her life to the Lord like her brother, she has decided to create her own path and see the world beyond the forests she knows. Unfortunately for her, things do not go well and she must again rely on the help of the frost demon Morozko. His initial reluctance to help her causes Vasya to believe that he does not care, but it soon becomes evident – especially as the novel goes on – that perhaps he cares too much.

Much like with the first novel, Arden continues her strong story telling with this second one. The research she has done clearly shows as the world she builds teems with life. Yes, some of the characters are based on real people, yet it is through her words that these individuals come to life. We are given insights in to them; their hopes and their fears. It is obvious that even then the concern over one’s family was important.

Unlike the first novel, however, there is not as much of the mystical element present. Vasya has only a few meetings with the various spirits, much less than what she had in her father’s home. Some of the meetings do hint at future dealings and so it will be interesting to see how Arden continues this particular thread.

I enjoyed reading The Girl in the Tower, the second book in the Winternight Trilogy. It continues the story in a satisfactory manner, having the characters grow and mature in a believable way. I am curious to see how everything is resolved and will be looking forward to the third and final book in the series.

 

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

Young, naive, and very sheltered, Lalage Page has grown up in near-isolation in her parents’ flat. She is sheltered from the chaos of the collapsing civilization. People are killing one another over crusts of bread and the police are detaining anyone without an identification card. With things getting more dangerous outside, Lalla’s father decides it is time to use their escape route – a ship he has built for them and the five hundred people it can hold.

Once they get underway, Lalla realizes the utopia her father has created isn’t everything it seems. There is more food than anyone can eat but no way to grow more; there are more clothes than any one can wear but no way to mend them. And no one can tell her – or is willing to tell her – where they are going.

Going by just the premise alone, one would think The Ship would be a fascinating and nail-biting read. Even the little blurbs on the cover made me think this and so I was quite eager to begin reading this book. I was hoping for something dark, something that would keep me up at night reading despite the fact that I had to work the next day. Something that I could really sink my teeth in to.

What I ended up with was just over 300 pages of a whiny, self-absorbed teenager and her ‘poor me!’ attitude.

Lalage Page is the main character of The Ship and everything is told from her perspective. She is sixteen years old and has apparently spent the majority of her life confined to the four walls of her parents’ flat in London. The only times she leaves the safety of the flat is when she goes out with her mother; either to the National Museum or out on some errand for food or something. What interaction she has with the outside world is through her screen, which is likely akin to an iPad or other similar device. The little interaction she has with actual people is with the homeless living in the National Museum, and even then she bemoans this as boring and as taking her mother’s attention away from her.

This isolation causes Lalage to be somewhat stunted emotionally. She is very naive, to the point that she does not understand that food spoils and she attempts to eat a fake apple, believing it to be real. She has trouble relating to the other people on the ship, even ones that are relatively close to her age. When her mother dies, Lalla mourns but really only in a “How could she do this to me?” kind of way. She gives little thought to how the death affects her father or to any one else on the ship.

This does not mean that the others on the ship are without their own problems. Lalla’s father, Michael, seems to develop a kind of Messiah complex over the occupants on the ship. Even before they set sail he sees himself as their savior, the shepherd leading his flock to a new life. Some of the speeches he gives can even be viewed as proselytizing. He urges the people of the ship to give up their old lives and not speak of the time before, he tells them the ship is their new home for now and for always.

And the people of the ship follow him, almost blindly it seems. At his encouragement they seem more than happy to discard the few memories of their loved ones, tossing them over the side of the ship and in to the water. When Lalla questions them, wondering why they could simply throw items once considered precious away, each claims they are happier without them.

As an avid reader, I find that I enjoy a book more when I can relate to the main character in some way. Even if it is something small, even if it is that I simply like how a character acts, I am more likely to enjoy reading about that person. Unfortunately, such was not the case with Lalla. I found her to be irritating and at times downright annoying. I found her to be whiny and self absorbed. If her internal character had started like this and changed over the course of the story, that would be understandable and even enjoyable. Since this was not the case, I could not relate to her in any form.

With such an interesting premise, The Ship had a great deal of promise to be a riveting read. Sadly, such was not the case. Skip this one, dear readers. You’ll thank me for it.

 

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard is a man with a dangerous secret. For all intents and purposes, he looks like your average 41 year old man. However, Tom has a rare and unique genetic condition that slows his aging dramatically. In truth he is over 400 years old.

In that time Tom has done amazing things. He’s performed with the great Shakespeare, sailed with Captain Cook, and even had cocktails with Fitzgerald. But now Tom is tired and longs for a normal life.

So with some help, Tom moves back to London and takes a job as a history teacher. All is well and he even meets a lovely French teacher and the two take an interest in one another. Tom’s past, however, continues to haunt him in the form of worsening headaches and memories of his lives gone by. Including the most important one; his first with his wife Rose and daughter Marion.

As events begin to unfold before Tom he must at last come to a decision; to continue living in a past that he can never recapture or come to terms and live in the present.

I will be completely honest with you, dear reader, I was expecting so much more from How to Stop Time. When I first heard of the book, it was when it had been announced that Benedict Cumberbatch (a favorite actor of mine) had been cast in the movie adaptation of the book. Like many fans I was excited and while it took some time, eventually read the book. Now, I’m only looking forward to this movie if they do an almost complete rewrite.

Tom, the major character of the book and through whose eyes we are taken on this journey, is such a boring individual. You would think that after 400 years a person would become at least marginally interesting, but such is not the case! Tom is terribly wishy washy, pining over his dead wife for over 300 years and leaving the search for his daughter – who he learns is like him and ages slowly – to someone else. For all the love that he professes he has for the child, he has an odd way of showing it.

Much like Forrest Gump, Tom floats through history and meets great people almost randomly. He plays lute for Shakespeare, he shares a drink with F. Scott Fitzgerald, he even dines with Cecil B. Demille. Even for one as nearly immortal as Tom, these would seem incredible, but he brushes them off and mopes. He agonizes over his wife and daughter but eventually does nothing.

The flashbacks of Tom’s, to his earlier lives, are certainly interesting. Haig seems to have done a fair bit of research and does his best to capture the feel of London as well as other places. The only drawback is Tom, at times he is very difficult to relate to or even feel any empathy for.

Another point I found irritating was that for all of the information we are given on Tom, there is so little given about the other characters. Characters like Hendrich, the head of the Albatross Society, or Camille, the pretty French teacher Tom develops a crush on. At times these characters are little more than window dressing. The reader is given so very little on them that when something happens, when something is revealed, there is no emotional reaction brought about.

The one individual that brought the most irritation in regards to this ‘not enough information’, was Agnes. We are given to believe that she is Hendrich’s right hand man – or woman, in this case – seeking out Thomas originally and helping him on occasion. Yet, other than that, we are given almost nothing else. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she helping someone so clearly unhinged as Hendrich? None of these points are touched on and are left dangling like loose threads.

The ending of the book is incredibly rushed and was not very satisfying. Throughout the entire book we are given all this build up and it is resolved in a handful of pages. The whole situation with his daughter – something that has gone on for centuries – is not even given that. I find it hard to believe that the decades of hurt feelings and pent up emotions can be simply forgotten just by seeing an old coin. And considering the plot of the book itself, this is really saying something.

The epilogue also felt tacked on and again did not satisfy me while reading it. It was as if Haig had finished the book and then came back at a later date with an “Oh, the readers will want to know what happened next…”. The actual ending of the book, despite its numerous flaws, felt like an ending.

If I were to recommend this to any one, I would say wait for the movie. That might actually be better than this was.

FantasticLand by Mike Bockoven

Since it opened in the 1970’s, FantasticLand was the theme park where “Fun was guaranteed!”. Like Disney and Universal, it was a major draw for numerous visitors to the Sunshine State. But when a hurricane ravages the Florida coast and isolates the park, the employees left behind find the park anything but fun.

Five weeks later, when authorities finally find a way to rescue the survivors, they come upon something out of a horror show. Photos soon appear online of heads on spikes outside of the rides along with viscera and bones littering the gift shops. Those who see the pictures are left wondering, how could a group of mostly teenagers commit such horrible acts?

FantasticLand is an interesting read as it is presented as a kind of investigation. Each chapter is told from one person’s point of view, transcribed from the interview in to a short story in first person narrative. There is only one actual interview and that is with an individual that numerous others reference throughout the rest of the book.

Numerous reviewers have compared FantasticLand to Lord of the Flies and I find that to be a very apt comparison. In both books a disaster of some kind leaves groups of individuals stranded and hoping for eventual rescue. The differences being in the former those stranded are both male and females of various ages from teen-aged to older adults, while in the latter the stranded are all young boys. This makes a difference in how the tragedies are dealt with and perceived, but at times there is little to be seen.

In both books those who are left behind form social groups or tribes. In FantasticLand, the tribes are based on where the employees worked in the park itself. As they worked together day in and day out, they were comfortable together and as such gravitated together when times were difficult. This formation of tribes also created a kind of rivalry with the tribes battling one another over necessities like food and water – even when no such fights were necessary as there was plenty to go around.

In a way FantasticLand can be seen as a kind of think piece. So many of the characters in the book are young adults; little more than kids in the high school/college age range. Their entire lives they have had information fed to them via social media, be it on the TV or computer or cell phone. Their every move has been documented and shared and either that or their job had given them a direction to go. When they are deprived of that direction and that audience, where are they to turn?

Like the aforementioned Lord of the Flies, FantasticLand can be a difficult read at times. Not because it is badly written – quite the opposite, I found it to be quite well written and researched. It is difficult because it is very violent and a bit depressing. In reading about what these young adults do, the reader is forced to consider what they them self might do. They must consider if they would volunteer to stay behind like these characters did and how far they would be willing to go to survive.