A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell #1) by Deanna Raybourne

London, 1887. After burying her spinster aunt, orphaned Veronica Speedwell is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as with fending off admirers, Veronica intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime.

But fate has other plans when Veronica thwarts her own attempted abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron, who offers her sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker, a reclusive and bad-tempered natural historian. But before the baron can reveal what he knows of the plot against her, he is found murdered—leaving Veronica and Stoker on the run from an elusive assailant as wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

I discovered the Veronica Speedwell series quite by accident in my local book store. While perusing the new books, I came across A Perilous Undertaking and it sounded quite interesting. Unfortunately, I saw it was number two in a series and since I almost never start a series in the middle, I sought out the first book; which is being reviewed here.

A Curious Beginning introduces us to the character of Veronica Speedwell. Raised by two spinster aunts, she has traveled quite extensively – both as a child by moving from town to town, and as an adult in the pursuit of the passion of butterflies. She is an intelligent and head strong young woman, a trait that she uses many times to her advantage. She is also incredibly astute, noticing things about her and about the people around her that many would overlook. At times she reminded me of a beloved character – Sherlock Holmes; yet she also reminded me of another beloved character – Amelia Peabody.

In many ways, Veronica Speedwell is much like Amelia Peabody. Both women are brilliant in their respective fields and more often than not are looked down upon by their male counterparts simply because of their supposed weaker gender. Yet while there are times they must “play by the rules” of society, they are more than content to do things their own way.

One thing I thoroughly enjoyed – and hope Ms. Raybourn continues to play with in subsequent books – is the relationship between Veronica Speedwell and Stoker Templeton-Vane. There is a chemistry between the two characters that is difficult to deny and yet it seems they each treasure the other’s friendship too much to risk ruination with a more physical relationship. There are times they get on as well as cats and dogs, but in the end each is more than content to come to the aid of the other when needed.

Overall, I enjoyed the first book in the Veronica Speedwell series, A Curious Beginning. Readers who have previously enjoyed the Amelia Peabody series or any other series with a strong female character, should give this one a try.

The Crimson Labyrinth by Yusuke Kishi

After answering an ad in a local newspaper, an unemployed man wakes up to find himself in a strange location. Wondering if he has perhaps somehow ended up on another planet, he tries to begin his search for others like him. He finds only one other person, a young woman who seems just as confused as he.

The only clues the two have are cryptic instructions beamed to a portable gaming device. They speak of a game and that it has already begun. Neither remember agreeing to playing a game but it seems they have no choice; if they are to return home they have to play. But there are other players in this game and some of them are not so nice.

The Crimson Labyrinth is one of those books that had been sitting in my To Be Read list for a while. In the reviews I had read, it was compared to Battle Royale (a book I have read and loved) and Lost (a TV show I couldn’t get in to). And while there are some similarities between the two books, I liken The Crimson Labyrinth more to The Hunger Games than Lost.

As much as I enjoyed reading The Crimson Labyrinth, I must warn my readers that it is not a book for the squeamish. Much like the books I mentioned before, there are certain scenes that are rather gruesome. It is something that, while difficult to read, makes sense; especially towards the end when we learn the truth behind the game that was played.

Also, while The Crimson Labyrinth was quite good, I personally feel it could have been better. Kishi focuses so much on the action that the characters are almost secondary. Without knowing more about them – their backgrounds, their motivations, etc. – even the main character himself feels flat at times. Had Kishi given more to the characters the book could have easily been twice as long but also a much, much better read.

Overall, I enjoyed this particular book and don’t regret purchasing it. It is definitely a horror novel and not for the faint of heart. Readers who enjoyed Battle Royale and other types of books should check this one out too.

Night Watch (Watch #1) and Day Watch (Watch #2) by Sergei Lukyanenko

In modern day Moscow, there live an ancient race of humans who call themselves “Others”. Gifted with supernatural powers, they must swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. The agents of Dark make up the Day Watch and are tasked with keeping an eye on the city during the day. Likewise, the agents of Light make up the Night Watch and keep watch over the night.

For over a thousand years an uneasy truce has stood between the two sides. When an artifact is stolen from the Inquisitors – an impartial group of Others who keep watch over both sides – the consequences are dire.

Day Watch is the semi sequel to the aptly named Night Watch. I say semi sequel because the events in the book occur side by side with one another. The events that happen are told from two different perspectives, from the different members of the watch in their respectively titled books.

Having a storyline handled in such a manner made for an interesting read. Interesting in how the characters acted and reacted as well as the thoughts going through their heads at the time. How each side sees themselves as being “in the right”.

The Day Watch and the Night Watch are two sides of the same coin; they balance each other out on the cosmic scales. Neither watch is either truly good or truly evil – another thing I liked about these books – but are both cast in shades of gray. While the Day Watch embraces this grayness about them, the Night Watch seek to try and lighten the color. Again, showing how they are different.

Originally written in Russian, these books were translated in to English. Translation from one language in to another is never perfect, yet I felt these were well handled. The prose in Night Watch felt a bit clunky at times while Day Watch‘s translation seemed a bit smoother.

Day Watch (and Night Watch) are not for the casual reader. These books are a little heavier to read and process mentally. Not every one will enjoy them but the serious reader should definitely give them a look.

The Dying Game by Åsa Avdic

In the not too distant future, seven people have been selected to participate in a 48 hour competition. Placed together on a tiny isolated island, the winner of this competition will receive a coveted position in the top secret Union of Friendship. Among those being tested are a top ranked CEO, a well known TV personality, and Anna Francis; a workaholic bureaucrat with a young daughter she hardly sees and a haunting secret.

Unbeknownst to the other competitors, Anna is not taking part in the test – she is the test. After staging her own death, she must watch the other competitors and judge their reactions as they learn a murderer walks among them. Who will lead? Who will take control? Who will crack under the pressure?

At first, all goes according to plan until a storm rolls in and the power goes out. Then the real game begins…

I’m not sure what I was expecting, dear reader, when I started The Dying Game. Going by the blurb on the back of the book, I was led to believe this was a kind of locked room mystery. Where the protagonist is led to believe they are the one in control but at the narrative goes on, they learn there is someone else pulling the strings.

And while that last bit is somewhat true, it is how we (and Anna) get to that realization that is somewhat of a let down.

The set up to the actual “game” itself takes far too long, in my opinion. Then once everything begins, it becomes less a study of the other characters and more a study of Anna herself. While she is the only one who “dies”, the other characters also begin to disappear one by one, leading Anne to wonder if perhaps she isn’t going mad.

It is only with the resolution of the story – that it was Anna herself being tested – that we are given some kind of closure. Yet it isn’t terribly satisfactory. It left me questioning who was the real protagonist here and who was the real antagonist? Just as I am sure the characters were questioning the events that transpired.

I can’t really recommend The Dying Game because what I thought I was going to read and what I read in actuality were two different things. With writing that could be a bit blocky and staid at times and a confusing resolution, I have to say – skip this one.

The Mall (Downside #1) by S.L. Grey

Dan is your typical angsty emo kid working in a bookstore inside a dull shopping mall.

Rhoda is your typical junkie, always looking for her next score; her next hit.

When the kid Rhoda is supposed to be looking after runs off while she’s scoring some cocaine, she bullies the hapless Dan in to helping her look for the child. Dan is less than eager to help but as they search more of the closed mall, they both begin receiving strange text messages that draw them in to the lower levels of the building. Where old mannequins are stored in grave like piles and raw sewage drips from the ceiling…and where the only way out is down.

Taking the only elevator, they enter a gruesome underworld where their worst fears are brought to life. Making it to the other side, the two find themselves back in the mall but things are not quite right. And soon they both realize their nightmare has only just begun.

The Mall is very much your typical survival horror type of story; and yet it isn’t. Readers familiar with the Silent Hill video games – specifically the third one – will recognize the descent of the characters from a normal looking mall to a darker, flip-side type of mall. They will recognize the puzzles the characters must solve in order to move on as well as the horrifying obstacles they must face.

Certainly not a book for the squeamish, I found The Mall to be a quick and entertaining read. It’s obvious this is the first of a series as it leaves a good deal of questions unanswered. Horror fans should definitely give this one a read and I’ll be looking for the next book in the series.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Global warming has changed the surface of the globe and its politics. Wars are now fought over water and China is a ruling state. It rules over the majority of what was known as Europe, including the old Scandinavian Union where Noria Kaitio lives.

Noria is following in her father’s footsteps; learning to become a tea master with all the responsibility it entails. Tea masters are keepers of old ways and of great secrets – the greatest being the source of hidden water that once served the whole village.

Secrets, however, almost never stay that way for long.

Memory of Water was a very interesting read. So often we do not realize how vital something is until that thing is taken away, in this instance water. It is the stuff life and is kept under strict control.

Like the water that is so precious in Noria’s world, it is mimicked in Itäranta’s writing style. Words and emotions ebb and flow; sometimes running smoothly and other times crashing down abruptly. Noria is in a constant battle with herself and with the government she has come to fear.

Memory of Water is a quick and somewhat satisfying read. The ending is not quite happy and open ended enough for the reader to consider what likely happens next. Set in an interesting world, I would enjoy seeing it revisited sometime in the future in a possible sequel.

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Queen Victoria rules with an iron (and immortal) fist.

She rules over a Britain where the Aristocracy and ruling classes are made up of vampires and werewolves. A Britain where goblins literally live underground and mother’s know better than to let their little ones out after dark. It is a world where magic and technology live side by side.

It is 2012 and Pax Britannia reigns.

Alexandra Vardan is a member of the Royal Guard; an elite group whose purpose is to serve and protect the Aristocracy. When her younger sister goes missing however, Alexandra puts her life on hold to try and locate her. The search takes Alexandra down a path that causes her to question all that she knows and believes and eventually uncovers a secret that could topple the empire.

God Save the Queen is a perfect example of why one should never judge a book by its cover.

Head on over to Goodreads and you’ll see that there are two different covers to this book. One shows a saucy looking red-headed woman in a vaguely steampunk type outfit, the other shows a stylized skull and crown. The first cover I had come across in my local library and passed it by. I came across the second cover in a recent foray to the bookstore and I picked it up. It’s the same book from what I can tell, but I had to very different reactions.

All that aside, I found God Save the Queen to be quite enjoyable. While the book itself is touted as steampunk, I found it to be more of a fantasy type tale. Typically steampunk stories focus more on the technology where here it took a back seat to the characters. While mentions are made of the technology of the day, it is just that – mentions.

I had a few small qualms with God Save the Queen, but none of them are terribly major. I wasn’t terribly fond of the romantic subplot and thought the story could have done very well without it. I also found it a bit disconcerting that Alexandra felt it necessary to describe her clothing (albeit not in great detail, thankfully) whenever she dressed. I found it just disturbed the flow of the narrative and took me out of the story for that brief moment.

One the whole, I found God Save the Queen to be fairly enjoyable. Die hard steampunk fans will likely have trouble but the more casual fan – such as myself – should enjoy it. Don’t make my mistake and pay no attention to the cover; it is the story in side that counts.

The Automation: Vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero Series (The Circo del Herrero Series/The Blacksmith’s Circus) by B.L.A. and G.B. Gabbler

The Automatons of Greco-Roman myth are not clockwork creations; they are so much more. They are intricate and divine in a way that no human mind could ever create. They are not mindless creations, but they do have a purpose; they have a function – a pre-programmed existence their creator installed in each one. A function that some would call questionable.

Odys finds his rather staid lifestyle disturbed when he witnesses a stranger commit suicide right in front of him. Only later does he realize the stranger did such a thing to free the Automaton attached to himself when she uses Odys’ soul to resurrect herself. Odys must come to accept this new development; this Automaton is part of him and they are now two halves of a whole. He must also accept that while his life doesn’t have much direction, hers does and it now includes him whether he likes it or not.

This is yet another book I was provided with for the purpose of review.

The Automation touts itself as a “prose epic”, a conglomeration of different writing styles and literary cliches. Told by an enigmatic Narrator and an Editor named Gabbler, they are the frame for the story. While the Narrator maintains the story is true, Gabbler’s doubt of the tale’s veracity shows up in the numerous snide comments made via footnote. It is this back and forth that helps keep the story grounded and from running too far amok.

Dear reader, I want to say that I enjoyed reading The Automation. Truly I do. However, I had a hard time with this one. The frenetic writing style made it difficult at times to follow along with the story and to understand what was going on. Add to that the fact that there were a few sensitive subjects touched upon (suicide, mentions of incest, etc.). There were a few instances where I felt somewhat uncomfortable reading it.

That is not to say that others won’t enjoy this book. Over on Goodreads, I have seen quite a few glowing reviews for The Automation. Sadly, I cannot add my own to the list. While I am certainly curious as to what will happen in the following books, I won’t be actively seeking them out either.

The Liberation (The Alchemy Wars #3) by Ian Tregillis

Clakkers are mechanical men. Built to serve, for centuries they have catered to their human owners every whim. But now the bonds that held them for so long have begun to break. Minds held in thrall are now becoming free.

A new age of man and machine is dawning.

The Liberation is the third and final book in The Alchemy Wars series. It continues almost immediately where the second book left off and takes it to its thrilling conclusion.

The war that once pitted the Dutch against the French has now become a fight of man against machine. With the majority of the Clakkers now free of their alchemical bonds, some have begun to take revenge for years of servitude out on the humans they once served. Others, however, have formed an uneasy alliance with the humans in an effort to bring peace and understanding to both sides.

Like the first two books, The Liberation is a roller coaster ride from start to finish. There are certainly a good number of thrills – and spills – to keep the reader entertained. One thing that might be a drawback for some is the amount of violence described. Yet, if the reader has made it through the first two books they should have no problem with the third.

I really enjoyed this series from the moment I picked up the first book. While I am sad to see it ending, Tregillis has left it open enough that he can return should he so wish. I personally hope he does because I would like to see what the future holds for the humans and the Clakkers.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

New York City can be described as a melting pot and in 2008 the city added a new group of individuals. A group of monster dogs; clad in top hats and tails, bustle skirts and parasols – they take the city by storm. They are refugees and survivors, the result of a single man’s vision of creating the perfect soldier.

Yet for all the glamour and wealth these monster dogs have, they also have a terrible secret. A mysterious illness threatens them with extinction and there is no cure.

I admit, dear reader, to being a little hesitant to read this particular book at first. The monster dogs are described as being the result of animal testing; of man taking an animal (in this case the domestic dog) and performing scientific experiments on them. As an avid dog lover, I did not want to read about dogs being tortured or maimed in the name of science.

We are fortunate though as those kinds of scenes are glossed over. Told from both the monster dogs’ as well as the human Cleo Pira’s point of view, neither knew exactly what was done and so the actual experiments are little more than a footnote.

I found Lives of the Monster Dogs difficult to read at times. Not because of content or flow of story, but because it was so heart breaking. To go in to it too much is to spoil the story but I will say that I found myself tearing up reading some passages.

One of the things I liked was how Bakis left the ending open. Perhaps for a possible sequel in the future, which is something I would like to see. We are given an idea of what happens but nothing concrete. A sequel would offer the opportunity to answer many of the unanswered questions Bakis left and also to get to know other dog monsters.

There were a few unanswered questions left at the end of the narrative however. The main one being the mysterious disease affecting the monster dogs. What exactly was it? Where did it come from? How was it spread? All of these were unfortunately left dangling unanswered.

At times thrilling and at other times heart rending, Lives of the Monster Dogs is a tough but quick read. It compels the reader to look at what makes us human and what supposedly separates us from our animal brothers. It holds a mirror up to us and posits that perhaps there aren’t that many differences at all.