Oct 27, 2015

Witness Through Time

Witness Through Time book cover

by Scott Wieczorek
book review rating 3 out of 5

WITNESS THROUGH TIME, by Scott Wieczorek, could have easily been rated higher had I not correctly guessed the murderer very early on. It no longer held the element of suspense, which I think is so crucial for a good crime mystery experience. Having recently read The Girl on the Train and Silent in the Grave, I wasn't so easily misled. I realized that Mr. Wieczorek carefully unravels the mystery of everything he wants us to believe, steering us away from the murderer, until that awestruck moment when he reveals the gripping climax we didn’t see coming. But, I did.

For fifteen years in Cragg's Head Cove, four college girls go missing. The cases, dismissed as runaways, were never solved until the arrival of Glory Parker. With Glory’s “gift,” she slowly uncovers their bodies and learns that they were brutally murdered. Glory must find the murderer before s/he strikes again.

Because the identity of the murderer came as no surprise to me, I diverted my attention to other aspects of the story. There were many things I enjoyed, and a few I didn’t.

After reading a few fairly slow paced novels, I really welcomed a faster storytelling approach. The elaborate descriptions of key scenes were like rich characters that enhanced my emotional connections to them. Mr. Wieczorek did a fantastic job setting the scene in which Glory found the first body. I felt that I was right there witnessing the horrific act that was carried out as a young woman's life was brutally taken away from her. It was so terrifying and dark to witness humanity at its worst.

However, at other times, I felt that the story seemed too staged. Glory’s sudden inoperably medical condition, which no doubt was added to excite readers, felt like a perfectly orchestrated ending in which whatever could go wrong for Glory, did. Despite this, I still enjoyed Witness Through Time very much. Glory will no doubt captivate readers with her astute crime solving skills and her talent to pierce the veil of time.

DIGRESSION: What was the last suspense/thriller book you read that kept you guessing until the very end?

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Oct 23, 2015

Reap the Shadows (Steel and Stone 4)

Reap the Shadows (Steel and Stone 4) book cover

by Annette Marie
book review rating 4 out of 5

I KNOW THIS may sound a bit silly but I started reading Reap the Shadows (Steel and Stone 4) with trepidation. In my experience, the second to last book has generally been a huge disappointment because it tends to meander as it sets up for the finale. I was indeed utterly disappointed because…I WANTED MORE! Annette Marie does not disappoint. Her story is well-written with rich characters, emotionally heart-wrenching moments, and exciting adventures that kept me enthralled until the very last page.

Reap the Shadows picks up right after Yield the Night (Steel and Stone 3), with a heartbroken Piper tearfully saying, “I love you” to an unconscious and fatally wounded Ash as she walks away from him forever. It was what she thought needed to happen to protect him from risking his own life for her. With Lyre and Seiya missing, she returns to Earth in search for them only to find the Gaians picking fights with daemons all over the city. As if that wasn’t overwhelming enough, an old enemy from the Underworld surprises her with a request for her help—a request he refuses to take no for an answer. It is a request that brings her right back into Ash’s life. She fears she will not be able to walk away from him a second time. However she may feel about Ash, she knows she needs his help to protect Earth, if it’s not already too late.

I absolutely enjoy reading this Piper. She's matured and possesses a quiet confidence. But despite how outwardly calm she appears, the story is emotionally heavy because of the insurmountable burden she carries. Not only is she fighting a battle against the Gaians and the daemons, she is also at war with herself. With her daemon half unlocked, Piper struggles to control her bloodlust desires. Every time she shades, she fights to control the “raging monster…ruthless killer” that seeks to overtake her. Equally devastating is her turmoil with Ash. She knew she hurt Ash when she left him. Except, she hadn't meant for him to “hate” her. Well, he is a draconian—deadly and passionate by nature. “Ash's coldness was like a poison in her blood that burned through her. She couldn't stand it, but neither could she fix it. She just had to endure.” On a lighter note, I enjoyed the romantic mood that Ms. Annette created with the stolen glances and surprise moments of affection between them.

At times, Piper’s internal struggles do seem slightly repetitive, which slows the story a bit. But the story does have a very exciting climax that ends in a pleasantly serene and tranquil manner. Like the calm before the storm, I have every confidence that Unleash the Night (Steel and Stone 5) will be explosive.

DIGRESSION: Did anyone else pick up on the fact that Ash has three horns on his head and Piper has three iridescent teardrops on her forehead?

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Oct 16, 2015

Dracula

Dracula book cover

by Bram Stoker
book review rating 4 out of 5

"No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and how dear to his heart and eye the morning can be".

Darkness is a rather curious thing. It is at night that we find peace, more often than not, for it is during the dark hours, I feel, that all things lose their form. By becoming formless, thus, they make our eyes lose their purpose; we can focus, then, on more internal experiences: thoughts, reflections, dreams. Darkness, however, can sometimes also open the doors to a not so welcome feeling: fear. Some say that dreaded nonsensical sensation comes as a natural response from our body, as one of its most wondrous features, sight, gets temporarily robbed from us. Sometimes the fear caused is so strong that it makes our other senses get sharper. All of a sudden, the mere creak of a floor board is molded, by our minds, into the footsteps of an intruder; the scratch of a branch on the wall outside is mentally translated as a being trying to break in. Yes, curious thing, the dark. It is illogical to feel threatened by such a natural part of life, for even though we are deprived of sight for some time, we know that, physically, not much changed out there. Although we cannot see, all the old furniture is still lying on the same place where it's been for the last fifteen years; our families and companions are still sound asleep at the same rooms; the old tree outside isn't likely to destroy our window by itself; our old boring neighbor also isn't going anywhere... As we can see, there is no reason to fear the night when you are a rational human being that can guarantee that the world outside is, during the night, just as normal as it is during the day. But can you?

Unknowingly, pragmatic Jonathan Harker, young recently admitted solicitor from England, sets out on a quest during which he is bound to discover the answer to that question. He is being sent to arrange for a rich man, who he doesn't know, all the bureaucratic process involving his moving to London. After saying goodbye to his beloved fiance, Mina, he starts his business journey towards the Carpathian mountains, near the Romanian borders. Stoker does a great job of depicting such a breath-taking land, full of life and mystery. Not only does he describe beautifully all the geographical features and climate, but he also emphasizes the peculiar characteristics of the inhabitants. Thankfully, he doesn't linger that much on their outfits and appearance, for had he done that I would probably not have finished the book; there are nothing that turns me down on a story as much as unnecessary detail. Anyway, the good thing is that he focuses on their behavior, especially their religion and beliefs: "[...]every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirpool; [...]", "[...] people are brave, and strong, and simple, and seem full of nice qualities. They are very, very superstitious". We soon discover that people on that region are highly religious and intrinsically superstitious. When some of them find out about Jonathan's destination, castle Dracula, they start acting rather curiously towards him, blessing him with all kinds of religious signals against bad energy. To worsen such behavior, unintentionally Jon sets foot there on the eve of St. George's day - for those who don't know, this is a day when the locals throw festivities in remembrance of St. George's victory over the dragon; the main theme of the holiday is the celebration of purity. Allegedly, as a way of the Universe finding balance, during this day the evil entities are freed from their dwellings and permitted to roam through Earth doing whatever they please. As a result, people's reactions to Jon's intention of going to castle Dracula almost reach the point of hysteria. When he finally takes a cab, alone, to resume his journey, he is more scared than the strangers he met on the road, without even knowing why.

Little by little, though, Jon gets more scared as some weird events occur on the way to the castle. Used to having always led an utterly common, peaceful life in the heart of England, he can barely believe what his eyes are seeing, for what he is seeing cannot be explained under a rational perspective:"But my flesh answered the pinching test, and my eyes were not to be deceived.". Passed the initial shock, Jon finally arrives at the castle. Initially, he finds the place inviting and comfortable enough, given that it's a century-old building placed on a remote region. Let's admit, though, that after having traveled for such a long time enduring harsh weather and limited food, any whole in the ground where you could get warm bed and meal would seem like a dream. After meeting the austere and peculiar Count and after having some time to be aware of the place he was in, though, Jon begins noticing some weird facts. Dracula doesn't ever eat or drink with him; even though he says the servants announced some meal was ready or that some task had been done, Jon never sees anyone in the castle but the Count. More importantly, Dracula seems to always chose the most unconventional times to chat with him; it's always during the night - prolonged, in most cases, until sunup. All this strange events end up leading Jonathan to, for the first time in his life, contemplate the possibility of the paranormal really existing: "I am all in a sea of wonders. I doubt; I fear; I think strange things, which I dare not confess to my own soul. Go keep me, if only for the sake of those near to me!". It was very interesting to see Jonathan's internal struggles leading him, slowly, to madness; he tries to come up with rational explanations to everything that he is experiencing in the castle, but, at some point, things are just too much. He gives up trying to be rational and embraces the possibility that something paranormal is going on: "[...] unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere 'modernity' cannot kill.". Stricken by heart-pounding fear for his life, he flees the castle.

castle

At this point I was already in love with the way Stoker wrote this story. All the reports are given in the form of either letters sent from one character to another, or entries on personal diaries. As a result, I got a sense that the story was much more real. It certainly felt like it could be happening right at the time when I was reading it; had it been written as a narration, I think nowadays, more than a century later, reading this book would feel like reading a fairy tale, which is not the feeling it should give you at all, in my opinion. Anyway, from the point where Jon runs from the castle, the author sets his point of view aside for a long time. We are introduced a bunch of new characters. There is Mina, sweet and sharp-minded; Lucy, another sweet girl, though more innocent than Mina, and also her best friend. It's thanks to Lucy, though, that the other characters are introduced: Quincey, Arthur and psychiatrist Dr. Seward, her three potential fiances. At first, there is little or no relation between the five but common friendship; even from the moment Lucy finally decides on the one she wants to marry, the three gentlemen treat each other friendly enough.

As the story moves on, Lucy's old somnambulism problem,which for years had not evolved in intensity, leads her to disastrous misadventures through the night. Curiously, the symptoms start coming back right after a mysterious ship anchors on the port nearby, seemingly containing nothing but wooden boxes. Thankfully, Mina, who is living with Lucy and her mother, is able to protect Lucy from hurting herself when she notices the illness taking control of her friend. However, even Mina, sometimes, can't help noticing that Lucy is acting too uncharacteristically even for a person suffering from somnambulism: "She seemed, even in her sleep, to be a little impatient at finding the door shut, and went back to bed under a sort of protest.". Lucy's condition evolves to a point where she starts loosing her sanity due to the lack of sleep and fear of falling asleep: "How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams". More or less at the same time these events start happening, we are introduced to one of the final main characters: Mr. Renfield, a patient of Dr. Seaward's. Let me tell you, that guy is crazy as hell. He was first brought to the clinic for displaying symptoms of zoophagia, but all of a sudden he goes insane, speaking of a master who no one can see and referring to his approaching vengeance. Curiously enough, his paroxysms only happen during the night; during the day he is a quite common patient, even displaying clear signs of his intelligence and awareness to the world around him, sometimes. Anyway, it was very sad to see Lucy's condition evolving to a much more serious illness, but it was also because of this that my favorite character form this book was finally introduced: Dr. Van Helsing!

I liked everything about Van Helsing: his sense of humor, his unfailing hope in good - even if, sometimes, Stoker turned it into too much praise to religion, for my taste. The way his dialogues were written as to emphasize his accent was very fun to read. It's also through Van Helsing that the author brings to the story the so much needed clarity as to the sad events that are happening to Lucy and that already happened to Jonathan. It's thanks to him that everyone is reassured of their undamaged mental properties; he acts like a true father of the unlikely family that comes together to find and defeat the evil force that is turning everyone's life into a pit of pain. Speaking of that, it was very cool to watch Mina, Jon, Quincey, Arthur and Dr. Seward being introduced to the supernatural, and even more inspiring seeing them unite and share information in order to achieve the common goal of defeating their assailant. I couldn't help noticing how communication used to be so much more true, straight and efficient at that time. Nowadays, I think, were we burdened with the task of solving such a complex problem as a group, we would be lost among a tornado of tweets, messages and posts. When all the information gathered by the group leads them to the conclusion that all the ill doings are being made by something that they cannot accept or understand, Van Helsing only confirms what he already knew, (view spoiler) so he leads the group to the next step: taking care of the entity's extinction.

Mina

During their attempts, Mina finds herself surrounded by a group of men. It is natural, then, that the gentlemen try to protected her from being too exposed to danger, both physical and psychological; Jonathan, especially, acts very protective of her in lots of occasions: "I shall keep dark over to-night's doings, and shall refuse to speak of anything that has happened. I rest on the sofa, so as not to disturb her." Mina proves herself to be a very resilient young woman, though, helping them unfailingly throughout all the endeavor; she is very smart and doesn't get scared easily. Consequently, the whole group starts being brotherly attracted to her, as if she is the beacon of hope that protects them from going mad: "[...] our hearts were strengthened to work and endure for her." When, as a result of their negligence under pressure, Mina is left alone and acquires a strange illness, the whole party falls with her, their hearts melted by her condition. It leads to the scene that I most liked in the whole book, despite it being utterly tense and sad: "Even a skeptic, who can see nothing but a travesty of bitter truth in anything holy or emotional, would have been melted to the heart had he seen that little group of loving and devoted friends kneeling round that stricken and sorrowing lady, [...]". They don't ever give up, though, pursuing their assailant back to it's home, looking for his destruction. When the final moment comes, again Stoker surprised me with his talent of writing such believable characters, especially with his depictions of Van Helsing's feelings; I used to think of Van Helsing as the utmost bane of evil, a strong arm who would not ever fail at his task of ridding the world of its darkest creatures. I was wrong. Van Helsing, as every other human, is given his moment of giving up to his senses regarding the not so noble act of murder: "I, Van Helsing, with all my purpose and with my motive for hate - I was moved to a yearning for delay which seemed to paralyze my faculties and to clog my very soul."

Reading this book was an incredible experience. I always liked vampires a lot (the real ones, not the glittering ones), so reading one of the first works of classic literature where they were introduced to popular culture was lots of fun. I was astounded by Stoker's ability to create such vivid descriptions either of scenery and landscapes without leading to boredom. In fact, less than a week ago, while I was still reading this book, I happened to pass in front of the TV when I saw some landscape full of fallen leaves on the ground, distinct glades on a forest made of beech, little streams cutting through a land made of the greenest grass; I think: hey! I know this place! I've been there! It turned out to be a documentary about Romania which was being shown by a very popular TV channel here in Brazil. When the show-host said "Romania" I thought to myself: "Hmpf! Now I get it!" Without further ado, I will only discount a star from this book for I felt the story was being a little dragged on from the half of the book forward; I know how detail-oriented Stoker is, but I think he could have delivered the same effect with fewer "This is the third day, I spent it all lying here on the boat doing nothing, and now I'm writing on my diary." parts.

Interesting quotes that I didn't include in the review:

Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonorable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.

In selfish men caution is as secure an armor for their foes as for themselves

We learn from failure, not from success!

Now that you are willing to understand, you have taken the first step to understand.

The Last Passage [Spoiler Alert!] 

We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care; later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.

Reviewed by Ademilson Moraes (guest contributor).

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Oct 12, 2015

Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia Grey 1)

Silent in the Grave book cover

by Deanna Raybourn
book review rating 2 out of 5

The polarized reviews for Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia Grey 1), by Deanna Raybourn, caught my interest and before long I found myself immersed, or rather drowning, in this British historical thriller.

“Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”

Before Sir Edward Grey could show this threatening message to Nicholas Brisbane, the private investigator he hired for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies. His wife, Lady Julia Grey, believes the cause is due to a hereditary heart deformity. When Nicholas confronts Julia and suggests the possibility of murder, Julie is outraged and accuses him of being an opportunist (and we’ll get into this in just a moment). It is a reaction she regrets upon discovering that damning note. She seeks out Nicholas to bring Edward’s murderer to justice – an investigation that would put both their lives in danger.

There are many things I like about Silent in the Grave – the beautiful and poignant quotes to start each chapter; the extravagant and alluring upper class Victorian England setting; the eccentric March family, particular the unapologetic Portia and the kind-hearted Valerius, to name a few. Unfortunately, none of these really mattered because…

I don’t like Lady Julia Grey. There, I said it.

She is a simpleton with an unbecoming, righteous aura of social elitism. She is neither witty nor rational, but rather spoiled and complacent. For example, on the night that Edward (her husband!) collapses in a room full of dinner guests, Julie was “wondering what was going to happen to all the [leftover] food” and dreading the work required when she puts on “widow’s weed.” Really? I would be worried senseless…at least. Her investigative skills, if you can even call it skills, are impetuous and clumsy often foolishly putting herself and others in harms way. I generally enjoy character flaws because they add realism and charisma, and allow me to connect with the characters. In this case however, the chasm was too great to bridge and I couldn’t connect with Julia. Her one saving grace is that she does have a softer, kinder side.

But where Julia falls short, Ms. Raybourn makes up for it in the enigmatic and mercurial Nicholas Brisbane whose astute investigative skills are reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. He is an intriguing character with a backstory rich in mystery and complexity. He draws me into his story, and by mere association Julia’s story – a predictable, yet disturbing, murder mystery.

I’m uncertain if I will read the sequel, Silent in the Sanctuary (Lady Julia Grey 2). If I do, it is to further answer the question: Who is Nicholas Brisbane?

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Oct 9, 2015

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black book cover

by Susan Hill, John Lawrence (Illustrator)
book review rating 4 out of 5

A family gathers around a Christmas fire to share ghost stories in the British tradition, only to drive their eldest, Arthur Kipps, staggering out into the winter snow in a paroxysm of remembered terror. Hours later he returns to the house determined to finally exorcise, by writing out his tale, the thing that's haunted him all these years - the memory of the Woman in Black. So begins the tale of a young solicitor sent to sort out the papers of the deceased Alice Drablow and the mystery of Eel Marsh House.

My family has always been relaxed about me watching horror movies since a very young age, so I am one of those people that don't get scared easily. However, the experience of reading this book was so captivating, creepy and downright gripping, that the book got me more scared than the movie (maybe a contributing factor on this is that I also read it alone, during the night). Hill manages to evoke a legend within the character that is The Woman in Black, while at the same time describing two main themes.

First of all, the author exploits the landscapes and scenarios to build atmospheres of terror. She uses the landscape and scenarios as an independent character itself, so they become part of the narration: "-Behind me, out on the marshes, all was still and silent; save for that movement of the water, the pony and trap might never have existed." You will easily notice that the sky gets darker, the rooms get colder, the fog sets in whenever something creepy is about to happen. Such practice sets your brain to automatically expect the worst to come at the merest mention of a change in the weather. As a result, I would find myself constantly tense way before anything would actually happen, what, in my opinion, was a lot more interesting than more sparse depictions of horror.

Secondly, there are detailed descriptions of almost everything about the main character. In both cases, Hill uses their positive features to provide a foil for those times when the situation would get out of control or really dark, which provided some balance to the story. However, I do have to admit that despite the quality of Hill’s prose, I wasn't completely satisfied with the way the story unfolded itself on the end of the book. I enjoyed the way that the final twist hung on until the last page of the book, but, in my opinion, a little bit more could have been developed; there was unfinished business in Eel Marsh House.

Overall, this edition of the book is lovely. It was a very atmospheric, and fun read. I enjoyed the combination of the frightening mansion with the inaccessibility of the road at high tide; it reminded me a bit of the idea behind The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is a traditional British ghost story, in the best sense. The book is considerably shorter than I was expecting, although it might be just a feeling, since I had been reading a bunch of drawn out and over sized books at the time I read this one. I guess this book proves that a good story can be delivered in fewer pages than you think (or publishers want). I'm not giving this book five stars because, even though I've read very few horror books, I figure it isn't very original in its plot points and execution. I did, however, very much enjoy that it's a short book that tosses away everything that is not strictly relevant. I'm automatically inclined to like any author who knows how to do that.

Interesting quotes that I didn't include in the review:

For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.

The Last Passage [Spoiler Alert!]

There was a terrible crash. Then silence. The woman in black had gone. But my darling Stella and my dear son lay on the grass. They did not move.
Our baby son was dead. Stella’s body was broken. But she did not die. Not then. For ten long months, I sat by her bed. Then Stella died at last from her terrible injuries.
They asked me for my story. I have told it. There is nothing more to write.

Reviewed by Ademilson Moraes (guest contributor).

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Oct 6, 2015

Heart of Iron (London Steampunk 2)

Heart of Iron book cover

by Bec McMaster
book review rating 4 out of 5

TANTALIZINGLY SEXY WITH a degree of danger, Heart of Iron (London Steampunk 2), by Bec McMaster, skillfully blends steampunk and paranormal romance into a captivating and entertaining adventure.

Helena Todd – or Lena – appears to be a flirtatious debutante mingling in London’s dangerous blue blood elite world – the Echelon. Nobody suspects her of being a sympathizer for the humanist organization determined to destroy the Echelon, making her the perfect spy.

Will Carver, “The Beast,” is ruthless and deadly. Fiercely loyal, Will’s priority is to keep Whitechapel safe from the Echelon. When the beautiful Lena visits Whitechapel, Will accidentally uncovers a cryptic message on her very similar to the one he pulled from a rebel suspect. He realizes she’s in danger. Stubborn as she is beautiful, Will must learn that the way to gain Lena’s trust is not through brutish demands but a game of seduction – a game he is determined to win.

I like Heart of Iron even more than Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk 1) because I connected with Lena and Will better. I appreciate their imperfection and enjoy their growth. Lena is initially introduced as a slightly immature, young lady with a grudge against Will for an unreturned kiss some years ago. And Will is a werewulfen easily driven beyond reason. But as the story unfolds, Ms. McMaster grooms Will into a hero of ages and matures Lena with a “heart of iron.”

Will and Lena’s romance was very sensual and tasteful. On the surface, both are constantly at odds with one another. The tension is pleasant with a bit of give and take. I didn’t feel like I wanted to strangle them for their insufferable blindness to the other’s true intentions. When a key event puts Lena’s life in danger, the walls they resurrected around their hearts come crashing down and they finally succumbed to their true feelings for one another. Their story becomes immensely better as their dialogue becomes more honest. Their flirtatious conversations were sweet with a touch of humor. It will no doubt appeal to romance fans as their happiness is very infectious and dare I say…cute? Yes!

Though I’m happy to see Will and Lena at peace, a far greater threat is brewing in the streets of London as vampires, werewolves, humanists, and a clockwork army are on the verge of a battle. I look forward to finding out what happens next in My Lady Quicksilver (London Steampunk 3).

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