Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Summer Country by Lauren Willig

Good morning, everyone! Today I'm a stop on the TLC blog tour for Lauren Willig's The Summer Country.

Emily Dawson's grandfather has died. As expected, he's left his shipping business to her cousin, Adam, the male heir of the family. Surprisingly, though, Emily has been left something as well - Peverills, a sugar cane plantation in Barbados. 

When the cousins make the trip out to the island to see the property, however, they're shocked to discover fields of long-dead plants and a main house that's been burned beyond repair. And the locals say it's been that way for almost forty years. Confused as to why her grandfather would have bought the property only to leave it in such a state, Emily is determined to learn more about her family's history and the long-buried secrets of Peverills.

Lauren Willig's latest features dark history amongst a lush and tropical setting.

The history of Barbados is an integral part of The Summer Country. And the story itself was inspired by one Willig heard on her own tour of Caribbean plantations on a trip she took a while ago. She says, in her acknowledgements, that it took her two years of research before she felt ready to tackle the project that had been percolating since that trip. And it shows! Her attention to detail and the history of the place and the era are carefully wrought and integrated into the story fluidly, making for a smooth and enthralling read.

I don't want to give too much away, but the story does alternate between Emily's trip in 1854 and Peverills in 1812 and leading up to the fall of the plantation. As Emily makes her own discoveries about her family history, the reader sees that same history unfold as it happens as well.

For me, personally, I felt Willig did a great job of building believable characters with obvious care towards paying heed to a history that many aren't aware of. And I think she's done a fair job of showing that history through the experiences of the many characters she's built for the book. She has a great historical note detailing the various resources she used in creating these characters as well as suggested further reading.

To see more stops on the tour be sure to check out the official TLC tour page here.

For more on Lauren Willig and her work you can visit her website here. You can also like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Summer Guests by Mary Alice Monroe

A storm is brewing and that means a host of evacuees making their way up the coast from Florida to safer areas. Grace Phillips offers her farm to a few close friends and their various animals, which is fortunate because they have the space and the means to put up a number of people, dogs, and, thankfully, horses. But throughout the week, the stress and tension of close quarters and worries over the storm play havoc on the farm and its residents. As the storm tears through its path, they all find that while they may be physically safe, the hurricane will tear through them emotionally. By the end, friends and lovers will find the closest of relationships stressed to the max. Whether they'll come out of it intact is the real question. 

Talk about a book I can empathize with. Growing up in southwest Louisiana, I was no stranger to hurricanes, storm preparations, and evacuations. My final years of college were the worst with storm after storm threatening the area and dissipating before hitting, causing all of the local businesses and the schools to wan in their response levels with each new storm.

So yeah, I can understand stress centered around leaving your home, wondering if your home will make it, worrying about animals, and even the friction it all causes among groups of people sheltered together.

Of course in The Summer Guests, the farm these folks have evacuated to is HUGE! There's the main house, the barn, and two "cottages," which are anything but the small abodes I imagined they would be. So there's plenty of space for these folks to all spread out and ignore one another. But they don't. In part because of Grace and their relationships with her.

While the various guests all vaguely know one another, some simply due to being part of the horse world, the one person they all know is Grace. And she'd like nothing more than for all her close friends to get along with one another. But tension and stress definitely don't bring out the best in people. You can imagine the strength of the emotional storm brewing is as strong by the time it figuratively hits as the hurricane they're all bracing for!

One thing I'm not familiar with is horses. I rode, more regularly than most, but it was limited to summer camps and trips to dude ranches. Dressage and jumping, maintenance, sales, etc are all foreign to me. But they are a central portion of The Summer Guests. This was an interesting aspect of the book and one that's threaded throughout, giving the reader a sense of familiarity from the start even if you know literally nothing about horses at all.

The Summer Guests is the kind of read you can sink into and the characters are the kind you can call friends by the end. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even more so now that I no longer live along the coast and have to worry about storms that are already earning names this calendar year!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Those People by Louise Candlish

The neighbors at Lowland Way are happy with their little suburban paradise. Until the owner of number 1 passes away and her nephew inherits. The first things the neighbors notice are the renovations. The knocking down of a wall they’d tried so hard to preserve kicks off a string of construction, none of which they're certain the man has permits to do himself. Then it’s the cars, so many of them that the neighbors can’t keep track. And he’s selling them out of his home! In addition to that, the neighbors immediately around number 1 can’t sleep for the loud music and TV noise coming from the house at all hours.

Complaints don’t work - the new owners of number 1 don’t care and the council doesn’t have the resources to do anything. But when it all culminates in a horrible accident, it’s the police that finally get dragged in. But was it an accident at all?

Oh, Louise Candlish must have lived in my neighborhood to prompt this book! Well, except that our neighbors weren’t so disturbing as to have been approached about all of it, so I don’t know how they would have reacted. The rest of us certainly didn't conspire against them. But the number of cars! And the tow trucks constantly delivering more. And the weekends spent working on diesel engine vehicles backfiring at random moments. Ugh.

So yeah, I understand this book! Anyone who’s ever dealt with annoying neighbors understands this book!

Those People is domestic drama and dark thriller all rolled up in a tight ball. It makes for great tension - Candlish throws a police investigation at you from the very start with neighbors giving door-to-door testimony at the beginning of each chapter, but then catapulting the reader back to the arrival of the new owners of number 1 and tracking occurrences right up to the “accident” that we all know is coming. She almost lulls you into a complacency, making you wonder just how bad things could possibly get, but with that reminder that they apparently do get REALLY bad.

Like her previous book, Those People is an examination in pushing people to their limits. And in how they'll react when it feels like no one is on their side at that point - both the protagonists and the antagonists!

Monday, June 10, 2019

Flask of the Drunken Master by Susan Spann - paperback release

The third book in Susan Spann's amazing Shinobi series is finally out in paperback tomorrow! It's been a long time coming, folks. This book released in hardcover in 2015, which is when this post originally ran. I'm reposting here, though, to highlight the paperback release and to show of the brand spanking new cover, which is, I think you'll agree, pretty fantastic!

A man has been murdered and Hiro's friend Ginjiro stands accused. The victim was a fellow brewer whose son racked up a hefty debt with Ginjiro. Witnesses reported the seeing the dead man and Ginjiro arguing over exactly that matter the night before the body is found in Ginjiro's alley. Some even say that Ginjiro was heard threatening the dead man! 

Nevertheless, the evidence seems highly circumstantial to Hiro and Father Mateo who are both certain their friend is no killer. Though Hiro is somewhat reluctant to cross the investigating yoriki, the samurai is well aware that the man is more interested in a quick arrest rather than real justice. And since that quick arrest means ruining the life of a friend, Hiro and Father Mateo can't possibly stand by without helping.

Sake politics, a city on high alert for possibly spies, and an investigation with twists galore - all set in sixteenth century Kyoto! This third in Spann's series is clever and intriguing. If you're new to Spann's work, Flask can most definitely work as a stand alone or introduction to the series. And as with any good series you'll want to go back and read the previous installments as well. There are a few references to Blade of the Samurai, but nothing too spoilery should you choose to start with Flask.

Spann is the perfect figurative juggler. This is not only an historic setting, but a time/place/culture that few American readers are familiar with in any way. And it's a mystery. So that means that Spann has to put together a great plot (done), while continuing to grow her series characters (also done), and set a believable tone and setting for her readers (done fabulously). What's more, as I noted with the previous review, Spann's attention to detail is seemingly impeccable.

I don't know of anyone else in the mystery world tackling such an intricate and unique setting right now. If you're a fan of historicals and fun mysteries, I definitely suggest giving this series a try. They're not quite cozy but are light enough to appeal to both cozy and darker fans.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Short Fiction Friday: Skidding Into Oblivion by Brian HodgeA

I first discovered Brian Hodge in 2012 with Stephen Jones’s fantastic anthology A Book of Horrors. In an anthology full of truly excellent short stories, Hodge’s “Roots and All” was hands down a favorite and put him immediately on my list of authors I needed to read more of. The only problem was that much of his work was out of print at the time. So I sought out more anthologies!

“Root and All” just happens to be the opening tale in his latest collection, Skidding Into Oblivion, which released earlier this year. And trust me when I say that opening with that tale is a great indication of what’s to come. The entire collection is amazing! And mostly new to me (two Lovecraftian tales were the only others I was previously familiar with, though one was in a collection I was never able to get my hands on).

Hodge’s work runs the gamut from folklorish nightmares and creepy kids to cosmic horror and demons. Each story is a perfect short, a fully encompassed tale with a fully realized world and fully developed characters. He is, in my opinion, one of the best horror writers of the moment and one of the best short story authors I’ve ever read.

Yes, I know I’m fangirling a bit, but one of my favorite things about diving into any anthology is the promise of discovering a new-to-me author. And for seven years now I’ve never once read a story from Hodge that I didn’t love. They’re creepy but also, sometimes, pack an unexpected emotional punch as well. “We the Fortunate Bereaved” and “One Possible Shape of Things to Come” hit me hard as a new parent.

“Eternal, Every Since Wednesday” (a definite favorite of this collection) also had a bit of an emotional punch for me, but stands out simply because I abhor the cold and the snow! And yet I live in Colorado, which also happens to be where Hodge lives (and says he loves the snow). So the story hit close to home for that reason as well!

Any fan of the genre will be doing themselves a real treat in reading Skidding Into Oblivion. I highly, highly recommend it!

Here's a list of all of the stories included in the collection. Note, only "One Last Year Without a Summer" is new to the collection. All of the other stories have previously appeared elsewhere and are collected together for the first time here.

Roots and All
This Stagnant Breath of Change
Scars in Progress
Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls
Eternal, Ever Since Wednesday
Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella
We, The Fortunate Bereaved
One Possible Shape of Things to Come
Cures For a Sickened World
The Same Deep Waters as You
One Last Year Without a Summer

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Worst is Yet to Come by S.P. Miskowski

Tasha has never had a best friend. Until she met Briar. 

Tasha officially meets the new girl at school while saving her from bullying between classes. They skip out, wandering the town of Skillute and immediately bonding.

Tasha’s mother isn’t a fan of Briar, convinced she’s not the right kind of friend for her daughter. Her husband feels differently, glad their daughter finally has a friend at all. What neither they nor Tasha and Briar know, though, is that Skillute has a dark history that preys on the vulnerable. And Briar is very vulnerable.

Briar and Tasha are everyday teens, for the most part. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that neither of them has had what would be considered a truly normal childhood.

Tasha is a bit overly protected by a mom who tries too hard to be her best (and only) friend. And Briar has been moved around so much lately thanks to her mother's new boyfriend that she hasn't been able to set down roots at all. So they're both outsiders, to an extent. Which makes both of them perfectly matched in the friend category.

I wanted to love this short horror novel. Miskowski draws admirable reviews from big names in the horror genre, which was how I discovered this book to begin with.

And there’s lots to like in The Worst is Yet to Come. Lots. But overall I couldn’t love it. It felt disorganized, with dangling threads that never panned out and too many questions left by the end.

I used to hate stories with no explanation. No neatly tied up end. I’m ok with that now, but there was too much gray area at the end of this one for my taste. And maybe some of that is because Miskowski has explored Skillute in prior novels and stories that I’ve yet to read. Maybe I’m missing out on some of those threads because they’re part of previous Skillute installments.

The book alternates between various viewpoints, including Tasha, Briar, Tasha's parents, and one of Briar's neighbors who offers up some of the weirder elements of Skillute's history. And it's these elements that I really wanted more of - and again acknowledge that I'm likely missing due to not having yet read the other Skillute based tales. But I also think that a book should stand on its own to a large extent and, Skillute's twisted background aside, The Worst is Yet to Come simply feels incomplete.

It's not the lack of explanation about what's happening to the characters, which I won't spoil. But it's the various pieces that are introduced here that never come to anything. Two side characters, a brother and sister, keep a close eye on Briar in the beginning, murmuring cryptically to one another about things that never quite make sense. And then they vanish. Their part in the story is just one example of things that never quite fits comprehensively into the story.

So again, I liked this book. It hit all the right notes in terms of dark story and creepy setting. It also touches on some things that terrify me to no end as a new parent as much of the story is focused on the horrors of parenting today! But I couldn't love it, simply because I felt like I was missing too many pieces to truly get it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann - paperback release

Good morning, everyone! As I mentioned last week, the first three books in Susan Spann's fabulous Shinobi series are finally being released in paperback! Book one came out at the end of last month and book two, Blade of the Samurai, releases today. Though I reviews Blade and the follow up, Flask of the Drunken Master, back when they released in hardcover, I'm reposting my reviews of them now featuring the brand new - and amazing! - covers.

This review was originally posted back in 2014.

The shogun's cousin has been murdered in his office and Hiro and Father Mateo have been asked to investigate. They agree, reluctantly, but have hidden the fact that they are both already aware of the murder. In the wee hours of the morning, and just before the body is discovered, Hiro's fellow shinobi Kazu arrived at Father Mateo's residence begging for Hiro's help. The dead man had been murdered with Kazu's own blade! Kazu swore his innocence but Hiro isn't so certain - a shinobi like himself would be trained to lie after all. The shogun gives Hiro and Father Mateo just three days to find the killer. When those three days are up, someone will be punished for the crime whether they've been proven guilty or not. 

This second in Spann's series is my introduction to the story. And while that's mostly fine - the mystery stands alone - the character set up is something I've missed out on.

First, shinobi according to Spann's provided glossary means:

literally "shadowed person." Shinobi is the Japanese pronunciation of the characters that many Westerners pronounce "ninja." ("Ninja" is based on a Chinese pronunciation.)

Second, Hiro's (and Kazu's) real purpose in Kyoto is secret. No one knows they are shinobi. They are there under cover - Hiro is supposed to protect Father Mateo and does so under the guise of being his translator. I do imagine that much of this as well as the development of Hiro and Father Mateo's relationship plays a great part in the plot of Claws of the Cat. In this second outing, though, it's clear that Father Mateo knows Hiro is shinobi and that the two of them have developed a rapport and trust based around his skills and their shared secret. And yet Hiro doesn't know why he's been hired to protect Father Mateo in particular.

Spann spends a good amount of time setting the scene both culturally and historically in the book, but it is fluid and blends naturally into the story rather than sounding like a classroom lecture interspersed in the narrative. Sixteenth century Japan has some quite different rules about class, law, and respect. Most interesting, and a key part of the plot here, is the fact that if Hiro and Father Mateo fail in uncovering the murderer's identity to the shogun's satisfaction, they could actually be held responsible in the killer's stead! At the same time, there's a political based secondary plot that involves the arrival of a neighboring lord and a possible plot against the shogun.

I quite enjoyed my introduction to Hiro and Father Mateo. Spann's setting is unique and the overall tone is somewhat light. I really appreciated the fact that Spann was able to so smoothly incorporate the historical aspects, giving the reader a real understanding of Kyoto in the 1500s. Readers looking for something beyond the usual mystery fare will certainly find the Shinobi Mysteries appealing.