Book Review: Headless by Tristram Lowe

A sinister murder mystery that slowly reveals its paranormal secrets, set against the vivid backdrop of Japan.

3.5/5 stars

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Being a photographer at a Tokyo newspaper is no walk in the park—unless you’re Akio Tsukino and only get assigned to shoot parades and park festivals.

All that changes when a serial killer starts chopping off heads in nearby Kofu. Akio maneuvers his way onto the assignment in order to prove himself and get closer to enigmatic staff writer Masami Sato. When the investigation takes a supernatural turn, the unlikely partners find themselves caught between solving the mystery and saving their own lives.

In this thrilling and imaginative debut by Tristram Lowe, getting the story may cost them their heads.

See it on Amazon (paperback or Kindle) or the author’s website

my thoughts for reviews 1

I was given a copy of Headless by the author in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinions.

Headless started out your standard murder mystery but ended a distinctly creepy paranormal story. Though I am usually not a fan of contemporary stories turning paranormal, there was good balance between the two elements throughout the novel that allowed me to enjoy it.

I loved the setting of Headless. Most of the books I read are set in the US or a fantasy world, so it was refreshing to read a book set 100% in Japan. I felt like I got a really good sense of not only the individual places the characters visited, but of the culture.

The story was told in third person, alternating between Akio’s and Masami’s POVs. Akio’s POV told the bulk of the story. Both characters had strong voices and interesting personalities that brought the story to life.

Akio‘s character was interesting for me. He was young and awkward, with a clear idea in his head of who he “should be” without any hope of becoming that ideal. He could be annoying at times, but I was willing to forgive him because I understood where his character was coming from. His voice was clear throughout the novel, reflecting the growth Akio experienced.

Masami was my favorite character. She was the take-no-shit reporter who has a lot of hidden talents and absolutely no patience for Akio’s idiocy. Though we got to see a lot of her development and personality from Akio’s perspective, I loved the chapters told from her POV, and wished there were more of them.

Akio was slightly obsessed with Masami (trying to find the ice queen’s “human” side), while Masami had zero patience for Akio. The chemistry between them never developed, but I actually loved that. They were thrown together by circumstances and developed a working relationship, but they were never going to become best friends.

The mystery unfolded nicely, starting off simple and gaining complexity as it sucked me in. From the first chapter, the reader (if not the characters) has a sense of who the killer is, but as the story progressed, I found myself surprised by the details that fleshed out that initial idea. By the end of the book, I was engrossed with the mystery, loving the combination of supernatural and historical details.

The only problem of the book is the pacing. In the part of the book where the characters are still looking for “real world” explanations, the pacing dragged a little. However, about halfway through it picked up, and by the end, I was completely engrossed in the story. The transition from a normal murder mystery to a paranormal thriller felt natural, and helped grab my attention.

I would recommend Headless to anyone looking for a murder mystery with a supernatural twist and a unique setting. Though the book had undeniably dark and creepy moments, the humor helped balance it out. Ultimately I will remember it for the fascinating mystery and historical angle, not just the number of people who got beheaded.

Book Review: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

I went into this book with high hopes after having had it recommended to me by tons of people…and it did not live up to my expectations at all.

2/5 stars

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synopsis for reviews 2

Jo Montfort is beautiful and rich, and soon—like all the girls in her class—she’ll graduate from finishing school and be married off to a wealthy bachelor. Which is the last thing she wants. Jo secretly dreams of becoming a writer—a newspaper reporter like the trailblazing Nellie Bly.

Wild aspirations aside, Jo’s life seems perfect until tragedy strikes: her father is found dead. Charles Montfort accidentally shot himself while cleaning his revolver. One of New York City’s wealthiest men, he owned a newspaper and was partner in a massive shipping firm, and Jo knows he was far too smart to clean a loaded gun.

The more Jo uncovers about her father’s death, the more her suspicions grow. There are too many secrets. And they all seem to be buried in plain sight. Then she meets Eddie—a young, brash, infuriatingly handsome reporter at her father’s newspaper—and it becomes all too clear how much she stands to lose if she keeps searching for the truth. Only now it might be too late to stop.

The past never stays buried forever. Life is dirtier than Jo Montfort could ever have imagined, and the truth is the dirtiest part of all.

my thoughts for reviews 1

This book did not work for me, but I never hated it enough to DNF it.

My main problem with this book centers around the main character, Jo—and it’s really frustrating, because on paper, I should have loved her. She was from an old money family that wanted to shove her into a box labeled Good Girl, but she wanted to rebel from that sheltered life to become a journalist (like Nellie Bly…they said about a million times). She was headstrong and spunky and feminist in an era that wanted women to sit down and shut up, and when faced with the murder of her father, she was going to be the one who found his killer, societal norms be damned.

…at least, that’s who she was supposed to be.

In actuality, I found Jo to be naive and annoying. She knew almost nothing about the real world and refused to admit that anyone she knew could have a dark side—while she was investigating a murder. I never fell in love with her spunk; she was rebellious only when no one was watching, and docile in the society she was supposedly revolting from.

Most fundamentally, Jo’s character never struck me as brilliant or journalistic. She was just a girl in over her head trying to get justice for her father…and that would have been okay (really interesting actually) if the author hadn’t spent all her energy trying to convince me otherwise.

Here’s the thing, though. As much as I hated Jo for being clueless, I had to admit that it was at least partially believable. Her entire life had been dedicated to keeping her sheltered and pure, so was it really her fault if she didn’t understand what was going on when people assumed she was a prostitute? Not really—and yet, it was so annoying to read that I ended up hating Jo anyway.

The rest of the characters were very meh. Most of the side characters were one-dimensional, existing to fill a role rather than add nuance or depth to the story. Still, I liked a few of the characters, especially Fay and Oscar.

Eddie, the journalist Jo ropes into helping her investigate her father’s death, suffered similar character flaws. Even once I knew his backstory, he remained a fairly boring character. He never did anything unexpected or revealed a surprising side of himself.

The romance between Eddie and Jo was instalove, pure and simple. Jo would have fallen for the first mildly attractive guy who treated her like a human being…and she did. Eddie was a smart reporter, but there was nothing about him that made him “right” for Jo, and their romance felt more like an inevitable plot device than falling in love.

Of course, Jo was also tied to old money Bram, her presumptive fiance and boring Good Guy. I actually would have liked this story more if the love triangle had been emphasized, but as it was, Jo had two love interests, and I cared about neither.

The writing in These Shallow Graves didn’t work for me. It was very “telly” (instead of “showy”), and a lot of the dialogue felt stilted and awkward. The setting was described well, but there were a lot of details thrown in that struck me as “look at my research” instead of “this adds to the story.”

Finally, the actual mystery in These Shallow Graves was nothing amazing. The plot felt very straightforward, and while Jo might have been shocked when accidental deaths turned out to be murders, I certainly wasn’t.

This book is incredibly long, and unnecessarily so. A faster and shorter plot could have made the mystery feel more exciting, but as it was, each clue was beaten to death before the next one emerged. I think this book could have earned an entire extra star if it wasn’t sooooooooo long.

Still, when the whole mystery was laid out, it was an interesting and layered story. The plot never dragged so much that I gave up on the book. For all its faults, TSG kept me reading.

I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction set during this era and to people willing to forgive their protagonist for certain faults. It is an interesting look at the time period, but the mystery is not strong enough for me to recommend it as a mystery novel.

Overall, this is a book that rubbed me the wrong way from the very beginning, but I believe that someone with different tastes could really enjoy the story and the characters. 

Book Review: Slash by Evan Kingston

This book surprised me with its stylistic writing and unique premise, but left me conflicted over the success of its execution.

3.5/5 stars

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 I received a copy of Slash from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Author’s description of Slash:

Alex Bledsoe would rather die than reveal her secret crush. As a star of TV’s #1 family drama, she’s certain coming out of the closet would end her career. Worse still, her one true love is America’s hottest young actress, Lissa Blaine, who just happens to play her older, prettier, and smarter big sis each week on Koop’s Kitchen. So Alex hates Lissa too, wishes her dead every time she stumbles onto the tabloid covers with a Long-Island in hand and some new B-list beefcake on her arm.

Desperate for an outlet each night after filming wraps, Alex closes the shades on her trailer and reads slash stories on internet fan-fiction forums: trashy little tales written by viewers about an imagined romance between her character and Lissa’s. All unbelievable moans and trite whispers, the fantasies are so incestuously metafictional, Alex believes them best taken to her grave—until an anonymous author begins to post violent slash stories, and Alex’s lusty dreams start to open up graves of their own.

As Alex struggles to decide whether she is turned on or disturbed, Koop’s Kitchen’s real-life actors start dying in suspiciously similar scenes. Sure that the parallels are more than coincidence, she begins to search the stories for suspects and clues instead of steamy caresses. But as she works to catch the killer before he slashes again, Alex realizes that revealing the secrets she’d die to hide might be the only way to save the lives of everyone she loves.

Slash was originally released as seven “episodes” from 2013 to 2014, and has recently been released as a collected edition.

There was a lot to enjoy with this book. For me at least, the premise was outside of anything I’d really ever read before. I loved the way Kingston incorporated slash fan fiction. Fan fic is something that I’ve encountered the fringes of on the internet, but that I’ve never really gotten into, so it was interesting to see it play a significant role in a novel. The stories and the forum onto which they were posted felt realistic, as did the digs Kingston worked in about the writing quality of most fan fic, especially slash.

The reality TV angle of the book was fun to read. Koop’s Kitchen is a fascinating mixture of writers who want a platform to preach “family values” and network specialists determined to use scandal to score high ratings. I loved the subtle cynicism infused throughout the descriptions of filming the series and the Hollywood world in which the story takes place.

The mystery was compelling. The way the stories played out in real life worked well with the story, and I liked that all of the deaths were “suicides,” adding an extra level of confusion to the early episodes. Each “episode” essentially focuses on investigating a different suspect. I could usually tell that the main character, Alex, was jumping to the wrong conclusion as to who the killer was, but for the life of me, I had no idea who the murderer could be. The last episode, when everything starts to come together, still kept up the suspense and the surprises. In the end, I liked the resolution of the mystery and of the overall plot.

The characterization wasn’t overly complex, but it got the job done. I loved Perry, he was hilarious. By the end of the story, I had a clear sense of who each of the major characters were. I loved the way Kingston worked in each character’s backstory. The flashback style would have come off as clunky with a different story, but it actually really worked in Slash.

I’m on the fence about a few parts of the book.

Alex, the main character, is one of them. I can’t decide if I connected to her. Parts of her personality–her most basic fears, her feelings about acting and Koop’s Kitchen, her drive for the truth–were very compelling and relatable. I honestly wanted to like Alex. Though the ages of the characters put the book in the NA genre, Alex’s voice had a YA feel. I didn’t feel like this took away from the story at all, and it was nice to have the familiar narrative style in an unfamiliar genre.

When I picked up the first episode of Slash, my first thought about Alex was basically “wow this girl is screwed up.” I thought that Kingston was going for the broken protagonist, but in fact, he presented her personality in a way that I realized she wasn’t screwed up psychologically that much. She has issues, of course, and her addiction to slash is one of them, but Kingston presents them with no judgement in his tone or plot structure, so that you end up sympathizing with her as a struggling individual rather than looking at her as damaged goods. Especially with the subject matter Kingston decided to tackle, I appreciated the matter-of-fact-ness of his writing throughout the book, making sure that Slash avoided what could have had an overwhelmingly preachy tone.

However, there were other parts of her personality that I understood on a conceptual basis but that I never emotionally connected with, especially her love/obsession with Lissa.

You learn fairly early on that Lissa is…a bitch. I really didn’t like her, though the characterization that made me hate her was skillfully done. At times, Alex sort of admitted that Lissa’s personality sucked, but her obsession (and that is a fair word to use–even Alex admitted it) never wavered. Kingston did provide psychological reasons for this (which tied in to her fears/doubts about her sexuality), but I never emotionally believed them; I still felt like her obsession was shallow and unreasonable, and I couldn’t connect to it. If the psychology had been more clearly shown–instead of basically just told to the main character by other people–it might have been a very different story.

One part of the story that was different from what I expected was the darkness of the plot. From the synopsis provided, I got the impression that I was in store for a seriously dark and screwed up story (along the lines of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, which I read last year). In reality, the novel was a lot more mellow than I expected. Horrific things happened, sure, but most of them were told second-hand (much in the style of Macbeth, where someone runs off screen, dies, and some poor messenger has to relate the gruesome details). It wasn’t until the seventh and final episode that things got super horror-esque.

I was actually okay with this aspect of the plot. It was kind of nice to read a story that deals with dark topics and horror elements without throwing themselves headlong into scaring or scarring the reader.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the idea of reading horror but maybe isn’t ready for nightmare level plots. The story has a good amount of humor, characterization, and voice.  The writing is stylistically interesting and very readable–I breezed through the seven episodes in a few days of light reading. While there were specific areas of the execution that I feel missed the mark, the story in its entirety is definitely worth reading.

Book Review: Finger Lickin’ Fifteen by Janet Evanovich

My favorite Stephanie Plum book so far. Totally blew the other recent books in the series out of the water with depth of plot and character development.

(By the way, I didn’t just skip book #14. I had actually read it when I posted my review of 7-13, just forgot that I had finished it. Awkward, but what I said in that review works for book 14, so I’m not going to review it separately.)

5/5 stars

Note: This review will contain spoilers for this book and the previous books in the series. Usually, I don’t include any spoilers about the book I’m review’s plot, but this time I am because I NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT. I don’t feel like I can discuss the parts of this book I loved without going into detail about certain plot events. Ergo, if you haven’t read up this point in the series and are planning to (which you should be, because it’s awesome), stop reading.

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Amazon description of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen:

Stephanie Plum is working overtime tracking felons for the bonds office at night and snooping for security expert Carlos Manoso, aka Ranger, during the day. Can she hunt down two killers, a traitor, and five skips, keep her grandmother out of the sauce, and solve Ranger’s problems and not jump his bones?

This book really highlighted the emotional connections Stephanie has with both Ranger and Morelli. In this book, she is “off again” with Morelli, after an argument about peanut butter blew out of proportion. Unlike previous “off again” sessions, the two seem genuinely pissed at each other, and at the circumstances that keep bringing them back into each other’s worlds.

When they did eventually gravitate back together, it was in really touching scenes (that were often then get shattered by her working for Ranger). Morelli’s reactions to thinking she is sleeping with Ranger tugged at my heartstrings. For the first time in a while, I felt like we as readers got proof of Morelli’s emotional connection to Stephanie, not just his sex drive.

In the same way, this book quantified Ranger’s appreciation for Stephanie as a person, not just a sexy body or entertaining snafu. His security company has been severely compromised by a series of break-ins, most probably the work of an inside man. Ranger hires Stephanie to investigate his employees and give him her opinions on the case. Throughout the book, he asks her to look at crime scenes and reports to get her perspective. This reveals that Ranger honestly respects Stephanie’s admittedly kind of hit-and-miss ability to solve crazy mysteries. For me, this fundamentally redefined their relationship, making me respect the possibility of a Ranger-Stephanie coupling more.

To be clear, I’m still convinced Stephanie and Morelli are meant to be together. They’re perfect. They have twoo wuv. They are OTP. The extent to which I need their ship to sail is up there with Captain Swan on OUAT and Spuffy on Buffy.

Please forgive that tangent into fandom geekiness. I’m aware that wasn’t really English. Apologies.

I also loved the plot of this book. The cooking competition was a classic Stephanie and Lula trainwreck, and it was hilarious to read. Plus, it actually tied into the title of the book, which is a freaking novelty for this series.

I loved this book, and I can’t wait to read more of the series, once it comes in the mail. This book renewed my faith in the series, which was running the danger of becoming simplistic and repetitive (though it was still hilarious and addicting, I’m not going to lie).

Book Review: Stephanie Plum books 7-13 by Janet Evanovich

Guys, I went a little crazy this week. I got sick and I missed four days of school and I picked up the seventh Stephanie Plum book by Janet Evanovich because I wanted something fun to read while I was at home alone, right? And then I finished that one and picked up the next one and that process continued straight through book number thirteen.

So, yeah. This review isn’t really a review. More of a short commentary on the books, the series, the characters, etc. I’m tired and I have a ton of makeup work, so I’m not going to do individual reviews for each book, especially because many would be the same.

4.5/5 stars for all of them

I loved all of these books. They’re funny, sexy, and needless to say, addictive. The characters have grown throughout the series. They aren’t tropes. The relationships between them progress and grow, instead of stagnating.

Stephanie’s character feels honest. She’s real. She’s not perfect; in fact, she’s far from it. She’s blundering her way through life, not sure where she’s going but determined to get there. She struggles with big decisions. Even when she breaks down crying, she is incredibly strong. Evanovich could have easily made her a damsel in distress who flings herself at whatever man who saves her. And while that description on the surface seems true of Stephanie, when you read the series you understand that she is so much more than that. She relies on the men in her life, sure, but she also keeps herself independent. Yeah, that gets her in a lot of trouble, but it also shows her strength of character. She doesn’t lie down and take anything from anyone.

I’d like it to be clear that these books are do not fall prey to the cookie cutter syndrome, AKA they aren’t all the same. Though the books can have similar plot structures, each mystery is unique and compelling. Character development moves forward. Each book is a singular entity that enhances the series. The books are not forgettable, and the only reason they are blurring together in my mind is the insane rate at which I read them, not by any fault on the part of the author.

There isn’t much more I can say without spoilers, or that I haven’t said before. I’d recommend these books to anyone who wants a good laugh, a sexy romance, and a fast-paced adventure. YA readers could totally handle them, as long as they’re comfortable with some pretty serious violence and the occasional sex scene.