Book Review: The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Plastic Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is Holmberg’s fourth entry into her Paper Magician universe. This is not a direct sequel, rather The Plastic Magician explores new themes and magics within the same universe as the Paper Magician Trilogy. This means you can read this book as a standalone without having read the others. But I’m going to say right now that if you haven’t read the original trilogy, then you are seriously missing out.

In this story, we leave magicians Ceony Twill and Emery Thane behind and instead follow Alvie Brechenmacher, an American girl with German parents who desperately wants to be a polymaker, that is- a magician who works with plastic. As polymaking is the newest and least understood magic, there is an entire world waiting for discovery, and Alvie, naturally brilliant and creative, wants to make her mark on the world. When she manages to apprentice to the world’s foremost polymaker, all of Alvie’s dreams seem to be coming true. But when she and her mentor develop a groundbreaking new invention, old rivalries emerge and Alvie learns that the world of magician can be a dangerous one.

This was a great addition to the Paper Magician world. Alvie is a fantastic protagonist–unapologetically brilliant, kind, creative, and more than a little socially awkward. I also enjoyed how, despite the book’s historical setting, everyone seems to take Alvie’s intellect as a given, and as an asset. Alvie occupies the brilliant inventor trope that is so often the territory of male characters, and she does it well. I always love a female protagonist who is comfortable with their own intelligence.

In fact, my biggest complaint would be that the antagonist of this book, while amoral and devious, exists more as a witless foil than a true challenge. While he certainly succeeds in disrupting things in the book (as he must), once his master plan was revealed, I felt a bit let down (really guy, that was your plan? And then what?!).

In all, this is a fun YA book that will appeal to a wide age range. Fans of the previous books will enjoy this one, and anyone who thinks this book looks good should check out the Paper Magician, like, yesterday.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

The Air Raid Killer by Frank Goldammer

Dresden, 1945, is a city on the edge. The Third Reich is in its (well deserved) death spiral, the Russians are encroaching to the east as American forces push through from the west, air raids are constant, and wartime rationing and an influx of refugees have left the city on the brink of starvation. Amidst all this chaos, a brutal killer stalks the streets. Max Heller is a Detective Inspector with the Dresden police, a man seeking justice in a country descended into paranoia and chaos. As the body count grows, Heller must not only find a way to stop a serial killer who strikes when the air raid sirens sound, but to ensure justice in a city still under the thumb of Hitler’s fanatics.

This book was fantastic, a noir in every sense of the world. Goldammer has painted a world in the deep blacks, grays, and browns of a world torn apart by war, an ancient city beset on all sides by enemies and destructive forces. Goldammer has painted us a vivid picture of a city under seige, and the hardships its people must endure. In the midst of starvation, overflowing refugee camps, and the brutality and paranoia of Hitler’s officials, one serial killer is something most people are content to overlook, to let slide without investigation as the realities of war seem so much mire dire. Max Heller is the perfect detective to place into this mess. His overarching sense of duty and justice compel him to see the case resolved, to ensure that he can do a small part to defend his world against true anarchy.

The story is compelling, with actual historical events woven through the plot. I finished the book in one day, more accurately one sitting. This is an engaging read, infused with the unreality and paranoia of the time period. Max Heller isn’t the most fleshed out protagonist out there, but he doesn’t have to be. Rather, he represents our “better angels” fighting a losing battle against horror.

Fans of WWII era stories, dark mysteries, or serial killer-related plots will really like this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

In 1888, young Egyptologist Romulous Hardy is offered a vast sum of money by a reclusive millionaire to search for ancient tombs in Egypt. Hardy jumps at the chance to get out of the library and into the field, but soon finds himself dealing with things no one could have forseen. After tragedy befalls his expedition, Hardy is charged with bringing the mummies he recovered (six in all, though one sarcophagus is twice as big as any normal human) back to LA. When his train is waylaid in the Arizona desert, he learns that his cargo may be more dangerous than he ever suspected, and that cursed mummies are only the tip of the iceberg.

This was a fun, entertaining, and wild ride. Told in the style of old weird fiction stories, Sidor brings quite a bit of HP Lovecraft and The Mummy to the table. The latter half of the book, which takes place in Arizona and Mexico is evocative of Weird West stories. There are monsters and mummies and cultists and vampires. There are cowboys and banditos and Pinkertons and train heists. There’s cannibalism and curses and ancient legends. This book is a mashup of everything that makes weird fiction fun.

In fact, my biggest complaint is that in including everything, the story loses focus in places and drifts along, detached. Sometimes the actions runs along at breakneck pace, and sometimes it stutters to a halt to gaze for a while at the supernatural scenery.

Still, anyone who is looking for a good time with some good, old-fashioned pulp will probably enjoy this book. I mean, just look at that epic cover art! If the cover sings to you, then more than likely the book will as well.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Haunted Heart of America by Logan Corelli

The Haunted Heart of America: In-Depth Investigations of the Villisca Ax Murder House, Myrtles Plantation & Other Frightful Sites by Logan Corelli

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? A tale of phantom footsteps, flickering lights, and unexpected icy drafts. So much the better when huddled under the blankets on a dark winter’s night. I’d be willing to lay down money that even the most scientific and logical among us experience a pleasurable frisson while reading about these purportedly true hauntings. And so I opened The Haunted Heart of America with anticipation, especially as the book details the author’s own experiences in famous (or infamous) haunted locations across the country.

Unfortunately, I found the book to be disappointing. While Corelli brings us to well known sites like the Myrtles Plantation and Waverly Sanatorium (famous from any number of ghost hunter television shows), he doesnt really bring anything new to the story. Each chapter details his experiences at a different haunted location, and each is written in the style of a high school lab report. The chapters are ungainly and awkwardly written, with little attention paid to telling Corelli’s story in a compelling manner. The use of lab report-style chapters would be more appropriate if the techniques and approach to the subject matter was handled in a more scientific way, but Corelli and his colleagues seem to be without defined purpose or set methodology, and rather wander about haunted locations, using instrumentation and personal observation at whim.

I’ll say again, I don’t read books such as these for their scientific merits, by rather for their entertainment value. Unfortunately, Haunted Heart of America fails to deliver on both counts.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James


The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

In the 1950s, Idlewild Hall in rural Vermont was a place where families sent daughters they’d rather forget. The residents of the boarding school are illegitimate, traumatized, criminal. But the school may be haunted by more than bad memories; a spirit called Mary Hand is said to stalk the halls, and four roommates, bonded over shared misery, will face the spirits of Idlewild when one of them disappears.

Meanwhile, in 2014, a local journalist is shocked to hear that long-abandoned Idlewild Hall is being restored. Her own obsession with the overgrown and forgotten school started when her sister’s body was discovered on the grounds twenty years earlier. As she begins to dig into the history of the school, she finds old mysteries entwined with new, and a growing sense that something haunts the grounds of the old school.

This was a wonderful mystery story with a supernatural twist. St. James weaves her narrative between 1950 and 2014, slowly parsing out information and clues to the reader. The book is atmospheric; the boarding school exudes a palpable sense of menace and despair. Fiona Sheridan, the journalist, and the four roommates from 1950 are well-written, with the young students quickly becoming characters to care about and fear for. 

The supernatural elements of the story are well done, and fit organically into the plot. Who, or what, Mary Hand may be is dangled in front of the reader, but largely kept teasingly out of reach until the very end.

In all, this is a wonderfully satisfying mystery that avoids the pitfalls of the mystery thriller genre. Anyone who wants a ghost story mixed in with their mystery will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Life of Death by Ralph R. Rossell

The Life of Death: The Bare Bones of Undertaking by Ralph R. Rossell

Ralph Rossell grew up in his family’s Funeral home, helping his father and uncle in the day-to-day of the business. After most of a lifetime in the business, Rossell inadvertently started on the path to this book by joining a facebook group where residents of Flushing, Michigan could share reminisces of their town. Unsurprisingly, Rossell’s stories found a ready audience and The Life of Death was born.

Rossell makes this clear from the beginning that these stories are his recollections and not to be taken as a scholarly endeavor. But many academic books have been written on the subject, and the more personal touch lends a bit of fun to the subject. The stories do have a mid-20th century gloss over them , with the positive and negative connotations of that viewpoint. The stories are by turns poignant, humorous, educational, sad, and joyous. Rossell gives us a good, solid, inside look at at profession many don’t (or don’t want to) know much about. The stories are separated more-or-less by type, and each takes the form of a self-contained vignette. As a result, the book is highly readable and quite entertaining.

Anyone looking for a book about the business of death, told in the reader-friendly format of a personal blog, should check out this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright

The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright

Kaine Prescott has traveled to the ends of the earth (also known as rural Wisconsin) to try to put the suspicious death of her husband behind her. Unable to convince anyone–including the police–that his death was anything other than a tragic accident, Kaine throws her energy into rehabbing the ancient and rundown Foster Hill house, long abandoned and rumored to be haunted. Meanwhile, in 1906, a young woman named Ivy finds the body of a young woman hidden in the hollow tree at Foster Hill. Obsessed with uncovering the girl’s identity, Ivy finds herself in greater and greater danger the more she learns.

This book sounded like such fun. I don’t mind a dual narrative when done well, and I settled myself in for an entertaining haunted house read. Unfortunately, the book fiys more closely into the Christian romance category than anything resembling horror or suspense. I enjoyed the historical half of the narrative for the most part, but I found modern-day Kaine hard to like or care about (aside from her dog).

In the end, this book just wasn’t for me. I’m not a fan of romance most of the time, and I just … don’t really enjoy majorly religious protagonists. I wish the book had billed itself less along haunted house lines and had a blurb that more closely described the plot.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen

The Darkling Bride by Laura Andersen

Nestled within the wild mountains of Wicklow, Ireland lies Deeprath Castle, ancestral home to the Gallagher family for centuries. The brooding, ancient keep holds many secrets, and has seen many deaths. When Carragh Ryan is hired by the family’s stern matriarch, Lady Nessa, to catalogue the castle library before the current Viscount donates the property to the National Trust, she finds herself drawn into mysteries both modern an ancient. Ghostly legends and shadowy menace stalk the halls of Deeprath Castle, and death isn’t far behind.

This was an entertaining modern gothic mystery, complete with everything your heart could desire. Andersen gives us an ancient, brooding pile of a castle, complete with a young, handsome (and brooding, obviously) viscount. We have a ghostly “Darkling Bride” said to haunt the castle and grounds, and mysterious deaths from the 1890s and 1990s. Objectively satisfying is the fact that our heroine, Carragh, is no wilting violet, but a smart, bold woman, and certainly up for the challenge of unravelling the Deeprath mystery.

The narrative is split into three parts, following Carragh in the modern day, Lily Gallagher (murdered mother of the current viscount) in the 1990s, and Evan Chase, a writer who marries the troubled Jenny Gallagher in the 1890s. The split narrative can be fraught with peril, but Andersen does well with it, slowly revealing bits and pieces of the central mystery.

If you’re looking for a gothic mystery with modern-day trappings, this is an excellent choice. Fans of historical mysteries, ghost stories, and anything Irish will find a lot to like in this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr


The Book of Whispers by Kimberley Starr

Demons are everywhere. But only Luca can see them. Having barely survived a torturous exorcism, he has since learned to keep his mouth shut about the creatures he sees lurking at the corners of his vision. When his father joins Pope Urban II on his crusade to take Jerusalem back, Luca defies his father to seek the church’s promise of divine forgiveness for crusaders. Once the journey begins, however, it becomes clear that the nature of Luca’s demons are not as simple as he previously thought. Coming into possession of a mysterious book of prophecy, and surrounded on all sides by devious relations, sinister clergymen, and terrifyingly powerful demons, Luca must avert disaster. 

This is a medieval crusader story by way of Game of Thrones. Your flawed protagonists find themselves set against devious and powerful opponents, the conflict more or less direct depending on the relative position of the baddie. Luca and Suzan, our teenaged protagonists, are nicely fleshed out and well written. The concept of the demons used in the book is original and interesting as well, and there is a definite sense of menace that pervades the book.

But for all that, the book just couldn’t keep my interest. A lot happens in this book, and a story set against a major crusade has plenty of exciting things going on, but there just wasn’t much sense of excitement for me reading the book. Despite the sense of dread I mentioned earlier (a feeling like waiting for the other shoe to drop), I simply didn’t feel any suspense or tension as the plot moved along.

So in sum, the historical details are great, the protagonists well written (though every other character is pared down to two dimensional sins), and the demonic aspects are interesting. But the book just never took off for me.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.