Book Review: Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

This is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare undertaking, in which modern author reimagine the Bard’s most famous works. In this offering, Jo Nesbø (of The Snowman fame) brings Macbeth into a Northern city amidst overwhelming police corruption. Duncan has recently been promoted to Chief Inspector, following the downfall of the former, highly corrupt chief. He quickly promotes his SWAT commander, Macbeth, to oversee a new department aimed at stopping the flow of drugs and violence into the city, most especially “Brew”, peddled by drug kingpin, Hecate. What follows is the age-old tale of murderous ambition, and the consequences of putting ends before means-wrapped in a dark, police thriller package.

Nesbø does a great job of sinking his story into the mud and the grit and keeping it there. The story is undeniably a dark one, and Nesbø pulls no punches. The entirety of the story takes place in dreary grayness or in the darkness of the night. Nesbø has given us a setting that is downright claustrophobic.

I’ve read several of the Hogarth stories so far, and I think this may be one of my favorites, I always enjoyed the Macboeth story, and Nesbø’s interpretation makes the story feel new, even as we trod old ground.

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

Book Review: The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena is a botanist at Kew Botanical Gardens in London with an eye towards resurrecting endangered and extinct plants. This book is a memoir of Magdalena’s life and a look at the plants he holds most dear. From tiny islands off the coast of Madagascar, to the Australian outback, to the jungles and arid mountain deserts of South America, Magdalena introduces us to plants, endangered or outright extinct in their natural habitats, some only still surviving through one or two specimens kept in institutions like Kew.

This is a fascinating book. Magdalena’s passion for his subject shines through in every line. And he doesn’t limit himself to environmental concerns, either. The thorny questions about ownership and repatriation in a post-colonial world are also addressed, and highlight just how difficult it can be to save and propagate some of these species. How do you balance local concerns with scientific study? If a native plant is found to have medicinal or commercial uses, who owns the rights to said plant? What about those plants which were “collected” by naturalists during the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of colonialism, do they still belong to their native people?

Any one with interest in botany, plant life, conservation, and/or environmentalism will enjoy this book. In The Plant Messiah, Carlos Magdalena reminds us multiple times that our very existence is dependent on the health of the flora around us. It behooves us to treat them as essential parts of life on Earth.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher 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: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways 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: Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar

Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar and Billy Chizmar

On an isolated stretch of the Nova Scotia coast, the Widow’s Point lighthouse stands alone against the cliffs and the ocean. The local townsfolk look on the lighthouse with suspicion bordering on superstitious dread–there has always been an air of tragedy and death about the place. The increasing body found over the decades does nothing to help the lighthouse’s reputation.

Enter Thomas Livingston, best-selling author and ghost hunter, who is determined to spend a weekend locked inside Widow’s Point with a video camera and a tape recorder, hoping to strike supernatural gold for his next book. What he finds inside the lighthouse is something utterly malign and alien, something awake and hungry.

This is a haunted house tale along the lines of Stephen King’s early work. Imagine The Shining takig place not in an expansive, snowed in hotel, but within the twisted confines of a century old lighthouse. The story is told as a transcript, the video and audio recordings made by Livingston having been recovered by another party. Most of the story is relayed to us via transcripts of Livingston’ s audio files, allowing the reader’s imagination to provide the bulk of the horror.

This is a great read, and a truly creepy story. Chizmar has already proved himself to be a credit to the genre with Gwendy’s Button Box, and Widow’s Point does not disappoint.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher 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.