An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

The Blurb:

An Unexplained Death is an obsessive investigation into a mysterious death at the Belvedere—a once-grand hotel—and a poignant, gripping meditation on suicide and voyeurism

“The poster is new. I notice it right away, taped to a utility pole. Beneath the word ‘Missing,’ printed in a bold, high-impact font, are two sepia-toned photographs of a man dressed in a bow tie and tux.”

Most people would keep walking. Maybe they’d pay a bit closer attention to the local news that evening. Mikita Brottman spent ten years sifting through the details of the missing man’s life and disappearance, and his purported suicide by jumping from the roof of her own apartment building, the Belvedere.

As Brottman delves into the murky circumstances surrounding Rey Rivera’s death—which begins to look more and more like a murder—she contemplates the nature of and motives behind suicide, and uncovers a haunting pattern of guests at the Belvedere, when it was still a historic hotel, taking their own lives on the premises. Finally, she fearlessly takes us to the edge of her own morbid curiosity and asks us to consider our own darker impulses and obsessions.

This book was not what I expected. That isn’t a bad thing at all. I had done in expecting scandal and intrigue, and found introspection and analysis (which probably says a lot about me). An Unexplained Death reminds me strongly of Claudia Rowe’s The Spider and the Fly, which was a true-crime book that focused more on the impact of the crime and the killer on the author’s life.

The book deals with the mysterious death of Rey Rivera, who plunged from the roof of the Belvedere in Baltimore in 2006. Brottman, who lived (still lives) in the building, found herself intrigued, then obsessed by the circumstances of Rivera’s death. Add that to the history of the Belvedere itself, which seems to attract suicidal people, and there is a lot to dig into here.

Yet, the book is less about Rivera than about the author’s, and our own, fascination with death and self-destruction. Brottman speaks multiple times of her (unconscious and semi-unwanted) ability to be completely forgettable. She walks through her own story as some sort of ghost, peripheral and ephemeral to those around her. Whether the feeling of invisibleness contributes to her fascination with death and suicide isn’t stated.

Though the tone of the book was unexpected, I found myself swiftly drawn into Brottman’s tale. At times a stark history, at others almost a stream-of-concious musing, I admire Brottman’s ability to look into her dark fascinations and wring a moving story from them. After all, it is part of the human condition to want to gaze into that abyss. Few of us, however, are willing to admit how much we enjoy its pull.

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

Book Review: Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke

Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke

The Blurb:

On a scorching hot summer day in Elkwood, Alabama, Claire Lambert staggers naked, wounded, and half-blind away from the scene of an atrocity. She is the sole survivor of a nightmare that claimed her friends, and even as she prays for rescue, the killers — a family of cannibalistic lunatics — are closing in.

A soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder returns from Iraq to the news that his brother is among the murdered in Elkwood.

In snowbound Detroit, a waitress trapped in an abusive relationship gets an unexpected visit that will lead to bloodshed and send her back on the road to a past she has spent years trying to outrun.

And Claire, the only survivor of the Elkwood Massacre, haunted by her dead friends, dreams of vengeance… a dream which will be realized as grief and rage turn good people into cold-blooded murderers and force alliances among strangers.

It’s time to return to Elkwood.

In the spirit of such iconic horror classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, Kin begins at the end and studies the possible aftermath for the survivors of such traumas upon their return to the real world — the guilt, the grief, the thirst for revenge — and sets them on an unthinkable journey… back into the heart of darkness.

If you’ve got the horror bug, you’ve seen this movie. God knows there are plenty to choose from. A group of attractive teenagers venture into the woods (or an old farmhouse, or anywhere, really, the world has it in for attractive teenagers), and find themselves hunted and tortured by a sadistic family of inbred monsters

Even if you don’t have the horror bug, you know how this ends. One girl, the virginal good girl, makes it out. She has been beaten and defiled, she is scarred inside and out, but she has escaped. Sometimes there is a twist, sometimes there isn’t, but usually we get to see her sobbing in the arms of her rescuer. But what then? When the camera stops rolling and the audience goes home, are we supposed to believe in some kind of happily ever after?

Kealan Patrick Burke is here to tell us what happens to the girl, to her family and friends, to the families of her friends who were not so “lucky” as she. Kin is a big, sharp, serrated story that takes a (let’s face it) tired trope and drags it kicking and screaming down the path to where the story continues.

This is an ultrasaturated ride that encompasses a revenge fantasy, a slasher flick, and all the best parts of 1970s and 1980s movie horror excess. We get guts (ha) and glorious payback. We get death and destruction. We get the fire-breathing, brimstone-hurling back woods preacher a story like this deserves.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. But horror fans everywhere will find a practically perfect read between the covers of Kin.

Book Review: The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Blurb:

It’s late. The phone rings.

The man on the other end says his daughter is missing.

Your daughter.

The baby you gave away over fifteen years ago.

What do you do?

Nora Watts isn’t sure that she wants to get involved. Troubled, messed up, and with more than enough problems of her own, Nora doesn’t want to revisit the past. But then she sees the photograph. A girl, a teenager, with her eyes. How can she turn her back on her?

But going in search of her daughter brings Nora into contact with a past that she would rather forget, a past that she has worked hard to put behind her, but which is always there, waiting for her . . .

I love flawed female protagonists. I mean, I love female protagonists in general, but commonly they are depicted as wonder women or saints, physically, mentally, and/or emotionally perfect. Of course, psychological thrillers have taken the unstable female trope as an easy out to create an “edgy” story (see many previous rants of mine). It is rare, though, that we find a flawed, damaged, occasionally unlikable woman steadfastly occupying the role of heroine, and I absolutely love it.

Nora Watts was brought up in the foster system after her father’s suicide. She survived a brutal rape as a young woman, she is a recovering alcoholic, formerly homeless, and holding her life together by her fingernails. The knowledge that the daughter she had given up for adoption a decade and a half ago threatens to undermine what little stability she has managed to create for herself. Nora is suspicious, paranoid, and unstable. She can be vicious and unforgiving. She has a pitch-black, deadpan sense of humor. And I absolutely love her as a character.

The story itself is a dark, contemporary mystery, reminiscent of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Nora’s past informs the reader’s present, and the grim paranoia of the story seeps into every interaction. This is ultimately a story of haves and have-nots. Nora is half-native, formerly indigent, skating along the bleeding edge of poverty. As she delves deeper into her daughter’s disappearance, the breadth of the forces arrayed against her becomes more and more clear. A David and Goliath tale for the modern age, wrapped in the darkest noir, this is a fantastic start to a new mystery series, with a protagonist who may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is nonetheless unforgettable and original.

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

Book Review: In the house in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt

The Blurb:

“Once upon a time there was and there wasn’t a woman who went to the woods.”

In this horror story set in colonial New England, a law-abiding Puritan woman goes missing. Or perhaps she has fled or abandoned her family. Or perhaps she’s been kidnapped, and set loose to wander in the dense woods of the north. Alone and possibly lost, she meets another woman in the forest. Then everything changes.

On a journey that will take her through dark woods full of almost-human wolves, through a deep well wet with the screams of men, and on a living ship made of human bones, our heroine may find that the evil she flees has been inside her all along. The eerie, disturbing story of one of our perennial fascinations–witchcraft in colonial America–In the House in the Dark of the Woods is a novel of psychological horror and suspense told in Laird Hunt’s characteristically lyrical prose style. It is the story of a bewitching, a betrayal, a master huntress and her quarry. It is a story of anger, of evil, of hatred and of redemption. It is the story of a haunting, a story that makes up the bedrock of American mythology, but told in a vivid way you will never forget.

This book read like a combination of fevered nightmare and fairytale. And I mean that in the best way possible. The story takes our heroine (?), known only as “Goody” and sets her down in a wood where magic weaves into the bark of the trees, and the stench of rot can be sensed when the wind blows the right way.

Like a traditional fairy tale, the story begins by showing us the fantastical…the sharp teeth are well hidden. But as the story goes on, the underlying menace comes to the fore, and the smile widens into a razor grin.

This isn’t your traditional horror story … but the dream-like prose and ever-fascinating subject matter make this book shine. Anyone out there looking for something a bit different for the Halloween season and the dying of the year should consider this book.

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

Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Devil’s Half Mile by Paddy Hirsch

The Blurb:

Seven years after a financial crisis nearly toppled America, traders chafe at government regulations, racial tensions are rising, and corrupt financiers make back-door deals with politicians… 1799 was a hell of a year.

Thanks to Alexander Hamilton, America recovered from the financial panic of 1792, but the young country is still finding its way. When a young lawyer returns to prove his father’s innocence, he exposes a massive financial fraud that the perpetrators are determined to keep secret at any cost. And reaching the highest levels, the looming crisis could topple the nation.

This is an incredibly well researched book. Hirsch has delved deeply into 18th century New York, and he brings all the details–the sights, smells, and people, to vivid life in this richly textured mystery story.

Unfortunately, while he has a vivid eye for detail, the pacing of the story seems unequal to Hirsch’s vision. Events string along one after the other, slowly moving the plot along, some even seeming to serve little purpose. For me, the slow-moving and meandering plot overshadowed the carefully crafted setting.

Hirsch is a journalist, and has a journalist’s eye for detail and truth. Fiction is a whole different animal, and talent with non-fiction subjects does not automatically translate to prowess with fictional ones. That being said, Hirsch is clearly a talented writer, and this story marks his first foray into writing fiction. Future endeavors may even out the pacing of his plots, and tighten up wandering storylines. If so, he will likely be a talent to watch.

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

Book Review: The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Toy Thief by D.W. Gillespie

The Blurb:

As a girl, Jack lives with her father and brother after her mother passed away during childbirth. Her father is a well-meaning construction worker who treats her more like a roommate, while her brother, Andy, is an introverted loner prone to violent outbursts, a virtual mirror to his sister who is outspoken to an extreme. The story opens on a sleepover with nine year old Jack and her close friend. While putting on a pretend show, the two girls leave a video camera running, and when Jack replays the tape the next day, she sees her friend’s toy being snatched off the end table and out the back door by a swift, nearly unseen hand. Excited and bewildered, she tries to show the tape to her thirteen year old brother, Andy who is still furious about the spat he and Jack got into the night before. Without another word, he smashes the tape of the intruder. That night, determined to catch the creature she now calls The Toy Thief, Jack sets up a series of traps, all of which fail miserably. Once she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds her friend’s toy has returned, brought back by The Toy Thief, an impossibly tall and rat-like creature with glassy eyes. Just then, Andy steps out of his room, and as The Thief flees in a panic, Andy realizes his sister is telling the truth. The two of them are able to surmise that The Thief most likely travels through a tangled section of woods called The Trails, and they go out in search of it. After returning unsuccessful, Jack awakes the next morning to find Andy missing from his bedroom. As her father informs the police, Jack knows it’s up to her to find him. Jack must venture into the dark place WHERE TOYS GO to get him back. But even if she finds him, will he ever be the same? FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.

This was a fantastic horror offering! Gillespie combines those universal childhood fears of the disappearance of something beloved and the thing under the bed to give us a story that resonates viscerally with the reader.

In terms of story and plot, The Toy Thief reminds me strongly of an early Stephen King short story (Some of his best work, in my opinion) given guts and sinew pulled over the bones to form a full-length story.

Maintaining the creep factor is incredibly hard over a few hundred pages. And while there are a few spots where the story lags, in general the pacing is strong and consistent. Gillespie is also a dab hand at creating fantastic mental imagery with his writing. The weirdness and wrongness of the toy thief shine through, as does the quiet disfunction of Jack’s family.

This is a well-written, well-plotted, and original horror story. Fans of the genre will enjoy this new entry!

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

Book Review: The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascomb

The Blurb:

In the winter trenches and flak-filled skies of World War I, soldiers and pilots alike might avoid death, only to find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s archipelago of POW camps, often in abominable conditions. The most infamous was Holzminden, a land-locked Alcatraz of sorts that housed the most troublesome, escape-prone prisoners. Its commandant was a boorish, hate-filled tyrant named Karl Niemeyer who swore that none should ever leave.

Desperate to break out of “Hellminden” and return to the fight, a group of Allied prisoners led by ace pilot (and former Army sapper) David Gray hatch an elaborate escape plan. Their plot demands a risky feat of engineering as well as a bevy of disguises, forged documents, fake walls, and steely resolve. Once beyond the watch towers and round-the-clock patrols, Gray and almost a dozen of his half-starved fellow prisoners must then make a heroic 150 mile dash through enemy-occupied territory towards free Holland.

Drawing on never-before-seen memoirs and letters, Neal Bascomb brings this narrative to cinematic life, amid the twilight of the British Empire and the darkest, most savage hours of the fight against Germany. At turns tragic, funny, inspirational, and nail-biting suspenseful, this is the little-known story of the biggest POW breakout of the Great War.

So have you seen The Great Escape? The 1963 film is a virtual who’s-who of ’60s movie stardom (including Steve McQueen (yay!), James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner). The movie is a dramatization of a real-life mass prison break from a Nazi prison camp during World War II. The Escape Artists tells the story of the men who laid the foundations of such escapes.

World War I brought warfare into a brutal, modern era. The trenches, the gas, the aerial dogfights were new and terrible realities of battle. In addition, the imprisonment of enemy soldiers occurred at a rate previously unheard of. The systems surrounding these mass incarcerations, and the rules of engagement between prisoner and jailer were new and largely untested.

It was drilled into British soldiers and officers that their duty, if captures, was to escape and rejoin the fighting force as soon as possible. Beyond bringing experienced fight men back into the fold, even unsuccessful escape attempts diverted critical enemy resources from the front lines.

Bascomb has given us a lively, riveting history of some truly remarkable men. The sheer ingenuity of their escape attempts (which were many) is something to behold. These men displayed bravery under pressure, creativity in the face of hardship, and an unflagging determination to escape from their captors. When WWII began, the most successful of these escape artists would go on to tutor a whole new generation of soldiers in the art of prison break.

This is a history book for military buffs, but also for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story. The fact that all this really happened only makes it that much more enthralling.

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

Book Review: The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Exes’ Revenge by Jo Jakeman

The Blurb:

A wickedly dark debut thriller about three women who’ve all been involved with the same man and realize the one thing they have in common is that they all want revenge against him…

Divorces are often messy, and Imogen’s is no exception. Phillip Rochester is controlling, abusive, and determined to make things as difficult as possible. When he shows up without warning demanding that Imogen move out of their house by the end of the month or he’ll sue for sole custody of their young son, Imogen is ready to snap.

In a moment of madness, Imogen does something unthinkable–something that puts her in control for the first time in years. She’s desperate to protect her son and to claim authority over her own life.

But she wasn’t expecting both Phillip’s ex-wife and new girlfriend to get tangled up in her plans. These three very different women–and unlikely allies–reluctantly team up to take revenge against a man who has wronged them all.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. About a quarter of the way in, I was ready to give up, chalk it up to another psychological thriller looking to hit the same buttons as countless other ones before. Then, the plot takes a hard left-hand turn and I found myself no longer in the gray muck of psychological thrillerville, but in the sparkly, colorful, oversaturated world of a pulp revenge story.

After a manner of speaking. The Exes’ Revenge lacks the gratuitous violence of the best pulp, but it is nonetheless a fast-paced story of revenge and unexpected consequences. The story follows the strengths and weaknesses of three very different women. They all have the same problem, but all have different priorities and goals, and all will go about wreaking revenge in their own way. There is something supremely satisfying in seeing a justly deserved revenge story play out.

So psychological thriller lovers will find getting into this story easy as falling down the stairs. But even those who aren’t thrilled with the genre (ha) can enjoy this book. Revenge is sweet, after all.

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

Book Review: Adrift by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

This is the story of a small packet sailing ship, the John Rutledge, which set off across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York in the winter of 1856. The ship, carrying cargo and Irish emigrants, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic, and only one soul would live to tell the tale.

There are quite a few best-selling narrative non-fiction books about famous shipwrecks, such as Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Heart of the Sea, and numerous books about the sinking of the Titanic. These ships have become legend, and the stories have a great deal of primary information and research behind them.

In Adrift, Murphy has given us a smaller tragedy. The sinking of the John Rutledge is one of many tragic stories lost on the shoals of history, and the careful research needed to bring it back into the light should be commended. Murphy has delved into private journals, newspaper clippings, family lore, and shipping records. What is more, he has compiled this information into a gripping, narrative story.

Fans of narrative nonfiction and tales of maritime derring-do will find a lot to admire in Murphy’s careful research and close attention to detail. History buffs cannot help but rejoice when another largely unknown story is pulled from the depths of the historical record.

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

Book Review: City of Ink by Elsa Hart

City of Ink by Elsa Hart

This is the third book in Elsa Hart’s Li Du series, so this review may have some spoilers for the first two books.


Li Du has returned to Beijing (however reluctantly) after earning his pardon. Making the most of the bustling and confining capital city, Li Du sets out to discover the truth behind his mentor’s crimes (and the cause of his exile). To that end, he takes up a post as a lowly clerk in an unimportant government office, so much the better to remain invisible in the city. When a double murder occurs in his district, it seems like a straightforward case of marital infidelity and jealousy. But as Li Du and his supervisor conduct their investigation, the seemingly simple case becomes more and more complex. Soon, Li Du finds his cherished anonymity in jeopardy and enemies at every turn.

I vastly enjoyed the previous book in this series, The White Mirror. Hart’s historical locations seem to live and breathe. She has clearly done an extensive amount of research for her stories, and her attention to detail and skill with words allow the reader to fully immerse themselves into 18th century China.

Like The White Mirror, this mystery is complex and subtle, with many threads weaving in and out of the main narrative. Hart builds the tension of her story slowly, allowing the reader to stop and reason along with the clever Li Du.

Fans of historical mysteries can do little better than this wonderful series.

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