Serena’s Review: “Pirate King”

9970915 Book: “Pirate King” by Laurie R. King

Publishing Info: Bantam, September 2011

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: In England’s budding silent-film industry, megalomaniac Randolph Fflytte is king. At the request of Scotland Yard, Mary Russell is dispatched to investigate rumors of criminal activities. At Lisbon rehearsals for “Pirate King”, based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, thirteen blond-haired, blue-eyed actresses meet the real buccaneers Fflytte has recruited to provide authenticity. But when the crew embarks for Morocco and the actual filming, troubles escalate.

Review: I have been reading Laurie King’s “Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes” series on and off for the past…decade?? A long time is all I know. It’s one of my favorite mystery series, and the fact that I can simply jump into the story at whatever point I left off previously (perhaps years previously) with such ease is a huge mark in its favor. All that said, when I was feeling the need for a little mystery action in my reading cycle, I knew just where to look. And King’s “Pirate King” did not disappoint!

Following the usual track for these stories, the book begins with Mary Russell being sent off on some investigation or another. This right here is one of the reasons I enjoy this series so much. The focus is well and truly on Mary Russell’s character, with Holmes firmly in the supporting role. The fact that I love the Sherlock Holmes mythos so much makes me all the more appreciative of this decision. Like the originals, told from Watson’s perspective, Holmes is a character best appreciated from a slight distance and in sprinklings of narrative brilliance. And Mary Russell, herself, is a strong lead for the series. Adventurous, witty, clever, and full of energy, it has never been a challenge picturing her as the equal and companion of our famous detective throughout the series. She drives the story, and while I always look forward to Holmes’ next appearance, I am never antsy waiting for it. Russell is a great lead on her own.

As noted in the jacket description, this mystery revolves around a silent film production featuring pirates. The film company “Fflytte films” is known for the “realism” in its production quality. So, naturally, this means that the eccentric director must hire “real” pirate actors, rent a pirate ship, load 13 flighty British actresses on board and head off for Morocco, with poor Russell trailing along attempting to solve a mystery of criminality in the production history all while arranging the administrative details of such a venture. No small task!

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, as I mentioned earlier, have always been great characters in this series. That being the case, the strength of individual novels in the series often depends on the supporting characters that are introduced. “Pirate King” has a great cast! The aforementioned eccentric director, his long-suffering cousin who is in charge of arranging the “realistic” pieces (“A pirate parrot!” “A real castle!”), the Moroccan man-of-mystery hired to play the pirate king, and, of course, the 13 actresses and their doting chaperone mothers. It is easy to see why Russell might have been hesitant to sign up for this one!

A few criticism of the book. The pacing was rather uneven. The story gets off to a slow start, at times feeling dragged down by the minutiae of the film industry and the challenges of the bloated cast of characters. While enjoyable, it’s hard to keep track of 13 teenage actress characters right off the bat! But, by a third of the way in, the story really takes off and is highly enjoyable. However, the ending is then wrapped up all too quickly. These abrupt shifts in pace were rather distracting and interrupted the flow of the story, ultimately.

My second criticism will really depend on how much of a mystery element one wants in a mystery series. This book is definitely light on the mystery itself. The investigation that Mary Russell sets out on initially is even acknowledged by herself as likely much ado about nothing. And the additional mystery that is tacked on towards the end has much less to do with an actual mystery than in character analysis. I, personally, was ok with this as I found the adventure and light-hearted tone to be a nice reprieve from the more grim and serious books that came directly previous to this in the series. But if you’re looking for a capital “M” mystery, this might not be your best choice.

All in all, “Pirate King” is another solid entry in this series. While I recommend checking out the other books in the series, especially if you like historical mysteries, it is by no means necessary to have read them all, or any, to enjoy this book.

Rating 7: Another fun adventure with Mary Russell! The pacing in the first and third act were my only holdups, and whether the mystery is compelling enough is going to be highly dependent on reader expectations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pirate King” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best British Crime/Mystery Fiction” and “Women who Solve Crimes.” 

Find “Pirate King” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Breathe a Word”

9581507Book: “Don’t Breathe A Word” by Jennifer McMahon, Lily Rains (Narrator)

Publishing Info: HarperAudio, May 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Two young lovers find themselves ensnared in a seemingly supernatural web that ties them to a young girl’s disappearance fifteen years earlier in this dark and twisty tale from the New York Times bestselling author of Island of Lost Girls and Promise Not to Tell. Jennifer McMahon returns with a vengeance with Don’t Breathe a Word—an absolutely chilling and ingenious combination of psychological thriller, literary suspense, and paranormal page-turner that will enthrall a wildly diverse audience including, among others, avid fans of Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child), Laura Lippman (I’d Know You Anywhere), and Tana French.(In the Woods).

Review: I have had very mixed results with Jennifer McMahon. Before I started “Don’t Breathe a Word” I had read three other books of hers. I liked “The Night Sister” and “Promise Not To Tell”, but I wasn’t impressed by “The Winter People”. I was looking for a new audiobook, and decided to try this one. I had pretty high hopes for it as I started it, walking around my neighborhood at dusk. I was taken in by the story of Phoebe, a woman with a dark past, and her lover Sam, a man whose sister Lisa disappeared fifteen years prior when she was twelve and he was ten. Lisa had been obsessed with the idea of fairies, and thought that she had been chosen to be the next Fairy Queen to Taylo, King of the Fairies, and she disappeared without a trace. But then Sam and Phoebe get a phone call from a woman claiming that she is Lisa, and has returned from the Fairy Realm. So now Phoebe and Sam are trying to find out if this is Lisa, and if so, where she had been all this time, because fairies can’t be real, right?

Well don’t ask MacMahon, because she kept changing her mind about that little fact. And this probably isn’t actually what happened, but as I was listening to this book the evidence kept jumping between being something supernatural going on, or something very real and very insidious. While I think that it’s fine if a writer does these things occasionally to raise questions,  making the reader keep jumping back and forth between these questions gets tiresome. Eventually I didn’t even care anymore if it was actual fairies or some creep who preyed on a young girl, and that’s generally not a feeling you want your reader to have. I also had a hard time with the characters in this one, as none of them were particularly likable. Phoebe made terrible and stupid decisions, Sam was two dimensional AND something of a jerk to Phoebe a good chunk of the time, and Sam’s cousin Evie, a mysterious presence in the story, wasn’t threatening enough OR sympathetic enough, both things that her character needed to be depending on what the reader was supposed to believe at the time. The one character who seemed the most authentic was Lisa, whose perspective we got as well in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. I liked those parts more than the modern ones, as that was the only part that didn’t shift back and forth about whether or not this was a story about fairies or a story about evil people. For Lisa’s parts, it was about the dysfunction of her family and the tragedy that befell her because of it. I was mostly on board for her parts, and could forgive the rest of it…. But then…..

SPOILERS. SCROLL DOWN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

Okay I am going to just talk about the ending, because that is where I just completely wanted to toss my phone out the window. So the book spent a lot of time making you wonder if fairies took Lisa, or horrible people. It turns out that she was kidnapped by her aunt Hazel, Evie’s mom, who was raped by her grandfather, and gave birth to a secret son who was part Fairy (as Hazel’s grandfather was rumored to be a Changeling fairy). So Lisa was held in captivity by her aunt, not taken to the fairies to be a bride to Taylo, but to be breeding stock with her cousin. SUPER YUCK, but okay. I was satisfied with that solution… BUT THEN, Phoebe and Sam have a baby, and MacMahon decides that “Oh wait, Taylo is actually real and he set up Phoebe and Sam through his influence and magic and he wants their baby and steals her away, replacing her with a changeling”. I was livid. You had an ending. You can’t just change your mind in an attempt to pull the rug out from under the reader!!!

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There is no other way to describe how I felt.

END SPOILERS

But I do want to say that Lily Rains, the narrator for this book, did a pretty good job. She changed her voices for every character and had a lot of life and passion in her voice.

The end pretty much ruined the rest of the book for me, and I really hate it when that happens. “Don’t Breathe a Word” had potential, and I do like MacMahon enough to give her another chance. But definitely skip this one in favor of “The Night Sister” or “Promise Not To Tell”.

Rating 4: A strong start, a shaky middle, but then an end that unraveled everything before it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Breathe a Word” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Changelings”, and “WTF Endings”.

Find “Don’t Breathe a Word” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Other Side of Midnight”

The Other Side of Midnight Book: “The Other Side of Midnight” by Simone St. James

Publishing Info: NAL Trade, April 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: Audio book from the library

Book Description from Goodreads: London, 1925. Glamorous medium Gloria Sutter made her fortune helping the bereaved contact loved ones killed during the Great War. Now she’s been murdered at one of her own séances, after leaving a message requesting the help of her former friend and sole rival, Ellie Winter.

Ellie doesn’t contact the dead—at least, not anymore. She specializes in miraculously finding lost items. Still, she can’t refuse the final request of the only other true psychic she has known. Now Ellie must delve into Gloria’s secrets and plunge back into the world of hucksters, lowlifes, and fakes. Worse, she cannot shake the attentions of handsome James Hawley, a damaged war veteran who has dedicated himself to debunking psychics.

As Ellie and James uncover the sinister mysteries of Gloria’s life and death, Ellie is tormented by nightmarish visions that herald the grisly murders of those in Gloria’s circle. And as Ellie’s uneasy partnership with James turns dangerously intimate, an insidious evil force begins to undermine their quest for clues, a force determined to bury the truth, and whoever seeks to expose it…

Review: This book had many things going for it that fit into my preferences. Mystery: check. Historical time period: check. Dash of romance: check. All in all, right up my alley. And, for what it was, it met these expectations. It didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it.

Right off the bat, this book has been marketed as a gothic, ghost story. I’m not sure that’s right. This is a mystery. Yeah, there are some ghosts in it, but if you’re expecting horror, you’re going to be disappointed (also, it’s Kate’s job to read those so I don’t have deal with the nightmares!) But as a mystery novel, it does succeed. Ellie is a unique narrator and detective. She doesn’t start out with the goal of becoming an investigator and falls into the role purely from chance. But it becomes clear that she has a natural inclination, and her decisions are smart and she deals with the challenges thrown her way in a believable manner.

Often, mystery novel investigators fall into the category of “the next Sherlock Holmes.” They make wild leaps of logic, and their deductions are impossible for the reader to follow. We’re meant to just go with it and realize that we couldn’t possibly follow the thought process with our normal brains, which is what makes the author’s main character such a special investigative snowflake.Sometimes this can work. I love me a Sherlock Holmes esque character, believe me.

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Preach, Rob Lowe!

But, at other times, it comes off as lazy writing and a way for the author to avoid laying down the clues necessary for the reader to follow the mystery appropriately. This book, however, succeeds very well in this regard and provides just enough to keep the reader guessing without feeling completely lost.

I really enjoyed the psychic angle for the story. While this could fall under the category of “easy outs” like I was just ranting about a second ago, I gave this book an pass for it because of the attention given to this portion of the story. It is as much about how these different women have chosen to handle being given this gift as it is about the murder mystery. Ellie, her mother, and Gloria all handle this power in very different ways. [Insert Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.”] The isolation of this gift is fully explored, especially in the context of the time period when operating as a businesswoman alone without a husband would have been isolating on its own, psychic abilities aside. There is a fascinating bit where Gloria discusses her role as a woman in society and what it means that out of everyone, three women were given this amazing ability.

With all of these details, however, the story did feel a bit bogged down in the middle. There are frequent jumps back in time to explore Ellie’s relationship with her mother and Gloria. And while these scenes are necessary to flesh out the story, there comes a point where I just wished we could move on with the real mystery. A killer was lurking in the city! Get a move on!

I also liked the romance included in the story. It felt a bit rushed towards the end, but I was impressed by how fully the author was able to explore James’ PTSD and experiences from the war without the the ease of an omniscient third person narrator. There were moments when James edged into “protecting the little woman” territory, but I appreciated how quickly and effectively Ellie stomped down on this while remaining true to the perspective and realities of a woman living in the 1920s.

As far as the audiobook goes, I enjoyed the narrator quite a lot. They got a British narrator for the story and the inclusion of a variety of London accents helped flesh out the many characters. Full marks for the audiobook version!

Rating 7: Good mystery novel. Not doing anything super new, but the psychic angle and time period made it a very fun read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Other Side of Midnight” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Fiction set in the 1920s” and “Historical Mysteries and Thrillers Featuring Women.”

Find “The Other Side of Midnight” at your library using WorldCat!