Butterfly Palace by Colleen Coble

Butterfly PalaceAustin, 1904 – Newly orphaned and impoverished Lily Donaldson arrives at the famed Butterfly Mansion in search of a position. As soon as she arrives, she’s tested out by serving at the Marshall’s dinner party, where she recognizes one distinguished guest as her former fiancee Andrew, now hiding under a new identity and wooing Lily’s new mistress Belle. As Lily frets over his reappearance in her life after all these years, she also fears becoming the target of the Servant Girl Killer, who is leaving young women’s bodies all over Austin. After saving one of the killer’s victims, she becomes embroiled in the investigation and its potential connections to an assassination attempt, a counterfeiting ring, and the mysterious incident of arson that killed her father.

I didn’t realize Colleen Coble’s Butterfly Palace was in the romantic Christian lit genre until I popped by Goodreads to add this review. For those of you, who like me, aren’t fans, I would still give this a shot because it’s not overly proselytizing or swoonworthy outside of a few instances where the main characters, Lily and Drew, scold themselves for almost giving in to carnal temptation or become jealous of the other’s flirtations. The book does, however, provide a unique setting for a historical mystery that touches on the social issues of its time.

However, for a book that highlights class differences in the early 2oth-century, Lily’s character unbelievably straddles the barrier between the help and friend of the household. As a modern woman, I enjoyed her, but she behaves unrealistically for a woman in her position, especially in relation to her employer Belle whom she openly defies. Belle, who at first is selfish and vain, has a fabulously feminist growth arc that makes her the heroine of the tale in my eyes.

While the plot showed promise at the beginning, it dragged on for far too long with the addition of superfluous characters and ridiculous red herrings. The mystery’s unraveling was especially poorly executed, rushed and illogical, though I suppose the plot threads were mostly wrapped up. Overall, it was a light read that was mildly enjoyable, but not very thrilling in either the romantical or criminal sense.

3 Stars

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreDear God, do I love books about books! What bookworm doesn’t? And Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is one of the best out there.

Clay Jannon fell victim to the recession, losing his job as a web designer for a startup in San Francisco. In desperation, he stumbles across Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – hiring now. Compelled by Penumbra’s stocking his obscure childhood-favorite fantasy series, Clay takes a job as the night clerk with all its weird quirks, including the odd assortment of characters that appear at all hours. As Clay discovers the bookstore’s secrets with the help of his artistic roommate Mat, his Googler love interest Kat, and his nerdy millionaire best friend Neel, he realizes there’s more to Penumbra, and to the bookstore, than meets the eye.

Sorry, y’all, I know that’s a pretty terrible book summary – the book encompasses so much more (even books within books!) but it’s so hard to describe succinctly. It’s an epic quest filled with mystery and fantasy, and a love-song to both typography (Gerritszoon) and technology (Gerritszoon on Macs!). The conflict between the past and the future is present throughout the narrative, lending a heavier weight to Clay’s adventure as he confronts the moral and intellectual quandaries that all of us face in the new digital age.

I wasn’t too fond of Clay at first, thinking him a dull, one-dimensional creature in comparison to the fun oddball assortment of characters surrounding him. But as the story continued, his everyman persona helped me the reader adjust to and engage in the puzzle-solving, especially as the titular Mr. Penumbra remains almost mythological. Without a doubt though, my favorite character remains Clay’s childhood best friend Neel who, from his genius money-making breast simulation company to his enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons, is completely adorkable.

There’s a lot of 21st-century product placement here, particularly heavy-headed sections about Google with trips to Mountain View and homages to their book scanner. I love Google but I was kind of excited to see Google lose for once, and the underdog (i.e. old fashioned “technology”) to win. I guess in that respect, I’m more similar to the villain of the piece than Kat, especially as this book has made me more than a little suspicious of the evil genius lurking in the depths of Google. At least Kat demonstrated a strong feminist figure as an expert programmer and ambitious leader within Google, though she channeled a snotty teenage Voldemort with her obsession with immortality and technological fanaticism.

The denouement was disappointing and unclear, with Sloan having slowed down the plot pace significantly but still rushing to weave together all the threads. I found myself so annoyed by the ease of Clay’s ingenuity in solving the mystery and his extraordinary luck in having a veritable guild of skilled sidekicks that this was one conclusion I would’ve liked to be less definitive and more difficult. It was dispiriting all in all. For those reasons, I can’t quite give it 5 Stars, though the charm of the middle convinced me I would.

4.5 Stars

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter

Dear DaughterLA IT girl Janie Jenkins was wealthy, attractive, and infamous – even more so when she was convicted of brutally murdering her Swiss-American socialite mother, Marion Jenkins-Elsinger. Ten years later, Janie is released on an evidence mismanagement technicality and, with the help of her idealistic lawyer Noah, immediately goes undercover to hunt down the truth about what happened the night her mother died. Despite her blank memory and her dislike of her mother, Janie believes she is innocent, but the vengeful media believes she has gotten away with murder. Now, she has to find proof by following the only lead she has to small town South Dakota, where posing as mousy academic Rebecca, she finally discovers who her mother really was.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter came out highly lauded last year, another in the series of Gone Girl-esque thrillers. Unlike Amazing Amy, Janie never comes across as sweet – she’s an entitled manipulative teen, who admittedly had an isolated childhood followed by incarceration, but has no real excuse for being so utterly terrible to people. If you’re judging a person on first impressions, no wonder everyone thinks she’s a murderess. Being inside her (bitchy) head still doesn’t make her someone you want to root for, in spite of my belief in “innocent until proven guilty” and all that. Nevertheless, her self-destructive streak made me at least pity her, as did the ruthless hounding of the media.

The most fascinating part of this book is its coverage of our 21st century creepy obsession with celebrity. From bloggers to nighttime news talking-heads, everyone was judging and speculating on Janie without even knowing her or the truth. Some part of me believes that’s the downside of the job, as every job has something, but it did make me feel bad for the Lindsay Lohans of the world who are basically zoo exhibits. The media snippets really round out the story for me, providing a much-appreciated break from Janie’s snark.

Given her personality, even with her horrible acting as dull-as-dishwater Rebecca, I’m surprised her investigations actually went anywhere. It was mostly dumb luck and courtesy of her newfound friends, who are just too easily accepting of her story. These supporting characters were Lifetime channel regulars, shallowly stereotypical and not as colorful as they thought they were. In particular, the murderer, whose final confrontation with Janie comes across as ridiculously cheesy, an overdone encounter that made me wish Janie had actually killed her mother. This mustache-twirling villain enters rather out of left field, though I shouldn’t have been surprised because by that point the book feels like a made-for-TV movie.

For all Gone Girl’s faults (IMHO), at least I admit it was innovative. Dear Daughter‘s plots and people have been seen before, in real life and in fiction. Dark, but not deep, this is one mystery that I can take or leave.

3 Stars

The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal, #4)I thought I had reviewed Jonathan L. Howard’s The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4) already and was horrified to realize that I’d neglected to for nearly 4 months! For although it was a random pick off the shelves because of it’s ridiculously amazing cover, it definitely deserves more attention than I think it’s gotten, given that I’d never heard of the series before. And while I hate reviewing a series in improper order (this is the 4th!), I simply can’t wait until I start from the beginning. Plus, it wasn’t too confusing to start with this book – if anything, it made me even more eager to go back and read about the Cabal brothers’ prior alluded-to adventures!

Horst Cabal has arose from the dead. Again, and against his intentions. A occult conspiracy needs a general to lead their monstrous army and Horst, despite being a generally affable and gentlemanly vampire, is the one they picked for the job. When Horst realizes the extent of their ambitions to create a supernatural homeland, he escapes their clutches and searches for his brother, the amoral but effective necromancer Johannes. Despite parting on uncertain terms, they must now band together to save the world.

The book is jam-packed with action and adventure, not to mention comedy courtesy of the adorably hilarious Horst and his interactions with the cynical Johannes. Peppered with snarky footnotes to the readers, I honestly laughed out loud multiple times, and the rest of the time I was on the edge of my seat. It’s tough to describe the plot because it weaves around a fair bit and the first half is told almost entirely in flashback, but it includes a nomadic band of female aviators, moldering castles, too many explosives to count, and even a werebadger! If you think honey badgers don’t give a shit, werebadgers give even less.

This book is unlike anything I’ve read before, though the dark humor calls to mind The Reformed Vampire Support Group while the supernatural steampunkery falls in line with Gail Carringer’s works. The writing style veers towards the 19th century Gothic, adding to the delightful atmosphere, while the plot wasn’t perfect with its decidedly anti-climactic ending. Overall, the charms of The Brothers Cabal far outweigh its flaws.

4 Stars

Woman with a Gun by Phillip Margolin

Woman with a GunStuck in a dull job at a law firm, aspiring writer Stacey Kim stumbles across a showing of acclaimed photographer Kathy Moran’s work at MoMA, the centerpiece of which is “Woman with a Gun,” a mysterious portrait of a bride holding a sharp-shooter barefoot on the beach. Finally inspired to begin writing her novel, Stacey discovers that the woman is Megan Cahill, suspected of murdering her millionaire husband Raymond Cahill on their wedding night. But the murder was never solved, until Stacey’s quest for background dirt on the story digs up the truth.

Author Phillip Margolin was inspired by a real photo when writing Woman with a Gun, and it’s curious how similarly protagonist Stacey follows in his footsteps. Margolin’s picture has less known back story, but Stacey’s is fleshed out through flashbacks to central moments that defined the case. First, it jumps to the night of the murder when Kathy photographs Megan with the murder weapon and the ensuing investigation in which Megan is cleared. Then, it jumps back further to trace the relationship of the witness Kathy with Jack Booth, one of the investigating attorneys on the Cahill case, who were opposing lawyers on the disastrous Kilbride drug-kingpin trial. Finally, it comes back to Stacey as she resumes the investigation by talking to all of the involved parties, scaring the murderer into taking definitive action once again. Thankfully, each story is told independently and comes together at the end rather than switching back-and-forth, though initially this led to much confusion as to the connections between the segments.

As a protagonist, Stacey was a little unbelievable, sleuthing a mystery that had no connection to her, uprooting herself to move across the country, falling in love immediately with one of the potential suspects. Worse in character though are disgraced lawyer turned photographer Kathy Moran and golddigger/probable murderer Megan Cahill, who are both femme fatales with cold hearts and sharp brains. However, the absolute worst is Jack Booth, an arrogant womanizer whose libido leads him to repeated downfalls. In addition, there’s a fair few stereotypical secondary characters from the drugged up ex-athlete to the sharkish business partner to bumbling criminal associates. Basically, none of these characters were likeable but they add color to the shady narrative.

I predicted fairly early on who might be the killer because of the killer’s suspicious sketchiness. The motive remained a mystery to me because it was barely alluded to until the last hundred pages, which made it slightly unbelievable when it came out. At least Margolin is enough of a thriller master to leave no loose threads, especially with how the photograph ingeniously connected to the plot solution, but Woman with a Gun was a mediocre mystery.

3 Stars

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of SarajevoMy current “thing” (i.e. whatever random topic snags my interest and sparks obsessiveness) is the Balkans. I’ve been poring over pictures of gorgeous scenery from Bulgaria to Serbia, jealously listening to colleague’s tales of travel to Croatia, and dragging my roommate to brunch at a popular local Balkan restaurant. Needless to say, when I was scouring the e-library for books to take on a recent trip, Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo was the first one I downloaded.

During the Siege of Sarajevo, a cellist watches from his window as 22 of his friends and neighbors, waiting in line for bread, are killed by a mortar attack in the blink of an eye. In defiance and grief, he decides to commemorate them by playing at the spot for 22 days. Meanwhile, a young man (Kenan) leaves home to get clean water for his family and must weigh the cost of kindness versus survival. Elsewhere, an elderly baker (Dragan) runs into an old friend and contemplates his past and his future. As the men prepare to cross paths with the cellist, a female sniper (self-christened Arrow) holds his life in her hands. As she guards him against the enemy, her own army challenges her moral boundaries. All four must confront the changes that war has wrought on their identity, and try to salvage their humanity in the face of devastation. 

I don’t know much about the region, nor enough about the Bosnian War and this (like most historical fiction) is not the place to learn all that complex history. Yet, from his first words, Galloway makes you feel the mingled terror and love for Sarajevo its residents feel during the siege. Told over a single “average” day, all of these individuals encounter hardship that they’ve sadly become used to. They’re all terrified, but manage to soldier on.

The titular cellist goes unnamed, recognized only by his stirring music. He is revered, but not as relatable. In contrast, Kenan and Dragan represent the ordinary everyman. Their simple journeys, to get water or bread respectively, are wrought with traps as even crossing the street could mean stepping into a sniper’s line of vision. In spite of their fear, they both manage to take small acts of courage that demonstrate generosity can exist alongside inhumanity. Arrow was the hardest character for me to connect with. Despite engaging in sniping as a method of self-protection, I found her actions a little dubious, and even she questions her own morality; however, the end of her story definitely struck a chord within me as she fights to hold onto the remnants of her identity as she feels it slipping away by her actions.

Short but poignant, this book is a wonderfully written tribute to the victims of a poorly-remembered war. It doesn’t offer solutions or neatly-tied endings since it is a truly human story, one that incredibly is based on the real story of cellist Vedran Smailovic. The only reason it didn’t rate higher for me was that it didn’t haunt me afterwards – truly great and beloved books tend to fully stay in my mind years later, whereas certain points of this one were a strain to recall after a few short weeks.

4 Stars

Raoul Wientzen’s The Assembler of Parts

The Assembler of Parts: A NovelI can’t believe I neglected to review this for so long! The Assembler of Parts was our book club’s pick way back in March – the author Raoul Wientzen, a sweet older gentleman, is one of our most spirited members and we were all eager to see how his own book would hold up to the criticism. Well, it was awesome, and I’m not just saying that because I like him as a person or because I was dazzled by the star-spangled plot-relevant cover.

(Spoilers ahead)

Eight year old Jess, born missing thirteen body parts, is reviewing the story of her existence under the watch of a deity she calls the Assembler of Parts. Though at first she blames him for painstakingly putting her together, soon she begins to understand the repercussions of her disability on the people in her life – including her guilt-ridden grandmother, alcoholic family friend Cassidy, and team of doctors – whom she heals through her very imperfections. But when her family and medical team are thrust under suspicion of neglect after her death, the true purpose of her life finally becomes apparent.

Even for someone who’s not a super fan of children, a child’s death is terribly sad, and Jess’ equanimity in the face of it is humbling. During her short life, she suffered from Hilgar’s syndrome, which has rendered her thumbless, deaf, with holes in her heart, and a myriad of other symptoms. Yet, she was keenly intelligent and inquisitive as well as kind. For example, the cover comes from her love of constellations, which she uses to bond with her initially-distant father and later to overcome jealously for her normal younger sister. I normally have a tough time with child protagonists, but Jess defied my expectations.

One of my favorite things about this book was it’s examination of spirituality versus religion. There’s a few humorous incidents where Jess stirs up trouble by asking “inappropriate” questions to the priests and nuns at her church. Though they can’t see it, she has a strong faith that defies their conception of God but is no less fervent. As much of a non-believer as I am, I was inspired by Jess, who was so grateful for her life even though the Assembler (to go with Jess’ name for God) dealt her such a tough hand. Other things I loved included the well-rounded supporting cast, who all had dynamic growth arcs through the narrative, particularly Jess’ father, grandmother, and pseudo-godfather Cassidy. Because of Raoul’s background as a doctor, he does an excellent job not only with building realistically complex characters, but also delving into the medical intricacies, along with detailing a medical malpractice lawsuit and child services investigations in the second half of the story.

The first and second parts seem like completely different stories, though they’re obviously connected by the thread of Jess’ observances. The first half is Jess looking back on her life from conception to death, and remembering and forgiving every little event that shaped her. The second half devolves into almost an episode of Law & Order, when a child services investigation launches a criminal suit, causing the motivations and regrets of each character to be examined. Some members were more partial to the first half, but I actually think I preferred the second half because of its faster-paced action orientation.

The only criticisms I had were related to the plot structure – the abovementioned divisiveness between the style of the halves and the framework of Jess reviewing her life as videos in heaven, a device that seemed forced and out of place at times. Especially for a first-time novelist, this book is a beautifully-written, highly-compelling work, although insanely heart-wrenching. I recommend it to fans of the vein of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a thought-provoking look at love and loss.

4.5 Stars