Unraveling Isobel by Eileen Cook

Unraveling Isobel
Eileen Cook

This is a review of an eARC obtained through GalleyGrab.
The Premise: When Isobel’s mother meets a man on the internet and marries him three months later, “appalled” doesn’t begin to cover Isobel’s reaction, especially since it means uprooting in her senior year and moving into his creepy estate. Isobel misses her friends, finds her step-father Richard smarmy, and her gorgeous new step-brother Nathaniel hates her. Then weird things start to happen and Isobel begins to think she has bigger problems: either her she’s seeing ghosts, or she’s starting to show signs of the schizophrenia that runs in her family.
My Thoughts: Isobel is a grumpy teen narrator, who has nothing but snark when it comes to describing the adults around her.  Next to her mother’s sunny, somewhat oblivious outlook on her new life, Isobel is a dark little cloud, and she recounts her mom’s new marriage and their move to Nairne Island with an amusing lack of enthusiasm.  I understand that can be a very fine line between sounding like a typical teen questioning authority and sounding like a snotty brat, but for me, Isobel comes down on the right side of that line because of the adults around her. The biggest red flag is one that we get practically on page one: Richard (Isobel’s stepfather) had a wife and daughter who died seven months ago.  Isobel’s mother seems willing to overlook this, focusing more on her new marriage as a chance to remake herself with little thought to Isobel’s feelings on the matter.
Yes, this is a book with Bad Parents. On one hand, this trope works here because without Isobel’s parents’ choices, there would be no story. We wouldn’t read about Isobel’s trials and tribulations on Nairne, including a stint trying to fit in at school with the popular crowd, or her run-ins with Nathaniel, the other teen in the same dysfunctional boat. On the other hand, their characterization was very convenient to the story. Isobel’s mother was incredibly unaware while Richard was just so self-serving.  While I wished for some more depth to Isobel’s mother and step-father, at least their interactions with Isobel rang true, especially between Isobel and her mother.
Isobel and her time adjusting to her new life felt realistic, and the mystery/ psychological thriller aspect of the story was seamlessly interwoven into it. At one moment, Isobel may be calling her best friend to rant about her new life, the next she is having a strange experience that she can’t explain. Things begin to appear in her room which her mother and step-father insist are put there by Isobel herself. She doesn’t know if they are right and begins to investigate the house while fearing for her own sanity.  This felt like a modern version of a Gothic thriller complete with the haunted mansion and secrets in the attic, but it was a very simple story without any huge, surprising twists in the plot. I think the biggest strength was the interesting mix of the Gothic, psychological element with the modern teenage voice.
The problem I think was that the story didn’t feel like it went far enough. The beginning was very promising, but by the end I wanted more to Isobel’s adjustment to school and her relationship with her step-brother, and at the same time, I wanted more on the mystery of what Isobel was seeing in her new house. These two plots began with great promise but took a very safe and ultimately very bland route. I never really feared that Isobel was sinking into madness, and there was no real mystery of who the bad guy was. Nor is there any emotional depth in the secondary characters. I enjoyed Isobel’s growth in dealing with her genetic predisposition, but I lamented the way in which Nathaniel went from a brooder with issues to becoming a rather generic character. He lost his personality somewhere along the way.  If this story was deeper and darker, I think it would have pushed it to a higher level.
Overall: A really quick, entertaining read. I found the narrator amusing and I liked the mix of contemporary YA with Gothic thriller in Unraveling Isobel, but I think it loses something by not pushing the envelope more. It was fine brain candy for an afternoon.
Unraveling Isobel is slated for publication 1/3/2012
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Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Cemetery Dance
Douglas Preston
Mystery/suspense is a genre I don’t mind reading but usually I don’t pay much attention to it and only read it every so often. When Hachette Books offered me Cemetery Dance I thought I’d give the book a try.

The Premise: It all starts off with the murder of a respected journalist and friend of FBI agent Pendergast and New York police Lieutenant D’Agosta. A lot of people in the journalist’s apartment building see the killer, and identify him as an actor named Colin Fearing, who also lives in the building. With so many witnesses, it seems like an open and shut case. But there is a problem: Colin killed himself a couple of weeks ago. Soon New York City is in an uproar over zombie killers and what the police are doing about them. Agent Pendergast and Lieutenant D’Agosta are on the case for the sake of avenging their friends death, but how do you find a killer who is supposed to be dead?

My Thoughts: This is the latest(I think?) in this series of books. I haven’t read any of the rest of them so this worked fine as a standalone, though I’m possibly missing a background on some of the reoccurring characters (I had no problems making guesses).

FBI agent Pendergast seemed to be the main character, although the focus moved to Nora Kelly and Lieutenant D’Agosta a few times. Pendergast is unique character, I thought of him as a lanky, rich, Southern, Hercule Peroit. The type of character who is very observant, a few steps ahead of everyone else, and always solves the crime. He seemed to be a mythical figure, and I found his eccentricity and past interesting, but sometimes it felt a bit over the top, for example having a huge apartment in the city with a housekeeper and rooms only he is allowed into which leads to an indoor japanese garden? An evil aunt in a mental institution? It was a bit much for me, but then I haven’t read the rest of the series, so perhaps it’s harder for me to accept. I also felt like there was not that much to go on with Pendergast’s emotions – most of the time his face is neutral and he gives nothing away. It makes him seem impenetrable, but also hard to connect to.

Lieutenant D’Agosta seemed to be an angry cop, sometimes letting his anger take over, which Pendergast or other characters having to step in to calm him or tell him to be careful to not let his anger jeopardize the case or his job. Nora seemed to have more scope than the two men, she swung back and forth between grief and fear and anger and put herself in danger to find out who the killer was, but the reader sees less of her in this book. My favorite character was even more minor – Laura Hayward. She had a few smart things to say and I liked how capable she was and how she questioned Pendergast’s methods, but her appearance was brief. I’m guessing she is another reoccurring character though because of her past with D’Agosta.

I thought I understood who was behind the murders and was feeling a bit put out that the police were being obtuse until about halfway through the book when I started suspecting someone else. So I thought the mystery was well done because of the twists.

Speaking of twists, this is one of the books this year which fall under my private label of “unexpected zombies”. All of a sudden, zombies appear when I least expect it, and this happened again here. I know that the blurb for this book talks about a walking dead guy, but I was sure this would be explained in a scientific way. When this didn’t immediately happen, I began to wonder if there really were zombies created through some strange ritual! The authors kept their cards close to their chests regarding magic in the book.

Last comment: there are some violent and creepy scenes in this book which kind of went with the flavor of the novel, but just FYI if you are squeamish. I didn’t think they were bad.

Overall: It was OK. I felt like I could see everything happening like you’d see in a movie, there is plenty of action, and suspense going on, and I did want to find out who did it and what will happen, but I just didn’t connect very well to the main characters. Maybe this is because I hadn’t read the earlier books or because it just wasn’t my thing. It felt like when I watch CSI: Miami. I like certain characters, but I cannot connect with Horatio Caine, and he’s the main guy, so in the end I can watch a show or two, but I am not so enthusiastic about it. That’s my problem here.

Review at Fantasy Book Critic (they highly recommended it)

Made To Be Broken by Kelley Armstrong

I can see the Nadia Stafford series as a tv show. It falls into the same category as a crime drama like CSI – shot mostly at night, but it also has the action of a spy thriller like Alias or La Femme Nikita. Despite this Armstrong series not being urban fantasy like her Otherworld books, I think it still has Armstrong traits – a smart heroine, a dark but not too dark storyline, plenty of action, plus some romantic elements. It's one of my favorite series out right now.
The basic background is this: Nadia is an ex-cop who left her law enforcement career amidst a very public shaming for killing a suspect in her custody. Knowing the the deepset trauma in her childhood that Nadia had never been able to come to peace with, her reasons for the killing become obvious. Of course, growing up in a family of cops, Nadia finds herself alone after this act because none of them agree with her method of justice. Now Nadia's the owner of a hunting lodge and channels her passion into a secret side job as a the contract killer "Dee". "Dee" works for one mob family, earning extra cash to keep her business afloat, but she only kills people who got away with some crime that deserves punishment.
Surrounding Nadia is a small group of people. Her hunting lodge employees on one side, her mentor Jack and a few people in the hitman business on the other. So when the teenage girl who Nadia has been paying to work part-time at the lodge disappears along with her baby, despite the town's belief that Sammi just ran off, Nadia decides to find out what happened.
I am not feeling very coherent right now so I think another bullet list would be best:
  • I have a lot of the same comments as with the first book as this one. The characterization stays consistent between the books. My review of book 1 (in which Nadia and her fellows track a hitman turned serial killer) is here, and reading it I agree with myself there for this book too:
    • "Almost everyone in this book: is the strong silent type. Even Nadia." – Nadia is pretty quiet but her mentor takes it to another level. He barely speaks in full sentences until he's putting on another persona. So background information comes in crumbs and it is fascinating to find out details about the characters.
    • "The whole profession: REALLY interesting to read about." There is so much secrecy to keep their identities secret from each other – after all they're all killers. Nadia's identity is known by Jack and Evelyn only as they sought her out first to get into the business.
    • "this book was delightful because I like a smart heroine. And Nadia Stafford is a smart woman; she has to be, she's a hitman."
  • Again this book is told from the first person viewpoint, and this time we don't shift focus away from that.
  • Nadia is very smart and good at what she does, but because she's "the strong silent type", she can be a bit oblivious about relationships. As is her mentor Jack. It amused me no end that another character, Evelyn, gets exasperated by it.
  • The love triangle I thought there were hints of in book 1 begins to take shape in book 2. But of course, Nadia being dense doesn't really see it. So this has romantic elements because of it, but it's slow moving.
  • The culmination of the missing teen case was quite good. I liked how it was handled and how Nadia took care of herself quite easily in the situation she found herself in.

Book excerpts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3

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Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong

Ah.. this book was delightful because I like a smart heroine. And Nadia Stafford is a smart woman; she has to be, she's a hitman. People just don't last long in that business without a brains. Either you get caught or you get killed.

Nadia, or "Dee" (as she is called by other assassins who don't know her real name), was once a cop, born into a family of cops. After a traumatic childhood event, all it took for Nadia to take things into her own hands was one criminal scumbag who had hurt a young girl. Hardly any of her friends and family stuck around her after that. She had to leave the force, and now runs a hunting lodge, secretly making money on the side for killing people who deserve it. Clearly she has issues brimming under the surface, but it may be her passion that makes her a good hitman. In Exit Strategy, her talent catches the eye of others. Her passion is also what makes her agree to join a team of other hitmen who are going after one of their own. A professional killer has turned into a serial killer, and it has caused a shakedown from the law against the whole profession.

Lazy bullet time:

  • This is NOT a paranormal, even though Kelley Armstrong is well known for her paranormal series, the Women of the Otherworld. I looked at the author's website and book 2 *looks* like it is coming out in September this year and will be called Made to be Broken. I'm not sure about this because Amazon UK has a whole list of authors under that title; maybe it's an anthology?
  • Almost everyone in this book: is the strong silent type. Even Nadia. When she's chattering, she's usually playing a role. It's interesting how subtle the communication is between assassins. Facial expressions and head movements mean more than words. Actions speak loudest.
  • The whole profession: REALLY interesting to read about. Especially things like trying to retire or having a family. No one trusts anyone, everyone has a hidden real identity, everyone's motives are suspect.. most people never retire: they die. And almost no one has a family, they are all loners – trying to have a family never seems to work out. So passing things along to the new generation usually happens in a mentor-mentee relationship, not through children.
  • The book is in a mostly first person point of view, with the attention mostly on Nadia. But sometimes the focus shifts to the killer or his victims. This could fall flat, but in Exit Strategy, it was powerfully done.
  • Finally, there is a very subtle hint of a romance (I am thinking love triangle) in this book. It is barely even there, it's all in the silent communication. One of the men is clearly interested, the other one is so subtle about it that even smart Nadia is oblivious. That's my take. I really want to know what happens in book 2.
  • Excerpts: Chapter 1, Chapter 2

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