The Case of the Black Tulips – a review

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For today’s Thursday Creation Review, I’m back to tackling a book review – I missed writing a proper post last week, although the excuses were forthcoming.

Anyway, back to today’s review (which I started last week).

I had been reading just samples as books I planned to start next were due to arrive. They did, but one sample had so hooked me that I had to discover more about it first.

 BlackTulips

The Case of the Black Tulips (Caster & Fleet Mysteries, #1)

by

Paula Harmon (Goodreads Author),

Liz Hedgecock (Goodreads Author)

There’s a new detective duo in Victorian London…

When Katherine Demeray opens an unsigned letter addressed to her missing father, she is drawn into a quest to find the terrified letter-writer and learn the secret of the black tulips.

Struggling to support herself after her father’s disappearance, Katherine has neither time nor money to solve the mystery alone. She has no choice but to seek help from a woman she has only just met; awkward socialite Connie Swift.

As the letters become increasingly frantic, this unlikely team of amateur detectives must learn to work together, while struggling to navigate the rigid rules of Victorian propriety, their families’ expectations, and the complicating interference of men.

Confronting danger as they venture into new and frightening territory, Katherine and Connie risk arrest, exposure, and even their reputations to solve the Case of the Black Tulips. Can they solve the mystery before someone gets killed….or they kill each other?

The Case of the Black Tulips is the first book in the Caster & Fleet mystery series, set in 1890s London.

Review 4.1 stars

When typist Katherine Demeray and her new friend socialite Connie Swift attempted to solve a mystery letter to Katherine’s father, I was drawn into their dangerous venture as they struggled to navigate Victorian society and the darker side of London.

The mystery of the letter writer and the clue of black tulips created a plot that worked through to the end, and the ending set up future cases for the endearing – or should that be spirited – lady detectives. (The second mystery is also out, and another is in the pipeline.)

I found that the main protagonists of Katherine and Connie were distinct and worked as a team, along with some memorable key supporting characters. I wondered if each of the authors had taken on a protagonist as the voices were so distinct – and that proved to be the case, with fascinating and effective results. What better way to write two protagonists than have two writers – or a split-personality. This clever approach led to some intriguing cliff-hangers for readers – and it seemed for writers/protagonists in the dark.

Some of that darkness is Victorian London with minimal lighting. This setting felt familiar as an ex-Londoner and yet this London was different with its carriages, rural outskirts (now, houses), plus the ever-present smoke that would soon become smog.

The story, the characters, their situations and the settings felt realistic. Whether this was historically accurate, I’m not sure, but the authors seem to have done plenty of research, and that gives a sense of authenticity that worked for me.

I enjoyed the read and I will buy the sequels. Not five stars but a recommended four plus.

 

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – four stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – four stars

 

 

Thursday is cancelled- maybe forever

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Today’s Thursday Creation Review has been trampled on by an invasion – an invasion and occupation that might impact on the next few posts. I’m praying – and might make a sacrifice as well – to create an inspired space for some writing, or at least scribbling.

Beyond kids that must scream, yell and stomp, setting the dogs barking, I have the MS reactions to deal with. Loud noises and excessive input triggers spasms and meltdowns.

I am writing this on Thursday evening – well, I started yesterday morning with the now-shelved review– and this ramble might be posted before midnight Honolulu time.

It didn’t help to have a collection agency insist that we owed $40,000 for a bill that was fifteen years old and not even ours. Somehow, we will placate them before they foreclose on our house.

I’m coping badly with step-great-grandkids, especially when they ask me to read, interrupt me, say they were falling asleep at the end, then stomp off leaving me to put their mess away. Never again – MS makes reading aloud a struggle that kids can’t understand.

As for writing, that’s mentally scrambled and splintered. But I intend to write something for the WEP Challenge on Monday – if the kids give me space…and my protagonist co-operates.

Dolbadarn Castle

Photo of Dolbadarn Castle, Snowdonia by Etrusia UK on Flickr

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt – a review

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I was struggling to find a book to review this week: okay, I have some with short reviews to expand on, but I can’t fully remember the key points that I had to make. And I am behind with my reading as I’m struggling with finding characters I like. I also wondered if anyone would notice me missing a week.

Would you have missed a review? Or are the reviews interesting?

However, I was determined to write something. I never said these reviews were exclusively about books so how about a game instead, I decided. This felt inevitable back in April when I posted W is for Witcher, looking at the origins of the Witcher games. That post looked in depth at some of the elements, but my experience playing the game was limited back then – but not now.

Let’s don our armour and sharpen the swords then.

Witcher3

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is an action-adventure RPG based on The Witcher series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, it is the sequel to the 2011 game The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, in which the player becomes Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher – a monster hunter for hire. He possesses superhuman abilities and is a master swordsman. a dying breed that makes their living killing the monsters that threaten people.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (Polish: Wiedźmin 3: Dziki Gon) is the third and final instalment in the series of games developed by CD Projekt RED featuring the witcher Geralt of Rivia. The game was originally scheduled for release in late 2014, then pushed back to 24 February 2015, and finally released on 19 May 2015. During the first two weeks since release it had sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, more than doubling the total sales of its predecessor The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

The game has proved to be one of the most successful and popular games of recent years – if not ever.

Review 4.9 Stars:

Back in April, I was new to the game, but I was sucked into The Witcher world – and just starting out on my journey. Since then, I have logged over 500 hours of playtime, finished the main game and the two ‘expansions’ – Hearts of Stone and Blood & Wine. I am now on my second playthrough, using the New Game + feature, whereby a player can start the story afresh but with the level reached at the end of the first playthrough – so my Geralt was level 55 and the monsters were boosted too.

In deciding to re-play, I had to have found the game more than just entertaining – in fact, the storyline is engrossing with multiple endings possible and the settings are brilliant. That excellent storytelling has been great, underpinned by reading the 1993 collection of short stories by author Andrzej Sapkowski as well as his second series – see my reviews of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny.

CD Projekt has built on the world of Sapkowski, and there are plenty of references to past events within both the main quest line and in the side quests – and the overall world-building is impressive. There is a clever aspect to this game – cheeky at times even as the depth of the narrative produces amusing references to other games, books, artwork etcetera. What other game would have a major-domo called Barnabas-Basil Foulty.

Graphically the game is immersive and, well-not exactly beautiful, except in the final region of Toussaint, but the settings reflect that this is a world ravaged by war as well as monsters. The countryside and cities – rough, bleak and vibrant – feel real albeit not cinema-realistic, but I never expect that in a game.

The gameplay element is more complex than other games with a lot to learn and master – and that has been ratcheted up in my second playthrough as I have decided to tackle it on the hardest setting – Death March. This time, I must prepare Geralt for battle and not plunge in all gung-ho – or he dies too easily. Some of that though, is down to oddities in aspects of the game mechanics, like Geralt’s a habit of auto-finishing enemies off while there are others still alive.

The quirks in the mechanics have been annoying – like his inability to jump more than a few inches – but these are very minor compared with the massive number of pluses. One minor irritation in the main game is the NPCs wandering the world who tend to bump into Geralt or his mare, Roach. In Toussaint, the people have more manners (or the developers improved the AI).

Some players have had issues with Roach floating in the air – but I had no problems, so I suspect this glitch was sorted in a patch. My Roach seems to wander off, but she is usually looking for something to eat or drink when Geralt is busy – extremely sensible. It would be cool to build houses but that is not an essential, although Geralt gets a vineyard to do up in Blood & Wine – with BB’s help. By then, you can also dye Geralt’s armour.

Roach01

I must end this lengthy player-review by saying that my favourite aspect must be Gwent. This is an in-game card game that is popular in the Witcher world and was invented by the dwarves – they get annoyed when a new deck is introduced in Blood and Wine, initiating a clever side-story. Most innkeepers, merchants and even central characters play Gwent, and some sell individual cards. Geralt can collect cards and take part in Gwent quests and tournaments – with trophies. I must admit that I even have a physical Gwent set with the game board and all five sets of cards. Does that make me a card-geek?

In summary, a great game that has justified the countless awards and accolades received. I will be enjoying Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt for many more hours playing on Death March – despite the quirks and glitches. I’m eagerly anticipating the rumoured Witcher 4 – even if it will be some years before it emerges. Plus, I still have five more of Sapkowski’s Witcher books to read.

Setting: 5*

Storyline: 5*

Gameplay: 4.5*

Graphics: 5*

Entertainment: 5*

Features: 5*

 

The Death of Mrs Westaway – a review

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This week’s Thursday Creation Review is somewhat unexpected in that I had something else put aside to read. That novel had to wait as this book shot to the top of the reading pile. Read on and find out why.

DeathOfMrsWestaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

by

Ruth Ware (Goodreads Author)

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark WoodThe Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game comes Ruth Ware’s highly anticipated fourth novel.

On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.

Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

Review 5 stars

This novel derailed my reading plans, and I have no regrets. After reading a blogged review, I had to discover more so I read the sample and was swept into Hal’s world.

I felt her dilemmas as she struggled to make finances stretch – and fend off loan sharks – as she side-stepped through life as a tarot card reader. Like Hal, I lived in Brighton – although never all-but-on-the-streets. Full marks to Ruth Ware for resurrecting the West Pier – artistic licence at its best. Plus, I’ve had experiences with tarot cards – but not as a card reader.

Anyway, I knew that the answer must lie in the mysterious letter that Hal receives, tempting her with an inheritance that she knows isn’t hers. She had to attempt to claim the money, so I had to buy the book as I needed to keep reading.

She entered another world, Trepassen House, facing another class, one where money seems to grant advantages, even privileges – but there are consequences. Love can be a rarer commodity in such circles, unlike Hal’s childhood, ironically.

However, Hal and the reader are plunged into the menacing world of the country house – Gothic with wonderful details that rang true for me. I grew up in that world, so the house and its occupants came alive – except that was as much the author’s words and their phrasing.

Hal isn’t fully prepared for the Westaway family and all the secrets. Yet, she has the skills to adapt to the situation – not an easy feat as even I would struggle. Families and inheritance can be vicious whatever is at stake – I’ve been there, and it never ends, for some. I recognised too many of the family members and aspects of key supporting characters. I wanted to discover what those secrets were, and who was determined to stop Hal at any cost. Mrs Westaway might be dead, but she had left a legacy that posed questions. Why did she make that will? What did she know? What happened at Trepassen?

There were elements that were pure Daphne du Maurier, so I was amused when someone mentioned Mrs Danvers. But this was gothic intrigue meets internet revelations – but only when there was a signal and no distractions. Trepassen’s remote Cornish setting – another Rebecca echo – with its charming magpies, adds to the menacing atmosphere.

Although the third-person deep POV of Hal carries the main story-line, the unidentified first-person diary entries are a clever addition. For me, that diary added new questions and new scenarios. The entries also added red herrings for unwary readers like me. At one point, I thought I had identified the writer and resolved what was happening. Wrong. Yes, I realised before the end, but not entirely. So, I was pleasantly surprised at what had really happened, especially as all the clues were there – just cleverly disguised.

Five days after Hal pulled me from Brighton to Cornwall, I had finished this novel – that’s fast for me. I was tempted to drop everything to discover what the author had so artfully contrived – and I was never disappointed.

A well-deserved five stars.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Look the Other Way – a review

Thursday_horizons

Kristina Stanley is among my favourite mystery authors and when her Stone Mountain series closed with Avalanche, I wondered where we would be swept to next. (Well, if I was truthful, I had an inkling as Kristina is one of my gurus.)

So, in the next mystery, we are transported in Look the Other Way from the mountains, we are now afloat.

LookTheOtherWay_35613947

Look the Other Way

by

Kristina Stanley (Goodreads Author)

SUBMERGED BENEATH THE DEPTHS IS A SEA OF SECRETS…

A year after her Uncle Bobby mysteriously disappears in the turquoise waters surrounding the Bahamas, Shannon Payne joins her grieving aunt to trace Bobby’s last voyage. Shannon hopes the serenity of the sea might help her recover from a devastating breakup with her fiancé.

Sailing the 38-foot catamaran, A Dog’s Cat, is Captain Jake Hunter, a disillusioned cop who has sworn off women. While Shannon tries to resist her growing attraction to the rugged captain, she uncovers dark truths about her uncle’s death that might send them all to the depths.

Review 4.6 stars

I’m always ready to pick up another Kristina Stanley mystery and I wasn’t disappointed with this one.

She takes her diverse life encounters and creates great stories from them – this time tapping into her sailing experience. As a result, the characters, settings and situations ring true, and I was with Shannon Payne in the Bahamas, sailing A Dog’s Cat, attempting to resolve what happened to her Uncle Bobby, and I had to wonder when something might happen with rugged Captain Jake Hunter. Is he what he says he is?

The novel was well-structured, balancing mystery and romance while weaving the plotlines together. As a mystery writer, I attempt to unravel the threads and there were more than enough to keep me reading – even after I worked out who the antagonist was, sometime before the end.

From that point onwards, the suspense element went up some notches as my concern for Shannon’s situation grew. My mind was trying to keep ahead of her…and the villain. Getting that revelation moment right needs skill as not all readers ‘click’ in the same place – keeping them on board takes craft, and Stanley has that in boatloads.

Also, there were some clever red herrings that kept my ‘little grey cells’ buzzing for page after page. All the characters had backstories and depth, with various reasons to suspect them of committing some crime. Their actions were sometimes deceptive and there were plenty of misunderstandings as in all good mysteries.

The Bahamas setting was both enticingly exotic and hidden with subtle threats. Many of the places must be real – or felt that they should be. The author’s knowledge of boats and sailing lent the writing an authentic vibe – and from my limited experience ‘mucking around in boats’, I felt swept along with events of a maritime nature. And the characters’ relevant skills varied appropriately from those that knew their charts to those needing a bottle or a life-jacket – or both.

Look the Other Way is another excellent Kristina Stanley novel that kept me thinking, so if you like a good mystery plus sailing and romance, I would recommend this book – 4.6 stars raised to Five.

I suspect that if this isn’t meant to be the start of a new series, then popular opinion might demand the return of Shannon Payne. However, until then we can anticipate a new Kristina Stanley mystery that is in the works. For now, I’ll just recommend each one she’s already written.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

Sword of Destiny – a review

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Ever since I met Geralt of Rivia in the game, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and posted about it in W is for Witcher, I have been exploring the origins of that world in the creations of Andrzej Sapkowski.

After reviewing the first book in Geralt’s chronology – The Last Wish – I kept reading. I will eventually review the game but I have many hours left so today my Witcher journey continues with a review of the second collection of short stories, Sword of Destiny:

SwordOfDestiny

Sword of Destiny (Saga o Wiedźminie #2)

by

Andrzej Sapkowski

The New York Times bestselling series that inspired the international hit video game: The Witcher.

Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent.

This is a collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH. Join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…
The Witcher series 
The Last Wish
The Sword of Destiny 
Blood of Elves
The Time of Contempt
Baptism of Fire

The Malady and Other Stories: An Andrzej Sapkowski Sampler (e-only)

Review 5 stars

I’m attempting to remain chronological in reading and reviewing Andrzej Sapkowski’s absorbing books about Geralt of Rivia, although I first met the White Wolf in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt video game. I also know that there are some shorts that might not fit this chronology.

However, the six short stories in this second collection are on the one hand standalone but on the other, there are strong threads linking them – not least the White Wolf himself, Geralt of Rivia.

Some see him as emotionless and ruthless, but his potion-subdued emotions emerge, and he is torn by his heart and by his destiny. Sapkowski creates an evolving and complex character who has a code, relationships, habits, quirks, dreams, nightmares…and destiny.

That destiny unfolds in the stories – and I know in later books. However, the author doesn’t use a linear style for the plot, weaving the threads with flashback memories, nightmares and encounters. Some readers might find this approach confusing, but when the pieces fall into place, I sat back and admired the craft, grinning with pleasure.

Each story deals with an event in Geralt’s journey, introducing both new characters and old ones, like Dandelion, the bard and Yennefer, the sorceress. From the opening story, The Bounds of Reason, when we encounter the mysterious Borch Three Jackdaws, we realise that this is neither a black-and-white world nor classical fantasy, but a multi-faceted and richly-visualised world of many hues, some grey and muddy, some earthy and verdant, and some red as blood or purple as lilacs.

Each character, in this and the other stories, has levels of complexity, none more so than the child called Ciri in the last two stories – The Sword of Destiny and Something More.

I could write about all six stories, but other reviewers can do that better. Do I focus instead on Yennefer’s devious attractions or Dandelion’s humorous escapades? Not this time – even if they are both play memorable character-driven episodes.

Ciri is the person who fascinated me most, watching her cope with events as a child, her raw emotions and reactions, seeing her encounter Geralt and struggle together with Destiny. The whole plot comes together in their story, with seeds sown in one of the key stories in The Last Wish collection and continued in the novels (and games).

Everything takes place in a world that mirrors issues that our society still struggles with, like prejudice and racial segregation. Pogroms directed against elves and dwarves echo the horrors that the Jews suffered, totally – and witch burnings were for real. And the persecution of ‘minorities’ continues. People even dislike Witchers so abuse and exploit them – so why not send all Moslems back where they belong.

Geralt’s world is filled with monsters, and sometimes the human ones are the worst – as in ours. Sapkowski takes folklore and cleverly twists it, posing dilemmas. What side do you stand with, Order or Chaos? Are all dragons evil because a knight-errant must rescue maidens in distress? Sapkowski also raises topical issues, such as the struggle to preserve the natural world, vanishing species struggling to survive. Do we have a right to their land?

I have just taken a few enjoyable steps exploring Sapkowski’s creation, even if I’ve visited the world others built from his imagination. Playing the Witcher 3 game and reading the early books creates moments of ‘understanding’ about this complex world. The depth originates in Sapkowski’s mind, so I must keep reading.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars