2 stars, true crime

The Truth about Belle Gunness

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Title: The Truth about Belle Gunness
Author: Lillian de la Torre

On the morning of April 27, 1908, the farmhand on a lonely property outside La Porte, Indiana, woke to the smell of smoke. He tried to rouse the lady of the house, the towering Belle Poulsdatter Sorenson Gunness, and he called the names of her three children—but they didn’t answer, and the farmhand barely escaped alive. The house burned to the foundation, and in the rubble, firemen found the corpses of Belle, her two daughters, and her son. The discovery raised two chilling questions: Who started the fire, and who cut off Belle’s head?

As investigators searched the property, they uncovered something astonishing: The remains of a dozen or more men and children who had been murdered with poison or cleaver were buried beneath the hog pen. It turned out Belle Gunness was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. And when the investigation revealed that the body found in the fire might not have been hers, the people of La Porte were forced to confront the terrifying realization that Belle might have gotten out alive.

Rating2star

When I requested this book I expected a recently written book about Belle Gunness. It is neither new nor really about Belle. Now I don’t mind the not new part much. It’s a re-release of a book from the 1950s but considering that it’s still fine. I’ve read some older true crime books that were very sensationalist and cheerfully mixed fact and fiction. (Not that newer ones are always better, especially when it comes to sensationalism). However, that wasn’t the problem. Yes, the facts were sometimes dressed in (light) purple prose and especially at the beginning we are told a lot about the thoughts and feelings of the people involved but that gets better.
However, it’s also not really a book about Belle Gunness. It opens with her farm burning down and the discoveries of the bodies on the ground. Then it spends only a short time on Belle’s life and her crimes. I already knew more about her and my only previous contact with Belle had been my favourite true crime podcast doing an episode on her.
The book’s actual focus is Ray Lamphere’s trial. Only at the very end, it returns to Belle and the author poses her own theory about Belle’s fate. (A theory that’s plausible but also one that hasn’t any more proof than any other). Now I wasn’t that interested in that trial before I started reading and the book didn’t change that.
Mainly because the trial is mainly told via court transcripts. Just one after the other (with the occasional newspaper article thrown in) with the minimum linking narration possible. Sure, some original quotes from the time are good but this book goes beyond that. Often the information from several pages of transcripts could have been summed up in a few paragraphs. And then the next transcript just repeats the information we already got in the last one. It makes for some rather tiresome reading.

The book simply has a misleading blurb. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I had known that it focussed so heavily on the trial. If that’s your thing you might enjoy it more than I did.

ARC provided by NetGalley
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2 stars, fantasy, romance

The Spirit Heir (A Dance of Dragons #2)

23477260Title: The Spirit Heir
Author: Kaitlyn Davis
Series: A Dance of Dragons #2

Drenched in darkness and surrounded by the echo of screams, Jinji waits deep in the dungeons of Rayfort, haunted by the memory of the knife stabbing Rhen, plagued by a foreign voice whispering through her mind. A few floors above, Rhen rests trapped in a coma, about to wake to a changed world–a world where his best friend is a woman, his nephew is the king, and an enemy army surrounds him on all sides.

But human wars are insignificant compared to the darkness gathering unseen. Memories of lives she never lived flash through Jinji’s thoughts, hinting at a past that cannot be repeated. A mysterious phantom visits Rhen, carrying cryptic messages of the future. And somewhere out there, the shadow continues to lurk in silence.

Startled by their altered relationship and tempted by new feelings, Rhen and Jinji must find a way to work together. The fate of humanity rests on their shoulders and the real battle has only just begun…

Rating: 2star

“And at least soldiers chose to fight, chose to risk their lives in combat”

Do you really want to go there? Are you really saying that in ye olde pseudo-medieval fantasy world everybody joined the army because they just loved fighting/their country/both so much. Nobody did it out of necessity, because they couldn’t find another job but needed the money or just because it was a family tradition or simply anything but Duty. Honor. Courage.?
Nope. Our soldiers are the good ones, our enemies have the evil ones/the poor slaves that are forced to fight (delete as appropriate…the book can’t make its mind up either).

There are good bits in this book. It still occasionally makes good points about sexism and racism. And it has a great scene when Jinji – who is in the palace and feels very uncomfortable among the nobility because they are all so racist – basically wins a staring contest with the queen and thinks that now nothing the other nobles do can bother her anymore. Only a few pages later it’s again mentioned how uncomfortable she is and the scene with the queen is never mentioned again.
However, my favourite bit of the book is when Jinji gets captured and imprisoned again very shortly after she has been chained up in a dungeon for three weeks. Does that bother her? No, but immediately afterwards she throws a hissy fit of jealousy because Rhen talks to another woman. Because fuck PTSD and trauma, what’s really important are you pants-feelings.

Talking about Jinji and her WTF-decisions/emotions: she’s hearing a voice in her mind and the voice claims she wants to help Jinji fight the mysterious Shadow that’s causing all the problems in the book (well…all the problems not caused by evil, sexist fantasy Arabs). Jinji is not convinced and worries that the voice in her head is actually the Shadow who is trying to trick her and refuses to listen. Until she hears that the Shadow has attacked people after she started hearing the voice. Clearly, a mysterious magical entity that has enough power to force people to attack their loved ones can’t be inside Jinji’s head and somewhere else. That would be illogical.

Despite all that I’m still less bothered by this than by the novellas about Leena inventing feminism, and we finally got dragons in this book. About bloody time. And I just didn’t hate it enough for one star.
ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of book 0.5
Review of book 1
Review of book 1.5

2 stars, true crime

Did They Really Do It?

27850354Title: Did They Really Do It? From Lizzie Borden to the 20th Hijacker
Author: Fred Rosen

Nine of the most controversial violent crimes in America’s history are reexamined in these compelling stories of true crime
 
Dr. Samuel Mudd set John Wilkes Booth’s broken ankle, but was he actually part of the larger conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln? Did Lizzie Borden brutally murder her own parents in Massachusetts? Was admitted jihadist Zacarias Moussaoui really involved in the terrorist plot to destroy the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001? In a series of provocative and eye-opening true crime investigations, author Fred Rosen revisits some of the most shocking and notorious crimes in America over the past two centuries to determine once and for all . . . did they really do it?
 
Applying logic and techniques of modern criminology while reexamining the crime scenes, official police records, and the original courtroom testimonies of witnesses and the accused, Rosen explores nine infamous crimes that rocked the nation and the verdicts that were ultimately handed down. From Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s execution for treason to the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh baby to the Ku Klux Klan slayings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi to 9/11, the alleged perpetrators get another day in court as Rosen calls into question the circumstantial evidence and cultural context that may have determined guilt or innocence in each case.

Rating2star

It feels a bit like the author picked out some true-crime cases that interested him and then tried think of something that could link them together and came up with ‘Did they really do it?’ even though in some cases that is not the most burning question. A more accurate link is probably that in most cases the circumstances and the time had huge influences on the trial and the verdict.

And if Rosen had just gone down that road, delved deeper into the Rosenbergs, Zacarias Moussaoui etc. and thrown out Lizzie Borden, the Boston Strangler and Bruno Hauptmann which all feel like badly done filler this might have been a much better book. Instead, we get a very mixed bag.
So, according to Rosen, Lizzie Borden did kill her father and step-mother. The proof? She never married.

Yes, you see Lizzie was abused. Physically by her step-mom and her father didn’t do anything about it or sexually by her father and the step-mom didn’t know/care/do anything. Or perhaps both. He isn’t quite clear on that. But that’s why she killed both. And then ha suddenly decides that she was sexually abused and that’s the reason she never married. Because as we all know that is the only reason why a woman would never marry. All others just have to throw herself at the first guy that comes along…

And that is actually all the “proof” we get for his conviction that Lizzie Borden was a killer which is…weak.

When it comes to Bruno Hauptmann he thinks that he was rightfully convicted of abducting and (accidentally) killing Charles Lindbergh Jr. He might have had a partner but that’s not what the chapter is about. The chapter is actually about Lindbergh Senior’s antisemitism and support for Hitler. Now I’m not saying these things should be ignored because of what Lindberg did and what happened to him but it has no relevance for the question of whether Hauptmann was innocent. The abduction happened in 1930. Lindbergh only declared his sympathy for Hitler and his views years after that. There is no connection between that and the death of his child and therefore no need to spent over a third of the chapter on it.

Now the chapter on the Boston Strangler really does take the cake for ‘useless filler-chapter’. Yes, Albert DeSalvo did commit some of the murders but not all of them. (He reaches that conclusion, not by a meticulous study of the sources but because by now there has been DNA-testing was done that exonerates him in one case). So the Boston Stranger were most likely Stranglers. How many were there? Which murders were most likely to be DeSalvo’s doing? Who knows or cares? But apparently, the author has a minimum page-count he needs to reach…

And that is a shame because the chapters that are more about how time and circumstances like the Red Glare, racism and antisemitism or the post 9/11 chaos influenced the courts: they’re pretty good. Though to come back to one of my initial complaints: One of the chapters is about three murdered civil rights activists in 1960s Mississippi and from the way the case is presented I didn’t get the impression that there was ever the question ‘did they really do it?’ The problem was rather that due to racism, the way the justice system worked back then, more racism and even more racism it wasn’t possible to get convictions for everybody that was involved in the murders. At least that’s how I (who had never heard of this case before this book) understood it. So either there were more doubts than the author let on which means he did a bad job at presenting the case, or the case was pretty clear-cut. In that case, he did a bad job when he decided to include it in a book that’s supposed to be about cases where there’s doubt about the true guilty party.

If that book was a paper that got handed in for grading it would come back with ‘missed the topic’…

2 stars, crime & mystery

Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily #4)

8124190Title: Tears of Pearl
Author: Tasha Alexander
Series: Lady Emily #4

Even before Emily steps off the Orient Express in beautiful and decadent Constantinople, she’s embroiled in intrigue and treachery. The brutal death of a concubine in the sultan’s palace allows her first foray into investigating a crime as an official agent of the British Empire–because only a woman can be given access to the forbidden world of the harem. There, she quickly discovers that its mysterious, sheltered walls offer no protection from a ruthless murderer.

Rating2star

 

“I don’t think I could survive if anything happened to her. She’s been beside me my whole life.”
“You would. I’d make you.”
“I’m not sure I’d thank you for it.”
“You forget how persuasive I can be.”

In which Emily is worried about her best friend dying and Colin is slightly creepy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure he means well…but couldn’t he have said how he’d help her through it instead of ‘I will make you survive’? Also, two lines later they are talking about their sex-life again in that cutesy Victorian wink-wink-nudge-nudge way that did have me grin the first two or three times they did it but once every private conversation they head led to the same I wanted to yell ‘Can you screw each other without constantly talking about it?’.
The mystery was just ridiculous. It involved so many coincidences that I just couldn’t stretch my suspension of disbelief that far. And yes, cozy mysteries are books in which the main characters just keep stumbling over dead bodies or met people who just have but even for that genre the coincidences were over-the-top.

I did like that death in childbirth was a topic since I can’t remember many novels that are set in an era where that is an issue that talk about it. (No matter if they were written in that era or in the present day). But the way it was discussed left me mostly unmoved. Emily’s fear of it was told rather than shown. The only results were some long internal monologues and her not telling Colin about the fact that she thinks she might be pregnant. (And even that can just as easily be attributed to the fact that she fears Colin would stop her from doing more dangerous things once he knows).
Ivy’s storyline again did nothing for me. This book makes it painfully obvious that Ivy is just the foil to Emily. Ivy is the ‘good Victorian woman’ in the eyes of her contemporaries, while Emily is the one with too many strange ideas for her pretty little head. Ivy will always do what she is told and she’d never dream of demanding answers. Even if the answers concern her and even if she’s scared.
Ivy is there to tell the reader how Victorian women were expected to behave and how much the good old days sucked. Ivy is there so that Emily can worry about her. Ivy is not in any way a character in her own right with interests, hopes or anything. She’s a symbol, somebody Emily can angst over and occasionally a plot device.

Talking about characters that aren’t really characters: Every single woman from the harem. They were there so that Emily could have discussions with them about whether women in the West are better or worse of than their counterparts in the ottoman empire.
And while I think that that it’s not intentional, it has some unfortunate implications that the only woman who is unhappy in the harem is the one who is secretly Christian. Because only if your religion tells you it’s wrong, you’d be unhappy in such a place. Now that brings me to my biggest gripe with the book.
Spoiler alert. It’s not directly about the mystery part but it is intertwined with it and it concerns events at the very end of the book so read at your own risk.

Continue reading “Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily #4)”

2 stars, fantasy, romance

The Shadow Soul (A Dance of Dragons #1)

20903363Title: The Shadow Soul
Author: Kaitlyn Davies
Series: A Dance of Dragons #1

When Jinji’s home is destroyed, she is left with nowhere to run and no one to run to–until she meets Rhen, a prince chasing rumors that foreign enemies have landed on his shores. Masquerading as a boy, Jinji joins Rhen with vengeance in her heart. But traveling together doesn’t mean trusting one another, and both are keeping a deep secret–magic. Jinji can weave the elements to create master illusions and Rhen can pull burning flames into his flesh.

But while they struggle to hide the truth, a shadow lurks in the night. An ancient evil has reawakened, and unbeknownst to them, these two unlikely companions hold the key to its defeat. Because their meeting was not coincidence–it was fate. And their story has played out before, in a long forgotten time, an age of myth that is about to be reborn…

Rating2star

The world building in this was just very confusing. Jinji and her people are clearly inspired by Native Americans. Including that one day the white men – Rhen’s ancestors – came, took their land and suppressed them. But…they suppressed them…only sometimes a bit…or something. The only thing Jinji talks about is that they are not allowed to speak their language anymore. To make sure of that a guy visits them once a year and checks on them…And Jinji still speaks the language (though it is not clear if she is fluent or if she just knows some words that can’t be translated in the language of the ‘Newworlders’).
I just got the impression that the author had realized how problematic Pocahontas is but enjoyed it nevertheless and wanted to rewrite it with less evil oppressors but still wanted to keep the oppression at least a bit. Just like in the prequel novella I read, it seems that there didn’t go that much thought in the worldbuilding.
I also couldn’t make out how many ‘Oldworlders’ there roughly are. We don’t get any number for Jinji’s tribe but I had the impression they were roughly 100, rather less than that. Are there any other natives in this world? Perhaps but probably not. At least, I think so. Jinji repeatedly says that she is the only one left after her tribe was slaughtered in the beginning of the book. She could mean that she is the last of her tribe (the Arapapajo) but other tribes are never mentioned. Were there ever others? Were there ever more Arapapajo? Who knows?

Sometimes the book does things well. For example, when Jinji thinks about how she will continue disguising herself as a boy as long as she is in the city because being a Native among white people sucks but being a Native girl would suck even more. But at the same time, the bad guys in the books are a) Ye Olde Fantasy equivalent of Arabs and b) as cliché-evil as you can get.
Seriously, I was surprised that their king wasn’t introduced stroking a black cat. He’s evil because he’s evil and enjoys laughing diabolically.

The rest of the book is also not more than average. The plot just…happens. I rarely had time to worry too much about the characters because they are never in danger for very long. Chapters frequently ended in cliff-hangers, which were then resolved in the course of the next chapter. Often with the help of plot-convenient magic but nobody really wanted to talk about that magic because reasons.
So, yes I liked this more than the prequel novella but it still wasn’t that good.

ARC provided by NetGalley

Review of book 0.5 in the series

 

 

2 stars, fantasy, romance

Shadows of Asphodel

25525171Title: Shadows of Asphodel
Author: Karen Kincy
Series: Shadows of Asphodel #1

She never asked for the undying loyalty of a necromancer.

1913. Austria-Hungary. Ardis knows better than to save a man on the battlefield. Even if he manages to be a charming bastard while bleeding out in the snow. She hasn’t survived this long as a mercenary without some common sense.

When she rescues Wendel, it isn’t because he’s devilishly handsome, but because he’s a necromancer. His touch can revive the dead, and Ardis worries he will return from the grave to hunt her down. Besides, a necromancer can be useful in this world on the brink of war.

A gentleman of questionable morals, Wendel drops to one knee and pledges his undying loyalty to Ardis. She resists falling for him, no matter how hot the tension smolders between them. Especially when she discovers Wendel’s scars run much deeper than his skin, and it might be too late to truly save him from himself.

Rating2star

“Why did someone as bad as a necromancer have to look so good?”

(I should have known what was coming after that quote)

A book set in an alternate Austria-Hungary 1912. That sounded like it was right up my alley. Unfortunately, it ended up severely disappointing. That started with the fact that for all the influence the setting had on the plot it could just as easily have been set in the Year of the Unicorn in a fantasy land with too many vowels in its name. The Black Hand plays a role but they’re just generic rebels that need to attack so that we get an action scene (one of so many…). There is a mention of an assassination attempt in Franz Ferdinand but it doesn’t influence the plot in any way.

Though, to be honest, I was still entertained for quite a while. Ardis is a mercenary and not one of those where you wonder how somebody that stupid survived that long. She is capable but not super-human. Wendel is a character that has been through horrible things and it still affects him, even at inconvenient times.

And the book is far from boring. A lot of things are happening. Constantly. There is fighting. And more fighting. And even more fighting. Then there’s a big reveal (though one that doesn’t seem to affect the protagonists much). Some more fighting. Then there’s sex. And fighting. And sex. And another reveal with no consequences. Some more sex. More fighting…

The characters are constantly busy. But they don’t develop. And their relationship doesn’t develop. Considering this book is also marketed as paranormal romance that is…unfortunate. At the beginning, Ardis distrusts Wendel because he’s a necromancer and necromancers don’t have a very good reputation. Only he is also hot. And smells good (like a rainy pine forest). Then plot-reasons happen and they end up traveling together. Wendel continues to be hot. And admittedly acts in a way that shows that he isn’t an utter asshole but has just decided to act like a jerk when everybody thinks necromancers are evil anyway. Still, he also doesn’t exactly radiate trustworthiness. But he continues to be hot. Then a lot of people tell Ardis she shouldn’t trust Wendel and even that he’s bad but she ignores them. Presumably, because somebody who is so hot can’t be a bad person. Because nothing in Wendel’s behaviour and refusal to talk about his past screams ‘trust me’.

Now don’t get me wrong: Wendel has some good reasons for not talking about himself. But at the same time, Ardis has no reason for trusting him, especially after several people tell her not to. And this could have been a great source of conflict in the book. But apparently, we only want to read about people getting beheaded with magic swords or people fucking for ages. Now I like magic swords but I also like characters with complex emotions. And the main emotion these characters had was lust. And lust does not carry a whole book.

ARC provided by the publisher