Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle

Review: The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief by Lisa TuttleThe Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief by Lisa Tuttle
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: From the Casebooks of Jesperson & Lane #1
Pages: 416
Published by Random House Publishing Group - Hydra on May 16th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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To solve some mysteries, one must embrace the impossible.
Has there ever been a more unlikely pair of consulting detectives than Jesperson and Lane? They certainly make a striking duo: Mr. Jasper Jesperson, with his shock of red hair and seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of all subjects—save common sense—and Miss Lane, whose logical mind is matched only by her fascination with psychic phenomena.
Their talents are rare . . . as are their customers. So when Jesperson and Lane are hired to track the nocturnal wanderings of a sleepwalking London business owner, they’re simply happy to be working again. The case begins as a window into the séances and other supernatural parlor games that are so popular these days, and takes a sinister turn as the intrepid investigators pull back the curtain on the cutthroat rivalries underpinning polite society.
But after several mediums go missing, it’s clear that Jesperson and Lane are in over their heads. For they’ve uncovered a presence beyond their understanding—an evil force that won’t hesitate to kill in order to achieve its nefarious ends.

My Review:

I really enjoyed the beginning of this book. It was an interesting set up to a slightly off-beat Sherlock Holmes read-alike, with an even more eccentric Holmes and a female Watson who is not a doctor. On the one hand, their respective eccentricities make Jesperson and Lane closer to partners from the beginning. On that other hand, it also begins as a kind of tweak of the nose at Conan Doyle, because Aphrodite Lane becomes a detective after discovering that her friend and employer Gabrielle Fox, who is supposed to be a skeptical investigator for the Society for Psychical Research, is every bit as much of a fraud and a trickster as every medium they have ever investigated.

Miss Lane is willing to believe, but she wants empirical evidence. Evidence that doesn’t involve secret hooks and pulleys under the table. And I applauded her for that.

But about halfway through, The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief turned into the most infuriating book I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.

I fully realize that sentence requires a bit more explanation.

At the beginning of the story, as Jesperson and Lane get started in their consulting detective business, the setting seems to be the same Victorian London as the Holmes and Watson stories. (There is a tip of the hat to Holmes as a fictional character they are both familiar with). There was, at that time, quite a bit of exploration of and belief in the supernatural, and frauds abounded.

Conan Doyle, in spite of his invention of that most rational detective, Holmes, was himself a great believer in spiritualism (and fairies!). Harry Houdini, formerly one of Conan Doyle’s great friends, practically had a second career as a debunker of mediums and psychic phenomena. Their friendship broke over this fundamental difference of belief.

When the first case is presented to Jesperson and Lane, that of the sleepwalking, Mr. Creavey (in other words, the somnambulist) they are looking for a logical and rational explanation. Which Jesperson eventually finds. Someone is controlling Mr. Creavey through a post-hypnotic suggestion.

And while psychic phenomena are bunk, hypnosis is a well-known and reproducible technique.

And this is where the story goes completely off the rails. At least for this reader. Because the so far rational and redoubtable Miss Lane, who is telling the story in the first-person, becomes completely irrational on the subject of hypnotism and hypnosis, when it is obvious to both Jesperson and to the reader that Miss Lane has herself been hypnotized. The only question yet to be completely resolved is whether her hypnotist is the same as Mr. Creavey’s, but even at the outset it seems all too likely. It would be much too coincidental, in the best detectival tradition, for there to be two different hypnotists involved in the same case.

Whether hypnosis works exactly as portrayed in the story is questionable, but it certainly does work and does exist to a significant extent. That the amount of control the hypnotist has over his victims seems rather greater than is considered the norm feels like it falls within the spectrum of fiction.

But it gets worse. While the formerly rational Miss Lane descends into risible irrationality, what drove this reader off the edge into fury was that the story seemed to change its basic premise. While throughout the book it seems to be part of the historical Victorian era, when mostly gullible or desperate people believed in spiritualism but it was not proven, the ending of the story requires that this setting become a world in which psychic phenomena are real and functional.

In other words, we began in rationality and ended with magic, with no explanation for how the basic way that the world works seems to have flipped on its head.

Escape Rating C-: I did finish, which gets the C grade. And I’m still thinking about the book, and still furious, which also keeps it in the C category. But, but and very definitely but. I am so disappointed. What read like a very promising start descended so far on so many levels. Miss Lane’s descent in particular, from rational action to idiocy was particularly galling, especially as we view the story from inside her head.

I enjoy stories where magic works. I love urban fantasy. But if that’s the case, it needs to be established, or at least hinted at, from the beginning. That’s not what happened here. And yes, I’m aware that some of the promotional materials delve a bit into the supernatural aspects, but a) promotional materials don’t always represent the work in hand, b) the switch between absolute belief in rationality to confirmed belief in “magic” is not even subtext in the actual text, and 3) the point-of-view character still changes from an interesting and rational being to a complete idiot.

Color me extremely disappointed. And very, very annoyed.

Review: Death at a Fixer-Upper by Sarah T. Hobart

Review: Death at a Fixer-Upper by Sarah T. HobartDeath at a Fixer-Upper: A Home Sweet Home Mystery by Sarah Hobart
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley, Random House Chatterbox
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Home Sweet Home
Pages: 267
Published by Alibi on May 17th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
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In Sarah T. Hobart’s wickedly funny and fast-paced Home Sweet Home mystery series, small-town real estate agent Sam Turner discovers it’s bad for business when her clients keep dropping dead.   Newly armed with her real estate license, Sam Turner loves Arlinda, her quirky seaside hometown in Northern California. But life by the beach isn’t exactly a breeze: She and her teenage son, Max, are being evicted from their apartment, her long absent ex-husband unexpectedly resurfaces, and her possibly romantic relationship with sexy Chief of Police Bernie Aguilar is, well . . . complicated. All Sam wants is a quick and easy sale. What she gets instead is a killer headache—or three.   Sam’s trying to drum up interest in 13 Aster Lane, a rambling Victorian fixer-upper that’s more than a little neglected—and possibly haunted—so when a trio of offers arrive out of the blue, she can’t help thinking it’s too good to be true. But after a new client drops dead on the property, she fears she’s lost more than a commission. Before Sam’s out of house and home, she must unmask a killer targeting her clients, or the only property she’ll be moving will be plots—at the local cemetery.

My Review:

This was one of those books where I’m still trying to figure out what I think and how I feel about it. I finished it last night and I’ll admit that it isn’t sticking with me. This is not a good sign.

The story certainly had possibilities. Single-mother Sam Turner is a fledgling real estate agent in what sounds like a down market, so the story felt a bit dated, as though it was set in the recession. The housing market has picked up the last couple of years, and it feels like we are now in a sellers’ market, so Sam’s lack of success didn’t feel current, especially given the description of Arlinda as a quirky if desirable place to live.

The house she is trying to sell is equally quirky, not to mention downright creepy. Did the address have to be 13 Aster Lane? Couldn’t it have been 15? Or 12? As events kept spiraling into the weird, it seemed as if the address was either intended as a portent or was just too much over the top. And in spite of the opening of the story, there is not a paranormal element in it.

This is also a small town with a lot of interesting (again, read that as quirky) characters, and it felt as if we met ALL of them.

The word “quirky” comes up a lot in descriptions of and reviews of this book. You would think that there would be some relatively normal, meaning non-quirky, people in this town. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

It also seems as if Sam is just one of those people to whom bad things happen, not always with any rhyme or reason. Her neighbors spy on her, her landlord hates her, the appraiser for her upcoming house purchase rules against her, and most of her colleagues in the real estate business are just plain nasty pieces of work.

In a twist, her boss is actually a nice guy. But everyone else she has to deal with regarding the sale of 13 Aster Lane is just nasty. She has rivals both at her own agency and at the listing agency, and both women are just unreasonably bitchy.

The mystery in this book surrounds that estate at 13 Aster Lane. For reasons that Sam doesn’t figure out until the very end, all sorts of strange and bizarre people are interested in the broken-down mansion, sight unseen. And Sam keeps tripping over the dead bodies of all of those potential purchasers.

It all seems very bizarrely coincidental, until a figure out of her own wacky past turns up out of the seeming blue. And then she discovers that she’s been played all along.

Escape Rating C-: I never warmed up to Sam. In the story, it always seems like she’s in way over her head, which can make things interesting. However, she takes that “over her head” feeling and spends a lot of time feeling sorry for herself, and/or letting other people walk all over her.

Ironically, the deed that most of her fellow real estate agents, those of the cutthroat variety, would most laugh at her for is the one that reaps her the biggest reward at the end.

But the world of real estate that Sam is attempting to inhabit is not a good place, not for her, not for anyone. And she’s mostly unsuccessful in a realm where you have to support yourself on commissions and not salary. She’s not managing and not rethinking. And letting herself be run over by bitches on wheels. In one case, almost literally.

This was also a story where there were two sets of villains, each more unlikely than the other, and both equally out of left field. While the reader always suspects that there is something hinky about all of the sudden offers on the very dilapidated property, and that none of the prospective buyers are remotely on the up and up, the degree to which the solution comes out of nowhere was a bit breathtaking.

And the other piece of villainy was completely out of the blue.

I received this book from NetGalley via Random House Chatterbox for an honest review. Which is turning out to be a review that says I honestly didn’t like this book very much. While I loved the first book I received through this program, The Skeleton Garden by Marty Wingate, that was a book in a series I had previously read and enjoyed. The second book, Mug Shot by Caroline Fardig, was okay but not as good as the Wingate. This one continues the downward trend, and I’m rethinking my entire participation in the Chatterbox.

Reviewer’s Note: In the process of prepping this post I discovered that the author has published at least two previous books in this series under another name. That explains why it seems like we’re meeting Sam in the middle of her mess rather than being introduced to her. But I am even less thrilled that this is the third book in a series and that the marketing makes it seem like the first book. Your mileage may vary.

Joint Review: Marked in Flesh by Anne Bishop

Joint Review: Marked in Flesh by Anne BishopMarked in Flesh (The Others, #4) by Anne Bishop
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal romance, urban fantasy
Series: The Others #4
Pages: 416
Published by Penguin/Roc on March 8th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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For centuries, the Others and humans have lived side by side in uneasy peace. But when humankind oversteps its bounds, the Others will have to decide how much humanity they’re willing to tolerate—both within themselves and within their community...
Since the Others allied themselves with the cassandra sangue, the fragile yet powerful human blood prophets who were being exploited by their own kind, the delicate dynamic between humans and Others changed. Some, like Simon Wolfgard, wolf shifter and leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn, see the new, closer companionship as beneficial—both personally and practically.
But not everyone is convinced. A group of radical humans is seeking to usurp land through a series of violent attacks on the Others. What they don’t realize is that there are older and more dangerous forces than shifters and vampires protecting the land that belongs to the Others—and those forces are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect what is theirs…

My Review:

Marlene: Before we get to the snark portion of our review, Cass is letting me set the stage.

I got hooked on Bishop’s The Others series just a few short weeks ago, when I decided I really needed to read at least the first book of this thing before I wrote up which other authors are “read-alikes” for Bishop for an assignment from Novelist. I got hooked so hard on this series (sort of like the cassandra sangue are addicted to cutting) that I read through the rest really fast. Now I’m with everyone else, panting for book 5.

black jewels trilogy by anne bishopI will say that after having read her Black Jewels series many years ago, and now this one, that the author does some very interesting things at that knife-edge where pain and pleasure meet. Neither series is for the faint of heart, but The Others doesn’t go quite as far, or at any rate quite as universally, down the pain and torture path as The Black Jewels.

Cass: I wouldn’t say The Others are any less disturbing than the Black Jewels. Remember the previous books where they were slowing feeding completely conscious and aware living girls into a meat grinder, then distributing it as ground beef?

Marlene: I think the thing that is different is that the whole society in The Black Jewels felt more universally screwed up than it does at the beginning of The Others. There are very, very sick and evil people in The Others, but the society as a whole doesn’t seem run that way, at least not until Humans First and Last starts propagating “the Big Lie” all over the place. And all resemblances between Humans First and Last and the Nazi and neo-Nazi movements feel definitely intentional. They certainly are on the part of this reviewer.

Also, we mostly see the world of The Others from the perspective of people, for looser definitions of the word people, who condemn that practice and want to live mostly in harmony. People who condemn that scene you describe. In The Black Jewels, that kind of thing WAS the prevalent political system.

But it is certainly a matter of degree.

Cass: I first read this a couple months ago – before Trump was a legitimate front-runner for presidency. At the time, I was very irritated with how bloody stupid the majority of the humans were acting. Easily led around the nose by the HFL movement, no matter how blatantly obvious it was that their actions were suicidal. (Were none of you present for events in the last book?!) Now it’s all terribly prophetic.

Nonetheless, I can not get over what I believe is the prevalent message of this series:

MASTURBATION KILLS.

Just to recap, the blood prophets, like Meg, cut themselves to reveal prophecy. If they cut themselves alone and/or do not speak, they feel nothing but horrible pain and are in constant danger of going mad. But when they cut themselves with another person around and share the prophecy? EPIC ORGASM. Cassandra sangue who are born in the wild start “cutting” during puberty, hide it from their parents, and then drive themselves to insanity because they just can’t stop! It’s about as subtle as Victorian-era gynecological care. (Note: I work with cutters on a day-to-day basis. There is no real dialogue with the psychology, or the physiological ramifications of actual cutting. As portrayed, the cassandra sangue could just as easily obtain prophecies from vomiting or urinating or sneezing with no appreciable impact on the plot of the series.)

A running subplot throughout this book is Meg trying to address her addiction to touching herself – I mean – cutting. Proposed solution? SEX. The idea being that when Meg is feeling a nonspecific itch….I believe at one point she determines she needs to cut once a week….she can scratch it with Simon.

As much as I do enjoy the world-building, the Elders, and The Adventures of Hope Wolfsong, I cannot get past all the anti-masturbation subtext.

Marlene: I’ll admit, that the budding romance in this series would feel completely unnecessary, were it not for this particular subplot. Meg doesn’t need to fall in love, but she needs to find a substitute for the intense euphoria she gets from cutting. I wish that link weren’t there. It may be necessary for the story that the cassandra sangue be addicted to cutting, but that addiction did not need to be so overtly sexual.

Also I seem to remember that the young cassandra sangue get their first cuts long before puberty, and that just makes this subplot even more squicky. Doing it for yourself is one thing, having an adult do it for you, and even worse profit from it, adds a whole new layer of squicky. Particular if the point is, as Cass posits, reinforcing the idea that masturbation kills.

Back to where I was originally heading. It’s not that the growing relationship between Simon and Meg isn’t absolutely adorkable, because it is. I just wish that it hadn’t been all wrapped up in Meg’s need to find an alternate form of euphoria. In this scenario, Simon’s prick is equivalent to her razor, and she’s in danger of developing an alternate addiction, to Simon instead of cutting. And doesn’t that have a whole ‘nother bunch of ways it can go horribly wrong?

Cass: Yeah. Super healthy relationship developing there. Just can’t wait. Remember, Meg is supposedly the Trailblazer for all the other prophets. Does that mean that The Blood Prophet’s Guide she’s working on will have a chapter titled: SEX SAVES?

The Others are pretty intense about making sure their prophets are safe. I’m afraid that protective drive could go somewhere very dark, very quickly. At least the Meg/Simon thing has been slowly building over several books. (Though it is still ridiculously unnecessary) Are they going to do something horrific to my amazing Hope Wolfsong?! In case it is not obvious, I am Team Hope. I loved all the Hope chapters. More Hope.

Marlene: One of the good things about this entry in the series is the way that it kept expanding our view of this world. There be worldbuilding here, and that’s something I always love in my fantasy, urban or otherwise.

Hope’s story is hopeful, in more ways than one. And in spite of the horrific visions that she sees. Hope is young enough to still be seen as a child. So instead of what feels like the over-protectiveness directed at the adult Meg, in Hope’s case, she is being adopted. Jackson Wolfgard and his mate are charged with taking care of her, and they see her as another cub they are raising, admittedly a cub who doesn’t turn furry. But she is getting a chance to grow up in a slightly more normal environment. She’s also young enough to adapt to other methods of prophecy. Hope loves to draw, and is able to draw her visions. Where the Controller threatened to cut off her hands if she didn’t stop drawing, Jackson gives her all the art supplies she needs. And her drawings are life-saving, both for her and for the people and terra indigene she is able to warn. She still cuts, but not nearly as often.

Cass: Though I loved all the interludes with Hope, and getting a glimpse of The Elders…..I have to say I was disappointed with Marked in Flesh as a whole. It felt like a filler episode. As though the author knows where she plans to end the series, but has to fill a couple hundred extra pages along the way. With one exception, Marked in Flesh basically ended in the exact same spot it started: Humans in Thaisia losing all their rights because of the HFL.

At one point, a character even lampshades just how repetitive the plot is. I feel you Doc.

“Because everyone in Lakeside will be at risk,” Lorenzo said. “Same song, different day.”

Marlene: Or, to quote Battlestar Galactica:

“This has all happened before. It will all happen again.”

vision in silver by anne bishopMarked in Flesh feels like a continuation of the previous book, and in a way that finally sets up the conclusion. Or what I presume is the conclusion in the untitled book 5 of the series. Vision in Silver (reviewed here) is the gathering storm, especially from the human side. Throughout that book, the HFL is going further and further off the deep end, while The Others are trying to figure out what to do. Or how far to go in what they do.

In Marked in Flesh, the HFL attacks reach their crescendo, and we get The Others response. All the feces hit all the oscillating devices, and the fallout sprays pretty much everywhere. The consequences of those events will be in the next book, both in the sense of what will the remaining humans do, and in the sense of what happens to the Elders of the Others who have taken on human characteristics, and generally the worst of those, in order to retaliate.

One of the other subplots in this particular entry in the series felt like a prepper’s dream. Simon and the folks in Lakeside, both human and Other, are preparing for an “end of the world as we know it” scenario, which comes to fruition at the end of the book. This particular subplot reminded me a whole lot of Grantville in Eric Flint’s 1632, Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, and his Dies the Fire. What does everyone do, what do they absolutely need to preserve, when all the technology they have come to enjoy if not depend on, fades away?

It circles back to the question that the Elders ask Simon at the end of Vision in Silver, “how much human should we keep?” and its unspoken corollary, “how many humans should we keep?” The answers are going to be interesting, to say the least.

Cass: In the end, I don’t believe Marked in Flesh is an essential entry of The Others. You could learn all you need to know from the one line found on pg. 374. Feel free to skip this one and wait for book 5 to be released.

I give Marked in Flesh a C- for Clearly on Cruise Control. The only reason this installment exists is to hammer home the evils of masturbation. The only reason it’s not D for Dull is the Periodic Adventures of Hope Wolfsong.

Marlene: While it may not be an essential entry in the series, I still found Marked in Flesh to be compulsively readable and eminently distracting. I got totally sucked in and read the book in a single evening. While there are plenty of uncomfortable overtones to Meg’s relationship with Simon, I very much liked all the other relationship building in the book, all the developing friendships and alliances.

So I give Marked in Flesh a B+ for its ability to keep me completely absorbed.