Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review: Thin Ice by Paige Shelton

6/27/19 Review of Thin Ice by Paige Shelton   

4.5 stars

Likely because I’ve been a long-time fan of Shelton’s, I was lucky enough to score an ARC of this thriller/mystery which will not be released to the public until December, 2019.  I received my copy at about 4:00 PM on June 26, 2019, read it in large chunks, and finished it at about 10:15 AM the next day.  I intended to give it five stars, but it does have a few Chekovian issues, which would likely have been non-issues if the book had declared itself to be the first in a series when I assumed it was a stand-alone.  I assume this will be made clear when the book is published.
I am a voracious reader of mysteries: cozies, historical, true-crime, and thriller.  Thin Ice is a mix of these genres (except historical), something of a cozy on steroids.
The protagonist, Beth Rivers, is very much a cozy protagonist.  She is a thirty-something intelligent, capable woman starting a new life in a small town and finding that skills from her previous jobs (thriller author and police secretary) drop her neatly into a new job/role (writer/editor of tiny local paper, although she never actually writes anything in this novel) waiting for her and help her to solve a murder in this new place.  She makes friends with the local cop, also very much like a cozy.  However, the fact that she’s changed her identity because she’s hiding from a stalker/kidnapper from whom she narrowly escaped makes this a bit more like a thriller.  As her escape caused an injury which led to brain surgery, she has a nasty scar and ugly hair, and she doesn’t care much about her appearance.  This makes a refreshing change from the usual cozy protagonist who is beautiful and has a myriad of men after her.   There’s no romance in Thin Ice, which makes it less cozy.  Beth’s also lacking the female bestie(s) usually found in a cozy.
The pacing of the book is much more like a thriller than a cozy.  Many scenes, from the beginning small plane entry into town, to the mysterious phone message, to the river rescue, are quite tense and less contrived than the usual sneak-into-the-house-to-search scenes found in cozies.  Beth’s seizures, headaches, and flashbacks seem quite real and contribute to the plot-building in a good way.
The cast of side characters is also more nuanced than in the average cozy.  All the folks who live in Benedict, Alaska are in the “gray” area; their personalities are far less like stock characters than are the usual group in a cozy.  Take Viola and Benny, for example.  These are tough sisters who ran from foster care at a young age and made lives for themselves in Benedict.  Viola manages a halfway house and Benny’s a barkeep. However, Benny, although she speaks of herself as female, either  enjoys cross-dressing or else identifies as non-binary.  All this is a bit Twelfth Night, except that it’s not Viola who dresses as a man when she reaches the “foreign shore.”  I don’t know if this is intentional or not on Shelton’s part, but it’s nice layering.
However, there is no real thriller tension of Beth’s having to run from Levi Brooks, her kidnapper.  In Thin Ice, he is a mysterious possible threat, but not in the sense of most thrillers.  (I must be vague here in order to avoid spoilers.)  Beth’s biggest conflicts are internal; they are real and add to the book, but they make this more cozy and less thriller.
My only complaints about Thin Ice come from the fact that I thought it was a stand alone, when I now see that it must be part of a series.  Shelton attempts to do what Alan Bradley does in the Flavia DeLuce series: to have a large mystery (finding Levi Brooks in Thin Ice and the past of Harriet in the Flavia series) stretching over the series while there is a murder to solve (who killed Linda in Thin Ice) in each individual book.  **** MILD SPOILER ****  In Thin Ice, I expected from the pacing and from the huge clues to Levi’s identity on page 184 and after that all would be revealed at the end, but instead we only solve the murder.  I felt a bit cheated by that.  I would have been fine with the teaser of a new mystery at the end if I had felt a sense of resolution for both mysteries, but I did not get that.  *** END SPOILER**
Also, there is a real Chekov’s gun problem when a Native man, a bit of a mystic, warns Beth not to go out into the Bay, and..... nothing comes of it.   I assume it will show up in a sequel, but I did find it rather annoying.
Thus, overall Thin Ice earns 4.5 stars from me.   It’s not really a thriller, but it is a ramped-up cozy, in a good way.  The characters seem real, the pacing is excellent, the setting seems very real to someone who’s never been to Alaska (I bet Alaska residents could pick things apart, but I can’t.), and the plot is good, even if the resolution is incomplete.   I would definitely recommend this book to mystery readers.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Book Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

If I had never read Connie Willis' Doomsday Book and its sequel To Say Nothing Of The Dog (there are two more sequels, Black Out and All Clear, but Taylor does not appear to have stolen much from those, at least in this first book), I might have thought this book was terrific.   The plot does trip along quite nicely, after all.
But reading this book after reading Willis' books is like reading Harry Potter spin-offs and expecting them to be as good as the real thing; it's just not going to happen.
Taylor steals Willis' whole concept of an English university in the not-too-distant-future having a time travel department, with the actual time travel done with computers instead of some type of magic (Rise and Fall of the DODO) or device (Dr. Who, Bill and Ted's, Back to the Future).   She also steals the whole concept of whether or not we "strand" someone in the past.   And, (SPOILER ALERT FOR TWO DIFFERENT AUTHORS) Taylor steals Willis' major plot idea of "we can take something from the past as long as it's something that is on the verge of being destroyed." In Taylor's case, this is a pine cone and a chunk of the Library of Alexandria.  For Willis, it's a cat and some kittens, which provide the catalyst for the entire plot of To Say Nothing Of The Dog.
Taylor also steals Willis' plot idea of "What if a disease travels forward in time?"
What Taylor DOESN'T have that Willis does is historical research.   Willis has so much detail in her historical settings that the reader almost feels the author must have lived through the events (clearly impossible), but Taylor picks vague settings and gives vague descriptions of all historical scenes.
Taylor's book isn't bad; it's fairly enjoyable as far as plot and character go.  But it lacks historical detail and certainly does not pull off Willis' parallel plot structure.
Thus, if you want a really good series about a university with a time-travel department which has people trying to cash in on commercializing it, find Connie Willis' books instead of these.

List of books in Connie Willis' time travel series:
The Doomsday Book
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Black Out
All Clear
The historical settings are 1348 Oxford, England, Victorian England, and WWII Oxford and London.
Connie Willis' books on goodreads and Amazon.