Blood on the Tracks

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Review: Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless

For my fourth novel in the R.I.P. Challenge, I read The Raven Boys. In case you missed my earlier post and reading lineup, here is the concept behind this challenge:

Started by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, R.I.P. is a reading challenge in which imbibers come “together to enjoy the literature most associated with the darkening days and cooling temperatures of Autumn:”

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

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Blood on the Tracks features railroad police Special Agent Sydney Parnell and her canine partner Clyde. (I didn’t know railroads had special agents, did you?) Special Agent Parnell suffers from debilitating PTSD incurred when she was a Marine in the Iraq War. Late at night, reliving memories and fielding stress, she pops pills, smokes cigarettes, and pours fingers of whiskey.

Like Parnell, Clyde suffers from PTSD, which is why Parnell was able to bring him home from Iraq. Can I just say I’m in love with Clyde?

Readers are taken on multiple flashbacks to the war in Iraq and the troubling events leading up to Clyde and Parnell’s nightmares and the death of Clyde’s handler and Parnell’s boyfriend, Dougie. The flashbacks are well placed, providing insight into the present story without detracting from it. The present story involves a brutally murdered, community-centered woman and the Burned Man, another Iraq War Marine turned hobo, who is accused of killing her. Now this was interesting. I thought the word hobo was pejorative. Apparently, I was wrong. There still exists a train-hopping culture of people who call themselves hobos. There are hobo conventions, hobo symbols, hobo beads, and even a hobo code of ethics. I’d never heard of hobo beads, but they play an important role in Blood on the Tracks.

As Parnell delves further into the murder, she begins to suspect that the Burned Man is innocent. The clues she uncovers point in many directions, even back to events in Iraq. Along the way, she teams up with Detective Cohen, another damaged officer, and they begin a push-pull sexually charged working relationship.

Oh, and bonuses of bonuses…Parnell sees dead people! I wasn’t expecting that, but how happy I was.

Sydney Parnell reminds me of V.I. Warshawski from Sara Paretsky’s detective series, so if you like that series, you should like Blood on the Tracks. Like V.I., Sydney is smart, tough, hard-drinking, and almost super-humanly strong. (I’d like to be super-humanly strong myself, but, alas, I’m something of a wimp.)

An aside: If, in addition to strong female detectives, you love service dogs in fiction (like I do), you should also check out Suspect by Robert Crais.

I had some issues with Parnell’s behavior at times, particularly the drawn out I-want-him-I-want-him-not game with Detective Cohen. And as one reviewer noted, with the combination of pills and alcohol Parnell imbibes, it’s a miracle she still possesses a liver. Overall, though, I enjoyed this mystery quite a bit and imagine I’ll continue with the series.

For lots more reviews of perilous books, films, and short stories, please visit the R.I.P. review site.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

For my third novel in the R.I.P. Challenge, I read The Raven Boys. In case you missed my earlier post and reading lineup, here is the concept behind this challenge:

Started by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, R.I.P. is a reading challenge in which imbibers come “together to enjoy the literature most associated with the darkening days and cooling temperatures of Autumn:”

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

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As I read The Raven Boys, I fell in love with the novel’s assembly of characters—teens, psychics, scryers, and a lost ghost. Sixteen-year-old Blue lives with her mother and an assortment of elder psychic “aunts” (which, I admit, put me in mind of the fairytale “Sleeping Beauty”). Blue is not psychic but possesses the ability to augment whatever paranormal activity is afoot. She is often called upon to witness psychic readings and clarify ghostly messages.

I adore Blue. She’s a no-nonsense, hardworking teen who holds down three jobs to help with household expenses. On principle, Blue disdains Aglionby students, boys from the local elite prep school. Naturally, these are the very characters about to enter (and disrupt) Blue’s world.

The Raven Boys clique is composed of a tight-knit foursome: Adam, who’s on scholarship and for whom Blue feels an immediate affinity; Ronan, who dwells in a dark world of regret and anger; Noah, whose shy manner endears him to Blue; and Gansey, the rich and magnetic leader of the bunch.

Blue has two secrets. She has been forewarned that her kiss will cause the death of her true love—a sort of reverse Sleeping Beauty, if you will. And she has just learned that one member of the foursome will die within the year. This knowledge does not stop Blue from joining the Raven Boys. Soon, the now fivesome embarks on a quest to uncover the secret of the ancient ley line.

I’d never heard of a ley line before. Had you? The concept of the ley line is that ancient sites such as Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and Machu Picchu are connected geographically through invisible lines. Once Alfred Watkins presented this theory in 1921, people speculated that ley lines contained spiritual energy. Benjamin Radford in his article “The Lore and Lure of Ley Lines” (do you think Radford loves alliteration?) explains “ley lines rose from mundane origins to an entire field of study, spawning books, seminars, and groups of ley line enthusiasts who gather to discuss, research, and walk the lines.”

So, I was ignorant of all this.

Gansey is convinced that if he can awaken the ley line in town, he can connect with an ancient Welsh king. This is the part of the story that I did not enjoy. I eagerly read about Blue and her home life, the teens’ personal challenges and fierce friendship, the greedy villain, and the troubled ghost. But I was only mildly interested in the ley line story thread, which unfortunately dominated the last quarter of the novel.

Overall, I was engaged throughout this novel though, as I said, less so when talk turned to ley lines. I think the ideal reader will be someone who enjoys mixing mythological elements with young adult stories of ghosts and psychics.

For lots more reviews of perilous books, films, and short stories, please visit the R.I.P. review site.

The Red House Mystery & Northanger Abbey

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The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

I was surprised when I learned that the author of the Winnie-the-Pooh series had penned a mystery novel, and not just a mystery, but a murder mystery. Perfect for the R.I.P. Challenge. (In case you missed my earlier post and reading lineup, here is the concept behind this challenge:)

Started by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, R.I.P. is a reading challenge in which imbibers come “together to enjoy the literature most associated with the darkening days and cooling temperatures of Autumn:”

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

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This will be my first entry in this year’s Peril the First category, which states readers shall read four perilous books. Ooh, see how the colors of the banner match the book covers of The Red House Mystery and Northanger Abbey. Lovely.

Mr. Mark Ablett of The Red House Mystery lives a comfortable, predictable existence at Red House in England. He plays host to house guests who follow his exacting schedule in their activities of golfing, tea drinking, and strolling and lolling. Mark’s directives must be obeyed and his ego stroked if guests wish to continue luxuriating in free entertainment, food, and lodging. Many Red House guests so desire. And why not? Except for Mark’s outbursts of temper, of course.

On the day in question, Mark receives a letter at breakfast from his bad boy brother, formerly banished to Australia. Mark is visibly upset. A death follows. Into the scene steps Jack-of-all-trades Anthony Gillingham who hooks up with his old pal and house guest Bill Beverly. Beverly plays Watson to Gillingham’s Holmes as the two cavort about the estate discovering a secret passageway, a dark pool, mysterious windows.

If I closed my eyes (but then, I wouldn’t because I couldn’t read), I’d imagine I was reading Agatha Christie. Not surprising, maybe, since both British authors wrote at similar time periods and both included the secluded country house for sinister adventures. In spots throughout this novel, there are even echoes of Noël Cowardesque dialogue. Overall, The Red House Mystery was a delightful romp though the ending (fortunately, just the last few pages) devolved into an abrupt info-sharing monologue.

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I also read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Northanger Abbey is a parody of the Gothic rave—novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe—that swept England in the late eighteenth century. Austen’s protagonist Catherine Morland is unremarkable except in her naivete and her almost mindless devotion to Gothic fiction. Austen leads her on a merry chase through darkened corridors and back staircases, searching mysterious locked boxes, all the while seeking true love despite autocratic men and spiteful spurned lovers.

Northanger Abbey was fun reading until it wasn’t. I loved Austen’s pointed satire of the rich and greedy. I admired young Catherine who, though hampered by innocence, manages to mature and develop her own nobility of character. The problem for me was the ending. Northanger Abbey pairs well with The Red House Mystery because both works drop the ending in unsatisfying ways. The part of Northanger Abbey I would have enjoyed most and wanted to savor (the love story, of course!) was laid out in a summary of This Happened; then This Other Thing Happened; Goodbye, Reader.

Those who know me, know I am an Austen fan. I count among my favorite works Pride and Prejedice, Emma, Persuasion. In fact, the title of this blog, Pen In Her Hand, was inspired by a scene in Persuasion. But Northanger Abbey is not my Jane Austen.

What about you, readers? Are you joining in R.I.P.? What have you completed so far?

 

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI

“Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods and day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.”
–William Allingham (1824-1889)

Yes, autumn is here again! And you know what that means. It’s time for…

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI!

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image courtesy Abigail Larsen

Started by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, R.I.P. is a reading challenge in which imbibers come “together to enjoy the literature most associated with the darkening days and cooling temperatures of Autumn:”

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

Carl says that “it is time to embrace the delicious thrill of things that go bump in the night, to figure out if the butler actually did do it, to cover our eyes during the scary bits and to conquer our fears together.”

To learn more about the wonderful R.I.P. reading challenge, click here.

I will be doing Peril the First, which means I will read at least four books. Here’s what I have in mind so far (though this may change):

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Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless (railroad murder mystery with a human-canine detective duo)

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Just as in Wolf Hall, a ghost appears. You know I’m all about ghosts!)

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (a Gothic parody)

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann (The narrator is a ghost, so perfect for R.I.P. Also, this book beat out Toni Morrison’s Beloved–which I loved–for the National Book Award. Interestingly, Beloved won the Pulitzer and, like Paco’s Story, is a ghost novel.)

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne (I know…who’d have thought the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh would ever write a murder?)

I have already started reading The Red House Mystery, which reminds me quite a bit of Agatha Christie’s writing style. Not surprising, since both Milne and Christie were writing in the 1920’s, and both authors made use of the country house setting. Review to follow.

So, how about you? Are you participating in the R.I.P. reading challenge this year…or any other autumn-based challenge?

Need some recommendations for R.I.P.? Allow me to do a little shameless self-promotion and suggest you check out 31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die.

31 Ghost Novels to Read Before You Die