A review of Breaking Point, by Jenny Roberts

READ DECEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: In the eagerly awaited follow-up to “Needlepoint,” When Cameron McGill stumbles across a vicious knife attack, the victim begs her to pass on an email address, then slips into a coma. Cam starts to investigate, and meets animal rights militants, local thugs, a mysterious dyke called Beano, the troubled Angel who only wants to get her into bed… and the very unhelpful chief executive of an animal research establishment. Determined to get to the truth, Cam finds to her horror that she has now become the prey.

MY REVIEW: Good, they say, is the enemy of great. I have to confess I’m not necessarily an advocate for that adage. More often than not, a good book is just a good book, and talking about how it could  have been great seems a little pretentious. Anyway, what’s wrong with “good,” if it means passing a few pleasant hours with an intriguing story and/or characters you like? Who are the powers that be that decide that a book is “great,” anyway? Genre fiction, as a rule, is read for pleasure, not because it’s the “Great American (or British or French or whatever) Novel.”

So, Jenny Roberts’ Breaking Point is good. I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Roberts before the book, as well as her Needle Point showed up as Amazon recs. I have to admit, they both sounded interesting, and, at the time, the price made them attractive. Don’t have a clue why I picked Breaking Point, the sequel, instead of the opening novel of the series, but, it worked just fine as a stand-alone.

The suspenseful opening grabbed me immediately, but it took me a while to warm to Cameron, the protagonist. However, her dogged pursuit of what’s right, her feminist stance, her strengths and vulnerabilities — especially her strained relationship with her mother — eventually won me over. And, ooh, a woman on a bike! My “fave” character ever? Well, no, but I certainly liked her well enough that I wouldn’t mind reading the other novels about her. (The “faves“, if you care: Micky Knight and Aud Torvingen, I guess, and, not just in this genre. Yeah, pretty much moved on from V.I. and Kinsey.)

I like the way the fact that Cameron is gay is treated simply as another facet of her character. There’s none of the “See-how-open-minded-I-am; look-at-my-lesbian-main-character” feel that some novels have. Of course, many that fall into that category are probably written to titillate, or to épater la bourgoisie. I’ll also wager many such novels are written by men. Yes, her orientation is important, especially as his leads to some mistreatment, even abuse, but otherwise, it’s just who she is.

The writing is kind of hard to get a grip on. Despite the presence of cloning technology, it somehow feels older than it is, although that‘s not a real problem. And, the writing itself? It isn’t bad, just sorta “meh.” The novel is suspenseful, and the pacing is good, and, there are no grammatical errors to speak of, but, nothing about the narrative style really stands out. To use another of my pat sayings, “Of all the books I’ve ever read, this was one of them.”

The main problem I have with Breaking Point, as with many such novels, is with the villains. An analogy I’ve used before, and will, in all likelihood use again (and again): The bad guys are so clichéd, they should be twirling their handle-bar moustaches or saying, “Ve haf vays of making you talk.” Bwah-hah-hah! Cue the creepy music. The scene where Cameron is kidnapped and threatened with rape, and possibly murder, lacks the power it should have. The horror of rape is unimaginable to me, but, here, the attackers are such caricatures and their dialogue so trite that they loose any real sense of menace. It’s unfortunate, because this could, in fact, should have been the novel’s strongest scene. Other malefactors — the manager of the research facility and the Neo-Nazi leader are equally poorly-drawn. For what it’s worth, the near-rape scene confirmed my earlier suspicions as to who the real villain was, and that also weakened the threatening nature of the attack, though Cameron’s sense of peril is very real, and well portrayed.

I admire novels that are complex, but in Breaking Point, there’s just way too many threads for a book its size: The initial murder, human cloning, Cameron’s former lover, her commitment issues, her relationship with her mother, the murdered women who are dumped in the sea, animal rights, violence against women, the Aryan conspiracy. There’s so much going on, the novel loses its focus; you aren’t even sure where the author wants the focus to lie.

All that said, though, I still came away with an overall positive impression of Breaking Point. It was an entertaining enough way to pass a few hours, with some serious issues to think about, too. Despite some faults, I will, as I said, probably read more of Roberts’ works somewhere down the line.

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A review of Remnant, by Kate Genet

READ DECEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “What would you do if you woke up one morning to find the world you took for granted was gone?

It’s a beautiful sunny day when Cass wakes up to find herself alone. It should be just a normal day – there’s a beach to enjoy with family and friends and the summer is at it’s height. Except today is not a normal day. Today there is no one around. In fact, the only living creatures Cass can see are birds. And a horse. Where is everyone?
As Cass struggles to find other survivors in this strange new world where nature is taking back the land, she discovers that being alone might not be the worst thing. It depends on who or what else is out there…”

MY REVIEW: Having read all four books in Kate Genet’s Michaela & Trisha series, and loved them, because of the great characters and intriguing plots, I figured it was time to dip into the well of that author’s offerings again. If nothing else, it would be a nice change of pace from the rather gritty murder mysteries and urban fantasy I usually read. So, having just finished Randye Lordon’s Say Uncle and Seanan McGuire’s Late Eclipses, it seemed the perfect time to open Genet’s Remnant, and I’m quite glad I made that choice.

Did I like Remnant as well as the Michaela & Trisha novels? Well, that’s kind of an apples and oranges comparison, and not a very fruitful one (pun intended), either. Let’s just say I liked it a lot, and I think it would appeal to readers with a range of literary tastes, which is one of the hallmarks of a good writer.

I started reading science-fiction at around 14 years, 10 or 11 if Tom Swift, Jr. counts, and, I became a confirmed feminist after reading Joanna Russ’s story, “When It Changed” in the early seventies. I love stories that combine the two elements. While Remnant isn’t science-fiction, per se — it involves more the supernatural — it does share certain elements with the apocalyptic part of that genre. Nor does Remnant wear its feminism on its sleeve, so to speak, but its feminist stance seems pervasive though never mentioned overtly. (Yeah, I am a feminist, but I hate the shrill, preachy variety of that particular “-ism.”)

The premise of Remnant is an interesting one: What if you woke up and everyone had disappeared, machines no longer worked, and wild plant and tree growth threatened to overtake everydamnthing? Well, easy answer: You freak the fuck out. Still, freaking out over with, you try to cope. You don’t really have a choice. You figure out how to get food, medicine, shelter, clothing. Eventually, though, you realize you need one thing more: other people, or even just one other person. That’s the situation that Cass, the protagonist of Remnant, is faced with. (Yeah, folks, I ended a sentence with a preposition. Deal.)

And, even with all that, the ante is upped again by an ancient overwhelming “Other,” a presence which Cass feels is stalking her. And, guess what, no matter how much you’ve got it together, how much you’ve begun to create some semblance of a new life, you freak out again, and you realize maybe the freaking out really isn’t over even then. And, guess what, (again) it’s okay.

One of the things I like most about Cass is that she does freak out; she even contemplates shuffling off this mortal coil, aided by spoils from the local pharmacy. But, then, freak-out done, at least for the moment, she gets on with doing what needs doing. The freaking-out makes her more human — I mean, who wouldn’t? — and the squaring of shoulders and turning to the tasks at hand makes her admirable; both qualities combine to help us relate to her and to root her on.

I also like her attitude vis-à-vis the animal kingdom. Despite all the issues she faces, like, ya know, staying alive, she goes to the local zoo to free any trapped animals, releasing tuataras in a nearby park and taking starving kiwis home to nurse. I can’t imagine myself even thinking of doing that in a similar situation, and it really cements in my mind the sort of person Cass is. In fact, accepting the premise of old gods cleansing the earth and saving only a few in a new Eden, her concern for other creatures may be why she was one of the ones selected to remain when the others vanished. It’s a nice subtle message.

Even more interesting is Cass’s relationship with Ezzy, a horse who is, for a long time, the only other living creature around save for a plenitude of birds. Cass treats Ezzy very much as an equal rather than a beast of burden. She recognizes that they need each other if they’re to survive. In a sense, Ezzy seems to realize this, too. When Cass talks to Ezzy as if the horse were a person, it’s not the signs of someone losing her grip on reality, but more an understanding, and an acceptance of her/their situation. It’s one of the story’s many highlights.

***SPOILER ALERT*** Yes, Cass does finally find another human. The relationship between her and Pania seems a little rushed, but not so much to distract from the enjoyment of the story. Still, I wish we’d seen more of them together before the fast-forward to the conclusion. Their life together is just beginning, after all, and, having my interest in the relationship already piqued, I wanted more.

The writing here is, perhaps, not quite as crisp as in the Michaela & Trisha mysteries, but this is an earlier work. Not that the writing is bad, by any stretch of the imagination, Genet’s voice just seems more assured in the other books I’ve read. A reviewer on another forum wrote “each and every word is essential to progressing the story.” I couldn’t agree more. In a review of another of Genet’s novels, I wrote, “Personally, I’d call her style spare, with not one single word ever getting in the way of the important thing: the story.” Genet’s narrative style is perfectly suited to her stories, and that’s not always an easy trait to find, or to produce.

Another quality I’ve always found with Genet is believability, no matter how removed from the mundane the plot may be. In Remnant, she does a terrific job making us actually feel what Cass is experiencing, her fears, her uncertainties, her triumphs and her joys. She (Genet) also skillfully creates a mood of fear and dread, but also one of determination, and, at times, even wonder. Descriptive passages, such of those of the burgeoning new plant life, add to the sense of believability. In a book where so many things have become majorly FUBAR-ed, Genet still shows us the beauty, and her ability to build suspense is every bit as good as in the later works.

One tiny complaint: Horses’ tack includes “reins” not “reigns.” Just sayin’ okay?

So, I enjoyed Remnant a lot. Updating reading progress on Goodreads, at the 25% point, I said “Gripping” and later, “Compelling.” Nothing happened in the remainder of the book to change either of those opinions. In short, it’s a damned good read, and it’s a shame (and a surprise) that Genet hasn’t been snatched up by a major publisher.

A review of The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

READ DECEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Sixteen-year-old Morgan lives in a hick town in the middle of Nebraska. College is two years away. Her mom was killed in a car accident when she was three, her dad drinks, and her stepmom is a non-entity. Her boyfriend Derek is boring and her coworker Rob has a very cute butt that she can’t stop staring at. Then there’s the kiss she shared with her classmate Tessa…

But when Morgan discovers that the one person in the world she trusted most has kept a devastating secret from her, Morgan must redefine her life and herself”

MY REVIEW: For some reason, of late, I’ve been reading more YA than is my usual habit; I suppose it just makes a really nice buffer between somewhat grittier murder mysteries and  UF. Whatever the case, I’ve been really lucky — or just damned clever (buffs nails on chest) — in my choices. To wit: Kirstin Cronn-Mills The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind, a novel that succeeds on many levels, and which I can’t seem to find anything major to complain about. (Dammit. I mean, what fun is that?) While I couldn’t call the voice of our narrator, Morgan, unique, exactly, it’s definitely one of the book’s highlights. One hallmark of good writing, not just in this genre, is creating a novel that can be appreciated by a lot of different audiences; that definitely applies here, too.

Back to Morgan: Really smart, quirky (she writes and collects fortune-cookie style fortunes), wickedly sharp-tongued, and confident in academics, but not about the $64,000 question: How can you tell if it’s love or just sex? I’ll let you read her grandma’s answer for yourselves. There are times in our lives, and not just as teens, when we want to scream. Scream, in fact, til we’re so hoarse we can’t scream any more. Morgan actually gets to do this, though she does drive out of town rather than do it in homeroom or at a basketball game. She’s also a  dreamer, wanting to go anywhere in the world as long as it’s somewhere away from the unspecified setting of Central Nowhere, Nebraska, there to write Great American Novel. She loves her grandma more than anything, and is devastated when she receives new knowledge about her past. There’s a bit of inconsistency in that she is furious with some of her friends for being judgmental, but is a bit judgmental herself. She’s not exactly role model material, but that only makes her more real and complex.  As a rule, role model types aren’t nearly as interesting, anyway.

There are a lot of things going on in Morgan’s life: The boring sex with her BF, Derek, cos of his “Little Derek”; obsessing about the really cute ass of Rob, a guy she works with (one of the things she screams from her hill is “I’m a secret sex fiend;” the awesome kiss from Tessa, the girl next door; the junior prom; her dad’s alcoholism; her grandma’s stroke; revelations about her mom’s death; processing what her dad tells her about his childhood (the reader can see this one coming from miles away, but it’s still effective). In other words, she’s got a full plate. A lot of YA lit is filled with angst; there’s plenty of that here, but it’s balanced by a equal dose of wit, humor, and snarkiness.

There are plenty of clichés in the novel, largely in the characters, but somehow, Mrs. Cronn-Mills is able to give most of them just enough depth to avoid the completely banal or prosaic. Morgan, the “walking dictionary” is much, much more than that, for example. Grandma is not just a doting relative, but Morgan’s primary means of escape, and her past makes her character much more complex. Admittedly, Morgan’s two BF’s don’t escape cliché status, but, in a way, that has a positive effect on the story. Tessa, the lesbian crushing hard on the straight Morgan, is interesting enough to not become a caricature.

As I mentioned, Morgan’s voice is one of the treasures of the novel. In addition, there are some truly great individual scenes that stand out and make the book special: Morgan telling off Jessica, the goody-goody girl who’s been taunting Tessa; and the prom: a perfect moment, maybe my favorite in the entire book. I also liked the fact that the lesbian aspect was a tangential, though important aspect, rather than the focus. I have no problem with purely lesbian novels — there are many I’ve greatly enjoyed — but I doubt this book would have worked as well if it were that, rather than a YA novel with a lesbian character.

The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind is not quite a perfect novel: a bit too much drooling over Rob’s tush; one of the “revelations” about Morgan’s grandma seems too obvious, though it does explain her dad’s character; the relationships with her BF’s are based entirely on the physical, though given that both guys are real dorks, that’s maybe a good thing; sometimes, though not often, it’s a little too cute. Also, I’d like to have seen Morgan’s friendship with Tessa — after Morgan explained she wasn’t interested in Tessa in a sexual way — developed more; it could have been a lot more interesting than that with either guy. Still, the positive aspects far outweigh these issues, and I highly recommend this book for teens and adults.

 

A review of Street Rules (Dectective L.A. Franco Mysteries #2) by Baxter Clare Trautman

READ JULY 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “For ‘Frank, ‘ L.A.P.D. Homicide Lieutenant L.A. Franco and her homicide squad, it’s business as usual — a multiple murder, ugly as it is, at least seems to have an easy explanation. Until it coincides with an untimely drive-by shooting.

The investigation ultimately pulls Frank and her squad in conflicting directions while drawing Frank closer to the county’s new Chief Coroner, Gail Lawless. Through a series of twists and turns, all Frank’s leads eventually bring her to the disquieting possibility that the killer she seeks might well be one of her own brothers in blue.”

MY REVIEW: Very mixed feelings about this one. First, to get prejudices out of the way: Kennedy, Franco’s lover at the end of the previous book, Bleeding Out, was by far my favorite character in that book, so I was disappointed in the direction the author took their relationship. In fact, Clare seems to go out of her way to make Kennedy less likeable than in the previous book. I completely understand it, I just don’t like it.

Okay, now to the more objective: Clearly, the writing isn’t as good technically as in the first book, largely an editing problem. There are a lot of sentences that are really awkward, and some that are just — well, wrong. This adversely affects the flow of the novel, because mechanical issues draw the reader out of the story and back to the surface, calling attention to the words themselves rather than to the story.

Then, there’s the dialog. The pervasive, almost overwhelming use of street slang and gangsta talk, and just basic crudeness, are so inconsistent with Bleeding Out that you wonder if this is even the same character. I understand the desire for verisimilitude, and, yes, there was some street language in the first novel, but in this one,  it’s simply overdone. And, I assure you, folks, I’m no prude. In many other places, the dialog feels unnatural, again more so than in the earlier volume in the series. These, of course, are largely editorial issues. I’ve always found Bella to be pretty inconsistent when it comes to both copy editing and story editing, which does a disservice not only to the reader, but also to a group of very talented writers.

Our protagonist, Lt. LA “Frank” Franco, is a complex character who, while she’s not always likable, is nonetheless admirable. There’s something of a Dirty Harry mentality about her, though, which, while it makes her less commendable than she could be, also lets you know that she’ll do whatever is necessary to get the job done. She seems to open up emotionally a bit more than in Bleeding Out, too, which is nice, and, despite the Dirty Harry aspect, is more personable, maybe “warmer” is the right word, than in Bleeding Out.

All that said, Street Rules is certainly worth reading. Saying the writing isn’t as proficient mechanically as Bleeding Out doesn’t mean it’s “bad” and the mystery itself is interesting, nicely paced, and consistently plotted, with plenty of curves thrown our way. The characters are  well developed. As I say, we get a better “feel” for Frank, a more complete sense of what makes her tick. We also get a pretty complete picture of Gail, the new love interest. The blossoming romance between Gail and Frank proceeds at a really nice, leisurely pace which I found quite refreshing. The rest of Frank’s squad are varied enough to add interest and depth. Only the “perp” seems ill-defined, which is a little disappointing.

So, though not exactly a rave review, still recommended.

A review of I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls #1) by Ally Carter

READ OCTOBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Cammie Morgan is a student at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, a fairly typical all-girls school-that is, if every school taught advanced martial arts in PE and the latest in chemical warfare in science, and students received extra credit for breaking CIA codes in computer class. The Gallagher Academy might claim to be a school for geniuses but it’s really a school for spies. Even though Cammie is fluent in fourteen languages and capable of killing a man in seven different ways, she has no idea what to do when she meets an ordinary boy who thinks she’s an ordinary girl. Sure, she can tap his phone, hack into his computer, or track him through town with the skill of a real “pavement artist”-but can she maneuver a relationship with someone who can never know the truth about her?

Cammie Morgan may be an elite spy-in-training, but in her sophomore year, she’s on her most dangerous mission-falling in love.”

MY REVIEW: No doubt, given the popularity of Bond flics for over four decades now, and TV shows like Alias, most of us, whether tweens, teens, or (putative) adults have daydreamed about being a spy. Those daydreams come to life in Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, beginning with I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You. Protagonist Cammie Morgan aces her studies related to espionage, but, unfortunately, doesn’t have much experience in being a girl. As the blurb says, she speaks fourteen languages; unfortunately, “boy” isn’t one of them, and that’s the story in a nutshell.

If book one is any indication, Gallagher Girls is played more for fun than Carter’s Heist Society series. The incidents are much more tongue-in-cheek, and over-the-top, but I think that’s by intent. The improbable gets piled onto the improbable. Yeah, it’s interesting that the founder of Gallagher Academy supposedly saved President Lincoln’s life in an assassination attempt prior to Booth’s successful one, an attempt we’ve never heard of and it’s cool that Amelia Erhart was a Gallagher Girl. But…by the time we’re told that Velcro was invented at Gallagher Academy, the long series of unlikely events, which started out being cute, has simply become too much. In my review of Heist Society I wrote “This would be an easy book to let get out of hand as far is realism is concerned.” This is what happens in I’d Tell You I Love You… yet it doesn’t make the book less enjoyable as much as it makes you shake your head wondering “What next?” And not necessarily in a good way.

The characters here are pretty much stereotypes, almost to the point of caricature, but, despite that, Carter somehow manages to make them very likable and we actually come to care about what happens to them. I think that’s because, although we have a computer geek/science nerd, a gorgeous femme fatale, a rich, spoiled brat who’s also an outsider, and our protag, the girl nobody notices, literally, there’s still enough character development and depth to make them more than just “types.”

As I said, I’d Tell You I Love You… is, by design, not nearly as serious as Heist Society. It is, however, an awful lot of fun, and the engaging, sometimes confident, sometimes out-of-her-depth voice of Cammie as the first person narrator seems just right, as a mid-teen with a unique lifestyle who falls in love for the first time. Unfortunately, she hides that unique lifestyle, and the deception eventually blows up in her face. What makes this even more interesting is that her situation is really a Catch-22: She pretends to be a normal girl because Josh is a normal boy, and she assumes that being “normal” will make him like her. On the other hand, if she were to be herself, she would jeopardize the Academy’s security. Though the moral seems to be “be true to who you are,” the school’s security protocol makes that impossible. It adds a nice element of extra tension to the usual teen-angst of a first romance.

While a lot of this review may seem negative, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You is a light, very enjoyable reading experience, a nice, sweet romance, mixed with some not quite believable spy stuff, and plenty of well-delivered humor. Despite it’s shortcomings, it’s a fast, extremely fun read, and recommended as such. The overall humor, Cammie’s engaging voice, which is the book’s greatest strength, and a cast of strong, smart female characters make it worth your time.