A review of Simulacra, by Kate Genet

DATE READ — Sept 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — It’s winter, and the five houses in Deep Dell are shrouded in snow. Outside, it’s a black and white night, black sky, white snow, but inside, life continues, as life always does, better for some than others.

Five houses, eight different lives, separate in their preoccupations until the sky over Deep Dell turns orange.

The valley is bright with light, a sudden jack-o-lantern on a snowy night. Afraid, everyone asks the same question – just what is happening? They don’t know it, but their lives are about to change forever. What they always believed – if they ever considered it – about their place in the universe was wrong. They’re no longer alone on this cold, snowy night.

Trapped in the valley, they must pull together, protect each other against an enemy they never expected, and can’t explain.

Because what do you do, when the enemy turns out to be just like you?

MY REVIEW — Damnit! Kate Genet’s done it again. I’ve always said I don’t care for romance novels; then, not quite a year ago, I read Kate’s Don’t Go There and thought it was great. I’ve also maintained forever—maybe even longer — that I absolutely don’t do horror. (This could be because my first taste of the genre was King’s It, and maybe that was just too heavy a dose for a beginner.) Anyway, after reading Simulacra, the “I don’t do horror” assertion no longer holds water, either. I could say that it’s more a suspense novel than pure horror, but that would be a cop out. Hell, if Kate Genet wrote a friggin’ western, I’d probably love it, too.

Simulacra is considerably longer than anything else I’ve read by Kate except for the aforementioned romance novel, but Don’t Go There has a smaller number of characters than Simulacra. However, she handles the larger form and the challenges presented by a bigger dramatis personae with all the skill I’ve learned to expect from her shorter works such as the Michaela and Trisha series and the Reality Dawn novellae.

As always, Kate’s narrative style is fluid but never ornate. Elsewhere, I’ve called her style “spare.” That doesn’t mean depictions aren’t vivid – “There was something decidedly sick-looking about the cloud, as though any moment it would burst open, and some oozing infection would drain out on top of them.” — just that the words aren’t superfluous. Even in an expanded form, there’s no fluff – no Doc either, for you Pat Califia  fans out there — no filler or padding. The matter-of-fact, economical style serves the author well, making the uncanny events of the story stand out in contrast.

As I said, I haven’t read much in the way of horror, so I don’t know which writers to compare this to. Switching media, though, I’d say the overall creepiness and the escalating suspense is almost Hitchcockian, if Hitch had ever used elements of sf as a jumping-off place for his imagination. I especially like the way Genet builds suspense: Initially, there are five pairs or individual characters in five separate locales. Tension escalates in the first pairing, then when we move to the next character or couple that section begins at the initial level and rises again. This continues through the course of the novel in a sort of ebb and flow, but each time the cycle begins anew, the starting point tension-wise is higher than before. Also, the characters, spread out in the beginning, are gradually “herded” to a single locale, another means if increasing tension and suspense.

The characters are all well-drawn and the dialogue is realistic, even in this unrealistic situation. The same is true of their behavior, despite the outre occurrences.

Simulacra is a very well written, enjoyable and entertaining novel. So, does it convert me into a diehard horror fan? Not so much. Unless, of course, it’s written by Kate Genet.

 

 

 

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A review of Bingo Barge Murder (A Shay O’Hanlon Caper, #1) by Jessie Chandler

READ JUNE 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY — As co-owner of The Rabbit Hole, a quirky-cool Minneapolis coffee shop, Shay O’Hanlon finds life highly caffeinated but far from dangerous. That is, until her lifelong friend Coop becomes a murder suspect. The victim was Kinky, Coop’s former boss and the unsavory owner of The Bingo Barge, a sleazy gambling boat on the Mississippi. The weapon? Kinky’s lucky bronzed bingo marker.

While unearthing clues to absolve Coop, Shay encounters Mafia goons hunting for some extremely valuable nuts. Looking for the murderer without help from the cops proves risky—especially with distracting sparks flying between Shay and the beautiful yet fierce Detective Bordeaux. When Shay’s elderly friend and landlady is held for ransom by the mob, all bets are off. Can Shay find the killer before the stakes get any higher?

MY REVIEW — Some time ago at my local library, I came across Jessie Chandler’s Pickle in the Middle Murder, book three of her Shay O’Hanlon series. The unusual title grabbed me, as did the blurb, the cover was kinda cool, and, last but not least, since I’m an ardent hibernophile and main character’s name — Well, you get the idea. Though I hadn’t read the first books in the series, Pickle… worked pretty well as a stand-alone, and I enjoyed it. However, it did leave me wondering how Shay, the protagonist, and JT, her girlfriend, got together.

So, I finally got around to the initial entry in the series, Bingo Barge Murder, and enjoyed it every bit as much — well even more, maybe, than the other book. Not only was the mystery interesting, but the book was also a helluva lotta fun, on the level of Elizabeth Sims’ first two Lillian Byrd novels or maybe Jessica Thomas’ Alex Peres series. A few reviewers on amazon called it slapstick or farcical, but I think that overstates the case; while it is indeed lighter in tone than many murder mysteries, I didn’t find the humor to be that exaggerated. It was, pace Goldilocks, “just right.”

In Pickle in the Middle Murder , Shay wasn’t really even my favorite character, but, here, she definitely is. Though completely out of her element, her loyalty to her friends makes her relentless in solving the mystery. Now that I have a much better feel for Shay, I’m confident that a reread of Pickle… would change my feelings about her in that book, too. Having a little more backstory on her friends Eddy and Coop helped me warm to them, as well; they’re quirky – maybe not Joan Opyr Idaho Code quirky — but quite likeable. And, even though she doesn’t have a huge amount of time “on stage,” I love JT. The diverse nature of the characters in Bingo Barge Murder is one of the major strengths of Chandler’s tale.

The plot of the novel is convoluted, though not in an off-putting way, and the author does a good job handling that complexity. That our intrepid amateur sleuth, coffee shop owner cum Tenacious Protector, has two sets of baddies to deal with ramps up the suspense, giving us basically two climaxes. While both pairs of perps are a few peas short of a casserole – Eddy calls one duo “Ding and Ling” — they’re still clearly dangerous and the sense of menace evoked is absolutely real.

The actual writing is rock solid. None of those distracting gaffes of grammar, syntax, etc. to pull your interest away from the story to the actual words on the page. The narrative style is smooth and natural, colorful with just the right amount of humor sprinkled throughout. In first person POV, the narrative style is literally the narrator’s voice, and here, it simply feels right. The story’s pacing is also a plus, with action scenes effectively alternating with calmer passages that are more dialog-filled.

Finally, there’s the budding romance between Shay and JT. What really impressed me about this was that even though there’s no sex, absolutely none, no, not any at all,  just a brief kiss and, at the very end, a bit longer make-out session, the continuation of which is merely alluded to — Chandler still manages to make every interaction between the two women quite sexy. Very nicely done.

In short, Jessie Chandler’s Bingo Barge Murder is a well-written, interesting and enjoyable mystery with realistic characters who feel more like they could be your neighbors, not just characters in a book. It features a well-balanced blend of drama and humor. I’m particularly glad I read it because of how it changed my feelings about Shay. Unreservedly recommended. I don’t imagine I’ll wait nearly as long to read book two, Hide and .Snake Murder.

A review of Killer Storm, by Jen Wright

Read: May, 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY: “Killer Storm” features the adventures of Jo Spence, a forty-year-old, coffee-addicted, dog-loving lesbian whose desk job suddenly places her in the middle of a murder investigation and the escalating violence of a new gang in Duluth.

Set near the shores of Lake Superior close to the wilderness of the north woods, this story combines a description of the idyllic life led by the women of the Valley with an action-oriented plot involving raids and drug busts, a hostage situation, and the invasion of Jo’s home.

During this turbulent time in Jo’s life, her friends set her up with Zoey, a new faculty member at the local university. Their first date turns into a three-day stay at Zoey’s house during a record-setting snowstorm. Jo tries to resist the strong attraction she feels for Zoey, but she is drawn into the most intense affair of her life.

MY RIVIEW:

Jen Wright’s Killer Storm was one of those books where my impressions changed markedly in the course of reading. Several people on amazon commented about the lack of emotion in the narrative, a couple even using the term “grocery list.” You know, A happens, then B happens, then I said that, then she did this. At first, I shared their opinion, but instead of a grocery list, my mind dredged up Buffy’s description of Giles’ stuffiness: “Blah, blah, biddy, blah.” I’ll return to this in a bit.

There are a lot of positives, here: the characters are realistic and, for the most part, quite engaging and even the supporting cast is very well-drawn; the plot is well thought-out and holds your interest; there’s plenty of suspense to keep you reading and the budding romance between Jo and Zoey nicely balances the mystery; although the writing is rather flat at times, it’s grammatically solid. Telling the tale from the perspective of parole officers is a unique twist in the mystery/suspense genre and the author’s experience adds a great deal to the realism of the work. On the purely subjective side, as it’s nearing summer here  in the MidSouth, Wright’s vivid depiction of winter at Lake Superior’s North Shore makes me wanna be there. Now!

The not so positive: Despite the lack of grammatical errors, in places the writing, including dialog, feels somewhat stiff. Also, there are some brief scenes that contribute to neither the mystery plot nor the romance. And, on another subjective point, I rarely like dream scenes and there are several here; I feel they could have been left out or else the concept of their interpretation further developed.

To get back to the writing style, as I said, early on I had somewhat the same complaint as the other reviewers: it was basically emotionless. Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, the actual writing ceased to bother me. At times, a matter-of-fact – “dry” seems too strong a word given the book’s rich descriptive passages – is an asset, bringing into relief the drama or suspense of a work. In Killer Storm, it seems to highlight the main character’s detached persona, her tendency to sweep emotional issues under the carpet; in that sense, it’s not as objectionable as others have suggested or as I had first thought.

Whatever the reason, as I warmed to Jo’s character, I warmed to the narrative style as well. This occurs pretty much around the time Jo is introduced to Zoey. Some might suggest that I simply became more absorbed in the story and didn’t notice the issues with the writing. Sorry, folks, but I’m just not wired that way; if there are problems with the narrative style, I notice them, just as I do grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. As Jo becomes more open with her feelings, the writing feels less constrained, too. Whether this is Wright’s intent, in which case it’s very nicely done, or simply my own perception, it’s definitely a plus.

So, in short, Killer Storm is a fast-paced, intriguing and suspenseful mystery told from a unique perspective. It’s peopled with engaging, realistic characters whom I wouldn’t mind revisiting. Recommended.

A review of Lesbians on the Loose: Crime Writers on the Lam, ed. Lori L. Lake & Jessie Chandler

READ MAY, 2015

ONLINE SUMMARY: These tales of murder, mayhem, and suspense by some of today’s finest crime writers will keep you up way past your bedtime!

The lesbians on the loose in this collection are an entertaining mix of protagonists: cops, amateur sleuths, a PI, a judge, a bounty hunter, and one very insightful dog. There’s even an intrepid high schooler and a mystery writer.

Despite greed and grief, rage and revenge, secrets and lies, many of the stories feature humor from a variety of characters trying to find their way in a difficult world—cops who’ve seen too much, revenge seekers, and women who want justice for themselves and others.

You won’t regret going on the lam with these terrific writers!

Stories by: Elizabeth Sims, Carsen Taite, SY Thompson, Andi Marquette, Linda M. Vogt, VK Powell, Kate McLachlan, Lori L. Lake, Lynn Ames, Sandra de Helen, Jen Wright, Sue Hardesty, Jessie Chandler, J.M. Redmann, and Katherine V. Forrest

MY REVIEW:  Not surprisingly, given some of the authors included and, as editor, Lori L. Lake’s imprimatur, so to speak, there’s some really good stuff here. Originally, I was going to comment on each story, but that got a little unwieldy — okay, a lot unwieldy — so I’ll limit it to the ones I most enjoyed.

Elizabeth Sims’ story has the wise-cracking humor you’d expect if you’ve read any of her excellent Lillian Byrd novels. Not everything is fun and games of course. In an introspective moment, our narrator admits, “I’d pretended not to want to be liked so expertly for so long that most people took me literally and simply didn’t like me.” The ending is a tad cynical, too, but “Untold Riches” is still an enjoyable read.

“Colt .45” is different from Carsen Taite’s novels featuring attorneys, usually criminal defense attorneys. This brief glimpse of Luca Bennett definitely makes me want to check out the novels in which she’s the main character. Crisp hard-boiled writing and an intriguing protag. Only complaint: not much drama or suspense; a more memorable confrontation between Luca and the bail-jumper would’ve been nice.

I’m a great admirer of Andi Marquette’s work, and you can add “The Falcone Maltese” to the list, now, too. Fun, cute story. While the story lines of Marquette’s works are always entertaining and compelling, her characters are the best part of her stories and this little short is no exception, showing – no surprise here, folks – that she can write credible, engaging YA characters every bit as well as she does adults. Wouldn’t mind encountering these two again somewhere down the road, with Jo joining Nattie in her future sleuthing as their relationship develops.

Another very fine story – I’m beginning to realize the debt we owe our editors for bringing us this collection — Linda M Vogt’s “Roar,” is based on an actual event. The skillful writing moves things along efficiently and captures not only the women’s terror, but also the resolve of the narrator to get them out of their dire circumstances alive. It’s also a cautionary tale well worth reading. I’m sure I’ll sample more from Vogt at some point.

VK Powell’s very brief “Just Desserts” hit home; it’s hard to think of anything I find more abhorrent than child abuse. What’s clever about the story, of course, is the open ending. Most mysteries are resolved by story’s end, but not this one. Was Langley’s death accidental, or was the chocolatier français aware of the man’s deathly allergy to nuts, perhaps having overheard Cutter’s conversation with the bailiff? Will Syl reveal her suspicions to the detectives investigating Langley’s death? Will the ME find the death accidental? A lot of substance in such a small package. Nicely done.

Lynn Ames “It’s a Dog’s Life” is based on the sort of literary conceit that would be a major fail in the hands of many writers but Ames executes it quite nicely. Even if the putative “crime” being committed — Is someone stealing Mama’s stuff? — is a little off-the-wall, as are the perps, it’s a sweet story and, in a world that seems worse everydamntime you turn on the news, a little sweet can’t hurt.

Jen Wright’s “Lost” is a bit more complex than most of the stories here. While on the surface it’s a well-crafted adventure tale with plenty of suspense, the narrator also has moments of quiet reflection about the nature of friendship, as well as a articular friendship. Wright does a good job blending these two story elements. As a great admirer of the outdoors and a sometime paddler, the setting added considerably to my enjoyment, too.

To say I love JM Redmann’s Micky Knight series is in no way exaggeration. In fact, the almost visceral emotional impact of Death by the Riverside is what attracted me to fiction with lesbian characters – god, I hate the term lesfic! – in the first place. “The Curious Case of the Disappearing Dildoes,” and another short story featuring the same character, prove Redmann is equally at home with more light-hearted fare. To quote Faith from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer – was it really seventeen years ago? – this one’s “a hoot and a half.” Despite the tone, though, it’s still a well thought-out and cleverly solved mystery; the surrounding zaniness is simply lagniappe.

As different as the parable of the purloined plastic pleasurers is from Redmann’s novels, Katherine V. Forrest’s “Jessie” is classic Kate Delafield. And that means it’s very good indeed. Forrest’s ground-breaking Delafield novels still rank at the very top rung of police procedurals with lesbian protagonists (and of crime novels in general, but that’s a subject for another time) and I don’t think it’s at all a disparagement to Claire McNab, Gerri Hill, Baxter Clare or Radclyffe to suggest that KVF’s series is, arguably, still the best. This new addition, “Jessie,” is every bit as good as the novels. As a pioneer in this genre, Forrest deserves to be included in any collection such as this.

Again, these were my personal favorites in the anthology and exclusion doesn’t mean the other stories are bad. If I left out one of your favorites, mea culpa, and should we ever meet up, the Starbucks is on me.

Kudos to Lake and Chandler for bringing us such a fine batch of stories. Definitely worth your time.

A review of Blood Oranges, by Kathleen Tierney

READ May 2014

ONLINE BLURB: My name’s Quinn.

If you buy into my reputation, I’m the most notorious demon hunter in New England. But rumors of my badassery have been slightly exaggerated. Instead of having kung-fu skills and a closet full of medieval weapons, I’m an ex-junkie with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time. Or the right place at the wrong time. Or…whatever.

Wanted for crimes against inhumanity I (mostly) didn’t commit, I was nearly a midnight snack for a werewolf until I was “saved” by a vampire calling itself the Bride of Quiet. Already cursed by a werewolf bite, the vamp took a pint out of me too.

So now…now, well, you wouldn’t think it could get worse, but you’d be dead wrong.

MY REVIEW: Holy cow! Or, maybe, unholy werepire. (Or vampwolf. The author can’t decide either.) Anywho…

Since Kathleen Tierney is actually Caitlin Kiernan — and it doesn’t get much more Irish than either — I’ll say Blood Oranges is, without reservation, “dead fockin’ brill!” I’ve seen some vicious reviews of this novel, and in my never humble opinion, to continue the hibernian theme, they’re after missin’ the p’int altogether. This is no more dark urban fantasy than Kiernan’s works are horror (to which genre they’re usually perforce  relegated); what it is, I think, is a deliciously wicked pastiche, as evinced by its intentionally over-the-top style, as well as a kinda unconventional character study. It’s also an absolute riot. Or, to borrow from the Buffy canon, “a hoot and a half.”

Warning: Those of you looking for sympathetic vampires or wolfies à la Angel or Oz, seek elsewhere. Quinn, our protag, once she vamps out, doesn’t leave “two little, little holes in his neck,” pace Buffy. In fact, she doesn’t leave any neck. She’s foul-mouthed, self-absorbed, a junkie (even though her addiction changes from skag to something more hemoglobin-laden), definitely not PC, and a few other things not so admirable. I’m not sure even “anti-hero” is the right word; the closest somewhat comparable character I can come up with is Burgess’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the difference being Quinn’s gruesome actions are forced on her by circumstances beyond her control, thus making them grisly but not malevolent, while Alex commits utter evil because he delights in it. Whatever. I totally loved Quinn from the get-go. Note — she does have redeeming features, too. For example, she cares about her (few) friends, and she’s implacable in pursuit of whoever set her up.

Warning the second: If you’re looking for the lushly evocative prose of Kiernan’s novels such as The Red Tree, you’re gonna be disappointed. Some have commented negatively about the style she uses under the Tierney nom-de-plume, even suggesting a lack of effort on the author’s part. Again, I think they just don’t get it. Having been dazzled by the prose of Kiernan’s other works, I think she’s capable of writing any damn way she pleases. One person said the tale reminded him (her?) of Hammett structurally, but without Hammett’s gift for language. Bullshit! It’s imperative in first-person POV that the author write in the narrator’s voice, not adopt some unauthentic style simply for the sake of style. The narrative style of Blood Oranges perfectly suits both the narrator and the events of the book. What more can you ask?

I can’t help thinking of Harlan Ellison, whose style varies vastly from story to story. You could say Blood Oranges is to The Red Tree as “A Boy and His Dog” is to “When Jeffty is Five” or “On the Downhill Side.” Kiernan/Tierney is like HE in that every word, every syntactical construct is exactly as she intends it to be.

Others have pointed out that Tierney gives short shrift to action scenes, and I get it. But both author and narrator acknowledge this fact. Here’s the thing, though: action scenes are a plot device. The discerning reader of Kiernan’s novels, and by extension, Tierney’s, understands that plot is hardly the driving element in her work. But, the works of the author, under either name, are pretty loosely plotted because plot isn’t their raison d’être. It seems to me that the most important aspects of her work are character and mood, and the intent of her writing is largely to explore how words can be used to accurately portray the former and evoke the latter.

All that said, Blood Oranges isn’t gonna be everybody’s cuppa. I loved the character, the acerbic wit, the not so gentle digs at romantic UF (no, dammit, vampires don’t the fuck sparkle), and, frankly, the writing. As the range of reviews for the novel clearly shows, though, your mileage may vary.

 

A review of Black Wings (Black Wings #1) by Christina Henry

READ MARCH 2014

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY —

She’s an Agent of Death who really needs to get a life.

As an Agent of Death, Madeline Black is responsible for escorting the souls of the dearly departed to the afterlife. It’s a 24/7 job with a lousy benefits package.

Maddy’s position may come with magical powers and an impressive wingspan, but it doesn’t pay the bills. And then there are her infuriating boss, tenant woes, and a cranky, popcorn-loving gargoyle to contend with.

Things start looking up, though, when tall, dark, and handsome Gabriel Angeloscuro agrees to rent the empty apartment in Maddy’s building. It’s probably just a coincidence that as soon as he moves in demons appear on the front lawn. But when an unholy monster is unleashed upon the streets of Chicago, Maddy discovers powers she never knew she possessed. Powers linked to a family legacy of tarnished halos.

Powers that place her directly between the light of Heaven and the fires of Hell…

MY REVIEW — First, a couple of prefatory comments: 1) Christina Henry has had six novels published. And, not by some fly-by-night company either, but by an imprint of Penguin, which has been around in one form or another since the 1930’s. 2) I have 0 (that’s zero) novels published. So, I certainly admire Henry’s accomplishments, and recognize the huge amount of work involved. That said, however, once you place a work before the public, it kind of becomes fair game for anyone with a word processor, an internet connection a modicum of discernment, and the chutzpah required to share his opinion with others.
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A couple of websites had  been offering Christina Henry’s Black Wings as a recommendation for a while, and I was beginning to feel like all my reading of late was getting kinda-sorta genre-specific. That’s not a bad thing, not at all; I love what I’ve been reading, largely mysteries and UF fiction with lesbian characters — love it like, oh, like Jim Butcher loves similes  — and I’ll certainly get back to it soon. All the same, I discovered I was –gasp! — like, three VI Warshawski novels behind. Sara Paretsky’s smart-ass, self-reliant PI is what hooked me on novels with strong, independent female protagonists in the first place. (Paretsky certainly doesn’t need any reviews by an amateur book blogger, but I may still jot down a note or two about some things I noticed in Body Work — Yay, I’m only two behind, now — one of these days).

But, to get back to Black Wings, the premise was interesting — check out the summary above — so I figured, why not?

There are a lot of good ideas, here. The concept of souls of the deceased being led to “The Door” by employees of a bureaucratic agency is not only intriguing, with lots of possibilities, but pretty funny, too. (Imagine the Grim Reaper punching a time-clock). Our protag Maddy‘s, romantic interest is a fallen angel, and though that conceit is more than a little hackneyed, it’s still hard to resist; I mean, it’s sooo “tortured-vampire-with-a-soul,” ya know. And the author’s take on it is a little different from the usual, which is cool. When we learn more about Maddy’s lineage, things become considerably more complicated. And, of course, there’s the gargoyle, Beezle, Maddy’s sidekick, BFF and putative protector, who’s sort of endearing (except when he’s not) and who provides nearly all the novel’s humor.

Unfortunately, great ideas do not a great novel make, especially of they’re not dealt with plausibly, In my opinion, which, as I a;ways like to say, will get you a venti caffe misto at Starbuck’s just as long as you have the three bucks to go with, despite the promising premise, Black Wings is beset by a host of mechanical issues. Most of these could, no should unquestionably have been eliminated by even moderately competent editing. I definitely feel the staff at Penguin’s Ace imprint did their author a tremendous disservice with this one.

I offer a few examples for your consideration:

“Opening the door in such a way that I couldn’t see the contents inside.”

Yep, “inside.” That’s where you usually find contents, right? Now this is hardly an egregious problem; it is, however, symptomatic of the whole. There are just too many problems of usage that pull the reader out of the story to the surface, to the actual words.

“So, if what you believe is true — that Ramuell has another half-nephilim child — then that child or his mother could have disguised his essence and his presence from Lucifer. It would mean that your theory is correct…”

To paraphrase. Let’s see. Ah, what you believe is true…so your theory is correct. What??? The word I’m looking for is “tautology,” no? And, “disguise?” Sure, you can disguise something’s essence, but “from” someone? Not so much. Conceal from someone, sure, but disguise just doesn’t work for me. Moreover, the whole passage is awkward — in fact, a lot of the writing is stilted — and anything, anything at all, that calls attention to the actual words on the page, is problematic, doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare — hmm…who’d be at the other end of the spectrum? Got it: James Patterson in his Maximum Ride series.

There are plenty of examples of usage which aren’t wrong, per se, but don’t quite fit with the overall narrative style: “Busted in” is a good example and, when Maddy is describing a battle with one of her foes, she says she didn’t kill him, but she did mess him up. Hardly a grievous fault, but a long way from the mot juste, in my never humble opinion.

There’s an awful lot of hyperbole of the “So my fingers wouldn’t freeze and fall off” variety. Fine if employed very judiciously, but when overused, cloying. Also, if you checked word frequency — always a good idea for a writer — I’ll bet “almost” would come very out near the top. “The tree was so large you almost couldn’t grasp its size.” Wouldn’t this be so much more dramatic if you couldn’t grasp the tree’s size at all, instead of “almost?” I admit to a personal prejudice against “almost: :” it’s just too imprecise. When reading, I want to know what is or isn’t. If you tell me someone “almost” fell into an abyss, I wanna know if he was a millimeter or five yards form edge; the author’s idea of “almost” may be totally different from mine.

“”…scraping thin claws to the dark sky.” At first glance, this appears ot be a nice image,  but, ah, how does one scrape something as nebulous as the sky? It’s just one more “huh?” moment.

Then, there are the action scenes: just too comic book-like. And not Brian Michael Bendis-style comic books, either, but more like DC’s Captain Marvel (Shazam) in its 40’s and 50s incarnation. These scenes lose a lot of their drama, too, when we learn, early on, that Maddy’s “boyfriend” can heal whatever injuries she sustains in battle..

And, speaking of that BF…The romance — romance, hell, tween crush is what it is — is simply too improbable. Given Maddy’s personality, about which, more later, it’s hard to imagine what could attract an eons-old fallen angel. Having already suspended a huge chunk of disbelief, the idea that Maddy, in this day and age, is not only virgin at 32, but she’s never even been kissed,? Well., it’s just one thing too many. And, while her intact maidenhead might turn out to be important later in the series, here, it doesn’t seem to matter one iota, so why even mention it? Virgin or not, though, she simply too clueless in general.

The “romance” begins to develop significance not quite halfway into the novel. So, how does our main character deal? I was struck by something Buffy said to Angel in the series’ final epi, “Chosen”: “Oh my god! Are you twelve?” It’s enough to make me wish the whole romantic thing had been left out entirely. And, worse yet, there’s an implied triangle at the end of the novel.

Now, an imaginative UF novel that suffers from some mechanical issues, some scenes that don’tquite work, can, in my opinion, be saved by a truly terrific kick-ass protag like, oh, say, a Rachel Morgan, a Mercy Thompson, or Kelly Gay’s Charlie Madigan. Unfortunately, we get a temper tantrum-throwing MC who’s so whiney, I had to check twice to make sure I wasn’t reading Twilight (shudder) by mistake. Maddy becomes parentless at a very early age, manages to conceal it from those mean old Human Services folks, and basically raises herself, so you’d think that would force her to acquire at least a hintof maturity. Alas, no. As I was reading, I was reminded of another, all too appropriate Buffy quote: Giles telling Wesley “You have the emotional maturity of a blueberry scone.”

Now, here’s the strange thing. The really, really strange thing, for which I have no explanation whatsoever: Despite everything above, despite the other examples of poor editing I’ve omitted, like lack of agreement between pronoun and antecedent, I find my overall impression of Black Wings is a positive one (*scratches head*). Moreover, I’m pretty damned sure I’ll revisit Henry’s Black Wings universe again in the future. Again, I’m not at all sure why; it just feels like there’s something there worth checking out a second time. So, obviously, Ms Henry did something right, if she hooked me enough to want to come back. If you figger it out, someone let me know.

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.

 

A review of Iron Kissed (Mercy Thompson, #3), by Patricia Briggs

READ NOVEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: I could smell her fear, and it satisfied something deep inside me that had been writhing under her cool, superior gaze. I curled my upper lip so she could get a good look at my sharp teeth. I might only weigh thirty or so pounds in my coyote shape, but I was a predator…

Mechanic Mercy Thompson can shift her shape – but not her loyalty. When her former boss and mentor is arrested for murder and left to rot behind bars by his own kind, it’s up to Mercy to clear his name, whether he wants her to or not.

Mercy’s loyalty is under pressure from other directions, too. Werewolves are not known for their patience, and if Mercy can’t decide between the two she cares for, Sam and Adam may make the choice for her..

MY REVIEW: I really enjoyed the first two books in this series, but book three is by far my favorite, so far. Briggs’ does a fantastic (pun intended) job blending the paranormal plot with more personal, character-driven elements. Sure, I love an exciting, suspenseful story, and you’d better believe, this is one, but, really, I read for character. Not only is the character development awesome but Briggs really helps you identify with her protagonist: when Mercy laughs, you laugh, when she’s pissed, so are you, when she’s in pain, you wonder how you/she will get through it all. I can’t think of the last time I got so wrapped up in a character.

I mean, what’s not to like? Mercy is smart, headstrong, loyal, compassionate, funny (with some serious snark), and fiercely independent. She has a degree in history, but works as a VW mechanic — how cool is that? — and, in an setting where there are some seriously deadly vamps, some grisly fae whom you’d never mistakenly call “fairies” and a good-sized pack of werewolves, our heroine shifts into a freakin’ coyote. Yep, or maybe yip, but she proves that size really doesn’t matter, or maybe the hoary “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight…” Does she sometimes bite off more than she can chew? — sorry ’bout that — Yeah, and she gets her tail pulled out of the fire once by the wolves and once by her fae friend Zee. Does this make her weak? Hell, no! The ancient fae baddie she faces clearly outclasses her in power and the magnitude of his magic — even the wolves can’t vanquish him, just subdue him for a while — but, at the conclusion, Mercy tries to take him on all the same.

Technically, I’ve never had the slightest quibble with Briggs’ prose. I’ve read several books of late where the story-telling is great, but the writing — well, to be honest, it kinda sucks. That’s definitely not the case with Briggs. In addition, the plot here is imaginative, and the pacing just right in its alternation of personal elements with the paranormal plot. There’s plenty of suspense, even an OMFG! moment or two, and genuine pathos which never threatens to descend to the level of mawkishness. The characters are well-drawn: I mentioned Mercy’s character earlier: Not only does the character development make us cheer for her and cry for her, but it also contributes a great deal to the novel’s realism and its complexity.

There are plenty of books where some of the supernatural characters are mostly caricatures, the vamps all fang-y and little else, wolves pretty much just “grrr,” etc. Not only are Brigg’s characters well fleshed-out, but the wolf pack dynamics add an extremely interesting side element, further enriching the story. I also like the way she presents the fae, which, in some novels are a little too goody-goody. Here, they have ethical standards, but very, very much on their own terms.  Iron Kissed is a great mix of plot-driven (or action-driven) and character-driven, and Brigg’s proves she’s skilled at each style.

The final few chapters are, frankly, amazing, a word I seldom use, making you want to kill and weep at the same time. You ache for Mercy when she’s down (and really hate the psycho SOB that put her there), you cheer at her resilience, and you admire her compassion, in view of all she’s gone through.

There’s some romance, an element I can generally take or leave. Here, though, it’s an important part of the story, as, for the good of the pack, Mercy must choose between two potential mates. It’s in no way intrusive, and it helps us learn more about Mercy’s character; it’s not romance for the sake of romance. Hopefully, the series will continue in this vein, where the romance doesn’t grow at the expense of other aspects of the story.

So, terrific, characters, especially the principal, interesting plot, intriguing depictions of the wolves and the fae, crisp suspenseful writing, a soupçon of nicely handled romance. Conclusion: A highly recommended read.

A review of Heist Society (Heist Society #1), by Ally Carter

READ OCTOBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her on a trip to the Louvre…to case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to Austria…to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own—scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. Unfortunately, leaving “the life” for a normal life proves harder than she’d expected.

Soon, Kat’s friend and former co-conspirator, Hale, appears out of nowhere to bring Kat back into the world she tried so hard to escape. But he has a good reason: a powerful mobster has been robbed of his priceless art collection and wants to retrieve it. Only a master thief could have pulled this job, and Kat’s father isn’t just on the suspect list, he is the list. Caught between Interpol and a far more deadly enemy, Kat’s dad needs her help.

For Kat, there is only one solution: track down the paintings and steal them back. So what if it’s a spectacularly impossible job? She’s got two weeks, a teenage crew, and hopefully just enough talent to pull off the biggest heist in her family’s history–and, with any luck, steal her life back along the way. ”

MY REVIEW: A few years ago, when I’d just gotten my Kindle, I was reading a lot of YA paranormal indie novel. The YA aspect is, I imagine, why the amazonians kept throwing out Heist Society as a recommendation. Well, I hadn’t read any YA in a long time, and happened to remember that rec. My local library had it, so, I figured, why not? I’m happy to say it was a good choice.

Not having read a ton of YA literature, and being in the age bracket where most YA readers would call me “Gramps” or worse, I’m not 100% sure how to approach a review of Heist Society. My instincts, though, say that it should be judged by the same standards by which one judges any other book: Mechanical aspects (grammar, etc.), plot, characters, credibility…feel free to add your own.

There’s absolutely nothing at all wrong here from a mechanical aspect. Plenty of writers who aim at adult audiences fall considerably below the standard Carter sets here. The writing is crisp and in no way does the author seem to be writing “down” to a younger audience.

The plot is well constructed and more than interesting enough to keep you turning pages. Yes, it does require a healthy dollop of “willing suspension of disbelief,” given that the heroine is a 15 year-old master thief. Carter overcomes that objection by making everything else solidly grounded in fact (within the terms of the novel) and by Kat’s smooth, down-to-earth narrative voice which suggests “This may not be the sort of thing that happens in your world, but it is in mine.” A scenario like this could become far too over-the-top in a hurry, and the characters become comic book-like. Carter does a great job avoiding these pitfalls, and making the (frankly) unbelievable quite credible and realistic.

The principal characters are quite likable, and pretty well fleshed-out. That sketching out is accomplished through their actions and words, not in dry descriptions; Carter definitely does a good job showing rather than telling. Kat’s wry humor adds a great deal to her appeal. Her loyalty to her dad is admirable; although she has been trying to break from the family “business”, she puts that aside because her father needs her. Her glamorous cousin, Gabrielle forms a nice, flashy contrast to Kat’s more mundane character. Hale, her (sort of) romantic interest, is a solid BFF (at least at this point in the series.) Simon is the inevitable computer geek. I’ve seen some objections that the characters seem older than their specified ages. Seems to me, if one accepts their lifestyle, then it’s not to far a reach that they’ve grown up a little faster than the average teen.

I’ve already touched on issues of credibility, but it’s worth mentioning again: This would be an easy book to let get out of hand as far is realism is concerned. After all, we have a bunch of mid-teens planning to rob the most secure museum in the world. However, Carter is able to make things seem normal, even if, by our standards, they aren’t. The matter-of-fact narrative style and the avoidance of truly outlandish, Bond-like scenes help keep the unlikely plot within the realm of the plausible.

If there’s one short-coming, it’s that the villain is just not nasty enough. He seems more like a cantakerous uncle who just happens to be a gangster type, than someone as thoroughly evil Hale describes. I just can’t take his threats against Kat’s dad seriously. It’s possible Carter softened his character to make it more palatable to prospective tween and early teen readers. Pshaw! The Internet and video games have made that age-group far more worldly and accepting of such things than some of us were at thirty. So, a bad guy with a lot more bite would have added a lot.

In short, I can’t find much of anything to quibble with in Heist Society. The majority of my reading is in adult mysteries (everything from Sara Paretsky to J.M. Redmann), hard science-fiction (Melissa Scott, Joanna Russ, James M. Tiptree, Jr,, Nicola Griffith), and urban fantasy (Kim Harrison, Jes Battis, Devon Monk, Seanan McGuire). As a piece of genre fiction aimed at a different market, I’d compare Carter’s book favorably with those as exemplars of their own genres. More than anything, Heist Society is a quick, fun, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m pretty sure that’s just what Carter intended, and, judging it in those terms, I find it very successful. There’s absolutely no reason that it can’t be appreciated by any reader, no matter his or her age bracket.

A review of “Moon Called (Mercy Thompson #1), by Patricia Briggs

READ JUNE 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is a talented Volkswagen mechanic living in the Tri-Cities area of Washington. She also happens to be a walker, a magical being with the power to shift into a coyote at will. Mercy’s next-door neighbor is a werewolf. Her former boss is a gremlin. And she’s fixing a bus for a vampire. This is the world of Mercy Thompson, one that looks a lot like ours but is populated by those things that go bump in the night. And Mercy’s connection to those things is about to get her into some serious hot water..

MY REVIEW: I’m currently reading Iron Kissed, book 3 in this series, so I thought this would be a good time to post a review of book one.

Ever seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the 1979 one with the cast of the original TV series? Like, it takes half the movie to get the damned ship started. Moon Called, the first of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novels, is a little like that. Yeah, there’s a good action scene early on — in fact, all Briggs’ action scenes are quite good — but most of the first 100 or so pages is backstory, catching up with old acquaintances, etc. It’s pretty fluid writing, though, almost conversational, so there’s no info-dump feel.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to read this one, though I suppose the dreadful cover could have had something to do with it. I accidentally read book 2, Blood Bound, out of sequence a couple years ago. I liked it, but I didn’t exactly kvell over it. Sort of the “Good is the enemy of great” thing. There were plenty of other things to read, so getting back to Mercy Thompson slipped my mind for a while. In any case, I finally got around to it, and I’m very glad I did.

Mercy, a “walker,” a shape shifter who turns in to a coyote, isn’t quite as bad-ass as some UF protagonists, and, after having recently finished Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, I can only say, “Yes, there is a god!” Not that there’s anything wrong with woman kicking ass; far from it, as a quick glance at books I’ve read will show. It’s just that sometimes it gets to be a little too much. Don’t get me wrong, though, Mercy’s no wimp; early on, she kills two werewolves, and she can hold her own against a master vamp and other assorted baddies.

There’s a certain sameness to most female UF protags, and I’m not quite sure what it is that sets Mercy apart. Partly I think it’s that, pace Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force, a woman’s got to know her limitations. Mercy does, but, when those she cares about are threatened, she doesn’t worry about that; she does what needs to be done. I also like that she has a pretty mundane everyday job (when she’s not out fighting the bad dudes) as an auto mechanic, here too, there’s a slight twist — not just a mechanic, but a VW mechanic. Cool. Likewise, the coyote thing, as opposed to a vamp, or wolf or panther or witch or…You get the idea. Makes her seem more a, you should pardon the expression, underdog, and her accomplishments more impressive. Mercy’s open-mindedness is another likeable quality: she has friends who are were, fae, and vampires, as well as gays.

The plot, while not earth-shaking, was logical and interesting, kept me turning the pages, anyway. The world-building, is pretty standard, but solid and consistent. The actual writing is capable and, for a first novel, Briggs’ (Mercy’s) voice pretty assured. The characters are interesting, and fun to read about, even though macho pissing contests, somewhat inevitable when wolves are involved, abound. I especially liked the description of the hierarchical relationships with wolf communities.
Personally, I appreciated that fact that, while there are slight sparks, Mercy doesn’t get all weak-kneed and googly-eyed at every male she meets. If you’re looking for romance — I wasn’t — this isn’t the book for you, either. Which brings me, sort of, back to the barf-worthy cover. Why the fuck do publishers think they have to use sex to sell a damned book? This one certainly stands extremely well on its own without needing such a skanky come-on. I’m surprised authors put up with this crap. (And, I’m no prude.)

Note: I have absolutely nothing against romance, per se, but I hate it when it overwhelms everything else in the novel. Here, it’s barely hinted at, though I assume it becomes more prominent as the series progresses. The inclusion of werewolves suggests that things could become quite interesting, indeed.

All in all, a fun, more than competently executed novel, and, in this day and age, even competent is unique enough to make it worth your while. Bear in mind, if you’re one of those who want a thrill-a-minute, heart-pounding read, which personally, I find kind of boring, this ain’t it. While it’s slow at times, particulary in the beginning, the pacing doesn’t seem all that problematical, and Briggs makes good use of those less action-filled sections to set up all that follows.

In conclusion, this is an interesting, well-written story with characters (particularly Mercy), you come to care about.