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.

 

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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 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 Sweet Charlotte (Michaela & Trisha, #3) by Kate Genet

READ JUNE 2012

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: ” When a dear friend of Michaela’s holds a séance as part of her research for a book she’s writing, things don’t go quite as planned. Communication with those beyond the grave is no sure thing and the spirit who comes through is not the right one. That should have been the end of it, but things are just never that simple. Finally, in desperation, Michaela and Trisha are asked to help unravel the mysterious and frightening events that follow the séance.

Michaela won’t turn her back on a friend in need but Trisha thinks they would both be seriously crazy to get involved. Trisha’s even more worried when her sister Caro is determined to play paranormal investigator right alongside Michaela. Drawn into a dangerous web of madness that claws at them from beyond the grave, can the girls find the strength and courage to do battle? Thrown in the deep end, Trisha especially has to decide whether her faith in herself and her love is enough to save them all. ”

MY REVIEW: Like strong female characters? Lovers whose affection for each other is evident on every page, but never cloying? A budding romance involving a likable secondary character from earlier in of the series? Fierce loyalty and friendship? Plenty of humorous dialogue? And enough spooky shit to make Shirley Jackson jealous?

This, then, is the book for you.

As with the previous two entries in the series, I totally love the two main characters, and, no, I don’t get tired of saying it. They aren’t just likable, they’re strong, and worthy role models. Yes Mr. & Mrs. Middle America, lesbians as role models. Deal with it! I also enjoyed Caro’s increased level of participation. As a whole, it’s good to see Genet widen her character base, as the earlier books were a little restricted, character-wise. Genet does a nice job handling the expanded dramatis personae, too, keeping them all interesting and actual parts of the story rather than filler, as so many secondary characters are. BTW, the fact that Michaela & Trisha are lesbians is treated very straight-forwardly; it’s not one of those “Hey, look! These people are gay!” books where sexual orientation is used for shock value, and certainly not for titillation. Thank god & goddess. It’s, quite simply, who they are.

The plot is intriguing, more than enough to keep the story going, but as before, at least for me, it’s the wonderful characters that are the big attraction here. That doesn’t mean the plot is bad, far from it. It just means, ah, I love these characters. (I may have mentioned that.) The humor in their interactions is great, but, when things turn serious, they prove they’re up to the task. One of the things I really liked about this addition to the series is that Trisha, albeit reluctantly, takes a more assertive role, at least at the end. In the first two books, Michaela took more of the lead, with Trisha as her Watson (or her Mary Russell, if you’re a Laurie King fan), but the better balance here  considerably  strengthens the pairing.

A major area of improvement, since it was really the only fault, from Shadows Fall is in Caro and Trisha’s dialogue. While there are still one or two lapses, they sound a lot more “American” than previously. I apologize to those north of the 49th parallel for the use of “American,” but “people from the US” seems awkward, as does “United Staters.”

Technically, the writing, as in the earlier volumes, is very accomplished, not showy, but well-suited to the story. So is the editing. No complaints at all of a technical nature. Far too many books read like first drafts; you need not worry about that where Kate Genet is concerned. Great story-telling paired with well-constructed prose is becoming something of rarity; with this writer, I’ve come to expect it, but with appreciation, not taking it for granted.

To sum up, Sweet Charlotte is a compelling story with realistic dialog, fun, engaging — and, yes, lovable — characters, unpretentious, well-written prose, humor, lots of suspense, a bit of romance. And…it will seriously creep you out. What more can you ask?

Highly recommended!

BTW, Genet’s Remnant is next up in my to-read list.

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 “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.

A review of Internal Affairs (OSI #4), by Jes Battis

READ NOVEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “A dead body on the beach turns out to be a live demon on the run from some of the nastiest bounty hunters in this dimension-or the next. Protecting one demon from another, Tess gets wrapped up in a case that’s as dangerous as it is mind-boggling, especially when it begins to involve her own past.”

MY REVIEW: I’ve really been enjoying this series, and I think I liked this one even more than the first three books. Battis has several strengths which are apparent here: Technically, the writing (and/or editing) leaves nothing to complain about; as a male writer, he is able to write a very convincing female character; and, finally, there is a nice mix of the supernatural with the quotidian.

Technically — or, mechanically, as Janet Burroway puts it, in Writing Fiction — the best word I can think of for Battis’ writing is “accomplished,” in other words, more than just competent. I found none of the distracting sort of errors which lift the reader, well, this reader, anyway, out of the story. “Accomplished” could also apply to the narrative style, which moves smoothly from page to page, effectively alternating calmer scenes with well-written action passages. “Calm,” though, doesn’t mean nothing happens in those scenes. In fact, a lot goes on: a fair amount of back-story is presented, but never feels like an info-dump; we learn more about Tess, both her past and her romantic relationship; and, we get some in-depth looks at her unique family life.

Not every writer can produce female characters, especially principals, who ring 100% true. Battis definitely succeeds, though. In fact, until I googled Jes Battis, I had assumed the author was female, Jes being gender-ambiguous. I can’t over-emphasize how important I think this is. Being presented with a convincing female protagonist allows the reader, male or female, to fully identify with and sympathize with Tess. The author’s insights into her personal, as opposed to her professional, side, greatly enrich the novel’s complexity. It’s that complexity that elevates this series above some of the other entries in this genre.

There are plenty of novels in this genre which are purely action-driven, event stories as opposed to character stories, if you will. Battis manages to quite successfully combine two structures, and the glimpses of Tess’ quirky family are, to me, some my favorite parts of the book. I simply love Mia, and hope we see much more of her in the series. In fact, I wouldn’t mind Battis giving Mia a book of her own, as Armstrong did with Savannah Levine in the Women of the Otherworld series. In any case, the aspects of Tess’ home life make this an infinitely more enjoyable novel than many, simply because of its greater depth.

But…and, readers of my reviews know there’s often a “but”…

Structurally, I have a serious problem with Internal Affairs: There’s no climax. Really! There are a series of crises, none of which exceeds the others in tension. The final scene begins as if we’re approaching a climactic conclusion, but our heightened expectations are never met. In fact, this last scene really fizzles. At a point which seems to demand a major physical confrontation and resolution, all we get is talk. Informative, interesting conversation, true, but still, just talk. I found it extremely unsatisfying, and given how good things were to that point, terribly disappointing. While there are, admittedly, quite successful novels where the plot is more of a plateau, in this particular genre, a satisfying climax is almost always called for, and here, its absence is very noticeable, problematically so.

Be that as it may, Internal Affairs, is an extremely enjoyable read with plenty of action and some of my favorite characters in this or any genre.

 

 

A review of Shadows Fall (Michaela & Trisha #2) , by Kate Genet

READ MARCH 2012

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Separated by circumstances, Michaela and Trisha are both too stubborn to admit they miss each other. Even Trisha’s impulsive phone call for help degenerates into an argument. But why does Trisha need help? Swallowing her pride, Michaela decides she needs to fly back to the States to see what trouble Trisha has gotten herself into this time.

She’s glad she did. This time it’s not a stranger in trouble, it’s Trisha’s sister, and the trouble is a lot darker that any of them can imagine. This time, the night is filled with shadows, and some of them move on their own…”

MY PLOT SUMMARY: Lovers Michaela and Trisha have parted ways after the first novel, out of necessity, though they miss each other more than either wants to admit. Trisha summons Michaela to the US to help solve a mystery involving her (Trisha’s) sister, Caro. Seems some very malevolent shadow creatures are “haunting” Caro, and Trisha believes Michaela is the only one who can help. Along the way of unraveling the mystery, and vanquishing the shamanistic spirits, our two principals finally admit their love for each other, and come up with a plan to allow them (and Caro) to remain together.

MY REVIEW: I have no idea why, when I added this book on another forum, I only gave it 3 stars; I’d given it 4 on amazon when I first read it. The only negative, as I just reread that review, I called a “gigantic flaw,” but, having had time to reconsider, I realize it was really more of an annoyance. It was just more noticeable because, otherwise, the book was so damned good. Were I using a star system, here, 4 1/2 stars is probably more accurate.

Possible slight SPOILERS!!! follow (Some of the comments below could be applied equally well to the first book in the series Silent Light.)

The story is very well-written from a technical standpoint; grammar, syntax, etc. are much better than in the average offering in this indie Kindle medium, and especially at this price point, for which, many thanks. Okay, at one point, Trisha becomes “Tricia”, then returns to being Trisha again in the same paragraph, and, yeah, that’s pretty sloppy, but, again, it stands out because of the marked lack of other such errors. The paranormal aspect of the story is deftly handled, and logically concluded. The pacing of the romance is just right. The love-making is realistic without being xxx-rated. Genet skillfully creates an eerie, almost claustrophobic mood which becomes more and more oppressive as the story progresses. I absolutely love these characters, just as I did in the first novel, and Caro is a very nice addition. Michaela and Trisha’s characters complement each other nicely, and they act in ways that are consistent with their established dispositions.

So, what’s that “gigantic flaw” I mentioned earlier? I can’t imagine a reader from the US who would  believe that Trisha and Caro are from the States. If Genet is aiming only at an audience in NZ or OZ, then that’s no big deal: if she has wider aspirations, then it becomes more of an issue. We don’t ring people up.. We don’t go off and get ourselves sorted out. We don’t usually “pinch” things, we swipe them. And, while we do on occasion, use the expletive “bloody,” it’s vastly overused here. Finally, assuming Caro is a nickname, it, too, has a real “Down Under” feel to it.

That said, this is a still great story, very well-executed for the most part, and,  to repeat, it features characters with whom I immediately fell in love in book one and who are equally engaging here. Caro makes a really nice addition, too.

Let me end by streesing that my original comments about Tricia and Caro’s dialog were something of an overreaction on my part, and you should take them with a grain of salt. yeah, they’re aggravating, but, they don’t detract all that much from the reading enjoyment. This issue is very much improved in the succeeding volumes, Sweet Charlotte and Disbelief.

s every

A review of Magic Lost, Trouble Found, by Lisa Shearin

READ NOVEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: A girl with attitude. An all-powerful amulet.
This could only mean trouble.

My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. The people who hire me are usually happy when I find things. But some things are better left unfound…

Raine is a sorceress of moderate powers, from an extended family of smugglers and thieves. With a mix of street smarts and magic spells, she can usually take care of herself. But when her friend Quentin, a not-quite-reformed thief, steals an amulet from the home of a powerful necromancer, Raine finds herself wrapped up in more trouble than she cares for. She likes attention as much as the next girl, but having an army of militant goblins hunting her down is not her idea of a good time. The amulet they’re after holds limitless power, derived from an ancient, soul-stealing stone. And when Raine takes possession of the item, it takes possession of her.

Now her moderate powers are increasing beyond anything she could imagine—but is the resumé enhancement worth her soul?”

MY REVIEW: Magic Lost, Trouble Found, book one of Lisa Shearin’s Raine Benares series, was one of the more pleasant reading experiences I’ve had in some time. Up to a point, about which, more later.

The world and the story are each interesting, if not terribly novel and Raine is a very likable protagonist, smart, smart-mouthed, determined, brave, but cautious, and uncompromisingly loyal to her friends. The majority of the supporting cast were enjoyable to read about, as well,  and although we don’t spend a huge amount of time with some of them, they’re important to the plot, and, at times, help us learn more about Raine. In other words, they‘re not just there to take up space, as is far too often the case.

The villains are considerably more stereotypical, especially in their dialog, and not nearly as well fleshed-out as the “good guys.” The main antagonist, a goblin shaman, is a caricature of the psychopathic evildoer, completely one-dimensional. I would have loved a little more depth in his case, even some understanding as to why he turned so thoroughly to the “dark side.”

One thing I liked, though it may seem like a minor point, was the variety in the names of the characters. Benares has a decidedly Mediterranean feel, Spanish, Italian, even Greek. Raine’s cousin Phaelan sounds Irish, his name, anyway. Her sometime associate, Quentin, could be a Brit. The principal villain, Sarad Nukpana, could even be Japanese, as could another nasty, Chigaru. I know this doesn’t take place on our world, but, it’s impossible not to make comparisons of the names. Long story short, the wide range here adds a certain richness to the world Shearin’s created.

I’ve seen a few people classify this as PNR, but, there’s really only a hint of romance: A couple of breath-stealing kisses is about it. I really didn’t care much for either of Raine’s potential romantic interests — well, one is really more sexual than romantic — but that’s just me. In fact, I’m beginning to think that sometimes I fall in love with the lead character while I’m reading, and so I come to resent the competition, so to speak. It’s great than an author can create a character you love, but, a little silly to turn into a first-crush teenager about it. Anyway…

The plot moves along at a pretty good clip, nicely paced, and Shearin manages to hold our interest even during the lulls in the plentiful action, mostly via humor, but also by providing salient back-story. Such sections never feel like info dumps, though, largely because of the first-person POV, and the conversational style of he narration.

However…

Seems like I’ve been saying this a lot lately: The writing just doesn’t measure up to the excellent storytelling. It’s not that there are grammatical gaffes — well, okay, there are several occasions where subject and verb don’t agree in number, and that’s pretty annoying — but it’s really repetitive and cliché-riddled. In one scene, Raine tells us that she and her crew don’t want to call attention to themselves. Unfortunately, we’re told this probably half a dozen times in fewer pages. And, y’know, it’s really a “Well, duh!” remark the first time. There are countless iterations of phrases like “Now, if only I could make myself believe it,” or “But, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer,” a lot of things like “That makes two of us,” or “At this point, I’ll take what I can get.“ Then there’s the ever-popular “You will come with us, or the boy will die.” Cue the spooky organ music. If goblins have mustaches, you can almost see him twirling his while Nell’s tied to the railroad tracks waiting on Dudley to rescue her. Or, maybe a “bwah-ha-ha-ha” afterward. And, in your mind, your hear “vill” instead of “will.”

I have to admit, though, there was one line I really loved: “Sometimes I hated it when I was right, but I always hated it when someone else was.”

Another slight quibble, though: Raine’s an elf, but, we never really get much of a clue what distinguishes the elves in her world from the humans. Is it just the pointy ears? Inquiring minds want to know.

From the viewpoint of the setting, this is an epic fantasy, but it has a decidedly urban fantasy feel to it. That might be off-putting to some purists, but Shearin mixes the two genres very well, and it makes the story move faster than the more laborious epic fantasies often do.

Anyway, Magic Lost, Trouble Found is a really good story with plenty of action and suspense, a nice helping of acerbic wit, and a protagonist that I liked a lot. That, in my opinion, the writing was’t as good as the story-telling doesn’t keep it from being very, very entertaining. Well worth you’re time.

A review of An Artificial NIght (Obtober Daye #3) by Seanan McGuire

READ JUNE 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Experience the thrill of the hunt in the third October Daye urban fantasy novel.

October “Toby” Daye is a changeling-half human and half fae-and the only one who has earned knighthood. Now she must take on a nightmarish new challenge. Someone is stealing the children of the fae as well as mortal children, and all signs point to Blind Michael. Toby has no choice but to track the villain down-even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael’s realm, home of the Wild Hunt-and no road may be taken more than once. If Toby cannot escape with the children, she will fall prey to the Wild Hunt and Blind Michael’s inescapable power.”

MY REVIEW: Where to begin, where to begin? There’s so  damned much that’s good here, very, very good. Memorable, engaging characters. Incredible world-building. Vivid, even poetic description, especially of magical events. Powerful action scenes. Moments of touching poignancy. Technically sound writing. Wry wit. Taut suspense.

And, yet…

A lot of people have commented on all the stupid, potentially life-threatening, things our intrepid protagonist does. She even comments on it herself. More than once. But, hell, she says everything more than once. <i>Does</i> everything more than once. October Daye, a changeling, sometime detective, and knight to the fae Duke of Shadowed Hills, is a peripatetic ping pong ball.

Go see Luna. Go see Lily. Go see the Luidaeg. Set out for Blind Michael’s realm. Mix well and repeat. And, ah, well, repeat again. Still, in each recurrence, enough is added to make it, if not fresh, at least interesting. What’s truly exasperating, though, is the repetitive prose, iteration on such a level that I will never again complain of it in another writer’s work. Even Jennifer Estep gets a pass from now on.

While a catchphrase isn’t bad, per se, I swear, if I ever hear, “Root and branch! What had I done?“ again, I may not be able to stifle the urge to drive an ice-pick into my brain. Worse than the constant “Oak and ash,“ and “Root and branch, though, is the fact that McGuire tells us things we already know. Again and again. Over and over. Are we stupid??? Senile??? We got the thing about not saying “Thank you” to fae the first time around. And the second. And…We got it from a dozen other books we’ve read, too, and from the general mythos. Eliminate the continual recapitulation, and the book would come in at less than three hundred pages. It’s like the tape loops in an old porn film.

Despite all that, however, McGuire’s Toby Daye stories are  quite compelling reads, often a delight, largely because of the characters. Despite, or maybe because of her ill-considered actions, we can’t help rooting for Toby. Whatever she may lack in foresight is more than made up for in heart. Both types, the compassionate and caring kind, and the courageous variety. Bottom line, her actions are motivated by her concern for those she cares about. Toby has pluck, moxie, spirit. Choose your own term. My favorite, pace Charles Portis, is “grit.” Toby may not be the biggest badass in town, or the greatest planner, but once she the task is in front of her, she’s relentless until it’s accomplished.

McGuire peoples her well-conceived world with unforgettable characters. The series, and An Artificial Night in particular, would be seriously diminished without the Luideag, Firstborn Fae sea witch, one part crone, the other meddling granny, fiercely protective of those she befriends (or at least supports) one minute, but apt to flay them alive the next. Duke Sylvester’s quiet strength is Toby’s anchor. New to the series in this book, October’s “fetch”, the spirit who leads the dead off this mortal coil before they can be scarfed up by the Night Haunts, is a great addition, and I hope we see a lot more of her. Would like to see Rayseline with a bigger role to play, too. Even the most minor of characters contribute to the whole, and are never just filler.

So, yes, An Artificial Night has some issues, quite maddening ones, in fact, but all the positives ultimately outweigh the defects. I’ll definitely continue reading this series at some point.