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Saturday, November 22, 2014



I have just updated a previous post for Darynda Jones with a review of Seventh Grave and No Bodythe seventh novel in her CHARLEY DAVIDSON/GRAVES SERIES.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Fred Venturini: "The Heart Does Not Grow Back"

Author:  Fred Venturini
Title:  The Heart Does Not Grow Back
Plot Type:  Science Fiction/Fantasy     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality—2-3; Humor—2-2 
Publisher:  Picador (11/2014)        

     In his debut novel, Venturini presents an anomaly: a social misfit of a superhero who tries to save the people he loves, destroyingand yet not destroyinghimself in the process. Dale Sampson is a lonely, nerdy, sixth grader when we first meet him. He's the too-introspective boy who hangs out on the far fringes of the playground, always alone. Dale lives with his mother, a hard-working single mom who is slowly dying of undiagnosed cancer (because there is no money for doctor bills). When a group of mean girls make Dale the butt of their demeaning game, their actions bring Dale to the attention of Mack Tucker, the most popular and athletic boy in the school. Unexpectedly, instead of bullying Dale, Mack befriends him, and they begin a close "bro" relationship that lasts through the next decades.

     The book is divided into three parts (four, if you count the prologue): "The Blind Man," "Disintegration," and 'Regeneration." Part 1 takes Dale from sixth grade through high school and includes the death of his mother. Over the years and through several beatings by Clint, a sociopathic classmate who hates him and Mark, Dale realizes that he heals much faster than other people. Then just before graduation, Dale attends a party where he intends to meet up with his dream girl, Regina, and tragedy strikes. Regina dies, Mack's injuries end the possibility of a baseball career, and Dale loses an ear and some fingers. Miraculously though, after an extremely painful period of healing, Dale's appendages regenerate within days. Dale's mom views this as "God making up for what was taken…making things right." (p. 76), but Dale isn't so sure. After she dies, Dale ponders his situation. "Nothing had been made right or whole by my miraculous healing. A dead mother, for what, an index finger? Regina's corpse for a useless piece of ear flesh? My friend's golden shoulder, his pride,...for what? Being able to pick up a dirty sock?…Everything was taken, and I was left with a power I didn't want or even need….The parts I needed to regenerate, the pain I needed to subside, were deeper and there forever, untouched by my abilities." (p. 78) And that's the heart of the novel: the fact that Dale hates his regenerative abilities, sees no purpose to them, and wants only to live a normal life with a girl who loves him and a friend who supports him. But he doesn't know how to do that. This is a man with almost unlimited physical healing capabilities, but his emotional woundswhich are ruining his lifeare far beyond the reach of his powers. Other than the crazy killer from his childhood, Dale doesn't face any supervillains; he is his own worst enemy. 

     In Part 2, which begins several years after graduation, Dale has a minimum-wage seasonal job as a weed-whacker on a local mowing crew. Mack has gone off to college, where he appears to spend most of his time drinking and partying with as many women as possible. In contrast, Dale lives a solitary life, existing on cereal, pizza, and beer; watching TV reruns and religious programming, particularly a sleazy healer; and obsessing about suicide. He buys a gun at Wal-Mart and also contemplates hanging, razor blades, asphyxiation, and electrocution. Dale figures that everyone is doing something that will hasten their death. "Call suicide what you want. If you're not blowing your brains out, you're dying by neglect. You're ignoring that suspicious mole, or smoking, or cultivating that roll of belly fat, or eating too much sodium…" (p. 87) 

     Then one day Dale runs into an old acquaintance: Regina's twin sister, Raeanna, who is a check-out clerk at Wal-Mart. Regina is married to an abuser named Harold, and Dale immediately falls for her and begins planning to save her. Just as with Regina, Dale's "love affair" is all in his head. He never discusses his feelings or his plans with Regina and is soon faced not only with rejection, but with Harold's vengeful actions when he learns of Dale's attentions to his wife. Dale's plans require money, so he takes the first step in making use of his regenerative powers by trying to find a way to sell his organs for as much cash as possible. The Internet becomes his impersonal, all-knowing source of informationabout Harold, about regeneration, about street-fighting, and about psychological profiling. "Who needs a mental-health professional when one can Google the answers and self-medicate?" (p. 127) But once again, Dale's actions do more harm than good, both to himself and to Rae. Meanwhile, the government has gotten wind of Dale's abilities and they're on his trail, so he heads off to California with Mack.

     In Part 3, Dale has arrived in California with a wild, 21st century idea about what to do with his superpowers. He will star in a reality show on which he will donate limbs and organs each week to needy people. As the show's producer says, "An honest-to-goodness superpower, and instead of putting a mask on, you're taking it to reality TV." (p. 177) In his mind, Dale sees this new part of his life as a way of finding himself and winning Rae's heart, but again it doesn't work. During the first season, Dale donates and then regenerates most of his limbs and organs, but "Even though most of my body was different, I was still the same goddamned Dale." (p. 200) And that Dale is still a socially awkward, lonely virgin who dreams of belonging to someonea dream woman who will love him unequivocally. He continues to dream of a life with Rae, even though she has rejected him and has never contacted him in California, and he even makes an attempt at a relationship with the woman to whom he donated his kidneys. Nothing ever works out for Dale, though, sometimes because of his consistently bad decisions and choices, but mostly because he never articulates his thoughts and dreams to the people involvedthe people he loves, or thinks he loves. On a podcast interview, Venturini explains that generally the right people (in fiction and films) get superpowers, but in this book,  "I wanted the wrong guy to get the superpowers." Dale is definitely the wrong guy.

     I particularly appreciated the author's take on healing. Usually, a superhero heals instantly, with seemingly little pain or discomfort, but that's not the case with Dale. Having been a fire victim and a car-accident victim, Venturini knows from experience the pain that comes during the healing process, and he allows us to watch Dale as he suffers through the excruciating itching and burning as limbs regrow and the semiconscious suffering as organs come back to life. It's a different approach that emphasizes the fact that Dale isn't your ordinary superhero.   

     In the final chapters, Dale's life comes to a tipping point when Rae shows up at his door. Once again, Dale makes his own private plans, and once again things go wrong. There are several twists at the end, one that I was able to predict, but still enjoy, and the finale leaves Dale with a new freedom to regenerate his lifehis inner life, if he can just pull himself together and get out of his head and in touch with realitytrue reality, not TV reality. That ending, by the way, comes perilously close to becoming a unicorn-and-rainbows finale.

     Although flawed in several ways, this is a fascinating novel with an inventive take on the superhero persona. Dale is a fully realized character, with his  self-destructive introspection, his inability to progress beyond the adolescent stage with women, his hatred for his constant regeneration, and his untreated psychological problems that date back to the tragic shootings and his mother's death. Mack is also an original character, the popular jock who hides his father's physical abuse behind stories of brave adventures and who usually gives Dale the worse advice possible. Their close relationship is a highlight of the book. Unfortunately, the women in Dale's lifeRegina, the popular girl; Rae, the abused wife who stands by her man; and Hollie, the emotionally fragile kidney recipient seething with inner rageare all stereotypical figures who act in predictable ways and are not explored in any depth. They serve primarily as the catalysts for Dale's worst decisions, and they suffer the most from the destructive aftermath of his attentions. 

     For the most part, Venturini's story telling is at the highest level. The only scene that seemed awkward and out-of-nowhere is the one in part 3 that involves a gun battle and a car crash. On a podcast interview, Venturini confesses that he tends to go over the top with his final chapters, and that's the case with this scene. But even with these characterization problems and minor plot issues, Venturini's fast-paced story pulled me in all the way through to the very end. Dale Sampson is a fresh and welcome addition to superhero fiction.

     To read the first two chapters, click HERE to go to this book's page and then click on the cover art. Click HERE to read an excerpt from chapter 8.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Author:  Caitlin Kittredge
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2 
Publisher:  Harper Voyager     
          Black Dog (10/2014)
     Kittredge does some extensive world-building in the first book, establishing a mythology that reinvents the traditional story of fallen angels, demons, Hell, and Tartarus. She does not provide a glossary of terms, so here are a few definitions to help you understand this mythology:

    > The Kingdom: A Heaven-like place that is run by the Host; "Nine generals who give the orders. There's nothing higher than them…" (Black Dog, p. 200)

    > Fallen Angel: Angels who were banished from the Kingdom. Originally, they were sent to Hell, but escaped to the mortal plane when the demons revolted against them. Most have maintained at least a fewbut not allof their particular angelic powers.

    > Demons (aka Hellspawn): Supernatural beings created by the Fallen as servants in Hell. They despise the Fallen and eventually rose against them. Lilith was the first demon to be created.

    > Hell: The original home of the Fallen.

    > Tartarus (aka the Pit): A prison in the deepest depths of Hell where the Fallen imprisoned the demons. After the demons rose up and took over Hell, they used the Pit to contain the damned souls collected by the reapers. As the series begins, the gates of Tartarus are tightly closed, permitting no exit.

    > Reapers: Servants of demons. They are tasked with collecting the souls of sinners. The reapers also supervise the hellhounds and the people who provide vampires with their blood supply.

    > Hellhounds: Shapeshifters who serve the reapers, gathering the souls of wayward necromancers and of those who have "missed a payment," after selling their souls to a demon.

    > Necromancers: Warlocks who can raise, animate, and control the dead. They use blood in their conjuring: "Willing human blood for healing and protection. Unwilling for black magic and cursing." (Black Dog, p. 166)

    > Deadheads (aka Zombies): Mindless creatures raised from the dead and controlled by warlocks.

    > Vampires: "Suckers aren't hard to pick out. They stink like old women's underwear, and unless they've got a good hemoglobin-rich supply, they start looking like beat-up luggage within a couple of weeks." (Black Dog, p. 28) Older vamps weigh very little because their internal organs dry out.

    > Shapeshifters: They can shift regardless of the moon phase, and they live in multi-species packs (e.g., coyotes, wolves, and mountain lions).

     The series heroine is Ava, a hellhound who works for a reaper named Gary. Gary, in turn, works for the demon Lilith. Ava is unique among hellhounds because she can remember when she was human, a fact that she keeps a secret from Gary. Ava lives a hopeless existence. If she fails on any soul-gathering assignment, Gary will kill her and send her to Hell. If she completes her assignments successfully, she will be assigned more—an endless stretch of violence, fear, and endless servitude. Ava knows that she "might not always like what I did, or that that matter what I was, but I was a hound. I was made to hunt. It was all I was meant to do…My part was to track [the necromancer] down and kill him. Always had been, always would be. I was a hound, That was all I was good for." (Black Dog, p. 24) Gary puts it in much cruder terms, continually reminding Ava that she is nothing but his loyal dog: "…Ava, you get to do what you do best…Fetch." (Black Dog, p. 15)

            NOVEL 1:  Black Dog             
     When Gary sends Ava to Las Vegas to find out why his blood supplier is having trouble with deadheads, the necromancer who created the zombies captures and tortures her in an attempt to get her to kill Gary and steal his Scythe, a powerful blade that can draw out a soul and instantly kill any creature, human or supernatural. The necromancerLeonid (Leo) Karpovwants to use the Scythe to kill his father, Sergei, a powerful necromancer who heads up a mob family. Leo is Sergei's illegitimate son, whom Sergei uses as a killer and a clean-up man but denies any power. Eventually, the situation goes bad when Gary finds out about Leo, Sergei gets involved, Gary gets killed, and Sergei grabs the Scythe. By chapter 10, Ava and Leo have teamed up and are on the run from Sergei, who wants Leo dead.

     Then, Lilith pops in to scold Ava for her part in Gary's death and to send her out on a new assignment: to track down Clint Hicks, who has managed to keep Gary's hellhounds from finding him for more than 25 years. Clint has holed up in the wilds of Wyoming under the protection of a gang of meth-making, biker shapeshifters. Leo and Ava do a Bonnie and Clyde run across the West, stealing cars, throwing people out of motel rooms at gunpoint, and always looking over their shoulder for Sergei's thugs. Once Ava and Leo meet up with Clint, the story takes an entirely new tone and direction because Clint isn't humanhe's much more. By the end of the book, Ava and the reader have met so many unreliable narrators that we don't know which one to believe. Ava decides to believe none of them.

     In order to keep the spoilers to a minimum, I'll summarize the rest of the story by saying that the intrepid trio—Ava, Leo, and Clint—travel to New Orleans where Ava learns some new information about her true identity. Then,  Lilith thrusts Leo and Ava into a hellish situation that results in pain and self-sacrifice for both of them. Ava sums up her situation near the end of the book: "In the last twelve hours I'd been kidnapped by Lilith, traveled to Hell for the first time, almost been stranded in the Hellspawn equivalent of a supermax, and met an angel who would probably peel my skin like a grape if I crossed him." (p. 340)

     This is the part of the book that is heavy with world-building: the structure of the underworld, the history of the Fallen and the demons, and Ava and Leo's role in this big picture. Sometimes, the mythology is clear, but other times it is muddled and hard to understand. I found myself going back and rereading paragraphs, unable to figure out exactly what Kittredge was saying. All we can do is hope that either she constructs a glossary before the second book comes out or that her explanations are clearer in that book.

     All through the book, we get flashbacks to Ava's human life and her tragic death in the early 1920s at the hands of two men she trusted. Here, she reflects on her death: "That was how Gary got me…I was afraid, of dying, of crossing, of finding out what was waiting for me. I let him take my soul and turn me into his monster, together for a hundred years and a hundred morethe same deal every hound got with their reaper." (p. 51) Her full death flashback doesn't come until chapter 17.

     Even with the wonky world-building, I enjoyed the book, mostly because of the complexity of the characters. Ava, who still has her soul and her human memories, has both good and evil in her past, but she tends toward doing the right thing more times than not. If Ava has a fault, it is her tendency to overestimate her ability to overcome her enemies. She is constantly getting captured, injured, and tortured by both humans and supernaturals, but these failures never teach her to be more cautious. Her worst TSTL moment comes during a private meeting with Sergei, when she falls for one of the oldest tricks in the book: drinking something proffered by her enemy. This little scene will have every reader mentally screaming "No! Don't drink that."—but to no avail. 

     Ava's relationship with Leo is complicated; after all, he tortured her the first time they met. Leo has a tragic past: the bastard son of a truly evil man who consigns him to murderous work and little or no reward. When he meets Ava, his life is consumed by his need for revenge against his father. Neither Ava nor Leo is looking for love, but their forced comradeship ignites a mutual attraction that won't be denied. Kittredge doesn't turn this into an insta-love situation, though. Ava and Leo start off as enemies, then become frenemies, then comrades in arms, then mutual protectors, and finally friends and lovers. It's a long, slow, painful process, filled with darkly sarcastic repartee and periodic bouts of distrust and alienation. 

     Click HERE to read an excerpt on this book's page—just click on the cover at top left on that page.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014



I have just updated a previous post for Christina Henry with a review of Black Spring, the seventh and FINAL novel in her BLACK WINGS SERIES.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review.

Monday, November 17, 2014



I have just updated a previous post for Debra Mullins with a review of Heart of Stone, the second novel in her TRUTHSEERS/ATLANTIS TRILOGY. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review

Saturday, November 15, 2014



I have just updated a previous post for Nalini Singh with a review of Archangel's Shadows, the seventh novel in her GUILD HUNTER SERIES.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review.

Friday, November 14, 2014

UPDATE! Kelley Armstrong: "Otherworld Nights," an OTHERWORLD SERIES Anthology


I have just updated a previous post for Kelley Armstrong with a review of Otherworld Nights, the first of three volumes of short fiction set in her OTHERWORLD SERIES.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the updated review.