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Monday, March 2, 2015

Kelly Link: "Get in Trouble: Stories"

Author:  Kelly Link
Series:  Get in Trouble: Stories
Plot Type:  Fantasy (short stories) 
Publisher:  Random House (2/2015)     

               INTRODUCTION               

     If you like Shirley Jackson's short stories and Karen Russells' novels (like Swamplandia), you'll no doubt enjoy Link's anthology. I love this comment in the Publishers Weekly review of the book: "Like Kafka hosting Saturday Night Live, Link mixes humor with existential dread." Link plays with a wide range of imaginative and disparate elements: dreams and reality, truths and lies, friendship and rivalry, and escapism and capitulation. People tend to disappear and sometimes to reappear. The most interesting aspect of the book is that each story is set in a completely different world, all equally fascinating. The end of each tale leaves you wanting to stay a little longer just to see what happens next to these quirky characters. Several selections have the shivery creepiness of Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone episodes (which are available for viewing on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and the Syfy Channel).

               THE STORIES               
1.  "The Summer People"
Quote: Here, the summer people provide a cure for Fran's feverish flu: "A lipstick-sized vial of pearly glass, an enameled green snake clasped round, its tail the stopper. Fran tugged at the tail, and the serpent uncoiled. A pole ran out the mouth of the bottle, and a silk rag unfurled. Embroidered upon it were the words DRINK ME."

     Teen-age Fran lives with her ne'er-do-well daddy in a ramshackle cottage in the mountains and hollers of the Appalachians. Daddy is a hard-drinking bootlegger of sorts who goes off in search of religion each time he surfaces from one of his destructive binges, leaving Fran behind to take care of the small cabin they rent out to tourists. Fran isn't alone, though. Daddy leaves her to be cared for—and to take care of—the summer people, who are shy and mysterious people/creatures/faeries (?) who inhabit a run-down house just down the road. Fran lives a life of duty that is enhanced only by fantastical toys and magical elixirs. This is a portrait of a vulnerable young girl born into a life she never would have chosen. Then one day she resumes a childhood friendship, and that experience provides her with the perfect opportunity to achieve her heart's desire.

2.  "I Can See Right Through You"

Quote: "It's an end-of-the-world sky, a snakes-and-ladders landscape: low emerald trees pulled lower by vines; chalk and apricot anthills (the demon lover imagines the bones of a nudist under every one); shallow water-filled declivities scummed with algae, lime and gold and black…A storm is coming."

     As you read this story, you have to trust the narrator—Will, the demon lover—as he moves backwards and forwards in time to tell us about his life and his on-and-off relationship with his only true love, Meggie. Will is an aging actor who hit the big time early in his career when he played a vampire lover who seduced Meggie, the innocent ingenue, in a hit movie. Ever since then, he has been plagued by his vampire image. Even when he and Meggie briefly lived together as lovers, women would stalk him, begging him to bite them. Now, the demon lover is nearly 50 years old, and his life is on a downhill spiral, partly because of an embarrassing sex tape that has gone viral on the Internet. Every time Will's life goes sour, he cries on Meggie's shoulder before going back to his dissolute life. Meggie is now the host of a ghost-hunter reality show, so Will stops in for a visit to her current location, hoping against hope that they can get back together. Meggie is looking for ghosts in a muddy Florida swampland that used to be a nudist colony before 22 naked people disappeared from it without a trace. An uneasy visit and a mysterious ending ensue. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that when Meggie was a young girl, a Ouija board gave her a very insistent message to which she should have paid more attention.

3.  "Secret Identity"
Quote: "Billy walks aimlessly. Gawks at the gawkworthy. Pleasurably ponders a present for her sister...Caped superheroes swoop and wheel and dip around the Empire State Building. No crime in progress. Show business."

      This is a ripped-from-headlines story in which 15-almost-16 Billy Faggart, an inveterate gamer, writes a letter to 34-year-old Paul Zellavatar/boyfriend/possible predatorin which she describes what happens to her after she arrives in Manhattan after running (actually, busing) away from her small-town Iowa home. Billy and Paul had planned to meet up at this particular hotel, which happens to be hosting two conventions, one for dentists and one for superheroesreal superheroes, not the costumed, comic-con kind. At one hilarious point, the two conventions intersect: "There are new boards up announcing that free teeth-whitening sessions are available in suite 412 for qualified superheroes." Billy has been pretending to be her much-older sister, a teacher back in Kansas, but she believes that Paul Zell will forgive her lies and maintain their romantic relationship when they actually meet in person. 

     The story has a layer of pathos that underscores Billy's naiveté and amplifies our fear for her safety, but it also has some wry humor involving the superheroes, who are auditioning for sidekicks and keep making the mistake of believing that Billy is there on a job search. The story twists and turns, introducing quirky characters, but always keeping the Paul Zell story line simmering in the background. This one is my favorite in the book.


4.  "Valley of the Girls"
 Quote: We get a plot clue when the narrator gives us this insight: "I never got into the Egyptian thing the way the girls did. I always liked the Norse gods better. You know. Loki. The slaying of Baldur. Ragnarok."

     Link gives us a twist on the Hero-Leander myth as she mixes modern pop-star celebrity culture with ancient Egyptian mythology, setting her story in a weirdly futuristic America that features shallow young members of Hollywood royalty (think teen-age Kardashians) who have three different identitiestwo living and one after death:

     > their body doubles (ba), called Faces: A Face is a person who assumes a young celebrity's identity, providing him or her with a scandal-free public presence even while under the constant scrutiny of the paparazzi. A Face is "a nobody, a real person, who comes and takes your place at the table…Being better than you will ever be at being you."

     > their real-life personas (ka): This is the behind-the-scenes real person who does the stupid things that shallow, rich young people have done throughout the ages. Their real-life personas are invisible to cameras so their future reputations are protected from their often-disastrous mistakes. No embarrassing photos on Facebook or Instagram. 

     > after-death personalities (Akh): They represent a reuniting of the ba and ka that results in the creation of an immortal entity. 

     The story emphasizes the disconnect between the public face and the private face. Here, the narrator tries to catch the attention of his sister's Face: "I tried to catch her eye, clowning in my latex leggings, but I was invisible. Every gesture, every word was for them, for him. The cameras. My Face. And me? A speck of nothing. Not even a blot. Negative space." Each one has a fancy pyramid, a secret burial chamber filled with expensive personal possessions for their afterlives. This story is difficult to summarize without spoilers because so many of the world-building details and essential plot elements are not revealed until late in the story. The lead character is a drug-using, hard-partying profligate whose sister despairs over his dissolute life. When he goes too far, she takes matters into her own hands. Note: The characters' names are written as cartouches, each one in a horizontal frame. This story requires some background info (click on the pink links), but it pays off in the end as a modern allegory about fame and fate.

5.  "Origin Story"
Quote: "The parlor floor now slanted and when you went out through the (back) front door, there was a pair of stockinged plaster legs sticking out from under the house. A pair of ruby slippers. A yellow brick road. You weren't in North Carolina anymore"

     Bunnatine Powderfinger, a waitress in her later 20s, spends a summer evening in the ruins of a Land of Oz theme park with her lover, Biscuit, a superhero who comes back to his hometown only occasionally when he takes a break between his saving-the-world adventures. As Bunnatine drifts (both physically and emotionally) between dreams and reality, she leaves it to the reader to figure out the truth of her life. This is a heartbreaking story of a girl left behind to deal alone with the consequences of the errors and misjudgments of her youth. 

6.  "The Lesson" 
Quote: "'How did we end up with a surrogate with an incompetent cervix?' says Harper. 'She's only twenty-seven!'"

     This story is a mash-up of events surrounding a high-risk pregnancy and a bizarre destination wedding. The expectant parents are Harper and Thanh, a happily married gay couple, and Naomi, their surrogate. The bride and groom are Fleur (Harper and Thanh's free-spirited long-time friend) and David (her mysterious, slightly sinister groom). Harper and Thanh live in Boston; Fleur's wedding takes place on a private island off the southeast coast (…"of South Carolina. Or Alabama."). Early on, we learn that Naomi's pregnancy has been problematic, and that Harper and Thanh disagree as to whether they should fly off to the wedding at such a critical time24 weeks into the pregnancy. When they do, we can only stand by helplessly and watch them learn some heartrending life lessons. 

7.  "The New Boyfriend"
Quote: "Ainslie scores under the tape with a fingernail, then carefully teases the pink wrapping paper out from the coffin-shaped box. Ainslie's new Boyfriend is in there."

     In this story, a teenager deals with her need for love and her feelings of envy for her pampered best friend. In this world, Boyfriends (with a capital "B" as opposed to boyfriend with a small "b") are life-sized dolls that can be programmed to appear either in Embodied (solid and lifelike) or Spectral (ghostly and invisible) form. They focus on their owners with laser-like intensity, vowing to love them always and to never leave them. Immy has always yearned for a Boyfriend, but her parents aren't rich like Ainslie's family, so she has to settle for an ordinary boyfrienda real-life teen-age boy who talks too much about himself, doesn't listen to her, has no sense of humor, and "kisses like it's arm wrestling, except with lips." Ainslie already has two Boyfriends (Vampire Boyfriend Oliver and Werewolf Boyfriend Alan), so when she gets Handsome Boyfriend Mint for her birthday, Immy already has come up with a plan to strike out at Ainslie and to get access to a Boyfriend of her very own. This story will put you in mind of every doll-centered horror movie you've ever seen, although the ending involves emotional trauma rather than the usual bloody physical kind.

     The story has a very funny section about the fake Vampire and Werewolf Boyfriends that riffs on the downside of their attentions: Vampire Boyfriends' endless brooding and over-zealous cuddling ("being squeezed like a juice box") and "the way Werewolf Boyfriends go on and on about the environment and also are always trying to get you to go running with them."

8.  "Two Houses" 
Quote: "Sisi had a pair of old cowboy boots, and Aune an ivory cross on a chain. Sullivan had a copy of Moby-Dick; Portia had a four-carat diamond in a platinum setting. Mei had her knitting needles. Gwenda had her tattoos. Astronauts on the Long Trip travel light."

     Six astronauts travel through space on the spaceship House of Secrets. Along with House of Mystery (its sister ship), House of Secrets left Earth in the summer of 2059. Thirty years ago, House of Mystery disappeared "in a wink, a blink. First there, then nowhere…Space was full of mysteries Space was full of secrets." The astronauts spend their time taking years-long naps and then awakening. Sometimes they are together; sometimes they are alone—but never completely alone because they are always accompanied by Maureen, an endless source of information, invisible but always presentkind of like Siri, but with the added ability of being able to create odors, sounds, and realistic life-size images.

     One night when all six astronauts are awake, they tell each other ghost stories, ending with one that involves twin houses that are part of a performance art installation. Within one house, a mass murder took place, but no one is sure which house is the real one and which is the imitation. So…twin spaceships and twin houses. In the end, what is the difference between the real and the imagined? This one definitely shares roots with some of Twilight Zone's outer space episodes.

9.  "Light" 
Quote: "Everyone was in agreement that it was almost impossible to distinguish a homemade or store-bought shadow from a real one...Children with two shadows did not grow up happy. They didn't get on well with other children. You could cut a pair of shadows apart with a pair of crooked scissors, but it wasn't a permanent solution…If you didn't bother to cut back the second shadow, then eventually you had twins, one of whom was only slightly realer than the other."

     This is a surreal world in which pocket universes wink in and out of existence, offering exotic vacation pleasures and perfect retirement communities. Other elements add to the weirdness: South Florida's most invasive species is mermaids (sold at Disney pocket universes as pets). Women give birth to rabbits. Witches forecast the weather. Invisible men rob gas stations. Politicians make deals with malign spirits. (Well...that last one sounds sort of normal.)

     Lindsey Driver is one of the double-shadowed people mentioned in the opening quotation. She is the originalthe realer of the two—while her profligate brother Alan is the copy, the imitation. "People with two shadows were supposed to get in trouble. Supposed to be trouble. They were supposed to lead friends and lovers astray, bring confusion to their enemies, bring down disaster wherever they went." 

     Several years ago, sleepers began to turn uppeople who appear to be in permanent comas. Lindsey works as an assistant manager of a warehouse in the Florida Keys where some of these sleepers are stored. Lindsey was onceactually still ismarried to a yellow-haired, green-skinned giant of a man from a pocket universe, but he is long gone, so she spends her nights at the local dive bar, drinking heavily and picking up men to bring home for the night. The conflict begins when Alan shows up begging for a place to stay. He has lost yet another job, and his arrival promises (and delivers) nothing but trouble for Lindsey. The story ends with an attempted suicide, a ghoulish prank, and a Level 2 hurricane. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

UPDATE! Katie Reus: MOON SHIFTER SERIES



UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Katie Reus with a review of Hunter Reborn, the fifth novel in her MOON SHIFTER SERIES.

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Caitlín R. Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney: SIOBHAN QUINN TRILOGY

Author:  Kathleen Tierney (pseudonym for Caitlín R. Kiernan)
Series:  SIOBHAN QUINN TRILOGY
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3-4; Humor—2 
Publisher:  ROC     
          Blood Oranges (2/2013)
          Red Delicious (2/2014)
          Cherry Bomb (2/2015) (FINAL)

This post begins with an overview of the world-building followed by my reviews of the three novels.

               WORLD-BUILDING               
     Kiernan/Tierney has created a fantastically fresh series in which she sets familiar urban fantasy tropes on edge and then slices them up and turns them inside out, sniggering darkly as she does it. She opens each book with a warning to readers: "If your ears, eyes, and sensibilities are easily offended, this book is not for you. If you want a romance novel, this book is not for you. And it if strikes you odd that vampires, werewolves, demons, ghouls, and the people who spend time in their company, would be a foul-mouthed, unpleasant lot, this book is not for you. In fact, if you're the sort who believes books should come with warning labels, this book is not for you. Fair notice." But I would add that if you're the sort who is looking for a nontraditional mythology featuring an intelligent, tough, acerbic, pragmatic heroine (or anti-heroine), this book is for you. But…take note of the author's warning. If the prospect of a gazillion f-bombs turns you off, walk away now unless you can open your mind to an all-new approach to urban fantasy, one that pokes fun at the stereotypes of paranormal romance and takes the reader on a long, dark, journey with a very different kind of urban fantasy heroine.  

     The first two books are set in Providence, Rhode Island, where Siobhan Quinn has lived a hard-scrabble life on the streets since she ran away from her abusive and negligent parents as a twelve-year-old. She prefers (demands, really) to be called Quinn, and swiftly corrects anyone who calls her Siobhan. "Yeah, it sounds like one of those Young Plucky Vampire Hunters, or, worse yet, like the women who write those trashy ParaRom paperbacks you see on the racks at the Stop & Shop." (from Blood OrangesWithin a few years of living hand-to-mouth in squalid squats, Quinn gets turned on to heroin one cold night when her friend/supplier/pusher promises that he can warm her up with his product. Not long after that, while Quinn and her girlfriend are snuggling together in the ruins of a building enjoying their drug buzz, a ghoul grabs Quinn's girlfriend and eats her alive. Days later, a vampire attacks Quinn. In both cases, the supernatural perpetrators wind up dead, mostly due to their own clumsy actions. Quinn, though, gets full credit for the deaths in Providence's supernatural gossip mill, with her part in the deaths being exaggerated more and more as the tales are told and retold on the street. 

     The two deaths lead to Quinn's "adoption" by Mean Mr. B (a Beatles reference), who continually changes his name but always begins it with a "B" (e.g., Barlow, Bayard, Baptiste, Balthazarall having literary or popular culture connections). As Quinn says, Mr. B "is a smooth talker. He could have put the s in suave. Could sell celery to a vampire." (from Red Delicious) He maintains a mysterious aura and is quite secretive about his life, but Quinn knows that he is is heavily involved as a middleman in the supernatural underworld. Soon, Mr. B is paying for her apartment, providing her with heroin, and helping her survive. He also sends her out to assassinate various supernatural monsters, promising his protection in exchange for her servicesin other words, he's a pimp, of sorts. Mr. B explains that Quinn's reputation as a monster killer makes her an asset to him in his dealings with supernatural creatures who tend to strike out in deadly ways when their deals go wrong.

     Nineteen-year-old Quinn looks back over the events of the past few years, telling her story in her cynical, sarcastic, streetwise voice, moving back and forth in time as she goes off on tangents and then abruptly brings us back to the events at hand. She is largely self-educated, having spent a lot of time (in her pre-junkie days) at the public library, soaking up as much knowledge as she could on her own. Sometimes, Quinn's Trebekian tidbits jarred my suspension of disbelief. It is difficult to believe that Quinn read and still remembers so much history and literature that she can pull forth dates, facts, and cultural references with such ease and range. For example, do you know what the word prolegomenon means? Well, Quinn does. Fortunately, Quinn is such a gutsy, confident, well-developed character that I soon stopped worrying about that aspect of her narration.

     The supernatural creatures in this series are not noble or romantic. They are monsters who eat people without a qualm or even a second thought. Quinn describes each individual monster in exquisite detailtheir sizes, their physiques, their sounds, and even their smells. It's a relief to find a series with absolutely no angst-filled, uber-alpha male heroes and no virginal, feisty-but-submissive heroines. Quinn blows every tired vampire/werewolf trope out of the water. It's refreshing!

     One of the best parts of the series is that the author breaks down the fourth wall. Quinn talks directly to the reader. She tells her story as if she were chatting with you over a beer at a local dive bar. Some have criticized the narration as being rambling or misleading, but that's what happens when you tell a long story about yourself. Quinn tells us what happened to her as she remembers itor, sometimes, as she wished it had happened. The author generally throws in one or two deus ex machina plot elements, and she sometimes interrupts her narrative to tell a related anecdote. But she's always up front about her story-telling technique, informing the reader that if you don't like her style, she could care less. "Those of you who find this annoying, go read another book, instead. I won't mind." (from Red Delicious)

               NOVEL 1:  Blood Oranges               
     Early in the book, Mean Mr. B sends Quinn out into the woods one night to track down a werewolf, but when she finds no trace of the beast, she decides to shoot some smack and is in the midst of an opiate rush when the werewolf attacks her. Just after the beast sinks his teeth in her butt, a "hissing thing"a vampireleaps on him and kills him. When Quinn awakens in the vampire's lair, she learns that the bite has turned her into a werewolf. But that's not the worst part of her night. The vampire, who is known as the Bride of Quiet, bites Quinn on the neck, turning her into the world's first werepire (werewolf-vampire hybrid), an abomination to everyone in the supernatural world. As Quinn's frenemy Aloysius, the candy-bar-loving troll, exclaims, "...you gone and got yourself twofold plugged."

     Two years have passed since the attack, and now Quinn is taking us back in time to explain how she attempted to make sense of what happened to her by figuring out who was behind the attacks and why they targeted her. On her journey to the truth, Quinn meets up with many quirky characterssome human and some supernatural, but all dangerous and deceitful. Most of their names are cultural references (for example, Jack Doyle, Boston Harry). A major problem for Quinn is that she keeps unpredictably changing into her werewolf form, which leads to her chowing down on whichever bad guy she's interviewing at the moment. As the attacks on Quinn escalate, Mr. B drops out of sight and Quinn realizes that she is on her own. As Quinn narrates her adventures, she speaks directly to the reader, describing events chronologically, but circling back in time again and again to fill us in on relevant past events and to add sidebars of historical and cultural interest. Her narration is a sardonic monologue that feels like a naturally unfolding story. 

     Much of the humor comes from Quinn's constant puncturing of the enduring tropes of paranormal fiction. Her lampoons include many funny references to Buffy and many jabs at Twilight. "Take it from me, vampires sure as hell don't sparkle…or glitter...or twinkle, no matter what that silly…twit may have written, no matter how many books she's sold, and no matter how many celibate high school girls have signed themselves up for Team Edward." Quinn debunks the myths that vamps are night creatures and that they cast no reflections. When she discovers that the myths about vampire beauty, strength, and teleportation are untrue, she is truly bummed out. These send-ups provide welcome comic relief from the dark events that make up Quinn's life. 

     Early on, Quinn warns the reader that she is an unreliable narrator: "Junkies lie. No exceptions…Well, truth be told, I've been stretching the truth like it was a big handful of raspberry-flavored saltwater taffy." Then, she retells parts of her story, supposedly telling us the truth this time. But with Quinn, truth is relative, not absolute. All through the book, Quinn keeps reminding the reader that "I am most emphatically not a writer." She is quite self-deprecating, admitting that a real writer wouldn't make "all these stupid mistakes right and left, the omissions and continuity errors and whatnot." Late in the book she muses, "Back at the start of this mess, I sat down to write a story, knowing parts of it would be true and other parts of it would surely be b***sh**. Some would be actual recollection, and some would be me making up whatever was required to fill in the gaps in my memory…Instead the...pages have become…this. Whatever this is. It feels more and more like a confession….A confession of my crimes and acts of criminal stupidity, and of my arrogance." Speaking of lies and b***sh**, if you are looking for a factual biography of this author, you should read Kiernan's Wikipedia entry rather than the nonsensically nutty bio at the back of this book. 

     The primary problem I had with the book is that Quinn is essentially a pawn in the hands of some powerful monsters. No matter what decision she makes, someone is always a step ahead of hersomeone always knows exactly what she has done and said and what she is going to do next. My unease with Quinn's being an object of constant manipulation began early in the book and then grew stronger as Quinn's situation became more and more dire. Quinn is such a strong character that I just wish she could have outwitted the bad guys a few times. 

     Beyond this quibble, though, I loved the book, particularly the narrative style, the sense of place, and Quinn's cynical, abrasive personality. She is what she is, and you either accept that or walk away. After reading so many urban fantasies featuring noble, altruistic heroes/heroines, Quinn is a breath of fresh air. If you enjoy the heroine's adventures in Chuck Wendig's MIRIAM BLACK series, you'll probably enjoy reading Quinn's dark and dangerous life story. In an on-line essay, Kiernan says, "Atmosphere, mood, language, character, theme, etc., that's the stuff that fascinates me." In Blood Oranges, she succeeds mightily with all of those elements.

               NOVEL 2:  Red Delicious               
     "Red delicious" is what Quinn calls her blood fixes. In this novel, Kiernan/Tierney's presents her fresh and inventive version of the old familiar ancient-lost-artifact plot line, but as you might expect, the story doesn't play out in the usual manner. Quinn's narration picks up in the cold, dark depths of February, six months after the events of Blood Oranges. Quinn has begun to come to terms with her new three-natured condition (human, vampire, werewolf), but she is lonely and she is sick of doing Mean Mr. B's dirty work. Speaking of Mr. B, he has a job for her. One of the daughters of a powerful necromancer has asked for Mr. B's help in locating her missing sister. Unfortunately, this is just a scam to draw Mr. B into the search for that previously mentioned artifact, which happens to be a dildo fashioned from the horn of a unicorn. Go figure.

     In a run-of-the-mill urban fantasy, this plot would play out in a relatively straightforward manner: good guys and bad guys searching for and fighting over the object, ending with a huge battle in which the good guys trounce the baddies and walk off with the artifact. But not this time, mainly because there are no good guys in this seriesonly very, very bad monsters. As Quinn works on the case, she must also contend with a fellow monster huntera defrocked, child-abusing priest who considers her to be a monster that must be destroyed.

     The novel is constructed mostly in the same manner as the first, with Quinn looking back on her adventures in hindsight, narrating her story in her unreliable, sarcastic, cynical voice. But then, on page 100, the author inserts a 43-page short story entitled "The Maltese Unicorn" (supposedly from a 1935 issue of Weird Tales) that explains the history of the artifact and introduces two of the rival monsters who claim ownership of said object. (The "author" of the story is Mona Mars, who in the real world happens to be a character in both the noir novel and film The Big Sleep.) Quinn deals with complaints about her book-within-a-book device by opening the fourth wall to speak directly to the reader: "Now, there will, of course, be those readers who complain that by sticking Ms. Mars' story in here, I'm yanking them out of the book. 'A short story in a novel? What!'…Yeah, yeah. I know. I'm a bad girl…I even violate readers' lazy expectations." 

     By the end of the story, no less than seven vicious entities (plus Quinn) are trying to find the unicorn horn, but not one of them knows where it is. Here is the cast of villains: 
    > Amity and Berenice Maidstonethe mob boss's necromancing daughters 
    Drusneth: a powerful succubus demon; a whorehouse madam whom we met in book one
    Yeksabet Harpootliana more powerful demon who lives in another realm 
    Magdalena Szabóan even more powerful demon who lives in yet another realm
    Samuel (aka Salem Sam)a bogle, brother of Jack Doyle, who was eaten by Quinn's werewolf self in book 1
    Mean Mr. Dwho has allied himself with Drusneth

     Just as in book 1, Quinn becomes a pawn when each villain tries to force her into finding the horn and turning against the others. The explosiveness of the ending put me in mind of the final scene in Quentin Tarantino's movie Reservoir Dogs when the bad guys simultaneously murder one another, with just one battered survivor walking off with the prize.

     This second book continues to add depth to Quinn's character, particularly her feelings of loneliness and her relief at finding a friend she thought was dead. That scene is a stand-outthe first time we have seen deep into Quinn's emotional heart, which she always keeps well hidden from everyone, including the reader. Quinn's relationship with Mr. B continues to deteriorate, resulting in Quinn's making a scary decision at the end of the book. In fact, Quinn makes several scary decisions as she resolves the conflict, putting herself and her soul in danger time and time again.

     The advantage Quinn has in telling her story in hindsight is that she spots her mistakesthe holes in her plotjust as soon as we do. She never apologizes, just admits that she blew it, wonders how she could have made such a stupid mistake, and moves on. 

     The novel contains two girl-on-girl erotic scenes: a scene in "The Maltese Unicorn" involving erotic ritual sex using the unicorn horn dildo and a scene near the end of the book in which Quinn has off-the-page sex with Amity Maidstone.

     Although I didn't enjoy this book quite as much as Blood Oranges, it was still a great read that I couldn't put down. I love Quinn as a character and as a narrator, and I appreciate Kiernan/Tierney's confident fourth-wall bravado as she does things her way, take it or leave it. 

     One nitpick: This book contains a number of copy-proofing errors that wouldn't have shown up on spell-check but should have been picked up in the final read-through (two examples: 1. "the downstairs neighbors were out of down"—"down" should have been "town" 2. "you have a stubborn habit of habit of seeking…"—one "habit of" should have been deleted).

               NOVEL 3:  Cherry Bomb               
     The time frame for this book is fuzzy, based on the very first sentence: "I met Selwyn Throckmorton five years after I'd left Mean Mr B and Providence behind me and arrived in Manhattan, three years after that whole mess with the Maidstone sisters…" Quinn's break with Mr. B occurred immediately following the Maidstone incident, so I'm not sure why she refers to the "five years after" and the "three years after" as if the two events took place two years apart. Of course, we always have to keep in mind Quinn's constant warnings that she is a consummate liar, so the truth of the time line is unknowable.

     As the story begins, Quinn is living in Manhattan with Barbara, a wealthy, thrill-seeking human woman who gets off on up-close-and-personal vampire action. Before coming to Manhattan, Quinn roamed the country, always getting herself into so much trouble that she had to leave town. At this point, Quinn is bored with her life with Barbara, so she's ready for some excitement when she meets Selwyn (aka Annie Smithfield) at a BDSM party. It's a case of insta-lust between Quinn and Selwyn (yet another paranormal romance trope for the author to eviscerate) so Quinn sucks poor Barbara dry, leaves the corpse behind, and heads merrily off with Selwyn into an extremely uncertain future. 

     Almost immediately, things begin to go wrong. Selwyn earns her living by dealing in black-market supernatural antiquities, and she has double-crossed one of her clientsa high-ranking ghoul named Isaac Snowby selling some objects she promised to him to other clients. Then, unbeknownst to Quinn, Selwyn imbibes some wolfbane, supposedly to protect herself from Quinn's werewolf nibbling during their love-making. When Quinn bites Selwyn, the wolfbane activates Quinn's wolfy self, and her beast sets off on a deadly, incredibly messy rampage across New York City. This violent incident is widely publicized, thus alerting the entire worldhuman and supernaturalto Quinn's location. It also forces Quinn and Selwyn to go on the run (another paranormal romance trope). 

     At this point, the plot sinks into a mythological quagmire that includes several more paranormal tropes: a powerful ancient artifact, lucid dreams, an ancient prophecy, misguided supernatural entities who believe they are the "chosen ones," and an underworld uprising. Info dumps abound, each one announced and justified by our narrator, Quinnlike this one: "Warning: Next info dump ahead. If that sort of thing annoys you, might want to skip a few pages ahead. Of course, then you'll have no idea what's going on later. I know. Decisions, decisions. Whee." In the first two books, the author's send-ups of paranormal fiction tropes were mostly humorous and witty, but not this time. The artifact/prophecy/uprising story line is dense and, at times, painfully convoluted. Just as in the previous book, we have a story within a storyspecifically a lengthy prophecy that is crammed with obscure references, a morass of mysticism, and way too much abstruse mumbo jumbo. What these plot elements lack is excitement, humor, and satirical touches (although the requisite seagull scene is pretty funny).

     Here is an excerpt from the 12-page, nearly unreadable prophecy: "When humanity had yet to move beyond their australopithecine progenitors, already did the ghouls worship their pantheon of Fifty, the Qqi. Ages before their fateful war with the Djinn, they had come to know the Hands of the Five, the Ten Hands, the fifty fingers. They weren't about to cast aside their veneration of Great Amylostereum or Mother Paecilomyces, Camponotus the Tireless Maw or eyeless, all seeing Claviceps, in exchange for one god who'd not even seen fit to send his martyr down to the Lower Dream Lands." This is probably supposed to be a take-off on some of the obscure mythologies that run rampant in paranormal romance series, but it's not at all funny or witty. It's just long and boring.

     The most distressing story line for me is the romance between Quinn and Selwyn, which is not remotely believable. The relationship actually weakens Quinn's character because she lets lust take control of her emotions the moment she meets Selwyn, allowing it to overcome what little common sense she possesses. Selwyn comes across as a selfish, TSTL user who doesn't deserve self-sacrificing devotion from anyone, especially not from our intrepid, but vulnerable, heroine. This treatment of lustful, insta-matic romance is no doubt meant to puncture a paranormal trope; instead, it feels like a poorly executed imitation. This book, by the way, is the most erotic of the three, with several moderately detailed scenes of lesbian sex and incestuous hetero sex, respectively.

     In her author's note at the end of the book, Kiernan/Tierney states that this series "has been an experiment, and, admittedly, not one I can declare a success." She goes on to explain that she wrote the first chapter of Blood Oranges "as a lark, as a joke, a protest against what 'paranormal romance' has done to the once respectable genre of urban fantasy." At the beginning, she never expected that one chapter would grow into a trilogy. That explains why Blood Oranges is, by far, the strongest of the three books and why Cherry Bomb is the weakest. If the trilogy were a dinner, Blood Oranges would be the spicy, succulent entree; Red Delicious would be the milder, but still tasty, side dish; and Cherry Bomb would be the cold, foil-wrapped left-overs. No dessert. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

UPDATE! Heather Killough-Walden: LOST ANGELS SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated a previous post for Heather Killough-Walden with a review of Warrior's Angel, the fourth novel in her LOST ANGELS SERIES

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

Saturday, February 21, 2015

UPDATE! Jennifer Ashley: SHIFTERS UNBOUND SERIES

UPDATE!


I have just updated a previous post for Jennifer Ashley with a review of "Bear Attraction," novella 6.5 in her SHIFTERS UNBOUND SERIES.

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
















Friday, February 20, 2015

Sharma Shields: "The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac"

Author:  Sharma Shields
Title:  The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac
Plot Type: Magical Realism     
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Dark Humor—2 
Publisher:  Henry Holt & Co. (2/2015)    
Click HERE to go to The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac web site.   

     This novel is all about a man's obsession and the effects it has on the members of his family over a period of six decades. It can be described as a phantasmagorical version of Moby Dick, with the object of the lead character's obsession being a gigantic man-beast rather than a giant whale. Told chronologically, the story begins in 1943 when Eli Roebuck's mother, Agnes, introduces him to her extremely tall and shaggy friend, Mr. Krantz, who is "as furry and sleek as a grizzly bear" and smells "like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match." When Agnes speaks to Mr. Krantz, he responds with "senseless bleats and hoots." After feeding Mr. Krantz all of her homemade cornbread (offering none to Eli), Agnes then walks off into the forest with the monstrous man, leaving little Eli behind. The boy and his father soon realize that Agnes has truly abandoned them, and the first seeds of Eli's obsession are planted: to find Mr. Krantzthe Sasquatchand prove his existence to the world. 

     Although Eli goes through the normal stages of life, eventually marrying and becoming a podiatrist, he never forgets Mr. Krantz, who becomes more important to him than anyone or anything else in his life, including his wives, his daughters, and his long-lost mother. Even Eli's chosen career is a direct result of his obsession with the Sasquatch. After his mother disappeared with the beast, Eli studied their footprints for days, until rain washed them away. "Eli's obsession with the footprints, so monstrous beside the dainty footprints of his mother, had led him down pathways geographical, emotional, professional; they led him into the woods, into loneliness, into podiatry and beyond...Their imprints would be on the backs of his eyelids forever, flashing in neon pinks and purples and reds and yellows, whenever he closed his eyes." As Eli's first marriage falls apart and his wife and daughter become bitter and estranged from him, he cuts back on his medical practice and becomes a renowned cryptozoologist. Soon he marries again and has another daughter, but he spends much of his time in the forests along the Washington-Idaho border searching in vain for Mr. Krantz.

     Eli's personal obsession anchors the plot, but the story zigzags back and forth among Eli's wives and daughters to check in periodically on their shaky emotional states. What Eli doesn't realize until too late is that, like his mother, he has abandoned his family. Both Eli and Agnes go off into the woods: Agnes to live with her Sasquatch husband and Eli to track him down. Agnes is physically absent, and Eli is emotionally absent. Eli's obsession with Mr. Krantz rarely intersects with his family life, but when it does, the scenes are darkly humorous. In one scene, Eli smuggles a rusty bear trap under his coat when he attends his daughter's kindergarten music recital because it holds Mr. Krantz's metatarsal bone and he's afraid that someone will steal it if he leaves it in his car. A drunken dentist spots the trap, and, of course, trouble ensues. In another scene, Eli's life-sized, "anatomically correct," robotic statue of Mr. Krantz inflicts destruction and terror on a small-town parade. 

     As you would expect, Eli's preoccupation with Mr. Krantz affects his family members in all kinds of negative ways. What you wouldn't expect are the monstersboth literal and figuralthat haunt all of their lives. The literal monsters include a flock of ominously prescient starlings, a bird-legged purveyor of disturbing oddities, a lake monster, an evil gypsy fortune teller, a tentacled grandmother, and Mr. Krantz himself. The figurativevery personalmonsters include guilt, hysteria, paranoia, rage, and rebellion. 

     This is a weirdly terrific book, with well-drawn characters and inventive situations. The author weaves supernatural elements from myths and fairy tales into a family saga that lays bare the human frailties found to some degree in any family, although I must admit that the Roebuck family is quirkier and creepier than most. The writing style is a mash-up of the plot peculiarities of Ransom Riggs, the character eccentricities of early John Irving (e.g., Setting Free the BearsThe World According to Garp) and the grotesque imagination of Franz Kafka. Occasionally, a character (like Eli's first wife) fades into a one-dimensional cut-out, but generally, Shields does a great job of creating a wildly diverse family group. Among the weird plot elements, the only one that feels slightly amiss is the Zoophilia Support Group (ZSG) that Agnes eventually joins (a very Irving-esque contrivance). The puppy babies are a bit over the top, even for this quirky novel. The ZSG does have its humorously ironic moments, though, particularly since this all-female group is led by an earnest but condescending man who lauds the group as the "first women-only Inland Empire chapter" and tells them that "We're all here to help one another. We're here to stop loving beasts."—paternalistically including himself as one of the "We." 

     Shields's central theme is the need for each of the Roebucks to establish proofproof that they are loved, that they belong, that they are sane, that their decisions are rational, that their commitments are sound, and (in Eli's case) that his long-held memories are real. Each character defines "proof" in a most personal way. For example, Gladys (Eli's nutty first wife) exults in "this togetherness" with her family as Eli helps their daughter Amelia pry a bloody knife from her hand and hold her down on the floor while they wait for the arrival of an ambulance to cart her away to a mental hospital. The delusional Gladys sees this violent struggle as proof that she has finally reunited with her family. 

     As Shields tells her story, she skillfully intermingles mythological events and real-life experiences, mysterious creatures and mystifying humans, arcane monsters and mundane misfits, until the reader is drawn into a bemused state of suspense, waiting with bated breath to see what bizarre event or entity will generate the next fateful twist or turn in the chronicle of the ill-fated Roebuck family. Click HERE to read the first chapter of this novel. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

UPDATE! Chloe Neill: CHICAGOLAND VAMPIRES SERIES

UPDATE!


I have just updated a previous post for Chloe Neill with a review of "Lucky Break," novella 10.5 in her CHICAGOLAND VAMPIRES SERIES.

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