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Friday, February 27, 2015



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)
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.

     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, " 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


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



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



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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015



I have just updated a previous post for Greg van Eekhout with a review of Pacific Fire, the second novel in his CALIFORNIA BONES TRILOGY.

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

Saturday, February 14, 2015



I have just updated a previous post for Lisa Shearin with a review of  The Dragon Conspiracy, the second novel in her SPI FILES SERIES.

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lydia Millet: "Mermaids in Paradise"

Author:  Lydia Millet
Title:  Mermaids in Paradise 
Plot Type:   Romantic, Satirical Fantasy
Publisher:  W. W. Norton & Co.  (11/2014)   

     Talk about strange bedfellows! Lydia Millet, author of darkly humorous fiction, and Mike Huckabee, conservative  presidential contender, both divide our Red/Blue society into two widely divergent halves. Huckabee sees Americans as living in either "Bubba-ville" or "Bubble-ville" (and he definitely prefers the green-tomato-eating Bubbas). Millet's heroine splits the citizenry between ironic, pragmatic red-staters and stout-hearted Heartlanders living in fly-over territory. In the opinions of both writers, the members of the two disparate groups peer at one another through such distorted lenses that they can barely discern each other's humanity. It's as if the groups were in adjoining cages in a zoo, each scrutinizing the other and assigning them cultural traits based entirely on social media posts, Fox News, the New York Times, and Hollywood movies. Members of the two groups never truly interact, but each side has extremely strong, mostly negative, opinions about the other side.

     As the book opens, Millet's California-girl heroine, Deb, is on the verge of marrying her California boyfriend, and she frequently finds herself torn between the opposing world-views of her fiancé, Chip, and her best friend, Gina. Chip is a "scatter-shot, arbitrary extrovert" and a dedicated gamer whose dearest wish is to meet some Heartland people, whom he admires from an uninformed distance for their pioneer spirit and moral fiber. "To hear Chip talk, you'd think every Nebraskan male knows how to put a horseshoe on a mule. They know how to bring both grain from dirt. They get what happens to that brought-forth grain, the steps before the cheerios. The women knit long underwear and are adept at fruit canning." Chip doesn't necessarily want to go into the Heartland; he just wants to meet one or two Heartlanders on neutral ground. Deb's best friend, Gina, is the complete opposite of Chip. Gina believes in sharply pointed irony, seeing the worst in every situation and every new person she meets. To Gina, "the stink of earnestness is worse than rancid milk….Everything's performance art with her, she lives in a world of irony. If a gesture's not ironic, why make it at all…" When Chip suggests a honeymoon cruise, Deb  slips into Gina's mindset, envisioning obese Heartland people "wearing flashy Day-Glo clothes." Deb also worries about the Heartland's "non-subculture…which is made of people who believe that fossils are a trick" and "are suspicious of biology and mortally offended by an ape." 

     Generally, Deb finds herself in the middle. "Chip and Gina were angel and devil on my shoulders, basically, and there were things I loved about them both." Chip's earnest friendliness and openness are easy and attractive, but sometimes wrong. Gina's judgment and us-or-them mentality are wearing, but sometimes convenient and good for a condescending giggle. As Deb makes her way through a very familiar series of wedding-related formalities, she changes her viewpoint multiple times, sometimes following Chip down the path of brotherly love, but sometimes allowing herself to be drawn into Gina's darkly ironic perspective.

     The first section of the book (entitled "Newlyweds") lampoons in hilarious detail the planning of the wedding and all of its accompanying rituals: the bachelor party, the bachelorette party, the rehearsal dinner, and the planning of the honeymoon, not to mention the wedding and the reception. Millet uses this section to introduce her main characters, and she sometimes goes overboard with her sardonic take on all of the hurdles that our culture forces brides and grooms to leap over before they are considered properly wed. Unfortunately, this section goes on slightly too long, causing the story to drag just a bit in the early chapters.

     In the next two sections ("Honeymoon" and "The Murder Mystery"), Millet adds a dark, but comical, mystery to the mix. Deb and Chip head off to the British Virgin Islands on their honeymoon where they meet some actual Heartlanders as well as a motley crew of other cultural types, including a marine biologist who studies parrot fish, a pair of New Age vegans, an eccentric ex-Navy SEAL who loves explosives, a Japanese VJ hipster, and a surfer dude. During a dive with Nancy, the biologist, Deb and Chip see real, live mermaids swimming around a reef just off the coast of their expensive resort. That night, Nancy dies in a bathtub drowning and the videotape of the mermaids goes missing. Was is an accident? Or murder? Immediately, the resort officials sweep in to market the mermaids in a greedy money-making scheme. At this point the pace rapidly accelerates and farcical adventures ensue. The final section ("Glorious Revolution") resolves the mystery and twists the novel around to its astounding and unsettling ending. (PLEASE, I'm begging you, don't peek at the ending before you read the book. You'll hate yourself if you do.)

     Although the murder mystery is entertaining, in a TV-dramedy kind of way, it is Millet's layered analysis of American culture that truly made the book compelling and memorable for me. Deb is a skeptical, opinionated, insightful young woman with limited real-world experience outside of coastal California. She changes her stance on issues by rationalizing her way from one side to another (just as most people do, except for those on the left or right fringe). Particularly fascinating is the way she sums up a truth about modern culture in a humorous discussion of how Americans have changed their view of crime-solving. "People didn't believe in a lone sleuth these days; they didn't believe one man could solve a crime. Or one woman, either." The hard-boiled private detectives of old "had been replaced by highly efficient teams of police officers with integrity, brilliant forensics specialists, earnest lawyers, and super-efficient computers. It doesn't matter to the TV-watching public that in real life America has basically none of the above."

     Late in the book, when the religious hard-liners of the Heartland hear about the mermaids through Tweets and declare them to be offspring of Satan or the consequences of bestiality (or worse), Deb takes a look at the flood of hatred on social media and worries about virtual blood lust. "The virtual world was even worse than the real one, when it came to humanity. To look at screens like these, you'd think there was nothing left of us but a pile of pixilated ash. We were a roiling mass of opinion, most of it mean. Here, we sat at civilization's technological peak, and what we chose to do on that shining pinnacle was hate each other's guts."

     Millet has created a complex, layered story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Deb is an every-woman American of a certain type who tries her best to strike a balance between blind optimism and "bulletproof" irony, particularly when she realizes that her best friend's ironic stance is really a shield against real, often painful, emotion. Although Deb's quirky fellow travelers sometimes come close to being stereotypes, they all have their moments of unexpected strength and insight. For me, this was an intriguing reading experience, particularly since I read the book just a few days after watching a TV interview in which Mike Huckabee touted his new Bubba/Bubble book. No matter which cultural side you are a part of, prepare for a few zings because Millet has a tart take on a number of groups within American society. Or...if you hate cultural analysis, you can just read this book as a loopy romantic fantasy about mermaids in the Caribbean and the miracles of nature. Either way, this is a terrific novel and I recommend it.

     Click HERE to go to this book's page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

Monday, February 9, 2015


Author:  Diana Pharaoh Francis
Plot Type: Romantic Urban Fantasy (UF)     
Ratings:  Violence3-4; Sensuality4; Humor—2-3 
Publisher:  Bell Bridge Books     
          Trace of Magic (9/2014)
          Edge of Dreams (4/2015)

This post was revised and updated on 4/20/15 to include a review of Edge of Dreams, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series world-building and a review of the first novel.   

    FAIR WARNING: This review of Edge of Dreams      
      contains a few spoilers for Trace of Magic.      
            NOVEL 2:  Edge of Dreams              
     As the first novel ended, Riley's long-held secrets were unveiled to the magic mafia kingpins of Diamond City (aka the Tyet). Now they all know that she is the strongest tracer in town and possibly the only tracer in existence who can see trace off dead people. To review, a tracer "can see the ribbons of light that everyone leaves behind and follow them." Riley has other powerful magical talents that she has managed to keep secret, but in the meantime, all of the mobsters want her services—but as a captive slave, not as a paid consultant. As the book opens, Riley has managed to stave off any attacks and has even earned some big bucks from private clients. The only thorn in her side is the four-person surveillance team that insists on following her around. She assumes that they have been sent by either her former boyfriend, Clay Price, or Price's brother (and major mobster), Gregg Touray. 

     About half-way through the book, Riley reunites with Price, who comes to her rescue more than once during this story. At the end of the first book, Riley broke up with Price after she learned the hard way that his brother heads up a Tyet crime syndicate. At one point in the first book, Gregg Touray captured Riley and tried to force her to work for him. He only let her go free when Price agreed to quit his job with the police force and work full time for Gregg. Riley feared that the time would come when Price would be forced to choose between her and his brother, so she walked away from him because she wasn't sure that he would choose her. Riley's trust issues are fully explored in this book, and not in the way you might have expectedcertainly not in the way Riley expected! 

     Riley's adventure in this book kicks off in the first chapter when Lauren Morten, a Diamond City police officer, begs Riley to help find her nephew, who has gone off with a group of his friends into the mines to find the minerals needed to manufacture their own Sparkle Dust (aka SD, a highly addictive drug). Riley, of course, can't resist a kids-in-danger case, so she heads for the mines accompanied by her brother (Leo, a metalsmith), her bodyguards, and Lauren. Once they are deep in the mines, the situation unravels quickly, and Riley finds herself at the mercy of an evil, psychotic creep named Percy Caldwell, who, as Riley says, "had some sort of Hitleresque Mengele project going down here, along with manufacturing Sparkle Dust." Percy wants to use Riley's magical skills for his own purposes, and to make sure that she understands that she has no choice, he punctuates his demands with a few dozen cigarette burns to Riley's hands and arms (along with other types of torture). The rest of the book follows Riley as she deals with Percy and the tragic destruction he leaves in his wake. 

     Woven through Riley's trials and tribulations with Percy are her memories of her parents. Her mother was murdered when Riley was only four, and her father disappeared some years later. Riley has always been bothered that Dad remarried only a year after her mother's death, although she loves her step-mother and her three step-siblings very much. Over the years, Riley has tried to find her father's trace, but she has never been able to do so, and she has always felt incredibly guilty about that. In this book, Riley learns some new and shocking information about her father that changes her feelings about him. Riley's daddy issues play a major role in the later part of this book and in its cliff-hanger ending.

     As I got to the end of this book, I realized that not a single story line had been resolved (except for the romance, and I'm not entirely sure about that one). In fact, as the book nears its final pages, the story lines become even more complex—with more questions than answers. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, the story gallops along at such a fast pace that I couldn't stop reading, but on the other hand, I felt cheated at the end when…well I can't tell you why because that would ruin the ending for you. 

     Here's the deal: When a novel is part of an ongoing series, the author needs to lay out a specific book-size plot (question, action, conflict, resolution) within a broad series story arc that has its own questions, conflicts, and resolutions. When this writing process is done well, an individual novel in a series will have two types of plots and subplots: 1. One or more story arcs that are resolved by the end of each book; and 2. Story lines that relate to the series arc and that are not resolved until the end of the series. Let's face it. Every book needs to end with some resolution. Call it a reward to the reader for finishing the book. Unfortunately, Edge of Dreams is missing its own individual story arc. Instead, it is tightly and irrevocably bound to the next novel, which will—one hopes—resolve some of the conflicts.

     Here is some relevant advice to authors from a posted essay on The Editor's Blog entitled "Setting Up a Series": "In a series, books still point to future events and a full series resolution, but each book also answers its own internal questions and story setup. You get to decide the number and depth of the ties to the other stories in the series, but you also must complete each book. Satisfy your readers along the way so they know you can carry through with your setup. So they feel the completion of your stories…Each novel is still a novel and subject to the rules of good fiction writing. That means a complete story."

     And one last grumble: I wish that the author wouldn't continue to make Riley the most physically abused character in the book. This time around, she is drugged, sliced and diced, slapped and beaten, paralyzed by a spell, nearly frozen to death, and more. Oddly, even though she is generally accompanied by others, they don't get hurt nearly as badly as Riley. I realize that Riley is a courageous heroine who runs headlong into danger, but really, couldn't someone else share the pain? 

     I just reread my review and realized that if sounds very negative. Even with  the problems with resolution deficiency and heroine abuse, I'm still enjoying the series, mostly because of the creative world-building, and the exploits of the intrepid heroine, who bounces back to good health with the aid of "heal-all" charms and jumps right back into the action. Click HERE and scroll down just a bit to read an excerpt.

     The series is set in Diamond City, Colorado, which sits on the edge of a huge caldera that has long been mined for diamonds. Back in the early days of the diamond rush, the bad guys formed a consortium called the Tyet to run the diamond trade and the city itself. About ten years ago, the Tyet splintered into warring factions, with each group striving for ultimate power. Ever since then, Diamond City has become a mafia war zone. One of the worst things to come out of this chaotic struggle is Sparkle Dust (aka SD), a highly addictive drug made from magic-infused minerals found only in the Diamond City Caldera. Eventually SD addicts fade away into translucent wraiths until they vanish away completely.

     Magic is an integral part of this world, and magic users fall generally into several categories:
     Tracers: They are trackers who can follow a person's magical trail.       
     Makers: They can use magic to make things. For example, the heroine's step-brothers are metal smiths who use their magic to manipulate metal, and one of her friends is a cooker who uses his magic to manipulate ingredients to make excellent food.
     Travelers: They can teleport from one place to another.
     Dreamers: They can enter a person's mind and tamper with thoughts and memories.
     Minders: They can make shields that deflect or absorb magical attacks.
     Tinkers: They can make small things (including body parts) move, bend, or break. The good ones are often doctors or healers, but the evil ones are frequently torturers.
     Haunters: They are very rare. They can get into a person's mind, pick up on emotions, and amplify them. They can trap a person in a nightmare.

     Riley Hollis, the series heroine, is an extremely powerful tracer who has kept her powers secret from everyone but her immediate family. She knows that if the Tyetthe magical moblearns what she can do, one of their factions will kidnap her and force her into their service for the rest of her life. Here, Riley explains her talent: "Everybody leaves a magical trail of sorts, like an indelible ribbon unrolling behind them. It isn't actually on this plane, but in a sort of other dimension that only tracers like me can see. It fades pretty quick for most tracers, disappearing in a matter of hours or maybe a week or two if they are really strong. It never fades for me. I can even see dead trace." Riley has had the usual tragic childhood that is suffered by most urban fantasy heroines. Her mother (also a tracer) was murdered when Riley was only five, and her father disappeared without a trace when she was 16. Riley's family now consists of her step-mother Mel, half-sister Taylor, and two step-brothers. 

     Riley pretends to be a hack tracer and earns her living by hiring out her tracking skills to find missing persons and objects, kind of like a magical private investigator. Secretly, she searches for kidnapped children, a frequent problem in this crime-ridden, mob-run town. Each time she tracks down a missing child, she places an anonymous call to the police telling them where they can find the kidnappers and the child, always being very careful to keep her identity hidden. 

    Clay Price is a Diamond City police detective who is an enforcer for Gregg Touray, one of the major Tyet bosses. The police department is notoriously dirty, but Riley believes that Price is one of the better cops—more humane than most of his colleagues. At the very beginning of book 1, Price is Riley's nemesis, but the two soon (VERY soon) become allies and lovers. 

     Diana Pharaoh Francis has also written the HORNGATE WITCHES series. Click HERE to read my reviews of books in of that series.

            NOVEL 1:  Trace of Magic             
     As the story opens, Riley tracks down a kidnapped mother and child, unintentionally attracting the attention of Clay Price, who comes to her with an offer that she can't refuse. Price wants Riley to find a particular missing man, and if she refuses, he will use his connections with the police department and Tyet to make her life as miserable as possible. Just as Riley agrees to Price's demands, she gets a phone call from her sister telling her that Josh, Taylor's ex-fiance, is missing under violent circumstances. Taylor has found Josh's apartment in a bloody shambles, and Josh is gone. Riley insists on finding Josh before she begins working on Price's missing-person case, so he agrees to help.

     Neither Riley nor Price trusts one another. She believes that his mob connections will overshadow any promises he makes to her, and he believes that she is lying to him or at least withholding information (which she is). This mutual distrust turns their burgeoning romantic relationship into a very bumpy affair, although they manage to forget their differences during their sexy bedroom scenes. Eventually, they discover that their two missing persons cases are closely related, and that's when the action accelerates. As the plot plays out, Riley learns the truth about Price's ties to Tyet, and he learns the truth about her incredible magical powers.

     This author is a very good story teller who creates fascinating characters and dramatic, engrossing plots. In Riley, she gives us a heroine who is intelligent, independent, brave, and strong enough to withstand a considerable amount of physical abuse (e.g., hit by a bullet, blindsided by a magical surge, slashed by exploding glass). Through most of Riley's traumatic adventures, Price remains largely intact and uninjured (until very late in the story). It's Riley who is on the receiving end of most of the pain and suffering. I'm hoping that this aspect of the story will change because it keeps Riley in victim mode, with Price as her overprotective, macho-man rescuer. 

     Several characters introduced in this book will probably figure in future books, particularly Josh, Gregg Touray (a traveler), Cass (a healer/dreamer), Savannah Morrell (another Tyet mob leader), and Sandra Arnow, a (possibly crooked) FBI agent. The story ends with a soft cliff-hanger that involves a search for century-old magical artifacts, and the final scene leaves Riley and Price's future relationship on a precarious edge. So far, I'm hooked on the mythology and the characters and am looking forward to the sequel. Click HERE to read an excerpt from this novel.