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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

NEW SERIES! Vivien Jackson: TETHER SERIES

Author:  Vivien Jackson
Series:  TETHER 
Plot Type: Post-Apocalyptic Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4+; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Sourcebooks Casablanca
          Wanted & Wired (4/2017)
          Perfect Gravity (11/7/2017)

                         WORLD-BUILDING                          
     The series is set in the U.S. in a post-war world in which Texas has seceded and established its own republic run by the Texas Provisional Authority (TPA). The rest of the country now calls itself the United North American Nations (UNAN). Currently, a hot/cold war is going on between Texas and UNAN. Both Texas and UNAN are staggering under catastrophic climactic conditions (like extreme drought). Additionally, at one point, when a character mentions the scarcity of fresh fruit, Jackson tells us that this is a post-insecticide world—but never explains the cause of that situation. 

     Central to the series is futuristic cyber-technology, including both robotics and nanoscience. Four very different types of "people" populate this world:
Whole-organics are regular human beings with no technological modifications.
Post-humans are people who were born wholly human but have been "technified" by various modifications to their brains and internal organs and by the insertion of various implants. The modifications can be simple or extremely complex and can be programmed by their creators.
Mechs are human-shaped robots created in laboratories. They can be programmed to do a variety of tasks, but they can never truly experience human emotions (although they can be programmed to mimic those emotions). A mech-clone is a special type of mech that has been shaped as an exact replica of a specific human. These mech-clones are indistinguishable from the human they are imitating. You can imagine how this would come in handy during a time of war when each side wants to infiltrate the other.
Free-fae collectives are holographic beings that work like walking, talking databases for the person who created them. They are highly illegal and are sought after by both law enforcement agencies and the underworld. Free-fae collectives can take any shape, including that of the human body. Although they appear to be solid, they are not. If you try to touch them, your hand goes right through them. They are made up of a large swarm of nanos that can change form as needed. Although free-fae collectives can look just like humans, they cannot experience most human senses. Unfortunately, this is one of the areas in which Jackson's mythology goes awry. Jackson never explains why her free-fae collectives can hear and understand human voices but cannot hear a number of other sounds. She doesn't explain why these entities without solid form can pick up something but cannot sense itcannot feel its texture, smell it, hear it, or taste it. For example, one free-fae collective picks up a dress but cannot hear the rustle of its fabric or feel its softness. It is difficult to understand why Jackson never bothers to explain any of these inconsistencies.
     The series title—TETHER—has several meanings. On a literal level, it refers to a tether that connects an outer-space station with the Earth. "The station connects to the ground using a space elevator. Planes...can dock with it up near the top, and then we can ride up to the station. We call it the tether." On a metaphorical level, "tether" refers to human connections—the emotions and needs that bind us to our loved ones. The thematic questions asked by the series are these: What is it that makes us human? Is it our bodies? Our connections with one another? Can a mech or a robot be considered part of humanity? And what about evil humans—are they as "human" as a good-hearted mech or robot or free-fae collective?

     On her web site, Jackson calls TETHER a cyber-punk series. Certainly, she has crammed it full of futuristic technology and cyber-speak—sometimes to the detriment of the forward motion of the action. In the first book, Jackson inserts many world-building details into the first few chapters, but she holds back some crucial information so that she can scatter it in bits and pieces all the way to the end of the book. This is particularly true of her lead characters' backstories. We learn much about their physical appearances and personalities in the first chapters, but we don't get any information about their pasts until the final chapters. Although this approach can work if the author judiciously doles out the details as a means of building suspense and drama or, even better, if the information emerges organically in the course of the story, but Jackson doesn't really handle it that way—at least not in the first book. In Wanted & Wired, she brings the story to a halt about half-way through and sets up an information dump scene by giving the hero and heroine some downtime away from the action so that they can peer into each other's eyes, confess a few of their darkest secrets, and finally let loose their lust. 

                         NOVEL 1:  Wanted & Wired                          
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     A rip-roarin' snarky, sexy sci-fi paranormal romance series with the perfect balance of humor, heat, and heart. Now that Texas has seceded and the world is spiraling into chaos, good guys come in unlikely packages and love ignites in the most inconvenient places...

Rogue scientist • technologically enhanced • deliciously attractive
     Heron Farad should be dead. But technology has made him the man he is today. Now he heads a crew of uniquely skilled outsiders who fight to salvage what's left of humanity: art, artifacts, books, ideas—sometimes even people. People like Mari Vallejo.

Gun for hire • Texan rebel • always hits her mark
     Mari has been lusting after her mysterious handler for months. But when a by-the-book hit goes horribly sideways, she and Heron land on the universal most-wanted list. Someone has set them up. Desperate and on the run, they must trust each other to survive, while hiding devastating secrets. As their explosive chemistry heats up, it's the perfect storm.   xxx—xxx (em dash) xxx–xxx (en dash)   über-alpha själsfrände Ragnarök clichés
   
MY REVIEW:  
    In the opening scene, Mari, a for-hire mercenary and skilled sniper, is on a mission to destroy a mech-clone. Her partner Heron, a heavily implanted post-human, is in the get-away car providing on-scene data and watching her back. "They were working partners, sharing a contract but not much else. On this particular job, she functioned as shooter to his operations planner, but he had lots of other assets in play: drones, cameras, software bots, you name it."

     When Mari makes the kill shot, she is shocked to discover that she has actually murdered the whole-organic (human) that the mech-clone was imitating. Obviously, someone has set her up, and now she's in big trouble. The next chapters follow Mari and Heron as they attempt to escape from an army of UNAN law enforcement organics, mechs, and drones. And just to spice up the action, some mysterious post-human hit-men are also trying to capture them. During these chapters, we learn that Mari and Heron have been working as partners for about six years, that each has romantic feelings for the other, but that both keep the attraction a secret because they fear rejection. 

     Heron believes that Mari hates tech-enhanced humans so much that she would never consider him as a romantic partner. "He knew what she thought about people with implanted tech. Cyborgs. No better than machines." And Mari believes that Heron is so much smarter than she is that he looks down on her for being so ignorant about his technological world. They have other differences and other doubts, but these are the main ones.

     Both Mari and Heron are keeping deep, dark secrets from one another—secrets that each believes could destroy their partnership and their friendship. Oddly, though, when the secrets spill out, there are no heart-breaking emotional repercussions for either of them: no big, dramatic, angst-filled, hurt-feelings moments at all—just a low-key reaction of surprise and immediate acceptance. So all of the secret-keeping drama ends with a whisper, not an explosion, and that is quite a letdown given the fact that the secrets are the basis for much of the suspense on which Jackson has built the romance plot.

     Mari has two living relatives: Aunt Boo, who raised Mari in Texas and still lives there, and her father, a rogue nano-scientist captured by the TPA after the Austin riots during the beginning of the secession. The primary reason that Mari took the contract with the TPA to destroy the mech-clone was that they promised to tell her where her father was and, perhaps, to let her speak with him. The father-daughter relationship becomes more and more important as the action plot advances.

     Eventually (about halfway into the book), Mari and Heron reach safety in his spaceplane and eventually seek sanctuary in Chiba Station, "a privately owned space station run by an entity who calls herself the queen of Chiba." Jackson's next books will tell the love stories of his friendsthe crew members who fly his futuristic spaceplane:
Kellen Hockley is a lean, lanky, jeans-clad whole-organic who was a veterinarian in pre-war times. Now, he is Heron's chief medical officer and provides vital tech support. Mari nicknames him "cowboy" for his looks, his Stetson, and his Texas drawl.
Chloe is a gorgeous free-fae collective. Mari nicknames her "perky blond." Mari muses that, "Chloe could look like anything she wantedher whole existence was just a loose confederation of nanites and light particles held together with digital willbut she wasn't real, couldn't know smells and tastes and touches...Chloe would never stroke that sweet kitty down the corridor, never smell flowers or sex or ghost peppers. Never taste Jamaican rum or her own tears."
Garrett is a whole-organic mechanical genius who is in charge of all of Heron's hardware, on the ground and in the air. Mari nicknames him "squirrel-nervous mechanic." Garrett is obviously in love with Chloe, but she is unaware of his feelings because she can't feel emotions.
     In the final hundred pages, the pace picks up considerably as Jackson builds up the action and suspense on her way to the inevitable showdown scene that resolves much of the conflict. 

    I'm sure you want to know more about the 4+ sensuality rating I have awarded this novel. Let's just say that this is the first novel I've read that includes techno-sex (and lots of it). When Heron is driving his James Bond-ish car or his spaceplane, he is actually wired into them, so whatever Mari touches (or fondles), Heron feels it in various sensitive body parts. Mari is an extremely sexual being, so she takes full advantage, and when he turns the tables and begins using his personal techno-sexual abilities on her, things get really hot, hot, hot!

     I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the future of this series. Although Jackson has established most of the techno-mythology, she hasn't done a top-notch job at integrating it into the plot. The reader needs to truly understand this complex technology-based world in order to make sense of the plot, and Jackson's explanations are frequently incomplete, inconsistent, or utterly lacking. Also, Jackson gives no background on the causes of the Texas secession or on the horrific climate conditions that are affecting the world. Most importantly, though, her big reveal about Mari is problematic to the extreme. There is no way that secret could have been kept from Heron or from Marino way at all. It is so implausible and disappointing that it spoiled the entire book for me. I'll probably read the next novel just to see if Jackson gets a better handle on her mythology and her plotting, but after that...we'll see.

    The second novel will tell Kellen's story, which has a direct connection to Wanted & Wired. You see, Kellen's soul mate is the widow of the man Mari accidentally murdered back in the very first chapter when she shot the human instead of his mech-clone. In fact, the action in Perfect Gravity overlaps the action in Wanted & Wired, beginning with the scene in which Kellen has to tell Angelo Neko that her husband is dead. Parts of this scene appear in both novels.

     To read an excerpt from Wanted & Wired, click HERE to go the book's Amazon.com page and click on the cover art.

                   NOVEL 2: Perfect Gravity (pub. date 11/7/2017)                    
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Second in a snarky, sexy sci-fi romance series with the perfect balance of humor, heart, and heat. When someone tries to kill powerful continental senator Angela Neko, Texan outlaw and old flame Kellen Hockley is the only man who can keep her safe...and help her save the world. 

     Kellen Hockley usually keeps quiet about his past, but once upon a time he loved a girl named Angela. He hasn't seen her in a decade, but now he has to break the news to her that his team of rogue treasure hunters accidentally killed her husband. He's had better days.

     It's not the news that's delivered to Angela Neko that breaks her apart—it's the rumbly, Texas drawl delivering it. She can't believe she's hearing Kellen's voice again. But there's no time for distractions. When Angela's own life is threatened, yielding up all of her lies and secrets, she and Kellen must figure out how to reverse the geopolitical firestorm she lit to save the world, to save Kellen's cat...and just maybe to save each other.  

Saturday, June 17, 2017

NEW NOVEL! Cherie Priest: "Brimstone"

Author:  Cherie Priest
Title:  Brimstone
Plot Type:  Ghostly Fantasy Set in 1920s
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality1; Humor—2   
Publisher:  Ace (4/2017)

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                         
     In the trenches of Europe during the Great War, Tomás Cordero operated a weapon more devastating than any gun: a flame projector that doused the enemy in liquid fire. Having left the battlefield a shattered man, he comes home to find yet more tragedy—for in his absence, his wife has died of the flu. Haunted by memories of the woman he loved and the atrocities he perpetrated, Tomás dreams of fire and finds himself setting match to flame when awake. 

     Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower. And she believes she can bring peace to him and his wife’s spirit. 


     But the inferno that threatens to consume Tomás and Alice was set ablaze centuries ago by someone whose hatred transcended death itself. 


                        WORLD-BUILDING                          
     Priest sets her tale in central Florida during the month of January 1920, just a few years after World War I. Telling the story in the first-person voice in alternating chapters are the two lead characters: Alice Dartle, a newbie clairvoyant, and Tomás Cordero, an army veteran suffering from what we would now call PTSD

     Alice's chapters are set in the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, a real place that still exists.  Alice has had a vision that she must come to Cassadaga to save a man who—in that vision—is surrounded by smoke and fire. According to the Camp's web site, it was founded by George P. Colby, who is a character in the novel. Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article on Cassadaga. Click HERE to read a brief biography of Colby.  

     Alice is 22 years old and has been having visions ever since she can remember. She inherited her "gift" from her mother's side of the family. In fact, two of her mother's female ancestors were burned as witches in a town near Salem during the infamous witch trials in colonial Massachusetts. Alice's mother refuses to acknowledge her giftor curse, as she sees itpreferring to "hide behind the Bible and pretend it's just some old story we use to scare ourselves on Halloween." Her father knows the truth and supports Alice's decision to learn how to control her clairvoyant talents. To her mother's consternation, Alice has just turned down a marriage proposal because the young man criticized her for having too many books. "Mother said it was proof enough right there that I was crazy, if Id turn down a good-looking boy with a fortune and a fondness for a girl with some meat on her bones." Alice prefers to describe herself as "pretty, and...never hungry." Although one character calls her "curvaceous," back in the 1920s most people would probably have described her as being stout.

Livens Flame Projector, World War I
      Tomás owns an upscale men's tailor shop in Ybor City, Florida (in the Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area), specializing in custom-made suits and handmade shirts and ties. He was born in Cuba, but came to Florida as a child and is now an American citizen who fought in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Tomás returned from the war to find his wife dead from the Spanish flu (aka influenza), which swept the world in a horrific pandemic in the years following the War. Although Tomás is an excellent tailor and a hard worker, he suffers from headaches and from nightmares that take him back to his fiery months in the trenches when he routinely used a flame thrower as a weapon against the enemy.

                         MY REVIEW                          
    As the story begins, Alice is on a train traveling from her home in Virginia to Cassadaga, a destination that came to her in a vision. That vision, which she sets down in writing during the boring train ride, showed her a man having a nightmare filled with smoke and fire. "He followed the smoke eagerly, chasing it like a lifeline,...He clutched it with his whole soul and followed it into the darkness. He tracked it through halls ad corridors and trenches...like the kind men dug during the war. He didn't like the trenches....and that's where the dream tilted into nightmare territory...Whatever the man thought he was following, he did not expect it to lead him there." Alice is headed for Florida because she has had a "feeling" that she should go there—to Cassadaga in particular. After her dream about the man and the fire, she's sure that she will meet him there. Cassadaga has the reputation for being a center for spiritualism, so Alice hopes to find someone there (a witch?) who will teach her more about her powers of clairvoyance. She wonders, "Why do I see other people's dreams? How do I listen to ghosts? How do I use...cards to read such precise and peculiar futures? And pasts?" Alice is particularly keen on finding and helping the man who dreams of fire.

     Meanwhile, in Ybor City, Tomás is the man dreaming of fire. In the past few days, small fires have flamed up inside and outside of his house, and he keeps smelling smoke and having fiery dreams. In the ashes of each fire, he sees the same soot-drawn profile of a woman. Tomás is convinced that these are silhouettes of his beloved wife, Evelyn, who must be trying to contact him from the afterlife. In fact, sometimes during the dreams he can hear her voice. As days pass, the fires become larger and more destructive, even taking the lives of people he cares about. 

     As the chapters alternate, Alice meets a woman who becomes her mentor, and Tomás deals with the anxiety-inducing after-effects of the fires. Tomás is beginning to believe that he is haunted—that he is going insane. One night, he hears a radio broadcast mentioning the spiritualists in Cassadaga, and because he has nowhere else to turn, he decides to seek help from them. Then, he finds a pamphlet from Cassadaga mentioning Alice, and as soon as he reads her name, he instantly knows that she will be his salvation. He writes a letter to her describing his situation and asking for her help. Then, days later when a fire decimates his shop and kills one of his partners, he gathers his possessions and heads for Cassadaga and Alice.

     As Tomás and Alice narrate their trials and tribulations during the days of January 1920, details begin to emerge and patterns begin to form. Alice attends classes and does a spectacular reading in which she stands in front of an audience and invites spirits to use her to send messages to several of those in attendance. Unfortunately, one of the spirits she summons is a huge, smoky, fiery, man-shaped monster that threatens her and the entire Cassadaga spiritual community. At the same time, Tomás is trying to figure out what the fires and the nightmares mean. He is certain that they are messages from his dead wife, but he can't imagine why Evelyn is manifesting in such a dangerous and frightening manner.

     Eventually—just over halfway through the book—Tomás finally arrives in Cassadaga and meets Alice, which signals the beginning of the lengthy build-up to the inevitable showdown that will resolve the conflict: spiritualists versus fire monster. Priest has dropped more than enough clues throughout the story for the reader to be pretty sure who/what the monster is, but the climactic stand-off is still quite dramatic and suspenseful. 

     Although the initial pace of the story-telling is slow and meandering (due in most part to the alternating voices), the action really picks up just before Tomás flees to Cassadaga. Priest hangs her story on the narrations of her two lead characters, and in Tomás she is entirely successful. Tomás is a sympathetic character: intelligent, well spoken, bereaved, and traumatized. He instantly gains our sympathy and support and his anguish is almost palpable as he yearns for a message from Evelyn but recoils from the dark and fiery episodes that occur around him more and more frequently. 

     I wish that I could say that Alice's character is as effectively drawn, but I can't. As I read Alice's chapters, I felt that Priest hadn't truly thought through who she wanted Alice to be. For the most part, Alice comes across as naive and younger than her years, but early in the book she reveals a thirst for good bourbon (which she swills down at an alarming rate). At first, I thought that Priest threw in the bourbon drinking just to underscore the fact that the story takes place during r, but Alice doesn't just have a drink or two at the local speakeasy (although she does do that, too). She carries several bottles of Maker's Mark in her luggage, and hits the bottle each and every night and sometimes during the day. Then, after 270 pages of profanity-free dialogue, Alice twice utters two different four-letter expletives—something that is both shocking and totally unexpected. I realize that this is the 1920s—the beginning of the rise of independence for women—but Priest never builds anything into Alice's backstory that would lend credence either to the hard drinking or the unexpected use of foul language. Such behavior would have been more believable if Alice had been out on her own for a few years, but she has always lived in her parent's home, where her mother was a strict, Methodist, church-going lady. Would her parents have allowed her heavy bourbon-drinking and her cursing? Doubtful, I think. 

     Priest pushes hard to establish her time frame, including many references to new technology, like electric lights and telephones in people's homes and businesses. Prohibition also gets an in-depth discussion. Actually, the main platform for this novel—the rise of spiritualism after World War I—is actually based on historical fact. People who lost family members and friends in the war or in the influenza pandemic were desperate for contact with their loved ones. Sometimes, the historical details slow down the pace, but in general they add depth and meaning to the story line.

     I realize that this is a mixed review, but I do want to say that I am glad that I read the book. Tomás, in particular, is an unforgettable character who exemplifies the tragic effects that war has on the men (and now women) who serve on the front lines. Back then, the mental and emotional after-effects were brushed off, and the soldiers were expected to return to normalcy by the time they returned home. At least now we know better and are learning better ways of dealing with the long-term effects of battle stress.

FINAL NOTE: After you finish the book and learn the name of the villain, you can go to Wikipedia and read an article explaining the true historical facts about this person.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

UPDATE! Rachel Vincent: THE MENAGERIE SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Rachel Vincent's MENAGERIE SERIES by adding a review of Spectacle, the second novel in the series. 

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

Friday, June 9, 2017

NEW SERIES: Lucy Banks: DR. RIBERO'S AGENCY OF THE SUPERNATURAL

Author:  Lucy Banks  
Series:  DR. RIBERO'S AGENCY OF THE SUPERNATURAL 
Plot Type:  Ghostbusters with a British Accent
Ratings:  Violence2; Sensuality0; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Amberjack Publishing
          1  The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost (5/2017)
          2  The Case of the Scottish Fetch (2018)

                      WORLD-BUILDING                       
     The series is set in Exeter, where Dr. Julio Ribero runs his Agency of the Supernatural. In this world, certain people (including the government) know that supernatural spirits actually exist and must be dealt with on a daily basis. Dr. Ribero's Agency is in direct competition with several others and, as the series begins, is not doing very well financially. 

Dr. Ribero's Moustache
    Dr. Ribero is an aging Argentine Lothario with a Salvador Dali moustache, twinkling dark eyes, and a wealth of wavy gray hair. He constantly smokes cigarettes (held in a fancy holder), which he lights with his fancy silver lighter. Along with Miss Jenifer Wellbeloved, Ribero has run the Agency for thirty years.  Although Ribero claims to have the ability to see things in the supernatural world that others cannot, I was never sure exactly what his role was (in the first book) when the Agency crew went out on jobs. The others had specific duties, but the doctor just hovered on the scene giving orders.

    Miss Wellbeloved serves as second in command and is the Agency's conversant. She inherited the ability to communicate with spirits and is frequently able to calm down the troublesome ones. She insists that everyone treat the spirits gently and politely, even if they're trying to kill the Agency crew. Ribero and Wellbeloved have a special relationship that is explained in the first novel. 

     Unbelievably, Banks has Ribero take a siesta every afternoona Hispanic stereotype that I thought had been banished from serious novels decades ago. Adding to the doctor's stereotypical personality, Banks has him constantly misstate English words and expressions. For example, in the first book, he  says things like "Nothing ventured, nothing to be gathered up" (instead of "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."). Another time he says "bloating" instead of "gloating." This habitual misspeaking goes on and on. Banks probably meant it to be funny, but it's not, and it gets old very quickly. 

     In addition to Dr. Ribero and Miss Wellbeloved, the Agency has three employees:
> Pamela Tompkin: She is a plump, friendly woman who is the Agency's psychicShe "visits haunted locations, and tells us whether a spirit is present or not, and what state of mind it's in." Pamela has an optimistic view of life and works hard to keep the peace among her bickering colleagues. She owns a shaggy sheepdog named Hemingway who sheds hair all over her apartment.
> Serena Flynn: An attractive, but snarly, young woman with "weasel-sharp eyes," she specializes in spirit extinguishingcapturing spirits in empty water bottles, which are shelved in the Agency's storeroom until they can be delivered to Infinite Enterprises (the rich, snobby, rival agency that gets most of the supernatural jobs in England) for long-term storage in their spirit depot. Serena is ALWAYS sarcastic to the point that you just want to tell her to shut up and get a life. She never has a positive thing to say about anyone, and she truly despises the supernatural spirits she traps (because of a childhood tragedy that is mentioned in a single throwaway sentence near the end of book one). 
> Mike: He is the IT guy, or as he describes himself, "an integral part of this company." Mike is a hard-drinking young man who loves to spend time at the local pub. He is famous among his colleagues for accidentally blowing things up.
     One day, into the Agency walks 22-year-old Kester Lanner, a bookish nerdflaccid of body and timid of soul. "He was the very epitome of middle-aged academic, squeezed inexpertly into a younger man's body." In the first chapter of book one, when Kester learns that Ribero is his father, he is deeply shocked. But when his new dad tells him that the Agency hunts down and captures supernatural spirits, Kester wonders if he has stumbled into a world of crazy people. Although Kester is supposed to be the series hero (I guess), he is far from being hero material. In the face of any kind of fear, stress, or danger, he reacts in one or more of the following ways: trembling, crying, screaming, sobbing, moaning, vomiting, passing out, feeling sorry for himself, and openly admitting his innate cowardice. Kester has a horrible self-image and is happiest when he is in the library doing research. Obviously he doesn't belong with his newly found father's crew, but since he's the hero of the series, we know that he'll have to find a way to fit in. To that end, I'm sure you won't be too surprised to learn that Kester discovers that he had a supernatural talent of his own.

     Click HERE to read an on-line Q&A interview with Lucy Banks on the Amberjack Publishing web site.

                 NOVEL 1:  The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost                  
PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 
     Kester Lanner had no idea what he was getting into. Following his dying mother’s request to find the mysterious Dr. Ribero, his peaceful existence is shaken as he discovers the secrets she strove to keep. Before long, and against his will, Kester is thrown headlong into the family business: catching terrifying spirits.

     A logically-minded academic type, Kester is frightened by the sudden plunge into this bizarre new world, where the unseen lurks around every corner. Curiosity gets the better of him as he reads an old diary, which tells the chilling tale of the portrait of a beautiful green-dressed ladywho is also an ancient, malevolent spirit. She’s cunning, and perhaps more than Dr. Ribero’s Agency can handle. Kester soon becomes entangled in a struggle with a ghost so powerful, that his first real case with the family business might just be his last.

     The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost is a contemporary twist on the Victorian Gothic novel, with a dash of humor and large amounts of the outlandish, preposterous and the outright unbelievable.

MY REVIEW:  
    When RT Book Reviews wrote a rave review, gave this novel 4½ stars, and made it a Top Pick, I immediately put in my order, only to wonder (after reading the book) how in the world RT could have gone so gaga over this bland little book. Don't get me wrong, it's not horrible; it's just not anywhere near a 4½-star rating. This is the author's debut novel, so perhaps RT tried to be kind to a new author, but that doesn't do the reader any favors.

     This first book basically introduces the Agency and its staff and adds Kester to the scene. Banks tells the story in the third person voice from Kester's perspective, so there are many, many interior monologues filled with whining, and whimpering about how scared, unhappy, and worthless he feels.

     The Agency's primary case focuses on a haunted 19th century portrait of a beautiful lady dressed all in green. The crew has to get rid of the evil spirit inhabiting the portrait before the husband of the lady of the house arrives home from a trip. Although the ghost story section of the book (which includes old diary entries) is interesting, the Agency staffers approach the case so haphazardly that it's hard to believe they've been in business for three decades. Although early in the book, Wellbeloved stresses the importance of knowing what kind of spirit they're dealing with, they never bother to analyze the lady in green. They just pack up their equipment and take her ononly to be driven out of the house over and over again.

     Obviously, this is the author's way of giving Kesterthe academic nerda chance to prove himself to Dad and the team by uncovering some important facts about the history of the painting and its creator, details that this experienced team should have discovered before they ever began their attack on the spirit in the painting. Unfortunately, this rookie-level authorial manipulation just doesn't work because it makes the others look ignorant, while giving Kester the chance to step in and save the daysuch a stale, old trope. It also gives Kester a chance to show off his brand new supernatural talent (but he stays true to form by falling unconscious at the end of the requisite showdown scene).

     In a prelude to future books, Kester meets an attractive girl named Anya at the library. She flirts with him and invites him to join her book club, so perhaps there is romance ahead for our nerdy hero.

     There are a few improbable events scattered through the story, but it mostly hangs together well enough to maintain a basic level of suspense. The dialogue is awkwardly written, as is common in first novels, so I'll give that a pass this time around. At this point in the series, Kester is the only character with any depth. The others are paper-thin and under-developed. Each one has at least one dominant personality trait, but that's about it: Ribero is arrogant; Wellbeloved is cool and controlled; Pamela is optimistic and caring; Serena is insufferable; and Mike is both confident and incompetentat the same time, with the two traits basically canceling each other out. 

     As you can guess, I didn't care much for the novel, but if you're looking for a light-as-a-feather supernatural mystery that doesn't require any deep thought, you might enjoy it as a beach read.

    The second novel will introduce one of Dr. Ribero's chief rivals, Larry Higgins, in a case that featuring murder and grave-robbing.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

UPDATE! Benedict Jacka: ALEX VERUS SERIES

UPDATE!

I have just updated an ongoing review post for Benedict Jacka's ALEX VERUS SERIES by adding a review of Bound, the eighth novel in the series. 

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

M. R. Carey: "The Boy on the Bridge"

Author:  M.R. Carey (pseudonym for Mike Carey)
Plot Type:  Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy (with zombies)
Publisher:  Orbit (6/2014) (available in hardback, e-book, and audio; paperback edition is due 1/2018)    

                         WORLD-BUILDING                         
     Carey sets this book in the same world as his 2014 novel, The Girl with All the Gifts, but before the action in that book took place. Click HERE to go to my review of that novel, where I have included an in-depth description of the world-building.

     NOTE: You should definitely read my description     
     of the world-building before you dive into this novel.     

     I will say that the action is set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been decimated by a fungal plague that turns people into flesh-eating monsters called “hungries.” This novel does not have quite as much human/hungries violence as The Girl with All the Gifts, but the hungries are always out there, so the survivors must always be on the alert.

PUBLISHER’S BLURB:
     From the author of USA Today bestseller The Girl With All the Gifts, a terrifying new novel set in the same post-apocalyptic world.  

     Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy. The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates and sent him out into the world. To where the monsters lived.

MY REVIEW:
     A team of scientists and soldiers sets out from Beacon, one of the last survivor settlements in England, headed for the Scotland to retrieve caches of tissue samples left behind by the last, ill-fated expedition (which never came back). The travelers are crammed into the Rosalind Franklin (Rosie), a mobile science lab to which we were introduced in The Girl with All the Gifts. Rosie is a “land leviathan,” an impenetrably armored tank/truck with heavy treads and lots of firepower. She can accommodate a crew of twelve with her twelve bunks (tiered three high), a single shower, a single latrine, a small laboratory, a communications closet, and a turret. You can imagine that it will be difficult for twelve people to live alongside each other in this claustrophobic container as it bumps across hundreds of miles of rough terrain. Here, Carey gives us a powerful description of this new and terrible world: "The cities and the towns are changed beyond measure. They were built for people, and without people they have no identity or purpose. They have lost their memory. Vegetation is everywhere, softening the man-made megaliths into new and unrecognisable shapes. Office blocks have absent-mindedly become mesas, public squares morphed into copses or lakes. Emptied of the past that defined them, they have surrendered without protest, no longer even haunted by human meanings."

     Human relations are particularly difficult because the two teams have little or no respect for each other. The soldiers think the scientists are weak and useless, while the scientists view the soldiers as crude and ignorant (although they are happy for their protection when they go out to retrieve samples). “The civilian and military commanders are simply not fit for purpose. They hate each other and they avoid the crew—the alternative being to force them to take sides.”

     What makes the situation even worse is that the team members all know that they are not the top performers in their given fields. They are not the worst, but they are not the best. "Twelve men and women in a great big armoured truck are not a huge risk, when all is said and done. They carry a great many hopes and dreams with them, but if they should chance to be lost, their loss can be borne. They know very well that they are expendable."

     Here are the members of the members of the Beacon Muster (the name of the mission team).


The Scientists
Dr. Alan Fournier, civilian commander with overall responsibility for the mission’s success: He is a self-important prig who shuts himself in his little closet, refuses to go outside Rosie, and argues with just about everyone. As the plot advances, we learn some dark secrets about Fournier that change the course of the story.

Dr. Samrina (Sam) Khan, epidemiologist: Khan is really the true leader of the civilians, particularly when they go out in the field. Unlike the others she does not shy away from confronting Fournier and McQueen Fournier when she disagrees with them. Unfortunately for Khan, she discovers very early in the mission that she has a huge problem: “Seven weeks into a fifteen-month mission, ten years after the world ended and a hundred miles from home, Dr. Samrina Khan is pregnant. But this is not Bethlehem, and there will be no manger.”

Dr. Lucien Akimwe, chemist: He stays in the background most of the time so we don’t see much of him. He gathers spinal fluid from the hungries captured during their sorties. He is having an affair with one of the soldiers.

Dr. John Sealey, biologist: He is a timid man who wants to be perceived as fitting in with the military men (but is ultimately unsuccessful). He is also the father of Khan’s unborn child (the result of a single, mindless encounter at the very beginning of the trip). He collects bone samples from their captured specimens.

Dr. Elaine Penny, biologist: She collects epidermal (skin) growths from their specimens.

Stephen Greaves, specialty unknown by almost everyone: With his severe difficulties in communicating and interacting with others and his brilliant powers of observation and invention, 15-year-old Stephen is a gifted savant. "The general feeling...is that Greaves  is probably on the autistic spectrum, but how much of his weirdness is down to his brain's basic wiring and how much of it is a trauma artifact?" He is famous for inventing the e-blocker gel that disguises human scent from the hungries, although most people give Khan credit for the invention. He doesn’t participate in the team’s collection missions because that’s his only chance to slip away to do his observations of the hungries. 

The Military Escort
Colonel Isaac Carlisle (aka the Fireman), military commander: He has a tortured past in which he completed a horrific military mission even after he argued fruitlessly against it, and his reputation has suffered for it—as has his mental and emotional health.

Lt. Daniel McQueen, sniper and second in command: McQueen reminded me of Shane Walsh in The Walking Dead—a beefy, rage-filled brute whose motto is “my way or the highway.” He constantly bumps up against Carlisle, and he despises all of the scientists.

Lance-Bombardier Kat Foss, sniper: She is a top-notch sniper and is the only one on the mission that McQueen truly trusts.

Private Brendan Lutes, engineer: He takes scrupulous care of Rosie’s mechanical features, but feels like an outsider because he was a civilian engineer who was unwillingly dragged into the military only because they needed his skills.

Private Paula Sixsmith, driver: She is an excellent driver and is able to take Rosie into the roughest terrain without working up a sweat or breaking a tread. She and Lutes work together to keep Rosie going.

Private Gary Phillips, quartermaster: He is kind of a newbie who wants to be as big and bad as McQueen. 

     Carey excels at putting the reader inside the minds of these fellow travelers, but he is at his best with Stephen, who is definitely the odd man out in this motley crew. Stephen wants nothing more than to solve this whole fungal plague problem, and he’s pretty sure that he can do it if he can just get out there and observe the hungries up close and personal. Those thoughts lead him to sneak away from Rosie whenever he can. He has invented a special suit that keeps the hungries confused about his exact whereabouts, so he can actually move slowly into their midst and observe them for hours at a time. Then, one day a different kind of creature bursts into a room filled with Stephen and his hungries. She is obviously intelligent, but she has the speed and reflexes of the hungries. Shockingly, she speaks a guttural language, although it is unintelligible to Stephen. As Stephen investigates further, he discovers that the girl is the leader of a large group of similar children who range in age from toddlers to teens. Unfortunately, Stephen can’t tell any of his team members about his new discovery because if he does they would either kill the girl and her friends and/or lock him up inside Rosie for the rest of the trip. Stephen's decision to keep his find a secret will have major ramifications for the future of the mission.

     Stephen is the titular boy on the bridge, a literal reference that is explained in the middle of Part II of the book. At that point, he is actually a boy on a real bridge, but he is alsometaphorically—the bridge between the human survivors and the new generation of hungries. Carey provides other bridge metaphors for Stephen. For example, "An eccentric genius, or just an ill-equipped explorer swaying on the rickety rope bridge between sanity and madness?" The soldiers definitely view him as a crazy boy who is a detriment to the expedition, while the scientists mostly ignore him, except for Kahn, who nurtures him like a son. Stephen, in turn, accepts Khan as his one and only friend in the world. Just as The Girl with All the Gifts is a coming-of-age story for Melanie, this novel is a coming-of-age experience for Stephen, who must deal with some harsh and heart-breaking realities before the book comes to its violent end. With his eidetic memory and his total lack of social skills, Stephen reminded me of a post-apocalyptic Sheldon Cooper.

     As Carey tells his story, we get to know most of the team members fairly well. The characters who play the most important roles are Stephen, Khan, Carlisle, and McQueen, so they get more print space than the others. Each crew member is compelling, but Stephen is the heart of the story, and we root for him all the way through. As the plot advances, suspense begins to build, beginning with the announcement of Khan’s pregnancy and then the gradual revealing of various secrets about the present behavior and past events for several of the team members.

Carey divides the book into four parts:

Part I: In Country, which takes them through the first few weeks, from the announcement of Khan’s pregnancy right up to the point that they lose radio contact with Beacon, “their home base and source of rationale and reference point.”

Part II: Gestation (the longest section), in which secrets unfold and characters make life-altering choices about their mission roles. In this section, Stephen learns much more about the mysterious group of children who look like hungries, but are very different because they can control their hunger, communicate verbally, and have the ability to reason and negotiate.

Part III: Birth, in which the suspense builds to a climax and then a resolution. Warning! Not everyone makes it out alive. On a literal level, the section title also refers to the birth of Khan’s child.

Epilogue: Twenty Years Later, in which we look in on the survivors as they meet up with a surprising group of visitors.

     Basically, the story follows the Beacon Muster as it wends its way north into the depths of the Scottish Highlands. The group stops every once in awhile to either pick up samples from the caches or to gather tissue from some of the hungries who are attracted to Rosie. On these missions, the soldiers surround the scientists and take down threatening hungries with silencer-equipped guns while the scientists huddle together as they go from one specimen to another, each gathering a particular type of tissue. For example, Knan is in charge of gathering brain tissue. As the group carries out its mundane tasks, Carey puts us in the minds of the characters, introducing us to their prejudices, fears, emotions, and secrets. Knowing the inner workings of the characters’ minds puts an edge on the suspense because we can predict how each character will react to the events that play out among the team members, the mysterious children who appear to be trailing Rosie, and the group that initiates the inevitable showdown at the end of Part III. Carey is masterful at characterization. We understand these people through and through, sympathizing with their plights (Khan and Stephen), gasping at their arrogance (Fournier and McQueen), and watching the others react to the events at hand.

     As dark intrigues play out among some of the Beacon Muster crew, Stephen and Khan take center stage in an emotional finale that will break your heart. Carey has created another powerful story set in the terrifying world that he meticulously created in The Girl with All the Gifts. If you are looking for a brand new take on zombies (although that word is never used here), you need to read both of these books. This novel is a terrifying, emotionally gripping page-turner that you won't want to miss.

     Click HERE to go to this novel’s Amazon.com page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on the cover art for print or the “Listen” icon for audio.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of The Boy on the Bridge is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.