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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

New Novel by Jeff VanderMeer: "Borne"

Author:  Jeff VanderMeer  
Title:  Borne 
Plot Type:  Post-Apocalyptic Eco-Fantasy 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  MCD: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

                    PUBLISHER'S BLURB                    

     Am I a person?” Borne asked me.    
     “Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like 
      a person, you can be a weapon, too."

     In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

     One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

     “He was born, but I had borne him.”

     But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same. 

                    MY REVIEW                    
     I have to admit that early on in my reading of Borne, I almost gave up because I had a hard time immersing myself in VanderMeer's fantastical post-apocalyptic world. The novel is set in the ruins of a once-great city that is nearly surrounded by a poisonous river―"a stew of heavy metals and oil and wastes that generated a toxic mist, reminding us that we would likely die from cancer or worse." This world is the aftermath of a biotech disaster that occurred when a biotech corporation called the Company lost control of the weird and wild creatures that it created. Click HERE to read Irene Noguchi's interview with VanderMeer entitled "Talking with Jeff VanderMeer about Borne, Mothers, and Nurturing.” That interview begins with these words from Noguchi: "Science-fiction author Jeff VanderMeer's books are an Audubon guide of fantastical creatures. From glow-in-the-dark fungi that spell out words to bloodthirsty bears that fly through the night sky, VanderMeer pushes past the boundaries of what’s real with plants and animals both recognizable and terrifying." 

     The scariest biotech creature in the city is Mord, a fierce, gigantic, rage-filled bear that was developed by the Company as a sort of watchdog. But Mord soon grew to be three stories tall and broke free of the Company's grip, dooming the Company and the city when he destroyed the Company's headquarters and other buildings and began chowing down on the city's inhabitants. Rachel views the mutant bear as "the de facto ruler of our city." Eventually, Mord learned to fly and now spends his days sweeping through the skies, knocking over buildings that get in his way and feasting on citizens who are unlucky enough to catch his attention. Rachel is a scavenger, and she frequently risks her life by catching a ride on one of Mord's lower legs. As Mord travels through the city and around its outskirts, salvageable bits and pieces get caught in his furthings that she takes back to her partner, Wick, who uses them to create new biotech that he sells on the streets to help them survive.

     One of the most interesting bits that Rachel finds is Borne, a biotech creature who is pictured on the book's cover in one of his/her/its many sizes and forms. When Rachel finds Borne, helet's call him "he" because Rachel decides that Borne is a boy―is caught in Mord's fur. When Rachel first sees Borne, he "was not much to look at...dark purple and about the size of my fist, clinging to Mord's fur like a half-closed stranded sea anemone. I found him only because, beacon-like, he strobed emerald green across the purple every half minute or so." Rachel brings Borne back to Balcony Cliffs, the huge, decrepit riverside refuge she shares with Wick, only to discover that Wick dislikes and distrusts Borne and would like nothing more than to take the creature apart and use his innards to make more biotech to sell to his contacts out on the streets. Rachel refuses to give Borne to Wick and finds a place for him in her bedroom. There, she begins to feel like Borne's mother as she teaches him how to read and tells him about life in the human world. Soon, Borne begins to grow, to change shape, and then to speak. He is obviously able to absorb knowledge at a superhuman ratebut that's not all he absorbs. When Rachel learns how Borne handles his hunger, she is repulsed, but then just refuses to accept the reality of what Borne really is. 

     Borne and Rachel's burgeoning friendship/mentorship merges with Wick and Rachel's romantic partnership in troubling ways, becoming a true test of their trust in one another. At one point, Rachel says that she can't understand how Wick trusted so many people in his life before the city's collapse. She muses, "I couldn't remember as an adult when I had trusted three people at the same time." Now, with Borne in their lives, trust and betrayal become even more important and elusive for all three inhabitants of Balcony Cliffs. When Rachel and Borne's relationship hits a particularly rough spot, she thinks, "That's the problem with people who are not human. You can't tell how badly they're hurt, or how much they need your help, and until you ask, they don't always know how to tell you." Later, Rachel learns that this problem can also surface in relationships between two humans.

     As the situation in the city deteriorates, Rachel, Borne, and Wick face multiple enemies, several of whom mount violent attacks against them. By the time I realized that Borne was going to develop constantly during the course of the story―in a wide variety of weird, interesting, and unexpected ways―I found myself fully involved in the plot and enjoyed the story immensely, all the way through to its bittersweet ending.

     This novel is difficult to describe and impossible to summarize. VanderMeer has created a completely original approach to post-apocalyptic eco-fiction that mixes real humans, tech-enhanced humans, and robotic creatures into an inventive and intriguing plot that slowly pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages to see what in the world is going to happen next. 

     At the end of this post, I have included a few of the best comments from mass media reviewers. I have to agree wholeheartedly with the last reviewer (Brian Ted Jones) who compares Borne's experience to that of the little alien in Spielberg's E.T., because that's exactly what popped into my mind as I watched Borne and his human friend, Rachel, meet and try to understand each other's world views. Watching Borne develop into the creature he was meant to be is a fascinating literary experience.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this novel's page by clicking on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. 


     ”VanderMeer is that rare novelist who turns to nonhumans not to make them approximate us as much as possible but to make such approximation impossible. All of this is magnified a hundredfold in Borne . . . Here is the story about biotech that VanderMeer wants to tell, a vision of the nonhuman not as one fixed thing, one fixed destiny, but as either peaceful or catastrophic, by our side or out on a rampage as our behavior dictatesfor these are our children, born of us and now to be borne in whatever shape or mess we have created. This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the twenty-first century will be as good as any from the twentieth, or the nineteenth." ―Wai Chee Dimock, The New York Times Book Review

     "The conceptual elements in VanderMeer’s fiction are so striking that the firmness with which he cinches them to his characters’ lives is often overlooked . . . Borne is VanderMeer’s trans-species rumination on the theme of parenting . . . [Borne] insists that to live in an age of gods and sorcerers is to know that you, a mere person, might be crushed by indifferent forces at a moment’s notice, then quickly forgotten. And that the best thing about human nature might just be its unwillingness to surrender to the worst side of itself.” ―Laura Miller, The New Yorker

     "Borne, the latest novel from New Weird author Jeff VanderMeer, is a story of loving self-sacrifice, hallucinatory beauty, and poisonous trust . . . Heady delights only add to the engrossing richness of Borne. The main attraction is a tale of mothers and monstersand of how we make each other with our love." ―Nisi Shawl, The Washington Post.

     "VanderMeer offers another conceptual cautionary tale of corporate greed, scientific hubris, and precarious survival . . . VanderMeer marries bildungsroman, domestic drama, love story, and survival thriller into one compelling, intelligent story centered not around the gee-whiz novelty of a flying bear but around complex, vulnerable characters struggling with what it means to be a person. VanderMeer's talent for immersive world-building and stunning imagery is on display in this weird, challenging, but always heartfelt novel." ―Krista Hutley, Booklist (starred review)

     "With Borne VanderMeer presents a parable about modern life, in these shaky days of roughshod industrialism, civilizational collapse, and looming planetary catastrophe . . . Think of Borne as a retelling of Steven Spielberg’s E.T, or the character arc of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s the story of humanity making contact with something strange, alien, artificial, but yet possessed of a personality, a sense of humor, a drive to find love and friendship and community, to be a part of something―and to be respected―respected the way immigrants, refugees, the oppressed the world over have always wished to be respected." ―Brian Ted Jones, The Rumpus  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


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)

     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                          
     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
    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 page and click on the cover art.

                   NOVEL 2: Perfect Gravity (pub. date 11/7/2017)                    
     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. 

     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 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 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



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


Author:  Lucy Banks  
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)

     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                  
     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.

    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.