Thursday, September 14, 2017

Whispers Beyond the Veil - Jessica Estevao

Whispers Beyond the Veil
A Change of Fortune Mystery
Jessica Estevao


Ruby Proulx has spent her entire life moving from place to place with her father as part of a medicine show in 1890s Canada.  Ruby knows that they’re con artists.  Her father, who drinks too much and spends every cent he makes, sells ‘miracle cures’ to marks, hoping to leave town before the scammed get wise.  To make a few extra cents, Ruby gives readings with her late mother’s tarot cards.  It’s not a particularly happy life.  Now, at age 20, a terrible incident forces Ruby to flee the medicine show.  In truth, she’s happy to leave.  She decides to travel to Old Orchard, Maine, to connect with her mother’s family.  She has only an old letter and a photo to help her find her Aunt Honoria.

A life lived in tents, sleeping on cots has not quite prepared Ruby for the Belden Hotel, run by Honoria.  But she’s quick to adapt.  And Honoria is beyond thrilled to have her there.  Honoria installs Ruby in her mother’s old room; kept just for her should she ever arrive.  The summer season is starting, and Honoria has hired several Spiritualists to remain in residence.  Spiritualism has captured the nation, and many guests have booked into the Belden for exactly this reason.  Including one Leander Stickney, a paranormal investigator.  He claims to be searching for legitimate practitioners (mediums, card readers, and the like) but, in truth, he spends much more time exposing and ruining those he deems frauds.  He suspects everyone and threatens to ruin Honoria’s hotel.  When his dead body turns up on the beach, it looks like he might get his wish.

The author excels at setting the scene.  Old Orchard is a real place, and you’ll feel that you’ve visited it as you read this novel.  Each character is finely drawn.  The Spiritualists are not just there for kooky effect.  Abilities run in Honoria’s family.  She hopes Ruby has them, too.  After her life as a con, Ruby is terrified that Honoria or the authorities will discover her sordid past.  She does hear a voice, from time to time, but fears that makes her crazy, not gifted.  Officer Yancey, a local police officer, has an innate distrust of all thing supernatural, and that extends, sadly, to Ruby.  He’s sure there’s more to her than meets the eye.

Watching Ruby work to become a member of the family, as well as a member of the hotel staff, all while trying to hide her very real secrets, is equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking.  Honoria is a woman ahead of her time, too.  A woman who never married, who is determined to keep her family’s hotel running, would have been a rarity at the turn of the last century.  The mystery is seamlessly woven into this layered background.  Several people might have wanted Stickney to depart this world.  Uncovering the killer will take the combination of Spiritualism, and good old-fashioned police work.  As far as first installments in a new series go, this one is truly superior.

Rating: 8
September 2017

ISBN# 978-0-425-28160-4 (trade paperback)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Magic Strikes - Ilona Andrews

Magic Strikes
A Kate Daniels Novel
Ilona Andrews
Ace Books

Urban Fantasy/Dark Fantasy

Note:  If you haven’t read the first two books in this series (MAGIC BITES, MAGIC BURNS) this review contains unavoidable spoilers.

It’s been a rough few weeks for Kate Daniels.  She lives in Atlanta and works for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, a sort of supernatural rescue service.  This includes her current job, trying to talk a septuagenarian banshee down off of a public utility pole.  It’s after midnight by the time she gets home, but the day is not done.  She gets a call from Saiman, an unusually strong (and well-informed) magic user.  It seems that he has an unwanted guest in his apartment.  It’s Derek, a young werewolf, and Kate’s sometime sidekick.  Derek made the potentially fatal mistake of breaking into Saiman’s place, and Saiman would like Kate to retrieve him.  

Arriving at Saiman’s Kate learns that Derek broke in, looking for invitations to something called the Midnight Games, a sort of supernatural gladiator tournament.  The Games are illegal, but still extremely popular.  Saiman agrees to release Derek as long as Kate accompanies him to the Games.  He’d like her to use her expertise to check out a team called the Reapers.  He’s not sure what they are, exactly, or where they live, and that bothers him.  Once he’s free, Derek confesses to Kate that he wanted to get into the Games to get a message to a girl who works with the Reapers.  Two birds, one stone?  Maybe.  But Kate should know it can’t be that easy.

As usual, the author goes a great job of setting the scene.  The Midnight Games, the venue, the attendees and fighters, all leap off the page.  This installment does something a bit different, though, in that a later plot point is the near-deadly beating of one of the characters we’ve known since the first book.  The fate of this character is not certain, and drives the second half of the action.  That second half contains some great scenes as Kate continues to investigate the Reapers, and is forced to participate in the Games.  This brings up some pretty horrific memories for her; and also reveals some interesting facts about her friends.

This time around, we get to delve a little deeper into the underside of the magical world.  The Midnight Games were outlawed after a huge and dangerous participant went rogue.  Apparently, casualties outside the arena are not nearly as entertaining.  The Pack leader has forbidden his shifters from taking part in the games at all.  So, the organizers simply import shifter fighters.  It’s all very cold and calculated and based on a thirst for violence and the huge amounts of money to be made betting.  It’s probably cynical, but, to me, this whole enterprise showed that humans are more like the shifter and vampires and whatnot than we are different.

Rating: 8
April 2009

ISBN# 978-0-441-01702-7  (paperback)

Friday, September 01, 2017

Redzone - William C. Dietz

The Mutant Files, Book 2
William C. Dietz


Note:  If you missed the first book in this series, DEADEYE, this review will contain some minor plot spoilers.

Years ago, a serial killer called the Bonebreaker murdered Cassandra Lee’s father.  Her father was a cop; the Bonebreaker specializes in killing cops.  Now that Cassandra Lee (Lee) is a detective with the LAPD, it’s become her mission to bring the killer to justice.  And if she has to do it alone, on her own time, that’s fine with her.  She still lives in the apartment she shared with her dad.  One whole room is dedicated to the Bonebreaker investigation.  And the killer recently struck again, taking one of Lee’s superiors.

This latest murder has convinced the mayor and the LAPD chain of command that a task force needs to be started.  Far from being sidelined because of her personal involvement in the case, Lee will be front and center.  The killer knows her; wants to kill her.  She’ll be the public face of the investigation.  She’ll be bait.  Another team will shadow Lee and her team, protecting them from the killer they hope to flush out into the open.  Lee is more than ready for this.  And it will provide a great reason to avoid thinking about the letter from her mother.

Lee’s mother left her (and her father) when Lee was a child.  Responsibility wasn’t her strong suit.  Now, she’s written to tell Lee that she’s dying.  And she’d like to see Lee one last time before she goes.  Aside from all the emotional stuff, there’s a significant drawback to making the trip: Lee’s mother is living in the red zone.  The red zone is a space inhabited by those who were infected and mutated by the virus released into the world over three decades ago by a terrorist.  It not only changed the people; it changed the makeup of the world.  Los Angeles (and the rest of the west coast) is now a nation called Pacifica.  Going east, there’s a fairly large red zone, then the Republic of Texas.  It’s legal to travel there, but it’s a wild, dangerous, and potentially infectious place.

This is the second novel in this series (after DEADEYE) and it was interesting to see Lee explore the relationship with her parents a bit more.  The plotline of the Bonebreaker was introduced briefly in the first novel, but is much expanded here.  There are some scenes from his point of view, adding a nicely creepy vibe to the proceedings.  Again, the world-building is outstanding.  There’s enough of the ‘old’ world left for everything to be recognizable, but enough has changed/been destroyed that it’s sometimes jarring.  In the best possible way.  There are some great action set pieces, and the mystery plot is quite involving.  I’m hoping this series continues for many more books.

Rating: 8
August 2015

ISBN# 978-0-425-27334-0 (paperback)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Hard Bitten - Chloe Neill

Hard Bitten
Chicagoland Vampires
Chloe Neill
New American Library


Note: If you haven’t read the first books in this series {SOME GIRLS BITE, FRIDAY NIGHT BITES, and TWICE BITTEN) this review contains serious and unavoidable plot spoilers.

Merit has been a vampire for less than a year.  In that time, she’s been both embraced and betrayed by human friends; she’s helped to broker a fragile peace with the shifter community; and she’s been named Sentinel of her House.  Her relationship with Ethan, the Master of her House, and the vampire who turned her, has become infinitely more complicated lately.  And, since the shifters were essentially forced to go public recently, public opinion has taking a decidedly negative turn.  Taking a meeting with the Mayor of Chicago seems fairly tame in comparison.

The Mayor has heard a tale.  A tale of a vampire party, called a rave.  During that party, according to a witness, three human girls were brutally murdered by the vampires.  The witness is a criminal, though, and not terribly reliable.  Nevertheless, he orders Ethan and Merit to investigate the matter and, if they discover such activities are real, to put a stop to it.  As an added incentive, if they fail, the Mayor will execute an arrest warrant on Ethan.  The arrest of the Master of one of the three Houses of Chicago would be not only a pr disaster, but would bring the wrath of the Greenwich Presidium (GP), the governing body for vampire affairs.

As it happens, the leader of the GP, Darius, has just arrived in Chicago.  He thinks that the issue of raves (if they exist) is a problem for the human authorities; not something to concern the Houses.  If Ethan persists in meddling in this issue, Darius will put the House in receivership.  That means bringing in an outside person to dictate every decision, large and small, in an effort to put the House “back on track.”  Merit and Ethan agree: despite threats by Darius, the stories of out-of-control vampires need to be investigated, and the source of the behavior found and eliminated. 

The issue of the raves was touched on in the last book (TWICE BITTEN,) so it was good it see it developed here.  Merit, born in Chicago to a new-moneyed family, has a great many useful contacts to use in her investigation.  The search begins quickly, and is interesting.  The story bogs down in the first half of the book, with Merit repeating her findings to other characters.  Of course she has to tell them, but she’s relaying information already known to the reader.  It’s a bit repetitive.  In this case, a bit of patience bears great rewards.  The second half of the book – the end game, in particular – moves very fast, and contains many twists.  I expected almost none of it; and will begin the next book very shortly.  Well done, Ms. Neill! 

Rating: 8
May 2011
ISBN# 978-0-451-23332-5 (trade paperback)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Waking Gods - Sylvain Neuval

Waking Gods
The Themis Files, Book 2
Sylvain Neuvel
Del Rey

Science Fiction

NOTE:  If you haven’t read the first book in this series (SLEEPING GIANTS) this review contains some pretty serious plot spoilers.  And you have missed a terrific read.  So, go back, read the first book, then continue here.  It’s ok; I’ll wait.

The events of the first book (SLEEPING GIANTS) are ten years in the past.  Despite all of our worst fears and best hopes, nothing much has happened with regard to Themis in that decade.  That sense of security shatters in an instant when a huge, metallic figure appears in London’s Regent’s Park.  It didn’t land; it simply appeared.  This one looks to be male, and is slightly larger than Themis.  Is it friend, or foe?  It stands, unmoving, for weeks.  There’s no radio contact, no movement, no smoke signals, nothing.  The most exciting (or terrifying) part is that there must be drivers inside.  At least two.  Two aliens in a giant metal robot, just standing, immobile, in the middle of London.

No one should be surprised to find that the giant metal figure piloted by aliens comes equipped with some kind of invisible, electronic shield.  Nothing touches it.  Suddenly, it moves.  It raises an arm, emitting a blast of energy that utterly destroys a good portion of London.  There’s no rubble; there are no bodies; no smoking ruins.  Everything and everyone in the path of the energy weapon is simply, gone.  Empty space, right down to the dirt.  Shortly after, more robots appear, in cities all over the world.  The excitement is gone, largely replaced by terror and dread.

Kara and Vince are back, of course, as the only people who are able to pilot Themis.  They’ve continued studying her, and have made some advances.  Just not enough to repel dozens of robots just like her.  Judging by the abilities of the newly-arrived robots, they’ve got some catching up to do.  Dr. Rose Franklin is back, and having a few issues of her own.  We find out how that’s possible, and more about where the robots and their pilots come from in this installment.

Like the previous book, the story is told here in the form of broadcast transcripts, field reports, interviews, and diaries.  I’m still surprised by how much immediacy this format gives the story.  We get multiple points of view, and multiple opinions about these events.  Each new take on things propels the story forward in a very natural, organic way.  There are bumps in the road; some of them are fatal.  These setbacks force the characters to soldier on, despite hardships, giving each character added depth and realism.  This one ends with a cliffhanger.  Usually, I dislike that method of storytelling, but I’m so involved with the storyline that I’ve embraced it here.  I’m more than anxious for the next novel.

Rating: 9
April 2017

ISBN# 978-1-101-88672-4 (hardcover)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

One Of Us Is Lying - Karen M. McManus

One Of Us Is Lying
Karen M. McManus
Delacorte Press

Young Adult

It begins like every clichéd teen movie does: in detention.  All the ‘types’ are there.  Bronwyn, the genius with all the extracirriculars, pointed straight at Yale; Addy, the pretty princess with no thoughts of her own;  Cooper, the star pitcher, whose biggest problem seems to be whether to take a college scholarship, or go straight to baseball after graduation; and Nate, the outlier, the bad boy with a juvenile record for dealing drugs.  Also serving detention today is Simon, the guy who runs an app that reports all the (remarkably accurate) gossip at Bayview High.  During detention, Simon takes a drink of water and falls to the floor, convulsing.  He’s dead practically before he gets to the hospital.

The police quickly determine that the cup Simon was drinking from (he couldn’t find his ever-present water bottle) was laced with peanut oil.  Pretty much everyone in school knows that Simon has a deadly peanut allergy.  All four students and the teacher running detention are questioned at length.  Although everyone is in shock, no one has anything much to tell the police.  Interestingly, along with Simon’s water bottle, his EpiPen was mysteriously missing.  And so was every EpiPen in the nurse’s office.  That looks like premeditation to the cops.  And then there are posts that keep appearing, written by someone who claims to be the killer. 

Bronwyn tries to interest them in the fact that everyone was in detention in the first place for bringing phones to class.  Everyone knows better than that, and everyone can produce the phones they left in their lockers.  The confiscated phones don’t belong to them.  Not that the teacher cared, of course.  But shouldn’t that be a clue that they were all framed for detention?  It’s pretty clear that the cops are convinced it’s one (or maybe all) of them.  While parents arrange for lawyers and tell them to stay away from each other, the students try to ride out the notoriety that comes with being accused of murder.  Of course, hoping for an end to it is the same as hoping that one of your classmates committed a murder in front of you.

While the story begins like every teen movie, it quickly moves in different and fascinating directions.  There are sections narrated by each of the four witnesses.  The Bayview Four (as they become known in the media) didn’t have much in common before that day, but they now feel bound together by that afternoon’s events.  It’s clear that they’re the only suspects.  Separately, and then as a group, they come to the conclusion that, by working together, they might have a shot at figuring out what really happened.  In the meantime, each one has to life his/her life.  Or try to, anyway.  Not easy when news vans are following you around several times a week.   

This is a mystery, but also a story of how a huge event can change lives in ways both good and bad.  None of them come out of the experience as the same people they were that day at detention.  For each person, that means something different.  Since they each get to narrate their own stories, we get to see exactly how they’re each affected and how it changes them.  I was turning the pages as much to solve the mystery as to find out what happened to each character.  Be prepared to be surprised.  Maybe it’s true that you don’t really know someone until you walk in their shoes. 

Rating: 8
June 2017

ISBN# 978-1-5247-1468-0 (hardcover)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Twice Bitten - Chloe Neill

Twice Bitten
Chicagoland Vampires
Chloe Neill


Note: If you haven’t read the first books in this series {SOME GIRLS BITE and FRIDAY NIGHT BITES) this review contains unavoidable plot spoilers.

It’s only been a couple of months since Merit became a vampire under unusual circumstances.  Due to the unusual nature of her change (it was without her consent, to save her life) she only truly completed the transformation a few weeks before the events detailed here.  Still, Ethan Sullivan, the Master of Cadogan House saw the skills and potential in Merit and appointed her the Sentinel of the House.  That puts her in charge of the security and safety of the House and everyone who belongs to it.  Her loyalty must be to her House.

All the Houses in Chicago are going to need security.  Celina, the former Master of another House, once the very public face of every ‘vampires live among you, and it’s ok,’ press conference has gone pretty seriously over the line.  She’s gone so far as to attack Merit in the street,.  All the efforts of the vampires to show that they’ve assimilated into the general population (synthetic blood, etc) and wish to co-exist with humans may have been for nothing.  Many vampires are now concerned that, as these public acts of violence continue, there may be some kind of war coming with the humans.  That will also concern the shapeshifters, who are still very much in the shadows. 

Gabriel Keene, the Apex of the North American shifters (the Alpha of alphas) is in Chicago.  He’s there to meet with the packs, to have a vote.  Some pack members feel it would be better to retreat to their northern stronghold to ride out any violence between humans and vampires.  Others want to retain the lives they’ve built, and fight if necessary.  Most, though, are united in their dislike of all vampires.  Most vampires feel the same way.  Gabriel and Ethan hope to broker a truce between their peoples.  To do so, they’ll have to overcome centuries of distrust and outright hatred.   

The first three books have taken place over a period of only a few months.  Merit has been through huge changes over this time.  But, since the time is so compressed, the story can’t focus solely on Merit’s change, or on Merit and Ethan’s will-they-or-won’t-they relationship.  Honestly, I find their relationship to be the least compelling aspect of these novels.  To that end, the shifters are a compelling addition to this world.  Gabriel, his family, and the extended family of the packs offer some great avenues for future stories. 

For characters only recently introduced, the shifters each seem like real individuals, with realistic concerns. No matter which side they’re on in the dispute, no one is entirely right or wrong.  The author does a great job filling in a bit of the packs’ history, and more of the history of the vampires.  Everyone has good reason for their thoughts and feelings about the issue at hand.  None of this bogs down the action, though.  This is probably the best book in the series, so far. 

Rating: 8.5
December 2014

ISBN# 978-0-451-47005-8 (paperback)