Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Red Delicious - Kathleen Tierney (Caitlin R. Kiernan)

Red Delicious
A Siobhan Quinn Novel
Kathleen Tierney (Caitlin R. Kiernan)

Urban Fantasy
Quinn (do NOT call her Siobhan) has had a rough year.  She went from a heroin-addicted runaway to being Twice Dead, or Twice Damned.  That’s because, after accidentally offing a couple of supernatural beasties, she was bitten by both a vampire and a werewolf, giving her the best of both worlds, so to speak.  That little party was six months ago, and she’s dealing with it.  She does odd jobs for a fixer who calls himself Mr. B.  These jobs almost always have something to do with the supernatural world and its denizens.  And they almost always involve severe personal risk, even to someone who’s already dead.  Twice.
This fine day (check all your previously-known vampire facts at the door) Mr. B has another job for Quinn.  It seems that a teenaged girl is missing.  She just happens to be the youngest daughter of one of the most powerful necromancers anywhere.  So why isn’t he looking for her?  Because her sister is the client, and she’s anxious to keep this grim news from Dad for as long as possible.  Adding to the thrill of this case is the fact that Mr. B already assigned his best tracker to the case.  That tracker has disappeared, too.  Quinn reminds B that she’s not a detective, but he’s sure that she’s the right one for the job.  Or the only one.  It doesn’t really matter.  What B wants, B gets, one way or another.
The book starts with a warning from Quinn, who tells the story in first person.  What it boils down to is: if you don’t like bad language and bad attitude; if you think vampires are romantic and/or tragic and/or sparkle in the sunshine; then you need to find another book.  Which instantly made me like her.  She’s as good as her word.  She doesn’t romanticize vampires or any other supernatural being.  They’re bad and good and terrible and honest and grasping and chiseling, just like humans.  The case starts with the missing girl, and then spirals into something altogether larger and far more interesting.  The depth of the supernatural world here (and on other worlds) is truly impressive.  There's not one Big Bad; there are several, depending on your plane of existence.

Around the middle of the book, there’s a short story, written in a parallel reality, to illustrate the point of the whole endeavor.  The short story alone is worth the price of admission, and it quite nicely sets up the rest of the action.  And there’s plenty of action.  If you like your urban fantasy more on the gritty, noir side, with a generous helping of dark, led by a foul-mouthed narrator, this is the book for you.  For series purists, I haven’t read the first book in the series, but Quinn grudgingly gives an adequate recap and gets on with things.  I plan to find the first book, but you can start here with no problems.  I hope to see a lot more of Quinn in the future.

Rating: 8 ½
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-451-41653-7 (trade paperback)


Wednesday, April 02, 2014

V-S Day - Allen Steele

V-S Day
A Novel of Alternate History
Allen Steele

Alternate History/SciFi

In 1941, the Americans learned that the Nazis were attempting to build a rocket.  Not just any rocket, but a manned rocket, carrying a payload of missiles.  With a weapon like that, the Nazis would be able to strike at any spot on the globe.  There would be no possible defense against such an attack.  Suddenly, Dr. Robert H. Goddard and his theories seem much more plausible.  He’s put in charge of assembling a team for an unprecedented project.  Simply finding the right combination of men with the right backgrounds is a huge task.

At the same time, in Germany, Dr. Wernher von Braun is working on his own project.  Both he and Goddard had dreams of exploring other planets, not destroying this one.  But von Braun is careful to conceal his distaste in order to preserve his life and his craft.  The two scientists know each other a bit, and, as the two foremost experts in a very new field, corresponded in the past.  Now they each work on a craft, watching lifelong dreams become twisted into something else by the necessity of war.

This story, a stand-alone novel, is clearly a labor of love for the author.  He wrote it first as a short story in 1988, and continued to play with and expand the concept until it became the novel.  The way he writes Goddard and other members of the team, it’s clear he’s spent a long time with them, crafting them into the three-dimensional characters that they are.  He even manages to make von Braun a real and empathetic character.
The way he tells the story suits the material perfectly.  It begins in 1943, with the launch of an experimental craft.  Seconds before liftoff, the narrative moves to the present day, to a writer who wants to tell the whole story now that it’s no longer classified.  From there, we spiral back to 1941, to tell the story on both sides of the Atlantic.  This is the perfect book for those who love alternate history, scifi, rocket history, or just enjoy a great adventure story. The best alternate history makes you wonder what's real and what's 'alternate.'  This one made me forget to wonder and just enjoy the ride. 
Rating: 9
February 2014
ISBN# 978-0-425-25974-0 (hardcover)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Grim Company - Luke Scull

The Grim Company
Luke Scull
The Godswar happened almost five hundred years ago.  At that point, the gods and their magic ran unchecked through the world.  The Magelords put an end to that by killing the Gods.  Now the Magelords, immortal beings who have the only access to what magic remains, are the only protection between the population and wild magic.  But something in the world is broken.  There’s not much magic left on the one hand; on the other, there are rumors of abominations roaming the frozen reaches of the north.  These creatures are said to be the result to wild magic leaking back into the world.
All of that is a mere backdrop to someone like Davarus Cole.  Cole twenty, and fancies himself quite the hero.  He knows that this is his destiny, since his father was murdered by the local Magelord Salazar.  Cole’s main goal in life is to use his father’s dagger – a dagger that possesses magic of its own – to kill Salazar.  He’s part of an underground group of rebels who secretly defy the Magelord of the city.  Cole soon meets up with Brodar Kayne, an older barbarian who was once known as the Sword of the North.  He and his companion, Jerek, have done what was thought impossible: they’ve escaped the northlands with their lives. 
If all of this sounds like the setup for a comical adventure, don’t worry.  It all goes rather dark fairly quickly.  Cole is either an object of fun or a pitiful character, depending on your point of view.  Brodar Kayne and Jerek are both older men, with all the accompanying aches and pains, but they’ve got the kind of experience and stoicism that only come with age.  The story is really an epic journey, with a huge cast of characters moving in and out of the story.  The characters comprise a wide cross-section of this world’s inhabitants.  It’s a tribute to the writer’s world-building skills that each new race of characters seems to spring, organically, from their home territory.
Each of the major characters has a backstory that is revealed, for good or ill, over the course of the novel.  I quickly came to care about the characters, and some of the plot twists and reveals were actually startling.  It’s not often that I find both complex world-building and believable characterizations in one place, but this is that kind of book. There’s magic, political intrigue, action, and plenty of treachery.  This is the first in a proposed trilogy, but the story here is complete as written; there’s no cliffhanger ending, but plenty of threads that can be picked up and followed on further adventures.  I feel like I got in on the ground floor of something that will be great.  This book is also available in paperback this month, so don’t miss it.
Rating: 9
September 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-26484-3 (hardcover)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Necromancer's House - Christopher Buehlman

The Necromancer’s House
Christopher Buehlman


Andrew Blankenship looks more or less like anyone else in his rural neighborhood.   His hair might be a little longer, he may not attend church, but he’s just another guy.  Unless you know him.  Few do, really.  You might know him from AA meetings, where he likes to exercise by dimming the lights without letting anyone else notice.  His best friend, Anneke, a sculptor who met him in AA (magic and alcohol do not mix) knows him pretty well.  She trains with him.  He’s teaching her to use magic.

Each magic user has his/her own special talents in addition to the basics.  Magic users like to barter with one another for the best spells, items, or books.  Some can walk in the skins of animals; some can make stone or metal conform to their will; some can weave subtle but strong protection spells; some are even skilled at combining magic with computers or machines.  Even the most normal-looking house can be guarded by the most intricate and lethal of wards against the unwary.

As we move deeper into Andrew’s life, we realize, bit by bit, that the light-dimming trick is, literally, the least of his powers.  He’s quite sure of his powers and has created a life that includes a wicker man servant and a rusalka (a kind of malevolent mermaid) in the nearby lake.  The rusalka starts the trouble by taking an older Russian man as her latest victim, angering some very powerful people in the old country.  Those people are not at all averse to crossing an ocean or even crossing time to take their revenge on Andrew.  As the maker of the rusalka, the blame falls on him.

When we meet Andrew, he’s bored in a meeting, doing his trick with the overhead lights.  It seems like a small enough thing.  Each step into Andrew’s life reveals another layer of magic; each bit of his past has inexorably built him into the powerful magic user that he is.  Each page reveals more and more of the world of magic, hidden seamlessly in the real world; most often, in plain sight.  By the final pages, when meteors are called down from the sky and a Panzer tank rolls into a rural front yard, it’s almost impossible to remember how it all started.  But there is a very clear line from beginning to end; actions and consequences.  The terrors start from small things, building inexorably to the explosive conclusion.  This novel is beautifully written by a major talent, and resonates for some time after turning the last page.
Rating: 8 ½
October 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25665-7 (hardcover)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Watchers - Jon Steele

The Watchers
The Angelus Trilogy, Book One
Jon Steele

There are hundreds of lines of causality.  It happens every moment of every day, all around us.  This moment creates circumstances that lead to the next moment. All of them, taken together, lead to an event in the next week or month or century.  Hundreds or thousands of tiny moments, all taken in sequence, lead to a meeting of three people in the Lausanne Cathedral.  Jay Harper, an investigator with his own issues, is in Switzerland working for the Olympic Committee.  Katherine Taylor, a transplanted American, is working as a high-priced prostitute.  And Marc Rochat is le guet: he calls the hour from the belfry of the Cathedral, as someone has done every night for centuries on end. 
It seems highly unlikely that these three should ever meet.  A good deal of the story is devoted to the time before their meeting.  All those bits of causality that may seem meaningless at the time, but that serve to bring them together for a serious event.  Marc, with his twisted leg, small stature, and limited intellectual capacity (he explains, “There was an accident when I was born.”) takes the duty of watching over Lausanne and its people very seriously.  He believes in what he does, and he knows that someday, a lost angel will come to the Cathedral, needing his help.  He’s very right about that.
This is the first in a trilogy, but is a complete story in itself.  I fell in love with Marc and his life in the Cathedral and the town.  Days after finishing the book, I still think about it (and him.)  Jay’s story is far different, and much more complicated in many ways.  Eventually we realize, along with him, that he really doesn’t remember much about his life before the call that brought him from London to Lausanne.  We make his journey with him, and the story is much the better for it.

The initial pages, a prologue of sorts, set the mood for everything that follows.  There’s a quiet, but ever-present tension that underlies everything that happens, even when it’s a ‘day in the life’ piece of narrative.  This quiet tension perfectly complements the serene setting, a place one character likens to living in a fairy tale.  Each time I opened the book, I fell under its spell again.  The last hundred or so pages kept me riveted long past bedtime, but there was absolutely no possibility of putting the book down at that point.  I’m quite glad that the second book is waiting for me.  While this story is complete, there are intimations of even bigger things to come.

Rating: 9 ½
April 2013
ISBN# 978-0-451-41679-7 (paperback)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Buried In Bargains - Josie Belle

Buried In Bargains
A Good Buy Girls Mystery
Josie Belle
Berkley Prime Crime
It’s Christmastime for the Good Buy Girls, and that means one thing: a 75% off sale on last year’s wrapping paper at the stationery store.  The four friends meet up to hit the sale to stock Maggie Gerber’s new shop with sale-priced gift wrap.  Joining them is Laura, Maggie’s daughter, home from college on break.  Laura also helps her mom at the shop, which experiences a huge surge in sales when a local resident decides to throw a Christmas formal ball. 
Laura steps forward to befriend Diane Jenkins, a painfully shy girl just hired at the deli, operated by Michael and Joanne Claramotta.  Joanne, largely pregnant with her first and much-anticipated child, is leery of the young blonde hired by her husband.  Having already been through this, and having known the couple since grade school, her friends wisely counsel her to write off her feelings to hormones.  It’s impossible to write off the scene that Maggie and Joanne find at the deli early one morning.  Michael, unconscious in a pool of blood; and Diane, nearby, strangled to death. 
The police first suspect Michael, although they admit it would be hard to come up with a scenario that fits the facts.  The bigger problem is: there’s no record of Diane at the deli.  Michael paid her in cash and didn’t even have an application on file.  Her apartment is sparsely furnished and looks more like a hotel than a home.  And, even worse, Maggie accidentally witnessed a very suspicious discussion between Michael and Diane at the ball. 
This is the third entry in the series (50% OFF MURDER, and A DEAL TO DIE FOR) and, in my opinion, it’s far and away the best yet.  The murder doesn’t happen for quite a while, which is usually a bone of contention for me.  I barely even noticed.  This time, the first part of the novel is filled with very realistic people dealing with very realistic ups and downs in life.  The characters have found their grooves, and I would very much like to visit this town and hang out with all of them.  When the murder comes, it’s all the more shocking.  The investigation (and the worry about whether Michael will recover or not) is perfectly paced, never dragging.  The outcome feels real to me, and though some of the final action occurs ‘off-stage,’ that’s the way it should be in a cozy mystery.  Here’s hoping we see more of the Good Buy Girls.

Rating: 8
October 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-25230-7 (paperback)

Monday, October 07, 2013

Chili Con Carnage - Kylie Logan

Chili Con Carnage
A Chili Cook-Off Mystery
Kylie Logan
Berkley Prime Crime

Maxie Pierce is already having a bad day.  Her dad, Texas Jack Pierce, famed purveyor of chili and spices, is missing.  She’s travelling around in his RV with her half-sister, Sylvia, with whom she shares a love/hate relationship, trying to keep Jack’s business afloat.  It almost goes without saying that she’s just out of a disastrous relationship.  And she’s dressed in a ridiculous costume as the Chili Chick.  When the screaming woman arrives, gunning (possibly literally, it’s hard to tell) for Maxie because she went out with Roberto last night, it’s just the cherry on the top of her day.  At that moment, she’s glad of the identity-shielding costume.

Of course, Sylvia wants to know what’s up with Roberto, having told Maxie to stay away from him.  Maxie had one terrible date with him, and is finished with him.  But, as sisters so, Sylvia keeps on her about it.  A distraction arrives in the personage of Carter Donnelly, celebrity chef.  He’s there with a camera crew, looking for “Americana” to film for his new series.  Maxie isn’t too impressed, but Sylvia (who harbors hopes of publishing a cookbook) definitely it.  All bets are off, though, when a dead body falls out of Carter’s RV, landing on Maxie.  It’s Roberto.  Clearly, the sisters aren’t the only two who didn’t like him.

Maxie sets out to find the killer, figuring she has a right to know the truth, since the body landed on her.  Unfortunately, she’s not every good at the whole ‘subtle’ thing when asking questions.  I found Maxie to be a bit of an acquired taste, but, in the end, I found myself rooting for her.  Especially when she drops all the half-sibling rivalry the instant the police arrive to arrest Sylvia for the murder.  Now Maxie has a concrete reason to find out what happened with Roberto.  The plot is nicely twisty and the conclusion feels pretty organic.  The question of Jack’s whereabouts is left unanswered, clearly to be tied up in a subsequent book.  As the first in a series, this is a solid mystery, introducing readers to an interesting setting and a unique cast of characters.

Rating: 7
October 2013
ISBN# 978-0-425-26241-2 (paperback)