Thursday, July 31, 2008

Saturn's Children - Charles Stross

Saturn’s Children
A Space Opera
Charles Stross

Science Fiction

In the far future, humans are extinct. We’re gone, but our constructs live on after us. Robots, artificial intelligence, and various other constructs continue to live and proliferate through space. Freya is an android, created from a template to be a companion to a human – in all senses of the word – but ‘born’ too late. There are no more humans, making the existence of Freya and her sister-bots relatively meaningless. Many of her sisters have removed their soul chips and died, sending their memories to the remaining sisters to be shared.

Society now is highly stratified. The aristos are the wealthy ruling class. If you’re not an aristo, you have no hope of becoming one. Your construct is your fate in society. As the story begins, Freya is pretty much stuck on Venus, without enough money to pay for passage to anyplace else. That’s why, when someone asks her to travel to Mercury to pick up a package and take it to Mars, she agrees. Anything to get off Venus and away from the very dangerous aristo who wants her deal, for real.

Acting on impulse is almost never a good idea. Although she gets off Venus, this particular package puts her in the path of danger from persons (or robots) unknown. Her trip through the solar system and beyond is as much a futuristic travel adventure as it is a mystery or a scifi story. As usual, the author creates a character-driven story with a scifi background, accessible to any reader, not just fans of the genre. Stross’ novels (GLASSHOUSE, HALTING STATE) are always different, and always well worth the read.

Rating: 8
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01594-8 (hardcover)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

China Lake - Meg Gardiner

China Lake
An Evan Delaney Novel
Meg Gardiner


Peter Wyoming and his wife, Chenille, are leaders of the Remnant, a group that believes Armageddon is real and it’s coming soon. It’s the kind of church that pickets AIDS funerals and heckles the mourners. Evan Delaney was attending the funeral of her best friend’s mother the first time she encountered the Remnant. She was horrified to see that her former sister-in-law, Tabitha, was one of the picketers.

Evan has been taking care of her nephew, Luke (6) while his dad, Brian, a fighter pilot, was deployed overseas. Tabitha was denied custody of Luke due to issues with her past. But Tabitha wants Luke back with her. She wants him in her apocalyptic church, for reasons unknown. All Evan and Brian know is that it’s not a safe place for a child.

Evan and Brian have a few run-ins with the Remnant, both in Santa Barbara and in China Lake, where Brian is now stationed. When a member of the Remnant is found dead at Brian’s home, he’s arrested for the murder. Evan knows her brother is innocent, and works to prove it while still protecting Luke. The Remnant’s reasons for wanting the boy go far deeper than Evan could have imagined, and they’re more than ready to strike the first match to light the fires of Armageddon.

This is one of those wonderful finds: a book that you can’t put down; that very nearly defies description without including massive spoilers. The story begins with what looks like a custody fight between a fighter pilot and a religious nut. The plot evolves into so much more than that. Each chapter brings some new twist to the tale, a new revelation that sets what you thought you knew on its ear. The fast pace begins on the first page and never slows down until the conclusion. You’ll lose sleep to finish this one, but you won’t regret it.

Rating: 8 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22455-2 (paperback)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Close - Martina Cole

Martina Cole
Grand Central

Crime Fiction

When Patrick Brodie meets young factory worker Lily Diamond in 1960s London, he knows he’s met someone special. Never mind that she’s fifteen and he’s near thirty. They’re married a year later and Lil begins raising their family. Meanwhile, Patrick is working to further his career by whatever means necessary. Eventually, he manages to eliminate the previous underworld bosses and installs himself in their place. Of course, this makes him a new target. After he’s murdered in front of his family, it’s Lil who keeps the family together, who runs the home and the family. When Patrick, Jr. is old enough, he follows in his father’s footsteps, continuing the cycle of crime, retribution, and family.

If you like English crime thrillers at the movies, you’ll enjoy this novel. It follows the Brodie family and their many associates from the 60s through the 90s. There’s a lot of graphic violence and language, as would be expected. A peculiarity of this sort of story is that there’s really no one to like. Each character has his or her own selfish motives, commits crimes, cheats, steals, murders, or hits children. And that’s just the way life is for them. They don’t live in our PC times, and they do what they feel they must to survive and keep control of whatever it is they have. I wouldn’t want to live this kind of life, but it makes for very interesting reading.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-446-17996-6 (hardcover)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Julius House - Charlaine Harris

The Julius House
An Aurora Teagarden Mystery
Charlaine Harris
Berkley Prime Crime


Aurora (Roe) Teagarden is busy with wedding plans. She’s set to marry wealthy businessman Martin Bartell in just a few weeks. At this point, her biggest challenge is finding exactly the right wedding present for him. Using what little she knows about his childhood, and the wealth unexpectedly left to her by an old friend, she manages to purchase his boyhood home and present him with the deed. He’s deeply touched by the gesture.

Martin, being no slouch in the gift arena, manages to suss out the perfect gift for Roe, too. He hands over the deed to the Julius House. Roe has always loved it, despite its shady history. Six years ago, the Julius family moved into the house, began extensive renovations, and enrolled their daughter in the local school. One morning, the grandmother – who was living in a newly constructed apartment above the garage – came over to make breakfast and discovered the entire family was missing. No sign of the family was ever found.

Roe throws herself into renovating the house, with an eye towards living there with Martin. In the few weeks leading up to the wedding, she begins to have doubts. She realizes that there are huge gaps in Martin’s history. There are things he won’t talk about with her. These worries intensify when Martin moves an old friend and his wife into the garage apartment. On the one hand, it’s nice to have someone on hand to help out with things. On the other hand, there are now two people Roe doesn’t know, living on her property.

The main story is Roe and Martin, dancing around each other and his history. To her credit, Roe does ask some questions. But Martin answers what he wants, then shuts down. The eventual discovery of what happened to the Julius family, while mainly a subplot here, is the more interesting storyline. It’s marred a bit by the old ‘bad guy who must explain every detail to our heroine’ scene, but the outcome was unexpected. This story may be a bit dark for lovers of strictly cozy mysteries, but the whole series (REAL MURDERS, A BONE TO PICK) is certainly worth a read.

Rating: 7
June 2008 (reprint)
ISBN# 978-0-425-22203-4 (paperback)

Codespell - Kelly McCullough

Ravirn, Book 3
Kelly McCullough


Ravirn is an almost-immortal descendant of the Fates of mythology. A recent fight with Hades, while trying to free Persephone, resulted in Ravirn’s near complete destruction. Fortunately for him, the fight ripped a hole in the world and Primal Chaos entered the present world, consuming most of Hades’ offices and all of Ravirn, only to re-make him, with a few interesting upgrades. For instance, his eyes now glow in the dark with the power of chaos. It makes it difficult to sleep, but he can read in bed quite easily.

As a result of this damage – and a nasty virus – Necessity, the computer that runs all of reality, needs to be repaired. Ravirn, amongst his other skills, is a hacker and the logical guy for the job. Just a few little problems. Because of his previous activities, there are some very powerful gods and demigods who would like to see him erased completely. Included in this number are Hades (death himself) the Fates (family relations can be so complex) and his own cousin, Dairn who, in a very unhappy surprise, now possesses chaos power, too. The thing is, while Ravirn makes the repairs to Necessity, the computer will be briefly offline. Meaning that there’s an excellent opportunity for someone to try and take control or even remake all the worlds.

There are two books in the series preceding this one, WEBMAGE and CYBERMANCY. I haven’t read either one of them, so I was a bit lost for the first few pages of this one. After that, though, there’s enough background to bring newbies up to date, and by the end of the first chapter, it was full speed ahead. The author does an incredible job of blending mythology, magic, and what used to be known as cyberpunk into something completely new, enthralling, and pretty difficult to describe.

Readers don’t need to have any programming or esoteric computer knowledge to enjoy this story. Ravirn and his familiar, a webgoblin, both excel in the art of sarcasm, letting the reader feel in on the joke. The cast of characters is quite large, and the worlds created are both familiar and alien. The pacing is very fast; even as a new reader, I was completely hooked before the end of the first chapter. Readers with any interest in mythology or magic will love this new spin on very old characters. I’ll be seeking out the first two books, just for the fun of it.

Rating: 8
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01603-7 (paperback)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wild & Hexy - Vicki Lewis Thompson

Wild & Hexy
Vicki Lewis Thompson

Paranormal Romance

Annie Winston was the golden girl of her high school: good grades, sports star, beauty queen. Jeremy Dunstan was the geeky computer guy who worshipped her from afar. Ten years later, he still hasn’t found anyone who can measure up to Annie. While Annie married her high school sweetheart, moved to Chicago and got an on-camera job at WGN, Jeremy stayed in their hometown of Big Knob, Indiana, and opened his own Internet café. Now Annie is back in town, after a painful divorce, for her sister’s wedding.

Dorcas and Ambrose Lowell can see that Jeremy is still carrying a torch for Annie, and they think it’s a perfect match. As a witch and wizard posing as relationship counselors, they’re in a position to make the match happen. Of course, they’ve also got their hands full dealing with George, a dragon who’d rather play poker than take up his role as guardian of the forest. And the local lake monster, Dee-Dee, is lonely, too. Now there’s a challenge for any matchmaker.

I was bothered a bit by the fact that, in order to get the two main characters together, Dorcas and Ambrose used their magic to change Jeremy’s personality from shy computer geek to take-charge guy. That’s a pretty big change, and it seems essentially unfair, especially if these two are supposed to be soul mates. But that’s really a small quibble and easily set aside to make room for the subplots and a cast of characters that includes the wedding party, the majority of the town, and a witch with a history who just happened to choose this time to arrive.

The pacing is fast, and the author wastes no time getting Annie and Jeremy together. The obstacles they face are of the nonmagical variety, and are completely believable. Annie is only in town for a short time; and she loves her big city life, while Jeremy is very content with small town living. This is a fun, frothy read, perfect for a day at the beach or sitting by the pool. I prefer my paranormals a bit darker than this, but if you’re looking for laughs and hijinks, you’ve come to the right place.

Rating: 6 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-41258-4 (paperback)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Vintage Murder - Michele Scott

A Vintage Murder
A Wine Lover’s Mystery
Michele Scott
Berkley Prime Crime


If you’ve been reading the series so far, you’ll know that in the last installment (SILENCED BY SYRAH) vineyard manager Nikki Sands was torn between two men. That question is resolved in the first chapter here, and not a moment too soon. I enjoy the mystery aspects of the series far more than any ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ drama. For those who wish to remain unspoiled, I won’t mention the chosen man’s name here.

Nikki and her chosen are in Australia to work out a deal with Hahndorf Winery. As it happens, when they arrive, they find a movie being filmed there. Nikki, at one time an actress, is quite interested in the proceedings. But there’s a huge wrench thrown into things when the leading lady ends up dead. Seems she was asleep in her locked trailer when a poisonous snake, belonging to someone else on the set, managed to get in and bite her. Not many snakes are able to unlock a door, so Nikki immediately suspects foul play.

With a big-budget movie on the line, and some solid acting experience in her past, Nikki is invited to fill the shoes of the leading lady. This puts her in the perfect position, not only to take another shot at her dreams of stardom, but also to find out who killed her predecessor. And make sure she doesn’t suffer the same fate.

I found the notion that a major movie would simply hire the nearest female to step into the leading role a bit far-fetched. But, this is basically escapist entertainment, so suspension of disbelief is in order. The new setting means that new readers will have no trouble jumping in at this point, and provides an entirely new set of suspects. This is another solid entry in a very entertaining series.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22254-6 (paperback)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Uneasy Relations - Aaron Elkins

Uneasy Relations
Aaron Elkins
Berkley Prime Crime


Forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver, known as the Skeleton Detective – is headed to Gibraltar with his wife, Julie, for an academic conference. He’s to give a speech while there. Unfortunately for him, he gave a brief interview to a less-than-honest newspaper stringer, who made it sound like Gideon will be making an earthshaking pronouncement. Gideon isn’t too happy about this, but his publisher is gearing up for an updated version of Gideon’s book on scientific errors and hoaxes, and is thrilled about it.

Years ago, a scientific dig found a Neanderthal gravesite. Buried there, in a clearly ritualized way, lay the partial skeletons of a woman with a young child in her arms. The popular press immediately dubbed them Gibraltar Woman and Gibraltar Boy. A team of experts, including Gideon, examined both skeletons. The female was clearly human. The report was indeterminate about the child, but the popular press took speculation about a human/Neanderthal hybrid and ran with it. There is still a lively scientific debate as to whether humans and Neanderthals could/did interbreed. At one conference, the speakers actually came to blows over it.

Arriving in Gibraltar, Gideon is very interested in seeing the actual site. And, having written a book about scientific hoaxes, he’s keenly aware that the popular press assumes the child was a hybrid, even though his studies of the incomplete skeleton proved nothing one way or the other. Clearly, someone else at the conference is aware of this, too. One death might be an accident, but two are clearly murder. Once again, Gideon must put on his detective hat to pick out the killer before he becomes the next targets.

Any Gideon Oliver mystery (LITTLE TINY TEETH) is cause for celebration. There’s plenty of science and history provided; and it’s all presented in an intelligent, yet very accessible way. The cast of characters is rather eccentric, as one would expect from a group of scientists. It’s always a pleasure to watch Gideon weave his theories and tease out the clues. If you’re looking for a smart mystery, you can’t go wrong with Gideon Oliver.

Rating: 8 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22176-1 (hardcover)

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Iron Hunt - Marjorie M. Liu

The Iron Hunt
Hunter Kiss, Book 1
Marjorie M. Liu

Urban Fantasy

Maxine Kiss is a Hunter; the only remaining Hunter. She wears tattoos that function as impenetrable armor during the daylight hours. At sundown, these tattoos take on flesh and become separate entities. Maxine calls them “the boys” and they’re the only family, the only protection she has. The tattoos came to Maxine from her mother when they decided it was time. This left her mother vulnerable and she died. This is the fate of all Hunters: to give birth to a daughter who will one day take on the tattoos, leaving the mother open to attack.

The job of the Hunter is to fight demons. Most demons are held in a prison fashioned ages ago and located behind the veil. Every now and then a demon manages to break free, but it requires great power to do so. Unlike her mother, who trained her body and mind daily, Maxine has allowed herself to become complacent. When she feels something rip through the veil, she knows that it’s something large and powerful; something unlike any demon she has fought. It may be the end of everything.

Readers should be aware, first of all, that this novel has its beginnings in a novella in the book WILD THINGS. If you haven’t read the story – and I haven’t – then reading this book feels like being dropped into a strange city without a map. The first few chapters almost read like an outline of a story, with choppy sentence structure (a stylistic choice, clearly) and references to unknown events. There’s a difference between creating suspense and frustrating your readers by withholding information.

At this point, Maxine is practically a cipher. She remembers her mother being a “badass” fighter. Her grandmother was an adventurer who lived life. Maxine, thus far, seems to be hiding from life. That said, there are plenty of scenes throughout the book that are reminiscent of various legends. The similarities are not expressly explained, but that may come later in the series. Or it may be me, reading too much into things. If you take this novel as laying the groundwork for what’s to come, many of my criticisms are nicely laid to rest. And there’s more than enough mythology and unique fantasy elements to make me interested in reading the next volume to see how this develops.

Rating: 7
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-441-01606-8 (paperback)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sail - James Patterson and Howard Roughan

James Patterson and Howard Roughan
Little, Brown and Company


The Dunne family is falling apart. Eighteen-year-old Carrie has an eating disorder, Mark (16) is a stoner, and Ernie is ten going on forty. Their mother Katherine, a cardiac surgeon has spent far more time with her patients that with her children over the years. And the family suffered a tremendous blow four years ago when their father, Stuart, died during a scuba dive from the family’s boat. Adding to Katherine’s pain was the knowledge that Stuart was cheating on her. Almost a year ago, Katherine re-married, to celebrated defense attorney Peter Carlyle. Instead of sailing, Peter will be staying in NYC, preparing for a big trial. And visiting his mistress.

In an attempt to bring the family back together, Katherine organized a sailing vacation with Jake, Stuart’s brother as captain. Katherine and Jake have a past. The trip will be made aboard the family’s boat, recently taken out of storage, where it has been since Stuart’s death. None of the kids are happy about the trip, and even Katherine is questioning her decision. As well she should. How many things can go wrong with a setup like this? Plenty, beginning the first day out of port when Mark is caught with pot, Carrie tries to drown herself, and the boat springs a rather large leak. Then things get bad.

Utilizing Patterson’s trademark staccato chapters structure, the pages seems to fly and the plot twists are many. The real problem, aside from a few incredibly implausible scenes, is that there’s really no one to like here. The characters, undeveloped as they are, are almost uniformly obnoxious. It’s not a spoiler to say that the kids learn the hard way how to pull together and act human. The adults don’t fare nearly as well, making their fates cause for little concern. While far from the best from either of these authors (YOU'VE BEEN WARNED) if you’re prepared to suspend a good deal of your disbelief you’ll find a fun escapist read here, perfect for a day at the beach.

Rating: 7
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-316-01870-8 (hardcover)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Murder On Bank Street - Victoria Thompson

Murder On Bank Street
A Gaslight Mystery
Victoria Thompson
Berkley Prime Crime


Sarah Brandt, a widow, makes her living as a midwife in New York City in 1897. Four years earlier, her husband, a doctor known to the poor as an honest man who treated illness first and asked for payment later, if at all, was murdered. The crime was never solved. In truth, as Detective Sgt. Frank Malloy discovers quite quickly, the crime was never really investigated since the family didn’t put up a reward. Sarah’s family is quite wealthy and could easily have afforded a reward, but always felt that she married beneath her (and them) when she married the penniless doctor.

Now that Sarah and Frank have moved to a place somewhere beyond friendship, Frank wants to solve the crime to get justice for Sarah. His investigation quickly turns up the fact that a street boy was seen leading the doctor to parts unknown on the night of his death. The murderer may have been a wealthy man with a silver cane. And it doesn’t take long to find out that Dr. Brandt was involved in treating a young woman with serious mental problems. The young woman’s father blamed Dr. Brandt for what happened to her. But the most horrifying fact to come out is that the name “Decker” was heard in connection with the murder. “Decker” is Sarah’s family name.

This is part of a long-running series (MURDER IN CHINATOWN) but the author presents background material subtly, never overshadowing the story. The fact that the crime being investigated pre-dates the start of the series makes this installment an ideal introduction for new readers of the series. The author’s descriptions and explanations are skillfully woven into the narrative, making late-nineteenth-century New York City and its various citizens come to life. The mystery is involving, and the investigation fascinating to follow; but, as longtime readers know, it’s the place and the characters that inhabit it that make this series a standout.

Rating: 8
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22151-8 (hardcover)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Dragon Wytch - Yasmine Galenorn

Dragon Wytch
The Sisters of the Moon, Book 4
Yasmine Galenorn


NOTE: If you haven’t read the previous books in the series (WITCHLING, CHANGELING, DARKLING) this review contains some unavoidable plot spoilers.

Camille, Delilah, and Menolly D’Artigo are not your average Seattle residents. They were born in Otherworld, and are half-Fae and half-human. Camille is a witch who is still learning to use her powers. Delilah shapeshifts, and Menolly is a recently made vampire. The three sisters are currently barred from traveling to their homeland because of a civil war in progress between two powerful Queens. Should they be discovered on the wrong side of a portal, their lives are forfeit. Adding to their concern is the disappearance of their father, who may have switched sides in the war, due to conscience.

Earthside, things are heating up, too. Denizens of Otherworld are finding unguarded portals to Earth and arriving with death and destruction in mind. That’s a problem at the best of times. This is not the best of times. A demon lord, Shadow Wing, is attempting to take over and lay waste to both Earthside and Otherworld. Trying to make sense of all of this, while keeping a handle on her out-of-control love life, Camille discovers that a great power is preparing to reassert itself. Whether for good or ill is the question. And there’s the matter of the royal unicorn who came Earthside to bestow upon Camille a priceless artifact of untold power – and was promptly attacked and robbed.

Each book in the series is devoted to one of the sisters; the fourth installment, this is the second for Camille. I confess that, of the three sisters, I find Camille the least interesting by far. I want to like her, but she reads almost as some sort of wish fulfillment. She’s gorgeous (and why shouldn’t she mention it, since it’s the truth?) she’s completely irresistible (every male lusts after her at the very least; most fall helplessly in love with her) and she’s a witch of amazing power. Even her tantrums are supposed to be adorable. It makes it very hard to feel sympathy for her, and leaves her very little room to grow. In contrast, her sisters are each flawed in their own ways, thus much more compelling as characters.

That aside, the underlying plot continues to grow and become more complex with each installment, and it’s the plot that keeps me coming back for more. The first few chapters contain quite a bit of information – necessary for new readers and a welcome reminder for longtime readers. While I found the plot developments and background fascinating, the sections devoted to Camille’s ever-expanding sex life feel like filler material. It’s all part of parcel of the experience, though, and despite the flaws, this series as a whole is an enchanting read and I look forward to the next installment.

Rating: 7 ½
July 2008
ISBN# 978-0-425-22239-3 (paperback)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Acts Of Nature - Jonathon King

Acts of Nature
Jonathon King


In an attempt to get away from civilization, PI Max Freeman and Det. Sherry Richards take a vacation to Max’s secluded fishing camp. Located on the edge of the Everglades and devoid of anything approaching modern technology, the pair begins to relax. After several days, Max senses Sherry’s increasing restlessness and suggests a canoe trip to his friend’s fishing camp. This place is located in the Everglades, and the views are spectacular. Not to mention the physical challenge of rowing there.

Sherry takes his challenge in the spirit he intended, and together the two head into the Everglades, unaware that a massive hurricane has turned in its path. The storm is headed directly for them, and the two must ride out its destructive rage. The real challenge begins in the storm’s aftermath, when Sherry and Max must brave injury, a leaking canoe, two mysterious shooters, and a group of looters in order to survive.

The author clearly knows, loves, and respects the Everglades, and provides evocative descriptions. The two main characters, Max and Sherry, are part of a series, but new readers will have no problems jumping in here. The whole point is isolation, and this novel works quite well as a standalone. The plot is quick, and the pacing even. There are a few twists that even experienced thriller readers won’t expect. If you’re looking for the perfect summer read, look no further.

Rating: 7 ½
June 2008
ISBN# 978-0-451-22420-0 (paperback)