Review: “The Claus Effect,” David Nickle and Karl Schroeder

Pros: So much fun; so creative!
Cons: Starts out a little rough
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

David Nickle and Karl Schroeder’s The Claus Effect combines a short story called “The Toy Mill” set in 1983, and a book called “The Clause Effect” set in 1991. In “The Toy Mill,” which is a prelude to “The Claus Effect,” eight-year-old Emily corners Santa and wishes to be one of his elves. He turns her into an elf and brings her to the North Pole, where she discovers that the reason she never gets what she wants for Christmas is because no one actually reads the letters sent to Santa. She convinces the Claus to start reading the letters, and in the first letter a boy wishes for his sister to be dead. Claus, who apparently hates children, decides that the best way to handle Christmas this year would be to give children Exactly. What. They. Want. “The Claus Effect” takes place eight years later. Emily is back home and working as a security guard for a store. Meanwhile, Cadet Lieutenant Neil Nyman, who’s stationed in the arctic, finds a mysterious device buried in the snow, and accidentally stumbles upon a meeting in which the Pentagon’s Christmas list is delivered to the Claus. Emily and Neil each end up captured by elves, and soon they find that they’re the only things standing between the Claus and the destruction of the world as they know it!

At first the back-and-forth between 1983 and 1991 is a bit confusing, and the narrative starts out a little uneven and rocky. I started off thinking this book would end up with a 3 out of 5. But it quickly turned into one of the more absorbing and hilarious books I’ve read in a while, and I stayed up late to finish it off.

Santa Claus is… I can’t even begin to describe him. He makes exclamations like “By the Devil’s flaming anus!”, is more than a little deranged, and is seriously dangerous to all of mankind. His elves and reindeer are terrified of him. He’s downright creepy. We eventually get to find out how he came into being, and it’s quite fascinating. It’s due to Mrs. Claus’s intervention that he ever ended up with a good reputation, or made children happy in any way. And thanks to Emily’s unknowing interference, that’s all been squashed.

The elves are fantastic. They’re largely incompetent, in absolutely hilarious ways. They’re also exceedingly well-armed! I was impressed when the Browning 50-cal came out, and that’s nothing next to Claus’s ICBMs. There’s a ton of shootouts in here, and plenty of action scenes. There are spies, military actions, chase scenes with explosives and guns on trains… you name it, it probably happens.

The side characters have a lot of personality, even those who only show up for a handful of pages. One of my favorites was “It’s okay if you don’t laugh at my joke” Heinrich, one of the Germans working with Krampus. (Yes, he shows up too!) Krampus is the one who tells Emily the story of how he and the Claus came to be.

I feel a bit inadequate to the task of explaining just how hilarious and creepy and all-around wonderful this book is. It suffices to say that if you’re looking for a weird holiday read and interested in blowing up the North Pole, this one’s for you!

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Review: “Lucky Invasion,” Joshua James

Pros: Wonderful action and characters
Cons: A little forced
Rating: 4 out of 5

Joshua James’s Lucky Invasion: Lucky’s Marines | Book Five is an excellent continuation of the series. Sergeant Lee “Lucky” Savage is once again sent on a desperate mission for the foundering Empire. As always, the odds are more than stacked against him. He and his team of misfits are to deliver a mysterious payload to the Da’hune, hopefully in return for their help against a new and even more menacing alien invader. It’s a protection of some sort from the new aliens, but it seems to be missing a power supply. Meanwhile, someone’s trying to kill off Emperor April, and as always she has her own additional plans for Lucky and his marines.

The characters in this series are straight out crazy. But don’t worry, they’re all crazy in their own, unique way. I still find April’s foul mouth and sweet, crazed smile to be one of my favorite combos, and despite the fact that being the Emperor keeps her at a distance, she finds her own way to weigh in on the events of the story. All of our favorite marines are back and up to their asses in trouble.

The world-building isn’t as visible here, just because the basic lines of the various factions have been drawn in by now. The description of the planet Lucky’s Bastards find themselves on is very evocative; it’s easy to envision to constant rain and muck and the kelp-clogged giant river. There’s even a tiny bit that touches on the idea of multi-planet ecosystems, which I found fascinating.

Some of April’s crazy plans-within-plans feel a little forced this time. I don’t want to give away the ultimate game, but it just felt stilted. Still, it made a good excuse to see the Hate rise up within Lucky again, resulting in one hell of a fight between him and some nasty aliens. The fighting is clever and inventive, with plenty of unusual obstacles and irate bad guys to keep things entertaining. And hell, April’s crazy like a den of foxes, so it isn’t so hard to imagine that she’d make things more complicated and secretive than they need to be. Certainly this installment in the series is enjoyable enough that I’ll continue reading!

“Bastard,” Ellery said to Lucky with a sigh. “I see you haven’t changed.”
“I keep trying,” Lucky said. “But it never sticks.”

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The Cheetah Conservation Fund

Since facebook lets you create a fundraiser for your birthday, here’s a link to my fundraiser for the Cheetah Conservation Fund. I’ve been donating to them for years, because cheetahs are far and away my favorite big cats. I hope you’ll consider giving a little this holiday season!

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New Storybundle: Winter Weirderland

Yep, I’m addicted to storybundles. I’ve finally read a volume from one that I did not like, and frankly, that’s a really good ratio given how many of them I have enjoyed. The new one should be available for another 19 days, so have at it. This time the theme is Winter Weirderland–holiday weirdness!

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Review: “Memory Hunter,” Frank Morin

Pros: Gripping extended dream battle sequence
Cons: Oh where do I start…
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Frank Morin’s Memory Hunter (The Facetakers Book 1) started out okay, and headed South from there. Sarah worked for Alter Ego, where she basically rented out her body for other people to have their soul put in her body for a limited time. Apparently she revealed a big plot there and the place was destroyed. Now she’s going to meet up with Tomas, who helped her at Alter Ego, and try to get him to help some of the people who are now stuck in other people’s bodies. However, someone’s trying to follow her–and quite possibly, kill her. Mai Luan, who was apparently the bad guy in this previous adventure, has a new agenda that involves the council of facetakers (those people who can move souls from one body to another–including their own, meaning that most of them have lived for hundreds or even thousands of years). The council seems to have bought whatever it is she’s selling, so it’s up to Sarah, Tomas, Gregorios, and Eirene to save everyone.

That description above probably sounds kind of confusing. When I read a book labeled as “book one” in a series, I expect to be starting at the beginning of the series! As it turns out, there’s a “book zero”. Do not read this one first–while you can get through it, it doesn’t stand alone all that well. Speaking of not standing alone well–the council of facetakers. Because we never get to see them at their supposed “normal”, the fact that they’re all supposedly acting terribly out of character has no real weight to it.

The facetakers and their enemies seem to be responsible for everything. Each chapter starts off with a quote from either a facetaker or a famous figure, all of whom seem to be well aware of the existence of heka, facetakers, and so on. This leads to one of my major problems with the book. An enchanter apparently convinced Hitler to kill the Jews in order to also kill a bunch of hunters (also, Hitler was crazy because of too many soul transfers). The hunters, of course, were “far too clever to get caught and sent off to the concentration camps…” Hoo boy. Let me count the ways in which this was a bad idea. First, there’s the implication that Hitler and the Nazis were tricked into killing the Jews, rather than placing the blame squarely where it belongs: on racist humans. Second, there’s the statement that hunters escaped the camps because they were clever. In other words, apparently if the Jews had just been more clever, they could have escaped the camps too. I can’t even… Wow. Just, if you’re going to write about Nazis, maybe have some people very carefully read over your words to be sure you aren’t accidentally offensive. (To make sure it wasn’t just me, I ran these various issues past some friends who are closer to these issues than I am. Yeah, they weren’t impressed either.)

Oh wait, speaking of offensive:

The slender Chinese-American had inherited the best of both cultures. She wore her silky, black hair long, tied back to accentuate her delicate features. Her face looked more American than Chinese…

Okay. First, the author seems to have confused genetic inheritance with cultural. He speaks of Mai Luan as having the best of both cultures, then goes into physical details, which are genetic. Second, “American” isn’t an ethnic group, so it wouldn’t contribute genetic features. Third, following up “the best of both” with “Her face looked more American than Chinese” implies that American faces are better than Chinese. Whoops.

I’m pretty sure the author wanted me to like Sarah, but it was difficult. She’s fairly shallow. Then there’s this:

She grew accustomed to his new form very quickly, and wondered how she’d never realized he didn’t belong in Carl’s mediocre body.

So… a badass operative is not believable unless he’s also ruggedly handsome? There’s no such thing as a nondescript badass? Ugh. The ultimate case of body-shaming.

One of the characters, Alter, a hunter, starts off with a very erratic personality, and lots of ridiculous mugging and posing. His personality somewhat settles down later on, but it’s too much at first.

Mai Luan is the stereotypically stupid villain, even though she must have needed some smarts to totally bamboozle the council the way she has. She has an untold number of opportunities to kill, maim, and turn in the good guys, yet she just keeps letting them go. I wish I’d thought to count the number of times she lets them go.

Mai Luan’s wounds healed almost instantly, but instead of ripping Gregorios’ arms off, she paused to watch the fight, a little smile on her lips.

She’s exponentially more powerful than anybody else in the book, meaning the author had to make her crazy and stupid in order to keep her from winning. It’s ridiculous.

There’s an extensive semi-dream-sequence battle that’s actually quite gripping, and is the one part of the book I really enjoyed. However, if the characters are able to think guns into being while in that reality, then they ought to be able to think a rope or ladder into being when trying to climb out of a pit.

Ultimately, I can’t recommend this book. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying, and it’s problematic.

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Review: “Broken Blade,” J.C. Daniels

Pros: Trauma isn’t so easy to overcome; fabulous world-building
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

In book one of J.C. Daniels’s (Shiloh Walker’s) Colbana Files, Bladed Magic, Kit Colbana rescued a missing werecat teenager and fell for the werecat Alpha, Damon. In book two, Night Blade, Kit saved Damon’s life by proving he had a legitimate reason to kill a handful of powerful supernaturals, then was captured and tortured to the breaking point by vampire Jude. Now, in Broken Blade (Colbana Files Series Book 3), Kit is hiding away with her old friend TJ in Wolf’s Haven, tending bar and avoiding the outside world. Before she thinks she’s ready–if she ever will be–TJ pushes her into taking a simple job: help a young woman who’s trying to get in touch with a young werecat she’s had a relationship with. Of course this leads to another job involving an incredibly powerful and ancient woman who’s looking to cause untold trouble.

I appreciate that Damon can’t just kiss it and make it better. It’s clear that he and Kit still love each other, but that doesn’t make things easy. Daniels treats trauma with the seriousness it deserves, and doesn’t just wave it away. It’s a dark and emotional story.

The tale gets into theories of how the various races (weres, vampires, humans, witches, aneira) came to be, what their purposes were, and what they’ve become. I found this really interesting. I also liked that there were no hard and fast answers–it was legends and theories and bits and pieces of evidence.

All the good characters put in an appearance–Chang, Doyle, TJ, Goliath, Damon, Justin, and so on. Even the simplest jobs for Kit turn out a bit crazy, and it’s interesting to learn a little bit more about the aneira.

I followed my gut, which didn’t usually steer me wrong, yet somehow managed to get me in a lot of trouble.

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Recipe: Vanilla White Chocolate Eggnog

I was going to make white chocolate tapioca pudding, but it turned out that my tapioca was stale, so it didn’t thicken. After noting that the result was basically white chocolate eggnog, I decided to actually try making vanilla white chocolate eggnog. Here’s the result!

Ingredients:

*I almost never recommend specific brands, but I’ll make an exception for white chocolate. G&B’s is far less “chalky” than other brands, and is rich and smooth with cocoa butter.

Pour the half-and-half into a large saucepan, add the vanilla, and set over medium heat until scalding hot (but not boiling).

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until thick and pale, 2-3 minutes.

Once the milk is hot, gradually drizzle half of it into the eggs while whisking vigorously. A ladle works well for this purpose. Pour back into the saucepan. Add the finely chopped white chocolate. Stir constantly over medium to low heat (do NOT boil–turn down the heat if necessary) for six minutes; the white chocolate should be thoroughly melted in. Pour into a container. Cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate until cold.

Strain into a pitcher before serving–there’s so much cocoa butter in the white chocolate that some of it will have separated and solidified, so you need to remove that. If you want alcoholic eggnog, add alcohol to taste and stir.

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Review: “Night Blade,” J.C. Daniels

Pros: Wow what an emotional roller-coaster
Cons: Seemingly dropped plot thread; gets VERY dark
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In book one, Blade Song, Kit Colbana took on a job to find a missing boy, Doyle, who was just on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged were-cat. She found him just in time, and ended up in a relationship with the new werecat Alpha, Damon. In J.C. Daniels’s (Shiloh Walker’s) Night Blade (Colbana Files Series Book 2), the authorities come to Kit in the person of Justin, her ex-boyfriend. The authorities believe Damon’s been killing off various powerful non-humans (NHs), and they’re afraid it’s some kind of power-play. If Justin can’t find a good explanation for what he’s doing, Damon will be killed. He binds Kit with an oath that prevents her from talking to Damon about it, and now she has to hurry if she wants to keep her lover alive.

The story starts off with a courier job that brings up a plot thread (the people who tortured Kit’s old friend TJ) and then seemingly drops it again. Don’t worry though–it comes up again in later books in the series.

It’s fascinating to watch Kit and Damon try to navigate the waters of their new relationship. They’re two different species, with different drives and social conditioning, but they’re making a go of it. Of course the moment Justin binds Kit so she can’t tell Damon what she’s doing it’s inevitable that this will cause problems; that one part was a bit painfully predictable.

Jude (the vampire who’s fascinated with Kit) makes a reappearance in this volume. I’m glad that while vampires in this world are capable of doing the stereotypical thing of being seductive and fascinating, they can also be complete, unrepentant monsters in some cases.

Which brings me to a warning: trigger warning for rape and torture. This book gets seriously dark. It’s not titillating when these topics come up, but it’s still hard to read, and I cried my eyes out.

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Review: “Blade Song,” J.C. Daniels

Pros: Deliciously intense
Cons: A little confusing at first
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

J.C. Daniels (Shiloh Walker) is the author of Blade Song (Colbana Files Series Book 1). Kit (Kitasa) Colbana is a private detective in a world where humans and non-humans co-exist uneasily. She’s half-human, leading most of her non-human peers to think of her as weak. And it’s true that she doesn’t have the sheer physical power of some of the vampires and shape-shifters, but her Amazon heritage and her tortured past has left her with a unique set of skills and a few unusual talents. More importantly, she never gives up. Now Damon, a cat-shifter, has come to her with a job from his Alpha. Doyle, a boy on the cusp of learning to shift, has gone missing, and he’s the Alpha’s nephew. Unfortunately, the Alpha is batshit crazy, and taking a job from her will just as likely end in death. Kit has a weakness, though, and she can’t let go of the idea that she might be able to save a kid. Matters get complicated when Jude, a vampire who seems to have a preoccupation with Kit, insists that she’s going to need him to save her from the Alpha when things inevitably go bad.

I found things slightly confusing at first, with references to previous things that I didn’t understand despite the fact that it’s labeled as book one in the series. It isn’t that bad, though, and it does establish an ongoing world, which is nice.

Kit presents a hell of a portrait of a trauma survivor, and there’s serious trigger warnings here for child abuse. Her grandmother, a full-blooded Amazon, tortured her for not being full-blooded, for being weaker than her peers and relatives. She has memory flashbacks and emotional flashbacks, and things are definitely not easy for her. Particularly since her reactions mean that she’s showing weakness in front of Damon. Her strength, though, is what ultimately attracts him to her. He’s hard and pushy, but ultimately her consent and her desire for him matter to him, and that’s important. In my opinion, it’s okay to depict pushy or demanding people in romanticized relationships as long as the relationship itself is uncoerced and mutually desired. Standard adult material warning–there is sex in here. On the flip side, I like the fact that while Jude, the vampire, is physically attractive, that in no way overwhelms the negative aspects of his behavior and attitude. Daniels is a pro at depicting relationships that in other hands might be problematic. I do think that the relationship between Kit and Damon moves forward a bit quickly in some ways, but not to an extent where I can’t believe in it.

There are complex characters in here who are capable of being good people with negative character traits, and vice versa. I really enjoyed this story, and it’s hard to put off the sequel to get some Anatomy reading done! Ah well. I’ll just have to view it as my reward when I’m done.

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On Writing Stereotypes (and that one pet peeve of mine)

I think stereotypes get so ingrained into us that it’s possible for us to express them without actually buying into them. Which is why it’s so important to point out to someone when they’re expressing a stereotype, and to try not to do it again once someone points it out to you. It’s important for us to become aware of the biases we’re expressing, and choose to avoid them in the future.

This has come to mind because of one particular sexist stereotype I run into occasionally when reading books that annoys the hell out of me (it’s becoming a bona fide pet peeve of mine). I don’t believe that most authors who use this stereotype are sexist. I think they just don’t realize this is a stereotype and what the implications of it are. Hopefully if people point it out to them they won’t use that stereotype again.

Said stereotype is when women (usually of similar age) in a piece of fiction cannot trust each other, cannot rely on each other in a pinch, and often backstab each other over the affections of a man. Often they’re rivals in one sense or another–for those aforementioned affections, and/or in other ways. Usually in these books there are no positive female-female friendships depicted. The message it sends is that women cannot trust or rely on each other–only on the men who profess to care for them.

Now you know. So please avoid this particular stereotype so I don’t have to keep grumbling about it every time I run into it!

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