Non-Review: “The Innocent,” Harlan Coben

I do a “non-review” when I couldn’t finish a book. I won’t review it on Amazon or GoodReads, but I don’t mind telling you here why I chose not to finish. If there’s one thing I’ve found over the years, it’s that there are too many good books to spend my time finishing a book that I can’t get into.

The Innocent, by Harlan Coben, is a tale of a man who went to jail after accidentally killing someone. Now that he’s out, and happily married, things will be better, right? Except that someone’s trying to convince him that his wife is cheating on him, and several other violent events get tentatively connected to him.

I made it just over halfway through this book. Unfortunately it turned into a complete slog. The characters and events were so uninteresting that if I put the book down for longer than a few minutes, I could hardly remember what was happening when I picked it up again, or who the various characters were. I was expecting something closer to a thriller, and got a slow, boring tale instead. Not at all what I was looking for.

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Review: “Spectrum,” Alan Jacobson

Pros: Nice mystery with good twists, turns, and tensions
Cons: Really confusing PoV; jumps around a lot in time
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review e-book provided by Open Road Integrated Media
Expected release date: October 7, 2014

 

Description from promotional materials:

The year is 1995 and the NYPD has just graduated a promising new patrol officer named Karen Vail. The rookie’s first day on the job is anything but easy when she finds herself at the crime scene of a young woman murdered in an unusual manner. Vail is unsure of what she’s looking at or what it means—but it’s a case that will weigh on her mind for nearly twenty years.

Spectrum (The Karen Vail Series Book 6), by Alan Jacobson, is a part of his Karen Vail series. She’s a celebrated profiler, but before she joined the FBI she was a New York City cop. There she encountered a seemingly unsolvable serial killer mystery, the case that got her interested in profiling to begin with. Spectrum covers the entire time frame from her first rookie days until the case comes to a head a couple of decades later. It also covers the ups and downs of a family–in parallel with the cops’ work even though it came much earlier in time. I found this confusing and frustrating. Wait… she married whom? There was a divorce in there somewhere? Really? Who’s this new detective? And then… Agh. It was particularly difficult because the narrative would jump years at a time.

There’s one thing I found even more confusing than the wacky time jumps. That is, the narrative is in third person, but Karen’s thoughts are continually injected in first person. Normally if someone did this they’d at least italicize the thoughts to set them off. Instead I had to constantly backtrack to figure out whether I was reading internal dialogue or just dialogue. Note however that this is an advance copy, so my fingers are crossed that this might be fixed by publication; there was a lot of it and the book is getting released soon, though, so I’m dubious.

I really enjoyed the characters. There are inevitable problems at first due to Karen’s gender; although I understand that this was appropriate to the depicted time period, it was also frustrating. I did enjoy watching as some of the people around Karen gradually came to see her as something other than just her gender. Those characters that made it through the entire long course of the book were good. There was some depth, and some fun banter.

The hunt for the killer (once it caught up with the present day) held plenty of tension, some good red herrings, and enjoyable reveals. There’s a great chase scene that pulled me in quite well, with some nifty use of modern gadgets.

The organization of Spectrum really threw me for a loop, but the story is excellent.

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Review: “Fool Moon,” Jim Butcher

Pros: Character conflict and tension
Cons: Mild werewolf confusion
Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Lieutenant Karrin Murphy no longer trusts Harry Dresden. The last time he consulted with the police he failed to tell her about some things pertinent to her case, and it doesn’t matter to her that he thought he was protecting her. If anything, that just makes the betrayal worse. She only reluctantly turns to him for help when a killer leaves behind hints that the crime might have been done by a werewolf. Of course, it isn’t so straightforward. It seems there are a handful of ‘types’ of werewolf. Without figuring out which this is, Harry can’t do all that much to help. Things get complicated when the FBI gets involved, and Harry is going to have his hands full just staying out of jail, much less staying in one piece.

 

Fool Moon: Book two of The Dresden Files comes after Storm Front, which I quite enjoyed. I stumbled onto the series finally after seeing the TV show and becoming intrigued. There are plenty of differences between the show and the books obviously, but I think the show manages to carry off the feel of the world quite well.

Harry and Murphy’s relationship is stretched to the breaking point in Fool Moon. While I get where Murphy’s distrust is coming from, it’s a bit frustrating when she keeps leaping to all the wrong conclusions about Harry. But seriously, I’m impressed with how her character comes together. Her genuine trust problems and hard-headed cynicism make it all the more touching and impressive when she bends to accept Harry’s world with its vampires, werewolves, and wizards.

As for Harry, he’s still half-stumbling into trouble wherever he goes, flying by the seat of his pants as he tries to separate the good guys from the bad guys. He has to stay alive without using the kind of magic that will cause the White Council to come after him, even when he’s backed against the wall. And let’s face it: Harry would rather save lives than keep his nose clean. He’s a nice sort of haphazard, seat-of-his-pants hero for the story.

There was power to be had in hatred, too, in anger and in lust, in selfishness and in pride. And I knew that there was some dark corner of me that would enjoy using magic for killing–and then long for more. That was black magic, and it was easy to use. Easy and fun. Like Legos.

There are plenty of fictional worlds in which the use of magic is likened to the use of addictive drugs. It’s fairly common by now, but I think Butcher’s take on it has creativity and credibility. He makes it easy to see how Harry could get tempted down that dark path without overdoing the magic-as-addiction angle.

The plotting and tension are great; there are plenty of dangerous moments and interesting reveals to keep the reader intrigued. I was swept along with the story and very much enjoyed seeing what happened next. Now that I’ve read two books in the series, I’ll have to catch up with the rest!

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Review: “Sandman Slim,” Richard Kadrey

Pros: Original, interesting, and darkly humorous
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Stark was a curiosity–a living man trapped in Hell with all of the fallen angels and dead people. He started out as a novelty gladiator, but he turned out to be remarkably difficult to kill. After a while Lucifer’s generals started using him as an assassin. Now Stark has crawled his way back out into the world of the living. He’s in possession of an extremely powerful key, and he has plans to get revenge on the people who sent him into Hell. Mostly because they’re also responsible for the death of Alice, the love of his life. Unfortunately, you don’t get to be that scary without attracting a lot of attention, and soon Stark finds himself caught up in some pretty big and confusing mind-games and physical battles. Everyone seems to hate him, but he doesn’t really care. Once he has dealt with Alice’s killer, then they can screw with him all they want to.

 

I have no idea why I’ve never heard of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels before. I’m glad our library’s online collection has several of the installments, because I must read more of Stark’s adventures.

One of the things I love best is Stark himself. He was sent to Hell when he was just 19. He’s been gone long enough to get confused by details of mobile phones and the internet, but not so long that he ever really got over thinking of himself as being 19 years old. He’s snarky, but not overly glib. He’s implacable in his mission to avenge Alice. Sometimes he gets in over his head, but he doesn’t care as long as he makes progress on avenging her. People of all types think they have his number, but they tend to miss one or another tidbit of his personality when making assumptions about how he’ll behave. I like that Stark isn’t hugely moralistic, and often doesn’t care about doing the ‘right thing’. But at the same time, he tries to limit his car-stealing to cars that he can convince himself probably belong to rich assholes. He has his own bizarre sort of code that he only really indulges in when it doesn’t interfere with his revenge mission. It’s great watching him stumble through half-hearted attempts to seem ‘normal’. His strong yet damaged personality is deftly woven together.

The world is interesting–paranormal, but not yet another cookie-cutter supernaturally-enhanced world. It has its own personalities and quirks. Its own secrets and agendas. I look forward to seeing where Stark goes from here, since the world clearly has plans for him.

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Review: “Insomnia,” Stephen King

Pros: Engaging plot and some good characters
Cons: Too many leaps of intuition; weird and a bit slow
Rating: 3 out of 5

 

An older man, Ralph, has been suffering from insomnia. Every morning he wakes up just a few minutes earlier than the previous night, and it’s taking its toll. He starts to suffer from apparent hallucinations: seeing auras around people and catching sight of two odd men whom no one else sees. Before long he finds out that he’s been unwittingly drafted into a battle over the disposition of souls–one in which he can’t really trust his recruiters, but the stakes are high enough that he doesn’t have much of a choice. His actions, after all, could save thousands of lives.

 

Stephen King’s Insomnia brilliantly conveys what it’s like to have severe insomnia. I had that problem for about half a year myself, and recognized so much of it in this book. Thoughts become disordered. Memories slide further and further out of reach. Everyone you talk to has a sure-thing remedy that they’re absolutely convinced will work for you, and which never does (and yet you try it anyway because you’re that desperate for relief). There are a lot of people apparently who find the book too slow to get into; I think the fact that the depiction of insomnia had so much resonance for me kept that material from seeming boring.

Some of the characters have nice depth to them. I love seeing attraction between older people; it sometimes seems like love is reserved for the young in popular media. Unfortunately some of the side characters are nearly caricatures, and certainly seem like stock Stephen King characters. (It’s been a couple of years since I read any King and yet I still recognize some of his standard characters, because they’re just that familiar.)

King is great at making things vivid through detail. Again, some people will find that slow, but I love the way it draws me in and paints a picture.

I did have a couple of problems with the book. For one, there are some spots later on in the book where a couple of side characters bring Ralph and Lois up to speed on what’s going on, and that’s largely done through an extended info-dump. It’s heavy-handed and really does slow things down, much more so than the slow-winding details. The second problem is that the characters make too many realizations through bald leaps of ‘intuition’–it sometimes feels like a cheat. The author wants the characters to realize something but can’t find a good way to make it happen, so the character magically intuits what they need to know in order to get the job done. Some of that is okay, but when it happens a lot or happens with respect to major plot revelations, that makes things all too convenient and takes away from the feeling of accomplishment as the characters achieve their goals.

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Review: “Cast In Secret,” Michelle Sagara

Pros: Absolutely filled with Kaylin’s personality; tense plotting
Cons: Some confusing bits; too many complex ‘instinctual’ actions
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Secret is book three of the Chronicles of Elantra. (It’s also available as part of the Chronicles of Elantra (Cast in Shadow / Cast in Courtlight / Cast in Secret) bundle.) Private Kaylin Neya’s skin has been marked by tattoo-like symbols, and she has great–if poorly controlled–power to call upon. This time she’s called in to help find a stolen reliquary, a seemingly simple theft, except that the reliquary holds an immense power–one which the Oracles believe will destroy the city. Somehow this is linked to a missing child, and Kaylin, who loves children, will have to learn how to use her powers quickly if she wants to save the child, as well as the entire city. It’s a good thing she has friends to help her.

 

Kaylin is still an expert at offending people with her brash statements and her inappropriate questions; I find it endearing. Her personality really shines through in this narrative and this makes it easy to identify and sympathize with her. The characters are a lot of fun and have plenty of depth. Almost everything that was great in Cast In Shadow and Cast In Courtlight is still fantastic here. The worldbuilding is complex and immersive without a need for infodumps. Bits and pieces of Kaylin’s arc-plot come together, letting her (and us) start to get a little bit more of a feel for what she can do. We also see a lot more of the complex moral gray areas–if you like your fantasy black-and-white then this series isn’t for you. The plot is tense and down to the wire, and drew me in completely.

There are two aspects of Cast In Secret that don’t quite hold up to the previous two books. The first regards the rather oblique, half-said nature of many of Kaylin’s conversations. This time I had more trouble keeping up with them, and more difficulty figuring out how Kaylin could keep up as much as she did. The second problem is that too many important things happen just because Kaylin’s instincts tell her what to do. A certain amount of this is okay, but in at least one place she had an extended conversation in which her part was almost entirely instinct. It’s hard to buy into, and makes those plot developments seem less hard-won than they should. It takes some of the suspense out of things. (It also starts to push Kaylin dangerously close to Mary Sue territory.)

The narrative voice is excellent. There are nice quotable bits in this volume, and the perfect amount of humor to leaven the darkness and tragedy. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment!

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Review: “Timecaster,” J.A. Konrath

Pros: Engaging story
Cons: Trivializes rape of men
Rating: 2 out of 5

 

In the future, crime has been all but eliminated. Timecasters use a device that allows them to view and record events from the previous two weeks, making it nearly impossible to avoid getting caught for a crime. As far as anyone knows, the machines can’t be tampered with or faked in any way. Operating one is more art than science, and Talon is one of the best. Crime is so slow, however, that most of his time is spent doing demonstrations at schools–not exactly what he signed up for. He’s about to get more than his fair share of excitement, however, as he finds out that someone’s been killed… and he’s the obvious suspect.

 

Timecaster, by J.A. Konrath, tosses us a seemingly perfect crime, in which all (supposedly irrefutable) evidence points to the point of view character, Talon. He–and we–know he didn’t do it, but how on earth can he prove that when his own investigations provide proof that he did it? It’s a classic storyline with a new technological twist that definitely makes things interesting.

The characters are decent. A couple of them seem a little one-note; unfortunately that includes the bad guy, whose motivations never clicked for me. The ever-wilder inflation of what’s at stake did add plenty of tension and surprises. Talon shows great creativity in how he handles the challenges set for him.

I enjoyed the early pages in which we’re introduced to the world. There’s plenty of detail without too much complexity, and plenty of context to make it understandable and believable. There’s some dark material in here, but not too dark. At least once I felt that Talon missed an obvious clue, which can be frustrating. There’s also a lot of evil-villain-explaining-himself, which the author even sidelong acknowledges when Talon says, “…thanks for the info dump.” Unfortunately winking at the cliche doesn’t keep it from being a cliche. There’s some nice silliness mixed in with the tone to lighten it up a bit.

There’s one thing that bothered me, however. There’s a scene in which a woman forces non-consensual sex on a man, and it’s played mostly for cheap laughs. We already have enough cultural baggage teaching us that rape of men is not something that really exists as such, or not something they should feel traumatized by. I wish this book hadn’t contributed to that impression. Without that, I’d probably give this book a 3 or 3.5 out of 5. Now I feel obligated to drop it to a 2, even if most of the book doesn’t deserve that. Obviously, this should serve as a trigger warning for rape.

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Review: “Cast in Courtlight,” Michelle Sagara

Pros: Evocative and engrossing
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Kaylin is blunt to the point of rudeness, perpetually late to the point of offense, and apt to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. The Barrani High Court is a highly political, extremely subtle place where saying the wrong or impolite thing could end your life. These are two things that should never mix–so of course they do. Kaylin is needed to save the life of the younger son of the Caste Lord in order to avert a war. There’s no way for her to do this, however, without tying her life irrevocably to his and embroiling herself in a political game with the highest stakes. She’s going to have to watch her mouth, hold on tight, and pray that she lives through the experience!

 

Cast in Courtlight (Chronicles of Elantra, Book 2) is by Michelle Sagara. (It’s also available as part of the Chronicles of Elantra (Cast in Shadow / Cast in Courtlight / Cast in Secret) bundle.) It’s an incredibly engrossing tale that kept me excitedly turning pages from start to finish.

Kaylin is a fantastic character. It would be easy for her to turn into a Mary Sue in the hands of the wrong author, but Ms. Sagara neatly sidesteps this trap. She’s the center of attention and very powerful, but her youth, enthusiasm, absolute refusal to learn anything she deems less than practical, and tendency to stick her foot in her mouth make her really fun to follow along with. She even struggles with words sometimes, which is a trait that it can be challenging for an author to write! In this case it’s nice to have her confused perspective, because it helps to immerse the reader in the strangeness, layers, and subtlety of Barrani court politics.

“There’s something here I don’t see clearly.”
“Probably most of it.”
She shrugged. “Most of it’s not important. I can afford not to see those bits.”

I love watching Kaylin’s relationships grow and change. She and Severn spend some time facing their mutual demons, and her ties to Lord Nightshade become both stronger and stranger, connecting them in odd ways and occasionally allowing him to help her even from afar.

Kaylin’s story is both frightening and funny at the same time. There’s plenty of whimsical fun, particularly in Kaylin’s relationships with some of her fellow Hawks, but events spend plenty of time at the tense and dangerous end of things as well. The writing is evocative and colorful and I never have trouble picturing what’s going on. I’m so looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

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Review: “Cast In Shadow,” Michelle Sagara

Pros: Intense and emotional
Cons: Very occasionally confusing
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Kaylin is a Hawk, serving one of the three Lords of Law. The Lords are looking into a series of murders in which children are marked with odd script and then ritually sacrificed. Kaylin dealt with murders like these once before, when she was young and lived in the fief beyond the reach of the Lords. She knew the children who were sacrificed then, and dealt with tragedies of her own. She’d do anything to stop the current rash of murders–even if it means teaming up with Severn, whom she’s wanted to kill for his own role in her old tragedies. Kaylin is intimately tied to the murders, however. She has the same markings on her own arms, and yet they appeared there on their own–and she’s never been targeted by the killers. She also has strange powers of her own, powers that let her heal, but that she must keep carefully under wraps. The Hawk Lord protects her for some reason of his own, but she makes that hard on him–she’s stubborn, overly curious, and perpetually late to everything. She’s going to have to get her act together if she’s going to put a stop to the new round of murders.

 

Cast in Shadow, by Michelle Sagara, is book one of the Chronicles of Elantra. (It’s also available as part of the Chronicles of Elantra (Cast in Shadow / Cast in Courtlight / Cast in Secret) bundle.) I heard good things about the series and figured that for once I’d get to start at the beginning–I’m so glad that I did!

I love the characters in Cast in Shadow. They have depth, and flaws, and secrets. People have been hiding information about Kaylin from herself, but for once I understood why and didn’t find myself frustrated with this as a reader. Kaylin is impetuous and undisciplined, but I understood why the people around her tended to cut her some slack.

The worldbuilding is fantastic. The setting feels unique and fascinating. It’s detailed just enough to feel complete, without any ungainly infodumps to slow things down. The ecosystem of races and levels of society sucked me in and left me wanting more. There are plenty of mysteries to the world, such that I can easily imagine not growing tired of things through the rest of the series–I can’t wait to read the other books and find out if that holds true. On the one hand I wish I’d discovered this series before now, but at least this way I don’t have to wait before reading more installments in the series! I did occasionally find the descriptions of magic’s use slightly confusing, but this didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment.

The plot dragged me in thoroughly. I had trouble tearing myself away from the pages even though I’ve been really restless lately, which I wholly appreciate. There are some serious moral dilemmas in here rather than easy black-and-white answers. I shed tears more than once, which always says great things about how emotionally engaging a book is. Time to put the next book on hold with my library!

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Review: “Storm Front,” Jim Butcher

Pros: Wild, weird, and fun
Cons: Mildly confusing at times
Rating: 4 out of 5

One advantage of the fact that I’m accepting fewer review books right now is that I’m finally getting around to reading certain books that I should have read long ago. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, for example. I saw the TV show, which I loved, so now it’s time to read the books–thankfully my library’s online collection has them (their collection sucks, so this was by no means assured). One thing I found interesting is that the descriptions of characters in Storm Front (Dresden Files book one) are good enough and ‘real’ enough that they overrode my pre-existing mental images that came from the TV series. That’s tough to accomplish and impressive.

The Dresden Files are about Harry Dresden, wizard-for-hire. In a world where most people think he’s crazy, a crank, or maybe some sort of children’s party entertainer, he takes on the cases other people can’t do much about. He doesn’t do love potions, and he certainly doesn’t do parties. He has to look over his shoulder the whole while, because he killed a man with magic once, and only the fact that it was done in self-defense saved his life. The White Council has given him only one chance: break one of the Laws of Magic again and die. Harry also acts as a consultant for the police from time to time, and in Storm Front he’s looking into the deaths of a mob-connected man and the escort he was spending the night with–deaths in which their hearts exploded out of their chests. No one should be able to wield that kind of doom from a distance. Blend that with someone who’s trying to kill Harry; the fact that Murphy, Harry’s favorite detective, is asking him for information that would put her in danger; and there’s a new drug on the street that open’s a person’s Third Eye. Harry will be lucky if he can make it through the day, much less survive the experience wholesale.

 

Paranoid? Probably. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.

I’m not even sure where to begin. We dive right off into Harry’s crazy world, in which there are demons and fairies, dark magic and light. Yet even he struggles to pay his bills. He has to deal with a sarcastic air spirit, a very independent giant housecat, a pissed-off police contact, and the temptation that is dark magic. He manages to get himself into all sorts of messes, getting attacked by mysterious assailants, hunted by a demon when he’s supposed to be on a rare date, ending up on the bad side of a mob boss, and even hanging from a balcony by a handcuff while fires rage overhead. Just when you think his sad-sack self can’t sink any lower, he screws himself over even further or falls prey to another bout of bad luck. It’s almost painful seeing how many times he can be brought low before he figures out what’s going on and flails like crazy trying to fix things.

It creates a wonderful dynamic, supported and reinforced by some fantastic secondary characters. Even the ones that seem one-note turn out to have more to them (notably Morgan, Harry’s ‘minder’ from the White Council, who’s determined to bring him down). In particular I love Lieutenant Murphy, Harry’s detective friend. She’s a marvelous balance of strong personality traits, some of which are at odds with one another in interesting ways.

Magic is a wild, weird, quirky thing, and it has a unique feel to it in Dresden’s world (I’ve seen other authors who’ve tried to copy that feel, usually without great success). It’s hard not to love a wizard who ends up running around in sweatpants and cowboy boots due to several calamities in series, and whose hair is usually stuck out at an unglamorous angle. I look forward to seeing more of Harry falling afoul of both bad luck and bad guys, while trying in his usual half-assed fashion to protect all of those he cares about.

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