Review: “Into the Drowning Deep,” Mira Grant

Pros: Fantastic tension, characters, and attention to detail
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep is a follow-on to her Rolling in the Deep. In that installment, a ship called the Atargatis sets sail to film a mockumentary about mermaids. Unfortunately it encounters the real thing and discovers that reality is much more deadly than fiction. The vessel was found adrift and empty, with only a few hotly-debated pieces of film to indicate what had happened. Now, seven years later, the film company is sending another vessel. This one is much larger, with many scientists on board. There are special security systems, and the company has hired two big game hunters and plenty of photogenic security to keep people safe. The scientists on board include Victoria “Tory” Stewart, whose sister Anne was an ‘on-air personality’ on the first boat. Also Jillian Toth, who is the scientist whose research dictated the Atargatis’s path. Olivia has what would have been Anne’s job, and a pair of deaf sisters named Heather and Holly (with their hearing translator and older sister Hallie) have their own relevant areas of expertise. The timing of the new expedition is based partially on Tory’s research, which has turned up sonar of what she believes is the mermaids mimicking the sounds of the Atargatis.

Into the Drowning Deep is not a short book, but it kept me hooked from the very beginning. It’s riveting and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Early on Heather takes her submersible down into the very depths and comes face-to-face with the mermaids themselves. The level of detail wrapped me up in the events and the tension just grabbed hold. Did I mention the unbearable tension?

That was how you found things, in the sea. Be delicious.

I’m still surprised at how well this book held up for its full length. In some places it seems like there aren’t many big things happening, but it feels like it’s teeming with activity. The detail and characters have a great deal to do with that. Each death hits home, even when we haven’t known someone long or don’t like them. Everything feels real.

The presence of Olivia as a reporter for the entertainment company running the show allows her to extract explanations from the scientists that are somewhere closer to sound-bite than info-dump. Even once people stop caring about speaking to the camera, the fact that the various scientists are often in semi-related fields keeps things smart but brief. It’s a perfect compromise.

One of the details that most interested me was Hallie’s place in things. Sure, she came as a translator for her sisters, but she came for herself too. The mermaids have a signing language (they know that from the scraps of footage from the first attack), so she’s there to hopefully analyze and learn some of that language. All of the characters have plenty of a role to play; no one feels extraneous. The characters were also individualistic enough that I never had trouble remembering who was who, which can get challenging in books this long.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in recent weeks, and I’ve read some good ones. I’d absolutely recommend anything by Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire). She takes my favorite genre, horror, and amps it up completely!

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Review: “Mink Eyes,” Max McBride

Pros: Slow unraveling of an interesting plot
Cons: Some overwrought language
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: Publisher provided book for review.

 

First, I have to get this out of my system. I’ve read a fair amount of erotic romance, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quote quite this bad:

…the genitals’ cry of loss…

I just… I can’t stop laughing, and I really don’t think that was what the author was going for! Pardon me while I regain my composure… ahem.

Max McBride’s Mink Eyes is a tale of private detective Pete O’Keefe. He’s just keeping his head above water, and is starting to have to make hard choices as to what jobs he will and won’t take, which of his employees he’ll put in charge of what, and so on. His lifelong good friend and lawyer sets him up with a new job looking into, of all things, a mink farm. The man running it had been convincing people to invest in pairs of minks that would “do what came naturally” (produce lots of baby minks) and thus also produce lots of pelts to sell. Now it seems he was running a Ponzi scheme in which he was using the money from each new investor to pay off the old ones, and of course he allowed people to re-invest. Apparently his latest investor was much more of a heavy-hitter, and now that the place is out of money, the scam artist is nowhere to be found. The investors hiring Pete include the father of the scam artist’s wife, Tag, and Pete concentrates on finding her. He may be about to end up in over his head, however. He has had trouble with drink and drugs in the past, and he isn’t a stellar father to his 10-year-old girl. Add in a femme fatale, some well-armed goons, and a whole lot of temptation and things could go downhill in a hurry.

The initial pace yields a sort of gentle, rolling feel, especially at first. It’s thoughtful and provides a somewhat different view of private detective work rather than the stereotype of the lone gunman. Instead, Pete is an ex-druggie, ex-hippie, ex-Marine (Vietnam) who has never quite lost some of his idealistic fantasies and who has battled some serious depression. Actually, he still deals with it within the scope of this story, and yes, it does make the story itself rather depressing for a while.

Finally Pete gets shot at while he’s with his daughter, Kelly, on Halloween night, leaving him little choice but to go in search of Tag again, who first seduced him and then ran off without him earlier in the tale. He hunts down and has to face the idea that the bad guys who are after Tag are much worse than he expected, and he’s almost certainly getting in over his head. I like the fact that the story doesn’t downplay how out of his league he is.

This might not be the best thriller ever, but I love the idea of a mink farm Ponzi scheme. There’s just so much whimsical creativity in that. And that gentle, rolling pace for the first while is unusual and interesting. As long as you don’t mind wallowing in a bit of someone else’s depression–which isn’t always what one is ready for–you might enjoy this read.

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Review: “Darkness at the Edge of Town,” Jennifer Harlow

Pros: Lots of interesting dysfunctional characters
Cons: Undercover choice leads to some difficulties
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: Book provided by publisher for review

 

Jennifer Harlow’s Darkness at the Edge of Town: An Iris Ballard Thriller sees ex-FBI agent Iris Ballard going home, the one place she really doesn’t want to be. Her brother has fallen prey to the influence of a cult, deserting his fiancee, emptying out their bank accounts, and moving onto the cult’s farm. Iris needs to find him (no one seems to know where the farm is–just a house that is used as the cult’s ‘Temple’) and convince him to go home. But it doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in even deeper than she thought. He’s gotten one of the cult members pregnant and has married her. When Iris is just about ready to give up on her brother and allow that he seems to be happy there, she finds out the cult is being investigated by the DEA. Now she’s terrified that the hard-headed DEA agent will act too swiftly and get her brother, among others, killed by the paranoid cult leader/drug runner.

I was a bit surprised that Iris went to visit the cult “undercover,” using a fake name and identity. Her face is all over the news, and if she expects to run into her brother then her cover will be blown as soon as he sees her. Either way, it seems like a foolish choice. It seems to be mostly luck that allows this to work for as long as it does. When she does inevitably get recognized, her deception undermines her credibility with her already-estranged brother, which she should have seen coming.

There’s some adult material as Iris allows the Temple to think they’re recruiting her. It’s a nice touch that the man who tries to seduce her actually seems to believe he’s fallen head-over-heels for her, thanks to the head of the cult’s careful suggestions.

There are plenty of interesting dysfunctional characters, especially among Iris’s family and friends! I like the sheriff who was her mentor in particular. On the other hand, the DEA agent is very stereotypical–so determined to screw with Iris that he risks the lives of everyone in the cult by pushing too hard too fast and ignoring everything Iris tells him. Also, while the bad guy has an interesting background (he was Amish, is gay, and has a wide variety of interesting events in his background), his current personality as shown is that of a pretty one-dimensional bad guy.

Despite my minor misgivings, this is a fascinating story of the ways in which a cult can grab hold of people who need something good in their lives.

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Review: “A Demon Saved,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Katherine Kim’s A Demon Saved (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 3) Michael gets stabbed and poisoned while saving May’s life (it’s a good thing that’s his job since he does it so much), and the poison is new and particularly deadly to demons. Even though it’s believed that the demons’ ancient enemies, the nefil, no longer exist in the earthly realm, one of them shows up to help. Anna is a healer and does everything she can to help Michael–apparently it’s her student Milquert (?! makes me think milquetoast every time I see it) who’s gone off the deep end, re-entered the earthly realm, and wants to kill not just every demon but every human who has been “tainted” by a demon. Which, thanks to Michael’s membership in the Temple, now means all of the Temple humans. It’s a good premise.

The book could still use a good copyeditor who can catch the stuff that an automated spellchecker won’t. Sometimes I’m impressed at how little action it takes for the book to be interesting, while at other times I’m bored by the lack of progress or action. I still appreciate that the author allows May and Michael to be partners without being lovers, but I would have liked to see more physical chemistry between Michael and Anna–it was hard to buy into their feelings for one another because, unlike everything else, the author didn’t dwell on them.

SPOILER Warning: Michael missed so many obvious clues of a trap that was set for him that it was quite frustrating. He’s generally much smarter than this. I’m also surprised, given how careful he’s been to never have a child before now, that Anna mysteriously becomes pregnant just after they get together. I mean seriously, has he never heard of a condom? If that’s always worked for him before now and now suddenly didn’t, that should be pointed out as something odd. End spoilers.

On the whole Katherine Kim clearly has skill and talent, and I hope that she keeps improving. I’d like to see more of her work, but it still needs development.

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Review: “A Demon’s Sanction,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Katherine Kim’s A Demon’s Sanction (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 2) Temple Priestess May is having to defend Guardian demon Michael to other Temple personnel rather than being paranoid about him herself. The demon-living-as-a-human has been May’s Guardian for some time. The both of them have been sent on a number of missions already, some of which were quite dangerous and would usually have called for multiple teams. They suspect some of the Temple Elders want to get Michael killed so they don’t have to worry about having a demon in the Temple. An argument between May and Oliver in particular gets a bit old. It’s difficult because, as readers, we already are in Michael’s head and we know he’s a good guy, so the arguments are harder to sit through and they get old fast.

There are still spelling and grammar issues here, again of the sort that aren’t likely to be caught by an automatic spellchecker (a good editor would be handy). Its/it’s again, wrong words, missing words, etc.

Since paranormal/urban fantasy novels are full of growly, “alpha” characters, particularly when it comes to demons, it’s really nice to meet one who’s a bit bookish and sad. I’m also grateful to the author for not throwing romance into the mix between May and Michael–while I like a good romance, it’s just nice to have some variety and to see characters be partners without having to mix sex into things. Along those veins, I also adore the idea of seeing Michael as a “failure” of a demon.

One trope that made me shake my head was a lesser demon (an Imp) who practically slavishly fell at May’s feet when she gave it a silly name. It’s just a bit obvious and overdone.

Dialogue and arguments take up too much of the space in these books. I hope the author gets a better handle on the use of detail and various levels of action to round out a tale. I remain convinced, however, that there’s some definite talent on display here and that the author is worth following for that reason.

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Review: “A Demon’s Duty,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

A Demon’s Duty (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 1) by Katherine Kim is about a demon named Michael who’s been hiding behind a glamour of humanity in the human world. He never liked the endless political and deadly machinations of the demon world, so he fled when his brother tried to kill him. He’d much prefer to study alchemy, read, and just relax when possible. That last one is made impossible when he stumbles across the aftermath of a battle between a Temple Priestess, her Guardians, and a pack of Hellhounds. After finishing off what’s left of the unusually massive hounds, he ends up taking on the magical vow of a Guardian and promising to protect May, the Priestess. There is no precedent for what’s happening, and May has no idea whether she can trust him or not.

These books show definite talent, and I believe that everything I disliked about them is something that can be fixed with time, practice, and a good critique group. This is why even though I don’t love the books, I read and will review all three.

There are some spelling and grammar problems, missing words, misused words, its/it’s confusion, etc. Mostly it looks like errors that would be caught by a good editor but not by an automatic spell-checker.

There’s a cut to a flashback that was awkward and confusing. It’s also weird that the book starts after one of the main points of action has ended. The great thing about a beginning is that you can deliberately start it in the middle of the action if you’re publishing in a genre that makes sense for. That would have made much more sense here. Instead the opening is extremely talky and sluggish and acts as an extended info-dump. I made it about a third of the way through the book before it felt like anything much happened.

Kim does a good job of using some fairly simple worldbuilding to create an interesting backdrop. She also neatly portrays Michael’s separation from humanity and the confusion he feels around people.

May does come across as too stupid a couple of times. In particular she spends much too long jumping to half-founded conclusions about Michael. It made me want to shake her a bit, and Kim goes to too great a length twisting things up to make her concerns seem legitimate, keeping them apart as teammates artificially.

It probably sounds like I should have rated this lower, but I meant it when I said I can see skill and talent here. I’d like to see more despite the flaws.

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Review: “The Girl Who Lived,” Christopher Greyson

Pros: Fascinating and disturbing setup
Cons: Faith is very self-sabotaging
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Christopher Greyson’s The Girl Who Lived, Faith has been in and out of mental institutions ever since most of her family was killed. Her father supposedly stabbed her sister Kim, her best friend Anna, and Anna’s mother before shooting himself. Only Faith was there–and she saw someone else do the killing. No one believes her, not the police, not her mother, and not Faith’s therapists. Faith finally gets out shortly before her 23rd birthday (which will be the day after the tenth anniversary of the killings). Her mother has set everything up for her–AA meetings and a sponsor, survivor’s group, therapy, an apartment, a used car, and some possible jobs. That sounds great, except that other than the killings themselves, her mother is the single toughest part of her life. Her mother wrote a book about Faith’s travails after the killings called “The Girl Who Lived,” leaving Faith’s troubled life an open book for everyone in her small town. And her mother has a very emotionally detached view of Faith. Even Faith’s new therapist has read the book and is in a practice with Faith’s mother, making it difficult to establish a relationship of trust when she didn’t get to choose what to divulge to him.

Faith immediately falls off the wagon with respect to alcohol, so the cops don’t believe her when she sees “Rat Face,” one of the two men she spotted at the cabin on the night of the murders. Her car gets stolen (only to be found a couple of streets away), her house gets broken into (with no apparent damage or theft), and she gets stalked through the halls of the school where she has her survivor’s group meeting (only no one else sees anyone). The cops and her mother get more and more skeptical as she gets more and more convinced she’s being stalked. And trying to track down Rat Face only puts a target on her chest.

Faith is very self-sabotaging. It’s entirely understandable, but it still gets a bit frustrating now and then. I kind of wanted to grab her by the shoulders and give her a shake a couple of times. In some ways that’s probably a sign of a good character, but frustration isn’t really what I’m looking for when reading!

In this age of tell-alls, reality TV, and YouTube videos that chronicle our most intimate moments, it’s good to see an exploration of what the behind-the-scenes down-side can look like when it happens to someone.

SPOILER warning: I will say that it’s good we do eventually get a reason for why the serial killer feels the need to play with Faith instead of just offing her. It’s something more than just oh, he’s crazy. End spoilers.

I enjoyed this serial-killer thriller, and even shed a few tears near the end. I’d be happy to read more by this author.

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Review: “Killer Savant,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Bizarre and fascinating
Cons: Weird gender not-really-theme?
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Killer Savant mostly worked for me. I find the quality of his work varies wildly, but on the whole I love it and want to read more. In this book, a killer called The Bunny Butcher is killing teenagers in a small town. He left a manifesto with a bunch of rules in it, and one of the things that can get someone killed is being too good. We’re used to moralistic horror tales in which behaving poorly gets you killed; in this case it’s the opposite:

No kid would be caught dead obeying an order after dark.

It has created a weird feeling of a town under siege, in which kids break windows, egg buildings, key cars, swear at any and every adult they deal with, etc., and the adults have to let them get away with it because it’s the only way to keep them alive. The Butcher’s latest victim, Zane, has been in a coma, and there’s been a lull in the Butcher’s activity. Some people are hopeful that it’s over, but most people believe it’s just going to be much worse when the Butcher starts up again. There’s one man in town who knows more than he’s telling about this killer, but he can’t do anything until the Butcher shows his face again. Once he does get involved the strangeness quotient rockets. The Butcher is appearing in multiple places, or perhaps there are multiple Butchers. Every time someone thinks they know who killed a given person, it seems disproved by evidence from the next one. This is a horror novel, so don’t expect things to stay within the real-world possible. The possibility that the real killer is actually a parasite or infection arises at one point.

One of the themes the author mentions after the story is that of gender. I couldn’t see how there was really much of any theme about gender except in that many of the kids had gender-neutral or even gender-opposite names (she: Jagger, Magnus, Duke, Pike, Monty, Roscoe; he: Piper, Neva, Scout, Dixie). I’d consider that a quirk, or at best just an attempt to advance how we approach gender naming, but I wouldn’t call it enough for a theme. The large number of characters did make it hard for me to keep track of everyone despite writing down names and family relationships.

There were a few aspects of how the Butcher behaved that I would have liked to understand better. A certain bizarre type of image seems to mesmerize him and I’d like to know why or how. Also, the explanation of the kids’ bad behavior is drawn out enough toward the beginning that it confused me more than drawing me in. Despite my early confusion, I found this to be a fascinating look at how people could change their behavior under this kind of pressure.

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Review: “The Night of the Moths,” Riccardo Bruni

Pros: Great characters; interesting mystery
Cons: A bit slow at times; some confusion as to time/PoV
Rating: 4 out of 5

Riccardo Bruni’s mystery/suspense The Night of the Moths is translated to English from the original Italian, and the story takes place in a small Italian town. A young woman named Alice was killed after walking away from her boyfriend, and her father has killed a “Half-Wit” who had been stalking her. The boyfriend, Enrico, leaves town and doesn’t come back–until now, ten years later, when he wants to sell his family’s old vacation home. Now he finds evidence that all was not as it seemed ten years ago, and perhaps the sequence of events wasn’t so straightforward.

There are portions of the story that are narrated by dead Alice. I think I liked those the most just because she has an interesting stream-of-consciousness style and ruminates on things in a way that could be slow but ends up holding my interest. Unfortunately the point of view and tense (present-day mystery versus past events) shifts get a bit confusing.

The characters help to make up for the confusion. In particular I love a security guard who’s a bit too obsessed with the Die Hard movies and who ends up helping in unexpected ways. The characters have nice depth to them, lending true mystery to some of the past actions. The pacing also draws out the mystery nicely, adding important details at regular intervals and ratcheting up the tension toward the end.

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Review: “Silent Fear,” Lance and James Morcan

Pros: Taut thriller with plenty going on
Cons: Tone-deaf approach to girls and sex, especially at this time
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: free book provided for review by authors.

 

Lance and James Morcan’s Silent Fear (A novel inspired by true crimes) introduces us to First Class Detective Superintendent Valerie Crowther, who is called on to investigate the death-by-burning of a student at a university for deaf people. Valerie is the only detective fluent in British Sign Language (BSL) thanks to the fact that her mother is deaf, so she’s the obvious first responder. Unfortunately, as she gets drawn into the case she also gets caught in a quarantine: there’s a horrific flu epidemic going on in the world, and although Britain has closed its borders, one of the school’s students just became the first positive test result in the country. The Prime Minister is so desperate to keep the danger contained that she has the school boarded up, plastic-wrapped, and cordoned off by the army. It doesn’t take long to realize the killer is stuck inside the building with everyone else, leaving Val to try to catch her serial killer in a horrid heat wave with no air conditioning, dwindling food supplies, a gradually filling quarantine ward of the deathly ill, a handful of pain-in-the-ass characters (including two media figures who made it inside) and no obvious suspects. She’s connected via phone to her ex-husband and boss, Chief Bennett, but there isn’t a lot he can do from the outside.

This book starts out a bit self-consciously ponderous:

…as office workers and residents mingled over a few drinks of the alcoholic variety as they endeavored to assuage their thirst.

Thankfully it relaxes into a better, less thesaurus-driven rhythm as the book goes on, largely settling into its voice.

There are some little bits that don’t add up. Such as, the insistence that there’s no sign of “anything remotely sexual” about the deaths–despite the fact that one was found half-naked.

NOTE: Possible plot spoilers in this paragraph. Go to the next if you want to avoid them. There’s also a spot that got to me: “…about to rape the fetching Miss Kloss…” So someone’s about to be raped, and the detail the authors choose to focus on is that she’s attractive. Considering the current climate regarding sexual assault, that’s tone-deaf at best. Similarly, it seems like any young, attractive female student is into being dominated or hurt in sexual areas. And even though Val is at least supposed to be a good strong main character (and largely is), she needs to be rescued by her ex-husband not once but twice. To add to that, the bad guy’s self-avowed “masterstroke” meant to deflect suspicion away from him was actually what made it obvious to me that it was him, and I didn’t get the impression that was deliberate on the authors’ part. End spoilers.

There is a portion toward the end that slows and gets a little dull, but for the most part this is a tense, suspenseful thriller with plenty going on. The flu epidemic certainly ratchets up the tension, particularly the nice touch that it makes people blind before killing them–a vicious symptom for a bunch of deaf people. The exploration of deaf society is fascinating, and the students do develop a trait or two that keep them from being just stereotypes of the violent gang member, the violent proto-terrorist, the sex-obsessed American, etc. It’s a hard line to walk. Those extra traits are largely left to the end so that they don’t make the characters seem less suspect, but that does mean that for most of the book they come across more stereotypically.

Overall this is an interesting mystery that kept me hooked and was worth reading.

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