Review: “Archangel’s Shadows,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Beautiful story
Cons: A bit of a sexual conundrum
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Archangel’s Shadows (A Guild Hunter Novel, Book 7) delves into the erotically charged, headstrong relationship between Guild Hunter Ashwini and vampire Janvier. They’ve been alternately flirting with and hating each other for several years now, and while Janvier is certain she’s the one for him, she believes she carries a secret that means they can never be together. For the moment, however, they’re stuck with each other. Mysterious bodies have started showing up–first animals, now a human, as dessicated husks of their former selves. Meanwhile, a new drug targeted at rich vampires with nothing better to do threatens to destabilize the precious post-war peace of New York. Ash and Janvier are tasked with solving the first of these problems, and find themselves inevitably bumping up against the second. They need to take care of things quickly, before any of the other archangels see them as weak and easy to conquer.

As usual, Singh brings a beautiful world to life. Make sure you’re already familiar with it, because there’s a lot going on. Fans of the series will finally get to see these two together, while also keeping up with Elena and Raphael as Raphael’s enormously powerful, and alien, mother comes to visit. We get to find out more about the mysterious Legion. I particularly like the characters of Ash and Janvier; they’re both snarky, strong, and deadly. They work very well together despite their differences. They make natural partners which is fun to watch, and their chemistry is outstanding.

There’s just one problem. In the wake of the recent #metoo campaign, I find myself much more aware of instances of sexual harassment, pressure, and so on, in which one party doesn’t respect the other’s boundaries. And the truth is, Janvier pressures Ashwini in all sorts of ways that for most people would be totally unacceptable. It works for me in this book, because the characters have so much past history, ongoing flirtation on both sides, and deeper caring for each other:

…when they’d spoken so many times, trusted one another so deeply.

It also makes a huge difference to me that when the ultimate seduction occurs, she’s the one who instigates it. As much as he pushes her boundaries, he also in a strange way respects them. I also understand that some readers will want the fantasy of having to be pushed past their own boundaries.

That said, it’s a fine line, and I’m sure there will be readers on both sides of it. You know your own tolerances, so take this into account when you decide whether you want to read this book or not.

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Review: “Archangel’s Viper,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Interesting plot and characters
Cons: A little too much sniping
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Viper (A Guild Hunter Novel) is not a good place to jump into the series; make sure you’ve read other Guild Hunter books first. It’s best to have some background on both of these characters and their unique places in the ongoing plots. That said, Singh includes enough detail that even if it’s been a little while since you’ve read other books you should be able to make your way through this one without a problem.

In the latest installment of the Guild Hunter books (book 10) we get to finally find out more about Venom, a rather unique vampire, and Holly, who is maybe/sorta a vampire and unique in her own right. No one really knows what she is right now so they’re protecting her while keeping a wary eye on her. And with good reason–there’s something powerful and maddening growing inside of her and she doesn’t know how to control it yet. When someone tries to kidnap Holly and the characters learn there’s a $5 million bounty on her, it becomes much more urgent that they find out what’s going on with her.

Romance books in which the leads snipe at each other constantly as they fall in love are not my favorite kind. Partly I find it harder to buy into. Partly the tone just grates on me. Maybe, having been through a recent divorce myself, I just get depressed when I see the negative aspects of relationships right now. That said, Nalini Singh is one of the few authors who can pull it off without tuning me out.

I have to reiterate that Singh’s depiction of a world filled with vampires and angels is quite unique. It isn’t just our world with a little twist–the power structures and people’s lives have some serious differences from the world we’re used to. Angels and vamps aren’t something that just showed up; they’ve been around forever. Angels create vampires to serve them, and angels can go quite power-mad. The Guild Hunters exist to keep vampires in check, although the recent close alliance between New York’s archangel and its Guild chapter is new. It’s a unique ecosystem that I love to explore. I missed a couple of books before this one and I’ll have to go back and catch up, because I’ve loved this series since the very beginning.

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Short Take: “The Unremembered Girl,” Eliza Maxwell

Pros: Raw, beautiful, vivid
Cons: Depressing & painful
Rating: 5 out of 5

Eliza Maxwell’s The Unremembered Girl sees a poor rural family take in a mysterious ‘stray’ who knows herself simply as ‘Girl’. She’s given the name Eve, and she and Henry develop an obsessive bond. She’s indelibly broken, however, and no matter what Henry does to help her, things just go further and further downhill. To further confound things, strange noises can be heard coming from a shack in the swamp that should be deserted. Henry isn’t sure what’s going on, but it can’t be good–and he can’t shake the feeling that it has something to do with Eve.

A warning: this book is incredibly painful and depressing, with a feeling of doom that pervades much of the narrative. Make sure you’re up to reading it. That said, it’s also fiercely beautiful. The visuals are vivid and intense, and the characters come to life on the page. There’s plenty of danger woven in, especially as things get intense toward the end. You’ll find interesting plot twists and surprising consequences. It’s dark enough that I’m not sure I’m happy I read it exactly, but it is an incredibly well-written book.

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Review: “The Scattered and the Dead Box Set,” L.T. Vargus

Pros: Moves beyond the post-apocalyptic basics
Cons: A bit, well, scattered
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Scattered and the Dead Series: The First Four Books, by L.T. Vargus, gives us a plague-stricken world thrown into the dark ages by a nuclear response to the fast-moving biological threat. The population has been vastly depleted, and even years afterward civilization is in tatters. The narrative follows a variety of characters across a spectrum of time periods before and after the nuclear strike. It’s a bit confusing to go back and forth like that all over the place, but I think ultimately it works.

Sometimes there’s a bit of sameness to the character voices; several of the characters are unusually aware of their own physicality and physical actions/reactions. It’s a bit weird. The characters have some nice depth, though, and sometimes surprise the reader. Current post-apocalyptic fiction still often focuses so intensely on the basics–survivalism, largely–that it’s nice to find a book that develops the depth of plot and character necessary in fiction in general. Most sub-genres follow this pattern, starting out as sketches and basics and then gradually developing into fully-fledged fiction with all of the necessary elements for a good story. Unlike some of the recent books I’ve read, Vargus’s The Scattered and the Dead makes that transition.

I like some of the details. There’s a prepper whose preparations come to naught because he gets hit by the plague, and given the odds, that should happen more often than not. It’s been a bit weird to read post-apocalyptic after post-apocalyptic in which both the prepper and all of his family members mysteriously turn out to be immune; after a while it beggars belief. Another nice detail: there may be some serious perverts in here, but at least it doesn’t depict every male as a rampant rapist and every female as a would-be victim.

Vargus’s work is a bit rough around the edges, but I like the story and characters. If you like the genre it’s worth giving this series a read.

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Short Take: “The Halcyon Fairy Book,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: hilarious, fascinating look at fairy tales
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Halcyon Fairy Book mostly consists of reprintings of a handful of fairy tales together with Kingfisher’s biting, humorous, insightful commentary on the same. Fairy tales are known for taking bizarre left turns and leaps of logic, not to mention having ridiculous plots and characters. Kingfisher both appreciates them for what they are and skewers them at the same time. She clearly pokes fun from a place of love, and it shows. I’d gotten so used to the weird facts of fairy tales that I’m not sure I really approach them critically any more, and it’s nice to be reminded of how to apply modern thought to fairy tales without losing an appreciation for them.

Kingfisher also includes a few of her own fairy tales, and they’re wonderful. She clearly puts to use some of her insight in order to create tales that retain that fairy tale feel yet incorporate insights that give them new and fascinating ground to cover. In particular I love her characters, human and not. They possess a great deal more depth and sense than typical fairy tale characters while remaining magical and weird.

I love all of Kingfisher’s work so far and highly recommend reading whatever you can get your hands on!

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Review: “Secrets in Death,” J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Until the ending, it’s up to Robb’s usual quality and style
Cons: Went from too many suspects to just one with a real leap of logic
Rating: 3 out of 5

Secrets in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 45), by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), is not my favorite installment in the series. There’s just nothing to differentiate it much from the rest. I suppose it’s inevitable that this will happen when you get up to book 45(!) in a series, but I love this series so much that I’m still disappointed.

Eve never liked Larinda Mars, a gossip reporter who’d do anything to get a juicy story. But when Mars gets killed in the back room of a trendy bar, Eve will have to do everything she can to track down the culprit. On the way she’ll find out that Mars didn’t just care about secrets for the sake of her job–she cared about them for many reasons. She hoarded them like some people hoard objects, and she used them to blackmail people. Everyone hated Mars, leaving Eve with more than a city-load of suspects.

My biggest complaint with Secrets in Death is that when Eve finds herself with little room left in the book and many suspects remaining, her method of finding the killer involves a rather large leap of logic. It’s a leap that kind of made sense, but it didn’t make sense for her to be as certain of it as she was. So the ending felt both sudden and anti-climactic to me.

My favorite part of this one is the concept of a person who hoards not just objects, but also information. It’s a fantastic concept that I wish Robb could have done even more with.

As usual, you’ll find plenty of fun with Eve, Peabody, a handful of regulars, posh places, things, and events, sharp dialogue, and smokin’ hot action between Eve and Roarke.

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Food: Jazzing up my soup

Last Saturday I went to a mushroom festival in Pennsylvania. It was fantastic! Full of delicious treats and inexpensive and unusual varieties of mushrooms. I brought three pounds of ‘shrooms home and turned 1 lb into bisque, as well as 2 lb into Duxelles*.

When you’re one person having one bowl of soup for dinner, mushroom bisque lasts all week. I don’t know about you, but I need to jazz it up here and there so it doesn’t taste the same every night.

1. I had a bottle of marinated goat cheese balls that I got from a farmer’s market. It added more olive oil than I might have liked, but the sharpness of the goat cheese is divine!

2. If you have Duxelles* on hand, thaw one and use it to garnish your bowl of soup. Just mound it right in the middle. It’ll add some butter, but also a nice garnish of cooked-down mushrooms, which adds texture.

3. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil on your soup, especially if you have some that’s infused with herbs, spice, or garlic.

4. Drizzle a little bit of vinegar on your soup.

5. Chop some roasted peppers and mound into the middle. Other vegetables might work as well, such as marinated artichoke hearts.

6. Chop and cook down bacon; drain on towels and sprinkle that bacon on top of your soup! Pancetta is another option, or sausage.

7. Shred or crumble a good cheese on top. Something sharp or smoky would probably go very well with a mushroom bisque.

Obviously, most of these suggestions will work well for other soups as well.

*Duxelles are what you get when you cook down chopped mushrooms with butter and garlic (I know it’s supposed to be shallots, but I prefer garlic) until dry, then freeze in ice cube trays and empty the frozen cubes into freezer bags. They’re supposed to last for up to three months that way and can be used for all sorts of things.

P.S.: If you want to try that wonderful mushroom bisque, it’s from “Thanksgiving Table” (Review)

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Review: “Mad City,” Michael Arntfield

Pros: Fascinating and detailed
Cons: Rambling in places
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Arntfield’s Mad City: The True Story of the Campus Murders That America Forgot is the story of Linda, who spent most of her life trying to get justice for her murdered college friend. It’s also the story of the evolution of police procedures and understanding of serial killers, and an indictment of many of the actions taken (and not taken) by police past and present.

The beginning in particular rambles round and round quite a lot, and could have used a lot of trimming. Sections rocket back and forth in time and in focus. In general the book is wordy and tends to obscure its points rather than enlighten them. However, it is fascinating to read Arntfield’s take on things like victim-blaming, and how police tend to stick blame onto any convenient caught serial killer so that they can close cases. He does, however, do a good job of pointing out time periods when police really didn’t have the scientific understanding or resources to do what they can today.

It’s depressing that Linda almost certainly knew who killed her friend, and kept the police informed of each bit of progress she made, yet the man died of old age without ever having been looked at seriously by police.

[I]f the general public knew just how many murders are solved due to luck or silly mistakes and oversights made by offenders with respect to leaving physical evidence or not keeping their mouths shut–versus cracker jack sleuthing the way it’s done on TV–people generally would be horrified and never leave their homes.

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Review: “Nine Goblins,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: An all-around wonderful story
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s Nine Goblins gives us a world in which goblins–who aren’t so bad, really–are at war with humans and elves. It’s what happens when you keep getting pushed out of your habitats until there’s nothing left to do but turn and take a stand. We find ourselves traveling along with the Whinin’ Niners, a particularly motley crew. They’re just trying to survive the war, but things take a turn for the magical when they charge a human wizard and he opens an escape hatch in the air–one they find themselves falling through as well. They’re left stranded 40 miles behind enemy lines with an unconscious and probably psychotic human mage (after all, everyone knows that mages are psychotic, suffering from Arcane Manifestation Disorder). Not wanting to be responsible for murder, they get a little water into him, put a blanket over him, and take off toward home. Along the way they meet Sings-to-Trees, a most unusual elf. Instead of being ultra-fashionable and unwilling to get his fingers dirty, he’s a veterinarian. In fact, we first see him up to the shoulder in an ungrateful unicorn, trying to help birth her breech baby. He’s used to all manner of foul and disgusting things–like goblins. He even knows some of their language. He teams up with the goblins to find out why the nearby human village seems to be mysteriously empty of people and animals alike, only to end up in an awful lot of danger.

The characters are fantastic. From the goblin who only speaks for his teddy-bear to the elf who can’t help stopping to treat a big blubbery baby of a troll, from the goblin who makes machines that don’t blow up to the person responsible for much of the bad stuff going on, they each shine in their own way. They have unique and fantastic personalities that make them riveting to follow. Character interactions between the goblins made me laugh out loud, and the weird collection of characters truly brought the tale alive. I mean, did we need an elven veterinarian in here? Of course not, but he’s such an exceptional character that he slipped seamlessly into the tale and brought it to life. Kingfisher has a knack for going beyond what’s needed into what’s magical.

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Review: “Summer in Orcus,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Beautiful, heartfelt alternate-world tale
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher, is about 11-year-old Summer, whose mother is overprotective and needy. One day Baba Yaga’s house struts into town and plops down near Summer’s house. Baba Yaga offers to give Summer her heart’s desire–but Summer has no idea what that is. It’s only once Baba Yaga has thrust Summer into another world with only a talking weasel for company that Summer realizes that any story featuring Baba Yaga is unlikely to end well. It doesn’t take her long to discover that there’s a cancer eating away at the heart of the world, and to realize that she’s no hero to go around saving entire worlds. How can she help on a scale that’s doable; how can she find her way back home; how can she escape the bad guys who immediately realize that something’s changed and there’s someone to be caught?

I absolutely love Summer in Orcus. It has a taste of Narnia, but it’s on a smaller scale. Summer isn’t a queen; she isn’t meant to save entire worlds. She’s lost and tired and scared. Her friends include a wolf (who turns into a house when night falls–he’s a were-house), a dandy of a hoopoe bird who owes people money, and a weasel who’s just as scared as she is. Early on she stumbles into a dying dryad and finds she feels a sense of need to help that dryad, but she has no idea how. The only hint she has as to her path is from a cheese-selling man who cuts a slice of a cheese that predicts the future, and this one says that her path will be marked with turquoise. A turquoise dragonfly, vivid blue eyes of a forester…the color isn’t always there to lead her, but it comes up often enough that she thinks she’s still on the right path.

She still has to avoid the bad guys, however, and the bad guys have no qualms about killing and burning to get what they want. Summer’s very presence puts some of her new friends and their allies in danger, and she has to realize that this doesn’t make it her fault.

Summer in Orcus is a smaller, folktale-sized version of something like Narnia, where young people have to go to another world and put it to rights. This one is cozier and very imaginative, and as an adult I love it.

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