Review: “The Case of the Claw,” Keith R.A. DeCandido

Pros: Entertaining
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Keith R.A. DeCandido’s The Case of the Claw is book number one in his SuperCity Police Department (SCPD) series. In this world super heroes are real, but we get to see things primarily from the point of view of the police officers and detectives who have to work around them. It’s all well and good that the Superior Six or the Terrific Trio go after the bad guys, but somehow they’re never around to sign witness statements or give testimony, and there’s always the collateral damage to worry about. The police just discovered that a mutated villain called the Claw has returned to the city, and is killing people once again. They have no idea what his real identity is, and his DNA doesn’t match anything in the system. The Terrific Trio are off-planet currently, and the Superior Six insist that they’ll take care of the problem–yet they seem to be doing anything but. We get to see a week in the life of the homicide detectives of SuperCity as they try to hunt down the Claw, deal with the everyday fights that break out, appeal to the Six for cooperation, and face an alien invasion.

It’s great to get to see things from the police viewpoint in this super hero story. The heroes aren’t universally good or bad. They often make the officers’ and detectives’ lives harder, for example by bringing in criminals without actual evidence to hold them on. Or by causing collateral deaths and damage during their fights against villains such as the Brute Squad. While there’s some whimsy here and there, this story is a bit darker than some super hero fare (though not as dark as some, either).

I enjoyed the characters, although there were enough named police that I had trouble keeping them all straight after a while. Mac is kind of the stereotypical near-retirement grump with a chip on his shoulder, partnered with the stereotypical too-eager rookie with a chip on her shoulder. Luckily their relationship evolves beyond that, giving them some depth over the course of the story. The other characters are similar in their willingness to grow. I particularly love the police captain, Javier Garcia, who still gets phone calls from his mother constantly while he’s working.

The pacing is excellent, with the police commissioner and mayor raining crap down on Garcia’s head with every day that goes by without the Claw having been apprehended. People continue to die, and various calamities pull the police in all different directions. There’s a hostage situation, a Pulitzer-winning gruff journalist, heroes with names like “Spectacular Man” and “The Bruiser,” and nifty pieces of technology passed along by Ms. Terrific. It’s satisfying as both a mystery and a super hero story!

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Short Take: “Ghost Talking,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: The plot thickens!
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

 

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s Ghost Talking – Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 6 is book six in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. We’re back in the alien Zoo/jungle! Holly is splitting her time between helping Paula run J.B.’s bar and researching a cure to save his life. He’s already talking about having her take over the bar once he dies. Billie is making forays into the Zoo, as well as taking on other spy hijinks, in order to get Holly the information she needs to work on the cure.

There are some truly ass-kicking scenes of Billie collecting substances in the Zoo. That has to be my favorite part of this installment in the series. Billie went ahead and did the one thing you’re never, ever supposed to do: she pulled a whole plant. She made the Zoo MAD. There are also some nice sequences of her doing spy-stuff to get information for Holly, but I didn’t find those to be quite as immersive and believable.

I still wish the authors had given us a little more background on Holly to support the idea that she could come up with some sort of cure for J.B. Sure, her eidetic memory gives her an edge in internalizing all the research Billie is stealing for her, but I still don’t see how she goes from what we’ve seen so far to creating a whole new super-healing drug no one else has come up with yet. Also, since we know J.B. has seen doctors for his mysterious alien illness, why haven’t the corporations in question just up and kidnapped him to experiment on? (Or at least tried to buy him off to be a guinea pig?) I’d think they’d seriously want to study what was happening to him.

Looking forward to the remaining six books!

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Review: “The Bride Stripped Bare,” Rob Bliss

Pros: If you want a catalog of the grotesque…
Cons: Needlessly depraved and bizarre
Rating: 2 out of 5

Book Twitter let me down for once in its recommendation of Rob Bliss’s The Bride Stripped Bare. English professor Chris gets contacted by his old friend Gord, who wants him to be best man at his wedding to Venus Baer. Venus’s wealthy family is happy to pay for Chris’s travel, so Chris packs up and heads out. He’s surprised to find his old friend has landed an incredibly gorgeous, very hot, wealthy woman. He’s even more surprised when he finds the bachelor party to be a hallucinatory, drug-fueled escapade of sex and violence–although he’s pretty sure some of the things he remembers were just dreams. (He couldn’t possibly have killed a man, could he?) Unfortunately, while trying on the wedding day finery, Gord lets something slip that he shouldn’t have, and soon Gord and Chris are on the run. The entire town seems to be made up of family, however, so they won’t get far.

Just to be clear, so you have some idea of whether the things that I liked or dislike would matter to you: I have nothing inherently against the grotesque in books. I enjoy the occasional bloody horror novel. However, I like to feel that the violence and blood and sex serve a purpose in the telling of the story, rather than being the point of the novel in and of themselves. In this case, I felt the blood, drugs, sex, cannibalism, rape, and incest were the point of the story rather than being a means to tell the tale. I felt like I was reading an internet fetish story.

Things also get quite weird. There’s magic afoot, and a bear cult, and a world-spanning depraved family capable of having one person squeeze out 10+ babies in an hour or two. I fail to comprehend how these folks have remained beneath the radar. The birth and conception material gets particularly hallucinogenic.

The characters aren’t that great. The only positive female character is a stereotypical horror heroine–goes through trauma and then rallies to coldly put bullets in the bad guys. Chris is a little too into the depravity for a good protagonist. Gord is basically at the mercy of whatever anyone wants him to do in order for more coke. Venus and her father and brother are vicious and crazy.

The pacing is actually pretty decent, but it isn’t really in service of anything worthwhile. If you just want to read a litany of depravity with an utterly bizarre cult of excess, you might enjoy this. Otherwise, I’d skip it.

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Short Take: “Ghost Walking,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: The plot thickens!
Cons: I’m pretty sure Holly is the wrong kind of chemist…
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Ghost Walking: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 5 is the fifth book in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. In books one through four, chemist Holly, considering taking a super-dangerous job in the alien jungle called the Zoo, listened to bartender J.B.’s stories. Now, one of those stories has come to find Holly: supposed “ghost” Billie “Wild Bill” Hickok. Apparently she’s noticed that J.B. is sick–very sick–and she owes him her life, so she’s here to pay up. She needs Holly’s skills as a chemist, paired with her own ability to make successful solo trips into the Zoo, to come up with a cure for what ails J.B. The alien jungle is killing him; perhaps it can save him as well.

My one major problem with this one is that we don’t have enough information to make it believable that Holly has the skills for this. Sure, she’s a chemist, but she’s certainly not a doctor. What we’ve seen of her so far is mainly an uncanny palate with regard to alcoholic drinks. That isn’t a background that would enable this new twist to make sense.

My favorite part of this is watching Billie do her thing. She doesn’t have her usual “control” talking her through things, so she starts making up his part on the fly as she goes through spy hijinks. It makes for a simultaneously hilarious and tense set of sequences and I loved it!

In small notes: it was a relief to have one woman chuckle and one snicker, so that they weren’t all giggling. Phew.

We also get a new hint about the Zoo, as Billie points out that, since all the compounds in the jungle seem to have healing and longevity purposes, perhaps the missile was a gift, not an act of war. I’m looking forward to learning more about that. This volume leaves off on a more noticeable “to be continued” than the first four novellas.

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Review: “Conflict of Interest,” Lauryn Christopher

Pros: Really fun character and setup
Cons: Just tiny things
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lauryn Christopher’s Conflict of Interest brings us into the world of Meg Harrison, a “corporate consultant” who happens to do corporate espionage on the side. She’s also not above a little murder-for-hire if the price is right. Harry Saunders, the head of a biofuel company, has hired Meg to discredit his competition, a Dr. T.J. Whitfield. Then he decides he wants his rival killed. But when Meg shows up to do the job, things get complicated. It turns out that “T.J.” is Therese, Harry’s estranged wife, and Meg doesn’t like it when clients lie or omit details. Therese also looks strikingly like Meg–beyond what could be expected from a coincidence. Suddenly Meg finds herself not entirely certain–for the first time ever–that she wants to carry out the job she’s been paid for. She works to get close to Therese, something easier than she expected under the circumstances, and the two start to become friends. What will Meg do? Will she kill Therese? Will she go after Harry? Is something more going on here?

The pacing in this one is particularly good. The tension builds up quite nicely, with little revelations leading to larger. This isn’t a high-action book, and the tone definitely has a sense of humor to it, but it kept me engrossed. It’s also very detail-oriented, with things seeming to disappear only to come back later, and little things adding up. I did have one small issue with a detail later on, but I don’t want to spoil anything, and it was only a little thing.

I really enjoyed the characters; only Harry is a bit of a one-dimensional horn-dog. Therese and Meg are both intriguing, as are several side characters. I particularly enjoy that Meg is not an entirely likable character. Even when she learns that Harry is manipulating her in order to kill his wife, she doesn’t immediately set aside the contract. She continues to work the job, and even contemplates whether it would be possible to use her resemblance to Therese to steal her money.

The connection between Meg and Therese, especially given that they live in entirely different areas, is an awfully large coincidence. But hey, weird coincidences happen all the time in real life, so I’m willing to suspend disbelief for this one.

This was a really fun book, and I look forward to reading more about Meg!

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Short Take: “Nobody Remembers But Us,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Very intriguing setting
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Nobody Remembers but Us: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 4 is the fourth book in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. Holly is on day four of researching the Zoo. Today she’s trying to pin down something else: what does the company hiring her really want from the Zoo? They claim they want her to find some unique ingredient for alcoholic drinks, but given how ridiculously dangerous the Zoo is, she’s certain there’s a hidden agenda. Her contact, handler, and friend Rod doesn’t quite seem to grasp how dangerous the assignment really would be. Holly rents an apartment in the area–she seems to be becoming attached–and heads back to FUBAR to hear more stories. Tonight’s story is of Billie “Wild Bill” Hickok, who ran secretive solo missions into the Zoo on behalf of an unknown employer.

For some reason characters in these books rarely use contractions when speaking, and it makes things sound a little stilted. Minor annoyance, but I mention it in case you care.

We get introduced to a couple of new animals this time! The bear that screams like a woman is slightly reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach books. And of course there had to be something that’s adorable-yet-deadly. (Most of the inhabitants of the zoo are not afraid to be obvious about their deadliness!)

I still want to know more about how this alien material got to Earth and triggered the formation of the Zoo, but I have hope there’ll be another line or three in the next few novels. Holly’s renewed conviction that her employer has a hidden agenda reassures me that the series is keeping in mind its arc-plot. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

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Review: “Dead Moon,” Peter Clines

Pros: Moon zombies!!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Dead Moon, by Peter Clines, is a wonderful new take on the zombie story! For nearly a hundred years, the Moon has hosted cemeteries. There’s just no more room to bury the dead on Earth, so Caretakers respectfully do the deed in the soil of the Moon. Cali Washington, having given up on her dream career, is a newly-arrived Caretaker. A few short weeks after she arrives, however, a mysterious meteor crashes into one of the other cemeteries. This meteor, which is far more than just rock, brings the dead back to a semblance of life! They can walk outside on the Moon without difficulty, and they have at least some rudimentary intelligence–their goal seems to be to kill everyone they come across, and they know how to do things like un-seal a person’s space suit. Jake, one of Cali’s co-workers, is a former Marine. Tessa is a particularly enthusiastic Caretaker who’s wanted to do this all of her life. Kurt Hausmann is the son of the CEO of DisCorp, which owns the Moon facilities, taking his turn at experiencing “real” work. When Kurt goes missing in the first wave of deaths, the governor refuses to call for help, knowing that if she does, she’ll have to report Kurt’s death–thus ending her career.

There are touches of both humor and cosmic horror to this story, though I wouldn’t overall classify it as either. The meteor is called the Outcast, and it “would have been a god”, although it’s much diminished now. It definitely gives off some “Elder Gods” vibes at times. There are 16 million people buried on the moon, and only 300+ living, so there are some seriously bad odds here. Sure, the zombies are mostly out on the surface of the moon, but they have some intelligence. Also, every time they kill a person, that person joins their ranks. So it only takes a few to perpetuate the problem.

I enjoyed the characters quite a bit. Cali’s alluded-to dream career becomes relevant in little ways. Jake’s military training (and traumas) come into play. Tessa is fun, being a little too into being a Caretaker. The sheriff, Gordon, turns out to be an interesting guy. The governor is the somewhat stereotypical politician who cares way more about her career than anything else, but even she has little interesting details to her. I love that dead people are called “clients,” and the characters start off referring to the zombies as “former clients”!

Because this takes place on the Moon, there are some unique issues. For example, there aren’t any guns on the Moon! Then of course there’s all the challenges presented by a lack of atmosphere and low temperatures. The lower gravity makes things interesting as well. It adds a new dimension to a subject that’s gotten a lot of play. The fact that the zombies act with some intelligence makes things interesting as well. Later events bring more interest to the meteor itself, and what it might be or want. The story gets wonderfully tense; I had my fist against my mouth for a goodly part of the climax!

If you enjoy zombie stories, I think you’ll really love this one. It has some unusual aspects to it, and it’s really fun!

“We’ve only got Pepsi on the Moon, hon.”

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Short Take: “Nobody Drinks that Much,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Very intriguing setting
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Nobody Drinks That Much: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Series, Book 3 is the third book in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. In book one, chemist Holly arrived at the Zoo–an alien jungle that sprang up in the Sahara–and started collecting information on the place to help her decide whether to take a job that involves going in. She found a bartender, J.B., who was willing to tell her some stories, and she’s been meeting other folks as well who have told her a few things. Book three is day three of Holly’s stay in town, and this time she gets to hear stories about Jens Schulze, a man who discovered that he was far more effective at killing dangerous monsters and keeping his team alive as long as he stayed drunk.

The stories are still quite intriguing. This one involves a challenge in which two characters compete to see who can kill the most critters, so there are plenty of action-filled escapades. There’s some fascinating variety in these tales, giving us a consistent level of excitement from novella to novella.

I still wish I understood more about the nature of the Zoo. The extent of the explanation in this book is: “The [alien] missile had been caught and the Zoo was unleashed in the Sahara.” So it’s alien, but the explanation for how it started is still quite murky.

I will admit I’m tired of all the women giggling in these stories. It’s something of a pet peeve.

This feels like the perfect setup for either a tabletop RPG campaign or a computer game. I’d love to see it get converted into one of those.

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Review: “Vendetta in Death,” J.D. Robb

Pros: Good serial killer tale in a delightful series world
Cons: Not Robb’s best
Rating: 4 out of 5

J.D. Robb’s latest, Vendetta in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 49), is a solidly good–but not top–entry into the series. Nigel B. McEnroy is a serial rapist. He has drugged, assaulted, and blackmailed many women. But now one plans to end his reign of terror–with a vengeance. The man is kidnapped, tortured, and killed, then dumped for the police to find with a note signed by “Lady Justice”. Next is a man named Thaddeus Pettigrew, who cheated on his wife, left her for a younger woman, and stiffed her out of the value of her own company. Nigel and Thaddeus won’t be the last targets on this serial killer’s list–she’s just getting started. Eve believes in her own kind of justice, one that involves a trial and jail time, and as much as she despises McEnroy, she has to do what she can to find justice for him, and to stop the killer from striking again. The kills are coming so closely together, and so clearly escalating, that things are clearly going to get bad.

Obviously, I’m including a content note for rape, blood, and torture. It’s at roughly the same level as many of the other books in the series, so if you’ve liked the books so far, there’s little reason why you’d stop now.

It’s a plot-heavy entry into the series, rather than the occasional world- and character-heavy volumes. We do get to see Mavis in this briefly and of course Roarke comes along to help out Eve. We get the usual nods to series regulars such as Nadine and Jake, and Eve narrowly avoids doing some socializing. Unsurprisingly, more and more of the people Eve has to interview recognize her and Peabody from Nadine’s book and movie. Sometimes this helps, and sometimes it hinders, but Eve is starting to learn to cope with it. In this volume, Eve gets to meet a movie legend. Even though Eve has no idea who she is, Peabody is star-struck!

I wish I had a better idea of how droids are supposed to act and function in this world. It has never really come together for me. In this volume, we quickly see that part of the reason one woman can deal with manhandling large guys is because she has a droid drive the car and string up the victims. But in all of Eve’s speculations, she and her colleagues keep coming back to the idea that the culprit must have an ally, if just to have someone driving the car. It never seems to occur to them that a droid could operate a car, but it’s also never mentioned that they generally can’t, so wouldn’t Eve have thought of that?

The text isn’t quite as gloriously quotable as my favorite entries in the series. Also, Eve’s argument-with-the-perp dream is unnecessary; we already know why she disagrees with the killer’s sense of “justice”.

Somehow Eve always leaves me wanting pizza! Good thing I have all the ingredients necessary in the apartment. I definitely enjoyed this book; it isn’t a perfect In Death novel, but it’s solidly good!

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Short Take: “Nobody Lives Forever,” Michael Todd, Michael Anderle

Pros: Very intriguing setting
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Todd and Michael Anderle’s novella Nobody Lives Forever: Soldiers of Fame and Fortune, Book 2 is the second book in the series Soldiers of Fame and Fortune Full Series Omnibus: 12 Book series. Holly returns to FUBAR for a second night of stories of the Zoo. J.B. tells her about greedy, self-serving merc “Jumping Jack Flash”, and then she meets a former large animal veterinarian–Sarah–who got originally roped in by the government. She ended up leaving her job and becoming a merc herself.

We see a little more of the flora and fauna in the Zoo. It turns out several of the species regenerate, some even from death. Mostly we see the locusts, the man-eating plants, the vines, and the jaguars with antlers, all of which were introduced in volume one. We’re told that one should never pull a whole plant from the ground, because it will cause everything in the jungle to go for the kill. There’s a tiny bit of information about how the creatures and plants are somewhat “alien,” but there’s still no information about how this came about. I’ll have to hope for the next volume.

There’s a nice variety of characters. J.B., Holly, Dan, and Sarah are the most interesting so far. The only problem with the Jack stories is that they all have way too much of an over-the-top “Wild West” feel to them, when this is not a historical. It’s just something about how Jack and others around him interact and deal with each other.

This series hasn’t blown me away, but it’s a solidly good read. I hope they’ll get into the Zoo itself more in later volumes!

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