Review: “Sweep in Peace,” Ilona Andrews

Pros: Humor, long odds, intricate relationships
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ilona Andrews’s Sweep In Peace (Innkeeper Chronicles) (Volume 2) tells the story of Gertrude Hunt (a sentient inn, apparently) and her keeper, Dina. Gertrude only has one guest right now, and long-term that isn’t enough to sustain her. Dina needs to get guests to give her inn good reviews so she’ll get guests… it’s a catch-22. An arbitrator named George offers Dina an arrangement that could make or break the Gertrude Hunt: he wants to hold peace talks there. Three different groups all want control of Nexus. But advanced weaponry doesn’t work on the Nexus, making it very hard for any party to just go in and clean house. Three groups come to take part in the talks: the Holy Anocracy (vampires), the Otrakun Horde, and the Nuan Cee merchant clan. All three feel they’ve lost too much in this fight to give up now. As for Dina, her task is to keep anyone from dying within her inn.

There’s plenty of skullduggery going on during the whole affair. Everyone has lost someone important and wants revenge. There are plans within plans for sheer greed or holy wrath. There’s humor, pathos, tall odds, complex plans, intricate relationships. The characters have depth and soul to them. It’s also great fun to learn more about the inns and the complex, vast universe of worlds they’re a part of.

My favorite part of this whole thing is the chef, Orro, that Dina hires to help feed three parties to the negotiation, the arbitrators, herself, her dog, and her one long-term guest. Some great humor comes from this particular angle.

Dina also gets to see her favorite vampire and her favorite werewolf again, stirring up her own emotions when she really needs to put as much care as possible into her inn. I love the depiction of how much she can change the inn in order to handle whatever guests might arrive.

The plans within plans are fun to read about, and I’ll have to stop here before I risk giving too much away. This is a wonderful follow-on to Clean Sweep.

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Short Take: “Holster,” by Philip Allen Green

Pros: Hauntingly lovely
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Holster is a short story by Philip Allen Green. Since it’s a short story, I’ll have to keep this review brief and simple.

Jeremiah learned to hunt elk at his father’s side, and after an encounter with a person with ill intentions, his father explains that it’s a father’s job to protect his son. Years later, Jeremiah wanted to share something special with his son. He gave him the beautiful holster handed down in the family, which Jonathan used to carry around superhero action figures. When Jonathan was six, Jeremiah took him camping. It did not end well, and Jeremiah believed he had failed his son.

In Holster, Jeremiah believes he’s figured out what comes next. The beautiful narrative hooked me. There is no dialogue, which somehow perfectly suits the situations inside–it doesn’t prevent Green from creating characters with real depth, which is a serious challenge in a short story. This is a quiet yet powerful tale that could easily bring tears to your eyes.

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Review: “The Passenger,” Lisa Lutz

Pros: Fascinating character study
Cons: Resolution came too quickly
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger is a fascinating thriller. Tanya Dubois just found the body of her husband, Frank, at the bottom of the stairs. As far as she can tell, he fell–nothing suspicious there. But will the police believe her? Tanya’s had experience with running and hiding, and she decides it’s time to do it again–just pack up, leave, and be someone else. The problem is, making a new life and a new name for yourself isn’t nearly as easy as most fiction depicts. She meets up with a woman named Blue, and ends up swapping identities with her so that each of them can get a new start. Unfortunately, both of their lives come with baggage, and Blue’s baggage threatens to ruin Tanya’s new life.

 

In almost all thrillers, new identities are just a phone call away–perfect packets containing everything a person needs. When people go into hiding, they find it easy to get new jobs, friends, and so on. But the truth is, it isn’t that easy. Especially today, when everyone has an internet presence, you need multiple forms of identification for almost everything, and finding out that someone’s wanted by the police is as easy as turning on the nightly news. Ms. Lutz does an incredible job of turning this fight for identity–or new identities–into the basis for a thriller. The main character (who we will call Tanya for the sake of simplicity) relies on more and more tenuous threads in her desire to escape her pasts. I loved watching her try on new and different habits, interests, styles, and so on each time she had to become someone new. Each time it became tougher, and each time she bought herself fewer days of peace. Tanya as a character (both under that name, and as each new identity) was fascinating. At times she seems clinically cool and detached, making it easier for her to do what she has to do. She’s a “person of interest” in her husband’s death, but that isn’t the only part of her past that’s trying to catch up to her. As she goes, she learns more about what she’s willing to do in order to protect herself and her identity.

Blue is also fascinating. She and Tanya have different ways of trying to blend in (or not). And Blue’s messing around could force Tanya to go back and face her own original identity–and her first murder charge. While we don’t see Blue on screen for all that long, she has a profound effect on Tanya’s life. She develops real depth despite her limited screen time.

The ending of the book (don’t worry–I won’t spoil it) left me a bit ambivalent. I loved the details that came out, but it felt a little anti-climactic in some ways. The author spent so much detail on every angle of what came before that the end went a little too quickly. It was the only discordant note in an otherwise well-choreographed character study.

 

NOTE: Book provided free for review by publisher.
Expected publication date: March 1, 2016

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Review: “Ex-Isle,” Peter Clines

Pros: Visiting all the classic genre add-ins with fresh eyes on each one
Cons: Why did they take Corpse Girl with them for a meet-and-greet?
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Peter Clines’s Ex-Isle is book five in his fantastic “Ex-Heroes” series. The whole thing is a fascinating mash-up of ex-humans (zombies) and superheroes. In one volume super-soldiers got added into the mix, and a demon put in an appearance at another point. In this case, the heroes have located a floating ‘island’ of boats carrying survivors. Barry (Zzzap), St. George, and Madelyn (Corpse Girl) head off to see how these people are doing and whether they’d like to relocate to the Los Angeles zone. Simultaneously, some of the people holding down the fort at home work on building a garden (“Eden”) as they slowly run out of food; this became more urgent when a bunch of the fruit trees nearby burned in a fire. Danielle is also trying to resurrect the Cerberus battle armor, but it’s slow going at best.

 

Although it’s a small thing, I’d like to point out the idiocy of taking along Madelyn when attempting to meet new people. She may not be an ex-, but she sure as hell looks like one. That should be a quick route to getting her, well, not killed exactly, but damaged. It could also damage the credibility of the rescue team to be apparently working with a zombie. She put in a great show battling zombies and other dangers, but their reasoning for bringing her escapes me.

Hearkening back to old times, I love that Clines still designates his chapters by “THEN” and “NOW” rather than expecting us to keep up with a complex timeline.

Understandably, the folks on the ships don’t greet our heroes with open arms. Every stranger is a possible enemy, and it doesn’t help that the good buys brought Corpse Girl with them. Add in a megalomaniacal hero called Nautilus, who’s willing to endanger children in order to ensure cooperation, and everything goes to hell. It doesn’t help that Nautilus has told all of the people on the ships that LA, among other major cities, got nuked. Since our heroes come from LA, they’re immediately pegged as liars.

Back at Eden, there’s something worrisome going on with the supersoldiers. They’re being secretive and working harder than usual at exercising and keeping their strength up, down to stealing certain supplies. When the others notice, they fear a possible coup. To make things even more uncertain, some of the gang members who joined up think that the soldiers’ odd behavior means they plan to kill all the ex-gang members. They start planning diversions and escapes in case they’re needed.

There’s some great material in here regarding the Cerberus suit, Cesar, Danielle, and so on. I look forward to seeing more of that if there’s a next book in the series. It’s fantastic character growth material.

Ex-Isle brings us multiple zombie incursions in multiple tender spots–there’s plenty of creative battling, particularly when ammo runs low. We also get to see superhero clashes and plans for the LA safe zone to grow and take care of its people. The pacing is great, the characters are wonderful, and I absolutely love the world-building.

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Short Take: “Black Butterflies,” John Shirley

Pros: Genuinely creepy urban horror
Cons: Some bits seem less horrific than silly
Rating: 4 out of 5

Black Butterflies, by John Shirley, is a collection of horror short stories. It’s broken into two pieces: This World, and That World. “This World” is comprised of stories in the ‘real,’ non-supernatural world. “That World” includes some less-explainable phenomena. I expected to like That better than This since I like a touch of the unnatural with my horror, but I felt that the “This World” stories were better.

Sex, drugs, street life, sexual assault, and death are strewn all over the pages. This World is lurid and dark. Drug dealers, addicts, and hustlers abound. We find ourselves in the midst of cannibals, affairs, domestic abuse, and drunks.

In That World some items are genuinely creepy, but a few feel more silly than scary. Shirley seems to have a bit of a fixation on the act of eating people’s flesh. The Old Ones and zombies make cameo appearances.

I enjoyed Black Butterflies. It isn’t my ideal of horror, but it’s well worth reading.

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Review: “Former,” A.E. Stueve

Pros: Interesting concept
Cons: Confusing
Rating: 3 out of 5

A.E. Stueve’s Former tackles the question: What if we had the zombie apocalypse, but a company came up with a cure? What would life be like for those ‘former’ infected? How would society treat them? This all becomes part of a tangled knot of plots involving the no-longer-infected and Profine, the company that produced the cure. We follow Billy and Nancy, two formers trying to be normal, as their delicate balance with the world around them falls apart.

 

Right from the start, Billy Dodge is treated as an important person, even though at first he hasn’t particularly distinguished himself from his peers. I kept wondering when there would be a reveal that would explain this, but it never came. In particular the beginning of the book concentrates on a group therapy session for formers, run by someone important from Profine. The focus of the therapy the formers receive seems to concentrate on recalling memories–apparently formers have difficulty remembering their previous lives. Because of this, it seemed obvious that eventually Billy would recover a memory that would explain why he was important. Instead, it’s like having Chekov’s gun hanging on the wall but loading it with blanks.

It’s annoying that people keep not telling Billy exactly what’s going on. As far as I could tell, nothing was being accomplished by this other than artificially extending the reveal for the reader. It also sounded from some statements like there would be something important about … argh, trying not to reveal late-in-book events. Let’s just say that the book repeatedly gave weight to things that didn’t seem to pan out as important.

I’m not entirely sure why the compound the formers live in was handled the way it was. It’s run by Profine, the company behind the cure. Supposedly the idea is to give the formers five years of therapy and adjustment help and then return them to society, but it quickly becomes clear that this is a pipe dream. It’s hard to imagine Profine putting so many resources and important people, and so much money into this project.

The basic premise of Former is fantastic–it’s past time we got to see what happens when the zombies get cured. Unfortunately, I found the actual novel left me confused as to why things were done in certain ways. It felt… disjointed, maybe? A little underwhelming? It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t wow me. I had difficulty empathizing with the characters. For the first book I’ve read about the post-zombie apocalypse, I expected something more.

 

NOTE: Book provided free for review by publisher.

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Review: “The Conduit,” Evan Bollinger

Pros: Some interesting concepts
Cons: Not the book I thought I’d be reading
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I’m having trouble starting my review of Evan Bollinger’s The Conduit. I’m really not entirely sure how to explain it, or how to explain my reaction to it. I’ll do the best I can.

Mase and Leinold are high school sophomores, and they decide to go looking for traces of their missing schoolmate, Suzie. Instead, they find the conduit. Suzie–or someone who looks like her–offers the kids a claim, something like a wish, that lasts one day, until the person’s ‘eyes open’ again, so, the effect lasts until the person has slept. The claim must be self-referential (no making a claim to affect someone else), it must be within the human realm of possibility, and it will have a ‘reclaim’–a sort of counter-balancing effect.

A couple of the characters try out claims of course, with varying results. The reclaim results got short shrift, in my mind. The ones depicted were obvious. I definitely wanted more depth to this side of things, and felt like it could have led to better plot details. There was also at least one claim for which we weren’t presented with a reclaim, as far as I could tell. There were other things I would have liked more detail on, too: Suzie seems to age noticeably every time they see her.

I don’t want to get into the metaphysics of how the conduit (or node) works, because that’s what much of the later part of the book is all about. It gets all high-concept, which can be interesting, but it didn’t work for me. It felt like some stuff didn’t get addressed, and some stuff didn’t feel like it meshed all that well with the start of the story. In general I enjoy mixed-genre work, but The Conduit started as mild horror and then switched to high-concept SF. It was jarring, and the two aspects weren’t integrated well.

I wanted to like The Conduit, but ultimately it just kind of stymied me.

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Review: “Transcription,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Fascinating tale of a curse that won’t quit
Cons: A question I couldn’t find an answer for
Rating: 4 out of 5

In 1977, Thomas Hicks decided to test a theory. There was a particular prison cell that a certain four inmates all spent time in. Each one of them went in a petty criminal, and came out a murderer. He believes there may be something about the cell that drives the men crazy, infects them with some sort of evil. So, being an overly curious writer (who’s working on a story about those four criminals), he arranges to spend the night in that cell right before the prison gets torn down. Unfortunately for him, his theory was correct. Unlike the other men, however, he found a different outlet for his evil: every night he would sit down at sunset and write one horrifying story, ending at sunrise. As long as he did this every night, he could resist the urge to kill. But when a friend invaded his privacy by reading one of those stories, that friend later acted out the atrocities he’d read about. When Ike Hamill’s Transcription begins, we find ourselves with James, Thomas Hicks’s son. Thomas killed himself years ago, and every night James faithfully transcribes one of his father’s stories. If he misses a night, he ends up killing people. This has resulted in James being a hermit who only has occasional contact with the outside world, but in his new home there’s a man, Bo, who seems determined to drag James out into the light of day. Through Bo, James also meets Danielle and Chloe. Before long, his new friends’ attempts to help him trigger a terrible series of events.

 

Hamill’s characters are, as usual, interesting and complex. I love Bo’s large personality, Chloe’s hardness, Danielle’s creativity and caring. I love the ways in which Bo refuses to enable James’s reclusiveness, without doing something stupid like trying to toss him into crowded situations. James, too, is fascinating, especially as we gradually learn more about how he grew up and how he got trapped into his father’s work.

The only negative here is that I never quite figured out how he happened to realize that transcription was the way to avoid the problem, rather than believing he had to do the same original work the way his father did. There’s also one thing near the end that seemed a little bit obvious (and therefore it seems odd James hadn’t done it already). On the other hand, there are good reasons why James has handled things in the manner he has. (Sorry for the vagueness; trying not to give too much away.)

Hamill is not afraid to turn his whole world upside-down, and I love that. Sometimes horror stories are overly limited in the scope of their effects.

The pace is fantastic. The scenes of horror pop up here and there, sometimes at unexpected times and places. It’s kind of like an abstracted jump-scare, come to think of it.

It isn’t perfect, but I really enjoyed Transcription.

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Review: “The Widow,” Fiona Barton

Pros: Fascinating mystery and characters
Cons: Too many characters to keep track of
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Widow, by Fiona Barton, is about a little girl named Bella, who disappeared from her yard one day. Except it’s also really the story of the wife (Jean or Jeanie) of the man (Glen Taylor) who’s been blamed for it, even though no one’s been able to get enough evidence to prove it was him.

This isn’t a thriller in terms of trying to race against time to save a little girl, or clue-by-clue track down the murderer. It’s very much a psychological thriller, not an action thriller. Most of the book concentrates on Jean, who’s always wanted to have a baby, but her husband Glen is infertile. She certainly doesn’t believe that Glen could be a pedophile… does she? The characters in this, from the detectives to the reporter, Kate, who comes to Jean, are portrayed wonderfully. The book is very much about what’s going on in Jean’s head and how she does (or doesn’t) handle the curve balls life keeps sending her.

Bob Sparkes is the inspector trying to catch Glen out so he can arrest him for Bella’s kidnapping and murder. He’s supposed to be off the case, but another detective, Salmond, helps him continue his investigation on the sly.

There are so many possible themes running through this one. Police officers’ rush to judgement, for one–going back to the beginning of the case, it became obvious mistakes were made and things weren’t looked at closely enough. The hounding of someone whom the police believe to be guilty, even if there isn’t enough proof. The ways in which that does (or doesn’t) fall back on the wife who believes her husband innocent. How and why the reporters do what they do to get and shape their story. And all along, there’s that one question underlying it all: what did happen to little Bella?

I became very engrossed in the lives of these people, and highly recommend the book for those who want to dive deep into the characters from a thriller rather than focus on the violence.

 

NOTE: Book provided free for review by publisher.
Expected publication date: February 16, 2016

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Review: “The Lost and the Damned,” Dennis Liggio

Pros: Interesting setup
Cons: Missed connections; see-saw personality; completely unaddressed questions
Rating: 2 out of 5

In Dennis Liggio’s The Lost and the Damned, a private detective named John Keats is asked to find a missing pop star, Katie Vanders, before the public finds out she’s gone. He’s more accustomed to documenting cheating spouses, but if he succeeds at this particular case he’ll be paid half a million dollars. Unlike all the other people looking for her, he has a history of prophetic dreams. Those dreams quickly lead him to a forgotten and terrifying mental institution in Vermont.

 

The opening tone does not match the ending of the book. The opening starts as a retrospective on the events of the book, tipping us off to some of what John feels and remembers regarding his dive into the realm of horror. The problem is, it’s a mismatch with the end of the book. I went back to re-read the first few pages and I had trouble seeing how they came out of the last moments of the book. (Sorry for the vagueness–I’m trying not to give too much away from the end.) I feel as though the book should have had its actual start a little further in.

There are a number of totally unaddressed subplots or questions here; sometimes it’s interesting to have a loose end or two but these came across as plot holes. I still don’t understand quite how Katie ended up in the hospital, much less how she ended up at some weird pyramid while someone conducted a ritual. What about John’s weird dreams? They’re used to give him an artificial push to find Katie when no one else could, and then are never mentioned again (nor is there any more generic explanation for why he might have interesting abilities). Also, one of the very early things that happens is that five ‘monsters’ (psych patients who now have weird abilities) escape from the institute and wreak total havoc on the town… and then we never hear anything more about what might have happened to them (either they were destroyed by the army that moved in, or the world should now be much more aware of paranormal happenings by the end of the book). Also in reference to those monsters, the happily skipping evil girl is so over-used it’s reached beyond simple cliche territory.

Some of the events were cliches as well. Like the lone voice on the radio detailing what’s going on, straight to “Oh god, they found me!”

John and Katie end up apparently skipping around in time, seeing various parts of another patient’s life. Some events tied to that patient were awfully obvious, and yet it took a painful forever for John (or anyone else) to put things together. Now I will say that at one point he draws a beautifully wrong conclusion, and that was a nice detail.

Katie’s personality see-saws about. Sometimes she’s sweet; sometimes she’s brassy. When she gets brassy she tends to argue about things that are totally irrelevant. She and John had a sort of argument that ended up being almost entirely about friend-zoning (though not in those words), just because they watched someone’s request for a date get gently rejected.

 

Ultimately: the plot was interesting. John and Kate see some neat stuff, and the how and when of their hopping around in time and space is pretty neat. If you don’t mind a bunch of unexplained stuff and a bit of character see-sawing, you might like it more than I did.

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