Review: “This Alien Shore,” C.S. Friedman

Pros: Stunning worldbuilding; amazing characters; wonderful plotting
Rating: 5 out of 5

In C.S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore young Jamisia Shido is forced to abandon the corporate habitat she’s lived in for some time as it is destroyed around her. Her tutor, who had been instructed to kill her in such a scenario, instead helps her to escape. But she’s hardly safe–she’s potentially the most valuable fugitive in the known universe. Her head is full of mysterious upgrades, and a handful of additional personalities to go with. Her real value, however, is as a potential means to break the Guild’s monopoly on space travel. When space travel was first implemented on a large scale, it warped those who traveled on a genetic level. When this was discovered, Earth isolated itself. The Guild was established by Variations (genetically warped humans) who discovered another (dangerous, but not on such a massive scale) way to travel through space, but because it depends on certain Variations, the Guild has a monopoly on such travel. It reestablished connections with Earth, but most of the Variations still hate Earth for abandoning them in their time of need. Earth would do anything to break the Guild’s monopoly on space travel, and Jamisia might be the key to that.

The worldbuilding here is amazing, and well ahead of its time. (It would be ahead of its time even now, and this book was published in 1998.) The Guerans are the Variation that includes “outpilots”. In fact, Guerans are made up of people who were warped mentally more than physically, and we’d consider them mentally ill or handicapped. Instead, the Guerans recognize that each type of personality has its benefits and drawbacks and role in society, and it’s considered part of their responsibility to respond appropriately to a person’s condition rather than expect a person to try to live up to some artificial standard of normalcy. The characters are fascinating and complex, and there’s a ton of politicking, paranoia, and scheming that goes on.

I love C.S. Friedman’s sci-fi even though this is only the third book of hers that I’ve read; I really need to pick up the pace!

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

Pros: Good length; plenty going on; lots of detail; multiple murders
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Dark in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death), by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), is book 46 in the “in Death” series in which homicide detective Eve Dallas hunts down murderers in the near future. It’s a bit of a combo of murder mystery and soft sci-fi, with plenty of ongoing characters and a strong romance between Eve and her bazillionaire husband Roarke. If you’ve been thinking of joining the series and haven’t wanted to go back to the start (although it’s worth it!), this is probably not a bad choice of book to read. It doesn’t delve too much into some of the recent ongoing background plots, and I think it’s pretty good about how it introduces ongoing characters who show up.

In Dark in Death, Chanel Rylan is killed during the showing of classic movie Psycho, with a small ice pick to the back of the head. It happened just when her friend–a veterinarian–was called out of the theater for an emergency, so Eve knows the kill was carefully planned, but she can’t find any other evidence that the kill was personal. There’s just no evidence whatsoever of anyone having a grudge against Ms. Rylan. Then an author of murder mysteries shows up in Eve’s office–she believes someone is copying murders from one of her book series, and she isn’t just talking about Ms. Rylan. It’s stranger than it seems, however, as it seems that the killer may be more than just a copy-cat and might be inserting themselves into the scenes as other characters from the books. This is one of Eve’s smarter and crazier opponents.

I’ve enjoyed the last few “in Death” books, but this one is better. It’s a nice long story with a lot going on inside. There are multiple murders to hold our attention, a strange set of motives, a look into the business of authoring and dealing with fans, plenty of detail, and great characters. The only problem I had with it at all was that Eve seemed to make the jump to realizing the bad guy was “living in the scenes” and acting them out in character rather quickly and easily. Other than that, however, I thought the mystery unfolded well. Most of this one is spent trying desperately to figure out the identity of the bad guy, track them down, and prevent the rest of the series of books from being acted out. There are plenty of details and complications; it’s a creative tale with plenty to keep the reader glued to the pages!

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Review: “The Memory Detective,” T.S. Nichols

Pros: What a great concept, executed brilliantly
Cons: I wish there was already a sequel out!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

T.S. Nichols’s The Memory Detective is about police officer Cole, also known to the newspaper-reading public as the Memory Detective. A procedure has been developed that allows a person to take on the memories of a dead person. Usually this is done by a next of kin, but in a handful of cases Cole has done it for various Jane and John Does whose murders could not otherwise be solved. There’s a limit on how many of these procedures most people can undergo (two to three depending on the state), but there’s something unusual about Cole and he’s had more than ten without a problem. He’s also oddly good at recalling untainted memories of the murder itself, and he has a secret–when the case is over and he has some time to himself, he’s addicted to wallowing in the rest of the memories he’s taken on. Meanwhile, there’s another set of murders going on, perpetrated by a mysterious company that’s selling custom-made sets of memories. They hire desperate people and give them plenty of money to adventure on for ten years, with the understanding that at the end of that time, it’s over–the company comes for the memories once they find a buyer. All the cops know is that bodies with shaved heads keep turning up in the water, and Cole isn’t able to take on any memories from them.

The concept of the Memory Detective is fantastic and well-thought-out. This is also the only really obvious SF part of the plot, with the rest of the world seeming pretty much the same as always. Cole’s presence gives context to the procedure and prevents it from feeling like a gimmick or plot device. He truly humanizes the whole thing, particularly through his addiction and his quirky methods for trying to tease out the memories he needs. In addition, our exploration of the mysterious memory-selling company is through the experiences of one of their customers as he goes to great lengths to draw out every last one of the memories he’s inherited, again putting a human face on all of the machinations.

The only difficulty I had was with one particular scenario where Cole fails to figure out something that seemed rather obvious. But at least that situation doesn’t last for long. (Sorry for the vagueness; I’m trying not to give spoilers.)

The best compliment I can give this book is to say that I keep wishing there was already a sequel for me to read!

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Review: “Imprinted,” Jim C. Hines

Pros: Delightful Magic Ex Libris tale
Cons: Would have loved a longer tale!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jim C. Hines’s Magic Ex Libris stories are absolutely wonderful. In them, some people can work magic by tapping into the consensual reality created by people having read a book, pulling items and more out of those books and into the ‘real’ world. In Imprinted we get to see more of Janeta Aboderin, who is the first person to learn how to operate book magic on an e-reader. Imagine being able to pull things out of any of hundreds of books at a time, rather than the few you can fit in your pockets! She also has a knack for using poetry to her ends, a sort of semi-abstract use of magic that fascinates me.

In Imprinted, Jeneta is going to do a great feat of magic for a crowd now that magicians are becoming more public and organized. She’s going to pull a device out of a huge screen–the magicians are working on interplanetary travel and communication! Naturally something goes wrong and she ends up haunted by mysterious creatures that only she can see. To make things more complicated, someone is trying to steal the technology that they’re working on!

I’m such a fangirl when it comes to the Magic Ex Libris tales that I can’t help wishing for a longer story just because. That said, this was the right length for what it was. I just can’t wait for more. It’s fantastic to see more of young Janeta and her abilities as a prodigy with book magic. Isaac, the main character of the series in general, is here, but it’s definitely Janeta’s tale to be told. Isaac is there to help, but no one really knows the extent of Janeta’s abilities or how they’ll end up working on the whole. We also get to see more players in the game, opening up the possibility of more tales to come. I hope…

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Review: “Behold the Void,” Philip Fracassi

Pros: Intense and fascinating
Cons: Occasionally could have used a little more detail or explanation
Rating: 5 out of 5

Philip Fracassi’s anthology Behold the Void was recommended by a friend who knows my penchant for good horror, so I had to give it a read. I’m certainly not sorry I did. Fracassi combines the mundane and the maddening in truly wonderful ways. Color is key in his magnificent descriptions. He’s also pretty good at wrapping up the mundane parts of revelations in ways that make the maddening all the more wild. You just don’t expect the world to go crazy over a fairly standard case of cheating or an almost normal case of kids pranking each other. Most authors are good at one or the other, not both together mixed into one seamless story. It gives the unreal a sense of almost-reality that dragged my attention right in.

There are a couple of stories that I felt could have used just a little more of that real world touch in order to keep them from being a little too abstract. Why did the hole in the world in Altar come open as and when it did? How did it lead the children so inexorably toward it? Who’s the little boy in the road in The Horse Thief and what does he have to do with what ultimately happens?

Coffin was perfect. It was horrifying and creepy and the ending brought it around full circle. Similarly, The Baby Farmer flipped things nicely on their heads. Surfer Girl (which includes violence against minors, just fyi) had a very nice ending with multiple fascinating implications.

Fail-Safe was both hugely awesome and at the same time seriously unsatisfying. I can’t decide how I truly feel about it. I would have liked at least a little more implication about where it was going.

Mandala, the last tale in the collection, is my favorite. Two kids on vacation are playing on the beach. They don’t entirely like each other, and their families each have problems, but it’s summer–they’re all they have. That’s when one kid decides to play a nasty prank on the other, and everything goes wrong. The tension ratchets up and up with every turn of the screw, and I was so riveted I had to stay up late to finish reading it. For such a simple story it really got my heart rate going!

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Review: “Lie With Me,” Sabine Durrant

Pros: Fascinating plot weaving
Cons: Main character is definitely not sympathetic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me tells the story of Paul, a selfish and self-centered novelist who’s still riding off of the reputation he gained years ago. Whether it’s wooing young paramours, house-sitting for friends and claiming their posh pad as his own, claiming to be doing well while having to move back in with his mother, etc., he can’t seem to keep from lying about even the littlest things. He sees himself as a basically honest person of course, it’s just that “[t]he selfish response to events was so much more straightforward than the morally correct.”

He runs into an old friend, Andrew, whose name he can barely remember, and, desperate to find a new place to live that didn’t mean living with his mother, he falls in with Andrew and Andrew’s friends. In particular he sets his sights on Alice, who’s older than his usual type but who’s a single mother living well. He even convinces her to take him to Pyros in Greece with the rest of the group on an annual vacation. He went there once a long time ago–in fact, that’s where he met Andrew–but he remembers little of the drunken trip.

If you think this is a setup ripe for plot twists and mysteries, you’re right. There’s also a young woman who’s been missing for years, the fact that Paul is a privacy-violating klepto, his Alice’s son may be a rapist, and what really did happen all those years ago, anyway?

There aren’t many sympathetic characters in this one. Tina, Andrew’s wife, is the closest thing there is to a sympathetic character. Andrew seems to be constantly a bit too close to Alice, Alice runs alternately cold/warm and seems to be up to something with Andrew, and Paul is a lying, skeevy guy who’s just as happy to ogle his girlfriend’s teenage daughter as his girlfriend. Paul is very well-drawn, though; it’s easy to buy him as this liar who nonetheless sees himself as a basically honest and straightforward person. While he starts to fall for Alice despite himself, it doesn’t make him much more likable as he still does everything based on what it’ll get for him. He constantly calculates and maneuvers.

This wasn’t my favorite book (I prefer to have an at least semi-sympathetic character to enjoy), but I have to admire the planning and calculation of it.

NOTE: This book was provided free for review by publisher

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Review: “Two Girls Down,” Louisa Luna

Pros: Love the quirky and messed-up characters
Cons: Vega’s too-perfect hacker plot device, I mean, colleague
Rating: 4 out of 5

Uncorrected proof provided by publisher for review.

In Louisa Luna’s Two Girls Down, two young sisters, Kylie (10) and Bailey (8) go missing from a car in a parking lot. Mother Jamie Brandt hires private investigator Alice Vega against the wishes of the local police department, and Alice hires local disgraced ex-cop Max “Cap” Caplan. At first she wants him just for his local connections, but gradually he impresses her with his own talent and skill in the private investigations arena. The problem is that his former boss is just looking for a reason to screw with him, and certainly has no interest in sharing information with a couple of PIs. So far there’s little to no hint of what might have happened to the two girls.

Most of the beginning of the book establishes the characters and the relationships between them; it doesn’t involve much forward motion in the mystery of the missing girls. The characters are great–there’s a lot of personality to them. In particular I like Jamie Brandt. She’s “not a bad mother”. She isn’t great, but she isn’t terrible. She’s human. She makes mistakes but she loves her girls. It’s a very realistic portrayal of a family living with the terror of knowing that the longer it takes to find their missing members, the less likely it is the girls will ever be found (or found alive). Similarly, a drug-selling ex-boyfriend of Jamie’s is an interesting character. He eventually yields some clues, but again, he’s just a flawed human, not somebody amazing or terrible.

I do have problems with one character. “The Bastard” is Alice’s hacker friend. We only ever see her online interactions with him and the information he sends her. So there’s very little to build character on, and anything he sends her that propels the plot forward ends up feeling largely like a convenient plot device. Particularly because so often, he is the one to move the plot forward when all else fails.

On the whole I enjoyed Two Girls Down. There’s plenty of mystery, good characters (with that one exception), and excitement at the end.

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Review: “Year One,” Nora Roberts

Pros: Combines several now-popular end-days structures and takes them further
Cons: Jonah should have seen an attack coming
Rating: 5 out of 5

When Ross MacLeod pulled the trigger and brought down the pheasant, he had no way of knowing he’d killed himself. And billions of others.

The opening line of Nora Roberts’s Year One: Chronicles of the One, Book 1 hooked my attention and kept me riveted. The original ‘biological event’ that kills billions of people builds up immediately, sparing no one no matter how much effort Roberts has put into a character. It’s quick and brutal, leading also into the survivalism phase of the story. Where some get entire trilogies out of just these two phases, Roberts blazes through them. She knows she has other fish to fry. We get into a tale of community-building, which is something I’ve seen less often, so it kept me interested. Just when we’re expecting to walk through all the positives and negatives of world-building, two things go to hell. The magic level ratchets up (yes, magic–I’ll come back to that in a minute) and an attack on our burgeoning community sends a key character spinning off on her own, trying to find a place where she can safely give birth to her prophesied baby.

Unlike most other tales of the end of the world, this one has magic. Fairies, witches, sorcerers, good magic, bad magic, small magics, huge magics… it’s all there. Some people appreciate these people’s newly-hatched abilities (especially when we’re talking healing, or encouraging food plants to grow!) while others blame the magical folks, who are all immune to the disease, for its ravages. Many people believe the “Uncannys” caused the plague, even though most of them had no idea they were anything unusual until the plague came along and triggered their skills or physical alterations. The magic is what makes the story of Year One different from so many otherwise similar stories of the end times coming upon us.

As usual for Roberts, she paints wonderful characters. Whether it’s a fairy scavenging junk food for her friends, a reporter who went from nobody to somebody as everyone between her and the main desk died, a paramedic who sees people’s injuries or deaths in their faces, or a Wiccan who suddenly finds she can light candles with her mind and throw force from her hands in times of need, everyone feels like a potential main character. I did feel like the savage raiders were a bit cliche until we finally find out more about what’s behind them. I’m happy that not all of the good guys are Uncannys and vice versa–there are plenty of good ‘normal’ humans and plenty of evil Uncannys. The one problem I had is that since we have an Uncanny named Jonah who can see people’s deaths coming (even if they’re not going to suffer a natural death), we should have had warning of a major attack on the community. He should have seen upcoming injuries and deaths in people’s faces.

I’m having trouble waiting for book two–this is why I prefer to wait to read a book until the whole series is out!

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Review: “Mumma’s House,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Excellent haunted house tale
Cons: The ceremony was a tad weird
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Mumma’s House introduces us to a most unusual haunted house. This isn’t the stereotypical empty, unlived-in building. Instead, it belongs to a longstanding family and is ‘ruled over’ by a ‘Mumma’ selected in a terrifying ceremony. June was supposed to become the new Mumma when she got old enough, but she was too scared. She’s gradually gotten to the point where she only lives in a couple of rooms of the large house together with her son, Gus. Each year at least one person from each family branch must come participate in another ceremony or they lose claim on the house. The idea is that whichever branch is left standing gets the huge house. However, not everyone is so sure they want it. June is contemplating moving out of the house and giving up all claim on it. One of her relatives has a new idea, however, involving finding a codicil to the will that supposedly another family member is hiding that would change everything. In the meantime, the members of the large family have to survive long enough to bring their various machinations to fruition.

I love Mumma’s House. It’s one of the very few haunted house stories I’ve ever read in which there seems to be genuine interest and plot to the haunted house, rather than just turning it into a random monster. It has a personality that makes it believable that it wouldn’t kill off the characters randomly. After all, the family and the house belong to each other.

The only times I have been targeted, I was the most interesting thing [the house] could play with.

The inner geography of the house changes constantly. Sometimes the house seems to try to absorb a person, pulling them in with a blanket or the like. June can tell who is in the house by concentrating, and her son, Gus, is learning to do some of the same. I love the characters; none of them are squeaky-clean and some of them have been doing some dark things in their quest to get hold of the inheritance.

If you love horror, and have any interest in haunted houses, but want there to be story that draws a remarkably ‘lifelike’ haunted house, then Mumma’s House is a great read. My take on Hamill’s writing goes up and down depending on the book, but I think this is one of his best.

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Review: “The Chalk Man,” C.J. Tudor

Pros: Fascinating
Cons: I was left with a few confusions
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

C.J. Tudor’s The Chalk Man is a fascinating tale of a decades-old maybe-solved murder and a new danger. In 1986, a group of friends (Eddie, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky) had a hell of a year. Mickey’s older brother died in an accident. Nicky kept showing up with bruises on her. Eddie helped to save a girl hurt at the fair, and the new (albino) teacher, called the Chalk Man, who also saved her, fell in love with her. When Elisa (the severely injured girl) was found dead and cut into pieces, everyone assumed the Chalk Man, now considered a perv instead of a hero, must have done it. In 2016 someone sends the friends a piece of paper with a chalk hanged man on it, leaving everyone keyed up. Mickey comes back to town and wants to write about the whole experience, hoping Eddie will help him. Meanwhile Eddie, a klepto by nature, may have his hands on a clue or two that others aren’t familiar with.

There are one or two small questions I didn’t quite find the answers to. For example, the kids start using chalk signals in different colors to communicate with each other, but there are several occasions when white (a color not chosen by any of the kids) marks show up and cloud the issue. I didn’t quite figure out who left them in a couple of the cases.

There’s plenty of fascinating background material going on that gets swept up in the plot. Eddie’s mother performs abortions, and Nicky’s vicar father is the bane of her existence. Chloe, Eddie’s lodger in 2016, has some weird family stuff going on that may impact him. While the Chalk Man was an easy villain for the police to pin the blame on, Eddie isn’t convinced. Fat Gav’s family is better off than the others, creating some tension in the mix–complicated by the fact that in 2016 he’s a cripple, thanks to an accident when Mickey was driving impaired. There are a number of little mysteries bound up in the whole thing, and the worldbuilding, characters, and plot all swirl together beautifully. I found myself riveted to the pages the whole way through.

NOTE: Book supplied by Blogging for Books for this review

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