Short Take: “Lullaby Road,” James Anderson

Pros: Fascinating little desert town
Cons: Ending loses its mooring a bit
Rating: 4 out of 5

Lullaby Road, by James Anderson, centers around truck driver and somewhat-thug Ben. He becomes babysitter for a day when someone leaves a child and dog out in the cold for him, and a friend of his drops her baby on him with little notice. It isn’t a comedy, though, as this desperate little desert town goes a bit mad. Someone hits a street preacher with their car and takes off again–but things aren’t as simple as they seem. The (father?) of the child Ben is forced to take in, Pedro, disappears–how and why? Another man who employs Pedro turns up dead. Someone tries to finish off the preacher–who and why?

Poor Ben. He’s a simple guy who wants a simple life, but he’s just a slice too good to turn away when others need his help, and it gets him into all sorts of trouble. He’s already had a variety of run-ins with local police, who largely think of him as a thug (it’s true he tends to solve problems with his fists), so he’s starting with a handicap. Luckily he has friends, some of whom are willing to do things like help look after mysterious children.

Unfortunately, the ending goes a bit off-track. It’s interesting, but somewhat mysterious and vague, whereas the rest of the book tended to be grounded in physical detail and a very down-to-earth character. Maybe if the change had been more gradual, or there had been more surrealism in the rest of the book, it would have felt natural. Instead it felt like I drifted into a different book when I wasn’t looking.

 

Book provided by publisher for review

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Review: “The 53rd Card,” Virginia Weiss

Pros: Unusual and fascinating
Cons: A bit… odd
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In The 53rd Card: A Dark Tale about Finding Light, by Virginia Weiss, Emma accidentally summons the Devil to her home. She doesn’t make a bargain with him, but she does end up allowing him to take a precious keepsake–an exchange that gives her a taste of power and that opens a permanent doorway between her and the supernatural. The Devil didn’t have to show up himself in answer to her summons–in fact, normally he wouldn’t–meaning Emma has caught his interest. Not the best situation to be in, for sure!

Just so you know, there’s rape and attempted rape within these pages, so if that’s a topic you’d rather avoid, skip this book. Emma has lost each member of her family in turn. Her godfather tried to rape her. Her boyfriend Henry wants “space.” Her job has resulted in her being associated with some truly vile people, making her life difficult in a number of ways. In short, she’s had some very dark times. This makes the Devil’s deal unusually tempting, but she’s determined to do something good with it. Is that even possible, though?

Things get strange. Emma meets a street punk who seems to take an interest in her. The Devil wants… something. She finds a bookstore with grimoires and lectures on sex magic. She goes to a party in Hell. She meets the goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, and plays cards with deities. There’s little action and the tale is a bit didactic, with the pondering of unanswerable questions. It’s interesting, but I think you have to be in the right mood for it.

NOTE: Book provided free by publisher for review

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

Pros: Stunning worldbuilding; amazing characters; wonderful plotting
Cons:
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
Cons:
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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