Review: “A Demon’s Sanction,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

In Katherine Kim’s A Demon’s Sanction (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 2) Temple Priestess May is having to defend Guardian demon Michael to other Temple personnel rather than being paranoid about him herself. The demon-living-as-a-human has been May’s Guardian for some time. The both of them have been sent on a number of missions already, some of which were quite dangerous and would usually have called for multiple teams. They suspect some of the Temple Elders want to get Michael killed so they don’t have to worry about having a demon in the Temple. An argument between May and Oliver in particular gets a bit old. It’s difficult because, as readers, we already are in Michael’s head and we know he’s a good guy, so the arguments are harder to sit through and they get old fast.

There are still spelling and grammar issues here, again of the sort that aren’t likely to be caught by an automatic spellchecker (a good editor would be handy). Its/it’s again, wrong words, missing words, etc.

Since paranormal/urban fantasy novels are full of growly, “alpha” characters, particularly when it comes to demons, it’s really nice to meet one who’s a bit bookish and sad. I’m also grateful to the author for not throwing romance into the mix between May and Michael–while I like a good romance, it’s just nice to have some variety and to see characters be partners without having to mix sex into things. Along those veins, I also adore the idea of seeing Michael as a “failure” of a demon.

One trope that made me shake my head was a lesser demon (an Imp) who practically slavishly fell at May’s feet when she gave it a silly name. It’s just a bit obvious and overdone.

Dialogue and arguments take up too much of the space in these books. I hope the author gets a better handle on the use of detail and various levels of action to round out a tale. I remain convinced, however, that there’s some definite talent on display here and that the author is worth following for that reason.

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Review: “A Demon’s Duty,” Katherine Kim

Pros: Some interesting worldbuilding and obvious talent
Cons: Needs work in a number of areas
Rating: 3 out of 5

A Demon’s Duty (The Demon Guardian Trilogy Book 1) by Katherine Kim is about a demon named Michael who’s been hiding behind a glamour of humanity in the human world. He never liked the endless political and deadly machinations of the demon world, so he fled when his brother tried to kill him. He’d much prefer to study alchemy, read, and just relax when possible. That last one is made impossible when he stumbles across the aftermath of a battle between a Temple Priestess, her Guardians, and a pack of Hellhounds. After finishing off what’s left of the unusually massive hounds, he ends up taking on the magical vow of a Guardian and promising to protect May, the Priestess. There is no precedent for what’s happening, and May has no idea whether she can trust him or not.

These books show definite talent, and I believe that everything I disliked about them is something that can be fixed with time, practice, and a good critique group. This is why even though I don’t love the books, I read and will review all three.

There are some spelling and grammar problems, missing words, misused words, its/it’s confusion, etc. Mostly it looks like errors that would be caught by a good editor but not by an automatic spell-checker.

There’s a cut to a flashback that was awkward and confusing. It’s also weird that the book starts after one of the main points of action has ended. The great thing about a beginning is that you can deliberately start it in the middle of the action if you’re publishing in a genre that makes sense for. That would have made much more sense here. Instead the opening is extremely talky and sluggish and acts as an extended info-dump. I made it about a third of the way through the book before it felt like anything much happened.

Kim does a good job of using some fairly simple worldbuilding to create an interesting backdrop. She also neatly portrays Michael’s separation from humanity and the confusion he feels around people.

May does come across as too stupid a couple of times. In particular she spends much too long jumping to half-founded conclusions about Michael. It made me want to shake her a bit, and Kim goes to too great a length twisting things up to make her concerns seem legitimate, keeping them apart as teammates artificially.

It probably sounds like I should have rated this lower, but I meant it when I said I can see skill and talent here. I’d like to see more despite the flaws.

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Review: “The Girl Who Lived,” Christopher Greyson

Pros: Fascinating and disturbing setup
Cons: Faith is very self-sabotaging
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

In Christopher Greyson’s The Girl Who Lived, Faith has been in and out of mental institutions ever since most of her family was killed. Her father supposedly stabbed her sister Kim, her best friend Anna, and Anna’s mother before shooting himself. Only Faith was there–and she saw someone else do the killing. No one believes her, not the police, not her mother, and not Faith’s therapists. Faith finally gets out shortly before her 23rd birthday (which will be the day after the tenth anniversary of the killings). Her mother has set everything up for her–AA meetings and a sponsor, survivor’s group, therapy, an apartment, a used car, and some possible jobs. That sounds great, except that other than the killings themselves, her mother is the single toughest part of her life. Her mother wrote a book about Faith’s travails after the killings called “The Girl Who Lived,” leaving Faith’s troubled life an open book for everyone in her small town. And her mother has a very emotionally detached view of Faith. Even Faith’s new therapist has read the book and is in a practice with Faith’s mother, making it difficult to establish a relationship of trust when she didn’t get to choose what to divulge to him.

Faith immediately falls off the wagon with respect to alcohol, so the cops don’t believe her when she sees “Rat Face,” one of the two men she spotted at the cabin on the night of the murders. Her car gets stolen (only to be found a couple of streets away), her house gets broken into (with no apparent damage or theft), and she gets stalked through the halls of the school where she has her survivor’s group meeting (only no one else sees anyone). The cops and her mother get more and more skeptical as she gets more and more convinced she’s being stalked. And trying to track down Rat Face only puts a target on her chest.

Faith is very self-sabotaging. It’s entirely understandable, but it still gets a bit frustrating now and then. I kind of wanted to grab her by the shoulders and give her a shake a couple of times. In some ways that’s probably a sign of a good character, but frustration isn’t really what I’m looking for when reading!

In this age of tell-alls, reality TV, and YouTube videos that chronicle our most intimate moments, it’s good to see an exploration of what the behind-the-scenes down-side can look like when it happens to someone.

SPOILER warning: I will say that it’s good we do eventually get a reason for why the serial killer feels the need to play with Faith instead of just offing her. It’s something more than just oh, he’s crazy. End spoilers.

I enjoyed this serial-killer thriller, and even shed a few tears near the end. I’d be happy to read more by this author.

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Review: “Killer Savant,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Bizarre and fascinating
Cons: Weird gender not-really-theme?
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s Killer Savant mostly worked for me. I find the quality of his work varies wildly, but on the whole I love it and want to read more. In this book, a killer called The Bunny Butcher is killing teenagers in a small town. He left a manifesto with a bunch of rules in it, and one of the things that can get someone killed is being too good. We’re used to moralistic horror tales in which behaving poorly gets you killed; in this case it’s the opposite:

No kid would be caught dead obeying an order after dark.

It has created a weird feeling of a town under siege, in which kids break windows, egg buildings, key cars, swear at any and every adult they deal with, etc., and the adults have to let them get away with it because it’s the only way to keep them alive. The Butcher’s latest victim, Zane, has been in a coma, and there’s been a lull in the Butcher’s activity. Some people are hopeful that it’s over, but most people believe it’s just going to be much worse when the Butcher starts up again. There’s one man in town who knows more than he’s telling about this killer, but he can’t do anything until the Butcher shows his face again. Once he does get involved the strangeness quotient rockets. The Butcher is appearing in multiple places, or perhaps there are multiple Butchers. Every time someone thinks they know who killed a given person, it seems disproved by evidence from the next one. This is a horror novel, so don’t expect things to stay within the real-world possible. The possibility that the real killer is actually a parasite or infection arises at one point.

One of the themes the author mentions after the story is that of gender. I couldn’t see how there was really much of any theme about gender except in that many of the kids had gender-neutral or even gender-opposite names (she: Jagger, Magnus, Duke, Pike, Monty, Roscoe; he: Piper, Neva, Scout, Dixie). I’d consider that a quirk, or at best just an attempt to advance how we approach gender naming, but I wouldn’t call it enough for a theme. The large number of characters did make it hard for me to keep track of everyone despite writing down names and family relationships.

There were a few aspects of how the Butcher behaved that I would have liked to understand better. A certain bizarre type of image seems to mesmerize him and I’d like to know why or how. Also, the explanation of the kids’ bad behavior is drawn out enough toward the beginning that it confused me more than drawing me in. Despite my early confusion, I found this to be a fascinating look at how people could change their behavior under this kind of pressure.

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Review: “The Night of the Moths,” Riccardo Bruni

Pros: Great characters; interesting mystery
Cons: A bit slow at times; some confusion as to time/PoV
Rating: 4 out of 5

Riccardo Bruni’s mystery/suspense The Night of the Moths is translated to English from the original Italian, and the story takes place in a small Italian town. A young woman named Alice was killed after walking away from her boyfriend, and her father has killed a “Half-Wit” who had been stalking her. The boyfriend, Enrico, leaves town and doesn’t come back–until now, ten years later, when he wants to sell his family’s old vacation home. Now he finds evidence that all was not as it seemed ten years ago, and perhaps the sequence of events wasn’t so straightforward.

There are portions of the story that are narrated by dead Alice. I think I liked those the most just because she has an interesting stream-of-consciousness style and ruminates on things in a way that could be slow but ends up holding my interest. Unfortunately the point of view and tense (present-day mystery versus past events) shifts get a bit confusing.

The characters help to make up for the confusion. In particular I love a security guard who’s a bit too obsessed with the Die Hard movies and who ends up helping in unexpected ways. The characters have nice depth to them, lending true mystery to some of the past actions. The pacing also draws out the mystery nicely, adding important details at regular intervals and ratcheting up the tension toward the end.

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Review: “Silent Fear,” Lance and James Morcan

Pros: Taut thriller with plenty going on
Cons: Tone-deaf approach to girls and sex, especially at this time
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: free book provided for review by authors.


Lance and James Morcan’s Silent Fear (A novel inspired by true crimes) introduces us to First Class Detective Superintendent Valerie Crowther, who is called on to investigate the death-by-burning of a student at a university for deaf people. Valerie is the only detective fluent in British Sign Language (BSL) thanks to the fact that her mother is deaf, so she’s the obvious first responder. Unfortunately, as she gets drawn into the case she also gets caught in a quarantine: there’s a horrific flu epidemic going on in the world, and although Britain has closed its borders, one of the school’s students just became the first positive test result in the country. The Prime Minister is so desperate to keep the danger contained that she has the school boarded up, plastic-wrapped, and cordoned off by the army. It doesn’t take long to realize the killer is stuck inside the building with everyone else, leaving Val to try to catch her serial killer in a horrid heat wave with no air conditioning, dwindling food supplies, a gradually filling quarantine ward of the deathly ill, a handful of pain-in-the-ass characters (including two media figures who made it inside) and no obvious suspects. She’s connected via phone to her ex-husband and boss, Chief Bennett, but there isn’t a lot he can do from the outside.

This book starts out a bit self-consciously ponderous:

…as office workers and residents mingled over a few drinks of the alcoholic variety as they endeavored to assuage their thirst.

Thankfully it relaxes into a better, less thesaurus-driven rhythm as the book goes on, largely settling into its voice.

There are some little bits that don’t add up. Such as, the insistence that there’s no sign of “anything remotely sexual” about the deaths–despite the fact that one was found half-naked.

NOTE: Possible plot spoilers in this paragraph. Go to the next if you want to avoid them. There’s also a spot that got to me: “…about to rape the fetching Miss Kloss…” So someone’s about to be raped, and the detail the authors choose to focus on is that she’s attractive. Considering the current climate regarding sexual assault, that’s tone-deaf at best. Similarly, it seems like any young, attractive female student is into being dominated or hurt in sexual areas. And even though Val is at least supposed to be a good strong main character (and largely is), she needs to be rescued by her ex-husband not once but twice. To add to that, the bad guy’s self-avowed “masterstroke” meant to deflect suspicion away from him was actually what made it obvious to me that it was him, and I didn’t get the impression that was deliberate on the authors’ part. End spoilers.

There is a portion toward the end that slows and gets a little dull, but for the most part this is a tense, suspenseful thriller with plenty going on. The flu epidemic certainly ratchets up the tension, particularly the nice touch that it makes people blind before killing them–a vicious symptom for a bunch of deaf people. The exploration of deaf society is fascinating, and the students do develop a trait or two that keep them from being just stereotypes of the violent gang member, the violent proto-terrorist, the sex-obsessed American, etc. It’s a hard line to walk. Those extra traits are largely left to the end so that they don’t make the characters seem less suspect, but that does mean that for most of the book they come across more stereotypically.

Overall this is an interesting mystery that kept me hooked and was worth reading.

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Review: “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics,” Dan Harris and Jeff Warren

Pros: Ideal for me
Rating: 5 out of 5

Note: Book provided for review by publisher


Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book, by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren, and Carlye Adler, seemed ideal for me–I am a skeptic, and I am certainly fidgety (much like Jeff, one of the authors, I have ADD)! I’m impressed by how much the book makes meditation accessible, makes it seem like just another part of life, like riding the bus to work or brushing your teeth before bed. Just something you do because it makes sense and makes your life a little bit better.

Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding.

The whole attitude of the authors gives you permission to “fail” at meditation as many times as is necessary–by making it clear that it isn’t failing in the first place. The whole idea is that you learn to come back to focusing, and that return is success. It makes the stakes much smaller and easier to face. Mindfulness is the goal rather than emptiness. I love the tone of the book. It stays grounded in the everyday and sometimes the hilarious:

…the collective attention span of a syphilitic squirrel.

One of the parts that particularly appeals to me is the idea that if you’re dead certain you can’t spare five minutes (or sit still for that long), even one minute counts. There’s a ten-breath meditation that I’ve been doing every day since I started reading this book, and even I can manage that! Part of the idea is that you can’t control what arises in your mind, but you can learn how to respond to it. “Hurt more, suffer less.” You might in fact feel some of your emotions more acutely, but you’re less likely to act out on them and hurt others.

There are habit-formation tips, as well as an examination of the hindrances to meditation (such as boredom or restlessness). It’s nice that they acknowledge such barriers as legitimate and important and give us hints for how to handle them. The authors also try to avoid fancy or precious talk; they want to make meditation accessible to everyone, and I think they succeed. Even when they get touchy-feely (such as talking about self-compassion) they find a way to bring it down to earth. In this case, by providing us with an example called the “Giving A Shit About Yourself Meditation”! There’s also a laziness meditation, and a 30 seconds-plus meditation to do when trying to be there for someone else. A couple of the extra meditations in the appendix get a little more froofy, but not overly so (and there are plenty of nuts-and-bolts meditations so that it won’t hurt you to pick one of those and use it instead).

They do acknowledge that if you have a mental illness or a history of trauma that you should check with a mental health professional before embarking on a serious meditation practice. It would have been nice, however, to see a bit more about how meditation can interact with trauma.

The authors consistently made meditation out to be something entirely ordinary, which is about the opposite of what I’m used to, and I think that’s valuable and brilliant. If you want the purported health and mental health benefits of meditation without the daunting cheerleading or fanciness, this is the book for you!

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Review: “Toad Words and Other Stories,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Delightful fairy tale variations with a folk tale feel
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s collection Toad Words And Other Stories very much tickled my fancy. I love the folk tale feel her stories give off. She uses both fairy tales that have been given a lot of modern attention (Snow White, Red Riding Hood, the Little Mermaid) as well as older ones that haven’t, and she brings plenty that’s new to them. The Little Mermaid, for example, is called “The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight”:

But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers. Any two cultures. Pick two. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. Some things don’t change.

I think two of Kingfisher’s best talents lie in character-building and dialogue, as I’ve noted in other reviews. Her narratives in general also produce a wonderful, magical feel to them. And Kingfisher’s imagination in building out new aspects of old fairy tales never ceases to amaze me.

[The muffins] went glop, which is not an appropriate sound for muffins to make upon contacting wicker, but Turtle was pleased by this, because the last batch had gone clonk and glop was progress of a sort.

I’ll note that last quote was from “The Wolf and the Woodsman,” a fascinating version of Red Riding Hood in which the hood is neither red nor designed for riding. But it makes a fascinating look at why women often find themselves afraid of ‘nice guys’.

There’s a wide variety of tales and I loved them all. If you’ve read any Kingfisher before and enjoyed her work, you’ll love this. If you haven’t read anything of hers yet, this is probably a good place to start. It’ll give you an idea of whether you’d like her unique take on fairy tales. Some of them get a bit dark, and some of them are told from very different perspectives. There’s something to be learned and enjoyed in each one.

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Review: “Bryony and Roses,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Fantastic version of Beauty and the Beast
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s Bryony And Roses beautifully captures the folk tale feel that she writes so well in other volumes. In this tale, Bryony is a gardener who wanders into a seemingly deserted manor house during a killer snow storm. She takes shelter, and food and warmth are mysteriously provided for her and her pony. When she’s ready to go, she decides to take the rose from the breakfast table as proof of her insane side-trip, only to be told by a horrifying Beast that now her freedom is forfeit and she must live in the manor with him. She’s given one week to return to her two sisters, and he suggests she bring her gardening needs back with her. As she settles into the odd magical manor and grows used to the Beast, every day after dinner he asks if she’ll marry him, and every day she says no. By the time she figures out how to leave, she realizes there’s more at stake than just her own freedom.

The manor house itself is a wonderful character. It lays out ‘hopeful’ dresses for Bryony, wanting someone to dress up for dinner. It practically seems to pull up its own sod to allow her to plant her seedlings. Yet at the same time, if the Beast tries to tell her anything about his own past, candles start going out, a cold breeze blows, and the demeanor of the house becomes threatening. There’s a rose plant in a courtyard that seems important, but Beast can’t really talk about it, and it’s strangling a beautiful tree. Bryony isn’t very fond of roses, so she has to resist the urge to rip it out. Meanwhile, there seems to be an intruder who occasionally paces her room at night, and in Bryony’s dreams a seductive man asks for her help but won’t tell her what kind of help he needs.

Bryony and Roses is also a great contender for best first line:

She was going to die because of the rutabagas.

Doesn’t that just make you desperately want to know what death-by-rutabagas means?

The dialogue is wonderful, as always seems to be the case when I read a Kingfisher tale. The same is true for the relationships between characters–romantic and not. As well as the characters themselves. She has so many wonderful strengths as a teller of tales.

“Trees are good at dying, you know, we practice it for many autumns.”

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Review: “The Raven and the Reindeer,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Wonderful fairy tale-esque story
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Raven and the Reindeer is a glorious version of a Snow Queen fairy tale. Young Gerta and Kay are neighbors who’ve grown up together. Plump and sturdy Gerta is obviously in love with Kay, but Kay is a cold and distant creature. She just can’t quite see the distance. (Or as the narrative notes, “It is hard to see a story when you are standing in the middle of it.”) Gerta’s grandmother tells her stories of all kinds, including one of the dreadful Snow Queen, so Gerta recognizes the terrible spirit when she comes to claim Kay in the middle of a blizzard. All Gerta can do is watch helplessly from her window as the Queen abducts an all-too-willing Kay from his own bedroom window. When it’s clear that he really has disappeared and this wasn’t a nightmare, she becomes determined to set out after him and rescue him from the evil spirit. Her grandmother tries to dissuade her to no result. Unfortunately she’s hardly traveled for a couple of days when she gets waylaid by a witch.

I think my favorite part of this tale is the talking raven:

“Do you still talk?” she asked.
“Hell of a thing to forget in a day,” said the raven.

He’s sarcastic and biting yet seems to have a soft spot for Gerta. He has a sense for magic that she lacks, and offers that another young woman he knows might be willing to help Gerta. Janna and Gerta develop a fascinating relationship–one of Kingfisher’s strengths is relationships, in my opinion. They always have depth and interest to them, and often turn out to be something unexpected on at least one level. Right up there with the relationships is the dialogue:

“Are you a witch?” asked Janna.
“No,” said the old woman, “I’m a Lutheran.”

It’s hard not to keep quoting the dialogue because it’s so witty and delightful!

The style is magical. The characters are delightful. The setting is evocative and the tale is touching and vibrant. I would absolutely recommend The Raven and the Reindeer to anyone who likes folk and fairy tales.

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