Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz


Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of Wendig, dark UF
 ★    ★    1/2   

Dear Ferrett,

Don’t take the rating personally. It’s not you–it’s me. Really, there’s a lot to like in your book; a parallel world with ‘mancers, magic that comes out of passion, distilled magic as part of the drug trade…

Wait, not that last bit. Because while it makes absolute sense, I just don’t. I don’t do sloppy drug trade setting, and prefer to avoid realistic setting in anything but Serious Movies and Breaking Bad. Maybe its because the memory of the last kid I took care of whose ‘buddies’ dropped him off not breathing and a lovely shade of light blue at the ER. The night was capped off by calling Security when he was ripping out the IV, ready to walk out the door, and his helpless, frustrated mom who walked out before he did. I don’t like playing in that world during my free time, because I live in it at work. It is heartbreaking and maddening– there are too many assholes, a lot of sad stories, a truckload of lies–both unintentional and purposeful–and no happy endings. I suppose you might have reached that message somewhere in Flex, perhaps with the concept of Flux coming back to bite the magician in the butt, but what I mostly got was the idea that Paul would deal with the devil to achieve his goal, and if he could made drugs magic without cost, he would. The extreme characterization of a drug dealer who chains his source to a radiator didn’t really help your cause.

Let’s talk characters, particularly Paul, underdog hero. His endless guilt trips, particularly the self-flagellation about his daughter, Aliyah, and his directionless wandering in his own life did not build a character I cared about. Again, I’m willing to take blame here. I don’t have children and don’t understand the endless guilt trip Paul has about saving his kid’s life and his obsession about getting her plastic surgery. Maybe because his character doesn’t have any balance; there’s the ex-relationship, the daughter issues, the work issues. His history comes in context of an unhappy divorce and previously unhappy job. Whatever it is, I have a hard time identifying with him or even rooting for him as I watched him run on his mental gerbil wheel. The best parts were the times that Paul delved into his magic and his joy in creating order from chaos was able to shine. For the rest, well… congratulations on being able to bring a whiny, self-centered six-year-old to life (I know, I know; they all are). Your villain, not so much. If we didn’t have you switching to the villain’s perspective, I don’t think I’d know much at all.

Although, if we’re being honest, I’d have to say you should share a tad bit of the blame. The story-telling was choppy. I appreciate an experimental narrative structure in the hands of a practitioner, but chapter installments drew attention to the lack of transitions instead of facilitating them. Sometimes the chapter ended and picked up one second later. Sometimes it ended, and the next began in the future, then flashed back to the middle. It’s not a bad idea, but you need a story and style that can use the sophistication of that technique. I suppose the underdog, concealed-power plot is based on the superhero tradition, but could you have classed it up a bit? Apparently Paul is able to identify the villain through magical nausea, but lines like “focusing on her magic was like pushing his head deeper into a barf bag” isn’t going to win you much love.

The ending pulled it together in a decent way, and your writing finally had a chance to shine. I wish you luck with your series, I really do, but I have doubts I’ll continue. It’s got the underdog-double life superhero thing going for it, so I’m sure you’ll find an audience. I think it’ll especially appeal to fans of Wendig’s Miriam Black series. Which I also disliked, so you’re in fabulous company.


Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged , | 1 Comment

4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie

4 50 from Paddington

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of Christie, manor house mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Mrs. McGillicuddy is traveling by train when she witnesses a woman being strangled in the train traveling alongside hers. She reports the incident and is promptly dismissed, leaving her to turn to her friend, the resourceful Miss Marple. Strange as it seems, Miss Marple believes her:

Mrs. McGillicuddy looked at her without comprehension and Miss Marple reaffirmed her judgment of her friend as a woman of excellent principles and no imagination.”

I always forget about that brief section in 4:50 from Paddington that feels like the beginning of the dreaded story problem: “if two trains are traveling…”

from mathforum.org

Luckily, Miss Marple soon discards that line of investigation in favor of looking for the body, because no one has been reported missing and no one was found dead on the train. As it goes in the famous Breakfast Club episode of Psych, “no body, no crime.”

Elderly Miss Marple can’t go scouring a country estate for clues, so she hires the very clever and resourceful Lucy Eyelesbarrow to take a post at the most likely spot the body was dumped. What follows is classic Christie manor mystery, filled with the usual characters given enough shading to distinguish them. The eccentric, miserly father, the dutiful daughter, and the three sons: the artistic one from abroad, the posh London businessman and the youngest, a slick grifter. Cast is rounded out by the impish grandson and his school friend, household staff, Yard Detective Craddock and, of course, Miss Marple (and Florence), with guest appearance by Mrs. McGillicuddy.

“‘I’m sure you will succeed, my dear Lucy. You are such an efficient person.’ “In some ways, but I haven’t had any experience in looking for bodies.’          ‘I’m sure all it needs is a little common sense,’ said Miss Marple encouragingly.”

Among Christie’s creations, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw (the original title) stands out in character and plotting. Published in 1957, rather late in Christie’s career, she cleverly uses Lucy as a stand-in for Miss Marple. Lucy’s position at the manor allows her to poke into all sorts of corners as well as getting to know the family–sometimes, a little bit better than she would like. I was particularly fond of the beginning chapters establishing Lucy’s tenure and her initial attempts at poking around the estate. Grandson Alexander and his friend Stoddart-West livened up the search.

“They discoursed gravely during lunch on events in the sporting world, with occasional references to the latest space fiction. Their manner was that of elderly professors discussing paleolithic implements. In comparison with them, Lucy felt quite young.”

There’s a couple bits that feel dated, particularly the investigative line spent pursuing any “mental bends” in the family tree. The denouement too: it might have surprised me the first time through, but as I’ve slowly re-read and cataloged my Christie reads, I realize it’s an ending used before –with Miss Marple, no less! While it gets a bit silly near the end, it overall manages to maintain the air of suspense. Ah well, a fun read anyhow.

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Eight Skilled Gentleman by Barry Hughart

Eight Skilled Gentleman

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of folklore, variety
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Take a Shakespeare problem play, steep it in Chinese myth and add a dash of lethal mayhem and you might come close to approximating Eight Skilled Gentleman.

Master Li and Number Ten Ox are attending the public execution of Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu as imperial witnesses, despite Master Li’s well known dislike of formality. When the execution is interrupted by a dying vampire ghoul carrying a half-gnawed head, Master Li realizes there’s something strangely aristocratic about the victim that requires further investigation. They discover the rest of the victim in the Forbidden City, and after consulting with the sainted Celestial Master, are concerned the saint just confessed to the crime. But events turn out far weirder than Master Li suspects, and solving the crime will require investigating smugglers, traveling with a scarred puppeteer and his lovely shaman daughter, and tracking down mystical creatures and myths that are almost three thousand years old.

“One assumes [the artists] were half mad, and they honored their gods by carving deities in death agonies. You’re looking at an unparalleled psychological self-portrait of an exhausted race, teetering upon the edge of extinction, but don’t you see the wonder of our recent experiences? Some of the old gods were sure to survive.”

Almost too complicated to explain yet extremely simple on the surface, Hughart has truly produced a work of art. There is the seemingly straightforward investigation driving the plot, shaded with social commentary along the way (and don’t even kid yourself that Hughart is only talking about ancient Chinese culture). There is side illumination of the history of the Chinese people, and their own myths about the cultural absorption/conflict with indigenous groups. There is outright silliness, particularly with the foodie to end all foodies (literally), Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu, or the time that Master Li impersonates a grave ghoul.

“Somehow or other he got his hands on one of your memoirs!” He swiftly scanned the chicken tracks. “Usual critical comments!” he yelled. “Clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors, and so on!”

But it’s not only the complexly woven themes. Hughart plays around more than ever with the narrative. In the beginning, Master Li shares letter from a reader accusing Number Ten Ox of purple prose (no self-mocking there). The festive atmosphere of the square is conveyed in groups of shouting (“Sha la jen la!” “Hao! Hao! Hao!”). Poetry is read. The tale of a weak noble is demonstrated, complete with a broom as sword. A play within a play is performed. Prophetic dreams (as well as priapic ones) are experienced. On two occasions, one with the puppeteer and one with Number Ten Ox, we are treating to Master Li as Greek chorus, leaving me giggling out loud (“Good evening” “That’s the Miao-chia”). The narrative is far more complex than either of the other books. Most of the time it works–it turns out it is usually necessary to understand the plot–but sometimes not at well. Quite honestly, that’s about on par with my Shakespeare experiences–the play-within-a-play device generally annoys.

It’s worth noting that there are a couple of gruesome episodes, with poor Ox standing in for the audience with a heartfelt “Gligghh!” While I had my doubts for the author choice to include such scenes, it did put me in mind of the old, old tales–the one where Cinderella’s sisters chopped off their toes to fit into the glass slipper, or the one where Bluebeard has the locked room with bodies.

“Every historian is faced with a chapter in which he cannot win. If he includes the relevant material he will send his readers screaming into the night, and if he doesn’t include it he isn’t writing history.”

The first time I read, I was suffering from Tired, and as the shenanigans built, I had trouble understanding the dizzying changes in direction. When thinking about my review, I started over and re-read the entire book. Like experiencing Shakespeare again and again, each time through allows me to consider some different aspect, whether plot, emotion or lyricism. Overall, worth the time, clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors and all.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Uprooted by Naomi Novik


Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of PNR, fairy tales
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Once upon a time, I read myths, folktales and fairy tales. Thankfully, this was way back before Disney was ubiquitous, so I subsided on Andrew Lang‘s The [Color] Fairy Books, Ruth Manning-SandersBook of [Magical Creature]s. And even Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, though they were usually devoid of the embellishment I enjoyed. Uprooted brought back the memory of those days, of reading an unfamiliar fairy tale for the first time. I was transported as I read… at least for the first two hundred pages.  The storytelling was mesmerizing, the graceful way it moved forward in time, backward in memory, telling the tale of how Agnieszka came to be taken by the Dragon to his Tower and discover her magic and the magic of the Wood.

“That was the end of the story: no one went into the Wood and came out again, at least not whole and themselves. Sometimes they came out blind and screaming, sometimes they came out twisted and so misshapen they couldn’t be recognized; and worst of all sometimes they came out with their own faces but murder behind them, something gone dreadfully wrong within.”

Initially, characterization shone. The young women in this story are human enough to be fallible, but are also caring, determined and faithful. Agnieszka often thinks of herself as a creeping mouse, but she has spirit: “I could sleep at night again, and my spirit began to recover, too. Every day I felt better, and every day more angry.” Lovely, strong Kasia has been Agnieszka’s friend for as long as they can remember, and has been the one everyone knew the Dragon would take: “I know I’m making her sound like something out of a story. But it was the other way around. When my mother told me stories about the spinning princess or the brave goose-girl or the river-maiden, in my head I imagined them all a little like Kasia; that was how I thought of her.” I loved the way Novik noted the tension their roles placed on their relationship while still allowing them to remain fast friends. It was a well-done female friendship, and didn’t go to any of the tropey places I anticipated. The down notes on characterization come later, as Novik pulls a major switch, first garnering sympathy for a weak character and then changing motivations.

Plotting kept me guessing. There was a fairy-tale feel to it, but as events started to spiral beyond the initial set-up of self-discovery, I wasn’t able to predict where it would go. Unfortunately, one of the places it did go was a city, and once Agnieska headed there, it transformed from an intimate, personal story to one of epic scale. Agnieska’s personal journey and transformation were sacrificed for politics, losing mystical overtones in favor of mundane ones. It’s hard to put the malevolence of a single courtier on a parallel with a heartwood tree, for instance, and Novik lost the thread of the story. Nieska becomes unbelievably powerful by the time she leaves the city, freely creating spells under stressful situations, magicking escape after escape. Jaga’s book becomes a bit of a deux ex machina, showing her the way to a new spell when she needs it.  Characters who behaved a certain way out of deep-seated emotional desires suddenly were realized to be behaving another way out of political intrigue. When an army was brought into it and mobilized within days, I started skimming, depressed I was no longer hanging on to Novik’s every word. It felt like the lovely ride I was on had escaped control.

Quite honestly, it reminded me of the way Hollywood tacks on a grand finale action scene to a movie that isn’t really about action–the resulting scenes of the siege seemed over-the-top and actually did make me question Novik’s ideas of character motivations. However, I stuck with it and found that Novik was able to rein in her runaway horse. Once again the Wood was approached and the deep source of the Wood’s discontent discovered. Unfortunately, it made the calculated upheaval in the city and the following siege all the more incongruous.

Note should be made of the Dragon’s relationship with Agnieszka. At first, it feels very My Fair Lady, which lots of negative, insulting comments about every aspect of Nieshka’s character. I wasn’t surprised at the growth of emotional connection, and I thought it was handled reasonably organically. Likewise, Nieshka’s growing realization about the long lives of wizards and the growing emotional disconnection made sense. However, I was a little disappointed in how it developed, because it felt like a simple modernization (I’ll spend time on my own! Grow my own life!) of a very old romance trope. The upshot is going to be had Nieshka humanizes her calculating, emotionally distant man and will reconnect him to the roots of the world. A five start book might have pushed that conclusion harder.

Filled with richer detail than most fairy tales, it reminded me of when I read Robin McKinley’s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast for the very first time (but you know what was better about the Beast than the Dragon? He was always kind. And he had a library of all the books ever written). I absolutely loved the first section and would have given it all the stars I had to award, but the incongruous battle lost the magic and the hasty ending only had a few moments to regain it.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Small Magics by Ilona Andrews. Not so small.

Small Magics

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of PNR, the Andrews
 ★    ★   ★    1/2

This collection contains the stories “A Questionable Client,” “Retribution Clause,” “Of Swine and Roses,” “Grace of Small Magics” and “Magic Tests.” Committed fans of the Andrews’ works should love this collection. I enjoyed it a great deal, but it leans heavily on romance tradition, a genre I don’t willingly read. Nonetheless, they avoid the generally misogynist tropes in hetro romance and with palatable results.

I’ve read three of these stories before, but I’m generally a fan of the Andrews and a sucker for anything in the post-Shifty Kate Daniels universe, so when this collection was released, I bought. The Andrews were quite honest about the intent of the collection, warning fans that all of the stories have been published before in other collections or venues; that this was a way to feel out the kindle-verse and possibly attract new readers to their series. A less ethical team of authors and publishers might have thrown one unique story in there just to loop in the die-hard fans and bump sales, so I appreciated the author honesty.

“A Questionable Client” is often billed as the first story in the Kate Daniels universe, and is her first encounter with Saiman as well as a meeting with the Russian vokhvi. Action-focused, it’s quick, violent, and draws on an interesting assortment of mythology. Suffers slightly from overmuch of the familiar Kate-Saiman banter (can it be banter if it is one-sided?)

“Retribution Clause” is set in Philadelphia and centers on a cousin of Saiman and his work partner, Siroun. They work for an insurance adjuster firm and are sent to fulfill a retribution clause of a contract. Needless to say, there’s a lot of romantic undercurrents between them, but the story primarily focuses on the job.

“Of Swine and Roses” would have delighted me a few decades ago, say sixteen or younger. It reads young adult. A teen goes on a date to protect her family interests, with unexpected results.

“Grace of Small Magics” is about the same style as “Swine,” only more firmly in new adult territory. Not set in the normal Daniels universe, it is more traditionally urban fantasy setting. Drawing on interesting mythology, I thought it might go somewhere horror-tinged, but no; straight into Romanceland using an action set-up. Ended more abruptly than I expected.

“Magic Tests” is set in the Daniels universe and involves Kate manipulating Julie into seeing a new school. Julie gets roped into an investigation. It has the fun mythology and puzzle-solving of a Daniels story, with teenage dynamics. I thought they did a decent job of individuating Julie’s voice, and honestly, it wasn’t annoying (given that she is often annoying in the stories, as only a pre-teen could be). My favorite.

Three and a half short stars, rounding up because the authors didn’t resort to cheap sales tricks

Posted in Book reviews, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Positive by David Wellington. Not so much.


Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of YA and zombies. And flat story-telling
 ★    ★   

See Finn and his parents. See Finn leave New York. See Finn fight off a scary woman. See Finn meet a man traveling with young girls.  See Finn fight off scary man. See Finn fail to develop worldliness. See Finn act like dumb Knight in Shiny Armor. See Finn get beat forty different times. See carol wish she could slap some sense into Finn.

Serves me right, you say. What am I doing reading zombie books and expecting great literature? Because zombies are Other, but they were people, and it is fascinating to see how authors and their characters cope with survival, identity, and fear. If you don’t think there haven’t been some great zombie literature books, then you need to read farther into the genre.

I thought Wellington would be a good novelist, as I had recently encountered his short stories in the triptych The End is Nigh/Come. I thought his stories interesting; fun, fast, and with a concept that strikes right to the heart of the Other/Us concept–people who have been exposed to zombies are put into internment camps until time runs out on the virus-exposure limits (and if that doesn’t just put you in mind of USA’s Japanese internment camps and Guantanamo Bay, then you should go look up allegory).

The plot is broken up into three major sections. There’s a brief introduction to Finn and his life in New York City, twenty years after the zombie apocalypse. He characterizes people into “first generation” that lived through the massive upheaval and everyone born after. After leaving NYC, he is rescued by a scavenger and his carload of young girls. This is the most zombie-centered section of the book, and feels a great deal like a Mad Max survivalist scenario. After escaping his rescuer, the group drives to Ohio, to the government camp. Then it is internment camp time, followed by an escape and a shot at a new life. Really, it isn’t about the zombies as much a young person’s coming-of-age in three parts. And I really think this young person needs a solid slap upside the head because he seems immune to the effects of experience.

Although I didn’t much care for Finn–he never really matured or recognized any kind of subtlety of thought–I did enjoy the personalities of the side characters. Grizzled mad Kate, faithful Ike, and Kylie, the troubled young woman, all hailed from central casting, but at least I found their realism a refreshing contrast to Finn’s persistent ignorance. Surprisingly, I rather appreciated the sociopathic side characters as well, although the fact that they were there and Finn continued to be surprised by them was irritating.

The combination of Finn’s character and the dull, point-by-point writing is what ended my interest in the story. It wasn’t bad so much as utterly boring. I literally was forcing myself to pick up the book and read. It was a challenge to figure out why I didn’t like it, because on the whole, Wellington is far more competent than many zombie-story writers (Rhiannon Frater, I’m looking at you). I believe it partly narrows down to the plodding description, Finn’s lack of introspection and a storytelling style that tends towards describing as if one is telling someone else about a movie they watched last week. It tends to follow a formula: Finn sees something. Someone explains to Finn what he is seeing. Finn then re-observes the scene with this knowledge. We move on to something else Finn doesn’t understand.

Behind the spoiler, I’m going to put some examples of the writing. They really aren’t spoilerific, but I’m avoiding the wall ‘o text, because the proof is in the puddin.

Overall, I found it a disappointing entry into the zombie oeuvre (oh yes; I said that). Good thing The Walking Dead returns soon, so I can get my fix through television and go back to reading serious books.

Continue reading

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, young adult | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Last First Snow by Max Gladstone. First among sequels.

Last First Snow

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of fantasy, Guy Kay
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

It’s not a kissing book.

I feel I have to mention that because both people who saw me reading it at work said the title sounded like a romance. Since one was reading A Game of Thrones, I was a bit surprised at her lack of knowledge about Gladston’s standout fantasy series, The Craft Sequence. It deserves far more recognition among fantasy and sci-fi fans than it currently receives. My best guess is that Gladstone is such an unusual writer, he travels above and below the average radar. The series has a setting that feels vaguely urban fantasy, language that reminds me of Kay, and complicated concepts found more often in conceptual science fiction. Honestly, his writing hits so many of my satisfaction points that I’m resisting skipping my review in favor of starting a series re-read.

There would always be a spider who bargained with a fly, there would always be two sisters who played ball with demons, there would always be monsters who tried to eat the sun, even if marrow and majesty seeped out from the myths.

It is a book about relationships in the most philosophical sense of the word, the ways of faith, money, fidelity and love and the agreements made between them. Oh, and a bit of revolution, urban decay, gentrification and the aftermath of war. One of the main characters is Temoc, warrior high priest of a god banished from the city during the god wars forty years ago. Without sacrifice and followers–a contract of belief, if you will–the gods lie dormant, and weak. Temoc has been practicing a peaceful way of life, living in the Skittersill district with his academic wife and his pre-teen son Caleb.  It also follows Elayne, a Craftswoman, magically skilled in a secular form of power that has risen to prominence after the god wars.

In the poor district of the city, the Skittersill, god-created protections are decaying, leaving the district vulnerable from fire, pestilence and disease are failing. Elayne is trying to negotiate an acceptable contract between the Red King Consolidated and the merchants that want to buy and raze the Skittersill. Elayne has a eye out for trouble and tries to warn both parties: “‘You’ve not accounted for all the factors.’ ‘Between the King in Red and Tan Batac’s merchant collective, we control property use rights in the Skittersill. Who else is there?’”  How about the residents who want to prevent their homes from becoming unaffordable? Temoc becomes involved by believers in the district, and by his old enmity with the Red King. The powers that come from his belief could be all that stands against a successful resolution–or that creates one.

If you’ve been following the series to this point, you’ll recognize both Temoc and Caleb, a good ten years earlier than the events in Two Serpents Rise, (my review) and Elayne from Three Parts Dead (my review). It is worth taking a moment to admire Gladstone’s writing genius. These people are going to survive, because we’ve seen them in their future, yet the certainty does not lessen the tension of Last First Snow. I’d compare it to hearing a story from my father about Vietnam: I know the ending–I know he’s here, and the general kind of person he is now, but that doesn’t make hearing about the experience less tense or less interesting (insert carol’s rant about the concept of spoilers).

Narrative is third person omniscient focused on a handful of characters; Temoc, the priest; Elayne, the Craftswoman; Chel, a dockhand in the Skittersill, with the occasional thoughts from a few others. Elayne is particularly admirable as she tried to find the balance between legal responsibilities and ethical principles. As a Craftswoman, she’s destined for existence beyond the flesh, but instead of giving her arrogance, it leaves her grasping at compassion: “Elayne was still human enough to give the other woman space, to let her stand and watch the blood and read the letter with her hand clenched around the railing. Elayne was still human enough to leave.”

Both Elayne and Temoc fought in the wars forty years ago, and both reflect on their reactions now versus their actions then. In some ways, it is a book grounded on the dilemmas that come with maturity; once you have lost the righteousness of youthful activism, how do you navigate the obligations of real life–family, profession–with passion, belief and ethics? Temoc, technically part of the ‘losing’ side of the war, recognizes that the history of a place he has known intimately has grown into a modern presence: Temoc had not left his city. His city left him, replaced by another. He been born scant miles from the spot, yet felt a half a world away from everything he knew.”

When the scale is a revolution, it’s easy to lose humanity, and perspective. A little judicious humor occasionally lightens the mood:

“Air filters be damned: in Dresediel Lex, to run was to invite the city into your lungs, and the city was a drunken guest who like to trash the place.”

“Elayne briefly considered gutting the man, and decided against it. In her experience spraying a Court hallway with blood and other humors was rarely a good idea. That one time in Iskar had been a special case.”

There are a few shortcomings, but honestly, I think that’s because I’m comparing Gladstone to the greats in literary fantasy. No mere beach read, this one engaged my brain as much as my heart, and I was vaguely anxious as the events cascaded.

Immensely engrossing, what I really wanted after finishing was to go home and read the series from the beginning again, just so I could see the echos from Temoc, Elayne and the events of the Skittersill reverberate through the earlier books. At least my Game of Thrones friend related to that feeling.


Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A Serpent’s Tooth by Craig Johnson

A Serpent's Tooth

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of Western mysteries
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

Do you think there are more crazy people in our country than anywhere else?” Walt’s latest project has Vic Moretti wondering about the mental health of her adopted state. You see, Barbara’s son is worried about Barbara’s stories that angels are doing her household repairs. And eating her fried chicken. While Walt speculates that the wide-open space attracts those who need a certain amount of space, I’m thinking Absaroka County, Wyoming isn’t all that different. People just have more space to let their crazy run wild. Just wait until Vic meets Van Ross Lynear and his twelve spaceships. It turns out that the angel is a teenage boy who has been kicked out of a local Mormon-based cult. When Walt goes looking for the teenager’s mother, he gets stonewalled by cult members who refuse to allow him on to their well-guarded property. Lacking probably cause, Walt tries various ruses to get a closer look, but the cult members have some significant connections.

At any rate, this was series redemption. Relationship issues are present, but take a back seat to matters of a religious sect and a missing woman. Characters really are quite interesting, and there are more than enough people introduced to make for a complex puzzle of relationships. (It’s always nice in an ongoing series when it isn’t immediately obvious who the ‘red shirts’ are). There’s a fair amount of humor here, mostly in the form of the wide variety of people we meet, particularly an elderly man claiming to be over 200 years old, but also from Vic’s wildly inappropriate cop humor. Along with Vic, the Cheyenne Nation assists in investigation and resolution.

‘Edgar Lynear was the first to ask from the other side of the truck bed, ‘We’re not already arrested?’
‘Not yet, but if I do it goes on your permanent record.’
‘What’s a permanent record?’
I turned and looked at Henry. ‘Doesn’t seem to carry the weight it used to.’

The writing has a nice balance of action and imagery:

He rammed his way past her, but to give her credit, even with a bloodied nose, she clung to his pant leg as he dragged her along with him… I made the four strides between us just as the pants slipped from his narrow hips. He darted into the living room, bounced off the room divider, and hurtled through the doorway. I watched helplessly as he skimmed off the porch and was gone like a sidewinder.

There’s a few points when I wondered if Walt was really considering what he was doing (or that Johnson was being consistent with character) but I was happy enough to follow along with the action and not get too caught in the details. At points, Walt actually caused more harm than the normal the old-timey sheriff, causing both personal and property damange. I suspect the tv series is showing influence, giving the reader/viewer the emotional satisfaction of rough justice. Likewise, there’s a traumatic event that really serves no purpose except to provide an easy justification for vengeance. I found this time I appreciated Vic providing a more analytical viewpoint to Walt’s kind-heartedness.

Overall, I’d say despite a few shortcomings, this book is proof that the series is still worth my time. There is something to be said for a feel-good story where bad guys will lose, good guys will triumph and redemption is possible.

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Owl and the City of Angels by Kristi Charish

Owl and the City of Angels

Read September 2015
Recommended for fans of Kim Harrison
 ★    ★    ★   


Owl is in trouble. Again. She’s incognito at an archaeological dig in Egypt and can’t escape a leering post-doc student long enough to steal a Medusa head from the tomb. To make matters worse, there’s an extra sarcophagus and a chamber half-full of water. This is only in the first few pages of Owl and the City of Angels, which continues at a breakneck pace. Her adventures will take her to Mr. Kurosawa’s casino, to visit the glitterati in Los Angeles and non-spoilery variety of other locations as Owl attempts to complete the Dragon’s assignments and save her skin.

Here’s my problem: I have a hard time separating my dislike for Owl from my feelings about the book. Owl, unfortunately, has not significantly developed from the previous book, Owl and the Japanese Circus. She’s a thief, and as far as I can tell, a mediocre one without redeeming personal qualities except sarcasm. She is full of contradictions: she’s always saying how she hates supernaturals, but works for a dragon because he can protect her from the vampires she’s angered. Despite her lucrative employment, she still continues to steal items for herself on his jobs. Yet, she refuses to take a side job for a friend who claims it is ‘life and death.’ We do see another side of her, during her ‘down time’ playing WorldQuest, a massive multiplayer on-line game. Yet, she’s a thief there and though she has a close partner, Carpe, she professes they have an understanding that each will abandon the other, or even steal from them. Oh, and she’s dating an incubus named Rynn (again, with her baseline suspicion of supernaturals), who shares a running joke where they call each other “whore” and “train wreck” (ha, ha). It’s clear she’s emotionally disengaged from almost everyone she should be close to, and displays suspicion and general quarrelsomeness when they frequently appear ready to help her out of friendship.

I’m not the only one who doesn’t like Owl. The IAA, who regulates archaeological digs and polices the supernatural world, is convinced she is behind a string of artifact thefts. The creators of her favorite game WorldQuest are considering booting her, tired of her using game information to achieve thefts in real life. Lady Siyu, her boss’ seneschal, hates her sass as well, although Lady’s naga identity might have something to do with it. For a thief, she’s also a terrible planner–in the initial scene, she mentions that she’s had so much trouble getting away from the postdoc that she’s ‘missed the jump in scrutiny’ by the guards, then when she’s running through the Egyptian streets dodging the IAA, she is amazed how good they have gotten since she left. Before stealing the Medusa she notes that she’s tripled the workload of her employer’s initial assignment, but not because it’s greedy–because its good time management and planning (so how did her planning miss the updated security?) I’m continually surprised how she seems barely competent, argumentative and impulsive and manages to pull any caper off at all.

The writing redeems the story. Focused on a fast moving, obstacle-filled plot, it competently describes event after event. Narrative is in first person; it feels colloquial with a tone appropriate to Owl’s voice. There’s the occasional slip-up when dealing with Owl, but it could be I’m primed for annoyance by her. For instance, in a chase scene she thinks, ‘no time for niceties,’ and then says ‘sorry,’ in Arabic. If that’s not common courtesy, I’m not sure what is.

World-building is fun, and the supernaturals are often a type not often seen. I like the idea of archaeological digs as a setting, although the concept of the IAA being a black-suited gun-toting force seems far-fetched. An event or two borders on the outrageous, but is fitting if you view this as a book as about the fast-moving challenges with continually elevating stakes. Although reviews frequently compare her to Indiana Jones, Jones has far more charm, and his rakish confidence grants him more leeway than I’m willing to give Owl. The character cast is generally fun, with all sorts of supernatural creatures and dastardly devices.

I have no doubt that the audience for Owl is out there. If she’d develop some redeeming qualities–loyalty, selflessness, charm, cleverness, ethics–really, any one of the above would work–I’d be counted among them.


my thanks to NetGalley and Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books for the advance copy.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Guards!Guards! by Terry Pratchett. Or, Classic British Humour


Read August 2015
Recommended for fans of Pratchett, British humor
 ★    ★    ★   


My Terry Pratchett Experience ™ is remarkably similar to my Month Python Experience.™  Fun and funny, but really best done in small doses. Say, 15 minute doses if I’m watching, longer if I’m reading.

It turns out, I haven’t read Guards!Guards! before, although I thought I had. Quite possibly, it is because I had not. Quite possibly, it’s because I had and forgot, but you’d think I’d remember the dragons. For future reference, it’s the one where the adopted dwarf Carrot goes to the big city of Ankh-Morpork and joins the Night Watch in hopes of Becoming a Man.  Night Watch captain Sam Vimes spends most of his days and nights in an alcoholic stupor, but the antics of Carrot in Enforcing Law and Order soon force Vimes into involvement. Meanwhile, a secret society (the Elucidated Bethren of the Ebon Night) has decided to summon a dragon, intending on overthrowing the Patrician Lord Vetinari and replacing him with an old-fashioned monarchy. Some of the Brothers are quite sure they are being held down and need a monarchy to make things right:

I get oppressed all the time,” said Brother Doorkeeper. “Mister Critchley, where I work, he oppresses me morning, noon and night, shouting at me and everything. And the woman in the vegetable shop, she oppresses me all the time.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Like Monty Python, Pratchett specializes in absurdity, in mocking our perceptions, definitions and expectation. Clever and funny; a little bit of social commentary with an edge, both are particularly skilled in word games.

“‘But you’re my kind,’ said Carrot desperately. ‘In a manner of speaking, yes,’ said his father. ‘In another manner of speaking, which is a rather more precise and accurate manner of speaking, no.'”

Which puts me in mind of another famous sketch based on, you know, meaning and such:

I wish to complain about this parrot I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s dead.”
“No, no; it’s resting.

Parrot Sketch: “he’s resting.” YouTube: https://youtu.be/aqz_4OgMi7M

It is funny, but when it’s all clever wordplay–mocking villains in their thick dark cowls, and the general populace for being sheep, and Carrot for being So Earnest, and Lady Sybil for being such a hearty, large Englishwoman, and the only one who is really clever is the Patrician–well, it’s a bit hard to empathize. And honestly, rather tiring.

Then there’s the Librarian, an orangutan who runs the greatest library in the world. He’s trying to make Constable Carrot understand a serious crime has been committed:


A book has been taken. A book has been taken? You summoned the Watch,’ Carrot drew himself up proudly, ‘because someone’s taken a book? You think that’s worse than murder?’

The librarian gave him the kind of look other people would reserve for people who said things like, ‘What’s so bad about genocide?’

Which pretty much reminds me of the Albatross sketch. Both use the device of the straight man for maximum silliness:

The Albatross at Intermission:

Albatross for sale!

At the end of the day, certainly fun. There’s certainly messages and social commentary that elevate it above simple romps, but it tends to be applied with heavy emphasis. Like Python, best enjoyed in short sketches. 

Don’t worry, I’ll show myself out.

On the way to the Ministry of Silly Walks

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy | Tagged , , | 5 Comments