They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie. Or with phones.

They Do It With Mirrors

March 2015
Recommended for fans of Miss Marple
 ★    ★    ★   

Sure, they do it with mirrors. Apparently in 1952, they could even do it by telephone. By which I refer to phoning it in, because this isn’t Christie at her best. It isn’t even Marple at her best. Still, They Do It with Mirrors is a diverting read, a quick Christie satisfier.

We begin with Miss Marple enjoying a few moments with a dear friend from boarding school days. Ruth now lives in America, but her sister lives in England, and after visiting her, Ruth has a suspicion something isn’t right–something besides the 200 criminals living on the property. Ruth’s sister Carrie Louise and her current husband are running a school for juvenile delinquents, hoping to reform the youth through applied psychology. Also in residence are Carrie Louise’s attendant, her two step-sons, her grand-daughter and her American husband, and Carrie’s widowed daughter.  Ruth can’t tell Jane any concrete reason why she feels anxious about her sister, but would like Miss Marple to put her gentle investigatory skills to work.

I love the few moments we have Miss Marple’s backstory as she shares reminiscences with Ruth and Carrie Louise. Despite her fondness for the universals of human nature, Miss Marple so rarely draws stories from herself–she finds most parallels in neighbors and acquaintances. Now that I think about it, I suspect that is one of the reasons I was always so fond of Miss Marple: she’s the antithesis of the attention-seeking narcissist, an all-too-familiar figure (ahem, Poirot). Moreover, Miss Marple is self-aware and is at peace with it: “Everyone’s life has a tempo. Ruth’s was presto whereas Miss Marple’s was content to be adagio.

The setting is a country estate in shabby condition, and revolves more around gossiping conversation than fact-finding. I didn’t note Miss Marple displaying her usual acumen, and thought she appeared to be led astray rather easily. Christie seemed to be telegraphing as well, but that is a tricky call for me–I’ve read most of her works decades ago so I can never tell what I’m remembering from reading, and what I might be deciphering.

Interestingly, I don’t remember noticing Christie’s subtle humor when I was younger, but I’m enjoying her sly asides now. Here it generally plays out in discussions with the police:
“‘I shouldn’t think anybody else,’ said Miss Marple…’I just happened to be looking out of my window–at some birds.’
‘Birds?’
‘Birds.’ Miss Marple added after a moment or two: ‘I thought, perhaps, they might be siskins.’
Inspector Curry was uninterested in siskins.”

Characterization was largely straightforward, following general character stereotypes with one or two developed above the rest. Again, the police provide some amusement. Watch Dame Christie get a jab or two in:

She looked, Inspector Curry reflected, exactly as the relict of a Canon of the Established Church should look–which was almost odd, because so few people ever did look like what they really were.

Even the tight line of her lips had an ascetic Ecclesiatical flavour. She expressed Christian Endurance, and possibly Christian Fortitude. But not, Curry thought, Christian Charity.

The rather slow build of the beginning has a nicely murderous payoff, then followed by even more disaster. The culmination, however, seemed hasty and morally simplified and borrowed (or heralded?) another Christie ending. Overall, it was fun, if not particularly suspenseful or logical. Entertaining and quick, perfect for a break between projects.

 

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Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.

Ex-Heroes

January 2013
Recommended for fans of zombies and superheroees
 ★    ★    

Ex-Heroes, or a novel about a graphic novel about a comic soon to be a movie coming to a theater near you!

I have only two problems with Ex-Heroes.

Characterization and theme.

I understand that this is a book about superheroes, which lend themselves to stereotypes. Except in a genre full of them, Cline seems determined to use them all. There is the ‘Boy Scout,’ who is working for the greater good; the ‘Anti-hero,’ who is the bad boy that flaunts authority; the ‘Radioactive,’ who developed powers after being exposed to radiation (actually, Cline explains a couple superheroes this way); the ‘Gifted Female,’ whose sexuality is her dominant image; the ‘Demon,’ who has bonded with evil; the ‘Teenager,’ the normal kid who develops superpowers; the ‘Bestial,’ who has part animal in his nature. In a nod to Ironman, there is a female engineer in an iron suit. Whoops–I almost forgot the ‘Woman in Refrigerator’ character–the dead woman that moves the superhero’s plot forward through grief/guilt/etc.(1) Oh, and for those who are aggravated by such things, at least two Supers are Mary Sues.

Extra negative points for stereotypes–first, the bitchy Asian council-woman; second, transforming a Korean girl into a Japanese hero; and third, making a Latino gang into the antagonists. What, you couldn’t find any Nazis or Russians from 1960? Oh wait–the nickname of the Latino gang was abbreviated ‘S.S.,’ which almost counts. (For mark’s insightful commentary, see (2))

Faint attempt to give cookie-cutter superheroes depth by giving introducing a ‘past’ and a ‘present’ narrative were insufficient. ‘Nuff said.

**************************************

The zombie apocalypse is about a loss of organized society as the individual struggles against the horrific; they become about survival, transformation and the meaning of humanity. The best apocalypse stories focus on rebuilding order out of chaos while struggling to survive. Ex-Heroes is pretty much the exact opposite.

After retreating to a movie studio, the supers essentially form their own oligarchy, or perhaps dictatorship, since Stealth makes all the decisions. The supers don’t call it that, of course. But they are the ones strategizing, setting goals, deciding, protecting, and leading. Sure, normal humans help in some of these roles. But you don’t hear humans participating in the process, except to fulfill the stereotypical role of antagonistic-suspicion-of-well-intentioned-superhero. The humans are the mirrors for the heroes, the pets, the sheep to lead and direct; the only agency they have is that of poor decision-making. Ultimately, while that may be a prevalent theme in superhero mediums, it is the antithesis of zombie apocalypse fiction.

**************************************

What did I like? It was quick and readable. While the language was not ornate, it was coherent and focused. The “Then” narratives that gave background on the heroes were interesting and told well, even if they weren’t particularly unique stories (ah, to be a beautiful genius–the troubles I would have!). The section I enjoyed the most is the one few zombie books concentrate on–recognizing the outbreak and attempting to curtail the viral invasion. Cline’s analysis was likely spot on in the official reaction, and was creative when Stealth was sending Zzzap out on a mission to locate the living dead. Although some of the explanation of the virus was eye-rolling pseudo-science, but at the end it was combined with an impressive twist that made it worth the effort.

On the borderlands of my normal reading material, I appreciated the challenge. In regards to rating, it hits squarely in my 2.5 zone, but I imagine it is decently done for its genre.

Interesting but spelling-challenged analysis of superheroes:
(1) http://www.comicvine.com/comicbook-st…
mark monday’s thoughtful review:
(2) http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/…

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews, Urban fantasy | Tagged | 5 Comments

Interior Desecrations by James Lileks. Love the words, not the patterns.

Interior Desecrations

March 2015
Recommended for fans of design and humor
 ★    ★    ★    ★   

I picked this up after a friend’s review, not because I have any great interest in interior design, but because I was sort of hoping to see an echo of my parents’ kitchen when we first moved in, a hideous display of avocado green–the appliances to the carpet–and dark brown wood accents on cabinets and paneling.
But Interior Descecrations is a level above the common 1970s ranch house. It contains pictures from designer-level showrooms and appropriately snarky commentary alongside. Apparently the book’s genesis sprung from a website devoted to the visual atrocities of the period.

Amusing, to be sure, but these are hardly the more common visual manifestations that so wounded the senses. Although I do seem to remember a friend’s kitchen that resembled this:

description

Honestly, who was the brain trust that convinced people to carpet their kitchens?!? Did they not have children in the 70s?

Commentary is meant only to amuse, not inform, with witty observations:

“To understand the full visual horror of this era, you have to visualize a man in plaid pants sitting on the sofa. Or any patterned pants, for that matter: this was a sofa designed to clash with humans. Nude people would clash with this sofa. Albino nude people would clash with this sofa. The Invisible Man would clash with this sofa. It is one of those perfectly rare pieces of furniture that clashes with itself. Just looking at it makes you feel as if you’ve bounced down the stairs in a box of cymbals.”

“Fighting centipedes? A close-up of one’s intestinal lining Difficult to say. But you can be sure the designer chose this scheme because it ‘drew the eye upward.’ Of course, one could say the same thing about the Hindenburg disaster.”

“Here we have a mix of old green crap, new green crap and some stunning green transitional crap, all of which serve to give this room the exhausted, mealy flavor of overcooked vegetables.”

That’s the one!

These are horrifying photos with commentary worth of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It is a combination guaranteed to amuse–in small doses, as it will surely overwhelm in larger ones–much like these rooms.

description

My eyes!

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Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Afterparty

March 2015
Recommended for fans of The Matrix, The Rook, The Gone-Away World, A Madness of Angels, Daryl Gregory
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★  

I turned the last page of Afterparty in a daze. It was dark outside; the sun had set while I was reading, and all the curtains were still open. The dogs realized I was interactive again and came over to beg for (more) dinner. With a start, I realized swim practice started in five minutes, and there was no way I was going to be on time. I had rushed the end of the book, knowing time was passing, but unwilling to stop reading. I gave the dogs an extra treat, grabbed my swim bag and keys, and headed to the car, unable to organize my thoughts enough to be sure I remembered everything, still only partly in the physical world.

It was that good.

I’ll admit it: I judged a book by it’s cover. I wasn’t excited to read Afterparty; I’ve been less than impressed with books revolving around drug culture (I’m talking to you, A Scanner Darkly and Less Than Zero). But a recent run at Harrison Squared encouraged me to trust Gregory. It was a leap well worth taking.

It begins with the story of a young woman that quickly segues into the story of another inmate at the mental hospital. Lyda is a brilliant scientist and one of the co-creators of a drug developed to treat schizophrenics. The issue is particularly dear to her as her mother suffered from schizophrenia. Lyda and her co-creators are celebrating its sale to a pharmaceutical company when they overdose on the drug and Lyda’s wife ends up dead. The rest of them are left with residual effects–the perception that a divine personality is appearing to each of them as a personal guide. It’s clear to Lyda that the drug is back on the street. She sets out to find the drug’s co-creators and stop its production.

Simultaneously a thriller and a meditation on personality, biology and the divine, Afterparty had me riveted. The balance between the two was perfect for me, lending meaning to the search, and giving philosophical musings concrete movement forward. What does it mean to have an angel on one’s shoulder guiding one’s actions?

“Behind him, Dr. G drifted along the perimeter of the room, taking in the mini-shrines. I got an impression of Aztec gods, clouds of cotton swabs, black-and-white photo collages. It was an Anti-Science Fair.”

Characterization is up to Gregory’s usual fine standard. Lyda, in particular, shines. Part of her personal arc involves trusting others with her history. She’s been pretty honest with the inmates of the ward about her crimes, but it is constructed setting, and she’ll be held more accountable in the real world.

This is where Bobby lived. We’d spent three months together on the ward, and in that time I learned what he was most afraid of, and the kind of person he wanted to be, and how he felt about me. I understood, for lack of a better word, his heart. But I didn’t know what his job was now, if he had a job at all, or who his friends were, where his parents lived, or what he liked on his pizza. That was the nature of bubble relationships. Prison, army, hospital, reality show–they were all pocket universes with their own physics. Bobby and I were close friends who hardly knew each other.

It is not a romantic story, but relationships are part of the equation and the solution, much like The Bourne Identity. I like that Gregory put a twist on the sexuality without making it a Major Issue. I admit, I harbored a soft spot for Dr. G–I appreciate a clever retort no matter who it is from.

‘When the mast is high, it’s any port in a storm.’
‘I don’t think he knows how metaphors work,’ Dr. G. said.”

The emotion of the story felt very real. The action pulled me along, and the near-futuristic setting was fun, and familiar enough to not need much world-building. I appreciated the evocative descriptions. Overall, I might have some small quibbles–I think the villains could have been treated with more sophistication–but anything that pulls me in that solidly and gives me book hangover deserves five stars.

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The Journeyman: The Commons #1 by Michael Alan Peck

The Commons Book 1

February 2015
Recommended for fans of Harrison Squared, fans of new Weird
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

Paul Reid died in the snow at seventeen. The day of his death, he told a lie–and for the rest of his life, he wondered if that was what killed him.

An absolutely riveting beginning for a very enjoyable story. I’ve procrastinated forever on this review, prompting me to (re)resolve to review a book as soon as I read it, and not give into temptation to start the next book. At this point, I almost feel as if I need to re-read it–and at this point, I’m about ready to. I found this through Koeur’s review and was glad I picked it up. It felt like a breath of creativity in the urban fantasy field when I needed something newish.

Paul is an orphaned seventeen year-old intent on leaving the city. Annie is an Iraqi war vet intent on getting expert help for her autistic son, Zach. They are caught in a bus crash and thrown into another world where they are meant to continue their metaphysical journeys. Mr. Brill is attempting a takeover of the world.

Characterization is well done. Paul, Annie and the almost-mute Zach were very real, and Peck did a nice job individuating their voices and narrative. Paul had a bit of that young, antagonistic youth about him, but it wore off as he went deeper into the Commons. I particularly appreciated the first time Paul meets Annie and Zach, right after they’ve recovered Zach’s precious marble:

The boy looked back up at his mother, who seeme as flummoxed by her son”s behavior as Paul was by her. Something important was going on, but Paul had no idea what.
The mother didn’t either. She glanced from Paul to the kid, as if there was some secret they kept from her.

The writing was one of the highlights. Despite the occasional awkward sentence, Peck does a nice job conveying meaning with structure as well as wording. This is a particularly useful technique when  he takes the perspective of a special-needs, apparently autistic character.  It works at other times as well, particularly during a crash:

“A thing broke. A thing tore. A thing howled.
Bright, bright light. Too much.
All was light as the snowy windshield blazed at him in lines of hot stars.
The bus imploded into white.”

The tone hits a nice balance, seriousness with moment of hope and despair. There’s some horror-like moments that move it along, along with some leavening humor:

“Porter surveyed the group. ‘Everyone all right?’
No one answered. If bloody, wet, mud-crusted and pincer-chewed qualified, than yes, they were.”

“Annie and her consciousness reached a fork in the road and chose different directions.

Overall, it feels a bit ‘new adult’ to me, with a focus on self-discovery as much as saving the world (yes, the Orphan’s Quest), done in a way modern readers should be able to appreciate and with creativity that sets it above the norm. I highly recommend it.

My thanks to NetGalley for the advance reader copy, and sincere apologies for delay in writing my review!

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Kraken by China Mieville.

Kraken

March 2015
Recommended for fans of Harkaway’s The Angelmaker, O’Malley’s The Rook
 ★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

“Enter that room and you breached a Schwarzschild radius of something not canny, and that cephalopod corpse was the singularity.

I rather get why Miéville’s normally fantastic fanish fans don’t like Kraken much. I will note that I’ve had intermediate success with Miéville, finding a couple of his works quite memorable and some quite putdownable. Kraken is one I enjoyed muchly, primarily due to its absurdity, the absence of didacticism, and its clever-clever use of language. Speaking of, however, I would have like a bit more on the language front, specifically the description sort of language, words that might have given more insight into what was happening. As it was, I felt rather like Arthur Dent after meeting Ford Prefect. 

“Sometimes you can’t get bogged down in the how,” Baron said. “Sometimes things happen that shouldn’t, and you can’t let that detain you. But the why? we can make headway with.”

But I rather suspect idea satiation of the text was part of the point, and, indeed, Miéville says, “it was a bit of a kitchen sink” of ideas in Kraken. Again, not knocking it. The first book of Miéville’s that I truly respected and whatever else, because love isn’t the sort of word you use with that book, was Embassytown, which was a bit of a mind-bender of a science-fiction book. Science-fiction being what it is, it’s easier for me to take those realities with a grain of salt, or, in that case, with a rather large tub of popcorn to help all that salt go down, because, wow, was that book ever idea-dense. This is idea-dense too, but in a creative, silly, bizarre candy-shop sort of way, not so much a philosophical one.

“And yes, no, it couldn’t have, no disappeared, so many metres of abyss meat could not have gone… There were no giant tank- no squid-shaped holes cartoon-style in the wall. It could not have gone, but there is was, not.

Kraken is, nominally at least, about Billy, a man who is a museum curator at the Darwin Centre. He’s leading a tour group when they discover the star attraction–a perfectly preserved specimen of a thirty-foot giant squid–has disappeared without a trace. Dane the security guard is also mysteriously absent. As the police go through their investigative routine, Billy makes a gruesome discovery in the storage rooms. A special division of police make Billy an offer, but before he can think twice, events have spiraled out of his control into weirdness. What follows is a journey across London, through a city with dissident gods and magic-workers, where “crime overlapped with faith” as Billy seeks to understand his role in world-changing events and recover the squid.

“What my colleague is getting at,” Baron said, “is we’re facing a wave of St.Johns. A bit of an epidemic of eschatologies.”

My most serious challenge was developing an emotional connection to the characters. None really seemed sympathetic, and while I’m mentioning it, Billy was more than a bit Arthur Dentish in the beginning, wandering around and saying, “what? what? I don’t understand” all the time when he really needed to get with the program. The police are little help; although they contribute to the attempts towards law-n-order, they are just as apt to handcuff those preventing the apocalypse as much as those starting one. Perhaps the one I felt most affection for was a millennia-old rebellious spirit, leading a strike of the city’s magical assistants and familiars against exploitation. The villains were truly horrific, and Miéville deserves kudos for imbuing them with scary life in such brief appearances.

Goss and fucking Subby. Sliding shifty through Albion’s history, disappearing for ten, thirty, a hundred blessed years at a time, to return, evening all, wink wink, with a twinkle of a sociopathic eye, to unleash some charnel-degradation-for hire.

There was no specificity to Goss and Subby.”

On the other side, the language is something else, something that makes me enjoy it and yet makes my brain work a bit too, because not only does he flat out improve my vocabulary, he takes a rather deconstructionist approach to structure at times. Often it takes me a minute to work out meaning. I think. Or at least glean on to partial intention. I most definitely feel like is one Miéville that you can re-read for more meaning, if only you can stand the story. I don’t mean that in a snarky way, despite how it sounds. I’m reflection on my own experience with his works, how some were like a full five course dinner of things I liked but were arranged in unusual ways, but some of his works were like five course dinners of things I mostly didn’t like, except for maybe the appetizer and dessert. Not to take away from the creativeness of it as much as the saturation of the effort.

You know what else is enjoyable about his stories? Utterly unpredictable. There will be no tropes here, or, if they are, they shall be used ironically and with abrupt changes in meaning to turn reader assumptions sideways. There’s so much that is fun, good, and oh yes! here: the Sea, the motif of the ink, the angels, the museum, the ramifications of a disappearing skill, the smallest ode to Star Trek, and the squiddity of it all. There is satisfying ending, even if it isn’t precisely the one expected. While I originally rated this slightly lower, it grew on me the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to read it again. This might be one worth adding to the library for the sheer inventiveness, the languageness of it. Yes, I think I will.

“We’ve been arguing about books,” said Marge.
“Best sort of argument,” said Billy. “What was the substance?”…
“Virginia Woolf versus Edward Lear…”
“I went for Lear,” said Leon.”Partly out of fidelity to the letter L. Partly because given the choice between nonsense and boojy wittering you blatantly have to choose nonsense.”

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The Darker Carnival by Frank Tuttle

The Darker Carnival

March 2015
Recommended for fans of urban-fantasy like fantasy, non-grim fantasy
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

The beginning of The Darker Carnival put me in mind of one of the most poetically harrowing carnivals ever, the carnival of Something Wicked This Way Comes (my review), particularly when a traveling salesman pitches a lightning rod to Markhat. It took me a chapter or two to shake off the echoes, but it helped that Markhat is an adult married man, guardian to a banshee, and generally more of curmudgeonous sort than twelve year-olds filled with wonder. It wasn’t long before I sank into the city of Rannit and the malice of the carnival. It proved to be a fine installment in the series.

Markhat has a new commission, courtesy once again of Mama Hog, neighbor and crone extraordinaire. A rural couple’s young daughter has been missing ever since the family attended the carnival and she caught the attention of the Master. That night she disappeared, and though her father followed the carnival and searched, just once was able to catch a glimpse of her, in a tent advertising a “living dead girl.” The parents have tracked the show to the city of Rannit and would like Markhat to Find her. The task pulls in much of the usual gang: Mama Hog, Buttercup the banshee, and Markhat’s wife, Darla, with token appearances from his apprentice Gertriss and Evis the vampire. The investigation brings Markhat more strangeness than anyone could have expected.

All right. We regroup. Devise a new strategy. Put on fresh pants and round up bigger guns. Then what?” Mama Hog has a solution: “I reckon,” she said, “we’ll have to go about things like they done in olden days.” “Which was?” “Cut throats till ye run out of necks.

One of the things I enjoy about the series is the playfulness of the writing. To integrate humor and yet achieve the edges of fear and horror, such as when Markhat deals with the Dark Carnival, is one of the reasons I keep reading this series.

The newly-cleared path ran a mile before reaching the river. I passed all manner of horrors and wonders, most of them engaged in ill-advised acts or flirtation with ladies who weren’t dressed for winter, but not a single one of the waybills or posters advertised a living dead girl.

******

“‘May I ask what wage you are paid, to mock and demean?’
‘Five coppers a word,’ I said. “Six, if I manage to fit in ridicule.’
He laughed. The sound was abrupt and dry and harsh… Thorkel’s laughter sounded like a jackal’s cry, humorless and cruel.”

I appreciated how Tuttle put some constraints on Markhat’s powers, as well as his powerful allies. It can be a challenge to create an antagonist that holds up to the abilities of the team, particularly when Markhat has allies such as the Corpsemater and vampires with gunpowder. I admit, I’m a bit disappointed to see that guns are still making a one-sided appearance in the series, giving a particularly convenient way out. It also occurs to me that Markhat doesn’t do as much mystical ‘finding’ anymore as much as using common sense and dogged spirit, much like detectives everywhere. Not that I mind, but it does leave me remembering questions about his skills that were raised early in the series. There are some scenes where it is apparent his powers are changing, but he blames it on events in prior books, not necessarily skills intrinsic to him. So I’m left wondering, and puzzling why he seems to be failing to ask himself questions when he’s a questioning kind of guy. I also find myself agreeing with Carly (her review) in noting that the justification provided in the finale didn’t quite match the level of malevolence in the carnival. Personally, I was disappointed that Markhat seemed determined to give himself a solid guilt trip over the necessary outcome.

Overall, though, it is a pleasurable book to read, and a solid series installment that leaves me interested in reading more about Markhat’s adventures. And even re-reading some of the earlier books.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Samhain Publishing for the advanced reader copy.

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Doppelgangster by Laura Resnick

Dopplegangster

March 2015
Recommended for fans of slapstick romance with tolerance for poor plotting
★   

 

I know what you are thinking: why did I read this when I apparently hated the first in the series? The short answer: it has been a month of severe reading ADD.

The long answer:  I’m enrolled in a class to advance my nursing degree when my employer announces they are merging my nursing unit with a critical care unit in four months. So all of a sudden, I’m also taking classes through work, one of which means trying to recover long-ago knowledge of cardiac rhythms. I had already requested Kraken by Mieville from the library and had begged NetGalley for  Harrison Squared, so I was afraid of Full Brain Syndrome.  The Esther Diamond series by Resnick seemed to fit the bill for fluffy downtime reading. Being on the orderly side of the scale, I picked up the first book, Disappearing Nightly, and discovered in Resnick’s introduction that the book has actually gone out of print, had the rights reverted, and was then ‘updated’ and republished. When I reached a particularly clunky world-building chapter (on page 90!), I decided to set it down.

Hoping it was a case of first book syndrome (her first UF book), I thought I’d give the second a quick spin. Reviews seemed to support that decision. Sadly, it was even less interesting than the first, and I wandered off somewhere around page 100. I came back to the first book, decided it was better than I originally thought but found the ending such a whopper of poor taste and decision-making that I gave it negative stars when I wrote the review. Went back to this one–because I feel this weird urge for procrastination completion–and lost interest again. It’s probably that I’m the wrong audience–The Sopranos was the last time I was interested in organized crime–but it’s also that it just isn’t good writing.

Esther the actress continues to be mostly airheaded and dramatic. After witnessing a murder at her waitressing job, she is pulled into the mystery of apparent body doubles among the city’s organized crime families. The cop she is almost-dating from book one is now on the Organized Crime Squad, so when he’s assigned the case, he and Esther keep colliding.  Their romantic tension is cute and probably the most well-developed aspect of the story. The band of merry men from Disappearing has been replaced with a sidekick from the crime family, Lucky, and Max’s new familiar, Nelli. Through it all, Esther continues to agonize about acting jobs, the wizard continues to be almost useless, and Esther’s interview skills continue to annoy. There’s numerous small plot inconsistencies to add to the irritation. One example of a bigger plot hole comes from Nelli, who is initially able to identify the duplicates but is unable to identify one at a crucial moment.

The writing is flat-out awkward. For instance, Esther is trying to get a woman to come with her down into the basement/crypt of the church where Esther thinks she left a shawl. I’m not really sure why Esther decides she needs the ancillary character to go with her, but it becomes an excuse for a long, awkward dialogue about the crime family and the woman’s three murdered husbands.  Then Esther instead heads into the crypt with the priest and continues to pump him for information about the widow while she looks for the shawl. I still can’t tell if it is a character issue or a writing issue, because Esther is very over-dramatic about insignificant things she shouldn’t care about. Esther ‘gasps’ hearing the story of one husband’s death and puts her hand “up to my own throat” imagining a fight. Shortly after, she offers to help the priest search the lost-and-found for her shawl, is told it is only a cardboard box, and then is “disappointed. Also surprised” that her wrap has been stolen “from a church.”  The dialogues seem to be meant to provide the reader with red herrings and to provide information about the shawl and a weeping statue, but they are just awkward, practically screaming CLUE HERE!

It’s great if you enjoy it, but I can’t. It’s like late-series Stephanie Plum books with less logic and dumb magical elements. Besides, I just got a new set of library books in, including American Everywhere by Robert Jackson Bennett (City of Stairs), Dry Storeroom No.1 by Richard Fortey, and Afterparty by Daryl Gregory (We Are All Completely Fine). 

And there are always cardiac rhythms to study.

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Disappearing Nightly by Laura Resnick. Should have stayed disappeared.

Disappearing Nightly

March 2015
Recommended for fans of slapstick romance, tolerance for rape
 (negative) ★   

If I’m being honest–and I am, because I have yet to write my dishonest review--this is not my type of book. And if I’m being very honest–and I am, because I don’t want to make the mistake of reading this again–this is only an okay book, a book serviceable for people who enjoy the genre, and who aren’t feeling picky about writing or characterization. 

Esther is working as a chorus girl and understudy in a magic-themed Broadway production when the leading lady disappears in the middle of a magic trick. The next day, she receives a note warning her not to take the woman’s place. She immediately shares that note with the hunky police officer who interviewed the cast. Right before she is about to go on for the same act, an elderly wizard named Max materializes in her dressing room, warning her not to do the trick. They team up to investigate a string of disappearances involving people who have actually disappeared doing the same illusion so Esther can go back to the show.

A decent enough premise, but lacking in execution. Resnick began as a romance writer, and had twelve titles published under the name Laura Leone before this book went to its first printing, and the author’s romance background is clear. After publication, it eventually went out of print, rights reverted to Resnick and she ended up updating and re-releasing with DAW, publisher of the rest of the series. Honestly, it should have been reworked further. The lack of fantasy experience is apparent as the mystical elements start to develop and the story bogs down in a good twenty pages of world-building explano-babble that includes the stereotypical disbelief reaction. The mystery is lacking as well, and seems to mostly consist of looking in the library and a web search. Why Esther needs to be involved at all is a puzzle, as Max seems to be the only one with magical skills. She claims she has organizing skills, but most of the time she’s reacting with one hare-brained idea after another, so I find that hard to believe.

There is some cute humor:

He swallowed and asked, ‘Who are you, anyhow? CIA? FBI? National Security Agency? NASA?’
The lad’s imagination was spinning out of control. ‘I’m with Equity,’ I said.
‘The actors’ union?’ His voice broke.
Everyone’s afraid of Equity.

***********

A respectable-looking middle-aged couple got into the elevator with us. ‘Twelve please,’ the man said.
I pressed the button.
‘Costume party?’ the woman asked me.
‘Funeral,’ I said.
We rode to the ninth floor in silence.

But more often for me, the humor went to the over-the-top place that ended up causing characterization problems. Resnick doesn’t have the writing chops to pull off the charm of a Grant-Hepburn comedy. Picture Jim Carrey doing romance in his screwball comedies: these are broad characters with slapstick humor and situations set up for laugh value over logic. It’s actually a little hard to get to know Esther as she careens from one extreme reaction to another. For instance, the day Esther receives the warning note, she dressed in her costume of gold robes and elaborate headdress before going to work (!?). She then storms down to the police station, still in her outrageous costume, so the Lieutenant will have a chance to ogle her and develop romantic tension.  Supporting characters are on the cartoon side of the equation as well, and when Esther meets other local magicians who had assistants disappear–including drag queen performers and a condom-selling Texan–it loses any pretense at subtlety.

Sadly for urban fantasy fans, the world-building here isn’t anything impressive. Max is a dopey magician who has lived hundreds of years, frequently has malapropisms because he doesn’t understand the local language, and is nauseated by riding in cars (in other words, he’s the polar opposite of Atticus the druid). There’s mention of a council-type heirarchy, alchemy and magical books, but magical elements play a tertiary role until the end. The issue of magic in an unmagical world isn’t particularly addressed, except that the police disbelieve it as an explanation (and why you can tell the police there is magic but not prove it to them is unclear).

Finally, if I’m being totally honest, it deserves minus 42 stars for the final confrontation with the villain.

[MAJOR SPOILER]

The villain is looking for a virgin to sacrifice, only he’s running into problems because NYC doesn’t have any virgins (har-har). His comeuppance occurs when a demon rapes him instead of the disappeared women. Resnick then has the audacity to make a joke about the villain walking painfully. This is not an excusable scene–the simple exercise of gender reversal should make it apparent–and is all the more unacceptable because Resnick apparently thinks that we can excuse it because happens to a man. I was completely unsurprised when she complains that the book “sank like a stone” and she agents were “negative about my writing.” (link)

[END SPOILER]

You want clever romantic comedy? Check out To Say Nothing of the Dog or Bellwether by Connie Willis.

Posted in fantasy, Urban fantasy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory

Harrison Squared

February 2015
Recommended for fans of creepy schools, Daryl Gregory, young adult
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

Victorian jellies 1Harrison Squared. Formally known as Harrison Harrison. Or, to be exact, H²×5. Despite some consternation about the name, it is an excellent book. However, followed so quickly after reading Kraken, I will note my suspicions of the order Teuthida. I’m just saying–I’d think twice about visiting the Tentacles exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Or stick with the jellies. 

“‘There are questions in that book,’ the professor said. ‘Important questions, buried in page after page of interminable droning. Isn’t that always the way, though?’
‘I was kind of hoping for answers,’ I said.
‘You can’t have quality answers without quality questions,’ he said.”

Harrison has decided to accompany his mom on her research trip to Massachusetts. Unfortunately, he’s sixteen, which means attending the local school for the month or two the project will take. Harrison has a healthy degree of suspicion for the atmosphere in his (hopefully) temporary school. With good reason: the building looks more like a tomb, there’s morning religious services in an incomprehensible language, and the cafeteria ladies are gutting live fish in the back of the kitchen. Action picks up fast, so in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll say while it didn’t head in entirely unexpected directions, the plotting makes interesting work of intertwining Harrison’s past with his present circumstances.

I loved the characters, from Harrison, to the librarian, to Lydia, to Aunt Sel. Told in first person, Harrison’s voice is perfect, a blend of naiveté and intellectualism that works perfectly for the child of two scientists. The school staff is suitably odd in vaguely creepy ways. Take Mrs. Velloc, who “seemed to be constructed of nothing but straight edges and hard angles, like the prow of an icebreaker ship… her nose was sharp as a hatchet, her fingers like a clutch of knives.” But Mom is a counter-whirlwind of force: “‘Thank you,’ Mom said. It was the ‘thank you’ of a sheriff putting the gun back in the holster after the desperados had decided to move along.” I worried a little when Aunt Sel appeared–there was so much potential for the trope-ridden clueless adult–but it turned out my worry was completely unnecessary. Aunt Sel was a delight, and most certainly a new role model for me: “For lunch, Aunt Sel refused to consider the food court (‘Because all the food has been found guilty’), and led us to a Mexican restaurant attached to the mall, where she could order a margarita.

Mood was spot-on for me, balancing humor and horror, slowly adding tension and then leavening it. I was pleased to note an absence of maudlin sentimentality that I feel so often ruins a young adult book for me. It is fairly comparable to Gregory’s novella We Are All Completely Fine (review), in tone and events. Having read that book, it was especially intriguing knowing Harrison’s eventual destination, but nothing about the road he traveled to get there. I love Gregory’s writing; for me he hits an enjoyable blend of clever description, interesting characters, fun dialogue and nicely paced plotting. I highly recommend reading both Harrison Squared and We Are All Completely Fine.

Just beware the tentacles.

nautalis 1

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a review copy.

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