Category Archives: Review
This was another book I received via my Netgalley membership–and was thrilled to have a chance at, since Isaac’s debut novel, An Unfamiliar Murder had been such an unexpected treat. This one did not disappoint. Once again, the reader is pulled into an emotionally complex world in which stressed detectives work against the pressure of a ticking incident clock as well as their own past traumas.
I concentrated hard, desperately listening for something familiar, the sound of life. I heard nothing. Just my own breaths and the wind, whistling through branches above. . . . The thought made me shiver. I am buried alive.
Following an argument with her British boyfriend, Chinese student Min Li is abducted while walking the dark streets of picturesque Stratford-upon-Avon alone. Trapped in a dark pit, Min is at the mercy of her captor. Detective Inspector Will Jackman is tasked with solving the case and in his search for answers discovers that the truth is buried deeper than he ever expected. But, as another student vanishes and Min grows ever weaker, time is running out. Can Jackman track down the kidnapper, before it’s too late?
The characters are different from those in her first story, but feel familiar. A DI who’s trying to prove he still has the chops to resolve the case before it turns into a murder. A victim who is given a voice. And the parallel between the investigator’s personal trials and the case they are working on. It all works. My heart broke for DI Jackman early in the story with this emotionally real description:
He fidgeted in his seat. Her words conjured up images of those awkward moments when he’d returned to work after the car accident that had reduced his wife to a permanent comatose state a year ago. Some colleagues shuffled in their shoes, dug their hands in their pockets when they enquired after Alice’s health. Others made a beeline for him with their head tilts and soppy eyes. A few avoided him altogether, unsure of what to say. The answer was always the same, “No change.” Because there never was any change.
The memories made his stomach dip. It wasn’t that he was cold-hearted. He knew everyone meant well, but the last thing he wanted to talk about at work, his one area of respite, was his wife’s tragic situation.
I was prepared for Isaac’s engaging style this time, but not for how compelling it is to have the victim speaking in her own voice at intervals during the police investigation. The twists and turns had me reading as quickly as possible to figure out whodunnit. For anyone who like police procedurals, suspense thrillers, and mysteries, I can highly recommend this latest from Jane Isaac.
I received this book as part of my Netgalley membership last year, and am finally getting around to posting my review. The premise is intriguing: Descendants of U.S. southwestern native tribes remain hard at work terraforming a new planet and trying to retain the faith of their forebears regarding the Kachina preparing a better place for them. Against this backdrop, the mega-corporation that sent them is returning to check on their progress at the same time the original terraformers are returning to the planet. In theory, this sets up a three-way polarity among factions that are each vying for their way to win. It’s a highly unusual mix of space opera with native lore:
The pueblo people who landed on the Fifth World found it Earthlike, empty, and ready for colonization . . . but a century later, they are about to meet the planet’s owners
One hundred years ago, Sand’s ancestors made the long, one-way trip to the Fifth World, ready to work ceaselessly to terraform the planet. Descendants of native peoples like the Hopi and Zuni, they wanted to return to the way of life of their forebears, who honored the Kachina spirits.
Now, though, many of the planet’s inhabitants have begun to resent their grandparents’ decision to strand them in this harsh and forbidding place, and some have turned away from the customs of the Well-Behaved People. Sand has her doubts, but she longs to believe that the Kachina live on beyond the stars and have been readying a new domain for her people.
She may be right. Humans have discovered nine habitable worlds, all with life that shares a genetic code entirely alien to any on Earth. Someone has been seeding planets, bringing life to them. But no other sign of the ancient farmers has ever been discovered—until one day they return to the Fifth World. They do not like what they find.
Because of the multi-polarity and shifting perspective, it is sometimes difficult to track the narrative flow, but I was captivated by the unique take on how a First People might reinterpret their myths and legends in the context of living in a space age. In these few key ways, it reminded me of Louise Marley’s Child Goddess. On the other hand, the insertion of an alien who takes on the form of one of the protagonists’ mothers into the mix, and the delicate balancing of political needs versus emotional needs added a whole other dimension to the tale.
Each of the characters has unique voices and perspectives, but the one closest to the current human condition is Alvar:
Alvar smiled. “Right continent, wrong tribe. Some of the plains Indians of North America used to say that, not the Hopi. ‘Today is a good day to die.’ They mostly did, too, poor fuckers. Did you know that there was a whole movement that believed they were immune to bullets? The Ghost Dancers.”
Teng had a fierce little grin on her face. “I like that. That’s beautiful.”
Alvar glanced back at the speculative ship and shrugged. They sat in silence for awhile.
From the perspective of a memorable tale, this could fit the bill for anyone who likes their scifi flavored with space opera overtones, but Marion Zimmer Bradley-like characterizations. However, I would be careful about recommending this to a general audience since the language is dense and some of the scenes are quite graphic.
As you are no doubt sick of hearing by now, I was privileged enough to be accepted into the virtual writers’ workshop MJ Kelley founded a little over a year ago for this year’s spring session. For all my experience as a professional editor and literary arts magazine editor, as well as with other critique partners over the past almost 30 years, this was my first experience with an open forum run under strict rules and guidelines dedicated solely to fiction development. It was at once a fantastic growth experience for me as well as an almost overwhelming amount of work. Because I loved it so much, I’m the newest in what appears to be a group of evangelists, so am immortalizing my connection and proselytizing for other writers. (Check out Nillu Nasser Stelter’s thoughts on the workshop, too.)
The explicit expectation-setting from the outset, as well as the moderators’ participation within each of the groups we were divided into, allowed us to almost immediately bypass Tuckman’s stages of group development to reach a level of trust and intimacy with each other that is not only rare, but the only way to truly develop on our creative paths. I don’t know if this was also partly driven by the selection process, but I was told that not everyone who applied made it into the workshop, so suspect that contributed to our success. Not to say we were all in the same genre, but we did all appear to have met a certain standard of professionalism–however we reached that mark.
The workshop took as much time, dedication, and attention as any of the Master’s level classes I’ve taken. This is not for the faint of heart. The payoff for that investment was feedback that’s helped me expand my view of the elements of my storytelling I need to improve on. I would highly recommend this to any author who’s interested in expanding their circle of connections to additional, motivated writers who will support their growth with honest feedback couched in a safe environment.
I’m looking forward to taking advantage of the privilege completing in good standing gave me: Returning to future editions… But I’ll be sure to plan around the time commitment involved–both on preparing new texts for my group members to vet, as well as reading 5-7,000 words for both line and developmental feedback each night. I suspect I’ll only ever manage the spring version, given those constraints.
However, entries are open for the fall version already at the Write Draft Critique page, so I urge any serious writers to consider applying.
I’ve reviewed other books by Liana Brooks (Fey Lights, and Even Villains Fall in Love) and follow her socks on Twitter, so I was lucky enough last week to get the opportunity to win an ARC of her latest release (HAPPY RELEASE DAY!), The Day Before. I kept telling myself I was only going to read just one more chapter, but in the end, the only reason I took a break at all was because hungry puppies will not countenance a book addiction.
Over the past year, I’ve seen Brooks reference “Jane Doe” periodically (and honestly wasn’t sure that what she was describing in 140-character snippets was exactly my cup of tea), so didn’t know much else about the book when I received the ARC. Given the body in chapter 1, it was evident pretty quickly that this was a mystery. Given the references to clones and legislation about them, it was also obvious that this was a sci-fi story set in the near future, when the U.S. has been absorbed into the Commonwealth of North America. I’m a fan of both genres, so she hooked me quickly with the premise that only certain kinds of bodies are worthy of a murder investigation.
Brooks has taken her world-building to a whole new level with this first installment in her Jane Doe series. I’m completely in love with the fictitious quotes from future selves of characters both in and outside the narrative that start the chapters:
Picture a wave, it crests and collapses without losing anything. There is energy. So much energy! Time is much the same, choice creates energy, the energy crests into a wave of possibility, a thousand iterations rising, but in the end, the water returns to the ocean. The prime iteration is stable. In the end, all possibilities lead to our reality.
The characters, especially Agents Samantha (Sam) Rose and Linsey MacKensie (Mac) of the Commonwealth Bureau of Investigation (CBI), are both flawed as well as people readers will be anxious to get to know over the course of the narrative. Brooks takes on prejudice on multiple levels, with race and clones being the two convenient targets for her characters to have conversations like this one:
A basic Hispanic face, nothing out of the ordinary, but disconcerting in its similarity to what Sam saw in the mirror every morning. She grimaced as the computer added wavy black hair and a dark skin tint. Sam surreptitiously glanced at the ME to see if he was smirking. Both the men stared at her face on the screen without recognition.
“Wetback?” Marrins harrumphed. “Looks like a friend of yours, Rose. You know her?”
“I was born in Toronto, sir, and not all people who look Hispanic actually know each other.”
“She looks familiar,” Marrins said. “Think I saw a whore with that face back in Texas once.”
“Not all Hispanics look alike, sir, but it’s an easy mistake to make. All white people looked the same to me until I took the bureau’s sensitivity course about racial differences in the workplace.” Her commentary sailed over Marrins’s bald head with room to spare.
Everything about the story gripped me–the speculation about the nature of time and personhood, the way the story unfolded, and the world-building. I’m glad the book is available starting today, so more people can enjoy how Brooks has made a successful mash-up of the sci-fi and mystery genres, and I’m very much looking forward to the next two installments in the series. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes either genre, since the bad-guy reveal is equally balanced between both–and very satisfying to the reader. This is one I’ll be re-reading with particular attention to the chapter introduction quotes and the details that got thrown under the bus as I raced through the narrative to figure out whodunnit.
I got a chance at the pre-release ARC of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon as part of my membership at NetGalley. It intrigued me as a throwback to my time living in Berlin–and under Communist “secret informer” eyes even before that–, as well as a complete change of pace from my usual fare of scifi, fantasy, and romance novels. It was everything a political thriller should be: gripping, with small details that made the final reveal make sense.
The writing itself evoked Kafka and that hunted, haunted perspective of someone who has made a choice not to trust anyone. The politics of the U.S. Commie Scare drive the inciting incident, but the story has all the feeling of the titular location. The streets mentioned, the Brandenburger Tor, these were all places I’ve been, and the story felt every bit as surreal as a fantasy, being thrown back to when the walls still showed strafing–even as late as my last visit in the late 90s. But this story was also set in a time when the initial post-war fervor for ideology was at its height:
Alex looked at their bright, attentive faces, Brecht’s cynicism as out of place here as it had been in California, and for the first time felt the hope that warmed the room. Shabby suits and no stockings, but they had survived, waited in hiding or miraculously escaped, for this new chance, the idea the Nazis hadn’t managed to kill.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this story, even with its early, disjointed jumps, captures the underlying reality that pushes questionable decisions. I know there’s a file somewhere in Berlin that documents the years I lived there with my family; my father has seen and read the redacted version. Knowing who the confidential informants were–who were also our friends–makes for another surreal echo for me in this story. As well as the classic German class distinctions and need for philosophical underpinnings and rationalizations. I don’t know how much of that will convey to someone who doesn’t have the personal experiences I do, but I suspect those echos will be as gripping and uncomfortable even for those without my perspective.
For that reason, I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes a “quiet” historical thriller, driven, in the end, just by the love of a father for his son–an echo across generations. It takes some getting used to the literary devices in the early chapters, but the action doesn’t let you go, either, so it’s likely a book for those who read a mystery once for the reveal, and then ten more times for the nuances that got you there. Even more, I strongly recommend this to anyone who thinks they know Communist history in its monolithic path. The details matter, as well as the personal lives and motivations that push forward such a stark ideology, and this story plays that out as clearly as any I’ve read on the subject.
I’m finally catching up to my NetGalley obligations, posting reviews of books I’ve gained access to through my membership. In this case, it’s the second in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School Series, Curtsies & Conspiracies. As I mentioned last week, I inhaled both the first and this second book in the series in a sitting, enjoying the near-contiguous hand-off between the two.
In book two, Sophronia has started to settle in to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality when the group is warned that its members will face the first of the tests to determine whether the girls are, indeed, worthy to continue.
As usual, Sophronia sees conspiracies behind conspiracies, but has to suffer ostracism from her peers for her unusually high marks. Thus, she begins a closer association with non-student Vieve, Mme Lefoux’s niece, as well as the sootie, Soap, who’s been helping her keep Bumbersnoot well-fed. Together, the unlikely trio explore some of the details of the technology at the core of the series.
“The first aether-borne dirigible flight, and we get to witness it! Do you realize, if Giffard’s calculations are correct, this could halve float times? Can you believe it? We could get all the way to Scotland in four days! I wonder how he is handling aether-current monitoring. Can you imagine being that high up?”
Sophronia was not as impressed as Vieve thought she should be. “It is still faster by sleeper train.”
“Yes, but this is floating. Floating! Using aether currents. The possibilities are endless. It’s so exciting!” Vieve bounced up and down on Sophronia’s bed.
The young inventor had stopped by for a visit after breakfast. Sophronia had no idea where the scamp ate, but clearly it was within hearing distance of the assembly.
The expanding circle of incongruous names (Lord Dingleproops?! Felix Golborne, Viscount Mersey?? Professor Shrimpdittle! Picklemen, for crying out loud!) accounts for a reliable thread of laughter on its own, without considering the string of ridiculous circumstances Sophronia injects herself into. So while the author defined the Parasol Protectorate series as a comedy of manners, this series is shaping up to take the ridiculous deeper into the sublime.
I very much appreciate the association of the very fine points of etiquette with profound silliness, since it serves to underline the constraints under which people have chosen to operate while also illustrating that from another perspective, even constraints can serve a purpose and bring greater meaning to any given set of interactions.
So once again I will highly recommend a Carriger book for those looking for immersive, addictive escapism to a world that, while in some ways is staid and antiquated, also has interesting parallels to ours. The steampunk crossover with paranormal should appeal to a wide audience, even with such a young protagonist.
This is another book I picked up through my NetGalley membership. I’d thoroughly enjoyed Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series (and reviewed Soulless, Timeless, Heartless, Changeless, and Blameless on my blog), so even though this new series falls into the YA genre, it carries over enough of the steampunk world-building and even a few of the characters from that first series that I was tipped into wanting to read it. After all, a series intro like the one that comes with this book promises great things:
It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.
The writing style shows Carriger has continued to strengthen her trademark voice. The humor is deeply embedded in the story–but in a British, stiff-upper-lip tone that reflects what I enjoy most about Monty Python:
“How do you do? Isn’t this a spiffing day? Really, quite spiffing. I’m Dimity. Who are you?”
“Is that all?”
“What, isn’t it enough?”
“Oh, well, I mean to say, I’m Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott, actually, in full.”
“Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.”
“Gosh, that’s a mouthful.”
“It is? I suppose so.” As though Dimity Ann Plumleigh-Teignmott were a nice easy sort of name.
The nicest part of the story is Sophronia’s evolution from family misfit to something even more interesting–and the subversive commentary on women’s roles even in very early 20th-century England. Above all, this finishing school is a way for young women of quality to become aware of the wider application of feminine wiles and tricks of accoutrement. It’s easy to imagine a school like this turning out the Mata Hari–in fact, the timeline of that woman’s life falls neatly into the framework established for this story, and I’m having a head-slapping moment for not having tumbled to that fact earlier.
For the first in a series, this book does not suffer from over-explanation–though I suspect my deep familiarity with the Parasol Protectorate series may also mean I would have been irritated had the author gone into additional detail about the politics and world in which Sophronia is making her way. In fact, the inclusion of Mme Lefoux and her niece operated as something of Easter Eggs for me, and served as tidy reminders of the wider world Sophronia faces. Because, certainly, she is young and naive when she starts at the boarding school, and needs the perspective their experiences can bring to bear.
In view of the fact that I swallowed the book (and its sequel) in a sitting last year while I was supposed to be focused on finishing homework myself, I can highly recommend this book for its ability to draw the reader into an escapist fantasy operating on a consistent set of internal rules. For anyone who wants a more scientific take on young people away at school for the first time (as opposed to the magic in Harry Potter‘s universe), this should fit the bill nicely.
I got this title through my membership at NetGalley because I was intrigued by the cross-cultural perspective of a second-generation South Asian young woman facing the summer before her senior year. I hoped the immersion in the Indian-American point of view would take me past the very young voice the author imbued in her protagonist, Dimple. It took a few chapters for me to really get into the story given Dimple’s profound lack of self-confidence, her level of self-absorption, and her undiagnosed eating disorder.
It’s evident from the beginning that even Dimple isn’t entirely sure of her perspective:
I didn’t have to struggle for spy status. Fortunately I have this gift for invisibility, which comes in handy when you’re trying to take sneaky peeks at other people’s lives, and which is odd, considering I’m one of only two Indians in the whole school.
Her best friend is deeply troubled from family drama, so the story ends up being about the perverse attempt at exchanging self-hood between the two girls. The patter of the writing style carries a heavy English-as-a-second-language Indian flavor with compound nouns, verbs, and adjectives used liberally in the narrative.
All of these elements combined to make my first impression of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s work lean toward indifference. However, as the narrative unfolds, and Dimple has to learn both about herself and reveal the things she’s kept hidden even from her closest friend, she grows into a surprisingly strong young woman. By the end of the book I was entranced by who she’d become and what she’d learned not only of herself, but also her heritage.
The main issue for me, when reading YA novels, is how callow the protagonists are. In stories where that unformed self is not challenged I’m left frustrated; in this story, Dimple has to come to terms with both her own and her friend’s self-destructive tendencies, as well as learn to understand and accept her family’s love. It ended up being a profound exploration of how to balance different cultural influences in a single individual, and left me satisfied that Dimple could grow into a more interesting adult having faced all the things she started out wishing she could ignore.
For anyone who’s interested in a story with a strong South Asian flavor or one that addresses a different aspect of being a third-culture kid, this one has worthwhile nuggets to recommend itself.
This was the second of my binge reads last weekend, and actually deeply impressed me for the strong female voice of the protagonist. I had picked it up over the summer while it was on sale, thinking I might have time to treat myself to a break with a book by a Twitter buddy (@Jenthulhu, you should follow her, too, since she shares very kewl science news & geek links on a regular basis)… but… it sat in my TBR pile for longer than expected. It didn’t let me go once I started reading, though.
Given my own love of languages, the protagonist’s vocation made her immediately appealing to me on the one hand, while her self-control allowed her the appropriate distance to maintain productive professional relationships with her colleagues:
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, you know,” he said, with a sly smile. She resisted smiling back.
“You’re supposed to be the damsel in distress. We’re supposed to save you.”
She snorted and pulled her hand away. “Times have changed.”
“But what does that make us? Two dudes in distress? Pathetic.”
“Two colleagues in distress. Gender doesn’t matter,” she replied and let a hint of a sad smile cross her face.
Even more welcome was the fact that this was a mature woman who was learning and growing through her experiences. (I may be slightly burned out on the YA/NA craze these days, since it seems my Harry Potter fandom has put me in the marketing cross-hairs for a whole lot of juvenile characters…) Wells finally shares some of the reason for Jane’s self-contained distance late in the story in a way that will allow her to springboard to even greater growth in future installments, too, so it was a welcome development to find a character who didn’t bore me with her own inner stagnation.
I was sucked into the adventure of exploring a derelict spaceship and learning about alien races both from the human and alien perspective. The horror of discovering additional, unexpected hazards to space travel, and the Easter Egg bonus of a Smoking Man reference did a lot to cement my geek-heart happiness with the story. In fact, it felt like there were several homages to various scifi classics woven throughout, so I smiled at regular intervals not only from the banter among the characters but also at an author having fun with tropes.
Wells even managed to wedge in some lessons on women’s experience trying to pursue professions in science that helped underline the character’s tenacity while shining a light on the continued disparities between the sexes’ ability to advance credible careers.
My one nitpick was that the ending was a rather obvious cliffhanger, asking the reader to hold on for the ride (very much in the style of Contact, “wanna go for a ride, little girl?”), but having to wait for book 2’s release. While the arc and adventure were complete for this segment of the saga, I’m seeing more series authors closing with a brand new opening, rather than a sense of quiet satisfaction that allows the reader to savor the world without that gnawing sense of missing all the MOAR that is over the horizon. It’s becoming a larger frustration each time I encounter the issue, and detracts, in this case, from a competent debut.
Regardless, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed the Miles Vorkosigan stories, the X-Files, or even the Katarr stories (to plug my own publisher’s multi-author series). I am looking forward to the adventures foreshadowed for book 2 (Remanence), and am anticipating (along with what appears to be a robust fan base) its release sometime in the near future.
As you may remember, one of my goals this round was to post more book reviews… since that was, ostensibly why I started this blog. As I faced the final countdown to the end of my MBA capstone project, all the backlog of my frustration with being kept from my beloved fictional worlds boiled over into a few days of binge reading… when I really should have been focused on other things. Nonetheless: I’m officially done with the MBA, AND I now have time to write about what I’ve read. In this case, a high fantasy novel written by MeiLin Miranda–the woman who’s helped Blurb Doctor some of my own work. Since I discovered she set the first in her series perma-free, and she never requested a review, the fact that I have worked with her may or may not make you think I’m biased about what I’ve read–by way of disclaimer, anyway. In my case, it gave me much greater patience with the first few chapters of the book, when I found it disconcertingly easy to put the book down.
However, the payoff was more than worth it. I kept wondering to myself if this book could be classified as New Adult, since it deals primarily with the stickiness of the coming of age of the heir to the throne of Tremont. Prince Temmin is rightly described by one of his father’s advisers as “callow” early on, which, I suspect, was part of my difficulty in connecting with the first part of the tale. He’s naive to the point of stupidity as the story starts, and even though his arc is satisfying in the end, it’s difficult for me to feel much sympathy for one who is stubbornly caught in the victim-of-circumstance mode, while at the same time not questioning the society that has forced him into that mold.
As an example, it’s his flirty sister at his coming-of-age ball who points out:
“Tem, look around,” she whispered as he offered her a proud arm and they proceeded through the genuflecting crowd. “Notice anything?”
“What am I supposed to be noticing?” he whispered back.
“The young men! Look at them. They’re all trimming their beards to look like you–moustaches and sideburns and no chin whiskers!”
He wonders a few times that his older sister, widely regarded as the most intelligent of the siblings, is not herself a candidate for the throne, and comments that she would be better suited to the job. The interesting thing about the way all this is layered in is the unthinking sexism and unconscious power structure it illustrates as backdrop to the greater and deeper theme of empowerment versus disempowerment.
That motif was what hooked me–and disproved the “young” element of the story. The book evolves into full-fledged eroticism of all stripes and a frank and honest look at all the different reasons people can and do have sex. Playing on some of the real-world “debate” about homosexuality, the conversation about why men would choose to be with men or women with women was a useful counterpoint on the one hand, but a strange perspective that sex with the same sex could still leave you virginal.
The other thread, the almost-immortal Teacher who uses a magical book to instruct the heir on the hidden history of his kingdom–and in particular, the story of one of its previous queens–was a unique use of the frame story technique, that (for me) had the subtext of illustrating how powerful well-written stories are in their formation of our intellectual and emotional selves.
Finally, the cast of characters is compelling–and large. The book closes by bringing back to the fore a minor character from the early chapters, and seems to presage another personage facing similar trials to Temmin’s. However, in this case, it also left me vaguely frustrated that the story would end with her rather than the protagonist. I do give the author the leeway of kicking off a series of books in this volume, but wasn’t pleased to feel left at loose ends.
Overall, I would recommend this to those who enjoy high fantasy that focuses on political machinations and coming-of-age tales–but from a very adult (really, almost erotica) perspective. The couple of weaknesses I saw were more than compensated for by the compelling world-building, intriguing magic, and complex individuals relating to what it means to be an adult making one’s way through a layered world. I will be reading Son in Sorrow when I get the chance, which is perhaps the strongest indication of how much I enjoyed my foray into the Greater Kingdom.