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Book Review: Before It’s Too Late

Before It's Too Late by Jane IsaacThis 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.

Book Review: Footsteps in the Sky

Footsteps in the Sky by Greg KeyesI 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.

Review: Write Draft Critique Virtual Writer Workshop

Write Draft Critique: Virtual Writer WorkshopAs 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.

Book Review: The Day Before

day-beforeI’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.

Book Review: Leaving Berlin

Leaving BerlinI 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.

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