2012 Book Log #11: Unlocked, by Courtney Milan

Unlocked

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I’ve mentioned in my previous reviews of Courtney Milan’s work, I like her writing quite a bit–and Unlocked, her novella set between Books 1 and 2 of her Turner series, was no exception. This story features a side character that we briefly meet in Book 1, and how the wallflower Lady Elaine Warren is courted by an earl who once was extremely cruel to her and now deeply regrets it.

I really liked Elaine’s backstory, and I liked Elaine a lot as a character. The incident in her and her love interest’s history that set her down the path of spinsterhood was his publicly mocking her for a distinctly unladylike laugh, and the ton being what it is in these sorts of books, all of his hangers-on immediately leap on the chance to mock poor Elaine mercilessly. This pretty much ruins her socially, and I can’t help but feel for the poor woman and want to punch Evan for having pulled that on her. This being a romance novella, though, Evan’s maturation as a character hinges upon his having realized the error of his ways, and he does so beautifully.

If Regencies are your thing, this is a great fast read, and you can read without needing to have read the first in the Turner series since it stands alone. Four stars.

2011 Book Log #48: Trash Course, by Penny Drake

Trash Course

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to admit, I liked the idea of this one–in no small part because the house wherein the mystery is set, filled wall to wall with the hoarded items of many years, rang true for me. I’ve known houses like that. Fortunately none that ever had anything like the plot of this book happen in them, but nonetheless, houses that were definitely the home of hoarders.

And as for the mystery itself, I have to admit as well that I’m writing this review many months after having read the book. But that said? I’m remembering it kindly. Our heroine Terry is a private investigator, and I specifically liked the ethos of the agency she’s working for, helping women that need it. This plot in particular, which wound up having international ramifications, struck me as a bit convoluted and oddly juxtaposed against the setting of a hoarder’s house. But not overly so, and on the whole I did enjoy reading this one. It’s good for a light mystery read. Three stars.

2012 Book Log #10: Hellbent, by Cherie Priest

Hellbent (Cheshire Red Reports, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Cozily domestic” is not usually a phrase I would think to associate with the living situation of a vampire. It is a measure of Cherie Priest’s ability as an author to engage me so strongly that I not only was intrigued by her take on a vampire heroine, but was actively charmed by seeing the growing household that Raylene Pendle has pulled around herself as of the beginning of Book 2 of The Chesire Red Reports, Hellbent.

This installment of the series continues one of the big things I liked a lot about Book 1, Bloodshot: i.e., taking a bunch of urban fantasy tropes and… well, it’s cliched of me to say “subverting them”, but really, it’s true. You don’t find too many vampires–in urban fantasy proper, at least; if you venture over into paranormal romance, it’s a different story–that are neurotic, or needy, or who do in fact gather a whole household of dependents around them without really actively meaning to. Raylene’s a refreshing contrast to the vampires I’m so used to seeing, the ones who are all-powerful heads of Clans or Houses or whatever, especially the males who are the all-too-frequent, oh-so-sexy-and-mysterious love interests for associated heroines. Raylene’s not remote or mysterious, and this makes her far sexier a character to me than any one of dozens of alpha male vampire heroes.

And oh. My. God. Mad, mad love is ongoing for Adrian, the most badass drag queen who ever dragged. That he exists in the pages of an urban fantasy at all just makes me happy. Gender fluidity for the major, major win.

Now, that said, let’s talk plot. I wasn’t quite as taken with the plot of this one as I was the previous, just because the A and B plots didn’t mesh quite as well as I would have hoped. But that said, there’s intriguing followup on the status of Adrian’s lost vampire sister. And there’s an intriguing and somewhat scary character who shows up, the disturbed mage Elizabeth, who seems to be a way for Priest to explore dealing with a character who has both a) significant magical power and b) significant mental illness. Elizabeth is a bit of a cipher, but the scenes where Raylene reaches out to her in unwilling sympathy are among my favorite in the book. Elizabeth’s mental illness is not downplayed, or magically cured, and I have to give high marks for both of those.

Overall, there were also a bit more moments where Raylene went past ‘cozily domestic’ and a bit too far into ‘twee’–adopting a kitten? Not really necessary, we get that Raylene’s a lot more of a softy than she lets on! (And I say this as someone in general favor of kittens.) I’m also not really sure I buy Elizabeth’s status at the end.

But on the other hand, I did overall quite like this book anyway. And I’m hoping that Priest will get a shot at more of them, given that as per her blog, she was only originally contracted to do two of them. For this one, I’ll give four stars!

2011 Book Log #47: Deadline, by Mira Grant

Deadline (Newsflesh Trilogy #2)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh man, Deadline. This was hands down one of the best books I read in 2011, and I was beyond delighted to see that it was every bit as gripping as book 1 of the Newsflesh Trilogy, Feed.

What can I say about this book that doesn’t involve massive, massive spoilers? Well, first and foremost, if you haven’t read this book yet, you should. Actually, if you haven’t read Feed, you should go back and read that first, and then come and read this one. Because Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire’s worldbuilding continues to astound, and so does her command of pacing and suspense, and book 3 is due out in a couple more months.

Where Feed was a political thriller that happened to contain zombies, Deadline is more of a medical thriller–and in this book, we begin to get a rather clearer and consequently more chilling picture of where exactly those zombies came from. Plus, the protagonist of this book, Shaun Mason, is so thoroughly wrecked by the dire ending of the previous book that I spent just about every page aching for the poor guy. And yet he keeps going, broken as he is, even though the extent of this breaking inevitably has consequences for himself and those he cares about. I ached for him, and I cheered for him, and goddamn, I hope that boy finds some peace.

It would have been very, very difficult to top the sledgehammer punch to the gut that was the ending of Feed, but Deadline does manage to come close. Both my partner and I went OMG OMG OMG at the big reveal at the end of this book. And we’re both eagerly awaiting the third. Five stars.

2012 Book Log #9: Richard Castle’s Deadly Storm, by Brian Michael Bendis and Kelly Sue DeConnick

Richard Castle's Deadly Storm: A Derrick Storm Mystery (Derrick Storm, #1)

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As any good fan of the TV show Castle knows, Nikki Heat is by no means Richard Castle’s first famous character. The show starts off with his concluding his long-running Derrick Storm series, and the particular explosive ending he gives those books is a nice little character development point for Castle since it leads right into why he tags along with the NYPD. And given the success of the Nikki Heat tie-in novels, it was pretty much inevitable that additional material involving Derrick Storm would be eventually made available to us fans. This time around, though, they’ve elected to give us a graphic novelization of the “first Derrick Storm novel”.

It’s a clever choice, and certainly provides some nice variety for the Castle tie-in material as well as general versimilitude–since quite a few well-known authors in SF have graphic novelizations of their work going, such as Jim Butcher and Richelle Mead. But the important question is, as a graphic novel, does Richard Castle’s Deadly Storm work?

Art-wise, it will probably surprise no one who glances through this work that Derrick Storm comes out looking suspiciously Nathan-Fillion-esque. Other than that, I vacillated between quite liking several panels and being indifferent to several others, so I ultimately came out uncertain if I liked the art style. Story-wise, I was definitely ambivalent. It read like a truncated version of a meatier story–certainly, given the overall style of the Nikki Heat novels, this seemed much jerkier of pacing by comparison. And while this might only add to the versimilitude of a “graphic novel adaptation”, it nonetheless left me wishing I’d actually gotten a novel version of this story instead.

All in all if you’re enough of a Castle fan to be a completist, you might want to pick this up. Otherwise, for now, the Nikki Heat novels are actually more amusing. Two stars.

2011 Book Log #46: The Thirteenth House, by Sharon Shinn

The Thirteenth House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read Sharon Shinn’s first book in her Twelve Houses series, I found it a bit shaky in its initial chapters, at least till it got its feet under it. I was very pleased to discover that I had no such problem with Book 2, The Thirteenth House.

This book continues the adventures of the overall cast of characters established in Mystic and Rider as they pursue the greater plot arc of anti-magic sentiment sweeping their kingdom and threatening to plunge them all into outright war. However, the focus shifts now from Senneth and Tayse over to the shapeshifter Kirra, whose participation in the rescue of their king’s kidnapped regent, Lord Romar, leads to a stormy affair with said regent. The catch: Romar is married, and Kirra is impersonating her own half-sister. Between that and Kirra’s need to keep her true identify and her talents secret, the affair is perilous to them both. Kirra’s soon swamped in intrigue–and comes under the threat of the ringleaders of the growing potential rebellion.

Overall I liked this book quite a bit, despite the fact that as a character, Kirra is definitely more flawed than Senneth. She’s impulsive to a fault, and at first this is frustrating. Yet she did well riding the line between “I want to smack her for her choices” and “I am nonetheless sympathizing with her”, and she shows some admirable development when faced with the consequences of her actions. (Even as she’s ultimately forced into a difficult and ethically shady choice indeed, about which I shall not elaborate, because spoilers.)

I did also like Romar, and was relieved to see that Shinn did not go the too-easy route of making his wife unlikeable. Some readers may find the fact that Kirra’s carrying on with a married man ethically shady all by itself; if you’re one of those readers, this book won’t be for you. But for what it’s worth, I did appreciate that Shinn didn’t make it easy on either character.

On the bigger level of the overall story arc, I liked the advancements in this one quite a bit. After I finished this one off as a library checkout, I went ahead and committed to buying the series, and I’ll look forward to finishing them off. For this one, four stars.

2012 Book Log #8: Those Who Went Remain There Still, by Cherie Priest

Those Who Went Remain There Still

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the big reasons I’ve picked up everything Cherie Priest has written is her propensity for taking established SF/F tropes and finding not only new ways to look at them, but actively odd ones as well–and in a run of intriguingly odd books, Those Who Went Remain There Still stands out as particularly strange.

And that’s a good thing. I haven’t read very much non-steampunk fantasy out there set in the early history of the United States and to find this one was a pleasure in no small part because it’s set in my home state of Kentucky. Moreover, Daniel Boone features prominently in the earlier prong of a two-prong plot, and any kid who grew up in Kentucky knows all about Daniel Boone. Any kid in Kentucky will, however, be a trifle surprised at this tale of how Boone and his men are cutting a road through the Kentucky wilderness, only to be harried by a monster who takes vicious pleasure in hunting them down one at a time.

Fast forward a hundred years or so, to when the cantankerous old son of one of the survivors of Boone’s party has passed away. His grandchildren are called home for the reading of his will, only to discover that it’s been hidden in a cavern near their valley. And by the terms of said will, six men must venture into the cave–and risk coming afoul of the creature Boone’s men had abandoned there to die.

Except it’s not dead. And its descendants are pissed.

I very much liked the dual plotlines as long as they ran through the bulk of the story, simultaneously showing us the stalking of Boone’s men as well as the reactions of two of Heaster Wharton’s kin who are called in to find the will. There’s great tension in both plotlines, especially as you slowly learn more and more about what the monster actually is.

But the final third or so felt rushed to me, perhaps because of this being a novella. Once the group of six contenders for the will is thrown together, we have barely enough time for them to fight through their own differences before they’re hurled into mortal danger–and before the end of the story. As is often the case with Priest’s shorter works, I found myself wishing at the end of this one that it hadn’t finished so soon. Three stars.

2011 Book Log #45: Mystic and Rider, by Sharon Shinn

Mystic and Rider (Twelve Houses, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was previously familiar with Sharon Shinn via her Samaria novels, and so when I was in the mood to take on some epic fantasy, I was pleased to check out her Twelve Houses books. Mystic and Rider is the first of these, introducing the mystic Senneth, who has been appointed by her king to patrol the land of Gillengaria and find out how bad the anti-magic sentiment among the people has gotten. With her travel a small band of other magic-users, as well as two of the King’s Riders, the elite cadre of warriors.

Mystic and Rider is not without problems; the initial pacing is somewhat clunky, and I found several of the character names and place names somewhat clunky as well. The clunky bits were never enough to drop me out of the story, though. And once the book got its feet under it, it hummed along nicely. I particularly appreciated a scene where Senneth is provoked into unleashing her fire magic.

As with the book as a whole, the grudging but increasing chemistry between Senneth and the Rider Tayse starts off somewhat clunkily. But it too gets its feet under it, and ultimately I found the development of their relationship satisfying.

Overall this was a decent little fantasy novel. The main plot of unrest fueled by an anti-magic cult in the realm is intriguing, and this was certainly more than enough to make me go ahead and continue with the series. Three stars.

2012 Book Log #7: Bloodshot, by Cherie Priest

Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Urban fantasy has to work very, very hard to seize and hold my attention these days, and I say this fully cognizant of how there are a great number of authors out there writing awesome books. For me, it’s just been a matter of wanting to read so many things–and having read so much urban fantasy the last several years–that more of it is generally pretty far down my reading queue.

For Cherie Priest, though, I’ll totally make exceptions. I’ve unilaterally liked every single thing of hers I’ve read, and Bloodshot, the first of her Cheshire Red Reports series, is no exception. It doesn’t engage me quite as hard as the Clockwork Century books do, I’ll cheerfully admit. But on the other hand, “slightly less awesome than Boneshaker” is still pretty goddamned awesome.

Here’s the thing for me about Bloodshot: it made me actively like a vampire protagonist, and it did it by making her an engaging character entirely aside from her being a badassed vampire thief. Yeah yeah yeah, badassed vampire thief, seen too much of that; see previous commentary re: reading a whole LOT of urban fantasy. What I haven’t seen, though, is a vampire who was a flapper before she was turned. Who sets off being a badassed thief with being thoroughly neurotic, to the degree of preparing for her heists to obsessive levels of detail. And who, even while she swears up and down to the reader that she’s not interested in forming lasting attachments, nonetheless has adopted two homeless children in her Seattle base of operations–and who proceeds to take a very personal interest in the case her latest client brings her, when he turns out to be a blinded vampire seeking to steal information about what happened to him while he was the captive of a secret government experiment.

Nor was it enough that Raylene rocked. Backing her up in this story is one of the most awesome male lead characters it has been my pleasure to read in some time: Adrian deJesus, a.k.a. Sister Rose, an ex-Navy SEAL turned drag queen. I adore Adrian. I adore that he is the reason why Raylene has to struggle with the question of how to address his gender identity, in a reasonable and non-angstful way, and that it’s a struggle that doesn’t take Raylene much time to figure out. I adore that he is both thoroughly badassed AND very, very comfortable with makeup. I adore that he is, in fact, the second most badassed character in the book, only slightly less badassed than the vampire protagonist. And godDAMN, that boy can dance.

With these two highly engaging main characters to blaze the way, it was no effort at all to enjoy the hell out of this book. I very much liked the exploration of the aforementioned secret government experiment, and how it dovetails with Adrian’s own backstory, as he’s on the hunt for his missing sister, who has herself become a vampire. And I quite like the exploration of the idea that a vampire, Raylene’s client Ian, has to live with the strong likelihood that he’ll be permanently disabled.

In short, there’s a great deal I liked here and not very much at all I didn’t care for. I found the kids a bit too plot-moppety for my liking, as they’re mostly there to provide character development for Raylene, and a couple of the details revealed about what happened to Ian a bit too predictable. But that’s about the extent of my problems with it, and all in all, we’re talking four strong stars here.

2011 Book Log #44: Die in Plain Sight, by Elizabeth Lowell

Die in Plain Sight (Rarities Unlimited, #3)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Die in Plain Sight is a bit of an odd duck in the run of Elizabeth Lowell novels, straddling as it does the line between her Donovan series and her Rarities Unlimited ones. Goodreads classifies it as a Rarities book, but the two series are set in the same universe–and since it provides major camera time to Susa Donovan, the matriarch of the Donovan clan, it’s hard not to call this a Donovan book.

Nonetheless the question is, how does this particular book stack up against either series? Our heroine is Lacey Quinn, granddaughter of a famous artist, who’s determined to find out whether the previously unknown works of his she has inherited are proof of murder. And our hero is Ian Lapstrake, employed by Rarities, and of whom we get brief glimpses in Moving Target and Running Scared. They’re both pretty standard, likeable lead characters. In Ian’s case, I didn’t necessarily find him as intense or as charismatic as some of the Donovans, but on the other hand, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it also meant that there was a refreshing lack of what Romancelandia calls alphole-ness on his part.

As for Lacey, I rather liked her better. She’s an artist and therefore a creative type, and even if painting isn’t my particular art, I definitely sympathized with her attempts to pursue it and especially with her interactions with Susa, whose work she revered. In fact, in many ways I enjoyed the scenes with Lacey and Susa almost more than the ones with Lacey and Ian, just because the two women had strong chemistry as fellow artists pursuing art together. Susa is a lovely character, and it’s great to see this woman get serious camera time, since it helps flesh out the history of the Donovan family and shows where her children get a lot of the awesomeness.

Antagonist-wise, we’ve also got a fairly Lowell-typical screwed up rich family, across whose secrets our heroine has inadvertantly stumbled and who will do anything to keep those secrets secret. There aren’t any real deviations from the standard plot track there, though on the other hand, Lowell doesn’t get too over the top with the antagonists as she’s sometimes done in other books.

So all in all I’ll give this one a good strong three stars, on the strength of Susa.