Book Log #108: 24 Bones, by Michael F. Stewart

My last read of 2009 is my fellow Drollerie author Michael Stewart’s 24 Bones, a book that’s surprisingly hard to pin down into any specific genre. It’s set in the modern day world, and yet it doesn’t play out like what most readers would think of as “urban fantasy”; the feel of it is much more akin to a suspense novel, albeit with fantastic elements, i.e., Egyptian gods coming to life. You might be tempted to think Dan Brown when you think of how this book’s about the clash between two ancient Egyptian cults and how a professor from Toronto is pulled into it when he receives a cryptic coded message. Don’t. This book is simultaneously more and less complicated than a Brown novel, in all the correct ways.

We have the Shemsu Hor and the Shemsu Seth at each other’s throats as the time of Seth’s ascension is at hand, and Horus is on the wane. Set off against them both are the Sisters of Isis, keepers of the Balance, who are determined to keep both good and evil from becoming too dominant. And against this larger backdrop we have Samiya of the Shemsu Seth, raised to do evil, use the powers of the Void, and serve the Pharoah–while Taggart Quinn, hauled into this conflict by the mysterious message he’s received, learns that his place in the unfolding events is far greater than he could have imagined.

There were times when I had a bit of difficulty following the events of the story; the narrative jumps very quickly from one event to the next when there surely must have been a little time between them, particularly in the latter half. More than once I had a “wait, what?” reaction, and this kept me from finishing the story as quickly as is my wont, since I had to take the time to absorb what I’d just read. But, that said, I was genuinely surprised by some of the directions this plot took, and I have to give it huge props for that.

Props too for the final tying together of the plot threads involving Taggart and Sam, and for the moment of delicious irony when a TV evangelist’s flock, called to prayer during the climax of the plot, is not at all doing what they think they’re doing. Over all, four stars.

Book Log #107: King’s Property, by Morgan Howell

I am very, very glad that I finally got around to reading Morgan Howell’s King’s Property, Book 1 of his Queen of the Orcs series. The idea of a fantasy series with an emphasis on orcs for once sounded like a winner to me, even if it has to take the route of a young human woman being the protagonist rather than an orcish character.

Dar is a girl of the hills conscripted into serving the King’s army, a harsh and bitter existence, one in which she quickly learns that a woman’s only chance of survival relies upon her ability to secure the favor of a soldier who will provide for her. But the thought of abasing herself thus to any man–especially when she learns that the commander who’s interested in her is cruel and heartless–horrifies her. Instead, she takes the radical step of befriending a few of the soldiers of the regiment of orcs who are fighting alongside the human army. This puts her severely at odds with her fellow serving-women as well as the male soldiers, who are all pretty much convinced that she must be having sexual congress with the orcs. But only Dar makes any attempt to learn their language and rudiments of their culture, and to see them as anything other than brutal fighting machines.

And I’ll say this, it is quite a refreshing change of pace to see orcs be the good guys here, even if the orcish words Howell employs keep making me think they’re Japanese; this is what he gets for using “hai” as his orcish word for “yes”. There are times when I find their culture a little hard to swallow, though. These are orcs who, sure, deserve their rep as brutal fighting machines. In battle, that’s what they are. Outside of battle, though, there’s a lot of the orcs being surprisingly willing to go wherever humans lead them, to the point that they’re eventually willing to give Dar the same status that they accord females of their own species, and accept her orders accordingly. Soon enough the whole situation comes across as “the innocent orcs are being manipulated by the nasty humans”, with a heaping side dose of “human males suck and the only trustworthy ones are the orcs”.

But, that said, Howell doesn’t go completely in that direction, and for that I’m grateful. Some of the orcs do complain quite loudly at the influence that Dar has upon their commander, and one sympathetic human male not only gets Dar’s attention but starts contributing towards her eventual efforts to escape the army. And overall, I’m quite intrigued by the bigger picture Howell has set up here with the situation not only between the warring human nations, but how the orcs and their current queen play into it.

This is not a cheerful world, be warned. Quite a few dark things happen in it, including rape and needless murder, but to Howell’s credit he handles a lot of the darker events in an understated fashion. And even if I had some quibbles with specific details, overall I very much liked the story and am very much looking forward to taking on Book 2. Four stars.

Book Log #106: Over Her Head, by Nora Fleischer

If you’re on the hunt for a super-quick read, you can’t go too wrong with my fellow Drollerie author userinfonorafleischer‘s Over Her Head. I’m a sucker for stories involving intellectual women, and so this little tale of a young woman in the early 1900’s striving to pull off doing a dissertation on mermaids was quite a bit of fun.

Frances Schmidt has discovered that Garrett Hathaway has the most definitive collection of works on mermaid myths she’s ever seen, and so she’ll stop at nothing to get his permission to study his library–even if it means showing up at his front door on a bicycle, armed with tasty cookies. That she and Garrett eventually fall in love is not at all a surprise, nor is the fact that Frances discovers that he has an Astonishing Secret or that Frances gets a lot of flak for pursuing “unseemly” intellectual pursuits.

What makes this read fun and unusual is a nice little take on mermaid myths as well as a cast of vividly portrayed characters which benefit from the short length of the story; there are no extra words here, and extra words aren’t really needed. Four stars.

(P.S. Special side note to userinfolyonesse: the description of Frances totally reminds me of you!)

Book Log #105: Birthright, by Nora Roberts

I’m sure that people with more archaeology clues than me could find all sorts of issues with Nora Roberts’ Birthright, wherein much of the plot is driven by finding a several-thousand-year-old burial site near the small town of Woodsboro. But really, this is all background to the main plot of this story: Callie Dunbrook discovering that the parents who raised her are not really her parents, and that in reality, she was born to different parents entirely and kidnapped from them when she was a baby.

Callie’s investigations into her background are joined by her ex-husband Jacob, her long-lost brother Douglas, and the lawyer Lana. As is pretty much expected with Nora, the romance that re-kindles between Callie and Jacob as well as the new romance between Douglas and Lana are the driving forces of this book. And, as is pretty much expected with Nora, they’re all reasonably engaging people who have to figure each other out in the process of discovering the truth behind Callie’s abduction–and whether the perpetrator committed the same crime with other children. Meanwhile, Callie must learn how to cope with having a whole extra set of parents, and there’s a lot of emotional interaction involved with that that happily never descends into hostility between her birth mother and the one who raised her.

All in all, nothing truly outstanding but a good solid read nonetheless. Three stars.

Book Log #104: Written on Your Skin, by Meredith Duran

I was pointed at Meredith Duran’s Written on Your Skin by way of a link posted to Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and I’ve got to say that I was pleased at the pointing. Certainly for most of this book, I was treated to some delightfully caustic chemistry between the heroine and hero. Our heroine Mina is a young woman of delicate beauty who has been unabashedly letting everyone think she’s an airhead to disguise the fact that she’s diabolically clever; our hero Phineas, an English nobleman and spy.

The book’s opening sequence, where Mina must save Phineas’ life, is great fun. It is however only a prologue for the main body of the action, which takes place a few years later, when Phin must come to Mina’s aid. For me as a reader, though, the mechanics of the plot that actually brought Mina and Phineas back together took a massive backseat to the dynamics of their relationship, and I don’t think I did those mechanics justice, since I kept skimming to look for new scenes of interaction between them. I shall have to re-read this one to go back and get the rest of the details I missed.

Overall though the book read pretty well for me, even accounting for the skimming. My only beef that I came away with was the feeling that the happy ending came a bit too abruptly. When I get back to re-reading this one, I’ll see if I maintain that opinion. For now, three stars.

Book Log #103: And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander

And Only to Deceive, first of the “Lady Emily” series by Tasha Alexander, is one of the “lady of the nobility solves mysteries” milieu, and it’s a decent addition overall. This time around the noble lady in question is Lady Emily Ashton, recent widow of Lord Philip Ashton, who must come to grips with the alarming idea that not only might her husband have been dealing in illicitly obtained antiquities–but he might have been murdered.

I’ll say right out that the big appeal of this for me was Emily taking a sadly belated interest in her husband’s work in ancient Greek artifacts, by way of trying to cope with the fact that she never really knew him before he died. This gives her an opportunity to develop her own intellectual pursuits, and I’m always a fan of a plot that lets a woman pursue education just because she likes it, and never mind that it’s in defiance of the expectations of society. There’s some fun here with Emily’s studies bringing her all too close to fruitlessly falling in love with the husband she might have had, too, which causes her no end of consternation. Especially when the possibility is raised that he might actually still be alive.

But of course, this wouldn’t be a period mystery without a primary love interest, and the gentleman filling this role is Philip’s best friend Colin Hargreaves. Colin and Emily have fairly standard but nonetheless engaging chemistry, with the obligatory sparks when Emily spends some time infatuated with another man as well.

Good fun all around, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading Book 2. Four stars.

Book Log #102: House of Whispers, by Margaret Lucke

I deemed this book Relevant to My Interests when I saw a blurb of it invoking the name of Barbara Michaels. And for the most part, that’s a not unreasonable name to invoke here. There’s a certain old-school feel to this book in both sides of its plot, the haunted house story and the heavy side helping of romance. By “old school”, I mean a return to what (at least in the books I’ve read lately) has been a vanishing art: encouraging the reader’s imagination as much by what’s not on the page as what’s on it. I miss this, both in things that are supposed to creep me out and romances I’m supposed to be cheering on.

On the other hand, speaking as an ardent fan of Michaels’ older books, I didn’t find this one quite up to par with those–although to be fair, I have no substantive reason for this. Mostly, it’s a question of the overall flavor of the writing, which I found more akin to the later Elizabeth Peters works (the last few Amelia Peabodies and the final Vicky Bliss). If you liked the style that Michaels/Peters took with those books, you will probably like the style of this one all right.

And all this said, the plot is rather fun. Our heroine, Claire, is the new kid in a real estate office, and she’s given the daunting task of finding a buyer for a local mansion where a gruesome quadruple murder took place. When she gets there, she discovers to her shock that she can actually hear the ghost of a young girl who was murdered there–and who can point her at the true identity of her killer, who is still at large. Meanwhile, Claire has a rivalry going on with Avery, the office sexpot, a character who takes a little while to get her feet under her. And both women aim for Ben Grant, the owner of the house Claire’s trying to sell.

Overall, a bit on the fluffy side but not bad. Three stars.

One last 2009 ebook bonanza

As 2009 leaves us I wanted to get in one last gasp of ebooky goodness on the Fictionwise sale, so I’ve done a slew of buying tonight off of Fictionwise! And for the sake of thoroughness, I shall also count the books I’ve picked up courtesy of the shiny gift card that userinfospazzkat gave me for Christmas:

  • Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory; fantasy
  • The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, by Jennifer Ashley; romance
  • The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig; mystery
  • The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, by Galen Beckett; fantasy
  • Fall of Light, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; fantasy
  • Consequences of Sin, by Clare Langley-Hawthorne; mystery, re-buy
  • Wicked Game, by Jeri Smith-Ready; urban fantasy, re-buy
  • Bad to the Bone, by Jeri Smith-Ready; urban fantasy
  • The Silver Wolf, by Alice Borchardt; fantasy, re-buy
  • Code of Conduct, by Kristine Smith; SF, re-buy
  • Skinwalker, by Faith Hunter; urban fantasy
  • Matters of the Blood, by Maria Lima; urban fantasy
  • Amazon Ink, by Lori Devoti; urban fantasy
  • Madhouse, by Rob Thurman; urban fantasy
  • Unleashed, by John Levitt; urban fantasy
  • The Family Tree, by Sheri S. Tepper; urban fantasy
  • Deathwish, by Rob Thurman; urban fantasy
  • Ghost Whisperer: Revenge, by Doranna Durgin; fantasy, media tie-in

The official final grand tally of books purchased by me in 2009 is therefore 210!

And for the record, the official tally of books READ by me in 2009 is 108. I am not caught up on book reviews but I will be writing the rest of them over this weekend and getting those posted for you all before I start the 2010 book log.

Hee, and userinfosolarbird adds that the official tally of books PUBLISHED by me is two! Here’s to 2010 adding to that tally. It’s been a great year for books, folks. Here’s to me beating all of these records in 2010.

Book Log #101: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

It was pretty much inevitable that, after loving Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as much as I did, I’d have to check out Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, the followup offering by the same press. In a nutshell: not as fun for me as P&P&Z, although it did still have its redeeming qualities.

I’ll say right out that unlike Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility never seized my attention nearly so much–in no small part because S&S didn’t have the absolutely amazing A&E adaptation to recommend it. (Mmm, Colin Firth as Darcy!) I do actually own a copy of S&S, but I didn’t remember a thing about it. So I went into Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters not knowing at all what to expect. Aside from, well, sea monsters.

This is a Britain where for reasons that are never revealed, all aquatic life in the world has suddenly turned seethingly hostile to humanity. Humanity has had to respond accordingly by altering social customs to place high value upon swimming, sailing, fishing, and any other skill that will improve one’s chances against oceangoing menance. In this setting, we have the Dashwood sisters exiled from their childhood home (as per the original) and embarking upon adventures involving monsters, pirates, a suitor cursed with slimy tentacles growing on his chin, and mysterious natives chanting prayers to unspeakable creatures of the deep (not really as per the original at all). There’s even a bit of steampunky interest when the sisters visit Sub-Marine Station Beta.

All of which are fun elements to throw into a story, but for me, they just didn’t mesh nearly as seamlessly as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did. There are moments of humor–and I will give this book props for never descending into blatant sexual innuendo or jokes about bodily functions, which was P&P&Z’s one failing.

But it never quite got to the point of unrepentantly sailing past stupid and all the way into “awesome”, I fear. That said? “That was pretty neat” is still not bad at all. Three stars.

Book Log #100: Confessions of the Creature, by Gary Inbinder

It’s a challenge and a half to try to write a sequel to no less august a book than Frankenstein, and for that alone, I must give my fellow Drollerie author Gary Inbinder props. I’m also pleased to say that although there were parts of the book that didn’t work as much for me, by and large, I feel he did an excellent job at his appointed task!

The opening of the book does ask you to accept the idea that sorcery of a kind exists in the Frankenstein universe, since the entire plot only gets underway when the monster, fresh from killing his creator, is taken in by an old Russian witch. In repayment for his working for her, she grants him his greatest wish: to be human and to be able to have a real life of his own. If you’re used to the version of the Frankenstein story more popularly depicted in the movies, the presence of magic may be jarring; however, my spouse pointed out quite correctly that the original story does heavily pursue the idea that Victor Frankenstein was dabbling as much in black magic as he was forbidden science in creating his monster. So it’s not too much of a stretch for me to allow for actual magic existing in this world.

But. This is really only the start of the plot, and the greatest portion of it by far is taken up by the creature–now calling himself Viktor Viktorovich–not only winning himself a life and a family in Russia, but achieving a meteoric rise to power. In fact, the vast majority of the plot is taken up with his participation in the wars against Napoleon. For me as a reader this had quite a bit of interest, but the real heart of the story doesn’t come until the final third, when the truth of Viktor’s origins begins to come back to haunt him.

And this is also where the story ultimately let me down a bit, since I was expecting more creepiness than I actually got, and one plot device in particular that was used as part of Frankenstein’s backstory struck me as quite unnecessary. But that said, overall I did find this a gripping read, and it’s worth checking out if you liked the original. Four stars.