Book Log #99: Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead, by Steve Perry

I’m a huge Indiana Jones fan. To the tune of Raiders of the Lost Ark remaining my all-time favorite movie ever, and collecting every one of the novels I could get my hands on. I even went to go see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull twice.

So this should give you the proper context when I say that I really, really wanted to like Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead. It combines two of my favorite things: Indy and zombies! Plus, it’s a story that’s set during World War II and which included Mac, the character we saw in Crystal Skull. So, cool, I thought, we can get a glimpse into what actually happened to Indy during World War II, which was one of the interesting little side details about the movie.

The big problem is, the character occupying the lead role of this story is not the Indiana Jones I know and love. He’s too prone to bursting into dry, didactic lectures, a habit we never once saw him have in any of the movies, including the last one. This character failure alone distracted me a lot from the story, and made it difficult for me to enjoy some of the other aspects of this version of Indy that I did like–for example, since this is an Indy up in his 40’s, it did seem reasonable to me that he was starting to get sensitive about his age and yet was still quite capable of being charmed by, and charming to, the young female lead.

A similar lack of character development pretty much plagued the bad guys as well, for the most part: the German and Japanese commanders. Since this is a WWII setting, it’s pretty much inevitable that we’d have Japanese forces involved along with the Nazis, and to be fair, this does add a bit of nice variety. And there’s quite a bit of plotting and counter-plotting between the two commanders as they both try to catch up with Indy and Mac to get the final MacGuffin. But none of it had quite the punch it should have had for me, and only occasionally did either of the commanders ever seem like real characters. They definitely paled in comparison to the actual primary bad guy: the voodoo sorcerer who was controlling the zombies.

And I will say that okay, sure, the zombie part of the plot was entertaining enough. But on the whole the story didn’t feel enough like a proper Indiana Jones story to me–because Indy just didn’t feel enough like Indy. Two stars.

Book Log #98: Undone, by Rachel Caine

Undone is the first of userinforachelcaine‘s new series Outcast Season, the offshoot from the Weather Warden books, and as series starters go it’s not bad. We’re introduced to Cassiel, a djinn who’s forced into human shape–and, as a result, forced to work with the Wardens on whose power she depends to keep herself alive. But when the Warden assigned to work with her is killed along with his wife, she must turn to his brother instead to track down their killers. And all the while she has to cope with the unwelcome side effects of prolonged incarnation in human form.

The story’s not without flaws, most of which are repeatedly played too heavily: how much Cassiel hates being human, the cute child insisting on calling her Cassie despite being told repeatedly that she prefers to be called Cassiel, how the Wardens keep assuming that if something goes wrong it’s clearly Cassiel’s fault, how Cassiel being incarnated into human form is part of a Greater Plan(TM). Taken individually, none of these quibbles are too bad, but as a whole, for me as a reader, I could have liked all of them toned down just a tad.

Also: the token appearance of David and Jo at the very beginning of the story honestly detracted from the rest of the story for me, and it really felt like a question of “let’s put them in here just to prove to the reader that this is the same universe as Jo’s stories”, since David and Jo didn’t really provide any other plot relevance to the story–and we’re not even told why Cassiel, incarnated into human shape, is dumped on David and Jo to begin with. Lewis has far more pertinent reason to show up at the beginning, since he’s the one that lays it out to Cassiel how it’ll have to go if she expects the Wardens to work with her. But much as I’ve enjoyed David and Jo’s story over in the Weather Warden books, they just didn’t need to be in this one.

All this said? There’s still a good solid story here. I liked the edgy interaction between Cassiel and Luis, still very much too edgy to be a proper romance yet, and hopefully it’ll be a relationship that takes a while to develop. The Big Bad of the story intrigued me, as did the backstory there between the Big Bad and Cassiel herself. And yeah, I’ll be checking out Book Two. For this one, three stars.

Book Log #97: Rot, by Michele Lee

Michele Lee delivers a compact little horror story in Rot, a novella that goes into the ramifications of people in society being able to bring back loved ones from the dead–only in this case, rather than true resurrection, it’s the capturing of a living spirit inside an otherwise still-dead body. Yes, folks, this is a zombie story, but one where the zombies retain sentience for as long as their bodies retain enough physical cohesion for their brains to work.

And this opens up a host of unhappy results as nursing homes for the undead crop up as locations to dump your resurrected zombie loved ones when you no longer want them. Not to mention the myriad unpleasant excuses for reviving your loved ones to begin with, such as Patrick, a gay young man who’s brought back by his fundamentalist Christian parents who promise to put him back in his grave if he’ll “repent”.

With this as a background, the story’s protagonist, Dean, a watchman at one of these zombie retirement homes, discovers that certain ones of the residents are going unaccounted for–and as he’s moved to investigate, he discovers that these zombies, already rendered pretty much non-people by the sad circumstances of their existence, are helpless prey for even darker motivations than the ones that put them there to start with.

What circumstances give society the ability to create zombies is only glossed over, but really, that’s fine; this story is short enough that that really doesn’t need to be explained in depth. The focus is where it rightfully belongs, on Dean, on Patrick, and upon Amy, who is the latest of the zombies in the facility to go missing. Dean must bring himself to trust Patrick enough to take him out of the facility with him as he tracks Amy down, and the dynamic between the two is very nicely done indeed.

All in all, it’s a tight little tale and worth checking out. Four stars.

Book Log #96: Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

I haven’t read every single thing Cherie Priest has published quite yet, but I love me some Eden Moore novels, and I have a healthy respect for Fathom. But those other books? They’re just going to have to stand aside and make way for Boneshaker, because I mean, DAMN.

It’s got everything: alternate history! Steampunky mad science! 1880’s Seattle! Airships! Air pirates! A plucky young lad and his fierce and fearsome mother! And, which is what really pushed it over the top for me, zombies! What’s not to love?

Boneshaker is set in an alternate timeline where the Civil War has dragged out for an extra fifteen years and where the Klondike Gold Rush came early, spurring an earlier settlement of the Pacific Northwest–and a Russian-sponsored contest to build a mining machine capable of digging into the frozen ice of the north for gold. Dr. Leviticus Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine would have had the contest in the bag. But his machine went horribly awry, destroying much of downtown Seattle. And to add horrific insult to already dire injury, the Boneshaker dug deep into the earth and unleashed the Blight gas that turned its victims into shambling undead.

Now it’s sixteen years later. Those who escaped the devastation of Seattle have erected a two-hundred-foot wall around its remains to keep in not only the undead victims of the Blight, but the continuing rising of the gas itself. Blue’s widow Briar Wilkes and her son Ezekiel are among those settled in the Outskirts around the wall, until Zeke gets it into his head to penetrate the city in search of evidence to clear his father’s infamous name. He is trapped within by an earthquake, and Briar must go in to save him.

I had a few quibbles with certain bits of pacing, but honestly? They’re small enough quibbles that I just didn’t care. Briar was too much fun as a heroine, cut from the same tough-mother cloth as Sarah Connor, only with a quieter, less desperate strength to her, and she was a lovely complement to the innocence and intrinsic bravery and goodness of her son. Many of the characters they meet within the Wall are equally memorable: Lucy the one-armed barmaid, whose single arm is mechanical; Jeremiah Swakhammer, clad in the best badassed armor a steampunk hero could ask for and armed with the best badassed zombie-stunning gun; and, of course, the mysterious Dr. Minnericht, who is said to be responsible for much of what holds what’s left of Seattle together and who is deeply feared nonetheless.

Moreoever, as a Seattle resident, I had great fun reading Priest’s descriptions of this alternate downtown Seattle. I walk these streets on a daily basis, and what really sold me on the realism was the mentions of the sidewalk letter markers to tell you what street you’re on. With that kind of detail, I kept catching myself looking out for “rotters” on my way home from work. More importantly, I burned through this book as fast as I possibly could and am quite anxious for a sequel! Five stars.

Book Log #90: Audrey’s Door, by Sarah Langan

After Sarah Langan’s most excellent novels The Keeper and The Missing, I was very much hoping to hit the proverbial third-time charm with her new horror novel, Audrey’s Door. Survey says? She didn’t hit it quite out of the park like she did with the first two; Audrey’s Door has some issues, but it’s still a good solid read.

Audrey Lucas is a woman with a whole hell of a lot of neuroses on her plate: she’s escaped a destructive relationship with her psychotic mother and more or less established a life for herself in New York, even to the point of being engaged to be married, but her victory hasn’t come without cost. She’s got OCD, enough that it’s driven a wedge between her and her fiance Saraub, and when the book opens she’s elected to move out of the apartment she shares with him–and into an old house called the Breviary, infamous for its Chaotic Naturalist architecture. The fact that a gruesome murder occurred in the space she renting almost puts her off. But as this is a horror novel, “almost” is as far as she gets.

The Breviary is of course haunted like you would not believe, and soon enough the place begins exerting its influence. Something in it is very aware of Audrey, and it insists that she build it a door of mysterious purpose. Nor is it above driving her mad to get her to do it, and threatening the tenuous life she’s established for herself.

There’s decent creepiness in this book; the residents of the Breviary, ancient husks of men and women who have long been warped by their residence in the place, are truly unnerving. But a whole lot of the book’s early mileage is spent on developing the backstory for Audrey, her traumatic childhood with her mother, and her not-terribly-healthy relationship with Saraub. A good stretch of that I found to just be depressing rather than creepy, because of the seemingly unending litany of ways in which poor Audrey’s life and mind were screwed up.

Not until the last act of the book does Saraub rise above his unsympathetic portrayal, and unfortunately, Audrey never quite manages to pull off the same ascent. The ending therefore felt strangely tacked on to me. Overall, three stars.

Book Log #89, 91-95: The Bear Claw Creek Crime Lab books, by Jessica Andersen

I’m going to hit all of these in one big post since they’re a series of related Harlequin Intrigue novels, like you often get with romances. I actually picked up the last of them, Internal Affairs, on the strength of it being a) written by Jessica Andersen, whose work I’m quite liking with her Nightkeepers novels, and b) it’s an amnesia plot. Okay, fine, I’m a sucker for an amnesia plot, what can I say? *^_^*;;

Anyway, all six of these books are set in a fictional Colorado town, and fall fairly neatly in two trilogies. The first trilogy, Ricochet, At Close Range, and Rapid Fire deal with our three heroines being hired into the Bear Claw Creek PD as the new forensics department, a move that’s pissed off most of the force as they resent these newcomers taking the place of the much-respected expert who’s suddenly retired. So each woman has the hassle of trying to fit in with her new job as well as the obligatory male lead with whom to clash, and on top of it all, there’s a conspiracy going on that’s aimed squarely at destabilizing the police department.

Trilogy #2, Manhunt in the Wild West, Mountain Investigation, and Internal Affairs, broadens the scope and sets up Bear Claw Creek as the target of a terrorist mastermind. I found this one less entertaining than the first one, mostly because the whole idea of using terrorists as the bad guys struck too close to real life for me; this made it a bit difficult to enjoy the books as escapist fare. Nor did it help that the terrorists were very, very stock characters and had only We’re Evil Because We’re Terrorists going in terms of motivation; the one potentially interesting character, a former federal agent who turns traitor, is not explored at all.

But since I mostly read these things for the suspense and the romance, I will at least allow that I got them in spades. The various female and male leads all followed predictable patterns of establishing their relationships, but I did like that in general, there weren’t any Great Big Misunderstandings used as plot conflicts, and the women were right there taking on the bad guys alongside the men. There was a satisfying amount of things going splody, one not-too-over-the-top sex scene per book, and more than one “Oh no I’ve been a flaming idiot I need to go rescue my woman now” epiphany on the part of the menfolk. What was more interesting to me was establishing all of these characters as a tightly-knit network of friends and colleagues, and how the events in one book played into the next.

As for the amnesia plot, aheh, it hit all the appropriate points, and as the conclusion of the latter trilogy, was the strongest of the three. All in all though I quite prefer Andersen’s Nightkeeper books; in those, she has a lot more room to exercise her prose and bring characters to life. Three stars each for the books in the first trilogy, and two stars for the first two of the second, but three for Internal Affairs. For the series as a whole, three stars.

Book Log #88: Sacred Sins, by Nora Roberts

Sacred Sins is one of Nora Roberts’ late 80’s-era novels, and for me at least, it falls somewhat flat compared to her later work. The elements are certainly in place for a nice suspenseful story: a killer’s on the loose in Washington D.C., a killer the media dubs the Priest for his habit of leaving his young, pretty victims arranged in pious repose and notes reading “her sins are forgiven her”. It’s the same sort of murder formula she’d put to good use later in the J.D. Robbs, but here, the plot feels rougher and less polished.

Most of the fault for this lay for me in the too-simple characterizations of the cast. I got the feeling that the leads fell in love with each other mostly because they were the leads and it was their job to do so; they made a big deal at each other about how he hated psychiatrists because one had failed to help his brother, tormented by his service in Vietnam, and she was so put off by police work because it was full of violence and death. There was a lot of needless conflict as well with the hero accusing the heroine of not being interested in proper justice, since as a psychiatrist she was (or so he believed) more interested in treating the killer rather than getting justice for the victims.

I think the Nora Roberts of ten years or so after this novel could have pulled off this plot nicely, but the Nora Roberts of 1987 didn’t feel like she was quite there yet. Two stars.

Book Log #87: Hot Ice, by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts’ Hot Ice, one of her older standalone books from the late 80’s, is a halfway decent caper novel. Thief Douglas Lord, betrayed by the man who’s hired him to steal valuable papers pointing the way to a lost treasure from the French Revolution, is thrust across the path of the young heirness Whitney MacAllister–who promptly decides that teaming up with Doug will be the biggest adventure of her life, and never mind his occupying the shady side of the law.

Our hero and heroine journey from New York to Paris to Madagascar, staying the obligatory step or two ahead of their pursuers all the way. There’s some good descriptive passages of the country they trek through in Madagascar, and a lot of enjoyable snarky chemistry between the two before they finally give in to the inevitable and declare their feelings for each other. All of it is pretty fluffy, though, as is the villain, who we know to be evil mostly because Doug speaks of him in Suitably Ominous Phrases; unfortunately, we never really get to see the villain being particularly villainous on camera. Not too bad of a way to kill time, though, and I was a sucker for its vaguely Remington-Steele-ish flavor. Three stars.

Book Log #86: Three Fates, by Nora Roberts

It’s generally a good bet that whenever you’re heading into a Nora Roberts storyline with an ensemble cast, a good amount of the story is going to be devoted to who’s going to pair off with whom. Three Fates is no exception, even though it’s a single novel as opposed to a trilogy starring her interconnected characters.

This time around the story hinges on a trio of statues, the Three Fates, named after the beings from Greek mythology. The statues have been separated over the centuries, and much effort has been expended by collectors to reunite them; it’s said that the group, restored to each other, will be spectacularly valuable. One was nearly lost in the sinking of the Lusitania, and the survivor who recovered it, a petty thief, has passed it down to his descendants–who have in turn lost it to the machinations of a ruthless collector from New York who’s bent on acquiring the other two. The Sullivans are prepared to do whatever it takes to recover what they’ve lost, and to find their Fate’s missing sisters as well.

Naturally the other two are in the hands of the love interests that two of the three Sullivans pair up with, and eventually we get the central core of six characters teaming up against the antagonist. As is generally the case, Roberts’ lead characters are likeable in their various fashions, although in this case the women are more interesting than the men; Tia, in particular, is notable as a painfully shy and neurotic character who has the biggest character development arc as she conquers her various phobias and becomes a more confident woman.

It was a bit of a shame that the plot never really progressed past ‘likeable’, though. Antagonist Anita in particular was fairly cardboard and petty, and so the determination of our heroes and heroines to bring her down didn’t have quite as much weight and substance as it should have done. Three stars.

Book Log #85: Heat Wave, by Richard Castle

I never got into Richard Castle’s Derek Storm novels, because I try to avoid things that hit bestseller status–in no small part because I’ve had one too many instances of “bestseller” being code for “hamfisted writing”. Plus, there’s been all the media hype about how Castle’s such a ruggedly handsome jetsetter of an author, and the whole thing about him tagging along with the NYPD by way of the world’s longest publicity stunt to promote a new series, yeah yeah yeah blah blah blah but can the man actually write?

I had my doubts, I have to say, when I learned that the lead character of his shiny new series is named Nikki Heat. Let me emphasize that: Nikki Heat. Say what? C’mon, I thought that the romance genre was supposed to be the one with all the stupidly named characters. “Heat” isn’t even a name you’d see in romance novels. It’s more like something you’d see in badly executed porn.

If you can get past the godawful name for the character, you’ll get to a rather eye-rolling central personality concept for her: Nikki is the prototypical tough cop chick who really just wants to have a relationship and a life. Granted, she’s also got her share of being a competent detective going on, and she has plenty of reason to be devoted to her career. But did we really have to go down the route of “but what she really wants is a relationship?” And did this have to get more emphasis in her character development than the fact that she’s also got a lot invested in her career as a cop? While the book didn’t go overboard with this to the point that I wanted to smack it against a wall, it was still frustrating to see that kind of stereotypical portrayal for a lead female character. Nikki Heat is, I fear, no real match for Eve Dallas.

And, of course, Jameson Rook, our male lead, has “Marty Stu” written all over him. Having the love interest be a journalist tagging along with the NYPD was just not the right move, Mr. Castle, sorry; it’s like putting yourself into the story wearing glasses and a different jacket, and hoping nobody would notice.

Now, all this said? Aside from these big glaring flaws, the story’s actually not half bad. Despite her annoying name and central motivation, Nikki is a competent detective when the story lets her be, and she’s believable doing her job. Rook’s a Marty Stu, but at least he’s a likeable one, and I do have to admit that having a civilian involved with the police investigation does lend a feel to the reader of “really being there”. The murder mystery to be solved is decently suspenseful, and Castle’s prose, while never truly noteworthy, is nonetheless engaging and readable. Three stars.

Addendum: In case it’s not obvious, this review is written entirely in-character. If ABC can give us a novel from the Castle universe, I can review it as such! But I’ll also, out of character, give it an extra star just because the sheer fact that this novel exists makes me giggle and giggle. So the real ranking? Four stars!