There is a distinct level of irony in reading a book about a girl whose profession is “restorer of old books” in ebook form. And in some ways, the dichotomy of this–of reading a book about an old profession via very modern means–carried over into my reaction to the plot. Not entirely positively, either.
Our heroine, Brooklyn Wainwright, inadvertantly stumbles across the murder of her mentor, and as a result is drafted in his stead to restore a rare and supposedly cursed copy of Faust as the showpiece of a family collection. But she’s also suspected of both murder and theft, and repeatedly runs afoul of a dour security agent hired to investigate the goings-on.
Toss in the obligatory Colorful Family, and you’ve got decent makings for a fluffy but entertaining cozy mystery. Problem for me was, Brooklyn for me as a heroine oftentimes fell kind of flat. My main beef with her was the repeated scenes of snark between her and her nemesis, Minka LaBoeuf; most of the snark was unfortunately merely petty rather than actively witty, and the situation wasn’t helped much by Minka not serving a plot function above and beyond “being there for Brooklyn to be snarky at”. She’s regularly described in spitefully unflattering terms, up to and including digs at her weight. This wasn’t cool, and rather than accomplishing the goal of having me feel snarky to her because Brooklyn was, it instead made me feel sorry at Minka and annoyed that narrative space was being wasted having Brooklyn pettily snark at her.
This really though was my only real problem with the book. Brooklyn does have an entertaining family, and once Dour British Security Guy actually unwinds enough to start being a real character, he’s fun too. The latter third of the book is the best, even given a brief and unnecessary diversion into “cozy paranormal” territory rather than just “cozy”. Two and a half stars, though for Goodreads review purposes I’ll go ahead and round up to three.
The fourth book of Elizabeth Lowell’s Donovans series, Midnight in Ruby Bayou, is for my money the best of the lot. It’s got the most complex of any of the plots in the series up to this point, and since it’s a bit longer than the previous ones as well, Lowell has more time to develop the various characters. This time around, the Donovan Sibling Du Jour is Faith, Hope’s sister, and we finally get some payoff on the plot point set up in previous books, involving an asshole ex-boyfriend. We’ve also got a stolen priceless Russian ruby, and the torrid secrets of a South Carolina family who’ve commissioned Faith to design a necklace for a forthcoming wedding–that of her own best friend.
Lowell does a decent job tying all of these elements together, although there’s a clear demarcation between the half of the story involving “Faith and Owen travel to South Carolina”, and “Faith and Owen arrive at the Monteageaus’ mansion, and deal with all the drama there”, and the transition between the two parts isn’t entirely smooth. But that said, out of all of the lead characters in the Donovans series, I like Faith and Owen the most. Their relationship and chemistry come across to me as the most equal out of any in the series, and not just because Owen is an employee of Faith’s family. He’s the most understated of the male leads in the series, and a lot of this is on purpose as he deliberately plays to the “Southern good ol’ boy” stereotype as well as to the fact that he’s carrying a cane as he recovers from an injury sustained in Afghanistan. Most importantly, while he and Faith do their share of arguing, they get over it quickly, and there’s no Big Misunderstanding sorts of annoyances that so often annoy me in romance and romantic suspense novels.
Once the action shifts to the Montegeaus’ mansion, everything takes on a decidedly darker tone–because at this point the plot delves into the sordid history of the family, and in particular, the crazy old woman Tiga. Questions of alcoholism and incest and murder are all explored, all of which give a bit more weight to this novel than its predecessors. As this is a romantic suspense novel, nothing is ever really graphically called out, though the presence of these plot elements at all may make it a questionable read for some. So be on the lookout for that.
The third of Elizabeth Lowell’s Donovan books, Pearl Cove, is perhaps one of the earliest Lowells that levels up a bit for me in general quality of plot and character development. It’s still formulaic–I haven’t met a Lowell suspense novel that isn’t, even if it’s a formula I happen to enjoy. But this one at least does a better job than others.
This time around we have the focus on Archer Donovan, the oldest of the Donovan brothers and the one who’s generally in charge of everything the younger generation of the family does. He’s a former international operative, with the obligatory unspecific hints about Awful Things He Did When He Was Younger, and he’s got the suitably jaded outlook on life to go with it. And, unsurprisingly, a portion of his Awful Background(TM) is plot-relevant, for it turns out he’s got sordid backstory with his illegitimate half-brother–a bitter, crippled man named Len McGarry. Who, it turns out, has just died under mysterious circumstances. And Archer learns this from Len’s widow Hannah–who, it turns out, is the obligatory Only Woman Archer Has Ever Loved(TM).
Naturally, Archer must hightail it down to Australia to help Hannah find out who murdered her husband, and what happened to the priceless necklace of black pearls he’d been assembling.
I quite enjoyed the “solve the murder mystery” aspect of this story, and the chemistry between Archer and Hannah was suitably edgy and compelling, even given the gyrations Hannah’s backstory goes through to get her into a position of being a widow yet still more or less sexually innocent. The only part of their interaction I didn’t enjoy was the Big Misunderstanding trope rearing its head, since a good chunk of Hannah’s early interactions with Archer are her assuming that he’s just as much of an asshole as her dead husband was, without any particular justification at all. Once they get past the Big Misunderstanding, though, it’s fun to see the Donovans reacting to their brother finally being in love, and all of them coming together to help him and Hannah ultimately solve the crime. Three stars.
Stranger, Book 4 of Zoe Archer’s “Blades of the Rose” series, is hands down my favorite of the lot–in no small part due to the awesomeness of its hero, Catullus Graves. I was afraid he wouldn’t live up to the buildup he got in previous books, but I was happy to discover I was wrong. Sure, he’s a romance novel hero and therefore in many ways is a very typical one: i.e., he’s hot, he’s a competent fighter, and such. But what really sells him for me is his intellect; scientifically inclined heroes for the major, major win! And like many a nerd in real life, Cat’s got his issues talking to women, so I found him quite endearing as he established his relationship with our heroine, reporter Gemma Murphy.
I liked Gemma just about as much as I did Cat, since she was adept at finding the right things to say to draw him out of his reclusive shell. They actually talk quite a bit during the course of the plot, and because of this, they come across to me beautifully as genuinely liking each other as people, above and beyond the obligatory percolation of each other’s hormones. In other words: my favorite kind of chemistry!
Plus, partial I am to tales involving Celtic mythos, I have to give this book props for having Cat and Gemma have to venture into Faerie. There’s some nicely creepy stuff there, and that whole sequence would have fit well in any fantasy novel. Not quite as awesome for me was this book’s choice of “monster”, but on the other hand, you can hand-wave that if you remember that the “monster” is supposed to be more the “villains’ perception of what he should be” rather than a straightforward lifting of his mythos. (Which is all I’ll say about that, lest I delve into spoilers.)
While I’m sure this is not the last of the Blades books, this does neatly tie off the story arc begun in the earlier ones. Thus this is not a good place to start if you want to check out the series. There’s followup here with the lead characters from Book 3, as they’re still critical to resolve the ongoing crisis with the Heirs of Albion, and we do see a bit more of the leads from Books 1 and 2 as well, making this much more of an ensemble cast affair than the previous installments. I found that apt, given that this was the Big Final Crisis of the arc. The villains overall were still kind of flat for me, but perhaps due to this being the end of the arc, the main villain at least felt like he had a bit more to bring to the table. All in all, fun stuff. Four stars.
The second of Elizabeth Lowell’s Donovans series, Jade Island, continues the adventures of the jewel-loving Donovan family. This time around the camera’s on brother Kyle, the brother who’d gone missing in Amber Beach and who now gets his own time in the spotlight. He’s being eyed by the powerful Tang family as their way in to doing business with the Donovans–and the Tangs intend to have their unacknowledged relation Lianne Blakely try to seduce Kyle to get their in to the Donovans assured. Meanwhile, Kyle’s older brother Archer is sure Lianne must be involved with stolen jade, so he wants Kyle to put the moves on Lianne.
That our female lead Lianne is half-Chinese and driven by the desire to be accepted by the Tang family is simultaneously one of the best and one of the most disappointing things about the story: best since Lianne’s a nice change of pace from the standard whitebread heroine, disappointing because Lowell played up the “look how awesome the (American) Donovan family is compared to the (Chinese) Tang family and Lianne would be much better off marrying into the Donovans, wouldn’t she?” angle way too hard. There is some decent mileage with Lianne’s conflicted relationship with her parents as well as her grandfather, and that gives her some obvious reasons to want to be accepted by the Tangs. But it would have been nice to see some other positive aspects of the family, just to let us see that they weren’t all assholes.
But hey. As it stands, for what it is, Jade Island‘s a decent enough read, even if it’s on the fluffy side of romantic suspense. Three stars.
Amber Beach is going back a while in my re-read queue, back to earlier days of Elizabeth Lowell’s romantic suspense novels. It’s the first of her Donovans series, which to this day remain among my favorites of hers. Not because they’re particularly better written or less formulaic than her later work, but more because I’m partial to the family of characters she depicts. Plus, while the cast travels all over the globe, they’re headquartered in Seattle. And I’m a sucker for books that reference Pike Place Market, what can I say?
Anyway, her Donovan clan is fairly fun. You’ve got a large group of brothers and sisters, all headed up by a forceful tycoon of a father and a hugely talented painter of a mother, and the various stories of the series all focus upon a particular sibling. Since the siblings also run an international jewelry business, each book focuses upon the starring sibling’s particular favorite gem. Amber Beach‘s jewel du jour is of course amber, and its heroine is Honor, one of the two Donovan sisters. Honor’s desperate to find her missing brother Kyle, desperate enough to overcome her own phobia about going out on the water and hiring a man to help her search the San Juan Islands by boat. This being a romantic suspense novel, Jake Mallory, the man she hires, does of course have an agenda of his own. And his reasons for finding Kyle are much less benign. And, of course, there are Bad Guys out to find Kyle too, along with agents of the US government. Every last one of ’em is out to find out what Kyle knows about the fabled Russian Amber Room, and the fortune in amber from it that’s gone missing.
Like I said, formulaic, but it’s a decent enough light read. Three stars.
Say you’re a big fan of steampunk. Say also that you think the world needs more queer short fiction–and in particular, F/F. If both of these apply to you, you absolutely need to check out Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, a forthcoming anthology from Torquere Books. Editor (JoSelle Vanderhooft) kindly sent me an ARC of this antho, and I can happily say it was one of the more unusual anthologies I’ve read, not only because of the lesbian aspect but also because of the sheer diversity of stories and the emphasis on non-European and non-American cultures when possible.
Hands down, my favorite story in the whole thing was N.K. Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”. Fantasy fans may recognize that name from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which got a whole lot of favorable buzz; now that I’ve finally read something by this author, I can see why. I very much enjoyed her story, thanks to my ideal level of romance (i.e., it’s an aspect of the story but not the dominant point of the plot), the intrigue (a female spy in New Orleans is looking for hotly sought secrets of clean methane production, because whoever gets hold of that gets airship superiority), and the emphasis on Haiti. The heroine of this story is Haitian, and it’s just after the revolution in that country–so not only do you get a lesbian romance, it’s multi-racial and multi-cultural as well.
“Brilliant”, by Georgina Bruce, mostly worked for me as a character study–although again, we have an emphasis on non-European culture, as there are references to the “Egyptian Empire”, and the title character of the story is the daughter of the Nigerian ambassador to Cairo. Nice.
D.L. MacInnes’ “Owl Song” was a bittersweet one, which I didn’t entirely enjoy. And yet, the ending of it was haunting and powerful.
“Where the Ocean Meets the Sky” by Sara M. Harvey somewhat contrasted for me with Jemisin’s story, since there’s more emphasis here on the sexual attraction between the two main characters and not quite as much on the actual plot. But that said, I quite enjoyed that the plot featured a colorful character from San Francisco history, Emperor Joshua Norton I.
Beth Wodzinski’s “Suffer Water” gets points for a nice little blend of Old West, nanotech done steampunk style, a relationship gone wrong, and a bit of mad scientist to boot.
In “Steel Rider”, Rachel Manija Brown brings us a tale with a bit of anime-style mecha to spice up her steampunk. There’s a hint of Jewish culture here as well as Aztec and Mexican, not to mention all sorts of interesting questions about the world only barely seen in this story.
Shira Lipkin’s vignette “Truth and Life” is a glimpse of the sadness of a brilliant engineer.
Matthew Kressel, in “The Hands that Feed”, brings us a solid little tale of a shopkeeper with hidden talents, and the seemingly innocent young woman she comes to love. Our two heroines are Jewish and Hindu, as well as separated by thirty years of age, which makes for quite the unusual pairing indeed.
My fellow Drollerie author Meredith Holmes brings us “Love in the Time of Airships”, a tale of romance across social classes–and a woman who discovers not only that she has romantic inclinations she never dreamed of, but that her so-called husband is far more dangerous than she ever imagined.
Teresa Wymore, another fellow Drollerie author, has some intriguing glimpses of genetic manipulation shaping the society that exists “Under the Dome”.
“Clockwork and Music”, by Tara Sommers, is a poignant tale of a young woman who must wrestle madness, possibly nefarious intentions of the doctor who looks after her in a sanitarium, and the clockwork servants that carry out his will. All she has to sustain her is the love of a fellow inmate, who may or may not be mad herself.
Mikki Kendall’s “Copper for a Trickster” is brutal, and believably so, if you take a steampunk culture and think about how it would have impacted the development of African slavery. Protagonist Dalila and her beloved Ashaki are willing to do anything to free themselves and the children enslaved with them–but Dalila learns the price of the bargain they make with the Hare.
“Sleepless, Burning Life”, by Mike Allen, is perhaps the oddest piece in the collection. The prose is almost more metaphor than narrative, and even after having read through it, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s about. There are goddesses and priestesses and gears involved, and that’s pretty much what I came away with; more than that will have to wait until I get a formal copy of the anthology. (This was the first of two stories where I found the watermarking on the ARC to interfere enough with my ability to read the story that I will need to re-read it later.) Still, there’s imagery to be admired here, as well as the sheer lyricism of the writing.
And lastly, we have Shweta Narayan’s “The Padishah Begum’s Reflections”, another piece complex enough that I had a hard time reading it given the watermarking on the ARC and reading it on my iPhone. There’s a lot of jumping around between time frames in this story, which made it hard to follow on a small screen–but I glimpsed enough complexity of plot in this final piece that it’s another reason I absolutely want to acquire a full formal copy of the book.
In conclusion: highly recommended for steampunk fans as well as readers in search of lesbian fiction as well as fiction that embraces non-Western cultures. Not every piece was to my particular tastes, but they were all solid, and I look forward to buying my formal copy. Four stars.
Of Zoe Archer’s highly enjoyable Blades of the Rose series, Book 3, Rebel, turned out to be my least favorite thus far. This is not actually because Rebel is bad; it’s not. It’s got a lot of the same elements to it that I enjoy in the others. But other elements just didn’t click with me as well.
This time around we’ve got a heroine, Astrid, who’s a rarity in the romance novels I’ve read: a widow who’s a widow of a genuine, love-based marriage. (As opposed to, say, a husband who never slept with her, or a husband who abused her, or any number of excuses as to why the heroine hasn’t ever actually had sex before she lays eyes on the hero.) Her husband was slain by the Heirs of Albion, and in grief over his passing, Astrid’s fled into the remote Canadian wilderness. There she meets Nathan, our hero, who’s another rarity: a Native American who’s been brought up in white society and who is employed as an attorney. Thing is, Astrid discovers he’s got magical gifts–and that he may be the only thing standing between the Heirs and their acquisition of new Sources hidden by Nathan’s people.
I really liked both Nathan’s and Astrid’s backstories. Nathan in particular though played for me oddly as a character; on the one hand, he had an awesome history, and he’s an excellent retort to a lot of old-school romance novels where a Native American hero is fulfilling the “noble savage” stereotype that will make modern readers want to bang the book against the wall. On the other hand, the revelation of his magical ability played for me just a bit too easily. Not only is he a shapechanger, he’s a special shapechanger, with gifts that are just a bit too easily matched to the challenge of protecting three magical totems from acquisition by the Heirs. (Which is all I’ll say about that, lest I venture too far into spoiler territory.)
Astrid is an excellent match for him, nonetheless. Archer does a nice job making you think she may be about to head into the “oh noez! the Heroine will nurse the poor Hero back to health” trope, only to shoot that down very quickly–and from there, Astrid proceeds to be interestingly prickly all throughout the story, as she wrestles with her growing affection for Nathan and guilt over loving another man so soon after her husband’s death. She’s believably competent as a woman who’s a former Blade and who’s been looking after herself in the remote wilderness for a few years should be.
And, a good bit of Astrid’s character arc actually depends less on her relationship with Nathan and more with Catullus Graves, who gets significant camera time in this book. He’s been on camera before in the series, but only briefly. Here, he’s coming to Canada in search of Astrid, and he joins forces quite effectively with her and Nathan in the fight against the Heirs. I found the resolution of old conflict between him and Astrid almost more emotionally satisfying than the emotional resolution between her and Nathan, just because it was that much of a nice change of pace to see a heroine with a genuine friendship with a guy who’s not the hero.
(Plus, up until this book in the series, you get a lot of talk about how awesome Catullus is and how much brilliant invention he does for the Blades. In this story, though, you actually get to see him seriously deliver. This made Catullus quite a bit more awesome for me than Nathan, which was unfair to Nathan as it’s supposed to be his book, but hey!)
The villains are still pretty much Evil Because It’s Their Plot Function to be Evil, but as of this point in the series, we’re at least getting a particular bad guy who’s screwed up by events earlier in the series and is out for revenge because of them. This helps bump up his creepiness factor, and gives him a bit more substance to his motives beyond just “FOR THE GLORY OF BRITAIN!” Points for that, overall, and points to the series for continuing to entertain. Four stars.
I’m still greatly, greatly amused that the Richard Castle books even exist–it remains an excellent marketing ploy for an enjoyable TV show. That said, I didn’t quite enjoy Naked Heat, the second of the Nikki Heat series, as much as the first one.
Most of this I attribute to the overall style of the writing seeming less focused somehow, enough that I genuinely wondered if books 1 and 2 had different ghostwriters. In this installment, mind you, the writing was still competent; this was more of a matter of certain stylistic quirks popping up here that I didn’t see in the first one, just little nuances of phrase and such that gave the prose a slightly different flavor this time around, and one I wasn’t entirely sure I liked.
I still roll my eyes at a character name like “Nikki Heat”, as well the convention of referring to detectives Ryan Raley and Esposito Ochoa collectively as “Roach”. That’s a cute enough nickname if used in dialogue, but it was used a bit too much in the narrative this time. (See previous comment re: certain stylistic quirks.) Also, we’re far enough into the show at this point that I kept spotting plot points from various episodes, which made it a bit too obvious that yes, this book really is just a thinly disguised episode of the show.
That said, I did quite also like the progression of Nikki’s and Jameson’s relationship, as it’s going down a track that we haven’t seen in the show. We also get some backstory on Jameson and get to meet his mother (so far, in the Nikki Heat version of the universe, there’s no analog for Alexis from the show).
So all in all, very fluffy reading–and if you’re a Castle fan, you’ll probably keep having the urge to swap in the “real” character names if you read this. The mystery to solve is fun, though, and there are worse ways to spend your time. Three stars.
It wasn’t until I actually started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood that I found out it was in fact a sequel to Oryx and Crake, which I am told is actually a better book. This I didn’t find a hardship, because I did actually like The Year of the Flood. And thankfully, it stands alone from Oryx and Crake since it’s less a true sequel and more a covering of the same events from the points of view of different characters.
Make no mistake, Atwood’s renowned aversion to being associated with the genre aside, this is definitely an SF novel. We’ve got a futuristic setting of indeterminate timeframe, in which a decadent civilization is about to fall. Its apocalypse is, I’m given to understand, covered in more detail in Oryx and Crake; here, instead, we have a character study of two women involved with a religious sect who preach the coming of the Waterless Flood and who are taking steps to try to survive the disaster along with stores of foodstuffs. Toby is one of the so-called “Eves” of God’s Gardeners, drawn into their company despite her own lack of personal conviction, and finding purpose in teaching the children; Ren is one of those children, whose mother eventually flees with her back to the society they’d come from, where Ren eventually becomes an exotic dancer. What happens to both women as the Flood finally occurs forms the overall pattern of the book, winding back and forth between their backstories and on up to the Flood itself.
A lot of this book’s character-driven rather than plot-driven, though, which resulted in the overall plot being rather thin. There are decent sequences all throughout, with interesting periodic bursts of outright action as the Gardeners schism in the years leading up to the Flood. Ultimately though things don’t so much resolve as meander to a halt. I didn’t mind this so much since Atwood’s language and worldbuilding were lovely, but others may find that a problem.
Since this book focuses on a religious sect, be prepared for that to drive a lot of the character motivations; they’re especially forthright in their abhorrence of eating meat, for example. It fit well with the characters for me, though, and seeing how different members of the Gardeners reacted to their own tenets provided a substantial amount of the character conflicts.
Overall I found this a good, solid read and am looking forward to checking out Oryx and Crake. Four stars.