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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2011 Book Log #43: Running Scared, by Elizabeth Lowell

Running Scared (Rarities Unlimited, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Running Scared is Book 2 of Elizabeth Lowell’s Rarities Unlimited series, but I was a bit disappointed to see that it didn’t quite live up to the enjoyment I got out of Book 1, Moving Target. This is not to say that Running Scared was bad, mind you–it’s just that this one didn’t tickle my fancy nearly as much as the first one did.

This time around we’ve got a heroine named Risa Sheridan, a gold appraiser in the employ of wealthy Vegas casino owner Shane Tanahill, who has a strict hands-off policy when it comes to his female employees. But a shiny new Celtic artifact has come to Shane’s attention, and so Risa’s been called upon to appraise it. But this being a suspense novel, the artifact is of course a Problem, with a nasty backstory of recent bloodshed and theft. Naturally, this leads to current bloodshed and theft, which drives much of the plot.

And because Risa is a suspense novel heroine, she too has some angsty backstory in the person of her old friend Cherelle Faulkner. The two of them grew up in poverty together, and while Risa worked her way out of it, Cherelle has not been so lucky. Cherelle becomes involved in the fate of other artifacts from the same collection that Shane’s artifact originated from, and thus, she comes back across Risa’s radar after years of separation. How the two women deal with the way their lives have gone since their childhoods is actually some of the best stuff in the book, as it’s halfway decent character fodder even if you often want to smack Cherelle for her whining, and Risa for putting up with her. Their interactions stand out more clearly in my memory than the standard chemistry between the two leads.

So all in all an acceptable Lowell read. Not as awesome as its predecessor, but decent for a quick breeze-through. Three stars.

2011 Book Log #96: Unveiled, by Courtney Milan

Unveiled (Turner, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Note: I’m posting this review out of order because my next 2012 Book Log post is book 2 of this same series–and I didn’t want to post the review of the second before I posted the review of the first!)

I come to Courtney Milan courtesy of the fine ladies of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and while I’m not always aligned with their tastes, I have got to back ’em up on Milan’s Turner series. Here’s the thing about my reading romance novels–there are certain tropes in them that drive me spare, and are among the main reasons I steer clear of most contemporaries. I favor historicals and romantic suspense, on the grounds that they’re less likely to display the tropes that drive me most spare, even as I’m very aware that those particular romance subgenres also have their own issues.

I’m not a history geek, so I couldn’t dissect for you whether Milan’s depiction of her chosen period is historically accurate. But I can tell you that she pulled off a story that, for me, beautifully balanced a historically accurate feel with character sensibilities more appealing to modern readers. In my reading experience to date, that’s hard. Better yet, she skillfully subverted two of the biggest tropes I hate in many romances: having such a huge deal made over the heroine being a virgin, and the Big Misunderstanding that far too often provides “conflict” between the leads, the sort of conflict that can be solved in five minutes if they just talk to each other like adults.

And happily, she does all this in a tasty little scenario of political and familial intrigue. Ash Turner, our hero, has proven that the Duke of Parford is a bigamist, therefore destroying the legitimacy of his heirs, and opening the way for himself to take over as the rightful heir to the dukedom. But the Duke and his sons are having NONE OF THIS, and they’ve set the ailing Duke’s daughter Margaret up to masquerade as his nurse–putting her into an excellent position to spy on the incoming new Duke and find anything, any flaw in his character or vulnerability in his history, that can ruin him in the eyes of Parliament so that they can take back their estate.

Naturally, our heroine finds Ash Turner dangerously appealing. And has to soon choose between him and her own family.

Margaret was awesome, and it is through her that Milan subverted those aforementioned tropes so beautifully. I’m not going to spell out how, so that I can avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that as aspects of her history were explored and Ash’s responses to them were shown, I liked both characters immensely.

Mad, mad props as well to the inevitable vulnerability that Margaret discovers in Ash, another thing I won’t spell out so as to avoid spoilers. But I will say that it’s an aspect of him that is a source of genuine past strife between him and his brothers, and which genuinely made my heart go out to the poor guy.

Last but not least, how the eventual resolution of Margaret having to choose between Ash and her father and brothers–and how Ash must choose between Margaret and his own desire for revenge against her father–worked out beautifully.

All in all, great fun. I had some minor questions of plausibility here and there, but nothing serious to get in the way of enjoying the story. Four stars.

2011 Book Log #42: Moving Target, by Elizabeth Lowell

Moving Target

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Moving Target, the first of her Rarities Unlimited series, is perhaps my favorite of all of Elizabeth Lowell’s books. Not because she does anything hugely different in this book that she does from the rest of them, mind you–but more because she happens in this one to mix all of her plot and character ingredients into the exact right recipe to suit my personal tastes.

Serena Charters inherits an ancient manuscript when her grandmother is murdered. Like you do in these sorts of plots, soon discovers that she’s the latest in a long descent of women, all of whom have the name Serena, charged to guard this manuscript and keep it safe and secret. And when there’s an ongoing plot to keep something secret, there are naturally those who are out to get their hands on it. In this case, there’s a wealthy patriarch desperate to lay his hands on the Book of the Learned, no matter what it takes.

Meanwhile Erik North, our hero, is a manuscript appraiser employed by Rarities Unlimited. Erik too has been seeking the Book of the Learned for his own reasons, and, again like you do in these sorts of plots, soon enough teams up with Serena to find and protect it.

And hands down, Serena and Erik are the two big draws for me in this book. I like the female-focused backstory for Serena’s family. I like her grandmother. I like the history of the original Serena, and the scrap of mysterious cloth that’s all that remains of a dress she wove, adding a very light hint of the paranormal to an otherwise prosaic romantic suspense setup. Just as importantly, I like Erik–he’s confident, competent, has his personal form of art he likes to express, and comes across very well as an equal to Serena rather than someone in a greater position of power than her. As for the other characters, the antagonists are suitably threatening without being ridiculous or over the top, while the supporting characters at Rarities are reasonably entertaining.

All in all a fun read. I’d definitely recommend this one as the first one to hit for anyone interested in reading an Elizabeth Lowell book. Four stars.

2011 Book Log #41: The Secret Sister, by Elizabeth Lowell

The Secret Sister

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Secret Sister, published under the name of Elizabeth Lowell, is a reworked version of a novel called The Secret Sisters, published under the name of Ann Maxwell. I haven’t read the original version, but I can safely say that the Lowell version is an acceptable little romantic suspense novel.

Our heroine du jour is Christy McKenna, a fashion writer, going about her fashion writer business in New York until she gets a call from her long-estranged sister Jo. Jo needs her help, and Christy wants absolutely none of this–until an assignment from her editor forces Christy to head west anyway. Her sister’s disappearance shoves her onto the trail of not only Jo, but a hidden cache of ancient Native American artifacts as well. And our obligatory brooding hero is Aaron Cain, an outlaw archaeologist, who’s a bit unusual for a Lowell hero in that he’s actually a convicted felon. (Yet, as he is in fact the Obligatory Brooding Hero, he was convicted for assault of an Obligatory Unsavory Person Who Actually Deserved It.)

As Lowell novels go this was perfectly readable, if not outstanding or unusual. The main things that appealed to me about it were the atmospheric descriptions of the Colorado terrain and Lowell’s general competence at chemistry between her lead characters, the latter of which is why I keep reading her. Three stars.

2011 Book Log #40: Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon

Silver Phoenix

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I heard about Silver Phoenix as yet another example of a trend that bothers the hell out of me: putting white faces on the covers of books that are not about white people. Thus, I wanted to give this book a bit of support. But, given that Cindy Pon was an unfamiliar author, I opted to check the book out of the library first and see whether this was a story I’d want to own.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t. I’m writing this review several months after I actually read the book, and at this point, I have to admit that I have very little recollection of what it was about–this being a measure of how little it stayed with me. So I had to refresh my memory by reading other people’s reviews of the story, which got me three overall problems I have with the book.

One, I never found any of the characters particularly well-drawn. I often have this problem reading YA, but Silver Phoenix is worse than other YA I’ve written, since the characters were ephemeral enough that I didn’t retain them at all within months of readin the book.

Two, I specifically didn’t care for the heroine’s love interest, and how he was so dismissive of her after one scene where she is almost raped. (Which some might call a spoiler, but which I’m noting here as a potential trigger warning for those who might find that scene an issue.)

And three, the heroine Ai Ling is sadly pretty much a non-entity. I’m calling her out separately from the rest of the cast because, as the ostensible protagonist of the novel, she should have stood out for me far better than she actually did. Yet the book doesn’t give her nearly as much agency as it does her love interest, Chen Yong–and much of what I do remember about the book involves Ai Ling pining after Chen Yong. Which I can do without. One star.