Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Dark Currents by Jacqueline CareyDark Currents (Agent of Hel, #1) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #1
Pages: 356
Published by Roc on October 2, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kushiel’s Legacy novels, presents an all-new world featuring a woman caught between the normal and paranormal worlds, while enforcing order in both. Introducing Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn…

The Midwestern resort town of Pemkowet boasts a diverse population: eccentric locals, wealthy summer people, and tourists by the busload; not to mention fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres and a whole host of eldritch folk, presided over by Hel, a reclusive Norse goddess.

To Daisy Johanssen, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s home. And as Hel’s enforcer and the designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, it’s up to her to ensure relations between the mundane and eldritch communities run smoothly.

But when a young man from a nearby college drowns—and signs point to eldritch involvement—the town’s booming paranormal tourism trade is at stake. Teamed up with her childhood crush, Officer Cody Fairfax, a sexy werewolf on the down-low, Daisy must solve the crime—and keep a tight rein on the darker side of her nature. For if she’s ever tempted to invoke her demonic birthright, it could accidentally unleash nothing less than Armageddon.  

Guest review by Amy:

What kind of a mom would name her demon-spawn child “Daisy?”  Really?  But here’s Daisy as a plucky young adult with…erm…anger-management issues. Oh, and a tail. She’s the daughter of a human woman, and…well, a demon. Literally making the case for never, ever getting around a Ouija board ever again. Her dad, if Daisy just calls on him, can, in fact, bring on the Apocalypse. It doesn’t make for a close daddy-daughter relationship.

But she’s got her mom, who’s quirky and adorable, and she’s got a job working for the police department as a part-time file clerk, her friends, even a crush (on a fellow cop, who also happens to be a werewolf).  Oh, and a second job as liaison to the local goddess, Hel, who kind of runs things in the local eldritch community. Certainly grounds for an interesting life, but early in our story, a frat boy from a nearby college dies under suspicious circumstances.

Escape Rating: A+. I’m a huge fan of Carey’s Kushiel universe, which are delicious epic fantasy reads. Jacqueline Carey shows us she’s not a one-trick pony with Dark Currents. This story moves along rather a lot faster than her Kushiel works (aside from Kushiel’s Dart, which was over much too soon for my tastes), and we’re shown a solid cast of characters, all of whom seem to have a pretty good grasp on who they are in the grand scheme of things.

One of the things I like about this book (as with my prior review of MaryJanice Davidson’s Derik’s Bane) was that our supernatural beings aren’t…inhuman. Even the ones most-divergent from humans (faeries, naiads, a mermaid, a frost giant) have concerns and cares and lives that – while necessarily different from ours because of their nature – aren’t so far different from us that we can’t understand their motives. They’re just trying to get along with the overwhelming force of humanity around them, that’s all. Even the ghouls and vampires, as creepy as they are, make sense, and become characters you can understand and even like, in a way.

Daisy is a snark-o-matic, and her nature adds to this, along with her occasional frustration with being who she is. I had lots of giggles reading this tale, thanks to a generous sprinkling of puns and silly one-liners.

I tagged this as a suspense novel, and it is The core story here is a whodunit that crosses between the mortal and immortal realms. Daisy must stand astride that line, and dispense the justice she is empowered to hand out by her boss Hel, while making sure that any involved mortals get the treatment they deserve from her other boss, the police chief. But this book is more than that.

There’s a taste of romance here, too. Daisy tells us right up front about her long-time crush (a werewolf, who ends up partnering with her to solve the case), and we meet two other men who express interest in her, one a very intelligent, very dapper ancient ghoul, and one a mortal, with a fake Jamaican accent. All three are fascinating men, and I spent quite a while wondering which one she’d center on–if any, since there was also that flirtation with the very feminine lamia who used to babysit her, back-when. She says she’s straight, but this one does something for her even with the millenia-sized age gap.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and can’t wait to read (and maybe review for you here – Marlene? Can I?) the other two books in this series. My only downer in the book came right at the end, when Daisy ended up dating a different one of her crushes than I would have, in her shoes. I can’t tell you which, now, that’d ruin the whole thing for you, wouldn’t it? Go read for yourself!

Marlene’s Note: The next book, for those following along at home, is Autumn Bones. And YES, you certainly may review it for me here. In fact, that’s pretty please would you review it for me here. With bells on. I also love the Kushiel series. And I cite her Banewreacker/Godslayer duology fairly often as a classic in the “history is written by the victors/good and evil depend on which side of the fence you’re on” fantasy.

Guest Review: Derik’s Bane by MaryJanice Davidson

Guest Review: Derik’s Bane by MaryJanice DavidsonDerik's Bane by MaryJanice Davidson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Fiction, Romance, Contemporary, Erotica, fantasy
Series: Wyndham Werewolf #3
Pages: 298
Published by Penguin on January 1, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Derik's a werewolf with alpha issues--and a body to die for.

Sara is the personification of unspeakable evil--and smells like roses.

Now if they could just stop drooling over each other long enough to save the world.

Okay, okay. I said in my review of Davidson’s Sleeping With the Fishes a while back that I didn’t care much for paranormal romances with werewolves in them. I may have to rethink my position, at least in the case of this series.

Guest review by Amy:

Derik has a problem, you see – he’s an alpha, born to it, and now that he’s coming into his own, it makes it really hard to get along with his pack’s alpha, Michael. There can only be one, of course, so things are tense right from the get-go. The seer in the group, though, has seen a solution. Out on the west coast, there is a woman who is a reincarnation of an ancient evil. Taking care of her will prevent the destruction of the world. Aha! A quest!

The ancient evil, however, is reincarnated into a really ditzy, unbelievably lucky, stunningly gorgeous woman. And…she’s really not that evil. Derik tries to kill her, and fails, of course. Derik and Sara embark on a cross-country trip to find and prevent the end of the world, and along the way, they get a little bit crazy for each other.

Escape Rating: A-. I had such a good time reading Sleeping With the Fishes last year that when I saw this book at my used bookstore, I had to pick it up. Davidson gives us another really fun romp of a read, complete with Milk Bone jokes from the snarky Sara that had me laughing until I wheezed.

I’ve spotted a pattern with Davidson’s supernatural characters: they’re real people. In Derik’s case, he’s a real guy, who just-happens-to-be a werewolf, and has to deal with that. No big drama, no woo-woo mystical magic-ness in them; they’re just…people, of a different species, who must necessarily deal with who they are, living in a world full of homo sapiens. I’ve gotta say, I like that feature in both of these books. One of the things that’s been so off-putting to me about paranormal romance in the past is the near-fetish status of the supernatural character. People make a Big Deal about that lycanthrope in their life, or worse, the lycanthrope in their life fetishizes themself. Davidson’s “we’re all just people here” aesthetic really lets me fall into the story, suspend disbelief, and enjoy it, without the distraction of the otherworldliness of one or more characters.

Derik’s Bane gives us a comedy-of-errors, North by Northwest kind of frenzied trip from coast to coast, and, like many road-trip stories, the characters end up way closer to each other than they originally planned on. The quality of the story in that part of the book was so good that the ending, where our hero and heroine discover the awfulness that will end the world if they don’t stop it, comes as a tiny bit of a disappointment. I won’t spoil it for you, but imagine the Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene where the knights come to a cave, and the horrid guardian of the cave turns out to be a rabbit. The semi-heroic battle that followed picked things back up a bit, and what the clairvoyant tells our happy couple after the fact makes it clear that, of course, things were never quite as they seemed to Derik all along.

It’s official: MaryJanice Davidson is going on my list of read-for-fun authors. There’s no way to call this “serious” fiction, for any construction of that term, but Derik’s Bane gives us another rollicking read, with rich, entertaining characters. No deep thinking required, just enjoy!

Guest Review: Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair

Guest Review: Finders Keepers by Linnea SinclairFinders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction romance
Pages: 453
Published by Bantam on April 26, 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Be careful what you wish for. You might get it... Her ship's in shambles, her boyfriend's dumped her and she's frankly out of funds. Captain Trilby Elliot hopes her luck has changed when a high-tech fightercraft crash lands at her repair site. Finders keepers. She can sell the ship as salvage, pocket the profits. Except for one small problem: the pilot, Rhis, is still alive and intent on commandeering her ship. And another much larger problem: someone very powerful and very important wants Trilby Elliot dead.

I love the used bookstore, because of the serendipity of things; you never know what you’ll bump into! Quite a few of the reviews I’ve done here at Reading Reality have been things I found in the bargain bin at my used bookstore. I found this one, got hooked on the first page, and casually mentioned it to Marlene–turns out, she’s a fan of both sci-fi romances, and this author, but hasn’t ever reviewed any of her work here.

For shame! “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Guest Review by Amy:

Trilby Elliot isn’t just any tramp-freighter captain plying the space lanes, trying to make a living, no. She does it all alone, except for her trusty ‘droid Dezi, in a clapped-out old ship that has seen better days. So, not a wimp, this lady fair. We find her holed up on some back-end-of-nowhere planet, hacking on repairs, and hoping to get home in time for her next cargo job, when she sees another spacecraft crashing.

She goes to check, thinking there might be salvage, and she finds…him. Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, in the flesh. He’s injured from the crash, but Trilby and Dezi drag him back to the ship and get him in the med-bay to heal.  When he wakes, we find out he’s a lieutenant in the Zafharin military. He’s on the wrong side of dividing lines between three different sorts of civilization, in a ship belonging to the most non-human (and inhumane) of the three, and she just wants to get back to work.

Escape Rating: A+. Marlene warned me, she truly did. Linnea Sinclair is an awesome storyteller. The universe she constructed for this tale is rich in detail, but the details are close enough to our own sense of normalcy that we can grasp what’s going on, and not have to have things explained at great length. It’s a comfortable universe for a sci-fi fan to land in, even for all its violence and tension.

This is really my first foray into the sci-fi romance genre; I’m a fan of both sci-fi and romance, but this is new turf for me, and now I’m hooked. Unlike a lot of romances I read, this isn’t as trope-laden and obvious as a Harlequin, and there’s action and intrigue enough to keep sci-fi fans reading right along. Our heroine is a bit of a badass, with a softer side that she doesn’t let out much. But the handsome Rhis cracks her armor enough for them to fall for each other. He is, of course, Not Who He Appears to Be (we can’t totally escape the tropes, now, can we?), and when Trilby finds out, she’s furious, because the person he is reported to be is…infamous! A monster! Scourge of Space! But underneath the tough guy is a very real man, with very real feelings, and those closest to him know it, and push him back toward the woman he loves.

For quite a bit of this book, we’re not entirely sure who the antagonists are. There are two human-ish civilizations, the Zafharin and the Conclave, plus the ‘Sko, decidedly non-human. All three groups have been at cross purposes for years, and there is, of course, intrigue at the highest levels of Trilby’s tribe, the Conclave.  Over time, as I mentally shadow-boxed these characters looking for the villains, I got to the point that I was finding villainy even in our protagonists’ closest friends…could it be that even those closest to Trilby and Rhis are part of this vast conspiracy?

Once the bad guys were revealed, we have two people in love, who are also in a bit of a rough spot together, and the ending, while quick and to-the-point, gave me a happy smile.

Marlene’s Note: For anyone – including Amy – looking for more great science fiction romance, be sure to check out the SFR Galaxy Awards. While the 2018 Awards won’t be posted until January 31, there are PLENTY of great SFR stories among the previous years’ award winners!

Guest Review: Sleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice Davidson

Guest Review: Sleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice DavidsonSleeping with the Fishes by MaryJanice Davidson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback
Genres: paranormal romance
Series: Fred the Mermaid #1
Pages: 284
Published by Berkley Books on November 28th 2006
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Fred is a mermaid. But stop right there. Whatever image you're thinking of right now, forget it. Fred is not blonde. She's not buxom. And she's definitely not perky. In fact, Fred can be downright cranky. And it doesn't help matters that her hair is blue.

Being a mermaid does help Fred when she volunteers at the New England Aquarium. But, needless to say, it's there that she gets involved in something fishy. Weird levels of toxins have been found in the local seawater. A gorgeous marine biologist wants her help investigating. So does her merperson ruler, the High Prince of the Black Sea. You'd think it would be easy for a mermaid to get to the bottom of things. Think again...

Guest Review by Amy:

Fredrika isn’t what you’re thinking, not even a little. She’s a mermaid–a half-breed, actually–who has lived her whole life among humans. When she gets wet, her legs merge, and scales pop out, and…  well, you know the rest.

But right there is where all connection with most mermaid legends ends. Fred, as she prefers to be called, is pretty, but isn’t breathtakingly gorgeous, because she just doesn’t care; her green/blue hair has split ends all over the place, and she just can’t be bothered. She’s not interested in dating, and hasn’t had a date since that disastrous one six years ago with her boss’s ex-husband. Only her best friend Jonas – whom everyone thinks is gay, apparently – knows that she’s a mermaid.

She’s got a job, of course, as a marine biologist (also of course) at the big aquarium in Boston Harbor. A new guy shows up, concerned about the nastiness of the harbor, and gosh he’s handsome…but then the High Prince of the merfolk swims into town, with the same concern!

Escape Rating: A-: Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for “paranormal romances” that aren’t about vampires or werewolves. Not many are published, so from time to time, I nose around my local used bookstore and see if there’s anything interesting to me. “Oh, hey! Mermaids!” I thought to myself, finding this little book.  “That’s different.”

…little did I know. “Paranormal” fits, because, well, merfolk, but “romance?” I find myself challenged to call it that. The romance just isn’t where you expect it in this story, nor does it follow any of the conventional patterns: Fred does get a bit kissy with these two hunky gents who turn up suddenly in her life, sure, and both of them are intent on catching her, but she’s just not having it right now – our mermaid heroine has a job to do. There is one rather-steamy sex scene in here – but she’s not in it!

The entire action of this story takes place over just a few days, and that adds to the somewhat frenzied feel of this book. Things happen fast here, so pay attention to the details while you’re reading it, or you might miss something important. In addition to Fred’s frustration with two men who are more set on landing her than solving the problem they are ostensibly there to solve, we have Fred’s nosy boss, the frumpy director of the aquarium (who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid, remember?) sniffing around wondering about that huge hunk (The Prince, natch) who has suddenly appeared on the scene, the fish in Main One are on a hunger strike and Fred can’t seem to convince them to eat without blasting Pet Shop Boys on the loudspeakers, the captain of the aquarium’s research boat can’t stand Fred because rather ironically, she gets seasick and panics on boats, the ditzy, chirpy intern, Fred’s shellfish allergy…and on and on. There’s lots to take in here, in a very short space of time, and it took me two reads to catch it all.

Fortunately for me, Sleeping with the Fishes is a hilariously fun read! Author MaryJanice Davidson has packed this book from cover to cover with Fred’s wry humor, outrageous stereotypes, and some of the best wisecracks and one-liners I’ve read in quite a while. If I was a serious reviewer of highbrow fiction, I’d tear this book apart, but I’m not. I’m a reader who likes something silly and unexpected and fun once in a while. If that’s you also, give this story and the series it opens a look.

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville Frankel

Review: On the Sickle’s Edge by Neville FrankelOn the Sickle's Edge by Neville Frankel
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction
Pages: 474
Published by Dialogos on December 31st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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What we cannot keep. What we cannot lose.
A sweeping masterwork of love and loss, secrets and survival, On the Sickle's Edge is told through the voices of three characters who lay bare their family's saga: the endearing, scrappy South-African born Lena, transported to Latvia and later trapped in the USSR; her granddaughter Darya, a true Communist whose growing disillusionment with Soviet ideology places her family at mortal risk; and Steven, a painter from Boston who inadvertently stumbles into the tangled web of his family's past. Against the roiling backdrop of twentieth-century Russia and Eastern Europe, the novel delivers equal parts historical drama, political thriller and poignant love story.
On the Sickle's Edge takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Instantly immersed in seven generations of the Shtein family, we witness their exhilarating celebrations and provocative controversies, and gain an intimate understanding of the pivotal events in South Africa, Latvia and the Soviet Union. Neville Frankel's ability to combine historical insight and human passion is spellbinding. I couldn't put it down. --Pamela Katz, The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink
In the hands of a masterful storyteller, On the Sickle's Edge pits the weight of an oppressive regime against individual tenacity and profound personal courage. Inspired by Frankel's own family history, this multi-generational epic holds up a mirror to a universal truth: all immigrants face the powerful tension between assimilation and cultural identity. We have--all of us--lived life on the edge of the sickle. --Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee

My Review:

This book is many things, and all of them awesome.

At its heart, if feels like a fictional history of the Soviet Union, but not as is usually done in historical fiction, from the perspective of the movers and shakers. Instead, this feels like a story set among the “groundlings”, as they were called in Shakespeare’s day. Or a “lower-decks” story set on a ship, whether historical or science fictional.

In other words, this is view of life in the Soviet Union from the Revolution to Glasnost, as seen through the eyes of the people it was supposed to benefit, and so obviously in this case, didn’t. It’s not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

And as people say about life during the Depression, the average person didn’t really see themselves as deprived. They knew things were awful, that was kind of hard to miss. And everyone was afraid all the time, afraid of being watched, afraid of their neighbors, afraid of their thoughts, afraid of the “Organs” of state.

But it was all they knew, and it was all they were allowed to know.

The story in On the Sickle’s Edge has another side to it. In the case of Lena and her family, in addition to all of the things that everyday Russians were afraid of, they were afraid of the exposure of their big secret.

When the family entered Moscow during the chaos of the Revolution, they entered under forged papers. Those papers stated that the family were Russian peasants, displaced from their farm by the Revolution, but that was a lie. A big one. Instead, they were displaced Jews expelled from Latvia. In an act of intelligence and courage, mixed with a bit of perhaps cowardice, but mostly pragmatism, Lena’s stepmother Esther decreed that because everything terrible that had happened to them, and it was terrible, had happened because they were Jews, they would take this equally terrible opportunity to reinvent themselves as non-Jews.

In an act of self-effacement and self-abnegation, they did. Conditions in post-Revolutionary Moscow were bad for everyone, but worse for the Jews. If things are bad in general, they are always worse for the Jews in particular. Esther’s act saved her family, especially her children and step-children, at least for a while.

So Lena keeps the secret. Along the way, she loses her husband and her half-sister to the insanity of Stalin’s purges, and late in life finds herself raising her daughter’s child, Darya. And she survives. Lena always survives.

Escape Rating A: I finished this at 3 am. It started out well, but somewhere around the 20% mark it completely grabbed me and didn’t let go until the end. Possibly after the end. I’m still thinking about this one. And probably will for a while.

Although Lena is not the only narrator, it was her story that sucked me in. And that is fitting, as the story is told at least in part as her memoir. A clue to her ultimate survival that the reader completely loses track of in the midst of events. I wanted her to make it out, but there were points where I feared it would not be so, even knowing that it was.

Her story, from a briefly happy childhood in South Africa to the family’s return to Latvia, to being trapped inside Russia as the walls closed down paints a compelling picture. We are there with her through all the long years as conditions go from bad to worse to unsustainable, and yet we also see what sustains her, and how she survives those long years.

Some of the story is her granddaughter Darya’s, as Darya learns the secret yet continues to wear the mask of the Communist Party poster girl, complete with marriage to a party official. Like so many young women who think they are in love, Darya doesn’t listen to her grandmother’s instincts that her husband is a monster. But he is.

(Something in the description of Darya’s husband reminded me of Vladimir Putin. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but it certainly added to the chill factor)

This was a wonderfully absorbing story, and there is so much more to it that I’m tempted to get into, but will reach much too far into spoiler territory. For me, On the Sickle’s Edge also contained an element of “there but for the grace of G-d”. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia probably around the time that Lena was born. They got out just in time. But this story could have been theirs, with all the calamities that followed.

And the echoes to current events absolutely chill me to the bone.

TLC
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Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider RobinsonMindkiller by Spider Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, thriller
Series: Lifehouse Trilogy #1
Pages: 246
Published by Berkley on November 1st 1983
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

From the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Time Pressure comes a pulse-pounding tale of action and suspense as two men and a woman search for--and find--the ultimate frontier of experience. "The new Robert Heinlein . . ".--New York Times.

Guest Review by Amy:

Norman Kent has had enough of life; his experiences in the war, his failed marriage, his dead-end career…and in the opening words of this tale, he’s ready to end it all. But an unfriendly stranger gets in the way of his plan, and he returns to his apartment, only to find his sister there, whom he’d not seen in years and years. Shortly, she disappears abruptly, without a trace.

Hop forward a few years, and a clever, tech-savvy burglar who doesn’t know his own name finds a woman with a wire in her skull, trying to kill herself with pleasure. He pulls her back from the brink, only to go on a crusade with her against the forces that created the pleasure addiction of “wireheads.”

Spider Robinson’s brain just doesn’t work like the rest of ours, I don’t think; if you’ve ever read any of his Callahan’s stories, you’ll understand; in those books he deals in puns and wild stories, while giving the reader a peek into a community of people where “shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened,” a notion that has created substantial communities of fans here and there around the digital world (full disclosure: I am a member of one such community). The New York Times’ review of this book pinned the label “the new Robert Heinlein” on Robinson, but as a Heinlein fan, I’m not quite going to agree to that; Heinlein fans will enjoy this tale, and feel right at home with Spider Robinson’s style, but it’s…different, in ways I can’t quite put my finger on.

Something I missed early on in this book was that time was jumping back and forth; we begin Norman’s story in 1994-1995, and are jumping to 1999 for the story of the burglar and the wirehead. Once I caught onto that, things started to make a little more sense for me, and I raptly followed both plots, wondering when and how they would converge, and when an antagonist would appear. Once a name was mentioned in both plots, things kind of clicked into place–no other explanation fits the facts at hand, so if you’re watching for it, you’ll figure it out before our protagonists do. Naturally, if you miss it, Robinson helpfully provides an intrusion between the story lines, in the form of Norman’s ex-wife Lois, to help you pull it all together. The apparent climax is not-unexpected, but even here, when you think you’ve got it figured out, the author gives us a lovely new twist, right at the end. Jarring, yes, but utterly necessary, and provided a way to tidy up several loose ends still dangling.

Escape Rating: A. Unlike Heinlein, who aggressively pursued a world that got better over time, and where characters pushed for that, Spider Robinson gives us a world that has clearly spiralled downward; our heroes show no particular desire to turn it around; they’re just trying to deal with it. There is no ultra-rich Howard Family pulling the strings to make things better, just avarice and dog-eat-dog individualism, easily recognizable in our own world at times. Our heroes are hard-boiled pragmatists, jaded by the world around them; so much so that when the burglar Joe heard young Karen talking about her crusade to go after the inventors of the wirehead technology, he thought she was crazy. But Karen had lived rough herself, and was willing to play hardball to do what must be done, and for reasons he doesn’t quite grasp, Joe joins her, because–for the first time he can remember–he actually cares about someone!

Our cast of characters is well-developed, every one of them with clear motivations, and rich description. Once I got past the time-hopping confusion of the first couple of chapters, I was able to track what was happening, and the story moved along crisply, without a lot of needless embellishment. A little bit of a thriller and a little bit of dystopian sci-fi, mixed in just the right proportions with engaging characters, made this a real page-turner for me. If you’re looking for a classic dystopian novel with a great thriller thrown in the mix, I heartily recommend Mindkiller.

Guest Review: Red Lily by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Red Lily by Nora RobertsRed Lily (In the Garden, #3) by Nora Roberts
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: In the Garden #3
Pages: 351
Published by Jove on November 29th 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Three women learn that the heart of their historic home holds a mystery of years gone by, as number-one bestselling author Nora Roberts brings her In the Garden trilogy to a captivating conclusion, following Blue Dahlia and Black Rose. A Harper has always lived at Harper House, the centuries-old mansion just outside of Memphis. And for as long as anyone alive remembers, the ghostly Harper Bride has walked the halls, singing lullabies at night...
Hayley Phillips came to Memphis hoping for a new start, for herself and her unborn child. She wasn't looking for a handout from her distant cousin Roz, just a job at her thriving In the Garden nursery. What she found was a home surrounded by beauty and the best friends she's ever had-including Roz's son Harper. To Hayley's delight, her new daughter Lily has really taken to him. To Hayley's chagrin, she has begun to dream about Harper-as much more than a friend...
If Hayley gives in to her desire, she's afraid the foundation she's built with Harper will come tumbling down. Especially since she's begun to suspect that her feelings are no longer completely her own. Flashes of the past and erratic behavior make Hayley believe that the Harper Bride has found a way inside of her mind and body. It's time to put the Bride to rest once and for all, so Hayley can know her own heart again-and whether she's willing to risk it.

Guest Review by Amy:

In this book, the climax of the In the Garden series, we spend time peering out at the Memphis mansion of Roz Harper through the eyes of her distant cousin Hayley, who came to the mansion while pregnant with her first child, looking for a new start. Roz took her in, of course, and Hayley joined the busy household, and started working at Roz’s very-successful business. She’s started to fall for Roz’s son Harper, and is a little bit freaked out by that; she’s worried about what Roz will think, but the older woman makes it quite clear that her son is a grown man and can make his own decisions.

The ghost story started in the prior two books continues, and the Harper Bride is turning it up a notch! Clearly insane, the ghostly woman confuses the current Harper son with the one who had done her wrong years ago, and begins sneaking into Hayley’s mind, and taking control of her body. When she does this during an intimate moment, Harper is horrified, and both he and Hayley are quite terrified.

This possession aspect, a new trick for the Bride, really ramps up the suspense and terror of this story for me; it’s suddenly very important that our three couples find out who the Bride was, and how to free her, and the remaining space in the story is dedicated to that. There’s a bit of back-and-forth between Harper and Hayley, as he wants very much to keep her safe, and wants to send her off the property to protect her. She’s having none of it, of course, and the friction between them just adds to the tension as we hurtle toward the finale. The ending, while somewhat predictable, is satisfying to everyone.

blue dahlia by nora robertsEscape Rating: A+. I’m giving this one all-aces. By now, all of our cast of characters are well-developed, and no new major players are introduced. Everyone’s purposes and motivations are clear and straightforward, and the plot is driven hard by the increasingly-unhinged actions of the Bride. The development of the relationship between Hayley and Harper is, given the circumstances, quite easy to buy into. Typically for these supernatural-romance trilogies that Roberts does, the third volume ramps up the suspense/terror aspects pretty sharply, and that makes it a real page-turner, for me. Overall, I’d give the In the Garden series an A-, with two outstanding stories starting with Blue Dahlia (reviewed here)  bookending a merely good one (Black Rose) in the middle.

 

Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Review: Neverwhere by Neil GaimanNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Format: audiobook, ebook, paperback
Source: publisher, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by William Morrow on July 7th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The #1 New York Times bestselling author’s ultimate edition of his wildly successful first novel featuring his “preferred text”—and including the special Neverwhere tale, How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.
Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s darkly hypnotic first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of this major talent and became a touchstone of urban fantasy. Over the years, a number of versions were produced both in the U.S. and the U.K. Now, this author’s preferred edition of his classic novel reconciles these versions and reinstates a number of scenes cut from the original published books.
Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he is plunged through the cracks of reality into a world of shadows and darkness—the Neverwhere. If he is ever to return to the London Above, Richard must join the battle to save this strange underworld kingdom from the malevolence that means to destroy it

My Review:

neverwhere dvdI’m not sure whether I first went to Neverwhere by reading the book or watching the TV miniseries. Needless to say, even though the TV series actually came first, the book is better. And I was thrilled to have the opportunity to reread it for this tour.

Neverwhere is one of those stories that stuck with me long after I read it. I’ve even written about it before. There’s something about Neverwhere, with its concept of London Below, that has always reminded me of Simon R. Green’s Nightside, which also creates an otherworldly version of London that exists alongside and underneath the great city.

But Neverwhere is a different kind of story. It doesn’t have to be set in London Below, although the setting does give its some of its resonance and charm as well as its flights of fancy. Who would have thought there would actually be an Earl at Earl’s Court? On the other hand, why isn’t there? And what if there was?

Neverwhere is the story of what happens to someone who takes the red pill, although in this case it’s not that our hero Richard Mayhew sees the painful truth of reality so much as that he sees that there is a deeper reality lying underneath our own. The humdrum world he comes from is just as real as London Below, but without that red pill, he can’t see it. And unlike takers of the blue pill in The Matrix, when Richard comes back, he still remembers everything. Only to discover that, as Mr. Spock once said, “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” At the end of his harrowing adventure, Richard Mayhew wants his safe, normal world back. Only to discover that he has changed too much to fit back into the life he once found so satisfying.

The story of Neverwhere is relatively straightforward in its plot, but complex in its setting. Richard Mayhew, a young and somewhat insecure securities analyst in London, rescues a young woman he finds bruised and bleeding on the streets of London.

By rescuing Door, he finds himself outside the life of the normal world, and an unwitting denizen of “London Below”. He is lost and confused and completely out of his depth. All that he knows is that if he is to get his own life back, he must find Door in the confusing maze of the world he never knew was under London, and travel with her, like the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tinman, until he reaches the wizard, in this case the Angel Islington, and he can finally go home.

Just like the journey through Oz, Richard and Door face trials and monsters, and also as in Dorothy’s journey, the angel, just like the wizard, is not what he appears to be. But in this case what they find is not a benign trickster – the angel is the greatest monster of them all. And nothing in the journey turns out to have been quite what it appeared to be.

After passing all his tests, Richard is able to receive what he thinks is the greatest wish of his heart. Only to discover that he has grown too much or too big to be contained in his old life.

Escape Rating A+: The story of Neverwhere was just as magical upon re-reading as it was the first time around. Or even the second, which I think was viewing the TV series. And even though the special effects are often laughable, and some of the horror is reduced by the necessity of filming things that are best left in the imagination, the TV show holds up too.

view from the cheap seats by neil gaimanThis time, I listened to parts of Neverwhere from an unabridged audiobook recorded by the author. And unlike many authors who read their own works, Gaiman does an excellent job voicing all the characters, to the point where I was still hearing his voice in my head a couple of weeks ago when I was reading The View from the Cheap Seats.

The story here is of a mythic journey, and there are lots of parallels to The Wizard of Oz, a fact which does get lampshaded in Neverwhere. While Richard is journeying to find his way home, he is also taking a trip through a long, dark night of the soul. And as a result, he becomes more than he was.

So many of the characters he meets seem more than a bit odd on first meeting. The Marquis de Carabas is a trickster. He always has his eye on the main chance, and does not suffer fools or incompetents within his orbit. He does not seem to ever warm up to Richard, who he always sees as the ultimate babe in the very deadly woods. But in the end he always keeps his word. And he always collects his debts.

The villains of this piece are Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and while they often sound incredibly campy, the more they appear in the story the easier it is to see them as creatures that would make the monsters under the bed and in the closet run for cover. (But their scariness works better in print than on the screen, where the reader is able to feel the creepiness rather than see the joke.)

Neverwhere is one of the ultimate urban fantasy wild rides. If you have ever dreamed that there is a beautiful, terrible, magical world existing just out of reach, take your own journey to London Below. And always remember to “mind the gap”.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Guest Review: Black Rose by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Black Rose by Nora RobertsBlack Rose (In the Garden trilogy #2) by Nora Roberts
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, paranormal
Series: In the Garden #2
Pages: 355
Published by Jove on May 31st 2005
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A Harper has always lived at Harper House, the centuries-old mansion just outside of Memphis. And for as long as anyone alive remembers, the ghostly Harper Bride has walked the halls, singing lullabies at night...

At forty-seven, Rosalind Harper is a woman whose experiences have made her strong enough to bend without breaking--and weather any storm. A widow with three grown sons, she survived a disastrous second marriage and built her In The Garden nursery from the ground up. Through the years, In The Garden has become more than just a thriving business--it is a symbol of hope and independence to Roz, and to the two women she shares it with. Newlywed Stella and new mother Hayley are the sisters of her heart, and together the three of them are the future of In The Garden.

But now the future is under attack, and Roz knows they can't fight this battle alone. Hired to investigate Roz's Harper ancestors, Dr. Mitchell Carnegie finds himself just as intrigued with Roz herself. And as they being to unravel the puzzle of the Harper Bride's identity, Roz is shocked to find herself falling for the fascinating genealogist. Now it is a desperate race to discover the truth before the unpredictable apparition lashes out at the one woman who can help her rest in peace...

Guest Review by Amy:

red lily by nora robertsBlack Rose picks up right where Blue Dahlia left off (see my review). Stella and Logan are preparing for a wedding, and the Harper Bride is as much a mystery as before. In the prior entry in this trilogy, we were introduced to a professorish fellow named Mitch Carnegie, whom Roz originally hired to do some of the research to figure out who the Harper Bride is. He was such a bit role in Blue Dahlia that I just didn’t see it coming, at first, but he ends up on Roz’s radar pretty quickly. We start to figure out more about the Bride, and we also start to see a blossoming relationship between Roz’s son David, and her distant relation Hayley, our third-woman and presumably the subject of Red Lily.

Mitch is an interesting man; he has a son from a prior relationship, and is a strong enough man to own up (not only to himself, but to Roz and her extended ‘family’) to what he had done to end it, and what he was doing to prevent it happening again. He’s a bit of an anachronism; the forgetful scholar, who is surrounded by books and so engrossed that he forgets to water his plant. He’s not part of the richer social circles that Roz begrudgingly attends to, and he finds seeing the actions of the upper-crust set an interesting study. It’s quickly clear that he dotes on Roz, supportive without asking her to not be the strong woman she is…which is, of course, exactly the kind of man she needs. Roz waffles a bit at first; she’s used to going it alone, and knows she doesn’t *need* a man in her life for it to be fulfilled and successful. But after a while, she decides that she *wants* one–that one. Her ex is in town causing shenanigans, which complicates matters as she deals with him, but she does it capably and in style, which puts Mitch in awe of her (as well it should). Stella and Hayley are amused by the older couple’s relationship, teasing Roz in a private moment: “…we know you had sex. You’ve got that recently waxed and lubed look,” Hayley quips on the morning after. Roz’s son takes note, and goes on his own to make sure that Mitch’s intentions are good.

The Bride begins pushing back harder against Roz as she lets her relationship with Mitch develop. A non-Harper woman in the house getting involved annoyed her, but Roz is a Harper, and the Bride is clearly enraged by the independent Roz’s actions. On several instances, she directly attacks Roz, raising the urgency for dealing with her. Roz is only briefly frightened by her antics; she mostly feels sorry for the poor woman, and promises her that she will find a way to free her.

blue dahlia by nora robertsEscape Rating B+: I enjoyed this book, because we continue to see the lives of three interesting women unfolding, and the ongoing ghost story, but to me, Black Rose was not as strong a book as Blue Dahlia. The book had some more fantastically fun Southernisms in it (leading me into giggling fits more than once, as my daughter can attest). The strong spot for me was the way that Roz and Mitch let their relationship happen–two older adults, who figure out what they want, and go there, without a lot of misdirection or beating around the bush about it. As an older woman myself, this approach appeals–I do not have time or energy for the sort of games that happen to the younger set, or the chasing around less-than-savory locations to find Mr. Right.

My problem with the tale, mostly, lies in a weakness of this triple-novel format that Roberts is using here. Since we have three women, we must have three novels. We moved the ghost story plot forward a bit, but some of this story seemed like filler, to set us up for the climax of the trilogy in the next book. I know in my review of Stephanie Bond’s I Think I Love You, I complained that the author was trying to do too much putting all three tales in one book, but it seems to me *almost* the case that Roz’s story could be rolled up into the books on either side of it. It’s an enjoyable read, but it’s a quicker read than Blue Dahlia, and left me feeling like there needed to be more said, more tension, more…something.

Guest Review: The Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Guest Review: The Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer BradleyThe Shadow Matrix by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction
Series: Darkover #25
Pages: 556
Published by DAW Books on September 1st 1997
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

After spending her youth in the Terran Empire, Margaret Alton returns to Darkover, the planet of her birth. There she discovers she has the Alton Gift--forced rapport and compulsion--one of the strongest and most dangerous of the inherited Laran gifts of the telepathic Comyn--the ruling families of Darkover. And even as she struggles to control her newfound powers, Margaret finds herself falling in love with the Regent to the royal Elhalyn Domain, a man she has been forbidden to marry, for their alliance would irrevocably alter the power balance of their planet!

Guest Review by Amy:

Margaret Alton, now holder of the Shadow Matrix, must return to Darkover and learn how to control and use her newly-enhanced laran gifts. But the culture of the Towers is difficult for her; she feels like an outcast, and would much rather be with her beau, Mikhail Lanart-Hastur. Mikhail, for his part, has been handed a difficult job–test the remaining sons of the mad Elhalyn clan, to see if any of them are suitable to be the next king. It’s a small comfort that the Elhalyn king is a figurehead; the real power lies in the Hasturs. The last adult woman of the clan is clearly insane, and under the influence of a rogue laran user, but Mikhail soldiers on, trying to do the job his uncle tasked him with as the Regent of the Elhalyns. He’d much rather be with Margaret–but that alliance has been forbidden, as it would tip the balance of power on the Comyn Council, and that just won’t do. As both of them struggle with doing what they must do, they begin hearing voices in their dreams, voices that would send them on an adventure far, far into Darkover’s past. Their return from that adventure will change the future of Darkover.

darkover landfall by marion zimmer bradleyEscape Rating: B+. I’ll say it right up front: If you’ve not read a lot of other Darkover novels before this one, The Shadow Matrix will be almost incomprehensible to you. There’s backstory a-plenty: the politics of the Comyn, the madness of the Elhalyn family, laran and everything that goes with that, the Darkovans’ experiences with the Terrans, Lew Alton himself, the Shadow Matrix, and so, so much more. Names and terminology are thrown around willy-nilly, and you’re supposed to just know all that stuff. Darkover Landfall or even Thendara House are much better entry points for the Darkover novice.

With that caveat, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover very much is the definition of “epic fantasy milieu,” for me. The world and its people are rich and complex, and every action, every plot line, has multiple complicated angles to it, that the reader can really sink their teeth into. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, really, as I’m pretty fussy about how much brain-power I’ll put into my relaxing reading, and Darkover can soak up a lot of it. But Darkover can capture me, in a way that some other fantasy worlds just don’t, and for me the capturing element is that the culture of Darkover, static for a thousand years, is facing a tectonic shift, with the return of the Terrans to Darkover–suddenly, Darkover isn’t the only world there is, and Earth’s interest in the lost colony is not entirely benign. Darkover’s rulers must cope with this, and deal with the introduction of technologies that have never been seen on Darkover.

For me, this struggle of a society in flux almost echoes the one that our own society is dealing with. Marion Zimmer Bradley died in September of 1999, but in so many ways, her Darkover works portend the struggle of a society trying to learn new things that fly in the face of generations of tradition, and struggling to learn new technologies, and new ways of thinking. Consider this: When I was a child in the 1970s, I could possibly tell you a very small list of facts about a couple of countries other than my own–we did a brief survey of the history of Japan, one year, as I recall. But in the 21st century, our world has gotten so much smaller: I not only have access to all the information I could want and more, I can also connect with someone who is living there without too much difficulty, and learn it from them. That sudden shift is the kind of struggle Darkover’s leadership must deal with–and it keeps Regis Hastur up at night, for sure!

In The Shadow Matrix, Zimmer Bradley sends two young people off on an adventure that will solve one of Darkover’s great unsolved mysteries, and let them meet figures from Darkover’s distant past. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but along the way to begin that adventure, we finally get to understand more about the Elhalyns, something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around in my earlier Darkover reads. The love story between our two protagonists is very well-executed, though stereotypically, for quite a lot of the book, Mikhail has to be the “strong one,” and reassure his more-frail fair maiden Margaret that things will be okay. This strikes a bit of an out-of-tune note for me, as Margaret is an accomplished scholar in her own right. It’s not that she’s a naturally faint-hearted woman, at all; it’s just that, with her growing powers, she’s thrown into circumstances that she does not understand or want. Mikhail is a very old-school Darkovan man, and tut-tuts about it with her. Surprisingly to me, this doesn’t anger her.

When our couple returns from their time apart to the Comyn Castle in Thendara, they’re immediately embroiled in the political intrigues of the Comyn. Margaret, having no background for this, spends time with her mentor’s wife, who has recently come to Darkover to see her. Mikhail, as Elhalyn Regent, is struggling with the unfortunate fact that none of the children of the clan are at all suitable to sit as the King, and he does not want to do it himself! Meanwhile, the lovely (but vapid and scheming) Gisela Aldaran is trying to plot her way into a marriage with Mikhail, as she and her family thinks it would benefit the outcast Aldaran family to be closer to the throne. It’s all very normal (for Darkover), until the height of the Midwinter Ball, when a deep voice suddenly booms out in their mind, and Mikhail and Margaret begin their grand adventure. In true epic-fantasy fashion, it takes us well over 300 pages to get to the beginning of the “real” story!

This book is very much an “amazing adventure.” A lot of my reading has to do with ordinary people, who do interesting things–like, fall for each other–but in this book, we have epic people, doing epically awesome things, that can reshape a world. It’s a different kind of escape, to be sure, but Darkover is a world you can easily escape to, and enjoy.

Marlene’s Note: I discovered Darkover in the mid 1970s, and read (and occasionally re-read) the entire series available in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, I loved them. The world creation is both completely absorbing and felt realistic. It felt like something that could have happened. The culture clash mirrored society in the 1960s and 1970s, and still does today. Those themes are evergreen. But after Zimmer Bradley’s death I became aware of the documented history of child physical and sexual abuse that occurred in her household, and which she certainly enabled and likely participated in. Knowing now what I did not know at the time, I have a difficult time separating the art from the artist.

For a summation of the case and sources for more information, see Jim C. Hines post titled “Rape, Abuse, and Marion Zimmer Bradley”