Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, Renée Nault
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: dystopian, graphic novel, science fiction
Pages: 240
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on March 26, 2019
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Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Provocative, startling, prophetic, The Handmaid's Tale has long been a global phenomenon. With this stunning graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern classic, beautifully realized by artist Renee Nault, the terrifying reality of Gilead has been brought to vivid life like never before.

My Review:

I have to confess that I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, until now. I say that even though I have used it as an example in one way or another in more than one review. The basic story, after all, is well known and has become one of the classic works of late 20th century/early 21st century dystopian science fiction – in spite of its author claiming that it is not any such thing. Science fiction, that is.

And it’s been an extremely popular TV series. Everyone knows the basic story, even if not the details. Which means that while I’m not going to deliberately set out to include spoilers, I’m also not going to worry much about it. The story has been around and endlessly discussed for 35 years at this point, after all.

Fair warning that this is also going to be one of those reviews that mostly gets into what I thought and am still thinking about this one, rather than a critique of the book as such. My approach/avoidance reaction to the story and the conclusions I’ve come to now that I have finally read it are still rolling around in my head.

I’m pretty sure that everyone has their own opinions of the book at this point, whether they’ve read it or not.

Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely why I haven’t until now and probably wouldn’t have yet if I hadn’t seen the graphic novel version in Half Price Books. The graphic novel felt like a way of getting through the story without having to wallow in the expected pain of it.

While I admit that part of my initial rejection had to do with the author’s rejection of even the idea that the story might be part of the dreaded and dreadful GENRE, in this case SF, instead of being part of the more socially acceptable and highbrow body of literary works.

Well, this certainly has all the angst that I associate with literary fiction, but it is also very definitely part of the SF genre. It’s SF of the extremely dystopian variety, set in a world that has not happened – at least not yet – and might not. And hopefully will not. And is a dystopia kicked off by climate change and ruin of the environment. (In that, it reminds me a bit of The Children of Men by P.D. James, which I liked a lot more but did not generate all the interest and awards that The Handmaid’s Tale did.)

I didn’t read this for the longest time because I just didn’t want to wallow in that angst. This situation is awful. It is supremely awful for women, but it isn’t that great for men, either. But the men are the ones who make this omelet and the women are the eggs getting broken in the process – pun definitely intended.

And it does resonate with the historical oppression of women as well as the current era of attempting to return to that level of oppression. But with a difference. Because the methods of Gilead also have parallels with the holocaust and other genocides. It’s not just that in Gilead all women have been reduced to their biological function and nothing more, but also that the government has done an all too efficient job of cutting off any and all means of escape. Not just that the borders are closed, heavily guarded and well-armed, but that even methods of suicide are almost completely cut off.

So, as a story I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be unrelentingly depressing. In the extreme. Fascinating, but a complete downer. As it’s intended to be. The situation is awful and horrible and even Offred’s possible escape doesn’t change that. Because even if she did make it out, we don’t actually see it. And she leaves all of the other women in Gilead behind, whether she does manage to escape either to Canada or to death.

This was a book where I desperately wanted a catharsis at the end, and did not feel anything of the sort. The ending felt like a bit of a cheat, as it fast forwards to a future where Gilead’s existence is well in the past, where the record that Offred left behind is studied as a historical artifact. But we know nothing of how the world reached that point, or actually how much better it supposedly is – if it is at all.

It’s an ending which left me totally cold. As an object lesson, as a meditation on how easily a group can be subjugated, it is horrific but all too realistic. As dystopian SF, it is chilling in the extreme. But as a story, it felt like it didn’t so much end as trail off.

I understand that the reader was supposed to see the ending as kind of a “Schrodinger’s escape” where all results are possible and Offred can either have escaped, been killed or come to some equally gruesome end. That it isn’t necessary for us to really know how it ended to be satisfied with what we had.

I felt more horrified than satisfied. But I still want to know what happened, a state in which I clearly was not alone, as the author released a sequel, The Testaments, last year to answer at least some of the questions rattling around in readers’ heads. I’ll get around to reading, or at least skimming that, someday, just to get some resolution on the whole thing.

Escape Rating B: The rating is kind of an average. I found the story to be absorbing but terrifying. I couldn’t stop turning the pages but I also desperately wanted to be ejected from the nightmare. And I know that I would have bounced off this one hard without the graphic novel.

The graphic novel is utterly beautiful. Equally terrifying, but absolutely exquisite.

In short, it feels like this was an important story to read for myself and not just rely on summaries – and I’d never judge a book by either its movie or its TV series. But I also know that I’ll never read it again.

Guest Review: Poison Fruit by Jacqueline Carey

Guest Review: Poison Fruit by Jacqueline CareyPoison Fruit (Agent of Hel, #3) by Jacqueline Carey
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Agent of Hel #3
Pages: 437
Published by Roc Hardcover on October 7, 2014
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The hot-as-Hel series with the “Sookie Stackhouse type of vibe” (Paranormal Horizon) is back—but this time the paranormal Midwestern town of Pemkowet is feeling a frost in the air and the residents are frozen in fear...

The Pemkowet Visitors Bureau has always promoted paranormal tourism—even if it has downplayed the risks (hobgoblins are unpredictable). It helps that the town is presided over by Daisy Johanssen, who as Hel’s liaison is authorized by the Norse goddess of the dead to keep Pemkowet under control. Normally, that’s easier to do in the winter, when bracing temperatures keep folks indoors.

But a new predator is on the prowl, and this one thrives on nightmares. Daisy is on her trail and working intimately with her partner and sometime lover from the Pemkowet PD, sexy yet unavailable werewolf Cody Fairfax. But even as the creature is racking up innocent victims, a greater danger looms on Pewkowet’s horizon.

As a result of a recent ghost uprising, an unknown adversary—represented by a hell-spawn lawyer with fiery powers of persuasion—has instigated a lawsuit against the town. If Pemkowet loses, Hel’s sovereignty will be jeopardized, and the fate of the eldritch community will be at stake. The only one who can prevent it is Daisy—but she’s going to have to confront her own worst nightmare to do it.

Guest review by Amy:

Winter has come to Pemkowet, and the Agent of ancient Norse Goddess-of-Death Hel is breathing a sigh of relief over the end of the haunting October. It was a mess, to be sure, but lives were saved, so maybe she can relax a little?  Maybe?  And take some time to figure out which of two men she can actually get serious about?

Not so fast. If Jacqueline Carey ever gave us a straight-up romance without something wild happening, I’d eat my hat. Fortunately, my hat is safe; remember that odd lawyer that was running around Pemkowet buying up property? Hel had asked her agent, half-human, half-demon Daisy Johanssen to investigate, and with the help of her friends, she does. He’s a hellspawn, all right, and he’s up to no good…but on whose behalf is he working?

Escape Rating: A: Carey, like Nora Roberts, has something of a knack for trilogies. Never mind that unless you live in Texas as I do, there are four seasons, and I’d love to read another book set in Pemkowet, Jacqueline Carey has given us a strong conclusion to this series in Poison Fruit. Daisy’s been told repeatedly that the decisions she makes are super-important, perhaps even on a global scale, but she’s mired in what to do about the men in her life.

The super-hot Outcast ghoul Stefan has to be away for a bit, leaving her working a little more than she’d like around the super-sexy werewolf, her sometimes partner Cody. Cody, for his part, has made it clear that as much as he’d like to, he’s got to get involved with another werewolf. Preservation of the species, you see, and the fact that he does that whole once-a-month howl-at-the-moon thing, which she cannot share…you understand, don’t you Daisy? It’s not about you, right? She says she does, but unlike Cody, she understands that some couples have diverse interests and activities. He can’t go to Hel’s demesne and see the Norse goddess, either, at least not under normal circumstances, so they each have their “me time,” so to speak. Don’t we all need that?

There’s a Night Hag roaming around, and Daisy and her friends must deal with that. Just about the time they do, Stefan comes back to town, and he has brought a friend, with an unusual request: that Daisy use Hel’s magic dagger to kill him. This was a tough scene for me to read; Janek is living with ALS, and, being Outcast, cannot die on his own, or be killed by mortal means. This has led him to most of a century of suffering, unable to be healed, and unable to die and find peace in his body and soul. Janek tells his story, and asks Daisy to use the dagger. After some back and forth, she does, and Janek dies with dignity, his faith that he could gain a chance at Heaven strong. As you might guess, shadows of this scene follow her to the end of the book; there was more than just a mercy here. There was an important lesson for her, and for Stefan.

When it’s finally revealed who is trying to buy up the prime land in Pemkowet, and why…well, things get busy in a hurry. The sneaky lawyer sets up a bogus lawsuit that’ll cost Hel her home, and the goddess is not at all happy about that. Pemkowet’s diverse eldritch community must come together to fight for their right to exist, and it is Daisy who must lead them. It’s not at all clear, for quite a while, that Pemkowet will win over the outsiders, which brings a delicious tension to the book.

…and after all the kvetching I’ve done in the other two reviews about who Daisy dates, I shan’t tell you whom she ends up with. I’m such a meanie! Go read it yourself. But let’s just say I’m finally happy with her choice, in the end. All in all, I’ve greatly enjoyed this series; it’s got a heroine I can enjoy, some fascinating supernaturals, a bit of action/adventure, and some steam to go alongside. There’s something for everyone here, so enjoy!

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne RobinsonStardance by Spider Robinson, Jeanne Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Stardance #1
Pages: 288
Published by Baen Books on February 1st 1977
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A woman of perfect beauty is too big for perfect grace as a ballerina; she will never be more than an understudy. Stardance is the story of one such, one with the body of Venus di Milo and a talent greater than Pavlova's. But if there is an answer, genius will find it; Shara Drummond goes to Space, where her life is devoted to creating a weightless art form that is to Dance as three dimensions are to two.

Then the aliens arrive, beings of pure light who dance forever between the stars. And so it falls to Shara Drummond to prove that the human race is ... human. By her Stardance.

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story is told in the voice of Charlie Armstead, a cynical former dancer and videographer. He’s the best at what he does, (probably because he’s a former dancer), and when he gets the opportunity to shoot video of the finest dancer he’s ever known in zero gravity, he jumps at the chance. But when aliens show up, Shara Drummond must dance for them, and Charlie gets the tape of a lifetime.  But, you see, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Escape Rating: A+. If you read the cover synopsis from the publisher, you might be misled into thinking that this book is about Shara Drummond, and her Stardance. I was, and when the dance with aliens came to a climactic conclusion a third of the way through the book, I was left wondering, “now what?” Frankly, I was a little bit mad that we’d hit the “end” so soon!

But, stubborn woman that I am, I kept reading, and when I finished the book, I had to spend rather a long time sussing out how I was going to describe this book. Because the end of Shara’s Stardance isn’t the end of the story; there’s a lot more to it, and Charlie must find his own way through to the end. It’s…complicated.

Spider and Jeanne Robinson have written a sonata, if you will. In the first movement, allegro, Shara does her dance for the aliens, Charlie taping every moment of it. This tape transforms the lives of a number of people in the second movement, a rondo, wherein Charlie and Shara’s sister Norrey marry and start a zero-gee dance school. In the third movement, the scherzo, the aliens return! An almost-pastoral coda ties up a few loose ends to the story’s structure, and we’re left with a tale to make you spend the night thinking about the real question that the Robinsons pose in this work: “What does it mean to be human?” Each part of the Stardance “sonata” is a story of its own, with its own tale to tell, and it isn’t until you get near the end that you figure out that all of these stories are actually a necessary part of a larger whole.

The first “movement” of this story doesn’t move terribly fast. Charlie is a depressive alcoholic, and it shows. That sort of life isn’t all that appealing to me, and so it made him a bit hard to like. After Shara’s dance, though, the transformative power of the Stardance wakes something up in him – he even later comments that it cured him of his alcoholism – and the vast profits from the tape let him move his life onto a more positive trajectory. Norrey is, as she has always been for him, a good influence, and when other members of their dance-school team join on, they forge an extended family of six: Three couples, one of them a gay couple, who love and trust each other completely. When the challenge arises, as the aliens return and park near Saturn, all six jump at the chance to go try to communicate with them, through their own Stardance.

There were some ironic moments for me in this book; one of the diplomats who accompanies the Stardancers out to Saturn is an American, Sheldon Silverman. He is nationalistic, vain, greedy, and always seeking a strategic advantage over the other five diplomats and the dancers. When he started causing problems, I had a thought: “well, of course. Stereotypical American politician.” Indeed, all of the diplomats in the group were somewhat trope-ish to me, from the cagey Chinese man to the Russian woman who tried (briefly) to bully the dancers, to the affable and brilliant Spaniard. This was a minor distraction, and it served the point that the us-vs-them that we embrace so much of here on Earth is part of the problem–but there is a solution, and in the end, when we find out that the aliens have the solution, two of the diplomats find that it just can’t work in their worldview.

If this was the only work in this universe that Spider and Jeanne Robinson created, it would be enough; it tells us an epic story, with adventure, romance, thrills, and a bit of mystery. Even more, it challenges the reader to think about the nature of family and humanity. It’s definitely worth a look. Originally published in 1977, it has startling insight into the “progress” we’ve made in the years since its publication. But there are two other works in this trilogy (Starseed and Starmind), which I hope to track down soon. If they’re as wonderful as Stardance, I’ll be in for a couple of thoughtful, thoroughly wonderful reads.

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
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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
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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.

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider Robinson

Guest Review: Mindkiller by Spider RobinsonMindkiller by Spider Robinson
Formats available: hardcover, paperback
Pages: 246
Published by Berkley on November 1st 1983
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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
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: In the Garden #3
Pages: 351
Published by Jove on November 29th 2005
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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.

 

Guest Review: Black Rose by Nora Roberts

Guest Review: Black Rose by Nora RobertsBlack Rose (In the Garden trilogy #2) by Nora Roberts
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: In the Garden #2
Pages: 355
Published by Jove on May 31st 2005
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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.