Review: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville

three moments of an explosion by china mievilleFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: science fiction short stories
Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Date Released: August 4, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

London awakes one morning to find itself besieged by a sky full of floating icebergs. Destroyed oil rigs, mysteriously reborn, clamber from the sea and onto the land, driven by an obscure but violent purpose. An anatomy student cuts open a cadaver to discover impossibly intricate designs carved into a corpse’s bones—designs clearly present from birth, bearing mute testimony to . . . what?

Of such concepts and unforgettable images are made the twenty-eight stories in this collection—many published here for the first time. By turns speculative, satirical, and heart-wrenching, fresh in form and language, and featuring a cast of damaged yet hopeful seekers who come face-to-face with the deep weirdness of the world—and at times the deeper weirdness of themselves—Three Moments of an Explosion is a fitting showcase for one of our most original voices.

My Review:

China Miéville seems to be one of those authors where people who like his writing really, really like it, and people who don’t just don’t. There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle.

After finishing his collection of short stories, Three Moments of an Explosion, I find myself firmly in the latter camp. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried something by him, and my second impression matches the first – “interesting, but not for me.”

I like my stories with a clear beginning, middle and end. However, a lot of the stories in this collection seemed to simply stop, rather than satisfyingly conclude. That’s my interpretation, and your mileage, of course, may vary.

There were also quite a few stories in the collection that felt like horror, some of the Lovecraftian school, and some just plain horror. I very seldom like horror stories, and this was no exception. Creepiness for creepiness’ sake just, well, creeps me out. But also leaves me cold. Sometimes shaking with fear, but mostly cold as to engagement. I don’t warm up to the story.

My favorite story in the collection is the fourth story in. The Dowager of Bees is a story about the inherent magic in cards, card play and card games. It’s part of that satisfaction one feels when the one card in the entire deck comes up, and you win against all odds. It also taps into the wonder of watching someone do complex card tricks excellently. We’ve all handled those pasteboards, how can someone make them dance? But the story involves secret magic, that sometimes, when one is an especially adept player, very special cards appear in the game, and those special cards invoke very special rules that are only available to you while the secret card is in play. It’s also a story about competition, and the desire to win, and oddly enough, love.

One of the horror stories is quietly terrifying in a way that stuck with me. To say I liked it is the wrong phraseology. To say that I’m haunted by it is probably a better match. Säcken is extremely creepy, and creeps along behind you after you finish. A young woman flees something completely “other” that utterly terrifies her, discovers that she can’t flee, and tries to placate it instead. While we all know that was a mistake, it is easy to feel her relief and ultimate terror as she discovers that she has only made things much, much worse. If you think Grimm’s Fairy Tales aren’t nearly Grimm enough, this one’s for you.

There’s a story that is just a bit creepy, but in the thriller type of creepy. It’s also a bit fun and playful. In Dreaded Outcome, we find out just how far some therapists are willing to go in order to help their patients move beyond whatever, or whoever is causing their emotional traumas. If you’ve ever been in therapy, much of the setup will feel familiar. You may also wish that the solutions to your issues could be found in the way that the narrator does.

Escape Rating C+: The few stories I liked, I really liked. The Dowager of Bees is a story that I could see recommending to lots of people looking for a story that might fit into Lev Grossman’s Magicians series or even Harry Potter. The idea that there is magic in the everyday world, but that we don’t run across it except in certain special circumstances.

A lot of SF tropes and themes get played with in this collection. There are several stories that skewer the vicious smallness of academic politics. The academic side is very vicious indeed, but what they are fighting over generally starts out small in these stories, until it becomes bigger and creepier than the reader originally thought.

But in general, there is a lot of very creepy weird in this collection. And it’s just not my cuppa. If it is yours, enjoy.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Liesmith by Alis Franklin

liesmith by alis franklinFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: ebook
Genre: urban fantasy
Series: Wyrd #1
Length: 308 pages
Publisher: Hydra
Date Released: October 7, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

Working in low-level IT support for a company that’s the toast of the tech world, Sigmund Sussman finds himself content, if not particularly inspired. As compensation for telling people to restart their computer a few times a day, Sigmund earns enough disposable income to gorge on comics and has plenty of free time to devote to his gaming group.

Then in walks the new guy with the unpronounceable last name who immediately becomes IT’s most popular team member. Lain Laufeyjarson is charming and good-looking, with a story for any occasion; shy, awkward Sigmund is none of those things, which is why he finds it odd when Lain flirts with him. But Lain seems cool, even if he’s a little different—though Sigmund never suspects just how different he could be. After all, who would expect a Norse god to be doing server reboots?

As Sigmund gets to know his mysterious new boyfriend, fate—in the form of an ancient force known as the Wyrd—begins to reveal the threads that weave their lives together. Sigmund doesn’t have the first clue where this adventure will take him, but as Lain says, only fools mess with the Wyrd. Why? Because the Wyrd messes back.

My Review:

For the first third of the book, I was afraid it was going to turn out to be a two-man grift. And it almost was, but not exactly the same two men and definitely not the same grift.

The above could be considered a spoiler for Neil Gaiman’s awesome American Gods, but it doesn’t begin to explain the complexity of the story in Liesmith.

However, the Liesmith in this title, and Low-Key Lyesmith in American Gods are the same Loki, for qualified definitions of “same” and possibly even of Loki.

Like I said, it gets complicated. For one thing, gods have erratic memories because they are made out of our myths and legends. When there are multiple versions of the same legend, the deity in the stories often has as much difficulty remembering exactly what he or she did or didn’t do as we do. Which is certainly a factor in the events in this book.

In myth, Loki was condemned for his part in the murder of the sun god Baldr to be chained to a rock with the entrails of one of his sons while a snake dripped poison into his eyes.. His wife Sigyn condemned herself to stand over him with a bowl to catch the poison. When he escapes, he is supposed to kill and be killed by other gods at Ragnarok, and then the world is supposed to end.

In this version, many people believe Loki cheated his fate, because, well, that’s what Loki does. In all of his manifestations, Loki is a trickster god. But Loki didn’t cheat, at least not then. Instead, the moment he escapes his loving wife conks him on the head and takes his place in the godly army, wearing his armor and pretending to be him.

Destiny is cheated, the world doesn’t end, and Loki wakes up to discover what his wife has done. That’s where things get interesting.

Because Loki sets up a huge in the middle of the Australian Outback, and sets himself up in his own exile. He’s had enough of gods and monsters and being both, and decides to just lay low and live out as many lifetimes as he can.

Then Sigmund walks into his life, and hell, also Hel, appear on earth, along with all the rest of the gods and monsters that Loki has spent the last several decades trying to avoid by submerging himself in the person of Travis Carter Hall, CEO of Lokabrenna Inc.

Baldr is back from the dead and out to get the god who connived at his death, and he doesn’t care how many civilians he has to destroy in order to make that happen. Geeky Sigmund discovers that he is the reincarnation of Loki’s lost wife Sigyn.

And Ragnarok is back on. The world is going to end after all, just so Baldr can punish his killer.

Except that nothing is as it seems. Or possibly ever was.

Escape Rating A-: A lot of Liesmith is urban fantasy of the horror school. If you’ve ever seen someone play Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, the horror has that pulpy feel to it. It’s creepy and mucky and invades the “real” world in a way that almost breaks the fourth wall and certainly makes the characters wonder whether they have finally lost their grip on sanity. It grabs the reader enough that you get scared for them.

One of the other major threads of this story is Fate, generally referred to as the Wyrd in the book. The Wyrd seems to be the place that births gods and monsters and legends out of human beliefs and human stories. It also tries very hard to force the people stuck in the story to go down the same path every single iteration, where the characters, when they are aware, desperately attempt to find a way to create a happy, or at least a less awful, ending this time than they did the last time.

References to how this works are rather similar to the Mercedes Lackey’s stories of the Five Hundred Kingdoms. If you are meant to be Cinderella, the very universe itself will do its level best to force you to live out her story, even if you have no desire to be rescued by a prince, thank you very much. Fate can be a very cruel bitch, especially when you attempt to thwart her.

In the middle of all of this myth making and myth-breaking is a sweet and geeky romance between a man who used to be a god and a man who carries the soul of the god’s dead wife. Sigmund Sussman is an adorkable geek who works in IT support at Lokabrenna Inc. Loki falls so hard for the guy that he creates an entire new persona, Lain Laufeyjarson, just for the chance to get to know Sigmund better. And not just because Sigmund used to be Sigyn, but because there is something in the sweet, shy genius that draws the person Loki has become, as well as the god he used to be.

This part shouldn’t work. It’s a fascinating twist on the fated mate trope, and there is a huge difference in the power dynamic. For one thing, while it isn’t difficult to see what Sigmund sees in Loki, no matter which persona is at the fore, it is difficult at first to figure out what Loki sees in Sigmund besides Sigyn.

And while Sigmund seems a bit too naive about love, sex and even sometimes adulthood, it is his genuine goodness, and also his genuine dorkiness, that finally save the day. And the gods. And possibly even the future as we think we know it.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

trigger warning by neil gaimanFormat read: eARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss and published hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: fantasy, horror
Length: 310 pages
Publisher: William Morrow
Date Released: February 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In this new anthology, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath. Trigger Warning includes previously published pieces of short fiction–stories, verse, and a very special Doctor Who story that was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the beloved series in 2013–as well “Black Dog,” a new tale that revisits the world of American Gods, exclusive to this collection.

Trigger Warning explores the masks we all wear and the people we are beneath them to reveal our vulnerabilities and our truest selves. Here is a rich cornucopia of horror and ghosts stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry that explore the realm of experience and emotion. In “Adventure Story”–a thematic companion to The Ocean at the End of the Lane–Gaiman ponders death and the way people take their stories with them when they die. His social media experience “A Calendar of Tales” are short takes inspired by replies to fan tweets about the months of the year–stories of pirates and the March winds, an igloo made of books, and a Mother’s Day card that portends disturbances in the universe. Gaiman offers his own ingenious spin on Sherlock Holmes in his award-nominated mystery tale “The Case of Death and Honey”. And “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” explains the creaks and clatter we hear when we’re all alone in the darkness.

A sophisticated writer whose creative genius is unparalleled, Gaiman entrances with his literary alchemy, transporting us deep into the realm of imagination, where the fantastical becomes real and the everyday incandescent. Full of wonder and terror, surprises and amusements, Trigger Warning is a treasury of delights that engage the mind, stir the heart, and shake the soul from one of the most unique and popular literary artists of our day.

My Review:

Fair warning, if you have an eARC of this book, it probably does not include the last story, Black Dog. I’m lucky I had a published print copy too. (This warning probably does not apply to purchased ebooks.)

Speaking of warnings, there’s that title: Trigger Warning. As the author says in his introduction, the phrase “trigger warning” has taken on a specific meaning in social media. If a piece has been labeled with a trigger warning, the context of the warning usually follows. If a story or article concerns a subject that some people might be upset to read, that is listed under the trigger warnings. While many of those warnings involve either death or sex (sometimes both) there are also trigger warnings for assault, abuse as well as every kind of kink imaginable.

The concept of trigger warnings derives from a specific issue for sufferers of PTSD. Things that remind a person of their original trauma can literally trigger a re-experience of that trauma. (For more details, see the NIMH page on PTSD)

There has been some talk in social media regarding whether the author should have titled his collection with a term that has so much specific meaning for people. (To see an thoughtful example, take a look at Kameron Hurley’s post on SciFi Now) The author’s contentions are laid out in his introduction, which, unlike introductions in many books that are easily skippable, provides interesting context for both the individual stories and the collection as a whole.

There’s a question asked: Do adults need to be warned about the possible “triggers” in fiction? Or is part of being an adult the responsibility of choosing such things for one’s own self?

Trigger Warning is a collection of mostly short stories, with a few poems sprinkled in for spice. Or in context, possibly for body. Or bodies.

This is a collection of various kinds of speculative fiction. Some are fantasy, some are extensions of fairy tales. Many are horror of the Twilight Zone type, where the story seems to be heading in one direction, and then takes a sudden twist at the end into the macabre or at least the strange and lethal.

As a collection, it suffers from the issue common to almost all collections, every reader’s milage varies wildly. There are some stories I really liked, a couple did not work for me at all, and some just were just OK.

There were five stories that stood out for me: Black Dog, Nothing O’Clock, The Case of Death and Honey, The Thing About Cassandra and A Calendar of Tales, which is cheating in a way because Calendar itself is a short collection of extremely brief stories.

American Gods by Neil GaimanOnly Black Dog is original to this collection. In other circumstances, it would be slight, and slightly eerie, story, But the protagonist of this particular tale is Shadow Moon, whom we first met in American Gods. Because we know who and what Shadow is, the story has multiple layers, and like American Gods, makes you rethink the entire story at the end.

The Case of Death and Honey is a Sherlock Holmes story. It was previously published in A Study in Sherlock, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, and reviewed here. This is a story that I wish were true. It would explain much.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story. Even though Matt Smith was not my favorite Doctor (they say you never forget your first Doctor, and mine was Tom Baker) this is still very much Who. The solution to the very creepy dilemma is something only the Doctor could do. And as is so often the case, while the baddies think they are playing him, he has been playing them all along.

The Thing About Cassandra is a story with a twist. I knew something bad was going to happen, but at the end of the story, all of the shoes are on other feet than the reader expected.

A Calendar of Tales is itself a mini-collection, with one story themed for each month. Some border on SF, but the ones I really enjoyed had a touch of romance to them.

Escape Rating B+: The stories I enjoyed, I liked a lot. It helped that three of them were linked to things that I was not just familiar with, but am a definite fan of. The ones that left me cold, like Orange, left me completely and utterly cold.

I will say as my very own trigger warning for this collection that it is probably not a good book to read just before bedtime. I had some interesting and downright scary dreams last night that I am grateful not to remember. Which says that either I am terribly susceptible, or that the stories did their job. Possibly both.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s On My (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 7-28-13

Sunday Post

First, a slightly geeky public services announcement. For anyone who has either an attending or supporting member in LoneStarCon 3, which is this year’s World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon), the last day to vote on the Hugo Awards is July 31. Thank goodness you can vote online, but the deadline still got away from me.

LoneStarCon 3 LogoIf you read science fiction and fantasy, even if you don’t think you will ever attend WorldCon, a supporting membership, purchased early, is an amazingly good deal. Here’s why: supporting members receive ebooks of ALL the Hugo nominated works; novels, novellas, short stories, pretty much everything, for the low, low price of a $60 membership. (It’s less if you get in earlier) If this is stuff you would read anyway, it’s cheap at twice the price. And you get to vote on which ones win the awards!

Speaking of which…

Winner Announcements:

Stephanie F. won the $10 Amazon Gift Card from the Hot Summer Romance Blog Hop.

The Story Guy by Mary Ann RiversBlog Recap:

Brazen Bash
A- Review: The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers
Guest Post from Author Mary Ann Rivers on Why I Love Libraries and Librarians + Giveaway
B Review: Stoker’s Manuscript by Royce Prouty
B Review: Immortally Embraced by Angie Fox
B+ Review: Redemption by Susannah Sandlin
Guest Post by author Susannah Sandlin on the Unsung Heroes of Paranormal Romance
B Review: A Lesson in Chemistry with Inspector Bruce by Jillian Stone
Stacking the Shelves (52)

Absolution by Susannah SandlinComing Next Week:

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (blog tour review)
Silent Warrior by Lindsey Piper (review)
Caged Warrior by Lindsey Piper (review)
Troll-y Yours by Sheri Fredricks (review)
Absolution by Susannah Sandlin (review)
A Private Duel with Agent Gunn by Jillian Stone (review)

Have you ever noticed that good series books are like potato chips, you can’t read just one?


Review: Stoker’s Manuscript by Royce Prouty

Stoker's Manuscript by Royce ProutyFormat read: print book borrowed from the Library
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback, audiobook
Genre: Horror
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Putnam Adult
Date Released: June 13, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

When rare-manuscript expert Joseph Barkeley is hired to authenticate and purchase the original draft and notes for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, little does he know that the reclusive buyer is a member of the oldest family in Transylvania.

After delivering the manuscript to the legendary Bran Castle in Romania, Barkeley—a Romanian orphan himself—realizes to his horror that he’s become a prisoner to the son of Vlad Dracul. To earn his freedom, Barkeley must decipher cryptic messages hidden in the text of the original Dracula that reveal the burial sites of certain Dracul family members. Barkeley’s only hope is to ensure that he does not exhaust his usefulness to his captor until he’s able to escape. Soon he discovers secrets about his own lineage that suggest his selection for the task was more than coincidence. In this knowledge may lie Barkeley’s salvation—or his doom. For now he must choose between a coward’s flight and a mortal conflict against an ancient foe.

Building on actual international events surrounding the publication of Bram Stoker’s original novel, Royce Prouty has written a spellbinding debut novel that ranges from 1890s Chicago, London, and Transylvania to the perilous present.

My Review:

This is eerie. It has that tingle of chill up your spine subtle horror, combined with a search for identity and a bit of a scavenger hunt. Very cryptic and cool.

Then there’s the mix of contemporary horror thrown in; 21st century Romania still bears very real scars from the regime of the tyrant Nicolae Ceauşescu.

The story of Stoker’s Manuscript borrows its fascination from our endless enthrallment to Bram Stoker’s original story; but the question raised by this novel is whether that story was Stoker’s original story? What if, instead of merely borrowing from obscure folk legends, Stoker actually had a source with first-hand knowledge of real vampires?

Which begs the question that has led to so much horror and paranormal fiction, what if there really are vampires?

Joseph Barkeley is hired not just to authenticate Stoker’s original manuscript and notes from the Rosenbach Museum, but to also purchase them (if authentic) for a mysterious (and, of course wealthy) personage in Romania.

Joseph finds the commission too good to refuse, although he knows that he should. It will require him to return to Romania, the country of his birth. The country where his father murdered his mother and committed suicide. There is a mystery in their deaths, and in the equally mysterious rescue of himself and his brother from an orphanage.

He hopes for answers to his questions.

Instead, he finds an even greater mystery. His friends and his brother warn him away, saying that the truth is too dangerous to be revealed.

Dracula by Bram StokerWe know, of course we do. Stoker’s manuscript for Dracula uncovers a secret. There really are vampires. The questions that Joseph needs to ask are about the history of that manuscript. Why do the vampires want it now? What secret does it hold?

Can Joseph save anything from this debacle? Can he unravel the puzzle before it is too late?

Escape Rating B: There are puzzles within puzzles within puzzles. At the very beginning of the story, Joseph lives such an isolated life that it took me a few pages to realize that the start of the story was contemporary. The writing has a historical feel to it, a bit as if one is reading the original story.

Because of Joseph’s initial isolation, he’s a difficult person to get to know; he doesn’t even let himself inside his own head. He is dispassionate, but fascinated with solving problems. Over the course of the story, he lets more people get closer to him, but this is not a relationship story. It’s a scavenger hunt.

The analogy works on multiple levels, as the vampires are scavengers of another kind. They are not romanticized in any way. They are amoral bloodsucking villains with no redeeming characteristics, and neither were they in Stoker’s original tale.

One of the ways this story draws the reader in is that it is built on the historic possibilities. Stoker’s actual manuscript is in the Rosenbach Museum. It was lost and discovered recently. Fabricating a horror novel around the creation of a horror novel this way is particularly chilling.

The Historian by Elizabeth KostovaThe way this story takes the original Dracula book, mixes in Romanian history and creates a new horror legend made me think of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Similar elements going in different chilling directions, that suck you right in…to the story.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Gravedigger’s Brawl by Abigail Roux

Format read:ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: Trade paperback, ebook
Genre: Horror, Mystery/Suspense
Length: 256 pages
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Date Released: October 15, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

Dr. Wyatt Case is never happier than when he’s walking the halls of his history museum. Playing wingman for his best friend at Gravedigger’s Tavern throws him way out of his comfort zone, but not as much as the eccentric man behind the bar, Ash Lucroix.

Ash is everything Wyatt doesn’t understand: exuberant, quirky, and elbow deep in a Gaslight lifestyle that weaves history into everyday life. He coordinates his suspenders with his tongue rings. Within hours, Wyatt and Ash are hooked.

But strange things are afoot at Gravedigger’s, and after a knock to the head, Ash starts seeing things that can’t be explained by old appliances or faulty wiring. Soon everyone at Gravedigger’s is wondering if they’re seeing ghosts, or just going crazy. The answer to that question could end more than just Wyatt and Ash’s fragile relationship—it might also end their lives.

The Gravedigger’s Brawl is a massive Halloween bash that takes place in Gravedigger’s Tavern. Where is that, you might ask? The historic district in downtown Richmond, Virginia.

So we have an eerily named bar in a historic preservation district on the spookiest night of the year. And did I mention that everyone who works in the bar has started seeing ghosts? That’s right, ghosts. Poltergeists aren’t just thumping the walls, they have started screwing with the electrical wiring. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Gravedigger’s Tavern doesn’t just have a weird name, it has some bad stuff in its history. It might be linked to the LaLaurie family in antebellum New Orleans. They were so evil, even their fellow slaveholders turned them in for their human experiments.

Richmond had its own version of the LaLauries, the Dubois family. It looks like they owned the land that Gravedigger’s sits on. One of the Dubois’ might still haunt the place, along with all of his victims.

The Gravedigger’s Brawl is a terrific, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, as in terrifying, ghost story. Spirits do haunt Gravedigger’s, and one man, Ash Lucroix, acquires the ability to see them, after a head injury.

Unfortunately for Ash, he’s not paranoid. One of them really is out to get him.

So is Wyatt Case, but that’s in a good way. The director of the historical society, although he might have been out of the closet for a long time, has an incredibly difficult time getting out of his shell. His academic reserve is a different problem all-together.

Opposites do attract. The academic introvert and the flair-expert, bartending extrovert with the gaslight aesthetic do take hesitant steps toward a relationship.

Meanwhile there are the ghosts. As more mysterious thumps and sparks manifest in the tavern, Wyatt starts researching the history of Gravedigger’s. (He’s a historian, it’s what he does). He finds paydirt. Or gravedirt. Amidst the urban legends, ghost tours and fanciful tales, he finds the Dubois family, and their misbegotten scion Vincent.

Vincent conducted human experiments on the land that is now Gravedigger’s. And every couple of decades since Vincent’s death, someone connected with that property has died, on the premises, of suicide. All under very mysterious circumstances.

And they’ve all looked very much like Ash Lucroix. So did Vincent Dubois. And it’s starting to seem a lot like Ash is next. Unless the bar burns down first.

Escape Rating A-: And a very chilling story this one is. The chills and thrills in this story come from the ghosts. The romance, although it exists, takes a back-seat to the ghost story.

I found the secondary story about saving Wyatt’s job at the Museum, and museum politics in general, to be hilarious and all-too-familiar. All non-profit institutions have some similarities. Wyatt’s co-worker Nash, especially his love of true-but-obscure facts, is laugh-out-loud funny.

This was a perfect Halloween read. It’s chilling and scary and terrifying. There are ghosts, and a fire, and a fight in the museum (in costume!). And in the end, what’s important gets saved.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Heart of Perdition

Heart of Perdition by Selah March is a short, chilling gothic story. And I do mean chilling. The ending was very eerie, and I got the shivers. Not from cold, but from the creepy-crawlies. In a good way.

Heart of Perdition takes place in a steampunk-style world, but the story isn’t steampunk, and that doesn’t matter. Steampunk can be a setting, just as an alien planet or near-future apocalypse can be a setting, while the story is another genre entirely. That’s how we sometimes get genre-benders like futuristic romance or historical mysteries.

So the steampunk setting of Perdition allows the use of airships and clockwork servants, but doesn’t drive the story. What drives the story is an ancient evil creature named Xaphan, and a terrible curse embodied by one lonely young woman.

Elspeth Shaw lives alone on the Greek island of St. Kilda. It’s a very bleak island, and it’s better that way. Elspeth suffers from a terrible curse. Every living creature who becomes emotionally attached to her, dies. Every creature, not just humans. Elspeth can’t even have a pet without watching it die horribly of her curse.

Elspeth only allows herself one human servant, a housekeeper whom she pays well and treats just barely tolerably, guaranteeing that the woman never forms any attachment to her. It’s her only way of keeping the woman alive. All of her other servants are automata.

Poor Elspeth’s own feelings don’t enter into the curse, she can love anyone she likes. Or not. What matters what they feel about her.

The curse is the result of an evil bargain her father made the night she was born. Her father tried to cheat death. To do so, he stole a powerful artifact that had been safeguarded by a church. That artifact controlled an evil spirit named Xaphan. The bargain her father made was that the curse would be visited on his first-born child. Elspeth’s father assumed his first-born would be a son. He was an egotistical scientist in the Victorian era, he was like that. Instead, his firstborn was Elspeth.

Her father was not killed by the curse because he never loved her. He lived a normal life-span.

But as he died, an old bitter man, he decided upon one last act of horror. Dr. Shaw died in the house of James Weston, Earl of Falmouth. Weston was a young man dying of congenital heart disease. Contemporary physicians could recognize it, but not cure it.

With his dying breath, Dr. Shaw directed Weston to go to Elspeth, and to release Xaphan. Knowing the evil would grant the dying young man his wish of restored life, at the cost of releasing that terrible evil back into the world.

The inevitable result is tragic and horrible and incredibly chilling.

Escape Rating B+: I recommend Heart of Perdition if you like your romances with a side of eerie. You will gobble this story right up–but don’t gobble this one up alone in the dark with your ereader. The ending haunts.

Past Tense

Nick Marsh’s Past Tense is almost two books in one. The first half of Past Tense is science fiction/horror, and it’s pretty much of a sequel to Marsh’s first book, Soul Purpose (reviewed here). The main purpose of chapters 1 through 44 (or I through XLIV) is to provide a reason for the rest: the marvelous time travel feast that gives Past Tense its name.

The present day bits about the vet Alan Reece and his friends George and Kate, who saved the world from a Lovecraftian-Cthulhu-monster type takeover in the previous book, serve as introduction. The world is going to hell in a handcart again. Alan is not just seeing monsters, he also keeps slipping sideways into a world where Cthulhu seems to be running the place. And this is NOT GOOD.

He’s also being stalked by a couple of guys in ill-fitting suits and rather poor hygiene. When they finally catch up with him, their explanation floors him. They are like him, except from other “Soul Plains”. They are Conduits, with a capital “C”, and so is Alan.

And they are on Earth to help Alan save it, again. Because that last time Alan saved the Earth, he caught the attention of something nasty, and it wants to spoil things at the Soul Plain level, where only Conduits can fix things. Earth wasn’t even supposed to have a Conduit yet, so Alan is special.

About the poor hygiene thing. The other Conduits are just borrowing the bodies of people from Earth. They don’t quite know how to operate the equipment, so to speak. They get the language and general movement, well mostly, but the nuances of hair combing and tooth brushing are pretty much beyond them.

But they can show Alan how bad the problem is. The creature has no physical existence, except what he borrows. But on the Soul Plain level, he consumes Conduits, kills them, and steals their power. And he wants Alan. But he also want the entire Soul Power of the Earth.

The 21st century didn’t work for him. He was drawn to it because that’s where Alan was, but the 21st century doesn’t believe in much anymore, not on a superstitious level. This being needs to be worshipped to manifest. People need to believe in him. So he’s gone back into Earth’s past.

And that’s where the second “book” comes in. The creature has manifested in Britain, during the late period of the Roman occupation, in a fort on Hadrian’s Wall. In order to stop him, Alan has to go back to that same period to stop him from changing whatever piece in history he changed to trigger the wrong turn in history.

Alan has to occupy someone else’s body, just as the other Conduits do. Alan’s spirit, or soul, or Conduitness, or whatever, travels back and occupies the body of a medicus, a surgeon, on the Roman frontier in Britain at around 177 A.D. This glimpse into the life in Roman Britain is absolutely fascinating.

Even better, although worse for her, one of the creature’s minions mistakenly believes that Kate is the Conduit and sends her back to the same place and time. Kate occupies the body of a slave girl.

Between Alan and Kate, they are able to observe Roman life from top to bottom.

Their mission, which they must accept, is to prevent the assassination of the future emperor Commodus. Bastard that Commodus was, his place in history was necessary in order for the Roman Empire to fall at the appropriate time.

The only way they may be able to accomplish this seemingly impossible task is to convince a loyal and rational Roman Centurion that his commander is already dead and that his best friend is a time traveler. Can they do the impossible in time?

Escape Rating B+: I am of two minds. The set up with the part in the 21st century at the beginning, was necessary, but I wanted more of the part in the past. I adored the story once it moved to Roman Britain. Alan’s perspective on life in the fort really shone. It was so ironic that he found his place in life nearly 2,000 years before his birth. And he knew it couldn’t last.

And Kate, trying so hard to hold up at the absolute bottom of society’s ladder, reminding Alan that his current privilege rested on the backs of people like her, on slavery.

The historic bits reminded me a lot of Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove’s excellent Household Gods. This was a marvelous book about a woman whose spirit travels back to live on the Danube frontier of the Roman Empire at the same time period as Past Tense.

There’s a slight hint of the Star Trek Original Series episode City on the Edge of Forever in Kate’s relationship with Lucius the centurion. She wants to save him, to the point where she writes herself a message the second they get back to the 21st century, which she already knows she will find and read at the beginning of this adventure, but he will still attack first and die. And it’s necessary to save the future. And she grieves.

For more of my thoughts on Past Tense, take a look at Book Lovers Inc.


Soul Purpose

There must have been a generation of veterinarians who thought it would be just like James Herriot’s practice is All Creatures Great and Small. Herriot probably has a lot to answer for. Alan Reece, the vet in  Nick Marsh’s Soul Purpose (and its sequel, Past Tense) certainly didn’t expect that his practice would mostly be either mind-numbingly boring or involve being called in the wee hours in the morning because something horrible to a poor cow in a cold and mucky barn. And the middle-of-the night calls are always in barns. And always about cows.

But our story begins when Alan’s middle-of-the-night farmer call involves a perfectly normal birth–of a completely transparent calf. The calf is transparent, but its organs are quite visible through the skin. The farmer is also quite visibly certain that something is not right, but is too shocked to give his fears a name. Alan can’t believe his eyes, so he does something both stupid and brave, which turns out to be typical of him. He touches the transparent calf–and it becomes a normal calf.

By the next morning, after almost no sleep (not atypical of mornings after Alan has been on call) Alan wants to forget the whole thing. The farmer calls and says he doesn’t want to mention the visit again. Ever. And Alan is more than agreeable to that.

There are a couple of problems with this plan. One problem is that the transparent calf was not either Alan’s or the farmer’s imagination. It really happened. And the force that caused it, well, let’s just say it more than noticed Alan’s intervention. And now, it’s noticed Alan. In fact, there’s a voice talking to Alan, and Alan is trying to pretend that he’s not hearing it.

But Kate brings in her cat Roger, and Kate can see the person or force behind that voice. Kate has always been able to see souls, and now, she sees lots of them surrounding Alan. Kate has another problem. Kate’s a physicist, and she’s been running computer models on the new ion accelerator that’s scheduled to start running in Kent in a week or so. Her models show that the ion accelerator will bring about the end of the world. Really. Scientifically.

And that’s just what the voice in Alan’s head is predicting.

There’s one other person involved in this. George is Alan’s housemate. George works for a magazine, Mysterious World. Mysterious World covers paranormal phenomenon, and usually everything that George finds is a complete bust. Until he goes to see a strange fireplace at a pub, and guess what? The fire is transparent!

Escape Rating B: This is a hilariously snarky genre-bender. It has elements of horror, but also some urban fantasy and science fiction thrown in. Alan and his friends are terrific fun, so I’m really glad there’s another book. I want to see how they do now that they know each other. And how everyone puts their life back together, since they totally chucked everything in this one. But all in a very good cause.

I did figure out who the bad guy was way before the end.

Did Trevor (Kate’s ex) have to caricature every stereotype of the male librarian, and was it necessary to launch into a “why Alan fears libraries and librarians” in the middle of the book? Really? Can librarians possibly be as scary as demon worshipers and zombies? (And yes, this question is relevant in context)

There’s a nod to P.D. James’ Children of Men, or at least I saw one. YMMV. Some bits even reminded me of the classic horror videogame Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem not an exact correlation, but I wasn’t sure of that until the end.

If Ford Prefect had picked up a vet instead of Arthur Dent, this is the sort of horrific journey that might have resulted. And if this reference makes sense, you’ll have fun on this trip.

How many best books?

In time for everyone’s holiday shopping, the best books of 2011 lists are popping up everywhere. This is in spite of the fact that 2011 still has two whole publishing months yet to go!

And maybe it’s me, but I kind of expect best books lists to be organized in lists of “top tens”. You know what I mean, the top ten books of the year, and then the top ten fiction, the top ten mysteries, top ten science fiction, top ten romance, etc., etc., etc.

Amazon’s Top 100 Editor’s Picks went up on the Amazon site on November 8, but they also picked the top 10 books in each genre, grouping, or what-have-you. Admittedly, Amazon’s purpose is to sell books, but somebody still had to sit down and think about which ten books to highlight, even in such esoteric categories as “Quirky & Strange”, which is where they slipped in Go the F**k to Sleep and Pat the Zombie.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as they’re talking about reading, and about giving people books, whether print books or ebooks, for holiday presents, it’s all good.

But, but, but, you’re wondering why I took a look at this? I’m not going to critique the selections. As long as people are reading, it’s all good. Amazon treated every genre and every reading taste equally. If I looked hard enough, I’m sure they forgot someone, but at least they tried.  And if someone wants to debate Amazon’s choices, that person is still talking about reading!

The Publishers Weekly 2011 best books list was released on November 4. The web app to view the list is very cool.  But this time, I am going to debate the contents of the list. It’s not so much what’s on it, but how many. There are only 9 mystery and thriller titles. Just 9.  This is not about whether those 9 are or are not awesome (I know one of them is definitely awesome) but shouldn’t this be a top ten list? Really?

PW lumps Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror into one big basket. One big and relatively empty basket. There are only six books mentioned, and all are from small publishers. While highlighting small publishers is terrific, it does make me wonder that none of the big SF or Fantasy titles were good enough to be on their best books list? Not Magician King or Wise-Man’s Fear or Embassytown? Or Ready Player One, which everyone has raved about. Even more interesting, the science fiction blogger named her four honorable mention titles; The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie, Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow, The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham, Dead Iron by Devon Monk. Why not just give SF/F/Horror a top ten list in the first place?

There are only 5 romance titles listed. This is something I find just plain impossible to believe. There weren’t 10 best romances? Why not? Where does paranormal fit into this mix, because there wasn’t a paranormal title among the five chosen. And Archangel’s Blade, Heart of Steel, and Dragon Bound show up on an awful lot of lists this year.

But it’s not about which particular titles I would personally choose or not choose. It’s about the fact that, even taken as a whole, none of the major fiction genres were considered worth 10 “best books” recommendations on a list with an seemingly elastic number of slots.

For the kids who read the recommended books like A Monster Calls and Legend and Daughter of Smoke and Bone, where are the similar numbers of fantastic genre recommendations for when they grow up?