The nitty-gritty: A stylish, horrifying and wryly humorous reading experience like no other.
The weather that day was warm in the sunlight, cold in theThe nitty-gritty: A stylish, horrifying and wryly humorous reading experience like no other.
The weather that day was warm in the sunlight, cold in the shade. It had been a terrible summer in Manhattan, humid and wet; now the autumn was dry but feverish, with skies that seemed somehow the wrong color, lurid, like old nickel postcards of New England scenes. Winter would come eventually, and it would be ferocious.
Sax wondered, without much emotion, if he would live to see the spring.
Curious about Ben Tripp’s latest? Well, you should be. For those of you who like comparisons, I’m calling this one “Dracula meets Ocean’s Eleven.” The simplest way to describe it would be a heist story with vampires. But it’s so much more. The Fifth House of the Heart has officially risen to the top of my favorite books so far this year, and I would have to say it’s neck and neck with Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty at the moment.
There are layers upon layers to this complex story, but here’s the basic plot. Asmodeus Saxon-Tang (or Sax for short) is a notorious antiques dealer who has made a name for himself amassing incredible wealth over the years, mostly by seeking out vampire lairs and stealing their treasures. But his latest acquisition, a French Napoleon ormolu clock, has earned him the unwanted attention of a very dangerous vampire, and Sax fears his days may be numbered. When the clock is stolen from his warehouse, he knows exactly who stole it: the dreaded vampire. Sax gathers together a motley crew of thieves and killers to track down the vampire, and the game is afoot.
Oh, there is so much to talk about in this review! I’ve decided to abandon my regular format, and bring you my Top Ten Reasons To Read The Fifth House of the Heart instead:
“I’ve been infected since nineteen hundred and sixty-five, mate,” Sax complained. “There’s more vampire junk in me than in Nosferatu’s underpants.”
Sax is one of the most unique and enjoyable characters I’ve run across in a long time. He absolutely steals the show, and his wry humor and self-deprecating ways earned him a permanent home in my heart. Sax is a seventy-something unabashedly gay man, and despite his uncertain ability to keep an erection, he’s continually making titillating sexual comments. When he meets Fra Paolo, the young priest who joins the crew, he makes it his mission to seduce him. (Or at least that's what he tells himself.) Sax admits he’s a coward, despite all his adventures with vampires, and yet he’s willing to walk into danger in order to save his friends.
2. The rest of the characters.
Sax may steal the show, but the story wouldn't be nearly as interesting without the supporting characters. I absolutely loved the mismatched group of people he gathers together as his crew, to infiltrate the vampire’s lair: Paolo, the priest, who is lusting after Sax’s niece Emily; Min, the vampire killer, who has her own score to settle; Rock, the muscle, a big, bold and lovable hunk of man whose bravery is unmatched; Abingdon, the forger, who wants to sleep with everyone; and Gheorghe, the Romanian burglar. And more. Yes, it’s a big cast of characters, but somehow Tripp makes them all fit together.
3. The writing.
Ben Tripp is such a good writer he could probably convince the devil to let him go, were he ever to find himself trapped in Hell. There were so many times while I was reading that I wanted to grab someone and read out loud to them. I could honestly fill this review with quotes from the story, but I’d rather you discover (most of) them for yourself.
4. The humor.
I seriously laughed out loud more than I’ve ever laughed out loud before, while reading this book. Humor and timing go hand in hand, and Tripp has both down to a science. Sax had a way of stating the obvious that just worked for me every time. And Sax isn't the only character who made me chuckle. One of my favorite lines in the entire book—and there were a lot of them—was when Min is watching Abingdon forging weapons, wondering if she should sleep with him. She then observes that “He was just an erection with a man standing behind it.”
5. The history.
Tripp’s story spans not only the world—different scenes take place in Manhattan, Paris, England, Czechoslovakia, Mumbai and Rome—but centuries. We get to see Sax as a young man just making a name for himself, but Tripp takes us back even further, to the discovery of vampires in the Holy Land nearly a thousand years ago. I truly felt the weight of history while reading this book.
6. The story construction.
The Fifth House of the Heart is full of stories within stories within stories. Tripp leads the reader down a path that turns into a cave then falls down a rabbit hole. During his adventure in the present day, he remembers his dangerous encounters with two other vampires, one in 1965 and one in 1989, seamlessly tying everything neatly together. It was one of the most masterful displays of story building I’ve ever seen.
7. The details.
It was an odor Sax loved. It was the smell of ancient beauty, of things that needed bringing back to life. Gentle cleaning, damp sponges, white vinegar, beeswax and oil, new air, new eyes to gaze upon them: time itself leaves a skin on things, the way the air leaves sulfur on silver, turning it black. When that obscuring film is removed, the light in the heart of things radiates. The beauty, like some princess in a story by Perrault, awakens after a long sleep.
By making Sax a collector of all things antique, Tripp has wonderful opportunities to describe incredible works of art, antique furniture and fixtures, and rare gems in loving detail. And I never got bored with these descriptions. In fact, I eagerly soaked it all up. I could visualize each item as Tripp described it, and I could tell these details were carefully and painstakingly researched. Before this book, I had no idea there were famous paintings that have been lost to the world, and now I want to know more! And wait until you read his descriptions of food…
8. The name dropping.
Because Sax is so well known and infamous in his own right, he’s met some very interesting people over the past fifty years, including George Harrison, Grace Slick, and Givenchy, to name a few. I loved the way he remembers each one fondly,
9. The action.
The story may start out slow and meandering, but watch out, because just when you least expect it, all hell breaks loose. The Fifth House of the Heart is a page-turner even before the action starts, so you can imagine how quickly you’ll be turning pages once the gang meets up with the vampires. And remember, this is a heist story, which means Sax and his friends are stealing stuff. And sometimes things go wrong, and then you get more action.
10. The vampires.
And yes, the vampires are terrifying. I loved Tripp’s take on them, because even though vampires have been reinvented thousands of times, he manages to come up with fresh ideas, including the only way to truly kill a vampire, which I’ll let you discover for yourself. (Hint: it has something to do with the title of the book.) You won’t find any handsome, brooding types here. These vamps are fast and strong and deadly. Oh, and they love to collect beautiful things, which makes them the perfect target for one very determined collector of antiques. There were times when I clearly felt the influence of Dracula, its atmospheric and slow creeping terror, but there were other times when the story felt completely new.
If you read one horror story this year, I hope you'll read this one, because it's so much more than just a simple vampire tale. The Fifth House of the Heart is a feast of humor, beauty, terror and emotion. And blood, of course. Highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Quotes above were taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
The nitty-gritty: A dark (very dark) and violent (very violent) trip through a deranged landscape with the characters of Alice In Wonderland. Except iThe nitty-gritty: A dark (very dark) and violent (very violent) trip through a deranged landscape with the characters of Alice In Wonderland. Except in this book, you may not recognize them…
Cake. She was thinking of cake, the soft crumbly sweetness of it on her tongue. She had not eaten cake for years. There certainly was no cake at the hospital, only thin grey gruel, thin as the faces that delivered it morning and night.
There used to be cake with tea, before the hospital. A plate piled high with fat wedges of yellow cake with different icings—pink and blue and violet. Her mother would pour out the tea and then Alice would be permitted to choose one small slice, only one, for her mother did not approve of sweets.
I have to admit this is one of those books where I wasn’t sure how I was going to rate it until the very last page. Early on, I had issues with the story, and I thought it was going to get a lower rating. But by the end I changed my mind, and Henry’s odd and disquieting take on Alice in Wonderland managed to get under my skin. And if you’re thinking that sounds painful, well actually, it was. This story will not be for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s upsetting and bloody and depressing, and while all that may sound like a good reason not to read this book, I actually did end up loving it, for its originality and terrible beauty and gorgeous writing. The Alice of this story grows in leaps and bounds by the end, which made me cheer for her. I do find it strange that of all the characters in Alice, I only really liked a handful of them, Alice being one, and the rest just happen to be giant animals (a white rabbit and a family of giant rats!).
All of the players you’re familiar with are present in this story, with a twist. Alice has been locked in an insane asylum for the past ten years, after a violent incident that she can’t fully remember. She has only snippets of memories of a tea party, and being forced to eat cake, stabbing a Rabbit in the eye, and running away. Her only friend is a man named Hatcher in the next cell. Alice and Hatcher communicate through a mouse-hole, and so the only parts of Hatcher that Alice has ever seen are his face and beard. Until one night, a fire breaks out in the asylum, and Hatcher helps Alice escape. They wind up in Old City, a dark and dank place split up into factions ruled by cruel crime lords, where danger lurks around every corner. But something even more menacing is on the loose: a creature called the Jabberwocky.
Alice and Hatcher set out on a perilous journey to try to stop him, but along the way they must face some old foes from their pasts. And as Alice’s memory slowly starts to return, she knows can’t rest until she confronts the person she escaped from long ago: the Rabbit.
Christina Henry’s writing is so well suited to this story, or perhaps she just adopted the right voice for telling an Alice in Wonderland tale. This is the only book of hers I've read, so I don’t know if this is her “normal” voice. But whatever she’s done, it works. Her writing is spare and to the point, and there isn’t a wasted word anywhere in the book. And she’s definitely got the spirit of the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland down pat and added some very modern updates that make it feel off kilter. On the one hand, this is clearly a fantasy world where magic is real. But as we are introduced to Cheshire, the Caterpillar, the Walrus and the Rabbit, I began to feel as if I were in an episode of The Sopranos. Each character “owns” a part of the city and defends his territory with violence and bloodshed, and it is through these mean streets that Alice and Hatcher must navigate in order to find the Rabbit, who holds the key to defeating the Jabberwocky.
The hardest part of this story for me—and I’m sure this will be hard for many readers—is the way women are depicted as victims. The story is full of powerful men who use women as sex slaves, keeping them captive and physically abusing them. One of the more disturbing scenes takes place when Alice and Hatcher make their way to the Caterpillar’s club called Butterflies, where women are forced to wear butterfly wings and dance naked for male patrons (and that’s not even the worst part). Throughout the story, there’s a feeling of dread every time the Walrus’s name is mentioned, a hulking man who is rumored to eat young girls. But even worse was the way the female characters felt about themselves. They seemed to almost accept the fact that their lot in life is to be used by men and then discarded, or even killed.
Even though Hatcher is seen as Alice’s rescuer, an odd character who wields an ax and has no problem using it against anyone who gets in their way, I didn’t like him very much. His violent temper scared the pants off me, and I honestly couldn’t understand what Alice saw in him. Alice just assumes she and Hatcher will end up as a couple, and I found it sad that she couldn’t see beyond him, and envision a life where she can stand on her own. As Alice’s memories of the Rabbit start to trickle back in, she proclaims “I don’t want him to own me again.” And then Hatcher says something like, “Don’t worry, Alice. You’re mine.” (or words to that effect) I just wanted to smack him, and then I wanted to smack Alive for feeling like she has to "belong" to any man.
Near the end of the story, however, Alice finally steps up and realizes she has her own powers, her own way of dealing with the situation, and she actually doesn’t need help at all. I was so relieved with this side of her character, that my final rating went up at that moment!
But despite the grim storyline, Alice has sparks of beauty and magic to keep it from tumbling into too deep a pit of despair. Alice’s gentle and trusting nature created some lovely moments, especially the scene with a terribly abused rabbit named Pipkin, who has been given a potion to make him human-sized. Alice not only helps him seek vengeance with the man who abused him, but she also helps him escape his prison. But even with moments like these, Henry wields a double-edged sword, because vengeance, while sweet, is also soaked in blood.
Unsettling, dark and twisted, Alice is best appreciated by a discerning reader who isn’t afraid to venture into the unfamiliar.
Big thanks to the publisher and Ace Roc Stars for supplying a review copy.
The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly awesome combination of urban fantasy, Buffy-like hijinks and cinematic action scenes, with a dollop of t4 1/2 stars.
The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly awesome combination of urban fantasy, Buffy-like hijinks and cinematic action scenes, with a dollop of teen angst and emotion thrown in for good measure.
"So, how does this friend of yours know about me and what exactly did she say?"
"That you were familiar with situations like this. That you were a . . . " He cleared his throat. "That you're a witch."
Lucifer couldn't stop laughing. "A witch? Seriously? Wow, is your friend off the mark. I'm not a witch. Not even close."
"Then what are you?" he asked.
Lucifer gave him a broad smile. "I'm a thief."
"Don't worry. I don't rob banks or pick pockets. I specialize in stealing . . . other things."
I was recently in a reading slump, trying to make my way through a slow book, and I decided to take a break and read something else. Hexed was sitting right by my computer, and since the release date was only days away, I picked it up and started reading. It sucked me in, people, and I barely came up for air and only put it down when my eyelids wouldn't stay open. What fun I had with this book! Hexed is based on Nelson's popular comic series of the same name, which I haven't read, but you can bet I will now. It's the first in a series about the magical misadventures of teen Luci Jenifer Inacio das Neves, or Lucifer for short. Lucifer may be a teen, but she's anything but ordinary. She lives by herself, and she's hired to steal dangerous magical artifacts so they won't fall into the wrong hands. Her only "family" is a woman known as the Keeper of Secrets, or the Harlot, who Lucifer tried to steal from once, but was caught. Now she's been literally branded by the Harlot and forced into taking over her job someday.
All Lucifer wants is to be a normal girl with a boyfriend, but instead she skulks around at night, breaking into buildings and stealing things, with her bag of magic spells over her shoulder to help her out. When a cop named Buck approaches Lucifer and asks her to help find his missing daughter Gina, who has been kidnapped by a witch, she has no idea what hell she's about to get herself into. With Gina's boyfriend David in tow, Lucifer sets out on a wild and circuitous trail in order to find a magical object that will help her rescue Gina.
There were so many things I loved about Hexed. First of all, the pacing was first-rate, and never for a moment was I bored. Nelson tells the story exclusively from Lucifer's point of view, which was a nice change of pace from all the multi-POVs I've been reading lately. I can easily picture this book being made into a movie someday, it was that well done. Lucifer reminded me so much of Joss Whedon's Buffy Summers, a tortured girl who just wants to be like everyone else, but is destined for something different. There was even a scene near the end that involved an evil corporation, and I couldn't help but think of Wolfram & Hart from Whedon's Angel.
Lucifer was a fantastic character, with just the right combination of bad-assery and vulnerability. She's been in the magic world since she was little, after growing up poor in a favela in Brazil, having lost both her parents before she was brought to the United States. Now she gets by on her quick wits and extensive knowledge of the arcane. As she has to keep reminding David, she isn't magic herself, but she can use magic. Lucifer never heaves home without her "trick bag," which she fills with spells that help her in her job as a thief. She's a wonderfully strong female character, but she doesn't flaunt it. Her strength is just part of who she is. And she just wants to help others, which is how she justifies stealing dangerous objects that could potentially harm people.
Gina's boyfriend David wasn't nearly as strong or likable a character, but honestly, Lucifer made up for him. I was actually quite annoyed with him, since he starts to fall for Lucifer (yes, there is a romantic element to the story, but it doesn't overwhelm it), and he's supposed to be in love with Gina. Lucifer falls for him too, but I got the feeling that it was more his pretty-boy athletic looks she was interested in, rather than his personality.
But I loved most of the other characters, even the Harlot, who—as scary and dangerous as she is—always has a comfy sofa and a cup of hot tea waiting for Lucifer when she comes to visit. A character who appears near the end is most certainly going to feature in the next book of the series, a woman who ends up taking Lucifer under her wing and offering her a job. And I can't wait to read more about her!
If you're looking for a fast-paced urban fantasy that pushes all the right buttons, then look no further. Hexed is a quick but memorable read, and the next book in the series can't come fast enough for me! Highly recommended.
Big thanks to Pyr Books for supplying a review copy.
The nitty-gritty: Thrilling action, unexpected surprises and complex and layered characters, this is one book science fiction fans should not miss!
“ThThe nitty-gritty: Thrilling action, unexpected surprises and complex and layered characters, this is one book science fiction fans should not miss!
“This will be the most interesting mission you’ll ever forget.”
- Monique Pendleton
Jason M. Hough’s latest is going to blow sci-fi fans out of the water, as he combines assassins, a mechanically and biologically enhanced main character, a parallel planet, space travel, and more. Zero World begins with an irresistible hook and only gets better as it goes along. And what a complete package this story is: it’s got cinematic-style action scenes, plenty of technical details for the hard science fiction fans, interesting characters who all find themselves having to make difficult moral choices, a fascinating culture clash between two very similar yet completely different worlds, intrigue, spies, weapons galore, and more surprises and twists in one story than I’ve seen in a while. In short, Zero World is just the kind of book that reminds me why I keep reading, and how wonderful it is when I find a new author to love.
Peter Caswell lives on a future Earth, and is a trained assassin for the Archon Corporation. His body has been modified to enhance his senses and give him super strength and speed. He’s sent on covert missions by his “handler” Monique Pendleton, who monitors his every action and helps him navigate the dangerous assignments. The catch? An implant in the back of Caswell's neck automatically erases all his memories of the mission, so he has no idea what he’s done. Except for one poignant detail: before the memory wipe, Peter has just enough time to leave himself a clue: he turns around beer bottles in his fridge, one for each kill, so when he wakes up, he has at least one grim reminder of what he’s done.
His latest job is to pretend to be part of the crew of a salvage mission, reclaiming the black box of a spaceship that disappeared twelve years ago and has just been found. His superiors want to know why the entire crew is dead and a scientist named Alice Vale is missing. But when Monique suddenly changes the mission, Caswell finds himself on another planet with new orders: track down and eliminate Alice Vale, who is suspected of killing her entire crew and escaping through a rip in space. When he runs into a woman named Melni, a spy from the South who has come to glean information from the Northern advancements, their lives become linked in an instant, and before you know it, Caswell and Melni are running for their lives.
And that’s just the beginning. I could go on and on about the plot, but I don’t want to give too much away. This is one story that benefits from going in blind, and I’m so glad I didn’t know much about it before I started reading. Hough paces his story just right, with escalating action scenes that had me cringing and gasping and worried every single second for the lives of the characters I grew to love. And be prepared for a high body count. After all, we’re dealing with a highly trained assassin with an implant that makes him nearly unbeatable, not to mention a very nasty futuristic weapon called a vossen gun that I’m hoping doesn’t really exist.
But Zero World is much more than just an action-packed thriller. Hough creates an interesting—and eerily familiar—political situation on the surface of the planet Gartien, with two factions, the North and the South, separated by an immense line of craters from an event called the Desolation. The North is much more advanced that the South (and I’m not going to tell you why!), and people from the South aren’t happy about it at all. Much of the tension in the story stems from this set-up, a Cold War-like scenario that felt uncomfortably close to our own world’s history.
And I loved the planet of Gartien, whose people are different in so many ways. For example, a Gartien’s internal organs are all on the opposite sides from ours, and most of the population is left-handed as opposed to right-handed. Although they speak English, many of the words are used in different ways, which makes for some awkward communication between Caswell and Melni. Most of the story takes place in the North, where the privileged Northerners live an almost quaint 50s lifestyle. Everything about Gartien is just slightly off from what Caswell is familiar with, and because he’s trying to fit in and keep his real identity a secret, there are plenty of tense moments when he almost blows his cover.
Of all the well-drawn characters, Caswell was definitely my favorite. His own life is a mystery to him, because despite all the missions he’s gone on and all the people he’s killed, he can’t remember any of it. At the end of each job, he ends up back in his apartment, knowing that three or four days of his life are now missing forever. He’s developed coping mechanisms, but those only do so much to comfort him. He knows he’s killed people because of the backwards beer bottles lined up in his fridge, but since he can't remember killing anyone, he has no reason to feel remorse.
I loved the relationship that grew between Caswell and Melni, who are thrown together early on and spend a great deal of the story trying to keep each other alive. And don’t get the wrong idea about the word “relationship.” There is nary a hint of romance in this book, although I suspect there might be as the series progresses. What I loved most was the way they slowly begin to trust each other, two people who have little in common, except for the fact that they’re both human. Eventually they become comfortable enough with each other to joke about the fact that Melni is a planner, while Caswell flies by the seat of his pants. The understated humor was a nice change of pace from the heavier scenes.
One of the best things about Zero World was that I rarely saw what was coming next (although one big surprise in the beginning wasn’t hard to figure out.) But for the most part, the twists and turns made my head spin, they came so frequently and with such speed. Several times I thought I had things figured out, only to find out I was wrong. The story starts in one place, with one set of truths, and ends up somewhere completely different. By the end my mouth was hanging open, wondering how I’d arrived at the last page, and cursing Mr. Hough because I realized this was only the first part of the story. I often say in my reviews that I can't wait for the next book in the series, but this time I really mean it!
If you’re ready to immerse yourself in a unique and dangerous world, where no one can be trusted and nothing feels familiar, then look no further. Highly recommended!
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
The nitty-gritty: A sprawling adventure story filled with airships, magic crystals, militaryThis review originally appeared on The Speculative Herald.
The nitty-gritty: A sprawling adventure story filled with airships, magic crystals, military maneuvers and talking cats. Yes, I said talking cats!
Despite the fact that it took me two weeks to read The Aeronaut’s Windlass, I had so much fun. This was my first Jim Butcher book, and I can see why he’s so popular. His storytelling is exciting and his characters practically jump off the page. No doubt my rating would be higher had the book been shorter, simply because there was just too much of it. But despite some slow spots and a few personal issues I had with Butcher’s writing (which I’ll get to later), I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Readers who love military proceedings and battles at sea are going to love this book. And although the story doesn’t take place at sea, but in the air, it still had the feeling of a rollicking sea adventure.
The story revolves around several groups of main characters. Captain Grimm is the commander of the merchant ship Predator and reports to the Spirearch of Albion. Spire Albion and Spire Aurora are at war, and after Grimm’s airship sustains major damage in an attack, Grimm reluctantly agrees to head up a secret mission for the Spirearch, in exchange for his ship being repaired. He is joined by an odd group of people: Gwendolyn Lancaster, a young woman who has just joined the Spirearch’s Guard; her cousin Benedict, a warriorborn with superior speed and strength; Bridget, another member of the guard (along with her steadfast companion, a cat named Rowl); and an etherealist named Ferus and his apprentice Folly.
But their mission is dangerous, and once they arrive at Habble Landing, it seems everyone wants them dead. The question becomes not will they succeed at their mission, but will they return home alive.
There were so many things I loved about The Aeronaut’s Windlass, but I have to start by talking about the cats. Before I started reading, I had no idea that TALKING CATS would play such a big role in the story. I don’t get the chance to say this very often, but I absolutely LOVE books with talking animals (as long as they’re done right, that is). These cats don’t speak English, however, they speak Cat, but what’s so cool is that several of the characters speak Cat and can understand and have conversations with them. Rowl is Bridget’s constant companion, and because they’ve spent so much time together, Bridget has learned how to communicate with him. Through her, we get to see the intricate social and political structure of the cat population. Rowl has given Bridget a “true name”—Littlemouse—which is a very high honor for a human to receive from a cat. Butcher must have first-hand knowledge of cat behavior, because his descriptions of how cats interact with each other, as well as humans, sounded completely convincing, even though I’m not a cat owner myself. There’s even a bit of cat romance that had me grinning from ear to ear!
I loved that there is no real discernible main character, although Grimm feels like he might be one. Butcher does characters really well, and there were several that ended up being my favorites. I loved Bridget, a girl who is forced to leave home (for her own good) by her father. She starts out scared and uncertain about her mission with the Guard, but as the story progresses, she becomes stronger and stronger. I was also very fond of Gwen’s cousin Benedict, who isn’t quite human. He’s a warriorborn, and has the speed and strength of a large cat (plus Butcher describes his eyes as being “cat-like.”) A romance starts to bloom between the two of them, which was an unexpected treat, because I was expecting Gwen and Grimm to become an item (and I’m so glad Butcher didn’t take the obvious path with the romance!).
Ferus and Folly are delightful characters, and just odd enough to make the reader wonder what the heck is wrong with them. Butcher explains the idea of “etherealism,” which seems to be gathering ether from the atmosphere and using it as an energy source, but he left enough of a mystery about the etherealists that I’m hoping he’ll go deeper into it in the next book.
And I can't do a proper review without mentioning the steampunk elements. In this case, “steampunk” refers to the airships, huge vessels crafted out of wood that are lifted and propelled by crystals, which are the ship’s source of energy. Different types and sizes of crystals do different things, and of course some ships are faster than others due to their particular crystals. I loved this aspect of the story, and the fact that Gwen’s family makes the most expensive and finely crafted crystals in the land.
So yes, the characters and the small details of the world-building were wonderful, but I had some trouble understanding the big picture. I dearly wanted a map to refer to, and I suppose it’s possible the finished hardcover has a map. This world is made up of Spires, and within the Spires are groups of dwellings called Habbles. The characters get from place to place on airships, but other than that, I had trouble visualizing the lay of the land. Much of the action takes place in the ventilation tunnels, close to the ground where most people won’t venture. I tried to picture the relationship between the ground and the Spires and how far apart they were, etc., but for some reason I just couldn’t figure it out.
Butcher may be one of those oh-so-popular authors (like Stephen King, perhaps?) whose editors turn their heads the other way and let him ramble on, when a more discerning editorial eye could have tightened up the plot and shaved a good 100 pages off of this behemoth. The air battle scenes at the end were thrilling, but they went on far too long for my taste.
Butcher has a writing quirk that I started to notice early on, and every time he used it, it stood out like a beacon. Instead of using a character’s name every time, he’ll switch over to a descriptive phrase instead, maybe for variety? I don’t know, but it bugged me. I’ll use Folly as an example. He uses her name to start the scene, but then he switches over to “the oddly dressed young woman” the next time he mentions her. He used that particular phrase so many times that I wished I had counted them!
But my silly pet peeves aside, this book was a blast to read, and I can’t wait for the next installment. With over 600 pages, you can bet there are lots of story elements that I didn’t even get to talk about in this review. (The silkweavers!) If you love adventure, strong characters and fascinating world-building, you’re going to love The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
Big thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy....more
The nitty-gritty: If Pulp Fiction and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went to church and got pregnant, Afterparty would be their crazy, drug-soaked baThe nitty-gritty: If Pulp Fiction and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest went to church and got pregnant, Afterparty would be their crazy, drug-soaked baby.
Oh, we were such geniuses. A company of smarty-pants. Mikala the chemistry wizard, Gil the tech brain, Edo the money man, and me—the neuroscientist with the brilliant idea that we could cure the Afghanistan of mental disorders.
This is probably going to be my favorite book of 2015, unless something even better comes along. And it wasn’t even published this year, for cryin’ out loud! You guys, I had heard great things about Afterparty, but I had no idea that Daryl Gregory actually wrote this book specifically for me! Don’t you love it when that happens? OK, maybe he didn’t write it for me personally, but it feels as if he did. This is my third Daryl Gregory book, and I swear that guy never writes the same book twice. You would never know that this is the same author of Harrison Squared and We Are Completely Fine, two books I also loved.
Afterparty is about drugs. And religion. And relationships. And being a parent. And dealing with addiction. It’s about trust and betrayal and murder. But if any of that sounds too heavy for you, never fear. This book is not heavy. It’s entertaining. It’s got crazy action and road trips and trying to cross the border. But mostly, it’s got amazing characters, dialog and pacing. In short, it’s everything I want and need in a book. For this review, I’ve decided to give you my top ten eleven twelve thirteen reasons you should get off your ass right now and read Afterparty:
1. Lyda Rose. Our MC was named after a song (yes, that song!) but she’s also had her brain permanently altered by a drug called Numinous, and now she has her own personal angel who follows her around and gives her (mostly) unwanted advice. The problem is, no one can see the angel except Lyda, so she’s been locked up in a mental institution for a while. Lyda loves to swear and she’s a super smart neuroscientist, and I adored everything about her.
2. Bobby and his treasure chest. Bobby is Lyda’s friend from the loony bin, and he thinks his soul lives in a plastic treasure chest that he wears around his neck.
3. A beautifully written lesbian relationship. Lyda used to be married to Mikala, until that fateful night (you’ll see when you read the book!), and now she’s falling for Ollie, a brilliant computer hacker who is just as damaged as Lyda. I’m even more impressed that this completely believable and honest relationship was written by a male writer. Even better? It’s also a mixed race one. Bonus points!
4. A story with Pulp Fiction-like attitude. Guns, drugs, hit men, black humor and did I mention drugs? This is high-octane story that knows when to stop and take a breather.
5. Dr. Gloria! Dr. Gloria is Lyda’s angel, and I pictured her the entire story as Oprah Winfrey. Yep. I loved their dialog because first of all, Lyda is an atheist and doesn’t believe for one minute that Dr. Gloria is real. And she sometimes says mean things to her. But just like Jesus, Dr. Gloria always forgives Lyda.
6. Drugs. It’s no secret that I have a thing for books about drugs. I’m not sure why, maybe because there is so much you can do with the subject, especially in science fiction. In Afterparty, drugs are everywhere, and even Joe Normal can whip up a recipe on a chemjet printer and swallow a piece of paper to get high.
7. Science and future tech. Gregory did lots of research for his story. I loved all the details about the brain and how drugs affect it, but I also loved the cool gadgets. Like everyone has smart pens instead of smart phones (you flick open the screen like opening a fan).
8. Vinnie/The Vincent. Not all the characters are good. Vinnie just wants to run his ranch (which is inside his house!), but when he becomes The Vincent, you want to stay away from him. Far away.
9. Tiny buffalo! You’ll need to read the book to see what this means. I just wanted to say I loved the tiny buffalo!
10. The mystery of what really happened that night. It’s a mystery that Gregory drags out until the very end, and it’s part of the reason this guy’s pacing is BRILLIANT.
11. Sasha and her IF Deck!!! OMG Sasha is probably my favorite character. Maybe ever. I won’t tell you exactly who she is, or what the heck an “IF Deck” is, it’s just another reason you’ll have to read the book for yourself. But I want more Sasha, more stories about her please!
12. So. Much. Emotion. Not only do you get a kick-ass action story with awesome characters, but Gregory made me SOB at the end. I’m not sure why, but I was crying, damn it.
13. The ending!! Never have I been so happy to have the ending in my head match the actual ending of a book. I knew what I wanted to happen, and it did! And then I cried some more.
I know lots of reviewers have tried to analyze this story to determine what it means. Is Gregory making some kind of statement about religion? Is God real, or is religion just our brain telling us what we want to believe? I’m not sure, but I do know that the author lets you draw your own conclusions. There were times when even Lyda isn’t sure about Dr. Gloria, and I loved the fact that she might be a drug-induced hallucination, or she might not.
Have I convinced you yet? You can come back next month when I have my book review giveaway, and try to win a copy of Afterparty, or you could splurge right now and get your own. Or there’s that place called the library that probably has a copy too:-D Highly recommended to the nth highest recommendation. And then triple that. Did I mention I loved this book?
The nitty-gritty: A short but highly entertaining—not to mention terrifying—tale about the dangers of the deep.
I’m so happy I bought myself a copy ofThe nitty-gritty: A short but highly entertaining—not to mention terrifying—tale about the dangers of the deep.
I’m so happy I bought myself a copy of this beautiful little book from Subterranean Press. It’s a signed and numbered edition, and as far as I know, it’s the only edition available at the moment, other than the e-book. Whichever way you read it, it’s a spectacular story that accomplishes big things in a tiny little package.
I won’t give too much of the story away, because it is very short, but here’s the set-up. The Imagine Network has just commissioned a documentary on mermaids, and they’ve arranged to film aboard the cruise ship Atargatis. The plan is to take the ship out into deep water where little sea exploration has been done before, film the hired scientists doing their thing with water and chemical analysis, and have a troupe of professional mermaid “performers” standing by to add authenticity to the documentary. But as the crew and visitors drop anchor and start to explore the deep waters above the Mariana Trench, people on board start to go missing. It isn’t long before the excitement of filming turns into everybody’s worst nightmare.
For a short novella, Grant’s pacing is really good. She divides her story up into five chapters, and each one is prefaced by a blurb from an Imagine Network documentary from the year 2017, looking back on the disaster of the Atargatis and speculating on what happened. It gives the story a bit of foreshadowing and unsettles the reader. You know something bad happened—it’s explained on the first page that the entire crew was lost, but you don’t know exactly what happened until the end. Grant plants her clues carefully, spaced apart just enough to make the reader anxiously flip the pages.
The story is filled with humor as well. Grant pokes fun at the entertainment industry with lots of jokes about contract fulfillment and how documentaries are edited to create whatever story the director wants to tell, whether it’s true or not. The scientists and actors on board know that mermaids don’t really exist, and so they’ve hired a group of professional mermaids, women who wear specially made mermaid tales and perform at parties and other events. (And yes, I Googled this, and it’s a real thing!) The Blue Seas mermaids have been hired to “appear unexpectedly” on film. Obviously, the Imagine Network isn’t above a little innocent hoax or two.
Despite the short length of Rolling in the Deep, Grant digs fairly deep into her characters’ lives and desires. Yes, there is some stereotyping, especially with the nerdy scientist characters and Anne, the actress who will be hosting the documentary. But it made the story all the funnier for me, and I didn’t mind it at all.
I did love the women of the Blue Seas, who have hair colored in every shade of the rainbow and wear custom fit neoprene mermaid tails. The women love what they do, and they’re nearly jumping for joy at the opportunity to practice swimming in open waters. We get to spend just enough time with them to understand their true love of swimming as mermaids has nothing to do with acting. They understand exactly what they’ve been hired for, to pretend to be “real” mermaids, and it doesn’t stop them from having a great time—well, at least until things go terribly wrong. I really liked the idea that Grant puts two of her mermaids in wheelchairs, to show that even someone who isn’t able to walk on her own can have complete freedom of movement in the water.
When events on the Atargatis start to take a turn for the worse, things go south fast. Get ready for a good old-fashioned monster tale with plenty of blood and terror. Grant could have expanded this into a full-fledged novel if she’d wanted to, but I like it just the way it is: a short but nasty tale of “be careful what you wish for.” Trust me, after reading this story, you'll never look at mermaids the same way again. This was my first time reading Mira Grant, but it’s certainly not going to be my last. Highly recommended.
The nitty-gritty: An allegorical story about one teen’s journey toward adulthood, and all the unusual challenges she and her friends4 1/2 stars *****
The nitty-gritty: An allegorical story about one teen’s journey toward adulthood, and all the unusual challenges she and her friends must overcome.
And it makes me wonder if one day I might be able to rediscover fully the child version of myself, before things fouled themselves up, when I was a little girl with commendable manners, when my father and I were two against the world, when my striving for goodness was so natural it was like leaves falling from trees everywhere around me, when I believed sacredness was to be found in many small things like ladybugs and doll toes, when I didn’t have a murderous thought in my head, not one.
This isn’t the easiest of stories to review. There’s very little plot to talk about, for one thing. Joshua Gaylord has written a book of ideas and emotions, and in When We Were Animals he gets to the meat of what it feels like—literally—to go through puberty. It was especially poignant for me, because I happen to have a boy and a girl who are sixteen and fourteen, respectively. These are the ages when teens in Gaylord’s small town “breach,” or turn feral. During the three nights of the full moon each month (with thanks to Joss Whedon for instructing me that yes, in fact, the moon is full for three nights a month!), these teens suddenly feel the urge to run outside at night and tear off their clothes, run wild through the streets, fight and have sex with each other, and let their wild sides run completely out of control. This odd behavior lasts about a year, and then it’s gone forever. After which time, supposedly the teen has crossed the final threshold into adulthood.
The story is about a girl named Lumen, who is approaching her sixteenth birthday but who hasn’t breached yet (and fears she never will). Coincidentally, she hasn’t started her period either, so it was pretty clear that the two are connected. Lumen tells her story from two perspectives: as an adult woman looking back on her time during the breach, and her current life as a wife and mother and how the past has affected her. She’s a very interesting character, in the sense that she seems detached from most of the emotions that the other kids her age feel, probably because she's telling her story from the distance of adulthood.
Lumen faces many of the same problems that any teen would face: being accepted by your peers, dealing with bullies and peer pressure, and having that feeling deep within yourself that something wants to break free, but not knowing how to deal with it. What Gaylord has done is taken all that teen angst and given it an outlet in the form of breaching, a completely acceptable rite of passage that every teen in town must go through. I loved the feral quality to these outings under the full moon, and while there isn’t anything supernatural to breaching—it seems as if the teens literally turn into animals, but they don’t—it felt dangerous and unpredictable.
Trigger warning: there are a few uncomfortable scenes that border on rape, although in one of the scenes the boy does change his mind and stop. But even those scenes weren’t as horrific as they could be. These teens know they’re out of control, and anything done during breaching is simply part of going through the process. In one scene, one of the more unlikable characters, a boy named Blackhat Roy, goes up to Lumen after she breaches for the first time and tells her, “Now you’re fair game.” It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what Roy is talking about.
My favorite relationship is the one between Lumen and her father. Because her mother died long ago, Lumen and her father have been alone for as long as she can remember. He loves her and trusts her to always do the right thing, and I felt bad for him when his perfectly behaved daughter was inevitably caught up in the breaching madness. It’s hard to read about a parent losing faith and trust in his child, and my heart broke for both of them.
Gaylord’s prose is delightful, and I honestly kept forgetting that a man had written this story! The voice of Lumen radiates femininity, and I’m so impressed by how well a male writer stepped up to the plate and convinced me that Lumen is indeed female, with all the emotions and desires that overtake teens at that age.
When We Were Animals cast a spell over me and made me think. It made me uncomfortable at times and sad at others. I know I’ll be looking at my own children with new eyes now that I’ve read this book, watching for signs of madness, which will hopefully never come. For those readers who enjoy unusual stories, this book is highly recommended.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.
The nitty-gritty: A hysterically funny Lovecraftian horror story, perfect for both teens and adults.
“What? You think I want you to go to school? ThenThe nitty-gritty: A hysterically funny Lovecraftian horror story, perfect for both teens and adults.
“What? You think I want you to go to school? Then who would entertain me? This place is stultifying. True, if there’s any news, they can tell you in school just as easily as here, but how much better to spend your time with your most beloved relative? I can teach you how to make a decent Bloody Mary.”
“You’re not a very good aunt.”
“Pardon me, but I’m fantastic. The best aunts aren’t substitute parents, they’re coconspirators.”
It’s nearly impossible to write this review without referring to another book by Daryl Gregory that I recently reviewed, We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared is a prequel of sorts to WAACF, although you certainly don’t need to read one to enjoy the other, and the order that you read them in shouldn’t affect your experience either. I’ll talk more about the relationship between the two books later, but I do want to say that if I didn’t know any better, I would think these books were written by completely different authors! Gregory is a talented writer indeed, to be able to switch gears like he has in Harrison Squared.
I haven’t read H.P. Lovecraft in many years, but reading Harrison Squared brought back memories of Lovecraft’s shadowy worlds, filled with sea monsters and fish-like people. Gregory captures the tone of Lovecraft perfectly, but he adds a dimension all his own with laugh-out-loud dialog and brilliantly drawn characters. Harrison Harrison (or Harrison Squared as he calls himself) has just moved to the seaside town of Dunnsmouth with his mother Rosa, a scientist who has been awarded a grant to research the colossal squid, which she thinks lives in the icy waters of Dunnsmouth's sea. Harrison reluctantly starts school at the local Dunnsmouth Secondary School, a dank and dark stone structure with endless winding corridors and even creepier students and teachers.
But one evening when Rosa is out on the water working on her research, the boat is capsized and Rosa disappears at sea—or does she? Harrison is determined to find out the truth and get his mother back. With the help of some very unusual friends, Harrison follows the clues and uncovers a truth even bigger and more dangerous than he can imagine. It’s not safe in Dunnsmouth, especially for Harrison and his mom.
I think the biggest surprise for me was the humor in Harrison Squared. Gregory’s dialogue is so funny, and Harrison’s voice is so engaging, that I couldn’t help but tear through the pages. Harrison has had a bit of a strange life already, so he’s somewhat familiar with things that are odd. When he was three, he was out on a boat with his parents when it was attacked by a large sea monster, which ended up drowning his father and nearly killing Harrison. (Harrison lost a leg in the incident and now wears a prosthetic.) Or was it a sea monster? Harrison’s memories of that time are fuzzy to say the least.
And wow, the characters in this book! I don’t think I’ve ever run across so many well-developed and lovable secondary characters. In fact, many of them stole the show from Harrison, which is hard to do because he’s such a great character himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t write this review without mentioning Lub the fish boy, who stole my heart from the moment he opened his mouth (full of teeth!) Despite his, err, differences, Lub becomes a great friend to Harrison and helps him in more ways than one. I also adored Harrison's Aunt Sel, who takes over as his guardian after Rosa disappears. Aunt Sel’s arrival in Dunnsmouth is like a breath of fresh air, and believe me, the dank and fishy smells of town could certainly use someone like her! At first I thought, “Oh, poor Harrison! He’s got to put up with his aunt from the big city.” But she won me over, and she’ll win you over too.
Gregory adds many Lovecraft references and touches that a true HPL fan will have a blast spotting them all. I particularly loved the name of the town—Dunnsmouth—which I believe is an ode to Lovecraft’s famous short story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. He also pays tribute to Moby Dick by having Rosa, like her counterpart Ahab, search for the illusive monster who killed her husband. Gregory begins each chapter with a line or two from the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which fit perfectly with both the tone and subject matter of the story. Do you know where the expression "to wear an albatross around your neck" comes from? Well, you will after you read this book!
For me Harrison Squared at times had that magical Harry Potter feel to it, with its mysterious school and wonderfully imagined characters. I can’t find any evidence that this book is the start of a series, although a very abrupt ending (which is really the only thing I have to complain about) left me wondering if Mr. Gregory has more adventures planned for Harrison and his friends.
Which brings me back around to We Are All Completely Fine. A very important character shows up in both stories, the terrifying and deadly Scrimshander. In Harrison Squared, he’s a much more real and immediate character, but even though he’s merely referred to as someone from a character’s past in We Are All Completely Fine, he was just as terrifying. I loved both of these books, but We Are All Completely Fine is much, much darker, with a gritty violence that may turn some readers off. For those of you looking for a highly entertaining adventure with plenty of slimy creatures just waiting in the shadows and lots of mysteries to solve, then Harrison Squared is not to be missed.
Big thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book....more