On reflection, I reduced my rating to four stars because, while I did really like this short story, calling it "amazing" would be a stretch; I need to...moreOn reflection, I reduced my rating to four stars because, while I did really like this short story, calling it "amazing" would be a stretch; I need to be less prodigal with my five-star ratings. But four-and-a-half would be a fair measure, because I did find this a truly good read.
As the short Goodreads description indicates, this is a sort of prequel to the author's Iron Druid series, written after the first novel, but set earlier and published earlier. It's set in modern Tempe, Arizona (which I'm guessing is Hearne's home town, though his profile doesn't say), and features Atticus, a 2,000+ years old "Druid" and his wolfhound Oberon, with whom he shares a telepathic link. (That feature resembles the bond between spacefaring vet Hughes and his dog Victrix in a still unpublished story cycle by Andrew Seddon, which I beta read, though the latter link is the result of neuro-scientific experiments, while here it was no doubt forged by magic.) Atticus needs to keep a low profile, because he's seriously on the bad list of some very dangerous enemies, the Tuatha De' Danann of Celtic mythology (a race which I'd heard of before and which, from my limited reading on the subject, is one that's actually shrouded in a great deal of mystery --scholars don't agree on exactly who or what they were). But that doesn't keep him from crossing paths with the occasional Celtic god, gnome clan, or vicious kobold. :-)
My reading in the "urban fantasy" sub-genre has been confined to the work of Charles de Lint, but I'm interested in branching out; this series certainly seems promising (and I have the series-opening novel on my to-read shelf)! Atticus is an engaging protagonist, smart and wry-mouthed, not reckless but endowed with the same kind of curiosity that killed the proverbial cat, and with a sense of responsibility that trumps his caution and self-interest. Hearne creates a complex magic system that has its costs and limitations (rather than a deus ex machina device that does anything he wants it to), but the explanations of it held my interest and didn't feel like info-dumps. He's an able story-teller, and his actor's narrative voice is richly humorous --a couple of times, it had me laughing or chuckling out loud. The human-dog interactions are enjoyable (okay, Atticus claims not to be "human," but you know what I mean!), and while the story here isn't philosophically or spiritually deep, it's delightful entertainment. There's no sex here, and while there's some bad language (the few obscenities come from half-drunken characters who are meant to --and do-- come across as coarse and stupid) it isn't so extensive as to seriously mar the story or to appear unrealistic.
The only noticeable real flaw here is that Atticus' narrative and speaking voice comes across as too modern and colloquial to be what we'd expect from a character who's lived as long as he has, and whose English would obviously have been learned long before the 21st century. (Vampire narrator Valery's voice, in Krisi Keley's On the Soul series, provides a much more convincing example of how such a person might be expected to speak.) Similarly, where Seddon's Victrix thinks like we might expect a dog to think, Oberon's mental voice sounds more like that of a smart-mouthed human. And though this is the opposite of a flaw, Hearne obviously has a serious knowledge of Celtic mythology; there are points here which will resonate more with readers who share that kind of knowledge more than I do. (For tyros like myself, reading it with a good guide to Celtic myth at your elbow might be a useful idea.) One point I do know, though, is that Druids were simply the priestly intelligentsia of Celtic society; some may have claimed to shape-shift, as Atticus does, but they didn't live for thousands of years and were definitely human. So this might be a lapse in the accuracy of Hearne's use of his mythological background, though I'd like to see more of how he explains this in Hounded. Nonetheless, this is a really entertaining tale, and a great appetizer for the series; definitely recommended!(less)
The length of time it took me to read this fast-paced action novel is deceptive. I started reading it as a free e-book, having taken the author up on...moreThe length of time it took me to read this fast-paced action novel is deceptive. I started reading it as a free e-book, having taken the author up on an offer he made in one of my groups, and I read in that format only intermittently; it doesn't fit into my schedule well. Some time later, he generously offered me a signed paperback copy (with no request for a review!); and I was delighted to accept, since I already knew I wanted a hard copy! From that point on, it flew pretty quickly; the narrative drive and suspense kept me turning pages as fast as I could. It's easy to imagine many readers finishing it in a few days --less time if they're able to read it nonstop, and most would want to!
Brave, principled action-oriented heroines are an enormous draw for me in fiction, and Pia Sabel is one of the most outstanding characters of this type that I've ever encountered. Seeley's skill in bringing her to life is unquestionably the key to the novel's success; she's an intriguing, fully round character with a complex past that shapes her. (Not all of this past is revealed here --the author has stated elsewhere that he wanted to spread the revelations out over three books-- and what is revealed is exposed gradually, sometimes in a way that can create a bit of confusion; but stay with it.) Even as a young child, her life was impacted by violence; her (adoptive) father is an enormously wealthy business tycoon with a drive and determination that he's passed on to her; she's rich in her own right from stocks he settled on her, gifted with a tall, strong physique developed as an athlete, and highly trained as a boxer. She's not a superwoman, and not without her inner demons; she's also lacking in security and combat experience, despite growing up around security operatives, and she can be dangerously brash and impulsive; but she has believable strengths that counterbalance these weaknesses. (One is native smarts, which she's used to applying in competitive situations, and an ability to read people --though she doesn't always realize when she needs to let these skills kick in.) Above all, she's a caring, highly ethical person who genuinely wants to help others, whether it's with her money or with her fighting ability.
Around her, the author has created an edge-of-the-seat plot which opens with a man's head being blown off on the second page, and keeps up the pace until the end. As the Goodreads description notes, piracy and money laundering are the engines that drive the action (though Seeley thankfully doesn't dwell on the intricacies of the latter!), and it includes life and death jeopardies for our heroine, along with plenty of gunfighting and hand-to-hand combat on land and water. I'd characterize it primarily as action-adventure, but it has elements of the mystery genre too, with a criminal mastermind whose identity is hidden through much of the book, and will take some twists and turns to reveal. (I guessed one of Seeley's secrets early on, but not all of them.) Although Pia stands out, other characters are well-drawn also, and Seeley gives us two other strong female characters in action roles: Sabel Security's Major Jonelle Jackson, and Agent Tania (no last name given) both of whom I expect we'll see more of in later books. He develops the geographical settings --Geneva, Cameroon, Lyon, Vienna-- with an assurance and vividness that suggests that he's actually been to these places; and there's none of the awkwardness here in handling language that's so often associated with first-time, self-published novelists. He also knows soccer, and he knows about guns, high-tech communication equipment, etc. (Some of the terms, like "Bluetooth," were new to me, but that's not a flaw; most readers of this type of fiction are more familiar with this sort of technology, and I could either get the meanings from context or muddle through anyway.) IMO, most of the plot developments and motivations stand up well to examination. As an added plus, there's no sex; and though some of the characters sometimes do use profanity and obscenity (the phrase "swear like a trooper" has a basis in fact, and several Sabel Security people got their start in the military; Tania, who has the worst mouth, also grew up in inner-city Brooklyn, where we can surmise that clean language wasn't universally modeled), I could tell that the author used some restraint in this area. Of course, action adventure is going to be about violence, but Pia's no homicidal maniac; while she packs bullets as a last resort, her Glock, like other Sabel security firearms, is equipped to shoot quick-acting tranquilizer darts, and one of her first acts as head of the company is to require these to be used as a first resort in all cases. That's a feature which is unique in my reading experience, and I think it's pretty cool!
If I could give half stars, this would be a solid four and a half; I debated long and hard whether to round up or round down. What flaws did I find in the book? First, the descriptions of action scenes were often, for me, hard to follow visually; that is, from the language used, I couldn't always exactly picture the action in my mind without it seeming awkward (that may be because I haven't engaged in that sort of fighting, and don't have the experience to picture it with), or because I couldn't get the physical layout of the setting, as in the floor plan, etc. Second, a feature of Seeley's writing style here is that he suddenly drops bits of information that Pia or other characters have known before (but we haven't) into the mix at moments when they can be useful, in a way that sometimes makes them come across as confusing, or as a Deus ex machina, or both. It would have made the narrative smoother, IMO, to introduce these earlier, and I don't think it would have required info-dumps to do so. There's also a basic credibility problem; under the circumstances, I don't think Alan Sabel would realistically have sold her the control of his security firm, and I don't think it's realistic to imagine the top leadership of the firm being involved in field operations with nobody minding the store at headquarters. (Of course, the author's purpose demands that Pia be in the field; and the premises of action heroine fiction not infrequently do strain believability a bit.) But these weren't deal-breakers; and in the end the strength of Pia's character made me round up. She's a stellar action heroine for the 21st century, and I'm already a committed fan who wants to read every book she ever stars in! My recommendation doesn't carry the weight that genre author Zoe Sharp's does; but nevertheless, I'm proud to add my endorsement to hers. If you're an action-fiction fan, you need to make Pia's acquaintance ASAP, and I think you'll be glad you did!(less)
As the second volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, many of the comments I made in my review (www.goodreads.com/review/show/297275418 ) of the first boo...moreAs the second volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, many of the comments I made in my review (www.goodreads.com/review/show/297275418 ) of the first book apply to this one, too. That review should probably be read before this one; the series opener definitely should be read before this second installment. (Some series can be read out of order; this is NOT one of them.) If you haven't read the first book, this review and the above Goodreads description will obviously contain some spoilers.
One of my Goodreads friends thought it was completely unrealistic that the Panem government allowed both Katniss and Peeta to survive at the end of The Hunger Games. I don't, but it's important to be clear that the decision was a very grudging one, made only in the face of the credible threat that the couple's mutual suicide would mean the Games would have no winner, which would result in serious disaffection among the Capitol's own residents. (Disaffection in the Districts, of course, would mean nothing --although, as we find in this book, the Capitol may have underestimated what thoroughly desperate and disaffected people might do.) It was also, by necessity, a snap decision made without any reflection. But the evil President Snow and his regime aren't gracious losers, and they don't plan to let anybody get away with anything. So the stage is set for the tautly suspenseful intrigue in this volume.
The Goodreads description accurately portrays the premise as the book opens, a few months after the 74th Hunger Games. From the turning of the cover, Katniss and those close to her are walking a tightrope, and the tension mounts steadily --until both narrator and readers are back, against all custom and expectation, in the horror of the Arena, with its pulse-pounding fear and its gut-wrenching, lose-lose, kill-or-be-killed choices. For me, all the strengths of the first book are here as well; there's no second-book-in-the-trilogy slump, and this is no time-marking place-holder --the plot will be advanced in very significant, and often very surprising ways. Collins develops her fictional world a bit more (note to the author for the next edition: a map of Panem would be even more useful here than in the first book!), as well as her characters, new and old.
Katniss in particular (who's 16 at the end of the first book, and 17 by the end of this one) grows here, as a result of a few epiphanies that cause her to look at others, and her lot in life, in a more mature way. Some reviewers take quite a negative view of Katniss' character; one of my Goodreads friends found himself frequently not liking her, and characterized her as a "selfish, thick twit." We can freely concede, I think, that there are times when she does appear thick, if only because she views events from within a box of socially-conditioned pessimism; the reader, who's able to see outside that box, is apt to correctly interpret some events well before she does. But I can understand what shapes her pessimistic perspective. On the score of selfishness, though, I have to differ. This is a girl who's ready to sacrifice or risk life and limb to protect others that she cares about, who goes hungry in order to give food to strangers, who feels compassion for others at every turn and naturally thinks about their needs. (In all honesty, I wonder how consistently some of us older people would do the same as readily, in her situation!) Yes, her narrative voice unblinkingly describes the horror and ugliness of her situation, and the realities of life for everybody in her world. If that wasn't a constant backdrop, and usually at the forefront, of her consciousness, I submit that she'd be the most unrealistic and out-of-touch fictional character since Dr. Pangloss. For the most part, on the rare occasions when the horror of her circumstances overcomes her and she loses it for a time, I'd say she's entitled --and afterward, she bucks up and keeps on trucking. (view spoiler)[Yes, I do fault her, at the book's end, for not handling the situation better, even though I understand her resentment at being kept out of the loop and used, and her despairing grief for Peeta; she's got a temper, but that doesn't justify clawing Haymitch's eye and face, or shutting everybody out the way she did. But sometimes we all do unjustifiable things, because we're fallen humans, not angels in disguise. I don't think all fictional protagonists are obligated to always be angels in disguise all of the time. Real people sometimes learn and grow through their mistakes, and I'm hoping she will, too. (hide spoiler)]
Some critics of the series sneer at Katniss' complicated feelings for both Gale and Peeta as a juvenile, high-school style triangle, with the implication that any mature and responsible female would have experienced total clarity and honesty about her feelings from the get-go, with no complexity or ambiguity whatsoever; and that if one imagines a female falling short of that standard, her ditherings about the matter should be beneath the notice of a serious author. Well, that's one perspective. Personally, I think it's possible for a woman (not necessarily just for an immature girl or a "twit," but for any woman under certain circumstances) to have romantic feelings for two guys at once, and for her not to fully acknowledge or understand all of her own feelings. (No, I'm not a woman --but I am a guy, and I think the same range of possibilities exist for males' feelings, too.) And I think any honest and realistic depiction of the possibilities for human feelings is grist for serious literature, as long as it's not treated in a superficial or over-the-top way, which I don't think Collins does. I was originally motivated to read the series by a sort of challenge to compare/contrast Katniss and Bella in the Twilight Saga, and found some similarities as well as differences; to further provoke Twilight haters to gnash their teeth, I'd say this is one of the former. :-) (To continue the analogy, you could say I'm solidly rooting for "Team Peeta" --though I like and respect Gale, too.)
Finally, one of my Goodreads friends equates the regime in Panem with "socialism." To be sure, any oppressive system that concentrates all power in the State and represses and exploits the masses of people will have obvious similarities to the agenda of today's statist Left. But it will also have similarities to the agenda of the statist Right (another Goodreads friend used the word "fascism"). The basic fact of political life in the developed Western world today is that all of the establishment parties, whether they rig themselves out in "liberal" or "conservative" regalia and shibboleths, share the same Panem-style agenda of support for a Leviathan State run by and for the wealthy and powerful, and against the interests of the ordinary citizenry, who in their view exist to be their servants and doormats. Collins is wise, IMO, to call out that agenda, without identifying it with one or the other supposed "ends" of today's putative political "spectrum." (If she did, half of the potential audience would dismiss and disparage the book without a read --even though the social content of her message would be exactly the same as it is now, or exactly the same as it would be if she reversed the left-right identification.) She's sounded a warning that can and should be heeded by every reader, whether he/she self-identifies with the Right or the Left. That's something future critics, if democracy rises Phoenix-like from its present-day pyre, may yet recognize and praise!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Time travel! A smart, strong-inside heroine who learns to kick some butt! Secrets buried in long-lost documents! Medieval knights, and a castle in the...moreTime travel! A smart, strong-inside heroine who learns to kick some butt! Secrets buried in long-lost documents! Medieval knights, and a castle in the Highlands! Action! Danger! Romance (sort of)! What more could one want for a great read? Well --quite a bit, actually, as the merely three-star rating (rounded up from two and a half!) indicates. :-( At one point, I even flirted with a one-star rating, but I thought this one more fairly recognized the genuine positives. (And my wife --we read it together as our "car book"-- has stated that she'd give it four stars, if she were on Goodreads and rating it.)
The positives are real. First, the Goodreads plot summary is accurate, but it doesn't begin to suggest Grace's situation in much of the book. An intellectual, gentle, slightly overweight woman of about 30, who's never been exposed to violence or significant hardship, in the first chapter she witnesses the sudden, brutal murders of both her husband and her brother, who are her only family and the center of her world. Framed for their killings and forced to flee for her life, with no warning and nothing but the clothes on her back and her laptop, she's forced to learn to survive on the street, and off the grid. Driven by a determination to avenge her loved ones, take down the killer, and translate the documents that contain the mystery he's willing to kill for, and needing to stay alive to do that, over time she believably transforms into a street-smart woman who can take care of herself and fight if she has to. (I didn't put this on my action-heroines shelf, but she visits that territory.) She's a very well-drawn, admirable character that the reader readily likes and roots for. All of the other major characters are also vivid and well-developed, including a really hateful villain. The plot is nicely constructed, in the main; some aspects are broadly predictable, but it also included a couple of major surprises I did not see coming. Howard writes well, for the most part; there are a lot of finely-turned phrases, touches of wry humor that balance the serious tone, and effective construction of scenes and evocation of atmosphere. (One reviewer complains about the time devoted to her paralyzing terror, right after the trauma of the killings, over crossing a street to use an ATM machine, and to her problem in finding a place to relieve herself; but to me this was a way of showing the situation she started from, in all its extreme difficulty, and gets us right inside of her head in the midst of it, with no sugarcoating.)
For me, though, the negatives were significant. A major one is the treatment of the Templar angle. Since the 1950s (beginning with a now-discredited hoax which any number of pundits and writers still pass on as fact) a pop-culture mythology has grown up around the Templars as guardians of Deep Dark Secrets that supposedly discredit Christianity. The classical version is that Christ didn't die on the cross, but rather lived on to marry Mary Magdalene and sire the line that became the Meroviginian royal family of France. Howard leaves out the Mary Magdalene-Meroviginian scenario, but she creates her own wrinkles on the theme. Since my background gives me a strong grounding in both serious historical and biblical studies, it disgusts me no end that droves of people who can read choose to ignore the latter and swallow this kind of drivel as if it were a respect-worthy historical revelation (instead of crap on a par with what you might read in The National Inquirer!). It's not helped here by the fact that, even taking the book on its own terms, the Templars' interpretation of the physical evidence is so logically flawed and implausible as to be ludicrous; nor by Howard's waiting until the penultimate chapter to drop this load of manure on the reader. :-( (On the other hand, she does take the existence of God seriously, and has a relatively high Christology; and Grace, in the same chapter, offers an excellent simple explanation of theodicy in terms of free will. So while Christians will have problems with the book, it won't please die-hard religion-phobic readers either.)
Howard's writing background and credentials are rooted in the romance genre; and though the cover of this edition and the cover copy don't clearly identify this book as a romance, it does embody some of the gene conventions. (It's no spoiler that Grace and Black Niall will be a couple, since the description and cover copy tell us so.) One of these is explicit sex; of course, not all romances feature this, but this one does, to a considerable degree. (Not all the encounters are between Grace and Niall; and not all of them involve intercourse, but most do.) These scenes of course, can usually be skipped over (so if you want detailed evaluation of those parts, you're reading the wrong review!), except where crucial dialogue is embedded in them. But the problematic elements here go deeper; for a "romance" genre novelist, Howard can be singularly tone-deaf to what makes for real romance.
Grace and Niall, during the course of the book, experience a cross-time psychological connection (at first, just in dreams) that allows them, at times, to experience each other's voice and presence. This is never explained, and doesn't really come across as credible. But it focuses strictly on intense sexual attraction; there's very little if any element of getting to know each other as anything but sex objects. That continues when they meet in person. Given that Grace, at least, is portrayed as a person who takes sex seriously and has never been with any man but her husband, this comes across, as even she recognizes, as out of character. It isn't really plausible either, and rather than making the relationship come across as a "love for all time," as the cover copy bills it, it seems more like a heat period; I didn't feel any kind of personal emotional connection between hero and heroine for most of the book. And while I respect Grace for her past scruples, the juxtaposition with Niall's background of womanizing, and the unspoken implication that this somehow verifies his virility and desirability as a partner, tends, IMO, to reinforce a really unhealthy double standard for males and females.
A couple more quibbles are worth mentioning. Howard has done some historical research, shown by the array of apparently accurate factoids she can muster here and there. But it's apparent that her research consisted of mining for factual snippets in areas where she realizes that she's ignorant; she does not have a general warp-and-woof knowledge of the medieval world, and that allows her to make a few noticeable (to me, at least) errors. I was also frustrated with Grace for (view spoiler)[not taking Niall into her confidence immediately when she went back in time (hide spoiler)]. On balance, I did like the book; but it wasn't the four or five-star read it could have been with different handling.
Note: While this is clearly speculative fiction, I had some difficulty deciding whether to classify it as supernatural or science fiction. In the end, I opted for the former; but a case could be made for the latter.
Quick added note: When I typed the review last night, it was late and I was in a hurry (I'd twice been run off the computer earlier that evening by a thunderstorm), so I forgot to mention the bad language factor. There is some of this, including a number of f-words, which come mostly from the villain(s); but even the good characters cuss some. (Harmony has the saltiest speaking style of these, realistically for her background.) There were enough extenuating factors that this wasn't a big issue for me, but readers with even less tolerance for this kind of thing will want to be warned.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
"Life in the Iron Mills" (1861) was one of the first major Realist works in American literature and created an immediate sensation in the literary wor...more"Life in the Iron Mills" (1861) was one of the first major Realist works in American literature and created an immediate sensation in the literary world when it was first published, though it was subsequently forgotten and only re-discovered in relatively recent times by editor Olsen. I'd read, and really liked, it already back in the 90s, when we were home-schooling our girls and I was preparing to teach American literature (I made it required reading!). Since the additional material in this volume consists only of two more stories by Davis, one much shorter, and Olsen's "Biographical Interpretation," I selected it to read this month mainly because I could finish it by January (when I'll be starting a common read in one of my groups). I didn't expect it to be a five-star read, but it earned every one of them.
We should note at the outset that this book doesn't purport to be a collection of "the best of" Davis' voluminous short fiction, let alone anything like a comprehensive or representative collection (though Olsen or someone else hopefully will someday produce one!) Rather, it's a thematic one, linking three very different stories that nevertheless have a common underlying element: a protagonist who has artistic (in the broad sense --sculpture in one case, music in the other two-- talent and temperament, but whose situation doesn't afford any opportunity for it to be developed. Olsen makes a very convincing case that Davis could identify personally with this aspect of her protagonist's experience, and that this was an important part of the author's consciousness (see below).
In the title story, set in her native Wheeling, WV (then part of Virginia) the crippling situation protagonist Hugh Wolfe faces is that of poverty: wage slavery, working in an exhausting and dangerous job 12 hours a day, six days a week, for subsistence wages, with no chance for leisure or education. This is the first work of American literature that focuses on the laborers in this situation, and the first social criticism of the treatment the Industrial Revolution was meting out to them. It's gritty, powerful, and tragic, and deeply informed by the author's Christian faith; the sympathetically-treated faith of the Quakers plays a key role, with a trajectory of despair and ruin contending with one of hope and Christian redemption. And the language and imagery of the ending strongly evokes the eschatology of the Christian faith, with a rare appreciation of its socio-economic significance. Davis' achievement in bringing all this to life in what we now recognize as Realist style is remarkable, given her background and resources: she had no formal education beyond "female seminary" (essentially a boarding high school for girls, with a fairly limited curriculum), her reading didn't include Realist models --she adopted that mode of expression naturally, without outside influence and against the Romantic current of all the literature she knew-- and with her genteel class position, the direct observation of working-class life that forms the matrix of the story took a lot of focused effort.
In the other stories here, we have female protagonists whose family responsibilities tie them down to a degree that precludes fulfilling their aspirations for a singing career, or for a life lived in a milieu of aesthetic and intellectual stimulation. But these are not simply stereotypical feminist tracts (because Davis herself wasn't a stereotypical feminist). They recognize the profound truth that loving family ties are what life is all about, and that we get deep emotional satisfaction in return for what we give to spouses and kids who need us, and whom at one level we need. Like many worthwhile things, this can require tradeoffs and sacrifices --but real sacrifices, as opposed to mock ones, involve some pain, some giving up something that has real worth to us, and Davis also recognizes that truth (at the same time that she sees that the grass on the other side of the fence isn't always as green as we paint it in imagination). She recognized all of this from the personal experience of a woman who sacrificed a lot, in terms of time for writing and artistic development, to the needs and wants of her husband and three kids (the youngest born when Davis was 41). That gives these stories a realism, an appreciation of shades of grey, that lifts them above white-and-black tracts (feminist or traditionalist) posing as fiction. And even though I'm a male, I can relate, because like Davis I pursue my writing in the bits and pieces of time I can grab in the midst of family responsibilities (including, in my case, a day job to support the family!) and family fellowship. (The alternatives don't have to be confined to just two, all of one and none of the other!)
At 89 pages, plus 17 pages of notes, Olsen's bio-critical material isn't a full-length biography (that remains to be written!), but it's substantial and fascinating, and added a good deal to my knowledge of this author. (It was written with access to Davis' own diary, and letters.) My only real criticisms would be that the placement of this section between the title story and the other two is awkward, especially since it includes spoilers for both the other stories (it would work better placed at the end, so it would be more apt to be read in that order, as I did in fact read it), and that as a Marxist scholar, Olsen isn't really able to sympathize with Davis' faith.
While Olsen considers the title story to be Davis' only really great work, and finds her subsequent productions mostly flawed, she makes a convincing case that at least some of them have enduring worth. Personally, I'd say that "The Wife's Story" and "Anne," which appear here, and "Balacchi Brothers" (which I've read elsewhere) are on a par with the short fiction of Jewett, Freeman and Garland. This book has whetted my interest in reading more by this author, and I hope eventually to do so!(less)
Pro Se Press is a relatively new small press devoted to the tradition of pulp fiction, as exemplified by the U.S. magazines in the earlier part of the...morePro Se Press is a relatively new small press devoted to the tradition of pulp fiction, as exemplified by the U.S. magazines in the earlier part of the 20th century. Through their Pulp Obscura imprint, they rescue older classic stories from undeserved obscurity; and they're a venue for contemporary "New Pulp" authors, who seek to keep the tradition and its spirit alive. Founding editor Tommy Hancock created the costumed character of the Pulptress as a role for a model to play in representing Pro Se at pulp conventions and other venues (debuting with great success at the first Pulp Ark convention in 2011). It wasn't long before the idea of using her as a fictional protagonist was born; hence, this first Pulptress story collection of five tales, written by Hancock and four other invited contributors from the Pro Se family.
Our heroine is intentionally something of a mystery woman. As Hancock explains in the short introduction, she's the orphaned daughter of two pulp era heroes, though we're not told who (her real first name is Emily, but we don't know her last name). Fostered by a few other pulp heroes, both classic and New Pulp, who taught her a lot that's not usually covered in a typical education, she's now in her 20s. Like Pro Se Press, she's based in small-town Arkansas; but she travels wherever her mission leads her, and her mission is to help the innocent and take down the perpetrators of evil, working from outside the normal channels of law enforcement and with a variety of aliases. A mistress of disguise and possessed of gymnastic skills that are, I'd say, of Olympic quality, she's also smart, trained in martial arts, and no slouch with a firearm. While she's attractive, she's also described at various points as "strong," and "buff," with well-toned muscles --as the cover art indicates, those aren't antithetical ideas (it may not show in the thumbnail, but while she's not built like a weightlifter, the arm holding the pistol has a solid growth of muscle).
A potential problem in this type of collection can be that the individual authors don't have enough common conception of the main character to make her seem like the same person from story to story. That's largely not a problem here: the Pulptress is recognizably herself from beginning to end, and all five writers draw her with an appealing, good-hearted and easily likeable personality; she cares about others, and she's got an obvious zest for the challenging and adventurous elements in what she does. Being adept at hand-to-hand (or foot-to-head, or fist-to-gut, etc. :-) ) fighting, her situation doesn't require her to use a gun, or lethal force, in all stories, and you get the impression that bringing her (human, at least) opponents in alive is her preference; but as Ron Fortier's "Butcher's Festival" indicates, she can also handle situations where that's not an option. (I didn't view that as a contradiction, just a flexible response to different circumstances.) A more noticeable contradiction is in the area of speaking style. Like the older pulp yarns that serve as models, none of these stories has a large amount of bad language (some have none), and all the writers here avoid obscenity or misuse of Divine names. But in some stories, our protagonist will cuss some, while in others she doesn't at all. Most people are more consistent in their speech than that, so it would be more realistic to let her be consistent as well. But this wasn't a major problem for me!
The quality of the writing in all five stories is good; our authors each have their own style, but they all use description well and bring characters and settings to vivid life. (Andrea Judy's evocation of the catacombs under the city of Paris is especially memorable; if she hasn't actually been there, her research was exceptionally good.) The action scenes are (for pulp) realistic, in that we don't have protracted fights between two combatants who absorb punishment well beyond human capacity and keep fighting; here, a knock-out blow to the head will do what that kind of blow actually does. Emily's not Super Girl, either; she can be pushed to her absolute physical limit at times, and she doesn't disdain help or rescue when it's needed. An interesting feature of the stories is that they sometimes employ other series characters, whose paths cross the Pulptress' to give her a helping hand: Derrick Ferguson's Dillon, a black man whose race is underrepresented among pulp heroic figures (used by Hancock in "Black Mask, Big City"), Erwin K. Roberts' The Voice, and Fortier's Brother Bones. Obviously, prior knowledge of these characters would enhance those stories, but it isn't required; I hadn't encountered any of them before. (If you haven't, these tales may whet your interest --I'd definitely like to read more Brother Bones stories!) Given my liking for the supernatural in fiction, it was an added plus to find that the menaces in two stories are supernatural, and another has a definitely supernatural important character.
Arguably, I hand out too many five-star ratings; but I loved these stories, and didn't really see any serious downside here (though you'll find the occasional minor typo or editorial snafu). If pulp action adventure is your thing, what with no sex, tasteful handling of violence (nothing gratuitous or over-stressed), a conflict of good and evil that you know in your gut the bad guys don't have a prayer of winning, and a heroine you can respect and admire, you can't go wrong with this one!(less)
In style, texture, quality and content, this third installment of Lawhead's Bright Empires series is pretty consistent with its predecessors. I felt t...moreIn style, texture, quality and content, this third installment of Lawhead's Bright Empires series is pretty consistent with its predecessors. I felt that the writing was arguably smoother, however (and the author's ability to describe physical settings has always been top-notch, here and elsewhere in the series and his corpus as a whole). The plot is definitely advanced, though, in ways both small and large. We have the introduction of a new major character, paleontologist Cassandra Clarke, who's both likeable and apparently destined to play a big part in the next two books. And with the entry of the Zetetic Society into the mix, Lawhead begins to weave into the storyline a teleological and theistic theme much more open and explicit than in the first two books, with the ley travelers seen as being caught up in, and serving one side or the other in, a cosmic struggle of good and evil, fulfillment vs. destruction, the benevolent purposes of God for a multiverse of eternal loving community against the malevolent designs of spiritual forces opposed to God (the word "Satan" isn't used, but comes to mind) for the universal annihilation of warmth and light and love. As in the Bible and a great deal of other Christian literature, God and His adversaries are viewed as working through human agency --though just how humans are to be directly involved in this conflict is a murky question left for the remaining volumes of the series to delineate.
As in the first two books, and even more so here, Lawhead eschews linear plotting. We not only have a number of characters moving independently back and forth on historical timelines from the Stone Age to the present, and extensive use of what elsewhere would be called "flashbacks" to reveal crucial information about past events (except that Lawhead would argue that the distinction between "past" and "present" is an illusion); we also have them interacting with each other in time frames that are out of sync with each other. That's a difficult concept to put across; but it means that, for instance, a character can do something for another one --but when he meets her later, though he remembers her doing it and the situation is affected by the fact that she did, from her perspective she hasn't done it yet! I'm reading this series as a buddy read with my Goodreads friend Jackie (whose insights add a great deal to the reading experience!) who's an avid Dr. Who fan; she pointed out that the approach to time in the two series is quite similar. My experience of the TV series is confined to one episode, and I'm not a fan; but I think Whovians would be particularly attuned to appreciating the Bright Empires books. (As a case in point, Jackie gave this installment one more star than I did.) Since we're reading these books in absolute rather than relative time, though, we now have a problem: we have to wait until September for the next one. :-((less)
Although I sometimes say I don't read e-books, a more accurate way of putting that would be that I very, very seldom read them (more on that below), a...moreAlthough I sometimes say I don't read e-books, a more accurate way of putting that would be that I very, very seldom read them (more on that below), and then only under unusual circumstances. In this case, the author, Elaine Ash, and I are Goodreads friends in her Anonymous-9 incarnation (her real identity isn't secret, and is indeed mentioned in the author info at the end of this book). Awhile back, she wound up giving me quite a bit of computer advice/information, and only asked in return that I'd buy a copy of her book. (She didn't ask me to review it; and when I said I would if I liked it, she replied that she wouldn't be offended by a honest review even if I didn't.) Since I figured that a gracious favor from a lady deserved one in return, and I'd already heard of the book and found it intriguing, I did buy it (at 99 cents, it won't break anybody!). But her publisher basically only does e-books (as I understand it, the paperback edition in the Goodreads database was a very limited run for review copies, now out of print). So in this case, it was e-book format or nothing.
As the Goodreads description indicates, this book has one of the more original premises ever employed in crime fiction; but the use of helper monkeys to assist the severely disabled is not an invention of the author's. They're very real, and a Google search will generate a lot of information. Being highly intelligent for an animal, dextrous and easy to train, monkeys make wonderful helper pets. However, Sid's training has been taken in directions not anticipated by the helper monkey program. Lacking a moral sense and being trained to be loyal and protective toward his human owner --and being endowed with agility, quickness, problem-solving ability and nasty teeth-- he makes a formidable lethal weapon in the wrong hands. When the owner starts his narration with, "I like to kill people," that's definitely a clue that these are the wrong hands!
Dean Drayhart, though, is no psychotic serial killer who likes homicide for its own sake; as he quickly makes clear, it's not people in general that he likes killing, just "certain" people: those who've taken human life as hit and run drivers and gotten away with it. One of them tragically slaughtered his beloved little daughter and left him with no feet, one hand replaced by a prosthetic hook, and severe damage to his neck and intestines; his wife left him because she couldn't handle his all-consuming obsession with revenge. He's not your average paraplegic; smart, equipped with a specially-fitted van and adaptive technology on his computer, and a burning sense of mission, he's a vigilante to be reckoned with, especially with Sid's help.
While it has some genuinely humorous moments, this isn't a humorous book. Rather, it's a tale very much in the pulp crime-fiction tradition, with a high body count and several characters on the wrong side of the law. But that doesn't mean it lacks a moral sense; on the contrary, the pulp tradition at its best often uses the extreme situations and gray areas of morality that it posits to grapple with serious moral issues. That's definitely the case here; the author doesn't supply any pat answers for the moral issues posed by vigilantism, but she forces you to think about them on your own, and gives you grist for your mind to work on. The author uses present-tense narration throughout (in first person for Dean's sections, third person for those from the viewpoint of other characters), but it flows very easily and naturally, including the few key flashbacks to scenes in the past. There's a really gripping, often edge-of-the-seat quality to the narration; you don't want to stop reading, even if you have to. (Like many Goodreads descriptions, this one is a bit misleading about how the plot actually develops, but that all I'll say.) All the characters are well-drawn and developed. Dean and his girlfriend Cinda are likable, even if you disapprove of what they do (she's not, to be fair to her, an actual accomplice in the killings, just an accessory who knows about and "respects" Dean's vendetta because he's her lover); and so are the cops investigating the case. (I particularly appreciated the fact that the lead cop is a loving and faithful husband and father; the glimpses of his family life are well-done.) The drug cartel's ruling family, the Malalindas, definitely aren't likable (indeed, the deceased's two brothers make up in utter ruthlessness what they totally lack in charm or intelligence), and we get a very dark look at the ugly world of the U.S.-Mexican drug trade. But even these people are fully fleshed-out and realistic; we can understand them, and family matriarch Orella IS a human being (albeit a really misguided and dangerous one who's allowed some very bad choices to define her). L.A. is the author's home town, and she has a thorough command of the geography and local color that only a resident could; and she knows her police procedure and gun specs. She engages your emotions from the beginning, and the ending will stay with you.
So, why four stars instead of five? I had a few nits to pick here. I actually wasn't as put off by the language as I thought I might be at the outset; Dean has something of a potty mouth (including the f-word) especially when he's upset, but most of the characters do not, and his speaking style, I think, reflected the psychological damage he carries. The author also mostly refrains from explicit sex; when her couples make love, she accords them their privacy, which I appreciated, and we don't actually see Cinda at work. (Contrary to the Goodreads book description, she's a call girl, not a streetwalker --the two are somewhat different. She and Dean represent an unusual case of prostitute and customer who actually connected as people and fell for each other. We don't get inside her head enough to fully understand what got her into "the life" and keeps her in it, but we can probably infer that economic needs had and have a lot to do with it; I wasn't scandalized by her as a character --though I'd certainly have advised her and Dean to get married, and her to find other work!) In one case, though, we get more explicit sexual content (though not as explicit as in a lot of books!), and that's in a context that doesn't ring true; Orella trying to use her sexual favors to bribe someone to do something. Coming from a cartel boss with many other more convenient means of bribery and force at her disposal, and given her cultural background and role assumptions, that struck me as out of character. (Okay, so I don't know her well enough to make that judgment --but the author DID establish that she'd never done anything like that before.) I was also grossed out by one scene in a shower room (though to be fair, I think that was meant as comic relief, and many readers would take it that way). There are a few other plotting and detail quibbles. I had a problem with how improbably loose-lipped certain people were in one instance. Marcie's likeability factor, especially at first, didn't really come across to me. Finally, there's a significant discrepancy: (view spoiler)[at the end, Dean states that his only killings were the ones described in the book, but the first chapter indicates that he's been at this for quite awhile. (hide spoiler)]
None of those points, though, kept me from really liking the book! If gritty crime fiction with a pulp flavor is your thing, this will be a read right up your alley, and this writer is definitely one to watch.
This is the second book I've read on my Kindle PC app, and I have to admit I find it much easier to read this way than I expected. While it doesn't fit my schedule and lifestyle as easily as paper books, working in time to read this way, on an intermittent basis, also has turned out to be doable. I'm still a committed paper books reader; I think that medium serves social purposes that e-books don't, and my choice is to spend my money on the former, and do everything I can to preserve and promote it. That said, I've decided that in some cases, when I can try a book for free as an e-book, I'll do it that way. But if I like it, I'm buying a paper copy --if not for myself, as a gift or as a library donation. (So, Elaine, you have got me to "join the 21st century;" but I'm doing it cautiously, and on MY own terms! :-) )["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This second volume of the Bright Empires series (which, as I discovered since finishing the series opener, is planned to consist of five novels) is ve...moreThis second volume of the Bright Empires series (which, as I discovered since finishing the series opener, is planned to consist of five novels) is very much of a piece with its predecessor --though, to be sure, the plot advances in certain ways, and more bits of information are revealed. The same strengths and flaws noted in my review of The Skin Map are clearly evident here.
On the positive side, Lawhead continues to hold this reader's interest. There's a lot of cutting to and fro, back and forth among numerous characters, who are often at wildly different parts of the multiverse. The main characters are easy to root for, or against; in the latter case, though, we get to see Burleigh's formative years, and realize that he's a human being who's partly shaped by not-too-pleasant circumstances (though he's also shaped by self-serving choices). With plotting that's generally interesting and exciting, the storyline and style make for a quick, easy read. I've grown to basically like Kit, though I consider him something of a bumbler. (Maybe, in his situation, I wouldn't acquit myself any better; he does have kind of a hapless Everyman quality. :-) ) Mina and Haven are strong, smart women who command respect (and Haven's had some of her arrogance in the first book leached out of her by events), and Arthur and Xian Li's interracial marriage conveys a good message that's all too rare in evangelical fiction.
Of course, Lawhead wrote this at a time when his mental and physical energies were being sapped by his battle with cancer (I'm not sure what the present status of this is). He was also not well served by the editorial staff at Thomas Nelson, who obviously thought that since he's a best-selling author, his books would sell whether they edited them competently or not; so they decided to save money by not bothering with it. :-( None of this can be said to be Lawhead's fault. The fact remains, though, that the standard of quality in the literary craftsmanship is negatively affected; so far, this series is not Lawhead's best work. He occasionally appears to forget things he wrote earlier, which creates inconsistencies; there are plot points that have logical problems; the principal extended action scene is, IMO, somewhat awkward and clumsy in execution (it was difficult for me to imagine it actually taking place the way it was described); and both the characters and the alternate-world situations aren't developed with this author's usual depth. (Much of the appeal of alternate-world fiction draws from comparison and contrast between the fictional world and our own; but here we have virtually no points of recognizable difference.) There isn't any differentiation between the speech patterns of different past eras (they all sound vaguely like Regency), and except for certain occasional turns of phrase, the differences between any of these and modern speech aren't very marked -which gives a false note to comments in the narration that they are. Also, Xian Li's possibilities as a character aren't developed to anywhere near her potential, which to me was somewhat disappointing. Both Bright Empires novels I've read so far could easily have been twice as long as they are, to incorporate more texture and needed information and to develop the characters and settings better; there are some great descriptive scenes in places here, but they're pretty few. (This wouldn't have required sacrificing the fast pacing; longer books CAN still be fast-paced.) The development of the Stone Age setting was an exception to this (partly because Lawhead spent enough chapters on it to do a really good job), and that was my favorite part of the book.
Quantum physics here isn't just a premise evoked for the purpose of creating an alternate world, or getting a character there, and then dropped. The whole thing is very much an exploration of quantum physics ideas, in which, as the epigraph from Albert Einstein states, "The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion --albeit a persistent one;" and in which interdimensional realities are virtually endless. This theory strikes me as counter-intuitive and dubious, and I usually avoid SF that's premised on it. So reading (and liking) this series is something of a change of pace for me. And it is prompting me to do some thinking (always a plus, whatever one's reading!). Though I've always been inclined to embrace the Newtonian theory of absolute time, I've had to admit that, if one posits a God who's outside and above time and not limited by it (and being an evangelical, that's precisely something that Lawhead himself posits!), then the concept of relative time, viewed in that context, suddenly begins to make sense --as much as humans can make sense of it. Truth to tell, I know very little about quantum physics; and I'm inclined to think that I should, at some point, utilize the resources of the college library where I work to learn more! But meanwhile, it's on to the third volume of this series, The Spirit Well.(less)
Supernatural fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and I have a soft spot for strong heroines who can kick some butt when necessary; so naturally, I th...moreSupernatural fiction is a favorite genre of mine, and I have a soft spot for strong heroines who can kick some butt when necessary; so naturally, I thought a book that appealed to both interests might be rewarding. But that didn't begin to prepare me for how much I liked this one! In this series-opener, Faith Hunter has created one of the most original and vividly-realized fictional protagonists to come down the pike in a long time, and established herself in my eyes as one of the genre's most outstanding contemporary voices.
The book trade classifies this as "urban fantasy" (a terminology I'm not crazy about, but which is ingrained in the argot by now). Our setting is New Orleans (which is certainly "urban" enough!), brought to life masterfully by Louisiana native Hunter, in one of the best evocations of place I've come across in fiction; but this isn't quite the New Orleans we know. Here we're in an alternate world similar to our own in most ways --but one in which the world has been aware of the existence of vampires (and witches --Hunter's take on these is interesting) since 1962. "Civilized" (non-predatory) vampire clans, often with considerable wealth built up over the centuries, and their voluntary blood-servants and blood-slaves are a part of the urban ethnic mix. But shapeshifters aren't generally known to exist, and that aspect of Jane's life is one she keeps carefully under wraps.
Jane's a supremely well-drawn, round character, with a personality and interior life that's believable (and that's some achievement, when you consider some of her characteristics!). She can shift into the form of any animal for which she has DNA handy, usually in the form of teeth or bones, etc. (Hunter handles the problem of differences in body mass in a really creative way!) Usually, though, she takes the form of the panther who's bonded with her in an unusual way, even for shapeshifters, and which she doesn't fully understand. There's a lot about herself she doesn't know (though some of those mysteries will be revealed in the course of this book); she remembers nothing before she stumbled out of the Appalachian wilderness some 18 years ago, at an age the authorities guessed to be about twelve, an apparently feral child. For the next six years, she was raised in a Christian orphanage, which brings us to a distinctive feature of the book: while she's no plaster saint, she's a professing and practicing Christian. Her Christianity is of a low-key, not judging nor preachy sort, though (and not inconsistent with an openness to Cherokee spirituality), and doesn't come with the view held by some believers that women should be inherently pacifistic doormats. :-) This woman's trained in martial arts, knowledgeable about guns, packs a Benelli shotgun (as well as assorted stakes and knives) that sprays silver shot, rides a Harley, and doesn't take garbage from anybody, human or vampire. She's also a caring person with a tender heart, whom I'd be proud to have for a friend (and she's the kind of friend who comes through when the chips are down).
Jane isn't the only round, lifelike character here; those qualities apply to the whole supporting cast (two-legged and four-legged; Beast is a masterpiece!). The plot is perfectly paced and constructed, IMO, with plenty of mystery to keep you guessing, not just the central mystery --who (and maybe what) is the rogue?-- but the enigma of Jane's buried memories, and the increasingly intriguing secrets of the vampires. Hunter's treatment of the Undead is pretty traditional in most respects, and unlike many modern authors of vampire fiction, she doesn't ignore or reject the idea that vampires fear Christian symbols (indeed, they're burned by the touch of the cross), but not those of other faiths --why, Jane wants to know? The author makes low-key, but explicit use of Christian content in one or two places, in a way that's natural to the story and not off-putting to open-minded secular readers. (Whether or not Hunter herself is a Christian at present, I don't know; but she was raised as one, and mentions in an online interview that as a child she was bullied at school because of her faith.) She's a wonderfully descriptive prose stylist, one of the few writers (the late Ray Bradbury was another) who enables you to fully experience her world with all your senses: not just sight and hearing, but smell, taste and tactile sensations as well. And she does human interactions (I'm using "human" broadly! :-) ) wonderfully well, with insight, sympathy, and often real emotional power. To my pleasant surprise, there's no sex, explicit or implied, here (okay, some of the minor characters are prostitutes, etc. --but no sex in the main storyline!), and a relatively sparing use of bad language. (That doesn't mean there's none of the latter, but Hunter doesn't assault us with it.) Of course, since this is action-oriented fiction, you can expect some violence, and some of it's gory; what the rogue does to victims isn't pretty. Elementary school kids aren't the intended audience for the book; but it won't bother most tough-minded adults.
This is one series that I'm going to be following, and hoping to read in its entirety. Laura, thanks a bunch for putting it on my radar!(less)