Book Review: Blood Moon

He moved on to the next aisle and found himself in front of a wall hung with sculptures, a theme of hearts: two blackened hearts bound together with rusted chain link, another pair of hearts twisted in barbed wire.

He felt something in his own chest twist at the sight.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Alexandra Sokoloff is one hell of a writer.

The first book in her Huntress/FBI thriller series, Huntress Moon, blew me away, as you can tell from my review.  An eerie merging of the logic and legwork of a police procedural and the intuition and symbolism of magical thinking—something at which the author has always excelled—it unearthed a fundamental connection between an unlikely serial killer and the man charged with tracking her down.

In the second book, that connection is becoming a serious problem.

Blood_Moon_7The last time FBI Special Agent Roarke encountered the Huntress, he not only allowed her to escape, he used the information she supplied to take down her targeted prey.  At odds with his partner, who believes Roarke is becoming far too sympathetic to his quarry, he himself wonders if he’s losing all objectivity when it comes to the woman whose victims are the worst kinds of predator.

But as he and his team design the perfect trap for the Huntress, they find evidence that an old evil has returned after twenty-five years of dormancy, and may strike again during the next full moon—the Blood Moon.  And Roarke must decide whether to arrest the Huntress or work with her to take down the killer whose heinous crimes led Roarke into law enforcement and sent the Huntress into a life controlled by signs, portents, and ruthless murder.

Honestly, it was nearly impossible to set this book aside for mundane things like eating, driving,  and work and if I hadn’t misplaced the charger for my eReader (it’s been a heck of a week all ’round), I wouldn’t have tried to sneak it under the dinner table, too.  As it was, that virus actually came in handy, and I read the last hundred or so pages all at once—whew, what a ride!

This book is so tightly written that I can’t share much without spoiling it further than I have, but I think I can mention an extremely effective technique that I marveled at in the first book:  the switch between Roarke’s past tense and the Huntress’s present tense.  This helped delineate the two characters—his logical piecing together of the past versus her living from moment to intense moment .

This continues in Blood Moon, with one addition: Roarke experiences recurring dreams which are also shown to us in first person.  This not only intensifies those scenes, but brings his viewpoint that much closer to hers.  It’s subtle, but the impact is undeniable . . . and possibly inevitable.

If you haven’t read Huntress Moon—and if not, why not?—I recommend reading that one first.  Though Blood Moon does a good job of dropping information from the first book, it won’t be the same as experiencing it; in my opinion, you need to earn the Huntress’s real name with Roarke and his team and you’d be cheating yourself if you skip.

And I highly recommend reading the first two before the third comes out—because I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen next and I desperately want to know.

That’s a deliciously frustrating place for a reader to be.  Come enjoy it with me.

Getting My Acts Together (Maybe)

Story Quest

I’ll confess, I don’t think much about story structure while I’m writing a first draft of something.

I usually know where I want the story to end and can generally figure out where the beginning is within a few chapters, but I’m usually fine with winging the journey.

Until I start editing.

And then I’m forced to either justify or cut (noooooooo!) all those metaphorical ninjas I threw in when I thought the pace was dragging, or the philosophical discussion about nose hair that went so well with the story I thought I was writing, but not so much with the one I seem to have written instead.

Which is why I’m wondering if I might want to try a little planning for once.  Run up a little outline, give pre-structuring a try.

I’m a bit worried about losing some of the fun—see image above—or that structure might equal predictability or (oddly) loss of control over my own story.

But  the imaginations of poets and composers thrive within some pretty rigid forms.

And there are some fundamental physical laws that have to be followed when you design a building, but that doesn’t mean everything has to look like the Taj Mahal.

And you can make pretty much any muffin you want, as long as you get the basic proportions right.*

Plus, I’ve been re-reading Alexandra Sokoloff’s excellent blog posts (scroll down past the books, though I recommend those, too) about structure and story elements and getting one’s Acts together.

She makes knowing what you’re about to do sound easy, fun, and creative.

And Lord knows that would be a novel—pun totally intended—experience for me.

Anyone have any experience with outlining? Story structure?
Comparisons between writing and other art forms?
Awesome muffin recipes (looking at you, Dee)?

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*Although that’s no guarantee they’ll  be edible. Or that your family will touch ’em.  Thus endeth the analogy.

(Thank Tom Gauld for the excellent image and Watson for finding it somewhere)

Book Review: Huntress Moon

One of the problems with reviewing one of Alexandra Sokoloff’s books is the extreme difficulty in not sharing the whole plot and all the character quirks and all the interwoven threads, ending with It was so amazing—you need to read it!

The first book of her new series is no exception, but I’m going to give it a try.

Huntress Moon begins with FBI Special Agent Roarke waiting in a suitably public place for an emergency meeting with one of his team, who has been working undercover for some time.  Across the street, he sees a woman staring at his agent—ten seconds later, the man is dead and the woman is gone.  Though the death is ruled accidental, Roarke’s  instincts tell him it was anything but.  He goes hunting . . . and uncovers several more “accidental deaths,” all apparently random and all involving the same woman.

Roarke knows that female serial killers are statistically improbable—but he also knows that this woman is hunting down specific victims for specific reasons, and that he’d needs to figure out her pattern and stop her before she kills again.

Meanwhile, his unsub is unexpectedly befriended by a special little boy. But her instincts are telling her that her work isn’t finished . . .

This novel is compelling.  I was about a third of the way through when I misplaced my eReader—I ended up reading the rest on my laptop on a viewing pane so small, it took forty or so clicks to scroll through each page.  It’s a credit to Ms. Sokoloff’s talent that I was quickly too involved in the story to care—or to pay attention to the complaints when my family noticed the noise.

I was so involved, in fact, that it took a couple chapters to realize that the scenes written from the woman’s POV are in present tense, while Roarke’s are in past tense.  This is more than a neat trick to tweak the tension—it’s a perfect description of the characters themselves and  a natural extension of their individual focus:  Roarke is searching the past for answers and his unsub’s demons force her to live wholly in the present.

Absolutely. Brilliant.

This is more than a “serial killer novel,” and it’s certainly not a gratuitous gorefest—it’s an exploration of different flavors of good and evil and the possible sources of both. There’s a supernatural factor that may or may not be real— for several given values of real— but while that’s one of the reasons I enjoy Ms. Sokoloff’s stuff, it isn’t what caught me in this particular book.

It was the connections—practical, physical, and emotional—between the characters that had me hunching over my laptop at all hours.  I forged a few myself, and not only with Roarke and his right hand man—whom I hope is based on someone I could actually call if I’m ever in this much trouble—or the small, damaged family who connects with a woman more broken that they can imagine.

I’m not sure if this reaction counts as a spoiler, but I’m going to say it anyway:  I’ve felt fleeting pangs of sympathy for a few literary serial killers before*  but this is the first time I’ve wanted to actively assist one.  It’s a weird feeling, having one’s beliefs and ethics bend like that.

And I suspect Roarke might learn that feeling as this series moves on.

I can’t wait.

It’s so amazing. You need to read it.

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*Dexter is on his own—which is how he likes it—but I’m still haunted by Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon by Tom Harris.  I don’t care if the depiction or motivations were realistic or not, I just want to go back in time and rescue that poor kid.

Book Review: The Book of Shadows

Anyone who has read more than three posts around here probably knows how much I enjoy the crowd over at Murderati, which is a collaborative blog written by several authors who were favorites of mine before I became a regular there and several others who became favorites afterward.

Not only are these people brilliant and funny—though occasionally deadly serious (with or without the pun) —they’re also extremely generous with their knowledge about all aspects of this writing schtick . . . And they sometimes offer free eBooks for review.

Which is how I came to spend most of Christmas Eve reading Alex Sokoloff’s The Book of Shadows.

I didn’t mean to.  I had a few hours before I had to ready the troops for the Christmas Pageant at the Children’s Service, and said troops were occupied with napping or staring into my spare Netbook.  So I figured I’d read a chapter or two of Book of Shadows, virtuously work on Pigeon for a while, and then dress everyone with time to spare.

Have you ever tried to get tights on a four-year old while trying to hold onto an eReader with one hand?

It’s about as difficult as you might think.  But so worth it.

Book of Shadows is an excellent story.

The mutilated body of a young woman is found in a landfill.  Her head and left hand are missing and strange symbols have been carved into her flesh, post mortem.  Even experienced Boston police detective Adam Garrett and his partner are unsettled and quickly hunt down and arrest a suspect whose inner demons are all too evident.

It’s a slam-dunk, high profile case that could put Garrett on the fast track to everything he wants . . . except something is telling him there’s more to this case than sex, drugs, and an Alastair Crowley wannabee.

And when a beautiful self-styled witch—from Salem no less—shows up and insists that not only do they have the wrong guy, but that demons aren’t just a metaphor. . . Garrett has to decide who, and what, to believe.  And what he’s willing to risk to close this case.

This story surprised me at first.  Knowing Ms. Sokoloff’s talents, I was expecting an immediate flavor of paranormal horror and instead, Book of Shadows begins as an unapologetic police procedural about a particularly gruesome, satanic-stained crime.

But slowly, steadily, the plot threads lead both Garrett and the reader off the familiar path to two possible realities, one a twisted mystery, one a mysterious horror.

Did the suspect kill the victim or love her? Is he schizophrenic or possessed?  Is Tanith an actual witch or only a mentally unstable fake?  Are demons real or drug-induced hallucinations? Is Garrett facing a dangerous psychopath or the Master of Illusions itself?

What makes this story so interesting is that these two realities aren’t parallel, but wind around each other in a masterfully-written, shifting pattern. I wasn’t sure until the end which was true—and I still have my doubts.

Which doesn’t mean the ending didn’t rock, because it did.

The characters are multilayered as well.  To be honest, I didn’t like Garrett at first.  He’s ambitious, ego-driven, chip-shouldered, and a bit of a hound—or an outright user—with the ladies.  He’s also stubborn as hell—at one point, Doubting Thomas himself would have rolled his eyes—but the thing is, he’s also a damn good cop who wants to catch the right bad guy, even if it tanks his career.  It’s kind of refreshing to have a jerk as a hero.

And Tanith might appear at first to be the lovely, altruistic psychic Wiccan who Knows the Truth™, but she’s neither omniscient nor infallible—nor completely honest.  And there are things in her past that aren’t easily dismissed by Garrett or the reader.

The secondary characters are well done, too.  I love Carl Landauer, Garrett’s partner, who uses every cop stereotype in the book as an effective blind for his sharp mind and decent humanity.  And Dragon Man, who reminds me of one of my favorite patrons, whom I’d give a violet quartz in a second, if I thought it would help.*

To sum up, Alexandra Sokoloff can write one hell of a tale—pun completely intended.  If you haven’t read her, yet, start with this one.

If you have, read it again.

I am.

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Also wanted to mention that Ms. Sokoloff and a number of other horror writers you might know—including Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, F. Paul Wilson, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Sarah Langan, and Scott Nicholson—have contributed to an eAnthology called Rage Against the Night, which is now available on Amazon and Smashwords for about four bucks.**

If the contributor’s list isn’t enough of a draw for you, all proceeds are going towards the purchase of an  eye gaze machine for Rocky Wood.  Mr. Wood is the current president of the Horror Writers Association who was just this year diagnosed with ALS. This machine will allow Mr. Wood to communicate with eye movements when he is unable to do so any other way.

I’m planning to send copies to a couple King, Straub, and Yarbro fans I know right after I hit publish on this post.  Why not do the same?

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*Nope.  You want an explanation, read the book.

*Ms. Sokoloff’s post about this is here.