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.

A Kilo of Chocolate Sprinkles

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Wayne E. Pollard’s webcomic Bo’s Café Life, which describes the trials, victories, tribulations, happy delusions, and painful realities of this over-caffeinated writing business—including what happens when they run out of French Vanilla.

His stuff is so spot on, I’ve accused Wayne more than once of following me around.* And his No B.S. Blog for Writers is exactly as advertised.

So when I was told that he was gathering a short eCollection of his humorous essays and offering it on Amazon for a penny less than a buck, I was there**  even before I saw the cover:

 

See what I mean about being follo—um, never mind.

I laughed and/or snickered all the way through this book—I even read my favorite bits from “Café Life” and the title story out loud to my longsuffering husband, who hates it when I do that but couldn’t help chuckling, too.***  There’s also a phone call between Charles Dickens and his agent which is eyerollingly snortworthy, and an essay about media interview tips that has some solid, if snarky, advice that I’m saving for (a hopeful) later.^

After finishing the last page, I only had two complaints: I wanted it to be longer—though it’s an awful lot of funny for 99 cents—and I wanted Cold Stone ice cream. Now. With lots and lots of sprinkles.

A Kilo of Chocolate Sprinkles is for sale at Amazon—give it a try, would you?^^

And then go find yourself over at Bo’s Café Life—we’re all in there somewhere.

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*Which, I’ve noticed, he hasn’t actually denied

**Or, rather, I was there once our WiFi re-established itself after cutting out mid-download when the storm knocked out our power. That I was more irritated about not having Internet access than I was about the freezer or finding working flashlights or a battery-powered alarm clock says a lot about the dismal state of my priorites our current technoculture (cough). But if the lightning had held off for thirty seconds, I would at least have had something to read on a nice, bright screen while I waited for the lights to come back on . . .

*** Though I wisely kept the best lines from the treatise on husband-training to myself.  I do have a few survival instincts.

^Though the state of my wardrobe viewed through this advice has me seriously considering agoraphobia and strategically-filtered Skype as a valid career choice . . .

^^There’s a free Kindle app available for your laptop and your phone, if, like me, you prefer a different eReader—or none at all.

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Bo’s Cafe Life comic reposted courtesy of the author, who retains all rights, etc.

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.

Book Review: The Ionia Sanction

My freshman college roommate—an overachiever who double-majored in business and something else traditionally lucrative that I can’t remember—was required to take a year-long course called “Western Civ.”  I wasn’t, and after just one semester of watching her try to stay awake while jamming ancient and venerable dates and names and events of the who-on-earth-cares-they’re-all-dead-now variety into her overtaxed brain, I was more than grateful to be a music major.

But if Gary Corby had been teaching that class?  I would have taken it voluntarily and recommended it to all my friends.

Yep. That would be foreshadowing.

The man has never met a boring historical fact—or if he has, he seems completely incapable of passing it along in that state.  His interest and enthusiasm are absolutely infectious and the way he connects cause and effect is the mark of a great teacher—or a great mystery author.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gary Corby’s debut, The Pericles Commission, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for more than a year to read more of Nicolaus, ancient Athen’s first private detective, and his ladylove, the brilliant priestess Diotima. Visiting  his blog helped, for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, but it wasn’t the same.

So when I was offered the opportunity to get my hands on an advance copy of The Ionia Sanction, you better believe I went for it.*

One would think that solving the murder of the inventor of democracy would earn Nico respect and some kudos for a job eventually well done.  But he’s starting a hard-boiled tradition here, so what he gets instead is murder, woman trouble, and advanced courses in ethics and treason.

An Athenian agent who facilitates Ephesian business interests has been murdered, leaving behind a note that says he betrayed his office and city—and that Athens is in danger.  Pericles hires Nico to hunt down the killer and the victim’s son asks him to clear his father of treason.  But after a valiant, catastrophic attempt to catch the murderer and retrieve the victim’s stolen mail seriously ticks off his boss, Nico decides he’d be better off looking for answers in Ephesus.

On his way, he acquires Asia, a headstrong slave girl who insists she’s the daughter of the infamous Athenian traitor Themistocles, and reunites with a somewhat frosty Diotima, whom he hasn’t seen since his father refused to allow them to marry.

Together, they head for the Persian province of Magnesia.  There, they encounter treasure, treachery, and Themistocles, who takes a personal, and not entirely altruistic, interest in Nico’s future. A future that is looking brighter and brighter through Persian-colored glasses.

As the trail leads Nico farther from his home into unknown territory, he must determine where his loyalties truly lie and whether he can walk a fine enough ethical line to save his home, his love, and himself.

Holy cow, but this is a good book.

There’s snappy dialogue, multi-layered characters—I found Barzanes, an investigator of the Persian King, to be particularly intriguing**—emotional turmoil, a plethora of unobtrusive historical details about two disparate cultures,  and two, or three, plots braided together to make one heck of a mystery.

If The Pericles Commission is all about politics and power, Ionia Sanction is all about philosophies, loyalties, and ethics.  The mystery isn’t just about solving the initial murder—it’s about the motivations and personal beliefs of each character and how far they will go to defend or deny them.

This may seem obvious, but the ancient world was a vastly different place—it wasn’t simply ours minus technology.  There were different laws, different etiquettes, different attitudes, hygiene, methods, mindsets, social conventions, and values.  And Gary Corby’s characters, for the most part, keep to the customs and rules they know and don’t think of challenging them. Even the ones that, from our point of view, are a bit silly or unfair, or those that could hamper or harm them.***

Of course, these characters do rationalize, spin, and bend the letter of the law just this side of the breaking point—they aren’t  completely different from us—and the technicalities and loopholes they come up with are fascinating to behold. But when one of them actually breaks with an accepted custom or social convention, however small, it has real impact to the character and the story.

I can’t tell you my favorites of these without ruining the  novel, so I’ll share a  detail that grabbed me (skip the next two paragraphs if you want to avoid a tiny spoiler):

At one point, Nico is invited to put on a pair of trousers so he can learn to ride a horse without sustaining considerable damage to one of his favorite sensitive areas.  He’s appalled and disgusted— trousers are a Persian thing and a challenge to masculinity and no self-respecting Hellene man would wear them. Ever.  Period.  So it’s an incredibly big deal when he finally agrees to try them, for practical purposes . . . and even bigger deal later when he automatically dons a pair and feels only a twinge of unease that he doesn’t feel more.

There’s a subtle sense of corruption here, one slippery centimeter down that metaphorical slope, and it’s very effective.  To us, it’s protective clothing.  For Nico, it’s a sign that his core values, his sense of self, might be changing.

This is good stuff, and it’s only possible because the author understands his setting and his characters so well and has skillfully passed that understanding to his readers.^    We end up judging the character’s actions and beliefs by their lights, not ours—and that makes all the difference.

So does a  generous dash of humor—Nico alone has his share of foot-in-mouth episodes, bumbles, and pratfalls, including a beautiful moment (and I’m sorry for the spoiler, but I can’t help this one) when he states that of course he can ride a horse, because he’s a man . . . and you can actually hear the Fates pulling  his life-thread back like anachronistic elastic on the pair of  pants he will no doubt soon wish—despite custom—he had been wearing.

In short, Gary Corby has done it again.

So if you’re looking for me, check his blog—I’ll be there, waiting for the next one!

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The Ionia Sanction will be released on November 8, which gives you plenty of time to pre-order—and read or re-read  The Pericles Commission, too!

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*I did not giggle manically . . . but in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll admit to doing a few steps of the free book dance.

**He almost makes up for the absence of Euterpe and Pythas, my two favorite secondary characters from Pericles.  I’m interested in knowing what they thought of Diotima being rejected as a suitable bride for Nico.  It probably wouldn’t be what one would expect.

***This, I think, is  how Nico can do what he does without so much as a magnifying glass—he knows  how things are supposed to be in Athens and deduces from the differences.  Which is why placing him in different place or culture really knocks him off-balance.

^And, as usual, his Author Notes are not to be missed.  They’re as interesting as the mystery—in a good way.

Book Review: The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam

While at Bouchercon, I attended a panel called Hot Ice: Caper novels, which probably doesn’t surprise many of you—my love of caper novels and characters with questionable ethics isn’t exactly a secret, and my own WIP more or less falls in this category as well.

I’m pretty sure there’s a correlation there, somewhere . . .

The entire discussion was amazing, and afterwards, I went to the book room to search for books from each of the panelists.  One of the authors was Chris Ewan, an English author who writes the award-winning and highly popular Good Thief series, about which I knew next to nothing, except it was about a good thief, Mr. Ewan wrote it, and the first one was set in the Netherlands somewhere.*

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam was tricky to find—in a ballroomfull of bookcases, there was one copy left, and I had to crawl under a display to reach it before someone else spotted it.   I wasn’t sure at the time why I was driven to such lengths—I’m not built for moving under anything lower than a standard doorframe and I’m a librarian, so it’s not as if this was my last opportunity to lay hands on a copy.  But I suspect now that I’m bibliopsychic.

Because this is a fantastic book.

Charles Howard is a suspense author who moves from city to city writing novels about a master thief.  This is a clear case of writing what one knows, as Charlie himself is a master thief who has not given up his day job.**

Charlie is in Amsterdam, trying to spackle a major plot hole in his latest manuscript, when he’s contacted by an American who offers him a substantial fee to liberate two small monkey figurines from two empty and unguarded residences.  Charlie, who has a professional’s suspicion of a sure thing, initially refuses—but his curiosity overrules his common sense.  The job isn’t as easy as advertised—go figure—but in the end, he gets the goods.

Unfortunately, before he can deliver the figurines and collect payment, his client is beaten and left for dead in a bathtub.  And now, with the previous owners of the monkeys on his tail and suspicious police detectives on his back, plot holes are the least of Charlie’s problems . . .

I started reading Amsterdam at breakfast the morning after I bought it, and read it between panels—and on the way to panels—all day, singing its praises to everyone who asked and convincing any acquisition librarians I met to put it on their lists, if they hadn’t already.  I also bullied talked at least two people into ordering it on Amazon through their smart phones.

And, as luck would have it, met Mr. Ewan outside the bar that evening, where he graciously signed my copy while listening to me gush at length about tell him how much I enjoyed it  and why.  I’m not sure I was at all coherent by that point—it wasn’t booze, it was adrenaline, I swear—so this is what I wanted to tell him:

Amsterdam is fast-paced, the dialogue is snappy, and the mystery is good.  With some mysteries, I read to the end to find out if I’m right and with others, I’m enjoying myself too much to care—this book is a nice blend of both.  While I suspected one or two of the bad guys once or twice, I wasn’t entirely certain until the end . . . and one of the conspirators escaped me completely, but logically.*** I like that.

Charlie is a wonderfully flawed hero, a competent and skilled man who nevertheless makes realistic mistakes—including one or two with a young woman who may or may not be up to her eyeballs in, well, something.  But what caught my attention from the first few paragraphs is that he’s also a writer.  Although the man makes more money from stealing than from royalties, he considers himself as much of a writer as a thief, and works hard to write the best books he can—he even willingly, if reluctantly, goes through the hell of revisions and edits.

And I adore his agent, Victoria, to whom Charlie has entrusted the truth about his nefarious present and who treats his problems with the same patience and logic with which she tackles the narrative hiccups in his novels.  I hope to see more of her in future books—or hear from her, since she and Charlie haven’t yet met face-to-face—and I’d really, really like to know if she’s based on an actual agent who might be taking on any new clients (cough, ahem).

Something else impressed me:  at one point, both Charlie and another character go off to run errands without the reader and without explanation, but in such a way that I knew whatever they were doing would be important later.

This sort of thing is dicey, since it depends on the patience and trust of the reader and more often than not is announced like a lead weight hitting the page (“ATTENTION!! MARK THIS SPOT!  AUTHOR IS BEING COY AND CLEVER HERE!”).   But Mr. Ewan pulled it off:  Charlie’s private errands are mentioned casually, without clang or big neon arrow, I was more than willing to go along for the ride because I trusted both Mr. Ewan and Charlie to bring it all home.

I was not disappointed.

oooooooooooooooooooOOOOOooooooooooooooooooo

I’m currently about five chapters into The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris^ and I’m enjoying the heck out of it.  I’m also loving that there are two more books available, set in Vegas and Venice, respectively, and that Berlin is in the works!

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*I believe we’ve previously established that I live under a rock, but in my defense, the series was first released in Great Britain, so I was going to claim amnesty for my ignorance until the first book was released here.  In, apparently, 2009.  Never mind.

**Chris Ewan himself is not a master thief—or else he’s being remarkably circumspect about it.  The one-sentence bio of his second novel and his author page on the Simon & Schuster (UK) website both say he’s a lawyer, though I have no idea whether that’s still true.  Regardless, I’m sure he’s heard all the jokes already.

***Yeah, that’s comparatively rare, and no, I’m not going to tell you which one—read the book and we’ll compare notes.

^Charlie is now the author of a faux-ography called, what else, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam—way to meta, Mr. Ewan!