Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Heart of Stone" by C. E. Murphy

Having read Murphy's Urban Shaman series, I was a bit interested when this book hit my stack of "to-be-read" stuff. Not enough to pick it up right away, mind you! While I enjoyed the Shaman series, I found some of the author's style a bit off-putting, namely all the exposition about the ways of the mystical, etc. Since the Negotiator series is also listed as "urban fantasy" or whatever you want to call it these days, I wasn't sure I wanted to jump right in.

I was wrong.

The book starts off strong and finishes even stronger, much like Margrit Knight on one of her late-night runs through Central Park. Margrit is a rich girl who's making good on her promise to help others; much to her parents' chagrin, she works for Legal Aid, taking on the impossible cases. For the last four years she's been trying to win clemency for an abused woman found guilty of killing her abuser. Margrit doesn't give up easily, and she's always up for a challenge.

Her tenacity has attracted the attention of Alban Korund, who's been watching her (and over her) for three of those four years. He knows that there are bad people lurking in the Park, so he watches her run to ensure her safety. One night he finally gets the courage to talk to her, but of course, Margrit being a bit cautious of strangers, she yells at him for scaring her. And then the next morning she learns of a dead woman found in the Park, and that a witness saw a man running from the scene, a man who looked just like the stranger she spoke with in the Park.

When it becomes clear that the police suspect him, Alban takes a huge leap of faith and asks Margrit to help him. He also tells her what he really is - a gargoyle, a member of one of the five Old Races. There will be other characters in the book that Margrit encounters, each members of the Old Races: dragons and djinn, gargoyles, selkies, and - of course - vampires. As Margrit learns more about Alban's world, she realizes that he's a good man (person, thing, whatever) and that she believes in his innocence. She also finds herself growing strongly attracted to him, a situation further complicated by her on-again-off-again romance with Tony, who happens to be a cop. Margrit is going to have to break some rules and do some fancy footwork if she's going to save Alban and find the real killer. But is the killer Alban's previous love? If so, she could lose a lot...

I was very impressed with this book, enough that I finished it in no time and am now anxiously trying to get my hands on the next installment. Wisely, Murphy has chosen to spend more time on character development and a bit less on the world-building, a move that really helped me enjoy this book. I thought Margrit was just about perfect, strong without being invincible, snarky without being downright rude, and romantic yet realistic about Alban. The gargoyle is equally well-written, as are some of the "bad guys"; I'm not entirely certain that one of them is as bad as he seems. Time will tell, I suppose.

If you like the alternate reality of living with vampires and other creatures of the night, then "Heart of Stone" is a good book to pick up. I hope the rest of the series is equally good.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Downtown Owl" by Chuck Klosterman

I had never heard of this book until my coworker started saying how much she wanted to read it. I had also never heard of Chuck Klosterman before, which is probably a good thing; reviews on Amazon compare him to the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, a guy who I never could get into. Liked him enough in theory, but when it came to actually reading his stuff? Just did not work for me.

"Downtown Owl" sounds like it's about a town out of place in time when you first read the dust jacket blurb. Then you start the book and realize that the novel is set in the school year of '83-'84, so that's why "disco is over but punk never happened". Owl is a tiny North Dakota town of 800 where everyone knows everyone; there are no secrets in Owl. They have a decent football team, a pretty good basketball team, and the usual cast of small-town characters such as the old men that gather at a diner to drink coffee every afternoon. It's a slice of Americana and there's a blizzard brewing that will affect the lives of everyone in Owl.

I liked the writing; Klosterman has some very interesting ways of phrasing things. I liked the character development, as I felt like I knew the three "main" characters from whose perspectives the story is told: Julia, the new history teacher; Mitch, a so-so third-string quarterback for the football team; and Horace, one of the aforementioned coffee drinkers. The book is not told from first-person perspectives, which I think was smart. But just as the people in Owl don't really know each other, I also felt like I didn't completely know the characters either. It seemed like everyone was hiding something, even from the reader.

There are some well-written reviews on Amazon, and oddly enough, one of them nailed my feeling about the book. The whole time I was reading, I kept thinking of the movie Dazed and Confused; the Amazon reviewer said this book was basically that movie if the movie had had Horace and John Laidlaw's points of view filmed (the movie was told basically from the teen point of view only, a very nostalgic look at the mid-70's). As was true with the movie, there's not really a plot per se; things simply happen. There's even a fight scene between two characters in the book, just as there was in the movie, although the novel's fighters are pretty much impelled to fight due to circumstances beyond their control. The movie fight was something you could see coming, but not until that scene.

If you like quirky characters, loved the 80's, or grew up in a small town, this book will probably resonate with you. If you're expecting a logical point A-leads-to-point B, pick up something else.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Underground: A Greywalker Novel" by Kat Richardson

Harper Blaine was a fairly normal private eye, until she died for two minutes. In that time, some Grey was placed in her by a guy named Wygan - her life hasn't been the same since. She is now what is known as a Greywalker, someone who can not only see dead people, but slip through the planes of time and often interact with the ghosts. It's a strange life that Harper lives, and it's about to get even weirder...

Harper's "security man", Quinton, comes to her for help with a case involving the homeless of Seattle. Seems there a beastie afoot that might be eating the displaced; there have been bodies found that appear to be chewed on and missing limbs. Quinton has a feeling that Harper will be able to help due to her special abilities, and he's right. The beastie in question might be connected to the Native Americans of the area and it's up to our duo to figure out how to return him to his rightful holding pen.

There's not a lot of new ground covered in this entry by Richardson, which sort of surprised me. In the previous books, Harper's been learning her way around the Grey and attempting to "train" herself in how to use it without mishap. Her professor friends Ben and Mara were prevalent in the previous works - not so much this time. Richardson does go into a lot of historical background regarding Seattle, and that was quite interesting. I knew a little bit about the "underground" having watched some History Channel stuff, but her book gave me a whole new appreciation for the phenomenon. In case you're completely unaware, parts of Seattle are literally like split-level homes; there are complete sidewalks and alleys under the existing structures. It all happened when the powers that be decided to raise the street level due to the incoming tides; newspapers would publish tide charts so one could know when it was safe to flush their toilets (the tide would bring the refuse right back through the pipes, a very good reason in my book to raise everything up!) Anyway, a lot of the homeless use the underground for refuge, both in Harper's book and in real life. Including our buddy, Quinton, who has literally gone underground for reasons that are finally revealed.

Harper's boyfriend, Will, also makes a brief appearance, and I have to say that I was very happy about the direction Richardson takes with that relationship. Quinton plays a big part in this book, too, and again, I'm happy about that - I think he's an interesting character, especially after reading this entry. (think mysterious government agent who escapes their evil clutches... kind of). I was very impressed by Richardson's character development of the homeless community; guys like Tanker, Lass, Zip, Twitcher, etc. Also, there's a promising female character, Sandy, who might really be what she says she is, even though Harper thinks she's one of the homeless. I'm going to keep my eye out for her in future books.

If you haven't tried a Greywalker book yet, you're missing out. Richardson has done a great job of creating a world that's very close to ours without throwing in too many of the usual supernatural suspects. She's also created a very realistic heroine, one who doesn't always figure things out right away, and one who has some very real physical trauma done to her. For example, in this book Harper complains a lot about her knee and shoulder, which were injured in the previous work. It's a nice touch to have her still recovering from those wounds since the books take place just months from each other, and it gives a very human quality to Harper. I've enjoyed the first three books very much, and I can't wait for Richardson to put out a fourth.

"The Silver Linings Playbook" by Matthew Quick

Pat Peoples has been sprung by his mother from the bad place, and he couldn't be happier. Well, he will be happier when apart time is over and he reunites with his wife, Nikki. He is now the man he thinks she wants him to be and he's very anxious to be with her again. Of course, now that he is not in the bad place anymore, things seem very different at home; none of his family will talk about Nikki and all his wedding photos were stolen. His friends all seem to have families, including children. Worst of all, there are players on the Philadelphia Eagles team that he doesn't recognize and others who have evidently left the team. If only a few months have gone by, how can all these things be true?

Thus starts off the funny yet serious debut novel by Quick. Pat, of course, has been in "the bad place" for more than a few months; he's actually been committed to the neural health facility for about four years. He has no memory of how he ended up there, only knowing that there must have been a reason for it, and hoping that now that he is home, "apart time" will be over and he can get on with his life with his wife. You can tell that something is very, very wrong with this picture, though - Pat's mom won't talk about Nikki, only telling him that all the wedding pictures were stolen and that she doesn't have the negatives to get more. His brother won't talk about Nikki, either. In fact, the only person who will discuss Nikki is the sister-in-law of Ronnie, one of Pat's friends. Tiffany has her own problems, though, and she might just make Pat's worse.

So this is a love story, right? Well, yes, but not really about Pat and Nikki, even though it seems to be. I would say it's a love story about football; the Eagles play a huge roll in the book. Pat starts to come out of his shell after his brother gives him a Hank Baskett jersey at the beginning of the season, and he's scored tickets to the home games, too. Pat joins his brother, Ronnie, and "the fat men" for tailgating and some male bonding. His therapist, Cliff, later shows up at the home games, too, with his friends, the Asian Invasion (50 asian men, all Eagles fans, who show up on an enormous bus painted as - you got it - the Asian Invasion). Cliff is interesting guy; he's Pat's therapist when they're in the recliners at the office, but once out of the chairs, Cliff insists that he's Pat's friend and a fellow Eagles fan. Pat's dad is what one would think of as sane, yet his entire mood, and his willingness to interact with his mental-case son, all hinge on the success of the Eagles. There's a lot of football involved, and I now know some of the Eagles chants and players (I'm fairly certain that Quick used real football cheers/players/etc for the book; fans get very peeved when you make things up). The Eagles play a big part in Pat regaining some of his sanity and his previous life, and allow him to bond with his family.

The only person who doesn't like football in the book is Tiffany, which may or may not be significant. She also has what appears to be a crush on Pat, running behind him on his workouts, almost stalking him in a way. And in her own warped way, Tiffany tries to help Pat move on from his obsession with Nikki, something that is only likely to happen if Pat can remember why he went to the bad place. Tiffany is also suffering from mental illness and depression after the death of her husband. They seem to bring out the best in each other, but at the end of the book, I wasn't entirely sure that it was a romantic thing after all. I think they just needed each other as friends.

I really enjoyed this very different read. I'm hoping that Mr. Quick will continue his work as a novelist, and even though I'm fairly certain this is stand-alone work, I wouldn't mind visiting with Pat and the Asian Invasion somewhere down the road. As the Eagles fans say, "AHHHHHHH!"

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"Tailed" by Brian M. Wiprud

If you've not yet joined taxidermist Garth Carson on any of his previous zany adventures, you just don't know what you're missing. Yes, Wiprud is back with another Garth book, and this one is pretty good. Not quite as good as the first couple, and I'm not entirely sure why. Might have been my reading mood, might have been the fact that they don't really spend any time in New York City, Garth and Angie's hometown; that setting really helps with the mood of these books. And while Angie is in this work, she's not in it much, so perhaps that's part of my disappointment with Wiprud's latest. I really love the relationship between Garth and Angie and you don't get as much of that this time around.

Anyway, Garth has gone legit; his brother, Nicholas, has gotten him a "real" job appraising the taxidermy of some big name, big game hunters. All is well in Garth-land as he takes his briefcase and vast knowledge to Chicago to meet his latest client, Sprunty G. Fulmore, who plays for the Chicago Bears. Garth receives a phone call from a man that he believes to be Sprunty, telling him to be ready for a limo ride to the mansion, etc. When Garth arrives, no one is around, although there is a trail of ladies underwear leading into the pool area. Figuring the linebacker has better plans at the moment, Garth waits a full 30 minutes before going in search of his client, only to find Sprunty's body. The Bear appears to have been killed by a bear, or at least, its arm. Not a live bear - just part of one of Sprunty's trophies. As Garth is questioned by the police, and later his boss, it comes to light that Sprunty is not the first to die a grisly death at the hands of a taxidermied trophy. And, as it turns out, Garth is the last to have seen each of the dead men...

Garth being Garth, he tries to do the right thing and work with the police and FBI. Of course, that doesn't last long, and he finds himself hiding out in Hell, Michigan with the usual assorted cast of characters. There's a few red herrings thrown in as well as some white geckos, a possible alien plot, his hippie mother, a possible alternate father for Garth's brother Nicholas, and - wait for it! - even the famous Mexican wrestling association, the lucha libre. It can be hard to keep all the characters straight, but it's a fun ride while you're at it. Will Garth take the fall for a mindless serial killer? Could Garth actually be on the hit list, due to his own extensive collection of big game taxidermy (most of it inherited from his father)? Will Garth ever be the same after seeing his elderly mother naked? (she's always been a nudist, something that used to embarrass the boys to no end while they were growing up).

Wiprud is a good author and he puts out good work. Fun books full of wild characters that will keep you entertained - and perhaps divert your attention from our current doom and gloom that seems to be on every news show lately.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Cry Wolf" by Patricia Briggs

"Cry Wolf" starts a new series by Briggs. Except that the characters aren't new if you read the author's story "Alpha and Omega" in the collection "On the Prowl". That introduced Anna, the Omega who had thought she was a submissive in her Chicago pack. It also gave us a bit of insight into Charles, one of the Marrok's sons (we know Samuel much better since he's been in the Mercy Thompson books).

This book picks up almost exactly where the short story left off. Charles has killed Leo, the Alpha of the Chicago pack, as well as Leo's insane mate. He's told Anna that she's pretty much his mate and that they're going back to his father's pack. Of course, this being a Briggs book, the romance part will have to wait for a bit; there's trouble at home almost as soon as they get there. In fact, rather than drive back, Anna, Charles, and his father all fly home. Seems there's something killing hikers out in the woods, something that looks a lot like a rogue wolf.

If you've read any of the Mercy Thompson books by Briggs, you'll love this book. Interestingly enough, it's a bit out of place on the timeline - Samuel is getting ready to go live with Mercy when this book opens, something we already know all about. Call it a bit of prequel to the other series, except that it's not really that, either. It would easily stand on it's own without having read any of the Mercy books; it nicely compliments the Mercy books, too. I liked the character development, and it gave me a bit more insight into how the pack works. (Mercy isn't really part of a pack, being a shape-shifter rather than a were. Read her series, you'll see what I mean, and darn it, they're good, too!)

I hope that Briggs writes more about Anna and Charles. I think there are interesting dynamics there, as well as in the Marrok's pack. Actually, I'd love to read about the Marrok and his original mate, Blue Jay Woman. Now there's a story waiting to be told...

"Exit Music" by Ian Rankin

This is the nineteenth and final time that I will be able to lose myself in a case with Detective Inspector John Rebus. Both my husband and I have read the entire series, and I have to say, I'm actually a bit sad to see it end. Kudos, though, to Rankin for sticking to his guns; he'd said all along that by writing Rebus in "real time", having him age through the series, there would come a time when the crusty cop would retire. He has, and this is definitely a wonderful ending to a fabulous series. If you like realistic crime dramas, ones where there aren't always distinctive black-and-white sides but shades of grey, this is your series. You won't find a better-written one in my humble opinion.

Rebus is only a week away from his last day on the job. He's trying to wrap up a few old cases; more importantly, he's trying to convince his partner Siobhan Clarke to keep digging on some of the cold cases. A dead body shows up and they're assigned the case; it seems like a simple homicidal assault, but Rebus sees connections to bigger fish, namely, Big Ger Macafferty, his arch nemesis. The deceased turns out to be Russian poet Alexander Todorov; he's immigrated to Scotland and seems to be rankling several of his homeland's higher-ups with his much freer writing. There are several Russian businessmen in town looking to secure financing through Scotland's largest bank; could one of them possibly had something to do with the poet's death? Especially since one of the men seems to have a relationship of sorts with Big Ger? Rebus, of course, thinks this is definitely the case and follows down that road, regardless of what he's told by his superiors (and his partner). Rebus being Rebus, it's no matter to him that he's just hours away from retirement; if Big Ger is involved, he's got to act fast - it could be his last chance to put him away for good.

There's a second murder of a recording studio owner, one that just adds to Rebus's conspiracy theory. But is our beloved curmudgeon barking up the right tree? Was it simply a mugging gone bad? How is the girl who found the body involved? Why does the husband of the couple who found her screaming in the alley keep visiting the girl? Why are their bank executives and government elite visiting with the Russian businessmen, and how does a possibly independent Scotland figure into the whole mess? You'll just have to read for yourselves to find out.

This was a fantastic book, and surprisingly enough, for all the stuff going on in it, one of Rankin's easier to follow entries. There's always a lot of plot twists and turns, not to mention subplots in the Rebus books and sometimes they can be a bit hard to follow. This one was very well-written, and it's obvious that Rankin has as much love for Rebus as we do. Will we ever see Rebus again? I think there's a good chance of it. Will Rankin continue to write about Siobhan, Rebus's partner? I don't know if he'll take that direction or not. I suspect he'll write thrillers from a totally different perspective; pick up some of his John Harvey books if you want to try that angle. Either way, Rankin is a writer of substance and I look forward to his next endeavor.

Enjoy retirement, Rebus, you old dog!

Friday, October 10, 2008

"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Books by Russian authors just continue to elude my comprehension. Well, maybe my comprehension of why said books are supposed to be so great, that is. This is one of those books; it's not an awful read but I also didn't think it was some literary feat of genius, either. I suppose when it first came out it was rather informative and a bit scandalous; no one had exposed the prison camps of Stalin before Solzhenitsyn got this published.

The novel is exactly what the title says - one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, one of the prisoners at a small gulag in Siberia. Ivan has been sentenced to a ten-year term, much luckier than some of his fellow prisoners who are in for 25 years. What horrible crime did Ivan commit to land in this frozen hell-hole? He was captured by the Germans and managed to escape. Yep, that's it; when he finally arrives back in Russia, he is found guilty of - unbelievably - treason, and thus finds himself in the gulag doing hard time. It's a very spartan existence, mostly consisting of trying to get a better work detail, more food rations, and maybe, if he's very, very lucky, some tobacco for a smoke. He gets up early and has only about an hour or so to himself (but not truly alone, as there are always fellow prisoners around) and goes to bed after a long but successful work day.

It's a short book and certainly not a very cheery one. Nothing really happens in the book; it's almost like reading a diary or journal entry, except that it's not written in the first person voice. The one thing that does come across in the book is that, as one of these prisoners, you either have to claw your way to the top of the pile or you have to be on good terms with everyone; make enemies of any kind and your days there will be even longer. No one is really bad or evil; these are all men that have been imprisoned on mostly trumped-up charges. And yes, Ivan states that many of them will die before seeing the end of their terms. He feel fortunate that his stint is almost up (I think he's in his eighth year when this is set). He doesn't let his family send anything anymore; there's no point since the guards get the goodies.

Overall, I guess I'd recommend it. Well written, just not the sort of book to read if you're looking for any sort of levity or intrigue.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Nightwalker" by Jocelynn Drake

Joy, o joy! For all those paranormal fans out there who are over the whole "paranormal romance" genre but still jones for a good vampire book, search no more! Drake has created an intriguing world in "Nightwalker", one where vamps still try to hide their existence from us mere mortals. Of course, any time you have vamps, you have vampire hunters - this book has a great one. And just to make it even more interesting, the vamps have a immortal enemy, the naturi. These creatures are what have become elves and werewolves and such in human folktales. They're anything but cute and cuddly; they want to bring their queen, Aurora, back to the human world, then exterminate every vampire - and human - off the fact of the planet.

Mira, our heroine, has been a nightwalker for centuries (around 600 or so). She has her own territory in the States and currently has her base in Savannah. She's an enforcer of sorts; she kills her own kind when they step out of line and threaten to expose the vampires' existence. She lives a rather nice life in the old city and enjoys her time there. However, there's a new face in town, one that is as handsome as he is deadly. Danaus is a vampire hunter, and it would seem that he's hunting Mira. But to what ends? He's had plenty of chances to kill her but hasn't. And he's while he's human, he certainly isn't only human...

The pairing of vamp and slayer has obviously been done before, but Ms. Drake gives it a nice twist. Both characters have their own flaws and foibles, not the least of which are their preconceived ideas of each other. As the book progresses, Mira must rely on Danaus to help her reform the Triad, a trio of vampires from different bloodlines that vanquished the naturi during a battle at Machu Picchu over 500 years ago. He must also rely on her, as she saves his butt once or twice as well. There's definitely an odd love-hate attraction going on, one that grows as they realize that they've been wrong about a lot of things. For example, he's been led to believe that vamps kill every time they take blood. She believes that as a vampire hunter, he exterminates first and asks questions later. They're both wrong, of course.

Oh, an even more interesting twist to all this? Mira is also known as the Fire Starter. Yep, that's right - she can create and control fire. A very handy tool for a vampire, don't you think? And a very unique way to write a vamp. There are several plot twists in this book, great character development, and - you got it - a sequel on the way! Don't miss this one - it's a very good start to an intriguing series.