I was pleased to get this morsel as a Christmas present from Molly Harper and audible.com.
This novella is a Christmas Special for all Half Moon Hollow fans. The gang is all there, even if assembling them is a rather clumsy process, there's a little bit of mystery, a confused love life, humorous disasters and just enough of cameo appearance from each character to remind you why you liked them without telling you anything you didn't know.
In the glow of the Christmas Tree lights and warmed by some good wine, this story slipped through my mind without causing any disturbance other than the occasional snort of laughter, until it ended more abruptly than even a novella should. Suddenly, I was listening to recipes being read out and wondering "did I fall asleep and miss something?" - well, it happens, especially with the wine and all - but it turned out that the story stopped without really ending.
If you're not a Half Moon Hollow Fan, don't start here. Start with "Nice Girls Don't Have Fangs" and savour the fun from the beginning.
If you are a fan, be encouraged, it sounds like more fun stuff with GiGi and the truly frightening Ophelia.
This "End of Days" tale is more fiction with science in it than classic science fiction. The focus is on the characters and the different ways in which they are broken and on the nature and impact of belief on how we see ourselves and others.
Nevertheless, there is still a good end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it thriller to keep you turning the pages and solid science to keep everything credible.
"The Rapture" felt more real to me than other "End of Days" apocalyptic nightmare novels and movies, not just because it is set in the UK but because I feel a strong affinity for Gabrielle Fox, a paralysed therapist (now there's a metaphor to conjure with), from whose point of view the story is told.
She and I share certain values and assumptions that are common amongst the Brit graduate population but which rarely surface in American fiction.She embraces atheism with a bone-deep belief that perhaps only someone raised as a Catholic can achieve. She despises Christian fundamentalism at an almost instinctive level because she views that kind of faith as pathological. She is apolitical but fundamentally distrusts politicians and authority figures, especially as she is one. She pursues a professional career because it is something she is good at but not passionate about. She is a therapist who is insightful without being empathic, who distrusts the tools and language of her trade and understands that psychiatric hospitals are funded more for their value as surrogate prisons than as places of healing.
All of this means that Gabrielle views the concept of "The Rapture" not only with disbelief but with contempt, so she makes the perfect foil for all those around her who believe the End of Days has arrived.
Gabrielle is more than a plot device. As she mourns for all that the accident that paralysed her has taken away and struggles to imagine what her life could be, she becomes the measuring stick for human hopes and fears which brings scale to the idea of what it would mean if the world didn't end but we did.
The second remarkable character in "The Rapture" is Bethany Krall, Gabrielle's teenage patient, confined to the hospital because she murdered her mother. Bethany is a wonderful creation: convincing, frightening, violent, crude, repulsive, vulnerable, damaged and fundamentally honest behind all the lies.
"The Rapture" includes both credible science and credible scientists, even if rogue scientists with access to very large helicopters are little hard to imagine
My only reservation about "The Rapture" was that Gabrielle's perspective came a little too much from her head rather than the heart but that could be because I also live in my head and I use fiction to try and find the way to my heart.
This is a book that has "MAKE ME INTO A MOVIE" written all over it. I hope, if that happens, that they'll keep it in the UK and hire a director with an atheist's heart to make it.
Three things make "Crossover" a good solid science fiction novel: an action-packed cyberpunkish plot about far future inter-stellar political and military intrigue, a willingness to explore the issues around whether an man-made soldier can also be a person and, most of all, strong female characters, especially the artificial soldier herself, Cassandra Kresnov.
Joel Shepard builds his future world with care, paying attention to history. culture, and politics and setting up conflicts that are more complex than good-guys versus bad-guys. He has created a credible, engaging universe that could be the foundation for a good series of books.
The thriller plot has some excellently executed action scenes and just enough political intrigue to vary the pace.
Yet this isn't a "Olympus Has Fallen" you have 24 hours to save the universe kind of book. It's main focus is on Cassandra Kresnov who was built to be a super-soldier but has gone AWOL to see if she can do more with her life. A lot of the novel is spent exploring what it means to be sentient but not human, to look human but to be a formidable weapon, even when unarmed. Joel Shepherd gives this debate an excellent via a gruesome scene, early in the novel, where Cassandra is treated like a thing rather than a person and subjected to unbearable cruelty. By the end of this, I had no doubt Cassandra was a person.
Cassandra is not written a human who happens to have a different biology. She is, in many ways, alien and threatening. She knows why she was built, she just doesn't believe that she has to be bound by her maker's intent. We see her as "Captain Kresnov" commanding a crew of super-soldiers, slightly less advanced than her, who she cares for and who virtually worship her. We see her as the wannabe civilian, looking for a job, going to art galleries, picking up a man, trying to build a life. we watch her build trust, suffer grief, be overwhelmed by anger and crippled by fear. We are given every opportunity to like her. The humans she interacts with are more than foils or plot devices, the SWAT squad leader and the President of the planet are drawn with precise, confident strokes that make them easy to imagine.
I found the start of the book a little slow but I suspect this was more to do with how the book was narrated. Later in the book, Dina Pearlman does an excellent job with both the dialogue (wonderful accents and distinct voices for the main characters) and with action scenes, but her reading of the early scene-setting descriptions and some of Kesnov's internal reflections is a little flat and unsympathetic. I also thought the last chapter of the book could have been omitted or given more bite. But these are small complaints. This was a book I read with pleasure, wanting to know what happened next, caring about the characters and kept interested in the diversity of the world in which the action takes place.
"Trail of Dead" is (apart from the title which I think is rather dull) is an improvement on "Dead Spots", book 1 in the series. Melissa Olson's writing is more confident and assured, the plotting is tighter and more complex and the world building is a little bit more subtle.
In "Trail of Dead" I actually started to like Scarlett Bernard and understand the impact that she has on those around her. She's come out of her "I'm doing this because it's the only thing I'm good for" trance and started to think through her life. It turns out that she's brave and, in her own way, driven by a sense of honour and a desire to help those she cares for.
Her bête noir and former mentor, now a scary bat-shit-crazy vampire is an excellent villain to his and boo at. She makes the other monsters that Scarlett works for: vampires, witches and werewolves, seem positively civilized.
The "shall I choose the gorgeous and righteous cop or the totally devoted werewolf surfer-boy" trope could have become a little tired - too Stephanie Plumb for my taste - but Olsen pulled an original plot twist that saved the day and kept everything a bit more plausible. I do wish she'd stop telling me that Jesse smells of oranges and Armani, it doesn't sound an attractive combination and it became a sort of leitmotiv that was played every time he and Scarlet were in a scene together.
The concept of a "null", the original idea around which the series is based, continues to develop at satisfying pace that shows progress but hints at more to come.
I'm confident that this will turn into a fun series. I know the third book is out but I'm waiting for the audiobook to be available.
When this book first came out, in the UK, it was called "The Visitor", which makes a whole lot of sense to me: it links to the plot, it's ambiguous about the nature and identity of the visitor and it's easy to remember. Then some editor in the US decided that it sounded too much like Science Fiction and came up with "Running Blind". I can't see any relevance to the plot and it's instantly forgettable but perhaps that's why editors don't get to write novels.
Four things dominated this novel for me: a well thought through puzzle-plot, skilfully revealed, piece by grim piece; the malicious misogyny of the killings, Child's contempt for the FBI and the satisfaction I felt when the increasingly eccentric Reacher finally gets a reality-check.
The Reacher reality-check comes at the beginning of the novel when Reacher's impromptu vigilante intervention in a protection racket gets him entangled with the local police and the FBI. In any sane world, Reacher would have finished this encounter either in prison or in a psych ward or both. Reacher sees himself as outside the law. He feels entitled to do violence in whatever he sees as a good cause. He only seems fully engaged with the people around him when he is causing mayhem. This is what makes him such a compelling character in a thriller. It's also what would get put locked up in real life. Of course, in the novel, Reacher is rescued by his lawyer girl-friend and cuts a deal that sets up the rest of the novel.
Still, I don't read Reacher for insights into real life. I read him because the plots are ingenious, because I enjoy his amoral aggression in the cause of right (usually one or more women who need to be rescued or revenged) and because, at least some of the time, I wish there really was a Reacher or two out there making things right.
In this novel, the FBI are depicted as sleazy (a female agent displaying herself to keep Reacher "in hand"), incompetent (profiling techniques that are fundamentally flawed) and more interested in taking care of their own than in getting the job done. As usual, it's lucky for them that Reacher is along to do their job for them.
The puzzle-plot in this one is truly ingenious. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. I've seldom read a serial killer book where it was so hard to figure out HOW the killing was done. Even when Reacher helps the FBI put most of the pieces together, the answer still isn't clear. For me, this is a real strength in a thriller.
The women being killed in this book have all already been betrayed and abused by men in positions of power while they served in the Army. I was surprised and pleased to see that Child took the time to make at least some of these women real and help see the damage that had been done to them and the lives they were rebuilding. Of course this makes their deaths more poignant but it makes the manner of their deaths truly monstrous.
The prose in this novel isn't go to win any prizes. It often reads more like directions to an actor in a TV script: "He did this. Then he did that. Then he moved to the right. Then he sat down." but somehow the sparse style, written in the third-person, keeps Reacher an enigma.
By the end of the novel, Reacher has nothing left but his folding toothbrush and a desire to be somewhere else. This makes him the perfect catalyst for the next novel where a smart, violent, emotionally unavailable man is needed to thwart evil-doers. I wonder if it also makes him an archetype for a male hunger for a particular type of freedom, based on detached competency and uncompromised integrity?
The world is ending. Everyone will be dead soon. Everyone knows that. Everyone reacts to it differently.
Hank Palace, recently promoted to his dream job of homicide detective, decides to carry on investigating murders. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it never occurs to him to stop.
His focus, his need to follow the rules, his quiet persistence in his task, affects the people around him, making them uncomfortable, or bemused, or sometimes even hopeful.
This is not a Summer Blockbuster Movie "end of the world" novel. There are no aliens, or zombies. Our hero is not trying to save the world in the next 48 Hours. He's not even trying to save himself. He just wants to do his job as well as he can.
Actually, Palace doesn't have much of a life to save. He's a loner and a misfit. Not the charismatic kind that you find in buddy-cop movies, but the slightly embarrassing to notice kind of loner that people avoid either because that kind of isolation might be contagious, or because of an Uncanny Valley Effect that says that, although Hank looks normal, there's something a little off about him that's hard to take.
On the surface, nothing much happens in this book. There is a murder and a mystery, actually more than one mystery, and love and betrayal and lots and lots of deaths but the book feels almost horrifyingly tranquil.
Ben Winters' writing is first-rate: economical, precise and quietly clever. Peter Berkrot's narration in the audiobook amplifies this by being undramatic without being flat or dull.
When I first finished the book a couple of months ago, I gave it a three star rating on goodreads.com but I couldn't bring myself to write a review. I felt as if I'd finished the book but it hadn't finished with me.
I found my mind returning to it over the following weeks and slowly articulated to myself why the book wouldn't leave me alone. It's because, without the intervention of an asteroid, everyone's world is ending. We will all be dead relatively soon (I'm fifty-seven, neither of my parents made it past sixty-nine, death's wingéd chariot is starting to tailgate me). We all know it. We all react to it differently. All that Winters' changed in his novel is that everyone is going to die at more or less the same time.
The strongest message I got from his book is that most of us get through the day because we believe there will be an infinite number of tomorrows, or at least too many to have to worry yet, and if we do get that "any day now" warning, we know that the world, and the people we care about, will go on. Which makes what happens to us today, bearable. Which takes away the need to think about why I spent today on a train for four hours to spend tomorrow in meeting with people I don't know so I can make the same journey back tomorrow night.
I'm an Atheist by conviction. I believe that done is done. I know I'm going to die. I don't believe there will be an accounting. No reward. No punishment. No anything. I thought I understood what that meant but I think I was still holding out on myself until I read Winters' book.
The people around Palace are making choices. Some of them are pursuing bucket-lists like the activities still matter to them, like goals have any meaning any more. Some are losing themselves in drink or drugs or sex or all three. Some of them are just lost, shocked, adrift, almost dead already. A few, a very few, carry on doing the things they love: making the perfect cup of coffee, or doing what it takes to solve a murder. I realize that I and the people around me, all of us, are acting out these reactions to our impending ending everyday, we just make ourselves forget about it.
Ben Winters' has taken all this "normal" getting-through-the-day behaviour and put it in a setting that makes it problematic, thereby making our seen-but-too-familiar to be noticed reactions visible.
This is what was unsettling me about the book: it was giving me a lens to see that, in many ways, the end of the world really is nigh and I'm plodding on like I don't have a choice.
Anyway, I've upgraded my goodreads rating to four stars, bought "Countdown City", book two of the trilogy and I've written this review to exorcise my discomfort.
If you're in the mood for some uncanny reality, give "The Last Policeman" a try.
"Shakespeare's Counselor" is the final book in the Lily Bard series. I was surprised to find that I took great pleasure in this series. In some ways it is one long novel, charting Lily's journey from isolated, insomniac, night-walker, to a woman with a life that she has built through her strength, her integrity and finally by being courageous enough to allow herself to have something to lose.
The final book thankfully doesn't go down the path of unlikely happy endings. Bad things happen to Lily in this book and, at the end of it, she still has significant problems, but the book delivers credible growth for her and the people around her.
One of the ways this growth is achieved is that Lily enters therapy, with the Counselor of the title, to try to end the nightmares that rule her sleep. I was surprised at this. I'm not a fan of therapy. I'm with Willy Russel in changing Pschotherapist into Psycho The Rapist. I've never been convinced that the response to trauma should be a platitude-driven talking-tour of the route back to normalcy. I very much doubt that, after a significant trauma, normal is an option.
I was pleased to see that the therapy in the book worked less because of the skill of the counselor, than because the rape survivors in the group were willing to extend their trust and support to each other. There are some hard-to-take tales in therapy sessions. Sadly, none of them are difficult to believe. I was impressed that, even in therapy, Lily did not change her view that people are not naturally good and safety can only be obtained through vigilance and strength. Her counselor found the view bleak and wondered how Lily could live with it. I see it as a reasonable, fact-based conclusion, that provides a foundation for good choices.
The plot of "Shakespeare's Counselor" is a little complex, requiring some suspension of disbelief as the bad guys are not exactly run of the mill. The action is occasionally violent and brutal. The events in Lily's personal life add grief to an already tough situation and challenge Lily's definition of herself and her future.
By the end of the series, Lily has moved from loner cleaner, to an apprentice private detective with a husband and friends in a community that she now feels part of. Yet this is not a "Hallmark" sugar-sweet transformation. This book, even more than the rest of the series, is raised above the mundane by the authenticity of Lily's rage against what was done to her and the strength of her commitment to live her life to her own standards. It's a fine close to a series that I am sure I will read again.
I listened to the audiobook version of this series, performed by Julai Gibson. She did a wonderful job, not just in being "the voice of Lily Bard" but also in creating and sustaining voices for the other characters. She was the perfect choice for these books.
Melissa Olson has achieved something quite unique, she's added a brand new type of supernatural to the, by now normal, mix of vampires, werewolves and witches. Scarlett Bernard is a Null, she creates dead spots for magic. In her presence, vampires and werewolves become human and witches cannot cast spells.
This is a truly odd, negative, super power. It doesn't turn Scarlett into an apex predator but it does give her some protection from them. She lives in a niché where she can be used by the various super natural factions to clean up messes, usually deaths, without being a threat or being threatened. She is valuable because she helps keep the "Old World's" secrets.
At least, that's how we see the world at the start of the story.
The plot places, Scarlett in a situation where she has a deadline to prove she had no involvement in some gruesome killings or face execution. The twists and turns of the plot are perfect for building a picture of the supernatural world while making it satisfyingly difficult to figure out who is guilty of what.
I enjoyed the fact that Scarlett, because her powers are essentially negative, couldn't just use muscle or magic to solve her problems, she had to use her brains and rely on her friends. This made the whole story more engaging.
Circumstances have thrown Scarlett together with a freshly promoted plain-clothes LAPD officer, Jesse Cruz. He is new to the "Old World" and becomes the device through which much of the exposition is done. He is also a very moral person (hey, if you can accept that LA has vampires, werewolves and witches, then is a moral LAPD officer such a stretch).
I didn't like Scarlett very much at the start of the book. She seemed glib, superficial, numb as well as null and I didn't much care what happened to her. As the book progresses, two things change, Scarlett's back-story of trauma, guilt and exploitation is revealed and,partly in response to Jesse's reactions to the Old World and partly as she slowly realizes that she actually has some friends, Scarlett takes stock of her life and her attitudes and starts to make changes.
By the end of the book, I was interested in Scarlett and the world she lives in and ready for another instalment.
"Dead Spots" was an entertaining read that had some problems with pace and perhaps a little too much exposition, but which appealed to me because of its flashes of originality and the intelligence and pragmatism of Scarlett Bernard.
One of the things that I admire about Charlaine Harris is her willingness to follow the growth of her, usually broken or stigmatized, main characters, even when the venture into politically incorrect territory.
I've seen reviews of previous books in which Harris is criticised because Lily Bard, a survivor of a vicious gang rape, saw the promiscuity of, Deedra Dean, one of her customers, as a lack of self-respect. Lily cannot understand why Deedra would put herself at risk just to have sex with men that she does not care about. This raised a red flag for some readers. How dare Lily judge this woman!
Yet the point of this series of books is to get inside the head of Lily Bard as she does what she can to rebuild her life. Lily's impatience with Deedra speaks more to her own need for security and her lack of trust in men than it does to any moral condemnation of Deedra's behaviour.
This book starts with Lily discovering Deedra Dean's body in a car in the woods, apparently the victim of one the many men she had sex with. Part of the power of this series is that Lily grows and changes with every book. Lily is not as locked away emotionally as she was in book one. Her reaction to Deedra's death, which she cannot get out of her mind, shows that while she still cannot grasp why Deedra behaved with such little self-regard, she cannot abide the idea of her being killed for it. This unwillingness to accept that Deedra "got what she deserved" eventually leads Lily to unravel what really happened to Deedra.
Along the way we also see how Lily deals with people who treat her badly (a sleazy man in his nineties, too used to getting his own way and too lascivious for polite company) or who suspect her honest (a Deputy Police Chief who sees her as perpetrator, not rescuer) and see that, although she has grown strong enough to withstand these people, she still behaves honourably towards them.
We also see that Lily has built a home for herself in Shakespeare. She has friends and people who respect her. She is no longer the invisible person she used to want to be.
The plot has enough twists and turns to be interesting and picks up on characters and storyline from previous books in a consistent way but, ultimately, it felt a little too elaborate for me.
I enjoyed the book, not so much for the plot, as for the opportunity to spend more time with Lily and see who she is becoming.
Although I found this too be the weakest of the Lily Bard books so far, it is still a good read, well-written, thought provoking and intimate.
Don't be misled by the title, "Shakespeare's Christmas" is is not a "Christmas Special" where we get to see the people of the small town of Shakespeare acting as if they were in a remake of "It's A Wonderful Life". It is the darkest, and I think the best, book in the series so far. It's set before, not at Christmas and most of it takes place outside of Shakespeare.
The mystery in "Shakespeare's Christmas" is not a polite "whodunnit" murder under the mistletoe, but the death of a young mother, knifed and left to bleed out in the snow, and the search for a monster who preys on children while masquerading as a family friend. It has enough twist and turns to keep you guessing and enough evil to evoke rage in the reader.
As with the first two books, the thing I enjoyed most was the continuing development of Lily Bard. It's clear to me now that the five books in the series track Lily's evolution from someone who has isolated herself so that she can cope quietly with the task of staying alive from day-to-day, to someone who has taken the risk of creating a life that she values with people that she loves, even though she is always afraid of the vulnerability to loss and grief that this could produce.
In "Shakespeare's Christmas", Lily has reluctantly come back to her home town to attend her younger sister's wedding. She knows that she will have to put on her company manners for the wedding showers and rehearsal dinners but what worries her are not the formal niceties but the need to show herself to the family and friends that she walked away from, after her rape and mutilation, when she could no longer live with their pity or their pain.
There are no soft edges here, no Hallmark Moments, instead we get an honest exploration of how Lily copes with being back with people she loves but who she finds it hard to live with, not just because they grieve for who she was but because she no longer wants to be that person.
In her mind there is the old Lily from before the rape and the new Lily she is now: someone solitary, someone vigilant, someone strong enough to protect herself, someone who's old life has been stolen from her, someone who can no longer believe that other people are fundamentally good.
Lily struggles to connect her new self to her family and her friends. One of the things that helps her with this is her encounters with children. Lily believes that she does not understand children, yet the reader sees that her honesty, her directness and her strength mean that she succeeds in winning their trust and their admiration. Like at least some of the children around her, Lily believes in the monster beneath the bed; she believes that safety is an illusion; that vigilance and strength are necessary to survival and that men are willing to use violence to get what they want.
What Lily learns from the children is that she has not become a cold, distant monster; she has become a dragon-slayer.
As events unfold, Lily also learns that part of her strength now comes from being with Jack. Typically for Lily, while she knows this to be true and suspects it to be good, she worries that it will make her vulnerable.
There is evil in this book. An evil made worse because, as Lily and Jack try to search out its source, they find too many potential candidates too close to home. There is also love in this book. As Lily does what she needs to do to make those around her safe, she finally comes to understand that she can be the new Lily, strong, honest, and wary and still be loved as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a one-time lover, and an old friend.
The book ends with Lily going back to Shakespeare for Christmas. It is her home now. It contains the things in her life that she most wants to celebrate.
After finishing the book, I decided that to read the rest of the series back to back. I'll keep you posted on my impressions.
I wouldn't normally have chosen to read a novel about a morbidly obese middle-aged shut-in ex-academic and a High School student and wannabe baseball star with anger management issues but I'd heard that Liz Moore had a strong, distinctive, voice, so I tried the audiobook.
It was an excellent decision, not just because Liz Moore writes beautifully but because "Heft" works well as an audiobook. The contrasting voices of Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka draw an even stronger distinction between the world as seen by the monstrously fat Arthur Opp and the athletic, on-the-brink-of-manhood Kel Keller.
In "Heft", Liz Moore takes up the challenge of writing a character-driven novel that features two unsympathetic characters who are leading ordinary lives that verge on the dull. Her achievement is that, by the end of the book she had managed to tangle them in my imagination enough to make me hope on their behalf.
The novel is structured a two parallel stories of frailty, failure and loss that are up-lifted by the accuracy of their observation and the suppression of the authorial voice which forces the reader to make their own judgements on the actions and motives of Opp and Keller.
Some of those actions are hard to watch and don't paint Keller or Opp in a positive light.
Keller's guilty anger at having to care for his sick and apparently drunk, mother and his encounter, in room strewn with beer cans and smelling of neglect, with the man he believes may be his father, create a bleak picture. One of the most powerful moments, for me, was Keller having sex with a girl from his old neighbourhood just because she's there and then remaining cruelly passive when he knows the hurt he has caused her. This is the kind adolescent many of us can remember being but would be ashamed to admit to. It speaks to the honesty that holds this book together.
Arthur Opp is shown a s man unable to connect to connect to the people around him and who has been corrupted by a morbid desire for food, that ultimately becomes his only source of pleasure. That Opp's life has shrunk as his body has expanded symbolised by his inability to climb the stairs to reach the upper floor of his home.
"Heft" handles big themes: how weakness and shame corrode; how parents can damage their children; how fantasy becomes a substitute for action,; how small practical acts of kindness can kindle hope and the possibilities that open up when we set out to build "families" composed of people we care about.
Liz Moore knows how to describe the small victories and moments of kindness that make life worth living. Opp's first walk outside of his house in many years, convey a real sense of risk and triumph. The quiet hospitality Keller is offered by his almost-girlfriend and her family shows the impact of kindness. Both men are motivated to try to be more, to be better, by woman in their lives who can see beyond the failings and fear and the self-hatred to the men they could become with courage and love and time.
"Heft" is not a didactic book. It is not selling self-help solutions and does not offer tidy endings. If it has a message, it is: "Life is a mess. Deal with it. But deal with it with as much kindness and empathy as you can manage."
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