Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: The Long Way Down

The Long Way Down: Daniel Faust Book 1 by Craig Shaefer

Audio book

Ahhhh, a decent scratch for my itch!

The first book in this series worked out pretty well for me.  Oh, there were some problems, but plenty of good stuff to help me get over those.

We have a Las Vegas magician who's a con-man, an occasional thief,  and a survivor (In my head, it's the Marlowe trope -- the hero must get warned off the case and beaten nearly to death at least once.  I see the long shadow of Chandler's The Big Sleep , but that book has a huge shadow).  He's a guy with a moral compass that points more or less toward good, but he deals with bad people and has to use bad methods.  Oh, and he has to save the world, although he doesn't know that until the third quarter of the book, which was nice.  Everybody has to save the world in their first book.  High stakes and all.   There is plenty of dark underbelly and gritty reality here.

The reader, Adam Verner,  does well as the voice of Faust, but his attempts at accents (in particular, a semi-sort of Scots accent) are painful.  He needs a heavy dose of BBC programming as training.   He does great with voices -- even his female voices sounded convincing and he differentiated between characters nicely -- but the attempts to do non-US accents was cringeworthy.  Still, not a deal breaker.

I liked the story.  The character hits the usual (practically required) traits -- abusive childhood,  unsuccessful love life, often scrambling for money which leads him into trouble as he tries to make ends meet, strong loyalty to friends, a sense of right and wrong, a need to protect the helpless, and a tough guy attitude.  Schaefer managed to shake those up a bit, though -- our tough guy hero is currently mourning rather deeply over a badly ended romance.  His friends are his adopted family of magical folk, including an older gay couple who were his substitute fathers  (and Yay for a non-stereotypical and positive depiction of gay men) and a couple of very strong women (also Yay, although one character is quite literally a Magical Negro, which makes me grin for the pun so no eye rolling).  The majority of characters are full and round and fun to watch.

The plot starts in typical fashion as a small case leads to bigger and bigger things -- again, Schaefer pulled that off well enough that I didn't originally see it coming until about halfway through the book, so that's another good thing.  Faust is another mouthy smart-ass, but...he doesn't have to have the last word, and because he's also a grifter, a con-man, he knows better.  That was the best twist on the tropes I found -- a POV character who knew when to keep his mouth shut, who didn't always use force or threats to get information.  I suspect the author might be a Leverage fan, which is all to the good.   The plot switched things up nicely.

The one big problem in the book was the relationship between Faust and Caitlin.  Caitlin is a succubus, and while that gets a bit toyed with as an obstacle, it isn't really brought into play.  The relationship is essential to the book, but it was sort of hammered in whole (perhaps for the sake of a soft sex scene).  The author decreed it to be so, and so it was.  Not enough time, not enough interaction, and certainly not enough caution.  I rather wonder if it was an editing decision, because a proper building of the relationship, even at high speed due to lust at first sight, would have taken some pages to accomplish and might have slowed down the pace of the book.  It was not gracefully handled.  Still, not a deal breaker.  There were enough pieces for Instant Love, Just Add Water, but the author didn't really use enough of them.

That aside, the other relationships Daniel has in the book, in particular the ones with his "family", are well done and made me quite happy.  Daniel's internal struggles make things interesting, although, again, there was an exchange of depth for speed, which is ok.   As mentioned above, we have strong women and they do strong women stuff, and the gendering of roles wasn't marked strongly (The existence of the gay couple might have been used to mitigate this, but, hey, it's a genre novel and you can't have it all).

So, the end result is this series will be one I keep up with.   I recommend it to those who are also seeking to scratch that hard-boiled, edgy, noir paranormal urban fantasy (sheesh, what a subgenre name!) itch.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: A Kiss Before the Apocalypse

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse (Remy Chandler Series #1) by Thomas E. Sniegoski

Audio book
I'm still searching for another series to scratch the itch I currently have, the hard-boiled noir urban fantasy which maybe plays with religious tropes of various kinds and might have an anti-heroish main character.  This book wasn't that.  It was something else.

First, the reading.  Luke Daniels is one of my favorite readers, with a nimble voice and a talent for accents.  This time, not so much.  His reading was absolutely stiff, and most of his voices were just growly.  Of course, that colors the story itself.

The story itself didn't play fair.  It danced hard on my emotional buttons -- it's rare that I read a book in this genre and have tears running down my face.  More than once.  Too many times, really, but that wasn't a negative.  Sniegoski knows how to hit emotional beats.  Arm those beats with a Black Labrador dog, and I stand no chance.  Dirty pool, as my dad would say.  The plot was pretty strong, and while there were a few dangling threads here and there, it wound up fairly well.  Again, of course, the hero saves the world -- this time from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a missing Angel of Death (Echoes of Kadrey's Killing Pretty here, although I think this was published much earlier, so maybe it's Kadrey's book that is the echo).  The humor was gentle and the tension fairly mild but consistent.

Unusual for this genre, the story is told in third person limited, with a couple of jaunts to see things from other characters.  Most stories like this are in first person.  I had to adjust my thinking for that. Characters were full and easy to separate, for the most part.  Of course, because Remy is a hero instead of an anti-hero, I had no trouble liking him and sympathizing with him.

My one solid complaint is the slow, almost languorous, fight/action scenes.  The action was going on, but the author used lots of long, detailed, descriptive sentences to narrate it.  One in particular struck me, when a character pulled a knife from a pocked in his jacket underneath a coat (the original was more descriptive).  Why the clothing detail?  Why couldn't he just pull a knife and stick it into something or someone? The extra detail was just so much molasses poured onto what should have been a sharp, tight, forward pressing scene.  This happened in every action sequence, almost like the author was bubble wrapping the sharp edges.  He has scary stuff going on, but he doesn't use his talent for hitting emotional buttons once the fists start flying.  He seems to be pulling back, placing distance between the mean stuff and the reader.  This did not work for me.  It drained the tension right out of everything.  I couldn't even pretend not to know how things would end.

Remy Chandler isn't a hard boiled, edgy main character.  He's a hero without doubt, with few shades of grey making him up.  The blackest thing about him is his dog, Marlowe, and Marlowe is a black Lab (and mostly comic relief/dependent character emotional button).  The world is not nuanced enough for my tastes.  It's a perfectly good world, but I don't know really all that much about it, and I am not invested in it.

I guess this is a case of another book I liked enough to finish, but not so much to heartily recommend.  I'm still debating if I want to continue the series, to see how the next one works now that the baseline is set.  Or I might go on to something else for a while.  I'm still itchy.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Review: Strange Magic

Strange Magic: A Yancy Lazarus Novel, Volume 1 by James A. Hunter

Audio version

Here's another case of wanting to like a book more than I did.  I'm in the mood for the anti-hero-ish paranormal mystery/fantasy with a noir tone and a hard edge.  This book had all the markers of that very particular niche.  It should have been a satisfying listen/read.

I'm not really satisfied.  Let's get down to why.

First, I have lay some blame on the reader, or the director and sound editor.  I listen to a lot of audio books, and I do mean a lot.  I listen to many of them multiple times. On occasion I've bought multiple versions of a particular book because the voicing didn't work for me and I hoped for a better one.  So, yeah, that's important.  Charlie Kevin did a good job voicing the novel, but in many places the reading was rushed, sentences stumbling over each other, thoughts that should have had a beat between them crammed together.  Now, this could have been an attempt by the director or editor or someone else to keep the book under 7 hours (why?  I don't know.  Many of the books I love best run to 10 hours or more.)  That sense of being rushed really clashed hard against the character idea of a blues man, a gambler, someone who just wants to play cards, smoke a cigarette, and ease through his rather long life.  It especially ran rough against the idea of this man being a Southerner.  I was fine without the exaggeration of a drawl or any imitation of dialect (I'm familiar with such and work carefully to scrub my own speech as free of my Southern roots as I can).  But the breakneck speed of the narration just blew that particular illusion away.

Also, mispronounced words were distracting.  I'm not exactly sure how voicing an audiobook works, but I would think that the pronunciation of words would be marked before recording, and mispronunciations would be easily corrected.  Since this is a reading of a written work, it doesn't make sense to interpret those blunders as characteristic misspellings or typos.  I'm not sure.  I just know that there were several such and each time I had to pause, figure out what was meant, and then climb back into the story.

As for the story itself, it's a competent story that hits all the proper tropes for the genre.  In fact, I think it hit all the tropes.  Hard.  Well, no, we didn't have a fem fatale in this one, but the author seeded in lots of hints that there was one around somewhere.  In truth, there were nearly no female characters in the story except the one who had to be rescued.  So, yeah, tropes were laid in like bricks in a pathway.

Yancy also never really became alive for me.  He should have.  He had all kinds of little quirks, including a very cliche ridden manner of speaking.  I could deal with that.  At the same time, he could turn around and spiel out paragraphs of magical jargon full of all manner of words and phrases a man who just barely made it through high school (as the background given indicates) would not be so likely to use. Since the whole story is narrated by Yancy, he comes across sounding almost like two different people, which pushes me away from the character.  He's a little too constructed, too much like a list of character traits instead of the image of a person with quirks and traits, little gestures and habits.  Yancy is supposed to be unique, but I felt more told than he was unusual than I was allowed to discover this for myself.

Still, there's a lot of good stuff in here.  The relationship and the banter between Yancy and his friends Greg was some of the best stuff in the book.  Hunter has some interesting ideas he's playing with, some twists and angles on his version of the universe.  He also worked hard to control the power level of his main character -- Yancy saves the world, which is a pretty high mark for a first book, but he doesn't do it alone and in fact needs his ass hauled out of trouble while someone else actually finishes up.  I liked that.   The stakes might have been a bit too high for the first book, but he dialed that back so that he has somewhere to go in the next book.

So, I didn't hate this.  I would even say I liked it, in a mild, genial, wishing-no-one-harm and not grudging the money or time spent sort of way. It was a step or two above mediocre.  I'm not sure about following up on the next book in the series, because while Hunter could easily hit his stride as he gets more comfortable with his characters and their world, waiting until the second book to make things click is not the way things usually go.   Then again, I didn't toss the book in disgust or anger or just frustration, so there's that.  I did finish it, and I don't finish a book that doesn't fulfill the promises made in the beginning.

Like I said at the start, I wanted to like this book more.   I'd like to recommend it more highly.  At this point, I'll say this is a good way to ignore air travel or to endure having a cold.  I guess I'll have to read the next one to see if Hunter and Yancy keep playing the same song or if they step it up.

Review: Mr. Mann

Mr. Mann: The Afterlife and Times of the Devil's Acquisitor Ad Infinitum by John Byron

Audiobook version.

I seem to be on a "Devil and God" book kick  -- I finished the Sandman Slim series up to the current book, and as soon as that was done, I started this one.

I picked this book up because Audible was having one of their sales and it was cheap.  The description sounded interesting -- I've long enjoyed stories from 'the other side' of  traditional pairings or dichotomies.

Now, what was it about this book that made me spend the two days before Christmas listening to it?  I'm trying to pin that down.

I did like it.  I didn't love it.  So let me take it apart a bit.

Martin Mann is not your average Wall Street wolf.  Abused as a child, he murdered his mother and stepfather as a teen, then went on to make a material success of himself.  He's a bit special, but nothing in particular -- he can see auras, and can read them a bit.  And one day, he meets up with the Devil, who wants to hire him for a special job, and arranges matters so that it's an offer Mann can't really refuse.

We then skip and jump through Mann's disjointed life as he collects damned souls.  He's put in contact with parts of humanity he had never before encountered and it changes him.  He also has a relationship with The Devil (aka Abi or Abby -- I don't know the spelling because, well, audiobook) that is difficult and scary (duh!) but still deep.  And in all this mix we have God and Angels and stories of redemption and forgiveness, balance and responsibility, love and hate, along with some interesting theological viewpoints and ideas about what really is going on.

All that is good.  Characters walk around and talk with enough reality to make them easily identifiable.  The story is full of emotion and mystery that carries it along the somewhat twisty and cerebral plot.  Told in first person, Martin Mann is engaging, sympathetic, and a good narrator of his own story.

Problems?  First, Byron needs a better editor to polish his writing style.  Listening is a different beast from reading, but I still got caught up on repeated words, some difficult dialog attribution, and a few sections that were, frankly, writerly self indulgence.  None of this seriously affected my ability to follow the story, but they did catch me up and pull me away from the story to notice the writing and wonder what that static was.  It was like walking a clean path and then stepping on some gravel -- I didn't fall, but I did feel those sharp points through my shoe.  A good editor would have pointed those little things out and helped the author clean them up.  My own writer brain wonders what I would have noticed in print -- the narrator of an audiobook can help a listener over some of those rocks with the magic of voice inflection and interpretation, and, of course, you don't hear the typos.

Second, sometimes Martin just seemed a bit...dumb.  And since he was narrating directly to whomever was reading/listening, that came across as the author worrying his audience was going to be a bit dumb.  Some points were belabored a bit.  Some others, more than  a bit.  I had more than one occasion where I thought  "Oh, come on, don't you get it?" because I'd figured something out based on story cues and clues, but the character just wasn't there yet, and, really, it didn't mesh with the intelligence he was supposed to have.

I'm going to say those problems would also be cured by a diligent, careful editor who isn't afraid to wound the delicate writerly soul.  Not that Byron is delicate or too touchy to edit -- I have no idea. Writers in general tend to feel a bit bruised when working with a good editor.  It's sort of like when you use your gym membership and hire a trainer.  You finish your workout in pain and you might think you hate the dictator who pushes you through that extra set of leg lifts, but a few weeks later the pain has faded and you see those great legs starting to emerge.)

I think -- from the publisher information -- that this is a self-published title and the author may not have known anyone who could edit him into near perfection.  The book is good, don't get me wrong, but it just skims under great because of those blips and stumbles and gravel in the path.  It's a book with more thought than action, so there's not a lot of movement to pick a reader up and carry her over those rough patches.

Give it a read yourself.  I think it's a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of evenings or a boring rainy day.  I'll keep my eye open for other books by this author.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Reading Lately

I'm still plowing through audio books in the Sandman Slim series -- Aloha from Hell , Devil Said Bang,  a short story called Devil in the Dollhouse, and now I'm into Kill City Blues.

This isn't a perfect series -- no series is really perfect and why would anyone want that? -- but I'm hooked.  I'm watching the main character, practically the greyist anti-hero I've run into, change and mature while still being just as difficult to like.  That's a challenge I can get into.

I still have a lot of unfinished books, bookmarks waving at me, inducing guilt that I take up with a new book rather than dealing with what I started and finishing up properly.  I don't think any of them are books I want to break up with before the end.  That's how I think of it, by the way.  When I give up on a book, when I take my marker out of it, close it, and put it on a pile for donation or whatever, I've broken up with that book.  Every time I open a book it's a new relationship that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Some books I revisit  over and over again, and they are like long term friends.  Others are just one night stands and that's fine -- it's fun and it's over.

Series, especially long series that I get into before they end, are like marriages only without children and community property. One or the other of us will end first, or there will be a divorce caused by betrayal and anger or just weary indifference.

Such a stack of books I want to read and haven't read yet.  Always it seems like either I have something else I must do, or I'm too tired to focus, or there's something going on that distracts me.  I haven't managed to sit down with a book in my hands more than a couple of times this month.

I have to figure out how to do better.  Probably limiting my online time would help.  Ah, Internet, you are a fascinating time suck!

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Review: Kill The Dead

Kill the Dead:  Sandman Slim book 2 by Richard Kadrey

My husband prefers audio books so books I like tend to get repurchased in that format.  I'm OCD about such things, so it takes a bit of willpower to switch formats, but I listened the audio version of the first book (constituting a second read) and then moved straight into this one.  MacLeod Andrews isn't perhaps my favorite reader, but he works for this series.  I also really enjoy Brilliance Audio productions in part because of the music they use to intro and end books (they did a great job on the first three books in the Iron Druid series, and I wish they'd done the whole series).

Yeah, there's a whole other thing involved in reviewing an audio book.

As for the book itself, Kadrey does an excellent job in subverting all my genre-based expectations for this series.  I appreciate that.  While some things did sort of leap out at me as obvious, I suspect it might have been a deliberate move on the author's part.  He seems to want the reader to know this big secret that the main character doesn't figure out until near the end so we can yell and scream at Stark to get his head out of his ass and See The Big Thing.  But he doesn't listen to us anymore than he listens to most of the characters in the book.

The anti-hero motif can be a tricky tightrope to walk.  Stark isn't really likeable, and he's nobody's buddy in this particular set of adventures.  I like that I can keep him at a distance.  It makes watching the things he does more enjoyable.  I read these books the same way I occasionally watch those cop-cam shows where you see the dashboard camera aimed at the idiot in the stolen car running down a major highway on four sparking rims.  You know he's going to get caught, but you feel so much smarter than him because he's fighting the inevitability of consequence.  Carthief guy made some choices, they weren't smart choices, and now it's payback time.  I'm not emotionally involved in particular -- I don't find myself getting upset or anxious ot worried.  I'm not identifying with this character at all.  I'm just enjoying the show.  It's a cool action flick of a book, with lots of over the top carnage and various main character motivational button pushing.  It isn't boring at all, but -- for me -- it isn't emotionally attaching the way other books have been.

Solid, good reading.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Review: Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older

Half-Resurrection Blues:  Bone Street Rumba, Book 1 by Daniel Jose Older


I just finished listening to the audio version of this book -- it's read by the author -- and I really, really, really have to recommend the audio version.  I'll get to why in a minute.

Yet another Urban Fantasy, this time with ghosts of all flavors, a whole Ghost Organization,  Our hero is not white (gasp) and not middle class (gasp gasp) and his Latino rhythms and view of the world are so much fresh spicy air.  We're dealing with a "halfie" here -- someone who has died but is still alive, and still human, just...changed a bit.  Not a ghoul or a vampire or a zombie.  A Halfie. An In-betweener.  His name is Carlos.  He might be Puerto Rican.  He's not sure because he can't remember his life before he was killed.

His best friends are ghosts, and he works for the New York Council of the Dead.  Yes, there is bureaucracy even in death.  His job?  He handles the unruly spirits, sending them to the final death for messing around and causing trouble.  There aren't many like him.  The story has a nice twist to it -- oh yes, he has to save the world and all, but that's really not his goal.  It's not his complete goal, pretty much.  So he's running down clues and getting in trouble and yes, he meets a beautiful woman and the music plays.

But those are just the facts of the story.  What really rings true to me -- and why I recommend the audio version so highly -- is that this story is just pure street poetry.  Older uses words like Carlos Santana uses musical notes.  This shit sings.  It dances.  There were parts where he was reading it and I forgot there was a story going on because I was just falling into the cadence of his words.  They writhed and rumbaed and tangoed and every sexy, tropical, fruit flavored, flower scented, spice fired thing words can do.  I'm a staid white middle class old woman, and it infected me.  Right now, my thoughts are bouncing in that same rhythm Older used to voice Carlos.  It was far more beautiful than is the usual in books like this.  I'm glad of that, too, because a story is a story and a great voice is a great voice, even if it's singing pop tunes in the shower.

So, yeah. Damn!

Friday, December 04, 2015

Review: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

I admit it.  I have a big love for the urban fantasy stuff.   I also enjoy a good anti-hero.

James Stark, a.k.a. Sandman Slim, is one of the most hardboiled, foul mouthed, don't-give-a-damn anti-heros I've run into.  He doesn't have a lot of good qualities and he's stubborn as hell.  Which is a good thing, because that is a big reason he survived being sent to Hell.  It's also how he got back to earth.

I must also admit that I started this book shortly after it was published, but only finished it recently.  That didn't have anything to do with the book itself, really.  It had to do with the amount of tightly wound tension the author managed to pack into  his terse, tight prose.  It was tense, I tell you.  Very tense.  

Which is why I kept hauling the book around with me to finish.  And it's why I finished it pretty quickly once I dove back in.

This is a story without any real good guys.  Everybody is a bad guy, but in various shades from pale grey to blackest nothing.  It's also a nuanced look at the world, which is kind of surprising in an urban fantasy.  Slim isn't a rogue with a good heart. He isn't holding a little spark of love in his soul.  He isn't harboring some dark secret that forces him to act against his inclinations. He isn't redeemable.  He doesn't want to be redeemed.  He flat out refuses it.

That's what hooked me.  Well, and the prose, all prickly and sharp edged, outlined in razor wire.  And the convoluted, upside down world.  There are no cute puppies, no rays of sunshine gilding the head of our hero.  It's sweaty and it stinks, this world, but it's still the world we have.  When you ride along with Sandman Slim, you don't know what will happen, but you know it's going to hurt.  And you're ok with that.

I'm going to check out the audio book versions of this series as well, because I'm curious what voicing they've chosen for little Jimmy Stark.  It should sound like the reader gargled with ammonia.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Review: The Pax Arcana series

It's been an interesting November for me.  I did NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated.  And I "won" -- that is, I finished 50,000 words in a novel.  I finished ahead of the deadline and so kept writing, determined to finish the novel by November 30th.  And I did.  What's more, it is a Science Fiction novel, more or less,   I'm pretty pleased about this.

And I've been reading/listening to audio books, so I have reviews to write.

Charming -- Pax Arcana series book 1 by Elliott James

Also Daring (book 2)  and Fearless (book 3),

I have the audio versions.

These are newer entries in the Urban Fantasy genre, In my mind, they fill a space between The Dresden Files and The Iron Druid Chronicles.  In this case, we have a Knight Templar/Werewolf monster hunter sort of guy, John Charming.  We have smart assedness and a near inability to keep his remarks to himself.  We have kick-ass abilities, lots of internal conflict, and pretty much all the hallmarks of of this genre.

What makes it worth reading?  The world and the things that happen in the world.  The kind of research James is doing to underpin the story.  That kickassery is not strictly the province of the main character, but also extends to various supporting characters (two of them female).  The new elements and the vast, vast, VAST collection of supernatural critters, good, bad, neutral.  Like I said above, this series seems to fill in a niche between others.  It's fun to read, fun to sit with and think about.

The best recommendation I can offer is that I intend to read/listen to them again.  I've also got a list of short stories based in the world on my wishlist.  I'm looking forward to the next announced title.