By the numbers? Reviews of two thrillers

Recently I read two thrillers, Robert Bailey’s The Professor and Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye. When I related the plot of Connelly’s latest to my husband, he remarked, “Seems like it’s pretty much by the numbers.”

“By the numbers” alludes to the old-time hobby kits in which a painting—usually a famous one—is reduced to a schematic of numbered parts that correspond to its colors. Using paints included in the kit, the hobbyist dabs the correct color on each part to reproduce the painting in all its glory. Well, kind of. No matter how carefully the hobbyist applies the paint, the reproduction lacks the magic of the original.

“By the numbers” is a disparaging way of describing a novel that mechanically reproduces a plot line, tropes, or characters common to its genre.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye

I bristled at hearing The Wrong Side of Goodbye described as a “by the numbers” crime thriller. Okay, it’s not my favorite Harry Bosch novel. Like all of Connelly’s recent books, its sparseness leaves little room for contemplation or emotional resonance. Still, I enjoyed the story and cared what happened to the characters, who have enough complexity to be believable.

Forced into retirement from the LAPD and working as a private detective, Harry is hired by a billionaire to find the illegitimate child that the billionaire fathered with a Mexican cafeteria worker in the 1950s. The billionaire wants to leave his money to this child, his only offspring. Harry uncovers the heartbreaking and inspiring story of this woman and the son she bears. I anticipated much of the story (but not the rather neat twist at the end).

Harry Bosch—one of the great detectives of fiction

After a dozen or more books, I feel as if I know Harry, a stubborn man with a troubled past, a quick temper, and even quicker mind. He’s changed a lot since the beginning of the series. He’s much less hotheaded these days. When he receives a profanity laden email from a cop angry at him for suing the LAPD, he pounds out a sarcastic reply . . . and then deletes it.

Being a single father has also changed Harry. He’s become more patient and sensitive, as shown when he and his daughter negotiate where to meet for dinner. She wants to try a new Vietnamese restaurant. Harry’s blunt refusal offends her. Being a man who keeps his feelings under wraps, he’s not used to explaining himself. But his need for her understanding overcomes his macho reticence. He explains that he had to eat Vietnamese food every day while fighting in the Vietnam War:

“You smell like what you eat. In enclosed spaces. It comes out in your pores. My job—I had to go into tunnels, and I didn’t want the enemy to know I was there. So I ate their food every day, every meal, and I can’t do it anymore. It bring it all back to me.”

The Wrong of Goodbye isn’t “by the numbers.” It’s original Connelly.

The Professor

Thomas McMurtrie, protagonist of Robert Bailey’s legal thriller, is a former star football player and now a venerable law professor at the University of Georgia. Tom is forced into retirement thanks to the machinations of the weaselly dean and Jameson Tyler, a hotshot attorney and one of Tom’s former students, whom he had considered a friend.

An old flame comes to him for help. Her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter died in a collusion with a semi. The driver was speeding and the old flame wants to sue the trucking company for negligence. Tom refers her to Rick Drake, another former student. Although definitely not Tom’s friend, Drake grew up in the town where the accident occurred and the case will be tried.

Enter the villains

The case becomes thorny when Jack Willistone, the owner of the trucking company, hires Tyler to defend his company against the suit. Willistone is a small-time tycoon whose hirelings commit arson and threaten and bribe witnesses.

It’s revealing that he sends the psychopathic thug Bone to intimidate the characters who are low on the social ladder. If they talk to the lawyers, Bone threatens to rape their wives and/or daughters while they watch and other fun stuff. Willistone feels he can have them killed and get away with it. But with the wife of the gas company, he goes after her reputation. He has pictures proving that her dead husband was gay and will make certain that her teenage boys see them unless she keeps her mouth shut.

That old-time machismo

This thriller is saturated with Southern machismo. The women are so hapless. They’re not incompetent, just unable to fend for themselves. They need the men. Even Dawn the law student needs help from Tom. And there’s lots of football stuff about loyalty to teammates and friends, playing to win, and never wussing out. Not that it’s unbelievable or wrong or anything. I just got tired of it.

In addition, I couldn’t buy into the moral simplicity. It’s always clear what’s right and wrong. Wrong actions in one aspect of life indicate a moral rottenness that infects every other aspect of a character’s life. The amoral attorney Tyler dates two women at once, so of course he ambushes his old friend Tom with the charges that cost him his teaching position, and he breaks his promise not to make public the supposedly compromising photos of Tom and Dawn.

Is The Professor “by the numbers”?

The plot rolls along at a brisk pace with the familiar tropes of legal thrillers: the surprise witness, evidence that surfaces at the last minute. But the setting is vivid and the characters transcend their stereotypes. I won’t forget Tom McMurtrie and might pick up another novel in the series sometime.

All thrillers are written “by the numbers” to some extent since writers follow the rules of the genre. I suspect that the term is a way of disparaging genre fiction in general. When critics dismiss novels as “by the numbers,” it means they dislike genre fiction—and not much else.

checking your grammar day and night
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When a comma matters

Grammar Nazi deplores sloppy punctuation. My own attitude is more ambiguous since I think communication matters more than correctness and nobody is perfect—least of all me. But sometimes punctuation matters. While reading Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I came across an example of how much a missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

In Cronin’s novel a virus developed by the military changes test subjects into vampires with familiar characteristics: blood hunger, razor sharp teeth, aversion to sunlight, and indeterminate lifespans. The monsters also have psychic powers that enable them to escape from the fortified lab and infect the entire North American continent and perhaps the world. Eventually they number in the millions and and very few human beings or other animals are left, creating a problem. Whose blood are the vampires going to drink now?

Humanity’s only hope is a young girl, Amy, who is infected with a variant of the virus that gives her the vampires’ powers without turning her into one.

A familiar premise, but The Passage is remarkable for the breadth of its story and the depth of its characters.

The second half of the novel concerns a small colony of human beings in California roughly a hundred years after the catastrophe. They survive by following strict social rules and keeping the perimeter outside their high walls flooded with light through the night. But the batteries that store power from a nearby generating plant are failing. It’s just a matter of time until the lights go out. Then Amy arrives. Her unlikely survival outside the walls arouses suspicion and her presence upsets the colony’s social balance.

Cronin provides ample backstory to create characters that become like people whom I’ve known for years. This narrative strategy could have been a drag on the plot, but the histories are dramatically rich and always pertinent to the current action.

One of the colony dwellers, Peter Jaxon, has always felt overshadowed by his older brother Theo. Theo is a leader, a warrior, the inheritor of their father’s mission to leave the safety of the colony and search the world for other survivors. Peter reflects bitterly that while he cared for their mother on her deathbed, it was Theo to whom she spoke her last words: “Take care of your brother, Theo. He’s not strong like you.” Peter feels disregarded, belittled. His mother’s words drive home his belief that he is—and always will be—second to his brother.

Only much later, after a lot has happened, does Peter realize that he might have misinterpreted his mother’s words. Perhaps she said, “Take care of your brother Theo. He’s not strong like you.” In other words, Peter is the stronger of the brothers and their mother knew it. This interpretation is more likely. Unless she was altogether delirious, she would know which of her sons was sitting at her bedside.

Apart from what the misunderstanding implies about Peter’s sense of himself and his relationship with Theo, it shows how important a comma can be. The comma after brother puts Theo in the vocative case and indicates that she was addressing her older son. Without the comma Theo becomes the object of the verb in the sentence, the one with whose care Peter is charged.

(Grammar Nazi reminds me that if Peter and Theo have no other brother, this should be indicated by placing a comma after the word brother. Grammar Nazi has a habit of complicating things.)

Obviously people don’t use punctuation when they speak, so this kind of ambiguity is inescapable. But writers have the tools to communicate with greater precision. They just have to use them.

You may have noticed that I’m no longer blogging at Ancient Children. The blog is now part of my new website, created by Kate McMillan of Outbox Online. I hope you’ll take a look around while you’re here.

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Bedtime Stories: My adventures with Audible

A while ago I began a three-month trial subscription to Audible, a company that sells audio versions of books. Instead of staring at a page or screen and risking eye strain, you listen to a narrator read the book. I’d resisted the idea of audio books for a long time. When would I listen? I prefer to keep my attention on the road while driving. I don’t even listen to music.

Then inspiration struck.

I suffer from chronic insomnia. Most nights I struggle to fall asleep and then wake four hours later, my mind revving. It can take an hour or more of reading to lull my overactive brain. I wondered if listening to a book would help. It’s more passive. You can do it with your eyes closed. It would be like a return to childhood, listening to your parents read bedtime stories.

The Girl on the Train Audible CoverI used my first Audible credit to buy The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, a popular and widely praised suspense novel. I donned my ear buds and crawled into bed, tapped the “Play” button and began listening. A pleasant female voice with a British accent described lying under a tree, and within minutes I was asleep. Four hours later I woke up to another female reader with a pleasant voice and a slightly different British accent reading . . . I had no idea what. I shut off the book and promptly fell asleep.

Success!

But not really.

When bedtime came, I had no interest in revisiting The Girl on the Train. But I restarted it from the beginning and once again Reader #1 launched into her description of gazing up at the tree. As Reader #2 gazed out the window of a commuter train, I tuned out. I awoke somewhere mid story and shut off the narration. This time I didn’t fall back asleep. And I felt an aversion to plugging myself into The Girl on the Train. Instead I got up (much to the annoyance of my husband, who considers me to be his personal snuggle bunny) and stood in the kitchen reading an entertaining steampunk novel called The Black Orchid on my Kindle.

The third night I picked up my Kindle and wrote off the Audible experiment as a failure. But I didn’t cancel the trial membership and a month later a message arrived in my mailbox. I had another credit available. So I downloaded another book, Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, a new science fiction novel.

Dark Matter Audible CoverThis time I listened only a few minutes before drifting off. In the middle of the night I woke up, skipped back several chapters, and picked up the thread of the story. When I fell asleep again, the hero, a physics professor, was leaving a Chicago bar.

The following night he was kidnapped at gunpoint. Sleep ambushed me as the hapless professor walked naked and shivering into an abandoned power plant. I slept until morning.

Success!

A little too much success.

I couldn’t wait until bedtime for more. I went through the day plugged into my ear buds as the hero of Dark Matter discovers he’s been transported to a parallel universe and undertakes an odyssey, wandering from universe to universe to find his way home.

As soon as I finished Dark Matter, I exchanged The Girl on the Train for Stephen King’s 11.22.63, a thirty-hour listening extravaganza. Now I look forward to bedtime.

The takeaway from this experience?

Certain books don’t lend themselves to narration.

The Girl on the Train has THREE first-person narrators, and although the audio book employs three different narrators, the rhythm and tone of the prose stays pretty much the same. I won’t get into the question of whether multiple first-person narrators is a good idea—Hawkins has sold a gazillion more books than I have—but the technique doesn’t work for me as a listener. Add the story’s arty, oblique approach and it becomes even harder to follow. I suspect that reading the novel is far more satisfying.

Dark Matter has ONE first-person narrator and lots of dialogue and action. Crouch vividly describes the many universes that his hero explores. The details are fresh and concrete and succinctly described. Most of all, the reader never has to wonder what’s going on.

The reader makes a huge difference.

As a writer I’ve given readings of my own work, and as a teacher I’ve read the poetry and prose of other writers to my students. I have some idea of how difficult it is to read aloud. It requires talent and extensive training. An incompetent reader would no doubt ruin the whole experience.

The three Audible novels I’ve tried were major releases from mainstream publishers. Unsurprisingly, the readers in all of them are top notch. My favorite is Jon Lindstrom, who reads Dark Matter. He has an expressive voice and speaks the dialogue of every character in a distinctive way.

Audible at bedtime won’t work for everyone.

When I described my experience to my writing group, reactions were varied. One person, already an Audible subscriber, thought it was an interesting idea. Another shook her head. “I move around too much. I’d probably strangle on the cord of the ear buds.” Another person imagined herself swallowing the buds. And I guess a few princesses might have trouble sleeping with giant peas in their ears.

11.22.63 Audible CoverComprehension is poorer than with reading.

I remember what happens in Dark Matter along with some especially striking details, but not much about how the hero moves through parallel universes in his box that turns into a corridor. Something about Schrödinger’s cat and a drug that suppresses key areas in the brain . . . Oh well, the important thing is that the contraption works.

The time travel in 11.22.63 is less of a problem. Stephen King sticks with how it works and doesn’t delve into why. It’s a mystery, a “rabbit hole.” At least so far. I haven’t finished the novel yet.

In spite of the drawbacks, bedtime stories work for me. It looks like Audible has a permanent subscriber. I could use some recommendations for my next book. If you listen to books on Audible or iTunes, I’d love to know about your favorites. Just leave a comment below.

Easy ways to write a book review #AugustReviews

In this post, reviewer Rosie Amber does a solid for authors by encouraging readers to leave book reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. She gives some helpful tips to make the process easier. All of us authors rely on feedback from readers, not just to help sell books but to let us know where we get it right and where we fall short.

Authors WANT  Reviews

Simple! How many times have you read pleas on social media for readers to write reviews? – Probably Loads.

Does the thought of writing a book review send you racing to the hills? – I can see plenty of you nodding in agreement.

WHAT holds you back?

Reading Soft edge

6 common replies:

I can’t write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book.

I don’t know what to write.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books.

I don’t have the time.

Let’s turn this around

I can’t write – I bet if you can read, you can write.

I can’t write paragraphs about a book – Good News, Amazon accepts one sentence reviews now as do many other sites.

I don’t know what to write – Ah! Quick Question – Why did you like or Dislike the book? Got an answer? Then you have a starting place.

I’m afraid of what people will think of my review – Facing fears is part of life, it is hard, but I bet you’ve faced much harder challenges. Authors LOVE reviews, other readers also like to read them to see if they agree or disagree. Every reader will get something different from their experience. An honest review from someone who genuinely read the book IS REALLY APPRECIATED.

I’m an author and don’t want a backlash on my own books – This one STOPS TOO MANY AUTHORS from writing book reviews and it shouldn’t. In fact if you are an author, one way to hone your writing skills is to READ, READ, READ and from this you will be noting what works, what doesn’t and you will have all the skill sets to write a review. IF YOU WRITE WITH HONESTY AND COMPASSION I can’t see an author would want revenge or to be labelled a TROLL, these are far and few amongst the millions of authors who GENUINELY WANT A REVIEW.

I don’t have the time – time is what you make of it and those who have this as their reply probably won’t have time to read this post, so we’ll say no more.

So BE BRAVE – make a promise that the next book you read you will write a review.

Read the rest for useful tips on how to write a review.

Death and Dark Money: A riveting thriller

In his international conspiracy thriller Death and Dark Money—the fourth book of the Sabel Security series— Seeley James shows how loopholes in Citizens United open the door for foreign corporations and nations to influence American policy. Pia Sabel, ex-Olympic soccer player, now runs her adoptive father’s international security company. The company receives a contract from an influential firm of lobbyists that includes a mysterious twenty million dollar payment for seemingly nothing. When Pia wants to know where the money comes and what it’s buying, she becomes a target. One thread of the plot traces this money to its source.

Another thread follows the machinations of an underling to seize control of the firm of lobbyists. Spurred by his ambitious wife, a contemporary Lady Macbeth, he stops at nothing to gain control. As people begin dying, Pia and her father become caught up in the struggle for power.

James has borrowed liberally from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the sort of literary allusion that you don’t often find in thrillers, and  handles it deftly.

I literally could not put the novel down. I planned to read for an hour or so and instead read through the afternoon and into the evening. It wasn’t only the story that kept me riveted. It was characters that I loved or detested with a passion.

Sometimes thrillers are so plot driven that the characters aren’t very complex. The nonstop action keeps them so busy that they don’t have time to reveal much depth or nuance. Death and Dark Money provides memorable characters as well as a suspenseful and intelligent storyline.

Unlike the girl with the dragon tattoo, Pia doesn’t possess abilities that verge on the superhuman. Though she has extraordinary athletic ability, it’s sometimes not enough for her to triumph and barely enough to keep her alive. Pia is haunted and driven by the mysterious murders of her parents when she was a small child. Her search for the truth runs through all the novels of the series, a mystery that has me eager to read the next one.

Much of the novel is written in third person omniscient, a common point of view for thrillers since it allows the narrative to move quickly from one location to another and from one character to another, as the plot requires. But James has also included a first-person narrator, Jacob, a possibly crazy ex-soldier who works for Pia’s security company.

Jacob’s voice adds warmth and quirkiness to the narrative. He could have been a stock character. Instead he draws me so far into his hallucinations that I begin to believe they’re real. Who’s to say he doesn’t really see and speak with the Roman god Mercury? Except for conversing with pagan gods and being occasionally obtuse about women, Jacob has a firm grip on reality.

And who knows? Maybe Mercury really does exist.

If you enjoy political intrigue, contemporary relevance, and a dash of originality in your thrillers, I highly recommend Death and Dark Money.

Cover Death and Dark Money

Book Reviews – The Bullet and Playing with Fire

I don’t post many negative book reviews. When I’m not connecting with a book, for whatever reason, I stop reading unless I’ve committed to reviewing it. And I don’t feel comfortable judging books that I haven’t finished. I liked Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet and Sherry D. Ficklin’s Playing With Fire enough to finish them. Despite their differences, the two thrillers share one quality that always draws me into a story: an engaging first person narrator with a distinctive voice.

Playing With Fire

This YA novel centers on Farris Burnett, a teenage hacker whose father is a Marine Corps officer. The story begins as he assumes command of Cherry Point air base and she enrolls in a new high school. When someone hacks the base computers and begins wreaking havoc, Farris sets out to find the culprit.

Playing with Fire CoverFarris has a strong voice, and the secondary characters are complex and interesting. Overall the writing is good, but the book could have used better editing. The author uses principal in a context that calls for principle, and there are a few confusing sentences.

The main problem with the novel is the plot structure. The hacking problem begins almost halfway into the story. Everything up to that point involves Farris’s life—her dead mom, her somewhat distant relationship with her father, the unfair ostracism she faced at her last high school, the challenge of making friends at the new one, the dilemma of liking two guys who hate each other. The characters introduced in the first half do play important roles in the hacking plot, but the author could have told readers what they needed to know in half the space.

The upshot is that Playing With Fire is more teen high school drama than it is thriller. This might not be a problem for the novel’s teen audience, but the book description led me to expect more suspense and less romance.

The Bullet

Caroline Cashion, a professor of French at Georgetown University, discovers that she’s adopted and has a bullet in her neck. The bullet has been there since she was three years old and her birth parents were shot and killed. I struggled with the premise. This woman is in her 30s and none of her doctors ever noticed the bullet lodged against her spine until it began causing symptoms? And her adoptive parents never told her anything about her origins? I was willing to give the improbability a pass because the first-person narration hooked me from the start.

The Bullet Cover 2Caroline flies to Atlanta to find out who her parents were and what happened to them. She learns that they were killed in their home and that the bullet passed through her mother before entering her. Removing it from an infant would have been too dangerous. The killers were never found.

While she’s busy talking with reporters and the detective who worked the case, her doctor shows up at her hotel. He’s flown all the way from Washington because he’s smitten with her. They strike up a romance. Later she finds out he’s married, making the subplot even more irrelevant than it already was. I have nothing against romantic subplots if they somehow advance the story. This one is mostly filler. It shows an aspect of Caroline’s character, that’s about all.

A reporter in Atlanta also tries to seduce Caroline, but he’s not as attractive as the doctor. He writes a story about her, though, and soon after her return to Washington, someone breaks into her apartment with the clear intention of doing her harm. Events escalate from there.

Caroline’s later actions surprised me since they seem to contradict her character. Readers are supposed to believe that the revelations about her past have changed her profoundly, but there’s nothing about her life beforehand that makes her behavior believable. Not to mention the unlikelihood of someone intelligent and mature traveling around the country shortly after dangerous surgery.

The story is well told, but the credibility issues and pointless romance put a drag on its momentum.

The Locksmith’s Secret – A Rich Narrative Tapestry

In The Locksmith’s Secret, Tahlia Newland has woven several narratives into a complex story about the joys and pitfalls of love and the enduring power of the imagination.

Writer Prunella Smith, whom readers may remember from Newland’s last book, Worlds Within Worlds, has found love with Jamie Claypole, an English transplant to Australia. The two are happy together, but Ella knows little about Jamie’s past. The gaps in her knowledge become apparent when Jamie is summoned home after his brother’s sudden death. All at once he becomes secretive about his family and where they live and how long he intends to stay with them.

The other narratives reiterate in various ways the problem Ella faces: whether to pursue Jamie and uncover his secrets or to reclaim the solitude she lost when he came to live with her.

Memories of unhappy past experience with a lover who abandoned her overshadow Ella’s hope for happiness with Jamie. Ella had been a ballerina with a promising career until a back injury forced her to give up ballet. Her lover, who was also her onstage partner, promptly discarded her once they could no longer dance together.

A Buddhist, Ella mediates regularly, and during meditation she’s transported into the world of Daniela, an Italian nun. On the brink of taking her final vows, Daniela finds herself attracted to the man who tends the nunnery’s garden. Like Ella, she faces an unexpected choice about the direction her life will take.

In addition, Ella has a recurring dream featuring a locksmith who may or may not be Jamie and who holds the secret to unlocking doors into countless other worlds, a metaphor for the creative and spiritual freedom that she seeks. She pursues the locksmith, but he seems always just out of reach.

Although troubled by Jamie’s secretiveness, Ella keeps writing fiction. Woven into The Lockman’s Secret is a steampunk novel that has taken hold of her imagination. The chapters appear as she writes them, and the story of intrepid reporter Nell and her efforts to uncover the villainy of Lord Burnett generates as much suspense as the main narrative. Like Ella, Nell values her independence and strives to prove her worth in the professional world. She worries that marriage to her employer’s son will mean the end of her career.

Newland interweaves all of these threads with consummate skill. Not once do they get tangled. Not once does the suspense flag, which is especially impressive in a contemplative novel like The Locksmith’s Secret. The credit goes to Newland’s mastery of narrative structure, to her concise and transparent prose that is eloquent without ever drawing attention to itself, and to her wonderfully varied and complex characters.

The worlds of Prunella Smith have a clarity and power that you won’t soon forget.

Cover Locksmith's Secret

A clone in the world

I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means. The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty— just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives are supposed to end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go Cover

Gifted Thief will steal your heart

The protagonist of Helen Harper’s urban fantasy Gifted Thief lives the first eleven years of her life without a name. An orphan among the Highland Sidhe, she’s so despised that no one bothers giving her one. She lives in a castle, the ward of a nobleman, ignored or bullied until she escapes to the world of human beings. There she makes a life for herself with the help of a newfound human friend, Taylor. She names herself Integrity.

Taylor is a thief, so Integrity enters that profession.

Years later, she’s working with him and a team of magical characters, each with specialized skills. They look for high value targets, so when Taylor hears about a rare sapphire kept in a bank vault, he dispatches the team to acquire it. Integrity and her friends scale the building and break into the vault — only to find the sapphire isn’t there! Worse, Taylor has been lured into the debt of dangerous people. He needs money fast.

Then the trap closes. The debt and the elusive jewel are part of a Sidhe plot to force Integrity back to their lands. But why? For years they haven’t bothered coming after her.

Except in the prologue, the story is narrated by Integrity, and one of the novel’s attractions is her voice. She’s a funny, insightful, and self-deprecating narrator — the most likable protagonist I’ve encountered in a while. The band of thieves are endearing in their kindness and loyalty to one another. And then there’s the comical genie trapped in the letter opener.

Overall, the story is a bit too sweet for my tastes until the Sidhe show up. They come off as arrogant, vain, and treacherous — an entrenched aristocracy interested only in wealth and power.

With one or two possible exceptions.

Byron, the handsome son of a clan leader, may be hiding goodness beneath his jaded playboy exterior. He’s attracted to Integrity and offers to help her. Although she’s attracted to him, she refuses to give him her trust. He’s a Sidhe and she despises them all. Worse, he’s one of the Sidhe who made her childhood miserable. The romance between the two follows a predictable course of miscues and misunderstanding.

But once she returns to Sidhe lands, Integrity needs his help. She can’t be choosy about her allies as it becomes clear that the clan leaders mean to kill her once they have no more use for her.

Despite the danger, her return finally gives her an opportunity to find out about her parents and who she truly is. The search for identity is a central theme in literature, and Integrity’s quest adds weight to a story that occasionally seems frivolous.

I began Gifted Thief thinking it was pleasant fluff. But Integrity changed my mind. She likes to crack silly jokes, but she’s serious about defending herself and protecting her friends. By the end I loved her and hoped for her eventual triumph.

Gifted Thief is the first book of Harper’s Highland Magic series. The next one, Honour Bound, will be released on February 29.

The Threshold – urban fantasy at its finest

I’m always on the lookout for a good urban fantasy. I found a great one in R.L. King’s The Threshold, the third book in a series chronicling the adventures of mage Alistair Stone. Alistair is a white mage; he doesn’t power his spells by siphoning the life force of other human beings.  In The Threshold, Alistair and his companions, Verity Thayer and her brother, Jason, are battling an extra-dimensional enemy called the Evil that feed on human emotions and seek world domination. The trio must find and destroy the portals through which the Evil are invading this world.

As incorporeal beings the Evil can possess the bodies of most humans, but not the bodies of mages, although a few black mages allow themselves to be possessed  in exchange for the power the Evil  gives them. A mysterious group known as the Forgotten are also immune to possession. The special abilities of the Forgotten come with a downside: — they suffer from various mental disorders that make it difficult for them to function in society. Most of the Forgotten are homeless.

The story moves briskly without sacrificing the descriptive detail so necessary to this genre. The author weaves the magic seamlessly into a very concrete everyday reality. The extra-dimensional portal in the basement of an Indian restaurant, aptly named A Passage to India, seems as real and believable as a broom closet.

Alistair and his companions are altogether sympathetic. I prefer antiheroes, so this threesome is a bit too white magic for me. But their quirks and passions keep them from being bland. Englishman Alistair comes across as a typical college professor, unconventional and sometimes acerbic. His mysterious past makes him intriguing. Teenager Verity is both Forgotten and a mage. Apprenticed to Alistair, she is discovering her abilities as she wrestles with the problems of adolescence. Jason’s only gift is the ability to power Alistair’s spells without depleting himself, a kind of magical battery, but his fierce love for his sister makes him stand out.

Secondary characters are well-drawn, even those who make only a brief appearance. Eleanor Pearsall, the white mage in the opening chapter, is so sweet that it hurts when she’s ambushed by the Evil. And gray mage Trevor Harrison is so compelling that I wish he had a larger role in the story.

Later books in a series are tricky. Often the beginning gets bogged down by exposition or the story cannot stand on its own. King avoids both these pitfalls. She gives just enough information so readers can understand what’s going on. At times the Evil seems like an abstract menace, though, and the trio’s history with the Forgotten feels thin. After finishing The Threshold I backed up and read The Forgotten, which filled in everything that was missing — and more. The first book, Stone and a Hard Place, tells a separate story featuring Alistair Stone.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you don’t want to miss this series. You can read The Threshold first, like I did, but for the optimal experience, start with The Forgotten. Or better yet, Stone and a Hard Place. Once you enter the world of Alistair Stone, you won’t want to leave. And you won’t have to. The Source: Book Four of the Alistair Stone Chronicles, is coming soon.

 

 

The Threshold Cover

The Green Machine

A few reviewers have compared Talion to the novels of Thomas Harris because of its graphic violence. I’m so thrilled and flattered by the comparison I could whoop like Daffy Duck. Harris is a master of his genre, and while his stories are undeniably horrific, the violence is a small part of what makes them awesome.

When readers think of Thomas Harris, they’re haunted by images of savaged bodies with shards of mirror in their eye sockets, skinned bodies with exotic insects jammed down their throats, or a man alive and conscious as Hannibal Lecter slices his brain from his open skull.  But in his earlier work anyway, Harris renders the quieter passages as memorably as the violent scenes. It’s not Lecter’s cannibalism and other gruesome acts that capture my imagination in The Silence of the Lambs, but his creepy conversations with FBI agent-in-training Clarisse Starling. Harris can make even minor characters unforgettable. One of the clearest images I retain from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is the witness who tips her head back so her mascara won’t run as she weeps for her missing friend.

serial killers, Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lector, Red Dragon

In Red Dragon, my favorite Harris novel, I find the narrative of Francis Dolarhyde’s childhood—his cleft palate and sadistic grandmother, the awful logic of what he becomes—as compelling as the descriptions of the ritual murders he commits. Dolarhyde has a brush with redemption when he becomes intimate with a blind coworker and fights the voice of the dragon demanding her blood. I care enough about him to wish he could have been transformed by love. But that kind of magic cannot exist in Harris’s world.

At the conclusion of Red Dragon, the emotionally and physically damaged ex-FBI agent Will Graham lies in the hospital critically wounded after his last encounter with Dolarhyde. His mind drifts in a narcotic haze to a visit he once made to Shiloh and his feeling that the place was haunted by everything that had happened there. He realizes now that, like the rest of nature, Shiloh has no meaning except what human beings project on it: “Beautiful Shiloh could witness anything. Its unforgivable beauty only underscored the indifference of nature, the Green Machine.” Nature is without mercy, Harris tells us. The concept of murder doesn’t exist in nature. “We make murder, and it matters only to us.” This grim determinism adds to the darkness of an already dark story and extinguishes whatever lingering pity I feel for Dolarhyde.

I understand that pity is beside the point.

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What are the daemons in Daemon Seer?

It’s gratifying when a reader not only enjoys your book but also understands the story on a level that many other readers overlook. The review below appears on Goodreads. I’m thrilled to bring it to you here with the permission of the reviewer, James Goltz.

Daemon Seer is the second published novel by Mary Maddox and a sequel to Talion which was published in 2012. I noticed immediately upon receiving the book that “daemon” was spelled differently, and presumably had a different meaning from, the more familiar term “demon,” the latter a term familiar to most of us as a malevolent spirit capable of inhabiting and causing serious mischief in the human host. Consider, for example, the Gerasene Demoniac in the Christian New Testament, Mark V, 1-17 who is possessed by a legion of demons, banished from his village, abuses himself with stones, cannot be constrained by chains and wails among the tombs until the demons are exorcised by Jesus. Daemons, on the other hand, are also spiritual beings but, based upon the terms Greek origin and Latin interpretation, can be either malevolent or benevolent beings. They influence human behavior and, more seriously, select some people as on-going hosts and control their behavior. These supernatural beings in their Greek origins are lesser divinities existing somewhere between the gods of the Greek pantheon and humans. But they are definitely more powerful than the humans they inhabit.

The daemons that appear in Mary Maddox novels are both benevolent and malevolent, in some cases; good and evil are embodied in the same daemon. Talion is the daemon prince who inhabits Lu Darlington along with Black Claw, a more sinister companion of Talion. Lu is the main character, a woman of 25 who tries to maintain a normal human existence despite the periodic presence of her daemon companions and who now reemerge after a ten-year period and compel her to have a child, in daemon parlance create a “knot,” so that Talion can be present to influence human events as he sees fit. Lu is a “seer” and continues in a generational line of seers who have kept Talion in the physical world. Talion has some affection for Lu but seeks to dominate and force compliance with his needs which are not necessarily commensurate with those of Lu, his host and seer.

In Maddox’s first novel, Lu is a 15 year-old girl whose parents are abusive and her friend Lisa is pursued by a serial killer. But thanks to Lu, with daemon assistance, the serial killer is dispatched though Lisa is gravely wounded and disfigured. Fast forward 10 years. Lu is working a nowhere job and without warning, Lisa appears still reeling from her near-death encounter with the “Professor of Death” and badly strung-out on pain killers. Once again, she’s fleeing, this time from a sexual predator, a renegade cop with a demon (this one is purely malevolent) of his own. This is a smart and imaginative novel with relentless action. My advice is to read Talion first and you will hit the ground running for Daemon Seer. Like Talion, Daemon Seer is a fast-paced well written thriller—a book that will keep you up late and may invade your dreams.

Fire Demon 2