A Mint-Conditioned Corpse by Duncan MacMaster: I run out of superlatives and can’t stop talking about this Mystery that filled me with joy.

This is one of those times that I liked something so much that I just blathered on for a bit, and I’m not sure how much sense it made. The first and last paragraphs are coherent, I’m not really sure the rest is…

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster
Series: Kirby Baxter, #1

Kindle Edition, 275 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2016
Read: July 27, 2018

Is this the best-writing I’ve encountered in a Detective Novel this year? Nope. Is this the most compelling, the tensest thrill-ride of a Mystery novel this year? Nope. Is this full of the darkest noir, the grittiest realism, the starkest exposure of humanity’s depths? Good gravy, no! This is however a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.

Think Monk at it’s best. Psych at its least annoying. Castle at it’s most charming. Moonlighting season 1 — I’m going to stop now.

So Kirby Baxter is a comic book writer/artist who breathed new life into a stagnant character which led to the revitalizing of an entire comic book company (not quite as old as DC, nowhere near as successful as Marvel — and somehow hadn’t been bought out by either). He was unceremoniously fired just before he became incredibly well-off (and investments only improved that). Following his new wealth, a thing or two happened in Europe and he gained some notoriety there helping the police in a few countries. Now, he’s coming back to North America to attend OmniCon — a giant comic con in Toronto — returning to see a mentor rumored to attend and maybe stick his toe back in the industry that he loves.

While there we meet his colorist and friend, Mitch — a diminutive fellow, convinced he’s God’s gift to the ladies (most of whom hope he comes with a gift receipt), and just a riot to read about. Molly, a fan, former coworker and friend of Kirby’s who wears her heart on her sleeve (it’s not her fault if people don’t notice it). That needs to be better. Erica is many a dream-come-true — an impossibly good-looking model and would-be actress who is sincere and sweet. Her assistant Bruce is a pretty good guy, too. Her best friend and former mentor, Andi is almost as too-good-to-be-true, and married to a renowned DJ who is providing some of the entertainment at OmniCon. There’s comic dealers, a film director, a crazy actress, Kirby’s former boss, and so many other colorful characters that my notes include a joke about a cast the size of Game of Thrones.

And then there’s Gustav. Words I don’t know how to describe Gustav. Imagine having Batman as your Jeeves. He’s a valet/driver/bodyguard that Kirby picked up in Europe, combining the cool and lethal factor of Spenser’s Hawk, Plum’s Ranger and Elvis’ Pike (except he makes Pike seem chatty). I’d include Wolfe’s Saul Panzer, but Saul isn’t the lethal type that the rest are — but Gustav has the effortless magic about him that makes Saul a winner. If the rest of the book was “meh” and Gustav was still in it? I’d tell you to read the book.

At some point, a corpse shows up — and like the comic book world’s answer to Jessica Fletcher, Kirby identifies the death as a murder — not the accident it appears to be to many. For various and sundry reasons — starting with him being correct, and continuing on to the incidents in Europe — Kirby is roped into helping the police with the investigation. Also, like Fletcher, he’s uniquely gifted to help the police in these circumstances. He’s smart, he has a eidetic memory, can catch a tell or a microexpression like nobody’s business. You throw him into a consulting role with the police, with his friends along for the ride and I’m telling you, you’ve got the most entertaining mystery novel I’ve read this year.

This book’s look at comic conventions reminded me of A Hundred Thousand Worlds by Bob Proehl. But where this one is played for laughs, Proehl was serious — but both show an appreciation for, an affection for the culture that surrounds the cons and the people involved. After reading this, I was ready to buy tickets for the OmniCon.

It’s a funny, fast, romp — a very contemporary take on a Golden Age-mystery. Lots of twists and turns, more crimes than you think are happening and more villains than you can shake a stick at. I thought (and still do) that Duncan MacMaster’s Hack showed that he was an author to keep an eye on — this is better.

A Mint-Conditioned Corpse hit the sweet spot for me — a convergence of so many of my likes told with just the right tone (another one of my likes), while maintaining a pretty decent whodunit at the core. I probably smiled for the entire time I spent reading it — well, at least the last 90% once I started to get a feel for things — at 8% I made a note about Kirby “I’m really going to like him,” and a few paragraphs later, I wrote “I already really like him” about Mitch. And I was right about Kirby, and kept liking Mitch — the rest of the characters are about as good as them, and the story is as good as the people in it are. Is everyone going to enjoy this one as much as me? Nope. But I can’t imagine someone not having a ball reading this. Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.

—–

5 Stars

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The Passenger by Lisa Lutz: A Woman on the Run from the Law, Her Past and her Present

The PassengerThe Passenger

by Lisa Lutz

Paperbacks, 302 pg.
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016

Read: July 28, 2018

I tried to look calm and collected as I gathered my things under Ruth’s watch, but I could feel this all-over shiver, a constant vibration of nerves that I had a hard time believing no one else could see.

“You in some kid of trouble?” Ruth asked.

“No trouble, I said. “I just found a place to stay, long-term.”

“Don’t fool yourself,” she said. “It’s all temporary.”

Tanya Dubois’ husband died in a stupid household accident. She wasn’t heartbroken by this, but she wasn’t pleased about it. Especially once she realized that while it was an accident, it was one that would at least get the police to take a good look at her while they were deciding that. So she tried to cover things up, only to realize very quickly that she couldn’t, and that be starting to try, she’d made things look less like an accident. So the police would look even harder at her than they would’ve before. This would be a real problem for her because, technically speaking, Tanya Dubois’ doesn’t actually exist. So she grabs her dead husband’s truck and as much cash as she can get (hitting up a few ATM’s while she’s at it to get more) and splits.

She trades in the truck for something else, trades in her (dyed) blonde hair for something shorter and brown, a wardrobe change and became a new person — she says “I looked like so many women you’ve seen before I doubt you could’ve picked me out of a lineup.” Which is a pretty telling way of talking. She’s also able to make a phone call and demand a new name, new identification and some cash. By the time she arrives in Austin, she’s Amelia Keen.

Amelia meets a bartender named Blue, who sees through her right away, but isn’t going to try to turn her in or anything. Mostly, she wants to know where she got such a great passport. Not that either woman tells the other what brought them to the name and place they’re at, but they know that something similar as brought them to this point. Neither trusts the other, but in one way or another, to one extent or another, they need each other. At least for a little while — maybe longer.

At some point, for reasons you should discover for yourself, she leaves Austin and heads west. Then she has to leave that one behind and head elsewhere — eventually, she covers a pretty decent amount of ground, and involves herself in some pretty interesting situations — becoming both a hero and a villain on multiple occasions. All the time proving what Ruth said above, “It’s all temporary.” Well, except one thing — the past. That’s forever, as Tanya/Amelia/etc. learns.

Scattered throughout the book are emails between a Ryan and a Jo — starting years before the Tanya’s husband’s tragic fall, but eventually catching up to the present time. These provide us with a good idea of the life that was left behind by the woman who lived as Tanya and Amelia and so many others all without coming out and telling us that led to her leaving.

Something about Blue made me think of Alice Morgan from the first series/season of Luther (yes, I know she’s in more than that, but keep that vision of her in your mind) — and that image stuck, I don’t care what Lutz said she looked like or sounded like — I heard and saw an American version of Alice when Blue was around. Not the murder her own parents vibe — but the charming, dangerous, potentially duplicitous and erratic, while friendly and helpful vibe. (wow. Could I have qualified that comparison more? Probably, but I’ll hold back)

I never had a good handle on Tanya/Amelia/etc., primarily because I don’t think she did either. We (the readers, and I think she herself) got close to something real with Debra Maze — but she had to abandon that one quickly (too quickly, I liked that existence for her, as doomed as she and the readers knew it was).

There are plenty of other great characters, great moments through the book — some horrifying, some tense, some . . . I don’t know what to say. There’s a Sheriff from Wyoming — he’s not Walt Longmire, but they’d probably get along just fine — who is probably my favorite non-Tanya/etc. character in the book. We don’t get enough of him, but I’m not sure that more of him wouldn’t have hurt the story overall. There’s another bartender who is nothing like Blue, and probably one of the better people we meet in The Passenger, some depraved folks as well — one family that you cannot help but feel horrible for.

There’s a good number of twists along the way, a reveal or two that are really well executed — one I didn’t see coming (not only didn’t see coming, I didn’t even consider as an option). In general some pretty good writing and story telling.

I’ve been trying to get to this for years — and every time I get close (close = it’s one or two down on my list), I have one of those “Squirrel!” moments, and forget all about it. Well, I finally got to it — and was honestly underwhelmed, maybe it was the mental build-up. It didn’t have the Lutz humor, that’s for sure — even How to Start a Fire had some good chuckles. But that’s okay, she doesn’t have to be funny to be good (see the non-funny moments in How to Start a Fire). I also think Karen E. Olson’s Black Hat series handles the woman running from her identity and past better (at least in a way that captures the tension and the fear better). Which is not to say, at all, that this is a bad book — it’s not. It’s also not as good as I think Lutz is capable of.

Oh, and the story behind Tanya/etc.’s tattoo? I loved it. Should probably give the book another half-star just for it.

—–

3.5 Stars

How It Happened by Michael Koryta: A great thriller to kick off your summer (and/or a Russo novel gone awry)

How it HappenedHow It Happened

by Michael Koryta

Hardcover, 368 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Read: May 29 – 30, 2018

The rain had tapered off overnight and given way to a gorgeous day, the sky and sea competing for the deepest blue, a light wind pushing off the water, temperature nearing eighty. The air was scented with ocean breezes and pines and held only the faintest trace of humidity. A quintessential Maine day, more suited to July than May.

If you weren’t looking for a drug addict and self-confessed murderer, it would be a day to treasure.

This is one of those that comes down to the set-up. Because it’s executed practically flawlessly, and if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for the whole pound — and it’s a heckuva ride. You won’t want to get off until the end, and then you’ll be able to breathe for the first time in seventy pages or so. If you’ve read Koryta before, you have an idea what things’ll be like — and you’ll be right. If you’ve not read him before, you probably will make arrangements to familiarize yourself with him soon after finishing this.

So, what is the setup? FBI Agent/expert on eliciting/evaluating confessions from criminal suspects, Rob Barrett returns to the small Maine community of his childhood summers to investigate a missing persons case/potential double homicide. After weeks of work, he finally gets a seemingly reliable confession from Kimberly Crepeaux to what happened to the missing young people. It’s a harrowing confession, I have to say — I’ve read novels with less tension than her recounting of what happened that night. Kimberly is a drug addict, jailhouse snitch, and all-around unreliable person — everyone in town knows this. But Rob believes her (and you will, too).

But there are a couple of problems. Problem one: Mathias Burke is the man that Kimberly says is the murderer. Mathias is a go-getter of a young man, and has been since he was a kid — the dictionary might as well feature his picture under “industrious.” No one in town can believe anything Kimberly says about the way he acted that night — even the non-criminal aspects of it. None of it is characteristic of him. Problem two: the bodies aren’t where she says they were. In fact, they’re found miles away and seemingly killed in a different fashion, with the fingerprints and DNA of someone not Mathias Burke present.

So much for Kimberly’s confession — and Rob’s career. He’s shipped out to a field office in Montana, probably for the rest of his career.

But Kimberly sticks to her story, and convinces the father of one of the victims, Howard Pelletier, to believe her (and fear for her safety from Burke). Howard’s wife died when his daughter, Jackie, was young. He became the most devoted single father in history, and in time, she reciprocated. The story of Jackie and Howard would be enough for a novel, were it not for the murder. Howard’s insistence that Rob pay attention to Kimberly again and his need for answers brings Rob back for one more try at finding out how it happened.

Pretty good hook, eh? And like I said, once it’s set, Koryta reels the reader in just like the seasoned pro he’s become.

A strange thought occurred to me this weekend: this could very easily have been a Richard Russo novel — I’m not sure who the protagonist would’ve been — maybe the cafe owner or something. But Rob, returning to his childhood stomping grounds (however temporarily), Howard and Jackie would’ve easily have been fixtures — ditto for Mathias Burke (and even Kimberly, come to think of it). Mathias would be a major player, really — not the protagonist, but a lead character for sure, his troubled youth, his Horatio Alger-ish work ethic/success story, the way that this silly FBI interloper messed up his life, etc. The tangled lines connecting all these people would be seen more clearly, and traced back a generation or two, making everything more complex. Actually, the more I think about this, the more I want to see Russo write his take on these elements. Anyhow, this isn’t a Richard Russo novel — this is a Michael Koryta novel. So, it won’t be anywhere near as funny, the psychology will be presented in starter light, the tension level will be much higher, and the sense of right and wrong will be much less murky.

A knockout of a read — a great thriller to kick off your summer with.

—–

4 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Tricks for Free by Seanan McGuire

Tricks for FreeTricks for Free

by Seanan McGuire
Series: InCryptid, #7

Mass Market Paperback, 346 pg.
DAW Books, 2018

Read: March 13 – 17, 2018

           There are people who say you never really escape from high school, you just keep finding it in different forms, over and over again, until it finally kills you. Those people are assholes, and should not be allowed in polite company. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
           The room seemed even larger without the safety of the elevator behind me. I took a few hesitant steps forward, wishing I had a knife, or better yet, twenty knives, or better yet, twenty knives and a brick of C-4. Plastic explosives are a strange and dangerous security blanket, but they tend to make whatever’s scaring me go away quickly, so I’m in favor.

Whenever possible, frequent/regular readers know, I like to start off these posts with a quotation from the book that sums up the feel, the character, or just makes me smile. I couldn’t decide this time what to go with, so I used both — one from a flashback to high school which is just perfect for everyone who views it as something they survived, and the other that captures Annie’s voice oh-so-well.

Because of [Spoilers Redacted] at the end of Magic for Nothing, Annie’s on the run and on her own. Her family doesn’t know where she is (and hasn’t heard directly from her to keep it that way), her friends know nothing — she doesn’t even have a single Aeslin mouse with her. She could not possibly be more alone in the world. She lucks into a job at Lowryland — an amusement park near DisneyWorld — thanks to running into a teammate from high school who is an executive there. It’s not a glamorous job — she works in knick-knack shops, does clean up, works in food kiosks, etc. for far too little money. But there’s enough people around that she can hide in and almost no spell or anything the Covenant (or anyone else) tries to use to find her will work in that setting.

She’s living in the employee apartments near the park with a couple of cryptids. One is from her old Roller Derby team, who, as luck would have it, started working for Lowryland around the same time. The other roommate is a Pliny’s Gorgon, working as a resident at the Lowryland hospital. Tying this book back to Half-Off Ragnorack is a nice touch (and works out well for other reasons). It’s not the best life, but she’s content enough, she’s safe enough, and there are good people in her life.

Until things start to go wrong at the park, some magic users discover that she’s hiding there (they’re also hiding from the Covenant, so that works out), and people are getting hurt. Making this a question of can Annie stop whatever’s going on at the park without revealing herself to the Covenant and putting her friends in danger?

So there’s the setup — does McGuire pull it off? Yeah, stupid question. She does and she does it well.

First, she nails Annie’s emotional state — probably better than she does Verity’s often. Annie’s in a very vulnerable place — emotionally, psychologically, physically — and you can feel that.

           I went very still as it struck me that, tight now,l was living like a cryptid. l was hiding from people who wanted to do me harm as much because of who 1 was as because of anything I’d done. That was normal — being a Price meant I‘d had a bounty on my head horn the day l was born — but the isolation that came with it was new. The need to view everyone around me as a potential danger, to hide, it was all new, and it burned. There were dragons working all over Lowryland, and while none of them were part of my personal clique of Mean Girls, none of them knew my name either. It wasn’t safe. It might never be safe again, not until we’d found a way to end the danger posed by the Covenant — and that was something we’d been trying to accomplish for generations.

That vulnerability runs throughout this book — even when Annie’s at her most “rah-rah, we can do this, team” she’s very aware that everything is seconds away from disaster. This brings a richness of character to Annie that Alex and Verity don’t have (at least not to the same extent), if you ask me, this brings Annie into Toby Daye territory and elevates this series as a whole because of it.

You may have noticed a repeated use of the word luck above — that’s purposeful. Luck, as a concept, permeates these pages. It’s not a very clear concept to most of the characters, but it gets clarified by [Spoilers Redacted]. As one more magical system in this world that has a variety of them — that overlap, run parallel, and make a general mish-mash of things, it’s great. I think it’s a clever addition and I enjoyed watching it play out here, and anticipate continuing to affect things down the road.

The major flaw comes in how Annie pulls things off — in humble opinion. Throughout the book, there’s a warning given Annie — don’t do X. Beauty isn’t supposed to go in that part of the castle, Egon warns Ray and Venkman against crossing the streams, Annie needs to not do X. You know that all of those things will end up happening before the story’s done. Here’s my problem: it’s too easy for her to do it she makes the choice too quickly — and I’m not sure it was necessary when she did it (it may have been, this may have been a rare-stumble for McGuire where she didn’t make it clear that things were just that dire). I do know that if it’s something Annie felt the need for here, Verity sure should’ve done it back Chaos Choreography. But whatever, I’m over it — I just want to see how it plays out in the future.

One highlight for that I really can’t get into without ruining the first twelve chapters — but there’s a conversation in Chapter 13 catching up every character in Annie’s little circle with who’s who, what’s going on right now and since the last time they talked (hours or months ago), etc. This conversation just might be my favorite thing of March — reading or in Real Life™ — and it’s been a very good month. It’s just a pure joy to read.

By the way, the lack of Aeslin mice absolutely is felt throughout the book — the absence is supposed to make things feel strange, and it does. But never fear — there’s a novella starring the mice from Magic for Nothing at the back of this book. I hope when I have time to read it that it makes up for their absence.

Oh, and there’s a Priscilla Spencer map of Lowryland. Because what isn’t made better by a Priscilla Spencer map?

This is a great addition to a very fun series that adds some good depth to things, sets up our characters for a lot of trouble, and moves the series’ story as a whole down an interesting path. The next book also features Annie, but I’m sure we get back to Alex or Verity soon, and I can’t wait to see how these books without them affect their lives.

—–

4 Stars

Magic For Nothing by Seanan McGuire

Something — time constraints, distractions, deadlines, big shiny things in the corner — kept me from finishing this post last year. I tried every now and then to finish it, but at a certain point my copious notes weren’t enough. Thankfully, reading the next book in the series helped me remember enough that I thought I could finish this post. It’s not everything I wanted it to be, but short of a re-read, nothing was going make it that.

Magic For NothingMagic For Nothing

by Seanan McGuire
Series: InCryptid, #6


Mass Market Paperback, 358 pg.
Daw Books, 2017
Read: Mach 18 – 21, 2017

And you shouldn’t believe all the press about Ouija boards. They can’t be used in an exorcism. Trivial Pursuit can, but that’s another story.

This has nothing to do with the story, I just really liked that line. It comes from one of the best (probably the best, I don’t keep notes on that) openings to an InCryptid novel that McGuire’s done yet.

So after Verity declared war on the Covenant in the closing pages of Chaos Choreography, the Price family has to follow suit and step things up. Their first step? Having Antimony go undercover with the Covenant as a new recruit. This could be a suicide mission but she knows it’s the best shot to understand what’s going on with the Covenant and their plans for the United States.

You could make the claim that Annie’s infiltration of the Covenant is a little too easy — but why? It’s far more interesting for her to have infiltrated the Covenant and get assigned for a probationary task quickly than it would be for there to be a realistic screening and training process — I’m sure McGuire could have pulled it off, because what can’t she write? But this was better. Very quickly the Covenant comes up with an assignment that’ll test her loyalty and maybe score them some dead American monsters. Part of Annie’s cover is that her circus family was wiped out by a bunch of somethings and she wants revenge, the Covenant has wind of a monster or two at a circus in the midwest killing people in the towns it visits. Her assignment: infiltrate the circus, find the responsible creatures (and any others) and call in her handlers to wipe them all out.

So she’s going undercover as part of her undercover assignment. Thankfully, she’s had multiple aliases since she was a wee girl, so she’ll probably be able to keep her names straight.

Once she gets there, she finds more than one person that the Covenant will want killed just for being — so Annie has to figure out how to keep that from happening and keep her cover intact long enough that she can learn something for her family.

I loved the circus atmosphere, I pretty much always do, come to think of it. As is her norm, McGuire’s cast of characters for the Price adventures, is a whole lot of fun. But I think she stepped her game up with this one — even her Covenant characters have a bit more going for them than her normal baddies. But the key to this novel being so entertaining is Annie. We’ve seen her a little bit here and there throughout the series, but never for very long. She’s just great. Her attitude, gumption, grit and talents make for a fun character. The complicated hero-worship/jealousy thing she has going on regarding Verity (not so much with Alex, but a little bit) is a nice realistic and humanizing touch. I’m not going to blather on about her too much, but of the siblings, I think she’s my favorite.

The big climatic battle and the aftermath from that setting up at least the next novel? Thick, rich icing on an already tasty cake.

Oh, the mice. How did I get this far without mentioning the mice? The Aeslin mice are a great source of laughs as well as heart throughout this series — but man, this time Mindy (Annie’s Aeslin companion) really got me. I was moved. I . . . well, yeah,let’s just leave it there. Mindy’s just great.

If there’s one thing in this world that I know I can rely on, it’s the joyous cheering of the Aeslin mice.

Ditto, Annie, ditto. Joyous cheering of Aeslin mice and Seanan McGuire’s writing — wholly reliable. If you haven’t gotten around to picking up this volume of the InCryptid series yet, you need to. It’d make an okay jumping on point, too — but a lot of the little things won’t mean as much to you as they should. Still, I think it’d convince you to go read the earlier books.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Beneath the Sugar SkyBeneath the Sugar Sky

by Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #3

Hardcover, 174 pg.
Tor Books, 2018

Read: January 11, 2018

Children have always tumbled down rabbit holes, fallen through mirrors, been swept away by unseasonal floods or carried off by tornadoes. Children have always traveled, and because they are young and bright and full of contradictions, they haven’t always restricted their travel to the possible. Adulthood brings limitations like gravity and linear space and the idea that bedtime is a real thing, and not an artificially imposed curfew. Adults can still tumble down rabbit holes and into enchanted wardrobes, but it happens less and less with every year they live. Maybe this is a natural consequence of living in a world where being careful is a necessary survival trait, where logic wears away the potential for something bigger and better than the obvious. Childhood melts, and flights of fancy are replaced by rules. Tornados kill people: they don’t carry them off to magical worlds. Talking foxes are a sign of fever, not guides sent to start some grand adventure.

But children, ah, children. Children follow the foxes, and open the wardrobes, and peek beneath the bridge. Children climb the walls and fall down the wells and run the razor’s edge of possibility until sometimes, just sometimes, the possible surrenders and shows them the way to go home.

So begins Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third installment of McGuire’s Wayward Children series. If you’d asked me why I was excited about this book before reading it, I could’ve given you a list of reasons — but I’d forgotten just how magical the books are. By the time I got to “ah, children” not only did I remember the magic, I was under its spell.

Sometime after the events of Every Heart a Doorway, two residents of Eleanor West’s Home are down at the pond (they returned from water-worlds, and this is the best they can get), when a naked girl lands in the pond (falling from apparently nowhere), demanding to see her mother, or at the very least, someone in charge. It turns out that this girl is Sumi’s daughter — the problem there is that Sumi died during Every Heart, so she didn’t get to mature a bit, go back to her world, defeat the evil Queen, get married and have Rini. Now, the Timeline is catching up to her, and faster than you can say Marty McFly, Rini is starting to disappear, finger by finger, limb by limb. This doesn’t sit well with her, as you can imagine.

I like existing. I’m not ready to unexist just because of stupid causality. I didn’t invite stupid causality to my birthday party, it doesn’t get to give me any presents.

So, four of the residents set off on a quest to bring Sumi back to life. This takes them across the U. S., into one of the worlds of the dead, and all around Sumi/Rini’s nonsense world. There’s heroism, mystery, sacrifice, triumph and cleverness all around, without which none of this would work, but with it all — and a healthy dose of magic — it’s a plan so crazy that it just might work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the characters apart from what I’ve already said (which is essentially nothing). In addition to Rini — we have a nice mix of new to us and returning friends — with one character that’s new to the Home as well as to us. I absolutely enjoyed getting the bonus time with the returning characters, the new (to us) characters were exactly the kind of kids you hope to find in these books. Also, some of the revelations about some secondary characters serve to explain a lot about the way this particular multiverse came to be and it’s pretty cool. So, basically, the character material in this novella is almost perfect.

I wasn’t as taken with Down Among the Sticks and Bones as I was with Every HeartEvery Heart was a wonderful mix of tragedy and violence with a sense of play (especially in the ideas and words) — there was hope throughout the book, even when it was dark for everyone and there was little reason for it. Down Among was about dashed hope and tragedy in a world of tragedy, dashed hopes and violence; yes, there as a little play with the language, and some moments of triumph, but they were all overshadowed. Which was fine, it was the story that needed to be told, and I’m not complaining, but Beneath the Sugar Sky was more of a return to the tone of Every Heart, so I liked it more than Down Among — I think it was a better book, too, but I could be wrong about it. I just know it was easier to like. There’s definitely tragedy, there are hard choices to be made — and I did say something about sacrifice — but there’s a strand of hope throughout that makes it so much easier to carry on.

One thing that has been on display throughout this series is a sense of play, a sense of fair tale worlds and logic reflected in the language McGuire uses — you’ve seen bits of it already above, just one more and I’ll call it good:

There was a door there, tall and imposing, the sort of door that belonged on a cathedral or a palace; the sort of door that said “keep out” far more loudly than it would ever dream of saying “come in.”

You know exactly what that door looks like, and you have a great sense of the environment around it, too. Just from that one sentence. McGuire has a great sense of style on display in the Toby Daye and InCryptid books, which is turned up in the Indexed serials, but is probably best seen in these books — capturing the feel of preternatural worlds has pushed her to unleash all of her pent-up linguistic magic. Even if I disliked the characters and stories she’s telling in this series, I think the language would bring me back.

I’m obviously a pretty big Seanan McGuire fan — just a quick glance at the archives will tell you that. But I’m willing to bet that even if I wasn’t predisposed to like her work, this series would’ve made me one — Beneath the Sugar Sky is a slice of literary perfection and I can’t encourage you enough to try it.

—–

5 Stars

My Favorite Fiction of 2017

Is he ever going to stop with these 2017 Wrap Up posts? I know, I know…I’m sick of them. But I’ve already done most of the work on this one, I might as well finish…Also, it was supposed to go up Friday, but formatting problems . . .

Most people do this in mid-December or so, but a few years ago (before this blog), the best novel I read that year was also the last. Ever since then, I just can’t pull the trigger until January 1. Also, none of these are re-reads, I can’t have everyone losing to my re-reading books that I’ve loved for 2 decades.

I truly enjoyed all but a couple of books this year (at least a little bit), but narrowing the list down to those in this post was a little easier than I expected (‘tho there’s a couple of books I do feel bad about ignoring). I stand by my initial ratings, there are some in the 5-Star group that aren’t as good as some of the 4 and 4½-Star books, although for whatever reason, I ranked them higher (entertainment value, sentimental value…liked the ending better…etc.). Anyway, I came up with a list I think I can live with.

(in alphabetical order by author)

In The StillIn The Still

by Jacqueline Chadwick
My original post

Chadwick’s first novel is probably the most entertaining serial killer novel I’ve ever read. Without sacrificing creepiness, suspense, horror, blood, guts, general nastiness, and so on — she gives us a story with heart, humor and humanity. The second novel, Briefly Maiden is arguably better, but I liked this one a teensy bit more — and I’m genuinely nervous about what’s going to happen in book 3 (not that I won’t read it as soon as I possibly can).

4 1/2 Stars

The Hangman's Sonnet Robert B. Parker’s The Hangman’s Sonnet

My original post

How do you possibly follow-up 2016’s Debt to Pay, especially with that ending, without dramatically altering the Jesse Stone flavor? I’m still not sure how Coleman did it, but he did — Jesse’s dealing with Debt to Pay in a typically self-destructive way, but is keeping his head mostly above water so he can get his job done, mostly by inertia rather than by force of will. Reflexes kick in however, and while haunted, Jesse can carry out his duties in a reasonable fashion until some friends and a case can push him into something more.

Coleman’s balancing of long-term story arcs and character development with the classic Jesse Stone-type story is what makes this novel a winner and puts this one on my list.

4 1/2 Stars

A Plague of GiantsA Plague of Giants

by Kevin Hearne

This sweeping — yet intimately told — epic fantasy about a continent/several civilizations being invaded by a race nobody knew existed is almost impossible to put into a few words. It’s about people stepping up to do more than they thought possible,more than they thought necessary, just so they and those they love can survive. It’s about heroes being heroic, leaders leading, non-heroes being more heroic, leaders conniving and failing, and regular people finding enough reason to keep going. It’s everything you want in an epic fantasy, and a bunch you didn’t realize you wanted, too (but probably should have).

5 Stars

Cold ReignCold Reign

by Faith Hunter

My original post
Hunter continues to raise the stakes (yeah, sorry, couldn’t resist) for Jane and her crew as the European Vamps’ visit/invasion gets closer. Am not sure what’s more intriguing, the evolution in Jane’s powers or the evolution of the character — eh, why bother choosing? Both are great. The growth in the Younger brothers might be more entertaining — I appreciate the way they’ve become nearly as central to the overall story as Jane. I’m not sure this is the book for new readers to the series, but there are plenty before it to hook someone.

5 Stars

Once Broken FaithOnce Broken Faith

by Seanan McGuire
My original post

Poor planning on my part (in 2016) resulted in me reading two Toby Daye books this year, both just excellent, but this one worked a little bit better for me. Oodles and oodles of Fae royalty and nobility in one spot to decide what they’re going to do with this elf-shot cure leading to a sort-of closed room mystery (it’s just a really big, magical room) with peril on all side for Toby and her found family.

5 Stars

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
My original post

There were so many ways this could’ve been hacky, overly-sentimentalized, brow-beating, or after-school special-y and Ness avoids them all to deliver a heart-wrenching story about grief, death, love, and the power of stories — at once horrifying, creepy and hopeful.

4 1/2 Stars

Black and BlueBlack and Blue

by Ian Rankin
My original post

Rankin kicked everything into a higher gear here — there are so many intricately intertwining stories here it’s hard to describe the book in brief. But you have Rebus running from himself into mystery after mystery, drink after drink, career-endangering move after career-endangering move. Unrelenting is the best word I can come up with for this book/character/plot — which makes for a terrific read.

5 Stars

SourdoughSourdough

by Robin Sloan
My original post

This delightful story of a programmer turned baker turned . . . who knows what, in a Bay Area Underground of creative, artisanal types who will reshape the world one day. Or not. It’s magical realism, but more like magical science. However you want to describe it, there’s something about Sloan’s prose that makes you want to live in his books.

Do not read if you’re on a low carb/carb-free diet. Stick with Sloan’s other novel in that case.

4 1/2 Stars

The Hate U Give (Audiobook)The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas, Bahni Turpin (Narrator)

My original post

This was a great audiobook –and I can’t imagine that the text version was as great, I just didn’t have time for it. It’s the story about the aftermath — socially, personally, locally, nationally — of a police shooting of an unarmed black male as seen through the eyes of a close friend who was inches away from him at the time.

I think I’d have read a book about Starr Carter at any point in her life, honestly, she’s a great character. Her family feels real — it’s not perfect, but it’s not the kind of dysfunctional that we normally see instead of perfect, it’s healthy and loving and as supportive as it can be. The book will make you smile, weep, chuckle and get angry. It’s political, and it’s not. It’s fun and horrifying. It’s . . . just read the thing. Whatever you might think of it based on what you’ve read (including what I’ve posted) isn’t the whole package, just read the thing (or, listen to it, Turpin’s a good narrator).

5 Stars

The ForceThe Force

by Don Winslow
My original post

There may be better Crime Fiction writers at the moment than Don Winslow, but that number is small, and I can’t think of anyone in it. In this fantastic book, Winslow tells the story of the last days of a corrupt, but effective (in their own corrupt and horrible way), NYPD Task Force. Denny Malone is a cop’s cop, on The Wire he’s be “real police” — but at some point he started cutting corners, lining his pockets (and justifying it to himself), eventually crossing the line so that he’s more “robber” than “cop.” Mostly. And though you know from page 1 that he’s dirty and going down, you can’t help get wrapped up in his story, hoping he finds redemption, and maybe even gets away with it.

But the book is more than that. In my original post I said: “This book feels like the love child of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy. You really feel like you understand how the city of New York is run — at least parts of it: the police, elements of the criminal world, and parts of the criminal justice system. Not how they’re supposed to run, but the way it really is. [Winslow] achieves this through a series of set pieces and didactic pericopes.”

A police story, a crime thriller, a book about New York — oh, yeah, possibly the best thing I read last year.

5 Stars

There were a few that almost made the list — almost all of them did make the Top 10 for at least a minute, actually. But I stuck with the arbitrary 10 — these were all close, and arguably better than some of those on my list. Anyway, those tied for 11th place are: <

Skyfarer by Joseph Brassey (my original post), Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb (my original post), Briefly Maiden by Jacqueline Chadwick (yes, again) (my original post), The Twisted Path by Harry Connolly (my original post), Bound by Benedict Jacka (my original post), The Western Star by Craig Johnson (my original post), The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire (see? Another Toby Daye) (my original post), The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (my original post), Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells(my original post).