Burn the Dark by S. A. Hunt: Like and Subscribe to Watch Her Gank Witches

Burn the Dark

Burn the Dark

by S. A. Hunt
Series: Malus Domestica, #1

Paperback, 368 pg.
Tor Books, 2020

Read: February 5-7, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore! Or, on audio through Libro.fm!


I’m struggling to not over-share here, so I’m just going to cite the official book blurb to explain the set-up for this novel:

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets Stranger Things in award-winning author S. A. Hunt’s Burn the Dark, first in the Malus Domestica horror action-adventure series about a punk YouTuber on a mission to bring down witches, one vid at a time.

Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don’t know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.

Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans….

I really love the concept for this book/series. No matter what I may end up saying below, I just want to say that Hunt deserves all sorts of kudos for coming up with it and executing the idea so well.

The Sabrina bit mentioned above comes from Robin, a childhood friend and someone new to town she meets when she returns. The Strange Things bit comes from a kid who has just moved to town (and into Robin’s old house—old bedroom) and the neighborhood kids he’s become friends with. Either group could probably be the focus of a book, the two of them together is what really works. I thought all the characters were well-drawn and interesting, and I would like to spend time with them all (except the witches, I think they could be developed a bit more—but that risks making them less threatening).

The magic system in this book is fantastic. Hunt gives us enough to understand it (and to see that it’s well-developed), but doesn’t drown us in the details that govern it. There’s something very raw, very rooted, almost tangible about it.

Hunt’s writing could be described the same way. It’s almost impossible not to see everything she’s describing; when she writes a tense scene, you feel it; and it’s engrossing.

Compelling writing, strong characters, a killer hook, and fast-moving plot with a great magic system—S. this is basically a recipe for a book that I’ll celebrate. But the entire time I read it, I kept thinking “I just don’t like this.” I kept reading because it’s precisely the kind of book I should rave about and I kept waiting for the switch to flip. But it’s just not my thing.

It’s not often I have this reaction, but it made me feel like Wendig’s Miriam Black books, Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, or Stross’s Laundry Files. In theory, each of those series is exactly my cup of tea. And I didn’t enjoy any of them (and I’ve read multiple volumes in two of those series). It’s an odd phenomenon, and I wish I understood it.

Still, it’s so well done that I can’t rate it lower than 3 Stars. I didn’t like it, but I respect it enough to recognize that it deserves at least that.

Eh, what do I know? Go read a post by someone who really dug this book instead.


3 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

San Diego Dead by Mark Nolan: A Modern-Day Privateer (and his dog) takes on a Powerful Drug Cartel


San Diego Dead

San Diego Dead

by Mark Nolan
Series: Jake Wolfe, #4

Kindle Edition, 348 pg.
2019

Read: January 30-February 3, 2020


Jake Wolfe is a former photojournalist, ex-Marine, ex-CIA asset, lawyer, Mafia “Made Man” and modern-day privateer. He recently saved the life of the new First Lady (before the election), and is on a first-name basis with her (and her husband). Men (who don’t want to kill him) admire him, women (who don’t want to kill him) swoon over him. But for Wolfe, none of that matters, as much as spending time with Cody, who is another Marine vet. Cody shares in most of Wolfe’s accomplishments—and gets the same reaction from men and women. The significant difference between the two is that Wolfe comes from Irish and Italian roots, and Cody is a yellow Labrador and Golden Retriever mix.

Together these two make a seemingly unstoppable force for truth, justice, and the American way. Apart they are capable but diminished, distracted, and less emotionally whole. Wolfe considers Cody a partner and makes it clear to any and all that they’re a package deal.

While on assignment for the Secret Service, the pair assassinates a man who provides boats for a Mexican Drug Cartel to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Around the same time a dear friend and fellow Vet crosses the same cartel, putting both men (and Jake’s girlfriend) in the cross-hairs pg of the leader of that cartel.

The cartel cuts a deadly and destructive swath from Mexico to L.A. attempting to eliminate these two, pushing the pair until they retaliate.

Most of the book is told from Wolfe’s point-of-view, with dips into the POV of his girlfriend or Cartel members. There are a couple of noteworthy sections told from Cody’s perspective—he’s closer to Crais’ Maggie than Quinn’s Chet in these, but he’s more thoughtful (and more human thinking) than Maggie. I wish we had a few more segments from Cody’s POV.

There are two paragraphs in which a ghost appears and saves the day. These two paragraphs have had me thinking far too much about them in contrast to the rest of the novel. They’re proverbial sore thumbs sticking out from the rest—but they also worked better than you’d think.

Recently, listening to interviews with Lee Goldberg, I was reminded of a genre that’s not really out anymore (and I’d totally forgotten about)—”Men of Action” or “Men’s Adventure.” These used to be at grocery stores, convenience stores and the like offering easy-to-read adventures featuring manly men doing manly (frequently super-patriotic) deeds, and deadly (and incredibly attractive) women. Years ago, Goldberg wrote a few of this type under the pen name Ian Ludlow—and now Goldberg’s protagonist of the same name writes that kind of book. See also: Mack Bolan, the Executioner; Remo Williams; and the like. Thanks to that reminder, I was able to see San Diego Dead for the return to that kind of story-telling and enjoy it for what it is. If not for that reminder, I’d have been annoyed, bothered, underwhelmed by the book. But realizing the inherent goals of this kind of writing, I was able to ignore that annoyance and channel it into reuniting such entertaining tropes/themes for contemporary audiences. It’s silly, cheesy fun—which is all it tries to be.

Would much of this work better if you’d read the previous novels? Probably. Does it work fine as a stand-alone? Yes. I’m not going to say that this is for everyone—it’s not (but what is?). If you (or someone you know) need a break from intense, serious, deliberate thrillers and could use solid action that places the emphasis on entertainment factor over all other considerations, give yourself a treat and check out Mark Nolan’s Jake Wolfe.


3 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz, Jason Adam Katzenstein (Illustrator): A Guide to White Male Writers for White Male Writers (or those who want to be one)

The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon

The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon

by Dana Schwartz, Jason Adam Katzenstein (Illustrator)

Paperback, 241 pg.
Harper Perennial, 2019

Read: January 7-30, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore (I did)!

If you want to be a writer, you should attend an Ivy League university, where you roommate happens to be the nephew of a senior editor at Knopf, and you should go on to get a summer internship in New York City. This internship will not be paid, and unfortunately you will have to suffer the indignity of living in an apartment that your parents pay for. But soon, your struggles will pay off, and you will be accepted at one of the nation’s most prestigious MFA programs.

If you can’t do all of that, I hate to say it, but it sounds like you won’t have the commitment and discipline necessary to make it as a writer.

Nice guy, the narrator of this book, right? I didn’t know this when I picked it up, but this is a book inspired by a parody Twitter account Schwartz runs @GuyInYourMFA, I wish I knew that going in—it might have helped me appreciate the book more. Probably not, really, the book speaks for itself, but it the humor in it screams Twitter. Anyway, that account is the voice behind this book.

This is a guide to:

teach you everything you need to know to become the chain-smokin, coffee-drinking, Proust-quoting, award-winning writer you’ve always known you should be…

Not a white man? Not to worry. The White Male Writer isn’t a hard-and-fast demographic; it’s a state of mind…

There’s a brief discussion of topics like how to dress like a writer, what the Western Canon is, how to identify “Chick Lit” (the last identifier is “By Jennifer Weiner”, which is a pretty good clue, you have to admit), and ends with a nice reading list of White Male Writers.

The heart of the book consists of thirty-two 6(+/-) page profiles of the greatest White Male Writers that make up the Western Canon. These consist of a brief biography, a discussion of some major works (“Works You Need to Know”), and some lessons from the work or life of the Writer that should be applied by the reader in their effort to become a Writer (drink recipes, how to respond to a rejection letter, how to write a love letter like James Joyce, etc.).

The writers are male, white, and largely published in the Twentieth Century (Shakespeare, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Lord Byron, Dickens, Thoreau, and Tolstoy would be the exceptions). I can virtually guarantee that you’ve heard to them all—not that you’ve read them all, however. And in between the snark and intentionally sexist lessons, there’s some decent information to be gleaned. That isn’t the point of the book, the point is the snark, sexism, and general parodying the idea of the young, pretentious, white male would-be literary genius.

Every chapter includes at least 3 lines that should bring some level of amusement to the reader (some will have many more)—which is a pretty decent and consistent number. Sadly, all the jokes are around a theme, and so can get repetitive. If you don’t read cover to cover, if you only read a 2-3 chapters at a time, and bear in mind that all the jokes will be similar, you can have a lot of fun with this book. If you neglect any of that, it can get tiresome. Once I figured that out (it didn’t take long, thankfully, before I recognized the symptoms), I had a lot of fun with this book.

The illustrations are wonderful—each chapter (except the Pynchon chapter) features a great caricature of the artist, and a handful of other illustrations that do a wonderful job of augmenting the text.

This is not the subtlest of books I’ll read this year (it doesn’t try), but it is insightful, amusing and (accidentally?) informative. All of which makes it a fun, book-nerdy, read. Give it a shot, you’ll probably be glad you did.


3 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam: Hunter tries SF with Predictably Entertaining Results

Junkyard Cats

Junkyard Cats

by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam (Narrator)

Audiobook, 5 hrs., 2 min.
Audible Original, 2020

Read: January 3-6, 2020


Faith Hunter dips her toe into SF with this Audible Original, and leaves quite an impression. The distinctive Hutner-flair is there, with science-y stuff replacing the magic stuff. It works pretty well.

Shining Smith is a veteran, of a handful of things, really. This takes place in the near-future, following a World War and another one (called the Final War in an act of aspirational nomenclature, I assume). She lives in/runs a scrapyard left to her by her father with a few cats and another vet recovering from trauma.

Shining deals on both sides of the law through intermediaries—no one knows her or who she is beyond those. It’s a perfectly safe environment.

Not a nice one, not a fulfilling one, but a safe one. And in her world, that’s asking a lot.

Until one day, one of her intermediaries shows up at her scrapyard dead. And then a very strong suspect for killing him shows up. And things get worse from there.

The action scenes are cool—filled with all the kinds of things that the best SF action scenes are filled with. The future-tech is cool, completely foreign to reality, yet it seems like the kind of thing that would emerge from our current tech.

I liked Shining, we don’t get to know her much. She’s such the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that it’s hard to get a real handle on her—but we get enough to root for her and want to know her better. Her compatriots are intriguing—as well-rounded as characters can get in this limited space where everyone is lying to each other about who and what they are.

There were a couple of SF-brand/tech names (like The Tyrell Corporation or tricorder) that I really couldn’t understand what Hvam was saying. Against the spirit of an “Audible Original,” but I’d like to read this so I could get a handle on those things. Which isn’t saying that Hvam didn’t do a great job—as per usual, her narration is top-notch.

My only complaint (outside of the tech words I couldn’t decipher), is the brevity, we get the good story, but we don’t get any depth—it’s like it’s designed to make you want more. Hey, wait a second . . .

A fun action-packed story that’ll whet your appetite for more. This is a glimpse into a cool world and I love what Hunter has created here. Yeah, I’m only going with 3 Stars for this. There’s a lot of potential in this world and with these characters—if Hunter returns to this? I can easily see this becoming a favorite series. It’s fine as a stand-alone, and it doesn’t demand a series/sequel but I think to really appreciate everything she set-up here, we need a little more. I’m not sure that makes sense, but…it’s what I can do.


3 Stars

Find Your Weigh by Shellie Bowdoin: A No-Nonsense, but not overly-demanding, approach to Eating right/Weight loss

Find Your Weigh

Find Your Weigh: Renew Your Mind & Walk In Freedom

by Shellie Bowdoin

eARC, 239 pg.
2020

Read: December 21-23, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

It’s that time when people are hitting the gym, starting diets, and doing all the sorts of things you do at the beginning of the year to “improve” themselves (seriously, having a hard time getting a parking spot at the gym). So it’s also the time for books on exercise, eating well, wellness in general to come out, enter Find Your Weigh. Bowdoin combines sage advice about eating/food/etc. with spiritual guidance.

When it comes to the Food aspects of the book, this is really good. Bowdain doesn’t try to impress with a lot of statistics, research articles and so on. Instead, she talks about her own experiences and then applies what she learned from them to provide examples for the book. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t do her homework, it’s there, but she doesn’t shove it in the reader’s face.

She covers things like honest expectations, mental blocks, habit formation, and the way to approach it all wisely. She does it in a friendly outgoing voice. She’s full of encouragement. She’s got plenty of tips and tricks to help you think about your weight and the effective ways to deal with it. There’s just so much here that is commendable that it’s hard to get into it all without making anyone getting the book on their own moot.

I’ll admit, if I’d known Bowdoin was going to try to bring the Bible into this, I’d have passed on the book. I have little patience for “Christian” diet books. It’s not that I don’t think the Bible is silent on health/diet/etc., but you’re not going to get much more than a pamphlet out of it, unless you’re going to trace themes about feasting, celebration, prayer, fasting, contentment, and so on then apply them via good and necessary consequence.

But, Bowdoin did bring the Bible up, so I feel compelled to address it. If she used the Scriptures correctly once, I didn’t notice it. And I’m not talking about holding/teaching a disputed idea from an unclear text. I’m talking about wholescale violence to the text and context she cites from. For example, Romans 7 is not about “learned helplessness” or the struggle against impulses to eat less-than-healthy food, it’s about the mortifying of sinful flesh; the discipline in Hebrews 12 is not self-discipline, but correction from our Heavenly Father; and so on.

If you ignore the Biblical citations/applications (and it’s easy to do, I wish I had), this is a really good book. It’s full of the voice of experience, compassion, and common sense. Written in a way that will likely draw you in, and help you to see how you can eat/act healthier. At the very least, it’s worth a glance (and probably more). This isn’t a once-sized-fits-all approach, but a toolbox that will have a lot of what you need to deal with the problem at hand.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.


3 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich: A local rock star with ambition, a shoplifter, and a mysterious deli fill Stephanie Plum’s 25th novel.

Look Alive Twenty-Five

Look Alive Twenty-Five

by Janet Evanovich
Series: Stephanie Plum, #25

Mass Market Paperback, 306 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: December 25, 2019


Someone that Vincent Plum Bail Bonds had put up the bail for skipped town, and he’d put up his deli as collateral. Vincent’s father-in-law (the owner of the Bail Bonds) has decided he wants to diversify, so he’s hanging onto it. The catch is, the last several managers have disappeared while working. So Vinnie’s decided that 1. Stephanie is the new manager; 2. She needs to find out what’s going on to get the other manager’s kidnapped/killed/whatever; 3. She can take care of her bond enforcement job during the off hours.

That’s pretty much all you need to know. Stephanie’s running a strange little deli with Lulu as the assistant manager/sandwich guru. There are three other employees there who really know what they’re doing (mostly doing drugs while toiling away at a minimum wage job). Hijinks ensue—her car is stolen, she tracks down a couple of skips, she looks into the disappearances (with help from Joe Morelli and Ranger), and things get weird at the deli (particularly due to Lulu, who becomes a social media sensation of the moment).

I must say that Stephanie seems more competent at this gig than a lot of the other jobs she’s held over the course of this series—either in an undercover assignment or because she was trying to do something other than bond enforcement. If it wasn’t for the distraction of the investigation (and Lulu), she probably could’ve made a decent go of it and changed the series for good. It was pleasant to see her not horrible at something.

We get a little bit of another of Stephanie’s supernatural acquaintances, Gerwulf Grimoire (Wulf), here, but in such a small amount that I’m really not sure why Evanovich bothered. That said, if she was determined to use Wulf, this is precisely as much as she should.

I still don’t get what Stephanie sees in Joe, or what Ranger sees in Stephanie, or why Joe or Ranger let this stupid triangle continue. But I’m at peace with that—I’ll never get it, and Evanovich will never change it, why fight it?

If this had been part of any other story, I’d say the solution stretches credulity too far. But as it’s a Plum novel, I really don’t think I can. Honestly, it was only as I was gathering wool a couple of days later that I gave it any thought.

One last thing: I’d read the blurb for Twisted Twenty-Six a few weeks earlier, and was looking forward to reading it more than I have since the mid-teens (I’m guessing). So, it turns out that I was already primed for the near cliff-hanger last couple of pages. I don’t feel too bad saying that because it really doesn’t have much to do with this novel (although events in it do tie-in), but it’s something I have to talk about because I don’t remember Evanovich doing this in the previous twenty-four novels.* Evanovich doing anything new at this point is something to note and celebrate.

* Feel free to correct me in the comments.

This wasn’t anything special, but there wasn’t anything annoying about it, either. Which sets it apart from the last handful. Evanovich ticked all the boxes she needed to; got Stephanie into a new situation and had her handle it in a non-disastrous way; and capped the book off with something new. I can’t imagine Evanovich will return to the comedic heights of the early series—and I imagine even less that she feels any compulsion to do so. I just hope for a reliable level of moderate entertainment, and that’s what she delivered. It’s a decent time, but if you’re new to Plum—go back to One for the Money and immerse yourself in the first dozen or so of these before taking the plunge into the higher numbers.


3 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle: A Beautifully Written Fairy Tale that Really Didn’t Do Anything For Me

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn

by Peter S. Beagle

Paperback, 294 pg.
ROC, 1991 (originally published 1968)

Read: December 13-18, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

This is the tale of a Unicorn—quite possibly the last in the world (hence the title). On some random day, she discovers that she might be the last of her kind, and so leaves her forest to go throughout the world, searching for others of her kind.

She falls into some trouble after a while, and is helped out by a magician she comes across who ends up traveling with her, as well as a woman associated with a band of outlaws who is looking to get away from them. They travel until they find the cause of the disappearing unicorns and seek to return them to the world.

This is some of the best prose that I read this year. The language is just beautiful. There were several times I had to stop and reread a sentence/paragraph/passage three or four times because it was so good. More than once, I had to force myself to move on or I’d never have made any progress in the book.

That little quotation at the beginning is just a taste of the meta-commentary on fairy tales (specifically) or story (in general) scattered throughout the book. I laughed a lot at some of them, and thought all were very thought-provoking. It’s like a more ambitious <b>The Princess Bride</b> in this regard (probably others, too, now that I say it, but I don’t have time to tease this idea out).

I dug the characters—Schmendrick the Magician (the world’s worst) was wonderful. Molly Grue is an inspired creation, and the kind of character more people need to write. And, of course, the Unicorn herself…

There were several scenes that were just delightful—unique, entertaining. When not unique, Beagle is playing with, twisting, riffing on fantasy/fairy tale mainstays.

But when you put them all together . . . I just didn’t see the point. A combination of these characters, these scenes, and the meta material alone should’ve been a home-run for me. Throw in that language? I should be making plans to re-read it regularly. But somehow, the whole ended up less than the sum of its parts. I just didn’t care about any of it, it never connected to me. I spent so much time trying to figure out why that was the case—and I got nowhere. I’m going to have to try in a couple of years again, see if it was just bad timing or something.

This is one of those books that everyone loves—and as far as I can tell, there’s plenty of reason to love it. Sadly, I didn’t. If you haven’t read this yet, you probably should—I just hope it works out better for you.


3 Stars

✔ A classic you’ve been meaning to get to

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.