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Books To Look For
Live Wire, by Amber Lynn Natusch, Amber Lynn Natusch, 2016, $2.99.
Shadow Born, by Jasmine Walt and Rebecca Hamilton, Blue Bolt Publishing, 2016, $2.99.
Truth is, I like all kinds of fiction. What genre it fits into is pretty much irrelevant. So long as the premise/plot is intriguing and the characters believable, I'm there. Certainly, I'm drawn to prose that has something special about it—who doesn't appreciate having all their reading likes checked off with each book and story they start? But Story and Character are non-negotiable. If I want pure Style or Lyricism, I'll pick up a book of poetry (yes, I also like poetry, and add a number of new collections and anthologies to my library every year).
What I don't like is the term "guilty pleasure."
Mostly because it seems to presuppose that the material in question isn't particularly well-written, but somebody likes it anyway. With ebooks, these "guilty pleasures" can be read anywhere, since no one knows what you're reading. Before the proliferation of a digital delivery system for stories, I assume these sorts of books were read in the privacy of one's home when the rest of the family members had gone out or off to bed.
But why should anyone feel guilt over something that gives them pleasure (and no one is being hurt during the act, in this case, reading)? Even if a book isn't particularly well-written, I see no harm if it brings pleasure to the reader.
Yes, I can hear someone say, but by reading inferior books, aren't these readers missing the important, good, fill-in-your-own-adjective books? Aren't they wasting their time?
Well, no. Because if they weren't reading these so-called guilty pleasures, there's a good chance they wouldn't be reading at all.
I bring all this up because I know there are many people who equate commercial fiction with guilty pleasure, and I take exception to the pejorative tone of the assumption, because there's nothing wrong with commercial or popular fiction. I can see how subjectively someone might take that stand, but then what they forget is that point of view is subjective and not necessarily true for another.
But it's not something you can argue, because when someone is set in their assumptions, you can't win the argument anyway. It reminds me of the old joke where a situation of this kind is likened to playing chess with a pigeon. The pigeon will knock over the pieces, poop on the board, and then stalk off certain that they've won the game.
The two books under discussion—finally!—are prime examples of good commercial fiction. They have strong lead characters and play with the current tropes of urban fantasy, but most importantly, they're entertaining. The authors know how to start a story, and they pull the reader to the finish with the sheer exuberance of their characters and plots.
In Live Wire by Amber Lynn Natusch, we're introduced to Sapphira, a member of "Patrons Ceteri, or PC, an organization of supernatural warriors bred and bound to keep the balance between the human and not-so-human worlds." She should be working with her family, but two years before the book opens, she was the cause of the worst single most devastating supernatural event in history. A whole town paid the price and she has no idea how it happened, only that she was to blame.
Her family keeps her under close protection—and supervision—to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
So far, Live Wire doesn't stray from the usual tropes. Sapphira comes across as surly and somewhat unlikeable. But after a few chapters of meaningless binge sex and drinking, with a dash of hard exercise (all of which keeps the demon inside her at bay), a plane carrying Sapphira crashes in a freak storm and she awakes in a corn field with no memory of who she is.
It's at that point that the novel begins to sing.
I'll admit I almost didn't reach that point because Live Wire was feeling pretty much same-old, same-old. But I'm glad I stuck with it, and when I got to her amnesia and the mysteries of the farm where she spends her recovery time, I realized how necessary those early chapters were to show the contrast of who she really is without the baggage she's had to carry for the past couple of years.
It's not so much a coming of age novel as a book about the discovery of one's true self. There's plenty of action sprinkled throughout, and especially at the end, but what I took away from the novel was Sapphira's character arc and what a delight it was to see her change, grow, and find a certain peace with who she is.
Shadow Born by Jasmine Walt and Rebecca Hamilton also starts with some familiar tropes of current urban fantasy. Here we meet Detective Brooke Chandler, who has the ability to view events from the past by tapping into the residue memory of inanimate objects. She's based in Chicago, where she and her partner/fiancé Tom have been dealing with the vampires who have overrun the city.
When the novel opens, Chandler's on her way to a new job with the Salem Police Department, where she hopes to use her ability to find out the truth behind Tom's death. Tom died in a mysterious fire while on loan to the same department. The Salem P.D. proves to be a dead end—she can't even get the case files she needs to start the investigation—and she discovers that the supernatural community is much larger than the vampires she dealt with back in Chicago.
Her poking around into Tom's death soon has her on the wrong end of a number of assassination attempts and brings her to the attention of a local fae club owner who promises to help her discover the truth about Tom if she'll help him in turn.
As you'd expect, things get worse and more complicated long before they can even start to get better.
What sets Shadow Born apart from the pack is that for all the familiar elements, the authors still manage to imbue characters and plot with a freshness that keeps even jaded readers like me interested.
Drawing Dead, by Andrew Vachss, Vintage Crime, 2016, $15.
Another Chance to Get It Right: Fourth Edition, by Andrew Vachss and Geof Darrow, Dark Horse Books, 2016, $14.99.
It seems each of the last few columns has covered at least one pretty dark book. We looked at Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim last time out. Before that it was a couple of books by R. S. Belcher. Today it's the latest in Andrew Vachss's Cross series.
Vachss is best known for his dark crime/mystery novels, the most popular of which are in the Burke series. But while there's an element of traditional (and certainly Vachss's unique take on) hardboiled mystery in Drawing Dead, and it's published by Vintage Crime, a house well-known for its mystery books, I'd consider it more of a supernatural/sf thriller with a touch of Cthulhu on steroids.
The Burke and Cross series have some similarities. Both are written in a tough, hardboiled voice, and center around families of choice living off the grid. Burke and Cross grew up raised by the state, spending much of the early parts of their lives incarcerated. But where Burke's crew focuses its attention on predatory pedophiles, Cross's crew are pure mercenaries.
Cross's crew operates in Chicago. They're the most feared of the city's criminal organizations, so it makes no sense when someone attempts a hit on one of them. Who'd be that foolish? The answer has its roots in earlier books in the series, but new readers shouldn't be worried, since we're kept up to date through flashbacks and the like.
I'm not going to get into the supernatural elements of the novel—it's complicated, and we don't have the room here—but it's a fascinating take and permeates every part of the story.
What draws me to Vachss's work—beyond the fact that his books are addictively readable—is the loyalty of the characters to one another. In a time where friendships are so often only on social media and easily discarded, it's refreshing to be reminded of the depth that these sorts of relationships can actually have.
And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different.
I can't imagine Oprah reading the Cross series, but back in the 1990s she read a passage from Another Chance to Get It Right during an interview she was conducting with Vachss, and the book hasn't been out of print since then. She was, as were so many others, enthralled with this collection of original stories, poetry, and allegory, combined with the gorgeous black & white art by Geof Darrow and others, all of it celebrating the potential of parenting.
The rights and protection of kids is a theme that runs through most of Vachss's books, but this is as clear a mission statement as you're going to get from the author, filled with beauty and despair, sadness and hope. It should be required reading for every new parent. It should be required reading for anybody who cares about kids and cares for kids. Andrew deserves our thanks for writing this book.
This twenty-fifth anniversary edition features a new cover by Darrow and other new material, but the core thrust remains the same as when it was first published.
The Darkest Thread, by Jen Blood, Adian Press, 2016, $14.95.
I like a good mystery, and The Darkest Thread certainly fits the bill, but the reason I'm bringing it up in this column is that I've noticed something of interest that seems to show up more and more these days—not only in fiction, but also in films and on TV—and that's how you can't turn around without bumping into supernatural elements in unexpected places.
Jen Blood is best known for her Erin Solomon mystery series, which I haven't read, but I'm guessing that it also has a touch of the supernatural in it, since the main character of The Darkest Thread was originally introduced there.
Jamie Flint runs a K-9 service, and in this new book she, her son Bear, and their friend Ren are called in to find a pair of teenage girls who have gone missing in the "Bennington Triangle" of Vermont, a heavily forested area renowned for its disappearances and strange occurrences over the past hundred years. The weather is terrible—pounding rain—and the terrain is rough. The search is also hampered by the presence of the girls' survivalist family, who resent the presence of law enforcement on their land—even though these same police and FBI are there to help find the girls.
The twist is that Jamie can hear the voices of ghosts. If that's not enough, her son Bear can both hear and see them. And there are plenty of ghosts in the Bennington Triangle.
The supernatural element doesn't solve the mystery of the missing girls, but it adds a depth to the storyline and the characterization that I really liked. That said, I should warn you this is still written as a mystery, not a fantasy. I loved it, but then I read in both genres. Still, if you're a dog lover, or just someone who appreciates a tantalizing puzzle as well written as The Darkest Thread, you might come away as I did with the determination to go track down Blood's other books.
The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains, by Rodney Jones, Red Adept Publishing, 2012, $12.99.
All the Butterflies in the World, by Rodney Jones, Red Adept Publishing, 2014, $15.99.
Here's one of my favorite things about the arts: how the communication between creator and recipient is timeless. If you're unfamiliar with van Gogh, the Pre-Raphaelites, Banksy, when you view their work, you're no different from those who viewed it when it was first shown. You get that same buzz of being in the presence of something special you haven't been exposed to before. It's the same for the first time you hear Mozart, Dylan, or Miles Davis, when you first read Dickens, Stephen King, or Alice Hoffman. These may be classic and in some cases long-dead artists, but when you first experience their work, it's always new to you, as though it was just released.
And living when we do now, with the internet at our fingertips, access to the past—both recent and distant—has never been easier.
I mention all of this not because I think Rodney Jones is in the genius class of those mentioned above but because, although these two books of his are a few years old, they were still new to me. And possibly to you, as well. But that in no way detracts from their appeal. (And considering that they're a pair of time-traveling stories, maybe the sense of when they're set is rather beyond the point anyway.)
In The Sun, the Moon, and Maybe the Trains, we're introduced to John Bartley, who lives a hundred and thirty-four years in Tess's past. Author Rodney Jones does an excellent job of depicting John's rural life in the 1800s over the course of the first few chapters, but that's hardly material for this column. Things get interesting when John stumbles from his own time into the year 2009 when Tess lives.
I was absolutely charmed with these two characters. I realize this kind of fish out of water story isn't new, but the way Jones shows us John's reactions to everything that's changed since 1875 makes the whole concept feel fresh. John slowly comes to terms with the modern world, just as Tess—who finds herself in the position of being his guide—comes to believe that John is really from when he says he is.
I don't want to get into too much more detail for fear of spoiling the story for you. But if you like time travel—as I do—and can appreciate stories that are told on a smaller scale than the fate of the entire world, I think you'll be just as charmed as I was with both books.
Jones isn't a genre writer, so he comes to this trope of our field with a different take. He doesn't try to come up with an sfnal explanation for what's happened to John. Instead he focuses on the characters, and it's because of their voices—the first-person point of view shifts between the characters over the course of the two books—that we're drawn in and so charmed.
Try the first book, but I should warn you that the pair of titles makes up one story.
Staked, by Kevin Hearne, Del Rey, 2016, $27.
Oberon's Meaty Mysteries: The Purloined Poodle, by Kevin Hearne, Subterranean Press, 2016, $20.
I was quite taken with Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid books when I first started the series. Its main charm for me was how it chronicled the life of Atticus, a two-thousand-year-old Druid, interacting with life in the twenty-first century. The focus was on Atticus and his wolfhound Oberon (with whom he can communicate mentally), and I really liked all the little details of their interactions with their community and the struggle to keep everyone from knowing how old Atticus really is, how the two can communicate with one another, and that magic is real.
But over the course of the series the cast has continued to grow, the stories kept getting bigger, and I didn't feel as compelled to read each new book as it came out.
Don't get me wrong. The writing and dialogue has remained top-notch throughout. The problem was my expectations, not Hearne's abilities.
When Staked came out, I was a few books behind. I decided to catch up, and grew to appreciate the extra first-person points of view from Atticus's apprentice Druid and lover Granuaile, as well as from his archdruid Owen who was frozen in time on a mystical island until finally being freed a couple of books ago. And while I wasn't thrilled with so much of the big action involving wars between rival gods, there were enough more grounded scenes to keep me interested.
If you're like me when it comes to a long-running series (Staked is book eight with a number of novellas bridging between the books), you can lose track of some of the finer details of ongoing plots. Happily, Hearne not only offers a pronunciation guide as part of the novel's front matter, but also a "The Story So Far," which is something I wish all authors would do for series books.
It doesn't give you all the nuances of what has happened before, but enough of the broad strokes so that you're quickly brought up to speed. And it makes a great entry point for new readers.
Staked still has a biggish story—Atticus is determined to rid the world of vampires who are responsible for his being the last Druid for the past couple of thousand years—but it doesn't have the large sweep of the last few books. It is in fact three stories, one from each of the Druids' points of view.
Granuaile is concentrating on confronting demons from her past—her nasty stepfather and the more recent altercation she had with the god Loki who, through a mark burned onto her skin, can track her no matter where she goes.
Owen is opening a Druid school for the children of werewolves, giving them a way into their parents' magical lives.
Atticus and Oberon are dealing with the vampires.
For most of the book, the characters are quite separate from one another, and I, for one, appreciated the scaling down of their individual storylines. And they do all come together at the end to deal with Atticus's problem.
I've mentioned Oberon, the wolfhound, above. Oberon's Meaty Mysteries: The Purloined Poodle is told from his point of view as he and Atticus investigate a rash of kidnapped purebred dogs. Considering that Oberon gets a lot of the best lines in the Iron Druid series, you won't be surprised at the light tone of this story.
Everything's here that I loved from the first of the Iron Druid books. It's a more intimate story and Atticus's magic is used to deal with everyday problems rather than taking on pantheons of gods. It's a delight from start to finish, and if you think it might be a bit twee to have the story told from a dog's point of view, I can assure you that it's actually very entertaining and even a little ribald in places.
I mean, he's a dog. Think of the things that a dog likes to do.
Both books are very satisfying. I've heard that the next Iron Druid will be the last in the series, and I find myself eagerly looking forward to it, as well as Hearne's first foray into secondary world fantasy, which apparently is also in the works.
Spectrum 23: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, by John Fleskes, editor, Flesk Publications, 2016, $45.
I'm really grateful for books such as Spectrum 23. With the incredible profusion of art and story available to us these days, it's very useful to have some curated guides to each year's best, because it's impossible to keep up with it all on one's own.
Yes, books such as this or The Year's Best SF miss worthy entries and will include others that don't appeal to us so much. But whether the material is chosen by individuals (like Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow) or by a jury of peers (as happens with Spectrum or the Nebula anthology series), the end result invariably has far more hits than misses.
Spectrum is always a particular delight. In it you find representations of every kind of fantasy and sf art you might imagine, culled from book covers, film concept art, comics, advertising, sculpture, and there's even a section of previously unpublished work. There are a handful of artist profiles chosen from each category as well as those focusing on the five-person jury who selected the work.
The production values are excellent. The wealth of material is impressive—over 500 reproductions (many of them full-page) by almost 300 different artists. I find myself spending hours poring over all of the gorgeous art whenever I get a new entry in the series, and this one proved no different
If you have any interest in the art of our field, this is the book for you. And if you don't find work you love in these pages, honestly, I'd be very surprised.
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