Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Quiet in Her Bones by Nalini Singh

Quiet in Her Bones is the second thriller by Nalini Singh who is better known as a bestselling paranormal romance writer of Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series as well as of several contemporary romances. Her first thriller, A Madness of Sunshine, relied heavily on the atmosphere of rural New Zealand, small town setting, and thriller tropes. Quiet in Her Bones is a more mature thriller and—dare I say—much better.

The book is set in Auckland, the largest city of New Zealand, but it mostly takes place in a small gated community for the rich. It’s a good choice, as it allows for a compact cast of characters who have known each other for decades. Every family has their secrets and there’s always someone who knows them.

The book is told in first person by Aarav Rai, a bestselling author in his late twenties who’s had to return to his childhood home after a bad car accident. His leg is in a cast and he suffers from migraines. He and his father hate each other, the root of which is Aarav’s mother Nina, who has disappeared thirteen years earlier. And then her remains are found, not far from their home. Enraged by the fate of his beloved mother, Aarav begins his own investigation to his mother’s death.

The list of potential suspects is fairly long for such a small community, but Aarav is under no illusions about his mother and her habits, and doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. As he investigates the death, he ends up stirring old secrets that have nothing to do with his mother. And along the way we solve the mystery of Aarav too.

Aarav is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He’s a self-professed sociopath and liar, but more importantly for the reader, his memory is faulty. It dawns little by little on him and the reader both that his car accident was much worse than he thought. He has great gaps in his memory, on top of which he suffers from vivid hallucinations. Yet his narration is so convincing that the reader is constantly thrown back by the turn of events. As the story progresses, the reader knows more than he does, as he forgets events that have taken place only days ago.

With his memory, Aarav begins to question everything, even his own involvement in his mother’s death. From the chaos of his mind, glimpses of real memories surface, directing him to the truth. But because the reader is unable to trust him anymore, it’s with a baited breath that they wait whether he finds the real killer—or if it turns out to be him after all.

Quiet in Her Bones is an excellent thriller with a great main character. It stands on its own and, unlike the first one, doesn’t suffer from comparisons with Singh’s romantic fiction. I’d definitely be interested in reading more thrillers from her.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Jackson by LaQuette: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Jackson by LaQuette

Jackson is the first book in Restoration Ranch contemporary romance series by LaQuette. It’s set on a ranch with the same name near Austin, Texas, that’s been in the Everett family ever since their ancestor was freed after the Civil War. The current owner, Aja, a former hotshot defence lawyer from New York in her late thirties, wants to turn it into a holiday resort, but someone in her town opposes the plan. Accidents plague the construction, and when Aja is almost killed, her family intervenes and calls in Texas Rangers. Enter Jackson Dean, a ranger as protective as he is hot.

There’s instant attraction between the two, but this is a grown-up romance, where both parties bring in a lot of baggage, so neither of them intend it to last. Alongside the romance, there’s the mystery of who’s trying to harm Aja. There are some really hot scenes, but once the case is solved, they go their separate ways—only to realise they need each other after all.

I liked both Aja and Jackson, separately and together. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid of going after it, and he wasn’t afraid of letting her be who she is, provided he could be there to save the day and comfort her. The supporting cast remained a little distant and I didn’t really get a hang of them.

This wasn’t a bad book, but unfortunately it suffered from a clumsy execution. We plunge in with a brief action scene when the situation on the ranch has been going on for a while already—and then everything halts. We’re told about the troubles, but we never witness them, and the investigation takes place outside the narrative.

The narrative was on a constant holding pattern. It consisted of filler scenes between brief bursts of action when the bad guys made their moves and the characters reacted. The characters were never in charge of the plot, never proactive, and the reader was an observer. Even the romantic scenes felt emotionally distant. It made the book feel overly long, and even the twists at the end couldn’t really save it. But Aja and Jackson got their happily ever after and it made the ending satisfying.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Wolf After My Own Heart by MaryJanice Davidson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

A Wolf after My Own Heart by MaryJanice Davidson

A Wolf After My Own Heart is the second book in BeWere My Heart urban fantasy series by MaryJanice Davidson. I haven’t read the first book, but it didn’t matter at all, as this one had a unique plot and plenty of references to the previous book and characters.

The book is set in a small town outside St. Paul, Minnesota, and the world is mostly like ours, but populated with various weres ranging from wolves and bears to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. They go under human radar, but with their own social organisations like child services and fire brigades.

Lila, a human—or Stable, though she doesn’t know that word yet—has just moved into a huge old house in a quiet neighbourhood. Her very first night, she runs over a wolf and finds an injured bear cub. The first disappears before she has a chance to do anything, but the cub she takes home. Only for it to shift into a little girl. This plunges her into a strange new world of weres, including Oz, the sexy social worker werewolf who’s supposed to look after the bear cub now that her parents are dead.

There’s instant attraction between Lila and Oz, but it doesn’t really go anywhere fast. For all that this is advertised as a sexy romance, anything romantic is pretty much in a backburner, and sexy things happen behind closed doors and only at the very end. This is more of a paranormal mystery, where the characters are trying to find out what happened to the cub’s parents and who is trying to kill her. The mystery unfolds in a fairly haphazard way, with everything happening in the last chapters of the book. The ending is satisfying, but not exactly a happily ever after kind of affair.

I liked the book, but I had some issues. The two point of view characters, Lila and Oz, had similar inner monologues that made them seem like ADDs off their meds; a stream of consciousness with many tangents that were supposed to be quirky and funny, but were only exhausting. It was difficult to tell them apart at times and more annoyingly, the inner monologues were in contrast with their actions. Oz was an accountant turned social worker, reliable but yearning for some action, and Lila was a survival who was prepared for everything life could throw at her. I haven’t read other books from Davidson, but I suspect this is her writing style that trumps the characters’ own voices. This stretched to other characters too, who only communicated with snarky, often really mean comments, which made them fairly unlikeable.

I’m also not a fan of a writing style where a scene starts in the middle, with nothing to indicate who is talking, where, when and why, with the POV character explaining the scene later. It made the narrative very clunky, and required a lot of backtracking. There were also footnotes from the author that constantly yanked me off the narrative and the world. Towards the end, a new point of view character was added to explain the plot, which confused the matters further. If it hadn’t been for the really sweet child characters and some funny moments, this would have been a three star book. But there was something compelling about the setting and the mystery, if not the romance, which left me happy with the book in the end, so it gets four stars.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is the fourth (and last?) book in Becky Chambers’ wonderful Wayfarers series. Each book has been set in a different location in her vast and imaginative galaxy, featuring different people, and has tackled different aspects of (human) experience from AIs right to a self, to finding a place to belong. The latest isn’t an exception.

The book is set on a small rock of a planet that has no life of its own, but—as Tupo, one of the characters says—even life that is introduced on a planet is life. Gora is a hub of space travel between several wormhole jump points, a place to rest and refuel for a day or two while waiting for a place in the jump queue. Life is contained under large domes, and the only thing connecting the domes is the power grid.

One of the domes is Five-Hop One-Stop, a rest-stop run by Ouloo and Tupo, her child. They are Laru, a species that resemble long-legged and necked dogs or maybe Alpacas; they’re furry and four-legged, with front paws acting as hands. It’s a matter of pride for Ouloo to make each and every traveller feel like home when they visit, whether it’s offering them particular food, accommodating different bathing habits, or finding a suddenly fertile Aeluon the closest place to procreate.

On this occasion, she’s visited by Pei, a female Aeluon, a mostly humanoid species who communicate with colours on their skin; Roveg, a Quelin male who are basically large insects with exoskeletons and multiple legs; and Speaker, a female Akarak, a small species who cannot use oxygen and therefore only exit their ship inside a mechanical armour. Accommodating such different guests isn’t easy, but Ouloo does her best. And then a disaster strikes, stranding them into her dome for days with no way of communicating outside.

Like all the books in the series, this is very much character driven. We follow each character as they try to adjust to a change in their plans, their worries for what they might miss or what awaits them once they reach their destination. Each character has their own story and reason to travel. And for the first time for most of them, it’s a chance to get to know species they find alien. They do this in a respectful manner and with minimal strife, which has become the hallmark of these books. While nothing much happens externally, each character changes through these interactions and by the time they are able to leave, they have made new friends. The epilogue sees everyone to their happy places, the private conflicts solved.

This was a wonderful, happy book that left me warm and fuzzy inside. If this truly is the last one, it’s a great ending, but I wish the series would continue. It’s been imaginative and positive, with great detail and thought put to the biological and cultural differences of the various species, and I’m sure there would be dozens of stories to tell. I for one could read many more Wayfarer books.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Witherward by Hannah Mathewson: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Witherward by Hannah Mathewson

Witherward is the debut novel by Hannah Mathewson. It’s a young adult portal fantasy set in Victorian London and it starts a series of the same name. I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Witherward is a book that relies heavily on its unique world, occasionally at the expense of the plot. Alongside with and unbeknownst to the normal world, Otherworld, is Witherward where seasons and times of day are the exact opposite, with some similarities to Otherworld but with its own rich history. It’s populated by people with magical abilities. There are Changelings who can change into any animal or person, or make a more attractive version of themselves; Sorcerers can manipulate the world around them, Psis can move things with their mind, Oracles see the future, Whisperers can read and manipulate minds, and Wraiths have supernatural strength and speed, and they can move through walls. They all hate one another and Changelings above all. London has been divided into sectors to maintain a semblance of peace, but strife and warfare are constant.

Ilsa is a seventeen-year-old Changeling who has lived her whole life in Otherworld London not knowing why she has the skill to change into animals and people. She’s fled the orphanage she grew up in because they treated her like a devil there, and has supported herself with thieving and, later, as a magician’s assistant, relying on her special skills. Then—out of the blue—she’s whisked to the Witherward London to save her life. But she might not be much safer there.

Ilsa learns that she’s a long-lost daughter of the leading family of Changelings. Most of her family are dead in the hands of a secret group, but she has a brother, Gedeon. Only, he’s gone missing. With the help of people who lead and protect the Changelings, she sets out to finding him. But it’s not easy to learn the rules of her new world, and there are secrets and spies everywhere.

The plot is fairly good, but rather slow to unfold. The book consists mostly of scenes where Isla either learns a new skill or gets to know the people around her, and only every now and then the search for Gedeon moves forward. But there are enough action scenes to keep the reader’s interest. True to the YA genre, there’s romance too, though it doesn’t dominate the story or become the driving force of Ilsa’s actions.

Ilsa is a great character, resourceful and resilient, despite traumas from her childhood that occasionally cripple her. The side characters are interesting too, with their own backstories and ghosts. They never really come together as an ensemble, but that reflects the state the household is in because of Gedeon’s absence. Everyone is distrustful of everyone else. The ending is good and complete enough to make the book work as a standalone, but it sets the stage for the next book too, which makes me want to continue with the series. All in all, a very good debut.


Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Moonsteel Crown by Stephen Deas

The Moonsteel Crown is the first book in Stephen Deas’s new fantasy trilogy, Dominion. It’s set in the town of Varr in the empire of Aria that is struggling with a succession crisis and a bitterly cold winter. Of the two, only the latter has some meaning to the main characters.

The book description made me expect a fairly standard fantasy plot where the lowest of the earth end up becoming kingmakers. And while it sort of turns out that way in the end, that’s not what the book is about at all.

A group of thieves steal the emperor’s crown; accidentally, it seems at first. But instead of putting it back where they found it, they hide it. Naturally there are people who want it back and they know exactly who to come after. Why is that? Does someone in their group know more than they’ve let on? The thieves’ boss has started a war with a rivalling gang, but is that random either, or is the other group after the crown too? Meanwhile, the thieves themselves disagree on the best course of action, until the only way to save their lives is to give the crown back. But nothing is as straightforward as that.

The book has three main characters with their own point of view chapters. Seth is a former novice priest expelled from his church for blasphemy—or sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. He’s bitter and adrift, and he makes poor choices because of it. And then he gets his hands into texts that push him on a path of forbidden death magic. But is he in control of the magic, or does it control him? The book ends before we get the answer, but we’ll likely follow that story in the upcoming books.

Myla is a warrior monk who has also been expelled from her order. She’s excellent with her swords and quite deadly—and on the run. But her past is catching up with her, and it threatens the lives of the thieves with whom she has found a new home. So will she fight for them, or return home and face her past?

And then there is Fings, the greatest thief in Varr. He’s the one who does the actual stealing, and he isn’t exactly happy with being manoeuvred to doing it, especially when it puts his mother and sisters in peril. But as the forces who want the crown back press on them, he agrees with Myla that the crown must be returned—only he has an ace in his sleeve. He was my favourite of the three with his cunning plans and superstitious beliefs.

This book took a long time to get going. The characters were vague and difficult to get a hang of. A lot of space was devoted to the myths and history of Aria that didn’t really have anything to do with the plot. The reasons for Seth’s and Myla’s downfalls with their respective orders were hoarded like gold, but they turned out to be so mundane that the revelations were disappointing. It wasn’t until after the half point that I began to see what the book was about, and where it was going—and then it didn’t go there. At all. The latter half was as exciting and interesting as the first was dull, and it saved the book. The end was satisfying and complete, but it left enough questions open to lure the reader into continuing with the series.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Purgatory Mount is a complex and philosophical science fiction novel one would expect from a professor of English literature. It’s also a terrifying image of near future USA and an imaginative vision of far future of the humanity.

This is not a simple read. It presupposes a working knowledge of Dante, medieval Christianity and modern Catholicism—particularly the ideas of original sin and purgatory—the pantheon of ancient Greece, and the Lord of the Rings. It’s not an easy concoction and it doesn’t always work. This could be, as the author tells in the afterword, because the elements from the Middle Earth had to be replaced with the Greek pantheon for legal reasons, but I don’t think it would’ve made a great difference for the reader. What we have is non-Christian entities philosophising about Christianity, which doesn’t make for an easy first chapter.

The story is told in three parts that, according to Roberts, reflect Dante’s vision of afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. Of the three, hell and heaven exist outside time, and the purgatory in the temporal world, i.e. is subject to change. This isn’t immediately obvious to the reader—or even after reading the afterword—but time does play a role in the story.

The first and last parts take place in far future on a generation ship orbiting a dying planet that features an enormous tower. It has lured five entities forty lightyears from earth to study and profit from it. They call themselves human, but they have a lifespan of tens of thousands of years, bodies that are more machine than organic, and the ability to bend time to their will. Consequently, they consider themselves gods. They are named after Greek gods Zeus, Apollo, Dionysius, Hades and Pan, although the omniscient narrator of their chapters is quick to point out that the names are only for the reader’s benefit. However, apart from Pan, the names don’t really reflect their characters—they don’t really have any personality—and it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had been named after the wizards of Middle Earth as was the author’s original intention, or with numbers even.

Living on the ship are people who also think of themselves as humans. They have short lifespans of maybe forty years, and they’ve been living on the ship for generations. They have a complex culture and religious life that revolves around the gods running their ship, and no true understanding of why they are on the ship—or what is a ship—and what their purpose is. For the gods, they are food. The gods call them pygmies, and the few descriptions of them gave me a notion that they might be some sort of evolutionary form of pigs. Their entire existence becomes under threat when they are told that they have reached the journey’s end. Is it the end of the world? From among them rises B who is the only one curious enough to find out what is going on—for what good it does to him.

The middle part, which is about twice as long as the other two, takes place in the near future USA. It has descended into a civil war between various states, government agencies and private militias, with no-bars-held warfare. It’s technologically far more advanced society than one would suppose of 2030s. There are some interesting innovations, like a system for uploading operational memory into iPhones, which is mostly used for helping people suffering from a grave memory loss due to chemical warfare. And the country is riddled with enormous towers, eSpires, that no one knows what they are for.

A group of teenagers, fed up with the government surveillance, have developed their own private net. But their system holds a secret, which all the warring factions want and will do anything to get. We follow Ottoline who is captured by a nameless government agency and plunged into a journey of survival through prisons and warzones. The secret Otty and her friends are trying to keep took me by surprise, and not necessary in a good way; a bit more information would’ve gone a long way to understanding how a sixteen-year-old would be able to withstand everything that was thrown at her. Once the secret is out, it takes over and the world as Otty knows it basically comes to an end.

I read the entire book trying to figure out how the two stories connected, and failing. According to the afterword, the book is about memory and atonement, which … I really don’t see. The loss of memory plays some role in the middle part, but mostly on the background, and it doesn’t guide the actions of the characters in any way. The pygmies have their collective memory, which has corrupted over the long journey, but it doesn’t really play any role either. And the gods remember everything.

Atonement is even more difficult concept to accept, because as far as I can see, nothing is atoned. The purgatory itself is a system of atonement, but for all the talk about Dante and afterlife, none of the characters really go through the purgatory; Otty hasn’t even done anything that would require atonement when she goes through her ordeal. Pan has a crisis of conscience when it comes to the gods’ treatment of the pygmies, but they don’t really atone either; they abandon the pygmies to their fate.

Instead of atonement, there is revenge: Otty’s collective revenge on humanity for harming her friends and Pan’s revenge on the other gods for disrespecting them. Otty uses an AI as her instrument of revenge, Pan uses the pygmies. If either of them atone their actions, it happens outside the narrative.

What really connects the two stories is the tower. Not as an idea that has travelled lightyears to inspire Dante, as Pan suggests, but a different biblical concept entirely: the tower of Babel, (human) hubris and inevitable downfall.

The towers, eSpires and the Purgatory Mount, don’t have an active role and we never really learn anything about them, but they are why the events of the stories take place. On earth, the fear that the towers spy on them causes the teenagers to build their own network, which eventually leads to an apocalypse of sorts. On planet Dante, the tower is the reason why the ship is there and the cause of the strife between the gods that leads to Pan’s revenge. And it may well have been the downfall of the people who built it too, leading to the planet dying.

Purgatory Mount is a complicated book, but it’s not difficult to read. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the two stories for what they are without trying to find connections between them. They’re slightly uneven in scope, but both are interesting and good. I liked Otty and B the pygmy who is caught in Pan’s revenge, and if the gods were pompous and not very approachable, their end was satisfying. And for those readers who like to challenge themselves, this is a perfect read.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.