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The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison

August 1, 2014 1 comment

The Undead Pool

The Undead Pool by Kim Harrison (The Hollows 12) (Harper Collins, 2014) is what I’m supposed to label urban fantasy but, having ploughed through it, the reality is more romance than anything else. Although we’re dealing with a complex world of mixed species — supernatural and human — with different types of magic on display, I found the characters completely uninvolving and the fantasy weak and wimpy. I suppose this is a gender phenomenon. This author has been churning out books which hit the New York Bestseller lists, so I’m forced to conclude she has a loyal group of female fans who lap up this “heady” mixture of sex and magical mystery. As a mere male, it left me completely cold.

 

Our hero, Rachel Morgan, is a female demon. As this book begins, she’s been providing security for long-time love interest, the top elf in Cincinnati, Trent Kalamack. So far, despite all the temptation, they have only managed a kiss, but the storm signs have already been raised. Deeper sexual attraction is in the wind and likely to sweep all before it. The “problem” is the presence of Ellasbeth. There’s a political move to displace Trent from the elven ruling council because of his “association” with the demon. The price for retaining all his wealth, power and influence is marriage to Ellasbeth. If Trent were to comply, it would obviously be emotionally devastating to Rachel but, in the interests of keeping the peace, she’s preparing herself for the loss.

Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison

 

Except, of course, there’s a real brew of magical mayhem in the cauldron. While she’s on the golf course, she discovers the hard way that her magic is suddenly rather unexpectedly stronger than she was expecting. What’s supposed to be a simple spell to deflect an incoming golfball from the tee, explodes the ball and leaves a new sandtrap just waiting for the sand. This is the first sign of a wave of what overstimulates every spell as it’s being performed. To add to the disturbance to the force, all the master vampires fall asleep. This is going to kill them and, more importantly, leave the rank and file vampires without anyone to control them.

 

All this leads to opportunities for characters to build friendships and alliances while being prepared to make sacrifices if the situation requires it. When interests are threatened, it’s all going to come down to people making the best decisions they can, hoping they can trust those they work with. Needless to say, love prevails with Rachel and Trent finally coming together at the end. A bitterly frustrated Ellasbeth leaves the city with nothing (and not before time, some might say). I find myself slightly puzzled at my lack of response to this book. Objectively, the author is doing the right things. There’s a mixture of adventure situations with magic thrown in to add a little extra spice. Except despite there being opportunities for our couple to be in danger (including quite a long sequence when our couple on horseback are hunted by demons), I was bored. For some reason, the tone of the book fails to even vaguely resonate with me. When I’m looking for some excitement (any excitement), all I find is flat, functional narrative prose and characters who fail to inspire any interest. Given the vast popularity of this author, I acknowledge I’m on the losing side of this debate. So I will make my usual apologies and leave this book to the legion of women readers who obviously lap up this type of urban fantasy as if it’s the best thing since the invention of sliced bread.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

What, if anything, is wrong with young adult fiction?

October 11, 2013 4 comments

I’ve decided to write this opinion piece because I’ve recently been exchanging emails with several authors and publicity departments about some of my reviews. It seems I’ve become somewhat notorious for dismantling both books intended for young adult readers and books with a gender bias for female readers. In fact, I’m destructive about any book, film or television episode I think poor. Although I seem to have been particularly vehement when it comes to the YA market and paranormal romance, I find the majority of books, films and television episodes average at best and more usually below average. It does no good pointing to the About page where I assert the right to say when I think a book is bad. So here goes with a more specific opinion piece, primarily thinking about YA fiction.

What is YA fiction?

I’m not at all sure when the concept of the young adult emerged nor precisely what it means in terms of age. You see some books fairly obviously targeted at the genuinely young, whereas others seem to be aimed at fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. If I was simply going to be cynical, I could suggest this is a catch-all category for all the books not good enough to sell to the adult market. Put another way, with reading ages as defined for educational purposes not mapping directly on to physical age, the wider the alleged age range for YA books, the less meaningful it is. For the record, the American Library Association defines the classification as books for those aged between twelve and eighteen. I suppose that means books aimed at a broadly intermediate group whose sensibilities have matured to such a point they can no longer be considered children, but have yet to grow more interested in books with adult sensibilities. In this, let’s remember one of the virtues of youth should be curiosity about the adult world.

Why do I tend not to like YA books?

I grow somewhat frustrated if I feel an author is patronising the readership. By this I mean the author is peddling mindless escapism or that the book suggests there’s always an easy solution to problems. In the poorer books, we see anodyne descriptions of criminal or dangerous activities. Situations containing more explicit challenges to health and safety tend to be avoided. Obviously this does not disguise the fact there are many books unsuitable for children. But thanks to the growth of the internet, one of the features of the modern world is the speed with which children mature. Whereas my generation remained relatively naive until teenage years, modern children are remarkably knowing. This sophistication, often denied by adults, does not mean I think books on YA shelves should be full of darkness and existential despair. The fact the youth of today face the probability of unemployment and possible dangers from climate change does not mean we should deny them the occasional happy book.

So here goes with a simple proposition

In all forms of fiction, authors should show life as it is with credible characters behaving as we would expect given the context. Obviously this includes the possibility of dealing with the “big” issues of parental separation and divorce, abuse of alcohol and dugs, the death of family members or friends, and so on. When we move into fantasy and start talking about vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beasties, we should understand these beings survive by eating humans. Having them as cute love interests rather belies their essential nature. Taking a different tack, setting characters in a dystopian context gives them a chance to challenge existing political systems and become beacons of hope for the downtrodden of their mundane reality. Such books are not inherently dark. They can be inspirational.

In other words, there’s no reason in principle why there cannot be a balance of elements in fiction intended for young adults to read. It may be legitimate to make concessions in terms of vocabulary selection and sentence structures. Reducing the barriers to comprehension encourages more to read. Encouraging the reading habit is a social good. But when it comes to the choice of subject matter and the plot, I’m completely opposed to sanitising or dumbing down the world for consumption by those deemed young. In this I categorically deny an automatic linkage between physical age and the need for protection. Indeed, I think publishers do an active disservice to the young by “censoring” the content made available for reading. This does not mean, as a generalisation, I’m going to dismiss all YA books as superficial and stand on a soapbox to proclaim all publishers should focus on depth and avoid relentless optimism and sunshine. I try to be fair and judge each book on its merits. This means looking at the characters and judging their credibility.

Going back a moment, it was probably wrong of me to use the word “censorship” in this context. Parents and other authority figures have an interest in controlling the nature of the fiction or other media content consumed by “children” in their custody. I respect the right of parents to deny the young access to information that may help prepare them for the rigours of the world. I may think it foolish, but that’s what parenting is all about. I shall, of course, continue voicing my opinion. Hopefully, over time, publishers will more consistently produce books that challenge the prejudices and preconceptions of the young, and parents will be more flexible about what they allow their children to read. It’s a case of less trivia and more realism, but avoiding anything pornographic. Although pornography is freely available on the internet, publishers can at least use their marketing to signal some degree of “safety” to parents.

My own age as a factor

At this point, I should remind readers that I’m a senior citizen and therefore far removed from the current experience of the “young”. People who disagree with me often criticise my views because I’m applying adult sensibilities to books intended to be read by people culturally different to me. They assert the best people to judge the worth of YA fiction are the young who buy and read it. Publishers point to the millions of profit they rake in each year and legitimately suggest they must be doing something right. The fact the books sell in such numbers is itself a confirmation of their fitness for purpose. Put another way, one of the primary justifications for consuming any fictional content is to derive entertainment. If our lives are full of pain and misery, it’s potentially good therapy to escape into a fictional world where people have better lives. It reminds us that, if we can overcome our own problems, we too can have happiness.

So a potentially legitimate complaint about my reviews of YA fiction and, to some extent, romantic fiction is that, as an elderly male, I’m not the target audience and so have little meaningful to contribute to the discourse on the merits of either form of fiction. This would be a somewhat ironic way of dealing with my opinions. The adults who run the publishing industry are predominantly male, and they decide what’s fit to print and market to the YA and romance niches of the market. Parents feel competent to judge what their children should read. Teachers and librarians assume the right to judge which books should be made available to younger readers. And, of course, the majority of individuals who write YA fiction are themselves adults. Denying the right of older readers to review is not terribly rational. As applied to adult women, they can make up their own minds what they want to read without taking any notice of my views.

A conclusion

So, to be clear, I’m not against YA fiction or paranormal romance because of the genre labels imposed on them by marketing departments. But I am against all books peddling plots that make no sense, involving characters with no credibility, and written in prose that shows a lack of writing craft. That my experience to date tends to find the majority of YA and paranormal romance books suffer these faults is just an accident of fate. Every now and then, I do find good books in the most unlikely of genres or subgenres. Serendipity is what keeps me reading. However, here come a few closing thoughts. I think there are too many books published each year. The vast majority are poor. If commissioning editors were more discriminating and the editorial staff actually worked with authors to maintain a higher standard, all readers would benefit regardless of age. So I would throw away all genre labels. I’m for good books offering interest and/or excitement when I read them. If readers want the dull and boring stuff, they can dip into the self-published pool where, sad to say, most of the books fail to achieve professional standards.

Sleep With the Lights On by Maggie Shayne

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

SLEEP-WITH-THE-LIGHTS-ON_SMP_ED

So here we go with a rare event. I read and reviewed Wake to Darkness which is book 2 in the series. It was sufficiently interesting to justify seeking out the first in the series which is still available to review. Even though it meant reading them out of sequence, we now come on to Sleep With the Lights On by Maggie Shayne (Harlequin Mira, 2013), the first outing for Rachel de Luca, famous author and self-help guru. She’s an interesting woman. At the age of twelve she lost her sight through corneal dystrophy and, in a sense, she’s never recovered from the emotional trauma. Inside, she remains embittered yet, by exploiting the tragedy, she’s been able to convert her good looks and ready intelligence into a money-making machine. Having studied the patter used by gurus of the past, she’s now published six books and regularly appears on talk shows to promote them. As a public persona, you can’t beat the calm and confident way she peddles her “bullshit” and interfaces with the world. Privately, she rages at people, particularly when she’s not getting her own way. Now Tommy, her brother, has gone missing and the police don’t seem too keen on moving Heaven and Earth to find him. This is stretching her patience to breaking point. Distracted by an exchange of view with the officer behind the public desk, she leaves the police station and is knocked down as she steps into the road. Fortunately, the car is driven by Detective Mason Brown and, if you were going to pick someone to knock you to the ground, you couldn’t hope for anyone so good looking. Ah such are the wiles of the romance writer.

 

But the prologue has shown us a serial killer disposing of his thirteenth body. Apparently he likes to batter young men who look like his son Jeremy to death with a hammer. This puts him in a relaxed mood to go home to his wife and his two sons. So here comes the kicker to get the plot moving. The serial killer is Eric Conroy Brown, adopted brother of said good-looking Mason. This is ironic because Mason and his partner Roosevelt Jones are the ones tasked with investigating the disappearance of twelve people. With his life unravelling, Eric decides to commit suicide, timing it so that his brother walks into the room just as he pulls the trigger. Books such as this aim for maximum melodrama. Meanwhile back at the hospital, Rachel has given her statement to the police and is joined by her sister Sandra, mother of Christie and Misty. No, wait, the bullet from the .44 Magnum didn’t kill Eric. Everyone’s now heading to the hospital, sirens blasting their warning of approaching monster. Except loyal brother Mason has snatched up the suicide note and the immediate evidence of serial killing. He wants to protect his sister-in-law and their two children from the shame. Now to perfect the set-up, Eric’s body is harvested for useful organs and Rachel gets the corneas. Although it’s somewhat convoluted, this is a rather pleasing way of launching off into paranormal territory.

Maggie Shayne

Maggie Shayne

 

When two “young” people are set on a trail to potential romance, there must always be hurdles to overcome. The path to true love. . . So even in the conventional romance, a match between a woman recovering her sight after twenty years and a detective on a guilt trip of his own devising, is going to be hard work. “I might have knocked you down and broken some ribs, but I gave you my brother’s eyes.” is not the most exciting basis on which to start. But in this instance, it’s what Rachel “sees” with the serial killer’s eyes that really gets things moving. It’s a fairly standard horror trope for transplanted organs to give the donor a potential influence over the host body. For example, Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison has an arm and foot replaced after damage in battle. So he can now salute with both arms and finds himself influenced by the personalities of the donors, parodying The Hands of Orlac (1924). In this instance, she’s having visions as dreams/nightmares with her eyes the point of view to see the murders of young men with a hammer. Better still, the killer knows she can see his work. That means she has to die.

 

There’s nothing new in the world. Somewhere, sometime, someone else has come up with the same idea for a plot. I’ve “seen” or read multiple versions of this plot idea before. This is not a criticism and, more to the point, there are no copyright or plagiarism issues involved. Once an author sets out into the realm of the supernatural or science fiction, there are hundreds of years of people storytelling with similar themes. Possession or influence stories are common because they explain sudden changes in personality and behaviour. X is taken over by a supernatural beast or alien and, while under that being’s direction, commits various crimes or behaves in inexplicable ways. This book represents a pleasingly different way of telling the story given Rachel’s slightly nonstandard character. Because she’s learned the workings of the world as both a sighted and a blind person, she “sees” or senses things in a different way. Indeed, while blind, she was somewhat notorious for surprising people with a supposed ESP ability. Actually she was very good at drawing inferences from nonvisual information: particularly smells and sounds. Now she can see again, she becomes a very good investigator/detective because she literally sees the world without too many preconceptions. There’s still novelty in sight and so she sees some things as salient when ordinarily sighted people would take them for granted.

 

Overall, Sleep With the Lights On is far more successful than the sequel. There’s a more natural flow to the plot with the supernatural nicely integrated into the text without being overdone. The tone is more consistent as it shifts from potential “horror” themes surrounding serial killers to supernatural stalkers. The development of the relationship between the two leading characters also feels relatively less forced than in other romance-tinged thrillers. Although I think it rather obvious how the plot will work out, the mystery element being less important than the thriller and romance elements, the entire package means the lack of surprise is not a problem. This is an enjoyable supernatural thriller or, if you prefer, paranormal romance.

 

For a review of the sequel by Maggie Shayne, see Wake to Darkness.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne

Wake to Darkness by Maggie Shayne (Harlequin Mira, 2013) is the second instalment in the story of Rachel de Luca, author of a very successful series self-help books, and Detective Mason Brown. They think each other hot. In the first in this series, Sleep With the Lights On, they slept together once. As this starts, they have decided to cool off. That hasn’t stopped the detective from asking her help in solving another case. So how does this work? She may be writing books promoting the idea that positive thinking solves all problems, but that’s just a way to make money. At heart, she’s a cynic and less than convinced anyone actually benefits from reading and following the advice of authors such as herself. But, after she receives a corneal transplant to cure her physical blindness — she was blind from the age of twelve — she starts to experience “visions”. Yes, she sees vicious crimes as they are committed. This makes her “useful” to the detective and not just in bed.

 

Well this is another jump into the deep end of paranormal romance. As a man, exploring this subgenre is fascinating because it shows me how women see the world and evaluate threats in their environment. Having now read the work of three leading proponents in quick succession, I’m now able to offer some working definitions. For this I make no apology. I’m essentially selfish, writing these reviews as much to get my own thoughts straight as to inform my readers. At a simple level, I think authors in this subgenre are writing supernatural horror novels with only a dilute horror element. Whatever fantasy element is included is subordinated to the romance. So, as in this story, the couple meet each other again after a short separation. They continue to be powerfully attracted to each other but, for reasons which no doubt sounded good to each of them when they separated, their relationship is on hold. This forces readers to wait until circumstances change enough for them to get back to the hot sex they so enjoyed the last time around. Whether they will be able to live happily ever after depends on how many books there are in the series and how the romantic element will play out if they become a stable couple.

Maggie Shayne

Maggie Shayne

 

I suppose the distinction from urban fantasy is the emphasis in the plotting. From the label, the fantasy in urban fantasy is dominant whereas the romance in paranormal romance gets the dominant role. This is not to say the setting for a paranormal romance cannot be in a city and feature supernatural abilities corresponding exactly to fantasy stereotypes. But the point of the stories is to achieve an optimistic outcome from the couple’s courtship rituals. They are good people who stand against the evil of this world and, in emotional terms, they earn rewards by defeating evil, no matter what form it takes. Hence, these books are not “love” stories with dark or horrific opponents who “get in the way”. The traditional horror story doesn’t always end well for the primary characters. They often get get maimed or killed. The paranormal romance has unfair or, sometimes even malevolent, circumstances to navigate but, when the immediate adventure ends, our couple will have survived more or less intact, but not necessarily in a permanent relationship. This contrasts traditional “love” stories in which the couple usually marry and sail off into the sunset expecting a secure and happy future.

 

So back to Wake to Darkness in which one of the other people who was in the transplant program which produced her “magic” eyes, has disappeared. We all know there’s no such thing as a coincidence. The question is whether she can use her sight to “see” someone who’s a victim of crime. Fortunately for the plot to work, she begins to have dreams where she’s in the head of women and men who are being killed for the organs sourced from the same body. These dreamed experiences in real time describe a sadistic murder from the victim’s point of view and then carefully stop before they get too graphic. In a sense this is justified because our heroine has learned her role is not passive. No matter what the circumstances, she’s to use the time to collect information about where she is and precisely what’s happening. In the first scenario she’s drugged and her pancreas is removed. In the second, the killer comes at her from behind and takes her left kidney. This gives both the detective and readers tantalising details, but nothing substantial in the preliminary stages of the investigation. Having gone through the set-up, the couple then does the “thriller” slasher movie thing. He thinks she will be safer if she hides. Playing the part of the male protective figure, he arranges for her and her niece Misty to go to an isolated skiing resort in the Adirondacks. Then more family join them. Hey, like that’s going to work out well when the snow comes and they get trapped with a sadistic killer who’s come to collect the eyes that restored her sight. And then, before they set off and just to ratchet up the tension, there’s an attack. . . This is going to be a great Christmas.

 

Although it may look as if I’m poking fun at this, there’s tremendous craft in the writing which nicely balances the romance against the thriller elements. The supernatural is, for most of the book, largely understated which helps to retain some degree of fictional credibility — it would be far too intrusive if our heroine was always receiving dream messages as if she could tune in her eyes like television channels. All of which leaves us with the mystery element. This is quite strong. The degree of analysis to include or exclude suspects is satisfying. The whodunnit is pleasing with a not unreasonable motive for the murders. Put together, this makes a good package, perhaps if only because it’s a mystery thriller romance with only nominal supernatural stuff going on. If I had a criticism, it would be that there’s a slight disconnect in tone between the first third of the book with the “horrific” dreams coming in, and the remainder which is almost entirely supernatural free with merely routine murders. Indeed, the book would work without any supernatural elements because what she “sees” is not relevant to catching the killer. Were it not for the first book, this could have been written as a straight thriller. But I’m prepared to forgive that and accept this as an enjoyable, even though romantic, read.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Sleep With the Lights On.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham

September 15, 2013 Leave a comment

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2013) Krewe of Hunters 11, is set at the Horse Farm, a therapy centre west of Nashville. It was founded by Marcus Danby and Olivia Gordon works there as a therapist. Marcus was the rich son who fell from grace and then recovered through his love of horses. He set up the centre to help others. Now he’s dead. Apparently it was caused by drugs. He fell into a ravine while high. Except the staff members of the centre don’t believe it. So Olivia calls her cousin in the FBI and, without alerting the local police, a special FBI Krewe unit recruits Dustin Blake to go undercover and find out what really happened. Dustin and the others in the Krewe have supernatural abilities. This is potentially useful when you want to find out how someone died. All you need do is ask the ghost. Except, of course, it isn’t that simple. Olivia may be a ghost magnet, able to attract and talk with ghosts, an ability she shares with Dustin. Yet it’s not wholly controllable. And it’s only useful if the ghost actually knows whodunnit. In this case, the killer came from behind so the ghost is not a reliable witness. It’s tough when you find you have unresolved issues on Earth. It stops you from going toward the light.

It has been something of a revelation to read this. Yes, my apologies: another of my somewhat naive statements. So here come the required words of explanation. This is my first look at the writing phenomenon that is Heather Graham. She’s a prolific author, primarily focusing on romantic fiction. As a mere male and having no shame, I admit to never having heard of her. To make this worse, I confess to being inexperienced when it comes to labelling a book like this so I’ll approximate with “paranormal romance mystery with thriller elements”. It takes Ghost Whisperer to a different place with the FBI solving crimes which helps the ghosts cross over (or not, as the case may be). I’m more usually involved with supernatural books which set out to thrill or chill. This somewhat demystifies the reader’s experience by allowing the FBI agents with the right abilities to interview ghosts in exactly the same way they would live witnesses. Indeed, it’s fairly disconcerting to be confronted with this supernatural phenomenon as routine normality. It require a recalibration of reaction.

Heather Graham

Heather Graham

Under the circumstances, I’m going to ignore the supernatural and romantic elements. It seems to me that “books like this” stand or fall on the strength of the mystery plot. No matter where the evidence comes from, there has to be a murder with no immediately clear suspect(s) in sight. The investigator reacts to the unfolding drama by interviewing all the relevant people, reviewing the evidence and then catching the killer(s). Obviously I can’t call this a police procedural although the FBI does eventually set up a formal liaison with the local law. Equally, it’s not an amateur sleuth or PI novel. It’s not even a classic “undercover” operation because several local people immediately understand what’s going on and react both positively and negatively to our hero’s arrival. This creates thriller opportunities with threats to Olivia and, later, a second death. On this front, I’m pleased to report this is a meticulously plotted mystery. In every respect, the author has gone out of her way to detail where everyone appears to be at each point in time, and to what extent third party sightings confirm appearances. It’s a very pleasing book because, insofar as any mysteries do, this plays fair with the reader. Even the ghosts get in on the act and either cannot see their killer or can only see someone wearing camouflage. The whodunnit is there to be worked out if you invest the effort.

I’m therefore able to confirm The Night Is Forever as unusual by my standards — I should read more fiction aimed at the female market — but very good. Even the romance element is kept within reasonable limits and avoids the more excessive sappiness that alienates elderly male readers like myself. So, if female readers of these reviews are prepared to act on the recommendation of a mere man, this is well worth reading. Even men are likely to find the mystery worth solving, assuming they can, of course.

For review of others in the series, see:
The Cursed
The Hexed

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Water to Burn by Katharine Kerr

April 1, 2012 1 comment

Water to Burn by Katharine Kerr (Daw, 2011) is rather a strange book. First as to its delivery, the prose is somewhat stilted. When I come to think about it, “stilted” is rather an odd word. I always associate it with my youth. When not trying to whip a top into action or bowl a hoop along the local highways and byways, I used to try to walking with the aid of stilts. As various bruises, cuts and scrapes were able to testify, it’s harder than it looks, but marginally less masochistic than whipping your own legs when the top gets too close. Anyway, even those of professional standing can only strut in that rather artificial way. What we might describe as ordinary walking can have grace and, in some cases, a kind of suppressed athleticism. Stilt-walking always has that faintly precarious air of imminent loss of balance as kneeless poles describe those delicate half-circles in controlled falling as forward motion. So it is with Katharine Kerr’s prose style. I find it awkward. Instead of feeling the words are smoothly delivering the content, I find myself staggering slightly, feeling word and grammatical choices are jarring. Now, obviously, this is an entirely subjective reaction and you may find her style limpid, clear and bright. If so, I wish you well. All I will say is that I struggled to read it.

As to the story, we’re into this new subgenre the publishers want us to call urban fantasy or perhaps it’s a paranormal romance. The subtleties of these new distinctions escape me. Either way, this means we have a spunky heroine with supernatural abilities, prepared to take on a passel of beasties to keep the world, or maybe only San Francisco, safe. This time, Nola O’Grady and her sidekick, Ari Nathan, continue their fight against Chaos — he makes the mess and she tidies up after him. We first met this dynamic duo in License to Ensorcell with the psychically-endowed Nola working for a secret US government agency and Ari seconded from Interpol, Israeli intelligence and other agencies with letters rather than names. Together, they’re out to maintain Harmony with the erratic O’Grady and Houlihan families in support. Sadly, there was little to like. Mysterious “waves” appear and sweep victims out to sea, drowning them before they can be rescued. Our couple continue to track down members of the coven who were working as Chaos agents in the first outing, a figure from Ari’s past has reappeared, a treasure hunter who gives off the wrong vibes is lurking around the families, and young Michael wants to relocate a “friend” from the radioactive dimension into our own. There’s little sense of any real threat and the relationship between Nola and Ari is distinctly off-key as our possible Israeli superspy has real anger-management problems while she dresses in an increasingly weird array of clothes to distract the eyes of family and friends from her possible anorexia. Frankly, the whole enterprise just lurches along and I was bored to tears.

It may just be the lifeless prose or the story itself. I really neither know nor care. Unless you have run out of exciting stuff to read like the back of cornflake packages listing the ingredients with all those fascinating e-numbered chemicals, avoid Water to Burn like the plague.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Embers by Laura Bickle

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Capitalism is a wonderful thing. Invent a market and entrepreneurs pile in with product until no more can be sold. A classic example of this is the publishing industry which identifies niches and then relentlessly aims content at them. This is my first foray into what is politely called the paranormal romance wing of urban fantasy. My curiosity piqued, I delve into one of the books edited by the redoubtable Paula Guran for the Juno Books line out of Simon & Schuster, meeting a new female lead, a firefighter who now works the arson investigation side of the profession while moonlighting as a ghostbuster with a local group of specialists.

To conform to its stereotypes, the story must blend the reality of urban life with traditional fantasy, allowing the female lead an opportunity for romantic entanglement in a rite of passage to greater empowerment. For a preset number of reasons, she is likely to begin the novel lacking confidence in more or more aspects of her life, but she will gain strength and probably form a relationship on her own terms by the end of the book. She will have some kind of supernatural ability and this will enable her to perform her job more effectively. For the most part, these are career women in law-enforcement or similar work which has given them a basic training in self-defence or somehow equipped them with survival skills so that, when they confront supernatural or mythological creatures, they are likely to emerge relatively unscathed. Mostly written by women for women, they are expected to offer gentle rides rather than the gritty realism and more excessive violence left to the mainstream, male-oriented writers.

So, judging Embers by Laura Bickle on its own terms, we have the opportunity to see inside the Detroit Fire Department, giving us the urban setting. As a “lantern”, Anya Kalinczyk can see and talk with spirits. If one is causing problems, she can absorb it — one of the hooks of the story is speculation on what happens to these spirits after she or other lanterns consume them. She is protected by a salamander which, being unable to discriminate between the various levels of threat, also comes between her and would-be lovers. Finally and inevitably in a romance, there’s a “love” interest although Ms Bickle does slightly bend the rules. Because she is possessed by an ancient demoness, our heroine is pushed into sex with the “villain” before she can perfect the relationship with the Honest Joe. This “saves” the heroine from any moral responsibility for having lustful (unprotected) sex and cheating on her true love. It’s not her. It’s the demoness making her do it, OK. And it’s also a useful opportunity to learn how to corral the salamander so she can have uninterrupted sex with her true love later on.

The firefighting side of story reads with reasonable credibility and both the explicit and inexplicit discrimination against women in this male-dominated service is at least mentioned. The set-piece aggressive dismissal of her by the police liaison is clichéd, but we are at least partially in the real world with this more obvious misogyny. So, on that score, Ms Bickle is on target. The extensive ability to interact with ghosts is quite interesting. Rather than have some intermittent contact with unreliable spirits, these ghosts are willing to shout out warnings to her and do basic desk research for her. This overcomes one of the classic difficulties always encountered by lone-wolf heroines. How do you find reliable help if you do not trust the men around you?

But I find myself somewhat less impressed by the supernatural side. By a coincidence that would normally considered too far-fetched for modern fiction, two ancient beings last seen together in Babylon both happen to end up in Detroit. One is just generally malevolent but thinks on a very small scale, being content to corrupt and destroy people one-by-one. The other is prepared to consider levelling most of the city as an exercise in urban redevelopment. All city architects would benefit from help like this. You just acquire the title to all the relevant buildings and then have this being rise up and knock down all the city blocks. In this case, the site clearance would be without warning the people, but that’s a small detail to the city planner.

Well, perhaps there’s something wrong with me, but this is altogether too nice. Yes, there’s an element of personal revenge at work but, essentially, the major plot is all about rescuing the fabric of Detroit from the urban planning mistakes of the past and remaking it in a more beautiful form. In part, we are supposed to think the “villain” is more misguided than wicked. He was an artist and city architect, but a violent mugging left him seriously injured and disillusioned. With one eye now lost and his view of the world one-dimensional, he uses unorthodox methods to cut through the red tape of the city planning process. Indeed, arguably at the end, he does stop being a villain and becomes the essentially sensitive and lovable guy he once was. After all, if he really was evil to the core, our heroine could never find him attractive — even making allowances for the inconvenient demoness — that’s not the way the formula for these romances has to work. The fruit that would tempt her from her one true love must fall from the tree, but the fall is usually just a character flaw rather than personification of outright evil.

This leads me to a sad conclusion. There’s always a problem when a novel is announced as the first in a new series and, as is predictable, I never once thought our heroine was at risk. Although her Honest Joe is injured and in a coma for half the book, she has a team of supportive human and ghostly folk (and the salamander) to see her through to the end. This is not urban fantasy with a hard edge to threaten the heroine. This is the distaff version with everything smoothed over when all the right people get in the same room together and talk things through.

The cultural gap is just too wide for me to bridge. For once, my failure to match the gender and age demographic excludes me from finding satisfaction in the read. A further depressing factor as a reader is the rate at which US English is diverging from the rest of the world. I found myself flinching at some of the grammar. Ms Bickle offers us a more colloquial style of writing which emphasises rather than mitigates the linguistic differences. So, if you want an undemanding romance with a supernatural twist and a cute salamander, this is for you. I am not sufficiently interested to buy the next in the series which is apparently called Sparks.

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