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Elective Procedures by Merry Jones

November 25, 2014 2 comments

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Elective Procedures by Merry Jones (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) sees us back in the confusing world of Elle Harrison. For those of you who have yet to read The Trouble With Charlie, the first in the series, a few words of explanation are in order. This is a woman formally diagnosed with dissociative disorder. This means her awareness of events around her can abruptly cease and then restart some little time later. If she’s involved in conversations or listening to others speak, that means she can miss vital elements in what’s being said. If there are high stress events, she’s likely to suffer amnesia. Indeed, at times, her grip on her own identity can be less than secure. The author, in other words, has carefully decided to feature an unreliable narrator. To add a further layer of confusion, there’s also the suggestion of possible supernatural powers at work. In particular, the first-person narrator regularly sees her husband Charlie whom we know from the first book to be dead. In this book, there’s a similar confusion as to whether she’s seeing real people, or ghosts, or merely hallucinating. To compound this confusion, she and a friend consult a fortuneteller who makes the usual generic predictions for the friend, but asserts our protagonist attracts the dead to her and that she’s likely to be in some danger (now there’s a surprise).

Merry Jones

Merry Jones

 

This is a kind of cozy mystery masquerading as a thriller. We have four women who decide to go to Mexico. One has decided to have cosmetic surgery (without telling her husband). She wants moral and physical help from her friends to get her through the door of the operating theatre and then to recover from the surgery. One of the remaining three is a lawyer who finds herself online for most of the time in the resort, dealing with urgent problems from the firm she works for. This leaves the other two with the chance to engage in a little holiday romance. The “other” decides one of the entertainment officers is for her. Our hero finds herself involved with the cosmetic surgeon who sees nothing ethically wrong in dating the friend of a patient rather than the patient herself. So far, we’re running along fairly predictable lines.

 

Early in the book, our hero finds herself attempting to rescue the woman occupying the next suite in the hotel where they are staying. But before our hero can cross from her balcony to the next, the woman falls to her death. At this early stage, it’s uncertain whether this is a murder, accident or suicide, but since the victim has just had cosmetic surgery and should be feeling good about herself, suicide looks unlikely. When another woman is killed in the same suite two nights later, we have the mystery set up and ready to run. However, our author obviously believed the plot would not sustain itself over the usual running length of a mystery novel, so there’s a further level of complexity introduced. For the record, it’s obvious from quite early on, given this particular protagonist, who the killer in the hotel suite must be. This leaves it up to the grafted element to carry the thriller aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, this is less than successful, leaving the whole novel somewhat thin. The romance plays out along predictable lines as well, so on balance, Elective Procedures is not a particularly impressive second book in what’s obviously intended as a growing series.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see The Trouble With Charlie.

 

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

 

Murder on the Hoof by Kathryn O’Sullivan

November 9, 2014 3 comments

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I recently read an article discussing which reviews “go viral” and achieve a readership unexpectedly high. The answer according to this author are reviews which find fault with whatever product or service is being discussed. The alleged reason is that the vocabulary available to explore the depths of badness are far more engaging than the choice of words and phrases to say how “awfully jolly good” the thing or service is. After finishing Murder on the Hoof by Kathryn O’Sullivan (Minotaur Books, 2014) I find myself having to write a bad review and face the problem of how vicious to make it. Let me start with the decision of the publisher to accept such a work for sale to the unsuspecting public. I often choose to review Minotaur Books because they are reasonably consistent in standard. This book, however, fails the taste test so spectacularly that everyone in the commissioning and editorial staff should be taken into a dark room (waterboards optional) and interrogated to determine their thinking processes. Hopefully, this will encourage them never to accept such a dire book again. I shudder to think how many innocent book buyers will pick up this book and find themselves either deeply depressed or spectacularly angry at having wasted their dollars on something so awful.

As to the book, I almost gave up after the first sixty or so pages. This is a story that elevates pedestrian and boring to new heights. As a cozy mystery (BTW a tea cozy was a knitted abomination using any leftover wool which was put on to keep the pot hot while the tea mashed) it panders to all the worst possible clichés. A tough woman in a physically demanding job as a fire chief is distantly enamoured of the local chief of police. When his ex comes on a visit to the small town (an ex he failed to mention in any of their not-quite dates) her head is put into a whirl. Were it not for two deaths in quick succession, she would be completely derailed. Yes, our doughty fire fighter is going to outsleuth the chief of police and, by completely upstaging him, show why he should run screaming from her presence.

Kathryn O'Sullivan

Kathryn O’Sullivan

Anyway, having got these two dead folk, she and the police chief put aside their difficulties over the arrival of the ex and begin the investigation. To say this is tedious is an understatement until we arrive at a piece of absurdity that leads to the final debacle. At this point, I’m going to break with convention and insert a SPOILER. Do not read on if you are minded to read this book despite my previous four-hundred words of praise. One of the deceased anticipated his demise. Having already picked out a coffin with a secret drawer, he hid the evidence in that drawer. So here comes the undertaker. He removes the coffin from store and checks it out before dressing the body after the autopsy and inserting it inside the box in preparation for the lying in. Our hero visits the mortuary, opens the coffin and discovers the secret drawer. The fire chief has special powers which enable her to detect hiding places when opening and closing coffins with dead bodies inside.

From all this, you will understand Murder on the Hoof is so bad that were Ray Bradbury writing Fahrenheit 451 today, he would want this to be one of the first books burned. Not that I blame the author. Everyone is capable of writing rubbish and it takes a dispassionate third party with some experience to save the author from his or her excesses. Thus my anger is really directed at Minotaur Books whose editorial staff should have instructed the author to rewrite until it was readable.

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

The Hexed by Heather Graham

August 4, 2014 3 comments

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The Hexed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the lucky thirteenth in the Krewe of Hunters series. It starts with Craig Rockwell as a young man with his first experience of having a ghost talk to him. As a result of what she says, he finds her dead body. This diverts him from a possible career as a football player and into law enforcement. Now, thirteen years later, he’s well-established in the FBI and applying for transfer to the Krewe of Hunters because another body has turned up in his home town. It’s been laid out in exactly the same way as the body he found. Needless to say, the Krewe has done its homework on this man and his application for a transfer is accepted. This sends him back to the Salem area (and into danger of romantic entanglement). As he drives into town, he almost knocks down Devin Lyle, the joint heroine and romantic interest. Remember that no coincidence should appear on its own, so she’s just discovered another body (it’s the same signature so the couple are already on the right track) and she can see ghosts too (in magical terms, three coincidences is a charm). And, yes, this is the third body with the Pentagram Killer’s signature! With the triple stars in alignment, it can’t be long before this pair are a couple.

And what better news than this is my third book by this author! Thematically, we have this specialist group of people recruited to an FBI unit to deal with the more serious crimes where it’s difficult to get a result. They beat the usual systems for investigation because they can talk with ghosts. For this to work as a plot device, all the victims they interview must, for some reason, have failed to see their killer(s). They may be shot from a distance by a sniper, or attacked from behind, or poisoned by anyone who had access to their food out of sight, and so on. This leaves the field open for a classical police procedural with a supernatural twist. I actually like the formula because there’s little artificiality about the interaction between the sensitives and the ghosts. The relationships are almost exactly the same as human to human and, as in the real world, the ghosts are just as unreliable as human witnesses. The result is marginally more information available to the investigators than might otherwise have been the case, but there’s still a need for proper investigative skills. The second in the series, however, was overburdened with history that was dispensed in fairly indigestible lumps as spiels to tourists on a ghost walk. Indeed, this book threatens to go the same way with one dollop of information thrust at us in the same way. However, all the other history which is relevant (and a surprising amount is for the solution of this puzzle) is more carefully parcelled out as discussion, extracts from history books, and so on. It’s relatively more acceptable in this format. Because we’re in Salem, we’re deeply into the history of witchcraft and the way in which the trials were manipulated to protect the reputation of the men and dispose of women who could make their lives difficult. It’s a very interesting way to show how deeply entrenched misogyny has been in the American psyche.

Heather Graham

Heather Graham

From the outset, the book sets out to make Devin as talented as the formal members of the Krewe. She’s quickly talking with Aunt Mina, her recently deceased relative, and preparing to hobnob with those who died centuries ago. Once you get into the groove, all ghosts prepared to talk to you are the same. Of course, some ghosts of choosy and decide they want nothing to do with some humans. If approached by the wrong type, they just disappear. It’s a useful talent I wish I’d developed for use at social gatherings. Anyway, through a combination of dreams, discussions with the dead, and human intuition, our team narrows the pool of suspects to a relatively small number who have recently bought a weapon of the right type, have some connection to “witches” (both current and historical), and who may drive dark-coloured SUVs. Then it’s down to trying to check alibis both thirteen years ago and now. No-one is excluded as the net is thrown out across that part of Salem society which traces its roots back to the days of the original trials and may have an interest in Wiccan or other non-standard supernatural beliefs. When it comes in a dramatic climax, the answer is rather pleasing.

Although three ghosts do play a moderately important role in the solution of this serial murder case, the supernatural profile is slightly lower in this book than the other two I’ve read. Since the basis of the series is the expanding group of ghost whisperers, there have to be ghosts for them to talk to. In this instalment, I think the balance between conventional police procedural and supernatural is about right. Of course this requires a better quality of puzzle for the main players to solve and, again, this book has a good puzzle. My only gripe is not so much the romance which is within reasonable bounds, but the extent of the coincidence that Devin turns out to be not only a natural whisperer, but also an investigator who gets to the right answers. Rather than watching two relatively inexperienced whisperers solve the crime(s), it would be more interesting to see how the experienced approach the investigation of one of these crimes. I suppose this would also throw off the mandatory thriller ending when our hero suddenly finds herself in serious trouble and has to be rescued. In theory, the experienced investigators make the collar and retire to the nearest drinking establishment for several glasses of appropriate spirits. So I report The Hexed as being a good example of these romance-tinged supernatural police procedurals.

For review of two other in the series, see:
The Cursed
The Night Is Forever.

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

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

May 31, 2014 4 comments

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

As I mentioned in an earlier review, I’ve decided to have a proper look at Seanan McGuire (and that was before one of the latest books was shortlisted for a major award). At the urging of one of my readers, I’m going back to Discount Armageddon (DAW, 2012) and this first in the InCryptid series proves to be a good steer. At this point I need to wander slightly off the beaten track to think about why I tend to find urban fantasy such an unsatisfying subgenre. The answer, in part, is that the balance of the books tends to blur between conventional fantasy and romance. In itself, this is not a problem. I have no sensibilities to offend when it comes to different races or genders engaging in all the usual sexual activities and then some I might not have thought of (although there are few of those left after a long lifetime). Characters in books are free to do many of the things we might balk at, or find physically impossible, in the real world. That’s part of the fun of being a creative writer. But this subgenre has been tinged by the brush of romance so, to pander to a niche in the market not used to full-bore fantasy, particularly of the darker variety, the standard fantasy tropes are rather defanged and encouraged into the appropriate gender roles as the love interests. While this pandering may encourage sales to younger readers and women coming from the pure romance sector, it does nothing for older males like myself.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

So as you start off in this series, we take as read there are lots of real animals out there that we foolish humans think are pure mythology. Yes, there really are dragons and unicorns (well, maybe). The problem is the religiously fanatical Covenant of St George. The mission they have chosen to accept is the extermination of all the animals that God neglected to save on the Ark. So if anything survived the flood, that was against God’s wishes and the Covenant could go round the countryside slaying dragons for all they were worth because that was doing God’s work. One small group splintered from the Covenant and they have set themselves up as protectors of all the strange creatures that don’t disrupt the ecosystem, i.e. start killing humans. After several generations, we now come to modern times with the young Verity Price making a name for herself as protector of Manhattan, put-upon waitress at a fairly seedy strip joint, and professional ballroom champion wannabe. Everything is going along moderately peacefully until the required sex interest from the Covenant arrives to do a survey. If he finds an infestation of mythological creatures, he’s required to call in the troops for a purge.

Why then am I more positively inclined to this book? Surely I’ve just described a set-up for the usual dismal swamp of urban fantasies. Well, we have to start with the book having a sense of humour. The majority of these books take themselves so seriously, they sag under the portentous certainty something terrible is likely to happen (leaving us deeply disappointed when we turn the pages). But this book is ultimately about sex, and the natural drive to get some and enjoy it. How can a reader not be beguiled by the idea of a group of mice announcing a religious festival which requires Verity to kiss the next man to walk through the door. Perhaps more importantly, when we do get some sex scenes, they are proper sex and not some chaste peck on the cheek. Yes, there are the usual complications of a couple with completely different approaches to the world who must find sufficient mutual tolerance to allow the coupling to occur. But this is just good fun. He’s just so straight-laced and she so, well, different. It’s all rather unlikely in an enjoyable way. For all we are thrust deep into a covert world of different beasties and bogeys, all the characters and “animals” emerge as strangely plausible. Even when we get into telepathy, the explanation for the evolution of the ability actually makes sense. So this is weird in every sense of the word. Discount Armageddon proves to have an exuberance which converted me to the cause. Indeed, that’s what makes the climax rather more exciting than usual. The bad guys are actually a real threat and are on the verge of triggering what might be a fairly devastating event. So the book nicely does go quite dark with many characters dying or suffering quite serious injury. This is not to say the book has any claim to greatness. It has flaws, e.g. it seems there are multiple dimensions including a literal version of Hell in which one of the family may be trapped (this seems counter to the general scientific approach to classifying the different species albeit not inconsistent with a “fantasy” world in which magic works). But for the most part, this is an unpretentious book that’s great fun to read and will not offend those of a male persuasion who like their fantasy relatively undiluted.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and written by Seanan McGuire:
Chimes at Midnight
Half-off Ragnarok.

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): to the end

The Moon Embraces the Sun

I’m going to start off this consideration of the rest of The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012) with a question. Given the heavy-handed use of the sun/moon metaphor in the set-up, and the effect of the magic has been to completely empty the mind and personality of our heroine and leave only an intelligent girl behind,
what would it take to get the old personality and memories back into the body of our woman once she’s grown up? Those of you with experience in fantasy should have the answer instantly.

Kim Soo-Hyun

Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-Hyun)

So here we go with a rough and ready summary of the highlights. We have the spirit of the young girl as the weeping ghost in the palace (only the guilty can hear her) while Nok-Young (Jeon Mi-Seon) brings Heo Yeon-Woo/Wol (Han Ga-In) back to town after eight years thinking she’s nothing more than a shaman’s spiritual daughter. On her first day, she has to meet both Prince Yangmyung (Jung Il-Woo) and Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-Hyun) who renames our moon Wol. They both look at her and speculate, but she’s adamant she’s never met either of them before so their interest is muted.

Han Ga-In

Heo Yeon-Woo/Wol (Han Ga-In)

Because of the need to inspire the King to take an interest in Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim Min-Seo), Heo Yeon-Woo is kidnapped and sent into the King’s bedroom at night as a human talisman to soak up all the evil vibes holding back his sexual interest (note the law of unintended consequences). In fact, the sun is positively bursting out of him the next morning, but he’s not now looking at the Queen. Meanwhile Heo Yeom (Song Jae-Hee) has married Princess Minhwa (Nam Bo-Ra) and this has protected the family. This sets everything up for the predictable political manoeuverings. Without an heir, the only way the situation can be resolved is by a coup. For a revolution to drum up enough support, it needs Prince Yangmyung to agree to take over power. The revolutionaries try to manipulate both the King and the Prince by variously kidnapping and torturing Wol until she gets her memory back.

And now the answer to the original question. Because all the guilty ones can hear the ghost crying, they lock Wol inside the palace at a key moment. Yes! It’s an eclipse when the sun and the moon come together and blot out the light. The gravitational shifts on Earth trigger a reunification of ghost spirit and body. Now she’s back to being Heo Yeon-Woo, it’s the slippery slope to the end. There’s a shaman battle as the ghost monster is sent out again to kill Heo Yeon-Woo, but Nok-Young triumphs, killing the second-string shaman recruited by the Queen. The plotters among the nobility come out into the open, and the Prince is in line for leadership.

Jung Il-Woo

Prince Yangmyung (Jung Il-Woo)

Which leads to the last, distinctly odd episode, most of it being an epilogue which confirms the passivity of the women. The Queen has spent eight years deeply frustrated because the King will not consummate the marriage. She may capture the sunlight in the eyes of the court, but this does not save her from depression and suicidal tendencies. The Queen Mother thinks she has power but, when push comes to shove, the Prime Minister has no hesitation in poisoning her as an irrelevance to his power grab. With the climactic battle minutes away, Heo Yeon-Woo is put into one of these pallaquin boxes so beloved of the aristocracy and is carried off to safety by two men. There’s a moment of unintended hilarity as these men later explain why it took so long to get to their destination. They thought they were being followed so had to take evasive action. Picture them carrying this heavy box, running away, jumping behind walls and lurking in the shadows under bridges until they were satisfied the coast was clear.

Kim Min-Seo

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim Min-Seo)

Anyway, once all the women have been sent away, the men can get on with the serious business of fighting. Except, of course, the king runs off to the side and lets everyone else have at it with swords. Only at the end does he pick up a bow and shoot a couple of arrows into the prime minister. With him slowed down, the Prince can deliver the coup de grace. So the death of all the plotters is righteous but, when a last attacker staggers to his feet with a spear, takes a few steps forward and pulls back his arm, everyone watches in fascination. No-one moves to stop him. Remember the king has a bow and arrow in his hand. There’s a small army with archers and warriors with swords in their hands. In slow motion the “assassin” throws the spear and the Prince does not dodge out of the way. He’s had enough of this two suns business and wants a rest. This leads to an interminable death scene as the heir apparent leaves this mortal coil, watched in deep embarrassment by all the grunts who fought alongside him, his brother and Woon (Song Jae-Rim) who may have had a thing for him (or were they just good friends).Then there’s the punishment of the Princess (after giving birth she’s demoted to slave but, when she’s served her time, everyone forgives her and she’s restored to the role of wife and mother) and Nok-Yung dies while performing appropriate rites to see all the deserving spirits get to Heaven. After that, the survivors all live happily ever after as you would expect in a romance.

Put all this together and you have a formulaic fantasy with predicable political skullduggery. It could have been better, but the female principals were given nothing to do except be relatively passive victims, and the relationship between the stepbrothers is left curiously unresolved. If the Prince had any sense he would know only too well what was happening, but he’s left twisting in the wind as if he was innately stupid. Even Princess Minhwa, who was manipulated as a child, is never allowed anything other than a cowardly refusal to deal with the mess she was involved in creating. This takes the edge off her rehabilitation at the end. Yet another serial which fails to live up to its initial promise.

For a summary of the opening episodes, see The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): the teen years.

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): the teen years

The Moon Embraces the Sun

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012) may be touted as sageuk historical drama, but it’s actually almost pure fantasy romance, based on the novel “Haereul Poomeun Dal” by Jung Eun-Gwol. At first sight, it looks like another of these court dramas in which the king of the day has to deal with the factional infighting between the different family kin groups. Except little of what we see on the screen relates to any of Korea’s history. King Lee Hwon did not sit on the throne and none of the families who conspire to destabilize the country map onto known kin groups. More excitingly, this is a Korea in which shamanic magic actually works. This is not the simple foretelling of the future magic. It’s a much darker system which allows illness and death to be visited on enemies either by burying appropriate talismans in or under their houses, or by performing rites to invoke spirits which them go off like roiling black smoke snakes (someone obviously watched Lost) and invade bodies. Thematically, we’re into heavy-duty metaphor land.

Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung)

Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung)

The now quite common prefatory section to the first episode shows the key supernatural event which drives the rest of the serial. In this world, the sun divides. This is meant both literally and figuratively. For these purposes, assume that the sun represents the light and power attaching to individuals who may become king. During the serial, we actually see different people slightly backlit to create the effect of light generation. People nearby as these individuals walk past see highly attractive men and, more often than not, have to shade their faces and turn their eyes away. As in the real world, this radiated light can reflect off nearby bodies. So we see the moon because it stands out in the sky when the sun shines. This demonstrates the inherent sexism in the metaphor. Only men can be king (ignoring the right of the mother to act as regent during the son’s minority or incompetence). So the only women who can become visible in the sky are those who catch the light from the men. Were it not for the men, they would be invisible. So the plot device at play here is that, for our immediate purposes, the king of the day has two sons. The older was born to a royal concubine, the younger to the Queen. So according to the rules of succession, the younger son is the Crown Prince and the older is the heir apparent, i.e. he will take over should anything adverse happen to the Crown Prince. Not unnaturally, this gives conspirators hope because, if they get the heir apparent on their side and the Crown Prince then conveniently dies, they have their puppet on the throne. For this reason, the Crown Prince is not allowed in the palace, but is sent off to rusticate in the countryside where, hopefully, the conspirators will not find him. Unfortunately, both royal sons fall in love with the same woman. Hence the title of the serial leaves us to worry over the choice the moon will make and what effect that will have on the sun who loses out in this race for love.

Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo)

Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo)

All this future history is foreseen by Ari (Jang Yeong-Nam), a powerful young shaman who meets the heavily pregnant woman (Yang Mi-Kyeong) who will give birth to the moon. To create the maximum drama, Ari is later tortured but, before her execution, she passes on a message to her young friend, Nok-Young (Jeon Mi-Seon). She is to protect the girl who will become the moon by keeping her away from the sun. Not unnaturally, there are no names given which makes this task somewhat difficult to perform.

Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho)

Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho)

We now move forward thirteen years and find Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung) attending a celebration in which her brother, Heo Yeom (Siwan) is to be acknowledged as scholar of the year (at the same ceremony, Woon (Lee Won-Geun) is to be confirmed the top martial arts exponent). A supernatural butterfly, one of many different mechanisms to make fate work out, leads Yeon Woo into a supposedly closed section of the palace where she meets the young Crown Prince Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo). Later at home, she’s visited by Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho). Yes, the older prince has known her for some time and is in love with her. The other key player is Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun). She’s the daughter of Yoon Dae-Hyung (Kim Eung-Soo), one of the senior ministers who’s plotting with the Queen Mother (Kim Young-Ae) to ensure his daughter marries the Crown Prince. Needless to say, these two moons are polar opposites. Heo Yeon-Woo is a socialist and not ashamed to treat the poor with respect, helping those in need and generally being a do-gooder, wise beyond her years. Yoon Bo-Kyung is born into old money and privilege. She is petty, vindictive and absolutely determined to do everything in her power to advance her family’s interests.

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun)

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun)

Once we’ve established the love triangle as teens, we now move into the power plays. The king initially intends to allow the Queen Mother to decide who shall marry the Crown Prince. For once showing some life, the Crown Prince winds up the scholars to petition for full and fair elections. Democracy is a wonderful thing. All girls from the right families are to be eligible and the best shall be chosen. Not surprisingly, when the king accedes to the multiple petitions, Heo Yeon-Woo is the winner. This seriously dents the ambitions of the Yoon family so the Queen Mother leans on Nok-Young. By this time, she’s become shaman-in-chief and performs a rite to send the smoke monster to eat Heo Yeon-Woo. Now you’re thinking this is a bit hypocritical. Nok-Young knows this girl is the moon she’s supposed to protect, yet here she has the maiden at death’s door. But fear not. This is all part of a cunning ploy. She engineers a situation in which the girl is seen to die and is buried. She returns at night and digs her up. Unfortunately, she’s a little late and Heo Yeon-Woo goes through the trauma of waking up inside a coffin several feet down. This trauma (or perhaps the residual effects of the smoke monster) causes her to lose her memory. The shaman then takes her off into the countryside where the girl is raised as a shaman. So the teen years come to an end with everyone except the Yoon family devastated. The Crown Prince marries Yoon Bo-Kyung but, as revenge, he refuses to touch her. Without an heir, he thinks he’ll be safe.

To see how this is resolved: The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): to the end.

The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

April 30, 2014 1 comment

The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

As those of you who read these reviews will know, one of my pet peeves is the overuse of the coincidence. You can’t avoid them in any of the media. There are two or three tracks in the narrative that look completely separate until it turns out they are all different aspects of the same case. Or our protagonist just happens to be in the right place at the right time to meet the key witness who saw the villain doing something suspicious. And so on. In most cases, this is just too convenient to be even remotely credible unless the writer is using coincidence as a deliberate literary device, e.g. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” as said by Rick in Casablanca (1942) or the point of the plot is to generate humour as in a farce.

 

So when a writer sets off to put a plot together, there’s going to be an order of events required to get to the end with the right outcome. In the best books, this careful construction feels natural. There’s an organic sequence with one event leading to another. The problem comes when the ending too obviously dictates what has to happen, i.e. the writer is playing the role of capricious fate. The more contrived, the less credible. So, for example, Bram Stoker has Dracula arrive in Whitby which just happens to be where Mina Murray, Jonathan Harker’s fiancée, happens to be on holiday. Or in a large number of thrillers, two key characters may be separated by circumstances in a big city but, when one is required to save the other, they just happen to be within shouting distance of each other.

Hank Phillippi Ryan

Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge, 2013) is the second book to feature journalist Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan. She’s trying to rebuild her career in print after losing her job as a television reporter. Because of the ethical rules, neither side of the potential relationship is supposed to fraternise with the other. But fate naturally throws them together and, despite the rules, they find themselves increasingly of the opinion they ought to “do something about their mutual feelings”. The book therefore balances this romance against the investigations the “couple” are engaged in. Now comes the bad news. Almost every aspect of this plot is affected to a greater or lesser extent by coincidences. Jane is persuaded to help an ex-colleague look into a possible problem with an adoption agency. Her editor asks her to pick up a story involving the way in which the local Department of Family Services deals with children who are innocent victims of crime, e.g. where their parents are killed. And Jake picks up two cases. . . Yes you guessed it. He finds two young children at the scene of a homicide who will have to go through the foster care system, and is later allocated a suspicious death involving a member of staff at the adoption agency. It all goes steadily down hill from then on, with virtually every twist and turn in the plot depending on someone seeing something or finding something or being related to someone or not being related (hence the title of the book).

 

And do you know what? I really couldn’t care a fig! Yes, that’s right. This is a disgraceful exercise in how to abuse the coincidence but it’s written with such wit and style that I forgave the author. Our heroine may commit every cliché in the thriller canon (even being prepared to run into a burning building to rescue a source to demonstrate her status as hero) while Jake turns out to be wonderfully self-critical and continuously beats himself up for not doing better. Yet, when it comes to the crunch, he’s able to talk his way out of trouble or, if that fails, he can shoot with unerring accuracy. So The Wrong Girl turns out to be the exception that proves the rule. If you can write with the right level of panache, the reader’s enjoyment converts the dross into gold. And, as if it was necessary for me to tender evidence in support of my assessment, the book has been nominated for the Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel and the Left Coast Crime Award for Best Mystery.

 

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

 

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke

April 29, 2014 5 comments

longlivethequeen

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke (one of the several pseudonyms of the suitably anonymous Kathryn Smith) (http://www.orbitbooks.net/, 2013) is the third and final in The Immortal Empire series which bills itself as dark fantasy. So, fearing nothing, I step into the life of Xandra Vardan. She’s the sixteen-year-old slip of a girl who thought she was just an ordinary kid and then discovered not only that she was a rather special supernatural being but, perhaps more importantly, the heir apparent to the Goblin throne. Yes, not only does she have to adjust her understanding of how the world works, but also learn to wear the crown. For all this to work, we have a fantasy alternate version of London. Queen Victoria is one of these rather long-lived vampires, there are werewolves and, of course, the goblins live underground in tunnels next to the London Underground. All this might have been harmonious except for the group of humans who seem to think all supernatural beasties are an abomination. They act like terrorists, killing those who can be killed, blowing up stuff and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Indeed, with the news media somewhat on the fence, there’s a risk of the majority human population rising up and attempting their version of a final solution.

 

Rather like Blade (1998), our heroine has an important mutation which enables her to walk in daylight — it seems crossbreeds can develop useful attributes. Indeed, there are secret laboratories experimenting on the supernatural creatures and also looking for a variety of the Plague that might spread fast through the human community. Think of the “one ring to rule them all” and you’ll get the idea as to what the labs are actually trying to produce. Because this is a covert romance, there’s a lively relationship between our Goblin Queen and Vex, the alpha male of the werewolves. And, supposedly to add a little spice to proceedings, the catalyst for this book’s action is the escape of one of the lab creatures. In the last book, Xandra was briefly held by one of these labs and they harvested some of her eggs. Now we have the product of artificial reproduction out of the streets looking not unlike our heroine when she chooses to (yes, a shape shifter with facial recognition software built in). It’s a not uninteresting idea that our heroine should have to relate to and occasionally fight an enhanced version of herself.

Kate Locke

Kate Locke

 

First the strange feature. This is a book written by a Canadian set in London. As you might expect, this requires a certain scattering of Britishisms to give the idea the setting might actually have something to do with Britain as one of the language centres of the world. Because the setting is somewhat ambiguous in terms of technology — genetic manipulation, cloning and other advanced techniques mixed in with occasional steampunk elements — the colloquialisms are “old”. For example, I haven’t heard anyone refer to another as His Nibs for more than fifty years. But here’s the thing. I was not at all surprised to see our heroine frequently curse by using the phrase, “Fang me!” (she’s dating a werewolf and her father is a vampre so fangs run in the family). Amongst themselves, we British folk can get quite salty if the mood takes us. Yet I then discovered most of the characters curse and swear like navvies. There may be marginally more fangs than fucks in all its grammatical forms, but it’s the presence of other Anglo Saxon expletives that intrigue me. Shag, knob and the other less obvious words appear quite regularly, but it’s relatively unusual to find a cunt (or two) in a book with romantic overtones presumably aimed at the delicate fair sex. Not that I care one way or the other. It’s language you hear everyday on the streets. I was just faintly surprised to see it in a book like this.

 

The second oddity is what’s presented to us as the mystery plot. Just who is behind this fiendish plot with the laboratories? Why has this mastermind created this heroine lookalike? What is this new plague? Well, the answers to these question are remarkably obvious. I may not have read the two earlier volumes but, if you actually care, there’s really only one person it can be.

 

So there you have it: a thin plot stretched to tedious length to comply with modern publishing standards. A few decades ago, this would have been a satisfactory half to an Ace Double. As it is, Long Live the Queen overstays its welcome as dark fantasy (it’s not that dark), as urban fantasy (too much real sex in both language and deed), as steampunk (only the names of modern devices are changed to make them sound Victorian), as mystery (which it isn’t), or anything else you might care to throw into the genre mix.

 

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

 

Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) final thoughts

rooftop-prince

This discusses the plot so if you have not seen this episode, it may be better to delay reading this.

This review now captures the rest of Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) rather than focusing on individual episodes and captures my frustration with how the story develops. To clear the decks, let’s confirm this has nothing to do with time travel as understood in the West. Rather it’s a morality tale building on the notion of a supernatural power bent on establishing a balance in the karma (or the lotus root, your choice). Imagine a world in which a group of people are tied together through time. They are continuously reincarnated in relationships which are substantially the same from one generation to the next. At a critical point in each cycle, one key character has a decision to make about the fate of another. If that decision is for “evil”, the same group are doomed to rerun the scenario when they are reborn, and so ad infinitum. But in our modern age, the supernatural being grows tired of this key character always making the wrong choice. Our interventionist God therefore decides to change one of the variables.

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

Micky Yoochun and the crew from Joseon

When one of the modern characters is “killed”, Crown Prince Lee Kak (Micky Yoochun), the Joseon version, is brought forward to take his place. Ah ha! So this new player knows how the scenario was unfolding three-hundred years ago. His first problem is to understand the new culture and try to work out who everyone is. Once he’s less gauche, he can more safely begin interacting with people. But when he tries to apply his understanding of past events, it causes a chaotic response from the modern players. It takes him a while to understand he had misunderstood what was happening around him in Joseon. Obviously the court politics of the past don’t fit the culture of private wealth and the phenomenon of the chaebol — a large corporation controlled by one or more family members. This element in the series actually proves interesting as one faction in the family led by Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) tries to manipulate the holders of a key block of shares to gain control. Had this been run as a straight contemporary drama, there was more than enough meat to make a highly effective thriller as one person dies and attempts are made on the lives of others. But this is not allowed for two reasons:

Han Ji-Min in modern style

Han Ji-Min in modern style

  • The initial set-up forces us into a “time travel” mode and prevents the police investigation from building up any tension. Instead, we have the Crown Price constantly trying to work out what has to happen to enable him to go back to his own time. Investigative punches are therefore pulled as our hero slowly pieces together who everyone is and how his return might be triggered. The script also leaves giant holes with no effort made to explain exactly what happens to the bad and not so bad characters in modern times. It’s a whole lot easier when the Crown Price does go back to Joseon because he can torture them, banish some, and execute the rest. Those were the days when a hero really could get things done properly.

  • Jung Yoo-Mi

    Jung Yoo-Mi

  • The series is a romance and the Crown Prince has to meet and fall in love with Park Ha (Han Ji-Min), the modern version of the woman he was supposed to marry in Joseon. This further dilutes any tension because our hero can’t do the hand-holding and gazing into her eyes bit if he’s behind bars or on the run from the police. So subject to the one major plot device, everything has to enable our couple to fall in love.

  • Ah yes, the plot device. Way back in Joseon times, the first episode shows us a view of what happened. Except it’s fundamentally dishonest! I’m not against scriptwriters allowing their characters to make mistakes. We’re all human and not immune from misunderstanding the events as they occur around us. Yet this “error” is so fundamental that it lacks all credibility! There’s no way this could have happened! Someone would have noticed and said something — unless we’re supposed to believe not only that the Crown Price had his eyes closed at the critical times, but that the bad guys had paid everyone around him not to draw his attention to this rather stunning fact. So why do the scriptwriters have to engage in this deception? Well, if they showed us the choice being made in Joseon times, it would rather give the game away as to what the choice would have to be in modern times. If the series were not being run as a romantic drama, this could have led to our watching Se-na (Jung Yoo-Mi), the key character, continue to make the decision for evil. That would have been a high-powered tragedy, leaving the Crown Prince adrift in time and our supernatural being resigned to trying to get it right the next time round. As it is, there’s no tension because although we know this couple of star-crossed lovers are doomed to part, we know they must be together so tears can be shed when the Crown Price is whisked back to Joseon.

    Lee Tae-Sung

    Lee Tae-Sung

    The modern ending is frustratingly mushy. The mawkishness comes from the instant love-at-first-sight between Park Ha and Yong Tae-Yong. Yet more frustration comes from not seeing how that plays out with the families on both sides. The control of the chaebol could be consolidated in them if the appropriate share transfers were confirmed. Worse the time travel is proved real because the Crown Prince sends a love letter to Park Ha by burying it under the pavilion by the lake. Watch out the gift of the gold medallion — that’s a real tear-jerker. Historically speaking, it seems Park Ha and Boo-Yong are going above and beyond the call of duty to protect the man they love. So, as a time travel plot, this is a disaster (why does Park Ha end up in the juice shop and Boo-Yong write an expanatory note to the Crown Price?), but it works quite well as satire and a romantic fairy story.

    For those who want to know what they missed, here’s Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) the set-up and Rooftop Prince or Oktab Bang Wangseja or 옥탑방 왕세자 (2012) Episode 2.

    The Cursed by Heather Graham

    April 15, 2014 2 comments

    The Cursed by Heather Graham

    Well having found the last book in this series interesting, I decided to have a look at the next. And now a brief defensive note lest any of my regular readers begin to worry I may be diluting my male prejudices. I’m just exploring whether the last book was the exception that proves the rule, or maybe whether I have to make a more permanent exception for this author. The Cursed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the twelfth in the Krewe of Hunters series. So let’s start with a word about the prose. This falls into my classification of easy readability. In other words, without being showy, it offers a direct and transparent means of delivering the narrative. As a feature, this is both good and less so. Because there’s no extraneous content, the success of the book depends on the quality of the plot. Other authors set out to distract their readers with more interesting vocabulary choices and flowery detail in the descriptions. With one component I’ll come back to later, this is a blend of supernatural, police procedural, thriller and romance — note I’m not classifying it as an urban fantasy for all it has ghosts, nor is it really a paranormal romance. As with the last in the series, it breaks the mould of police procedurals by having the FBI quietly set up a special unit comprising those who are able to interact with ghosts. With access to first-hand evidence derived from the victims and other ghosts who have witnessed events, the members of this unit have one of the best clearance rates in the FBI.

    You may protest this is a form of cheating, but the plots are deliberately shaped so that the ghosts can be helpful but not give whodunnit information the moment they are asked. All a victim can say is the murderer came up from behind, or was wearing a mask, or was using a rifle from long range, etc. So, for example, this book sees a woman diver killed in a wreck. After death, all she can say is that her attacker was a large male and had blue eyes (obviously that’s all she can see through the face mask, the breathing apparatus hiding the lower face and the wetsuit hiding the shape and colour of the hair). This leaves a lot of work to be done by FBI officers in the real world — statistically there are a lot of large men with blue eyes.

    Heather Graham

    Heather Graham

    So this time around, we’re with Hannah O’Brien, who grew up in a house in Key West and now runs it as a B&B. Like her cousin Kelsey O’Brien who’s a member of the FBI’s Krewe of Hunters, Hannah can also see and talk with ghosts. Indeed, she may actually be better at it than Kelsey. To distinguish her B&B from the mass of competitors, she advertises the presence of ghosts living in her house and offers tours around the area where she takes in all the local haunted places, plying all with details of the sometimes gruesome events that led to creation of the ghosts. This brings me to the one feature of this book that I find less than satisfying. Even though it’s relevant to the way she makes her living and, more importantly, does add background to the reason why the villain is stalking her, there’s a considerable amount of historical material. So we get to hear quite long excerpts from her spiel to paying customers on her tour, and there’s considerable information about her family and a possible connection with a long-lost box thought to contain a great treasure.

    Anyway, the threat to all and sundry comes from Los Lobos, an evocatively named group of criminals who are into a range of activities including smuggling, drug distribution and murder. The key distinguishing feature to this gang is the cell structure. No-one knows more than one or two others, and people routinely use nicknames, making it difficult for anyone to reveal anything too damaging should they be caught by the police. There’s also significant paranoia among the group members because the leader, Wolf, is notorious for ordering the death of anyone even vaguely suspected of disloyalty or showing less than full competence in discharging the duties allocated. The FBI was congratulating itself on finally getting an undercover officer into the gang, but he turns up dead in Hannah’s back yard. This brings FBI agent Dallas Samson into view and, before long, he and Hannah convert mutual interest into sexual activity. In other words, there’s nothing really coy about the romance in this book. There are the usual misunderstandings. Once we get past those, there’s no real courtship. They are adults thrown together by circumstance. They enjoy each other’s company and quickly expect to remain a couple.

    There’s plenty of action which fulfills the thriller requirement admirably. The FBI and local police pick up suspects with satisfying regularity which keeps the information flowing. This just leaves the mystery element as the usual trail of breadcrumbs albeit, once you get the analysis of the disposable phone records, it’s obvious what the answer must be. Fortunately, this comes quite near the end which just gives us the chance for more shots to be fired — no explosions in this book — and everything gets wrapped up ready for the next in the series. On balance, the quality of the plot is not as good as in the last book but there are many redeeming features. Indeed, had there been less history, I would have been really enthusiastic. As it is, I’m not dismissing Heather Graham. There’s just enough about The Cursed to justify having a look at the next in the series.

    For reviews of others in the series, see:
    The Hexed
    The Night Is Forever.

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

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