The Wait is Over — Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s Long-Awaited “Spiral Path” is Out!

It’s been a few weeks in between reviews here at Shiny Book Review (or as we affectionately call it, SBR); this is mostly because life has interfered. But having to wait for a review may just prove beneficial after all, as we have the best news imaginable for any reader of fantasy: The third book in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s acclaimed Night Calls series — the long-awaited SPIRAL PATH — is now out! (Note that NIGHT CALLS was reviewed here, while KINDRED RITES was reviewed here.)

In the previous books in the Night Calls series, we met Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson, a practitioner — and student — of magic. Allie grew up on a farmstead in an alternate version of 18th Century America, so she has tons of practical skills and is resourceful and intelligent, seeming much older than her actual years. (When Allie actually started her training, she was the ripe, old age of eleven.)

Along the way, Allie has faced a number of problems: a were-wolf. A soul-sucking vampire of an unusual type. Healing the sick, comforting the aged, and birthing a number of babies. She’s also met Azrael, the Angel of Death, and has been given a name by him — Alfreda Golden-Tongue — and appears to have more power than the average five other practitioners.

However, she doesn’t seem to know this. At all. So while she does a number of things that surprise the older (and presumably wiser) magicians around her, she also can get tripped up by the oddest and most ordinary of things because she’s just not all that experienced. (Which is what makes her human and worth rooting for . . . but I digress.)

Onto the story.

SPIRAL PATH opens with an unusual set of births. One is that of Allie’s much-younger sister, Elizabeth, who promises to be a force to be reckoned with down the line (we can tell this by the highly unusual things that happen during the birthing); the other is that of a unicorn. While Elizabeth’s birth is straightforward, the unicorn’s is not; in fact, the unicorn’s mama bespells Allie to help her rather than just ask, for reasons that probably make sense only to unicorns.

It’s because of what the unicorn mama does that Allie is packed off to a first-rate magical school in the state of New York in order to learn how to better protect herself by the use of ritual magic. Because the next person (or unicorn, or whatever) who bespells Allie may not be benign . . . and Allie knows it.

Of course, Allie isn’t told this is a first-rate school. She’s only told she’d better learn, and quickly, because her talents need honing.

So she’s tested in various classes, taking lessons in some while teaching others, and has a number of interesting adventures — including one on the docks of old New York that I refuse to spoil.

All of Allie’s adventures (not just the one in the port of New York) are rousing.  And the quieter challenges Allie faces of being a farmgirl among some rather high-in-the-instep types at the specialty school are equally absorbing. But the best moments are those between Allie and her almost-boyfriend, fellow practitioner/student Shaw Kristinsson. (I say “almost” because Allie is, after all, only thirteen.) These interpersonal moments show Allie at her best — which, oddly enough, is also when Allie is just like anyone else: a bit shy with her friend, who she wants someday to be more than a friend . . . but still herself, with joy and sorrow intermixed as it is for any living creature.

It’s because of these moments that I seriously considered holding this review for SBR’s Romance Saturday promotion. But SPIRAL PATH, all in all, is more than a romance: it’s all about finding yourself, even if the person you are consists of layers within layers without end . . . a spiral path indeed.

Bottom line: SPIRAL PATH was most definitely worth the wait, and is a worthy addition to the outstanding Night Calls series.

More, please, and soon!

Grade: A-plus.

– reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Victoria Alexander’s Latest “Scandalous” Adventure

It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review! So what could be better than a frothy little Victorian Era English romance by Victoria Alexander?

 THE SCANDALOUS ADVENTURES OF THE SISTER OF THE BRIDE stars Delilah, Lady Hargate, and American entrepreneur Simon Russell. Delilah, a widow, is attending the wedding of her sister Camille (note that Camille’s story was reviewed here), and so is Simon, who just so happens to be an eligible bachelor — and friend of the groom, to boot.

So what’s the problem? Well, Delilah and Simon shared one night of passion a few years prior to this wedding and didn’t tell anyone about it for obvious reasons. Making matters more dicey yet is the fact that both Delilah and Simon did their best to blur the lines of who they really were — Simon didn’t talk about his business doings, while Delilah simply called herself “Mrs. Hargate” and passed herself off as her sister’s long-suffering chaperone.

Now, they’re supposedly meeting each other for the first time, and sparks fly — but are flying for all the wrong reasons. Simon is angry that Delilah didn’t tell him that she’s a member of the nobility, and presumably wealthy in her own right, while Delilah is angry that Simon led her to believe that his business doings were far less than they actually are — and that Simon didn’t even tell her that he was a good friend of her sister Camille’s intended, Gray.

While Delilah’s extended family continues to be befuddled by Delilah’s seeming antipathy to Simon, Gray actually figures out that Simon and Delilah must know one another no matter what they’re saying. But, of course, he’s in the midst of planning his wedding to Camille. As Camille is a Bridezilla of the first water, Gray mostly stays above the fray and makes only a few, mild comments here and there.

Simon’s purpose in England isn’t just to attend Gray and Camille’s wedding, mind. He’s also there to look into “horseless carriages” — the ancestor of today’s modern automobiles — as there’s some interesting experimentation going on with Karl Benz (yes, the same Benz from the famous auto brand Mercedes-Benz), and now some French and English investors have decided to get involved as well. All of this is historically accurate, and it is sensible that Simon, who in our terms might be considered a venture capitalist, would take a liking to the various automotive prototypes available in the very late 1880s/early 1890s.

However, Delilah is a sensible kind of gal, and she does not like the idea of motor cars. They are dangerous. They belch toxic fumes — a lot. They barely work. And their steering apparatus (much less their primitive brakes) are no match for a competent horseman driving a traditional coach-and-four.

At any rate, the sexual spark is very strong between Delilah and Simon, so as you’d expect, they don’t refrain from sexual activity despite their strong disagreement about the merits of motor cars. But they try to keep the fact they’re sleeping with one another to themselves . . . and that doesn’t work too well.

Complicating things further, Delilah has a problem with her finances. Her late husband, Lord Hargate, wanted Delilah to remarry within two years. Her two years are nearly up, and because of that, she’s been cut off without a penny from Hargate’s fortune even though he had no known heirs at the time of his death besides herself.

Delilah comes to realize that she loves Simon — granted, she has to be dragged to this realization kicking and screaming, but still — but she refuses to marry for money. Instead, she’d rather drive Simon away . . . so she gets her second cousin to step in and pretend to be interested in Delilah so Simon won’t marry her out of pity.

So, will these two get together, or won’t they? (Hint, hint: bet on the happy ending. In fact, bet large.) And will the rest of the family be able to bear with Camille as she continues her “Bridezilla from Hell” routine? You’ll have to read the book to figure these things out, but you’ll mostly enjoy every minute of it.

Now, why did I say “mostly?” It’s simple. There’s some really poor editing here, which is unusual in a mass market romance. I saw numerous sentences with twenty-five or more words in them with zero commas.

Yes, I said zero.

This is something that’s hard to overlook for three reasons:

  1. To be accurate for the period, commas are needed to set off clauses. The Victorians were much bigger sticklers than I am about proper punctuation, so if you’re going to evoke the Victorian Era, you need to keep this in mind.
  2. It is nearly impossible to read a twenty-five word sentence (or longer) without commas. So for ease of reading alone, commas should’ve been inserted . . . but they weren’t.
  3. This particular romance had a big budget behind it and should’ve had proper editing as a matter of course. Why this book was so poorly edited is both inexplicable and inexcusable.

Look. I have dinged numerous self-published and small press novels for poor editing. So it’s only fair that I ding a big publisher — in this case, Zebra Books — for its own poor editing.

Because of the vagaries of the editing — almost nonexistent in spots — an otherwise A-minus read must be downgraded by one full letter grade to a B-minus.

Bottom line? This is a good, frothy romance with several laugh-out-loud moments. I liked the characters and believed the automobile subplot was plausible. But the editing was absolutely appalling — and I can’t pretend it wasn’t.

Recommendation: Get this one as an e-book, and hope the editing for the e-book edition is better by far than the mass market paperback.

Grade: B-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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John Ringo’s “To Sail A Darkling Sea” — Review by Chris Smith

Welcome back our irregular reviewer Chris Smith as he tackles “To Sail A Darkling Sea” by John Ringo.

To Sail A Darkling SeaWell, here we are. Yeah, it’s really late, since the book was released months and months ago (Februrary-ish) but I finally cleared my extremely busy schedule to write the review. Work, work, work, that’s me.

(Dramatic pause, sheepish look)

Ok, I forgot that I told Jason I’d do it.

This is the second book in the ‘Black Tide’ series, John Ringo’s take on a zombie apocalypse. For those that haven’t read the first one, stop reading now and go read it. Really, Under A Graveyard Sky is a lot of fun, and you need the background to fully get what’s happening in ‘Sail.’

(Hey, Jason, this would be a good time to link to the first review, maybe with one of those cool embedded link things that makes this parenthetical the actual link.) (Ed. note: Yeah, yeah… I got this.)

Moving on…

‘Sail’ takes up a totally different  aspect of the whole zombie genre, with our characters spending a lot of time on introspection and really getting to know the infected. What is this person’s motivation? How can we look at the human condition in the same way after the majority of humanity has been reduced to their base wants and desires? Are you really a good person if you don’t take the time to get to know the infected person in front of you before you slam a kukri into their eyeball? Can’t we just use the power of love and inclusiveness to conquer all?

….

Ok, that was tough to get through with a straight face. C’mon folks, it’s Ringo. The only good zombie is a dead zombie.

‘Sail’ picks up very close to the end of  ‘Sky,’ with some overlap. The opening scene shows the beginning of the breakout aboard the Iwo Jima, and progresses from there to the Smith’s clearing the ship.

As the story progresses, we get to see the, now larger, Wolf Squadron in action, as well as the flotilla coming together as a unit. This is important, since it’s a four book series.

Don’t worry, there’s still prime Faith moments, as well as interaction between she and Sophia that anyone with two kids will recognize. (I have taken to calling my two daughters Faith and Sophia when they pester each other, and have read some of the more relatable passages from the books to them to illustrate my point.)

Here, though, we get to see more character development, as well as the addition of several key supporting roles. Where ‘Sky’ set the stage as to the personalities of the main characters, here they get to grow.  Basically, what we see is two young girls becoming members of an active military unit, and Steve dealing with the weight of command.  Faith has to learn how to be a junior Marine officer, and the conduct that requires, Sophia deals with the pressures of being a ship’s skipper, and the emotional and physical burdens that brings. Steve juggles the double load of sending his daughters into harm’s way, knowing they are capable of handling it, but also dealing with the consequences of their ‘personality quirks’ for lack of a better term, in a professional military manner.

The supporting characters are excellent, from the sleazy former movie producer Zumwald, to the ‘Old Salts’- Chief Petty Officer Kent Schmidt, US Navy (Ret), and Sergeant Major Raymond Barney of Her Majesty’s Light Horse (Ret). You’re going to love hating Zumwald, and you’re just going to love the two crusty guys. (If you’ve never seen the Yeoman tour guide at the tower of London, go watch him. Here’s a link: http://youtu.be/DeiW_bWZ2Is. He’s all I could think of reading Barney.)

Here’s one of the things that endears the series so far to me. I’m a former Air Force Brat, with no time in service. That puts me in the position of straddling the line between Active Duty and Civilian. There’s some things that I ‘get’ about the military lifestyle and being AD, but there’s a lot I don’t, simply because I never had to quite follow the same rules as the AD. However, the Black Tide series allows us to see that career and what it entails through the eyes of Faith and Sophia, two (sorta) Brats thrown into a full Active Duty situation. They were civvies, now they are Service. Their mistakes and mindset- and more importantly, how they evolve- give us non-service folks an insight into what it means to sign on that line.

Perfect case in point- Faith handles a harassment situation instinctively, and is subsequently corrected by a superior officer, [Marine Capt.] then THE superior officer, Steve. Steve is required to handle the situation as both a commander and father of a teenage girl. Seeing him wear both hats, and still react accordingly is eye-opening for a civilian. (Granted, this is an idealized version of what happens, however, it is a great example of how it SHOULD be done.) Later on, Steve confronts Faith’s superior. How he is written,  as both a Commander and father, is handled adeptly.

‘To Sail’ is less world building, but more character and squadron development heavy. This is not a bad thing. There are plenty of great, funny, and hair-raising action sequences, but the infected are not the core focus of the book. This is not a bad thing. Like UAGS, the survivors are just that-survivors. No hand wringing for hours about a course of action that doesn’t offend the masses, just the desire and know-how to make decisions quickly, effectively, and lethally. We are allowed to see how this group begins to come together as an effective unit, and honestly, this is where we see the groundwork for its success in the future. There is hope for the future, simply because the right people are trying to bring it around.  All in all, it sets the pace for the next book, bringing Wolf Squadron together as a functional unit, one that can keep the flame burning in the worst darkness human kind has ever experienced.

An excellent addition to the series, a fast read, and fun.

–Reviewed by Chris

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Romance Saturday Returns with Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill’s “Victories”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! So what could be better than a little YA romance coupled with suspense and neo-Arthurian myth?

VICTORIES, the fourth and final book of the Shadow Grail series by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, again takes up where book three, SACRIFICES, left off. (Books one and two were reviewed here.) Muirin is dead, but her friends Spirit White (pictured on the cover), Spirit’s boyfriend Burke Hallows, and their BFFs Addie Lake and Lachlann “Loch” Spears are on the run from the evil Shadow Knights. They now know for certain that the head of Oakhurst Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is not just evil, but is actually Mordred . . . and he’s been around since the fall of Camelot.

Why is this important? Well, Mordred was imprisoned in an oak tree for millenia, and only “woke up” as himself in the 1970s, only to then “borrow” a body from a biker for his own, personal use. Ever since, has been using his magic to recreate the conditions of Camelot — but on his terms.

And Ambrosius/Mordred knows very little about the modern world, despite the technology he and his school have been using throughout. Which is much more of a problem than it seems — but I’ll get back to that momentarily.

Anyway, Spirit and her friends end up being guided by the mysterious QUERCUS to a deserted missile silo out in the middle of nowhere. A strange woman, who seems to know them somehow, helps them get down into the silo, where food and rest awaits. Then, after they sleep the sleep of the truly exhausted (or maybe the just, I don’t know), they find out from this woman that QUERCUS wants to talk . . . via the very old computer equipment in the silo, which uses extremely old technology that has to warm up for quite some time to be used — but is still operational.

So far, so good. The story is told with breathless abandon, and the technology is explained enough that it passes and sounds logical, as it’s conceivable that this silo would be both abandoned and discounted by Mordred.

But QUERCUS gives Spirit some very bad news. He is the Merlin — yes, that Merlin — and he now exists solely as a computer program. Because of this, he’s been able to warn her and her friends . . . but because he no longer has corporeal form, nor any way to regain it (as he won’t do what Mordred did as it’s the blackest of black magic — possession), he cannot fight the Shadow Knights or Mordred directly. All he can do at this point is advise.

Making matters worse yet, Spirit finds out for certain that she and all of her friends — including the departed Muirin — are “Reincarnates” — that is, people who lived during the time of Camelot and have reincarnated at this time in place in order to fight Mordred one, last time.

In fact, Spirit was once Guinevere — the sword Spirit is carrying is actually Guin’s, in fact — and Burke was King Arthur. Addie was once the Lady of the Lake, famed for her healing abilities, and Loch — well, he was Lancelot. (I had hoped he’d be Sir Gawain, personally. Ah, well.)

And all of that is important, too, because these four must find something called “the Four Hallows” — four talismans of great power — in order to invoke their prior memories as these fabled people. Because they cannot beat Mordred if they stay the way they are, even with their magic . . . and they must beat Mordred, as Mordred’s idea of “winning” starts with all-out war and goes downhill from there.

Worst of all, because Mordred didn’t live through the Cold War (much; one assumes he wasn’t paying much attention after he “borrowed” the biker’s body he’s been using), Mordred has no fear of a nuclear holocaust. But his own Shadow Knights — those who fought on Mordred’s side back in the day, who have been reincarnated in our time and were awakened by Mordred — definitely do.

Which may give Spirit and the others an opening . . . (further reviewer sayeth about the plot — at least not yet).

There’s a lot to like about VICTORIES. It’s a rip-roaring action-adventure with some mild romance, a good amount of mystery and magic, and a believable fight against the darkest evil magician ever created for the highest of stakes — life itself. I loved the good characters, hated the evil ones, and wanted good to win out — all fine and dandy.

That said, because the book went by so fast, I missed some of the characterization I’d so adored in the previous three books. I like Spirit, Burke, Addie, and Loch, you see — but I wasn’t overly fond of Guinevere, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Sir Lancelot. And while I liked how they faded in and out of focus — that is a very tough trick to pull off, having one soul with two full sets of memories in one body, and I give Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill full “props” for doing so — I mostly got annoyed whenever Guin, Arthur, etc., showed up to talk in “High Forsoothly” (what Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill called the more formal Renaissance-sounding English constructions, something that amused me very much).

Another thing that frustrated me a tad was the nature of Spirit and Burke”s romance. These two love each other in a somewhat chaste teenage way, which is sensible considering the context. (Who wants to make out in front of your two best friends in such close quarters?) But finding out these two had been married, and had many remembrances of being with each other as full adults, was a little tough for me to handle. I kept thinking that if I were Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, I’d want to steal away to some little grotto somewhere and just get it on — using proper safe-sex practices, of course — as these two supposedly had a legendary romance. And as Spirit and Burke were sometimes also Guin and Arthur, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why they didn’t do that.

Maybe it’s a good thing that this element didn’t come into play, mind. This is a series meant for tweens and teens. Too much sexual activity would’ve perhaps taken the focus away from all of that action-adventure. But finding out some information through pillow-talk between Guin and Arthur would’ve been extremely interesting; having Burke and Spirit have to deal with the aftermath of that also would’ve been quite riveting.

The reason this is only a minor quibble, though, is because Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill clearly set it up that Guin and Arthur’s marriage was more one of state than one of love. (Which would be accurate for the times they lived in, granted. Damned few people married for love back then.) They were great friends, yes. And they cared about each other deeply. But there was actually more romance between Spirit and Burke in this time than there seems to have been between Guin and Arthur.

The other teensy issue I had with VICTORIES is that the ending goes by too fast. (Spoiler alert! Turn away now. You have been warned.) I wanted to see Mordred suffer, and I wanted to see our four heroes be able to luxuriate in the victory while thinking about how terrible it is that Muirin didn’t live to see the day — and while I got a little of the latter, I just didn’t get anywhere near enough of the former to suit me.

Bottom line? This is a nice evocation of the Arthurian mythos for the 21st Century Millenial crowd, and I enjoyed it very much. But it doesn’t stand alone — please read LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, and SACRIFICES first.

Grades:

VICTORIES — B-plus.

Shadow Grail series — A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Two-fer Monday — The Chaplain’s War & City Beyond Time

Typically I don’t review two books on the same day by two separate authors, primarily because the voices are too dissimilar and the subject matter at hand varies drastically, but today I decided to make an exception after reading both The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgerson and City Beyond Time by John C. Wright. Both are extraordinary works, bordering on instant classic status, and have compelling voices, arguments, and stories abounding within.

city beyond timeFirst up is Wright’s City Beyond Time: Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis, a collection of stories which begins with the story of a private investigator turned Time Warden. Jake Fontino is a down on his luck private investigator who, through the course of his investigation, is offered the position of becoming a Time Warden — while being recruited by their arch nemesis, Anachronists, who believe that all time travel (except for sight seeing) is immoral. A visceral tale with a deftly-woven plot, City Beyond Time stamps the “Writer to Watch” label on John C. Wright.

The best part — the absolutely best part — of this first novella is the fact that it is written out of order, and yet it works. I have no idea how the author managed to pull it off, but somewhere along the line the disjointed story of a time traveler works better when it is told out of order. I tried reading it both way– once in numerical order, and once as it was presented by the author. In numerical order, the story is a quaint piece on time travel and a man with a good enough moral compass to question both the ethical realities of time travel and the strength to do what was needed. In the order presented by the author, however, it’s an amazing tale of discovery, loyalty, inner strength and how a man must face the consequences of the decision he makes. A splendid start, in other words.

The rest of the stories follow the typical short story collection format, though the storytelling level never falls off. The final story of the collection, The Plural of Helen of Troy, is another small masterpiece in the making, with Jake Fontino fighting against time, paradoxes, and destiny all as Metachronopolis begins its fall. A masterful collection of stories, one that I am absolutely thrilled to have read. I should note, however, that while I talked about Jake Fontino the most, the character Owen Penthane, from the short story within titled Choosers of the Slain, is quite possibly the best written character in the entire collection.

Overall, this is a solid collection of works, and much like Frank Miller’s Sin City, it’s a story that you will not be able to put down. A definite A+, must buy book.

the chaplain's warNext up is Torgerson’s The Chaplain’s War, which is the story of the reluctant Chaplain’s Assistant as he struggles through war, peace, uncertainty, and questions of his own faith as humanity fights against an implacable enemy. Received as an electronic Advance Reader Copy back in May, I gobbled this one up in one sitting, and Torgerson joined my list of “Writers to Watch.”

Harrison Barlow is a trapped POW on a planet with other humans who survived a disastrous assault upon the planet by an alien race who seem to resemble mantis cyborgs. Humans, because of how we are, call them Mantis. As Barlow is tending to his flock — he continues to profess a lack of certainty involving any particular deity or religion, which endears him to his fellow prisoners of war — in his handmade chapel (while keeping his promise to the Chaplain, who died trying to protect the others), he is visited by a Mantis who calls himself Professor. He is both a researcher and a teacher, and he is very curious to learn about humanity’s faith in religion. Barlow, not sure what he can offer the Professor, tries to teach the teacher that there can be more to humanity than at first glance. Standing against the Chaplain’s Assistant is the very nature of humanity itself, as well as preconceived biases against humanity on the part of the Mantis.

Part of the allure in this story is that, unlike most SF novels with war against the aliens in it, this one is more about the search for peace, not victory. It’s a fine distinction to be had, for if victory is achieved, a certain peace could be had. However, the strategic importance in which the author lays on the “true peace” methodology over “true victory” profoundly impacts the story, and Barlow as a character. Take note: while this has action and military in it, this is less of a military science fiction novel and more of a classic Heinlein novel (Stranger In A Strange Land comes to mind). The author’s work is tremendous here, and shows the skill and prose of a writer far more mature in his years than Torgerson is.

This is also the first time I instantly messaged a writer after completing their debut novel and thanked them for writing the book. Yes, I’ll admit, I had a fanboy moment.

Another must-buy book here.

Grades:

City Beyond Time — A+

The Chaplain’s War — A

 

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Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Spirit Me Away” — Fast, Fun Mystery

Aaron Paul Lazar’s latest mystery in his long-running Gus LeGarde mystery series is SPIRIT ME AWAY. The time is 1969, the place is (mostly) Boston, Gus and his newlywed wife Elsbeth are college music students, and they encounter a strange, yet hauntingly beautiful young woman named Valerie — just Valerie — who’s lost her memory and most of her belongings, and is in need of a family, stat.

Now, Gus and Elsbeth may be young, but they have strong familial instincts. Because of them, they can’t leave her at a hospital and forget about her, as many would . . . besides, Gus has a talent for solving mysteries, and the mystery of just who Valerie is won’t let him go.

So Gus and Elsbeth bring Valerie into their lives, and into their apartment. They feed her, nurture her, and try to figure out who she is and where she came from. They want her to find her family, if she has one; until then, they will be her family.

Besides, it’s not as if they don’t already have a family of sorts around them already. There’s Byron, a black British tenor from the music school, a love ‘em and leave ‘em type; Lana, a sexy young Latina whose job as a “waitress” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be; and Porter, a young Vietnam vet Elspeth works with. The first two are Gus and Elsbeth’s roommates, while Porter seems to be a frequent visitor.

All five of them take a solid interest in Valerie, because she truly needs the help. And over time, they find out about just enough of Valerie’s past to sincerely upset them. Valerie herself is good, but the people who’ve been in her life in the not-so-distant past definitely aren’t. And white slavers have targeted her for an acquisition due to her ethereal beauty, too . . . how will they keep Valerie away from such dangerous people, especially considering the fact that Gus is decidedly nonviolent?

All of this is a great deal of plot to handle. But it doesn’t feel unwieldy thanks to how thoroughly Lazar grounds SPIRIT ME AWAY in reality. First, Gus and Elsbeth’s romance is realistic and earthy — hey, they’re newlyweds! — and gives a very solid sense of who they are. Second, because they’re both “foodies,” the need for comfort food comes into play often. (Never underestimate the power of this, not in books, not in real life.) Third, there truly was a problem with white slavery in the late 1960s in many big cities, Boston among them, partly due to the nature of the times. And fourth, because Gus and Elsbeth already have many friends around them, it truly doesn’t seem like a hardship for them to add one more in Valerie.

So will Valerie find out where she comes from and who she is? Will her nascent romance with Porter bear fruit? And what does Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock) have to do with it all?

I enjoyed SPIRIT ME AWAY quite a bit. There’s a lot of plot here, some wonderfully realized characters, a goodly amount of romance, a whole lot of suspense, and it’s not quite as cozy a mystery as most of the others in the LeGarde mystery series (a mystery with white slavery as one of its components probably couldn’t qualify as a cozy anyway, methinks). But it’s a fast, fun, and furious read with some really good characterization and a number of excellent  musical references.

Bottom line? Whether you’ve read any of the Gus LeGarde series before or not, you should enjoy SPIRIT ME AWAY if you love mysteries — particularly mysteries mixed with a dash or two of romantic suspense.

Grade: A.

– reviewed by Barb

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Aaron Paul Lazar’s “Lady Blues” — a Warm, Comforting Mystery

Aaron Paul Lazar’s LADY BLUES is the tenth novel in his ongoing series of mystery novels featuring amateur sleuth and music professor Gus LeGarde. These are warm, comforting books full of food and atmosphere, where Gus solves mysteries partly through deduction, partly through his own friendly nature and partly because he knows everyone else in his community. (Note: an earlier book of Lazar’s that did not feature LeGarde, THE SEACREST, was reviewed here.)

The biggest part of the plot of LADY BLUES has to do with a musical mystery. Who is “John Smith,” a man with no past in a local nursing home? Why does he remember a singer named Bella (also nicknamed “Lady Blues”) when nearly all his other memories have flown? And what do his half-remembered snippets of musical knowledge have to do with anything?

The octogenarian man without a past is eventually revealed to be Kip Sterling, a musician who went missing in 1944 during World War II.  Sterling is a standout character you can’t help but root for, especially when you realize he’s taking a new drug to combat his memory loss (perhaps due to Alzheimer’s disease) . . . and the drug, Memorphyl, has actually worked.

But then, a new formulation of the drug makes every patient in the nursing home ill, and all the patients — including Sterling — start to lose their memories again. Then a friendly nurse goes missing after giving Gus samples of both the “old pills” (the older formulation, that worked) and the “new pills” (that don’t). And then, as if that weren’t enough, Sterling himself goes missing, too . . . just after Bella has been found, still alive, and wishes to reunite with him. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

So there’s plenty of plot and drama, though it’s not the in-your-face type . . . and as if that central mystery isn’t enough, there are plenty of other, smaller mysteries for Gus to solve during LADY BLUES as well.

For example, one of the biggest subplots is about a mysterious Korean seamstress named Lily. She worked in her brother’s shop for years, but he watched her like a hawk and she never learned much English. Now, the shop has burned down and her brother is gravely ill, she doesn’t even know where her legal paperwork is, and is at some risk of being deported (before the papers are found).

Why is Lily in America at all? Why didn’t her brother let her mix with other people? And finally, is her attraction to Gus’s friend Siegfried — who’s also the brother of Gus’s deceased first wife — legitimate, or not?

Mind, all of the mysteries will eventually be solved in a way reminiscent of the gentler episodes of the old TV show “Murder, She Wrote.” But plot is not the only reason to read LADY BLUES . . . oh, no. The story itself was fast-paced, well-researched, and interesting. And I appreciated all of the atmospheric touches, including the various dishes Gus makes along the way and the descriptions of a rambunctious, loving extended family.

However, there were some things that bothered me about LADY BLUES, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out.

First, at least two of the mysteries were very easily solved. I would’ve preferred a few more red herrings to throw me off the scent a bit.

Second, I also would’ve preferred a bit more obvious frustration in a few spots, such as when Sterling goes missing. Considering Gus has taken to Sterling in a big way, it didn’t make much sense that Gus was able to be so serene about the poor old gentleman being missing after the drugs that had brought back his memory were switched.

Third, I had a hard time believing that no one in Gus’s family — save his put-upon housekeeper, that is — ever gets angry or says cross words to another. (Even the housekeeper immediately apologized, the one time she snapped.) That is not realistic, even in a cozy mystery, and it snapped me out of the reader’s trance on more than one occasion.

Bottom line? LADY BLUES is an intelligent, warm cozy mystery with atmosphere galore and a hero to root for in Gus LeGarde. It’s a fun, fast read and I enjoyed it immensely. But the lack of even the most minor family arguments in a big, boisterous family did not seem plausible.

Grade: B-plus.

– reviewed by Barb

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