The Valley of the Shadow ~ Carola Dunn

  • Title: The Valley of the Shadow 
  • Author: Carola Dunn
  • Series: Cornish Mystery #3
  • Genre: Cozy mystery
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  While out on a walk, Eleanor Trewynn, her niece Megan, and her neighbor Nick spot a young, half-drowned Indian man floating in the water. Delirious and concussed, he utters a cryptic message about his family being trapped in a cave and his mother dying. The young man, unconscious and unable to help, is whisked away to a hospital while a desperate effort is mounted to find the missing family in time.

The local police inspector presumes that they are refugees from East Africa, abandoned by the smugglers who brought them in, so while the countryside is being scoured for the family, Eleanor herself descends into a dangerous den of smugglers in a desperate search to find the man responsible while there is still time.

Review:  This mystery is so cozy it doesn’t even have a murder. Although there are definitely victims, bodies floating in the sea, and a villain, the crime itself is entangled with the British foreign policies of the 1960s or perhaps ’70s – the author herself is unclear on her dates.

The entire root for the crime is an immigration issue. When the British Empire began to crumble in the ’60s, many African states, previously under the British rule, declared independence. British citizens were expelled. The white Brits returned to England. Unfortunately, many East Indians also worked for the British in Africa and held British passports. They were expelled too, of course, but the British government denied them the rights to settle in England. Those people had nowhere else to go. No other country, India included, would grant them citizenship. With British passports but no entry visas, many of them had no choice but vagrancy. Others opted for some illegal ways into the country. And of course, where the law is so inhuman it has to be broken, a number of greedy felons enter the fray. Human smuggling, money, and racism intertwine in unholy combinations, creating the background for this story.

Most of the characters investigating the crime are familiar to the readers from the previous novels of the series. Our old acquaintances include Eleanor, an absent-minded, retired lady who forgets to lock her doors but always remembers people and faces, and her niece Megan, a sergeant with the Cornish Police. There is also Megan’s boss, the grumpy DI Scumble, and Eleanor’s assorted friends and neighbors. Together, they solve the crime perpetrated before the novel started, but I won’t relay the details here to avoid spoilers. I would also point out that it’s not necessary to read the other novels of the series to appreciate this one; it stands firmly on its own.

The action is rather lagging, despite the urgency of the victims’ situation. Too many unnecessary chats, tea cups, and other trifling aspects are woven into the tale like red herrings, so the readers always wonder, together with the heroes: is this man important? Will this woman play a role later in the story? Some of those hints even pay off eventually, while others peter to nothing.  

As always in Carola Dunn’s novels, I found a number of delightful British colloquialisms, some new to me, others not, but all worth repeating:

Fascia – a board over a shop front
Hoick – to rise or raise something abruptly and sharply
Gimbal – a device (see the technical explanation elsewhere)
Load of codswallop – nonsense, lots of it

On the whole – an easy, entertaining read, although nothing special.

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The Hum and the Shiver ~ Alex Bledsoe

  • Title: The Hum and the Shiver 
  • Author: Alex Bledsoe
  • Series: Tufa #1
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music – hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless haint lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds.

Review:  I liked this book much more than Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series. It was written better, and its story was deeper and more mature.

The protagonist, a twenty-year-old soldier of the US army Bronwyn, was injured in Iraq. She has returned home to recuperate, but her homecoming is not at all restful. In pain from her healing wounds, obviously suffering from PTSD and numb from painkillers, with her mind hazy and her spirits low, Bronwyn is tired and disoriented. She wants to find her unique ‘song’, but neither the army, nor the small town where she grew up, nor her family offers her a safe place.

She belongs to the Tufa, a hard, mysterious people living in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Always rebellious, even as a child, she never wanted to conform to her pre-assigned role in her community. That’s why she enlisted in the army two years ago: to escape from her heritage. But now she is home, and her heritage demands its due.

Torn between her people’s past and future, between the modern technology and the centuries-old traditions of magic and music, Bronwyn is searching for her place, for her own melody. Her path is fraught with mistakes and detours, as she repeatedly asks herself: “Who am I? What should I do?”

I like Bronwyn. She is a multidimensional character, a complicated young woman with strong opinions of right and wrong. A fighter with an intense conscience, she is an instigator of change. Of course, her hankering for change brings her nothing but trouble, but she copes with her troubles with honor intact, if maybe slightly tarnished. To my relief, she is not ‘a chic with a sword,’ the archetype that has recently invaded the modern fantasy genre. Instead of weapons, she uses her common sense and morality, her assertive nature to win her battles.

Like Bronwyn, several secondary characters in the novel are also on the road of self-discovery, trying to find their niche. Self-discovery seems to be one of the dominating themes of this novel. Its other theme is much more disturbing – the ethics and legitimacy of killing.

Can you kill in peace time? Who has the right to make that call? Are there any special circumstances when killing is permissible or necessary? When a soldier is ordered to kill, are morals involved? What if someone is so evil, caused so much grief, that he needs to be eliminated to prevent more suffering? Who must assume the responsibility to kill him? Where is the borderline between a just killing and a murder?  

Such difficult questions raise their heads in the course of the novel, and although the author doesn’t shy from expressing his views, he invites his readers to formulate their own answers.

The pacing is deceptively slow, covering the day-to-day lives and seemingly inconsequential events, but the pages turn very fast. The author is a master of intrigue, and his skill kept me glued to the book until I finished it.   

A couple details I didn’t like in this book, although they didn’t cause me to lower its rating. First – the secret of the Tufa. Bledsoe keeps dropping hints at some otherworldly origins of the people, at their mystic powers, but even as far into the book as page 116, nothing was clear. Who are the Tufa and what they can do is only revealed towards the end. Can’t say it was a big surprise though. The allusions are sprinkled throughout the tale, and the anticipation keeps the tension high, keeps the readers guessing. Still, I think the full disclosure should’ve happened earlier in the story. It would’ve read better.

My second objection: nothing is resolved by the last page. Many subplots are left dangling, like in real life. Even Bronwyn isn’t yet sure what will become of her, although by the end she at least has some inkling. Certain controversies have been resolved, while others haven’t been touched yet. Overall, such ambivalence leaves the readers vaguely dissatisfied and hankering for more. Maybe that was the point.

Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (4)

SSV is happy to present a preview of Michelle Browne’s newest book, After the Garden. It will be published in 2014. We’re happy to release a series of the upcoming novel and give our readers a taste of what’s to come! A segment will be released on Saturday. Keep an eye out and read along with us.

~ After the Garden ~

A young woman is experiencing memories of The Time Before. She and some other Bearers are trying to solve the riddle of their past and stay under the radar, but a certain fanatical cult may have other ideas. There’s a chance that love might complicate things, but in a world of ruin, poverty, and decadence, it might also be her undoing…

o-o-o-o

Chapter 4

Ezeriah frowned at the sound of music from the courtyard. He reclined on the finest silk cushions, one of his Magdalenes sitting alert beside him. She was shapely, young, and fierce; she had been a recent choice, her mother almost reluctant to give her daughter up. Ezeriah knew the girl’s mother was probably one of the music makers, he let it go. Temptation was everywhere, and just because music was a string of irritating tones to him, didn’t mean others weren’t entranced by it.

Lust, except in very controlled circumstances, had to be reined in.  Even he, immortal angel, could be tempted. He shuddered, thinking of the demoness, and steeled his soul.

Still, there had been unrest. He could only channel their impure hungers, their lust and need for music, into chanting and prayer for so long. And more, there had been muttering, of late. He looked over at his Magdalene and raised the left corner of his mouth. To some, it would have seemed like an expression of amusement, but this girl was cunning, far more than her fourteen years suggested, and she knew what it meant. Find out what’s going on, said his body language. For good measure, Ezeriah reached within her mind, used the high language of ceremony to impress his point.

[Investigate, my Magdalene. Thou didst say thou wouldst prove thy worth to me if I allowed thee to join with these holy sisters.]

The girl fumbled, her eyes widening in fear, but he sifted through her brain (how crude, simple, like an animal’s) and stroked the the pleasure centre. He saw her quiver, the spasm that passed through her fabric-shielded thigh, the momentary arching of the back.

[That is the holy bliss of following the commands of the Untainted One.] He intensified it for just a moment, and slowly withdrew his mind from hers. She rushed off like a greyhound.

A few moments later, the girl was back, dragging her mother in by the arm. The woman had had her daughter late in life, and she was grey-haired already.

“She was making a commotion,” said the girl. Her voice was flat, but an eyelid twitched uncertainly. Ezeriah watched her. Despite her fervour, he sensed clear unease at the thought of seeing her mother punished. It subsided as she made cool calculations about her position. Ezeriah approved.

The woman tore her arm out of her daughter’s grasp and threw herself to the floor at Ezeriah’s feet. “My saviour, spare my daughter, I beg thee! She is too young for a holy maiden.”

“Woman, this position is one of great honour. May I remind you that it was your daughter herself who came forward?” He kept his voice at the level of gentle chiding. The woman lifted her head in disbelief, anger crossing her features and making them hard, deepening the creases.

“Kata is too young! She doesn’t know what’s best yet!”

Ezeriah looked down at her with gravitas and pity in his face and manner, but he was already inside her dissident mind, plucking the strings of pain and stimulating warning spasms in her back. Sure enough, he sensed the touch of demons in her. It was early, the corruption; but he felt a vague regret in realising the cost of another purging.

“The Untainted One will punish you,” he intoned. “Thou hast sinned.” He lifted his hands to his chin and twisted the fingers together in the complex ceremonial gesture to indicate a calling upon higher powers. He reached into her mind and killed her.

It was not a painless death; with her last reflexive movements, the woman’s bladder emptied and the back of her robe was soiled. The eyes stared at the world unseeing as she twitched a few final times, then lay still. The Magdalene flinched as the woman curled and writhed.

“Go fetch one of the Unearthers, Magdalene,” said Ezeriah softly. He drew his mind across hers, soothing the temptation and pain away. “You have proven yourself. Now the body of this sinner must be disposed of.”

“No need to cushion me. I know she gave me life, but she had to pay for her impiety,” said the Magdalene severely, and Ezeriah knew he had chosen well.

The rest of the day would be required to soothe the flock with doctrine, to send his Magdalenes around with comfort, and explain why one member of the Order had gone missing. That night, he would take the new Magdalene to his bed, and seal her ordination within the sisterhood.

It was the least he could do.

Mealworm larvae, fried and combined with a basic salad, were the main course for supper. Eva pushed her plate away delicately; Kerrick noted with amusement that she had devoured every salad leaf and left nearly all of the mealworms on her plate. “I’m full, thanks; may I be excused?”

“I’d like to see a few more of those mealworms disappear first,” Karine replied. “You need the protein.” Reluctantly, Eva speared three with her fork and lifted them into her mouth. She chewed fast and swallowed gingerly.

“I don’t know why you hate them,” remarked Chris, “they’re nice and crisp.”

“It’s not the texture she objects to, Chris,” Hamza said. “Next time, Eva, I’ll make it steak tartare, instead of larvae.”

“EWWWWW!”

“At least it would be easy to prepare,” muttered Kerrick. The others laughed, but Callaghn glanced furtively at the others and cleared his throat. He twitched, but managed to speak.

“Speaking of raw food, any word on what that guy wanted with the fertilized spider eggs? That Jared guy said something about the request…”

Karine mollified him immediately. “I know Jared; he’s a cousin of mine. He’s another silk worker, remember? You saw him at the last trading fair, six months ago.”

“Oh, yes,” said Callaghn, placing a hand over his brow. “It’s just—I heard the most awful rumours.”

“Where from?”

“I—an old acquaintance.”

“Someone I would know?”

Callaghn shot him a black look. “Not unless you were a—” he couldn’t say the words. He never could.  The air around him tensed, and the others drew back, giving his secrets room. “Anyway, I heard somewhere that the Order’s head has the most disgusting dishes on a nightly basis. This could be a bit of vicious gossip, but I’ve heard he likes everything raw.”

“Ugh,” Eva interrupted. “No, not really? I mean, the legs are nice, but anything else, well—”

A grin on Callaghn’s face, the jack-o-lantern grin that spread from ear to ear almost maliciously. “Yup, I hear Ezeriah has a taste for the most delicate meats, and I’m not talking about the tarsal cuts.”

“I don’t imagine it would be the hearts, and the brains aren’t substantial.” This was Karine. “Eyeballs, maybe? They’d be interesting, anyway.”

“Okay, now I am so leaving the table,” Eva said, jumping up.

“Thanks,” muttered Chris. His arms and legs tangled like a bamboo wood chime as he followed her, stumbling over the couch. “Wait up, Eva!”

The others brought their plates to the sink, and Kerrick watched as Callaghn cleaned the dishes. He didn’t miss the longing sigh Callaghn let out, glancing in the direction of Eva’s room, but he ignored it. Hamza was looking dark at the mention of the Order, and a game of chess would be just the thing to get both of their minds out of the shadows.

o-o-o-o

Links:
Prologue & Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

He Drank, and Saw the Spider ~ Alex Bledsoe

  • Title: He Drank, and Saw the Spider
  • Author: Alex Bledsoe
  • Series: Eddie LaCrosse #5
  • Genre: Fantasy, Mystery
  • Format: ARC, Kindle
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  After he fails to save a stranger from being mauled to death by a bear, a young mercenary is saddled with the baby girl the man died to protect. He leaves her with a kindly shepherd family and goes on with his violent life.

Now, sixteen years later, that young mercenary has grown up to become cynical sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. When his vacation travels bring him back to that same part of the world, he can’t resist trying to discover what has become of the mysterious infant.

He finds that the child, now a lovely young teenager named Isadora, is at the center of complicated web of intrigue involving two feuding kings, a smitten prince, a powerful sorceress, an inhuman monster, and long-buried secrets too shocking to imagine. And once again she needs his help.

They say a spider in your cup will poison you, but only if you see it. Eddie, helped by his smart, resourceful girlfriend Liz, must look through the dregs of the past to find the truth about the present—and risk what might happen if he, too, sees the spider.

Review:  I received the uncorrected ARC copy from NetGalley as a Kindle file.

The protagonist of this novel, a sword jokey Eddie LaCrosse, stands out from the pages like a living man, with all his merits and faults. It’s the fifth book in the series about him, and by now, he feels like an old, grumpy friend, a guy I could entrust with my problems.

Of course, he is a bit cynical and a habitual drunk, but who wouldn’t be, doing what he does. He is PI in a fantasy world, and his investigations often take him into the middle of some dirty conspiracies. Despite repeatedly coming up against the worst in people, he still retains his compassion and tolerance for the human beings. For Eddie, almost everyone has something good, and even a monster deserves a second chance.

Like any good PI, Eddie can’t resist a mystery. Secrets fascinate him, but his compulsion to discover the truth frequently leads him into danger. He also has a penchant for saving people – from bandits or dragons or wild beasts. He does it in every book.

This book is no exception. It starts with a bang from the past – the young Eddie saves a baby girl from a bear (why am I not surprised?) – but then it slows down. Being a mercenary, he doesn’t have a place in his vagabond life for a child, so he finds her a home among sheep farmers and goes on his way with a clear conscience.

Sixteen years later, on a leisurely vacation with his girlfriend, Eddie stumbles upon the same community of sheep farmers and meets his foundling again, now a pretty young girl. His curiosity stirs. He feels compelled to solve her mystery, to find out who she is and why fate dropped her in his path all those years ago. To the readers’ delight, Eddie’s quest for answers sets off a chain of calamities, and only Eddie could prevent the looming disaster.    

Besides Eddie, the novel boasts several requisite character types of the fantasy genre, including an orphan, a shady sorceress, a king or two, and a scary monster, but the roles they play are frequently controversial. Is this monster evil or simply ignorant? Is that sorceress ruthless or has she just run out of choices? The unorthodox functionalities of the common types are among the best aspects of this novel.  

The tale, a blend of mystery and epic fantasy, like the rest of the series, follows Eddie’s probing mind from a shepherds’ village to a king’s palace, from the throne room to the dungeons. Quietly and unobtrusively, the author raises the stakes for his hero and winds the tension in his narrative, until it thrums like a tight string by the middle of the book. The reader avidly turns the pages and wonders: what next?

Unfortunately, in the second part of the novel, the story goes downhill, and the denouement is disappointing. As if to simplify the finale, the author arbitrary cuts off most of the subplots by killing a score of characters and sending others into obscurity, as if they’re not important for the main storyline. Maybe they are not. But then, why were they introduced in the first place?

The conclusion to the single plotline the author did choose to explore feels artificial and predictable, no match to the original and explosive beginning of the tale.     

The other characters in the book are significantly less defined than Eddie, perhaps a bit cartoonish, with single traits of their personalities exaggerated for the sake of an archetype. Most of them, with rare exceptions, could be described with one modifier. A mad king. A scheming rogue. A no-nonsense girlfriend. A loyal guard. A cruel killer.

There are some extremely extraneous details in the story – like Eddie going to pee in the bushes. I don’t need to know that. Nobody does.   

The novel is uneven, but on the whole, I enjoyed reading it. Definitely recommended for the fans of the series.

Clean Sweep ~ Ilona Andrews

  • Title: Clean Sweep
  • Author: Ilona Andrews
  • Series: Innkeeper Chronicles #1
  • Genre: Fantasy, UF
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: Own
  • Reviewed by: Olga
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:  On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina.

And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night. Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything.

Review:  The world building in this short novel is fascinating, quirky and utterly unique. It’s combining science fiction and fantasy, and it feels like the authors gave free rein to their imagination while creating it. They populated their story with a sentient inn, vampires, werewolves, hundreds of different worlds connected by some sort of gateways, and of course the innkeeper with a broom – her deadliest weapon.

Dina, the protagonist, is the innkeeper. Her inn is a sanctuary on Earth for all the travelers from other worlds. While Dina stays inside the inn’s property, her magic, combined with the inn’s magic, is the strongest, but when she leaves the perimeter of the inn, for example to go shopping, her power diminishes with every step she takes away from her inn. What an original manifestation of the idea that any power has a price and a boundary.

Like every innkeeper, Dina is supposed to maintain neutrality in any conflict arising between worlds. Her guests’ safety is supposed to be her first priority. But when someone or something starts killing dogs in her quiet little town in Texas, she feels she must interfere.

Then a handsome, arrogant neighbor, werewolf Sean, arrives to tell her that he will take care of the problem. Butterflies flutter in her stomach every time she glances at his muscular thighs/shoulders/abs. His penetrating yellow eyes don’t help her peace of mind either. But she can’t let him face the danger alone, alpha male or not.

Then a charming vampire lands in her backyard, with the same purpose – to destroy the baddies in Texas. Testosterone levels spike, as the trio fight the villains and try to figure out their relationships at the same time.

The story runs quickly, maybe too quickly, as if it has too many legs but sometimes those legs trip over each other. The dialog is fast, snarky and funny, representing the authors’ dry, offbeat humor. Although characterization is pretty primitive (with the exception of Dina), secondary to the world-building and plot, the whole is an enjoyable read. I like this book more than the authors’ other series. Obviously, I’m not a huge fan of Kate Daniels.  

The illustrations included in the text are simply gorgeous, even though I read the book on my B&W Kindle.

Overall – a delicious, entertaining reading experience.

The Humans ~ Matt Haig

  • Title: The Humans    
  • Author: Matt Haig
  • Genre: Literary Sci-Fi
  • Format: Kindle
  • Source: $11 purchase
  • Reviewed by: Mark Matthews
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  The critically acclaimed author of The Radleys shares a clever, heartwarming, and darkly insightful novel about an alien who comes to Earth to save humans from themselves.

“I was not Professor Andrew Martin. That is the first thing I should say. He was just a role. A disguise. Someone I needed to be in order to complete a task.”

The narrator of this tale is no ordinary human—in fact, he’s not human at all. Before he was sent away from the distant planet he calls home, precision and perfection governed his life. He lived in a utopian society where mathematics transformed a people, creating limitless knowledge and immortality.

But all of this is suddenly threatened when an earthly being opens the doorway to the same technology that the alien planet possesses. Cambridge University professor Andrew Martin cracks the Reimann Hypothesis and unknowingly puts himself and his family in grave danger when the narrator is sent to Earth to erase all evidence of the solution and kill anyone who has seen the proof. The only catch: the alien has no idea what he’s up against.

Disgusted by the excess of disease, violence, and family strife he encounters, the narrator struggles to pass undetected long enough to gain access to Andrew’s research. But in picking up the pieces of the professor’s shattered personal life, the narrator sees hope and redemption in the humans’ imperfections and begins to question the very mission that brought him there.

Review:  The world is divided into those who have read this book and those who have not.  Those who have read this book are shaking their heads in the affirmative right now.

It is not so much the story, but read it for that.  It is not so much the characters, but read it for that too.  It is for the statement it makes on the flawed yet wondrous nature of humans. This book will resonate with you long after you read it. (if not, we can’t be friends.)  You will be convinced the author himself is from another world, sent here to give us some wisdom, but perhaps also fearful if we can handle it.  I liken it to “Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah” by Richard Bach

Yes, I loved this book and I am a better person for it. A beautiful book that made me cry. At times I feared it would become predictable, but there was just enough variance and certainly more than enough genius. A wonderful range of emotions. The prose was both beautiful and simple. How many times have we all wondered, “What would an alien think if they came to Earth and experienced this?” Well, this book provides an illuminating answer.

Highly recomended. Get ready to highlight on your kindle or dog-ear your  paperback.

-Mark Matthews