Teeny Reviews: Joy to the Worlds by Maia Chance, Janine A. Southard, Raven Oak and G. Clemans, No Honor Among Thieves by J.A. Jance, Peril by Ponytail by Nancy J. Cohen, One Year After by William R. Forstchen, and Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes by Karin Slaughter

Joy to the WorldsJoy to the Worlds
Mysterious Speculative Fiction for the Holidays
Maia Chance, Janine A. Southard, Raven Oak and G. Clemans
Grey Sun Press, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-9908157-6-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

What do you get when you mix mystery and speculative fiction, then toss in the holidays for good measure? A mobster Santa, genetic hanky-panky, Victorian villages, time-travelling detectives, a Krampus, eerie bell spirits, and more–this collection of short cross-genre fiction is the perfect counterpoint to traditional holiday reading!

Joy to the Worlds brings together eight short works that explore mysteries across time and space. Ranging from dark dystopian worlds to comedic retro-futures, four diverse writers find new ways to combine these disparate worlds.

This collection stars national bestselling mystery author Maia Chance, who dazzles with humor and folklore; IPPY award-winning science fiction author Janine A. Southard beguiles with unexpected time-travel science; science fiction and fantasy bestseller Raven Oak offers a look into the gothic past; and for a whole new perspective, debut fiction author and art expert G. Clemans dives into the intersections of creativity and mystery.

Whether you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, mystery, Christmas, noir, gothic, or folktales—this collection has something for you.

I tend to shy away from anthologies because I don’t much like coming to the end of a short story I really like, wanting it to be a full-length novel, but Joy to the Worlds interested me on first glance because I knew and liked two of the authors’ work but had never tried the others. This seemed like a good opportunity to return to familiar writers and meet a couple more.

Tyson Wallenstein, a dead detective trying to prove himself—he’s only been dead a year so he’s the newbie of the group—sets out to investigate a man’s death without all the trappings of a living detective (no forensics, no DNA, etc.) in the first story and I was immediately captivated. Was it an accident? Murder? Is the prosthetic leg attached to a high heel a clue? Why does mistletoe seem to be everywhere?

In another story, a young American named Odysseus Flax is overcome with motion sickness while traveling by train through the Alps and jumps off the train in a little village called Kiefertal. There he encounters the underbelly of Christmas during Krampusnacht when a very rich man decides to scare his obnoxious little boy and Odysseus learns there is much he does not know about what’s real or not real in this picturesque little town.

Four authors with four very different choices of genre and style offer two stories each that entertain in an unexpected way, giving the reader a slightly askew look at the holiday season. What better way to be introduced to authors you haven’t tried before?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

No Honor Among ThievesNo Honor Among Thieves
An Ali Reynolds/Joanna Brady Novella
J.A. Jance
Pocket Star Books, November 2015
ISBN 978-1-5011-3559-0
Ebook

From the publisher—

“A semi’s gone over the embankment.” The call wakes Sheriff Joanna Brady in the middle of the night, but what brings her fully alert is the rest of the story. The driver didn’t drift off to sleep and cross the center line—he was shot, multiple times, by someone with serious firepower. And when the truck crashed through the guardrail, its payload wound up scattered all over the road—boxes upon boxes of Legos.

Legos that are being tracked by B. Simpson’s security firm to reduce black market sales—and Ali Reynolds is just the woman to get to the bottom of the crime. She has the tech and the intel to follow the money (or, in this case, the Legos), which makes her a valuable asset to Joanna’s team. Soon these two strong women realize that they’re not just sharing a case, they’re kindred spirits—which is paramount, because the killer they’re up against is anything but child’s play.

A new Joanna Brady story is always a treat to my way of thinking and, in No Honor Among Thieves, we get the best of two protagonists, Joanna and Ali Reynolds. So much fun!

Other characters are just as enjoyable, Kendra, B. and Cami just to name a few. One of Ms. Jance‘s particular strengths lies in creating characters you can develop a connection with and I never feel overloaded with names to keep straight other than a few of the very minor players.

Who knew LEGOS are actually a hot product on the black market? Yes, those little plastic things you make cool stuff with go for high prices once a set is retired, much like other collectibles, and that’s what brings Ali into the investigation. Her husband’s security company has been hired to shadow LEGOS shipments to try to identify the sources of the black market commodities and B. sends Ali to the scene to check out the identification chips on the LEGOS packages, hopefully to figure out why a midsized truck was carrying the toys on back roads. What she and Joanna find, though, only adds to the puzzle of why someone wanted to kill the driver in such a spectacular fashion and, before it’s all over, a gigantic mistake is made.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Peril by PonytailPeril by Ponytail
A Bad Hair Day Mystery #12
Nancy J. Cohen
Five Star Publishing, September 2015
ISBN 978-1432830984
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Marla and Dalton’s honeymoon at an Arizona dude ranch veers from dangerous to downright deadly faster than a horse headed to the corral. With her husband’s uncle–the resort’s owner–on the suspect list for murder, Marla races to prove his innocence. She hopes her blind trust isn’t misplaced, especially when she learns their relative has secrets he’d rather keep buried. As the bodies pile up, she digs deep to find the killer. With her new family in jeopardy, she’d better figure out who’s adding to the spirits haunting a nearby ghost town before someone she loves is hurt.

The very idea of the girly-girl Marla honeymooning at a dude ranch was funny enough to make me want to read Peril by Ponytail, latest in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries, and I found myself highly entertained by the scenario. Marla is her usual snoopy self (although, as can be expected, quite rational about it) and feels compelled to investigate when her uncle by marriage becomes a murder suspect in the midst of a series of mishaps at the ranch and a nearby ghost town.

The relationship between Marla and her police detective husband, Dalton, is appealing, partially because they respect each other’s abilities in investigating crime. Marla is no ditzy woman who thinks she knows better than the police; rather, they work together comfortably.

Secrets abound, motives keep cropping up and danger seems to be everywhere but there’s fun to be had watching Marla do her thing. She might want folks to think she’s annoyed by the interruption to her honeymoon but those of us who’ve been following her adventures for years know better, don’t we? 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

One Year AfterOne Year After
William R. Forstchen
Forge, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-7670-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The story picks up a year after One Second After ends, two years since the detonation of nuclear weapons above the United States brought America to its knees. After suffering starvation, war, and countless deaths, the survivors of Black Mountain, North Carolina, are beginning to piece back together the technologies they had once taken for granted: electricity, radio communications, and medications. They cling to the hope that a new national government is finally emerging.

Then comes word that most of the young men and women of the community are to be drafted into an “Army of National Recovery” and sent to trouble spots hundreds of miles away.

When town administrator John Matherson protests the draft, he’s offered a deal: leave Black Mountain and enter national service, and the draft will be reduced. But the brutal suppression of a neighboring community under its new federal administrator and the troops accompanying him suggests that all is not as it should be with this burgeoning government.

Six years ago, I read One Second After by this same author and was struck by how well Mr. Forstchen created the world that would exist immediately after a devastating EMP attack and during the following year. Black Mountain, NC, became a microcosm of the self-destruction and the triumph over extreme adversity that would inevitably follow such an event, made even more realistic for me because I’ve been to the real Black Mountain and could easily “see” what went on. All these years later, it remains one of my favorite post-apocalyptic novels despite a few flaws and I hoped the author would someday let us know what happened to the survivors of Black Mountain.

Finally, I heard earlier this year that the sequel was coming out and I jumped right on it. Let me just say I was not the least bit disappointed and found the premise of a bureaucracy run amok to be completely credible. After all, there are many people in this world who think they should be in charge but I also have no trouble believing the people of a small town would come together in an effort to do what’s right and best for their neighbors while still trying to help those outside the community. Setting this story in a small town was the perfect thing to do because the reader really gets to know the people and develop a strong connection that isn’t as likely in a densely-populated area. This sequel focuses on what the survivors would do after the initial emergency, what choices they would make going forward. One Year After is a gripping novel although, by the nature of the beast, it doesn’t have the riveting impact of the first book. Still, I’m really anticipating the third book, Unite Or Die, due out in September 2016.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blonde Hair, Blue EyesBlonde Hair, Blue Eyes
Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-2442819
Ebook
Also available in mass market paperback

From the publisher—

“A beautiful young girl was walking down the street―when suddenly…”

Julia Carroll knows that too many stories start that way. Beautiful, intelligent, a nineteen-year-old college freshman, she should be carefree. But instead she is frightened. Because girls are disappearing.

A fellow student, Beatrice Oliver, is missing. A homeless woman called Mona-No-Name is missing. Both taken off the street. Both gone without a trace.

Julia is determined to find out the reasons behind their disappearances. And she doesn’t want to be next…

Karin Slaughter‘s name always comes to my mind when I hear the word “thriller”. She’s a bit too realistic for some readers but I love her work and had been anxiously awaiting her new standalone, Pretty Girls, when I saw that there was a prequel short story, giving us the backstory of one of the Pretty Girls characters. I tend to read prequels after the fact even when they’re actually offered before the primary novel so I was especially eager to grab Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes.

When bad things happen to young women, they’re frequently blonde with blue eyes as that seems to be a favorite type for bad guys. What’s interesting about this particular blonde is that she knows girls have gone missing and she’s frightened for herself, as any rational person would be, but she’s still determined to write the story that will focus attention on the supposed abductions. In doing so, Julia puts a target on her own back…or is it possible the danger is closer to home?

All in all, this is an excellent lead-in to Pretty Girls.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2015.

 

Book Reviews: Books 1 and 2 of the New World Series by G. Michael Hopf

The EndThe End
 Book 1 of the New World Series
A Postapocalyptic Novel
G. Michael Hopf
Plume, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-14-218149-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

What would you do to survive?

Young Gordon Van Zandt valued duty and loyalty to country above all, so after 9/11, he dropped out of college and joined the Marine Corps. This idealism vanished one fateful day in a war-torn city in Iraq. Ten years later, he is still struggling with the ghosts of his past when a new reality is thrust upon him and his family: North America, Europe and the Far East have all suffered a devastating Super-EMP attack, which causes catastrophic damage to the nation’s power grid and essential infrastructures. Everything from cell phones to cars to computers cease to function, putting society at a standstill.

With civilization in chaos, Gordon must fight for the limited and fast dwindling resources. He knows survival requires action and cooperation with his neighbors, but as the days wear on, so does all sense of civility within his community—and so he must make some of the most difficult decisions of his life in order to ensure his family’s safety. 

Rarely have I been so conflicted about a book and I fear it won’t get any better with the second novel. At its core, this is a strong post-apocalyptic story with tension running higher and higher with every day that passes after the EMP attack but, sadly, the plot can’t make up for the flaws in most of the characters.

Put simply, the women are useless unless overrun with power madness and the men are overbearing bullies, manly men who always know best. There are exceptions, of course, Sebastian and Jimmy being the most obvious, but Gordon, as likeable and dependable as he can be, knows no boundaries to his superior knowledge. Then there’s the President of the United States who is an uncontrollable hothead and, like Gordon, will listen to no one else’s opinion. And the women? Apparently, not one is capable of lifting a finger for her own survival, much less anyone else’s, unless someone dares to threaten her child and then Mama Bear comes out. Where are all the women we see around us every day who are perfectly capable of going on supply runs, wielding a weapon with accuracy, coming to the defense of others, driving a vehicle, for heaven’s sake?? Samantha’s only roles, apparently, are to look after Hunter and Haley (perfectly understandable) and whisper sweet nothings into Gordon’s ear while Mindy is the stereotypical HOA witch. Only Simone seems as though she could be somewhat useful but her role is very limited.

And this is the source of my conflict—I think the plot is really good and gives a good picture of how society would fall apart in such a situation but the characters are SO hard to care about. I understand that someone like Gordon who has a military background and experience with hostilities might be best suited to lead others in the quest for survival but it’s difficult to overlook his trigger-happiness and his inability to EVER admit he might be wrong. President Conner is easier to understand because he’s been thrust into a frightening situation he never thought could happen but it’s even more terrifying to contemplate how unwilling those surrounding him are to confront him when he insists on action that will bring our destruction even faster. Perhaps Lt. Colonel Barone is the easiest of the main characters to understand as I have no doubt some military leader somewhere would mutiny and attempt to “rule”.

When all is said and done, the story is interesting enough to keep me reading so I’ll move on to the next book, The Long Road. Maybe these people will start to grow on me. At the very least, I want to see what will happen with Sebastian, Gordon’s brother, who’s trying desperately to get back to his only family.

 

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2014.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Long RoadThe Long Road
Book 2 of the New World Series
A Postapocalyptic Novel
G. Michael Hopf
Plume, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-14-218150-8Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

The End was just the beginning of the new world…

Only six weeks have passed since a super-EMP attack devastated the United States, but already, life has changed dramatically. Most of America has become  a wasteland filled with starving bands of people, mobs and gangs. Millions are dead and millions more are suffering, with no end in sight.

For Gordon, Samantha, Sebastian, Cruz and Barone, the turmoil and chaos they dealt with in the early weeks after the attack will seem trivial in comparison to the collapse of society that plays out before their eyes. Uncertainty abounds as they all travel different paths in search of a safe place to call home. The only thing that is definite is that The Long Road will take its toll on all of them.

In The End, the EMP attack happens on December 5, 2014, and the small band under Gordon’s leadership leaves San Diego on January 6, 2015 . How is it possible that both the author and the publisher could fail to notice that the dates in this second novel are wrong all the way through? The first one concludes in January 2015; the story continues in January 2014 (after the introductory chapter with Haley) and it is not a flashback. I could understand an error getting past all eyes one time but this was previously self-published so it’s had more than just the publisher/author round of proofing. Chapter after chapter, the error goes on and that pulled me out of the story more than anything else could. It’s just sloppy and makes me feel that neither the author nor the publisher cared enough to correct it which is certainly easy enough to do in the digital editions if not the paperback and surely I’m not the first reader to notice this. (Note: I didn’t just get an uncorrected copy—the sample on Amazon is the same.)

Another dating issue occurs on January 16th when a mention is made that one of the groups has been camped out for eleven days but they had just reached that spot on January 8th.

Faction leaders—Lt. Col. Barone, Bishop Sorenson, Rahab, Cruz, Pablo Jaurez, Gordon—all must be in control and all are victims of madness to varying degrees except for Cruz, who is just very weak, and Bishop Sorenson. He is a kindly man, too kindly for the circumstances, but it was a relief to find one person in a position of leadership who truly cared for other people.

The one person who is consistently an honorable man is Sebastian and perhaps he and the bishop represent the minority that would be trying to survive with decency while all the others are the types we would most likely encounter in a post-apocalyptic world. Rahab is the scary monster living under the bed but Barone and Jaurez are the men truly to be feared. Gordon, the supposed hero of the story, is frightening if only because he is so deadly and can’t control himself. His impulses, as often as not, lead to terrible consequences.

This part of the story covers just 10 days which I also found disappointing and, quite honestly, far too many pages are devoted to those 10 days. Still, with all my negative feelings about this book and its predecessor, I am completely caught up and need to know what will happen next; despite everything else, this is the hallmark of a good story, to be compelled to read on. I’ll be picking up Sanctuary as soon as I can.

 

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2014.

Book Review: Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick

ShadowsShadows
Ashes Trilogy #2

Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont USA, September 2012
ISBN 978-1-60684-176-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The Apocalypse does not end. The Changed will grow in numbers. The Spared may not survive.

Even before the EMPs brought down the world, Alex was on the run from the demons of her past and the monster living in her head. After the world was gone, she believed Rule could be a sanctuary for her and those she’d come to love. But she was wrong.

Now Alex is in the fight of her life against the adults, who would use her, the survivors, who don’t trust her, and the Changed, who would eat her alive.

Welcome to Shadows, the second book in the haunting apocalyptic Ashes Trilogy: where no one is safe and humans may be the worst of the monsters.

This has been such a difficult review to write. How do you express misgivings about a favorite author’s new book but still give it some much-deserved  love?

Following the intense pace of things happening to Alex and Tom is nearly exhausting, certainly unnerving in some parts. The Changed are not really zombies, but have many of their characteristics, so watching them becoming mentally aware and yet still inhuman is downright scary. Add to that the real menace presented by the religious cult as well as the brutal cold and snow and you have to wonder if you, the reader, would have any chance of survival, especially with the torture and other terrible, stomach-churning things going on. It’s a good thing a few of the characters still warrant our love—and love is what it is. Feeling what they go through is as bad as what we might suffer on behalf of our own family and friends in like circumstances, heaven forbid.

The first book, Ashes, was just marvelous and landed in my list of favorite books of 2011, but this one can’t be included in my 2012 list. Ms. Bick is well aware of the issues—she addresses them on her website in a lengthy synopsis/reminder of what happened in the first book and who the characters are. I understand the rationale behind just picking up where Ashes left off but, for me, it doesn’t work. It might have if (1) I had seen her post before reading Shadows and (2) the story had continued to focus on Alex and Tom, at least in the early chapters, but the author chose to throw in a LOT of new or lesser-known characters and geographic settings, plus the story is told from multiple points of view. The end result, for me, was a constant struggle to try to remember who certain people were and where the action was taking place (that’s important because of the efforts of people to get where they need to go). Even something as simple as a cast of characters would have made reading Shadows a lot easier and would have prevented much of the confusion.

Will this stop me from reading the next book, Monsters? Absolutely not because, in spite of everything that bothered me in Ashes, I still love the concept, the worldbuilding, the characters (yes, even the Changed, at least some of them) and Ms. Bick‘s impressive ability to put words together, not to mention craft images that linger a long, long time. What I’ll do next year is re-read the first two books before tackling the third—re-reads will be no chore, believe me—and hope that Monsters will be less confusing. So, yes, I do recommend this but read Ashes before you read Shadows, or read the author’s post on her website.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2012.

Book Review: Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

AshesAshes
Ilsa J. Bick
Egmont, September 2011
ISBN 978-1-60684-175-4
Hardcover (e-ARC)

Three young people, strangers to each other, band together along with a dog named Mina for survival in the Waucamaw Wilderness after an electromagnetic pulse has destroyed all electronic devices. Unknown to them, billions of people have died but teenaged Alex, eight-year-old Ellie and Tom, just back from Afghanistan, are faced with other horrors—wild dogs and crazed humans—as they hike in search of help.  Not everything is horrific, though, as Alex has regained her sense of smell, which she had lost to a brain tumor, and that sense has an unusual quality, one that has saved them multiple times. As days and then weeks pass, it becomes more evident that their world has changed permanently and not for the better.

Then they hear about a place where “normal” people have found refuge. Heading to the town called Rule appears to be the best solution, particularly after a violent encounter with a roving band of thieves. Rule, though, may not be the sanctuary it seems to be and Alex will have to find her own way back to sanity.

Post-apocalyptic fiction can be disturbing, fascinating, frightening, heroic and enlightening, regardless of the cause of the disaster, but Ms. Bick has brought a fresh element to this EMP-caused event. Readers are accustomed to the destruction of all things electronic but here we have direct effects on the humans who survive. The idea that there are essentially three classes of people—those with special senses, those who have turned extremely violent and all those who fall between—is very interesting and the author has done a nice job of creating and maintaining a high level of tension.  She also upends the reader’s grasp of the storyline by having a major event take place midway through the book and some readers will be discomfited by the sudden change while others will find it increases the stress and drama and makes the tale even more provoking. The book is longer than many young adult novels but the length is necessary for the story and my reading through the night is because of my own need to know what would happen next, always a sign of a good tale.

Ashes is the first book of a trilogy, to be followed by Shadows and Monsters, and this reviewer hates having to wait till next August or September for Shadows.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2011.