Book Review: No Fixed Line (Kate Shugak, #22) by Dana Stabenow

Title: No Fixed Line (Kate Shugak, #22)
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Mystery/crime
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

… though there is no fixed line between wrong and right,
There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.

It is New Year’s Eve, nearly six weeks into an off-and-on blizzard that has locked Alaska down, effectively cutting it off from the outside world.

But now there are reports of a plane down in the Quilak mountains. With the National Transportation Safety Board unable to reach the crash site, ex-Trooper Jim Chopin is pulled out of retirement to try to identify the aircraft, collect the corpses, and determine why no flight has been reported missing. But Jim discovers survivors: two children who don’t speak a word of English.

Meanwhile, PI Kate Shugak receives an unexpected and unwelcome accusation from beyond the grave, a charge that could change the face of the Park forever.

A quick word before diving into the review: The synopsis above is not entirely accurate. The details of finding the children are off. Kate gets something from a dead man, but not exactly an accusation. The whole thing is not quite right… just know that ahead of time if such things matter to you.

Anyhoo… let’s talk about No Fixed Line!

Kate Shugak is one of my favorite fictional characters, and naturally, I’m beyond thrilled to get a new volume in this terrific ongoing series — three years after the last book came out, and believe me, it’s been a long three years!

Kate is a Native Alaskan of Aleut descent, a former investigator for the Anchorage DA’s office who now works as a private investigator, generally at risk to her own neck in one way or another. She lives on an isolated homestead in the fictitious Niniltna Park, and associates with a wide array of quirky and unusual characters, from aunties to state troopers to law enforcement types to bush pilots and beyond.

The Kate books also feature a Very Good Dog. Mutt is half wolf, half husky, is Kate’s constant companion, and is truly one of the very best dogs in fiction.

In No Fixed Line, book #22, Kate finds herself drawn into a mystery after two young children are recovered from a plane crash in the remote mountains, leading to a complex conspiracy involving drug distribution and human trafficking. The case itself is harrowing and disturbing.

But beyond the mystery driving the plot, one of the main pleasures of the Kate books is the community that we come to know over the course of the series. I love the beautiful Alaska setting, the gritty reality of life in Anchorage as well as the more remote locations, and the variety of characters who represent the different factions and strata within Alaskan society, from tribal elders to oil and mining tycoons to isolationist homesteaders — it’s a unique and eclectic bunch. All are present and accounted for in No Fixed Line, and the web of politics and corruption and influence sneaks its way into all of the day-to-day concerns of the Park folks just trying to live their lives.

As in all of the books, Kate herself is marvelous — fierce and loyal and strong as steel, but with internal and external scars that she carries with her always. She’s incredibly devoted to her family and the wide group of people she considers hers, and will do whatever it takes to keep the people she loves safe.

I would not suggest starting anywhere but at the beginning of the series, with book #1, A Cold Day for Murder. It’s worth the effort, I promise! I binged the entire series a few years ago, and loved every moment.

No Fixed Line is an engaging addition to the Kate Shugak series, and leaves me hungry for more! Here’s hoping that #23 will come along before another three years go by.

Book Review: The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Title: The Vanished Birds
Author: Simon Jimenez
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A mysterious child lands in the care of a solitary woman, changing both of their lives forever in this captivating debut of connection across space and time.

“This is when your life begins.”

Nia Imani is a woman out of place and outside of time. Decades of travel through the stars are condensed into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her; all she has left is work. Alone and adrift, she lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.

A boy, broken by his past.

The scarred child does not speak, his only form of communication the beautiful and haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and their strange, immediate connection, Nia decides to take the boy in. And over years of starlit travel, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself.

For both of them, a family.

But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy. The past hungers for him, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart. 

The Vanished Birds is both lovely and perplexing, a science fiction story about space travel and corporate domination that’s also a deeply personal story about love, identity, and home.

The book opens on what we come to learn is a Resource World owned by the ubiquitous Umbai corporation. At first glance, we’ve arrived in a rural, agricultural community that seems quaint and unsophisticated. The people of the village work in the dhuba fields; their crop is collected once every 15 years by the space travelling ships that carry out trade across the galaxy.

A boy in the village, Kaeda, is seven years old when he sees the ships arrive for the first time, and he’s immediately captivated by their beauty as well as by the mysterious allure of Nia Imani, the ship’s captain.

The trick here, though, is that ships travel through Pocket Space, secret folds through time that allow them to travel faster than the time passing on the planets. The fifteen years in between visits to Kaeda’s world take only eight months on Nia’s ship. The beautiful first chapter of The Vanished Birds traces the strange relationship between Kaeda and Nia, as each of her visits reintroduces her to Kaeda at a different point in his life, from boyhood to youth to adult to elder.

Later, a strange boy arrives in Kaeda’s world, seemingly out of nowhere. Mute, naked, and scarred, he’s taken in by Kaeda, but because it’s clear that he’s from elsewhere, he’s then given into Nia’s care.

The story shifts to Nia and her crew as they travel with the boy, trying to unravel his secrets and keep him safe. From here, the plot expands outward. We meet Fumiko Nakajima, the brilliant scientist who leaves behind her strange upbringing on a dying Earth to become the creator of the interplanetary systems of travel that fuel the next thousand years. And we learn more about the end of Earth, the expansion of Umbai and their tight control, and the different concepts of space travel.

But what really is essential here is the language and the people. The writing in The Vanished Birds is almost poetic at times, filled with unusual imagery and looping writing. The characters are complex, as are their relationships with time and memory.

While we see the unspeakable cruelty of Umbai and the degradation of the lives considered lesser, the exploitation of the Resource Worlds, and the easy dismissal of the value of life, most of science fiction elements are in soft focus. We learn about the methods of travel, the research institutes and their obscene experimentation, but very little of it is explained in great detail. This book is less hard science fiction and much more a meditation on the meaning of it all.

While beautifully written, at times The Vanished Birds frustrated me, as I do tend to gravitate toward a more literal science fiction approach, and occasionally wanted more straight-forward answers and explanations.

Still, this book overall is an unusual and emotionally powerful read. I think it’ll be on my mind for quite some time, from the almost folkloric beginning to the tragic but inevitable end.

Highly recommended.

For more on The Vanished Birds, check out:

Review – The Captain’s Quarters
The Big Idea – from John Scalzi’s Whatever blog
Review – AV Club
Review – Locus Magazine
Review – Tor.com

Book Review: Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Title: Race to the Sun
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Publisher: Disney Book Group / Rick Riordan Presents
Publication date: January 14, 2020
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Lately, seventh grader Nizhoni Begay has been able to detect monsters, like that man in the fancy suit who was in the bleachers at her basketball game. Turns out he’s Mr. Charles, her dad’s new boss at the oil and gas company, and he’s alarmingly interested in Nizhoni and her brother, Mac, their Navajo heritage, and the legend of the Hero Twins. Nizhoni knows he’s a threat, but her father won’t believe her.

When Dad disappears the next day, leaving behind a message that says “Run!”, the siblings and Nizhoni’s best friend, Davery, are thrust into a rescue mission that can only be accomplished with the help of Diné Holy People, all disguised as quirky characters. Their aid will come at a price: the kids must pass a series of trials in which it seems like nature itself is out to kill them. If Nizhoni, Mac, and Davery can reach the House of the Sun, they will be outfitted with what they need to defeat the ancient monsters Mr. Charles has unleashed. But it will take more than weapons for Nizhoni to become the hero she was destined to be . . .

Timeless themes such as the importance of family and respect for the land resonate in this funny, fast-paced, and exciting quest adventure set in the American Southwest. 

What fun! Race to the Sun is the middle grade children’s adventure novel that we absolutely needed!

Written by the talented Rebecca Roanhorse, Race to the Sun uses Navajo mythology in an epic quest full of danger and trials. Main characer Nizhoni, a 7th grader who wants to be special, finds herself able to sense monsters — a gift which becomes crucial when her father goes missing.

Accompanied by younger brother Mac and best friend Davery, these three tweens must navigate the American Southwest through landmarks both real and fantastical, facing down monsters and accepting assistance from legendary characters such as Spider Woman, Yellow Corn Girl, and the Sun himself.

Along the way, the children learn lessons about bravery, sacrifice, loyalty, and the importance of their roots and their connection to their people’s past.

(It’s also an understated but quite effective premise to have the bad guy being the head of an oil company that wants to exploit ancestral clan powers to help his frakking business!)

The adventure skips along quickly, with moments of scary breathlessness as well more humorous interludes and moments of sadness and loss. All are woven together into a quest story that never flags, throwing in unexpected twists and turns as well as moments of grace and insight.

Race to the Sun is part of Disney’s Rick Riordan Presents imprint, described on Rick Riordan’s website as:

Our goal is to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage. Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from my fans about whether I might write about various world mythologies, but in most cases I knew I wasn’t the best person to write those books. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience!

This is a fitting home for Race to the Sun, as I can see this book absolutely being a hit for kids who’ve read and loved the Percy Jackson books and are eager for more tales of heroes and legends and the ordinary kids who find hidden gifts inside themselves.

I also think it’s important that both Native and non-Native young readers have the opportunity to be exposed to mythologies beyond the Greek and Roman that are taught in school. Race to the Sun does this in an engaging, authentic way without ever making it feel like being force-fed something educational.

Highly recommended for middle grade readers and their parents, teachers, and anyone else who appreciates seeing well-written, engrossing stories with multicultural perspectives end up in the hands of excited readers!

Book Review: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 206 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The fifth installment in Seanan McGuire’s award-winning, bestselling Wayward Children series, Come Tumbling Down picks up the threads left dangling by Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones

When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister–whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice–back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

I adore Seanan McGuire. I adore everything she writes. I adore the Wayward Children series.

So is it any surprise when I say that I loved Come Tumbling Down?

In this, the 5th installment in what I hope will be a long, ongoing series of fantasy novellas, we return to the events of book #2, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and finally find out what happened next.

Which, right off the bat, tickles me pink, because Down Among the Sticks and Bones is — no question about it — my favorite in the entire series. So I was thrilled to return to the world of the Moors, the war between mad scientists and vampires, and the struggle to resurrect and reanimate that which has been lost.

For those new to this series, the basic idea is this: Eleanor West runs a boarding school for children who’ve returned to their parents’ homes after an absence which has left them strange and unmanageable. What the parents don’t understand, but Eleanor West certainly does, is that these missing children found doors to other worlds — world of logic or nonsense, worlds of virtue or wickedness, and all sorts of points on the compass between extremes**. Whether kicked out or voluntarily returned, the children no longer fit in their mundane lives, but find solace and shelter with the other misfits like themselves at the home for wayward children.

In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we learned about twins Jack and Jill and their time spent on the Moors. We pick up their story in Come Tumbling Down as one of the twins returns to the school – but which one?

Oh, I really don’t want to give anything away! This book, like all the others, is filled to the brim with fantasy and danger and challenges, but rooted deeply by its unique and memorable characters. There’s Sumi, a nonsense girl who knows her destiny lies in the world of Confection; Cora, a mermaid who longs to return to the sea; Kade, a Goblin prince who accepts that his chosen world may not choose him any longer; and Christopher, who dreams of life in the land of Mariposa with his true love, the Skeleton Girl.

When the missing twin returns and needs help with her life-or-death quest, the friends are quick to stand by her and venture through the door to the Moors, risking their own lives in an attempt to right the balance so crucial in that world.

As in all of the Wayward Children books, Seanan McGuire’s writing is lyrical and magical, infusing every moment with otherworldly flavors and fantastical elements, some menacing, some magical, some downright funny.

I’ll share some chosen selections here, although narrowing it down to just a few is hard. Here’s what my book looked like by the time I got close to the end:

 Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scisors through her sister’s horrible heart.

“My parents,” she said. “They were like Nancy’s but the other way around, chasing monochrome instead of spectrums. They didn’t understand. Thought if they threw enough gray and gray and gray at me, I’d forget I’d seen rainbows and learn how to be their little sparrow-girl again. She died in Confection and I rose from her ashes, a pretty pastry phoenix.

Sumi looked up and smiled serenely. “Look at the moon,” she said. “It’s like the sugared cherry on the biggest murder sundae in the whole world.”

Indoor lightning storms, resurrected girls, and giant, bloody moons were terrifying enough without throwing in headless corpses, vampire lords, and something called a “Drowned God.”

And another from Sumi, because she’s awesome and so are her sundae analogies:

“This is terrible,” said Sumi brightly. “I mean, we knew it was going to be terrible when we followed a mad scientist and her dead girlfriend to a horrifying murder world, but this is bonus terrible. This is the awful sprinkles on the sundae of doom.”

Ah, I’ll stop here. I loved this book, and I love this series wholeheartedly. Each of the books is lovely on its own, and Come Tumbling Down is a worthy, enthralling addition to the series.

Beautiful, haunting writing, a creep-tastic setting, mad scientists and Drowned Gods, and the bestest friends squad you’d ever want at your back. What more could we ask for?

A note of advice: If the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones aren’t fresh in your mind, then definitely pause for a re-read (or enjoy the excellent audiobook version) before diving in to Come Tumbling Down.

**Want to know more about the worlds of the Wayward Children books? Check out this excellent guide!

Illustration by Rovina Cai from Come Tumbling Down.
You will love these two horses. Promise.

Take A Peek Book Review: Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins by Katarina Bivald

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Title: Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins
Author: Katarina Bivald
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: January 7, 2020
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐

Synopsis:

From New York Times bestselling author Katarina Bivald comes a charming tale of a ramshackle roadside motel: a heartwarming story of love, friendship, community, and the art of living, even when it’s already too late.

The Pine Creek Motel has seen better days. Henny would call it charming, but she’s always seen the best in things. Like now, when she’s just met an untimely end crossing the road. She’s not going to let a tiny thing like death stop her from living fully—not when her friends and family need her the most.

After the funeral is over, her body is buried, and the last casserole dish is empty, Henny is still around. She’s not sure why, but she realizes she has one last opportunity to help her friends discover the happiness they once knew before they lose the motel and cabins they’ve cherished for years.

My Thoughts:

Katarina Bivald’s 2016 novel about small-town life, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, completely charmed me, and I picked up Welcome to the Pine Away Motel and Cabins expecting a similar reading experience. Sadly, it didn’t really work out that way for me.

In this new novel, we see the town of Pine Creek, Oregon through the eyes of Henny Broek, who’s dead as of page one, having been hit by a truck on a day when she was feeling particularly happy. Henny doesn’t really understand how she can be dead yet still stick around, but she decides to embrace the opportunity to spend more time with her friends and loved ones, hoping to make sure that they all end up happy. And happiness for this group of misfits centers on the motel, where Henny has worked ever since her teens, a place that has always felt like her true home.

The story is long and rambles quite a bit. We’re supposed to be getting to know Henny through her friends’ experiences and memories, but she and the rest of the characters remain somewhat unknowable. There are hints of personalities, but I didn’t feel that I got a grasp on most of them. The love story here is confusing, and Henny’s purpose is as well. The book makes it seem as though Henny herself is bringing about changes in people’s lives, but as we see throughout the book, Henny is a ghost who can only tag along and observe. I know it’s meant to be charming to see the town and these quirky characters through Henny’s eyes, but honestly, it only made sense to me about half the time.

There’s a subplot about a conservative Christian group’s protests against the motel on grounds of immorality, which mirrors a campaign against gay rights that occurred in the state during Henny and her friends’ high school years. Why a local group would suddenly decide to protest the motel seems pretty arbitrary, and the deus ex machina resolution to the protests is fairly random too.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. If I hadn’t been reading a review copy, I might not have stuck around to the end. I did find moments that made me smile and liked some elements, but overall, this book is messy and too long and lacks a strong focus. What a disappointment.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my TBR list for winter 2019/2020

snowy10

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is about our winter reading plans.

Last week, my TTT was all about the ARCs I have coming up at the start of the new year. This week, I’m focusing on other books I’m looking forward to reading — some upcoming new releases, some books I’ve bought recently, and one that I’ve had for way too long and really need to get to.

The first four on my list are all new volumes in ongoing series, and just thinking about them makes me happy.

1) Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children, #5) by Seanan McGuire: This book comes out in early January, and I can’t wait! I love this series so much, and I’m especially excited for this one because it picks up where one of my favorites (Down Among the Sticks and Bones) left off.

2) No Fixed Line (Kate Shugak, #22) by Dana Stabenow: I love this series, the Alaska setting, and Kate herself, who is just an awesome lead character. I’ve been itching for more Kate — so excited for this upcoming January release!

3) Imaginary Numbers (InCryptid, #9) by Seanan McGuire: Yup, even more Seanan McGuire! And yes, I do love everything she writes. The InCryptid series is really fun, and I’m super excited for this book, especially since I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway. (Thanks, Goodreads!)

4) Smoke Bitten (Mercy Thompson, #12) by Patricia Briggs: Mercy is one of my favorite lead characters, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for her and her pack.

Other (non-series) books I’m looking forward to reading:

5) Well Met by Jen DeLuca: I’ve been on a roll with cute romances lately, and this story, set at a RenFaire, sounds adorable.

6) Alice by Christina Henry: I’m officially in love with Christina Henry’s writing, so it’s time to go back and read the books I’ve missed.

7) The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri: This is my book club’s pick for January, and I’m really determined to make more of an effort to keep up with our monthly reads this year.

8) Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey: From the Goodreads blurb: “The future American Southwest is full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” Um, yes please! I love Sarah Gailey’s writing, and this sounds pretty amazing.

9) Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir: I finally picked up a copy, so this is high on my priority list! Maybe even this week…

10) Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik: I bought this when it came out in 2018 — it’s about time that I finally read it!

What books will be keeping you warm this winter? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Cover reveal: Smoke Bitten by Patricia Briggs!

Check it out! It’s the cover for the upcoming new Mercy Thompson book, to be released March 10, 2020.

Smoke Bitten will be book #12 in the series. I love all of the Mercy books, and can’t wait for the new one! And isn’t this cover just gorgeous?

Synopsis:

Mercy Thompson, car mechanic and shapeshifter, faces a threat unlike any other in this thrilling entry in the #1 New York Times bestselling series.

I am Mercedes Athena Thompson Hauptman.

My only “superpowers” are that I turn into a thirty-five pound coyote and fix Volkswagens. But I have friends in odd places and a pack of werewolves at my back. It looks like I’m going to need them.

Centuries ago, the fae dwelt in Underhill–until she locked her doors against them. They left behind their great castles and troves of magical artifacts. They abandoned their prisoners and their pets. Without the fae to mind them, those creatures who remained behind roamed freely through Underhill wreaking havoc. Only the deadliest survived.

Now one of those prisoners has escaped. It can look like anyone, any creature it chooses. But if it bites you, it controls you. It lives for chaos and destruction. It can make you do anything–even kill the person you love the most. Now it is here, in the Tri-Cities. In my territory.

It won’t, can’t, remain.

Not if I have anything to say about it.

Preorder? Check. And now we wait.