Book Review: Calculated Risks (InCryptid, #10) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Calculated Risks (InCryptid series, book #10)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: February 23, 2021
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The tenth book in the fast-paced InCryptid urban fantasy series returns to the mishaps of the Price family, eccentric cryptozoologists who safeguard the world of magical creatures living in secret among humans.

Just when Sarah Zellaby, adopted Price cousin and telepathic ambush predator, thought that things couldn’t get worse, she’s had to go and prove herself wrong. After being kidnapped and manipulated by her birth family, she has undergone a transformation called an instar, reaching back to her Apocritic origins to metamorphize. While externally the same, she is internally much more powerful, and much more difficult to control.

Even by herself. After years of denial, the fact that she will always be a cuckoo has become impossible to deny.

Now stranded in another dimension with a handful of allies who seem to have no idea who she is–including her cousin Annie and her maybe-boyfriend Artie, both of whom have forgotten their relationship–and a bunch of cuckoos with good reason to want her dead, Sarah must figure out not only how to contend with her situation, but with the new realities of her future. What is she now? Who is she now? Is that person someone she can live with?

And when all is said and done, will she be able to get the people she loves, whether or not they’ve forgotten her, safely home?

It’s that wonderful time of the year… when we get another InCryptid book! Calculated Risks is #10 in this ongoing urban fantasy series, and it does not disappoint in the slightest. Really, you could look at Calculated Risks as #9, part II, since the action picks up right where the previous book, Imaginary Numbers, left off.

Books 9 & 10 focus on Sarah Zellaby, a non-human member of the extended Price-Healy family, who are renowned cryptozoologists and deadly enemies of the all-powerful Covenant. There’s a lot to know about the Price family, which is why anyone new to the InCryptid series absolutely must start at the beginning. There’s just no way for these books and the complex relationships between the characters to make sense without the full picture and backstory.

Here in #10, our main character Sarah finds herself in a strange alternate world, along with her cousins Annie and Artie, her kind-of cousin James, and a cuckoo, Mark, who is of the same species as Sarah. Got that? Sarah has inadvertently transported all of them, as well as the college campus they’d been standing on, to another dimension, as a last ditch effort to stop the world from being destroyed as the side effect of Sarah undergoing a mathematically based metamorphosis. It’s complicated.

Now, in this weird world, Sarah’s allies don’t know who she is and treat her with suspicion. The sky is orange. There are huge flying millipedes. And indignity of all indignities, Sarah doesn’t even have a bra! Still, it’s up to Sarah to convince her friends and relatives that they know her, that they don’t want to hurt her, and that she is likely the only person who can get them home again.

The adventure rips along at a super-charged pace, but we also get lots of emotional moments too as Sarah faces distrust and rejection from people she’s loved all her life. The challenge of getting home again relies on Sarah’s ability to carry out a dangerous equation that can rip through worlds, and to do it without killing herself and everyone around her.

As always, Seanan McGuire’s writing is funny, quirky, clever, and highly quotable:

“I have so many knives,” said Annie. “I am the Costco of having knives. You really want to provoke me right now, cuckoo-boy?”

“I am not a good place to store your knives,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I need to tell you this, but sticking knives in living people just because they say something you don’t like is the reason no one likes you or the rest of your fucked-up family.”

“I don’t want to be a monster. I refuse to be a monster. I am a person, and people get to make our own choices about whether or not we bare our claws.”

“Mean girl from the murder family has a point,” said Mark. “Also, now that I have spoken those words aloud, please kill me.”

Do not be afraid.

I hate it when people tell me not to be afraid. They never do that when something awesome is about to happen. No one says “don’t be afraid” and then hands you an ice cream cone, or a kitten, or tickets to Comic-Con.

Calculated Risks is just as much fun as the preceding books in the InCryptid series. I love that the main characters in the series shift between different family members as the books go along, and I can’t wait to see who the star of #11 will be (although — sigh — that’ll be a long year from now). Meanwhile, between familiar Price characters, Aeslin mice (a sapient species of talking mice who worship the Prices as deities), and new friends (like Greg, the humongous leaping spider who becomes Sarah’s protector), there’s plenty here to love and enjoy.

Calculated Risks includes a bonus novella, Singing the Comic-Con Blues, which is a light-weight, upbeat adventure set nine years before the events of the main novel. It’s sweet and entertaining, and is a nice little treat for dessert after some of the more dire events of Calculated Risks.

The InCryptid series continues to be fresh, exciting, and full of surprises. Seriously, if you’ve never read these books, start at the beginning (with Discount Armageddon) — I’ll bet you’ll be hooked before you even finish book #1. As for me, I’m tempted to go back to the beginning, just to have the pleasure of experiencing the bonkers adventures of the Prices all over again.

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Book Review: Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 10, 2016
Length: 532 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A thousand worlds have opened, and the greatest land rush in human history has begun. As wave after wave of colonists leave, the power structures of the old solar system begin to buckle.

Ships are disappearing without a trace. Private armies are being secretly formed. The sole remaining protomolecule sample is stolen. Terrorist attacks previously considered impossible bring the inner planets to their knees. The sins of the past are returning to exact a terrible price.

And as a new human order is struggling to be born in blood and fire, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante must struggle to survive and get back to the only home they have left.

Let me just say up front that this is going to be a short review — not because I didn’t love the book, but because I tore through it so quickly that I didn’t pause to take notes or mark amazing passages or terrific dialogue. Yes, I loved the book, and it definitely merits 5 stars!

The fifth book in the fabulous Expanse series, Nemesis Games has a lot going on. The key things to know are (1) the crew of the Rocinante spend most of the book apart, each going off on their own private journeys while their ship is undergoing major repairs, and (2) a massive terrorist attack by a dangerous Belter faction changes the power dynamics of the solar system, perhaps permanently.

Each of our four main characters gets a chance to shine, although Naomi’s saga is clearly the most dramatic and emotionally powerful. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, so I’ll be vague, but the attack by the Free Navy (the aggressive Belter faction) is shocking in its scope and impact.

The plotline of Nemesis Games is the basis of the excellent fifth season of The Expanse (now streaming on Amazon Prime), with a few changes here and there. While I’m usually a stickler for reading books before watching movie or TV adaptations, in this case, I’m glad I had the visuals of this season to help me while reading the book. So much of the technology, military aspects, etc are really complex, and having seen the depictions on TV really made the book passages feel more alive to me.

As I said, I’m keeping this review short, so I’ll just wrap up by saying that Nemesis Games and the entire series are highly recommended. The books are long, but they speed by. So far, there are 8 books in the series, with the 9th and final book set to be published sometime this year. I don’t think I’ll be able to get through all of the available books right away, but I do want to keep going! The books are exciting, pulse-pounding reading, and I just have to know what happens next!

Quick Take: Battle Ground (Dresden Files, #17) by Jim Butcher

Title: Battle Ground (Dresden Files, #17)
Author: Jim Butcher
Publisher: Ace
Publication date: September 29, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

THINGS ARE ABOUT TO GET SERIOUS FOR HARRY DRESDEN, CHICAGO’S ONLY PROFESSIONAL WIZARD, in the next entry in the #1 New York Times bestselling Dresden Files.

Harry has faced terrible odds before. He has a long history of fighting enemies above his weight class. The Red Court of vampires. The fallen angels of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Outsiders.

But this time it’s different. A being more powerful and dangerous on an order of magnitude beyond what the world has seen in a millennium is coming. And she’s bringing an army. The Last Titan has declared war on the city of Chicago, and has come to subjugate humanity, obliterating any who stand in her way.

Harry’s mission is simple but impossible: Save the city by killing a Titan. And the attempt will change Harry’s life, Chicago, and the mortal world forever.

Considering I’m up to volume 17 in the Dresden Files series, it’s safe to say that I’m a fan. And yet, I can’t give Battle Ground more than 2.5 stars.

Battle Ground is basically part two of the story begun in Peace Talks, the 16th book, published just three months earlier. I guess if they’d been combined, it would have made for one super massive book, so the publisher decided to break it in two — there’s really no other reason I can think of for not telling the entire story in one volume (and might have been a good opportunity to cut out some of the endless battle scenes…)

As you’d guess from the title, Battle Ground is all about a massive battle that threatens the destruction of Chicago, and from there, all of humankind. Our hero, Harry Dresden, charges in on the side of good alongside every ally he’s ever made, plus some former/future adversaries who’ve declared a truce for now in order to attempt to defeat the even worse bad guys.

Zzzzz…. oh, sorry, my eyes keep glazing over when I think about what a slog this book was.

If you like big, booming battles with lots of firepower, explosions, magical energy, and devastation of a major metropolis, you’ll probably love Battle Ground. As for me, a book that’s basically one long, extended battle for at least 80% of its length does not make for great reading.

I read the Dresden books for the characters, the escapades, the life-or-death struggles… but not never-ending action sequences where it’s almost impossible to tell who’s who or what awful creature has which awful powers, to be brought down by which even more awful weaponry. Sorry, but chapter after chapter after chapter of Harry throwing his power around, being outmatched, and then somehow soldiering on just doesn’t make for great reading.

There are some significant developments, including a major, heart-breaking loss, as well as the groundwork for what will likely be significant changes to come. And hey, 17 books in, of course I’ll keep going with the series. This particular book, though, just was not a stellar read for me.

Still, even though few and far between, there are still some great bits of Harry being a wise-ass that snapped me back to life in the midst of the more tedious firepower and spell-slinging, so I’ll close by sharing a few choice bits:

Then he made a fist and, carefully, bumped knuckles with me. The shock of it threatened to dislocate my shoulder again, but being all manly I didn’t make any high-pitched noises or anything. And you can’t prove otherwise.

“We didn’t see them until they got there! The foe has sneakily snucked a sneak attack behind our lines, like a sneaky sneak!”

I spun back to the enemy, brought my shield up—and stood tall. “You!” I said, relishing the moment. “Shall not! Pass!”

I’d never been in an epic mythology fight quite this epic before.

Don’t care how Titanic you are. No one expects an orbital-drop grizzly.

Book Review: Imaginary Numbers (InCryptid, #9) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Imaginary Numbers (InCryptid series, book #9)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: February 25, 2020
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The ninth book in the fast-paced InCryptid urban fantasy series returns to the mishaps of the Price family, eccentric cryptozoologists who safeguard the world of magical creatures living in secret among humans.

Sarah Zellaby has always been in an interesting position. Adopted into the Price family at a young age, she’s never been able to escape the biological reality of her origins: she’s a cuckoo, a telepathic ambush predator closer akin to a parasitic wasp than a human being. Friend, cousin, mathematician; it’s never been enough to dispel the fear that one day, nature will win out over nurture, and everything will change.

Maybe that time has finally come.

After spending the last several years recuperating in Ohio with her adoptive parents, Sarah is ready to return to the world–and most importantly, to her cousin Artie, with whom she has been head-over-heels in love since childhood. But there are cuckoos everywhere, and when the question of her own survival is weighed against the survival of her family, Sarah’s choices all add up to one inescapable conclusion.

This is war. Cuckoo vs. Price, human vs. cryptid…and not all of them are going to walk away.

It makes me so happy to have a new InCryptid book in my hands, especially since I won this one in a Goodreads giveaway, which pretty much never happens for me!

In Imaginary Numbers, the ongoing InCryptid series turns to two new point-of-view characters, Sarah Zellaby and Artie Harrington. Sarah and Artie are both members of the sprawling Price-Healy clan, a group of cryptozoologists dedicated to protecting non-human species from the persecution of the deadly Covenant, and equally dedicated to protecting humans from the deadlier of cryptid species. To that end, the Prices are all highly skilled with weaponry of all sorts, learning to become excellent shots and to throw knives with precision from childhood.

Sarah is the first non-human main character in this series. She’s a cuckoo, the common term for Johrlacs, which are a human-appearing species that are more or less descended from telepathic wasps. Cuckoos are apex predators. They can take over anyone’s mind and make them do whatever they want, and the effects can be fatal. Sarah was adopted into the Price family as a child, and so was raised with a different set of influences than a typical cuckoo, making her more aware of her responsibility to respect others’ boundaries and giving her a deep, true love for her family. As well as a different and very strong love for her cousin Artie, which the two of them have been too shy and awkward to ever acknowledge.

In this book, Sarah’s return to the family compound after a lengthy recovery from injury brings the attention of unknown cuckoos, who want to use her for their own purposes, and don’t care who they have to kill to make it happen. The action is intense and fast-paced, with a plot that’s occasionally confusing but always fun.

The InCryptid books tend to be a little less dire than Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, which regularly rips out my heart. This series is generally light-hearted, not that there aren’t perilous situations and heartbreaks here as well. Still, with a family that includes a sorcerer whose boyfriend is a human-sized monkey, a grandfather who’s patched together from dead bodies, and a time-traveling grandma who appears to be in her teens, things can’t get all that serious for too extended a time.

The author’s trademark quippiness and cleverness is on full display in Imaginary Numbers:

It wouldn’t stop the cuckoos on the lawn from pouring into the house if they got the signal — it would barely even slow them down — but every little bit helps when you’re going up against telepathic killers from another dimension.

… [T]hat made it better than standing around waiting for the invisible floor to drop out from under my feet and send me plummeting into the void. I am not a big fan of plummeting. If I had to commit to a position, I’dd probably have to say that I was anti-plummeting.

“She seems nice.”

“No, she doesn’t,” I said. “She seems like an unstable old lady who somehow keeps aging backward, and who carries grenades that are older than I am way too frequently for comfort’s sake.”

Normal people get meet-cutes. I get crime scene cleanup.

Imaginary Numbers ends with a sort-of cliffhanger — the main plot is resolved, but ends up dumping a few key characters into a brand-new situation in the last lines… and I’m dying to know what will happen! It sounds as though the next in the series, Calculated Risks, will pick up where this one leaves off. Too bad we have to wait a year for it!

As an added treat, Imaginary Numbers includes a bonus novella, Follow the Lady, which takes place chronologically between books 8 and 9. It’s fun, not earth-shattering, and a nice way to de-stress after the high-pitched excitement at the end of Imaginary Numbers.

This series is a delight, and I’ll echo my previous advice to start at the beginning. These books do not work as stand-alones, not if you want to have any hope of getting what’s going on and the complex, convoluted family trees. All of the InCryptid books are fast reads, so even though this is the 9th book in the series, it really won’t be too hard to catch up.

I love these books! Check ’em out.

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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:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

… 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: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4) by James S. A. Corey

Title: Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: June 17, 2014
Length: 581 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity’s home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what’s theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden – with help from the ghostly Detective Miller – can find the cure. 

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to make progress with the sci-fi book series The Expanse — and now that I’ve read book #4, I can safely say that I’m off to a great start!

Before going into the book, its plot, or why it’s so great, I should state up front that there will be spoilers! I can’t talk about the 4th book in a series, or a book with an amazing TV adaptation, without getting into specifics.

There. You’ve been warned. Turn away if you don’t want to know!

Cibola Burn picks up after the events in book #3, Abaddon’s Gate, in which a mysterious alien ring provides a conduit of wormholes leading to thousands of unknown worlds. As the story continues in book #4, humans are eager to explore and exploit the resources of all of these new planets, but caution and legal complications are keeping a land rush on hold — for now.

One group of settlers, after being in homeless, planetless limbo for years, makes a dash through the rings and sets up a new colony on the planet Ilus, where they find a rich source of lithium ore, potentially representing enough value for them to truly create a livable world for themselves and their children.

But because there are fortunes to be made, the squatters’ rights aren’t allowed to stand, and an Earth corporation, the RCE, is granted a charter to explore and develop the planet, which they call New Terra.

Tensions are high, and when a militant group of settlers blows up the landing pad RCE is about to use and deaths result, it seems like violence is inevitable.

Enter our heroes, Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Holden is the idealistic man who has time and again found himself at the center of interplanetary intrigue and war, and who always follows his conscience and does the right thing, even when it’s counter to his own interests or the interests of the political factions who think they own Holden’s allegiance. Rounding out the crew are pilot Alex Kamal, XO Naomi Nagata, and mechanic/muscle Amos Burton. Over the years, these four have formed a family, and their loyalty and love is a wonderful thing to behold.

The Rocinante is send by the UN to act as mediator between the settlers and the RCE, and of course, it all goes to shit pretty much from the start. There’s a murderous head of security, settler terrorists, and the not minor fact that the planet is populated by both deadly organic species and seemingly dormant alien artifacts that — obviously — have the potential to wipe out all human life… if the humans don’t manage to kill each other off first.

“Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death-slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet…”

Yup. Death-slugs. How would you like to be surrounded by death-slugs while losing your eyesight? Shudder. Space exploration is clearly not for me. I prefer a death-slug-free environment, thank you very much.

The writing is fast-paced and exciting, so much so that I finished this almost 600-page book in about 2 and a half days. The dictionary should have a picture of Cibola Burn as the definition of “page-turner”.

The action isn’t at the expense of character: Each of our four main characters get a chance to shine. I’m particularly fond of Amos, the sociopathic enforcer who loves his captain, his crew, and his weapons. The authors (yes, James S. A. Corey is actually two people) seem to take special delight in writing for Amos.

“What,” Holden said, “is all this?”

“You said to gear up for the drop.”

“I meant, like, underwear and toothbrushes.”

“Captain,” Amos said, almost hiding his impatience. “They’re killing each other down there. Half a dozen RCE security vanished into thin air, and a heavy lift shuttle got blown up.”

“Yes, and our job is not to escalate that. Put all this shit away. Sidearms only. Bring clothes and sundries for us, any spare medical supplies for the colony. But that’s it.”

“Later,” Amos said, “when you’re wishing we had this stuff, I am going to be merciless in my mockery. And then we’ll die.”

Another Holden/Amos conversation:

“Okay. Murtry’s pissed about the rescue.”

“Yeah, but fuck him.”

“I also,” Holden continued, “may have shoved him down and stolen his hand terminal.”

“Stop making me fall in love with you, Cap, we both know it can’t go anywhere.”

Besides the Rocinante crew, there are several other POV characters, including both RCE and settlers, and I enjoyed seeing the unfolding events from their perspectives.

I will say thought that the only thing that bothered me in Cibola Burn was scientist Elvi’s infatuation with Holden. It was unnecessary and oddly demeaning for her character, and even though it eventually unfolds that it was more about her hunger for human connection that about Holden himself, it’s an off-putting choice to have this amazing scientist suffering through school-girl crush symptoms.

Now, you may be wondering how the books relates to the (excellent) TV series, currently airing its 4th season via its new home on Amazon Prime. The 4th season has the events on Ilus/New Terra as its centerpiece, but also includes quite a bit of action with Earth politics, Mars crime, and Belter terrorism. None of this really comes into play in book #4, although based on what I’ve read about book #5, I’m guessing those plots will all feature heavily there.

Listen, if you haven’t read any of these book or watched the TV series — and if you’re a fan of science fiction — then start one or the other, or both! The books are long but absolutely obsession-worthy, and the massive page volume just flies by.

The TV series is brilliantly done, and I’m tempted to start over again from the beginning just to enjoy it all once more.

And I can’t wrap up talking about The Expanse without a shout-out to Chrisjen Avasarala, who is a great book character but an absolutely AMAZING TV character. Played by the glorious Shohreh Aghdashloo, Avasarala is a glamorous, powerful, foul-mouthed woman who is always ten steps ahead and gives zero fucks for anyone or anything that gets in her way.

So let’s finish up with a look at Avasarala’s greatest hits, because even though this is a book review, it’s all from the same world, and any day I can hear Avasarala dropping f-bombs is a glorious day indeed.

Oh yeah. Back to the book. Read it. It’s terrific. Start at the first book, and keep going! As for me, because of the huge size of these books and the frighteningly huge size of my TBR pile, I’m going to hit pause on the book series and wait a bit before starting #5, Nemesis Games. Still, I don’t think I’ll be able to wait for long… I may just need to power through the remaining four available books long before 2020 grows much older.

Aubiobook Review: Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart

 

In the fifth installment of Amy Stewart’s clever and original Kopp Sisters series, the sisters learn some military discipline—whether they’re ready or not—as the U.S. prepares to enter World War I.

It’s the spring of 1917 and change is in the air. American women have done something remarkable: they’ve banded together to create military-style training camps for women who want to serve. These so-called National Service Schools prove irresistible to the Kopp sisters, who leave their farm in New Jersey to join up.

When an accident befalls the matron, Constance reluctantly agrees to oversee the camp—much to the alarm of the Kopps’ tent-mate, the real-life Beulah Binford, who is seeking refuge from her own scandalous past under the cover of a false identity. Will she be denied a second chance? And after notoriety, can a woman’s life ever be her own again?

In Kopp Sisters on the March, the women of Camp Chevy Chase face down the skepticism of the War Department, the double standards of a scornful public, and the very real perils of war. Once again, Amy Stewart has brilliantly brought a little-known moment in history to light with her fearless and funny Kopp sisters novels.

My Thoughts:

Long live the Kopp sisters! This brilliant series continues strong, as fearless Constance Kopp and her sisters Norma and Fleurette leave behind their New Jersey farm to attend a women’s training camp. The US is on the verge of joining the war in Europe. Young women, mostly of privileged families, sign up to attend a National Service School to learn military bed-making, bandage-rolling, and some basics about marching in formation and understanding signalling.

For most of these women, it’s not particularly serious. Most will go back home to mommy and daddy afterward — but for some, it’s a stepping stone to sailing for France, where they hope to join the war effort in whatever way they can. And for one woman in Kopp Sisters on the March, the camp and France represent an escape from her intolerable, scandal-ridden life.

When the Kopp sisters arrive at camp, it’s the year after Constance has lost her job as a sheriff’s deputy, after the election of a new sheriff who has no interest in or tolerance for women in law enforcement. Constance is adrift and rather hopeless, until she ends up being put in charge of the camp after the camp matron is injured. Under Constance’s direction, the camp takes on a more disciplined and focused feel, and she even introduces secret hand-to-hand combat and shooting lessons for the small group of women who are determined to be taken seriously and prepare themselves for the war.

The narrative is split between Constance and her sisters and the historical figure Beulah Binford. As the author explains in her notes, there’s no record of the real-life Beulah attending such a camp, but it seems like a great fit for her to place her in this story. Beulah was the “other woman” in a highly publicized murder case, and while she was never charged with a crime, she was dragged through the papers and became one of the most notorious women of the time, forcing her to live under assumed identities and live in hiding. I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the book and read the notes that Beulah was a real person — this made her parts of the story all the more fascinating and tragic, seeing how an uneducated, resourceless woman could end up having her life so thoroughly ruined.

It’s a bit jarring to have the action in a Kopp sisters book move away from law enforcement and local police work to a military setting, but it tracks with the timeline of the real Kopp sisters, and seems like a natural choice for them in the context of the US’s war preparations. As always, Constance is a strong character who doesn’t back down and who is determined to improve the lives of the women around her. I’m less fond of her sisters — Fleurette is flighty as always, and Norma and her pigeon-obsession are a bit much to take — but their family dynamics are always fun.

As with the previous four books, I listened to the audiobook version, becuase the narrator is so gifted when it comes to portraying the sisters and the various other characters. As I mentioned in my reviews of the other audiobooks, she makes each character come alive, and as a listener, I really got the essence of each character’s personality through Chrsitina Moore’s presentation.

The author’s notes at the end of the book are essential reading (as they are in all of the Kopp Sisters books). Amy Stewart provides the historical context, explains her research, and makes clear which parts of her story are from the record and which are her invention. It’s fascinating to see how she so skillfully weaves together fact and fiction, and really remarkable to learn just how much of these women’s lives actually happened.

And as I’ve said in each review I’ve written for the books in this series:

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Kopp Sisters books yet, start with Girl Waits With Gun, and then keep going!

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The details:

Title: Kopp Sisters on the March
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 17, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 26 minutes
Printed book length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Audible download (purchased); ARC from the author

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Graphic Reaction: The Beauty, volumes 1 – 5

 

Oh boy, what a crazy bunch of books I just read! The Beauty is an ongoing comic series, available in five volumes (so far) of trade paperbacks. I picked these books up on a total whim while browsing library shelves — and something about the covers made me decide to grab all five at once, instead of trying just one.

From Goodreads, synopsis for volume 1:

Modern society is obsessed with outward beauty. What if there was a way to guarantee you could become more and more beautiful every day? What if it was a sexually transmitted disease?

In the world of The Beauty, physical perfection is only one sexual encounter away. The vast majority of the population has taken advantage of it, but Detectives Vaughn and Foster will soon discover it comes at a terrible cost. Now, they’ll have to find their way past corrupt poiticians, vengeful federal agents, and a terrifying mercenary out to collect the price on their heads.

In The Beauty, some people contract the disease accidentally, and others deliberately seek it out. Either way, more and more people are becoming infected, and the people with the Beauty find themselves in enviable positions within society… until Beauties start dying. And it’s not just the victims of anti-Beauty violence who die — some Beauties are found dead by internal combustion. They literally burn up from the inside out. Gross, right?

Volume one introduces us to Detectives Foster and Vaughn, assigned to the Beauty beat, who become enmeshed in the growing violence and conspiracies regarding the Beauty, as well as having personal stakes in the outcome of their investigation. They’re partners with great chemistry and friendship, nothing romantic at all, which is refreshing in a male/female detective duo.  As the story progresses, we learn that there’s an underground faction of scientists trying to expose big pharma’s role in the perpetuation of the disease, and there also people (government? organized crime?) who’ll stop at nothing to keep their secrets.

One thing I really enjoyed about the series is how the artwork uses color and light to visually cue us in on who has the Beauty. People with it have a radiance that others just don’t, so even when someone as drawn is reasonably attractive, it’s the play of light that let’s us know who has the disease.

Volume 1 ends on a major cliffhanger… and as of the end of volume 5, we never get back to that point. Let me explain…

Volumes 2 – 5 are all backstory, occurring chronologically before volume 1, each showing different views into the development of the Beauty and the vast amount of violence that goes with it. In volume 2, we meet two completely new characters, participants in the world of crime who have a devoted patron and manage to establish a family of sorts. Their little found family is of course caught up in the chaos surrounding the Beauty, and both inflict and suffer tremendous amounts of damage.

Volumes 3 and 4 continue with this story, as well as mixing stories of the scientists and the corporate bad guys who all have some part in the spread of the disease. And in volume 5, we return to Vaughn and Foster in the earlier days of their partnership, as they join the Beauty task force in response to a series of murders.

 

 

I suppose I was most enamored of the story in volume 1, although all volumes remain interesting. Still, I wished throughout for some resolution or forward motion from the end of volume 1, rather than the build-up of backstory. I know the series is ongoing, so I’m hoping that whenever the next volume is released, we can finally find out what happens next.

 

 

 

The artwork is a little uneven, especially in volumes 2 and 3, as some pretty different styles are used for parts of the story, and not all work. (It can also be hard to identify characters when their images change so much between chapters and volumes).

Still, I really enjoyed the series overall, and sped my way through all five volumes in about a day and a half. Warning: Not for the squeamish. There’s a lot of violence, lots of weaponry, close-ups of blood and bodily harm… you get the point. If you can handle these elements in your graphic novel reading, then by all means, check out The Beauty!

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The details:

Title: The Beauty, volumes 1 – 5
Author: Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley
Illustrator: Jeremy Haun and John Rauch
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication date: ongoing (started 2016)
Length: varies
Genre: Graphic novel
Source: Library

Book Review: A Dangerous Collaboration (Veronica Speedwell, #4) by Deanna Raybourn

Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell is whisked off to a remote island off the tip of Cornwall when her natural historian colleague Stoker’s brother calls in a favor. On the pretext of wanting a companion to accompany him to Lord Malcolm Romilly’s house party, Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée–much to Stoker’s chagrin. But upon arriving, it becomes clear that the party is not as innocent as it had seemed. Every invited guest has a connection to Romilly’s wife, Rosamund, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago, and a dramatic dinner proves she is very much on her husband’s mind.

As spectral figures, ghostly music, and mysterious threats begin to plague the partygoers, Veronica enlists Stoker’s help to discover the host’s true motivations. And as they investigate, it becomes clear that there are numerous mysteries surrounding the Romilly estate, and every person present has a motive to kill Rosamund…

The house party with a twist is such a trope in old-timey feeling mysteries… and with good reason. Take a remote location, preferably in a house with some grandeur or mystique, add in a motley assortment of house guests, all invited for a variety of reasons, most of which end up being pretenses, maybe mix in some gothic family secrets… and bam! You’re all set up for a slightly claustrophobic, atmospheric whodunnit.

In the case of A Dangerous Collaboration, while the set-up is reminiscent of Agatha Christie, with perhaps a hint of Rebecca too, it’s a trope that works extremely well. We pick up with our plucky heroine Veronica Speedwell, already a world-famous lepidopterist despite being only in her mid-20s, and her dark and dangerous colleague Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known as Stoker. The two have chemistry galore. When we last saw them in A Treacherous Curse, Veronice and Stoker had just solved a mystery involving plundered Egyptian tombs and Stoker’s notorious past… and were on the verge of a long-awaited lip-lock and possible confession of feelings, when they were interrupted by Stoker’s older brother, the Viscount Tiberius Templeton-Vane.

In A Dangerous Collaboration, we continue mere moments later. Tiberius arrives with a proposition for Veronica — to accompany him to a gathering at his friend Malcolm’s Cornish island castle, where she’ll be able to collect specimens of a rare butterfly previously thought extinct. Naturally, Veronica jumps at the chance, despite Stoker’s objections. So also naturally, Stoker shows up at the island too, where the two brothers and Veronica join Malcolm, his spinster sister, his widowed sister-in-law, and his nephew for a social gathering. At which point Malcolm informs them all that he needs their help — he wants to learn the truth of what really happened to Rosamund on their wedding day. Did she flee? Did she die? Was she murdered? There are some dark and disturbing possibilities, and all of the assembled guests, apart from Veronica and Stoker, seem to have much more at stake than is initially apparent.

The Veronica Speedwell books are utterly delightful, with their arch humor, constant sense of adventure, and layered mysteries to solve, all of which are enhanced a thousand times over by the sparks continually flying between Veronica and Stoker. While A Dangerous Collaboration felt at first a little tamer than the previous three books, probably because Veronica and Stoker did not appear themselves to be in mortal peril this time around, soon the danger grows and before long they’re once again risking life and limb to learn the truth.

Along the way, we get to know Tiberius better and understand what makes him tick, as well as gaining insight on the highly charged relationship between the brothers. For me, the most delicious part of the reading experience was the mounting tension between Veronica and Stoker, as they creep closer and closer to the point where they’ll just have to finally admit their feelings and declare their intentions toward one another. Like I said, these two — chemistry, sparks, fire, passion… you name it. (But no, there’s no graphic physical stuff, just tension and attraction galore.)

As always, the language and dialogue in these books is so much fun. A little sampling:

“What in the name of seven hells do you mean you want to ‘borrow’ Miss Speedwell? She not an umbrella, for God’s sake.”

Her doglike devotion was appalling; any woman with spirit or strength could only feel revulsion at the notion of offering oneself up like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter of one’s own independent thought and feeling.

Men were a joy to sample, but a mate would be a complication I could not abide.

“Does this mean you will stop torturing me by displaying yourself in various states of undress?’

“Not a chance.”


At the end of A Dangerous Collaboration, we get a hint about what Veronica and Stoker’s next adventure will be in book #5. And now I’m jumping out of my skin, dying to read it NOW. This is really a terrific series, and I encourage everyone to start at the beginning and dive in!

Want to know more? Check out my reviews of the previous books in the Veronica Speedwell series:
A Curious Beginning
A Perilous Undertaking
A Treacherous Curse
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The details:

Title: A Dangerous Collaboration (Veronica Speedwell, #4)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 12, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid, #8) by Seanan McGuire

“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.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Crossroads, noun:

1. A place where two roads cross.
2. A place where bargains can be made.
3. See also “places to avoid.”

Antimony Price has never done well without a support system. As the youngest of her generation, she has always been able to depend on her parents, siblings, and cousins to help her out when she’s in a pinch—until now. After fleeing from the Covenant of St. George, she’s found herself in debt to the crossroads and running for her life. No family. No mice. No way out.

Lucky for her, she’s always been resourceful, and she’s been gathering allies as she travels: Sam, fūri trapeze artist turned boyfriend; Cylia, jink roller derby captain and designated driver; Fern, sylph friend, confidant, and maker of breakfasts; even Mary, ghost babysitter to the Price family. Annie’s actually starting to feel like they might be able to figure things out—which is probably why things start going wrong again.

New Gravesend, Maine is a nice place to raise a family…or make a binding contract with the crossroads. For James Smith, whose best friend disappeared when she tried to do precisely that, it’s also an excellent place to plot revenge. Now the crossroads want him dead and they want Annie to do the dirty deed. She owes them, after all.

And that’s before Leonard Cunningham, aka, “the next leader of the Covenant,” shows up…

It’s going to take everything Annie has and a little bit more to get out of this one. If she succeeds, she gets to go home. If she fails, she becomes one more cautionary tale about the dangers of bargaining with the crossroads.

But no pressure.

My Thoughts:

Seanan McGuire can pretty much do no wrong in my worldview, and That Ain’t Witchcraft is a prime example of why. The InCryptid series is relatively light-hearted, although bad things do happen, but overall these books maintain a whimsical, wise-ass feel that keeps the mood more on the fun end of the urban fantasy spectrum.

Eight books in, the series continues to rock and roll. The beauty (or I really should say, one of the beauties) of this series is the focus on the sprawling Price family, which gives the author plenty of characters to share the spotlight from book to book. So far, we’ve had three books with Verity as the lead, two with Alex, and now three with Antimony, the baby sister of the family. (I understand that the spotlight will be moving to a different family member in book #9 — I’m already on pins and needles to see what happens next!)

That Ain’t Witchcraft continues from the ending of book #7, Tricks For Free, with Antimony and friends on the run from the Covenant, the globally powerful cryptid-hating organization that would also like to track down and annihilate the entire Price clan. Looking for a hideout where they can rest and catch their breaths for a while, Antimony and the gang instead find themselves in a small town with a big problem involving the crossroads, the otherworldy entity that makes bargains that never seem to work out well for the human side.

The writing, as always in Seanan McGuire books, is snappy and snarky and full of pop-culture references and overall geekiness, and I love it all to bits. Random example:

“He’s a delicate boy. He doesn’t need some loose woman coming from out of town and getting him all confused.”

I blinked. “I… what? I don’t know whether to be more offended by you calling James ‘delicate’ or you calling me ‘loose.’ I assure you, I am the opposite of a loose woman. I’m a tightly wound, sort of prickly woman. Hermione Granger is my Patronus.”

Need I say more? In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the 8th book in an ongoing series is NOT the place to start. So, I encourage you to go find a copy of book #1, Discount Armageddon, and dive in. If you’re like me, you’ll be hooked, and will want to keep going until you’ve gobbled up all eight books and are panting for more.

InCryptids rule. Check out this series!

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The details:

Title: That Ain’t Witchcraft (InCryptid series, book #8)
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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