Choose Your Parents Wisely

By Tom Trott

Choose_Your_Parents_WiselyOf course, the title caught my eye. It sounded cheesy as hell, but it is actually one of the most competent modern-era noir mysteries I’ve read in a very long time. Our protagonist, Joe Grabarz (the juvenile pun of his name is the weakest part of the book for me) is, naturally, a down-and-out private detective in Brighton.

My favorite thing about it, though, is that Joe is possibly the crankiest (anti)hero I’ve ever read. He has a very vague moral compass, but goes on random internal rants about everything, ranging from understandable (tourists) to completely out of left field (rice).

The story also does a very interesting plot devise, where we follow two cases in parallel. In present day, Joe investigates the disappearance of young daughter of an upper-middle-class family. This case contrasts with the disappearance of another girl from a poor immigrant family, his very first investigation years ago. The chapters jump between the two cases with very little warning, and it keeps you on your toes as a reader as the two plots weave together.

Choose Your Parents Wisely is actually the second book in what I hope will be a lengthy series, but it was a BookBub special, so I jumped on it. I enjoyed it so much, though, that after finishing it, I immediately bought the first book, You Can’t Make Old Friends. Since the second book covers two different periods in the detective’s career, this first book actually takes place between the two periods, so both chronologically after and before the sequel.

The first book even alludes to events in the second book that I think would seem confusing and out-of-place if I hadn’t read it already. The second book also refers back to events in book one, but obliquely enough that I didn’t find it distracting. The circular plotting of each book, and both books together, just make for a really unique read.

Learning to Swim

By Sara J. Henry

Learning_to_SwimI was pulled into this book just from the back cover description alone. A woman sees a child fall from the back of a ferry, and jumps in to rescue him. The ferry has continued on without noticing, and by the time she gets to shore with the alive but unresponsive boy, there is no one around. There are no desperate parents waiting for him, and when she calls the police, they doubt her story. I just love how simple the premise is: suddenly there’s this child, and what are you going to do?

The plot alone probably could have carried the whole book for me, but rescuer Troy is now one of my favorite protagonists. She is a journalist for a small-town newspaper in the Adirondacks, mostly covering local sports, and she lives a mostly commitment-free life with a house that she rents rooms from to visiting athletes training for various winter sports.

The writing style matches her perfectly: clear and crisp without a lot of unnecessary stylistic nonsense. A wide range of characters are introduced, as well, and they are all interesting and distinct in their own ways, and in their relationships to Troy. I can’t fully describe how realistic everything felt – the situations that came up didn’t seem particularly outlandish, and the characters were all so well-grounded.

Up until the end, that is. I did think the final reveal got a bit jarringly melodramatic compared to the rest of the book, but not enough to mar my enjoyment of the book as a whole. After finishing, I immediately went and got the sequel, in what I hope will be a continuing series.

A Cold and Lonely Place

By Sara J. Henry

A_Cold_and_Lonely_PlaceIf anything the second book is even better! The mystery was more nuanced and subtle: a rich-kid tourist is discovered dead in a frozen lake, and gossip spreads about one of Troy’s roommates, who was dating him. Troy starts to investigate only enough to clear her roommate, but soon gets journalistically attached to the tourist’s life story, which unfolds along with the mystery. It is a quieter book, in all, than the first one, but even more realistic, and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, since I’ve finished it, I’ve been sulking that there isn’t a third book out.

Both books reminded me a bit of Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike mysteries, not so much in any concrete way, but just in how much I cared about the characters and was interested in their general lives, as well as the mystery.

Bullet Rain

By Robert Swartwood

Bullet_RainI don’t know what inspired me to get Bullet Rain from the BookBub deal – I even had to pay a dollar for it! It is the sort of tough-guy genre that I generally don’t like: ex-military (usually sniper) loner gets coincidentally caught up in a bad situation and kicks all kinds of ass. I mean, I like a badass loner as much as the next reader, but these books invariably also have the sassy but naïve (read: dumb) young woman to be rescued by our loner, and she always gets on my nerves.

Bullet Rain checks off all of these points, and yet I still got a kick out of it, and I can’t explain it at all. I think it might have been the very first chapter, which opens with a sniper enjoying an audiobook while waiting for his target, and spends more time describing the audiobook than the gun. I figured this was probably a novel that had priorities more in line with mine than usual.

Main protagonist Nova is a recently retired black-ops assassin who is sort of aimlessly traveling across the US when his car breaks down in very rural Nevada. One of the first things we find out about Nova (in this book*) is that he is a fan of Guns ‘N Roses, and is a little embarrassed by that fact. When his car gets two flat tires, he is as annoyed as the rest of us would be to find that his cell phone has no service — and he doesn’t have any special military equipment or McGyver-esque tricks to fix this. So, as someone who both likes Guns N’ Roses, and has gotten more than her fair share of inconvenient flat tires, he was pretty immediately in my favor.

Of course, he soon meets attractive young Jessica, who of course needs his rescue, though she is then obnoxiously ungrateful for it, which I suspect was supposed to be “feminism.” She is clearly out of place in the small, rural town, and has her own hidden agenda. Jessica is ridiculously out of her depth, and I would consider her incredibly stupid if she wasn’t quite so young, and if she didn’t have a pretty solid motivation. It helped, too, that Nova himself seemed to view her similarly.

There is little romance, and while there is a lot of violence, it is not bogged down with gruesome details, so Bullet Rain is a very serviceable book that does its genre better than most.

*Bullet Rain is apparently a one-off novel about a side character from another series from the author, but I didn’t feel that I lacked any information. I don’t think it is the type of series that sets up complicated plot arcs over multiple books.

Nora & Kettle

By Lauren Nicolle Taylor

Nora_and_KettleThis is another BookBub offer, so available for free on kindle, but it is quite a bit different from the light entertainment I’ve gotten before. Amazon describes it as a reimagining of Peter Pan (Kettle = Pan), but I wouldn’t have gotten that on my own. There is no light-hearted whimsy, and the children live in anything but a dreamland. Set just after World War II, Kettle is a Japanese-American teenager trying to make do on the streets after having been separated from any family he had in the internment camps. Nora is the daughter of a wealthy but violently abusive councilman. The author includes a trigger warning at the beginning of the book for graphic depictions of domestic abuse, and she isn’t kidding around.

A minor spoiler, and additional trigger warning: a kitten is introduced briefly, bringing a spark of joy to the life of one of the peripheral characters – one of the Lost Boys, a gang of Japanese-American orphans hiding out in the subway tunnels. As soon as the kitten is introduced, I feared for its safety, and sure enough, it is killed in its next scene. That’s the kind of book this is.

The writing is very good, and I was so invested in the characters and storyline that I couldn’t put it down, but the book sort of dragged me down the whole time. As good as it is, this was not a welcome addition to a year that is already sucking ass.

Mira’s Last Dance

By Lois McMaster Bujold

Miras_Last_DanceRebecca is a much bigger fan of Lois McMaster Bujold than I am, and she already raved about the first three entries in this series last year, but I’ve jumped in to review the fourth because…whoo, boy.

Before we started this blog together, I don’t think any of us realized how much more prudish I am than either the other reviewers. I get easily embarrassed by reading pretty much anything more explicit than a kiss on the lips, and I very much appreciate just the literary version of a ‘fade to black.’

Which this story actually does! However, the situations that are set up before the polite drawing of the curtain where almost too much for my poor weak sensibilities. This is really a novella with an estimated reading time of a little over an hour, but it took me a full week, with all the breaks I had to take to repose myself.

Now, I’m sure this all sounds very titillating, but before you jump right in, it is not at all a stand-alone book. The four Penric & Desdemona novellas feel more like a single, serialized novel than sequels, and this one picks up from the moment the last one ends. Each one also builds in intrigue (and scandalousness), so the first couple are fun but comparatively decorous.

More Disappointments from BookBub

Fear the Drowning Deep

By Sarah Glenn Marsh

Fear_the_Drowning_DeepThe most difficult books to review are those that aren’t really good or really bad – just all those mediocre books.

It seemed so promising! Set on the Isle of Man at the very beginning of the 20th century, it could have explored a fairly unique place and time for YA novels. Unfortunately, Fear the Drowning Deep is just really silly.

Sixteen-year-old Bridey spends the entire book careening between crises, making very little distinction between being teased by her sisters, forced to get a job by her parents, and witnessing the disappearances of various friends and neighbors. Her most consistent character trait is that she hates and fears the ocean, which is more than a little inconvenient on a small island where fishing is the main economy.* Of course everything comes back to that, and she must face her fears to save the day.

It became such a hodgepodge of fantasy elements and mundane details that I couldn’t get a good sense of whether the fantasy was rooted in actual myths from the time and place, and the book did not inspire me to do any additional research. Adding to the disconnect was the mundane details were often given far more drama than the fantastical—a sea serpent must just be dealt with, , but a nosy and judgmental neighbor can warp your entire life, apparently.

*This lead to an extra level of unbelievability for me, which was not the author’s fault. I just love the ocean so much that I can’t even conceive anyone feeling otherwise. If I could live where I could see and smell the ocean all the time, I would be in heaven!

Twisted: The Girl Who Uncovered Rumpelstiltskin’s Name

By Bonnie M Hennessy

TwistedTwisted, on the other hand, is not silly or mediocre — it is confusingly both very good and very bad, so I was never sure if I was enjoying it or not (up until the big climax, when I was most certainly not). It is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, which is a big part of the problem, since that story is awful. The central woman in the original story has almost no personal agency, and is tossed from man to man: her father to the king, to Rumpelstiltskin, and then back to the king, who becomes her husband.

By trying to flesh out the story and give more depth to each character, the author took on a really challenging task, but unfortunately it just highlights how awful all of the men are and how terribly they treat the heroine. Early on I told Rebecca that I couldn’t tell whether the book was chauvinist or misandrist, which is a very odd spot to be in. Set sort of indeterminately in an England-type place in an 18th-19th century-type time, the king is now a duke in this version, with neighboring lands to heroine Aiofe’s previously wealthy but now struggling family. Mild spoiler: early on in their relationship, he clumsily tries to engage with her, crowding her space and touching her without permission (very bad! men are the worst!), at which point Aiofe panics and prepares to attack with an ax she has on hand (oh…uh…I’m not sure that was a capital offense, actually).

The entire book continues this way in a very unsettling manner. Is Aiofe a competent woman who faces potential threats squarely, or an unbalanced child who brings trouble onto herself with her assumptions and over-reactions?  Is the Duke an entitled nobleman trying to break from his upbringing in order to make honest human connections, or is he a sociopath who values other people only in how they can serve him? Is Rumpelstiltskin a damaged spirit looking for acceptance and understanding, or a sulky godling who demands complete devotion? These would all seem to be pretty stark opposites and yet they somehow seemed to exist simultaneously, which made for a very unsettling read, and not in a good way.

Honestly, I felt like this book was somehow gaslighting me, which fits in with the characters pretty well, actually. By the end, the extreme amount of emotional labor that the various female characters all had to do for the various male characters really soured me on the whole thing.

Sandman Slim

By Richard Kadrey

Sandman_SlimOh, man, this book is like if author Richard Kadrey took everything I love in fiction and put it all in one book – dark and moody hero detective in a noir-ish mystery, with violent action and Judeo-Christian mythology thrown in. (Have I mentioned before my love for schlocky Judeo-Christian horror movies, like “The Omen” and “The Prophesy”? I have!)

I was having trouble figuring out what else to say about it, really, so I went to see what people wrote on amazon, and more than a few mentioned how immature and dislikable the protagonist was, which embarrassed me a bit, since I rather liked him. James Stark, aka, Sandman Slim, was literally sent to Hell during a magic-ritual-gone-wrong in his late teens, and the novels opens with him finding his way back to Earth eleven years later, set on revenge toward those who sent him down.

He returns a bit psychotic, with some serious impulse-control issues, but I give him a lot of leeway, what with his early adulthood in Hell. As the backstory began unfolding, I realized that it reminded me a bit of The Magicians. Kinsey has previously favorably reviewed The Magicians, but when I read it later, I didn’t like it much at all – I thought all of the characters were spoiled brats who made everything and everyone around them worse. Sandman Slim felt like a natural conclusion to The Magicians – all of their arrogant blundering has finally bit them in the ass, and the one bitten the worst has grown up (a little) and is going to make the rest of them pay. It was just very satisfying, and has seriously been the best thing in the last couple really crappy weeks.