Author: Lish McBride
A Firebug Story
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.
I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.
Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.
Author: Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5
Harlowe and her friends have been there, done that. They’ve made a name for themselves as teen detectives. Solved cases adults wouldn’t touch, even some paranormal ones. But now they’re growing up, and Harlowe feels like they’re losing something, maybe losing each other. So in one last try to keep the group together and make it work, she brings them something special: a haunted house, tied to her own family history and possibly to her parents’ deaths, with a huge payout if they manage to find the original deed and find out who the house really belongs to. None of them can resist. But they aren’t the first who have ventured into the house. Who’s to say whether they’ll be the first to succeed and make it back out alive?
I really enjoyed In the Shadow of Spindrift House, a paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant. Right off the bat, I loved the idea of teen detectives who have grown past the point where they can call themselves that, who have already had their popularity and are no longer cute. I mean, you see stories about kids going around solving mysteries and doing crazy stuff all the time. But what happens when those kids grow up? Are they able to adapt, or do they keep doing that crazy stuff . . . only now, it will get them killed or arrested or something? Just saying, it’s an interesting idea to play with, and I thought the author addressed it well, putting this solidly in a new adult fiction kind of genre. Only with lots of eerie paranormal stuff going on. I also liked the way the mystery and the atmospheric creepiness gradually built, tiny details adding up over the course of the story. The author also did a great job of creating characters and relationships that I cared about–enough so that certain parts of this story actually hurt, so fair warning there. There’s a certain lack of definition to some of the paranormal elements of this story, and I still can’t quite decide if there was enough definition, or if I would have preferred a bit more clarity. For instance, there’s a good bit of effort put into building the themes of nature and the sea, and we definitely can tell a lot just from that and from the historical stories that Harlowe and her friends uncover. But we never get a name for what we’re dealing with, or an actual explanation, or anything like that. So I guess I’d recommend this book for those who prefer things a bit more mysterious and open-ended. I would definitely recommend In the Shadow of Spindrift House, though, and I certainly intend to try more of the author’s writing.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Things are changing in the small town of Midnight, Texas. First, some big corporation comes in to renovate and reopen the Midnight Hotel, a move that makes zero logistical or financial sense as far as any of the locals can figure. Then one of Manfred’s clients dies, and Manfred is falsely accused of stealing her jewelry, leading to a small fury of reporters and police coming through town. Naturally, this comes at the most inopportune time, since the Rev has a young guest who is growing at inhuman rates; not the sort of thing you want photographed. Obviously something must be done–the only question is, what exactly?
Going into the second volume of Harris’s series set in Midnight, I find myself continuing to be enchanted by these stories. Day Shift continues in much the same vein as Midnight Crossroad, developing the secrets of this tiny community and showing their united front in protecting the town. Over the course of the story, more character backstory unfolds. We get to find out what several characters are or what secrets they’re hiding. . . but there’s still enough mystery to make me want to come back for more! The story continues to be told from multiple characters’ POV, with additional characters such as Olivia and Joe being added in this volume. The mix of characters is pretty unusual, but I find them charming–sometimes at the same time as I find them shockingly dark or heartless. I suppose the fact that several of them aren’t exactly human contributes to that side of it, although that’s another thing that makes this town and its residents so utterly fascinating. This book brings a good balance of that–the lives of its unusual citizens–and plot–the death of Manfred’s client, the whole kerfuffle afterwards, the hotel opening. Plus the tone is just really down to earth and readable. Recommended.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Midnight, Texas, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
Midnight, Texas: a town so small that if it weren’t for the single stoplight at its main crossroad, the entire place might just blow away. It’s a quiet place that keeps its secrets, the sort of place no one moves to without a reason or a secret of their own to keep. Newcomer and internet psychic Manfred Bernardo finds that it’s the sort of place that suits him just fine. But the town’s quiet is shattered when pawnshop owner Bobo’s missing girlfriend turns up dead outside town and political extremists start stirring up trouble. And as he becomes part of the town’s inner circle, Manfred finds that they have their own ways of dealing with trouble.
I really enjoyed Midnight Crossroad, definitely more than I have Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. They’re set in the same ‘verse, but this book has a different tone to it. It’s not a romance or particularly a mystery, for one, although there are certain mystery elements. More so, it’s an urban fantasy with a noir-ish, small-town flavor that uniquely suits the particular story and characters the author brings us here. It gets kind of dark, and basically everybody has secrets (not all of which are revealed in this volume). But there’s also a lot of small-town southern charm. I really enjoy the various characters–they’re well developed and enjoyable. I liked that we get chapters from the perspectives of more than one person as well, although this particular volume clearly focuses of Manfred, and to a lesser extent on the witch Fiji. Midnight Crossroad is an engaging urban fantasy, er, rural fantasy (?) with an intensely dark yet comfortable to read style that I enjoyed a lot. Definitely recommended.
Author: Grace Ellis
Illustrator: Shae Beagle
Moonstruck, vol. 2
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Werewolf barista and (secretly) aspiring author Julie and her friends score an invitation to a fairy frat party. It’s one of the hottest parties of the year–literally. The entire frat house is bespelled to be a little piece of summer in the midst of Blitheton winter. Fortunately, Julie’s girlfriend Selena is smart enough to keep their entire group from eating or drinking anything. Julie’s friends, the idiot band that the run into at the party . . . not so much. Two of the band members manage to get themselves stuck in the frat house, unable to leave unless the entire band performs at the fraternity’s next party–which would be a lot easier if Mark would get his scrawny vampire butt back to the fraternity instead of refusing to go anywhere near. Naturally, because they’re way too accommodating, Julie, Selena, Chet, and Manuel somehow find themselves trying to sort this all out, only to find themselves caught in a bigger plot–a party war between two separate fairy fraternities. As if they didn’t have enough drama and complications to sort out between themselves already!
I really love the cute fluffiness of this graphic novel series. If you’re in the mood for epic, intricate plots and high stakes, this isn’t really the story you should be picking up. But if you want sweet relationships where the characters are trying to make it work, even as they deal with real struggles like trust issues, then Moonstruck is perfect. Of if you love casual urban fantasy, where all sorts of magical/supernatural beings live normal lives playing computer games, working in coffee shops, playing in bands, and hanging out with friends. Some Enchanted Evening does a good job of showing the growing relationships between this group of friends while providing some solid humor (Mark is an idiot–the whole band are idiots–and Chet’s whole Newpals thing is ridiculous but also amusing). Again, the plot isn’t so much a high-stakes, intense thing, although it does push the characters to deal with some of their issues, which is nice to see. It really does seem like it’s setting us up for something major in the next volume or two, though, especially Cass’s ominous and untold visions being thrown into the mix. The art is consistently super-cute–lots of pastels and fun extras thrown into the background. Recommended.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse, vol. 2
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Things in Sookie’s life had never been easy, what with her unwelcome gift/curse/whatever of telepathy, but they had definitely taken a turn for the stranger and more complicated once she started dating Bill, a vampire. Although the reprieve his presence gave her mind, what with being unable to read his, well . . . it certainly hadn’t been all bad, not by far. But Sookie’s life shows an extreme run of bad luck as she finds a coworker dead in the parking lot, gets summoned to Dallas to conduct telepathic interrogations, gets kidnapped, is attacked by a maenad, and fights with Bill. Not that she’s about to let all that stop her from investigating her friend’s murder and seeing justice done.
I found Living Dead in Dallas to be a solid follow-up to the first volume in the series, Dead Until Dark. It builds well upon the groundwork that was laid in the first book, developing Sookie and Bill’s relationship, getting Sookie further embroiled in vampire Eric’s schemes, and bringing some new mysteries and dangerous elements to add to the overall intensity of the story. The author does well keeping that small-town Southern girl vibe going, even when Sookie is dumped in the big city of Dallas and expected to manage. We get some solid character development in this volume as well–you’ve got a self-educated, smart woman who is very brave and has strong convictions . . . yet who is also remarkably brittle at times. She’s an interesting character. The story itself is kind of all over the place, but in a way that actually ties together eventually. There’s enough going on to keep things engaging, and the pacing is good. Other than a fair warning that this is definitely an adult book, I would generally recommend Living Dead in Dallas, especially to paranormal romance and mystery lovers.
Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations
Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.