Friday 23 November 2007

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost

Catherine Crawfield kills vampires. Half vampire herself, she is trying (in a way) to pacify her mother, who was raped by a vampire and subsequently became pregnant with Cat. At the beginning of the book we join Cat on one of her hunts, which doesn't go as smoothly as she might have hoped. And instead of being the one doing the staking, Cat finds herself at the mercy of Bones the vampire. Deciding to work together instead of killing each other, they join forces and pursue Hennessey a vampire who definitely deserves killing. Their feelings for one another deepen, but Cat will eventually have to make a choice between her own happiness, and the safety of those she cares about.

I had been looking forward to this book for months and whilst I was slightly dismayed at reading the Dear Author review, as I have a high regard for their opinion. I also knew I had loved the excerpt I'd read on JF's site, fairly whipped through it, and was left wanting more. So I tried not to be too influenced.

I don't think Halfway to the Grave is helped by being labelled a paranormal romance - this is something I suspect is out of an author's hands. But I think maybe if the romance had been allowed to develop more slowly over the course of the series and the urban fantasy pushed harder the book overall would have been stronger. As it is I believe that Bones and Cat have deep feelings for one another, but on page 196 when they say I love you, it feels false to me...too soon. Also romance readers who prefer their endings to be tied up neatly need to be aware this is the beginning of a series.

My main problem was with the beginning of the book, and I just want to reiterate here that overall I loved the book and will definitely be following this series.

Three things.

1 - Typos. I refuse to believe that Vicki Pettersson can't spell intrigue. (Check out her cover quote). There are also a couple of other typos in the text itself.

2 - Pet peeves. Vampires that don't breathe - but they're talking! And two uses of the word literally.

3 - Catherine's character doesn't really settle down for the first 15-20% of the story. And as she's a first person protagonist the story doesn't really settle down until then either. She's very much a contradiction, and I think some of this is down to inconsistency.

I find it very hard to believe that Cat at age 22 has never said 'fuck'. So on p5 my suspension of disbelief went out of the window. Also p12 the dirtiest name she can think to call Bones is 'bastard'. (LOL - at this point I was tempted to write the dirtiest name that immediately popped into my head and then thought I'd better not.) This woman has been to school, presumably been to the movies, she hangs out in bars trying to pick up vampires, but she's never said fuck and the dirtiest word she can think of is bastard. Now I realize her mother is over protective to say the least, as are her grandparents but this didn't quite gel for me.

I also find it hard to believe that at 22 she's never masturbated but she's had sex. And I think this is what they were getting at in the Dear Author review. The incongruity of her physical age when compared to her thought processes. The beginning of the story does have more of a young adult feel but with swearing and more sexual references than you get in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight.

Cat's vampire killing rate felt a little off as well. She's been killing vampires since the age of 16. Her total kill amount she tells Bones is 16 vampires. In 6 years she's killed 16 vampires. But in the first few pages of the book she's killed 2, and she's going out every night, or at least on the weekends, trolling the bars looking for the unsuspecting undead.

One other thing I'll quickly mention is Bone's accent. I love him, I do. But if there's a swear word that begins with b, he'll use it - blimey, bleeding, blooming. He's a little bit cock-er-nee. I have Buffy in my head, lecturing vampires about their dress sense, and how they need to move with the times. That said, I did get used to his voice and I don't think JF should change it, tone it down a little maybe, sometimes it felt like he was channelling Spike.

I found the style at the beginning hard to get into - quite a lot of adverbs, and at one point Cat starts speaking in exclamation marks. Luckily once we get past p40 the plot takes off and you are sucked into Cat's world.

Overall though I loved it, the middle 75-80% was brilliant and had me racing through the pages to find out what happened next. The relationship between Bones and Catherine, their banter, their chemistry, the rapport between them, how they spark off one another - these are the things that makes this book come alive and raise it from being just another vampire book.

There are also nice little touches that flesh the world out - the vampire club, their visit to the cemetary, hiding out with a ghoul. Cat having to rethink her prejudices against the undead, working out how to deal with her mother - the woman could have started a cult she's got so much righteous venom.

And we're also given lots of little things that aren't resolved. Who is Cat's father? Will we be finding out more about Ian (Bone's sire)? What are the consequences of Cat's decision going to be?

The end goes a little Buffy Season 4, but I wasn't too bothered by that. What concerned me more here was Cat's seeming invincibility. Regular readers of the blog will know I have a problem with protagonists that can't be beaten. But hopefully this will be addressed in the next book, and we'll be seeing a more realistic and mature heroine. And more from Bones.

Book 2 One Foot in the Grave (May 2008)

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Into the Dark Lands by Michelle Sagara West

Into the Dark Lands is the first in the Sundered Quadrology. It begins the story of Erin of Elliath, Warrior of the Light, and Stefanos, First Servant of the Dark. Erin is born into a time of constant conflict, the Servants of the Bright Heart and the Servants of the Dark Heart have been locked in a war for millenia. Although Erin is born a healer, scarred by personal loss, she chooses instead to wield a sword and fight the enemy on the battlefield. But Erin's greatest struggle will happen after she is captured by Stefanos and taken to the Dark Heart's stronghold. The First Servant of the Light has gambled everything on the hope that Erin might be the one to pull from the darkness a lasting light.

The version I read was the 2005 reissue which includes an introduction from Michelle Sagara that is well worth reading. She explains how the book came about, and why she decided not to rewrite it for reissue, as other authors have done when their first novels are re-released. She refers to ITDL as her dark romance, and it is essentially a version of Beauty and the Beast.

The story itself begins with a prologue - do not skip this - which explains the origins of conflict. To sum up here originally there was the Light (Lernan) and the Dark (Malthan), each thought they were perfect and didn't know of the existence of the other. One day they touched and when they did, parts of them fragmented - these became the Sundered (the servants of Light and Dark). The two sides fight one another, eventually Light and Dark lock together and sleep (removing the greatest power from the conflict), leaving their children behind to fight. Some of the Sundered mated with mortals creating half breeds - the Lernari and the Malanthi. But Gods don't sleep forever, and when Lernan reawakens, Malthan is not far behind.

As we join the main story, the Lady of Elliath (First Servant Bright Heart) has returned from traversing various futures, trying to find the one that will end the war. She has found only one slim hope that her grandaughter Erin will be able to pull a lasting light from the darkness. The course she chooses for her people is one full of sacrifice and pain, risking everything for just the possibility of success.

I loved this story. It's not one I'd recommend if you prefer a lighter romantic tale. This is dark and powerful. The character description is sparse, MSW mentions in her introduction that she added ten thousand words of description as part of her first set of revisions and even so I think the only physical thing we learn about Erin is that her hair is auburn, and then not until well into the story. I didn't mind about this. I often find myself imagining characters differently to how authors describe them, so this was quite freeing. Instead we know what's in her heart, what she fears and hopes, which I think is far more important than what colour her eyes are and how tall she is.

The story is essentially in two parts. The first part deals with Erin's childhood, her training and how she becomes a warrior. There are scenes here that are absolutely heartbreaking. When Erin attends her father's funeral as a young child. MSW absolutely captures the loss of childhood innocence.

Eventually Erin is chosen to be Sarillorn of the Line, a member of the Lernari who contains a portion of the Lady's power, and carries it onto the battlefield. And it is through her exploits as Sarillorn that she captures the interest of the First Servant of the Dark. As a healer, at the end of battles Erin heals both her own side and that of the enemy, causing some of the mortal members of the Malanthi army to change sides. She becomes a great threat. When she is eventually captured by Stefanos, she offers herself in exchange for the other hostages.

So begins the second part of the story - the development of a relationship between Erin and Stefanos. He agrees to her bargain, because there is something in her that draws him, and he wants to take her apart over and over again, until he can understand what it is. Make no mistake Stefanos is not misunderstood, he's empty of all save his purpose - he isn't even human and MSW just makes this so clear. I can't think of another anti-hero that comes close. He reminds me of a shark, how they learn what things are by biting them. What he forgets however, is that when the darkness touches the light, the light also touches the darkness. By torturing Erin, he is also changed.

Towards the end of the story Erin realizes the path she is on, (to paraphrase Tolkien) to be a light in the darkness when all other lights go out. In the empire that Stefanos is building, the majority of people become slaves to the Malthan nobles. Tortured and offered in blood sacrifice to the Dark God. Their languages and history become illegal, to speak your own name is a death sentence. The only mercy to be found is any that Erin (now called Lady Sara) can persuade the First Servant to give.

Stefanos who has never loved anyone realizes that unlike him, eventually Erin will grow old and die. In the final pages of the book, true to his nature, he commits an act of horror to keep her with him. Betrayed by the priest of Malthan, Erin witnesses it, and Stefanos has to take drastic action to keep her with him.

This story is so much about choice - what would you give up, what would you sacrifice for a lasting peace, for love when you never understood what love was. It's also about the nature of things. Stefanos is like the scorpion in the tale, he is what he is. He remains true to his nature, even as he is able to offer concessions to Erin. But Erin expects / hopes for more from him. In the end would you choose to be true to yourself, or to the one you've given yourself to. How far would you bend for that person, before you break completely.

I don't like to give A grades to the first in a series. But this story is so darkly powerful, it deserves an A.

Saturday 10 November 2007

Kiss of Crimson by Lara Adrian

This is book 2 of the Midnight Breed series. Which started with Kiss of Midnight. Carrying on from where the first book left off. Kiss of Crimson follows Dante, as he and his fellow Breed Warriors search for the suppliers of a drug called Crimson. This drug has the unfortunate effect of triggering the users change into a Rogue vampire. During the course of the investigation Dante is injured and takes blood from Tess, who unbeknownst to him is a Breedmate. Having started the blood bond, he now finds himself drawn to her. But Tess is more closely linked to the distribution of Crimson than she knows, putting both herself, her friends and Dante in danger.

Tess is a strong heroine, who even when she's in trouble, never stops thinking. She's got a mind of her own and she isn't afraid to stand up for herself, which is good, else Dante would walk all over her, and this relationship wouldn't be lasting very long.

I like that even though Dante and Tess are essentially fated to mate once he's fed from her, that they both don't immediately succumb to it. He fights it, knowing he's fed from a Breedmate, and she fights it because she doesn't understand it. Initially neither of them are particularly thrilled about the situation. It's handled in a very realistic way. There's no immediate jumping into bed together - though that does happen, and yes he has a huge penis LOL - they test the ground with each other first. Tess is understandably wary having just come out of a bad relationship with her ex-boyfriend Ben.

Ben I couldn't help but feel sorry for in a way. He's almost a perfect illustration for the road to hell being paved with good intentions. He desperately wants to do the right thing, but he's weak. His jealousy becomes like a cancer inside him, and eventually he's eaten away.

The subplot of both the Crimson dealing, and new guy Chase and his unrequited love for Elise are smoothly intertwined into the main story. His longing comes across powerfully on the page and she is oblivious to it. All she wants is for her son to come home safely, and Chase wants to be the one to give that to her. I find myself hoping that Chase will be getting his own story, as he's by far the most complex character introduced so far. He says he doesn't give into his urges, but when he gives into them, it's almost with a sense of self-loathing and it happens in public with Tegan (Breed Warrior) watching - Ouch! He intially joined the Warriors with his own motives, he fucks up and then has to help put things right. But because of his error in judgment it's too late to rescue two people who might otherwise have been saved.

I also think in Kiss of Crimson we get a better idea of what it means to go from being human to being a minion. How someone's humanity is stripped away until all that's left is the will of their master. Very well done.

My favourite bit of the story, is when Dante tells Tess he has a dog - which he doesn't - which he then spontaneously names Harvard - his nickname for Chase. Of course now he's told her he's got a dog, he has to get one. This so humanized him for me, the fact that this lie came out of his mouth, probably whilst his brain was going WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? Then when he rings up the animal shelter to get a dog.
"I need one of your animals," Dante told her.
"Excuse me?"
"The dog from your website, the old one. I want it."

He does slightly come across like he's planning an animal sacrifice. LOL

There are other nice touches. When Dante and Tess are discussing the myth of Endymion and Selene at the museum, there's the whole other subtextual conversation going on. The dead pool the other Breed Warriors have going on how long it's going to take Dante before he cracks and kills Chase. It's these little things that raise this story above other vampire novels around at the moment. It's things like this that make the Midnight Breed world real.

I am picking up on some inconsistencies. Bloodlust is apparently a one way street, but I thought in book 1 it was said they managed to bring Tegan back from it. Maybe the cost to benefit ratio is too high for this to be practical for everyone? Also when Dante first meets Tess his mind control doesn't work on her, and then she's suddenly susceptible? Maybe he was too injured when they first met for it to be effective?

I'm still seeing similarities here between the Black Dagger Brotherhood and Ukiah Oregon series. Rio - horrifically scarred and misogynistic confronts Tess (Z confronting Beth), and the Ukiah Oregon series has a drug called Invisible Red. Having said that I think the Midnight Breed series is slowly coming into its own. And I hope that by book 3 - Tegan's story, I'll be able to completely immerse myself in the Midnight Breed world without being distracted.

Sunday 4 November 2007

The Crossroads Cafe by Deborah Smith

The Crossroads Cafe follows the lives of two strangers, Cathryn Deen and Thomas Mitternich as they first become friends and then something more. Both have been scarred by life - Cathryn is physcially scarred when she is horrifically burnt in a car accident, and Thomas is mentally scarred by guilt and depression following the death of his wife and son in the World Trade Center on September 11th.

I read a review of The Crossroads Cafe on I Just Finished Reading. I then checked out Deborah Smith's site, and read the excerpts of the book that are available there. And when, at the end of the excerpt I wanted to read more, I bought the book. The excerpt reminded me a little of Susan Elizabeth Phillips whose books I enjoy.

Before I talk about the story, I'll just mention that as a reading experience it's an incredibly well-constructed book. Split into seven parts each section is introduced with various quotes applicable to that part of the story. At the end there's a reading guide of 12 questions to spark discussion for anyone who's reading it as part of a bookclub. Plus three recipes for biscuits if you're taken with the urge to try baking some yourself after reading about them in the book.

The book alternates between Cathy and Thomas's point of view, we get to experience the events that unfold through both of them. This lends itself very well to the story and I'm glad we got to see inside both of their heads.

Following the accident, Thomas is persuaded by Cathryn's cousin (Delta, owner of The Crossroads Cafe) to phone the hospital posing as Cathryn's husband so they can find out what's happening to her. Unbeknownst to them, Cathryn's husband has already distanced himself from her and isn't visiting her. It is the phone calls and packages from Delta that give Cathryn the strength to keep going, even when she's reached rock bottom.

Meanwhile, Thomas has problems of his own. An alcoholic, he hasn't come to terms with the death of his wife and child, holding himself responsible for their loss.

When Cathryn returns to her grandmother's North Carolina home to make a new life for herself, she gradually begins a relationship with Thomas, that will eventually heal them both.

How to describe this book. In some ways it reminds me of Brothers & Sisters (a programme I swore I wouldn't get addicted to, but did. And I apologize if I seem to be comparing books more and more often to tv shows. LOL). The book deals with a difficult subject matter for both Thomas and Cathryn, but it is full of witty, wry, self-depracating dialogue that brings a smile to your face, whilst at the same time taking you into the hearts of the characters and their community.
"Ravel...was...approximately seven hundred feet above sea level. I was at 4,000 feet. I needed to know she had to look up to me."

The car accident is horrific and hearbreaking, and did have me in tears. Then, the way we hear Cathryn's thoughts when she's in the burn ward, as the doctor explains her situation is very realistic. How she just isn't taking the comments in. How her internal commentary doesn't match up to what people are telling her.

In a way the relationship between Cathy and Thomas starts before either of them have ever met. Thomas writes to her, filling her in on the things that are happening in the North Carolina community. He names a cow after her. It gives her something to hold onto, when she feels like she has nothing left.

Although the initial scenes of the accident are intense, for the most part the book has a slow pace that draws you into the world of The Crossroads Cafe. You follow the burgeoning relationship between Cathy and Thomas, their progression from friends, to lovers, to family. Towards the end I felt like the plot had lost it's way a little bit, and maybe it was slightly longer than it needed to be, but this is a book that I would come back to re-read again and again. Just like catching up with an old friend.