The Distance by Helen Giltrow #15in2015

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The DistanceThe Distance by Helen Giltrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 9 in #15in2015

Charlotte Alton is a socialite with the money, manners, clothes, and a secret identity as, Karla, an underworld information broker and fixer who arranges impossible crimes, new identities for fugitives, and carefully leaked tips to government spy agencies.

Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s just the start.

I’ve been trying to read more thrillers lately, in an attempt to get a handle on the way they handle exaggeration. This one…

It’s a weird book. It has high thriller characters but for most of the book it’s a low thriller plot: Karla arranged a cover ID and temporary entrance into an experimental prison colony for a hit man she’s secretly in love with. He has a troubled past! The big boss in the prison wants him for his troubled past! His target is a mystery woman that everyone thinks is already dead!

Eventually, the plot turns it around to big stakes and state secrets, but it takes a long time to get there. In the mean time, there are a lot of dead end investigations, scary prisoners being scary, and our protagonist putting herself more and more at risk for her personal haunted tough guy.

Honestly, I would have given it an extra star if it had been shorter. I enjoyed it, but the plot had too much flailing. Still, it was fun.



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The Drowning City by Amanda Downum #15in2015

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The Drowning City (The Necromancer Chronicles, #1)The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 8 in #15in2015

I wanted to like this more than I did. There’s a lot of promise in the description (A necromancer and spy goes a city that on the brink of open revolution to offer financial aid to the revolutionaries) but the execution doesn’t have a lot of momentum to it.

Part of the problem is that too many of the names are similar. Part is that the protagonist’s mission does not seem particularly difficult to execute. Part is that the text feels awfully slack. There are betrayals, murders, bombings, magic duels, allies switching sides, forbidden attraction, and more, but I never felt that pull that makes it hard to put a book down. I was never powerfully attached.

The setting is terrific, though, and very well-realized.

I’m sorry I didn’t enjoy it more.



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The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman, #15in2015

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The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax  (Mrs. Pollifax #1)The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book 8 of #15in2015.

I’m honestly torn about this one, because there are so many good things but the negatives are colossal.

Setup: Mrs. Polifax is an elderly widow so bored with her life of volunteering and middle class charity work that she’s on the verge of suicide, until she decides to revive her childhood dream of becoming a spy. So she slips out of her home in New Brunswick, NJ and takes a train to CIA headquarters in Langley to volunteer.

Of course, due to a mixup, an administrator actually meets her, is intrigued by her story, and just so happens to have a perfect job for her. A milk run. All she has to go is visit Mexico City as a tourist for a week, then buy a book in a particular shop (using proper code words) and bring it home. Easy, right?

Obviously, everything goes wrong and she ends up in deep shit, and just as obviously, her common sense, practicality, and basic decency helps her to save the day.

I heard about this book, which is the first of a popular series, from commenters on the io9 article about my own elderly protagonist, and I thought it would be only fair to give it a try. When I started this one, I really wanted to like it.

Yeah, some of the writing can be rough. It’s annoying that the protagonist’s thoughts are put in quotations, just like her dialog. But that’s minor stuff. The character work is terrific, and there are several lovely little grace notes in the narrative that I enjoyed very much.

Unfortunately, the book was written and is set in the early sixties, when readers might seriously see the CIA as heroic freedom fighters and the rest of the world as a little slower, a little more primitive or ridiculous. I can look past casual racism in older books (I have to do it in modern books, too) but when the supposed heroes reveal [SPOILER] that the man they saved from prison was a food scientist the Red Chinese government had kidnapped because they hoped his discoveries would help relieve famine in their country.

Character: “Can you imagine what the Chinese government could have done with him?”

Me: “Feed a bunch of starving people?”

But I guess those people don’t count, because fuck ’em. Saving their lives would stabilize a communist government, and that’s not a price these characters are willing to pay.

Here I am fresh off a fantasy trilogy all about the seductive ideas of conquest and empire, and I just can’t go there.

So, good book, but dated in a way I just can’t abide.



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The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer #15in2015

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The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People HelpThe Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 7 of #15in2015.

I liked this much better than I expected. I’m not a fan of Palmer’s music, I don’t read her blog or follow her on Twitter, so what I know about her can be summed up by:

Her TEDTalk
What people say about her online
Retweets

Which isn’t much. That said, as soon as she began to describe the experience of leaving college with no idea how to make a living as an artist, I was on her side.

What follows is a memoir mixed with personal meditation on her own need to connect with people on a personal level, to ask them for the things she needs, and to understand the nuances of a gift economy. Then, towards the end of the book, she broaches the subject of how that gift economy appeared to people who were outside it, and how much hate she got.

I found it fascinating, in part because her own worldview is so alien to mine, and in part because of the parallel thread structure the book uses. Recommended.



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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig #15in2015

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Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book 6 of #15in2015

One of the many ways you can categorize urban fantasy is whether it leans toward the fantasy stakes or crime stakes. Is the character on a quest to recover the ancient fang of Curlique before The Bad Guy can use it to take control of the were-lions of Little Rock? Or has someone you care about gotten into debt to/stolen something from/slept with the wife of A Very Bad Person and need to be saved?

Or, is this going to be a story about a threat to the succession of some made-up organization of magical beings, or is it going to be a search for the truth behind the death of a single person?

Both of these are fictional conceits, of course, but one is not grounded in the concerns of real people and one is, and I suspect you can tell by the tone of my comments which I prefer.

BLACKBIRDS falls into the crime-stakes end of things, and I’m glad of it. Premise: The first time Miriam Black touches someone, flesh to flesh, she knows how they’ll die. Then, one day, she touches the hand of a truck driver who helped her out of a tight spot and discovers that he’ll die in one month, while saying her name.

Aside from some vision/dream sequences that might be advice/harassment from Mysterious Entities, that’s it for the fantasy elements. The rest is lifting wallets, roadside harassment, blackmail, a mysterious suitcase, and criminal psychopaths.

Miriam herself is profane and damaged. Not only does she have this awful gift, but she knows that she can’t prevent the deaths she foresees; any attempt to save the doomed person only ensures events will play out as prophesied. Throw in an abusive childhood and you have a cynical fatalist who lives like a vulture. She never kills people, but she’s nearby when they die so she can lift their cash.

And of course the events of the novel destroy all that.

The tone is very gritty, a sort of rural noir that almost reminds me of JUSTIFIED (without the dialog). It’s a powerful story, especially if you’re a fan of low thrillers, which I am. Good stuff.



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Bucket Nut by Liza Cody #15in2015

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Bucket Nut (Eva Wylie trilogy)Bucket Nut by Liza Cody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part comedy, part tragedy, this book follows one Eva Wylie, a big ugly brute of a woman trying to make a name for herself as a baddie in professional wresting. She wrestles under the name of the London Lassassin, but her (anti-)fans call her Bucket Nut.

She lives for their boos and their insults, but she’s living a marginal life. After a childhood spent in foster homes and years living homeless, she’s only now beginning to put her life together, with a job watching over a junkyard, petty theft, and running errands for a local gangster.

Then everything goes to hell and Eva finds herself caught in a war between rival gangs.

The real appeal here is Eva’s voice, which comes across as loud and brutish even on the page. It’s not often readers get a crime novel where the POV character is as clumsy and comically clueless as this one. Everything has to be explained to her, because she’s always looking elsewhere when important clues pop up.

There are two more in this series but I don’t think I’ll continue reading it. I enjoyed this one, and I liked the way it ended. I’m satisfied. Book 5 of #15in2015



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Mr. Kiss And Tell, by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham #15in2015

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Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars, #2)Mr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Browser crash ruined my first version of this review, but let’s try again:

This book was going so well, until it fell apart at the end.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, I’m a fan of the Veronica Mars tv show. I’ll admit that I didn’t watch every episode multiple times, but I’m pretty sure there was never an episode where Veronica got the criminal to confess by bringing in a huge bruiser to beat the confession out of him.

Poor book-Veronica doesn’t have half the devious wit of TV/movie-Veronica, because book-Veronica just can’t think up a way to catch the bad guy without having his bones broken. Sure, in the TV show there were fights and physical dangers. Logan brandished a gun to pull her out of a tight spot. Keith faced off with Aaron Echols. Logan got himself thrown in prison to kick the shit out of the Hearst rapists.

But at no point did Veronica ever pull a lazy, shitty stunt like torturing a suspect into a confession.

Did I mention that a major subplot in the book involves the fight against corrupt local police?

Here’s the thing: Veronica was a trickster character. She put on disguises, played with people’s heads, and tricked them into incriminating themselves. She used her brains. In this book, not so much.

Anyway, that’s a massive, massive disappointment. I expect better. I wouldn’t want to drop a series for one terrible creative choice, but I’ll be borrowing book 3 from the library, and if the authors pull this lazy shit again I’m out.



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Book 4 for #15in2015

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham #15in2015

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The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars, #1)The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Obviously, I was a fan of the show and I backed the Kickstarter. I even went to the theater to see the film. When this book came out, I bought it right away, but it languished on the shelf.

It shouldn’t have. It’s not the deepest detective novel I’ve ever read, but it was addictive as hell. I lost half a work day pushing through to the end.

This is the first novel I’ve ever read about characters from another. medium and being able to picture the actors delivering the dialog had a strange effect. There was a flush of warm feeling because I enjoyed the show so much, but it took me out of the story, too. Every time a scene with Wallace would end, I’d start thinking about Percy Daggs’s career, and wonder how much acting work he was getting now.

Still, it was compulsively readable, funny in spots, and while the scenes between Keith and Veronica didn’t have the warmth of the TV shows (because how could they without those two actors) it was still Keith and Veronica.

Good stuff. Recommended if, like me, you enjoy private investigator novels.

Book 3 in #15in2015



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The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

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The Janissary Tree (Yashim the Eunuch, #1)The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The whole time I was reading this, I kept thinking This is why I give terrific books like MAPLECROFT four stars, because I need room for THIS.

Then I got to the end, and the whole thing fell flat.

The setting is Istanbul in the 1830’s, and an army officer has been murdered, his body displayed in a gruesome way. Imperial operative Yashim is brought in to solve the killing, and to find the other three officers who disappeared at the same time. Yashim is a man of some breeding who can move unobtrusively through all levels of society, including the sultan’s harem… because he’s a eunuch.

Anyway, historical fiction is something of a research competition. Writers immerse themselves in the time and place, studying the details that will make the reader feel that they’re really experiencing this other time and place, with just enough details to ground the story without turning into a travelogue. Then readers come along, looking for nits to pick… It’s a whole thing.

And it bores me, to be honest. As a fantasy reader, I love the sense of place and don’t worry too much about accuracy. Anathema, I know, but there it is.

In truth, the novel made me wish there were more novels with the same feeling of complexity and nuance that the real world has. I wish I were capable of it, myself.

Yeah, this is a murder mystery with far-reaching political implications. If the protagonist was a little slack in his investigation, well, that’s a nice change. The denouement didn’t work, unfortunately, and the “action” scenes deserve the air quotes. There was violence but none written with the sort of tension that makes the heart race.

Still, the description of everyday life in 1830’s Istanbul was a delight, and made me wish I could visit right now. The characters were complex and interesting. The genre stuff was tatty window dressing, and disappointing in the end.

If you’re a reader who enjoys reading fantasy novels for the settings, try this. Seriously.

Book 2 for 15in2015



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Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

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Maplecroft (The Borden Dispatches #1)Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before starting this book, I knew nothing of Lizzie Borden except that old nursery rhyme and that she’d been acquitted. So, an epistolary historical fantasy that, being familiar with much of Priest’s work, was sure to take a turn toward horror? I was in.

And I was glad of it. There were a few minor missteps, but they were very minor. Overall, the book combines Priest’s usual flair for historical detail with the slow-building dread that comes from nightmarish, inexplicable narrative.

In short, people in the small town of Fall River, MA are becoming sick, which means they’re actually transforming into weird inhuman creatures with a connection to the sea. It’s *not* a Shadow Over Innsmouth situation, although that’s obviously what it sounds like here. In real life, Borden’s murdered father and step-mother were ill for several days before they were murdered; Priest takes this detail and runs with it, imagining the elder Borden’s becoming monstrous and deadly, forcing Lizzie to kill them in self-defense.

After her acquittal, Lizzie realizes that others in town are showing the same symptoms as her parents, and sets out to do something about it.

The book seems to be marketed as the start of a series, which frankly weakens the tension by a lot. I also wish there hadn’t been a mention of Miskatonic University. Turning the page and thinking “Oh. This is Lovecraft.” has become more of a disappointment than anything else. The story could have gone anywhere, but once I read that word, I felt possibilities narrow.

I also would have been happier with more Lizzie and less Dr. Seabury. He’s a fine character, but he’s not as interesting as Lizzie and I felt he took over the narrative too much.

But like I said, minor stuff. I haven’t read all of Priest’s work, but this is my favorite so far. It’s tangible, has great characters, and is genuinely spooky. Recommended.



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