Reviews

DYER STREET PUNK WITCHES (Ordshaw #7), by Phil Williams

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks for this opportunity.

And so we’re back to the fictional city of Ordshaw, where magic lurks just beyond the corner of your eye, after the slight “detour” which brought us around the world with Phil William’s Ikiri Duology, even though that story also showed some connection to this main site of weird phenomena.

Kit Fadoulous used to be the leader of the punk rock band of the Dire Grrls together with her friends Madison and Clover, and at some point in their career they found online Betsy Burdock’s Book of Spells, a sort of do-it-yourself grimoire which changed their lives, teaching them to enhance their music with spells.  As the story starts, it’s a few decades after those “golden years” and Kit has taken on the job of editor for an independent paper focused on pointing out local authorities’ failings and on promoting worthy enterprises. She now lives in one of Ordshaw’s worst areas, one that is both crime ridden and abandoned to its own devices, and lost contact with her former friends: still surrounded by an aura of mystery and a whiff of witchcraft, Kit barely manages to keep he publication afloat, and her situation becomes even more complicated when a friend from the past warns her about the return of an old foe, bent on resurrecting the ancient gang wars – and he seems to have enrolled someone able to summon magic…

As is often the case with the Ordshaw series, saying too much about the plot would spoil the enjoyment of the story, and there is much to be discovered here, particularly because each chapter begins with a look at the past of Kit and her band – and how their art mixed with witchcraft and the gangs’ territorial wars, often with unpredictable and dramatic results – and then proceeds to add more details to the overall picture of the present, moving with a swift pace toward some final revelations that end up being quite surprising.  What’s different here, in respect of the other books in the series, is that the weirdness does not come from otherworldly phenomena or creatures, but from the wielding of magic through spells which are reinforced by the mixing of very, very strange elements: the excerpts from Betsy Burdock’s book are both intriguing and fun, enhanced by the fictional author’s unique brand of humor, and I enjoyed them very much.

Kit is an intriguing character (one, I have to admit, I was curious about since this book’s cover reveal some time ago): still very much tied to her punk rock singer persona in the manner of dress and the way she relates to others, there is a definite layer of wisdom through adversity added to her personality that instantly endeared her to me, a reaction that deepened as I understood that she carries a heavy burden from the past and from the fracturing of what used to be a very strong bond with her bandmates.  Every reference to that past is tinged with poignant regret and a sense of guilt that Kit probably tries to assuage through her tireless work in favor of the community: using magic imbued the three girls with a heady sense of power, but Kit has come to realize that the payoff was far too steep – there is one instance in which she warns about the consequences of that carelessly wielded magic, summarizing its noxious effects:

We don’t know how to heal things. Only how to break them.

Other characters, like Ellie – Kit’s virtual second in command at the paper – or newcomer Aaron, a young man who seems scared of his own shadow until he reveals unexpected talents, move around Kit like planets around the sun, helping to better define her psychological makeup and to underline her strengths and frailties. 

And of course there is always the city of Ordshaw acting as both background and character: as I often commented, talking about this series, there is a storytelling quality to these books that makes me imagine this city as colored in sepia tones, or immersed in a sort of perennial dusk: here that sensation is enhanced by the descriptions of the area where Kit operates, the community of St. Alphege, a once lively but now run-down sector where organized crime put some very deep roots and where the distraction of local authorities did nothing to improve the citizens’ living conditions.

[…] bare brick walls and windows barred like a prison, roads pocked with holes and pavements dotted with weeds. Even the sky’s blanket grey conspired to give the estate a miserable appearance.

Dyer Street Punk Witches (which is available from today) is loosely related to the rest of the series, so it can be read as a stand-alone, but if it can make you curious about the other Ordshaw stories, know that this unusual Urban Fantasy saga will prove both intriguing and entertaining in its peculiar weirdness…

My Rating:

Reviews

THIS CHARMING MAN (The Stranger Times #2), by C.K. McDonnell

The second installment in this Urban Fantasy series cemented the impression I derived from The Stranger Times: that CK McDonnell’s take on the genre is a winning one, moving away from its usual mix of magic, darkness and characters’ inner demons to create a blend where humor and the uncanny fuse into a story that remains engaging and entertaining from start to finish, even when actual monsters come into play.

In the first volume the author introduced the motley group of people working at the Stranger Times, the paper reporting on weird occurrences not so much as a way of lending them credit but rather of exploring the supernatural as a duty to the public.  We therefore were able to know the chief editor, Vincent Banecroft – on the surface an unpleasant individual given to heavy drinking and scarce personal hygiene; his long-suffering secretary Grace and her daily battles against her boss’ endless streams of profanity; the intern Stella, a young woman whose origins (and powers) are shrouded in mystery; reporters Reggie and Ox, peculiar but lovable people. The new addition to the staff, Hannah, came to work for the paper as a last resort after facing the troubles of a messy divorce.

At the start of This Charming Man, some time has elapsed but the paper’s troubles keep piling on: the latest problem coming from the realization that the workers renovating the building’s facilities have also installed a secret trapdoor, most certainly as a first step in kidnapping Stella, whose supernatural abilities make her a coveted target. But that’s not everything, because the city of Manchester, where these stories are set, seems to be plagued by a series of vampiric attacks, in dramatic contrast with the tenet – accepted both by mundane and supernatural circles – that vampires don’t exist…. On top of that (did you think the above could be more than enough? Well, think again!) Ox has some serious financial problems, of the kind that involves gambling debts and unsavory characters – those of bodily harm persuasion; Hanna is dealing with her as-yet-to-be-determined feelings for a police inspector with…er… an undisclosed passenger in his head; and we get to know some new players, among them a man who can answer only in the most unadulterated truth, and lives on a boat together with a talking dog. 

One of the best elements in This Charming Man is that the main characters grow in depth and facets, so that  we get to know them better – or to change our first impression of them: this is mainly the case for Vincent Banecroft, whose abrasive outward attitude hides an inner pain for the loss of his wife, whose spirit he tries to contact through the help – as flimsy and difficult to handle as it is – of the ghost of Simon, the young man who wanted to work for Banecroft but lost his life in the previous book.  Seeing the Stranger Times’ editor literally grasp at moonbeams to reconnect with his dead wife changed my perspective on his personality and while I cannot say that I now view him with sympathy – because he’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and despotic as ever – I can see where he comes from, and many of his attitudes make more sense.

Hannah also improved a great deal: she is far less of a fish out of water than she was in the first book – or at least she is where her work at the paper is concerned, because when it comes to dealing with Inspector Sturgess and her as-yet unformed feelings about him it’s another matter. But when she has to deal with Banecroft, his temper and his idiosyncrasies, Hannah can turn into something of a dragon, and she has no qualms in battling with him word for word: their heated exchanges are among the best sections of the story, and I like to see – or rather, to perceive – how her boss must secretly enjoy this new facet from his newest acquisition.   There are also moments in which we see Hannah bonding with her colleagues, particularly Reggie with whom she teams up during an investigation: in this way even Reggie’s character is given a chance to gain more depth and to come more into the light.

As for the story itself, I could not help but be intrigued by the appearance of vampires, and the way they are portrayed here – as a form of mysterious infection rather than the mere product of an attack – adds to the attraction of the story, where both the Founders and the Folk (the movers and shakers working behind the scenes) have an interest in the proceedings, an interest that is not exactly benign…  Not every question gets an answer in this second book, and the still-hanging narrative threads look very promising so that I can look forward with great interest to the next volume in the series, knowing that it will prove as intriguing and amusing as the previous ones: what I saw so far of this continuing story offers a delightful mix of humor and weirdness and enjoyable character that makes The Stranger Times a more than welcome addition to my TBR.

My Rating:

Reviews

Waiting on Wednesday: Dyer Street Punk Witches, by Phil Williams

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme first showcased at Breaking the Spine and now twinned with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings: this weekly meme offers the chance to highlight the upcoming releases that we’re looking out for.  

Until now I never wrote a post for WoW, but recently author Phil Williams was kind enough to contact me with the ARC for his new book, which shares the background of his previous works, i.e. the magic-infested British city of Ordshaw, and the approaching publication date for this new novel prompted me to take advantage of the meme.  

At the start of this year I posted a cover reveal for Dyer Street Punk Witches (follow the LINK if you’re curious about this new story), but today I’m doing something different: Mr. Williams is issuing a set of trading cards for the characters in the book, and here is one of them:

Oscar Tallice is not exactly what you might define as a “good guy”, particularly when you focus on some of the descriptions the author shares about this character, like the “mischievous, untrustworthy glint in his eye and his square-edged, teeth-clenched smile” or the fact that “there’s always an undercurrent of violence” with him. Let me tell you, however, that the some of the examples of humanity you will meet in Dyer Street Punk Witches will make you feel uneasy more often than not…

Are you intrigued? Well, the wait is not going to be too long: on September 12th the book will become available – and so will be my review and that of the other bloggers fortunate enough to have read this novel in advance 😉   Meanwhile, you can take advantage of the QR code embedded in the image to be taken directly to the book’s page on Phil Williams’ site and learn a bit more about Kit, the ass-kicking protagonist of this new Ordshaw adventure.

Happy reading!

LAST MINUTE UPDATE:

Mr. Williams is doing a pre-order promo for the whole deck of trading cards, so I’m sharing the LINK: I encourage you to take a look at all the amazing characters peopling this story

Reviews

THE STRANGER TIMES (Stranger Times #1), by C.K. McDonnell – #wyrdandwonder

As it so often happens, I took notice of this book thanks to the review from fellow blogger Lynn, but did not add it immediately to my reading queue, so that it took Lynn’s mention of the second volume in the series to finally push me start this one, and now I know I will not let too much time elapse before adding the sequel to my TBR because I had a great deal of fun with The Stranger Times.

The book title refers to a Manchester-based newspaper focused on the strange and the bizarre – like alien visitations or kidnappings, the birth of two-headed cows and so forth – its anchor to reality being that the paper is only reporting those weird occurrences, not stating a belief in them.  The staff is just as eccentric as the news it publishes, consisting of Vincent Banecroft, the editor, a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited drunkard who lives on the premises; Grace, Banecroft’s secretary and office manager, whose main activities consist in keeping the editor’s profanities to a minimum and making tea for everyone; Reggie and Ox, the actual reporters, who seem to have lost faith in their work; and Stella, the young apprentice who looks far from happy about being there.

The latest addition to the team is Hannah, recently divorced from a philandering husband and the recipient of unwanted fame for having set fire to their home while burning the man’s clothes: having left her comfortable life behind, Hannah is in dire need of work and her last chance comes though the ad published by the Stranger Times, claiming to look for “desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”.  Despite the oddities of the place, and Banecroft’s foul temper, it does not take long for Hannah to find her niche as assistant editor in this new setting, and just in time, because strange happenings are troubling the city of Manchester and soon enough a death that touches the staff very close to home launches them into an investigation where the supernatural and its dangers are not limited to the rantings of the newspaper’s readers.

The rapid POV changes in the story – which besides the main characters include a powerful villain, a police inspector and some of the gruesome crimes’ victims – make for a quick and lively run through this book, which alternates its more dramatic aspects with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that I found quite refreshing for the genre: Urban Fantasy tends to be uniformly dark, its characters often tormented by a dismal past, and finding here this successful blend of seriousness and fun offered a very welcome respite from the gloom of our current reality.

Where the story is quite intriguing, listing a series of bizarre deaths and the hints of some magical dastardly plot our heroes need to prevent, the characters are its true backbone and it’s through their spirited exchanges that their nature is revealed as they turn, slowly but surely, from a group of people at odds with each other into something approaching a found family.  Hannah is of course the one whose journey is more detailed, and the one who shows the greatest changes: at first she is not only the classic “fish out of water” due to the upheavals in her life, she also looks somewhat clueless and fumbling, since her first days at the Stranger Times are a source of misery, thanks to Banecroft’s vicious attitude and to her duties for “Loon Day”, when a long theory of contributors comes calling with their weird anecdotes.  But as the days pass, we can see how those challenges help Hannah to tap some unknown reserves and turn into a determined, proactive person who is also able to face unusual or terrifying situations and even to challenge Banecroft on his own ground, probably gaining his unexpressed respect in the process.

Banecroft himself is a very interesting character: even though he’s outwardly rude and profanity-inclined (to the point that Grace had to put a daily limit to his use of nasty language), and lives in what can only be described as a disgusting mess of papers, dirty clothes and empty liquor bottles, it’s difficult to outright hate him because the way he’s written and his over-the-top demeanor lead the reader more toward indulgent amusement than real disapproval. What’s more, there are some hints at a past tragedy that might explain his current manners (or lack thereof…) and that I hope will be explored in more depth in the next book(s).  I liked Grace very much, particularly for the unflappable way in which she deals both with Banecroft and with young Stella, whose difficult-teenager attitude hides a very interesting secret which ties with some of the information (sorry, no spoilers!) we gather along the way. And, last but not least, the interactions between Reggie and Ox are nothing short of delightful.

What’s interesting here is that we see the point of view of the villain just as much as that of our “heroes” and that serves to counterbalance the whimsical tone of the story with some darkness, which grounds the story in its dramatic aspect as we learn of the increasing danger presented by this mysterious figure as he claims his victims with a sort of… amused nonchalance that’s quite chilling.

I had a very good run with The Stranger Times, to the point that I have already acquired the sequel – This Charming Man: the blend of Urban Fantasy and humor is very well balanced, an amusing journey that at times makes you laugh out loud, particularly when you get “extracts” from the newspaper itself detailing some of the published articles.  A different take on the usual elements of the genre that will not disappoint and will leave you with a smile on your face.

My Rating:

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

Reviews

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 (Dead Djinn Universe #0.3), by P. Djèlì Clark

My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities,  proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.

In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs.  Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…

The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.

Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s.  Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance.  Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.

Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:

That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women

For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.

My Rating:

Reviews

Cover Reveal: DYER STREET PUNK WITCHES, by Phil Williams

So far I’ve been quite enjoying Phil Williams’ Ordshaw novels (Link 1, Link 2, Link 3), a series of Urban Fantasy books focused on the British city of Ordshaw where magic and mundane coexist and sometimes cross – not always with desirable results. Loosely connected to this series is also the Ikiri Duology (Link1, Link 2), an adventurous tale spanning several countries and delving on an ancient mystery.

Now I’ve received from Mr. Williams the welcome news of a new book set again in the city of Ordshaw but featuring new characters and adding the theme of crime thriller to the previous mix, and I’m quite thrilled at the prospect.

So, while I wait for the book to be published, I’m quite happy to share its cover and the blurb kindly provided by the author:

Kit hung up her brass knuckles, but she never stopped fighting. She abandoned the dark arts, but the shadows lingered. And now her past is back to haunt her. There’s a new witch in town, working with a ruthless gang to stamp out rivals – no matter how long ago they quit.

An old friend warns Kit that her neighbourhood is under attack. Kit herself is a target. Her former gang are scared stiff and her magic-wielding bandmates are long gone. She dreads reviving her destructive nature, and can’t dust off the spellbook – not after what happened last time. But what choice does she have?

Besides, she rarely gets to enjoy a good brawl anymore.

Decades older, a little wiser, and contrary as ever, Kit’s going to remind them all what a punk witch can do.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? And I love the crumpled look of the cover, like that of an oftend-handled book, but I’m particularly drawn by the concept of punk witches. After all, who wouldn’t? 😉

Reviews

GIVEN TO DARKNESS (The Ikiri Duology #2), by Phil Williams

The previous book in this duology introduced me to a new set of troubles afflicting this version of our world, in which the weird and supernatural coexist with everyday life, as introduced in Phil Williams’ Sunken City trilogy based in the fictional city of Ordshaw. 

Where the weirdness surfacing in Ordshaw remained more or less confined to the city itself, and more precisely to its subterranean levels, in the Ikiri Duology upheavals manifest in a very public and quite bloody way, requiring the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy to stretch its resources to find plausible explanations for the sudden, tragic bouts of violence erupting worldwide, and to keep the consequences under wraps as much as possible.

In Kept from Cages we met MEE agent Sean Tasker trying to deal with the situation and finding an unexpected – and weird – ally in Katryzna, a young woman with a violently unpredictable attitude. On the other side of the world, a band of criminally-inclined musicians met with a strange child, Zip, who soon proved to be the key to the strange events plaguing the world. Once the two groups met, the story truly launched into its inexorable path…

The unlikely allies are now faced with the need to go to the source of the disturbance, a place deep in Congo’s forest called Ikiri, from which the spreading corruption seems to originate and where dark mysteries need to be solved, both for the sake of the world at large and for young Zip’s safety in particular, since too many people seem intent on killing her.

With the scene being set in book 1, and the characters introduced, Given to Darkness can finally embark, unfettered, into the adventure proper: not that Kept from Cages was a restful story, of course, but here the author could finally indulge into the breathless journey he must have envisioned from the start, while also enjoying the space to let his characters grow and take on new facets while they deal with the unending string of dangers and threats peppering their path. 

For instance I liked very much the way outlaw musicians Reece and Leigh-Ann become even more protective of young Zip, whose emotional growth is driven forward by circumstances that are far too complex and harrowing to be heaped on the shoulders of a child: the way they almost become substitute parents, and the comparison with Zip’s real father – a heartlessly manipulative individual who is quite easy to hate – makes the goodness of their hearts shine even brighter. 

Agent Tasker turns out to be a decidedly more human face for the Ministry, whose ways – as often seen in the Sunken City trilogy – can be quite callous, and I have to admit he grew up on me, while in the first book I was not too sanguine about him.

Still, the character that truly shone for me in this novel is that of Katryzna, mostly because we are finally allowed a deeper glance into her personality beyond the external armor of cold-blooded violence she likes to wear: getting to know her better, and learning about the person behind the mask of the brutal killer was a very intriguing – and at times emotional – journey which left me with a very different outlook on this ruthlessly determined figure.

What can you expect from this book – and from the whole duology as well? Certainly a great deal of non-stop action sprinkled with humor, even though the darkness in the title is a definite, and often suffocating, presence. If you are looking for adventure, mystery and a good measure of fantasy elements, you need look no further than this book and its predecessor.

Given to Darkness will be available from October 19th, which is exactly a week from today: the conclusion to this engaging series is indeed just around the corner, so… happy reading!

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES, by Grady Hendrix – #Wyrdandwonder

The word “vampire” in a book’s title is often enough to draw my attention, but here the connection with a book club, and the more than positive reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, made it next to impossible for me to ignore this novel. In the end, I found much more than I hoped for in Southern Book Club, because the fundamental horror of the genre is only the vehicle for the creation of a few intriguing characters and for some thought-provoking social commentary.  Will it be a perfect fit for the fantasy component of Wyrd and Wonder? I hope so,  because I think that the huge amount of weirdness of the story might make it a good candidate, even if it’s not set in some castle-dotted realm…

Patricia is your typical suburban wife (the story is set in the decade between the late ’80s and the late ’90s) with a workaholic, distant husband, two growing children and a lot of commitments – plus the recent burden of a mother-in-law whose health, both physical and mental, is declining at a rapid pace. One of the rare moments she can take for herself comes from the monthly discussions of her book club, and as the story opens she’s distressed because she had no time to read the current volume, the latest highbrow choice in what seems like a long list of intellectually worthy but uninspiring books.  The disaster of her presentation becomes the drive to create a more interesting club together with her friends Grace, Slick, Maryellen and Kitty, united in their inclination for thrillers and true crime stories. 

The quiet routine of Old Village, the suburb where Patricia and her friends reside, is however shaken by a series of apparently unrelated events: her elderly neighbor physically assaults her one evening, chewing off one earlobe, then dies in hospital not much later; the woman’s nephew, James Harris, takes residence in the now-vacant house, but has strangely nocturnal habits, no readily available ID and a lot of cash; Patricia’s mother-in-law is assaulted by a horde of rats (a truly horrible, blood-curling scene); and the close-by area of Six Mile is beset by a series of disappearances, followed by suicides, of young people believed to be under the influence of drugs.  The full picture seems to come together only when Mrs. Greene, once the caregiver for Patricia’s mother-in-law, presents her with clues that point to James Harris as a predator of a most unusual and shocking kind.  Patricia’s first attempt at calling attention to the man fails miserably, causing her a great deal of grief, and only when the danger starts encroaching on her children does she find the strength and the courage to go on the offensive again – but not alone…

There is little doubt that Harris is a vampire, no surprise there: it becomes clear from the very first time Patricia sets eyes on him as he lies comatose and shriveled, only to appear in full health the following day – that is, except for his intolerance to sunlight. And she sees him later on as he’s feeding on his latest victim, revealing all the inhumanness of his nature. But Patricia and her friends have a hard time unmasking him, for a number of reasons, all of which are guaranteed to fuel the readers’ anger, if they are so inclined: for starters, Harris has managed to insinuate himself in the social fabric of the area, his affable, pleasant demeanor gaining him easy entry in the homes on the neighbors – and let’s not forget what happens once you invite a vampire in your home… Then his early victims are all part of the black community: this is the deep South of some 30 years ago, after all, and no one seems to really care about the deaths of a number of kids from a low-income, run-down neighborhood – not the authorities, nor the otherwise “concerned” citizens – so that Harris knows he has an almost-unlimited reservoir of vulnerable prey to draw from.  Last but not least, the early charge against him comes from a group of women whose husbands are his friends and business partners and who are more than readily disposed to undermine their wives’ credibility, to silence them with scorn or violence, and to set them one against the other, to divide and isolate them.

What happens after that first, failed attempt is just as sickening as witnessing an actual vampiric assault, because that’s a scene rooted in the realm of fantasy, while the patronizing silencing of women – mothers, wives – is a sadly realistic scenario: worse, Harris also manages to infiltrate the only territory these women called their own, the book club, turning it into a male-driven society where the wives have lost their voice even in the choice of reading material.  Divide et impera: by sowing a barely concealed fear of consequences, Harris and his (more or less) unwitting cronies create an environment in which acceptance comes only from conformity, from compliance with the rules, where the barest hint at dissonance bears a heavy stigma and brings discrimination. It’s only when Harris’ greed gets the better of his carefulness and he starts targeting his neighbors’ children that Patricia finds once again her determination and enrolls her friends’ help to remove the threat to their families: where on one side this turns into a couple of prolonged, blood-chilling narrative sequences I still cringe in recollecting, on the other it showcases these women’s bravery and the power of their friendship. Not to mention the inner steel underlying their deep-seated outer politeness: “He thinks we’re what we look like on the outside: nice Southern ladies. Let me tell you something…there’s nothing nice about Southern ladies.”

These ladies are not perfect heroines however, their audacious endeavor marred by the realization that the drive to act only comes when their families are threatened, when some of them are subjected to intimidation and brutal violence aimed at ensuring their silence, a silence made easier because the victims were not part of their community.  The racial and social rift works fully in favor of Harris’ plan here, and even if ultimately the group of friends chooses to take matters into their own hands, there is a bittersweet flavor to the ending that acknowledges how theirs was just an action driven by the momentary need, and not a true change in outlook.

Still, I quite enjoyed Southern Book Club and its interesting mix of horror and social analysis and look forward to sampling more of this author’s works in the (hopefully) near future.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com
Reviews

NIGHTWISE (Nightwise #1), by R.S. Belcher

Nightwise has been languishing on my reading queue for quite some time, but after enjoying both books in Belcher’s new Brotherhood of the Wheel series I knew it was high time to see where the author would take me in this journey through his Urban Fantasy realms. And what a journey it was, indeed, mixing the well-established themes of UF with those of the hard-boiled noir and placing at the center of it all a character who requires some time and effort to connect to.

Laytham Ballard is a Wisdom, or wizard if you want, trained in the arts of the Life, the magical background underlying everyday life and unknown to most humans.  Ballard’s old friend Boj is dying and as a deathbed request he asks Laytham to find and kill Dusan Slorzack, the man who tortured, raped and killed Boj’s wife. Easier said than done, since Slorzack, besides being a former military, is well connected with the criminal underworld and also apparently versed in the magical arts: any trail Ballard tries to follow is beset by dead bodies, horrific creatures and mortal danger.

Determined to get to the bottom of it all (and at some point more interested in winning the game than fulfilling his dying friend’s request) Ballard enrolls the help of a group of disparate people –  some versed in the magical arts, others possessing more mundane but still precious skills – and starts a very risky journey from which there might be no return, learning as he goes that there are layers upon layers in the occult world, and that many of them encompass unexpected domains like finance and politics. It goes without saying that the final showdown is as brutal and bloody as the events preceding it, and it opens the way to more stories focused on Laytham Ballard, the second of which I’m already eyeing with keen interest.

As I said in the premise, Ballard requires some strenuous work, from the reader’s point of view: he’s not your average UF protagonist, the kind with a shady past but a good, generous heart. No, he’s all rough edges and unpleasant traits, quite selfish and self-centered, a total badass who does not make excuses for that but rather admits it with no small measure of pride. What’s worse, from the very start we see how he has no qualms about throwing innocent bystanders under the proverbial bus when need arises, candidly acknowledging that it’s better them than him. This sounds like the perfect recipe for a loathsome character, and at first it’s so easy to despise him, but as the novel moves forward and bits and pieces of Ballard’s history come to the surface, one begins to see where he comes from, which events molded his psychological makeup and how his worldview was shaped.  It might not be enough to actually like him, but in the end I came to care for him as a character (sort of…) and to be invested in his journey.

What’s more enlightening than those fragments of Ballard’s past is the way he relates to the people in his inner circle and, more importantly, the way they relate to him: seeing how they care for him and his well-being, and how they worry about his self-destructive habits, you can see the man from a different angle and measure him not so much for the face he shows the world, but rather for the way those people perceive him. If establishing an emotional connection with this character might prove something of an effort, his friends’ continued concern is the key to a better understanding of what makes him tick. And last but not least there are hints about a crucial event that required a massive sacrifice, one that might be at the root of Ballard’s apparent lack of empathy: these words

They cut your joy […] They cut it out of you like a surgeon. They amputated your emotions…

are as revealing as they are enigmatic and just beg for a deeper knowledge of the man.

Laytham Ballard is not the only dark element in Nightwise, however. The background in which he moves is just as harsh and gritty: we are treated to several tours of the underworld where mundane and magical cross paths, a setting where drugs, extreme sex and violence are commonplace, a veritable journey through a hell in which Ballard seems to move with careless confidence. Ghastly and gruesome as some scenes might look, there is still a vein of humor running through them which manages to balance out the inevitable revulsion: this story is so very much darker than what I experienced with the Brotherhood of the Wheel novels, and without this whimsical element I doubt I might have endured through the whole book. Violence is also present in considerable quantity – there is a long sequence in which Ballard suffers days on end of torture, which was truly difficult to stomach – and it’s thanks to that amalgam of humor and brutality that I was able to move forward, wondering all the time whether he accepted that pain while waiting for the opportunity to escape or because he saw it unconsciously as a form of well-deserved punishment for his worst deeds… 

I realize I might have scared many potential readers with my considerations, but I’d like to point out that no matter how dark and unforgiving this story and this world might look, there is a fascinating quality to it all that keeps you glued to the book, and it’s enhanced by the few rays of light scattered throughout the narrative, the best of them a casual encounter on the road that sees Ballard accepting a lift from a trucker, who is none other than dear Jimmie Aussapile from the Brotherhood of the Wheel series, here making his first appearance (and probably being the seed concept for the other novels…): I can tell you that this encounter made me all but squeal with joy, as if I had found a long-lost friend, because Jimmie is a delightful creation – well, apart from the tobacco-chewing, that is 😀

If Nightwise forced me to tap into my reserves of inner strength to withstand some of its more troublesome moments, I’m glad to have explored this new area in R.S. Belcher’s rich imagination, and look forward to seeing where this grim character will go next.

My Rating:

Reviews

GRAVE IMPORTANCE (Dr. Greta Helsing #3), by Vivian Shaw

The third and final (?) book in Vivian Shaw’s series focused on Greta Helsing, the physician specialized in supernatural creatures, raises the stakes to unimaginable levels, following the progressive crescendo acquired in the previous two volumes and seeing all the characters we have come to know and love engaged in a scenario of catastrophic proportions.

After the chilling adventures in Paris, Greta & Co. are enjoying some quiet time, and Dr. Helsing herself is helping Varney with the renovation of his ancestral house as the two of them – human and vampyre – keep growing closer. Their developing intimacy must however be placed on a back burner as a colleague asks Greta to take over for a while in his spa for mummies on the outskirts of Marseille, since he needs to take a leave of absence.  Despite sadness at her impending separation from Varney for several weeks, Greta is excited at the prospect of learning more about therapies for mummies, particularly because Oasis Natrun is filled with state-of-the-art equipment that will enable her to practice the high-level kind of medicine that she always dreamed of.

Her enthusiasm is sadly short-lived: the mummies at the spa keep falling prey to a kind of debilitating seizures that in some cases also prove damaging to their fragile physical integrity.  As Greta battles with the strange ailment, her vampire friend and mentor Ruthven is touring Europe with his new lover Grisaille: a puzzling encounter with a weird individual proves quite harmful to Ruthven’s health and requires his hospitalization in the best clinic in Hell (yes, *that* Hell, with a cameo from Dr. Faust himself), and there are two angels in disguise roaming the world as they prepare the ground for an invasion from an alternate version of Heaven. Mayhem and ruin ensue as we discover how the very fabric of reality is in jeopardy and nothing short of Armageddon looms ever close on the horizon…

In the previous two books, while enjoying the choral style of the narrative, I often felt that Greta was somewhat underused: here she finally comes to the fore, showing in no uncertain way the fierce love for her profession and the unstinting dedication to her patients that have shaped her over time. The puzzle presented by the mummies’ weird fits consumes her both as a physician and as a person who cares for others, and I liked how her growing relationship with Varney has not changed her attitude but rather has become another side of her commitment to others, and a source of strength in difficult moments rather than a distraction.

Grave Importance might be best described as several books in one: there is the thread about Oasis Natrun and its endangered mummies; Ruthven’s alarming ailment and the way it impacts the newly-forged bond with Grisaille, which leads to another part of the story where the latter launches into a dangerous heist together with Cranswell (a welcome return!); then there is the mysterious Madam Van Dorne and her obsession with Egyptian artifacts; and last but not least the nebulous mission of the two angels, Amitiel and Zophiel (A to Z – it took me a while to connect the dots…) and its ominous consequences.  It might sound like too much, but it’s really not, since these apparently unconnected pieces of the puzzle slowly form the complete picture, and the constant change of POV helps in keeping the pace brisk and in making the page-turning a compelling necessity.

What Vivian Shaw does very well, both here and in the previous two books, is mix more serious themes with humor in a very successful blend, and the whimsical bits always come at the right moment to defuse a particularly tense situation – a prime example of this is the scene where the enigmatic Madam Van Dorne sees her first walking and talking mummy and faints, and the mummy in question is more than happy to carry her away in its arms imitating the famous Boris Karloff movie sequence.  Equally entertaining are the chapters where Grisaille and Cranswell play – more or less successfully – the role of art thieves from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or our first and comprehensive look at Hell, which is run like a well-oiled city, complete with its own resorts, bars and a top-notch hospital, Erebus General.  Should I also mention that you get the news there from ENN (Erebus News Network) and that the country code for phone calls is 666? 😀

This levity is a welcome distraction from the sinister events that lead inexorably to what looks like the end of the world, but it does not steer the author away from sharper and deeper characterization and a close observation of the family that Greta and her friends have built through their adventures and the affection that ties them together. Once again I am amazed at how all the supernatural creatures depicted in these novels feel so human and relatable, both the ones we have come to know and those we encounter here for the first time. These weird creatures – be they vampires, werewolves or demons, just to name a few – are not edulcorated, they stay true to their legendary and sometimes sinister nature, but at the same time they show a side of… normalcy, for want of a better word, that puts their more outlandish traits in sharper relief.

The only part of the story that did not exactly agree with me is the one concerning the two angels from a different dimension who are working to usher in the end of our world, deemed an abomination by their plane of existence: I found this part a little confusing and not sufficiently explained, but it was really a small “hiccup” in an otherwise very engaging read, and my hope is that Vivian Shaw will choose to return to Greta & Co. in the near future because I believe there are some more stories to tell about her and her oh-so-very-unusual circle of friends.

My Rating: