Friday, December 30, 2016

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford, God Save the Queen by Kate Locke, The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain and The Empress Game: Cloak of War by Rhonda Mason

This will be my last blog post this year, so I will dispense with the movie previews and book industry news and get right to the book reviews for four books I just finished in this, the final week of 2016, which was a very difficult year.

The Darkness Knows by Cheryl Honigford is the first in a new series of "Charlie and Viv" mysteries that take place in 1938-39 Chicago at radio station. As I'm a fan of Charles Todd's Bess Crawford Mysteries (which take place during WWI) and of the Maisie Dobbs Mysteries, which take place after WWI and right up to the beginnings of WWII, I was prepared to like this mystery with a female protagonist, Vivian, working with a local private eye to solve the mystery of who killed one of her co workers, an on-air talent at the radio station. The show Vivian does, called "The Darkness Knows" is, of course, a blatant rip off of "The Shadow" radio program, popular in the 1930s, with the tagline "The Shadow Knows." Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing Honigford ripped off for her debut mystery. Everything that happens in the book is predictable, and the characters are all cliches and stock characters from old movies, like the Thin Man films or the Maltese Falcon. Vivian, or Viv, for example, is from an upscale family, but wants to break out on her own and be a radio star, because she's a plucky but petite redhead who is just too darn curious and "smart" for her own good. The private eye, Charlie, who is assigned to the case is, of course, a big handsome manly lug of a guy who is kissing her one minute and pushing her away the next. Though he's assigned to protect her, he frequently leaves her alone so he can pursue his own agenda, which is to find his birth parents and "out" them for giving him to an orphanage. Here's the blurb:
Bright lights. Big city. Brutal murder.
Chicago, 1938. Late one night before the ten o'clock show, the body of a prominent radio actress is found in the station's lounge. All the evidence points to murder—and one young, up-and-coming radio actress, Vivian Witchell, as the next victim. But Vivian isn't the type to leave her fate in the hands of others—she's used to stealing the show. Alongside charming private detective Charlie Haverman, Vivian is thrust into a world of clues and motives, suspects and secrets. And with so much on the line, Vivian finds her detective work doesn't end when the on-air light goes out...
The gripping first novel in a new series from debut author Cheryl Honigford, The Darkness Knows is a thrilling mystery that evokes the drama and scandal of radio stardom in prewar Chicago. Publisher's Weekly: Honigford’s atmospheric first novel, a series debut, brings to life the world of radio in 1938 Chicago. Aspiring actress Vivian Witchell, formerly a secretary at station WCHI, now has some small roles in the station’s live dramas. When she discovers the body of elderly—and alcoholic—star Marjorie Fox, early evidence suggests a crazed fan might want Vivian dead as well. Terrified, she spends most of the book trying to show up at work and behave normally while other characters urge her to stay home. That includes Charlie Haverman, a private detective hired to protect her. Their frequent sparring sounds rather more like whining than lighthearted romantic banter. Meanwhile, Vivian’s high-society mother disapproves of her career, a glamorous costar may be using her, and a colleague is out to snag all her roles. Some readers may be disappointed that it requires no sleuthing on Vivian’s part to expose the murderer.
Publisher's Weekly is correct in that statement that Viv spends a lot of time whining and crying and being freaked out and frightened, but very little time actually getting the clues together to solve the mystery, which is actually done for her by the villain, who tells her the whole story while holding her at gunpoint. Though she wants to be taken seriously, she doesn't act like anything but a delicate damsel most of the time, fainting and shaking and crying over the least problems. Still, the prose was clean and clear and the plot moved faster than a runaway subway train. An okay read, if not one with much depth. A B+ and a recommendation for those who like easily solved historical mysteries.

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke was a Dollar Store find (in hardback, no less), and as it is British steampunk and full of supernatural characters ala Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, I swooped in on this gem immediately. Alexandra "Xandy" Vardan is a halfie, half vampire and half human, or so she thinks. In a world where the aristocracy are vampires or werewolves and the underbelly of the city is run by Goblins, while the half-human supernaturals are used as royal guards for the aristocracy to keep regular humans from killing them out of fear or prejudice, Xandy is in the perfect position to hunt for her sister, who would appear to be dead, but Xandy knows different. Here's the blurb: 
The first in an alternate fantasy series where vampires, werewolves, and goblins rule London.
Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist.
The undead matriarch presides over a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. It's a world where the nobility are infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.
Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key -- the prize -- in a very dangerous struggle.
The prose in this first of a series steampunk fantasy novel was so bouncy and bright it nearly flew off the page, and it certainly kept the breakneck speed of the plot moving. There's great humor and a delightful romance woven into the plot, and though I generally don't love petite and plucky heroines, I truly liked Xandra and her quest for the truth of her heritage, her role within the government and the rebel group that her sister has fallen in with. I enjoyed the book so much I am going to get book #2 from the library ASAP. A well deserved A, and a recommendation for anyone who loves well-written steampunk.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain was recommended to me by a website touting "books about bookstores and the booklovers who run them." This short novel was, I believe, translated from French, and yet it retains all the lyrical beauty of the French tongue in every paragraph. The story is about a bookstore owner who happens to find a beautiful handbag one day, discarded after a thief removed the wallet and credit cards. The woman who owns the handbag is in a coma in the hospital after being mugged, and the bookstore owner tries to find her by removing everything from her bag and using the items therein as clues to her identity. Here's the blurb: 
Heroic bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street. There's nothing in the bag to indicate who it belongs to, although there's all sorts of other things in it. Laurent feels a strong impulse to find the owner and tries to puzzle together who she might be from the contents of the bag. Especially a red notebook with her jottings, which really makes him want to meet her. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?
I loved the gentle love story of the lonely bookseller falling in love with a woman through the items in her handbag, from her signature perfume to her red notebook that contains her hopes and dreams and fears. The one thing I didn't like about the book was Laurent's horribly rude and disrespectful daughter who is manipulative and cruel and whose parents can't seem to discipline her, for some ridiculous reason. I wanted to slap her 5 minutes after she was introduced in the book. Other than that, the prose is sublime and the plot gentle and evenly paced. Though it's easily read in an afternoon, I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who loves Paris and bookstores and romance. 

The Empress Game: Cloak of War by Rhonda Mason is book two in this fascinating space opera series. I read and loved the first Empress Game novel, gotten from Powells this past summer, so I was fairly confident that the sequel would be just as thrilling a space adventure as the first book. Unfortunately, all the strides that were made in the first book seem to be obliterated in the heat of political machinations and betrayals in this novel, as Kayla is thrown under the bus by Isonde and by the IDC, not to mention her own people, who, though they're supposedly big tough telepaths, end up calling her for help to save them, because a whole crew full of people aren't smart enough to get themselves out of a bad situation. I really hate it when suddenly only the protagonist has a brain, and everyone else regresses into child like idiocy. Here's the blurb: The bloody tournament to determine the new empress of the intergalactic empire may be over, but for exiled princess Kayla Reinumon, the battle is just beginning. To free her home planet from occupation, Kayla must infiltrate the highest reaches of imperial power. But when a deadly nanovirus threatens to ravage the empire, it will take more than diplomacy to protect her homeworld from all-out war.
Another point of insanity in this book is when Kayla decides to give up the most important tech secrets, which could put her people and everyone else in the galaxy at risk for mental slavery, to an insane meglomaniac woman in the IDC (the galactic police chief, basically) in exchange for the guy she's been dating for like half a minute. Seriously, it makes no sense, even after the author tries to justify it with a ridiculous "I'm a woman in love" speech, because Kayla, up to this point, wouldn't sell out the whole galaxy for a guy whom she has only just admitted that she loves. She hasn't known him for even a year yet, and somehow he ranks above the entire galaxy? I have to call BS on that, because it just doesn't smell right for the character at all. Now, of course, Kayla and her guy are intergalactic fugitives, along with his coworkers, and they have to find a way to save her sister and brothers who are stranded in space, and their planet is on the brink of being overrun by the military, as the galaxy goes to war to wipe out the despised telepaths who won't give them a cure for a nanovirus (they don't actually have the cure, but that seems to be beside the point) and whom everyone seems to hate and fear. The third book comes out early next year, and while I found this installment depressing and senseless, I still enjoyed the characters enough to want to find out what happens to Kayla and her family. I hope that Isonde, whom it turns out is a power-hungry despicable bitch, dies a horrible death in the third book, because she deserves nothing less for what she's done to Kayla. This book gets a B, and a recommendation to anyone who has read the first book, with a warning that the sequel is bloody and frustrating and depressing.

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