Thursday, January 29, 2015

Under the Empyrean Sky (Heartland Trilogy #1) - Chuck Wendig

Cael McAvoy and his friends live on a radically different Earth than ours today. In this future time, the ruling class has moved to a flotilla of cities in the sky, leaving the lower classes to live on the surface of the planet and farm corn. But this corn is nothing like the plant we know. It's been genetically modified into an invasive species that seems almost sentient, and its fruit is not safe to eat.

Cael and his friends have built a hovercraft out of spare parts, which they use to look for remnants of the old civilization to sell for extra ace notes. But Cael is an angry young man -- mad at the mayor's son, who seems determined to wreck his salvage business, and mad at his own father, who seems resigned to life in the Heartland, where people die of horrible diseases and things never seem to get better. He's also scared of losing his girlfriend Gwennie when they both come of age and the government picks their spouses.

Then he and his crew find real food -- healthy, edible fruits and vegetables -- growing in the middle of a cornfield. That's when things get really interesting.

Wendig has taken the headline-grabbing topics of GMO crops and the 1%, and melded them into an excellent YA dystopian tale. I heartily recommend Under the Empyrean Sky. The second book, Blightborn, is already out -- and now I'm wondering why I haven't started it yet. I should get on that.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ride the Rainbow Home (Rainbow Rock #1) - Susan Aylworth

This is the kind of book that makes my teeth itch.

Reviewers on Goodreads call Ride the Rainbow Home a "clean romance." I'm calling it way too bland for my taste.

Meg Taylor lives in California, where her life is only okay. She's seeing a guy who she likes okay; she has a job as a management trainer that she likes okay. Then her high school friend Sally has twins, and talks Meg into coming back home to Rainbow Rock, Arizona, to help her with the babies after the birth.

"Home" is a relative term for Meg. She only lived in Rainbow Rock during high school, and she caught so much flak for being the principal's stepdaughter that she fled as soon as graduation was over. In the ten years since, she has reinvented herself. Upon her return, she discovers she's not the only person who's been doing some reinventing; Little Jimmy McAllister has turned into a splendid specimen of a human male. He's handsome and virile; he's ethical and kind; and he's a complete gentleman. He wants to kiss her, but he restrains himself until he's sure she wants to get serious with him.

Restrains himself from kissing her? On what planet do these people live? Even Meg herself couldn't figure out what was going on with the guy, for cryin' out loud.

The dialogue is nothing to write home about, either. Here are the first two sentences of the book:
"Oh!" Meg jumped as lightning crashed overhead.
Okay, so maybe she wouldn't swear. This is a clean romance, after all. But for the love of all the gods, give me something more to sink my teeth into than "Oh!"

The only thing that saved this book for me was Jim's work with Navajo artifacts. But there was too little Navajo tradition, and way too much of Meg deciding maybe she liked Rainbow Rock, after all.

There's at least one more book in this series, but I'll pass. Just not my thing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gift of Continence - Tabitha Ormiston-Smith

Fiona McDougall has found the perfect wedding dress. So her marriage to her fiance Tim should be perfect, too, right? Alas, things go pear-shaped from the start. The wedding itself is a disaster, Tim hates Fiona's cat, Fiona knows nothing about keeping house...and then, just as things could hardly get more absurd, she discovers Tim may be sleeping around.

The word continence in the title, as it turns out, doesn't have anything to do with Depends (which is what both Fiona and I thought to start with). It means faithfulness. Spouses are supposed to give each other the gift of being faithful to one another. And Tim is faithless in any number of ways.

To be honest, I was hot and cold on this book. I'm not a fan of chick lit anyway, and while Fiona's ditziness is supposed to be funny, I found myself cringing a fair amount of the time -- particularly when her friends and family repeatedly told her what an idiot she was. Nearly every line of dialogue directed at her starts with some variation on, "Christ, Fiona, could you be any more of a moron?" A little less of that attitude would have made me much happier.

Also, so much of the first half of the book was played for laughs that when Fiona first discovered Tim was stepping out on her, I wondered whether it wasn't another of her flights of fancy. But no, Tim really was that much of a jerk. And he did get a satisfying comeuppance in the end -- which did a lot to salvage my opinion of the book.

The book is impeccably edited, and I did get a few laughs out of it. If you're a fan of comic chick lit, you'll probably love Gift of Continence.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Night Pilgrims - Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

We'll get back to reviewing indie novels next week. I spent a little time over the holidays working on my dead-tree TBR pile, and this book was one of them. I thought I'd review it while it was fresh in my mind.

I've been following Yarbro's series starring the Count Saint-Germain for nearly 30 years -- and the author has been writing them for longer than that. Night Pilgrims is the 25th novel featuring the vampire. Each of the books puts Saint-Germain in a different historical period; he lived in Transylvania, of course, but also in Rome during its heyday, in China during the time of Marco Polo, and in Egypt during the days of the pharaohs.

This book is set in northeastern Africa during the early 1300s, when Christian pilgrims from Europe would risk life and limb to travel to sacred sites in what's now Ethiopia. Also in those days, Islam was making a play for the same territory, and Christians might find themselves attacked, enslaved, and/or conscripted into an Islamic army.

As the book opens, Saint-Germain and his faithful servant, an equally long-lived ghoul named Rogerian, have taken up residence near a Coptic Christian monastery. As the political climate near the monastery heats up, Saint-Germain -- who is known these days as Rakoczy, Sidi Sandjer'min -- signs on as translator for a band of pilgrims. Their leader is a military man doing penance for accidentally killing Christians during the Crusades. Among the others in the caravan are a couple of adventurers, an overly-pious nun, and the nun's sister-in-law, Margrethe, who is on pilgrimage to pray for a cure for her ailing husband back in Aquitaine.

The little band faces a number of challenges, including the rigors of crossing the desert and the dangers of traveling during the Nile's annual flood. Saint-Germain faces the additional burden of hiding his vampire nature from the pilgrims. He can survive on animal blood, but he thrives on biting women when they're in the throes of passion. Margrethe is attracted to him, but she's both strait-laced and married, and it would be difficult for them to hide a relationship from the other pilgrims. Not to mention that it would make her pilgrimage worse than pointless.

Yarbro has won numerous awards as a writer of horror, but the Saint-Germain novels have always struck me as historical novels with a twist. Night Pilgrims is no different. Saint-Germain is a sympathetic character; his quirks are handled in a straightforward manner, and the seduction scenes are always more erotic than horrific. I read them less for the vampire aspect and more for the history.

I was dismayed to find a number of editing issues in this book. However, Night Pilgrims was a pleasant enough read, and fans will be relieved to know that Saint-Germain and Rogerian make it out...well, not alive, but...oh, you know what I mean.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mayan December - Brenda Cooper

Happy 2015! It's still the holidays, right? So it's not too late for a winter solstice-related book.

You all know how near and dear to my heart the subject of the 2012 winter solstice is. So when I saw this book in the dealers' room at this year's World Fantasy Convention -- on clearance, no less -- I grabbed it.

The main characters of Mayan December are Dr. Alice Cameron, an archeoastronomer, and her preteen daughter Nixie. They have traveled to the Yucatan for the big page-flip on the the Mayan calendar -- as have a bunch of other serious scholars, assorted end-of-the-world believers, and a number of heads of state, including the President of the United States. Alice gets drafted to give tours of the ruins to the bigwigs, leaving Nixie in the care of a young woman named Oriana.

Then Nixie ducks into a Mayan ruin on the grounds of the resort where they're staying, and steps hundreds of years back in time. She is there in the past for just a short time, but long enough to give a young man modern-day money for a quetzal feather, which she carries back to 2012 with her.

Her mother, who's a woman of science, has a hard time believing her daughter. But then it happens again. And again. Eventually it becomes clear that with the approach of the solstice, the veil between the two time periods is thinning. Others from our time have found themselves in this past era, too -- a drought-plagued time on the cusp of the European "discovery" of Mexico. And you can bet the solstice will be an important date for people in both eras.

Cooper's story was intriguing, and she has clearly done her research into Mayan culture. I didn't fully buy into Alice falling for Ian, an acquaintance of Oriana's; I wanted a little more romance there, a little more of Alice unbending, to make it more believable. But Nixie was a wonderful character, and the magical scenes were suitably magical. I found Mayan December to be worth the read, even now.