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The Odds: A Post-Apocalyptic Action-Comedy

Robert J. Peterson. California Coldblood, $15.95 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-0-9960319-0-5

Peterson's debut novel crams wads of cliché into a few hundred pages. An unimaginable catastrophe, the deadblast, has horribly altered Earth's weather and left the survivors with uncertain memories of earlier civilization. Some "lucky" people barely exist in the cavern city of Dedrick, hiding from the insanely self-mutating dreens and the equally threatening cyborg psychoskags; they distract themselves by betting on all kinds of sporting events, so society is run by the Odds, glorified bookmakers. Then biker Eldridge rides into town, betting on his own death and anxious to take part in a tournament that involves human chess pieces in mortal combat. None of this fits together into a coherent whole, but the setting works as excuse for exuberant, ultraviolent action. Unfortunately, when a story starts out over-the-top, there's not much room for development, and it's hard to see how Eldridge could continue his adventures without becoming boring. Readers with a taste for grotesque zaniness may enjoy this venture. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Figures of Fear

Graham Masterton. Severn, $28.95 hardback (208p), ISBN 978-0-7278-8446-6

Masterton (Festival of Fear), a stalwart of horror fiction, writes with an easy assurance that makes even the weaker stories in this collection tolerable. The shorter tales are often predictable, with "gotcha" twists: "Ex-Voto" explains the wisdom of listening to spooky native artisans; in "What the Dark Does," fear of objects in the night proves well founded; and there's a whiff of victim-blaming in "The Battered Wife." Writerly craft meets with a raw and occasionally elegiac imagination in longer stories. In "Saint Brónach's Shrift," a man relives the nightmarish event that is the source of his happiness and is offered a solution both sacrificial and improbable. "Spirits of the Age" is a Henry James–flavored ghost story, light on scares and heavy on atmosphere. In "The Night Hider" a woman is haunted by a burnt horror inhabiting a wardrobe that has more than a passing relationship to a children's classic, and "Underbed" is a work of fantastic and terrible invention, as a boy finds the worlds buried beneath his bedclothes. Despite a few near-misses, this collection is a must for Masterson fans. Agent: Wiescka Masterton Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Thorn of Dentonhill

Marshall Ryan Maresca. DAW, $7.99 mass market (400p) ISBN 978-0-7564-1026-1

Vigilante justice meets magical mayhem in this lively fantasy series debut. Veranix Calbert leads a double life: by day he's a student of magic at the prestigious University of Maradaine, but at night, he becomes the Thorn, an avenger taking on dealers of the dangerous drug effitte—a drug that destroyed his family. When Veranix accidentally captures a sack full of magical artifacts bound for a shady group of powerful mages, he stirs up far more trouble than he ever expected. The story moves briskly, and Maresca's characters are well-rounded and believable. Maradaine is a fabulous city brimming with possibilities, with its streets filled with students and professors, street gangs, mages, merchants, and regular folk. Fans of tricky capers and intrigue will enjoy this colorful series opener. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Genome

Sergei Lukyanenko, trans. from the Russian by Liv Bliss. Open Road (openroadmedia.com), $14.99 trade paper (496p) ISBN 978-1-4976-4396-3

Lukyanenko (the Night Watch series) neatly crafts a sophisticated SF thriller featuring Alex Romanov, a spesh, or a person who has been altered to be superhuman. After recovering from a horrific accident, Alex accepts a job as the captain of the spacecraft Mirror. He's responsible for ensuring the safe passage of his alien compatriots on their tour of the known galaxy. Alex's life is further complicated by the murderous intent of his fellow crewmembers, as well as his romantic entanglement with a much younger spesh, Kim. The prose is introspective and inventive, and the story plumbs tricky philosophical questions, such as what it means to be human and how humanness can be altered in the future. The plot moves along at a fast pace, with an appealing at and at times humorous voice. Lukyanenko's tendency toward the preachy is amplified by the translation. This solid work of SF fits into, but does not transcend, its genre. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Symbiont

Mira Grant. Orbit, $26 (608) ISBN 978-0-316-21899-3

This cerebral and visceral sequel to Parasite pits the sentient tapeworm who has taken on the body and identity of dead Sally Mitchell against the rapacious profit motives of Dr. Steven Banks, founder of SymboGen, the organization that originally genetically modified the tapeworms. He keeps Sally's sister Tansy chained up for experimental purposes and pursues both Sally and his former ally, Dr. Shanti Cale, who now seeks to undo the results of their collaboration. Sally's boyfriend wants marriage despite her zombielike status; adversary tapeworm Dr. Sherman Lewis kidnaps Sally to enlist her in his plot for tapeworms to seize world supremacy from humans. Soon San Francisco is quarantined and society is collapsing nationwide. Cale's profession of love for all her children, regardless of their species, adds a piquancy that elevates this series above the standard zombie genre, as does the tension between love and duty felt by Col. Alfred Mitchell, Sally's father. Grant allows the moral debate to slow the story's movement following the meeting of Banks and Cale, but the richness of the plot sustains the reader's interest in how the characters will negotiate this strange new world. Agent: Diana Fox, Fox Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Starlight on Willow Lake

Susan Wiggs. Mira, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1795-1

Wiggs ensnares readers with her marvelous 11th Lakeshore Chronicles contemporary (after Candlelight Christmas). Single mom Faith McCallum is trying to make ends meet for herself and her two daughters, Ruby and Cara, in Avalon, a small town in the Catskill Mountains of New York. She is grateful for her good fortune when she gains employment as an in-home caretaker for Alice Bellamy, a widow who became a quadriplegicin a skiing accident that claimed the life of her husband. Though Alice is very bitter about her disability and lashes out at others, Faith is unafraid to stand up to her and help her to learn how to live happily again. And Faith is surprised by her attraction to Mason, Alice's wealthy son, despite the differences in their backgrounds and socioeconomic status. While Faith has always struggled financially, Mason enjoyed a privileged youth and much success after stepping into the family business as an adult. The most riveting aspect of this feel-good novel is the attraction between Faith and Mason, which leads to a gradual and unforgettable romance. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Friction

Sandra Brown. Grand Central, $26 (416p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8116-0

Bestseller Brown's highly recognizable brand of romantic suspense is on full display as the fates of rugged Texas Ranger Crawford Hunt and Judge Holly Spencer collide in the courtroom, in the bedroom, and in a desperate attempt to save reputations and lives. Crawford's hearing before Holly is to seek custody of his five-year-old daughter, Georgia, who's currently living with her late mother's parents, Grace and Joe Gilroy. A gunman interrupts the hearing at the Prentiss County Courthouse in Prentiss, Tex., by firing wildly, killing a bailiff. Crawford shields Holly and turns the attack into a chase that leads to the rooftop, where a sniper kills the gunman. In the aftermath, Joe warns Crawford that his "grandstanding" at the courthouse threatens his chances of winning custody, and Holly fears an enemy of hers will use the courthouse tragedy to discredit her. Things get worse for them both, complicated by their growing attraction to each other. Crawfordtries to protect Holly from those out to ruin her, but he's trapped by Sgt. Neal Lester, a senior detective, and Joe, who files a restraining order against him. Brown (Mean Streak) expertly ratchets up passion and danger as Crawford fights for his life, his daughter, and his new love. Agent: Maria Carvainis, Maria Carvainis Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Malice at the Palace: A Royal Spyness Mystery

Rhys Bowen. Berkley Prime Crime, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-26038-8

Bowen's ninth Royal Spyness mystery (after 2014's Queen of Hearts) is the best yet in this lighthearted series set in 1930s England. Queen Mary summons amateur sleuth Lady Georgiana "Georgie" Rannoch, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to the palace, where she learns that the king's fourth son, George, is engaged to marry Princess Marina of Greece. Georgie is pleased to accept a royal offer to serve as Marina's companion and guide before the wedding day, since that duty gives her a much-needed place to live in Kensington Palace. It also affords ample opportunities for Georgie's maid, Queenie, an anti-Jeeves who leaves disaster in her wake, to break objects and protocol. The legends of ghosts infesting Kensington Palace appear to have substance, and Georgie sees a strange glow just before she happens upon the corpse of party girl Bobo Carrington. Unfortunately for Prince George, he was one of Bobo's beaus, leading to fears that he directly or indirectly caused her death. The solution to the murder is both clever and logical. Agent: Meg Ruley, Jane Rotrosen Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Wet

Toni Stern. Circle Star, $16 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-0-692-32877-4

Stern adopts a conversational, intimate, and humorous tone in this poetry collection, distilling broad concepts into sparkling little gems. Relatable and engaging, Stern is most successful in her numerous brief poems and manages to do a lot in a condensed space: "January,/ and the roses/ are shivering." At times, she embraces a more serious affect, though without the benefit of a songwriting collaborator—as in her formative time working with singer-songwriter Carole King—the poems read closer to doggerel: "The rock stars are planning a concert,/ The poets are writing a poem./ Each and every one of us/ Forsaken and/ Alone." Still, while these offerings lack the charm of her more successful poems, they possess some substance and appeal. There are a number of occasions where Stern's poems border on kitsch, unnecessarily employing strange fonts and symbols to make her points. The collection is a mixed bag, but fans of her lyric work in the '60s and '70s might find it worthwhile. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Trouble Sleeping

Abdul Ali. New Issues (SPD, dist.), $15 trade paper (73p) ISBN 978-1-936970-32-2

This muscular, lyrical debut from Ali, winner of the 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize, recounts family history and struggle as well as the joys and hardships of single fatherhood. Varied in their formal elements and musicality, Ali's poems consistently engage black history and pop culture as windows into more personal, yet deeply political, realms: "Begin with a shooting,/ a controversial art exhibit, a mob throwing dung at the Black Madonna." Though packed with thoughtful references to cultural and political movements, the work is most successful when Ali addresses family: a dysfunctional childhood, an alcoholic mother, an absent father ("I didn't really have a father. Only a ghost that would appear/ each time I looked in the mirror"), and his own love and wonderment at his young daughter. "I can single out your voice from a playground of two hundred/screaming laughing five-year-olds, twenty sharing your name. I'm/learning this fatherhood script," he writes. The raw materials of emotion, fear, and anger burst through to confront oppression: "this lacerated tongue/ thirsts to remember// the names of all the faces/ hidden behind the barrel of a gun// loaded blasted/ into national memory// becoming caesuras." Ali's willful, complex collection marks him as a poet to watch. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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