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Aiyana Gamelle has been sleepwalking, waking up on the beach of the half Gullah, half Native American Sa’Fyre Island off the coast of South Carolina. But she knows she’ll soon be transitioning to being Queen of the Gullah half of the island, due to being directly descended from both the founders and a mysterious African goddess, so she brushes it off and focuses on the festival she’s organized on the island to bring in more revenue. But when an important island guest is murdered and her grandmother passes away before the official crowning ceremony, an unwanted family curse is slowly revealed.
This is one of the six indie books I accepted for review on this blog in 2015. Everything about it from the title to the description stuck out to me both as something that I hadn’t seen a mainstream publisher get around to trying in many years and also as something that piqued my interest. An island that’s half Gullah and half Native American? (Never heard of the Gullah? Check out this informative article about them). A woman inheriting a position of power from another woman? A family curse? Yes please! I am happy to say that the book more than lived up to my expectations, it also had some unexpected elements that I was delightfully surprised by.
The known history of the island and the Gamelle family is well told early in the book. It comes through in bits and pieces at just the right times. There is never an info dump. Similarly, Aiyana and her siblings are slowly revealed, going from how you may first perceive them to more well-rounded characters throughout the book. The island and the people on it are incredibly well described. I had no trouble imagining what this island may be like, despite having never been to the Carolinas myself.
One thing that caught me by surprise in the book and that I think should be promoted more in its promotional materials, as it’s something that is often sought after, is the romance between Aiyana (who is half-Native American and half-Gullah, since her mother dated her Native American father against the wishes of both sides) and one of the Native American men on the island. It’s an inter-racial relationship….with no white people. I can’t remember the last time I saw that in a book, frankly, and I was happy to see it.
This is primarily a mystery/horror book though, so let’s talk about the mystery plot. It takes many twists and turns, none of which I expected but all of which ultimately made sense. I found it at times grotesque and at other times it kept me on the edge of my seat. All the time I was always rooting for Aiyana, which is exactly what I generally want out of a mystery.
One negative I would say is that it’s a bit unclear if the book is the first in a series or a standalone. Amazon mentions it being the first in a series, but neither the GoodReads record nor the page about it on the author’s website mention it being the start of a series. If it is the start of a series, the book’s slightly abrupt ending works. If it’s a standalone, then I would want a bit more closure at the end. If it is the start of a series, then I’d say perhaps a quick “Look for more Sa’Fyre Island adventures coming soon!” at the end would be an excellent addition to help the reader know to expect more and to keep them coming back.
Overall, this is both a fun and a quite different entry into the mystery genre. A Gullah woman takes the center stage of the mystery, rather than being a prop. The mystery is well crafted and told, and there’s even the bonus of a bit of romance in the book. Recommended for readers looking for a completely different mystery from what they may be used to reading and who don’t mind a bit of the fantastical showing up in the plot.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Book Review: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham et al. (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)
All the characters from the fairy tales we know actually lived in that folklore world but were forced out into exile in modern-day New York thanks to an enemy known only as The Adversary. Snow White, right-hand to the ruler of Fabletown, seeks to keep everyone in line. But that gets more difficult when her own sister, Rose Red, is murdered. A reformed Big Bad Wolf, now their sheriff, promises to help her track down his killer.
Being a long-time fan of The 10th Kingdom, a story about the characters of folklore existing in a parallel universe to our own that some modern-day Americans accidentally visit, I was intrigued by this idea of a similar story in reverse. Instead of being engaging and a fun escape, though, my experience with it is best summed-up as meh. It’s a cool idea that is saddled to a ho-hum plot and flat characters, thereby rendering it a mediocre read.
The basic idea is some unseen Adversary has driven the fairy tale folk out of their land and into exile in our own. In our land, they’ve all agreed to give everyone a clean slate to start over. So far so good. From here though things go from interesting and semi-unique to basically a noir plot we’ve all read before wrapped up in 2-dimensional fairy tale characters. Big Bad Wolf is the hard-boiled detective. Snow White is his lady assistant. A noir version of a fairy tale could have been good, but instead the flattest elements of both genres are mashed together, rather than the best of each. What you end up with is a wolf without his fangs or a hard-boiled detective without his cigarettes and womanizing ways. The grit is just removed leaving an overly-sanitized world.
I do enjoy a mystery plot but I also expect them to keep me guessing. I knew the solution long before the end, and I’m guessing most other readers would too.
The art is mostly good, although the depiction of the talking pig gave me goosebumps in a bad way. He doesn’t really fit in to the feel of the rest of the art. However, the art is colorful and easy to follow, and made reading the story go quickly.
Overall, if a reader loves fairy tales and graphic novels and likes the idea of seeing fairy tale characters in modern-day New York, they will probably enjoy this book. Readers looking for an in-depth exploration of a fairy tale character or to see them more well-rounded in a non-fairy tale setting will be disappointed. Similarly, readers looking for a tough mystery to solve will want to look elsewhere.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: I remember I bought it at a comic book store, but I don’t remember which one.
In the future, people’s memories are backed up on sticks like external hard-drives, and when someone dies, they can just be put into a new body or resleeved. Criminals are put into the brain bank for a set period of time to serve their “prison” sentence before being resleeved. Kovacs is an ex-UN envoy but he’s also a criminal, and he wakes up one day in a new sleeve on Earth, not his home planet, before his sentence is up. A rich myth–someone who has been alive for centuries in the same body, due to their wealth–has been killed. After being resleeved, the local police told him it was suicide, but he doesn’t believe them. So he’s hired Kovacs to figure it out for him. If he solves the mystery, he’ll get sent back to his home planet and get a sleeve of his choice without serving any further sentence. If he doesn’t, he’ll serve out the rest of his sentence and get resleeved on Earth, far from home. Kovacs has no choice but to try to figure out who would waste their time killing a man who has endless sleeves to burn?
I love a good noir, and I liked the futuristic scifi sound of this one (the most famous futuristic scifi noir is Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in case you were wondering). Unfortunately, in spite of the very cool resleeving concept, I was left quite bored by the plot.
The setting and ideas for this future scifi world are fantastic. Earth has colonized various planets, and each planet was colonized by different mixes of cultures. Kovacs’ planet was colonized by the Japanese and Nordic cultures. When he was a UN envoy he fought on one colonized by Middle East cultures. So each planet has its own distinct culture, and, Kovacs at least, clearly feels that Earth is quite backwards. For instance, Earth has a cadre of people who believe that resleeving is unethical and sign documents saying they are ethically opposed to being resleeved. It sounds as if no other planets have that faction. Similarly, it sounds as if only Earth has people wealthy enough to become myths–people who can afford to be resleeved in new clones of their own bodies they grow and keep safe, as well as back up their brains at frequent intervals into a cloud. So Kovacs has some immediate culture shock, which is interesting to see.
Also, obviously, the idea of people’s brains being kept on usb sticks (basically) that you can just stick into the brain stem of another body and what implications that would have is just brilliant. It’s cool to read about, and it’s an interesting take on longevity. I also particularly appreciated that people *can* still die in various ways. For instance, if you shoot someone where this brain stick goes in, you ruin their stick and they therefore can’t be downloaded into a new body. This whole setting gives both a cool futuristic vibe and a complex environment for solving murders in. It’s hard to solve for murders when people can just be rebooted, basically.
There is a lot of realistic diversity in the book. The lead cop on the assignment is a Latina woman. Takeshi Kovacs is clearly intended to be biracial (white and Japanese). There is a big bad (who I won’t reveal) who is an Asian woman. The only other major characters are the myth and his wife, both of whom are white. However, the surrounding and minor characters all demonstrate a clear melting pot of race and creed. I appreciate it when futuristic scifi is realistic about the fact that all races and cultures and creeds would most likely be present.
One thing I do want to note, although I do think the book tries to address the obvious issue of what if a person gets resleeved into a race or gender different from their own, I’m not sure it was successful. Takeshi immediately notes that he is in a Caucasian sleeve, and that irritates him some. He continues to act like his own culture and exhibits a preference for the food of his home world but he doesn’t seem to be too bothered by being in someone else’s body. (Criminals get resleeved into other criminals at random. That is part of the punishment…not getting your own body back and knowing yours is out there being used by someone else). It is explained that Takeshi is able to deal with the dysphoria because he was trained for it in the UN Envoy but I do wish a bit more explanation was given to this issue. For instance, is being resleeved into a different race usually ok for the person? Or is it difficult just like every aspect of being resleeved into a new body is difficult? Does it vary person to person? This was unclear, largely because Takeshi’s Envoy training makes it a bit of a non-issue.
Similary, at one point a male character is resleeved into a female body, specifically because sleeving across genders is perceived of as an act of torture in this world (it is a bit unclear to me if this actually happened or if it’s virtual reality, but it is made very clear that virtual reality feels exactly the same as reality to the person in question, so the fact remains). I thought this was interesting and a nice send-up to trans issues. However, in the next breath, the character mentions that he can tell he’s in a woman’s body because he FEELS THINGS MORE EMOTIONALLY. *sighs* (I would provide you with a direct quote, but I don’t always manage to successfully bookmark passages in audiobooks, and this was one of those times). I get it that this passage is supposed to be a complement to women. The man in question talks at length about how women feel things so much more and isn’t that nice and what a burden it must be and men should understand it more. Yes, ok, fine, the character is being nice about it, but it’s still sexist. The character could have had the same experience and limited to just this sleeve without making it about all women, but no. He mentions that he’s been sleeved in women’s bodies before and this is how it always is.
On a related note, I just want to mention for anyone who might be triggered by such things that there is a rather graphic scene in which the same character inside a woman’s body is raped by torturers with a rod of hot iron. Just once I would like to get through a noir book without someone being raped, just saying. (If you appreciate warnings for this type of content, see my dedicated page here).
So the characters are interesting and diverse, and the scifi world is creative, but the plot is a bit ho-hum. Part of the problem is that I just honestly cannot make myself care about the rich myth and his problem. The second issue comes up though when Takeshi ends up having a problem that intertwines with the myth’s, and I just can’t care about his either, largely because it revolves around protecting someone who the reader meets for about two minutes of audiobook, so I’m imagining that’s only a few pages of the book. It’s basically big money all coming up against each other, and that’s a plot I personally struggle to really be interested in unless there’s at least one character I can really root for, and I just couldn’t root for any of these. I also think that it didn’t help that compared to how creative the world-building was, the plot is very average. So I was given high expectations with the world-building in the first few pages only to have a been there, seen that, reaction to the plot.
What lifted the book up from 3 stars to 4 for me was actually the audiobook narration. Todd McLaren does an awesome job of producing many different voices and accents for all the different characters, helping to keep complex scenes straight. He also has a great noir detective vibe to his voice when he speaks for Takeshi. I will note, though, that I did have to speed the audiobook up to 1.25x to match my listening speed. But I tend to listen fast, so other readers would probably prefer the slower speed.
Overall, scifi readers who also enjoy noir will most likely still enjoy the read, in spite of a seen it before plot, because the world-building is unique and creative. I would recommend that readers who enjoy both print and audiobook check out the audiobook, as I feel it elevates the story.
4 out of 5 stars
October (Toby) Daye is a changeling — she’s half fae and half human. Half Daoine Sidhe to be exact. She has just enough fae features to not fit into the human world, but her magic is just weak enough to keep her from fitting into fae either. Toby was splitting the difference quite well, serving her fae liege as a private detective and living a semi-normal human life with her human husband. But when a bad fae turns her into a fish on a mission for her liege, and it takes fourteen years to be turned back, everything changes. Toby loses her family and her desires to have any ties to the fae world, but the fae world won’t let her be for long. A high-ranking fae who was also her friend turns up dead, killed by iron, and a curse means that Toby must investigate.
Interestingly enough, one of the later books in this series was recommended to me by an automatic readalike generator (whose name I know forget) as a readalike for Fudoki (review) a book set in historic Japan about a cat turned into a woman warrior. I was intrigued by the series, although I wasn’t certain of the connection to Fudoki, and so I put the first book on my wishlist. My future mother-in-law was kind enough to gift it to me during the height of my cabin fever during Boston’s historic winter this year. This book hits all the right tones for urban fantasy: a strong yet wounded heroine, a complex mystical world operating parallel to and sometimes overlapping with our own, a single book mystery for the heroine to figure out, and an overarching mystery that leaves the reader wanting to come back for more.
The book takes a little bit to get set up. There’s a flashback to before Toby was a fish then the book pops quickly forward to the (near) present when Toby escapes being a fish. It at first struck me as a bit of an odd beginning, but by the end of the book I was loving it. The fact that Toby has a 14 year gap means that there are elements about her world she has to learn or relearn, meaning when key parts of information need to be told to the reader, it comes across as natural that Toby will need to learn about it or remember it. She did have those 14 years away, after all. It’s a plot-telling device, but it’s smart. It also isn’t forgotten when it comes to Toby’s character. The fact that she lost her family and all those years deeply impact her psyche, and that’s as it should be. It helps automatically make her a more well-rounded character.
Halfings are common in urban fantasy, but the ones in this universe are particularly well-done, mostly because there’s just so many of them. Toby isn’t an anomaly, halflings are a constant, persistent problem for the fae to have to deal with. They don’t quite fit into fae, but they also can’t just banish them for the humans to deal with. The humans don’t even know they exist, in fact, most humans who do mate with fae never even know that they did. While some fae are open to and embrace the halflings, others are not. Similarly, some halflings will give anything to just fit into fae or into the human world, while others are comfortable living partly in each. The fact that there are so many halflings allows for a lot of diversity and keeps Toby from looking like a marked heroine. She is just one of many, dealing as she can. I appreciate the everywoman aspect this lends her.
Toby is also extremely likeable. She’s down-to-earth and matter-of-fact about everything. She has many quotes that sound like an average person talking but contain a kernel of wisdom. She’s a humble smart woman who maybe doesn’t realize just how much savvy she does have.
That’s the true value in wards; not keeping things out, but telling you if something’s managed to get in. (loc 537)
It can’t all be dreams because a broken dream will kill you as surely as a nightmare will, and with a lot less mercy. At least the nightmares don’t smile while they take you down. (loc 2428)
The fae world is incredibly complex and yet makes a lot of sense. There are many different types of fae, and they are smoothly introduced. My personal favorite are the Caid Sidhe. They are surely the reason this book was recommended due to my loving Fudoki. The Caid Sidhe are fae who shapeshift into cats, and even in bipedal form have some cat-like features and abilities. The king of the cats has a bit of a love/hate relationship with Toby that is fun to see. But also, fae cats. How is that not fun? Realistically, though, I wouldn’t have loved seeing the Caid Sidhe so much if there hadn’t been such a variety of fae. It’s a richly imagined world that is really fun to visit.
The mystery is good, with Toby investigating a murder. There were plenty of plot-twists, although I did guess the responsible party far in advance of the ending, which was a bit of a bummer. I also must say that I’m not really a fan of heroines getting wounded within an inch of their life only to be saved by magic repeatedly. It removes some of the sense of danger for me. I did appreciate that for once there was an urban fantasy heroine who was never threatened with rape. That was a nice change of pace. I’ll take forcibly changed into a fish over that any day.
Overall, this book sets up the incredibly complex fae world of the series, as well as establishes the heroine’s character and background quite well. Readers will easily fall into the incredibly imaginative world that Toby partially lives in that runs parallel to and sometimes hand-in-hand with our own. Some readers may find the mystery a bit predictable, but this is an excellent first entry in an urban fantasy series that will leave the reader eager to pick up the next and go back to this rich world as soon as possible.
4 out of 5 stars
It’s Halloween, and Pali Moon, Maui’s wedding planner, is happy to be back to planning a normal wedding after her adventures earlier in the year. Even if she’s being sent out on Halloween night to Lahaina to look for a bridesmaid who’s gone missing. Pali expects to find her drunk and lost, but what she finds instead is her ponytail in the backseat of her car. Cut off. Pali is very worried about the missing bridesmaid, but no one else–not the bride, groom, or even the police–seem to care. When she starts getting threatening messages, Pali decides it’s up to her to figure out just how much danger the bridesmaid is in.
This second entry in this near cozy-style mystery series finds the reader again following a wedding Pali is planning gone criminal.
Perhaps some would expect every entry in a mystery series about a wedding planner to involve some wedding going haywire. I suppose that’s fair, although personally I would prefer the source of the mystery to be a bit more shaken up. Something like maybe Pali’s neighbor in the business district going missing, and Pali having to still manage to plan a big wedding while investigating the missing neighbor. However, I can see how some readers would enjoy the predictability of “wedding gone awry” as a mystery plot. In fact, it’s probably a mystery niche I was previously unaware of. Potential readers should know, though, to expect the “wedding gone awry” plot from this series.
Even if readers are ok with the “wedding gone awry” idea being brought back in the second entry, how it goes awry could perhaps be executed a bit more uniquely. In the first book, a groom is missing. In the second book, a bridesmaid is missing. The mystery would read quite differently if, for instance, the bridesmaid winds up dead at the bachelorette party, and Pali has to help clear the bride’s name in time for her wedding. That at least wouldn’t be a missing person all over again.
That said, the reason behind the missing bridesmaid, and the plot that goes along with it is quite different from the first book. Once the reader gets past the first 1/3 of the book or so, things definitely do start to develop differently. The plot particularly surprised me at the end, again, in a way that seemed plausible and logical. I just wish the beginning had been more unique.
Pali’s characterization continues along the same way as the first book. If you liked her in the first, you’ll like her here. If you didn’t, you won’t.
The romance plot is also quite similar to the first book. Pali is still waffling between two men and doing a rather bad job of handling it in an adult-like manner. Again, if you enjoyed the romance in the first book, you’ll enjoy it here. If you didn’t, you won’t.
The setting is still as lovely as in the first book. Hawaii and its culture are beautifully depicted. It’s easy to feel swept away to Hawaii when reading this book.
Overall, this mystery has a plot that starts quite similar to the plot in the first book but that is saved by a drastically different ending and reasons behind the missing person. The main character and romance continue to be a bit ho-hum, but if readers enjoyed them in the first book, they will enjoy them here. Recommended primarily to those who greatly liked the first book in the series.
3 out of 5 stars
Maui wedding planner Pali Moon wouldn’t normally accept a last-minute request to plan a wedding when the groom is lost at sea, but the client wants to pay cash, and she is in debt up to her ears. Plus, the bride assures Pali that the groom’s best friend will stand in as his proxy if the groom hasn’t been found by the wedding date. What could possibly go wrong? Well, when a body washes up on shore….it turns out, a lot.
This would be a cozy mystery if it offered any type of recipes or patterns in the back, as it is, think of it as a light-hearted mystery with very little blood and some steamy kissing scenes. The story transports the reader to Hawaii with lovely described settings and keeps the reader there with an intriguing plot.
A wedding planner in Hawaii is just an interesting job to begin with. Plus, Pali has a bit of mystery to her. She admits from the very beginning that Pali isn’t her name, but the reader never finds out (in this entry in the series anyway) what her real name is. Why is she keeping it a secret? Plus, Pali’s friends (and enemies) are an interesting bunch. Her Native best friend who also runs the general store and officiates weddings is a breath of fresh air to the story. Her gay roommate may feel a bit expected at this point, but the author keeps him from verging too far into stereotype and gives of a hint of the three dimensions he could have in future installments. The bad guys may veer a bit toward caricature sometimes, but that lends the book part of its humor and lack of tension that is key to this type of mystery.
The mystery and plot consist of two main points of conflict. First, Pali is at risk of losing her business. Second, the missing groom and the bride’s family may not be precisely what they appear. This lends some realness to the character. She has more going on than this mystery that fell in her lap. It also gives her a reason for accepting a client who has a clear iffy feeling about them. That said, the will she or won’t she hold onto her business lacks some real tension, as it’s fairly clear that Pali will figure a way out of losing her business. With the missing groom conflict, while we know Pali will probably be safe, since she’s the main character, the rest of the characters are basically up for grabs for danger. This gives it just enough tension to stay interesting but not be stressful. Similarly, this plot was more well-written, with some unexpected yet believable twists. It also takes into consideration the local laws of Hawaii, so events stayed grounded in the real world.
The romance consists of two potential love interests. I am always a bit turned off when a main character has two people interested in them. It will never not feel a bit fake to me. However, the two potential love interests are handled in a balanced and modern way. Neither is the clear “right choice,” and readers could easily prefer one over the other while still liking the main character with either.
I also would like to mention that there is a good minor plot involving characters revealing that they are alcoholics who have been in recovery for a while. It’s good to see people with a mental illness that they have worked on and are actively managing in a positive way. I appreciate this diversity being included in this book.
Given all of these positives, why is it only an average read for me? There was nothing unexpected for this type of mystery. It is very similar to others I have read in the genre. Additionally, the main character can kind of rub me the wrong way sometimes. How she handles her love interests is not as up-front as it should be. It is also unclear as to how she managed to get herself into so much debt. It seems she might just be bad at balancing books but all for taking favors from friends. Similarly, she’s a white woman, albeit raised in Hawaii, but she goes by a Native name and never explains why, beyond the fact that she doesn’t like her own name. Add to this the fact that the romance didn’t really work for me, and this is why I consider this a rather average read. It may be more than average for you, if these factors I have named are not an issue for you.
Overall, this is a light-hearted mystery that transports the reader to the tropical island of Maui. Some readers may be a bit turned off by the main character or the romance secondary plot. Those who enjoy a non-tense mystery set in a tropical locale will most likely enjoy the read, however.
3 out of 5 stars