Review of Day Shift – Book 2 of the Midnight series by Charlaine Harris

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I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Midnight Crossing – see my review here. Would the second book be as strong?

DayshiftIt’s a quiet little town, perched at the junction between Davy Road and Witch Light Road and it’s easy to miss. With its boarded up windows, single traffic light and sleepy air, there’s nothing special about Midnight… which is exactly how the residents like it. So when the townspeople hear that a new owner plans to renovate the run-down, abandoned old hostel in town, it’s not met with pleasure. Who would want to come to Midnight, with its handful of shops, the Home Cookin diner, and quiet residents and why? But there are bigger problems in the air. When Manfred Bernado, the newest resident in town, is swept up in a deadly investigation, suddenly the hotel and its guests are the least of the town’s concern. The police, lawyers and journalists are all headed to Midnight, and it’s the worst possible moment…

Harris has set up an enjoyable juxtaposition in this entertaining read, as this small settlement contains so few people that Manfred is able to observe their lives and characters fairly easily. So we have scenes set at the diner and meetings when concerned residents discuss the hotel renovations and we get to see some of their daily routines – which is when the cosiness fades… All Midnight’s residents are concealing some sort of secret that marks them apart. And in many cases, that secret would land them either behind bars, or in some secret Government facility where white-coated scientists would eagerly be experimenting on them. It also makes a number of them highly dangerous. So the mundane is rubbing shoulders with oddness in a disturbing mix that Harris fans recognise only too clearly and the HBO True Blood series spectacularly failed to achieve. They only managed to convey the danger and oddness, which wrecked the dynamic of Harris’s storytelling.

Though as one of his client readings turns into a tragedy, Manfred’s interest in his neighbours is lessened as his involvement comes under police scrutiny. Other Midnight residents pitch in to help. Not just out of neighbourly concern – no one in Midnight wants the police knocking on doors, or enquiring too closely into their movements. At all.

What I really love about Harris’s version of American Gothic are the slices of humour, where a tight-wound situation tips into farce. A growing boy needs new clothes and everyone notices that he is literally bulging out of his apparel, except his carer, the Reverend, who wears exactly the same clothing day in and day out. So it falls upon the kindly witch to provide him with new outfits and very welcome snacks. As well as providing necessary lighter moments, it is these small details that make me bond with the characters and have me holding my breath when the situation suddenly lurches into one of uncertainty and danger. I’m only too well aware that Harris is capable of killing off one of Midnight’s main residents, should the plot require it.

Any niggles? Well, I did feel the denouement to Manfred’s problem lacked the satisfying smoothness I am accustomed to experiencing with Harris – the solution seemed slightly tacked on. But it that isn’t the dealbreaker you might imagine. Midnight has the same hold over me that Bon Temps exerted and I will happily tolerate the occasional unevenness in the plotting to experience Harris’s particular mix of charm and humour, death and alienation.
8/10

Review of Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

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I’ve always enjoyed reading Harris – the best of the Sookie Stackhouse series is right up there as some of my favourite and memorable reads. See my review of Dead Reckoning here. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Harper Connolly books – read my review of Grave Sight here.

midnight crossroadWelcome to Midnight, Texas, a town with many boarded-up windows and few full-time inhabitants, located at the crossing of Witch Light Road and Davy Road. It’s a pretty standard dried-up western town. There’s a pawnship (where someone lives in the basement and runs the store during the night). There’s a diner (although those folk who are just passing through tend not to linger). And there’s a new resident: Manfred Barnardo, who thinks he’s found the perfect place to work in private (and who has secrets of his own). If you stop at the one traffic light in town, then everything looks normal. But if you stay a while, you might learn the truth…

Charlaine Harris was one of the guests of honour at Fantasycon 2014 and came across as a sweet natured, gracious lady with a keen sense of humour and a delicious Southern accent I could have listened to all day. It was a real fangirl moment actually seeing one of my favourite authors… But, aside from all that – would I enjoy the start of this new series?

The answer is overwhelmingly – yes. I like Harris’s chatty, easy style. She builds up a story from the ground up by having her protagonist depicting a series of everyday details about his life. I quickly bonded with Manfred and thoroughly enjoyed exploring this one-horse town stranded in this dusty corner of the States. Because the community is so small and tightly knit, when a murder does occur there are a ready-made pool of suspects – much like those country house crimes investigated by the likes of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. It was refreshing to have a main character, like Manfred, who didn’t see fit to rush around and try and solve the crime. One of the book’s strengths is that there are also a group of intriguing characters, all with an interesting backstory. Some we got to thoroughly know – and some we didn’t… I particularly liked the witch, Fiji. She is refreshingly different from the tall, beautiful heroines we regularly encounter in so many fantasy novels – short, plump, out of condition and very unsure of herself. But smitten with Bobo, who has heartbreak of his own and is oblivious of her attraction. I also enjoyed Lemuel, whose first encounter with Manfred is particularly memorable.

Because I cared for so many of the inhabitants of Midnight, as soon things started happening, I was hooked and stayed up reading faaar too late into the night. As you’d expect with such an experienced, talented writer, the pacing of the narrative arc was pitch perfect with plenty of twists that caught me off-balance and snagged me further into the book. I certainly didn’t come close to guessing who the culprit was… But before you go away with the idea that this is a cosy whodunit, there is a dark underside to this story. For all their apparent charm, there are those living in Midnight who don’t take any prisoners – literally. And Harris throws out a wider question for us all to ponder – is murder ever justified? She goes on to unpack that question quite thoroughly within the book.

All in all, this book is real treat. And I’m looking forward to the next one.
9/10

How Are They Doing?

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You’ve followed the protagonist and her friends and enemies through a whole series of books, finally closing the last volume with a sigh… So, which character would you like to revisit to see how they’re now getting on? Thanks to Anastasia, who first posed this question here, I’ve compiled my own list of top ten characters I’d like to catch up with.
In no particular order…
1. Corporal Carrot from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett – Okay – I lied. There is an order – GuardsGuardsbecause this wonderful body of work has to be one of the major starting points for any speculative fiction fan. And why Corporal Carrot out of the cast of Discworld characters? Because if anyone is liable to suddenly march out of obscurity and into a Hero’s storyline, then it’s got to be Corporal Carrot. And I’m betting even an ordinary day in his life is probably rather more event-filled than most folks – particularly if he and Angua ever get around to producing offspring…
2. Johan Eschback from the Ghosts of Columbia series by L.E. Modesitt Jr – This fascinating series is set in an alternate world where America was settled by the Dutch – and large parts of the world are uninhabitable because whenever anyone suffers a violent death, they return as ghosts able to cause havoc to the living. Johan Eschback is a retired secret agent, now happily remarried to an opera singer, who finds himself unable to turn down an offer to resume his former career in a series of enthralling adventures. I’d love to peep back into his life and ensure that he and the lovely Llysette are still thriving…
3. Jarra from the Earth Girl series by Janet Edwards – This YA science fiction trilogy follows the adventures of Jarra, who is part of a minority of humans trapped on Earth due to an allergic reaction she suffers whenever travelling offplanet – leading to discrimination by the majority of humanity who have now relocated to more desirable planets. Is Jarra enjoying her new role? I really hope she retains all her energy and enthusiasm which makes her such an engaging protagonist.
4. Tintaglia from The Rain Wild Chronicles by Robin Hobb – This series of four books set in Hobb’s world concentrates on the dragons and their keepers struggling to find the fabled dragon city. Tintaglia has to be the most defiantly self-centred and arrogant protagonist I’ve ever cared about – and I’d love to know if the beautiful blue dragon is still engrossed in her own affairs to the exclusion of everyone and everything else.
5. Sookie Stackhouse from the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris – I read all the books and Deaduntildarkeven followed the first couple of series on TV until I decided that it was all a bit too gory. While the TV series followed the storyline of the books reasonably closely, it couldn’t successfully recreate the dry humour that ran throughout Sookie’s first person narrative, which makes her a solid favourite of mine. Is she still well and happy? I’d love to drop in and find out.

6. Nadia Stafford from the Nadia Stafford series by Kelley Armstrong – This entertaining trilogy features an ex-policewoman who embarked on a career as a hit woman after being kicked off the force for taking the law into her own hands. The story arc over this enjoyable thriller/whodunit series with a difference is a cracking read – and I’d love to know that if the choices Nadia finally made are still working for her…
7. Jon from the Jon and Lobo series by Mark L. Van Name – This science fiction romp is about a duo, so I suppose I should have also added Lobo’s name. Jon is an ex-labrat who has done some fairly awful things in his time – and teamed up with Lobo, a mouthy AI. Together they are a formidable twosome who try to provide might for the right. With mixed results… I love the non-stop action and sharp dialogue that accompanies this entertaining, well written offering. And would like to think that Jon enjoys a measure of peace in his life – though I have my doubts, given he has Lobo alongside…
8. Matthew Swift from the Midnight Mayor series by Kate Griffin – To say that Matthew is a troubled soul is something of an understatement, given that he’d been murdered and spent two years living in the wires cris-crossing London before being reincarnated as the spiritual saviour of the city. I’d like to think he is now putting his feet up – but somehow have my doubts. He does occasionally put in an appearance in Griffin’s spinoff series – and I wait patiently to see if he settles down. Or better still, steps away from the gruelling post of Midnight Mayor.
9. Lila from the Quantum Gravity series by Justina Robson – This genre mash-up is a tour de force and I still find myself sliding back to considering these remarkable books. The premise is that a quantum bomb has allowed creatures from other realities to bleed through into our world without anyone really noticing… And yes – you’re right. It sounds mad, but Robson makes it work. I’d love to know that Lila is still raising hell somewhere. Preferably a safe distance from where I am.
10. Devi from the Paradox series by Rachel Bach – This enjoyable space opera romp featuring adrenaline œF$¿Æ‘$8Òò¤»däå¸R8BIjunkie Devi, who gets into more scrapes than I’ve had hot dinners, is a blast from start to finish. And I’d like to think that she and Rupert are still dancing around each other and causing sufficient chaos to keep them happy, though probably – knowing Devi – she’s probably up to her eyebrows in trouble.

Those are my choices for protagonists I got to know and would love to be able to just peep into their futures and ensure everything is still going smoothly for them. Who would you like to revisit and check out?

Review of Omens – Book 1 of The Cainsville Trilogy by Kelley Armstrong

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Armstrong – best known for her trailblazing Women of the Otherworld series about werewolves – has started this new series. Would I enjoy it as much?

OmensOn the eve of her wedding Olivia Jones discovers two shocking facts. One – she was adopted. Two – her biological parents are notorious serial killers. With her life in immediate danger, Liv is thrown into a terrifying new world. But then she is confronted with a tantalising hope – is it possible her parents are innocent? Arriving at the remote town of Cainsville, Liv believes she has found the perfect place to hide while she hunts for the truth. But Cainsville is no ordinary town – and Liv’s arrival was no accident…

The plot device driving this series is intriguingly different. Olivia, a young, wealthy socialite who has it all suddenly discovers that she has a past that succeeds in negating all of her apparent status and wealth. Even her fiancé has second thoughts… I really enjoyed this one. Armstrong’s characterisation is always compelling and I have always found her world-building convincing and enjoyable. She puts those talents to excellent use in Omens. This paranormal thriller slowly builds up to the hinky, supernatural stuff, rather than plunge us straight into weirdness right from the outset – which is always effective, particularly in a storyline stretching over a series. It ups the stakes such that when events really start kicking off, there is a greater sense of shock at the abnormality after the ordinary everyday has been firmly established.

Olivia has hidden talents of her own, but rather than having an immediate and sudden reveal, she is fumbling to try and sort out what it all means. Once she is forced to confront the fact that it is happening, in the first place… Of course, no matter how appealing and enjoyable the feisty heroine is, she needs to be supported by a cast of interesting and believable characters. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the enigmatic lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, who is definitely one of the more mesmerising male leads in recent urban fantasy. His moral ambivalence lends a real edge to their investigations – and he acts as an effective foil to Olivia’s preppie fiancé, James Morgan.

And the haven where Olivia pitches up, broke and hungry, Cainsville is peopled with a variety of interesting, memorable characters – especially Rose Walsh, Gabriel’s aunt. Cainsville appears to be a dormitory town to Chicago – apart from the fact that very few people living there do the daily commute, due to the poor roads and long drive. There is definitely more to Cainsville than meets the eye – and don’t expect all those secrets to be revealed by the end of Omens. They aren’t.

I find it a fascinating parallel – Charlaine Harris has recently begun a new series set in a mysterious, small community called Midnight where a young man settles to set up his online clairvoyant business. Kelley Armstrong, also turning her back on an established, long-running series, has her protagonist pitching up in Cainsville, a town with its own slew of residents with secrets to hide… Fortunately, I haven’t had to wait to read Armstrong’s sequel, Visions, as it has recently been released. Which is just as well – after finishing Omens, I didn’t want to wait before diving back into Olivia’s compelling difficult search to find out what really happened to her parents. And her three-year-old self…
10/10