Ro’s Handle, by Dave Lager

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Although I didn’t set out to, in roughly the past year, I’ve read no less than three novels, and one short e-story, that feature female cops as protagonists: this one, “The Academy” (the short e-story that’s the teaser for Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series), Tami Hoag’s A Thin Dark Line, and Justin W. M. Roberts’ The Policewoman. It occurred to me that an instructive way to open this review might be to compare and contrast the four works.

Like Tracy Crosswhite, Lager’s Rowan (everybody calls her “Ro”) Delahanty is a state champion in pistol shooting, who goes into law enforcement as a career. (Ro also has a black belt in judo.) And like Hoag’s Annie Broussard, she becomes a sheriff’s deputy. (Her milieu is a county dominated by a mid-sized city, sort of a median between Tracy’s Seattle and Annie’s backwoods south Louisiana parish.) The principal difference here is that both Tracy and Annie started their careers with ambitions to become detectives, and they’re protagonists of mystery series. This book has no mystery elements as such, and Ro’s vocational interest is strictly being a uniformed beat cop. She’s also younger than Tracy, and had already decided to become a cop as a fifth grade kid (whereas Tracy switched careers after teaching high school chemistry for several years), and she doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of a sibling who was murdered and a parent who committed suicide. (Instead, the Delahanty family is impeccably wholesome and normal.) So Ro’s definitely her own person, not a Tracey Crosswhite clone. And where “The Academy” focuses on the theme of sexism and sexual harassment as a challenge female cops have to face, those elements are very limited in this book, only show up near the end, and manifest themselves only in comments that aren’t made to Ro’s face.

Both Roberts’ Sarah and Ro are basically gun wizards (who, of course, have to put in a lot of training and practice to get and keep that level of skill, in addition to their natural talent!) formidable in combat, and drawn in such a way that some readers will view them each as something of a “Mary Sue” –that is, a heroine who’s too perfect to be realistic– though I didn’t see them that way. But although I classified both this novel and The Policewoman as action-adventure, the action elements in the latter are a LOT more prominent than they are here. This one has only one action scene, and that starts only in Chapter 22 of a 29-chapter book. Some readers (though I wasn’t in that number) of Robert’s book took issue with the first four chapters of character introduction/development and stage setting as being supposedly too slow-moving and boring. Those readers would really have an issue with the first 21 chapters here. And the shooting itself is actually over very quickly, as it would be in real life. Fans who have to have unremitting slam-bang action and a high body count will find this aspect limited and tame here. (Again, I’m not in that number myself, and I actually found that aspect of the book very well done.)

All three of the novels compared here provide the heroine with a “love interest” and have some “romantic” elements, including some unmarried sex. But (though I won’t include any spoilers) the overall handling of the “romantic” aspect here was, for me, highly unsatisfactory and off-putting, and would not, IMO, generally appeal to “romance” fans either. It should also be noted that the relationship escalates to sexual intercourse on the first date (which is the third time the couple have seen each other!), so has very marked insta-love issues. And Ro’s lover here is a divorced dad 13 years her senior, who has a 15-year-old daughter (Ro’s only 21).

You might ask, if this isn’t a mystery, a full-blown action novel, or a real romance, what IS its appeal? What sort of novel is it? I’d describe it as very much an intensive character study of Ro, and a very realistic “slice of contemporary life” novel describing the world of a rookie female cop. Lager obviously has a practically exhaustive knowledge of police equipment, organization and procedure, which gives the work a great deal of authority. Ro is a round, three-dimensional protagonist with a lot of depth to her development, and does exhibit some admirable, heroic qualities. (Frank is developed well too.) As his fascinating blog entries indicate, Lager has a mental picture of Ro’s entire life history from childhood on and a comprehensive understanding of all her characteristics as a person. He doesn’t feed us ALL that information here (the novel only covers the time beginning with her winning the Iowa state shooting championship in April 2003, shortly before joining the sheriff’s department, to September 2003, when she earns her “handle,” or nickname for radio identification purposes, and sort of becomes one of the guys -she’s currently the only female deputy). But we get a lot of it, including a thorough introduction to her family, a few glimpses of her childhood, her orientation week, her habits, life and dislikes, stuffed toy panda, etc. By the time this is over, we know her like a real person (and probably like her –I did, and do!)

This is not, of course, the stuff of high drama. Some readers will feel that the plotting and development of the story is way too slow-moving. The heavy accumulation of detail and description, including things like the menus for people’s breakfasts, description of Ro’s underwear, the specifics of what she and other characters are wearing, etc., contributes to that impression. Related to this, there tends to be a lack of meaningful conflict in the story-line until towards the end. (For instance, both Ro and Tracy Crosswhite are champion competitive shooters, and we see them both in competitive settings. But where Tracy is being scored on her pistol shooting in “The Academy,” it’s at the climactic moment of the tale, and the outcome is in doubt until the end, making for genuine suspense and tension. In Ro’s championship competition, on the other hand, I never really felt any element of suspense or tension, and her win is almost anti-climactic.) Only near the end is there a situation where Ro is in real danger and engaged in actual combat; only near the end is there any real sense of possible conflicts in her relationships with other deputies, and only near the end is there any real question about the nature of her relationship with Frank. Most of the story is pretty much a matter of day-to-day life (with the exception of starting a dating relationship). As might be expected from a college speech teacher, Lager’s technical mastery of prose style is quite professional; there are just a very few places where minor editing would have helped.

For me, this book was difficult to rate, because there are aspects I really like and aspects that I really dislike. I didn’t mind the slow-paced build-up quite as much as some readers probably will, because I was interested in learning about Ro and what makes her tick, and about the workings of a modern sheriff’s department (I learned much that I didn’t previously know, and I think most readers would). IMO, the action scene was good, the handling of the psychological aspects of the aftermath struck me as true to life, and the ending worked very well for me. The Ro-Frank aspect of the plot ultimately proved to be a major liability in my estimation, which dragged down the rating. If the book were written with no “romantic” element at all, just as a straight police-life and action story, I’d probably have given it five stars. As it was, the romantic-erotic parts earned one star. Overall, I decided to split the difference and give the book three, since I liked much of it. (And yes, I will read the sequel!)

I was gifted by the author with a review copy of this book, but no guarantees that I’d like it were offered or expected. Nor did World Castle Publishing (which also publishes my novel) put any pressure on me to write a favorable review (and I would have canceled my contract with them if they had!).

Note: This novel has only one explicit sex scene, but it occupies a very prominent position in the strictly-linear story arc, and it’s extremely, graphically detailed, with a “you are THERE!” immediacy. There is a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, religious profanity, the c-word to describe part of the female anatomy, etc. (Some, though not all, of this reflects real-life cop culture.)

Author: Dave Lager
Publisher: World Castle Publishing, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Policewoman, by Justin W. M. Roberts

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

“…courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

Debut author Justin W. M. Roberts and I became acquainted recently in the Action Heroine Fans group that I help moderate on Goodreads. I noticed his mentions of this novel there, and was interested enough to accept his generous offer of a hardcover review copy; but no guarantee of a good review (or a review at all) was asked or expected. This book had no trouble earning its stars on its merits! For much of the time while I was reading it, I expected to give it four and a half stars, but after the impact of the ending, there’s no way I could give it any less than five.

“Write about what you know” is an axiom Roberts clearly takes seriously. British born (and a graduate of Hull Univ.), his father was an army general, and the future author seems to have been what’s sometimes called in U.S. slang an “army brat,” who grew up in close proximity to military bases and traveling around the world to different postings. For the past 25 years, he’s made his home in Indonesia; this book is set partly there and in the British Isles, and like the author, his titular heroine straddles the two cultures.

He also appears to have a background in police and/or military counter-terrorist services. His knowledge of S.W.A.T. (special weapons and tactics) terms and procedures, firearms specs, and both British and Indonesian police and military organization and organizational culture and traditions is extensive, to put it mildly, and he puts this to use in spades throughout the book. It’s noted at the beginning of the book that almost all of these tactics are “intentionally disguised” to protect police and military officers (so that baddies can’t use the book as a text to learn what to expect!), but it still has a very realistic feel. We’re in the hands of a writer who knows his stuff here; readers who need and want technical accuracy won’t be disappointed. For other readers like me, who don’t know one brand of firearm from another and have little technical knowledge of covert operations, much of this information will go over our heads, but it will still give a feeling of verisimilitude, and maybe impart some knowledge that will stick! (Seven and a half pages of glossaries of organizational “alphabet soup” and British, Indonesian and Irish military/police slang and terms and Gaelic –here spelled “Gaeilge”– phrases are provided; and if you’re anything like me, you’ll refer to them frequently.)

To write a gripping tale of action adventure, of course, one needs more than technical knowledge. Such a story requires a fundamental, high-stakes conflict with moral issues that matter, involving believable characters that the reader can actually care about. Roberts delivers that here, too. His story is set in 2026, in order to allow for the full effects of planned downsizing of the British army, scheduled to be fully effected in 2020, and for the related rise of a new player in international drug trafficking, the Irish Drug Cartel. The book opens with a grisly and highly attention-grabbing torture scene that (once the reader interprets it in the light of the information that follows in the first chapters) establishes the moral polarities very clearly.

Heroine Sarah –half Indonesian, half European, from a military family, and raised partly in England– still in her 20s, is a high-ranking and very capable officer in the paramilitary wing of the Indonesian National Police. She’s seconded early on to Interpol and sent to England to join the task force battling the Cartel. It’s no exaggeration to say she’s one of the best, and best-drawn, action heroines I’ve encountered in fiction. The other important characters are also vividly realized –Niall, the Cartel’s pet psychopath and torturer, is as radically evil a figure as you’ll ever encounter in a book. (There are so many secondary ones that some of their names and sometimes organizational affiliations are hard to keep track of, but you don’t actually have to –in those cases, I just sort of went with the flow. :-) )

There’s a lot of action, but significant character development and interaction as well. (Some readers found the first four chapters slow-paced or even boring, because of the introductions and setting up of the situation, but I honestly did not; I thought Roberts did a good job of holding interest there.) While I’ve classified this as action-adventure rather than mystery, the author effectively uses some techniques of mystery fiction in places to hide clues in plain sight. Some parts of this book are profoundly moving, and it packs a very real emotional wallop. The narration is in third-person, present tense mode; this took some getting used to, but I actually adjusted to it pretty quickly. A quibble might be that some Cartel members are more loose-lipped and careless than would probably be the case in real life, but that is a minor quibble.

Roberts’ online author profile notes that he’s “an active promoter of secular humanism.” This particular book, however, doesn’t grind any sort of philosophical ax. If it has any messages, they would be recognition that drug use and drug trafficking is a pestilent scourge on the world, and high admiration and respect for the often-maligned work of the brave men and women of the police and military who put their lives on the line to stand against it. (Interestingly, Sarah is a professed Catholic, and that aspect of her character is treated respectfully. Granted, it’s clear that her religious beliefs, as far as they go, are more a matter of birthright church membership than a life-transforming personal spiritual commitment –but she does tangibly demonstrate that they go further than just empty words.)

Some content warnings are needed here. I mentioned an opening torture scene. There are some other torture scenes here as well, all of them graphic, and the violence is grim and bloody, with a lot of messy deaths. The author would say the violent content isn’t any more graphic than it has to be, and (unlike Niall), he clearly doesn’t take pleasure in it; but this isn’t a read for the squeamish. While there’s not much bad language in the first three or so chapters, there gets to be a lot of it later, with quite a bit of use of the f-word. This does reflect English-speaking cop and military sub-culture, as well as the speech of low-life thugs, and also, to a degree, contemporary secular British speech (which apparently has coarsened even more than American speech in recent decades). While there’s some unmarried sex here, the sex between the good characters is loving and not really explicit; but there’s a lot of locker-room–style sexual banter that’s R (or X)-rated. Some female readers might also feel that the book suffers some from the “male gaze” syndrome, especially in the references to a photo of Sarah in a bikini.

In summary, I’d recommend this novel for action fans generally, not just for those who particularly like action heroines (though many of the latter will agree that Sarah’s “the ultimate action heroine!”). The content issues, IMO, don’t detract from its very real merits (and might not bother many readers at all); and the author deserves particular credit for bringing to life an admirable heroine of mixed race, a demographic that gets way too little representation in English-language action fiction.

Author: Justin W. M. Roberts
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

A Thin Dark Line, by Tami Hoag

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This is officially characterized (though not in the cover copy) as the fourth book of the author’s Doucet series. However, that nominal “series” is apparently very loosely connected, only by having main or other characters from the fictional Doucet clan; and a Doucet appears in this novel, though not as the protagonist. Our protagonists are sheriff’s deputies Nick Fourcade, a detective, and Annie Broussard, a uniformed deputy who’d like to be a detective. (The book is also counted as the opener of the Broussard and Fourcade series, which is apparently more connected; but it has a resolution to the mysteries involved in this volume, while leaving things open for new ones.)

Back in the late 80s, I visited the rural Cajun country of south Louisiana, where this book is set. So I could visualize the scenery, hear the accents and dialect, and appreciate the immersive evocation of place and culture that Hoag conjures, with references to things like zydeco music. (Hoag herself was born in Iowa and lives in Florida; but she’s clearly very familiar with this area, and has frequently set her fiction here.) The plot is very taut, respecting all of Aristotle’s classical unities; it unfolds over a period of about two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (a season which is a big deal in heavily Catholic south Louisiana) mostly in and around the small town of Bayou Breaux, population around 7,000. As the book opens, we learn that one Marcus Renard has just been set free on a technicality after being arrested by the sheriff’s office for the hideously savage rape and murder of a prominent local businesswoman. (The authorities are certain he’s guilty –but is he?) Soon after, the community begins to be terrorized by a serial rapist.

Like all serious fiction, this novel is fundamentally concerned with moral issues, the answers to which aren’t obvious and force readers to think. Here, the issues particularly revolve around the relationship of law and justice, and the ethics of vigilantism. (Personally, my view of the latter is more nuanced and less unconditionally condemning than some people’s; but Hoag forces us to consider the dangers of too facile a resort to extra-legal vengeance, and the valid reasons why our and other civilized legal systems provide safeguards for the accused.) The solution to the crime(s) is anything but obvious; early on, I was 100% convinced of the identity of the killer, only to change my theory much nearer the end to another solution I was equally certain of –only to be wrong both times. I was totally blindsided by the denouement. But this isn’t just an intellectual puzzle; it’s a story about vividly-drawn, three-dimensional people and their interactions.

This can be a very dark novel (and I’m told that’s often characteristic of Hoag’s work). The murder and rapes themselves aren’t directly described; and the sufferings of the victims, and the gory details of the crime scenes, aren’t alluded to more than they actually have to be. But while the average modern American doesn’t have any real sense that genuine moral evil is a reality which he or she could ever have any need to take into account, Hoag clearly has a very lively sense of that reality, and she doesn’t intend to let us close the book without sharing it. (That’s not a bad authorial aim!) Disgust would be a healthy reaction to the sexist and lewd attitudes of many of the male cops, and readers might want a barf bag handy when perusing some of the comments from these characters. (Hoag isn’t presenting these as role models; disgust is the reaction she wants there.)

Action heroine fans should take note that, though the cover copy doesn’t stress this aspect, Annie packs heat, and her police training has given her skills in hand-to-hand combat and using firearms –which just might turn out to come in handy. (And fans of action heroes will appreciate the fact that while Nick isn’t Superman, he can take care of himself very well in a fair fight.)

Since I’m trying not to get drawn into another open-ended series right now, I’m not planning to pursue this one. But I’d definitely recommend Hoag as a serious mystery writer, and I’d be open to reading more of her work sometime.

Note: While it’s not a romance, the book does have two instances (in 590 pages) of explicit unmarried sex. There’s also a certain amount of bad language, including f-words, much of it reflecting the real-life tendency of this kind of speech to be a feature of cop culture.

Author: Tami Hoag
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Devil Dance, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This final installment (the author confirms that fact in her Acknowledgments) of the series is set in May 1921, a few months after the previous one. The book’s opening finds Jade in Zanzibar, a new setting for her, which takes her out of the Nairobi area and away from her friends there. One reviewer complained about their absence, but as a compensation, we get to not only spend some more time with Jade’s formidable Spanish-born mother, Inez, but to meet Jade’s dad as well. Her parents have come to Africa for her impending nuptials, and she and Inez plan to enjoy a relaxing sight-seeing trip while Richard del Cameron gets acquainted with his new son-in-law on a planned safari.

Since she didn’t expect to need it, Jade didn’t bring along her trusty Winchester. But Simba Jike’s reputation has preceded her, and her propensity to land in the middle of dangerous skullduggery is as much in evidence here as ever. (Luckily, she did bring her knife….) She and Inez soon encounter a sudden mysterious death, an appeal for help, and a wealthy Arab household rife with secrets. And meanwhile, back in Mombasa, their menfolk stumble across an apparent slave-trading operation –and they’re not the sort of guys who’d let that sort of thing go on without getting involved.

This is the only novel in the series to be self-published; Arruda evidently wrote it without the aid of her usual proofreading and editorial services. There was also a five-year gap between it and the preceding novel, during which she apparently had the distraction of a pregnancy, childbirth, and care for a newborn daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. (From internal evidences, I’m guessing that the early chapters may have been written before the pregnancy, and the middle and later ones after the baby had become a toddler.) These factors show in a number of typos (though none of them are bad enough to keep the reader from understanding the author’s intention), and in some discontinuity between plot elements near the beginning and the developing story, which cost the book a star.

Otherwise, the quality is very similar to the other series installments. The mystery was more deeply concealed, with several developments that genuinely surprised me. As always, the author thoroughly researched her setting(s). An element of the possibly supernatural has typically been a feature of these novels, and that’s particularly strong here, with the background of the witchcraft guild of Zanzibar’s neighboring island, Pemba, and their rites of human sacrifice. Jade’s (and Arruda’s) concern for human rights in the face of injustice is also a strong note in the book, in the face of the persistent practice of slavery, which was nominally outlawed on Zanzibar in 1897, but still went on in practice even on into the 1920s. (And it continues to flourish today in the countries of the Arabian peninsula that are still governed by Sharia law, which regulates slavery but doesn’t forbid it.)

Barb and I read this book together, as we have the whole series, and we’re both sorry to see the series end! Jade has been one of our favorite heroines, and its been a privilege to get to know her.

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Molly and the Gold Baron, by Stephen Overholser

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Stephen Overholser is the son of acclaimed Western author Wayne Overholser, who’s followed in his father’s footsteps as a writer of Westerns; both father and son have been Spur Award winners. The younger Overholser created the character of Molly Owens as the protagonist of one of his early novels, Molly and the Confidence Man (1975), and went on to write five more novels featuring her. Orphaned young, Molly and her now-deceased brother survived a rough childhood on their own; after he came West, she answered an ad and went to work for the Fenton Detective Agency, which is fictional, but modeled on the real-life Pinkerton Agency –which actually did employ women detectives, Kate Warne becoming the first in 1856.

Overholser set much of his work in his native Colorado; Molly’s based in Denver, and this tale is set in the real-life Colorado mining boom town of Cripple Creek in ca. 1893. That setting is actually drawn with considerable accuracy, and the depiction of the community’s history and labor troubles in that period reflects actual realities, with some license and changing of names. (I’ll give Overholser credit for doing serious research.) While I wouldn’t describe the author’s characterizations as sharp, Molly comes across as a kind person who cares about justice, as well as both brave and capable. She approaches her detective work with good observation skills and intuition (and isn’t above picking a lock or two if that’s what it takes to hunt for evidence).

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, debuting in 1982 in A Is for Alibi, is usually considered literature’s first gun-packing female detective who could handle rough stuff if the baddies wanted to throw it at her. Yet Molly preceded her by seven years and is no shrinking violet where combat is concerned, either with her double-action Colt or with her fists and feet (and she can deliver a pretty nasty head-butt as well); she just was never noticed by mystery-genre critics because her venue is in a different genre. Here, her assignment calls for her to get to the bottom of a pregnant prostitute’s bogus paternity suit against a newly-rich prospector; but the case soon morphs into an unauthorized murder investigation, in the context of a labor dispute between mine owners and mine workers that threatens to become a blood bath. (Some on both sides are up for illegal violence, but the mine owners and their thugs are the more dangerously violent.)

As is true of some other works in this genre that I’ve read, the author’s prose style is mediocre, adequate but uninspired, workmanlike pulp that does the job in an undistinguished way; he tells the story and allows you to picture the action and settings, but this isn’t a novel you’d read for scintillating dialogue, vivid turns of phrase, telling details, or description that soars and sings. His plotting is on a similar level; towards the end, a couple of characters make some decisions that serve the storyline, but struck me as dubiously likely to have been made had this been a real-life narrative in the same situation. The mystery element isn’t very deeply mysterious in the long run.

Despite its flaws,though, I basically liked the book as passing light entertainment, and liked and admired the heroine for her genuine good qualities. Personally, I won’t bother seeking out the rest of the series; but if you’re a Western fan who doesn’t demand much from your books and read for recreation, you could certainly pick a lot worse books, with a lot worse messages. And at 172 pages, it’s a relatively short read, and doesn’t require a lot of thought.

Note: Bad language, of the d-word/h-word sort, is minimal and Molly herself pretty clean in her own speech; I wouldn’t guarantee that she never lets a cuss word slip under stress (I don’t have the book in front of me to check) but she certainly doesn’t make it a noticeable habit. There are three explicit sex scenes. (They can be skipped over with no loss of anything.) However, this isn’t a romance as such, nor is it a trashy “adult Western”.

Author: Stephen Overholser
Publisher: Bantam, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Crocodile’s Last Embrace, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

This sixth installment in Arruda’s outstanding series has much in common, in terms of style and other characteristics, with the preceding five. We pick up here in February 1921, and our setting is the familiar one of Nairobi and its environs; all or most of the supporting cast we’ve come to like are here, as well as Jade herself.

Early on in the story, Jade becomes an inadvertent witness to a clandestine body disposal (Inspector Finch once wryly commented that she “attracts corpses,” and that’s running true to form here!), and other deaths will follow, seeming to be connected with a mysterious purported gold mining operation in the northern reaches of the colony. Intertwined with these events is the menace of a huge, man-eating piebald crocodile, whose depredations along the Athi River are a concern to both the Kikuyu natives and the authorities. More than one concealed identity factors into the situation, and as usual there is a soupcon of traditional African supernatural belief flavoring the mix. The setting continues to be strongly evoked.

It can be said, though, that this is one of the better constructed and more challenging mysteries in the series. Based on my knowledge of how Arruda writes, I was smugly certain that I had identified one of the principal villains as soon as the character was introduced. But I couldn’t have been more wrong; and I had no clue about the other one, either. I did see through one concealed identity, but otherwise, Arruda does a masterful job here of hiding her clues in plain sight And the final chapters before the wrap-up are a tour de force of excitement and suspenseful tension as the author maneuvers various characters into position for a climactic confrontation that doesn’t disappoint.

More than most entries in the series, too, this one is no running in place operation in terms of an overall story arc; this volume will bring significant changes to Jade’s life. Indeed, there are some indications that this (so far) penultimate entry may originally have been intended as the series finale. (All six of the first books were published by Big Publishing, and no more than a year apart. The seventh book was self-published, and only after a five year gap.)

As always, I would recommend reading the series in order, rather than trying to start with this book. It would lose a lot without the built-up familiarity with the characters and their history in relation to each other. But series fans won’t be disappointed in any respect!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Berkley, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Collection, by Lance Charnes

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Lance Charnes and I are Goodreads friends, having “met” (electronically) a few years ago through the Action Heroine Fans group. Some time ago, I bought a copy of his outstanding debut novel, Doha 12, and it got five stars from me. This new novel, the opener for a projected series, didn’t come to me as an official review copy –instead, Lance generously donated a print copy to the library where I work– but he knew I would read and review it, and knew my tastes well enough to be pretty sure I’d like it. Of course, we both understood that he might be wrong –but he wasn’t! For much of my reading experience, I expected to rate the book four stars –a denouement and conclusion that blew me to pieces and then knit me back together easily pushed it up to five stars.

Being his Goodreads friend, I try to keep abreast of Lance’s book reviews, so I know firsthand how well read he is in the whole area of the contemporary fine arts market, and particularly of its increasingly seedy underbelly. In real life, art by big-name artists can command staggering prices, and in the last 15-20 years it’s come to be a major commodity in the world of big-time international money laundering and shady commercial exchanges where cash transfers come too easily to the attention of authorities. And a lot of art that’s traded this way may be stolen, or forged.

Rich collectors with an enthusiasm for art aren’t the only players any more; we’re dealing with crime syndicates, corrupt and despotic governments and their officials, and billionaires looking for ways to cheat the tax authorities, and violence and murder may be aspects of normal business operations for some of these people. Lance sets this novel in that milieu, and he and his protagonist Matt Friedrich know it like the back of their hand. The author is also well-traveled; he sets his tale mostly in Europe, and principally Milan, and brings the locale to life with an assurance and level of detail which suggests he’s actually been there, or researched it a LOT online.

This is crime fiction more than traditional mystery; and as in his debut novel, Lance uses the knowledge of skulduggery, weapons, and high-technology snooping gained as a military intelligence officer to good advantage. The plotting is taut (first-person, present-tense narration is used for maximum immediacy) and the pace brisk, with a steady dose of dangerous situations and life-threatening tension. Matt’s crafty scheming sometimes takes the reader by surprise, and he’s sometime majorly taken for surprise himself, along with the reader. Action scenes aren’t frequent, but you never know when they could erupt, and when they do they’re well depicted. I’ve used the term “thriller” for this book, and that’s one I seldom use; I don’t seek out books that bill themselves that way, because I think the plotting is usually so cliched and stereotyped that it fails to thrill. This one doesn’t fail.

I’ve also used the term “gritty.” As described above, the moral world of this novel is a dark one where people are generally guided by the most selfish and cynical of motives, where the law is typically powerless to do much, and where innocent people are hurt as a by-product of what some of the characters routinely do. The DeWitt so-called “Agency” is a morally ambiguous enterprise that works for the highest bidder, and our narrator is an ex-con who was once involved in crooked art deals, and is now so crushed under a mountain of legal debts that he’s willing to violate his parole by working for said agency if it gives him a shot at paying it down.

And yet this is a surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly, given the moral vision that animates the author’s earlier novel) moral work of fiction, with a main character who’s learned something about life and ethics from his time in prison, and who wants to become a human being that he can look in the mirror and respect. He’s going to encounter challenges and decisions here that will put that resolve to the test. Both Matt and Carson (the female operative he’s paired with –who provides the team’s muscles and fighting skill when it’s needed) are intensely vital, round, realistic characters with a credible pattern of interactions that doesn’t stay static, but develops believably. Unlike some writers of this type of fiction, Lance understands that characters you care about are the only thing that can truly provide it with its heart, and he gives character development and relationships their due. There’s a lot that I can’t tell you because I’m determined to avoid spoilers; but I can say that this is where the book really earns its stars. (The principal supporting characters are masterfully drawn as well.)

You don’t have to be familiar with the world of the contemporary art market to enjoy this book (I’m not, at all); the author explains everything you have to know, and he does it easily and smoothly, in small doses with no info-dumps. None of the discussion is detailed enough to be boring. He uses enough physical description to let you visualize scenes, but not, IMO, too much; the same with technological exposition. (At one point, I didn’t really understand what one of the villains was trying to gain by his conduct; but the narrative drive carried me through without asking questions.) f you’re any kind of fan of crime fiction thrillers in a contemporary setting, and my review intrigues you rather than turning you away, I’d say this is definitely worth your checking out. I’m certainly going to be following the series; and I’m now even more anxious to read the author’s South, sooner rather than later!

Matt’s very sensible to feminine charms (he hasn’t been out of prison very long), but there’s no sex here, and Matt actually refrains from taking sexual advantage of one young woman. Violence isn’t any more frequent or graphic than it needs to be. As for bad language, not all of the characters swear, but some do, including Matt; Carson and one of the villains have the worst mouths (including the f-word as regular vocabulary). I never felt that the author was trying to mainstream that kind of thing, nor push the envelope with it.

Author: Lance Charnes
Publisher: Wombat Group Media, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Warning –my review doesn’t contain any spoilers for this book, but it does divulge a major series plot development from the preceding book!

In the 10th century B.C., the kingdom of Sheba (or Saba –the S and Sh sounds were still fluid in the Semitic alphabets of that day) straddled the Arabic and African sides of the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and enjoyed considerable income from its control of that trade route. Both the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles record a state visit by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Neither of these writers record her name (it varies in the legends, but the most common name given is Balkis or Belkis –English transliterations vary) or much about her, and written records from Sheba at this time have not survived; but she’s also mentioned in the Koran. Jewish, Arabic and Ethiopian legends (the latter written down in the ancient writing Kebra Negast, or “Glory of Kings”) some of which probably preserve actual handed-down oral history, greatly elaborate the story, and the latter makes Solomon out to be the father of her son and heir, Menelik. (The royal house of Ethiopia historically claimed descent from Solomon through Menelik.) The legends of the Masai and other African peoples south of Ethiopia also credit Menelik with a great (and obviously historically memorable) expedition through their territories. This real-life material provides the basis for Jade del Cameron’s fifth adventure.

It’s now the autumn of 1920, and an American silent film company is in Nairobi, preparing to journey south (into what is today the country of Tanzania) to fabled Mount Kilimanjaro, there to film a movie, set partly in ancient and partly in modern times, based on a supposed legend of Emperor Menelik having climbed the mountain to die and be buried near the summit with his treasure. Ever ready to visit other African locales to do an article and photo shoot for “The Traveler” magazine –based on the real-life magazine of that era “Travel”, as Arruda mentions in her fascinating-as-always Author’s Notes– Jade’s agreed to go along as second-in-command (with primary responsibility for looking after the expedition’s female members) to the group’s guide –though she’s less than delighted to learn that the guide is Harry Hascombe, whom series readers have met before. The trip will also give her a chance to think seriously about, and hopefully finally sort out her mixed feelings, about her beau Sam Featherstone’s marriage proposal. But shortly before departure, things get off to an ominous start with a strange murder-suicide just outside Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club.

Much that I’ve said in my reviews of previous books in the series applies to this one, too. All the things that attract its fans are here: a strong, tough heroine with admirable character and with the guts and physical conditioning to handle dangerous challenges (yes, that knife in her boot on the cover picture is going to have to come out of its sheath!), well-drawn and sometimes likeable supporting characters, adventure and danger in a well-realized exotic setting, chaste romance, good writing with bad language kept to a minimum and no explicit sex, an undercurrent of supernaturalism and mystery that never turns the book into supernatural fiction but that adds a dash of that flavor. But I can say that this is one of the strongest books in the series, and presents one of the best constructed mystery plots –in several of the books, I fingered the culprit early on (and twice in the first chapter!), but I didn’t here! This one kept me guessing (wrongly) almost down to the wire. The behind-the-scenes look at the film industry of the 1920s enhanced the book; and though I didn’t recognize the tie-in to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (never having read that story) until the Author’s Notes explained it, I can recognize now that it was masterfully done. I also appreciated the personal growth here of Jade’s young Kikiyu friend, Jelani.

There are only (so far) two more books in this series; Barb and I have already started reading the sixth installment, The Crocodile’s Last Embrace. I’m hopeful Arruda will eventually write more of them; Jade’s a heroine we both want to keep on spending time with!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library (Obsidian imprint), available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.