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Book Review: Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

Title: Dead Until Dark

Author: Charlaine Harris

Series: Sookie Stackhouse #1

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Sookie Stackhouse is just a small-time cocktail waitress in small-town Louisiana. Until the vampire of her dreams walks into her life-and one of her coworkers checks out….

Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend isn’t such a bright idea. -Goodreads

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The Review:

Well, butter my butt and call me a southern biscuit – I enjoyed the hell out of Dead Until Dark.

This was my second read-through of this book (I’d never continued beyond it last time), and it’s funny how time and reading experience can change how you feel about the same exact story. The first time I read it (3 stars) I was only just dipping my toes into urban fantasy. I’d no idea what marked a good one from a bad one and was kind of experimenting with them all. This time around, I’ve read (and loved) a fair few, and the quality of the writing and the richness of the story here stood out to me in a way it hadn’t before. I loved it.

What struck me is the complete immersion into Sookie’s viewpoint of the world. She’s such an atypical character – not the brightest, nor the most experienced, but loving and completely earnest in everything she does. I find her absolutely charming. Her character was strengthened even more by the exceptional audio narration of Johanna Parker – I highly recommend going the audiobook route with this one.

I remember discussing this book with my best friend early on, and she mentioned it had a lot of sex in it. I was surprised because I only remembered one sex scene in the whole thing. What I was actually remembering was an entire like 50 page chunk of the book! So yeah, these are a lot steamier than your usual urban fantasy series. However since the plot and overall focus of the book remained on the murder mystery and Sookie dealing with a bunch of external supernatural conflicts, the addition of all the sexual content did not make it feel like a paranormal romance. That’s a distinction I always find very important when evaluating these types of stories.

Overall, I’m thrilled I now have another excellent UF to keep me occupied for a while (as I am UTD on all things Briggs, Harrison, Butcher, and Andrews). I can totally see how the excellent storytelling here was picked up for a tv series. The books are so strong and vibrant that they really didn’t have to change much in the adaptation. At least not initially.

Recommendations: if you love UF but haven’t yet tried this series – give it a go! The mystery was a lot grittier than you’ll find in most and the characters are a hoot. One of the most delightful things I’ve read in a while.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Best Thing You Can Steal by Simon R. Green

Title: The Best Thing You Can Steal

Author: Simon R. Green

Series: Gideon Sable #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: Welcome to London, but not as you know it. A place where magics and horror run free, wonders and miracles are everyday things, and the dark streets are full of very shadowy people . . .
Gideon Sable is a thief and a con man. He specializes in stealing the kind of things that can’t normally be stolen. Like a ghost’s clothes, or a photo from a country that never existed. He even stole his current identity. Who was he originally? Now, that would be telling. One thing’s for sure though, he’s not the bad guy. The people he steals from always have it coming. Gideon’s planning a heist, to steal the only thing that matters from the worst man in the world. To get past his security, he’s going to need a crew who can do the impossible . . . but luckily, he has the right people in mind. The Damned, the Ghost, the Wild Card . . . and his ex-girlfriend, Annie Anybody. A woman who can be anyone, with the power to make technology fall in love with her. If things go well, they’ll all get what they want. And if they’re lucky, they might not even die trying . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

As you can tell by my knee-jerk review above, I needed some time and space from this book to assess it in a more mature manner.

Obviously I didn’t enjoy The Best Thing You Can Steal, but I didn’t spend the entire book not liking it. I was actually quite on board at the beginning when the main character was taking a ton of time to assemble his team of thieves. I thought the setup a bit long-winded (instead of hinting at backstories and keeping some details as surprises for later, everyone’s history was laid out and explained extensively), but was willing to ride it out because the book was promising the heist of a century! I love seeing the legwork for stuff like that.

“And we set of with speed for the bright lights of London. A car full of weird with a ghost on top.” <-I loved this quote, and felt really excited to embark with them at the time.

But then the moment arrived. When we finally get to go along with the characters as the do the big things. And I was so, so let down. For me, the main appeal of the novel was the promise of a good heist, and a good heist it was not. First off, the whys behind the heist weren’t convincing as reasons to put everyone at risk. But people do weird things all the time, so that’s a point I overlooked. Secondly, it’s not much fun when there are no challenges and everyone is perfectly prepared for all of the obstacles they’ll face. It’s ideal, of course, but it lacks a certain drama to engage the reader.

And to that point I have a side rant. The team of characters Gideon was assembling for the heist was fun, but one of the members was a woman who had a special ability: computers respond to her and will do anything to please her. How convenient.

It just felt so contrived. Especially since I can’t recall anyone else referencing or having special abilities in the story. So by all accounts, she’s the only one around with “powers” and omgsh how wonderful it is that they happen to be exactly what a thief would need to get past a security system without having to spend any time figuring out how to bypass them organically. All of the other supernatural elements and characters fit, but seeing as this character was already a master of disguise, adding the technology powers in felt like an afterthought. It almost would’ve been better to set up the world without technologies for whatever fabricated reason made sense, and go from there. Rant over.

Finally, the actual thing they found when the heist was complete… was so stupid. I don’t know how else to say it. It made me feel like I’d wasted all the time spend reading the book just to end up where we did. Like, I was promised one thing and delivered something completely different. It actually made me mad, which I’m laughing at now because I don’t usually get that worked up over books. Something about this one must’ve hit a nerve.

Overall, the journey was a bit slow, but the characters were fun and I appreciated the lighthearted heist story I was getting. But taking time to read the endless pages of buildup only to have a very unsatisfying payoff left me feeling resentful. Like I said before, at least it was evoking, if nothing else.

Recommendations: if you’re picking this up because you want a light urban fantasy with some cheeky supernatural characters, this is a good pick. If, like me, you wanted to experience an amazing heist because the Gentleman Bastards series still doesn’t have a release date for the fourth book and you’re getting desperate for that type of story… this one will not make you feel better.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Million Dollar Demon by Kim Harrison

Million Dollar Demon by Kim Harrison

Title: Million Dollar Demon

Author: Kim Harrison

Series: The Hollows #15

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: To save the city, Rachel Morgan will need to show some teeth in the next Hollows novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Kim Harrison. The new master vampire of Cincinnati has arrived . . . and she wants Rachel Morgan out. No matter where Rachel goes, Constance is there–threatening Rachel’s allies, causing city-wide chaos, and, to add insult to injury, even forcing Rachel out of her current quarters. Ever since Rachel found a way to save the souls of vampires, the old undead’s longtime ascendancy has been broken. Now Constance sees eliminating Rachel as the key to consolidating her own power. Rachel has no desire to be enthralled or killed–and she’s terrified of what may become of the city if Constance forces a return to the ancient ways. But even a witch-born demon can’t stand against the old undead–at least, not alone. And if Rachel refuses to claim the role of Cincinnati’s master demon, the city will tear itself apart, taking her and all those who stand beside her with it. -Goodreads

The Review:

Rachel Morgan is every bit as enjoyable now as she was 10 years ago. Only now there’s an element of nostalgia that makes any new Hollows book that much more special. The quality has not diminished one iota and the plot is, if anything, only getting more interesting.

There are a few UF series on the market that might be continuing well past their prime (ahem), but Harrison’s work is definitely not among them. I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about this author is how well she slows down the happenings in the story to really focus on nuances of character and internal development. There’s plenty of action to spice it up, but for the most part she allows you to feel truly connected to the characters and involved in the scenes. Her writing is quite differentiated from the rest of urban fantasy, having more of that high fantasy quality and writing style (she also writes fantasy under the name “Dawn Cook.” I love her Truth series). She carried a lot of that slow burn development over to this series, making it one of the strongest in the genre. While it’s not quite my all-time favorite, she immerses you so well into the story that it’s responsible for my single favorite moments in an UF work (Black Magic Sanction wrecked me).

I love how the demon’s story progressed in this book. There are a lot of things building and developing that I’m betting are going to have a great payoff later. I also appreciated the nice balance of old beloved characters and new additions to keep it spicy. One thing I liked in particular is how Harrison used situations and other characters to solidify what a likable character Rachel is. It’s a cool writing technique that really captured my interest the whole way through. And at this point in the series Rachel is still experiencing growth, which is awesome. The only thing that might have made it better is a more momentous ending. But other than that, it satisfied on every account and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.

Recommendations: I consider the Hollows a staple in the urban fantasy genre. It’s a slow-burn, character-focused series with gradually snowballing plots that eventually knock your socks off. Even after ending the series at book 13 then revamping (pun), it hasn’t lost any of the amazing quality. If you like any of my recs below but haven’t given this a try, you’re in for a treat!

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Kim Harrison, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Million Dollar Demon. :D

Other books you might like:

By Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Blood Heir by Ilona Andrews

Title: Blood Heir

Author: Ilona Andrews

Series: Aurelia Ryder #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Atlanta was always a dangerous city. Now, as waves of magic and technology compete for supremacy, it’s a place caught in a slow apocalypse, where monsters spawn among the crumbling skyscrapers and supernatural factions struggle for power and survival. Eight years ago, Julie Lennart left Atlanta to find out who she was. Now she’s back with a new face, a new magic, and a new name—Aurelia Ryder—drawn by the urgent need to protect the family she left behind. An ancient power is stalking her adopted mother, Kate Daniels, an enemy unlike any other, and a string of horrifying murders is its opening gambit. If Aurelia’s true identity is discovered, those closest to her will die. So her plan is simple: get in, solve the murders, prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled, and get out without being recognized. She expected danger, but she never anticipated that the only man she’d ever loved could threaten everything. One small misstep could lead to disaster. But for Aurelia, facing disaster is easy; it’s relationships that are hard. –Goodreads

The Review:

I love these authors so much. Unfortunately Blood Heir was my least favorite book in a long while.

And not because of the story. They did an excellent job giving MC Julie a refresh that made the plot feel new and exciting. The twist was plausible and the affect her changes (and the secrecy around them) had on all of the characters around her were super interesting. I find myself eager for a second book to see how that aspect develops They even did a good job carrying the storyline beyond the end of the Kate Daniels series. Anytime a book allows me more time in this world with these characters, I’m in my happy place.

That said, the actual construction of this story left me wanting a bit. The Ilona Andrews team usually doesn’t waste a lot of page count on recap and explanations, but omg the first 40% of the book and a good number of info dumps beyond that was a struggle to read. I get it to a degree – we’re immersing in a character who hasn’t had a lot of page time for a few books, and it has been a few years since the KD series ended. What’s more, they have to set the stage for any new readers to come along (within reason) so the book can stand on its own. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I needed a bit of recap. However, I don’t think I needed quite as much. Especially the explanations about what happened to Julie since she left the area years ago. The changes she went through were so interesting, I think it would’ve been more effective to reveal them incrementally as she interacted with other characters. As it is, the info was just dumped in whenever it became relevant. And because these explanation passages were so prevalent, it slowed the plot down to a snail’s pace, making it hard to get into the story. It felt more like a recap episode to get readers ready for the throw-down in future books. This is definitely not consistent with their usual works. I’m chalking it up as a fluke/victim of circumstance and looking forward to their next Julie book. I really hope there is one.

Recommendations: these are my favorite urban fantasy authors. Even though this particular book wasn’t a hit, it doesn’t tarnish my opinion of what this duo is capable of. As a spinoff that takes place after the end of the Kate Daniels series, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it as a stand alone.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes

Title: The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant

Author: Drew Hayes

Series: Fred, the Vampire Accountant #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Some people are born boring. Some live boring. Some even die boring. Fred managed to do all three, and when he woke up as a vampire, he did so as a boring one. Timid, socially awkward, and plagued by self-esteem issues, Fred has never been the adventurous sort. One fateful night – different from the night he died, which was more inconvenient than fateful – Fred reconnects with an old friend at his high school reunion. This rekindled relationship sets off a chain of events thrusting him right into the chaos that is the parahuman world, a world with chipper zombies, truck driver wereponies, maniacal necromancers, ancient dragons, and now one undead accountant trying his best to “survive.” Because even after it’s over, life can still be a downright bloody mess.

The Review:

I must be more of a cover snob than I thought because had I not received a review copy (for audio production quality) I would have never picked this up. Although I will say it fits the story perfectly. 

It was a fun story. More a series of episodes (I remember hearing that this author specializes in web-serials, so that makes sense), it felt like reading a bunch of novellas with a solid through-line.

A boring (self-proclaimed), awkward white collar worker turned vampire was a funny duality. The character didn’t change much, which was a delight. It was a twist on an overdone genre that I’ve never seen before and I quite liked it. It was also pretty nerd-tastic (a good thing), and one of my favorite stories from the bunch had a whole LARPing section. The writing was conversational, sardonic, and self-depreciating. A very clear voice that made the characters likable and the experience of reading about them fun and light-hearted.

Really, there wasn’t anything I didn’t like about the book. While it didn’t knock my socks off, it was a nice little splice of fun amidst my other reading. I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing. I find myself much more interested in his Superpowereds series, but we’ll see.

Recommendations: the sardonic voice and short episodic nature of this story makes it easy to recommend. It’s a lot of fun without a lot of commitment. I think it would be great for people who want to read more but struggle with time or motivation. It’s quite satisfying to read short stories like this from start to finish in a single setting. And the through-line of the plot in each one will keep you coming back to see what happens next.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

Title: Wild Sign

Author: Patricia Briggs

Series: Alpha & Omega #6

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It’s as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they’ve consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face. Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous — and it has met werewolves before. –Goodreads

The Review:

Reading a Briggs book always feels like a warm hug.

This is one of my favorite urban fantasy series. And it’s one of the rare few that I don’t complain about the story being dragged out too long. Each novel (both Mercy and Alpha & Omega) adds just a little more depth to the series. The new supernatural beings introduced in each book are always fun to read about, but the real draw is any new information we learn about the Marrok and his pack. There are so many great characters to expand on, it’s easy to see how this series has been able to sustain itself for so long.

In Wild Sign we got to explore the past of Leah, a character who has been a complete enigma up to this point. Her backstory was fascinating and I love that I can go forward knowing a little more about what makes her tick. By extension, we also learned more about Bran in this novel which is a huge bonus. It’s actually kind of funny that I’m so exited about the revelations for these two characters considering they weren’t even the stars of the show.

I heard Patricia Briggs talk about how she comes up with stories at an author signing (which, by the way, was the single best author interaction I’ve ever had. If you have a chance to make one of her events, go! She’s so kind). She starts by giving the characters a problem, then stays in tune with them as she writes to see how they’re going to solve it. In this case the problem was something making the residents of Wild Sign disappear… I’ll leave it at that. I always love the mystery element in her stories. It makes for an engaging, page-turning experience as the characters reason things out and make discoveries. And something about the settings lately have been giving me a modern-day western vibe, which is fun.

This particular book had some cool revelation, but it didn’t advance the plot of the overall series to any significant degree. It did, however, provide some good foreshadowing of what’s to come, for which I’m excited.

Recommendations: this is one of my favorite urban fantasy series for a reason. They’re fun, engaging books with great characters, good mysteries, and decent action, adding more depth with each book. I’d strongly recommend reading Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega in tandem by publication date, as the overall arc of the series progresses in both series.

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Patricia Briggs, and Netgalley for the review copy of Wild Sign!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes