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REVIEW:  The Masked Songbird by Emmie Mears

REVIEW: The Masked Songbird by Emmie Mears

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Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a roommate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty bucks until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbor from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends—’even her country.

Dear Ms. Mears,

I hate to say but the start of this book is rather pedestrian. Put-upon heroine Gwen has a job she likes working for a boss from hell she loathes. Her boyfriend is a shit – which is obvious to all even Gwen – but she puts up with him anyway making me want to shake her numerous times. She is in debt to her eyeballs, and gets rained on both literally and figuratively. So far it’s not much different from countless romance (Chick Lit) novels we’ve all read.

Then Gwen suffers a horrible accident at her workplace and, after dragging herself into the bowels of the building, drinks something and is eventually found and taken to hospital. Slowly, very, very slowly, she begins to experience the growth of her new powers while still not understanding how she got them or what to do with them.

Meanwhile, she becomes better acquainted with a neighbor who is apparently working for Scottish independence and keeps running afoul of some mysterious bully boys and girls who want to silence him at any cost. From the blurb, I knew that the Independence vote was important but this thread is tenuously woven through the opening half of the novel to the point where it almost disappears besides Gwen’s haplessness. Where’s the AYE! I wondered?

I know that Gwen’s initial description and background is supposed to mimic the typical mild-mannered superhero but it also cuts too close to the downtrodden romance heroine trope that I loathe – Dump shit on her head until lurve saves her.

There are also some editorial continuity issues I was surprised to encounter in a Harlequin book. While I dislike visiting Ochlassieland, I noticed a curious lack of UK/Scottish slang/words/terms here except for every once in a while when someone might utter an “och, aye.” A little more might have helped me feel the setting better.

Gwen’s boyfriend is a annoying twat. He’s self absorbed, answers for Gwen and thinks he’s entitled. Thankfully, there’s another male character I can root for in Taog – and thanks for including a pronunciation guide to his name early so I didn’t spend half the book thinking is name vaguely rhymed with bog.

Roommate Magda is delightful too – though she veers between roommate and flatmate. With Magda’s fashion savvy and skills, when Gwen finally goes out to fight evil, she’s dressed for success – even if the stretchy material of the tights does give her a wedgie.

As for the mystery of Gwen’s un-looked-for skills, the explanation makes a weird kind of sense or at least it’s enough for me to play along from home. As for the villain, she’s a piece of work, though the other reason for her actions remains elusive for a long, long time.

Finally, the plot gets down to business and the explanations come thick and fast though often in expository, “let me stand here and tell you everything” fashion. Part of the book’s charm is how clueless Gwen can be as she works to master her powers and understand the evil intentions of the villains. However this same cluelessness, continued on for chapter after chapter, ended up frustrating me and causing me to start to skim to the finish.

This book was a bit darker than I thought it would be – bodies litter the ground by the end – and Gwen’s crime fighting more haphazard. It also dragged, a lot. The outcome was positive though the cost was dear. From what I can tell, there is a sequel planned for Gwen and Co. What it will be about is something I can’t guess. Honestly I’m torn as to whether I want to continue since I found large amounts of this story unsatisfying and am grading it at a C-.

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Code Runner by Rosie Claverton

REVIEW: Code Runner by Rosie Claverton

 

Dear Rosie Claverton:

I read your debut Amy Lane mystery, and as soon as I was done I went to Netgalley and requested the next installment for review. Life intervened for a couple of weeks, but when I had a spare hour I started reading Code Runner. As I anticipated given my experience with Binary Witness, I had high hopes for this novel and I wasn’t disappointed. Code Runner is a very strong followup to the first book and I am firmly hooked on the Amy and Jason chronicles.

ACode Runner Clavertonmy Lane, computer hacker and agoraphobe, and Jason Carr, ex-con and cleaner/assistant, have settled into a comfortable relationship. Amy’s house and person are well cared for and Jason is enjoying having a proper job. But their new case puts Amy, Jason, and any number of other people close to them in danger, with several characters’ past and present lives colliding.

Unlike the mystery in the first book, this one finds Jason at the heart of the crimes, and even though he is a more or less innocent bystander, his ex-con background makes him an obvious suspect and he winds up back where he hoped never again to be: in prison, meeting old friends and enemies. As a result, the reader spends a lot of time with Jason, and Amy and Jason spend quite a bit of time apart. Jason engages in some behavior that verges on TSTL, although we can understand his motives. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think that the actions that got him into trouble are *exactly* the kind of thing for which a heroine gets a ton of grief from readers. So I was glad to see that he had to pay the price, however painful it was to watch those consequences unfold.

I don’t want to say too much about the mystery plot because it’s hard to describe without giving away spoilers. I enjoyed it quite a bit, I didn’t guess the full story until almost the end, and I thought the pacing and overall development of the mystery arc was more successful than in the previous novel. The criminals and victims include present and former friends and associates of Jason as well as members of the police force, and we get to know more about Cardiff detectives Bryn and Owain, Jason’s sister Cerys, and Amy’s sister Lizzie.

The relationship between Amy and Jason continues to develop, and in this installment we get hints that each might be feeling more than friendship for the other. Nothing explicit happens, but in spite of that (or perhaps because of it), the few, fleeting moments when they share a sense of something that might happen between them are quite powerful. I hope Claverton doesn’t rush the relationship, because I love the way each is learning more about the other, and the dry, understated humor that often accompanies their observations provides a bit of relief from the ugly stuff. And I get a kick out of the role reversals:

Jason was cleaning the oven. Amy had learned swiftly that if Jason was cleaning the oven, elbow-deep in grease and melted cheese, he was incredibly pissed off. The first time had been the trashy tabloid article where some so-called journalist had scraped together every flimsy piece of “evidence” he could find and concluded that Jason was a dangerous criminal who police had pardoned to bring vigilante justice back to the streets. They’d quoted liberally from a number of anonymous sources—who refused to be named for their safety.

When Owain had apologetically drawn their attention to it, Jason hadn’t said a word. He had just retreated to the kitchen and scoured the oven from top to bottom for two hours. Meanwhile, Amy had launched a DDoS attack, exploiting an old botnet from her blackhat days to flood the tabloid’s antiquated servers with corrupt code. The site had been down for over twenty-four hours, and the creaking old system had never fully recovered. It had been exceedingly satisfying.

At the same time, though, I’m enjoying the possibility of seeing more romance develop over the course of the series.

As in the previous installment, the sense of place is effectively developed; this isn’t a story that could take place anywhere, but rather it is firmly rooted in its context. We travel outside Cardiff to the countryside and to the coast, and the different locations play critical roles in the story. The book is atmospheric without drawing attention to itself. The writing is still a bit rough in patches, but it suits Jason and several other characters’ relatively rough backgrounds and even Amy’s lack of social acumen.

There are no easy fixes for the difficulties the characters face. Amy is still agoraphobic, and although she takes a big step forward, there’s no guarantee she won’t retreat again. Jason’s past continues to shape his present and future despite his efforts to overcome the hurdles it creates. Code Runner provides the next step in the classic path that a good mystery series takes, and my biggest regret when I finished was that I don’t know when the next installment is due. At this point Amy, Jason, Cerys, Bryn, and Owen feel pretty real to me and I want to spend more time with them. Grade: B+

P.S. I don’t usually pay attention to covers, but wow, did you ever win the lottery on yours. I’d buy print copies just to be able to display them.

 

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