Review of Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic

April 10, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic by David J. SchwartzGooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib
By David J. Schwartz; Narrated by Janina Edwards
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 21 October 2013[UNABRIDGED] – 12 hours, 11 minutes

Themes: / urban fantasy / mystery / community college / magic / secret agents /

Publisher summary:

Meet the newest professor at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, Joy Wilkins. She may suffer from face blindness, but Joy can still recognize people by reading their auras — a skill that comes in particularly handy for her real work as an undercover agent with the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs. Her mission: to discover the source of weaponized demons being trafficked through the quaint school on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and to locate her predecessor, the school’s missing History of Magic professor. But just as her investigation gets under way, the brutal murder of Joy’s handler — and mentor — sets her on the trail of a secret society known as the Thirteenth Rib. With the clock ticking down to the next attack, Joy will have to find new allies and uncover ancient secrets if she’s going to have any chance of defeating a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the entire world.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib (hereafter referred to as Gooseberry Bluff ) is a book that had a lot of good ideas, but suffered a bit on execution. I was originally attracted to it because it seemed like a cross of modern urban fantasy with mystery–and in many respects, it was just that. The issues I had with it are more about how it wrapped up the various plot lines, and what was left to the imagination.

The premise is simple: Joy Wilkins is the new professor of history at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic (GBCCoM), but she’s also an undercover agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA). Joy’s job as an agent is made somewhat more difficult by the fact that she has face blindness; luckily, she is very good at reading auras, so her disability isn’t the end of the world. Very few people (relatively speaking) are good at reading auras. She is assigned to GBCCoM ostensibly to investigate the disappearance of the previous history professor, Prof. Drake, and to investigate the source of demon trafficking within the school. There are some other side stories in the book, and some character- and world-development that is done through the course of the narrative.

The characters are rather interesting and varied. Schwartz emphasized diversity in his characters, something relatively few authors seem to feel comfortable with, and that’s to his credit. The characters–whether they’re the narrator (Joy, the face-blind African American woman who’s also an agent in the FBMA), Andy (the transgender assistant who is biologically a male but self-identifies and dresses as a female and prefers to be referred to with feminine pronouns), the gay president of the college, the Indian FBMA case handler, or the (apparently stereotypical white male) FBMA case handler, to name a few–are all believable and deeply developed. On the one hand, it felt like Schwartz may have been trying “too hard” to be SO DIVERSE but on the other, the diversity and the character traits opened up by this diversity were well-handled; rarely did it seem like a character was diverse just to be diverse.

The world didn’t need much development in general, given that the book takes place in modern-day “Gooseberry Bluff, MN” (a city on the St. Croix river). The rules for the various types of magic weren’t particularly well-defined, but this book wasn’t as much about the magic as it was about the mystery, so that can be forgiven. When needed, such as when explaining the demon-summoning, the rules were at least internally consistent.

The biggest issue I had with the book is that it had a lot of plot lines, and they weren’t all wrapped up particularly well. In addition, perhaps because of all the parallel plot points, the wrap-up to the main story line felt rushed. Some of the plot lines were:
-The main plot line, Joy trying to solve the disappearance of her predecessor at the school and the demon-trafficking
-Related sub-plots of assassination attempts and trying to determine why Joy’s FBMA case manager is trying to keep her off the job
-The president of GBCCoM’s time away from the school
-A romantic relationship between two other professors at the school
-A student (Margaret) who is very strong, magically-speaking, but very novice
-Another professor at the GBCCoM trying to bring back her sister’s soul

In the end, the main plot line was wrapped up but the sub-plots weren’t particularly discussed. I was left thinking that the case manager is just a jerk (he was certainly painted that way), but a lot of time was devoted to him. The main plot line was wrapped up, though with a lot of things falling into place “at the right moment” or Joy “figuring it out” suddenly at the end. The other plot lines were not specifically wrapped up–in fact, one of them was left wide open (the last one I listed). It seems like Schwartz spent so much time doing the world-building, that by the time he needed to wrap up the story, it felt rushed. I wasn’t exactly sure how Joy connected the dots or what exactly happened.

The narration by Janina Edwards was pretty good. There were a few times when I had to back up my recording and re-listen to a few sentences, but I think that was more attributed to awkward phrasing or unusual words than the actual narration. When I closed my eyes, I could see a confident African American woman as Joy–I actually had the picture of my 7th grade reading teacher in my head (thank you, Mrs. Barrett!). If you’re one who likes to listen at greater than normal speed (1.25x, 1.5x, 2x), you might have a hard time–I did. But the book was short enough that I didn’t mind listening at 1 or 1.25x speed.

It will be interesting to see what (if anything) else Schwartz does with this world. I would like to know how some of the other plot lines wrap up, and why Margaret seemed so “important” in this book. I would hope, though, that in future books, less time is spent on world-building and more time is spent telling the story evenly, so that it doesn’t need to end up rushed as this one did at the end.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

April 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Murder of Crows by Anne BishopMurder of Crows (The Others #2)
By Anne Bishop; Narrated by Alexandra Harris
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Publication date: 4 March 2014
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hrs and 13 mins

Themes: / urban fantasy / blood prophet / feathers / shape-shifting /

Publisher summary:

After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more. 

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murders of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders whether their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or of a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

The book was wonderful. I loved how the story expanded beyond Meg, Simon and the Courtyard. In this story we get to see a lot more of the world and are introduced to a plethora of new characters. The only sad thing about the expansion of the new world is I miss getting to read more about some of the characters we met in the last book like Jake and Winter. The plot for this story is fairly straight forward so with all the new introductions and new places it was easy for me to keep track. While the story expanded it did so by going deeper into the politics and relationships between humans and the others.

My favorite thing about Anne Bishop’s writing is her focus on relationships. It is fascinating to watch Meg and Simon figure out how to be friends. Simon is a wolf and he is unsure how long he wants to hold his human skin, he also worries that being human so much is changing him. Meanwhile Meg is a blood prophet who has never been able to make choices and with so much turmoil happening her need to cut is greater than ever not to mention she is finding it a challenge to not accidentally break her skin. Likewise there is the relationship between Simon and Monty, Monty struggles to understand the terra indigene’s outlook on things without alienating the humans. Then Monty has his own issues with his daughter which I hope gets resolved because it just breaks my heart. While I could go on and on the point here is how these character’s interact with each other just makes the story even better.

The narrator for the book was Alexandra Harris. She has quite the smooth voice and while I enjoyed listening to her narrate and perform the voices of female characters, I did not care for her work as voicing the male characters. She also read a bit slower than I would have liked and so I solved that by speeding it up on my ipod. In a perfect world she would be partnered with someone like James Marsters and for me this would have been the perfect audio book.

Posted by Dawn V.

Review of Flesh Circus by Lilith Saintcrow

February 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Flesh Circus by Lilith SaintcrowFlesh Circus (Jill Kismet #4)
By Lilith Saintcrow; Performed by Joyce Bean
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 7 discs; 9 hours

Themes: / circus / urban fantasy / voodoo / zombies / magic /

Publisher summary:

When circus performers start dying grotesquely, Jill Kismet has to find out why, or the entire city will become a carnival of horror. She also has to play the resident hellbreed power against the Cirque to keep them in line, and find out why ordinary people are needing exorcisms. And then there’s the murdered voodoo practitioners, and the zombies. Jill Kismet is about to find out that some games are played for keeps.

The descriptions in Flesh Circus were memorable and fun, and touched on all the senses. Characterizations really told a lot about each individual and gave information about both them and the narrator. She was really snarky, selling toughness without overdoing it. There was some repetition in the action scenes, with guns and bones popping frequently. The author employs a liberal use of adverbs, and the plot relies heavily on elements that must have been established in earlier books. I could still follow along, though. The magical details were the best part.

Joyce Bean as narrator was great. She had a husky, slightly rough voice with an understated delivery that let the words really shine. Her characterization of side characters was great, making it easy to keep track of who was speaking.

Posted by Sarah R.

Review of Deadly Sting by Jennifer Estep

January 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review
Deadly StingDeadly Sting (Elemental Assassin #8)
By Jennifer Estep, Read by Lauren Fortgang
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 11 hours

Themes: / urban fantasy / assassin / museums / magic /

Publisher summary:

Red is definitely my color. Good thing, because in my line of work, I end up wearing it a lot. Most people shy away from blood, but for an assassin like me — Gin Blanco, aka the Spider — it’s just part of the job. Still, it would be nice to get a night off, especially when I’m attending the biggest gala event of the summer at Briartop, Ashland’s fanciest art museum. But it’s just not meant to be. For this exhibition of my late nemesis’s priceless possessions is not only the place to be seen, but the place to be robbed and taken hostage at gunpoint as well. No sooner did I get my champagne than a bunch of the unluckiest thieves ever burst into the museum and started looting the place. Unlucky why? Because I brought along a couple of knives in addition to my killer dress. Add these to my Ice and Stone magic, and nothing makes me happier than showing the bad guys why red really is my color.

Our story starts out with Gin moping …she misses Owen and while she is trying to hide it. Her friends and family can feel her despair. Finn tries to shake things out a bit by manipulating her into attending an event where all of Mab Monroe’s treasures are being showcased…which is awesome because Gin has to get a dress! Finn and Eva also have an ulterior motive of getting Gin and Owen to talk.  Which does not go so well since Owen has a date and then there is a heist by a group of giants. The giants are banding together because they are sick of being body guards and being taken for granted so they are taking their place in the criminal empire…or so it would seem.

As I read this book I kept thinking of the movie Die Hard and in the end it works out, actually I think it more than worked out the book is a lot more fun than some of the others. I listened to it on audio and as always the narrator Lauren Fortgang does a great job bringing the story to life. It is funny I am not sure if they switched narrators that I would continue with the story. Anyway back to the book the story is very succinct and the plot has a good solid pace. This book could have easily been a novella but the plot was strong enough to keep me entertained throughout the entire book. This time around Gin actually felt more like an assassin, even though she was still bumbling around it made much more sense.  It was also nice to see Gin getting mixed up in something where it was not about someone trying to kill her for revenge or an elemental trying to collect power. While she does not get any new powers in this book she seemed to use her stone and ice magic with a lot more finesse. It was also wonderful to see how she choose to deal with Jonah he has been a burr on her butt for a long time.

While I enjoyed the plot of this story I did not care for the lack of growth in the characters. At the end of Widow’s Web one could understand how and why Owen was mixed up and confused. After certain events in this book he should have been crystal clear and even at the end there was a lack of resolution. Add to that Gin still has a need to shoulder everything emotional on her own shoulders almost to the point where it does not make sense. Speaking of things that don’t make sense is Gin can freeze and object and make it animate to a degree so why can’t she just freeze people? The water villain in the last story did it was water so why not ice??

While the lack of character growth was disappointing I did enjoy the overall story. It looks like we have a new nemesis on the scene bringing about a new story arch which could be interesting.

Posted by Dawn V.

Review of Cast in Shadow by Michelle Sagara

December 27, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Cast in ShadowCast in Shadow (The Chronicles of Elantra #1)
By Michelle Sagara; Performed by Khristine Hvam
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: November 2011 (Audible)
[UNABRIDGED] – 14.5 hours

Themes: / urban fantasy / orphans / crime /

Seven years ago Kaylin was an orphan living in the fief of Nightshade but live was very unsafe because something was killing children and after their death the children were found with marks tattooed on their skin – at the same time these odd marks began to appear on Kaylin’s arms. Eventually Kaylin flees to the Hawk fief and begins life anew. For the most part she is successful but the murder of children has begun again in Nightshade and this time Kaylin is an officer and Hawklord has called her into investigate. Kaylin is a natural choice as she survived the killings the first time and knows the street of Nightshade well. But the Hawklord will not send her in alone instead he will send her with a Dragon and her childhood friend/enemy Severn and now Kaylin must confront her past.

I started this book on audio and at first I thought I was not paying enough attention because I had no idea who these races of people are and I did not understand the history of the Barrani nor the Leontines. After starting over a few times I decided to borrow the book from the library to catch up and you know turns out the information was never there. Listening to this book was a challenge, the narrator does a nice job keeping the voices somewhat distinct but the vagueness of the writing made it difficult to follow along. For example there is a lot about Kaylin trying to kill Severn but I was more than halfway in before I found out why then when we get the why behind why she wants to kill him and even then it does not fully make sense why she would run and not get understanding or ask questions. Then there are other descriptions that I did not understand for example there is a lot of commentary about the Leontines paws being moist or dry but I know nothing about cats is this supposed to be good or bad?? The author tells this story from Kaylin’s POV and unfortunately she is rather ignorant in everything. I guess the intent would be for us to learn along with her and while that has the potential to work in many series it only adds to the confusion in this one.

The story was not all bad, I found myself interested in the world and the side characters – like the Fifelord of Nightshade and Severn. I also enjoyed the narrator once I gave up trying to understand and just went with the flow. I will also say the author tried the trick of leaving out details so your imagination can take over and while I appreciate this we need a bit more detail to have something to fill in. By the time I got to the last few hours of the tape I just wanted it over and while I am curious to see what happens with the Fifelord and Severn next time I will read the book and it will be a while before I get around to it.

Posted by Dawn V.

Review of Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep

December 25, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Widow's WebWidow’s Web (Elemental Assassin #7)
By Jennifer Estep; Performed by Lauren Fortgang
Publisher: Brilliance Audio; Audible 2012
[UNABRIDGED] – 9 discs; 10 hours, 43 minutes

Themes: / urban fantasy / assassin / southern / casinos / romance /

Publisher summary:

I used to murder people for money, but lately it’s become more of a survival technique. Once an assassin, always an assassin. So much for being plain old Gin Blanco. With every lowlife in Ashland gunning for me, I don’t need another problem, but a new one has come to town anyway. Salina might seem like a sweet Southern belle, but she’s really a dangerous enemy whose water elemental magic can go head-to-head with my own Ice and Stone power. Salina also has an intimate history with my lover, Owen Grayson, and now that she’s back, she thinks he’s hers for the taking. Salina’s playing a mysterious game that involves a shady local casino owner with a surprising connection to Owen. But they call me the Spider for a reason. I’m going to untangle her deadly scheme, even if it leaves my love affair hanging by a thread.

In this episode of Gin Blanco’s life, things are going well since her return to Ashland. Then one night after an especially nice dinner Owen and Gin run into Selena, Owen’s ex that he may or may not have gotten over. Selena is more than what meets the eye – so Gin is worried about her relationship with Owen, we have a new character who maybe setting the spider up or maybe he is a friend and in the middle of everything Eva asks Gin to do something where the stakes are almost to high.

I seem to have a love hate relationship with this series. The issue I have in most of these books is Gin is like the worst assassin ever yet she seems to think she is the best. I just want her for once to be able to kill someone without getting her butt handed to her. When we left Gin last time she was emotionally strong and I loved it. In this book she is back to being whiny and insecure. The other challenge in this book was with Owen normally he is much more decisive but this time the rose colored glasses just felt like to much.

The best thing about this book is the introduction to a few new characters. I also loved the beginning and Gins planned attack it was nice to see her with a plan!! I am also enjoying the dream sequences that Gin seems to be having in the past few books, I wonder if she or we will figure out why all these dreams now and what they mean in total not just as lessons she needs to remember to deal with the situation at hand. I was also impressed with Eva, I have always liked her as a character so it is good to see her growing up – but um the romantic factor there is very very ICKY!!

I listened to this version on audio and the reader is the lovely Lauren Fortgang. I really enjoy the voices she gives to the characters it is like the perfect amount of southern charm.

Posted by Dawn V.

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