Book Review: No Comfort for the Lost

No Comfort for the Lost (A Mystery of Old San Francisco), Nancy Herriman (Obsidian, August, 2015)

Picture of streetcar pulled by a horse; a woman in 19th century near hoop skirt, and a gas lamp

Cover designed by Daniela Medina; Cover art by Juliana Kolesova

Book one of the in the Mystery of Old San Francisco series, 360 pp. At the time of this review (4/10/17), it holds a 4.6-star review on Barnes & Noble.

Historical Fiction, Mystery

Book Obtained By: Purchased at Westerville Public Library’s Author Fair, 2016

My Chocolate Rating on Scale of 5: 3.5 Reese’s Peanut-Butter Eggs, Hearts, or Trees

From the jacket

“In this atmospheric historical mystery series debut, a courageous nurse and a war-scarred police detective in 1860s San Francisco champion the downtrodden and fight for injustice….

“After serving as a nurse in the Crimea, British-born Celia Davies left her privileged family for an impulsive marriage to a handsome Irishman. Patrick brough her to San Francisco’s bustling shores, but then disappeared and is now presumed dead. Determined to carry on, Celia partnered with her half-Chinese cousin, Barbara, and her opinionated housekeeper, Addie, to open a free medical clinic for women who have nowhere else to turn. But Celia’s carefully constructed peace crumbles when one of her Chinese patients is found brutally murdered…and Celia’s hotheaded brother-in-law stands accused of the crime.

“A veteran of America’s Civil War, Detective Nicholas Greaves is intent on discovering the killer of the girl, whose ethnicity and gender render her as powerless in death as they did in life. Nick’s efforts are complicated by Celia, who has a knack for walking into dangerous situations that might lead to answers…or get them both killed. For as their inquiries take the from Chinatown’s squalid back alleys, to the Barbary Coast’s violent shipping docks, and to the city’s gilded parlors, Celia and Nick begin to suspect that someone very close to them holds the key to a murderous conspiracy….”

Review

No Comfort for the Lost (Obsidian, August, 2015) is book 1 of Nancy Herriman’s Mysteries of Old San Francisco.

Herriman tells this tale in third person, alternating POVS between detective Nick and nurse Celia, typically several shifts per chapter as Herriman tells the story in parallel—since Celia and Nick are both invested in unraveling the truth of the murder. Celia’s motivation stems from her work with the Chinese prostitutes; Nick’s, as he atones for a past loss—even though his captain makes no bones about the low worth of the Chinese, with a prostitute absolutely at the bottom of the barrel. Herriman paints the racial tension throughout the book, bringing it close to home with Celia’s half-Chinese younger cousin for whom she is the Custodian. How eerily familiar this tension became when I considered Donald Trump’s harsh language during the campaign, and after, against Mexicans and Muslims. Language always matters. Hats off to Herriman for making me feel anxious for the Chinese laborers and prostitutes, and anyone (like Nick and Celia) who tried to help them. That pervasive atmosphere added to the tension throughout.

Rich details of the era build the setting, from the Ladies Society of Christian Aid to the Anti-Coolie Association; from the saloons and brothels to medicines like “laudanum” and visits to the local apothecary or the astrologer and descriptions of outfits, like when Celia wears “her garibaldi and Holland skirt… (p. 141). Dialogue, too, hearkened back to an earlier era enough to lock me into an 1860’s town, such as “Change the dressing every day. … This is quinine. She must be given a grain every three to four hours.” (p. 5). I had no doubts that the author had read clips from San Francisco history, whether it was books or old newspapers.

For a mystery, Herriman wove in plenty of red-herrings, leaving me changing my mind every other chapter as to who committed the murder.  Mixed in among this quest to solve the mystery, the everyday life, making me a part of Celia’s small family. From house-keeper Addie to orphan Owen, to Celia working with patients, to Celia trying to also solve the mystery of whether her husband has abandoned her, or whether he’s dead, the secondary cast round out that slice of life.

Part of the reason I’ve likely given this a “3” rating is that I can’t say I’ve read historical fiction since reading works authored in the late 1800s; my last was more an alternative historical fiction with a paranormal element (Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers). Another is the number of times the third person pushed me out, what are called filtering words. Take these sentences (bold my own): “The wound began to bleed again, which she took as a good sign.”  Then, a few paragraphs later, “Celia stared at the empty doorway, saw a drunk laborer shuffle past and down the hallway, heard the call of prostitutes.” (page 5) In a tight third-person, the first sentence shortens to “The wound began to bleed again, a good sign.” The second, “A drunk laborer shuffled past the empty doorway. Down the hallway, prostitutes called out promises.”

A teacher could easily assign this book as part of a historical unit–no sex (outside of the line I quoted above, the only other reference is that there are prostitutes), violence in limited doses (and nothing gratuitous), and the first blush of romance between Celia and Nick makes me say this is historical mystery, not historical romance. References to drugs, from the ones apothecaries used to opium, would help students frame a dialogue about drugs of the past and drug issues in our day.

A woman wearing a cape and a full skirt looks out at the hills

Book Cover of the second book in the “A Mystery of Old San Francisco” series

If historical mysteries are your thing, why not take a look? Then, if you enjoy this book, you might like Herriman’s next book in the series, No Pity for the Dead.

Learn more about Nancy Herriman:

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Saveet: As the Goddess Wills It

Welcome to another Saveet Saturday. How have two months elapsed since my last one? Maybe because I haven’t done as much yardwork, and that’s when Saveet loves to visit.

Today we’re picking up where the last Saveet freewriting left off.

Freewriting, since I haven’t mentioned it, is a writer’s technique where there are no “takebacks” or “let’s pause and fix this” moments (though I will fix a typo as soon as my fingers make it and my eyes see it). It’s raw writing, meant to get you writing or get ideas out. In Saveet’s case, it’s an exercise in my learning what makes her tick and how big her story is. I admit, I did move one sentence before I’d gone too far, when I realized I wanted to take more time with a set of details.

When last we left Saveet, she stood her ground as an unfamiliar creature, nearly invisible even to her keen eyesight, approached. Saveet wavers in ringing an alarm bell when the creature pleads with her, a psychic “Wait.” Let’s see what happens next.

My heart hammers louder, the “lub” and “dub” in the same rhythm of the approaching creature. Her heartbeat, though I don’t know why. Perhaps because we know weakness is not a weakness. It is the greatest strength, to show another vulnerability. And this creature has done as much.

“What do you need?” I ask her.

Her “lub” and “dub” beat double-time.

The air disturbs before me, a rising storm of threat and terror and….

Rain but not rain splashes the ground before me, droplets as big as my hand.

Tears?

“If you crush me,” I say, “I cannot help you, and I will wait until my next rebirth to understand you.” If I’m not a ganoraad, the tiniest bug I’m destined to become if I cannot redeem my past failure in this life. Has the Goddess given me my chance, here, now, before the apocalypse hits?

The next drop pounds the top of my head, flattening my hair tight to my back. The liquid stings. I dive to the ground, roll, scraping myself against the rocks in my haste to let the ground suck this torment from me.

I crash into a rock that is not there, and the “dub” thunders through my body. Stone softens to leather, except the foot I cannot see steps on my face.

“Wait.” This time, it’s my wail, but the creature’s weight presses the sound back into me. No breath, no sound, no body part that answers my frantic thrashing.  A ganoraad I shall be, then….

Peace floods into me.

No, I have not earned peace. Pain, that’s what I have earned, but there’s none of that, either. The creature’s foot slides back and forth over me, a tickle, and the healing warmth of each “lub” and “dub.”

“I am Norneepashaforena,” the creature purrs through me. “I am mother to the race of shooriistas, the true shooriistas, beautiful and prideful and graceful. The ones you never see. They do not hunt you, as you think.”

Um…. “Then who does?”

“The harbingers who ghost them.”

“I do not understand,” I say.

Norneepashaforena’s sigh washes over me, and the weight lifts from my chest, my face, my legs. Sadness takes its place. Cold. Loneliness. My “lub” falters. My “dub follows suit.

Hers pounds in my ears, until my own heart responds. The vision slips in, Norneepashaforena’s will, or perhaps the Goddesses.

The first harbinger clawed from a crack in the world, after the storm destroyed all gods save our goddess. Norneepashaforena’s firstborn, done playing in the wild winds, landed beside the crack. The harbinger yowled, guttural anger, and slipped into the firstborn. It pushed the firstborn’s spirit into the corner. The shooriista craved meat. Our meat.

Another harbinger clawed free, and another. A wave of them invaded the firstborn, and she flew back to her siblings. They stood no match to the harbingers, one shooriista after another falling prey to the will of the harbingers.

Norneepashaforena’s grief washed through Neeshnaet, and the Goddess came. The devastation of the harbingers feeding bones scarring her land.

The Goddess followed the bones back to the crack. Spell after spell she hurled, until her voice failed her. At the last, she stretched her body over the crack, her feet on one side, her arms on the other, and stared down the void. “My world is not yours, dark brother,” she yelled into it. “Where strength fails me, weakness rescues.” She cried, from day unto night unto day. A year, she grieved for the wounds done to her favorite creatures, filling the crack until it could not bear her tears. The rift sealed.

And the River Anyaevermae fed our land.

Hmm, Saveet may not have a short story in her, but instead a novel!

If this is your first time reading about Saveet, and you want to back up to read from the start, hit my “Saveet” category.

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Book Review: Magic on the Storm

Magic on the Storm, Devon Monk (ROC, May 2010)

Cover of the book, Allie swinging a sword with lightning crackling around her

Cover by ROC, an imprint of New American Library

Book four of the Allie Beckstrom Chronicles, 344 pp. At the time of this review (4/3/17), it holds a 4.0-star review on Amazon.

Fantasy: Paranormal, Urban, and Paranormal Romance

Book Obtained By: Christmas Present

My Chocolate Rating: 4 Ghiradelli Salty Caramels (just shy of perfection)

From the jacket

“Magic stirred in me….I closed my eyes, wanting to lose myself to it. Wanting to use magic in every way I could. But that would be bad. I had enough magi inside me; I could burn down a city. And I didn’t want to do that….”

“Allison Beckstrom knows better than most that when magic’s involved, you always pay. Whether the price is migraines, amnesia, or muscle aches, she is committed to her work as a Hound, tracking illegal spells back to their casters. But her job is about to get much more dangerous.

“There’s a storm of apocalyptic force bearing down on Portland, and when it hits, all the magic in the area will turn unstable and destructive. To stop it from taking out the entire city, Allie and her lover, the mysterious Zayvion Jones, must work with the Authority—the enigmatic arbiters of all things magic—and make a stand against the magical wild storm that will obliterate all in its path.”

Review

Magic on the Storm (ROC, May 2010) is book 4 of Devon Monk’s urban fantasy series about Hound Allie Beckstrom. It picks up her story two months after the conclusion of book 3. Monk once more slips in a bunch of the necessary tidbits from book 3 to ground you where life is now in book 4. Sure, you could still jump into the series here, but this book so much springs from what happened in book 3, I’d recommend starting at book 1. Also, this book, while having a conclusion to the character arc warranting the definition of the book being done, still leaves you at a total crossroads because of another character. The ending of the book will clearly be the opening of book 5. ARGH! I’m never a fan when an author does that.

As Allie continues her training, still with the ghost remnants of her dead dad inhabiting her brain, she’s learning the depth of her power against the longtime members of the Authority. With her heritage, but her own resistance to authority, it’s only a matter of time before sparks fly—especially when some of the Authority love to tout, well, their authority!

Monk brings back the ruffian character Shamus, who appropriately goes by the nickname of Shame.  You can count on some great one-lines between Shame and Zay, even when the stake rise. Listen to this description:  “Shame did a fair job at that goth-rocker vibe. Black hair cut with the precision of dull garden shears shaded his eyes. Black T-shirt over a black long-sleeve shirt on top of black jeans, black boots. But behind all that black was a man who wasn’t as young as he looked.”

In the previous book, Monk abandoned one of the side effects to magic—that Allie would lose chunks of her memory. Given some of the tricks that the Authority pulled, this makes me continue to wonder if someone was causing that, and if so, to what end. I had hoped this book might explore that theme.  Nope, looks like we’ll have to dive deeper into the series to see if that story lines gets explained or abandoned, or if the side effect returns. Magic has rules, so I’m trusting Monk that one way or another, she’ll show me a pattern to the amnesia or she’ll explain why it happened and stopped happening or resumes happening.

The book zings along, a mix of action, adventure, Allie’s irreverent introspection and tell-it-like-she-sees it moxy, and sizzling scenes between her and Zayvion—sparring as part of her self-defense courses, getting to know each other, sex scenes, you name it. If you’re reading in public and might get in trouble (say, workplace policies), be prepared to put this book down if things turn remotely steamy, because you never know when Monk will send her characters deeper.

In this book, Monk explores more of what it is to be someone’s magical “soul complement,” a cool concept I enjoyed from the previous book. She explores what can happen when you’re a complement, because it’s typical of magic here—pros and cons together. Characters need to decide what they’ll risk versus what they could gain. Monk explores this theme in two other pairs of characters, giving a nice “big picture” view of why you might want to find that soul complement, and why you might run from it.

Another returning character I love, Stone, her gargoyle, makes a few appearances that, fun as they are, seem contrived because the purpose is to help Allie out of a bind. I’m torn about the effectiveness—I love that her sympathetic magic called the gargoyle to life in book 3; and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the creature is looking out for its “owner.” If you read Magic on the Storm, I’d be interested in how you view those rescues via Stone.

The end of the book, when the big storm hits, didn’t take me by surprise because Monk had been dropping clues about the storm’s magnitude and the positions of the Authority. But, during that scene, which lasted some thirty pages, too often Allie, as the point-of-view character, seemed to be narrating the action as if she were outside it.  I got mad at her, thinking, play an active part in this storm action. Plus, this scene pulled together the full cast of characters–around twenty who are named throughout the storm. It’s a tough road, I think when an author has several threads, and she’s both painting the scene through the first-person narration and the narrator should be kicking butt or getting her butt kicked—Allie does both with equal passion.

Monk weaves together sub-plots, so you’ll learn more about Allie’s method of helping out the Hounds she’s been tasked to help out. That’s never an easy challenge, giving Hounds’ solitary nature. Davy shadows Allie, whether she likes it or not, and that complicates the main story line nicely; as does the inclusion of pregnant Violet (Allie’s step-mother who’s about the same age as Allie) and those magical disks from the previous book that have the power to change magic as Seattle knows it.

I’m still hooked on this series, with at least four more queued up in the bookcase where my purchases and gifts hang out until I have time. If you’ve been hooked on urban fantasy, I hope you’ll give Devon Monk’s series about Allie Beckstrom a read.

Learn more about Devon Monk:

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