THE EDGE OF NORMAL, by Carla Norton

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The Edge of Normal
(Reeve LeClaire Series #1)
By Carla Norton
Minotaur Books – 30th September 2014
ISBN 9781250032775 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads


If I would have had the fortitude, I would have gone through all the pages of Norton’s debut thriller in one night’s sitting. Alas, sleep beckoned and I had to settle for devouring it in thirds. The Edge of Normal is a remarkably tense novel with excellent pacing, a disturbingly twisted predator threat, and an inspiring formal victim protagonist. Because of its subject matter a warning of trigger factors for potential readers is needed up front. In Norton’s own words:
“The main character’s scars speak to what she has suffered, but the abuse is never described in detail. There are brief scenes of girls being held captive, but without anyone else in the room. Most of the suspense comes from the dread of what might happen next, and what the criminal plans to do. Several reviews have mentioned that I’ve handled a difficult subject without sensationalism.”
— Carla Norton in response to a question posted on Goodreads
The novel features a sexual predator who kidnaps and holds young girls captive for his own deviant desires. Diabolically this very real horror exists to inspire the plot of the novel, but it is important to reaffirm here that Norton handles the horrors with a commendable balance of honesty without sensationalism or exploitation. At heart the novel comes down to more than the evil deeds. Its plot is ultimately concerned not with who is committing the deeds, but to how they can be stopped. And the predominant theme focuses on the possibility of recovery and healing.
Reeve LeClaire is a young woman in her twenties who is trying to adapt to a life of normalcy ten years following her fortunate escape from a four-year captivity by a sexual predator who kidnapped her. With the support of her family and the capable professional care of psychiatrist Dr. Lerner, Reeve has slowly made significant steps of recovery, despite still bearing significant scars both physical and mental. Reeve now answers a call from Dr. Lerner to take a further step in her healing. The parents of a young girl named Tilly who has just been saved from a captivity resembling Reeve’s have asked for Reeve to help mentor and guide Tilly through the jarring first days of her restored freedom, her presumed safety back at home.
Though Tilly is rescued from captivity and a confessing suspect has been captured, authorities are still concerned about a pair of girls still missing under similar circumstances, and hope that Tilly will open up to Reeve in shedding light on the remaining mystery. Reeve soon discovers that the captured abductor of Tilly merely acted under the control of someone else, someone far more powerful and devious who continues to exert powerful control over Tilly, a monstrous man who represents a threat to Tilly’s entire family and now to Reeve herself.
Norton is previously known for her works in the true crime genre of nonfiction, accounts of actual events that correspond to this fictional novel. Her subject familiarity is evident in how authentic the plot and characters of The Edge of Normal come across. Reeve’s building involvement in a criminal investigation is handled reasonably and the resolution of events through a combination of skill, persistence, and luck adds to realism overall. The villains by the nature of their crimes are very difficult to sympathize with, particularly the man in control, Duke. Yet Norton manages to give humanizing, sympathetic aspects to the other criminals, despite their monstrosity. By far Reeve is the most impressive, a complex character of both weaknesses and strengths, but certainly of resolve.
The ability of Duke to control his victims rests on his carefully structured double life and system of predatory surveillance. He has created a highly structured life for the goal of preying on others. Norton shows this in contrast to the carefully structured life of Reeve who is using the order instead to overcome her victimhood and to aid others. What is really interesting in this thriller is that a large drive in the plot involves a reversal of control, as the carefully laid plans and systems set in place by Duke are overcome and overwhelmed by the intelligence and commitment to healing (Tilly’s) that Reeve holds. Duke’s control (including of self) begins to slip and the erraticism of his psychology begins to manifest just as the erratic uncertain psychology of Reeve begins to find stability, despite the resurfacing of painful memories and monsters from her past.
The strengths of The Edge of Normal lie not just in what the novel provides with its characters, pacing, and page-turning suspense, but also in what Norton wisely chooses not to do. The critical avoidance of exploitation I already mentioned. Norton also allows Reeve to stand on her own. There are people of support and inspiration in her life, including men. Yet, at no point are these male figures the source of her rescue or salvation. Given her abusive past, Reeve understandably finds physical touch, romantic relationships – indeed any deep relationship – difficult. Her character grows in this novel, but Norton doesn’t absurdly rush Reeve ahead in anything. Reeve develops the start of a close relationship with a young male police officer in this novel – merely in that they talk honestly, a bit deeply, and there is an obvious attraction on the part of the man. But it thankfully stays at this level. There are hints to how Reeve may develop for future novels, but it is clear that much growth is still possible to provide a satisfying series.
The giveaway from Goodreads that provided me a copy of this novel from the author seems organized to coincide with the upcoming release of the second Reeve LeClaire novel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (entitled Hunted in the UK). I am hopefully getting a copy of that soon, so look for a review on that coming. Another giveaway for The Edge of Normal is now running on Goodreads, so go there to sign up if you haven’t yet read this first novel and are interested.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the author via the Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

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CUCKOO SONG, by Frances Hardinge

My review of Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge’s new dark fantasy novel for middle-grade readers is up at Skiffy and Fanty:

cuckoosong

“It is England during the reign of King George V. The Machine Age is at its peak, and human society is in flux, becoming increasingly urbanized, secular. The Great War has come to a close, but the traumatic devastation it has wrought echoes on in family’s lives. Nations struggle to recover and political/economic turmoil presages greater conflicts and changes to come. What the future holds is not only a concern for humanity, but also for The Besiders, a race that has lived alongside us in the margins, driven further into the isolated shadows as human civilization spreads….”

Read the full review piece here!

CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

TRUTH OR DARE?, Edited by Max Booth III

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Truth or Dare?
Edited By Max Booth III
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing – 31st October 2015
ISBN 9780986059452  – 234 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Shackled to the Shadows”, by Richard Thomas
“An Unpleasant Truth about Death”, by Eric J. Guignard
“Mantid”, by Kenneth W. Cain
“A Ribbon, a Rover”, by Jessica McHugh
“Iz”, by Eli Wilde
“Laal Andhi”, by Usman T. Malik
“The Bone Witch”, by Chantal Noordeloos
“The Pole”, by William Meikle
“Lucy’s Arrow”, by Jay Wilburn
“Change”, by Peter & Shannon Giglio
“Marco Polo”, by James Chambers
“The Dog Metaphor”, by Vincenzo Bilof
“The Whited Sepulchre”, by Nik Korpon
“Rattlebone Express”, by Sanford Allen
“The Shadow Life of Suburbia”, by T. Fox Dunham
“The Other Bonfire”, by Jeremy C. Shipp
“Oh Fuck, it’s the Cops”, by Joe McKinney

        –

I wish I would’ve had copy of this back around the time it was initially released, because it would be the perfect thing to read through the nights around Halloween. The short stories of this themed horror collection Truth or Dare of course share a framework around the party game. But they also share a common universe in setting and characters, the high school students of Greene Point High in Ohio who gather around a bonfire on Halloween night to reveal untold tales or meet the twisted challenges of peers.
While the shared aspect works fine as a setup, the collection doesn’t really hold up to many strong linkages between stories, and it is hard to envision how the events of all the stories could possibly all have occurred during this one supposed night. Yet, this aspect is something that can just be basically ignored, and each of the stories work fine with separate consideration as part of a shared theme collection rather than a shared universe narrative as well.
The stories reminded me of the quality and breadth that readers could expect from typical horror short fiction markets, including Nightmare Magazine, which I’m most familiar with, and the collection includes well-established authors and new-comers alike. A few of the stories didn’t impress me much, but on the whole the collection kept me entertained and provided the slight chills that scary stories and horror provide.
Truth or Dare opens with Thomas’ “Shackled to the Shadows”, which does a good job at setting the overall tone, first person narration, and a general structure shared by many of the loosely connected stories. With this story one already gets a sense that there are many levels of horror surrounding this high school game: the pains of being an outsider within the harsh realms of teenage existence, the monstrosity that people can manifest and the hatred it can in turn engender from victims. Beyond the internal viciousness of the characters there is also the impression of external malevolence, supernatural and ancient. In this opening story and beyond the reader sees that there is the horror of the story itself, but like all good campfire tales they conclude with hints of an even greater horror awakened, to come.
After the opening story heavy on tone, Guignard’s “An Unpleasant Truth about Death” relates an interesting plot about a near (or perhaps actual) death experience that highlights the dangers of intense curiosity and touches upon the power that games like Truth or Dare have, a superstitious hold of rules that one doesn’t take seriously on the level of rationality, but breeds deep fear in the soul upon transgression.
Though entertaining, Guignard’s story (or the one related by the character at least) has the feeling of being contrived – to have that creepy effect on the reader (or the fictional audience in the story). This isn’t a bad thing, I think it’s partially something integral to these kinds of stories, and it reminded me somewhat of the way classic creepy folklore goes, having an emotional effect but then triggering questions about how some plot detail could really happen – or why. This kind of effect casts doubt on whether the scary story is true, giving the audience a rational out to discount danger and allay fear. But what if it did happen?
Perhaps you can recall Schwartz’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections? Many of the stories in Truth or Dare reminded me of that style, tone, and plotting, but for an adult audience. Jessica McHugh’s “A Ribbon, Rover” is a great example of that, with a compelling plot that seems inventive yet also something born of ageless tales, mirroring the character of the story itself. I’ve read one novel of McHugh’s prior, but this is closer to actual classic horror and I look forward to reading more in that vein from her lovely mind. “The Bone Witch” and “Rattlebone Express” are two others that recalled those feelings of fairy tale and folklore in excellent modern fashion.
“The Bone Witch” also had slight tones of humor in it, despite a rather horrific situation and outcome. “Change” later in the collection from the Giglios also has this certain lightness, which provides some nice variety amid the more darkly emotional stories or the creature horrors of stories like “Mantid” and McKinney’s closing piece.
A few stories also delve into deeper waters of real horror, or in the case of “Iz” tackle the general issue of what makes a monster, what they do both to threaten society or perhaps provide for society. “The Pole” almost literally brings up Nazi skeletons in the closet and “Marco Polo” tackles the very real horrors of abuse. Malik provides a story (Laal Andhi, or Crimson Storm) of horrors from Pakistan, linking uncanny events with the real violence of terrorism, where macabre events from childhood end up imprinting damage on a young boy leading him to senseless and hopeless conflagration in the future.
A satisfying collection that would particularly fit reading in situations (beyond Halloween time) like a summer camping trip, Truth or Dare features a really good idea with the game as a theme for the horror genre. Even if Booth’s collection fails to make a cohesive narrative taken all together, it succeeds well in providing a range of tales that horror fans would enjoy and perhaps some new authors to discover.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A QUILL LADDER by Jennifer Ellis (Review & Interview on Skiffy & Fanty)

My review of A Quill Laddder, the second book in Jennifer Ellis’ Derivatives of Displacement SciFi/Fantasy series for middle-grade readers is up at Skiffy and Fanty:

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“…The Derivatives of Displacement begins primarily through the point of view of fourteen-year-old Abbey Sinclair, a budding scientist with a love of physics and puzzles. Practical and analytic, Abbey tries to view the world with a calm reason, but she remains filled with a childlike wonder and imagination that compels her to consider a world beyond her previous understanding. Her boundaries between openness, scepticism, and disbelief become blurred when her older brother discovers a strange collection of stones that allow them, along with Abbey’s twin brother, to travel into another world that appears to be a part of their future…”

Read the full review piece here, and also check out the accompanying interview I did with Ellis on the book, the series, on writing YA/middle-grade novels, on being an indie author, and more!

THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR, VOLUME 9


22609311The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
(Volume 9)
Edited By Jonathan Strahan
Solaris – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781781083093  – 624 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Slipping”, by Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014)
“Moriabe’s Children”, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Monstrous Affections)
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, by Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
“The Lady and the Fox”, by Kelly Link (My True Love Gave to Me)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”, by Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“The LONG HAUL, from the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”, by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, Nov 2014)
“Tough Times All Over”, by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com, 28th May 2014)
“Cold Wind”, by Nicola Griffith (Tor.com, 16th Apr 2014)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8), by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #100, May 2014)
“Shadow Flock”, by Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”, by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014)
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House #61)
“Shay Corsham Worsted”, by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
“Kheldyu”, by Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Caligo Lane”, by Ellen Klages (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“The Devil in America”, by Kai Ashanti Wilson (Tor.com 2nd Apr 2014)
“Tawny Petticoats”, by Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Fifth Dragon”, by Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“The Truth About Owls”, by Amal El-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope)
“Four Days of Christmas”, by Tim Maughan (Terraform, Dec 2014)
“Covenant”, by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future)
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”, by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, Jul 2014)
“Collateral”, by Peter Watts (Upgraded)
“The Scrivener”, by Eleanor Arnason (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Someday”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apr/May 2014)
“Amicae Aeternum”, by Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)

Ninth in Strahan’s series of yearly collections, this is the first one I’ve read and it’s now a series I’ll be striving to fit into the reading list for years to come. It tends to favor the longer length of novella over shorter works, a factor that I’d a priori consider a major strike against. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, but there are certainly cases where they work exceptionally well for my taste. Most of the ones in this anthology do just that. As I write the paragraphs that follow I realize that a lot of the stories also tend towards the darker side, particularly the fantasy. I tend to like that style/ambience in stories, but obviously some readers may shy away from it.
The six stories that volume 9 begins with are all superb, representative of the quality and variety to come. I had already enjoyed both Ken Liu’s story and an earlier print (original?) of Holly Black’s fun space adventure with a compelling pair of characters (one human and one alien) and the interesting themes of monstrosity and the discoveries during coming-of-age. Kelly Link’s beautiful story is part urban fantasy and part fairy tale on family and friends set at Christmas. Similarly, Bacigalupi’s story is a fantasy hailing from the same original themed collection, but this one (unlike Link’s) is full of a darkness, a broken world, that I’d expect from him. Used to the SF stories I’ve normally seen from him though, this was a nice change done just as well. (I really need to read Monstrous Affections it seems). I’d already also read the latter story by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House that was reprint in Monstrous Affections too, and it is equally superb, though grounded in realism.
I have MITs Technology Review fiction issue on my shelf to read, and experiencing Beukes’ story from it in Strahan’s anthology makes me more eager to get to it. I’d only read Beukes’ The Shining Girls prior (which I found over-rated, but okay). The hard sci fi from her in this story is superb, featuring competitive sports and artificial enhancements taken to the next level. The tech is interesting here, but the humanity and depth of her protagonist is even more astounding.
Among those opening six, Usman T. Malik is yet another that blew me away with its effective treatment of terrorism and violence from a large scale focused down to the personal human level. This one just won a Stoker Award, and understandably, it is perhaps more horror than SF – and I recognize Malik mostly from appearances in Nightmare Magazine. Malik has another really powerful story in the themed collection Truth or Dare, that I’m reviewing next up. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, try either of these recent reprints. A latter story by Nix previously read in Fearful Symmetries also is truly horror in genre, though also a great story. I remember it vaguely from reading prior, but I think I enjoyed it this second time round even more.
The vague disbelief that I was so thoroughly enjoying these relatively long stories without growing restless or annoyed that I couldn’t finish in a bus ride finally broke with the seventh story, Abercrombie’s adventure from the Rogues collection. I have no idea if this is the case, but it felt as though I was supposed to already know these characters from somewhere, and I found it difficult to get into. Ultimately the story just kept going and I was long past caring. Swanwick’s story later from the same collection had the same effect. Egan’s also felt as though it was just a part of something larger, not a tale of its own.
Valentine and Griffith have a pair of stories that have a sort of ephemeral fantasies that have a beauty in the language but a strong tinge of darkness in their plots and ambience. Fitting in to this kind of story, Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is one of my favorites from this anthology. She does an absolutely beautiful job relating the life of her protagonist with interludes about the biology/behavior of owls, with mythology, and with language. I read this one right before going to sleep one night and it made a fantastic bed time story.
Lastly, there were a few cases that surprised me, both negatively and positively. (Abercrombie was kind of one too given that I loved the only other thing of his I’ve read: Half a King.) First, the story by Wilson is on an important and relevant theme of racial issues, explored partially through a fantastic lens. I expected to adore it and be moved. Instead I found the structure and length to be an impediment. Second, Ellen Klages is represented with two stories here, I found this surprising, inexplicable. One would have sufficed and given room for something else. I didn’t find either bad, but neither impressed me to understand why both were here. Third, I really enjoyed Schroeder’s SF adventure. I haven’t liked a lot of his stuff in the past in Analog, but this is probably because they were mostly serials. Here it felt just right, and his strength in telling a good story with hard SF elements and a bit of optimism fit perfectly amid the other types of stories in the collection.
Any serious fan of SF/Fantasy should find things of joy here, and readers who don’t normally read the genre may find the novella lengths that mostly make this up to be perfect for dipping into some of the best authors in the fields. They vary from the simple entertainment to the literary, from the fantastic to the realistic. Although I’d read a decent number of those included in this before, almost all that I had (if not all) were ones that initially had really impressed me. (The only ones not already mentioned above are “Someday” from Asimov’s and Theodora Goss’ story, which is a fantastic achievement in making a compelling story out of something that reads like a nonfiction, a history.) I appreciated reading all these stories a second time, affirming to me that anthologies are useful even if you’ve read the fields somewhat well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

DAY SHIFT, by Charlaine Harris

23281944Day Shift
(Midnight, Texas Book 2)
By Charlaine Harris
Ace Books – 5th May 2015
ISBN 9780425263198 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


 Though it’s the second book in a new paranormal mystery series by Harris, I didn’t have much problem getting into Day Shift without having read the first book that gives the Midnight, Texas series its name. Midnight is a tiny, one-traffic-light town with a collection of eccentric residents with closely guarded secrets who appreciate the relative quiet and privacy that their isolated Texas community provides.
If you’ve read the first book, you’ll be familiar with the Midnight residents, but if you’re new to them as I, you’ll find yourself being introduced to these handfuls of characters in the first few opening pages of Day Shift. This may be a bit overwhelming at first, but I quickly got steadied, and Harris does a really good job in providing new readers contextual reminders when these characters return to keep things straight. Likewise she summarizes past events and revelations from the first book sufficiently that a new reader won’t feel behind the news. She nicely does this info-dump of already established matters in pieces, largely unobtrusively.
Several of the town’s residents get their own point-of-view sections in Day Shift, but the main character Harris brings closest to the reader is Manfred Bernardo, a professional psychic whose powers have their moments of strength, weakness, or absence, but who always tries to keep his client experiences as professional and honest as possible. While on a trip to Dallas to hold client sessions, Manfred notices at a restaurant one of Midnight’s mysterious residents, Olivia, talking to a couple over dinner who turn up dead the next morning. Drawn into this through association, Manfred’s day goes even further south when one of his more wealthy clients dies during their psychic reading session.
Manfred returns to Midnight, but soon finds the media converging on his house after the deceased client’s son claims his mother has been killed by Manfred and that Manfred has stolen her valuable jewelry. The other residents of Midnight don’t appreciate the sudden inrush of attention, particularly when the arrival of the media coincides with the unexpected reopening of an old hotel by a strange national corporation who brings in a handful of workers and some elderly residents to live there. As Manfred scrambles to clear his name and enlists the help of Olivia in discovering whether his client’s son had a role in the woman’s death, the other members of Midnight continue about their own business, look into the new hotel residents, and help take care of a young, rapidly growing, boy that has been mysteriously given into the care of Midnight’s aloof Reverend.
Dedicated readers of Harris’ books will recognize a large number of characters from her other series. Having only read the first few of her Southern Vampire Mystery novels (and seeing True Blood adopted from them) I could pick up on references to Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse, and the appearance of a character from those books who briefly showed up on the HBO show as well. But it seems that Midnight, Texas is a tiny crossroads not just physically, but also figuratively within a shared-universe of multiple series by Harris. Manfred appears in her Harper Connelly novels, another resident apparently comes from the Lily Bard novels, and more. This surely makes the series a pleasure for Harris’ fans to read, enjoying the team ups and crossovers much like you get in comic books. However it also makes the Midnight, Texas books an excellent place to become introduced to Charlaine Harris’ paranormal mystery worlds.
While her other major series focus on a single protagonist through the books, this one deals with an ensemble cast, like a Robert Altman film – or more in tune with this genre, a lot like what True Blood became like in later seasons. Juggling multiple characters and interlocked stories can be tricky business. True Blood arguably suffered greatly in quality as secrets became revealed, characters added, and complexities propagated. Harris’ fans also seem divided on whether the multiple point-of-view writing and ensemble cast of Midnight, Texas and Day Shift work. For me, I enjoyed the characterizations and the flow of the novel, and didn’t greatly mind shifts in point-of-view.
Though urban fantasies with a paranormal cast of characters, Harris’ main interest in a writer seems to be the mystery genre. Day Shift opens with a series of deaths, but only one of these crimes exists as a mystery for the length of the novel. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out who killed Manfred’s client is not as interesting as discovering why, and this criminal mystery itself pales to the myriad other mysteries hovering around Midnight. Harris uses the paranormal aspects of her world as mystery elements. The reader wants to know what secrets each townsperson is hiding, what their agenda is. There is the mystery of the hotel reopening, the odd young boy, the reclusive reverend, Olivia’s seemingly dangerous job, the identity of the elderly residents of the revamped hotel, the reason why the temporary gas station owners are staying… and many more. As in the Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, many puzzles involve trying to figure out what kind of paranormal creature a given character is. Some of these many questions were answered in the first book of the series, some in Day Shift, but many still remain. The town of Midnight itself seems to be something special, drawing ‘abnormal’ people in, protecting them in some way, but it also seems the town itself needs monitoring for the good of the world, kind of like Buffy’s Hellmouth.
It is easy to see therefore how readers will enjoy getting into this series or Harris’ work on a whole. It is pulp. Entertaining stories with a good dose of formulaic construction, lots of puzzles that extend across multiple books, carefully doled-out resolutions, and some easter eggs for dedicated fan appreciation. A former grad student in the lab I currently work in devoured the Southern Vampire Mysteries. They were the perfect easy read comfort to enjoy when the brain needs some relaxation. I have series that I enjoy like that too, in fantasy and SF and mystery genres. I tried the Sookie Stackhouse series, but found them tiresome. They were okay all, but they got old and repetitive on me fast. Partially this came from being already familiar with True Blood.
Midnight, Texas felt more fresh to me. Certain characters I enjoyed more than others so would be eager to see more of them, learn more about them. A few I found less compelling though, so I could also see tiring of this series with time. (Some really absurdly silly names didn’t help me wanting to read more about some characters). But this mixture of characters as an ensemble makes me think that Harris may be able to get better mileage out of this series before it gets stale to all but the rabid fan.
With pulp entertainment like this there usually isn’t anything deeper to discuss about the novels in terms of themes, but there is one interesting facet to the Midnight, Texas series that I picked up on that as I understand is generally present in Harris’ work: the diversity. Sometimes that diversity seems forced, but overall she does a good job of including many kinds of people/characters. But particularly with this, the town of Midnight, Texas is filled with a small number of relatively reclusive outcasts. They hold secrets, some really dark. But the various members of town are willing to withhold their tremendous curiosity of one another. They may question, but they don’t pry. They may briefly talk, but they don’t gossip. They respect one another and amazingly they support one another even when they may not know the full story. They are the personification of an accepting, reconciling community. When something threatens the town, or they discover that one of their own could be a threat to others they take care of the situation as needed, but they don’t judge, they don’t recoil. Because each knows that they have their own baggage and issues. This kind of community is refreshing to see.
So, if you’ve never read Harris, or only read a bit of her other series, I think Day Shift would be a fine place to start and see if it is something you’d enjoy. Or it may be easier to start with the first novel Midnight, Texas. I’ll gladly read the next novel in the series, but I doubt I’ll go back to read the first because the main plot and revelations I already discovered in this. If you are already a fan of Harris, you’ve probably already read these, or if not your reaction may rest on how well you take to its ensemble, multiple-point-of-view nature.
As a final note, Charlaine Harris is going on a book signing tour for the release of Day Shift. I had hoped to go to a local signing to ask some questions to go with this review. I haven’t heard anything yet, but I’ll put something up separately I guess if that does happen. You can check out her full schedule here and see if she’ll be in a city near you.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Ace Books as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.