Thursday, December 30, 2010

Homicide in Hardcover by Kate Carlisle

Brooklyn Wainwright is a book restorer, which is pretty cool right there. When she discovers her mentor Abraham dying in a pool of his own blood, holding the supposedly cursed copy of Goethe's Faust he was restoring, she's determined to find the killer. Brooklyn is tapped to finish the Faust restoration, which brings her in contact with a couple of her longtime rivals, the book's strange owners, her ex-fiance, and her mother the hippy.

The book is fun and brisk-paced without being frenetic. I liked Brooklyn and her family. I do question the introduction of a new character toward the end of the book, but that was a minor issue and is probably set-up for the sequel.

The mystery was constructed well and full of twists and turns. If some of the key information was held back at the very end to keep the reader guessing, it wasn't too blatant and didn't go on too long. The revelations were interesting, sometimes amusing, and the ending was satisfying. This is frequently a very funny book, too. I laughed out loud a few times.

I found the love interest, a security officer named Derek Stone (insert eyeroll here), kind of a weird character. I loathed him at first, but the author manages to make him less odious and even likable toward the end. That's a real gift, since usually once I dislike a character it's all over and I never change my mind. Derek insults Brooklyn and treats her badly at the beginning, which frankly is unforgivable even though she stands up to him. The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I am with Derek's treatment of Brooklyn at the beginning of the book. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the book, just that I'm not completely happy with the way the author set up the romance. But Brooklyn is a strong character, at least, not a doormat. (I do wish she didn't stamp her foot so often, though. Sheep and little kids stamp their feet when they're angry, not grown women.)

I'll be picking up the sequel next time I'm at the book store. Hopefully Derek Stone will stop acting like a jerk and/or Brooklyn will stop putting up with it in the next book.

B&N link

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Soul Hunt by Margaret Ronald

I reviewed the second book in this series, Wild Hunt, back in February and I've read the first book, Spiral Hunt, too. To catch us up briefly, Evie Scelan is a bike courier and "hound"--someone with the rare magical ability to trace people and things by following magical scents--in Boston (of course). At the end of the last book, she took control of the wild hunt, and made an unknown bargain with a water spirit to save her boyfriend's life. Both events come back to bite her in the butt in this book.

Soul Hunt feels like the last book in a trilogy, although it's possible there will be more books in the series. A lot of loose ends are tied up in this one.

I really liked Spiral Hunt, although I liked Wild Hunt less. While I was reading Soul Hunt, though, I stayed in a constant state of annoyed. Evie doesn't do a whole lot in this book, and the things she does do are almost all poor choices. She misses connections that are obvious, trusts people who are obviously untrustworthy, and seems to have a separate (and stricter) set of rules to live by than any of the other magic-users in the book. In other words, I found the plot more than a little contrived.

Evie herself started out in the first book as a strong character but has become more passive--not to a ridiculous degree, but definitely something that bothered me. At the beginning of the book she keeps having gray-outs when she's unable to scent or even see in color, but she doesn't do anything about it and doesn't even make the connection with her bargain in the last book. It was not exactly a big leap of logic, and she's surrounded by magic-users who could have given her a consultation at any time. That's just one example of the problems with this book. I was frustrated with Evie and with the plot, which meandered; I didn't find the ending very satisfying because Evie spends so many paragraphs explaining why she has to do what she has to do. It rang false to me.

The writing is excellent, though. I don't know if the writing in the previous books was this good and I just didn't notice, or if Ronald's getting better as she goes along. I'd like to see what she does next, although I'm kind of hoping it's not another Evie Scelan book.

B&N link

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

I haven't had much time to read in the past week, so here's a review of an old favorite.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was first published in the 1990s (1996? I think) and reissued a few years ago. There's a small amount of new material in the revised version, but if you can find the original, it's worth having just because of the quirky layout, where little symbols decorate each entry and frequently make little jokes of their own (like the hammer-and-sickle symbol next to "Trots, The"). The new version is slicker.

The book is laid out like a travel book, but the travel in this case is to Fantasyland--that is, those generic high-fantasy books that all seem to hit the same cliches. Jones skewers every cliche in a way that's frequently screamingly funny. For instance, the entry for Ruins:

"RUINS of former days, like ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, litter Fantasyland. Only the large kind are important to the Tour, and even most of these will be just setting the mood. You are not expected to be happy on this Tour. The Ruins make you think of the sad losses of former days. But cheer up. Just occasionally you will find TREASURE in a Ruin."

You can read the book straight through or dip into it here and there. In addition to Jones's fine wit and her encyclopedic knowledge of fantasy tropes and cliches, it's worth reading the book if you've ever considered writing fantasy. It'll teach you what not to do.

And then Jones turned around and wrote Dark Lord of Dirkholm, an excellent book that takes every cliche she could stuff in and turns the crap into brilliant, shiny gold. That's what you can do when you're Diana Wynne Jones.

B&N link

Monday, December 20, 2010

Murder with Puffins by Donna Andrews

I've got a cold and last night I couldn't sleep, so I just grabbed the fluffiest, brainless-est book on my to-be-read shelves and read it. Murder with Puffins was a good choice. I read the first book in this series about six weeks ago but I wasn't sure the sequel would be any good, but it was a lot of fun.

The book takes place several weeks after the events in the first book, Murder with Peacocks. It's September, but Meg Langslow--who took the summer off to coordinate three weddings--hasn't yet gone back to her work as a decorative ironworker. Her relationship with her new boyfriend, Michael, has progressed to the point where they want more private time together than they can get with Meg's family around. Meg decides to take advantage of an aunt's standing invitation to use her cabin on a tiny island off the coast of Maine--but when she and Michael arrive at the cabin, they discover it's already full. Of her family. And storms prevent them from leaving again. That's not so bad until a body turns up, and all the evidence seems to implicate Meg's father as the murderer.

Meg is concerned about her father, but she's also worries about her mother's reputation when some strange allegations surface about her mother's childhood summers spent on the island. And she's worried too about her growing relationship with Michael, since their romantic getaway is anything but romantic.

I wasn't all that thrilled that the setting was so different from the first book, but it works. The fun in these mysteries comes from the eccentric characters (which Donna Andrews does very well, without getting corny or stupid) more than the mystery itself. The mystery was interesting, but I never felt that final jolt of "aha! Of course" when the murderer was revealed. It just wasn't the center of the book. Still, the story is fun and often very funny.

B&N link

Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe

It doesn't look like this book is going to be released in paperback, so after waiting a year I gave up and bought the ebook. (Watch the MMPB be released next week or something.)

This is the sequel to The Sword-Edged Blonde, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed very much. Burn Me Deadly is just as good. The books are a brilliant blend of hard-boiled detective story and alternate-world fantasy, a nice change from all the urban fantasies out there.

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword jockey in a small town. On the way back from a job, his horse nearly tramples a woman who's fleeing from a group of cultists. Eddie doesn't trust her, but he doesn't see the harm in giving her a ride back to town. Unfortunately, her pursuers catch Eddie unaware. Practically the next thing he knows, he comes to next to the woman's corpse. No one's hired him, but he definitely wants to find out what's going on--especially after one of the king's investigators shows up and seems to have some suspicious involvement himself.

Eddie is appropriately tough-as-nails, but he's also likable. His relationship with his longtime girlfriend Liz is a warm one, and his regrets about his past make him particularly sympathetic. The plot is good too. I love that Eddie is smart in his investigations as well as tough; he knows when to threaten and he knows when a bribe or a few kind words would get him a better response.

It looks like the third book in this series, Dark Jenny, will be released next year. I'll be reading it.

B&N link

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's a Ghoul to Do? by Victoria Laurie

I hesitate to tag this 'mystery' because the plot is so weak that I guessed the murderer halfway through (seriously, just halfway through) and knew why that character had done it three-quarters of the way through (with the exception of one tiny plot twist that was set up properly with a clue I'd forgotten about--the only good part of the plot). The other half of the mystery is just as obvious.

I'm not even sure this was meant to be a mystery. It's a lot closer to paranormal romance, which would explain why the mystery is given so little attention. It would also explain why I hated the love interest so much, since I've never read a single paranormal romance (or just plain romance) where I didn't loathe one or both of the main characters.

It's too bad about the plot (and the clumsy writing), because the set-up is great. M.J. Holliday is a psychic medium who lives in Boston* and works as a professional ghost-buster along with her computer hacker partner, Gilley-the-gay-sidekick. When Dr. Steven Sable hires them to investigate his recently deceased grandfather's hunting lodge, where strange things have been happening, M.J. has no idea that she's walking into a house full of old secrets--and a few new ones.

There are a lot of problems with this book beyond the plot. I liked Gilley, but halfway through he's conveniently put out of action and hardly appears in the rest of the book except to do some "hacking," and even then M.J. and Steven Sable find out almost all the same information Gilley does (thanks to a lot of coincidences and some breaking and entering). They also withhold information from Gilley for no reason that I could see. M.J.'s and Gilley's friendship has no depth beyond cheering each other on when it comes to picking up men. And while M.J. starts out as a strong character, she has that annoying weakness of paranormal romance heroines: her strength evaporates when a big strong man shows up. Steven Sable is an asshole, but she thinks he's hot so she forgives him for being patronizing, demanding, controlling, and secretive. Oh, and Steven Sable's difficulty with English words and idioms is annoying rather than funny.

The ending was the worst ending in any mystery I've ever read. Seriously, it was so bad I couldn't believe the editor okayed it. It's doesn't even make sense. Up until the ending, I was willing to put up with everything else because the parts with the ghosts are kind of interesting, but now this book is going to the used book store.

*of course she lives in Boston. What the hell? Are all books now set in Boston by law?

B&N link

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Feed by M.T.Anderson

I hate spoilers, but I can't really review this properly without one this time. So be forewarned.

Feed is set many hundreds of years from now in a dystopia that evolved from allowing our free markets and conglomerates unfettered reign. The forests have been pulled down, the oceans poisoned, and the weakened atmosphere has let background radiation grow so high that it's only through technology that we can continue to have healthy children. That same technology is our constant companion now, embedded as a Feed in our heads and force-feeding us a constant stream of marketing and information.

"I don't know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that, they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe."

The premise of a world where computation is naturally equated with breathing is fascinating. And Anderson does a great job of conveying the personalities of his characters--which is actually unfortunate because they're all intentionally shallow, ignorant and flighty, shifting their opinions to follow every hint from their peers. Never having needed to memorize or learn--after all, instant data access 24/7 in your head, yeah?--the characters are terrible at communicating: nearly every sentence they speak (aloud or in chat) involves nouns replaced by "thing" followed by a few curse words while a lookup is done.

"Marty said, 'It will be a, a, you know, funckin', it will...' He kind of waggled his hand."
"Look at the guy in the, you know, that thing? The neck bat?" ... "Bow tie."

It's a captivating world, reminding me not a little of Barnes' Orbital Resonance (a great book btw). But--and here we're getting into spoiler territory--the MC is a total shit head.

See, a few pages into this book our group of friends--the MC Titus and his buddies, plus a new girl Violet whom they just met--has their feeds hacked. They're offline for several days while they get the virus cleaned out, but Violet's feed is physically damaged and she spends the rest of the book dying: the feed is implanted in the brain, integral to its function, and hers is shutting down. And the worse she gets, the more Titus pulls away from her--revealing in painful detail exactly what a shallow asshole he really is.

I like books with happy endings, and I really like books where I can identify with the characters; couldn't enjoy either of those here. But Feed was so compelling that I have to give it a thumbs-up anyway.

B&N link

Monday, December 13, 2010

Owl in Love by Patrice Kindl

This is the strangest book I've read in quite a while. I absolutely adored it even while I was cringing at the embarrassment of a fourteen-year-old girl who's convinced she's in love with her science teacher.

But this isn't the story of a girl who's got a crush on her teacher, or at least it's only partly about that. Owl Tycho isn't just any girl, for one thing: she's a were-owl, daughter of two witches who adore her but don't completely understand how the world works. Owl goes to school, but she has no friends. She sits alone at lunch and doesn't eat, since human food disagrees with her. Her one concession to a bully's goading is to bring a mouse sandwich to school one day, and the bread makes her sick.

But Owl's infatuation with her science teacher, Mr. Lindstrom, leads her to two discoveries. The first is her new and unlikely friendship with Dawn, a girl in her science class. Dawn knows Owl's crazy about Mr. Lindstrom and she wants to help, even if her idea of help is to give grayish-skinned Owl a makeover. The other discovery is a strange boy hiding in the woods behind Mr. Lindstrom's house--a boy who might have something to do with the crazy barn owl that's hanging around too.

The book is wonderfully different. Owl thinks like an owl even when she's in human form. Even so, her crush on Mr. Lindstrom feels real enough that I kept grimacing from my own memories. The book's world is our own but just slightly off-kilter, a place where a were-owl girl has to go to school and her witch parents have to sell charms to pay their property taxes.

Owl's manners, speech, and clothes are all outdated to Dawn, but Dawn is sharp and curious about her new friend. I loved the interaction between the two girls. Owl's parents are wonderful too. The story kept me guessing although I was pretty sure I knew where it was going; the ending is satisfying and just a touch bittersweet. I almost didn't read past the first chapter since it ends with a short viewpoint shift from Owl to someone else, but I'm glad I kept with it.

B&N link

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Deadtown by Nancy Holzner

Vicky Vaughn is a shapeshifter and a professional demon slayer, mostly of demons infesting people's dreams, although she's good at taking down harpies too. Like most urban fantasy heroines, she lives in Boston (I don't know what's wrong with Boston in real life, but it's sure a mess in fantasyland). A few years before, Boston was the focus of a short-lived but nasty virus that killed people instantly--and then reanimated them. The resulting zombies, along with other paranormals like werewolves, vampires, and Vicky herself, are forced to live in the restricted section of Boston now called Deadtown. Paranormals have few rights in Massachusetts and none elsewhere, but Vicky's (sorta-kinda) boyfriend, a lawyer and a werewolf, is working on that. Days before a key election, though, Vicky has her hands full dealing with a Hellion--a powerful demon that seems to be targeting her.

I enjoyed Deadtown thoroughly and I'm looking forward to the sequel, which will be released in a few weeks. It's not a perfect book, though. I liked Vicky, especially when she lost her temper and opened the whoopass can (not a moment too soon, either); on the other hand, she misses some pretty obvious hints about what's going on.

The worldbuilding is interesting, but I thought it was a little over-the-top when it came to paranormal rights. Seems like in a world where demons are a real threat and where humans can wield magic, paranormals would fit right in. Still, I do like the way Holzner explores human rights and racism in the coded way that fantasy novelists can.

The plot kept me riveted and I read the book straight through yesterday evening. Holzner has an easy, competent style that doesn't draw attention to itself and her characters feel realistic. I did find Tina the teenage zombie sidekick ridiculously annoying. Hopefully she won't end up in the sequel. The vampires and werewolves are pretty stock, but Vicky's own shapeshifting abilities are different and interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing how Holzner develops the world and characters in the next book.

B&N link

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

If you loved E. Nesbit and Edward Eager as a kid, Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks has the same feel. There's no magic, but the Penderwick girls are clever and quirky without being annoying, and the story is a satisfying (if episodic) summer tale.

When the Penderwick family (their widower father, Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and little Batty who's just four--plus Hound Penderwick, of course) go to stay in the country for three weeks, their summer vacation comes with a lot more adventure than they'd expected. They're renting a cottage from snooty Mrs. Tifton whose gardens are off-limits but so tempting; Mrs. Tifton's gardener, the dashing Cagney, owns two rabbits; and the neighbor boy, Jeffrey, is willing to go along with the girls' ideas--no matter how dangerous. But Jeffrey has a sorrowful future, and the Penderwicks are determined to help him.

The book is old-fashioned but thoroughly enjoyable. At first I wondered if kids today would be interested in a book like this--the cover doesn't seem geared to kids at all, but to their parents. Then I decided I didn't care. If I'm the real audience for this kind of book, I'm thrilled. I loved it. It's funny, the Penderwick girls squabble realistically without ever becoming irritating, and the ending is both satisfying and sweet.

B&N link

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C. Beaton

People keep recommending M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin mysteries to me, but when I was looking for the first one in the used book store, I found this book too and read it first. I can't say I'm impressed.

The publication date is 2001, but it reads like a book written decades before--and not in a good way. Modern touches like computers and mobile phones are only mentioned in passing, as though they were added late in the editing process. Most of the main characters' information comes from newspapers and the library--which is fine, but not realistic less than a decade ago, even in an insular British village.

Fellworth Dolphin, who goes by Fell, has spent his thirty-odd years working as a waiter to support his elderly mother. When she dies, he's astonished to learn that his parents left him half a million pounds--and that there's a lockbox full of hundred-pound notes in his father's old desk. He turns to his coworker Maggie for help. She suggests the money may have come from a train robbery decades ago, a robbery that took place when Fell's father was working at the railroad. Together the two of them investigate, and find out far more than Fell ever wanted to know about his past.

It's an excellent setup and at first I really liked the book. I felt sorry for Fell, hoped he and Maggie would get together, and couldn't wait to discover the mysteries as the characters investigated.

Unfortunately, after about fifty pages the book started getting annoying. The mystery takes a back seat to the impending romance between the two main characters, which is fine except that they both turn into such horrible people. Fell proves to be a possessive, mercurial prick who doesn't mind insulting Maggie about her looks repeatedly; Maggie is a spineless wimp besotted with Fell to the point that she makes really bad decisions to please him. It's a dysfunctional relationship waiting to happen.

The mystery is a let-down too. The resolution is absurd, Fell and Maggie's reasons to not share everything they know with the police don't make sense, and the big reveal is a confession given after two not-very-probing questions. I hope the Agatha Raisin books aren't as boring and ill-conceived as this one.

B&N link

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Secret of Shadow Ranch by Carolyn Keene

This is the fifth Nancy Drew mystery, and since I've been reading nothing but mysteries lately, I thought I'd give it a try. I've only read one Nancy Drew book before, back when I was a little girl. I don't know how old I was--maybe twelve?--but I distinctly remember being shocked at the racism in the book. The only scene I remember clearly is Nancy and her friends exploring the slave quarters of an old mansion, and Bess sighing nostalgically and saying she can just picture the little "pickaninnies" singing and dancing. It still horrifies me even after all these years. I feel certain that the reissued books have had the racism excised, although The Secret of Shadow Ranch has the girls wear "squaw dresses" to a square dance.

Anyway, all that aside, The Secret of Shadow Ranch was a lot of fun. The writing isn't exactly world-class, but it works. The mystery isn't difficult to solve, but I'll give Nancy credit for not missing clues and for making shrewd guesses.

In this book, Nancy visits Shadow Ranch, home to a friend's aunt and uncle. Her friends Bess and George are there too, as is Bess's young cousin Alice. Strange events are happening at the ranch, including sightings of a ghostly horse. Nancy is positive the horse isn't a phantom at all, and when she hears rumors of a long-lost treasure hidden somewhere on the ranch, she's positive that someone is trying to scare everyone off to search for the treasure. Oh, and Alice's father is missing after a robbery at the bank where he works.

I enjoyed the nonstop action--something happened every single chapter. Of course I never really believed Nancy was in any real danger, but the mild scrapes she gets into would have felt more real to me when I was a kid. Too bad I didn't have the non-racist versions back then.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tattoo Shop series by Karen E. Olson

I don't know why I'm devouring whole mystery series right now. I guess I'm just finding lots of good stuff out there. The Missing Ink is the first in this series, followed by Pretty in Ink and Driven to Ink. The fourth book is due out next summer.

In the first book, we meet tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh, who owns her own upscale tattoo parlor in Las Vegas. When a girl makes an appointment for a tattoo--a heart with the name "Matthew" in it--and then disappears, Brett can't stop herself from snooping around. It turns out the girl wasn't who she said she was, and her fiance's name wasn't Matthew, either. And suddenly a man with an eagle tattoo seems to be stalking Brett.

It would be easy to dismiss the books as yet another gimmick mystery series (at least there are no recipes or knitting patterns in the back), but the writing is good and the plots intricate. Brett is smart, strong, and practical without coming across as snide or street-smart. The mysteries kept me guessing and played fair with the clues. I especially appreciated that Brett is active in solving the mysteries without doing stupid stuff just for the sake of the plot.

Best of all are the relationships Brett has with her coworkers and her brother. Her coworkers are awesome, each of them fully realized characters as interesting as Brett herself. Brett lives with her brother--he broke up with his longtime girlfriend about the same time that Brett decided she didn't want to marry a man who expected her to put her career on hold for his. Her brother happens to be a cop. Their sibling relationship is depicted realistically, possibly better than any brother-sister relationship I've ever read. They fuss at each other, stick up for each other, and have a comfortable friendship. I really liked that.

I like also that Brett's relationships grow naturally from book to book. While the mysteries are fun and often funny, I'm at least as interested in what's going on in Brett's social life. That's a nice change from many mysteries, where the most a reader can expect is a drawn-out romance.

B&N link

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reviewed by Sin - THE LOST

The Lost
By Jack Ketchum

One of the most challenging plots, in my opinion, is when readers know something bad is going to happen... eventually. In the meantime how do you keep readers, well, reading? For that answer, I present "The Lost", by Jack Ketchum. The plot is straight forward: Douchebag decides to whip his big gun out and act like a tough guy. Years later, he gets the itch again, as events around him conspire to shorten his fuse by the day. The real story, of course, is what happens between page one and the bad things to come. Who the characters are, and the everyday moments of their lives, make "The Lost" truly powerful. Some people have bigger flaws than others, but they all deserve better than the horror they are steadily, obliviously sailing into. Not that some of them haven't gotten a taste. The book starts off with a brutal appetizer, if you will, before easing you back to wait for the final course.

"The Lost" clocks in at just under four hundred pages, yet it feels like a much shorter read. Much credit is due to the fact that Ketchum makes creating memorable, multidimensional characters look easy. We all know the old cliche, "You'll laugh, you'll cry, etc". Well, you will. Or at least tear up, as I did, though in my case it couldn't be helped. The bastard put an adorable homeless animal in the book, because that's how Ketchum rolls. Human tragedy not enough for you? Bam! Here's a cat whose owners dumped it after they had a new baby. You think it's merely a sad moment, a commentary on people who view pets as disposable, only to find that the furry feline thread runs through the whole book. Done in less skilled hands, I would have barfed. With Ketchum, however, I felt genuine emotion.

So as Stewie said to Brian, before sharing his music video, "Get ready to feel." Especially the simple things, like love and friendship, that teeter precariously in the balance. Not that the characters know. But you will, and you'll keep reading. Even though you know it's going to hurt.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Highly Effective Detective by Richard Yancey

Initially, I thought author Richard Yancey had an almost literary way with a murder mystery. His main character, Theodore Ruzak, is a sensitive fellow given to long, rambling inner monologues. For the first three or four chapters, I was smitten--particularly since the story takes place in my own stomping grounds of Knoxville, Tennessee.

But as the book progressed and nothing much happened, I became more and more irritated with Mr. Yancey and his nattering Teddy Ruzak. Ruzak pretty much does nothing but eat doughnuts and think. This could be endearing in the right story, but a murder mystery is not the right story in which to focus on the self-absorbed thoughts of a loser.

When Ruzak's mother dies and leaves him a little money, he quits his job as a security guard and sets up shop as a private detective. He does everything on impulse, including hiring his favorite waitress as a secretary. He doesn't even have an investigator's license. Again, this sort of half-assed behavior started out amusing and soon became annoying beyond belief. Ruzak doesn't do anything. He puts things off, especially the difficult things. His first--and essentially only--case is to find out who ran over six baby geese. He doesn't even go out to look at the scene of the crime for weeks, at which point I wanted to smack him around a little.

It's not until about halfway through the book that it's even clear there's been a murder, and that it maybe-maybe not relates to the dead goslings. The plot, frankly, is a hot mess, made worse because Yancey doesn't play fair with the clues. Half the fun of reading a mystery is following along with the sleuth, trying to figure out what's going on. Yancey doesn't let us in on any of the clues--we don't even get details on who's being murdered. And despite Ruzak's obsession with moral ethics, he sure is fast to dump his ethics entirely when presented with a threat and a bribe--even when he could have solved both problems with one phone call. Instead, he calls for pizza.

At that point, I was ready to just throw the book down in disgust. Even the amusement factor of seeing familiar placenames in print got old after a while. I only finished the book because I was so close to the end. This may not be the worst book I've read this year--Yancey's prose approaches literary cleverness, even if his characters are unlikeable and his plot lame--but it's sure right down at the bottom of the pile.

Powell's link

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Haunted Bookshop series by Alice Kimberly

Currently there are five Haunted Bookshop mysteries in this series. The sixth is due out next year. In order, the books are: The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, The Ghost and the Dead Deb, The Ghost and the Dead Man's Library, The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, and The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion.

I bought the first book last Saturday and read it, then went back to the book store Sunday and bought the other four. I finished the fifth last night and now I'm gnawing at my own fingers in a frenzy of withdrawal.

Which is odd, because the books are not all that good. The plots are okay (except for The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion, where I guessed the murderer ridiculously early) and the writing is uneven and often stilted, especially dialogue. The main character, Mrs. Penelope Thornton-McClure (who goes by Pen although she inevitably introduces herself with her full name, including the Mrs.), is both wimpy and weirdly prudish for a grown woman with a kid.

But the books are far more than the sum of their parts. The saving grace is the ghost character, Jack Shepard, a private eye who was gunned down in a bookshop in the 1940s while on a case. Pen is the only one who can hear him. Pen's recently widowed and has returned to her hometown of Quindicott, Rhode Island to help her aunt run the bookshop Jack is haunting. At the beginning of the first book, a writer who knew Jack while he was alive, and who has based a successful series of hardboiled mysteries on his cases, suddenly drops dead in Pen's bookshop. Jack helps Pen solve the murder.

The relationship between Jack and Pen is what keeps me reading these books. Jack is tough, pragmatic, wisecracking, and hardnosed, but he's also sympathetic when it comes to Pen. He and Pen share a mismatched friendship and a sweet and wistful romance.

I'd like to say the books get better as they go along. That's actually not the case. They're all about the same, although the fifth book really frustrated me since not only was the mystery not all that great (it was on par with an average Scooby Doo episode), there was less interaction between Jack and Pen in that book than in all the others. The books feature a current-day mystery that is at least tangentially related to a case Jack worked while he was alive, which is interesting--although since Jack's cases are all solved, we don't get the fun of Pen and Jack solving two murders concurrently (which is one of my favorite types of mystery). I'd also like to point out that if the stories were real life, Pen would so be in jail about a million times over for messing with crime scenes and evidence.

I'm also disappointed that the mystery of Jack's own murder remains untouched. Pen does ask Jack about it in the first book, but he shuts her down and tells her it's far too dangerous for her to investigate. That's fine, although I wish we'd get clues sprinkled here and there. It's obvious that eventually Pen is going to have to solve Jack's murder, probably in the last book in the series (although maybe not; mystery series rarely finish naturally, they just stop when the publisher decides not to renew the writer's contract).

So to sum up: not the best mysteries ever written, but a fun premise and a fantastic relationship between the two main characters.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

The Good Thief is a great, shocking adventure that's written like a fairy tale, and is as unsettling as any stories from the brothers Grimm. Hannah Tinti's style is smooth and light, deceptively so: the reader is drawn into her unsettling world and can't stop reading.

Ren is an orphan in Colonial New England. He has, mysteriously, only one hand, as the other has been taken off and the wound stitched carefully. He knows his name by the cloth that was with him when he was pushed through the monks' gate at the monastery, a bit of cloth that had embroidered on it three letters: R E N.

In his twelfth year, a stranger, Benjamin Nab, comes to the monastery looking for his brother, and when he finds Ren, with his one hand, the stranger tells the monks a fantastic story about Indian kidnappings and Ren's doomed mother chopping off his hand to keep him from being taken. The monks send the boy away with Nab, who soon reveals that he is a liar and a grave robber.

The characters and city settings of this fascinating tale are very much, as others have said, in the style of Dickens, as is the moral dilemma of Ren, the good boy who must become a thief to survive.

Ren must also endure many horrors, and meet many wonderful and loathesome characters, from a chimney climbing dwarf to the deaf and loving Mrs. Sand, to the dentists who buy dead people's teeth--what amazing adventures he will have before the satisfying ending.

The Good Thief is a fine and vivid three-hundred page fairy tale that's considered young adult reading--I suppose young people, now used to vampire love and lust, will find grave-robbing light reading. I think it's a great, bloody, robust book for grownups, too.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Miss Zukas and the Island Murders by Jo Dereske

I started reading this book over lunch on Monday. One of my coworkers noticed it and said, "Oh, I love that series. I can't wait for the next one." Of course, she's a librarian and the main character is too.

This is another used bookstore find; I thought it was the first in the series, but it's the second. It was published in 1993 and hasn't aged gracefully. So many plot elements could have been resolved in seconds by a quick online search, which makes the story seem contrived. It's not fair, but there you go.

My coworker mentioned to me that the main character, Helma Zukas, is "kind of a strange person." Strange must be librarian code for 'cold, robotic, remote, and unlikable.' At first I found Helma's quirks amusing, but as the story progressed, she became annoying. Her dislike of gossip and supposition just meant she was withholding information from the reader; her Aspie-like clumsiness in asking questions of other characters turned the dialogue unrealistic.

A lot of the book is unrealistic, for that matter. Helma receives an anonymous note reminding her of her promise to organize her 20-year high school reunion. Since it just so happens that she invested the money her class raised twenty years before, she now has lots and lots of cash to spend on the event. Her artist friend Ruth talks her into holding the reunion in their area, in Washington State, rather than at their actual high school in Michigan. Then Helma starts receiving other anonymous notes telling her to cancel the reunion. Ultimately the reunionists end up stranded on a fogbound island in a nearly-abandoned resort hotel, which is about as contrived as it can possibly get.

The mystery concerns a high school athlete's mysterious death twenty years before. It might have been interesting except that Helma's efforts to investigate are so clumsy and haphazard. She also makes terrible choices--so terrible that it's obvious she makes the choices so there will be a mystery. I find it hard to believe that someone so careful about details and propriety as Helma would fail to tell her policeman friend about the anonymous notes, especially once they became threatening; I was flabbergasted at her choice to call a (40-year-old) murder victim's parents before she called the police, until I realized the parents had a CLUE to impart. The writing is as awkward as Helma's social skills.

So no, I wasn't impressed with this mystery. I guessed the murderer ahead of time and I found the plot ultimately unsatisfying. Then again, it's Book Two in a series and Book Twos are almost always terrible. I won't give up on the series until I've tried Book One, but I'm not really very hopeful about it.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews

I picked up Murder with Peacocks at a used book store. It was published in 1999 but it's held up well (although I kept wondering why main character Meg had to wait around the house for phone calls instead of just carrying her cell).

Meg Langslow is maid of honor for three upcoming weddings--her best friend's, her brother's, and her mother's remarriage--and as if that weren't enough, she's also promised to coordinate the weddings. That means spending the summer in her old hometown while fielding the brides' increasingly maddening ideas (peacocks!) and fending off well-meaning relatives' attempts to play matchmaker. All goes reasonably well until an unpleasant guest shows up and starts making nasty accusations. When the guest turns up dead, Meg has something else to add to her long to-do list: find the murderer.

The book is fun and often extremely funny. The mystery tends to take backseat to the craziness surrounding the weddings, but there are plenty of clues, danger, and murders too. The writing is solid and the plot devious, and the murderer came as a surprise to me. I liked that the eccentricities of Meg's large extended family were treated with a sort of matter-of-fact wit; quirky characters aren't easy to do well, but Andrews does a good job with most of them. Meg herself might have come across as drab in comparison, but her saving grace is that she's a blacksmith by trade. It doesn't come up in this book except in passing, but I'm hoping there'll be more about her occupation in sequels.

This is probably the perfect beach read, incidentally. Not only is it funny, fluffy, mildly romantic, and action-packed, it's actually quite long for a mystery. And it's reminded me just how much I enjoy a good mystery.

B&N link

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Game of Cages by Harry Connolly

I meant to finish reading a book of ghost stories to review today, since it's Halloween, but I made the mistake of picking this one up and had to read the whole thing. Maybe I'll get to the ghost stories later. I finished Game of Cages very late and went straight to bed last night, and it gave me really weird dreams.

Game of Cages is the sequel to Child of Fire, which I read just a few days ago. I don't usually read sequels immediately after reading the previous books. This series is too amazing to resist, though.

This book picks up about eight months after the events of the last one. Ex-con Ray Lilly is living with his aunt and working in a grocery store, but when an investigator for the mysterious Twenty Palaces Society shows up, he jumps at the chance to help them out again. Someone has summoned and bound a monster and is auctioning it off to the highest bidder; the Society plan to gather information on those attending the auction so they can strike later. But when Ray and the investigator arrive, something's gone horribly wrong. The monster has escaped and is headed for the nearest town. The bidders are searching for it and eliminating their competition at the same time--and they're just as happy to kill Ray too.

Game of Cages holds up well against the first book, which was brilliant. It's not as tightly plotted (although it's better plotted than most stories of this kind) and much of the action consists of searching for the monster and discovering bodies. The body count is staggering, which strained my credulity a bit. Still, it works, and Connolly's monsters are possibly the creepiest I've read outside of Lovecraft.

Ray's struggles with himself and with the difficult job he's accepted are fascinating. We get a little more information about the world and how magic works too, which I like. It's obvious that the series is building to something to do with the Society. I'm looking forward to the next book and will definitely read it as soon as it comes out.

B&N link

Friday, October 29, 2010

Skunk Cat Book Reviews turns one!

One year ago today, Skunk Cat Book Reviews posted our first review. And in our first year, we've reviewed 111 books! Seriously, 111. I swear we didn't aim for that number or anything (and it would be even cooler if our blogaversary fell on 11/1).

November will be a fairly thin month for reviews since I think all four of us are participating in NaNoWriMo again this year, but as always we'll post at least one review every week.

In the last few months I've tried to get us a little more connected. I've started participating more at other book review sites, and we now have a Skunk Cat Twitter account. I hope you've found some of our reviews useful in helping you find your next read. If so, please spread the word so others can find our little blog too.

Thank you to our readers, and thanks also to my fellow reviewers whose varied interests have made Skunk Cat an always-interesting place to visit. Here's to our second year!

--Kate Shaw

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Child of Fire by Harry Connolly

I've read the first three of Jim Butcher's Dresden books and wasn't all that enamored of them. I know, heresy. Child of Fire by Harry Connolly reminds me of the Dresden books, except, you know, a lot better.

Ray Lilly is an ex-con working for Annalise, a woman who hunts down rogue sorcerers. Annalise hates him. Ray's just glad to be out of prison. The two of them are investigating some strange events in the town of Hammer Bay; Ray doesn't know what's going on since Annalise doesn't feel the need to share information with someone she expects will be dead within hours. Ray's tougher than she thinks, though. And when he realizes the children of Hammer Bay are dying in magical fires that no one seems to notice--even the parents don't seem aware that they've lost kids--Ray's determined to do what he can to help.

Ray is a nice guy with a lot of regrets about his past. He knows how easy it would be to act like a typical ex-con, bulling his way through problems with violence, and he knows he doesn't want to be that kind of person. He's also drawn strongly to magic--part of the reason he's willing to work for Annalise--and has his own little piece, a 'ghost knife' that will cut through ghosts, magic, and dead things. I liked him, and I'm delighted that as the book progressed, Connolly makes sure that Annalise's own motivations become clear and her character becomes sympathetic even if she's never actually likable.

The action in the book starts almost immediately and simply doesn't let up. It's a hard book to put down once you've started reading. The townspeople of Hammer Bay sometimes seem a little bit too small-town-cornball to be believable, and at times I got impatient with detailed descriptions of things that didn't become important until much later, but those are small problems.

The pacing of the book is spot-on, and the big climax worked perfectly--not an easy trick when the mystery is set up so well. It's easy to set up a mystery that turns out to be a let-down. That's not the case here.

In short, this is probably the perfect example of an urban fantasy.

B&N link

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

I bought this book solely for the title. Hardback and all, full price at Border's because our loser Barnes & Noble didn't have a copy. I bought it this afternoon and finished it a few minutes ago.

Sam LaCroix is a college dropout working at a crummy fast-food restaurant. He's always been kind of a loser, but he's never actually been in trouble--not until a powerful necromancer turns up and gives Sam an ultimatum: join him or watch his family and friends die. Sam has no idea what the guy is talking about. Turns out that Sam's a necromancer too, just one of the secrets his mother's been keeping from him. Also, werewolves.

The first two chapters of this book are brilliant, funny, and excited me beyond all reason. I knew I'd found a winner. The characters are appealing, the story set-up fresh, and the writing tight and zingy.

Then I turned to chapter three.

I know I've mentioned before that I dislike point-of-view shifts in books. I find them distracting but usually not too annoying to mention in a review. In this book, though, the book starts out in first person, and when a writer is writing in first person they need to freaking stay with that one character, okay? Chapter three of this book is in third person from the bad guy's point of view. Many other subsequent chapters are likewise in third person from various other characters' points of view, interspersed with Sam's first person chapters. It was jarring and I hated it beyond all rational thought.

Most of all, it's sloppy. If author Lish McBride couldn't tell the complete story from one character's point of view, she should have written Sam in third person, not first. Better yet, she should have changed the plot so Sam had a bigger part. Sam actually did a lot of nothing. He gets beat up a lot.

Obviously the book is good enough that I read it in one sitting. It's not great, though. The title is great, I liked the characters, and the plot was cliched but serviceable. The writing was good except for a certain lack of description and, of course, the giant huge problem with points of view, which I cannot get past and cannot forgive. I don't care what McBride's next book is titled, I won't be dropping the cash for a hardback version. I may not bother with it at all.

Powell's link

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Plague Year by Jeff Carlson

I have to be a little careful here, since I'm planning to send this one to my mother to read--and she's reading this blog. So no spoilers allowed, or at least none that count.

Plague Year is a post-apocalyptic yarn: a medical nano, designed to eat cancer cells and reproduce in a Von Neumann-like way, has escaped into the open and started chewing its way through humanity. When the story opens the only people left alive are the ones who managed to make it to safety above ten thousand feet (the nano shuts down at 0.7 atmospheres of pressure as a built-in failsafe).

That includes our intrepid clan of a dozen heroes and anti-heroes, stuck on a barren mountaintop at the edge of California. There's another small group within signalling distance, but they can't even visit because just one breath taken in the valley between would infect any explorer--and it's hard to climb back out when you're being eaten alive. Yum.

Did I mention the mountaintop is barren? Mammals are going extinct everywhere; our heroes are eating moss and lichen to survive--and each other. "They ate Jorgensen first", the book explains at the outset. "He'd twisted his leg bad--his long white leg." In fact, when someone from the other mountaintop stumbles bleeding and dying into their camp, the first thing they think is, "if he dies we'll eat him," and when he says he wants them to visit, they wonder if it's really a hidden hunting trip.

The book isn't really gruesome, but the author definitely plays this setup for effect. And he does a good job with it--but about halfway through the book sags badly because of some political dragging that never really goes away thereafter. (In all honesty, I skipped about fifteen pages just to get back to where Things Were Happening, and I'm glad I did; I don't think anything important happened in there.) After reading the fairly predictable ending I was fairly surprised to hear there are two more sequels coming, but I'll probably pick up at least the first of those to see what happens.

The Darkest Edge of Dawn by Kelly Gay

I just re-read my review of this book's predecessor (The Better Part of Darkness) to see how the two compare. Turns out there are some things that have improved and some that haven't; big surprise there.

Kelly Gay jumps right back into the world she left--just days later in story time. Atlanta has undergone some big shifts: there's this whole cloud-of-darkness floating over the city, for example, and the level-one boss from the previous book has checked out. Taking his place is a serial murderer, and it's up to our dynamic duo of MCs to find and stop him.

This book doesn't bring in much additional novelty. We revisit the Djinn, which is fun but not really new since they were covered pretty well last time. We get to see our buddy cop the Siren pull off some big magic, but again that's been seen before. The MC's sister is addicted to a nasty magic+drug combo, but that was the result of book one's plot. OTOH, even though the world hasn't expanded much it's still rich enough to justify the additional interior exploration.

Another thing that hasn't changed much is the MC, Charlie Madigan. I'm hoping that's the result of the short story-time between books 1 and 2, rather than the author's inability (or lack of desire) to let the character grow and change. Take the Dresden series for comparison--and yes, I'm biased since I love that one: the MC there grows and changes significantly from book to book, and his compatriots grow and change with him. I really want to see some of that happening here.

That's all kind of bumming, but it's not particularly bad. The yummy part is that Gay manages to keep the light-and-fast thing going again: action interleaved with drama and plot twists, a few minor novelties thrown in just when you need them. The pacing is very good and turns this into a fun read, with a satisfying dénouement--that last bit being a welcome improvement, since the last one's epic clash was so very, very flat.

So, as with the last one, this is a fun but not really compelling book. I'll be buying book three, but if the characters don't get their growth on and the author can't expand the world into new directions, I doubt I'll read book four.

B&N link

The Magician's Apprentice by Trudi Canavan

This isn't the first of Canavan's books that I've read, but so far I like it best. Her most recent series before this--the Age of the Five--started fine but ended up awfully dry. This time she manages to keep a solid pace throughout.

You can't help but like the MC here: the daughter of a peasant/physician, skilled herself and thrust into a higher level of society unexpectedly when she suddenly shows signs of being magically gifted. She's brusque, irreverent, talented and intelligent--but Canavan manages to keep her from being too much of any of these in particular.

The setting is also lively, starting in a village on the outskirts of society, moving into the Big City, then sending us back out to the woods and eventually past the mountains into a different land. That last step seems to move a little faster than it should, taking away some of the enjoyment of visiting a new society. And the setup for the sequel is definitely likewise truncated, but not so badly that the rest of the book isn't worth reading.

The King's Bastard by Rowena Cory Daniels

I really tried hard to like this one, and I even succeeded for small portions at a time. It's not a bad book, but it had a habit of getting underneath my fingernails.

The basic foundation is good: there's your Favorite Kingdom, with its Troubled Princes, its Queen With Secrets, its Mischievous Young Princess and even (I like this part) its Associated Warrior-Monk Monastery. There's even a good bit of magic tossed in: "affinity" (whatever the hell that means) which seems to be nothing but groovy for people to get but is nonetheless considered a dirty sin. It's a good start for a book. I even liked the main characters, both good and bad: they had personalities, something my previous read lacked. So, fair points and a good start for Daniels.

The book flopped for two reasons, one of which is the author's fault and the other of which is probably just a pet peeve of mine. The former is coincidence: every single plot point in this book--every one, no exceptions--takes place because of sheer chance. Consider that by the end of the first chapter the hero has had his bowstring snap at just the wrong time, his buddy--an experienced warrior--has accidentally knocked a tree limb onto himself during a back-swing, and has thereby almost killed himself. Conversations are overheard at just the right or wrong time, people happen to arrive just as someone else is leaving, the important note happens to be on the table as someone walks in. Again, and again, and again. It's okay to let a few of these creep in, but at some point an important thing has to occur because a hero made it inevitable, not because the gods are playing tricks.

Okay, bad as that was, it doesn't make this book a deal-breaker; after all, the writing is reasonably good (nice descriptions in particular) and the foundation was, as I said, solid. What I can't forgive is that the major intricacies that make up the book's plot all relate to misunderstandings. Every character, again no exceptions, makes decisions based on what information they have to hide from others, or have incorrectly gleaned from others, in an elaborate game. A thinks (correctly) that B is gay (important plot point, actually); C tries to shield B so A and D both think C is gay too, which he's not. But no one will listen, and C can't clear his name without throwing B to the wolves. Meanwhile, E doesn't trust B because of what D said, and B can't clear his name without F talking--and neither A nor E will talk to F. Yuck.

In chapter after chapter, I kept getting the feeling that these people were all idiots. If they would just sit down together, talk frankly and listen to each other, there would have been no plot left at all. It's a little like an awkward holiday at the homestead: one aunt isn't talking to another aunt, and no one wants to talk about why. Elephants. Room. Annoying.

I hate books that turn out this way. Almost all the conflict in this book--not all (there are indeed invading armies) but almost all--is derived from misunderstandings and mistrust. It makes the whole book feel terribly contrived: nothing bad would've happened if the characters (a) hadn't had some horrible accident or (b) they had just explained what happened and everyone listened.

I got a copy of this book for review (thanks, KC!) and have since seen it on the BN shelves next to its sequels. I almost--almost--picked up one of those, but for all its good points I just couldn't subject myself to more of this horrible plot mechanic.

(Quick edit from KC to add that this book was sent us by the author for review.)

B&N link

The Edge of the World by Kevin J Anderson

In Starship Troopers, Heinlein (through the voice of a high school teacher) explains that value is subjective and mutable: a good chef can take apples and dough and form a delectable pastry that's worth more than its parts, while an incompetent chef can make these ingredients--already wholesome and valuable in themselves--into an inedible, worthless mess.

The Edge of the World is part one of what should have been an impressive high fantasy saga: after all, it has the right ingredients. Anderson is a talented, first-rate writer with a great track record--dozens of published books, many of which I've enjoyed greatly. He has obviously done his homework here, putting in a lot of effort to build an elaborate world to play in: a religious mythos that forms the basis for his major peoples, multiple societies, characters from all over the world. The environment is well chosen, letting the author play with lots of exploration (ships, hot air balloons, overland treks) and novelties (interesting magics, the invention of gunpowder, unusual sea creatures). And the plot is well designed: the story arc (and primary characters) follow the map of the main religion, rediscovering artifacts and searching for ancient continents. How on Earth could all this go wrong?

I'll tell you how: not with a bang does this fail, but with a snore. Halfway through this first book I was completely bored with it, and trudged through only by sheer determination. I even bought the sequel just to prove that I was willing to give Anderson a fair shake, but a quarter of the way through I put it down and never picked it back up.

Ultimately this book lost me because it left me unable to identify with a single one of its main characters. They all had the exact same character flaw: when in desperate trouble, they did...nothing. The hero of an early exploration whose ship was destroyed and who rode home on a sea monster then walked into the mountains for twenty years to herd sheep. His pregnant young wife, who was abducted by a foreign war party and made queen, just sighed and acquiesced. The king who should have set his world on fire to explore and conquer, did practically nothing except grow old and tired and eventually die. Yawn. The only character in the book who was remotely interesting was a madman--but in such a big novel, he was lost in the noise.

Hint to Anderson: next time, make your characters exciting.

B&N link

Dying Bites by D D Barant

Yet another urban fantasy series. I'd really love to say this one stood out in some fashion from the genre, but the truth is it doesn't. From its cookie-cutter MC to its snarky, double-entendre title it's pretty much a carbon copy of everything on the UF shelf that you've already read.

Let's start with that MC--and I can't do it any better than the book does itself:

"I get my share of male attention. I stand five eight, do a hundred crunches a day and have the abs to prove it. I've been told I have the neckline of a goddess, though nobody ever says which one. My hair is long, very black, and full, while my features tend more toward the Slavic definition of beauty than North American. I don't put on a miniskirt unless I mean it, but when I do I can cause car accidents."

Mary Sue, any one? MC is tough as nails, carries an oversized gun (page 3: "It's a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan, a short-barreled revolver chambered with .454 ammunition..."), enough martial arts to handle a werewolf in full attack mode... you get the drift.

Pretty bad so far. The only thing that remotely makes this series different from its peers is its setting: the first pages introduce the MC being slipped from our universe through a dimensional gateway to a parallel one, and in this new place humans are a small government-protected minority of the population (rough thirds being vampire, were and golem--that last at least an interesting addition). And the only part of the plot that's worthwhile is that the MC is chasing a serial killer, and it's at least mildly interesting to try to figure out what's happening before the characters do.

The book culminates in a Deus Ex Machina ending, nearly literally, that comes through as a horrific blunt trauma to the reader's suspension of disbelief. It's clear that the author wants to set up a sequel--and in fact, one's available--but I have no idea why any reader would bother.

B&N link

Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs by Albert Jack

When you subtitle your book "The World's Most Puzzling Mysteries SOLVED," you really ought to stick to the mysteries that have been reasonably well solved.

Of course, that's not the main problem of Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs. The main problem is that Albert Jack comes across as a snide, unpleasant man who can't resist getting digs in about people he thinks are too gullible. His research could be more thorough, too.

Ordinarily, this is the kind of book I just eat up, especially if it's well-written. Albert's not a bad writer, although he sometimes tends to gloss over (or leave out) significant events and other times gets bogged down in too much detail. The too-much-detail problem pops up most when he's writing about famous or semi-famous people who died mysteriously (Marilyn Monroe, Glenn Miller, Robert Maxwell), where he goes off onto tangents and spends far too much page time on minutiae. I can only assume this is because researching such well-publicized and recent events is easy since so much is available, and he just threw everything in. On the other hand, some of the most interesting topics were disposed of in only two or three pages: the "Dover Demon" (the chapter in this book contains less information than any other treatment I've ever read), John Dillinger's death (I saw a recent TV show that went into more detail than this book does, which is odd because so many other chapters discuss celebrity deaths in such tedious detail), and most frustrating of all, the mystery of "The Magnetic Strip." According to the book, a little stretch of German highway built in 1929 was the site of a hundred-some car crashes within one year, which turned out to be caused by "a powerful magnetic force" that was countered by burying a chunk of copper in the ground nearby. I've never even heard about this event before and I would have dearly loved to read more than the four paragraphs Jack devotes to it.

There's an index but no bibliography, no section for notes or sources. I have no idea, therefore, whether Jack was digging deeper in his research than most books of this kind or if he was just repeating facts he found in other secondary sources. In general, he does a good job of relating events and presenting the most recent (and the most practical and well-received) solutions to mysteries.

BUT he is a jerk. I didn't really notice until the third chapter, which is about Bigfoot. Now, I don't really have an opinion either way on Bigfoot; it would be awesome if definitive proof turned up one day, but I'm not one of those people who, you know, care. But the way Albert Jack goes on and on and on in the chapter, making fun of people who dare to think that Bigfoot might actually exist, you'd think a Bigfoot hunter had personally wronged him. Seriously, he's so vicious and ranty in that chapter that it feels strangely personal. I was so turned off by that chapter that I almost put the book down. I kept reading, but I skimmed the crop circles and Loch Ness Monster chapters because Jack kept jeering at those believers too (thought without reaching the level of bile he reserved for the Bigfoot hunters). Once I had noticed his derision, though, I found it throughout the book. He makes fun of pretty much everyone who isn't Albert Jack, throwing in asides to sneer at UFO researchers, anorak-wearers, Bermuda Triangle believers, and the gullible people who read books like the ones he writes. Insulting groups of people repeatedly in print (in attempts to be funny) is not cool. Insulting your own readers is just flat-out batshit.

Even without the spotty research and the insults, though, I wouldn't want to read anything else by Jack. Maybe he didn't subtitle the book "Mysteries SOLVED" himself, but when there is no rational explanation for an event, he doesn't propose one himself. He'll of course bring up the theories of alien abduction and sea monsters so he can laugh at them, but he never suggests any of the more mundane possibilities unless he can be sure they're well-accepted. That just brands him as a non-thinker to me. Why should I read a nonfiction book by someone who can't be bothered to think about his own topics beyond repeating what other authors say?

B&N link

Monday, October 18, 2010

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski

Yes, I do still read books written for grown-ups. Also sometimes I accidentally hit ctl-P and publish a post before I write more than one sentence.

So, okay, where was I? Expiration Date. I saw this reviewed somewhere and thought it sounded interesting, so I bought it, and then I looked at it in confusion and couldn't remember why I'd bought it. And then I read the back and thought, "Hey, interesting." I sometimes suspect I have the memory of a goldfish.

Mickey Wade is newly unemployed with no prospects and no savings. He moves into his grandfather's old apartment in his childhood neighborhood, now a bad part of town, since his grandfather's in a coma in the hospital. The first night he's there, Mickey wakes up in the middle of the night--in the past. It's 1972, the year he was born.

The more Mickey learns about the events in his past, the more uneasy he becomes. It's not just about his own past, but his father's and his grandfather's too. Oh, and a string of unsolved murders--including the murder of Mickey's dad.

The book is well-written, unfolding without haste but with plenty of tension. Mickey isn't the most sympathetic character I've ever read--he makes poor choices and drinks too much--but he's understandable and he tries to do the right thing. The plot is a fascinating take on a time-travel story. I thought I had it figured out toward the beginning, but I was completely wrong. That's a great feeling.

I did find the story awfully depressing. There are no bright spots in Mickey's life. Even Meghan, the friend who helps him as he slips in and out of the past, is a little distant with him. His family is a dysfunctional mess, his life in such ruins that it almost felt a little cartoonish. But the gritty, atmospheric look at 1972 Philadelphia manages to be both compelling and nostalgic without being overwhelmed by the intricate (and sometimes confusing) plot.

I enjoyed the book very much, but I will say the ending left me a little flat. I'd have liked it if Mickey was a little quicker on the uptake about the events at the end, and the very last couple of lines just soured me on the whole book. I won't go into detail because I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but I will say that there is no feasible way that the item described in the last few sentences could be there. None. It was such a blatant "look how clever I am" moment on the author's part that it retroactively made the whole book that much less enjoyable.

But it's still a good book. Just ignore the last paragraph.

B&N link

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

My mom checked this out of the library for me, probably as a result of a conversation we had last week about why there aren't more (or any) books where the main character is a little person.

At twelve years old, Harleigh J. Weatherby IV is still only the size of a boy half his age. He's sick of the surgeries that don't help and he's sick of people telling him what to do. His last surgery, on his heart, has made him feel better, though, and he spends his time exploring the overgrown grounds of his family's enormous ancestral mansion. He's searching specifically for the old yew maze, but what he finds instead is a girl trespassing on the property. She calls herself Allegra and claims she can fly. But not only does she know where the entrance to the maze is, she's also made some interesting observations of the family members who live in the mansion--observations that may lead to the solution of a century-old mystery.

Although Harleigh is twelve, the book seems written for much younger children. That's fine, but the writing seems a bit uneven. The characterizations are wonderful, the plot is interesting, but it starts slow and the ending seems rushed. I loved how dreamy and mysterious Allegra is, and I loved the way she influences Harleigh without her intending to and without his noticing; I didn't love how she disappears from the plot entirely after the climax of the book and the revelation of who she is turns out to be such an afterthought.

Harleigh is a stubborn, complex character. In the hands of a lesser author he might have come across as unlikable, but Zilpha Keatley Snyder makes him sympathetic with the deftest of touches. His quiet transformation is believable, even if the plot is a little too pat. The last twenty pages feel more like a summary than the ending chapters of a book.

Overall I was disappointed with The Treasures of Weatherby, although I enjoyed most of it. One of my biggest disappointments concerns Harleigh's height issues. [mild spoiler alert] Harleigh discovers partway through the book that he is actually growing, until by the end his uncle points out he's getting close to an age-appropriate height. Just once I would like to read a book with a little person character who does not start growing to normal height or turn out to be a hyperintelligent toddler (that one really infuriated me) (and I should point out quickly that I've strayed off-topic and I'm talking about a completely different book now). If anyone has any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.

B&N link

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh

This is one of the exceptions I've made when it comes to buying hardbacks. Look at that cover! It's gorgeous. I had to have the book, not just because I'd heard it was good.

And it is good, very much so. It's set in the 14th century in a humble monastery. Fourteen-year-old Will is a servant at the monastery--his family died in a fire over a year ago and he had nowhere else to go--and at the beginning of the book, he discovers a hob caught in an animal trap. He rescues the hob and takes him to one of the monks to get his broken leg set. Meanwhile, a strange visitor and his even stranger servant arrive at the monastery, searching for something. And Will has overheard rumors that an angel died on the monastery grounds a hundred years before.

Pat Walsh describes the winter weather in the book so effectively that I kept feeling cold while I was reading, no matter how warm the room I was in. While parts of the plot (like Will finding the hob coincidentally just before the stranger arrives, Will happening to overhear pertinent information) are a little too coincidental, I didn't notice while I was reading. The plot is fascinating, Will is a likable character with a difficult past and uncertain future, and the setting is wonderful. I liked that the details of the monastery are only shown incidental to Will's own activities. It gave it a more realistic tone and didn't make me think I was reading a book for a history class.

The ending sets up the possibility of a sequel. I hope it's as good as this book, and that it has such a wonderful cover.

B&N link

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas

I read the first book in this series maybe two years ago and loved it. I finally bought the sequel--I don't buy many hardbacks and waited until the paperback was available; I guess I'd be buying the third book, The Magic Thief: Found, which came out in hardback in May, around this time next year.

One of the things I really like about this series is its unpredictability. Too many middle-grade books follow a pretty set formula and I can guess the ending well before I'm halfway through the book. These books are different. They're also fantastic.

Connwaer--which means black bird, although he's usually known as Conn--is a thief who happens to be a wizard. A potential wizard, anyway. In the first book, Conn pickpocketed a wizard named Nevery, who ultimately took him on as an apprentice. This book picks up a year after the previous book's events. Conn's no closer to finding his locus magicalicus--the locus stone that will let him work magic--and as a result, he's not allowed to go to school and is barely allowed to remain Nevery's apprentice. On the other hand, Conn's not going to let a little thing like that stand in his way. He's certain there are other ways to reach the magic that protects his city of Wellmet. He's also certain the magic is a living being, and that wizards' magic words are its language. And he's pretty sure one way of contacting the magic is by setting off small, slow explosions. It works--and Conn learns to his dismay that the magic of Wellmet is frightened, and that it expects him to help it. He just doesn't know what he's supposed to do.

I love Sarah Prineas's writing, which is clear and clever. She has a playfulness with words that fits easily into Conn's character--the story is told in first person. Conn is quiet, stubborn, and both a thinker and a do-er. He's also immensely likable, probably because he worries about those who are close to him, including Wellmet's magic. He does what he knows has to be done to help others, but he does it his own way--which of course includes picking locks and picking pockets.

Powell's link

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood

I absolutely loved Gary Blackwood's Shakespeare Stealer trilogy. It was so brilliant, in fact, that I dug around online until I found a similar book by Blackwood, The Year of the Hangman. It's set during the American Revolution. If anyone could make me interested in this otherwise yawn-inducing, elementary-school-social-studies-ruined-it-for-me slice of history, I figured it would be Blackwood.

Yeah. Well. I figured wrong. The book is actually an alternate history, in which George Washington was captured by the British and the revolution fizzled. That ought to be interesting. Unfortunately, the main character is fifteen-year-old Creighton Brown, a British subject sent to the colonies against his will, and he's an unlikable little shit. Since he spends the entire first half of the book being arrogant, whiny, offensive, and rude, I couldn't warm up to him even after he started remembering to thank people for saving his life.

Quite apart from the main character, the story itself feels unfocused. Even after Creighton sees the error of his ways and begins to sympathize with the poor oppressed Americans, he doesn't really have a purpose. He helps Benjamin Franklin with his printing press, he meets Benedict Arnold, he hears rumors of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but he doesn't have anything much to do. He's repeatedly rescued from peril by other characters. I can only conclude that he's in the story so that he can observe it for us.

The writing is okay, but it's not nearly at the level I expected. There's a lot of telling-not-showing dropped in here and there, especially in the first half of the book. For instance: this passage from page 82, which comes out of nowhere and is apropos of nothing: "Creighton's mother was fond of telling anyone who would listen that she had always been good to her son, but what she called kindness was really indulgence. She had given him everything he wanted and withheld the one thing he really needed--her affection." If this had been Creighton musing on his past in a moment of reflection, I could have swallowed it a little easier, but it's not. Creighton's still in full-on asshole mode at this point. That paragraph is the author telling us something that he couldn't be bothered to show instead.

I'd be remiss also if I didn't point out the whiteness of the book. Slavery is only mentioned in passing, no one in the story keeps slaves, Creighton is afraid of savage Indians but doesn't see any, no one drops even a hint of a racial slur, and there are no characters in the story who aren't white (presumably--no one's skin color is described). It's as though people of color don't really exist in this version of history.

I was disappointed in this one. At least The Shakespeare Stealer and its sequels are worth reading.

B&N link

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene Low

It's 1903 and Petronella's Uncle Augustus has just accidentally swallowed a large beetle. Apparently as a result, he's taken to eating nothing but insects--and spiders, and slugs, and earthworms. Petronella is concerned for her uncle, and just as worried about how people will react. Eating bugs is simply not done. But during her coming-out party, any scandal Uncle Augustus may have incited is eclipsed by the kidnapping of Generalissimo Alejandro Reyes-Cardoza of Panama and Dame Carruthers. The only clue is a ransom note with a rare butterfly pinned to it.

The story is cute and very slight, with not a whole lot of action and essentially no tension. It's amusing, though, and peopled with eccentric characters. It's also an extremely fast read. Every time I lost interest and was tempted to put the book down and wander off, I would remind myself how fast a read it is. If it wasn't such a chilly day--which means I've spent a few hours wrapped up warmly and drinking tea--I don't know that I would have been interested enough to finish the book.

Still, there's nothing about it that I disliked. Younger kids would probably find it a lot of fun.

B&N link

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sevenfold Spell by Tia Nevitt

I'm a little diffident about writing this review, since the author, Tia Nevitt, is a fellow book blogger whose reviews have introduced me to lots of lovely books over the last couple of years. I almost decided to not review her book at all--but that seems like a cop-out, and particularly unfair to her since it's not like I didn't like the book.

So I'm reviewing The Sevenfold Spell, which was released this week as an ebook. Many (if not most) of my problems with the book have nothing to do with the writing--which is good--and everything to do with how it's marketed. The publisher has it listed as fantasy. It's actually a romance, which is not a genre I read very often and not one I enjoy particularly. As my sister-in-law says about my mom's habit of tossing candy in with her movie popcorn, "Ugh, think popcorn, get Junior Mint." I expected a fantasy and was disappointed. But that's not the author's fault.

The Sevenfold Spell is about Talia, a plain young woman who lives with her mother. They're spinsters--in the original meaning, that is, since they spin fiber into thread for a living. Talia knows she's plain, but she doesn't mind too much since her homely friend William has already asked her to marry him. Unfortunately, the newborn princess of the realm has been cursed by a fairy: when she reaches 16, she'll prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a hundred years of sleep. All the spinning wheels in the realm are destroyed, which ruins Talia's future. Her dowry goes to buy food now that her mother has no income, and William's father ships him off to a monastery to become a monk.

This is a fascinating opening, and I was eager to find out how the lack of spinning wheels would affect the world. In two words: it doesn't. This book (novella, rather--it's pretty short) is not a fantasy, so the fantasy world is only a vehicle for the romance between Talia and William. That's fine, if you reached into the popcorn bag expecting to get a Junior Mint. I was left hungry for worldbuilding which didn't come.

My main problem, though, was with Talia. The only time she showed any gumption was when she wanted to seduce a man, which she did a lot. (I liked her mother, who decides to build a spinning wheel in secret and sell the resulting thread as an expensive 'import.') Talia's entire existence is wrapped up in men: William, who is lost to her; the older man she seduces; the affairs she has over the years. I found her shallow, passive, and remarkably empty emotionally. I couldn't root for her because there was nothing there to root for.

I've read over what I've written so far, and I see that this review is coming off as really negative. I was afraid of that. I just can't evaluate a genre of book I don't read. Again, the writing is solid, and the plot is interesting (despite some motivational issues that felt like plot holes to me, since I'm intensely plot-driven). I liked the ending--especially what Talia's mother does, which almost had me cheering out loud.

One last gripe, though, and this one I can't blame on the genre. The author does not know anything about spinning. I've been a spinner myself for something like 15 years now, and every single time spinning came up in the story, it was handled wrong. First problem: 'modern' spinning wheels--you know, the ones without sharp spindles--were invented in something like the 12th century, although they remained in common use up to the industrial revolution. They're usually called walking wheels or great wheels and they are very big. Talia describes the wheel itself as being about two feet across, which is about half the size of a walking wheel but a common size for a modern wheel--again, the ones without sharp spindles. Second problem: Talia's mother and one other woman on their street are the only spinners in the area, and competed originally since the town wasn't really big enough for two spinners. *boggle* Before the industrial revolution, every single household had a spinning wheel. Spinning is a time-consuming, laborious process. For every hour a weaver works on a piece of cloth, spinners have put in approximately 30 hours of work making the thread the weaver uses. Third problem: If you don't have a spinning wheel of any kind, out of necessity people will go back to the older methods of spinning, which are varied but simple. All you need is a stick (not sharpened!) with a weight on one end and a notch in the other, and you can spin all day long without worrying about any princesses getting hurt. Fourth problem: Spinning wheels are not noisy. They make a soft whirring sound and can squeak a little, but it's never very loud--certainly not loud enough to be heard outside a house unless the wheel is right next to an open window and it's a very quiet day, and even then you'd have to be really close.

Okay, sorry, I'm done preaching about my hobby. If you like romance at all, definitely give this one a try. It's a charming little story with an interesting setting. I definitely hope Tia Nevitt writes a fantasy with romantic elements (instead of the other way around) next, because I'd love to see what she does with it.

link to publisher Carina Press

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers by Harry Harrison

I read a lot of Harry Harrison's books when I was younger, but I hadn't read one in years when I heard about Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. I bought it without having the least idea what it was about.

Here's the first sentence, and if you don't wring your hands and grin with glee, you've either never read Harry Harrison or you've never read any of the bad SF books he's parodying: "'Come on, Jerry,' Chuck called out cheerfully from inside the rude shed that the two chums had fixed up as a simple laboratory."

Harry Harrison is a very funny writer, and he's dead-on with his imitation of bad SF. The story follows Jerry and Chuck, their friend Sally, and the mysterious John as they accidentally invent an ultra-powerful substance they call cheddite (because it's made from cheddar cheese) and use it to travel the galaxy. The story is hilariously illogical and full of long paragraphs of beautifully written balonium. By the end of the book, every time I saw the word 'ravening,' I had to giggle uncontrollably.

My main problem with the book is its length. By about halfway through, the whole parody thing started to feel old. I wonder if Harrison might have felt the same way, because about the time I caught myself getting bored with the joke, the story began to feel like less of a parody and more like a real Harry Harrison book: witty, inventive, fast-paced, and unexpected.

This book was first published in 1973. Some of the slang is outdated, but in a weird way that just adds an extra layer of funniness to the parody.

B&N link

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer

This book is a fast read--two and a bit hours for me, and that was with me checking Twitter compulsively every couple of minutes. I think this may be the first time I've posted two book reviews in one day.

I've been a fan of Caroline Stevermer for years (her postapocalyptic YA River Rats is a truly brilliant book), and I love the books she's written with Patricia Wrede. I had no idea she'd written another book set in the same world as Sorcery & Cecilia until I noticed it on someone else's blog (I can't remember whose, but probably Book Aunt).

Magic Below Stairs tells the story of Frederick Lincoln, an orphan who's hired as a footboy in Thomas Schofield's household. If you've read Sorcery & Cecilia you don't need to be told that Lord Schofield is a wizard. Frederick has a bit of magic too, though, something he's not even aware of: the brownie Billy Bly has taken a liking to him. Where Frederick goes, Billy Bly goes--even if Frederick's new employer doesn't want him around. Brownies are trouble, and Thomas Schofield's wife is pregnant and mustn't be disturbed. But Billy Bly discovers an old curse lingering on the house, and no one but Frederick believes him.

The story is simple and lively, and Frederick's a likable guy. His loneliness when Billy Bly is sent away is moving; the way he helps track down the curse is a lot of fun. Frederick is eleven, so the book is meant for younger kids, but it certainly held my attention.

B&N link

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

The cover of Redemption in Indigo is absolutely beautiful, and I love the title. While I was reading it, I felt terribly intelligent--it's the sort of cover and title that tell everyone, "I am reading a weighty work of literature." But the joke was on all those hypothetical people, because while Redemption in Indigo is a work of literature, it's not weighty at all. It's a charming, deceptively simple, fun work of literature.

It's based on a Senegalese folk tale, and it's meant to imitate the spoken word--which works so well that even the author asides became part of the full story. The writing is beautifully clear, the characters fully realized and sympathetic.

The story revolves around Paama, who leaves her buffoonish glutton of a husband to return to her family in the village where she grew up. Her husband follows her and she wearily extricates him from several fixes his greed gets him into. At the same time, the djombi--immortal spirits who interact with humans in different ways--have taken notice of Paama. They decide she's the right person to wield the Chaos Stick, which they've taken away from a djombi who had neglected and abused his power. But the Chaos Stick's former owner is determined to get the stick back.

There is no way to do justice to the story with a simple plot summary. The book's strength is its warmth. Even the bad guys have understandable motivations--and in the end, no one's really bad. Paama learns some bitter lessons during her adventures, but throughout everything she remains a strong, kind, dutiful woman.

When I finished the book, I set it down smiling. Then I burst into tears. I don't think I've ever reacted to a book quite like that before. I'm now passing my copy around to everyone I know, saying, "Read this. You'll be a better person afterwards."

B&N link