Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wild Hunt by Margaret Ronald

One of the reasons I started Skunk Cat Book Reviews was to help myself keep track of all the urban fantasies I've been reading in the last year or so. They tend to blend together in my memory and they all have sequels. Margaret Ronald's Wild Hunt would have been a good candidate for me to go back and read my review of the first book in the series, Spiral Hunt--not that I reviewed it, of course, since that was pre-Skunk Cat. That's nothing against the quality of either of Ronald's books; in fact, so far the series is nicely different from the usual urban fantasy fare. I just have a terrible memory.

Anyway, Wild Hunt stands alone pretty well. It picks up a few months after the events of Spiral Hunt. Evie Scelan is still a bike courier in Boston and she's still trying to keep her head down despite her increasing notoriety in the city's undercurrent--the magical subculture. She's an unusual type of magician called a hound, able to trace people and things magically, a skill which she likens to scenting and hunting. In the last book, she used her skills to take down a group called the Fiana; now that they're gone, people seem to expect her to take their place running the undercurrent.

Evie's not interested in taking over--except that she actually is. She wants to keep Boston peaceful for non-mages and mages alike, and she particularly wants to help her friend Nick and his little sister. In fact, that's the main problem with Evie: she wants to help, even if it means putting herself into danger. When an old woman hires Evie to find something stolen by an ancestor, the danger level just goes up and up.

Evie is a likable character, cautious but stubborn. I got frustrated with her sometimes because (unlike many urban fantasy heroines), she's not one to solve problems with violence--no matter how much I wanted her to just hit one or two characters repeatedly with a rock. I also got frustrated with her for missing clues that seemed so obvious that they practically had "CLUE" stickers on them in neon colors.

Evie's relationship with Nick--which is complicated by something I can't tell you about without spoilering it horribly--progresses realistically, which is one of the book's great strengths. The plot twists and turns and the writing is good; I especially like the way Ronald describes scents. The only real disappointment I had was with the ending. The main mysteries of the plot are solved, but nothing is resolved. I didn't really feel satisfied when I finished the book, since it was so much of a setup for the sequel. (And yes, this is something I've brought up several times recently. I don't know if I've just started noticing it or if it's getting more prevalent.)

At least when the next book comes out, I'll have this review to get me up to speed.

B&N link

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon by Gideon Defoe

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon is the fourth Pirates book and the second one I've read (I love The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, the first book). Obviously I need to pick up the middle two books, because this one's just as awesome as the first one.

In this book, the Pirate Captain decides to give up pirating after a disastrous loss at the Pirate of the Year Awards. He and his crew end up on the island of St. Helena, where they're joined shortly afterwards by Napoleon. The Pirate Captain and Napoleon take an immediate dislike to each other.

I can't even begin to tell you how truly funny this book is. Many times I was laughing out loud, rather hysterically. I can't even think of the Pirate Captain's secret weapon to defeat Napoleon without starting to giggle inappropriately. These are funny books. I can't stress that enough. And since there's a great dearth of truly funny, witty books in the world (most supposedly funny books are just a collection of sad puns), I highly recommend The Pirates! books.

B&N link

Friday, February 19, 2010

Extraordinary Animals Revisited by Karl P.N. Shuker

I tried hard to read this one slowly, savoring it. I do love this guy's books. Extraordinary Animals Revisited is an updated edition of Dr. Shuker's 1991 book Extraordinary Animals Worldwide. Shuker is a zoologist with a strong interest in cryptozoology--the study of animals that may or may not actually exist, or which are poorly understood, thought to be extinct, or which show up in places far from their known habitats, etc. It's a fascinating field and Shuker ranges widely, discussing the legends surrounding the deathshead hawk moth in one chapter, exploring the possible real-life birds that were inspiration for the phoenix myth, covering the types of unknown canids reported all over the world, and examining extinct birds that might not necessarily be extinct after all.

It's endlessly fascinating, full of details and anecdotes. I eat this stuff up. I didn't realize that some people might find it a little bit dry in spots until I was reading aloud to Jackie (she was a captive audience since she was using my computer for something) from the chapter about unusual mice and rats.

I don't find it dry at all. If you can't keep track of Latin names of animals, you can just mentally bleep over them. Don't worry, none of this will be on the final.

I appreciate that Shuker doesn't focus on the old crytozoological standbys, like the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti. Like his other books (this is the third of his that I've read), he digs a little deeper than most writers to find the overlooked and obscure. The book has an extensive bibliography and recommended reading section as well as an index. Oh, and there's even a chapter on hoaxes.

If you're interested in animals and the mysteries of the natural world, but you're sick of poorly researched articles on Bigfoot, you really need to read Shuker's books.

B&N link

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken

I first read Joan Aiken's book Armitage, Armitage Fly Away Home when I was a kid, and I own a copy. It's a collection of stories about the Armitage family, to which odd things happen on Mondays (and sometimes on other days). They're very funny, sometimes poignant, always entertaining. I had no idea there were more stories than the ones I had read and reread in Armitage, Armitage.

The Serial Garden collects them all, including four new ones--24 stories in all. They're all a lot of fun, even if some of them leave the reader with more questions than answers (although sometimes Aiken answers some of the questions in later stories).

One thing I noticed is the change in tone from the earliest stories, written when Aiken was in her teens, to the latest ones, written when she was in her late 70s (she died in 2004). The early stories are fun nonsense, silly and merry; bad things happen, but everything comes out right in the end. They remind me a little of Aiken's Arabel and Mortimer stories (which I also love). However, the last stories have a more somber feel. Sad things happen and stay happened--in one story, for instance, someone dies, which really shocked me (not one of the Armitages, I hasten to add). The next to last story in the anthology, "Don't Go Fishing on Witches' Day," is a poignant story of loss and aging that moved me to tears.

But the last story, "Milo's New Word," provides the Armitage children Mark and Harriet with a baby brother, Milo, who picks up the phone at the wrong time and ends up turned into a elephant calf. It's a return to the madcap fun of the earlier stories, and a perfect way to end the book.

B&N link, or order direct from the publisher Small Beer Press (with free shipping in the U.S.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

I’d forgotten how much I liked Anne Tyler. Having just savored Noah’s Compass, her latest, I can’t wait to get back to the library to see what I’ve missed from this prolific novelist whose writing is clever and witty and sometimes heartbreakingly poignant.

In Noah’s Compass, Tyler’s 18th novel, the premise is deceptively simple:

Liam, a man in late middle age, loses his job, which he never liked much anyway.

He moves into a small apartment, and is rather pleased with his new ascetic life, a slowing-down life with less money and less clutter:

“What reason would he have to move again? No new prospects were likely for him. He had accomplished all the conventional tasks -- grown up, found work, gotten married, had children -- and now he was winding down. This is it, he thought. The very end of the line. . . . He was going to be one of those men who die alone among stacks of yellowed newspapers and the dried-out rinds of sandwiches moldering on plates."

After the movers leave, he arranges his furniture, puts away his dishes, and goes to sleep.

He wakes up in the hospital, his head bandaged and his hand bitten. He has no memory of the intruder who broke into his home and bashed his skull.

Gently, Tyler opens up Liam’s life to the reader, and it’s clear he is a clueless man who doesn’t know how to engage with people. His daughters find him irritating and baffling. His ex-wife has given up on him long ago.

But his trauma has startled him awake and hurled him—and with him, his family—into a late-mid-life crisis.

Noah's Compass is a gently written account of a life, and by the end of Liam’s story, I've grown to care about this hapless man, I wish him well, and I'm sad to say goodbye.

B&N link

Monday, February 8, 2010

Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch by B.J. Daniels

I wasn't even going to admit to reading this book, but I can't avoid it. Lertulo's snowed in without internet access, Jackie's reading something she's already told me she won't review, and I haven't finished a book since Crime Scene at Cardwell Ranch by B.J. Daniels. It's not just a Harlequin Intrigue book, it's the one Harlequin chose to give away free to get people hooked on the line.

Where to start? Well, first of all, I'm not a big reader of romance and this was, in fact, the first category romance I'd ever read. I'm also a bit hampered in my review because after finishing the book I, um, *mumbles*useditforkindlinginthefireweweresnowedin*mumbles* and I can't remember the main characters' names. I remember the guy's dad's name was Brick Savage, which is just barely one step above Beef Hardslab, but the other names have just drifted out of my head.

The plot was pretty good. The mystery was interesting, I didn't guess the murderer, and the pacing was brisk. The two main characters were bland but pleasant. I didn't really care that much if they got together in the end, but I was mildly pleased when they did. The writing--well, I'll just gently say that I got a lot of good laughs out of the book that may not have been intended, but laughing is always good, right?

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help pulled me in after chapter one, and I kept reading till almost midnight the first day...

The book takes place in the early sixties, at the beginning of the civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi, where black maids work for less than minimum wage and aren't allowed to use the family bathrooms.

The author focuses on three memorable women: Minnie, a wonderful cook, often gets fired for "being sassy" to her employers; Aibillen, another maid, is raising her seventeenth white child; and Skeeter is a recent college graduate and Junior League member whose mother is bent on her marrying well.

When the three women take on a clandestine and dangerous project, it changes all their lives.

The author, Kathryn Stockett, a Jackson native who grew up with a maid in her family, has a good ear for the voices of her characters, two of whom speak in the dialect of the time. She is particularly clever at pacing and dialogue, and her plot is beautifully planned and executed. Some of the plot points feel a bit contrived or pushed, and at times a little unbelievable, but the story is powerful and the characters fascinating.

This is a winner for book clubs. It's shocking and funny and hard to put down.

B&N link