Friday, April 30, 2010

The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney

It's been a while since I posted a review here, largely because I've been re-reading old favorites instead of trying new things--and that in turn was because I had hit a streak of trash.

That streak has ended, because Paul Kearney has put something memorable on the shelf. He has in fact created a veritable Thing here, which merits the capital letter and all that it implies.

The Ten Thousand is a military fantasy novel that, unlike most such, never accidentally trips on the military part. Inside you'll find many battles, yes, and vivid descriptions of warriors' lives: the camaraderie is palpable, the characters are well realized and the world-building is top notch. But the epic climactic battle actually takes place in the middle, not at the end--which reinforces the fact that the book isn't all about the fighting. Wow.

I found one stretch--maybe pages 75 to 150--where the pacing was a little slow. And I found the ending a little unsatisfying, until I realized the author was probably just setting up the sequel--which is fine by me.

B&N link

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bewitched & Betrayed by Lisa Shearin

First: Over a year ago, author Lisa Shearin ran a "name the bordello" contest on her blog, which I entered and won. That's why I'm listed in the Acknowledgments section of the book (which is totally awesome), and while I don't think that's influenced my review, I thought I'd better be transparent about it. Also I just wanted to brag.

It's certainly no secret that I love this series. It starts with Magic Lost, Trouble Found, where elf Raine Benares, a seeker of modest magical abilities, has her life turned upside-down when she puts on a stolen amulet. It bonds her with the Saghred, an ancient, soul-stealing rock once used to level armies and bring entire nations to their knees. Raine doesn't want anything to do with the Saghred--but she can't take the amulet off.

Now, in Bewitched & Betrayed, the fourth book in the series, Raine's free of the amulet but definitely not free of the Saghred. The book jumps right into the action with a chase through a bordello* and never lets up. What starts out as an attempt to recapture a handful of corrupt, disembodied souls that escaped from the Saghred in the third book turns into a race to outwit an evil goblin mage. The mage wants the Saghred--and Raine--and he literally will stop at nothing to get both.

Raine is a thoroughly likable character. She's tough and refuses to let anyone fight her battles for her, but she's got a softer side too. Her relationships with the people around her--friend and foe--are well developed and have major impacts on the plot.

There are signs that the series is nearing its natural close. For one thing, I'm not sure Shearin can up the stakes or the action much more without giving all her readers heart attacks. For another, Raine's relationship with one of the two important men in her life takes a serious turn in this book, with a well-written (and to my mind, long overdue!) love scene.

The book is tightly plotted and action-packed--there are explosions, magical fights, swordfights, chases, life or death decisions--but the pacing never feels frenetic. The book visits some dark places, but its tone is light and it's often funny. If you haven't tried the series yet, I highly recommend you pick up all four books and settle in for a marvelous week of reading, with the knowledge that each book is even better than the last.

*which I named

B&N link

Sunday, April 25, 2010

FEEDING GROUND - reviewed by Sin

By Sarah Pinborough
Leisure Fiction

First the essentials: The GSA score.
Gore: moderate
Sex: None : (
Angst: Elegantly written and well maintained.

This was a good book. I need to say that right off the bat, otherwise what I write later might be horribly misconstrued. The only flaw in this novel, if it can be called a flaw, is that I went into it anticipating something different.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever craved a certain food? Pizza, for example. Maybe a pizza topped with legions of spider monsters, that drag their victims down the streets by bulging ropes of human intestines. In any case, you’re in the mood for pizza. You order the pizza, wait for it to get there, only when you open the door the delivery guy hands you a lasagna. Had you been in the mood for lasagna, you would be ecstatic. Alas, you wanted spider pizza.

I wanted a gore-soaked frenzy of arachnid brutality. What I got was decidedly more focused on the human drama. The spiders did some nasty shit, don’t get me wrong, but FEEDING GROUND is strongest as an examination of what happens to regular people when the world goes to shit. In many ways, it reminded me of THE STAND. The characters here range from drug lords to English school boys, all of whom have to sack up and face a world spiraled well beyond any sane person’s frame of reference. Sarah Pinborough did a magnificent job of this. If you want to get inside a character’s head, she ranks among the best.

Now, when I say “sack up,” I mean it quite literally. In the “gone to shit” world of FEEDING GROUND, women quickly go the way of the dodo. I won’t go into specifics, lest I ruin the red, wet surprise, but suffice to say there’s a reason no one was getting laid in this novel. That said, I wouldn’t have been sad to see a few guys give into their urges with each other. I mean come on, who are they holding out for? Time to start lending a helping hand, fellas.

But I digress. As for a summary of the plot, I’ll keep it short and sweet: There are spider monsters in London. Several groups of survivors must deal with the constant threat of death, while strategizing a way to get out of the city. Unfortunately, there are worse things than spider monsters to deal with.

If you like your tragedy multi-layered, and characters that stay with you long after the last page, then this is the perfect book to pick up. If you want loads of gore, I recommend reading something else. Then, when you get your gore fix, go back and read FEEDING GROUND. Horror is a buffet, and it would be a shame to load up your plate with only one thing ; )


B&N link

Friday, April 23, 2010

Master of None by Sonya Bateman

Gavyn Donatti is a thief. At the beginning of Master of None, he's on the run from thugs employed by a man who hired Donatti to steal an antique knife for him. Donatti did--but then he lost the knife.

Donatti is attempting to escape when a man appears and rescues him. Ian, it turns out, is a djinn. He tells Donatti he's there to help him achieve his life's purpose, but the reality is much different, as Donatti finds out slowly. Donatti is the mortal descendant of Ian himself, and Ian needs his help to track down another djinn who wants to rule the world. Or something close enough to that, anyway. The plot is basically a nonstop car chase for two-thirds of the book, and then it's a long confrontation that essentially takes place in one room.

Everyone in the book, including Donatti himself, repeatedly calls him a loser. I kept waiting for his hidden smarts to show, but they never do. He reveals abilities when Ian teaches him how to do things that djinns can do, but he never proves that he's particularly clever. He's a nice enough guy, but he's not exactly hero material and he never comes across as a hero even when he's doing heroic stuff. He's just going through the motions because that's what the author needs him to do.

That's a problem with most of the book. Events happen not because they grow out of previous events, but because the plot needs them to happen. There are a lot of characters along for the car chases and they all argue constantly, usually about why they shouldn't have to do what someone else told them to do--and then they screw things up so that the plot can advance. Donatti does a lot of screwing up. If the characters get too stuck, a little bit of magic saves the day, but if things start going too smoothly, the magic runs out. This happens over and over and over again. I felt kind of sorry for Bateman's characters by the end, particularly poor Donatti.

Donatti takes more abuse in this book than any character I think I've ever encountered. From the opening pages to the very end, he's constantly hit, kicked, shot, tasered, smacked around, tortured, insulted, and beat up. I question the need for the extended torture scenes, which I thought went on for too long for no particular purpose except to show that the bad guy is really bad. So much happens to Donatti, in fact, that I eventually stopped registering it. It doesn't slow him down appreciably; if he gets too knocked around, Ian heals him, unless the plot requires him to stay down for a little while. Because I stopped caring about the damage dealt to Donatti, I stopped caring about Donatti's problems too. He didn't seem particularly concerned with them either.

Despite the lackluster plot, I did like a lot about the book. Donatti's relationship with his sometime girlfriend Jazz is believable (even if I found Jazz really, really, really annoying and largely unbelievable as a character), and Ian's long-distance relationship with his wife is moving. I liked Ian, for that matter; his motivations and personality are both much more powerful and interesting than Donatti's are. His weaknesses made him appear much stronger than Donatti, who basically just functions as a punching bag--getting hit and bouncing back without lasting damage. If I read the sequel, it'll be because I want to find out what happens to Ian, not Donatti.

I just didn't care enough about Donatti's situation or the complicated political problems of the djinn world to invest too much into the book. I could have put it down at any point and never come back to it, and I'd never have wondered what happened in the end. I didn't find the ending especially satisfying, either, since it should have happened about 50 pages earlier--except that poor loser Donatti screwed up again so that the plot would drag out that much longer.

B&N link

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Welcome to our new Skunk Cat reviewer

I'd like to welcome Natalie L. Sin to the Skunk Cat reviewing family. Natalie reads a variety of horror and dark fantasy books, as well as being an excellent writer in those genres as well. I'm looking forward to reading her reviews.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Cat Next Door by Marian Babson

I really like Marian Babson's mysteries, but The Cat Next Door is not one of her good ones. There isn't much of a mystery, and the solving of it depends on coincidence and confession, not investigation.

Margot--and she doesn't seem to have a last name--is a photographer who's returned to her family home in England after several years working in New York City. She's come home because her Aunt Chloe is about to go on trial for killing her Aunt Claudia--Chloe's twin sister--and the family wants to show solidarity.

Everyone in the unnamed family is neurotic, which can be amusing in a cozy mystery but which doesn't work in this case. The characters are defined and limited by their neuroses: the teenager who refuses to leave her bed after witnessing the murder, the uncle who does nothing but eat compulsively, the aunt who's buried herself in reading Regency romances rather than face the family scandal of murder. Even Margot, the main character, suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome--which is coyly not named until the very end of the book, as if it too were a mystery--which makes her a particularly unlively sleuth. Not that any sleuthing gets done in the book. Stuff just happens, and Margot thinks for a few minutes and decides in the next-to-last chapter that Someone Else killed her aunt, not Chloe. She's wrong about who the murderer is, but fortunately the real murderer confesses.

It's a thoroughly unsatisfying book. For a murder mystery, that's unforgivable.

B&N link

Monday, April 12, 2010

Death Blows by DD Barant

Death Blows is the sequel to Dying Bites. This is a series of books with the most generic titles imaginable. Fortunately, the books are much more memorable.

In the first book, FBI criminal profiler Jace Valchek was yanked into an alternate world to help track down an insane serial killer. The population of the world she's been brought to is 99% vampires and werewolves, 1% humans. In this book, she's got another serial killer to track down--a murderer who seems to be connected with magic-enhanced comic books, a band of superheroes who turn out to be real, and not one but about 500 secret societies.

Seriously, there are so many secret societies that I stopped being able to keep them apart. I also had trouble keeping track of the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. About halfway through the book, my interest sagged so much I almost just gave up. By the time I got to the two separate instances of (to paraphrase) "it's time you were told the real truth," I was just annoyed that the real truth had been held back for so damn long. It doesn't help that, yes, this book is in present tense like the first one was. It continually threw me out of the story, particularly when I came back to it after setting it aside for a while.

The world Barant has built is fascinating, but it's not a lot of fun. Humans are an endangered species, preyed on by vampires and werewolves--the insulting term for humans is "OR," original recipe. Barant does a great job building the tension between Jace's professional responsibilities and her personal difficulties adjusting to a world where she's considered prey or someone to be pitied; the professional and personal overlap a lot, causing even more tension. Jace has made a few friends in her new world, but ultimately she just wants to get home again.

But. The last paragraph? Those issues do not resolve or change in this book, and indeed barely apply to the plot at all. While Death Blows is mostly entertaining, I dislike having to essentially march in place, with the real plot--Jace tracking down the one person whose arrest can get her a ticket home--sidelined for an entire book. I dislike even more that the major theme of racism--because that's essentially what this is all about, except that it's more species-ism in this case--isn't given more than a quick stir before being left to simmer some more. I know this is a series and the overarching themes can't be resolved in one book or even a few, but I'd like some hint that Barant intends to resolve them at all, and that she has plans to that effect. Oh, and she can stop writing in present tense whenever she likes.

B&N link

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia by Dave DeWitt

I've been so busy lately crooning over my chile pepper seedlings that I haven't been reading much. But I have been reading--appropriately--about chile peppers.

The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia was published in 1999, so it's a little out of date. If you weren't aware that a book about chile peppers could get out of date, you obviously weren't paying attention a few years ago when the Bhut Jolokia pepper was discovered to be the hottest pepper in the world by a lot. The Bhut Jolokia isn't in The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia.

A lot of other information is, though. The book is full of trivia and facts, recipes and directions. It's fascinating to dip into, but if you're looking for something specific, it's not always easy to find. Fortunately the index is a good one, because the layout is confusing and the topics aren't always clear. For instance, if you want to look up how to dry chile peppers, you won't find that information under D for Drying. It's listed under H for Harvesting and Processing.

The entries seem well-researched and it's all interesting. There are a lot of recipes ("More than 100 Recipes!"), but it's not a cookbook at all; in fact, I find the recipes contribute a lot to the confusing layout. If I'm trying to find the entry about Tabasco sauce (under "Hot Sauce History"), I don't want to have to flip through several pages of recipes. Then again, maybe one day I'll be looking for a recipe for salsa and I can find it in The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia.

B&N link