Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Unexplained by Karl P.N. Shuker

I've had this book for a while but, although I'd dipped into it to browse a bit, I hadn't actually read it until this weekend. This is the 2009 edition of a book first published in 1996; I should say first of all that the cover almost immediately popped off the book. The book itself is fine; it's just that the glue securing the cover to the spine isn't sticky enough to keep it in place.

Anyway, the book is a sort of encyclopedia of the strange, set out by area of the world. It starts with Great Britain and Ireland and ends with Australasia and Oceania, covering pretty much the entire world in between. As with Shuker's other books, the entries are well-researched and well-written, although they're short. I'd have liked more in-depth treatment, but that's not what this book is about. It's just an overview.

But it's a much better overview than most books of this sort. Instead of repeating the same old 'solutions' to mysteries, Shuker presents evidence instead of declaring things just generally spooky or laying everything at the feet of extraterrestrials. It's a lot of fun to read, either straight through or just to browse, cover or no.

B&N link

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Suzanne Collins wrote a book, The Hunger Games, about young people being chosen by lottery to fight each other to the death as a form of entertainment and governmental intimidation. It was fast-paced and surprising, and offered a grim survival plot that was intriguing and simply written, and the book was so popular it even got into book review clubs for little old ladies like me.

Book Two, Catching Fire, featured lots more killing and maiming and the beginnings of revolution.

Mockingjay pulls it all together, and the reader gets more fighting and maiming and bombings, and the revolution.

I found it amazingly dull.

The author was clearly obsessed with her clever heroine, but I could never see Katniss--she was just an avatar in a cool costume, always stalking, loading her bow with explosive arrows, being brave, being smarter and more charismatic than anyone else. Prettier. The best climber. The most spunky.

By the third book I didn't care what she did or how cleverly she did it--I could assume she'd wind up with her star-crossed (and often wounded) lover; that the post-apocalypse world would, due to her brains and battle skills, carry on with fewer people but with the villains dead.

I'll admit it: I skimmed the book's second half. And I read ahead--saw what happened twenty years later.

I'd guessed correctly.


I can recommend Hunger Games, Book One, for its pure shock value and intricate plotting. Read Book One, and just know (spoiler) that cleverness wins over evil by page 1000-something.

Tomorrow I'm donating Mockingjay to the local library to complete their trilogy.

And: I'm starting Stephen Baxter's newest SF trilogy about the earth in 7900 bc in old, old England.

B&N link

Reviewed by Sin - Blanket of White

Blanket of White (anthology)
by Amy Grech
Damnation Books, LLC

Gore: Not heavy, but the blood does fly in some stories!

Sex: There are some very, very horny people in this anthology.

Angst: Oodles.

The nice things about anthologies, is that you get a taste of all different kinds of horror/dark fiction. This is certainly true with Amy Grech's BLANKET OF WHITE. Topics range from parent-child relationships, dealing with the end of the world, and people who need to learn to keep it in their pants. On that last note, this is not an anthology for anyone who is shy about sex scenes. You will see quite a few people get their hump on ; )

This isn't an anthology for anyone who requires hard core blood and guts. Some of the stories aren't straight horror at all, and you won't get any gross monsters out for human blood. Much of the anthology relies on emotional pain/tension to make a point. Amy Grech does this extremely well: she has a knack for pealing back her character's layers, and (figuratively) exposing their squishy tender bits. In some stories, she also exposes their literal tender bits.

My favorite story, "Ashes to Ashes," was definitely one of angst over gore. It was creepy as hell in some parts, but nothing exploded and no one's intestines got eaten by rabid chipmunks. Also, I can never look at doing laundry the same way again. That's how you know a story hit the mark: you are still uneasy long after you've read it. It's like seeing a Saint Bernard after reading CUJU. Sure, they're lovable cuddlebugs with silly faces. But deep down, you still flash back to those moments in the book that scared the shit out of you.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Between a Roc and a Hard Place by Danny Birt

A quick note: This book was just released by an imprint of my own publisher, and is illustrated by the same artist who illustrated my own book. So I'm probably a bit biased in its favor. On the other hand, I did genuinely enjoy it.

Between a Roc and a Hard Place is a fun and unusual story about a dragon, Tephra, who's raised by a family of rocs--you know, the giant birds from Greek myth. Just after Tephra's mother lays her eggs, a band of humans come to kill her. She only manages to save Tephra's egg, but she's wounded in the attempt. She leaves the egg in a roc nest, where the birds accept it as a gift from the Great Stork and treat it as one of their own eggs.

The story's slight but sweet, perfect for younger kids who want longer books to read. The first part of the book concerns Tephra's childhood growing up among her feathered brothers and sisters. The second part takes place during Tephra's adulthood, when she determines what to do about the humans in the area--a clever solution that ends happily for everyone involved, including the humans. I would have liked more of a focus on how Tephra deals with her increasing wisdom and loneliness--she worries that she's the only dragon left in the world--which the book only touches on briefly.

Still, it's a sprightly, fast-paced story with wonderful illustrations by Richard Svensson. I would have loved it as a kid and I really enjoyed it as an adult.

B&N link
or order directly from the publisher

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Siege of White Deer Park by Colin Dann

I happened upon this book in a used book store and grabbed it. Turns out it's one of several sequels to a book called The Animals of Farthing Wood, a Watership Down-type book. I'm going to have to chase it down.

The Siege of White Deer Park is about a group of animals who live in a nature reserve; apparently they traveled there in the first book, and this one starts out catching the reader up on several of the main characters. It's a poignant summary because this story is set several years after the previous books, and several of the characters have died. It's an odd start, but it drew me in immediately. The best talking-animal books are ones where the realities of nature are important without being overstated.

The book is simply written and swift-moving in a quiet way. The animals have to band together to face a threat that's visited them from outside the park--a predator no one has seen and lived to tell about. The mystery in the first part of the story, as the animals search for clues and catch glimpses of the strange beast, was definitely my favorite part.

I won't tell too much about the plot since I don't want to spoil the mystery. I will say that this is a very British book, and American kids will probably go "so what?" when they figure out what the beast is. I was a little disappointed myself, for that matter. But the story is interesting and the characters appealing. It's also a very fast read.

I was a little annoyed that all the main characters--except one, Vixen, who didn't really do much--were male. The author mentions more than once that in spring, the females are too busy rearing young to do much else, but that strikes me as being a little bit glib. I don't know much about foxes, but I do know that females of most species go out and hunt or forage even when they've got young at home. Keeping the females of this story in the background struck me as sexist and not at all realistic. That was my only real argument with the book, though, which was otherwise charming.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Accidental Sorcerer by K.E. Mills

The Accidental Sorcerer has about a hundred pages of plot in its bloated 535 pages of book. Fifty if you take out the arguments. There are no subplots.

It starts out as a light, fun fantasy. I was willing to put up with tedious arguments, and people yelling at each other in a way that's supposed to be amusing but isn't, because I think there's not enough light fantasies out there and I'm willing to overlook a lot when I find one. But halfway through the book, the tone turns dark and the arguments give way to an out-of-the-blue torture scene and page after weary page of self-recrimination and tears.

It's exactly as though the author wrote the first half of the book, lost interest, and set it aside for a few years. Then she came back and decided to finish it, only she no longer wanted to write a light fantasy. The change of tone is startling and unwelcome. Then, toward the climax of the book, the characters start to argue and banter again--and it's repellent because it's not even slightly funny anymore. You can't go from light to dark and back to light in tone and expect the reader to be okay with it. Not this reader, anyway.

As for the teaspoonful of plot, it's barely enough to carry the light fantasy the book started out as. It wilts under the weight of torture and death. Here's the plot, and I may possibly drop a few spoilers: Gerald Dunwoody is a third grade wizard who barely managed to get his degree through a correspondence program in magic. He's not happy with his job as a Department of Thaumaturgy inspector-in-training, but it was all he could get. Then he attempts to stop an explosion in a staff factory and suddenly he can work magic far beyond his previous abilities. Since he's being blamed for the staff factory melt-down and has lost his job, he answers an ad for a royal wizard in the small country of New Ottosland, only to discover that the king is beyond unreasonable and into mad, and Gerald is expected to help him impersonate the neighboring country's gods so that New Ottosland can take over and loot the country's precious gems. Also, a talking raven.

That's it. Don't think I left anything out because I didn't. That's the entire plot, minus the big fight at the end which isn't actually all that big. As I said, there are no subplots. None. A book this length should be so full of subplots it should resemble a tapestry, but The Accidental Sorcerer is a single strand of yarn. The length comes from long and unnecessary arguments--everyone is always shouting at everyone else--and as a result the pacing is painfully slow. The denoument seriously lasts 60 pages. I skimmed it, because I didn't care about any of the characters and it was all just setting up for the sequel anyway. And no, I won't be reading the sequel. I wish I could have the hours back that I wasted reading this book.

B&N link

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Money Creek Mare by Patricia Calvert

The Money Creek Mare was published in 1981 and is long out of print, but if you can find a copy, it's worth the trouble. It's the best sort of horse story: the horses are important to the plot, but the main character's life and relationships are just as vital.

Fifteen-year-old Ella Rae Carmody has been trying to hold her family together since her mother left to pursue her Hollywood dreams. Ella Rae believes in her father's dream of owning a racing stable to rival their rich neighbors', the Puckett-Smythes, even if her father doesn't seem to be capable of much more than dreaming. He brings home a crippled mare won in a card game, but it's obvious to Ella Rae that the horse will never race again. Then again, she might make a good brood mare--and the Puckett-Smythes have a world-famous racing stallion in a paddock where anyone could get to him....

The setup is good by itself, but the book takes some surprising turns. Ella Rae takes a job as a housekeeper at the Puckett-Smythes', mostly so she can find out more about where the stallion is kept and how to safely steal him for a night. The money comes in useful too, since the diner Ella Rae's family owns is deeply in debt. But before long, reserved and lonely Mrs. Puckett-Smythe offers her an easier life: be adopted into their family and raised as their own daughter. In exchange, they won't prosecute her for horse rustling and won't charge her the stud fee for their stallion's services.

The real focus of the book is Ella Rae's struggle to discover where she really belongs. She resents her father's new girlfriend, who steps in and takes over when Ella Rae is convinced the family was getting along just fine. She worries about her dreamy and impractical father, worries about her two younger siblings. When she accepts the Puckett-Smythes' offer, she's thrust into an affluent world where she knows she doesn't belong--and is sent off to a girls' boarding school to learn how to fit in.

It's a fascinating plot, and Ella Rae is sturdy, clever, loyal, and likable. She makes hard decisions because she knows what needs to be done for the people she cares for, but she tends to leave herself out. Her journey to discover where she truly belongs is poignant but very funny.

The horses don't play a big role in this story, but I loved it when I was younger and crazy about horse books.

B&N link

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Schooled by Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman was one of my favorite writers when I was a kid, ever since I picked up a copy of the book he wrote when he was thirteen, This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall (still an awesome book). When I saw Schooled in the store, I grabbed it to see what he's been writing lately.

Well, this book was awesome. It was Awesome.

Capricorn Anderson--known as Cap--lives on a commune with his hippie grandmother. The commune used to be a real community, but that was long before Cap was born. Now it's down to just Cap and his grandmother, Rain. Then Rain breaks her hip and Cap is suddenly thrust into the real world--and middle school.

The story is simple, sweet, and in turns both hilarious and heartbreaking. Cap's utter innocence never feels forced or goofy; the way people react to him feels real. The middle schoolers make him the subject of the traditional school prank of setting up the biggest nerd in school as the eighth grade president. Everyone expects him to wilt under pressure--previous presidents have had nervous breakdowns--but Cap's so clueless that he doesn't even understand he's being pranked. And slowly, without meaning to, he turns everything around.

It's a brilliant story about bullying and belonging. It also happens to be very funny, as all of Korman's books are. By the end (which was perfect), I wanted to stand up and cheer.

B&N link