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