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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.