Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Unscratchables by Cornelius Kane

Here's one of those weird books that don't fit into any real category. It's a hard-boiled mystery peopled (ahem) entirely with cats and dogs. Intelligent ones. That wear clothes and carry guns and walk on their hind legs and wear shoes. No, I couldn't quite get my head around it either, but the book is surprisingly fun.

Max "Crusher" McNash is a detective bull terrier who doesn't like cats--especially not Siamese, after his experiences as a prisoner of war. But when a feral cat slashes and kills two rottweilers, then follows the murders up with the bloody murder of a guard dog, the chief of police has no choice but to call in the Feline Bureau of Investigation. Crusher is assigned to work with Cassius Lap, a Siamese whose delicate, pussy-footing attitude gets right up Crusher's nose. But Cassius soon turns up evidence of a conspiracy that goes far beyond a mere serial dog killer.

As I say, the book is fun. The author obviously had a blast inventing dog-and-cat stuff for his world. I had difficulty suspending my disbelief--I mean, dogs and cats just can't walk on their hind legs very comfortably, and they can't manipulate things like gun triggers very well with paws, and why would a dog need to wear shoes anyway? But if you can get past that, the mystery is pretty good, the characters are interesting, and the writing is solid.

B&N link

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf by Wendelin Van Draanen

I admit it took a while for me to really get into the book--a third of the way in, actually. I almost put it down a few times. I liked the mystery of the missing dog, but I hated the tense changes (which are constant and which I found super distracting). Then the book took a few twists and suddenly I was hooked.

The twists didn't have anything to do with the mystery, which I figured out as soon as the guilty party was introduced as a character. Instead, they had to do with the sudden addition of Sammy (Samantha) Keyes thinking about her mother, her 72-year-old friend, and her mean neighbor in a way that turns the book from a run-0f-the-mill preteen mystery to a thoughtful exploration of the meanings of friendship and loss. Yes, really.

Thirteen-year-old Sammy never intended to get mixed up with the Christmas parade, she just promised to help a friend who was part of the dog calendar float. But she gets stuck taking care of the star dog, a Pomeranian who jumps through a hoop--in this case, a wreath. Everything's going well until three people dressed as Wise Men toss angry cats at the float. The dogs go crazy, and when the dust settles, the Pomeranian is missing. While searching for it, Sammy discovers an elf--okay, an eight-year-old girl dressed as an elf--who's also been missing. But the dog is long gone and its owner holds Sammy responsible, especially after the first ransom note is delivered.

Sammy is full of energy, and outgoing without being obnoxious. Although she takes some risks, I never had a "no, Sammy, don't do it argh I can't believe you're being so stupid" moment. She's smart, too. But what I like most is that she's less interested in finding the dog to get herself off the hook than in solving the mystery of why the elf keeps running away from home. And when her mean neighbor falls and breaks an arm, Sammy becomes mixed up in the moving story of the woman's life. I like the way Sammy handles herself with someone who has never been nice to her but who needs her help--and not tangible help, but the sort that requires Sammy to think about her own motivations and those of others.

I haven't read the other books in this series, but I really liked this one. I'm glad I kept reading.

B&N link

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Trillions by Nicholas Fisk

One of my favorite books as a middle-schooler was Monster Maker by Nicholas Fisk. I must have checked it out of the library a dozen times, and I was thrilled when I found my own copy years ago. But that was the only Fisk book the library had. A few months ago I went looking for more of his books, and the only one I could find was this one, Trillions.

I expected to love it. It's science fiction, about millions--trillions--of tiny aliens that land on earth. As far as I could guess from the text (which is not clear on their size), the trillions are about the size of a grain of sand, and while they can move and interlock, they don't do anything else. They heap up in drifts like sand dunes, occasionally join together to imitate nearby structures, and are gathered by children because they glitter prettily in different colors. The book introduces four children, two boys and two girls, and I was looking forward to seeing what Fisk would do with such a fascinating concept.

The answer: not much. The book was published in 1971, which explains (I suppose) why the boys are the ones who do things while the girls make bracelets out of the trillions and act babyish. It doesn't explain why the entire world in this book thinks banding together to obliterate the trillions with nuclear weapons is a good choice. Remember, the trillions don't actually hurt anything. There are a few small examples given of the trillions imitating rockets (although they aren't rockets) and inadvertently causing an old man to have a heart attack, and the entire world except for one schoolboy thinks that makes them enemies. There are lots of scenes of generals shouting about taking ACTION against the trillions--which do nothing, keep in mind. Also, English children are required to leave school so they can shovel up trillions into wagons and dump them in a big pile, overseen by soldiers. This continues throughout the whole book and doesn't make any sense. Nothing much makes any sense.

The main character, sort of, is a boy named Scott. Through a combination of telepathy and handwavium, Scott learns how to communicate in a limited way with the trillions. He doesn't share this information with anyone, and although I read the damn book I still don't know why he doesn't. But that's the problem with this book: it's just got an axe to grind about people ruining the environment, and the army being, I don't know, evil or something and too ready to set off those nasty nuclear weapons--which cause some fish and birds and trees to die, but don't seem to hurt people (or the environment).

Even if the plot did make any sense--and really, it doesn't--the writing is awful. The book reads like an outline, an overview. Not only that, not much happens--and when it does, it's really too late. Why didn't Scott act sooner? Well, if he had, Fisk would had had to work out an actual plot to go with his idea.

B&N link (used book)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

I haven't been a close follower of Kate Beaton's online comics, although I love them whenever I happen across a link. Now there's a collection of a whole bunch of them.

Beaton's a historian so a lot of her comics are about historical figures or times, but some are based on books or are just for the hell of it. They're very, very funny even if you don't necessarily know what the source material is. What's best, though, is Beaton's artwork--skillful, beautifully rendered, and funny in its own right. Her ability to convey emotion (especially fury or disgust) through expression reminds me a bit of Nicole Hollander's Sylvia comics, but with a swifter, cleaner line.

This is a good big collection. I went to bed early last night with the book, half a candy bar, and a can of Coke, and was deliriously happy.

B&N link

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to Wash a Cat by Rebecca M. Hale

In the real world, if you find human remains you're supposed to let the police know about it. But this isn't the real world, it's a book world where reality has nothing to do with anything. Oh, and the author gave the main character her same name, middle initial and all.

So, two great big strikes against the book. Third strike: it's badly, badly written and its plot is a mess and the characters are all obnoxious. That's several extra strikes, actually. I have no idea why I read the whole book.

When her Uncle Oscar dies, the accountant who goes unnamed until the very last line of the book inherits his business: an antique shop full of junk. She also inherits a key shaped like a tulip. Almost immediately, she-who-was-not-named-until-the-end starts discovering weird discrepancies about her uncle's death, including the discovery that the "preliminary autopsy" was never performed on her uncle, several people showing up suddenly to give her clues left recently by her uncle "in case anything happens to me," and several other people showing up to give her veiled threats. Oh, and she has two cats.

The plot is a godawful mess, but the characters are worse. I hated all the characters; they're all over-the-top without a smidgen of likability among them all. (Well, the cats are cute.) I especially hated the nosy neighbor Monty, who fancies himself a sleuth trying to uncover the mystery of an old tunnel rumored to be on the property. I hated Monty with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns. The main character isn't any better, though. She's a real wimp, totally without gumption. She's always having dizzy spells, or feeling faint or woozy or frightened or weepy or otherwise having to sit down and plunge into a flashback. She never does anything else and she's dumb as a stump.

But the writing! My god, the writing is bad. There are so many adjectives and adverbs in every sentence that it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on. Characters fidget around constantly while they talk. If the fidgeting and the adverbs/adjectives had all been edited out, the book would have been 50 pages slimmer--and it still wouldn't make any damn sense.

B&N link

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

Chelsea Mansions is the eleventh book in the Brock and Kolla mystery series, and now that I've read it I'm caught up. It was published a few months ago. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it also ended up being the final (or next to final) book in the series.

When an elderly tourist is deliberately thrown in front of a bus after leaving the Chelsea Flower Show, it seems like a motiveless murder. Then a rich Russian expat is stabbed to death in the house next door to the hotel where the woman was staying. There's no obvious connection between the two, but Brock and Kathy both want to dig a little deeper and find out what's really going on. But Brock is sidelined by a bout of what seems at first to be the flu, and Kathy finds herself butting up against MI5.

The plot is only okay, certainly not one of the best plots in this series. The subplot of the nosy Canadian scholar who pushes his way into the investigation didn't do much for me. I won't spoil who he turns out to be, but let me just say that I definitely thought of Cousin Oliver being introduced on the Brady Bunch in a lame attempt to improve viewership. It didn't work for the TV show either.

I'm very glad I've caught up on the series. I'll still continue to read Maitland--and it looks like he's got another mystery out, one not part of this series, which I may chase down eventually. But I'm not all that into his books like I was at first. When I find myself thinking repeatedly, "Well, this book isn't the best in the series," it's not the individual book, it's the whole series.

B&N link

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick

Although Shelf Discovery is tagged "The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading," the books featured are about half middle-grade and half young adult (middle grade being for younger kids, pre-teens and tweens, in case you're not familiar with the term), although a handful of books for adults are included too. It mostly consists of book reviews--not reviews focusing on the quality of the books, but on the things girls like about the books and what the books offer to girls.

And the book is exclusively for girls--or, rather, the women the girls have grown into. Almost all the books featured were published in the 1970s and 80s. I just counted, and there are 73 books featured (unless I miscounted, which is entirely possible). I was a voracious reader as a kid, but I've only read 18 of the books featured here. The selection is skewed strongly to the V.C. Andrews and Lois Duncan readers. Except for Madeleine L'Engle, there aren't many truly speculative fiction books included.

I was surprised at the omissions. Naturally there's a limit to how many books can be included in a project like this, but why cover Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret but not include the third book in that trilogy, Scout? Is it because Scout has a boy as the main character? I loved it as a kid. And why do Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Madeleine L'Engle, and a few other authors get so many entries--added up, those four authors probably account for a quarter of the books covered.

So the book is basically a list of books the author liked (actually, there are seven contributors to the reviews, but there's a reason these reviews were chosen from the "Fine Lines" column). It's certainly not a comprehensive look at different types of teen girl reads, and not meant to be. I was disappointed that there wasn't more I could sink my teeth into, though. But the reviews are entertaining and breezily written, and I did enjoy reading about some of the books I'd nearly forgotten about. I even found a few books that I want to read for the first time.

B&N link

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book is everywhere lately. I've heard there's even a movie planned. And it does look like an interesting, unusual book so I picked up a copy to see what all the hype was about.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob has always idolized his grandfather, whose parents sent him from Poland to Wales to escape death in WWII concentration camps. Grandpa lived an adventurous life before settling in Florida, but his happiest memories are of his years in Wales, where he lived in a remote orphanage. Jacob loves the stories he tells of the strange orphans, and the photographs Grandpa still has of them, even though Grandpa's stories of escaping monsters gave him nightmares as a kid.

Then Jacob gets a frantic phone call from Grandpa, who insists that the monsters have found him. When Jacob arrives at Grandpa's house, he finds him nearly dead--and sees a tentacle-tongued monster lurking nearby. Before he dies, Grandpa gives Jacob some cryptic directives about finding the bird in the loop.

No one believes Jacob that the monsters Grandpa talked about were real. He's sent to a psychiatrist, who nearly convinces him he hallucinated the whole thing in a moment of stress. Then he discovers an old letter while helping clean out his Grandpa's house, and realizes Grandpa wanted him to visit the orphanage in Wales and track down its headmistress, Miss Peregrine.

It took me three paragraphs to properly explain the set-up. That's about a third of the book. Once Jacob gets to Wales, things move a little faster, but not much actually happens. In a more inventive book the lack of action might have been welcome. But this book isn't actually all that inventive, except for the (real) photographs sprinkled throughout the text as illustrations--that was the stroke of genius that elevates this from a mediocre younger-YA adventure to the surreal crossover fantasy it's being marketed as.

The writing is okay. Jacob isn't a very interesting character, though, and there's a big disconnect between events in Florida in the first third of the book and events in Wales in the rest of the book. I'd have really liked to see how a Florida native reacts to a Welsh summer, but beyond Jacob's passing mention that he'd never known it could be so cold in June, Jacob might as well have been Welsh himself. The plot unfolded slowly with a certain amount of tension in the mystery of the orphanage, but when Jacob discovers what's really going on it's kind of a let-down.

It took me a while to finish the book because I kept putting it down. I just couldn't stay interested in the plot or the characters. The ending is an obvious set-up for a sequel--or more probably a series, since that's how it goes these days. But I don't have the least interest in reading more about these characters.

B&N link

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland

Well, I lied. Inadvertently, of course. I really did intend to wait a while before I read Dark Mirror, the tenth book in the Brock and Kolla mystery series, but I found myself reading it after all.

The plot is good, if the ending a tad unrealistic (which is something of a trend with these books). A university student working on her doctoral thesis collapses and dies in a London library, and is discovered to have been poisoned with arsenic. Kathy Kolla is assigned the case--her first really big case as a newly promoted Detective Inspector. But while the evidence starts to point to suicide, there are some strange details that don't add up.

Brock doesn't have much to do in this one, which disappointed me. He and Suzann argue and make up. Kathy proves once again that she has terrible taste in men. Same old same old. You know, the whole reason I fell for this series was the subtle characterization, the hints that Brock and Kathy might eventually end up together. That's long gone. When I was a kid, occasionally my brother would talk me into playing chess with him, and eventually he'd corner my king so that I had no choice but to move him back and forth, back and forth as my brother repeatedly moved his own pieces to keep my king in check without quite being able to checkmate me. This series has become that kind of chess game: repetitive, nothing new happening, the characters making the same moves over and over in each book. Maybe if I'd read them over the course of years instead of months I wouldn't have noticed it quite so much, but it's really obvious and really boring.

Anyway, there's only one more book in the series that I haven't read yet. And I warn you, I'm planning a trip to the bookstore on Thursday.

B&N link

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Spider Trap by Barry Maitland

This is the ninth book in the Brock and Kolla series. My local B&N didn't have this one in stock when I dropped by a few days ago, so I ordered a used copy online for a buck and also bought the ebook for $9.99 +tax so I could read it right away. I'm worried that my fury at the publisher for the inexcusably piss-poor formatting of the ebook has leaked over into my appraisal of the text. Seriously, the formatting was obviously just a bad scan without any further proofing. Punctuation (especially quote marks) was missing, words were missing, parts of nonsense words were inexplicably stuck into sentences, paragraph breaks were missing or extra breaks appeared halfway through sentences. And it's not like this was a small publisher without resources. I think Minotaur Books--you know, part of St. Martin's--can afford to pay someone to glance through its ebooks to make sure they're, you know, readable before they upload them for readers to pay freaking ten bucks plus Tennessee's ridiculous almost-10% tax.

So anyway, the book itself. Meh. It started out promising, with Brock and Kathy assigned to investigate the execution-style murder of two teenaged girls in a poor neighborhood. When human bones several decades old turn up nearby, Brock is convinced there's a connection between the old murders and the new--and he has to face his own past as a detective sergeant in the neighborhood, and the unsolved cases he left behind.

Promising, yes. But in reality, the book is more about how Kathy has rotten taste in men and poor judgment when the plot requires it of her, and how Brock will not freaking break up with Suzanne but just goes back and forth without making any kind of decision. After nine books, it's getting damn old. Much of the action is summarized or observed rather than participated in by the main characters--there's a chapter and a half consisting of Brock and Kathy watching something important happen on TV. Yeah, really.

I have the next book, Dark Mirror, sitting in front of me. It too sounds promising, but I think I'm going to take a break from the series for a little while (cue cheering from our faithful readers). Maybe when I return to the last two books, I will remember why I liked the series in the first place--because frankly, after the weakly plotted and frustrating Spider Trap, I'm not eager to read anything else by Maitland.

B&N link

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nowhere Hall by Cate Gardner

Usual full disclosure: Cate Gardner is a long-time online friend of mine. I admire her writing enormously.

Nowhere Hall is a short novella published this past September and no longer available as far as I know (which is why I linked to Gardner's website instead of a buy link below). It was a limited edition that sold out very quickly.

Cate Gardner's writing is hard to describe. She has a vivid style that manages to be both brisk and dreamy, with nightmarish imagery presented with an almost childlike amusement. Nowhere Hall starts with a man trying to step out into the street, and it's not clear at first whether he's just walking to work or about to commit suicide. It's not even clear if he's actually alive--and that's what I love about her writing, the way she makes you wonder what the subtext is beneath the events she describes.

Nowhere Hall is short, and follows hapless, aging officeworker Ron as he fails to step in front of a bus (maybe) and stumbles into a hotel called The Vestibule. As the setting shifts and changes like something from a dream, Ron is forced to face a person and event from his past while still looking into his bleak future. It's beautifully written, evocative, and wryly funny. Don't you wish you had a copy?

author's website

The Verge Practice and No Trace by Barry Maitland

The Verge Practice is the seventh book in the Brock and Kolla series. A world-famous architect's wife has been stabbed, and the architect has vanished. His car is found by the seaside with his clothes neatly folded and a note that just says "sorry," but police aren't buying it. They think he stabbed his wife and faked his suicide, and is hiding out in Barcelona. But when Detective Chief Inspector David Brock's team is assigned the case after it's gone cold, he and Detective Sergent Kathy Kolla start exploring other possibilities.

I really liked the book up until the time when I figured the whole plot out--with a hundred pages left to go. The theme of the book is basically The Meaning of Gender, and there are so many clues pointing to what actually happened that I didn't have any trouble figuring it out. I was really disappointed, even though the book itself is interesting as always. I also hated the ending.

No Trace is the eight book. In it, Brock's team has been assigned the case of two missing girls--and almost immediately, a third girl, six years old, is reported missing from her bedroom. Her father, a modern artist who made a splash five years ago after his wife's suicide, immediately starts a new work based on the girl's disappearance--and attracts immediate attention from his fans, who swarm into the area. But Brock and Kathy think there's something fishy about the third abduction, which is so much different from the first two.

This book was much, much better than the previous couple--dark, fascinating, themed The Meaning of Art (Maitland's insistence on themes is much more subtle usually than I'm making it sound, and adds to my enjoyment of the books). I thought I had guessed the murderer and was totally wrong, much to my pleasure. The plot has a number of twists that caught me by surprise, although the clues were laid cleverly and I should have caught them. And Brock's relationship with his sort-of girlfriend takes a surprising turn, while Kathy is still getting over her recent break-up with her boyfriend. In short, this is pure Maitland and exactly what I love about his books.

I'm glad I've reached the point in the series where the books are still in print and readily available. I bought No Trace at our local B&N and I'm hoping to pick up the next book today. But I am distressed that I've only got three more books to read before I've caught up and have to wait for the next one.

The Verge Practice B&N link (used book)
No Trace B&N link

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Babel by Barry Maitland

I was going to wait and review this one in one post with the next Brock and Kolla mystery after I read it, but what the hell.

Babel, the sixth book in this series, is set only weeks after the events of the previous book, Silvermeadow. Kathy is on leave and working through the panic and bad dreams she's been having as a result of those events. Her supervisor, Brock, is looking into the murder of a prominent philosophy professor* at a London university. It seems possible that the murder had something to do with religious fanaticism, and clues begin to point to the local Muslim community. Before long, Kathy finds herself drawn into the case informally even while she questions whether to retire from the police force.

The plot in this one was the weakest of all the Maitland mysteries I've read so far. I waited for the twist, but when it came, it was so goofy that I was really disappointed. I was also disappointed that I guessed a major plot point from the (unnecessary) prologue and turned out to be right. I don't want to find out I've guessed right; I want to believe I'm right and learn that I totally misinterpreted the clues. I want the characters to be right, ultimately. But Brock and Kathy misinterpret someone's vague statement without questioning whether they might be wrong, and it was glaringly obvious (to me, because I guessed right) that they did so to set up the 'what a twist!' moment at the end. But it was all spoiled for me because of that damn prologue. What the hell was Maitland thinking?

I did like the interaction between Brock and Kathy in this one. I really enjoy seeing the way their lives intersect more closely as the series progresses. So I'm about to pick up book seven.

*I admit to a surge of glee when I realized a philosophy professor had been murdered in this book, and imagined him to be the same philosophy professor from The Vices, which I read and disliked recently.

B&N link (used book)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Twenty Palaces by Harry Connolly

The book is subtitled "A Prequel," and it is indeed a prequel to the three books in the kick-ass Twenty Palaces series. I've thoroughly enjoyed all the books, so I was thrilled to hear that the prequel was available.

I wasn't sure what to expect, though, since the author released the book himself. I was very happy to discover that it's fully as good as the books published by Del Rey. Although it is a prequel, like all of Connolly's other books it works well as a standalone story.

Ray Lilly has just been released from prison and is going to live with his aunt and uncle. He lucks into a part-time job right away, but isn't so happy to run into an old friend from middle school. Turns out that there's something strange going on with Ray's former best friend, the guy who lost the use of his legs in a handgun accident--and Ray was holding the gun. His friend's walking again, good as new. Some people are calling it a miracle, others insurance fraud. But as Ray discovers by accident, there's some really weird stuff in the world, and his friends have stumbled into something horrible.

I really liked seeing Ray before he met Annalise, and in fact was surprised and delighted when she appeared in the book and we get Ray's first impression of her. I also like knowing how Ray made his ghost knife and how exactly he ended up as Annalise's wooden man.

Like the other books in the series, this one's a helluva ride. The action starts fast and doesn't let up. The writing is clean and to the point, without the excess of description in the first book, Child of Fire (I mention this in case some people were reluctant to pick up a book set before Child of Fire for that reason). Ray's a firmly likable guy, raw from his time in prison and trying hard to make his way in the world without falling into his old bad habits.

Right now the book's only available as an ebook ordered directly from the author (link below). [Correction: it's also available through Amazon and will be up in a few other online venues soon.] It's definitely worth the couple of bucks, and is an excellent addition to the series.

ebook buy link (directly from the author)
Amazon link

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wake Unto Me by Lisa Cach

Oh, Goodreads recommendations, I love you so much and yet you recommend such crap at times.

Wake Unto Me starts off with an unnecessary prologue (aren't they all unnecessary?) so overwritten that I almost put it down right then. A lot of witches are gathered around a photo of the heroine, fifteen-year-old Caitlyn Monahan, discussing whether she is the Dark One who will fulfill an obscure prophesy that is presented in rhyming couplets. I made it to chapter one, and Caitlyn mopes around and wonders why she doesn't like the guys in her Oregon small-town high school, and decides that she's waiting on her soul mate.

The book almost lost me there too. I hate the notion of soul mates, especially in YA fiction. Look, there are seven freaking billion people in the world; I think there's a possibility more than one of them might be a good match for any given person.

But I was reading for the ghost, and despite the horrible, gushy writing I was interested to see what happened next. Caitlyn is offered a full scholarship to an exclusive girls' French boarding school--because the witches who run the school want to scope her out and see if she's the Dark One, but she doesn't know that because she never reads prologues. She leaves her dreary Oregon days behind and flies to France, where her roommate turns out to be a princess and the school is in a thousand-year-old castle. But Caitlyn has always had trouble with bad dreams, and she doesn't leave the nightmares behind the way she hopes. On the other hand, she dreams also of a handsome young Italian man named Raphael who once lived in the castle--dreams so compelling that Caitlyn wishes she could stay in them.

The book gets into its stride after a few chapters and settles into a less overblown style. Caitlyn is bland but not repellent. She likes to draw and has small triumphs and miseries as part of school--nothing compelling, but it's not precisely dull either. I'd have liked to get a better feel for what it's like to go to a boarding school where all the students are from different countries, but let's face it: the story is all about Raphael. Everything else is background.

Unfortunately, the scenes with Raphael are the weakest in the book. Caitlyn is smitten, but I found Raphael not much more interesting than she is. There's a confusing mystery about a heart as the main part of the book and Caitlyn and Raphael work to solve it while they're together in Caitlyn's dreams (there's a not-at-all-explained timeslip going on and she's visiting Raphael in his own time rather than him being a ghost in her time). He is, of course, her soul mate. Never mind that they don't know each other at all, never mind that Caitlyn's mooning over Raphael focuses entirely on his physical looks: they're soul mates!

I want to see Caitlyn's take on soul mates when she's an adult, rather than a sheltered fifteen-year-old.

I'm probably being too harsh; the book kept me interested, if not riveted. It has a nifty take on ghosts, even if the explanation is so convoluted that it makes no sense at all. I saw the ending coming a mile away and all I can say is, good thing that other guy turned out to be handsome. If he hadn't, I wonder how Caitlyn's ideas about soul mates would change.

There are some real problems with the book beyond the goofiness and confusion of its plot, though. The school-and-nightmares plot is geared toward younger YA or tweens. The Raphael-in-Caitlyn's-dreams plot has a much more mature feel--not just the content, where Caitlyn and Raphael make out a little in very romance-paperbacky style, but the characterizations. Nothing about Caitlyn's personality (such as it is) suggests that she can flirt with any sophistication, but she can when she's with Raphael. For that matter, the first two chapters feel like they were written by a fifteen-year-old--I may not love those chapters, but they do feel authentically teenagery, Mary Sue content and overblown prose included. The rest of the book does not. Also, Caitlyn doesn't have any real problems adjusting to her new school; there's one girl who's kind of bitchy, but not really mean, and Caitlyn embarrasses herself at her first riding lesson and doesn't do well in French, but if you took the timeslip dreaming out of the story, there wouldn't be much left. There's very little tension in the book, too much exposition, and wildly uneven writing.

Oh, and I was promised a ghost. I did not get a ghost. I feel cheated.

B&N link

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ghosts of the World by Diane Canwell and Jonathan Sutherland

Here's a sample line taken from Ghosts of the World, pretty much at random: "Lying in bed one night, he was awoken by a loud noise, causing him to leap from his bed and go to investigate." (page 226) I can't find anything to indicate that the book has been translated, but maybe the authors are non-native English speakers. That's all I can figure. Their contorted, often disjointed and confusing prose sure makes it hard to appreciate the book. (Unless, of course, you treat it as a nonfiction The Eye of Argon.)

Most of the articles about ghostly sightings are short on details, too. I didn't expect more than a surface view of ghosts--just a fun book to spook myself with when I can't sleep at night--but this one's incredibly vague. It's full phrases like "sounds have been heard" and "the ghost was seen," without names or dates or anything, you know, interesting.

Here's another priceless butchering of the English language: "What had happened was that they had moved back to a past time dimension, then forward, returning to the present." (page 119) Oh, and this gem: "A friend of hers, Katharine Macquoid, saw her standing at the bottom of her bed and was puzzled as to why this had occurred." (page 137) And this confused mixture of specific detail and total vagueness: "It is allegedly linked to at least 13 deaths, and one of the new owners was in fact injured in a hunting accident the very next day, necessitating his arm being amputated, while the other vanished in a mysterious way and was never seen again." (page 37) Or this deceptively clear sentence: "The officers thought it was a throwback to a past event, but on closer investigation found it to be a ghostly repeat of what had happened 60 years before." (page 238)

I could quote from this book all day.

On the other hand, the photographs are lovely and some of them even have something to do with the text. This is the kind of book you shelve in the spare bedroom for insomniac guests to flip through.

B&N link

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Bippolo Seed by Dr. Seuss

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories is a collection of some of Dr. Seuss's work published in magazines. Most appeared within a few years of 1950.

Although the stories are all intended for children, this collection is obviously meant more for adults. It's got a long introduction telling about the stories and about Dr. Seuss's career mid-20th-century, and the text of the stories is dense on the pages. There aren't as many illustrations as there would be if the stories had been originally published as books, but the layout could have been made easier on the eye. New readers may have trouble with it as a result.

The seven stories themselves are charming, the illustrations prime Seuss. They're good enough that you don't need to be a Dr. Seuss completist to want the book.

B&N link

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

Everything about how this book is being marketed and reviewed suggests a literary murder mystery. Look, people, it's not a murder mystery. If I'd known that, I wouldn't have bought it; but once I bought the damn thing I felt compelled to read it.

Philosophy professor Oliver Vice disappears from the deck of the Queen Mary II during a storm, presumably as a result of the sea and weather, but there is a suggestion that he committed suicide. His friend, the unnamed narrator, discusses Oliver's life in 343 detailed pages, questioning who Oliver really was.

This is supposed to be a darkly, bitterly witty book. The narrator is unreasonably besotted with Oliver, whom he repeatedly describes as being noble in his suffering. It's supposed to be amusing that Oliver's suffering is due entirely to his being so neurotic and self-absorbed that he can barely function normally; and it's also supposed to be amusing that the narrator comes out with lines like "My father may not have been a brain surgeon, but it wasn't for any lack of smarts; when he entered the service at eighteen, he scored a stratospheric 152 on the army's IQ test" (p. 148). But every time the narrator showed himself to be unaware that he was such a buffoon, I cringed--for the author.

There's a hint, around the two-thirds mark of the book, that the narrator may not even be real--that everything we're reading may be false, a fantasy created by Oliver Vice himself. That would certainly explain why the narrator apparently looks very much like Oliver, and it would explain why the narrator is intelligent and yet profoundly stupid. It would certainly explain why the narrator is so obsessed with Oliver. What it would not explain is why the author bothered.

The entire book is about identity--self-identity and the identities that we invent and show others. Not much happens in the book, which is mostly the narrator mulling things over and occasionally having a conversation. I actually do enjoy this sort of book occasionally (that is, when I'm not expecting a murder mystery), but only if the writing blows the top of my head off. The writing here is nice, moving along facilely if not deeply, but the book is far too long and not clever enough to really explore the issues it presents.

It also doesn't know where to end. The story ends on page 339 but doesn't stop until page 343.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Silvermeadow by Barry Maitland

Yeah, well, I couldn't help it. I picked up the fifth Kathy and Brock (or Brock and Kolla, depending on what edition you buy) mystery. What can I say, it was right there and I needed something to read.

In this one, a teenaged girl has disappeared from Silvermeadow, a huge shopping mall, right before Christmas. Since Brock's old nemesis North, a bank robber responsible for the murder of several cops, has been spotted at the mall also, Brock arranges for his team to move in, ostensibly to investigate the abduction but actually to find out more about North's movements and plans. Then the missing girl's body turns up--crushed by the mall's trash compactors and wrapped in plastic--and Kathy uncovers rumors that other girls have disappeared from Silvermeadow.

A lot of Silvermeadow, particularly the first section, is told from Brock's point of view. I like that since Kathy's been the focus in the last couple of books. I like both characters, and I love their interaction in this book, subtle though it is. The plot is good, although not as tricksy as the other books in the series.

I wasn't as keen on the fact that Kathy delays following up on several important clues just because she's having an affair with another character. Since when does having sex make someone stupid? One of the things I like about Kathy is that she catches stuff no one else does, not even Brock, but she's not portrayed as very perceptive in this one.

I've ordered the next two books, though. Because apparently they're made of crack.

B&N link (used book)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation is a fast, fun read--much more fun than I expected. Jack Holloway is a contractor for ZaraCorp, and a wiseass. Everyone likes his dog, though. Jack's in prime position to become a multi-millionaire--even a billionaire--after he discovers a motherlode of sunstones on a planet he's prospecting for his employer. Then he discovers something else, a species of animal native to the planet that he calls fuzzys. The trouble is, the fuzzys may be more than just animals. And if they're sentient, Jack's billions may go up in smoke--along with the fuzzys themselves.

The writing is easy, confident, and fast-paced. It's also frequently funny. The fuzzys are appealing as well as believable SF creatures, and no one I know of writes dogs as well as Scalzi does. And there are moments in the book when I wanted to jump up out of my chair, do a fist-pump, and shout, "YES!" It's a really fun book.

In tone, Fuzzy Nation is very similar to Scalzi's Agent to the Stars, which I read earlier this year and liked okay. But the flaws in that book are not found in Fuzzy Nation, which has a tighter, more believable plot. I really need to read some of Scalzi's other books, because at this point I'm wanting to say that he basically only has a few characters and he recasts them over and over, but I'm probably wrong. This one just feels an awful lot like Agent to the Stars.

I thought I'd read Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper when I was a kid, the book on which Fuzzy Nation was based, but I must be wrong because nothing about Scalzi's book rang any bells. I'm probably thinking of a different book. After reading Little Fuzzy, though, I'm definitely keen on reading Piper's original story to compare the two.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Chalon Heads by Barry Maitland

The Chalon Heads is the fourth book in the Brock and Kolla series. I hadn't intended to read it right after the third one, but I couldn't stop myself. I've got the fifth book lined up but will try to control myself.

I didn't wholeheartedly love the third book, but The Chalon Heads was much stronger. Kathy Kolla and David Brock are called in to investigate the kidnapping of a rich stamp collector's young wife. The ransom notes each come with a rare stamp cut in pieces. The trouble is, the stamp collector is well-known to Brock as a tricky, manipulative man with an unsavory past. He and Kathy don't know how much they can trust him about anything, even the kidnapping.

The plot is clever, if not as intricate as some of the previous books' plots. I loved the uncertainty about what crime has actually been committed and who is actually the victim. And there are a few twists in plot and character that really surprised me, in a good way--and even more revelations at the very end, which I expected (but still didn't see coming). It's a great mystery.

The theme of sexism does keep popping up in the series. I appreciate this, especially since it doesn't take over the books. I do wish that it was more realistic, though. If sexism in real life was as blatant as it is in these books, it would be easy to call people on it. But it's fiction, and fiction exaggerates.

While I did enjoy the book, at three times during particularly fraught scenes the narrative switches to present tense. I'm sure Maitland did this to make the action more immediate. But OMG, I was so frantically furious at being thrown out of the story by a tense change during the juiciest parts of the book! I really, really hope that this was a one-time experiment and doesn't pop up in the other books.

B&N link

Thursday, November 10, 2011

All My Enemies by Barry Maitland

This is the third book in the Brock and Kolla mystery series, and while it was still good, it's much weaker than the previous two. Detective Sgt. Kathy Kolla starts her new job at New Scotland Yard's Serious Crime Division, working directly with DCI David Brock, and is immediately assigned to the violent murder of a young woman. As Kathy investigates, she finds connections between the woman's murder and a series of other brutal murders, all of them connected oddly with the theatre.

The plot was good, but not great. It relied a bit too much on coincidence and I didn't really buy the reasoning behind the murderer's actions. On the other hand, I was positive I had the whole plot figured out and I turned out to be 100% wrong.

The writing is still dense, but I found it a much faster read than the first two books. Maybe I'm just getting used to Maitland's style. There are a few short passages from other characters' points of view, but the story is almost completely told from Kathy's point of view, which I prefer. But although it's a 'Brock and Kolla mystery,' the two characters interact very little. Kathy barely thinks about Brock. I was disappointed since a big part of my interest in the series is the subtle development of the relationship between the two characters. Also, Brock scratches his beard so much in this one that I wondered if he had a skin condition, or fleas.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

This is the 39th Discworld novel. Holy cow! It's also a Sam Vimes book, a subseries which is probably my favorite. (If you want to start reading Pratchett but don't know where to start, Guards! Guards! is the first book with Sam Vimes as a main character, and it's also an excellent starting point for the Discworld and Pratchett as a whole.)

Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is on his first holiday, much against his will. His wife Sybil insisted on taking him and Young Sam (who is six and enraptured with a series of children's books about poo and other gross stuff) to the Ramkin family estate in the country. Vimes expects to be called back to the city at the last second by an emergency, but it never materializes. But once in the country, he doesn't have to dig very far to discover something disturbing going on--something to do with the local goblins.

The last Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, dealt with the Ankh-Morpork class system from the bottom up. Snuff deals with it top-down, with Sam Vimes--a gutter rat turned duke--typically uncomfortable having to play the country squire. It's a fascinating book with an excellent plot, but I did think it was a bit too talky. Vimes talks and thinks too much about what the class system means. It slows the action down, makes the book longer than it really needs to be, and becomes slightly repetitive.

That's not to say it's a bad book at all. Vimes is his usual pugnacious, hardheaded self, grimly determined to solve a murder and a disappearance. His relationship with Sybil is quietly touching (and funny), and Young Sam is awesome in his singleminded pursuit of new friends--no matter what they look like--and poo for his poo collection. The goblins are a great addition to the creatures of Discworld, with a fascinating religion and good reasons why they haven't cropped up in the series before now.

Unlike most of Pratchett's books, this one is told almost exclusively from Vimes's point of view. As a result, it doesn't have the huge scope of many Discworld books. I would have liked to see more directly what happens to Fred Colon, since a lot of his subplot happens off-page. But Vimes is a great character and certainly fun to spend time with.

B&N link

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of Smekday starts off as an essay written by Gratuity (her friends call her Tip) Tucci as a class assignment, but Tip has a big story to tell and keeps writing even after her essay is finished.

Tip's story happens after the aliens--the Boov--landed and defeated Earth pretty handily. The Boov have decided they want most of the Earth to themselves, so they're moving the humans to colonies. Everyone in America, for instance, has to go to Florida. Tip's mother has been kidnapped, possibly killed, by the Boov, but Tip hasn't told anyone. Rather than go in the alien ships with most people, Tip gathers up her cat, named Pig, and decides to drive from Pennsylvania to Florida. She's a good driver for an eleven-year-old.

But she hasn't gone far when she's shot at by the Boov and wrecks her car. While she's trying to find food at an abandoned convenience store, she encounters a Boov who doesn't try to kill her. In fact, he's friendly. He fixes her car and asks for a ride. She agrees reluctantly, and the book takes off as she and the Boov, who calls himself J.Lo in the mistaken idea that it's a really common name, head for Florida together.

This kind of book could be hideously depressing, but it's not. It's funny--deeply, brilliantly, cleverly funny. And this kind of book could also be hideously moralizing, but it's not. Despite the importance of the message of tolerance and understanding, and the clearly drawn parallels between the Boov's relocation of humans and the forced relocation of Native Americans, the book never preaches. In fact, in one scene, a white character tells Tip they will be taking the local Indian reservations back since "we need that land." Just about any other author would have given in and had a mini-lecture, or just had Tip rant. Instead, Tip gets icily furious, doesn't say a thing, and leaves. Readers are left to make their own conclusions.

I also like that Tip herself is of mixed race. She doesn't make a big deal of it, but it comes up a few times. Tip's relationship with J.Lo is the real strength of the book, though. Their dependence on each other, their cautious trust and growing friendship, were all beautifully done and funny as hell.

It's a long book, but I never minded. I enjoyed the whole thing. The ending was maybe a little too pat, but it worked. And the book is illustrated brilliantly by the author, including some comics that tell some of the history of the Boov. They're funny too.

B&N link

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

It took me a while to get into this book. At first the studiedly arch tone really put me off, despite the clever humor. I couldn't imagine wanting to read an entire book written that way.

Then I got to the second chapter, which is mostly related through a letter from one of the characters to the others. Suddenly the whole thing clicked and I was enjoying the book. So if you try this one and don't like it, at least give it two chapters.

It's an oddly constructed murder mystery in some ways. The murder takes place in Venice, but the main character--dry Oxford don Hilary Tamar--never leaves London. Hilary is spending a month out of the summer housesitting for a friend and doing research, but what she's really doing is hanging out with a bunch of young lawyers, many of them former students of hers, while they themselves are spending as many working hours as they can get away with drinking coffee, visiting restaurants, and gossiping. One of the bunch, Julia, is on holiday in Venice. Ostensibly she's part of an Art Lover's tour, but really she's there to seduce someone attractive. When a handsome young man turns up dead in her bed, she's the only logical suspect. It's up to Hilary and her vapid friends to figure out what really happened.

The book is witty, sometimes self-consciously so but always with a tongue-in-cheek feel. The characters banter incessantly, which is part of the fun. And the plot, while a bit far-fetched, is well-constructed and a good mystery. I didn't figure out who the murderer was--in fact, my guesses were all way off.

I should also point out the awesome cover illustration by Edward Gorey. I actually owned this whole series at one point back when I had a huge Gorey collection, but I never read the books. It's too bad I didn't keep the others, because I think I'll read the rest of this series eventually.

Powell's link

Monday, October 31, 2011

God, No! by Penn Jillette

This was a total impulse buy. I just got paid and I was in the book store, saw a book by Penn Jillette about atheism, and thought, "Hey, sounds fun!" I was expecting an interesting, thoughtful, funny discussion of Penn's atheism and how it's affected his life.

Unfortunately, the book is a mess. I wouldn't mind that so much since a lot of the anecdotes are really funny and I don't mind rambling text if I'm being entertained. But there's almost no content. Occasionally he'll make a stab at explaining his views on atheism, but he's too easily distracted from the topic. Any points he brings up are lost in the bluster and noise of his writing style.

I started the book being open to his views; I'm certainly sympathetic to anyone who rails against lies and ignorance, whether I agree totally with them or not. And I've always thought Penn was a clever guy. But by the end of the book I was so turned off by his personality that he could have told me I needed to breathe air to live and I'd have thought, "You are so full of shit."

For someone who states repeatedly that people are mostly good, he sure hates a lot of people. He spends page after page trashing individuals who've slighted him in the past--sometimes decades before. Let it go, man. Geez. Women he's angry with he calls cunts, and women he's not angry with are pretty much 100% in the book so he can mention having had sex with them.

In short, it's a wankery of a memoir, not at all what I expected. I was disappointed, since it's not entertaining enough as a memoir and not intelligent enough as a discussion of atheism. I was particularly turned off by his increasingly ranty political essays, which were so weird that I wonder if the book fell through a wormhole from another dimension.

Although Penn's obviously dying to infuriate people who don't agree with him--he repeats himself when he gets sacrelicious, which makes me think he uses the same phrases a lot to shock people--there actually isn't much criticism of any religion except Islam, which he loathes with a white-hot passion. Christianity? Oh, well, his dad was a Christian and his dad was great. Judaism? Oh, well, isn't it weird that Jews can't eat bacon? That's pretty much it for religion. He doesn't even talk much about atheism beyond some generalities and a chapter on how Santa Claus is a stupid concept.

I can't imagine many atheists finding God, No! very interesting--there's just not enough substance. I suppose people who think they're fighting the good fight against atheism might pick up the book to see what their enemies are up to, but they'll be disappointed too. Unless they're really prudish about swear words, of course. Then they can get righteously angry.

B&N link

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Skunk Cat Book Reviews turns two!

Happy birthday to us! Skunk Cat Book Reviews turns two today. In the last year we've reviewed 112 books--one more than in our first year. So just projecting forward, next year we'll probably review 113 books.

Thanks to all our readers, and thanks to those authors and publishers who contact us asking if we'd like to review their books. Um, I don't reply to most of those emails because we get a billion of them. But we love you anyway.

Here's to another year!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I've read Dracula many times, but not recently. I picked it up this week to reread.

I'd forgotten what a remarkable book it is. It's an epistolary novel, told mostly by entries into various characters' diaries, and by letters between the characters. I watched the 1931 film version last night with Bela Lugosi, which was a lot of fun but no closer to the story than any other film version I've seen; so if you haven't actually read the book, you don't really know the plot.

Solicitor Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to finalize the sale of a London residence to Count Dracula. Dracula is creepy as hell, incidentally. He keeps Jonathan a prisoner once the papers are signed and sent back to England, but Jonathan escapes--but not before Dracula has left for England along with fifty boxes of graveyard earth. Meanwhile, Jonathan's fiancee Mina goes to visit her friend Lucy in Whitby, where a ship runs ashore in a storm--a ship with no one left alive except a large dog, which flees in the night and is never seen again. Lucy begins to sleepwalk at night, to Mina's distress, and to lose health and vitality, growing paler and paler. Also, Renfield the madman who eats flies; Van Helsing the Dutch doctor who is first to accept what's going on; and a cast of millions, including wolves, bats, and rats.

The first part of the book is my favorite, where the characters are still figuring out what Dracula is and how much danger they're in from him. The characters talk way too much, as was the style of writing in those days, until I get impatient and start to skim. But the plot is fascinating and creepy. I've never been all that fond of the last third of the book, which is basically a slow-motion chase, but the ending is satisfying.

I own two editions of Dracula, the nice hardback illustrated by Edward Gorey that my mother gave me, and a battered Wordsworth Classics edition published in 1993, which is the one I actually read (it's lighter and I don't care if it gets torn up). The text is in the public domain, so you can find copies everywhere.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

New Amsterdam by Elizabeth Bear

I'm in the mood lately for denser fiction, which makes Elizabeth Bear perfect. She packs a lot into her sentences, and they take concentration to unpack.

Until this one I've never been able to finish a book by Bear, actually, because I just don't like her characters and she's so damn depressing. The main characters in New Amsterdam are more likable than I expected, although I never felt very close to any of them. And I admire her often-elegant prose enough to overlook the grim tone of her writing in this book.

Each chapter of New Amsterdam is more or less standalone, with a murder to solve in each and bigger events that arch from chapter to chapter and tie the book together. There's a term for this kind of novel, but I'm damned if I can remember it. It's set in the last year of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, in an alternate history where magic exists--as do vampires and other such creatures. The vampire Sebastien de Ulloa whiles away his empty years by helping solve crimes; sorceress Abigail Irene Garrett is a magical crime investigator for the crown in New Amsterdam.

Despite the murders and solutions--which get more complex as the book progresses--the book is not at all plot-driven. Its real purpose is to explore the meanings of love and loyalty. Sebastian is old enough that he's lost all purpose in life (or undeath) except his love for his protege Jack Priest; Abigail Irene has affairs with married, and powerful, men who don't deserve the loyalty she offers them. It's bleak, frankly. Bear's characters never feel joy.

I appreciated the writing, as I said, and the story kept me interested. I didn't love the ending, which felt abrupt--the book didn't so much end as just stop. There's a sequel, Seven for a Secret. I might read it.

B&N link (ebook)
Powell's link (used book)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Marx Sisters and The Malcontenta by Barry Maitland

These are the first two of a series. If I can chase down the third and fourth, expect to see review of them pretty soon. They're excellent. The first book was published in 1994, and the eleventh is being released next week. It looks like the second book is out of print. I found mine at a used book store.

The books are densely plotted, clever murder mysteries with two main characters, Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla of the Metropolitan Police--that's London--and Detective Chief Inspector David Brock of Scotland Yard. Their careers intersect in the first book when Brock is assigned to help Kathy on her first murder investigation. An old woman has died under questionable circumstances--the coroner isn't completely convinced it was foul play, but not completely convinced it was natural causes. Kathy is certain something fishy is going on. She and Brock piece together a profoundly complicated (and thoroughly satisfying) mystery.

The second book takes place about a year after the first. Kathy's been assigned to investigate a suicide at a health spa--but she and the coroner are pretty sure it was murder. But when she's abruptly taken off the case, which is then closed and labeled a suicide, she seeks out Brock for his advice. Again the mystery is complicated and satisfying.

I've seldom come across mysteries--or heck, any books at all--as well plotted as these. I had no idea who the murderer was or why he/she did it. The clues are planted deftly, the red herrings are all important to the overall story, and there are multiple motives. While I enjoyed reading the books and the fairly dark (sometimes claustrophobic) tone is lightened by flashes of low-key humor, they also took some concentration--although I never felt like I was trying to hold a timetable in my head.

The main characters are likable for the most part. They're hard to get to know. It's obvious the two feel some interest in each other, but their relationship moves very, very slowly. I like that. It's a nice change from so many mystery series where the main characters are starting to grope each other before the first chapter's over. I'm really looking forward to seeing how Kathy and Brock interact in the other books.

Like the subtle characterization, the pacing is slow and sometimes bogs down under its own weight. The first book had a lot of lengthy exposition which was mercifully absent in the second; but a big chunk of the first section of the second book is told in flashback as Kathy relates the events of her investigation to Brock, and a big chunk of the second part is Brock investigating on his own, after he checks into the health spa as a patient. I didn't mind the slow pace; it too is a nice change, and enough happens that it kept me interested and reading. I only caught myself skimming toward the end of both books, when I got impatient with having to read lengthy descriptions when urgent stuff was happening.

Murder mysteries in the 90s were big on having themes--usually social issues that the writer addressed as part of the plot. These two books are sort of like that, although I'm not sure Maitland was doing it on purpose or if it just fell out that way. The Marx Sisters seems to have the theme of Infidelity, while The Malcontenta seems to be about Sexism. I didn't notice the themes until the second book, when Kathy's investigation is shut down and she seeks help from Brock, and then I thought back and realized the first book had a theme too. Like I said, Maitland may not have intended these to be themed books, and the themes may very well run throughout the rest of the series. The only reason I really bring it up is because of a few lines in The Malcontenta which really, really bothered me.

Kathy has been explaining the situation to Brock, and here are a few lines of him mulling things over: "[H]e was concerned at her obvious antagonism towards Tanner, Beamish-Newell and Long--all of the main male characters in her account so far, apart from Dowling, whom she seemed to be mothering. He worried whether she was being objective enough in her assessments." (page 53 of my edition) It seems like an odd thing for him to wonder about, particularly under the weird circumstances of the case. And it didn't go anywhere: nothing to do with the main plot, nothing to do with the subplots, no further developments along those lines in Kathy's relationships with male characters in the rest of the book. So basically Brock just shows that despite his affable and polite appearance, he's actually deeply sexist himself and is ready to discount his colleague's account because she's female and can't handle working alongside males. It made me like him a lot less, and also made me hypersensitive to how Maitland, a male author, portrays Kathy, a female character. But Kathy is a believably strong woman, so I'll give Maitland the benefit of the doubt--although Brock had better not start spouting more of that kind of shit in the next few books or I'll drop the series.

Anyway, all that aside, I did really enjoy the books. I'm hoping the next ones are available as ebooks so I can start reading the third one tonight.

B&N link The Marx Sisters
B&N link The Malcontenta (used book)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

I've been meaning to read this book for years, and fate kindly intervened at DragonCon this year when I won a copy at a panel. The series is so popular that it seems pointless to review it, but I review everything I read here.

I was disappointed, actually. I found the plot predictable, the book overly long considering how little actually happened, and I thought Percy was kind of dumb for not figuring out who was betraying him when it was pretty damn obvious. The characters are flat, and I never got any sense of real friendship between Percy, Grover, and Annabeth.

Still, the story moves along briskly despite its length. Some of Percy's adventures are amusing or clever, and would probably seem a lot fresher if I were eleven years old and hadn't read all the books I've read. There were some really funny lines, too, and I did like Percy's relationship with his father (although his mother was such a marshmallow I found it offensive).

But you know what really annoyed me about the book? Grover, who is a satyr, eats tin cans. Goats don't eat tin cans. Mammals of any kind, whether real or mythological, cannot eat metal and live. Yes, it was played for laughs, and yes, it's in a book about gods that are real so it's not like it's a natural history story, but it's still stupid. And I dislike stupidity in the books I read.

B&N link

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Puzzle in a Pear Tree by Parnell Hall

Someone gave me this book or I'd never have read it. I was given the first book in this series years ago and couldn't finish it. These are terrible, terrible books. I suspect no one ever buys these books for themselves; they're only ever given as gifts.

This is the fourth book in the "puzzle lady" series. In this case, the puzzles are acrostics rather than crosswords. There are three or four of them in the book to solve, but if you don't want to bother the solutions are given a few pages after each puzzle. The puzzles are pretty good.

The writing, however, is awful. Every character speaks alike except for the "Scotland Yard" detective, who is so cheesy-fake-British that it's embarrassing. Author Parnell Hall uses the words wanna, gonna, gotta and so forth all the time, so that all his characters sound like they're speaking with mouths full of mashed potatoes. And his prose tics, such as leaving the conjunctions out of compound sentences, are so constant they started to get to me within a few pages--and even show up in dialogue.

The plot isn't all that great either. Cora Felton is taking part in the local Christmas play, as is her niece Sherry and pretty much everyone else in town as far as I can tell. When someone leaves an acrostic that, when solved, implies that the leading lady is in danger, Cora swings into action. Well, okay, she doesn't. For reasons no doubt made clear in the previous three books, despite being known as the puzzle lady, Cora can't work puzzles worth a damn. Her niece solves the puzzles. Then a high school girl playing Mary in an unrelated pageant is murdered, and the clues point confusingly to different people in different plays.

I won't spoil the plot, but I will say that it's one of those horrible mysteries where the clues hinge on timetables that are so convoluted no one but the author would be able to figure them out (or care). The murderer's motive is weak, and verges on ridiculous. The local cops are portrayed as morons who don't know the first thing about conducting a murder investigation, who are happy to take orders from the "Scotland Yard" detective (look, we do all know it's not called Scotland Yard anymore, don't we?), and who don't seem to care that Cora is committing felonies left and right as she "investigates." If I were a cop, I would shoot this book for being too stupid to live.

No one better give me any more of these awful books, because I refuse to read another one.

B&N link

Friday, October 7, 2011

No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

I'm like a junkie with these Georgette Heyer mysteries. I try to stop, but then I pick another one up and want to just keep reading them and reading them. Eventually I'll have read them all, and then I don't know what I'll do.

Actually, I can just keep rereading one of them, since they're all pretty much identical. Heyer found a formula that worked and kept with it. In this one, the despicable Wally Carter is shot dead and everyone has a motive but no opportunity to have killed him.

Of course the murder takes place at a country estate, and the characters are pure Heyer: the rich wife who used to be on the stage, her frivolous nineteen-year-old daughter, Wally's sensible cousin Mary, a Russian prince who may be a fake and who's certainly only interested in the rich wife, the local farmer who loves the rich wife and despises the husband, the husband's ne'er-do-well friend, the local barrister's son, the local doctor, etc. As always, the real fun of a Heyer mystery isn't so much the mystery (although that's particularly good in this one, with a clever plot twist--I didn't guess the murderer) as the zippy, slang-filled conversation. I could listen to Heyer's characters talk all day long.

B&N link

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Royal Scam by Gini Koch

Full disclosure: I have a novella with this publisher (release date early 2012).

I really wanted to love this novella, the first installment of a space opera that looks like a lot of fun. It's about a band of spacers who pull elaborate cons--in this case, main character Danielle Daniels (known as DeeDee) has spent three months impersonating the youngest princess of Andromeda for reasons that are complicated (in a clever way) and lucrative (also in a clever way). There are hints that the group's ultimate goal is to restore the Martian royalty to the throne--and the royal brothers are part of the crew. In fact, one's the captain.

All the elements of a fun, swashbuckling space opera are in place: a motley crew of scofflaws, hidden royalty, old scores to settle with entire planets, alien beings that resemble frogs or spiders, and ships that can jump to hyperspace to travel between star systems. But nothing really gels. The characters are bland and all speak alike no matter how alien they look, and I never felt a sense of tension. Nothing seemed to be at stake, and sure enough, DeeDee and her friends got out of a small potential mess without any difficulty.

Worse, though, I never felt close to any of the characters. They just don't have much personality. I didn't care about DeeDee, and I certainly didn't care about any of her shipmates. She's supposed to have a romance with the captain, but there was no spark between them. I just didn't care, and I badly wanted to.

A note on the formatting: This is a PDF ebook. Like most PDFs, the text displays really, really tiny on my Sony PRS-505. Also like most PDFs, when I enlarge the text, it screws up the formatting. Part of my negative reaction to the story may be due to frustration with figuring out where paragraphs began and ended, which has nothing to do with the writing and everything to do with display. I hope the publisher can fix this issue for their future releases (although to be honest, nothing I've tried has made PDFs display better, so it may just be a sucky problem with Sony readers).

Musa Publishing link

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hero by Perry Moore

I think this is the first young adult novel I've seen that actually tells us on the back that the main character is gay. Good for Hyperion.

Thom Creed's father was one of the country's best-loved superheroes--despite having no superpowers--until something awful happened. Now Thom lives in the shadow of his father's disgrace, his mother took off when he was still little, and his father works at a factory and can barely make ends meet. Thom isn't allowed to talk about the League of superheroes his dad used to belong to, isn't allowed to talk about superheroes at all. But when Thom develops powers of his own and discovers some pictures of his mother hanging out with League members, he realizes he doesn't know much about his own family. And when the League finds out about Thom's superhealing abilities, they invite him to try out--and Thom wants to join the League as badly as his dad hates the League.

The book is slow-paced despite some good action scenes. I didn't exactly get bored while reading, but I did repeatedly think, "Geez, this book is so long, why is this book so long?" It's 428 pages, which seems excessive for a YA about superheroes. Then again, a lot happens. It just happens slowly with a lot of talking.

In some ways, Hero reminds me of Austin Grossman's brilliant Soon I Will Be Invincible, in that it shows some of the internal workings of a league of superheroes and in its awkward moments of character backstory infodumping. At least four times in the book, a character tells Thom his or her story at length and in decidedly literary (rather than conversational) language. I found it extremely jarring. I also found the writing rough at times, with transitions often so abrupt that I couldn't figure out what was going on. A couple of times I had to check to make sure I hadn't accidentally turned two pages instead of one.

The superhero plot is pretty good--not great, frankly, because there are too many holes. I didn't notice most of them while I was reading, but once I'd finished and was thinking about the book, I kept thinking, "Wait a minute, why did...? And what the hell did that scene have to do with...?"

Overall, though, the book is good--moving and interesting. Thom's romance with another character takes a long time to get underway, but it feels natural. I kept tearing up, too, because Thom's life really is shitty: he's terrified someone will out him to his dad, he's terrified his dad will find out he's joined the League, he's lost his place on the high school basketball team due to rumors of his being gay, his League teammates apparently all hate him, and he's trying to deal alone with superpowers he barely understands. The ending is satisfying, even if the book itself tends to be melancholy and occasionally depressing.

B&N link

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Ghost and the Goth and Queen of the Dead by Stacey Kade

I picked up the first book in this new YA series, The Ghost and the Goth, despite its terrible cover. The sequel, Queen of the Dead, has an even worse cover. Seriously, how stupid does the guy in that second cover look? Pretty damn stupid. And not anything like Will in the books.

But anyway, the books are good. High school senior Will Killian can see and hear ghosts, a 'gift' his father also had. Ghosts are frantic to talk to the living and get their help, pestering and demanding and sometimes attacking ghost-talkers. Will's father ended up killing himself three years before, in part due to the pressure. Will himself has been labeled schizophrenic. He can block out the ghosts and pretend he can't hear them if he listens to music. But when he crosses the school principal at the wrong time and gets his MP3 player confiscated, he's vulnerable to attack from the school's many ghosts.

Enter Will's classmate Alona Dare--the late Alona Dare. A few days ago she was hit by a bus while skipping school. She's not sure why she's still hanging around as a ghost, but she knows she needs Will's help--even if he is the kind of guy she'd never even have looked at while she was alive.

The books are told from alternating viewpoints, a chapter from Alona followed by a chapter from Will. It works, mostly because their voices are so distinct. Alona is fierce and cool and determined to get her way. Will just wants to keep his head down so he can graduate in a few short weeks and move somewhere more or less deserted.

The mysteries surrounding both characters kept me riveted, and the tension mounts beautifully. The pacing in the first book is just about perfect. I literally could not put the book down, and when I did I kept thinking about it. Despite the light tone and often funny writing, the book tackles some serious issues. Alona's mother drinks heavily, and Will is still dealing with his father's suicide. But it's the interaction between the two that I just loved.

I won't tell much about the second book's plot, since I don't want to spoil anything. I will say that I was disappointed about halfway through, when the plot went off the rails and nearly fell apart. I still enjoyed the second book, but not nearly as much as the first. Without going into details, there's something that I firmly expected to happen in the first book; I was really glad when it didn't, because it was just too obvious and lame. But it happened in the second book after all, pushing the plot off track and taking over when I'd been enjoying reading about Will discovering another ghost-talker and how she deals with ghosts.

I also felt that the second book was just a set-up for the third. Which I wish were already available, frankly. This is a fresh and breezy take on the YA ghost story books that are everywhere lately (and how I do love this subgenre). Despite the weaknesses in Queen of the Dead, it's still much better than a lot of ghost stories available right now.

B&N links:
The Ghost and the Goth
Queen of the Dead