Friday, January 28, 2011

Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits by Cate Gardner

Full disclosure: Cate Gardner is one of my online writer friends. I've known her for years and greatly admire her writing.

Gardner's collection of short stories, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits, came out a few months ago but I only just got around to reading it. I'm not much of a short-story reader for some reason and I tend to put off reading anthologies. Once I did pick it up, though, I devoured it utterly. The stories are quick-paced, varied, and full of the mischievous and odd characters that people Gardner's writing and make it so unique.

I'm not sure how to describe Gardner's style. She'd qualify for 'new weird' except that her fiction is so well grounded, her characters practical even when they're surrounded by madness; and while her style is poetic and playful, I never feel distance from her characters the way I often do when reading literary specfic. Nor is she precisely a horror or fantasy writer, even when zombies and fairies pop up in her stories. Her plots often follow dream-logic, where reality is a fluid concept, without feeling at all dreamy (although many of them qualify as nightmarish). She's also frequently very funny.

The stories in Strange Men are all strong, some of them reprints but many of them new for this collection. My favorites are the ones that tell one story on the surface while hinting at stranger (or at least different) realities underneath, like the truly creepy "The Scratch of an Old Record." I read the anthology over several days and there are several that I keep thinking about. I really think my favorite, oddly enough, is "The Moth Brigade," a bleak SFnal story about a firefighting robot who's facing obsolescence. I also adore the opening story, a lovely little gem only four paragraphs long called "Dandelion Fluff."

One thing I like a lot about Gardner's stories is their underlying cheerfulness. This may seem like a weird thing to say since death, dismemberment, madness, and the casual infliction of pain are recurring themes, but her characters rarely despair. They're tough, strange, stubborn people who usually remain upbeat even when the worst happens. And the worst always happens.

B&N link

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hellforged by Nancy Holzner

is the sequel to Deadtown, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I liked the first book, but when the sequel came out I discovered I wasn't all that interested in reading it.

Hellforged started out fairly slow, or maybe it just seemed that way because my interest kept flagging. Vicky is a shapechanger and demon-hunter, but in the first book she ended up having to link herself to a demon called the Destroyer in order to banish it back to Hell. Now the Destroyer is showing up in Vicky's dreams, and she suspects it's connected to several grisly deaths of zombies she knows. Finally she gets worried enough to call her Aunt Mab in Wales for advice. Mab tells her to come to Wales immediately.

So she does. At the drop of a hat, Vicky leaves the country for several weeks. This is a symptom of the main problem I have with Vicky, which is that she doesn't seem to have any interests or activities outside of demon-hunting. Sure she has a boyfriend, but she's the first to admit that they don't actually see each other much. Essentially, Vicky spends her nights demon-hunting (note: not as interesting as it sounds) and her days asleep, and that's all. It makes her seem unrealistic and flat, and I never felt much of a connection with her.

Not only that, but she doesn't even seem to like demon-hunting or shape-changing. She never shows much enthusiasm for anything in her life. The woman desperately needs to take up watercolors or something.

The plot isn't bad once Vicky stops whining that she can't do what Mab's teaching her to do, and instead settles down to do it. I was glad that the ending was satisfying and ties up a lot of loose threads, because I doubt I'll bother to read the next book.

B&N link

Friday, January 21, 2011

Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl

I didn't figure out until the very end of this book, when I read the "About the Author" paragraph, that this is the same author whose book Owl in Love I read and loved recently. Owl in Love was a quirky, surreal, satisfying fantasy. Goose Chase was a tedious mess. I can hardly believe the same author wrote both books.

Alexandria Aurora Fortunato has been a humble goose girl for her first fourteen years. She has a dozen geese and loves them like sisters. They're all she has left after her mother's death a few years before. Unfortunately, after Alexandria helps an old crone, she's cursed with great beauty, hair that showers gold dust instead of dandruff, and tears that turn into diamonds. Her comfortable life is turned upside down when both a prince and a neighboring king demand her hand in marriage--and lock her up in a tower until she makes her decision as to who she'll marry. Alexandria escapes with the help of her geese, but her troubles are only beginning.

Alexandria the goose girl is a horrible person. She screams at and abuses everyone, never thanks her geese although they basically do everything for her, and ignores good advice even when doing so is obviously a bad idea. She's also dumb as a stump, but since everyone else in the book is even dumber, that doesn't really matter. I put up with Alexandria's bad attitude because I was certain she'd learn kindness as part of her journey. She never does.

Although Alexandria is fourteen and the prince fifteen, the book seems intended for much younger children; but it's much too long for very young readers, no matter how precocious they are. There's a lot of inventive action, but even more long passages of Alexandria feeling sorry for herself and complaining. As an adult with a pretty good grounding in fairy tales, I didn't find the big plot reveals at the end surprising. I also found the romance between Alexandria and the prince both disappointingly predictable and completely unconvincing.

The book starts out fairly funny, but the humor is repetitive and soon becomes tiresome. I enjoyed Alexandria's stay with the ogresses--about the only thing about the book I did enjoy, actually, and it was marred by Alexandria's stupidity and ill nature. (Without spoilering anything, she could have gotten out of the situation easily if she'd thought for one second and stopped insulting everything within tongue-lashing range.) By the time the book was finished, I would have been happy if King Claudio the Cruel had beheaded Alexandria, the prince, all the geese, and every single other character.

Basically, author Patrice Kindl isn't all that great a writer. I didn't notice when I read Owl in Love because in that book, she's able to hide her shortcomings (clumsy characterization and stilted prose) in a story that actually uses them to an advantage--Owl is not human and doesn't think like a human, and she's cut off from normal society. Here, Alexandria is supposed to be a sympathetic character in an ordinary (fairy tale) world, and she just comes across as unlikable.

B&N link

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson

This book was first published in 1958, so it was already out of date when I read it as a kid. I never noticed. This was one of my favorite books when I was about ten. Recently I picked up a used copy and reread it, half dreading what I might find.

Fortunately, it's held up so well that with a few exceptions, it might as well have been written last year. Henry Reed is the son of a diplomat living in Naples; he's thirteen and has just arrived in the states to visit his aunt and uncle for the summer. They live in a tiny town near Princeton, New Jersey. It turns out that the only kid in town even close to his age is a twelve-year-old girl named Margaret Glass, who goes by Midge. With Midge's help, Henry sets up a research business in a barn to see if he can make money over the summer.

I'd most dreaded finding sexism that I didn't catch as a kid, but I was pleasantly surprised. Henry is never disparaging of Midge because she's a girl, only because she's younger than him and has a sense of humor he doesn't appreciate. She's not a girly-girl, either. The two of them have fun but realistic adventures, from trying (repeatedly) to capture Midge's escaped pet rabbit to rigging up their own weather balloon. The story is funny, the characters all likable, and the sensibilities surprisingly modern. I'm glad I reread it. Now I need to dig up the sequels.

B&N link

Sunday, January 16, 2011

If Books Could Kill and The Lies That Bind by Kate Carlisle

I reviewed the first book in this series, Homicide in Hardcover, a few weeks ago. I liked it well enough that I bought the next two books soon after. I read the second book, If Books Could Kill, right away although I've held off reviewing it until now, obviously, since I wanted to review the third book at the same time.

It's a good thing I bought the third book, I suppose, because otherwise I probably wouldn't have continued with the series after book two. I never expect a whole lot from a second book in a mystery series--they're usually pretty bad--but If Books Could Kill just didn't interest me much. In it, bookbinder Brooklyn Wainwright attends the Edinburgh Book Fair in Scotland, where she meets up with an old ex of hers. He asks her professional opinion about a scandalous book he's discovered, a collection of Robert Burns's poetry that contains some poems never before published, poems that could cause a scandal in the British monarchy. Then her ex turns up dead, and Brooklyn is the main suspect.

I think what I most disliked in the book was the fawning anglophilia throughout, which really turned me off. Obviously that's my own minor hangup. The mystery itself was okay and sometimes a lot of fun, but it was marred by over-the-top characters and unrealistic events. Brooklyn's relationship with security expert Derek Stone didn't interest me--in fact, I was starting to worry about them until near the end of the book, when they finally have a real conversation instead of a snarky-banter match.

So I set the third book, The Lies That Bind, aside for a little while to cleanse my palate. I was worried that I was just in the wrong mood for this sort of frothy, light mystery. I finished the book yesterday and I've been thinking about it a lot, trying to decide how I feel about it and the series as a whole.

In the third book, Brooklyn is back home, teaching a bookbinding class at the Bay Area Book Arts. The BABA director, Layla Fontaine, is a bitchy woman who hits on every available man and makes her employees' lives miserable. Brooklyn confronts her about a book that Layla has claimed publicly is a rare first edition of Oliver Twist; Brooklyn knows the book isn't nearly as valuable as Layla claims, and that offering it for auction as a first edition is fraudulent. Then someone shoots Layla dead, naturally.

I liked the third book better than the second, although not as much as the first. I don't like how some characters (like Brooklyn's nemesis, Minka, who frankly is a character I would not miss if she were edited out completely) are ridiculously over-the-top while others are just regular people. It's jarring. I also guessed the murderer really early, not because I was following clues but because I noticed that the author was ignoring one character as a suspect; this is an expected practice for mystery writers, but it was too obvious here and stood out too much. I don't like being right about the murderer; I much prefer to be surprised, so the ending in this one was disappointing too. Brooklyn also makes some stupid choices so that the reader can observe key moments in the plot.

On the other hand, Brooklyn and Derek Stone are having more conversations instead of pissing contests--although, seemingly as a result, Brooklyn has lost the feistiness she showed in the first book and instead dithers in Derek's arms every time she gets upset. I'd almost rather have them sniping at each other than calling each other "darling" in every single sentence and trying to sneak off to be together. Plus, Derek and the police are the prime movers in this book; Brooklyn does no sleuthing on her own, and she isn't even a suspect so she hardly has a personal stake.

I'm coming across as really negative because it's easier for me to pinpoint what I don't like about these books than what I like. I do appreciate that the author doesn't make fun of Brooklyn's family's neo-hippy beliefs. The books are often really funny, too. Kate Carlisle does a good job, oddly enough, writing characters who are interacting in groups--Brooklyn's bookbinding classes, a couple of informal parties, and so forth--and when Brooklyn's on top form, she's intelligent, proactive, kind-hearted, strong, and resourceful. I think the problem is Derek Stone, who's basically taking over. Maybe the author should spin him off into his own mystery series, or just kill him off. Then at least Brooklyn wouldn't have to spend so many pages losing her mind with jealousy every time Derek smiles at a woman. Yeah, their relationship is going to be rocky.

There's a fourth book in this series coming out pretty soon. When I asked myself last night whether I wanted to read it, I was surprised when I thought, "Yeah, I think so." So despite all my nitpicking, there's enough to like in these books that they're worth picking up.

B&N link If Books Could Kill
B&N link The Lies That Bind

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Vicious Circle by Linda Robertson

I hated this book.

I started off not hating it. I just didn't like it all that much, but there were bits of it that I found interesting--enough that I kept reading. I liked main character Persephone's relationship with Johnny the werewolf, and I liked that Persephone wasn't afraid to get mad at people who deserved it (although she never followed through with her anger, which was frustrating). I even liked that she had a small obsession with the King Arthur myths, even though it was a teeny tiny part of her character that was never developed enough to be truly interesting.

But the plot, forgive me, is utter shit. I am so tired of this kind of book. For one thing, it's a prequel to the sequels that I will not be reading. Nothing's resolved, and the big climax of the book consists of Persephone essentially deciding not to act, presumably so she can have those sequels. I usually wait a little while to write my reviews, but I just finished reading and I'm still in the white-hot fury of a reader who was denied an ending.

I had lots of other problems with the book too. Like, why bother to spell werewolf 'waerewolf'? Also, the pacing was glacial, slowed even further by extended meditation scenes, magic rituals with doggerel poetry, and an endless chapter that consisted of one character having his Tarot cards read. No one will remain seated during the Tarot card explanations! I skimmed and skimmed and still feel like I've been reading for a hundred years. Most of the action--and I use that word very loosely--takes place in Persephone's house.

As for the plot: Persephone is a witch who's sympathetic to werewolves and lets them kennel in her basement on the full moon (this means she locks them in dog crates, because otherwise I guess they'd go out and kill people). When a werewolf friend is murdered, Persephone is contacted by the leader of the local coven to hunt down and kill the murderer. She gives Persephone the killer's name and a lot of cash; Persephone asks another werewolf friend to research the killer, I guess because she doesn't know how to use Google. Then the research friend is attacked and nearly killed. Persephone takes the woman into her home to recover since the hospital refuses to treat werewolves.

This is approximately the first half of the book. I kept wondering when Persephone would start earning the money she took. She doesn't actually do anything. Other people find out stuff and tell her, and their revelations astonish her because she has the brain of a titmouse and the gumption of a small rock. At almost exactly halfway through the book, the characters start telling Persephone she's the Lustrata, the Chosen One who will either kill all the vampires or unite the vampires and werewolves and witches, or something. It's not clear. Persephone spends the next 5,000 pages of the book not wanting to be the Lustrata. At the end--sorry, spoiler alert--she decides she'll be the Lustrata after all, because apparently that means she doesn't have to do anything! Hooray!

I liked a few of the characters. Johnny the werewolf was interesting and probably the most well rounded. The subplot of the murdered werewolf's daughter was at times moving and felt more realistic than anything else in the book (even if the girl seemed much older than nine years old). However, all the other characters were either interchangeable--all the other werewolves, whose names I couldn't even keep straight--or cliches, like the hypocritical TV preacher, the friend-who's-found-Jesus-and-won't-tolerate-anyone-else, the superpowerful megasexy vampire lord (oh, how I loathe that particular cliche), the wise-but-annoying grandmother.

So yeah, I really hated this book. What makes me particularly bitter is that I picked this book up after I got partway into a very similar book and gave up on it because I hated the vampires; I didn't realize this one would have the same issues until the vampires turned up halfway through. At least that other book had some action scenes.

B&N link

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mama Stalks the Past by Nora DeLoach

It's a real shame that this book is out of print. I loved it. I thought I was getting the first book in a series, although partway through I decided it had to be a sequel just because so many mentions of earlier crimes were dropped into the narrative. I checked, and sure enough, Mama Stalks the Past is actually the fifth book in this series. I found a list of all of them in order for those who'd like to chase them all down.

Simone Covington is visiting her mother, Grace--more commonly known as Candi--when a man named Nat Mixon bursts in and accuses Candi of robbing him of his inheritance. Nat's mother, an ill-tempered neighbor of Candi's, has recently died. Candi had almost no contact with the woman (despite friendly offers of food and friendship) and is stunned to discover she willed 250 acres of prime real estate to her. Candi doesn't want the land, especially since someone seems to be murdering the woman's other heirs--and rumors in town point to Candi as being the murderer.

This is a true cozy mystery. I got a strong Miss Marple vibe from the book. Candi is a pleasant, polite, and intelligent woman who's keenly aware of what goes on in her small town. She knows how to play the village gossips for information (even when they're badmouthing her behind her back) and she knows how to approach people to get them to open up to her. Like Miss Marple, she solves her mysteries by talking to people and then thinking carefully about what she's been told (and what information people have withheld). The pace is slower than a lot of mysteries without being a bit boring, which was a nice change.

I liked Simone, who's more impulsive and less patient than her mother. I wish Simone had had a more active role in the mystery, though. I knew I'd like Simone at the very beginning: after she threatens Nat Mixon with a can of roach spray, she inspects her hand to make sure none of the spray got on it, then washes her hands anyway. I totally would have done the same thing. That's a good example of the attention to character and detail DeLoach has throughout the book.

I enjoyed the mystery a lot; in fact, I was convinced I knew who the murderer was, and was delighted to find that I was completely wrong. I don't know if the theme of strong family ties is unique to this particular book or an ongoing one (I suspect ongoing), but it worked well with both the mystery and the characters.

The author died in 2001, which is really sad.

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