Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Con & Conjure by Lisa Shearin

I've been a fan of this series for years. Con & Conjure is the fifth book; last spring I reviewed the fourth, Bewitched & Betrayed. I said then that I thought the series was nearing a natural end, mostly because the main character's romantic subplot had resolved. But after reading Con & Conjure, I definitely see I was wrong. The series hasn't lost any steam, and in fact seems to be accelerating.

Raine Benares is still linked psychically with the Saghred, an ancient artifact once used to annihilate armies and enslave entire countries. Raine just wants to get rid of the thing, but there are a lot of people who want to use it--and her--for their own purposes. One wrong move and Raine will end up starting a war.

Raine brings in her cousin Mago, older brother of her pirate cousin Phaelan, to help. Mago isn't a pirate, though. He's a banker--and the best there is at emptying other people's bank accounts for his own use. Raine figures her enemies won't be able to do quite as much harm if they can't pay their minions.

The book is action-packed and fun, an urban fantasy set in an alternate world. There's a lot of tension but a lot of humor too. Some of the main characters from previous books don't have a lot of page time in this one, like Tam and Phaelan, and others aren't in the book at all. Raine is the prime mover, and since the action is nonstop she doesn't get much rest.

I liked that some of the plot arcs from the previous books resolve in this one, while new ones pick up. It sounds like the next book will take place in another city. The worldbuilding here is particularly fun, with inventive settings and details, so I'm looking forward to exploring a new area. I was disappointed that Mago's swindling--which was set up so perfectly in the beginning--didn't come to much. I'm hoping he'll stick around and do more next time.

While the plot is thoroughly satisfying, the cliffhanger ending means it's going to be a long wait for the next book.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe

I reviewed the second book in this series, Burn Me Deadly, a few months ago and really liked it. The series takes the hard-boiled detective genre and wraps it up in a fantasy world, a great combination.

In the dead of a bitter winter, sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse gets an ominous reminder of an old case: a coffin delivered during a snowstorm. The case was one of the strangest of Eddie's career, one that led to the downfall of an entire country.

The main story takes place in the past, framed by the arrival of the coffin in the present and Eddie's subsequent relating of the tale to everyone in the tavern where he's drinking. Ordinarily I hate that kind of structure, but it works here. I'm also not too fond of Arthurian tales, which this is, but Bledsoe has such a fresh take on it that I was smitten immediately.

At its heart, Dark Jenny is a murder mystery. Eddie was on another case when he witnessed a murder: a knight ate an apple intended for someone else, and died of poison. Eddie himself is suspected of the murder--but so is Queen Jennifer of Grand Bruan. Eddie wants to exonerate himself and get the hell out, but he also wants to find out the truth. While tracing the poisoner, he gets mixed up in royal mysteries, atrocities in the name of peace, and betrayal on both the personal and national scale.

The story is often violent but it doesn't feel particularly dark, thanks to the frequent black humor. There's also an added layer of enjoyment from recognizing how Bledsoe translates hard-boiled detective tropes and jargon into a fantasy setting. There's a lot of well-paced action too, tempered by some quieter moments.

Eddie is a flawed but honest character with a dark past; I was disappointed that his girlfriend Liz didn't have much of a part in the plot, since it mostly takes place before Eddie met her. But my only real complaint is the big ending where the murderer is revealed; it felt a little chaotic to me, probably because so many characters were present. Overall, though, the book is extremely good, with a tricky mystery and a fascinating setting.

A copy of this book was provided to Skunk Cat by the publisher or author for review.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Murder Past Due by Miranda James

Widower Charlie Harris is a part-time archivist at his local college. He's got a Maine Coone cat named Diesel and a college student boarder named Justin, the son of a high school friend. But Justin's life is in turmoil, and Charlie soon discovers why: it turns out that Justin's father is actually the famous author Godfrey Priest, a local who has made plenty of enemies over the decades. And Godfrey is on his way to visit his hometown. But within a day of Godfrey's arrival, someone kills him--and Justin's cell phone is found by the body.

Murder Past Due has a lot of good things going for it, particularly Diesel, who's adorable. It also has some great plot twists, and while I strongly suspected I'd guessed the murderer ahead of time and turned out to be right, I was still surprised because I was never sure. The plot is good.

But the book also has a lot of negatives. It's very slow-moving, for one thing, without a lot of action and with almost no tension. For another, Charlie himself is rather bland. But it's the relationship between Charlie and the deputy assigned to investigate the murder that I had so much trouble with and did so much to sour me on the book.

Charlie is a middle-aged white man. The deputy, Kanesha, is a young black woman. In addition, Kanesha's mother works for Charlie as his housekeeper, and in fact asks Charlie to quietly help her daughter with the investigation so everything will go well. While Kanesha calls Charlie on his meddling, she's portrayed throughout most of the book as unreasonable and snappish. While I certainly don't think the author intended to come across as racist by any means, I'm uncomfortable at the way Charlie so often steps in and takes charge when Kanesha is trying to do her job. Personally, if I were Kanesha, I'd have thrown his ass in jail. She's the one who solves the murder anyway; Charlie doesn't.

While the plot is good, I didn't have a lot of fun reading the book. Aside from my dislike of the way Charlie butts into the investigation as though he should be allowed to help, the story just crept along so slowly, with so little at stake and with so many unlikable characters, that I stayed bored for long stretches.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reviewed by Sin - Lala Pipo

Lala Pipo
by Hideo Okuda
Amazon link

"Lala Pipo" is a relay race: as each story ends, a previously minor character takes the lead and shows us what was going on in his/her life while someone else had the spotlight. From housewives to host boys, you get a graphic tour of who's getting it in Tokyo, and who's not getting enough. Anger, stress, and self-destruction are the predominate themes. You would think getting laid would make people happy, but Hideo Okuda knows better. Sometimes sex is the last thing you need.

The book starts with a man who has no life, no friends, and one new neighbor. When a very audible parade of sexy women ensues the man, and his penis, are happier than they've ever been. Unfortunately, he's no host boy and, as time goes by, the man's addiction to the antics upstairs get the better of him. And that's one of the tamer stories.

"Lala Pipo" is proof that perversion can have a point. As titillating as the stories are (did you want me to lie?), they are also thought provoking, and in some cases touching. Okuda's characters aren't the nicest people but, even if you don't agree with what they do, you understand how they got there. To me, that is the mark of an excellent writer. It's easy to make you like a character who's charming and funny. Making you care about someone who needs a boot to the ass takes talent.

Friday, March 18, 2011

One Hundred Candles by Mara Purnhagen

I reviewed the first book in this series, Past Midnight, a few weeks ago. I really liked that book and had high hopes for this one.

One Hundred Candles picks up a few months after the previous book's events. It's Christmas and Charlotte isn't happy to be spending the holiday in an abandoned asylum, hunting for ghosts with her parents and a so-called demonologist. Charlotte is more than a little skeptical of the demonologist's abilities, but she changes her mind when his assistant suddenly appears to be possessed and attacks Charlotte. But after that, things seem to be back to normal at home. Charlotte's thrilled when a popular football player seems interested in her, especially when he asks her to prom. Attending prom is the epitome of normal to Charlotte, who's still working hard to overcome her family's weird profession.

As in the first book, there's a lot going on in this one beyond the main plot. Charlotte's parents aren't getting along, for one thing; her dad refuses to believe that anything supernatural happened during the demonologist's assistant's attack, while her mom is becoming more and more interested in new age spirituality to answer her questions. Charlotte's friend Noah has backed off abruptly, making sure she understands he just wants to remain friends--nothing more. And strange things are happening in Charlotte's high school, from ghostly images picked up on the security cameras to bizarre vandalism.

The book is realistic and compelling, just as good as the first one...until the end. It becomes clear partway through the book that a creepy entity is stalking Charlotte, but its big reveal was just a WTF moment. It didn't make any sense, and another character's explanation of it is even more nonsensical. Worst of all, the ending resolved nothing and only set up for a sequel that will in all likelihood be a retread of this book (since, you know, this book resolved nothing). And you know how much I love that.

One thing I found particularly irritating was the increased reliance on new-age spirituality to explain the supernatural events. It wasn't as pronounced in the first book, but in this one, Charlotte wears a big honkin crystal around her neck and gets advice from a generic 'wise woman' character who I freaking could not stand (because she made no sense, because she spoke in platitudes, because her new age mumbo-jumbo jarred against the realistic rest of the book, because she had no personality beyond being a cliche, because she was only in the book to provide wisdom and plot points). I really don't like that Charlotte's own rational skepticism is proven wrong.

Charlotte's also a very passive character. Since that was something she was working on improving in the last book, it was depressing to see her revert to her old wishy-washy self--particularly since her own passiveness leads to a lot of bad things happening, which makes me feel the author's hand pretty clearly. Charlotte also misses some obvious clues and comes across as kind of dumb as a result.

I was very disappointed in the book, particularly since most of it is so good. The ending was crap with a cliffhanger denouement, not at all satisfying. While I'll undoubtedly read the next book in the series, if it has the same flaws I'll be more than a little cautious about picking up the author's future books.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Great Brain Is Back by John D. Fitzgerald

I loved the Great Brain books when I was a kid, but I'd never read this one. It was published posthumously in 1995. It's another of my library sale finds.

The books are each a series of short stories about J.D., his older brother Tom, and their family. Tom is the one known as the great brain, and as J.D. points out, he also has a money-loving heart. Every time Tom comes up with another idea to make money, it seems J.D. ends up broke--but never bored.

When I was a kid, I thought Tom's swindling was hilarious. As an adult, I'm a lot less amused. Tom's kind of a jerk. I actually disliked the first story, where Tom orders a bunch of soap to resell and talks J.D. into selling it and paying Tom for the privilege. But the later stories are a lot better. Tom helps figure out the actual events when a Paiute Indian is accused of stealing a rifle, and he engineers the downfall of a man running a dogfighting ring. Best of all, in the last chapter Tom gets his comeuppance from an unexpected source.

The stories are mostly funny, but they're also interesting since they're set in the last year of the 19th century. Fitzgerald wrote the books based on his own childhood memories. The writing is simple but clear, and J.D. is a nice guy even if he is a little too willing to let Tom walk all over him.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reviewed by Sin - In the Pool

By Hideo Okuda
*English translation
Amazon link

"In the Pool", by Hideo Okuda, is a collection of five stories with two things in common: The protagonists all have an unusual problem, with a relatable human core, and they are all under the care of doctor Ichiro Irabu, head of neurology. Along with his indifferent nurse, Mayumi, Doctor Irabu specializes in indulging his patient's irrational, self-destructive impulses. Whether it be compulsively swimming, or text messaging their lives away, doctor Irabu is there to tell them everything is all right.

By the second story you can see the method behind doctor Irabu's madness, while his patients are left in the dark. Seeing how each patient deals with having the most fucked up aspect of themselves encouraged, and eventually figure out why, is the brilliance behind "In the Pool." Yet, as much as you come to know each character and why they are the way they are, the "real" doctor Irabu remains a mystery. Where does the therapy end, and the person behind it begin? I just read the book, and I have no idea, yet it's impossible to dismiss doctor Irabu as crazy. He has a vision, and it comes complete with mommy issues and a pea green porsche.

It's rare that a book makes me laugh out loud, but this one did it repeatedly. It also made me feel bad for the characters, and root for the ones that got their lives together. My favorite story is the first, titled "In the Pool", about a man whose stress drives him to swim. Soon a few laps isn't enough, and it becomes impossible to balance his trips to the pool with the rest of his life. Here, and in the other stories, the journey is what's important, even when the characters don't get where they wanted to go.

Personal rating = A+

Friday, March 11, 2011

Poor Badger by K.M. Peyton

K.M. Peyton is the same writer as Kathleen Herald. Whatever name she writes under, I love her books. I've read this one several times, years ago, but picked up a copy at a library sale yesterday and reread it.

Nine-year-old Ros Palfrey is delighted when she discovers a black and white pony tethered in a field near her house. She and her friend Leo name the pony Badger and bring him carrots. But Badger, so spirited and healthy at first, is neglected by his owners--a mean girl and her family--and loses condition rapidly. Ros is horrified. As winter sets in and Badger gets thinner and scruffier, with no shelter from the cold, Ros decides to steal the pony to save his life.

Poor Badger is an exciting, beautifully written gem of a story. Badger's plight feels real because it's not overstated: the pony is neglected, but not so much so that the authorities should step in; in fact, Ros insists her father call the SPCA, who talk to the pony's owner about feeding him but do nothing more. The adults in the book are concerned about Badger, but only Ros decides to take action--even though she knows it's stealing.

Ros is a tough girl who plans ahead and thinks she's prepared for anything, while Leo is timid and slightly in awe of Ros. I love how their roles reverse during the big rescue, as Ros despairs after her plans go awry, and Leo discovers the excitement of being out alone at night. I also appreciate the aftermath of the theft, when Ros deals with the consequences of her actions and her continued worries for Badger's future.

The ending is perfectly satisfying. The ending also takes place on Christmas Eve, so the book would make a great Christmas gift for a horse-crazy kid. It's out of print, unfortunately, but good used copies aren't hard to come by.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Mystery of Pony Hollow by Lynn Hall

Sometimes you just have to read a 59-page book about ponies. At least I do.

Sarah Elgin has a new pony of her own. She spends a sunny May Saturday exploring her parents' Iowa farmland on horseback, and discovers a tiny stone house in a hollow. To her horror, though, she hears a pony inside, whinnying and kicking at the door. But when Sarah breaks the lock to let the trapped pony out, she discovers the cottage is empty--except for a dusty pony skeleton.

For such a short, simple story, The Mystery of Pony Hollow packs a lot of action. I liked that Sarah didn't rely on adults to solve the mystery. She researches the history of the farm herself, discovers the name of a groom who worked there fifty years before and tracks him down at a nursing home, and goes to visit him herself.

The story is gentle and interesting, with a bittersweet but satisfying ending. I've read a lot of Lynn Hall's books over the years; they're always good.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Murder on Monday by Ann Purser

This is a murder mystery where the sleuth had to be told who the murderer is because she couldn't figure it out in 280 pages of tiny print. To say that this is unsatisfying is an understatement.

Lois Meade is a mother of three, including a fourteen-year-old daughter who I wanted to smack on practically every page of the book*; Lois's husband is an electrician and she works part-time as a cleaning woman to help make ends meet. But when a woman is murdered in the tiny British village where she works, Lois decides to do a little investigating of her own.

I don't want to spoiler this book, because it's well written if you like slow-moving character studies with a mystery tossed in. I will just say that the plot is far-fetched in every way, from the set-up to the final confrontation. Lois decides to investigate after she's turned down to volunteer as a special constable, and the police decide to string her along, pretending to swap information with her, because she can provide them with inside information on the suspects she works for. This did not actually make any sense, because that's not how the police work.

Lois herself starts out as a strong, opinionated person who I quite liked. Around halfway along, though, she begins to dither and worry, until by the end she's just a wimp. And, of course, she had to be told who the murderer was. This is not actually what I look for in a murder mystery.

*I'm glad I don't have kids.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

White Cat by Holly Black

This is a good example of a book that works in present tense. I still don't like present tense books, but hey, I'm not unreasonable. The tone here is so casual it feels more like listening to someone recount a story.

Seventeen-year-old Cassel Sharpe is a non-worker in a family of talented curse-workers. His grandfather can kill with a touch; his mother can manipulate people's emotions; his two older brothers can bring luck and break bones with just a touch of their hands. Cassel can't do any of that, but he's always been good at sleight-of-hand. Things aren't so good with his family right now, though. His father is dead and his mother in jail, and Cassel himself tries hard to appear normal at his expensive private school. He doesn't have a lot of friends--okay, no friends--but he runs a successful book-making business from his dorm room. He's haunted by the memory of murdering his childhood best friend, though--he has no idea why he did it or what happened. When he starts sleepwalking again, something he hasn't done in years, it sets off a series of events that will force Cassel to reevaluate his family and everything he's been taught.

The premise of this book is awesome, and the book follows through. Every time I thought I knew where the plot was going, something fresh came along to throw me. The idea of curse-workers is fascinating. I loved the worldbuilding: people wear gloves almost all the time to guard against curses, and wear stone amulets to ward off any curses that get through; people who curse are subject to what's called blow-back, where they take a share of the curse on themselves.

I liked Cassel too. He's a complex character, raised as a thief and con artist but working hard to be a normal kid and a good student. He craves the approval of his older brothers even when he doesn't trust them. And he worries about the people he has to con during the book.

I wasn't quite as thrilled with the ending, which is an obvious set-up for the sequel. But I'm going to read the sequel, so I guess it worked.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

It's 1948 in Los Angeles. Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins has just lost his job and is worried that he'll also lose the one thing he really loves, his house with fruit trees in the yard. When a white man offers him a hundred bucks to track down a woman for her boyfriend, he reluctantly agrees. But a seemingly simple job turns more and more complex, leading to murder and the uncovering of some very ugly secrets.

Honestly, there isn't much I can say about this book that hasn't already been said by better reviewers than me. It's brilliant. The writing is fantastic, the setting is so noir it probably makes noir fans weep with angry joy that nothing else even comes close, and the plot is complex without ever being confusing.

Easy is a cautious, intelligent man, but he's seen more than his share of death in the war. The book is violent without making the violence seem glamorous, which I appreciate. At times I had to surface from reading and remind myself that this was fiction, because the racism Easy has to deal with enraged me so much I thought I'd have a stroke. But after I reminded myself it was fiction, I remembered that reality was and often still is even worse. It's a rare mystery that makes me reflect without also annoying me, but there's no message clubbing readers over the head here; it's just Easy, trying to keep himself from being accused of murder while trying to find out what's really going on.

As I said, this is a brilliant book. I'm astounded that I haven't read anything by Walter Mosley before, but I'm happy he's written so many books. I plan to read them all.

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