Sunday, May 29, 2011

Long Ago When I Was Young by E. Nesbit

Memoirs written by children's authors about their childhoods are much better than memoirs written by anyone else. They're more interesting, for one thing. For another, they're not usually depressing (unless they're written for an adult audience, in which case they're extra depressing).

E. Nesbit (Edith, but she was always called Daisy as a child) is one of my favorite authors anyway. I fell in love with her stories when my grandmother gave me a copy of Five Children and It. I had no idea that she'd written her memoirs until I found a copy at a library sale.

It's a short book but charming. Poor little Daisy was kind of a neurotic child, but it makes for very funny (and sometimes scary) reading to hear about what frightened her and why. She had an unsettled life, punctuated with awful boarding schools and sun-drenched months of perfection with her family at various homes in England and France.

She never bothers to explain "I had X number of brothers and sisters and these were their ages"; in fact, she doesn't include mundane details like that at all. The narrative wanders from event to event--exactly the way memory works, connecting one detail with another without necessarily staying in chronological order. The looseness of the narrative is both a positive and a negative. It made it a rambling, story-like read, but I'd have liked a little bit more about events outside the immediate scope of Daisy's life.

Since she was a child in the mid-19th century, it would have been particularly interesting to know more of the historical context of her life. Then again, the happiest parts of her childhood were spent in the countryside, where she and her brothers played pirates and explorers the same way my brother and I played when we were little. Maybe that's all the book needs.

B&N link (used book)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Carbonel, The King of the Cats by Barbara Sleigh

This is a charming book that reminded me a lot of E. Nesbit and Edward Eager. It was first published in 1955 and has been reprinted in a nice hardback edition with the original illustrations. I'd never read it before, but I would have just loved it as a kid.

Ten-year-old Rosemary plans to buy a broom so she can clean neighbors' houses over her summer break, intending to surprise her widowed mother with the money. But the broom she buys turns out to be a witch's, and along with it she acquires the witch's cat, Carbonel. But Carbonel is no ordinary cat. He's a prince who was catnapped from his cradle as a kitten. He needs Rosemary's help to return to his people.

The story is lively, inventive, and a complete delight. I read it in a few hours and enjoyed every word. Its portrayal of both children and cats is realistic and very funny, and I especially liked that everyone ends up better for their experience, even the witch. I think there are sequels, too.

B&N link

The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett

It's a little odd to be reviewing this book without linking to my review of its predecessor The Warded Man (printed as The Painted Man outside the US). But I can't find that prior review, so maybe I simply imagined it.

Remembering how much I enjoyed reading The Warded Man, it's hard to believe I wouldn't have written a review of it. Strange. I guess I'll have to cover both this time.

This is an epic fantasy series that is thankfully entirely devoid of elves, zombies and vampires. Brett instead posits a world where mankind is a dwindling species, largely clustered inside fortified towns and villages against a demonic horde that coalesces out of the mist each night at sundown and vanishes again every morning at dawn. (Well okay, that sounds a little weak when I lay it out flat like that, but trust me: Brett manages to present that premise as a cold, hard, compelling reality.)

These corelings are largely mindless, but vicious and powerful. Most are elemental in nature: sand demons that are impossible to see in the dunes and are covered in overlapping armored plates, wood demons bristling with limbs and jagged teeth, fire demons that flicker and spit flame. Their numbers seem endless, and the world of men is dwindling in the face of their infinite onslaught.

But there is still some hope in the form of wards: drawings of a particular shape--some simple and some intricate--that can keep the demons at bay. There are only a few of these wards known now to men and these are painted or chiseled into doorposts or roadway markers by skilled craftsmen, providing some safety against the weaker demons.

But that safety isn't enough for Arlen Bales, who longs to travel outside these boundaries as a messenger--one of the elite men who can paint their own wards and keep themselves safe at night as they travel the yawning distances between safe-havens. The Warded Man follows Arlen as he learns his chosen trade--and as he eventually stumbles on a forgotten trove of ancient wards. Wards that do more than keep demons away--that can protect and kill.

This whole premise is deliciously novel--a welcome relief from a long line of LOTR wannabes. Plus, Brett proves to be a capable character builder and a superb world builder. The result is a series that's hard to put down. I think I read The Warded Man in the span of two sittings, and its sequel over the course of three days.

I did have some trouble with the architecture of The Desert Spear. In an interview in the back Brett describes his writing process, which involves planning out every scene in the book long before the words come out--which means there's really no excuse for those architectural issues either.

First, Arlen (the Warded Man himself) is obviously the hero in the first book; the author follows that character exclusively throughout his travels, watching as he visits cities in far-off lands and learns the skills he needs to fight the demons. And so a reader would naturally expect that the sequel--placed in the same world at the same time--would follow him too. But it doesn't: Arlen in truth doesn't appear until halfway through, and thereafter he's on stage only about a third of the time. The new main character is Jardir, who was a bit player in the first book--and an interesting one, sure, but not who I wanted to read about. Certainly not at such length.

Second, the first third of the book--and only the first third--intermingles current events in Jardir's life and the back-story that got him where he is now. But it does so in a very clumsy fashion, leaving the reader in the past for several chapters running, then seamlessly presenting one chapter from the present (with exactly the same characters, only now fifteen years older), then jumping right back into the past. I frequently had to puzzle out whether the younger characters were simply acting strangely, or whether we were suddenly reading about the older characters for a short time.

Those are pretty minor problems, though, in what is otherwise shaping up to be an excellent series. Brett promises a five-book series, and apparently there is a movie in the works--something I would simply love to see.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovich

Moon Over Soho is the sequel to Rivers of London (published as Midnight Riot in the U.S.), which I loved. I spent extra again to get the UK edition in hardback, which I think is entirely worth it even though I had to buy through Amazon (ick). I don't always understand the slang, but it adds to the atmosphere of the book--and I like the UK cover a lot better.

The book picks up a few months after Rivers of London. PC Peter Grant is apprenticed to the last magician on the force, learning Latin and magic while also investigating some strange cases. Like the men who've died after having their penises bitten off--and the teeth weren't in the mysterious woman's mouth, either. But when a pattern of unexplained deaths come to light among jazz musicians, Peter takes more than just an academic interest. His own father's a jazz musician--nearly famous, twice--and is working on a comeback.

The plot is fantastic. It's unbelievable. All the elements dovetail so beautifully after they seem so complex and disparate that I was left in complete awe. And the best thing is, everything unfolds naturally; nothing is forced or cobbled together or clumsy.

I like that we get to see more of Peter's parents, particularly his dad. While this book had a lot of action--more, I think, than the first book--the pacing was perfect. It's also darker than the first book, but just as funny. While the issue of Peter being multiracial isn't a big deal, it's always there, a deft and subtle reminder that he's living and working in what is often a quietly racist society.

I'm willing to shell out for the hardback and overseas shipping charges for as long as Ben Aaronovitch wants to keep writing these books.

B&N link (U.S. edition)
Amazon UK link (UK edition)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Trolls in the Hamptons by Celia Jerome

Someone at DAW accidentally put "Fantasy" on the spine of this book instead of "Romance."

How can you tell a paranormal romance from an urban fantasy? It's easy. If the (already weak) plot screeches to a complete halt so the main characters can have hawt sex for about 50 pages, it's a romance.

Willow Tate (who goes by Willy, geez) makes a living writing and illustrating graphic novels. One day she comes up with a new idea, a superhero who's a troll. She sketches him, and a real-life troll appears in the street outside her apartment, causing chaos even though no one can actually see him--no one but Willy. It turns out that Willy is a particularly special snowflake, someone who can visualize beings from an alternate world called Unity. She has to help the Department of Unexplained Events--and specifically hot Agent Grant--save a kidnapped boy who may hold the key to something or another. I wasn't really clear on what the boy was supposed to be able to do. It didn't really matter anyway. The plot was just a vehicle to get Willy together with Agent Grant so they can have arguments and sex. As far as I can tell, the only reason the kidnapped boy was in the plot was so that Willy could feel all maternal, because she wants babies.

I really disliked this book. Willy comes across as whiny, neurotic, and needy. She hardly does anything to forward the plot. She claims she's imaginative because she's a writer, but here's what she does when she sees the troll: freaks out and calls her boyfriend to whine that he should drop everything and come reassure her. Then she spends more than half of the book disbelieving that the troll is real, even after seeing him repeatedly. She does not do what any artist would instantly do in this situation, which would be to think "Can I do this twice?" and then start drawing, I don't know, unicorns or something.

Thin as the plot is, the characterization is even thinner. All the characters act alike and dialogue is oddly stilted--Celia Jerome doesn't seem to like using contractions. Willy actually started out as a reasonably interesting person and I had hopes that she'd lose the neediness and grow a spine during the book. But she actually gets worse over the course of the book, until I grew to actively hate her. I didn't like Agent Grant either. He's bland, never makes a mistake, and keeps having to rescue (and then sexxor) Willy.

Willy claims to know karate. I guess that's why she clonks a housebreaker over the head with a vase--only it's not a housebreaker, it's Agent Grant! And she just got out of the jacuzzi and forgot to tie her robe closed, which I totally always forget to do when I'm about to confront a burglar. So Agent Grant has to make mad hot love to her for a couple of chapters.

But you know what I hated the most about this book (and that's saying a lot)? Way early in the book, when Willy is still being neurotic that her then-boyfriend won't hurry over to hold her after the shock she's had of seeing a troll kick over a fire hydrant, a cop comes to take her statement. The cop is the only character in the book I actually liked, a genuinely nice guy called Van that Willy is instantly attracted to. He's a black man and Willy is white, so I was hopeful that the book would actually have an interracial romance. But a chapter or two later, white man Agent Grant shows up and is even hotter than Van (that's another clue that you're reading a romance: each male character is hotter than the one before), and Willy instantly forgets Van exists. He drops out of the plot pretty much entirely. Because Agent Grant is BRITISH and has a TITLE. He's a LORD. Also he and Willy are FATED to be together.

The troll doesn't do much either. Man, this was a bad book.

B&N link

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hounded by Kevin Hearne

This is the kind of book I'm always hoping for when I go into the bookstore. It's light without being shallow, fun without being stupid, and fast-paced without being frenetic.

Atticus O'Sullivan looks 21, but that's off by about two thousand years. He's a druid who's managed to stay alive, and a step ahead of a Celtic god who wants him dead, for a very long time thanks to his magic, an enchanted sword, and a healthy dollop of paranoia. Currently he's living in Tempe, Arizona with his wolfhound Oberon, running an occult bookstore and keeping quiet. Arizona's a good place to hide: not too many Fae around and not too many local gods or goddesses. But he's stayed in one place for too long and his old enemy has found him--and Atticus is tired of running.

The plot isn't especially clever, although it works perfectly well and was entertaining. The setting is interesting (how many fantasies--heck, how many books--are set in Arizona? Poor Arizona) and the characters are likable, especially Atticus and his dog. Mostly what I enjoyed about this book, though, was the sense that the author was having as much fun writing it as I was reading it. There's a lot of humor in the book, sure, but it's more a feeling that runs through the whole thing, like someone walking with a bounce in their step because it's such a nice day. Hounded made me feel like smiling at strangers.

I think it's mostly to do with the writing, which is fluid and sure. Or maybe it's the worldbuilding. Hearne obviously had a blast throwing everything into the mix--this is a lot more than a Celtic fantasy. All the gods and goddesses are real in this world, as are vampires and werewolves and witches and other things like that. But it's not a wacky-zany kind of book, either. The stakes are high, as is the body count. It's also a very fast read and hard to put down; I read the first chapter to see if I liked it, and the next thing I knew, I'd finished the book.

The next two books in the series, Hexed and Hammered, are going to be released in the next two months. You can count on reading my reviews here.

B&N link

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The House Eaters by Aaron Polson

I've been a fan of Aaron Polson's writing for years, and I'm also lucky enough to count him among my online writer friends. His short fiction is excellent, but The House Eaters was the first of his novels that I've read.

Seventeen-year-old Nick's family is going through some hard times. His mother has lost her job and his younger sister Tabby is still recovering from a severe bout of depression the year before. The family has moved to a podunk town two weeks before Nick's senior year of high school starts. But even worse than Nick ending up in his English-teacher dad's class is the derelict house built into the side of a hill, just visible from Nick's bedroom window. Something about the house creeps Nick out.

At school he befriends a pair of nerds who are fascinated with what Nick thinks of as the House. They're convinced it's haunted and want to do some ghost hunting--not something Nick is enthusiastic about. He's attempting to ignore the voice that seems to be trying to contact him from the House, for one thing. For another, he's scared of the dark.

The plot is deliciously creepy, a fresh twist on a haunted house story. I'm a wimp--I had to read this in the daylight or I'd never have been able to sleep. But the creepiness is only part of the story. Nick also has to deal with being the new kid in school, his parents' relationship problems, his sister's issues. The contrast between his normal life and the events surrounding the House makes for a fascinating, layered book.

Nick is a likable guy. His relationship with his sister is realistic, warm one moment and annoyed the next. Despite his fears, he's not a wimp; he takes on the school bully even when he knows he's not going to win, and he faces his fears to help those he cares for. The book's frequently very funny, incidentally, and the writing is wonderfully atmospheric.

I enjoyed this one a lot. Sometimes it's fun to be a little scared. As long as it's daytime.

B&N link

Monday, May 16, 2011

Corvus by Paul Kearney

Corvus is the sequel to The Ten Thousand, Kearney's masterful novel describing old-school warfare. Corvus picks up with the same main character Rictus, now a decade older and hoping to retire. A new, brilliant commander has arisen and presses Rictus into service as a general; together, they try to unify the entire people of the Macht.

Like its predecessor, Corvus manages to show us battles writ both large and small. Kearney goes to pains to present a wide campaign, conquering this city and bypassing that, considering entire legions as mere playing pieces in a grand game--some to be retained, some to be sacrificed. But where he really shines is in the intimate details of the spear phalanx, leaving the reader feeling muddied and wounded and pressed on all sides in the grip of othismos--the very marrow of war. These battle scenes are utterly gripping, managing to be both gruesome in detail and yet impersonal in intent as the phalanx presses the leading ranks from behind, lifting the leading elements off their feet such that the men literally walk on the dying bodies of their enemies. Kearney's descriptions show us warfare that is both vicious and uncaring--and he does it in the context of a novel that also carries realistic characters, a rich world setting and a compelling plot.

The one area where Corvus does not manage to match The Ten Thousand is in plot twists. In its predecessor, important characters are suddenly lost and battles shift unexpectedly, emphasizing the unknowable truth of a mercenary's life; in Corvus, the plot arc could be guessed by reading the summary on the back and maybe a few key paragraphs, and it never really deviates from that arc. It's a good arc, to be sure, but it's too predictable to really match The Ten Thousand for intensity.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Death Lives Next Door and Coffin Underground by Gwendoline Butler

Death Lives Next Door is the first of literally dozens of books featuring John Coffin, a police detective in London. I was happy to find a used copy for fifty cents, since I had picked up several other John Coffin books but didn't want to read any until I'd read the first one.

I really disliked the book for reasons I'll go into shortly, but since it was published in 1960 and the 1960s are probably my least-favorite era when it comes to literature, I went ahead and picked up Coffin Underground next to see if I liked it better. It was published in 1988, nearly three decades after Death Lives Next Door. You'd think it would be different, if not better.

These are not well-written books. They're barely coherent. And the 1988 book was virtually identical in tone, theme, and voice to the 1960 book.

Warning: there will be serious spoilers ahead. If you think even for a moment that you might want to read these books, don't get pissed at me if you read the next couple of paragraphs.

The 1960 book's plot is based on pop psychology, which was all the rage at the time and which is partly what makes late 1950s/early 1960s literature such a wasteland. In this case, the murderer turns out to be--look, I warned you there'd be spoilers--the split personality of one of the main characters, who doesn't even know she has a split personality. It made for a "what the fuck?" ending, not one of those lovely "so that's what those cleverly-placed clues meant" endings. The 1988 book is just as bad and just as dependent on pop culture--in this case, the murderer turns out to be hooked on a game called Tombs & Torturers, one of many such games said to be causing mayhem across the globe as previously normal children and teens are sucked into the seamy world of what is described as a board game and start killing people.

Yeah, I remember the hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1980s. I also play D&D so I know how laughable the hysteria was and how weak a grasp Butler has on role-playing games. Near the end of the book, John Coffin thinks to himself portentiously, "It was only just beginning now. Where would the infection be in ten years' time?"

Because, you see, the book published in 1988 was set in 1978. It took me a long time to figure that out, though. It's not until about three-quarters of the way through the book that we get an actual year, although I was piecing together clues from various mentions of celebrities and politicians before then. There's a prologue set in 1974, but since the character in the prologue is only identified as "the girl," I wasn't completely certain that she was the same character as one who appears later in the book.

Both books are like that. They're vague on details but full of extraneous information. It's not that Butler is trying to distract us with red herrings. I actually think she thinks she's writing great literature by, for instance, digressing for three or four paragraphs about what the waitress in the fish and chips shop is thinking about her job while giving John Coffin a cup of tea.

It's not even as though these are interesting mysteries or interesting character studies. The mysteries only remain mysteries because Butler withholds both facts and clues; the characters are uniformly neurotic and dull. In fact, I had a meta mystery experience while reading Coffin Underground since I knew perfectly well who the murderer was and why he did it, but I was baffled over the mysteries of what time period the book was actually set in; how old the character of Sarah (also confusingly called Sal) was--I mean, she's described as looking 16, but I swear I saw a reference to her actually being 15, but maybe she was 15 when her parents died four years ago--that's important because John Coffin is interested in her and that's creepy even if she's 18 or 19 since he has to be at least 40; and whether the character Nona was a black girl as was clumsily implied but never actually described--and if so whether she was adopted or if only her dad was black since her mother was described as blonde, or maybe her mom frosted her hair--and if she did, was that actually common in the late 1970s, because I don't think it was, but maybe the book wasn't set in the 70s....

It's a mess. With the vagueness of the details and the morass of extraneous information, it's as though Butler just wrote a fast stream-of-consciousness book and has left it up to the reader to carve a plot out of the text.

Maybe the other thousand books in the series are better. Somehow I doubt it. And yet people obviously like them or there wouldn't be so many. I just don't understand.

Death Lives Next Door B&N link (used book)
Coffin Underground B&N link

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

I've been wanting to read this since I saw it reviewed on another blog (and I've been tearing up the internets trying to find which blog so I can link to it, and it eludes me). I was also gently chastised by my aunt for not liking Tey's Daughter of Time. So I finally got my hands on The Man in the Queue and read it.

It wasn't bad. The prose is often lovely and the plot is mostly good. But the pace is much, much slower than I like, mostly because Tey stops everything to describe surroundings for paragraphs on end, and only stops descriptions to let her characters natter on for sometimes pages about events, repeating herself and repeating herself.

Inspector Grant of the CID is assigned a strange case. A man was standing in line for a popular play where the crowd was shoving along for standing-room-only seats, and when the woman in front of him moved away, he slumped down--dead, with a dagger stuck deep in his back. No one saw the murder happen, no one remembers much about the people who came and went during the long wait. Grant has to follow up the slimmest of clues to get to the truth.

I did like the plot, as I said, but the ending was a let-down. Grant doesn't figure it out at all; the murderer comes in to confess out of the blue, astonishing him. Not a good way to make your sleuth seem intelligent.

The book was first published in 1929 and does have lots of fascinating details of Britain back then. I enjoyed it for that, but I can't say I'm much of a Josephine Tey fan. Her novels fall somewhere between the lively fun of Georgette Heyer and the true literary genius of Dorothy Sayers, and come across (to me) as kind of stodgy.

B&N link

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Reviewed by Sin: PRESSURE

By Jeff Strand
Amazon link (Earthling Publications version)

If you don't like first person narrators, I urge you to make an exception for PRESSURE, by Jeff Strand. This is one of the best books I've read in years, the kind that you read in one day and wind up exhausted because you couldn't put it down. So if I forget to feed the dog, or fall asleep while writing this, it's Jeff Strand's fault.

PRESSURE is a story about Alex, a young men with asshats for parents. Young Alex makes one mistake, the kind countless kids have made, and they send him off to boarding school. This is done in an incredibly believable fashion, when it could have looked like a gimmick, and I found myself more and more pissed off at Alex's parents. As any kid can tell you, grown-ups can be incredibly stupid. In boarding school Alex has a little bit of good luck, meeting two cool friends, and a whole lot of bad when he meets a kid named Darren. Awful thing happen, which I won't ruin for you, and Alex and Darren part ways. But Darren comes back, and as the book progresses you feel more and more claustrophobic. Darren is smart, relentless, and you never know when Alex will see him again. First it's in college, when Alex has his whole life to look forward to. Then it's after he's married and has a little girl he loves more than anything. Darren wants Alex to be like him, and he doesn't take rejection well.

Don't start this book unless you have the time to read A LOT of it at once. It will bug the crap out if you not knowing what happens next. I went to sleep around four last night, and quite frankly I feel like shit. This is what love of literature gets you, kids. That's why writers are addicted to coffee, and often booze. If you want to avoid sleep deprivation and lead a constructive life, well I have no idea how to help you. If you want to have some fun, pick up Jeff Strand's book.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Weird Tennessee by Roger Manley

I've read Weird U.S., which I got for Christmas several years ago, and really enjoyed it. When I saw Weird Tennessee in the book store, I checked the index to make sure my hometown was listed (it is) and bought a copy.

The book is a compendium of weird, from ghost stories to unusual gravestones, local fables of various bigfoots to strange carved stones dug up by farmers. Each entry is short but mostly informative. The book is meant to dip into here and there, but I read it straight through.

I liked the practical side to the book. Its purpose is entertainment, but it's not credulous. Ghost stories are presented with a "maybe-maybe-not, who are we to say?" attitude; where local stories have veered from known facts, the facts are presented along with the stories. That actually makes the book a lot more interesting. Sometimes I was frustrated at the short length of the entries when I wanted more research, but that's not what the book is about. There's a lot of history and many photos. Since directions to sites are given in most cases, you can use it as a travel book too.

B&N link