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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

I've had this book on my To Read shelf for a few years now and finally picked it up. I really like the cover. The Somnambulist is set in a bizarro version of Victorian London, where stage magician and amateur detective Edward Moon and his mute, hulking assistant The Somnambulist are about to take on a bizarre murder case that is no mere murder.

The book started out fun. It's frequently amusing--not laugh-out-loud funny, but witty--and the cast of characters interested me because of all the mysteries surrounding them all. The plot had me intrigued, too. But around the halfway mark, I started to lose patience with the author.

First of all, every character is quirky to such a degree that I stopped finding it interesting. Quirky details that I thought would lead to some revelation or turn out to be clues were just there so Barnes could (presumably) pat himself on the back at how inventive he is. Second of all, the book is surprisingly joyless. I didn't like any of the characters, and the characters didn't like each other either. I lost interest in the story because I didn't care what happened to anyone in it. Lastly, the plot just fell apart at the two-thirds mark and never recovered. The end was a mess, and not an interesting one.

The writing is good, at least, and if you like this sort of book you'll probably really love The Somnambulist. I enjoyed it enough to read to the end, and I'll keep it on my shelves (mostly because of that very nice cover). But I'll be hesitant to pick up anything else by Barnes without looking very carefully at the reviews.

B&N link

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

I picked this one up at a Borders going-out-of-business sale, and my goodness was it a good choice! I like amusing travel memoirs anyway. In this one, comedian Tony Hawks accepts a drunken bet to "hitchhike round the circumference of Ireland, with a fridge, within one calendar month."

It's a lighthearted, happy book. Tony spends a lot of nights getting drunk with friends he makes along the road. He meets some colorful characters and sees some beautiful scenery, but unlike a lot of travel writers, he doesn't feel compelled to hit the official sites to report bleakly on them and he doesn't make fun of every other person he sees (Bill Bryson, I'm looking at you). Tony obviously likes people and genuinely cares about them, and if he has to drag a fridge around with him to make people happy and win a bet, by God he'll drag a fridge around with him.

B&N link

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron

I like heist books and thieves make interesting main characters. Unfortunately, The Spirit Thief fails on both counts.

Eli Monpress is a wizard who also happens to be a thief. His goal in life is to get his bounty raised to one million gold standards, and to that end he kidnaps the king of a small country where wizards aren't allowed. But his actions open the way for another wizard to come out of hiding, a wizard who doesn't have the scruples Eli does.

My quick synopsis, and the one on the back of the book, make it sound like the book is all about Eli. But after a long section at the beginning where the book doesn't seem to know who the main character really is, it turns out that the viewpoint character is another wizard called Miranda, who has been sent to stop Eli from stealing a valuable artifact. She and Eli end up having to team up against the evil wizard.

In some strange ways, the group of characters reminds me more than a little of the group of characters in the anime Cowboy Bebop. There's even a freaky kid and an intelligent dog (although one that's a bit bigger than a Corgi). But while the similarities are remarkable, the biggest difference is that I like the Cowboy Bebop characters, while The Spirit Thief characters bored me.

Mostly, I never felt any tension. I never believed Eli or his friends were in any real danger. Bad stuff happened to them, and Eli or someone else got them out of trouble. In the end, a deus ex machina saves Eli at the last second, not at all to my surprise. There's precious little character interaction, too, even between Eli and Miranda. They go places, Miranda is surprised that Eli is such a good wizard, and they eventually accomplish precisely what they set out to do. Then they do that all over again.

While I found the characters bland and the plot predictable, I did really like the worldbuilding. The magic system in this world depends on spirits that only wizards can talk to and manipulate. Everything on the planet is a spirit or potential spirit: each creek has its own spirit, which blend into a river spirit, and the ocean is a mad maelstrom of spirits all swirled together--and a waterspout would be yet another spirit, and so forth. It's complicated, well-thought-out, and fascinating. I enjoyed seeing how the different wizards used spirits to help them. It's just too bad the rest of the book didn't engage me as thoroughly.

B&N link

Monday, September 12, 2011

Line Up for Murder by Marian Babson

I liked this book but there's something important you should know: it's not a murder mystery. It's only barely a mystery. I didn't mind, but some people might.

Dorrie Witson considers herself an expert queuer, so when the London department store Bonnard's holds a special sale to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Dorrie is third in line a week before the store reopens. Behind her are a mysterious young woman and her sullen boyfriend. As the days drag on and Dorrie gets to know her fellow queuers, she senses something strange is going on with the woman--and possibly with Bonnard's itself.

About a third of the way into this book, I caught myself wishing that there wouldn't be a stupid murder to mess up the cozy enjoyment of reading about these people waiting for a big sale. Lucky for me, there is no murder. Yes, one character has a gun and another character has (possibly) poison, but it's okay. No one dies. (Maybe I should have marked that as a spoiler, but someone does get shot at and someone does swallow the doctored drink, and it's not like I just told you who and what precisely happens.)

The plot is shallow and not really a mystery. It was just what I was looking for, though. I did have a problem with the racist overtones in Dorrie's (and other characters') dislike of two foreign characters. The book was first published in 1980, which is plenty recent enough for authors to be more sensitive when it comes to issues of race.

But except for that, and the weird non-mystery-ness of this mystery, it's a fun little book.

Powell's link (used book)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

Holy crap! I'm behind on my reviewing and was planning to review the pending books in order, but I just finished Night of the Living Trekkies and have to share how fun it is.

I thought it would be stupid, too. I'd been putting off reading it because I thought the humor would be heavy-handed and the plot moronic. But it's not!

Jim Pike works as an assistant night manager of a crappy hotel, a job he likes because if he screws up, no one dies--unlike his last job in the army. He can't forgive himself for some of the men who died under his command in Afghanistan. But when a Star Trek convention at his hotel is suddenly overrun with zombies--real ones--Jim's the only one who can help lead the few survivors to safety.

The book is solidly written. While Jim sometimes comes across as a little too hopeless about his situation, it worked; and I liked that a woman he rescues really is a strong female character without acting like a man-with-boobs or a sexy-sidekick-with-guns character. The plot is predictable but has some fun twists.

I'm not a huge Trek fan, but I got a lot of the geek humor in the book. A real Trekker would probably find even more to enjoy. And the zombies really are scary, as is the build-up to when Jim realizes what's happening. The book's a quick, enjoyable read, and it has depth of character too. Second successful zombie book I've read this year--it's a record!

B&N link

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Circle of Enemies by Harry Connolly

This is the third book in the Twenty Palaces series, and I really do think it's the best so far. The writing is tighter, as is the plot.

Ex-con Ray Lilly is between temp jobs--both ordinary and magical. He's also waking up screaming almost every night from nightmares about the events of the previous book. Then an old friend shows up and accuses him of killing her and all their friends--and disappears. Literally. Of course Ray takes off to L.A. to find out what's really going on.

Like the previous books, the action starts immediately and doesn't let up. It's fast, brutal, and riveting. I don't know that the violence is quite as much as in the last book, but the creepiness factor is just as high. Connolly's monsters would freak the hell out of Lovecraft.

I really like Ray, who's tough, practical, and does what he has to do even if he doesn't like it. I would have liked to see more of Annalise, Ray's boss, but their interaction in this book is satisfying; I like the way their uncomfortable relationship is unfolding at the same time that Ray is learning more about the Twenty Palaces Society Annalise works for.

One great thing about this book: while I recommend you read the first two books just because they're great too, you don't really need to; and while this book sets up for the events of the next ones, it doesn't end on a cliffhanger. In other words, Circle of Enemies stands alone while also forwarding the overarching series plot. I wish I could say the same of all series.

B&N link