Saturday, June 25, 2011

Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager

This review will be short. I apologize for that. I'd go into why, but this isn't my personal blog.

I love Edward Eager's books, particularly Half Magic, which Magic by the Lake is a sequel to. Eager's style is purposefully similar to E. Nesbit, which he greatly admired, and his stories are charming, clever, inventive, and funny, with realistic children and magic that has unexpected consequences.

Unfortunately, Magic by the Lake is not nearly his best book. It's a bit too episodic, without much of an overarching plot to tie the magical events together. The children from Half Magic travel with their mother and stepfather to a lake for the summer, and almost immediately they discover a talking turtle who explains to them the rules for the lake's magic. Thereafter the children have adventures that include mermaids, pirates with buried treasure, and so forth.

It's a quick read, but unless you're just wanting to read everything Edward Eager ever wrote, you're much better off reading Half Magic without needing to read this one too.

B&N link

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Give Up the Ghost by Megan Crewe

I read this book the day after I read Vintage, and the two actually make surprisingly good companion novels. Both feature realistic teens with serious problems, both main characters can see and talk to ghosts, and both books are excellent.

Sixteen-year-old Cass hates everyone in her school except Norris and Bitzy. They happen to be ghosts, and her only friends. Four years before, Cass's former best friend, Danielle, turned on her and made sure everyone else in the school did too. Cass has discovered a foolproof way to keep from being bullied: have her ghost friends spy on students and report everyone's nasty little secrets to her. As a result, Cass's school life is lonely but bearable.

Also four years ago, Cass's older sister Paige died--and didn't leave. Paige gives Cass the big-sister advice and encouragement she never gave when she was alive.

When Tim, one of the most popular kids in school, asks Cass to help him contact his recently-deceased mother, she only agrees because she plans to make him give her dirt on Danielle. But Tim turns out to be a genuinely nice guy who is overwhelmed with a grief that no one he knows can understand.

Cass's defensiveness and anger feel very real. She's tough and resourceful, but she doesn't recognize Tim's attempts to make friends with her. In her experience, people only act friendly when they want something. Tim's problems are realistic too, as is his increasing desperation to find relief from his pain. I cried for the last hundred pages of the book, but it was a good cry.

If the book has a fault, it's that Cass and Tim tend to be a little too articulate about their feelings than most teens are capable of. It works with the story, though. I loved watching Cass learn how to deal with living people again, a slow and sometimes painful process. I also loved the details about the ghosts: that they can't remember things very well, that each ghost has a particular scent (and even taste) that Cass can pick up on.

The ghosts aren't scary in this book, but the living people often are.

Note: The cover is horrible. Disregard it.

B&N link

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vintage: A Ghost Story by Steve Berman

I read a review of this over at The Book Smugglers months ago, and downloaded the ebook not long after. I finally got around to reading it. I must say, this is one of those finds that makes me love the internet. I'd never have even heard of the book if I hadn't seen that online review.

The writing in Vintage is atmospheric, the prose often elegant and always slightly melancholy. It takes place in early autumn, perfect for a ghost story. I am happy to report that I read it on a dark, stormy day, which made the ghost parts that much more spooky.

The one thing I didn't like is that the main character in Vintage isn't named. The story is told in first person, so it's not too noticeable--but while I do recall a mention of the guy's last name, we're not given his first name. Why? What earthly reason is there to keep the name from us? All it takes is for one person to say, "Hi, Bennett" once and I'd be happy.

I'm going to call the main character Bennett.

Shy seventeen-year-old Bennett is living with his aunt after running away from home. It was either run away or be kicked out after his parents learn he's gay. He's afraid to talk to his aunt about why he showed up on her doorstep, but he's lucky enough to have met a friendly goth girl, Trace. He's also found a job at a vintage clothing store where he's allowed to borrow clothes. He and Trace like to hang out in the local cemetery, sometimes attending funerals for people they don't know.

But one night, Bennett walks home late and meets a handsome boy on a lonely road, a boy wearing clothes from the 1950s, including a letter jacket with the name "Josh" stitched on it. Bennett overcomes his shyness enough to compliment Josh on his clothes--and Josh disappears.

It turns out Josh is the ghost of a high school football player who died on the road more than fifty years before. And it turns out also that Bennett is the only person Josh can hear. At first Bennett is delighted: Josh is the first boy who's ever been interested in him, the first boy who's ever kissed him. But before long, Bennett discovers Josh's darker side.

That's a long description of the book, and it only scratches the surface. There's a lot going on in this book besides the ghost story. Bennett isn't happy to discover he can see and hear other ghosts--and they are drawn to him. He has to deal with his growing attraction to Trace's brother and his worries about how his aunt will react to him coming out to her. He has to consider his own future--getting his GED, facing his parents.

Bennett is an enormously sympathetic character. His loneliness feels realistic, and makes him vulnerable to the ghost Josh. He thinks a lot about his problems without coming across as whiny or self-absorbed, and his romance with Trace's brother is sweet in its awkwardness.

The plot is great, too. I was never certain where the story was going, although it ended up right where it should. Parts of it are downright scary, particularly the scene where Bennett follows Josh to an overgrown cemetery to see Josh's grave; that's where Bennett discovers other ghosts are drawn to him too. There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, and the pacing is good--not slow, not rushed. I loved that Bennett and Trace have to dig into Josh's past to solve the mystery of his death.

I also love that Bennett doesn't have to grapple with the fact that he's gay. He's not conflicted about that; it's just what he is, and he's happy with it. It's all those other people, living and dead, that he has to worry about.

B&N link
Powell's link

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Death in the Stocks and Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

Behold, Here's Poison is the sequel to Death in the Stocks. It just so happens that the two books are more or less identical in many ways. They also both happen to be the best of Heyer's mysteries that I've read so far.

In Death in the Stocks, a well-to-do and generally disliked businessman is found stabbed to death and his body displayed in the old town stocks. In Behold, Here's Poison, a well-to-do and generally disliked businessman is poisoned to death. In both books, family secrets are unearthed during the investigation. There are lots of other parallels, but I don't want to spoil anything.

They're formulaic, but they're excellent entertainment. Both feature Inspector Hannasyde, although these aren't really sleuth-oriented books in the modern sense. The mystery in Death in the Stocks is particularly good; I wasn't able to guess the murderer at all. I didn't get the chance to guess the murderer in Behold, Here's Poison since I'd accidentally read a spoiler a few months ago that tipped me off, but the plot was well-done and full of surprises.

Heyer really shines when she's writing dialogue. In particular, the banter between the brother and sister in Death in the Stocks is often hilarious. I'm also always surprised at Heyer's ability to make me hate a character early on and then bring me around to liking that same character without actually changing the things about the character that annoys me. For instance, in Death in the Stocks, at first I found Antonia irritating and kind of bitchy, but after a few chapters I liked her and by the end I was cheering for her. In Behold, Here's Poison I loathed the smooth, caustic character of Randall for half the book, then gradually started to like him.

Heyer wrote a lot more mysteries, but I suspect these are her best. I'll be reading more of her mysteries (I can't stop myself), but not right away. I think I'm reaching saturation point for the moment.

B&N link: Death in the Stocks
B&N link: Behold, Here's Poison

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi

When Tom Stein, a junior Hollywood agent, is called into a meeting with his boss about a new client, he has no idea that the future of interstellar relations is about to be dumped in his lap. The Yherajk, an alien race with super-advanced technology, have been listening to our TV and radio broadcasts for years. Now they want to meet us--but they have an image problem (namely, that they resemble blobs of snot and they smell like garbage). Tom's job is to find a way to introduce the Yherajk to humans with as much positive spin as possible.

I've read John Scalzi's blog for years but had never read any of his fiction until now. He's a solid writer, his prose clean and low-key, and he's very funny. Agent to the Stars was his first book (originally published online in 1999, then picked up and republished in 2005 by Subterranean as a limited edition, then republished by Tor in 2008) and it shows, but it's still a lot of fun.

The book went in a much different direction than I expected. Instead of focusing on Tom's attempts to improve the Yherajks' public image, it's more about Tom's other problems and how they relate to the Yherajk.

Unfortunately, the plot depends almost entirely on coincidence. Tom doesn't come up with any ideas except as a reaction to events. All the characters act and speak alike--but they're funny, clever characters so I didn't mind. What I did mind was the ending, which wasn't a bit plausible. In fact, I had a huge problem with the entire last quarter of the book, where the plot just seemed to derail.

But the book is fast-paced, funny, and very readable. The aliens are interesting too. Just don't expect the world's best plot.

Powell's link

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ink Flamingos by Karen E. Olson

Ink Flamingos is being released today, so you totally need to run out and buy a copy. This is the last book in the Tattoo Shop mystery series, and it's thoroughly enjoyable.

Tattoo artist Brett Kavanaugh has promised her brother--a homicide detective--that she'll stay out of his business. But when a longtime client and friend is found dead with a botched tattoo, Brett can't help getting involved, especially when someone is trying hard to point the blame at her. Someone else--unless it's the same person--is impersonating Brett, and creepy-stalker photos of her keep showing up online. Worse, the dead woman was a singer whose band had recently shot to fame, and her fans are out for Brett's blood.

It's no secret that I absolutely love Karen Olson's writing. I've reviewed her previous books here and here and here. Her plots are intricate, her characters fascinating. Ink Flamingos is a great addition to her other books.

The plot in this one is particularly complicated, with lots of clues and a great resolution. I had no idea who the murderer was or why they had done it until the reveal, and then I could have kicked myself for not picking up on those clues. I love that feeling. The parts about the stalker were perfectly creepy; as a result, Brett is understandably more shaken than usual, although she's still a likable, strong character.

Since this is the last book in the series, a low-key romantic subplot takes on more importance as well. I was really hoping for that, since I like the character in question. I wasn't disappointed. I'm sorry that there won't be more books about Brett, but the series has a thoroughly satisfying finish. I'm looking forward to reading whatever else Olson writes.

B&N link

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hexed by Kevin Hearne

I reviewed the first book in this series, Hounded, a few weeks ago. Hexed is technically being released tomorrow, but I snagged a copy early at the book store and of course read it immediately.

Hexed is almost as much fun as Hounded. It's a bit longer too, or seems that way since the ending is a very long, involved brawl. It's that ending that keeps me from recommending the book with quite as much enthusiasm as the first one, although it's certainly not bad at all. I just thought the action was drawn out a bit too long.

But that's a minor issue, really. It's still a hugely entertaining story with a more complex plot than Hounded and a lot of hints at what to expect from the next book (Hammered, which will be released next month). There's a ton of action and a lot of humor.

The book takes place about three weeks after the events of Hounded. The local coven of witches has been weakened and as a result, several sets of baddies are trying to move in on the Tempe, Arizona area. The coven wants Atticus to help them defend their turf, something he wouldn't ordinarily agree to. But as it happens, he has unfinished business with the witches and demons on their way into town--and to take them down, he's going to have to call in some serious favors and make some serious promises. Oh, and steal some serious weapons.

One of the best parts of these books is Atticus's realistic friendship with his dog, Oberon. The two can communicate, which is the source of some of the funniest lines in the book and some of the most poignant exchanges. Atticus is a likable character even without Oberon, largely because of his concern for his friends. And the worldbuilding details are enormously entertaining. I can't wait to see what Hearne does with the next book.

B&N link

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mus Musicus by Colin Hazlehurst

I saw this while browsing the kids' books for my Sony Reader and thought the cover and title were both clever. I bought it on impulse without realizing it was self-published. But it turned out to be a charming little book.

It follows a mouse family, the Muskers, who move into an abandoned house and make their nest in a piano. But the house doesn't stay abandoned for long. A woman with purple shoes has moved in--and soon after, a man arrives to tune the piano. The mice are terrified they'll be discovered, but at the same time they're fascinated by the sounds their home is making. Before long, the mice are imitating the music the purple-shoes woman plays.

It's a simple, sweet story for younger kids. It mostly follows Mr. Albert Musker's brother Charles and two of Albert's children, shy but observant Frances and adventurous George. I liked the mouse-eye view we get of the house and its furnishings, and the mouse-ish way the mice think. When Frances discovers what the pages of music are for, she explains to her family that the lines represent the piano wires while the notes represent where the mallets should strike the wires--a remarkably clever way to explain musical notation.

There's not a lot of tension in the book and what there is is small and not very scary: George struggling to climb all the way up the piano, Frances getting trapped behind a row of books, Charles deciding to show himself to the purple-shoes woman. It's perfect for younger, musical kids.

I almost said it's perfect for younger, musical kids who like mice--but everyone likes storybook mice.

B&N link (nook book)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander

Sixth grader Christian, better known as Mac, can solve your problems. Need to get into an R-rated movie without being caught? Want that video game your parents won't let you have? Need the answers to a test? Mac can help you. For a price.

Mac and his best friend Vince run a little business from a disused bathroom in his K-8 school. They started it to help people, but they're also making a killing: specifically, almost $6,000 they're planning to use for baseball tickets in the unlikely event that the Cubs make it to the World Series. But...the Cubs are doing really well. This could be the year! The only problem is Fred, a nervous third grader who comes to Mac with a particularly tricky problem. The legendary figure of Staples is running a crooked book-making business in the area schools, and he's just expanded into Mac's school; Fred's a former bookie who wants out. He needs protection. But before long, Mac realizes he's in way over his head. If he can't take down Staples once and for all, Mac could lose his business, his money--and his best friend.

For the most part, the book is a lot of fun (and often very funny), especially the first section where Mac and Vince are discovering just who and what they're up against. But as the story progressed, I started to have more and more problems with it.

Nothing Mac and Vince do actually helps them--in fact, every single attempt they make to solve their increasing problems just makes things worse. It got to the point that I felt the hand of the author among all the misery, and I was right. They can't make progress because then they couldn't have the big showdown at the end.

But the showdown was lame. I was bitterly disappointed. In fact, the whole book turned into a Moral Lesson on seeing things from other people's points of view. And the point the whole book was building to, the "HELL YES" moment when the good guys triumph and the bad guys get taken down the way they tried to take down the good never came. Instead we get a few didactic paragraphs and an unsatisfying denouement about the Cubs.

Because of the lame ending, and the near-absence of girl characters in the book, I wouldn't give this to my nephews to read. I'm glad I bought it as an ebook, because if I'd dropped money for the hardback I'd be pissed. Oh, and the main character has the same first name as the author, which always bothers the hell out of me.

B&N link