Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wake Unto Me by Lisa Cach

Oh, Goodreads recommendations, I love you so much and yet you recommend such crap at times.

Wake Unto Me starts off with an unnecessary prologue (aren't they all unnecessary?) so overwritten that I almost put it down right then. A lot of witches are gathered around a photo of the heroine, fifteen-year-old Caitlyn Monahan, discussing whether she is the Dark One who will fulfill an obscure prophesy that is presented in rhyming couplets. I made it to chapter one, and Caitlyn mopes around and wonders why she doesn't like the guys in her Oregon small-town high school, and decides that she's waiting on her soul mate.

The book almost lost me there too. I hate the notion of soul mates, especially in YA fiction. Look, there are seven freaking billion people in the world; I think there's a possibility more than one of them might be a good match for any given person.

But I was reading for the ghost, and despite the horrible, gushy writing I was interested to see what happened next. Caitlyn is offered a full scholarship to an exclusive girls' French boarding school--because the witches who run the school want to scope her out and see if she's the Dark One, but she doesn't know that because she never reads prologues. She leaves her dreary Oregon days behind and flies to France, where her roommate turns out to be a princess and the school is in a thousand-year-old castle. But Caitlyn has always had trouble with bad dreams, and she doesn't leave the nightmares behind the way she hopes. On the other hand, she dreams also of a handsome young Italian man named Raphael who once lived in the castle--dreams so compelling that Caitlyn wishes she could stay in them.

The book gets into its stride after a few chapters and settles into a less overblown style. Caitlyn is bland but not repellent. She likes to draw and has small triumphs and miseries as part of school--nothing compelling, but it's not precisely dull either. I'd have liked to get a better feel for what it's like to go to a boarding school where all the students are from different countries, but let's face it: the story is all about Raphael. Everything else is background.

Unfortunately, the scenes with Raphael are the weakest in the book. Caitlyn is smitten, but I found Raphael not much more interesting than she is. There's a confusing mystery about a heart as the main part of the book and Caitlyn and Raphael work to solve it while they're together in Caitlyn's dreams (there's a not-at-all-explained timeslip going on and she's visiting Raphael in his own time rather than him being a ghost in her time). He is, of course, her soul mate. Never mind that they don't know each other at all, never mind that Caitlyn's mooning over Raphael focuses entirely on his physical looks: they're soul mates!

I want to see Caitlyn's take on soul mates when she's an adult, rather than a sheltered fifteen-year-old.

I'm probably being too harsh; the book kept me interested, if not riveted. It has a nifty take on ghosts, even if the explanation is so convoluted that it makes no sense at all. I saw the ending coming a mile away and all I can say is, good thing that other guy turned out to be handsome. If he hadn't, I wonder how Caitlyn's ideas about soul mates would change.

There are some real problems with the book beyond the goofiness and confusion of its plot, though. The school-and-nightmares plot is geared toward younger YA or tweens. The Raphael-in-Caitlyn's-dreams plot has a much more mature feel--not just the content, where Caitlyn and Raphael make out a little in very romance-paperbacky style, but the characterizations. Nothing about Caitlyn's personality (such as it is) suggests that she can flirt with any sophistication, but she can when she's with Raphael. For that matter, the first two chapters feel like they were written by a fifteen-year-old--I may not love those chapters, but they do feel authentically teenagery, Mary Sue content and overblown prose included. The rest of the book does not. Also, Caitlyn doesn't have any real problems adjusting to her new school; there's one girl who's kind of bitchy, but not really mean, and Caitlyn embarrasses herself at her first riding lesson and doesn't do well in French, but if you took the timeslip dreaming out of the story, there wouldn't be much left. There's very little tension in the book, too much exposition, and wildly uneven writing.

Oh, and I was promised a ghost. I did not get a ghost. I feel cheated.

B&N link

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ghosts of the World by Diane Canwell and Jonathan Sutherland

Here's a sample line taken from Ghosts of the World, pretty much at random: "Lying in bed one night, he was awoken by a loud noise, causing him to leap from his bed and go to investigate." (page 226) I can't find anything to indicate that the book has been translated, but maybe the authors are non-native English speakers. That's all I can figure. Their contorted, often disjointed and confusing prose sure makes it hard to appreciate the book. (Unless, of course, you treat it as a nonfiction The Eye of Argon.)

Most of the articles about ghostly sightings are short on details, too. I didn't expect more than a surface view of ghosts--just a fun book to spook myself with when I can't sleep at night--but this one's incredibly vague. It's full phrases like "sounds have been heard" and "the ghost was seen," without names or dates or anything, you know, interesting.

Here's another priceless butchering of the English language: "What had happened was that they had moved back to a past time dimension, then forward, returning to the present." (page 119) Oh, and this gem: "A friend of hers, Katharine Macquoid, saw her standing at the bottom of her bed and was puzzled as to why this had occurred." (page 137) And this confused mixture of specific detail and total vagueness: "It is allegedly linked to at least 13 deaths, and one of the new owners was in fact injured in a hunting accident the very next day, necessitating his arm being amputated, while the other vanished in a mysterious way and was never seen again." (page 37) Or this deceptively clear sentence: "The officers thought it was a throwback to a past event, but on closer investigation found it to be a ghostly repeat of what had happened 60 years before." (page 238)

I could quote from this book all day.

On the other hand, the photographs are lovely and some of them even have something to do with the text. This is the kind of book you shelve in the spare bedroom for insomniac guests to flip through.

B&N link

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Bippolo Seed by Dr. Seuss

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories is a collection of some of Dr. Seuss's work published in magazines. Most appeared within a few years of 1950.

Although the stories are all intended for children, this collection is obviously meant more for adults. It's got a long introduction telling about the stories and about Dr. Seuss's career mid-20th-century, and the text of the stories is dense on the pages. There aren't as many illustrations as there would be if the stories had been originally published as books, but the layout could have been made easier on the eye. New readers may have trouble with it as a result.

The seven stories themselves are charming, the illustrations prime Seuss. They're good enough that you don't need to be a Dr. Seuss completist to want the book.

B&N link

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

Everything about how this book is being marketed and reviewed suggests a literary murder mystery. Look, people, it's not a murder mystery. If I'd known that, I wouldn't have bought it; but once I bought the damn thing I felt compelled to read it.

Philosophy professor Oliver Vice disappears from the deck of the Queen Mary II during a storm, presumably as a result of the sea and weather, but there is a suggestion that he committed suicide. His friend, the unnamed narrator, discusses Oliver's life in 343 detailed pages, questioning who Oliver really was.

This is supposed to be a darkly, bitterly witty book. The narrator is unreasonably besotted with Oliver, whom he repeatedly describes as being noble in his suffering. It's supposed to be amusing that Oliver's suffering is due entirely to his being so neurotic and self-absorbed that he can barely function normally; and it's also supposed to be amusing that the narrator comes out with lines like "My father may not have been a brain surgeon, but it wasn't for any lack of smarts; when he entered the service at eighteen, he scored a stratospheric 152 on the army's IQ test" (p. 148). But every time the narrator showed himself to be unaware that he was such a buffoon, I cringed--for the author.

There's a hint, around the two-thirds mark of the book, that the narrator may not even be real--that everything we're reading may be false, a fantasy created by Oliver Vice himself. That would certainly explain why the narrator apparently looks very much like Oliver, and it would explain why the narrator is intelligent and yet profoundly stupid. It would certainly explain why the narrator is so obsessed with Oliver. What it would not explain is why the author bothered.

The entire book is about identity--self-identity and the identities that we invent and show others. Not much happens in the book, which is mostly the narrator mulling things over and occasionally having a conversation. I actually do enjoy this sort of book occasionally (that is, when I'm not expecting a murder mystery), but only if the writing blows the top of my head off. The writing here is nice, moving along facilely if not deeply, but the book is far too long and not clever enough to really explore the issues it presents.

It also doesn't know where to end. The story ends on page 339 but doesn't stop until page 343.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Silvermeadow by Barry Maitland

Yeah, well, I couldn't help it. I picked up the fifth Kathy and Brock (or Brock and Kolla, depending on what edition you buy) mystery. What can I say, it was right there and I needed something to read.

In this one, a teenaged girl has disappeared from Silvermeadow, a huge shopping mall, right before Christmas. Since Brock's old nemesis North, a bank robber responsible for the murder of several cops, has been spotted at the mall also, Brock arranges for his team to move in, ostensibly to investigate the abduction but actually to find out more about North's movements and plans. Then the missing girl's body turns up--crushed by the mall's trash compactors and wrapped in plastic--and Kathy uncovers rumors that other girls have disappeared from Silvermeadow.

A lot of Silvermeadow, particularly the first section, is told from Brock's point of view. I like that since Kathy's been the focus in the last couple of books. I like both characters, and I love their interaction in this book, subtle though it is. The plot is good, although not as tricksy as the other books in the series.

I wasn't as keen on the fact that Kathy delays following up on several important clues just because she's having an affair with another character. Since when does having sex make someone stupid? One of the things I like about Kathy is that she catches stuff no one else does, not even Brock, but she's not portrayed as very perceptive in this one.

I've ordered the next two books, though. Because apparently they're made of crack.

B&N link (used book)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation is a fast, fun read--much more fun than I expected. Jack Holloway is a contractor for ZaraCorp, and a wiseass. Everyone likes his dog, though. Jack's in prime position to become a multi-millionaire--even a billionaire--after he discovers a motherlode of sunstones on a planet he's prospecting for his employer. Then he discovers something else, a species of animal native to the planet that he calls fuzzys. The trouble is, the fuzzys may be more than just animals. And if they're sentient, Jack's billions may go up in smoke--along with the fuzzys themselves.

The writing is easy, confident, and fast-paced. It's also frequently funny. The fuzzys are appealing as well as believable SF creatures, and no one I know of writes dogs as well as Scalzi does. And there are moments in the book when I wanted to jump up out of my chair, do a fist-pump, and shout, "YES!" It's a really fun book.

In tone, Fuzzy Nation is very similar to Scalzi's Agent to the Stars, which I read earlier this year and liked okay. But the flaws in that book are not found in Fuzzy Nation, which has a tighter, more believable plot. I really need to read some of Scalzi's other books, because at this point I'm wanting to say that he basically only has a few characters and he recasts them over and over, but I'm probably wrong. This one just feels an awful lot like Agent to the Stars.

I thought I'd read Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper when I was a kid, the book on which Fuzzy Nation was based, but I must be wrong because nothing about Scalzi's book rang any bells. I'm probably thinking of a different book. After reading Little Fuzzy, though, I'm definitely keen on reading Piper's original story to compare the two.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Chalon Heads by Barry Maitland

The Chalon Heads is the fourth book in the Brock and Kolla series. I hadn't intended to read it right after the third one, but I couldn't stop myself. I've got the fifth book lined up but will try to control myself.

I didn't wholeheartedly love the third book, but The Chalon Heads was much stronger. Kathy Kolla and David Brock are called in to investigate the kidnapping of a rich stamp collector's young wife. The ransom notes each come with a rare stamp cut in pieces. The trouble is, the stamp collector is well-known to Brock as a tricky, manipulative man with an unsavory past. He and Kathy don't know how much they can trust him about anything, even the kidnapping.

The plot is clever, if not as intricate as some of the previous books' plots. I loved the uncertainty about what crime has actually been committed and who is actually the victim. And there are a few twists in plot and character that really surprised me, in a good way--and even more revelations at the very end, which I expected (but still didn't see coming). It's a great mystery.

The theme of sexism does keep popping up in the series. I appreciate this, especially since it doesn't take over the books. I do wish that it was more realistic, though. If sexism in real life was as blatant as it is in these books, it would be easy to call people on it. But it's fiction, and fiction exaggerates.

While I did enjoy the book, at three times during particularly fraught scenes the narrative switches to present tense. I'm sure Maitland did this to make the action more immediate. But OMG, I was so frantically furious at being thrown out of the story by a tense change during the juiciest parts of the book! I really, really hope that this was a one-time experiment and doesn't pop up in the other books.

B&N link

Thursday, November 10, 2011

All My Enemies by Barry Maitland

This is the third book in the Brock and Kolla mystery series, and while it was still good, it's much weaker than the previous two. Detective Sgt. Kathy Kolla starts her new job at New Scotland Yard's Serious Crime Division, working directly with DCI David Brock, and is immediately assigned to the violent murder of a young woman. As Kathy investigates, she finds connections between the woman's murder and a series of other brutal murders, all of them connected oddly with the theatre.

The plot was good, but not great. It relied a bit too much on coincidence and I didn't really buy the reasoning behind the murderer's actions. On the other hand, I was positive I had the whole plot figured out and I turned out to be 100% wrong.

The writing is still dense, but I found it a much faster read than the first two books. Maybe I'm just getting used to Maitland's style. There are a few short passages from other characters' points of view, but the story is almost completely told from Kathy's point of view, which I prefer. But although it's a 'Brock and Kolla mystery,' the two characters interact very little. Kathy barely thinks about Brock. I was disappointed since a big part of my interest in the series is the subtle development of the relationship between the two characters. Also, Brock scratches his beard so much in this one that I wondered if he had a skin condition, or fleas.

B&N link

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

This is the 39th Discworld novel. Holy cow! It's also a Sam Vimes book, a subseries which is probably my favorite. (If you want to start reading Pratchett but don't know where to start, Guards! Guards! is the first book with Sam Vimes as a main character, and it's also an excellent starting point for the Discworld and Pratchett as a whole.)

Sam Vimes, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is on his first holiday, much against his will. His wife Sybil insisted on taking him and Young Sam (who is six and enraptured with a series of children's books about poo and other gross stuff) to the Ramkin family estate in the country. Vimes expects to be called back to the city at the last second by an emergency, but it never materializes. But once in the country, he doesn't have to dig very far to discover something disturbing going on--something to do with the local goblins.

The last Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, dealt with the Ankh-Morpork class system from the bottom up. Snuff deals with it top-down, with Sam Vimes--a gutter rat turned duke--typically uncomfortable having to play the country squire. It's a fascinating book with an excellent plot, but I did think it was a bit too talky. Vimes talks and thinks too much about what the class system means. It slows the action down, makes the book longer than it really needs to be, and becomes slightly repetitive.

That's not to say it's a bad book at all. Vimes is his usual pugnacious, hardheaded self, grimly determined to solve a murder and a disappearance. His relationship with Sybil is quietly touching (and funny), and Young Sam is awesome in his singleminded pursuit of new friends--no matter what they look like--and poo for his poo collection. The goblins are a great addition to the creatures of Discworld, with a fascinating religion and good reasons why they haven't cropped up in the series before now.

Unlike most of Pratchett's books, this one is told almost exclusively from Vimes's point of view. As a result, it doesn't have the huge scope of many Discworld books. I would have liked to see more directly what happens to Fred Colon, since a lot of his subplot happens off-page. But Vimes is a great character and certainly fun to spend time with.

B&N link

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of Smekday starts off as an essay written by Gratuity (her friends call her Tip) Tucci as a class assignment, but Tip has a big story to tell and keeps writing even after her essay is finished.

Tip's story happens after the aliens--the Boov--landed and defeated Earth pretty handily. The Boov have decided they want most of the Earth to themselves, so they're moving the humans to colonies. Everyone in America, for instance, has to go to Florida. Tip's mother has been kidnapped, possibly killed, by the Boov, but Tip hasn't told anyone. Rather than go in the alien ships with most people, Tip gathers up her cat, named Pig, and decides to drive from Pennsylvania to Florida. She's a good driver for an eleven-year-old.

But she hasn't gone far when she's shot at by the Boov and wrecks her car. While she's trying to find food at an abandoned convenience store, she encounters a Boov who doesn't try to kill her. In fact, he's friendly. He fixes her car and asks for a ride. She agrees reluctantly, and the book takes off as she and the Boov, who calls himself J.Lo in the mistaken idea that it's a really common name, head for Florida together.

This kind of book could be hideously depressing, but it's not. It's funny--deeply, brilliantly, cleverly funny. And this kind of book could also be hideously moralizing, but it's not. Despite the importance of the message of tolerance and understanding, and the clearly drawn parallels between the Boov's relocation of humans and the forced relocation of Native Americans, the book never preaches. In fact, in one scene, a white character tells Tip they will be taking the local Indian reservations back since "we need that land." Just about any other author would have given in and had a mini-lecture, or just had Tip rant. Instead, Tip gets icily furious, doesn't say a thing, and leaves. Readers are left to make their own conclusions.

I also like that Tip herself is of mixed race. She doesn't make a big deal of it, but it comes up a few times. Tip's relationship with J.Lo is the real strength of the book, though. Their dependence on each other, their cautious trust and growing friendship, were all beautifully done and funny as hell.

It's a long book, but I never minded. I enjoyed the whole thing. The ending was maybe a little too pat, but it worked. And the book is illustrated brilliantly by the author, including some comics that tell some of the history of the Boov. They're funny too.

B&N link

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell

It took me a while to get into this book. At first the studiedly arch tone really put me off, despite the clever humor. I couldn't imagine wanting to read an entire book written that way.

Then I got to the second chapter, which is mostly related through a letter from one of the characters to the others. Suddenly the whole thing clicked and I was enjoying the book. So if you try this one and don't like it, at least give it two chapters.

It's an oddly constructed murder mystery in some ways. The murder takes place in Venice, but the main character--dry Oxford don Hilary Tamar--never leaves London. Hilary is spending a month out of the summer housesitting for a friend and doing research, but what she's really doing is hanging out with a bunch of young lawyers, many of them former students of hers, while they themselves are spending as many working hours as they can get away with drinking coffee, visiting restaurants, and gossiping. One of the bunch, Julia, is on holiday in Venice. Ostensibly she's part of an Art Lover's tour, but really she's there to seduce someone attractive. When a handsome young man turns up dead in her bed, she's the only logical suspect. It's up to Hilary and her vapid friends to figure out what really happened.

The book is witty, sometimes self-consciously so but always with a tongue-in-cheek feel. The characters banter incessantly, which is part of the fun. And the plot, while a bit far-fetched, is well-constructed and a good mystery. I didn't figure out who the murderer was--in fact, my guesses were all way off.

I should also point out the awesome cover illustration by Edward Gorey. I actually owned this whole series at one point back when I had a huge Gorey collection, but I never read the books. It's too bad I didn't keep the others, because I think I'll read the rest of this series eventually.

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