Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Unscratchables by Cornelius Kane

Here's one of those weird books that don't fit into any real category. It's a hard-boiled mystery peopled (ahem) entirely with cats and dogs. Intelligent ones. That wear clothes and carry guns and walk on their hind legs and wear shoes. No, I couldn't quite get my head around it either, but the book is surprisingly fun.

Max "Crusher" McNash is a detective bull terrier who doesn't like cats--especially not Siamese, after his experiences as a prisoner of war. But when a feral cat slashes and kills two rottweilers, then follows the murders up with the bloody murder of a guard dog, the chief of police has no choice but to call in the Feline Bureau of Investigation. Crusher is assigned to work with Cassius Lap, a Siamese whose delicate, pussy-footing attitude gets right up Crusher's nose. But Cassius soon turns up evidence of a conspiracy that goes far beyond a mere serial dog killer.

As I say, the book is fun. The author obviously had a blast inventing dog-and-cat stuff for his world. I had difficulty suspending my disbelief--I mean, dogs and cats just can't walk on their hind legs very comfortably, and they can't manipulate things like gun triggers very well with paws, and why would a dog need to wear shoes anyway? But if you can get past that, the mystery is pretty good, the characters are interesting, and the writing is solid.

B&N link

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf by Wendelin Van Draanen

I admit it took a while for me to really get into the book--a third of the way in, actually. I almost put it down a few times. I liked the mystery of the missing dog, but I hated the tense changes (which are constant and which I found super distracting). Then the book took a few twists and suddenly I was hooked.

The twists didn't have anything to do with the mystery, which I figured out as soon as the guilty party was introduced as a character. Instead, they had to do with the sudden addition of Sammy (Samantha) Keyes thinking about her mother, her 72-year-old friend, and her mean neighbor in a way that turns the book from a run-0f-the-mill preteen mystery to a thoughtful exploration of the meanings of friendship and loss. Yes, really.

Thirteen-year-old Sammy never intended to get mixed up with the Christmas parade, she just promised to help a friend who was part of the dog calendar float. But she gets stuck taking care of the star dog, a Pomeranian who jumps through a hoop--in this case, a wreath. Everything's going well until three people dressed as Wise Men toss angry cats at the float. The dogs go crazy, and when the dust settles, the Pomeranian is missing. While searching for it, Sammy discovers an elf--okay, an eight-year-old girl dressed as an elf--who's also been missing. But the dog is long gone and its owner holds Sammy responsible, especially after the first ransom note is delivered.

Sammy is full of energy, and outgoing without being obnoxious. Although she takes some risks, I never had a "no, Sammy, don't do it argh I can't believe you're being so stupid" moment. She's smart, too. But what I like most is that she's less interested in finding the dog to get herself off the hook than in solving the mystery of why the elf keeps running away from home. And when her mean neighbor falls and breaks an arm, Sammy becomes mixed up in the moving story of the woman's life. I like the way Sammy handles herself with someone who has never been nice to her but who needs her help--and not tangible help, but the sort that requires Sammy to think about her own motivations and those of others.

I haven't read the other books in this series, but I really liked this one. I'm glad I kept reading.

B&N link

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Trillions by Nicholas Fisk

One of my favorite books as a middle-schooler was Monster Maker by Nicholas Fisk. I must have checked it out of the library a dozen times, and I was thrilled when I found my own copy years ago. But that was the only Fisk book the library had. A few months ago I went looking for more of his books, and the only one I could find was this one, Trillions.

I expected to love it. It's science fiction, about millions--trillions--of tiny aliens that land on earth. As far as I could guess from the text (which is not clear on their size), the trillions are about the size of a grain of sand, and while they can move and interlock, they don't do anything else. They heap up in drifts like sand dunes, occasionally join together to imitate nearby structures, and are gathered by children because they glitter prettily in different colors. The book introduces four children, two boys and two girls, and I was looking forward to seeing what Fisk would do with such a fascinating concept.

The answer: not much. The book was published in 1971, which explains (I suppose) why the boys are the ones who do things while the girls make bracelets out of the trillions and act babyish. It doesn't explain why the entire world in this book thinks banding together to obliterate the trillions with nuclear weapons is a good choice. Remember, the trillions don't actually hurt anything. There are a few small examples given of the trillions imitating rockets (although they aren't rockets) and inadvertently causing an old man to have a heart attack, and the entire world except for one schoolboy thinks that makes them enemies. There are lots of scenes of generals shouting about taking ACTION against the trillions--which do nothing, keep in mind. Also, English children are required to leave school so they can shovel up trillions into wagons and dump them in a big pile, overseen by soldiers. This continues throughout the whole book and doesn't make any sense. Nothing much makes any sense.

The main character, sort of, is a boy named Scott. Through a combination of telepathy and handwavium, Scott learns how to communicate in a limited way with the trillions. He doesn't share this information with anyone, and although I read the damn book I still don't know why he doesn't. But that's the problem with this book: it's just got an axe to grind about people ruining the environment, and the army being, I don't know, evil or something and too ready to set off those nasty nuclear weapons--which cause some fish and birds and trees to die, but don't seem to hurt people (or the environment).

Even if the plot did make any sense--and really, it doesn't--the writing is awful. The book reads like an outline, an overview. Not only that, not much happens--and when it does, it's really too late. Why didn't Scott act sooner? Well, if he had, Fisk would had had to work out an actual plot to go with his idea.

B&N link (used book)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

I haven't been a close follower of Kate Beaton's online comics, although I love them whenever I happen across a link. Now there's a collection of a whole bunch of them.

Beaton's a historian so a lot of her comics are about historical figures or times, but some are based on books or are just for the hell of it. They're very, very funny even if you don't necessarily know what the source material is. What's best, though, is Beaton's artwork--skillful, beautifully rendered, and funny in its own right. Her ability to convey emotion (especially fury or disgust) through expression reminds me a bit of Nicole Hollander's Sylvia comics, but with a swifter, cleaner line.

This is a good big collection. I went to bed early last night with the book, half a candy bar, and a can of Coke, and was deliriously happy.

B&N link

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to Wash a Cat by Rebecca M. Hale

In the real world, if you find human remains you're supposed to let the police know about it. But this isn't the real world, it's a book world where reality has nothing to do with anything. Oh, and the author gave the main character her same name, middle initial and all.

So, two great big strikes against the book. Third strike: it's badly, badly written and its plot is a mess and the characters are all obnoxious. That's several extra strikes, actually. I have no idea why I read the whole book.

When her Uncle Oscar dies, the accountant who goes unnamed until the very last line of the book inherits his business: an antique shop full of junk. She also inherits a key shaped like a tulip. Almost immediately, she-who-was-not-named-until-the-end starts discovering weird discrepancies about her uncle's death, including the discovery that the "preliminary autopsy" was never performed on her uncle, several people showing up suddenly to give her clues left recently by her uncle "in case anything happens to me," and several other people showing up to give her veiled threats. Oh, and she has two cats.

The plot is a godawful mess, but the characters are worse. I hated all the characters; they're all over-the-top without a smidgen of likability among them all. (Well, the cats are cute.) I especially hated the nosy neighbor Monty, who fancies himself a sleuth trying to uncover the mystery of an old tunnel rumored to be on the property. I hated Monty with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns. The main character isn't any better, though. She's a real wimp, totally without gumption. She's always having dizzy spells, or feeling faint or woozy or frightened or weepy or otherwise having to sit down and plunge into a flashback. She never does anything else and she's dumb as a stump.

But the writing! My god, the writing is bad. There are so many adjectives and adverbs in every sentence that it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on. Characters fidget around constantly while they talk. If the fidgeting and the adverbs/adjectives had all been edited out, the book would have been 50 pages slimmer--and it still wouldn't make any damn sense.

B&N link

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland

Chelsea Mansions is the eleventh book in the Brock and Kolla mystery series, and now that I've read it I'm caught up. It was published a few months ago. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it also ended up being the final (or next to final) book in the series.

When an elderly tourist is deliberately thrown in front of a bus after leaving the Chelsea Flower Show, it seems like a motiveless murder. Then a rich Russian expat is stabbed to death in the house next door to the hotel where the woman was staying. There's no obvious connection between the two, but Brock and Kathy both want to dig a little deeper and find out what's really going on. But Brock is sidelined by a bout of what seems at first to be the flu, and Kathy finds herself butting up against MI5.

The plot is only okay, certainly not one of the best plots in this series. The subplot of the nosy Canadian scholar who pushes his way into the investigation didn't do much for me. I won't spoil who he turns out to be, but let me just say that I definitely thought of Cousin Oliver being introduced on the Brady Bunch in a lame attempt to improve viewership. It didn't work for the TV show either.

I'm very glad I've caught up on the series. I'll still continue to read Maitland--and it looks like he's got another mystery out, one not part of this series, which I may chase down eventually. But I'm not all that into his books like I was at first. When I find myself thinking repeatedly, "Well, this book isn't the best in the series," it's not the individual book, it's the whole series.

B&N link

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick

Although Shelf Discovery is tagged "The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading," the books featured are about half middle-grade and half young adult (middle grade being for younger kids, pre-teens and tweens, in case you're not familiar with the term), although a handful of books for adults are included too. It mostly consists of book reviews--not reviews focusing on the quality of the books, but on the things girls like about the books and what the books offer to girls.

And the book is exclusively for girls--or, rather, the women the girls have grown into. Almost all the books featured were published in the 1970s and 80s. I just counted, and there are 73 books featured (unless I miscounted, which is entirely possible). I was a voracious reader as a kid, but I've only read 18 of the books featured here. The selection is skewed strongly to the V.C. Andrews and Lois Duncan readers. Except for Madeleine L'Engle, there aren't many truly speculative fiction books included.

I was surprised at the omissions. Naturally there's a limit to how many books can be included in a project like this, but why cover Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret but not include the third book in that trilogy, Scout? Is it because Scout has a boy as the main character? I loved it as a kid. And why do Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Madeleine L'Engle, and a few other authors get so many entries--added up, those four authors probably account for a quarter of the books covered.

So the book is basically a list of books the author liked (actually, there are seven contributors to the reviews, but there's a reason these reviews were chosen from the "Fine Lines" column). It's certainly not a comprehensive look at different types of teen girl reads, and not meant to be. I was disappointed that there wasn't more I could sink my teeth into, though. But the reviews are entertaining and breezily written, and I did enjoy reading about some of the books I'd nearly forgotten about. I even found a few books that I want to read for the first time.

B&N link

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book is everywhere lately. I've heard there's even a movie planned. And it does look like an interesting, unusual book so I picked up a copy to see what all the hype was about.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob has always idolized his grandfather, whose parents sent him from Poland to Wales to escape death in WWII concentration camps. Grandpa lived an adventurous life before settling in Florida, but his happiest memories are of his years in Wales, where he lived in a remote orphanage. Jacob loves the stories he tells of the strange orphans, and the photographs Grandpa still has of them, even though Grandpa's stories of escaping monsters gave him nightmares as a kid.

Then Jacob gets a frantic phone call from Grandpa, who insists that the monsters have found him. When Jacob arrives at Grandpa's house, he finds him nearly dead--and sees a tentacle-tongued monster lurking nearby. Before he dies, Grandpa gives Jacob some cryptic directives about finding the bird in the loop.

No one believes Jacob that the monsters Grandpa talked about were real. He's sent to a psychiatrist, who nearly convinces him he hallucinated the whole thing in a moment of stress. Then he discovers an old letter while helping clean out his Grandpa's house, and realizes Grandpa wanted him to visit the orphanage in Wales and track down its headmistress, Miss Peregrine.

It took me three paragraphs to properly explain the set-up. That's about a third of the book. Once Jacob gets to Wales, things move a little faster, but not much actually happens. In a more inventive book the lack of action might have been welcome. But this book isn't actually all that inventive, except for the (real) photographs sprinkled throughout the text as illustrations--that was the stroke of genius that elevates this from a mediocre younger-YA adventure to the surreal crossover fantasy it's being marketed as.

The writing is okay. Jacob isn't a very interesting character, though, and there's a big disconnect between events in Florida in the first third of the book and events in Wales in the rest of the book. I'd have really liked to see how a Florida native reacts to a Welsh summer, but beyond Jacob's passing mention that he'd never known it could be so cold in June, Jacob might as well have been Welsh himself. The plot unfolded slowly with a certain amount of tension in the mystery of the orphanage, but when Jacob discovers what's really going on it's kind of a let-down.

It took me a while to finish the book because I kept putting it down. I just couldn't stay interested in the plot or the characters. The ending is an obvious set-up for a sequel--or more probably a series, since that's how it goes these days. But I don't have the least interest in reading more about these characters.

B&N link

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland

Well, I lied. Inadvertently, of course. I really did intend to wait a while before I read Dark Mirror, the tenth book in the Brock and Kolla mystery series, but I found myself reading it after all.

The plot is good, if the ending a tad unrealistic (which is something of a trend with these books). A university student working on her doctoral thesis collapses and dies in a London library, and is discovered to have been poisoned with arsenic. Kathy Kolla is assigned the case--her first really big case as a newly promoted Detective Inspector. But while the evidence starts to point to suicide, there are some strange details that don't add up.

Brock doesn't have much to do in this one, which disappointed me. He and Suzann argue and make up. Kathy proves once again that she has terrible taste in men. Same old same old. You know, the whole reason I fell for this series was the subtle characterization, the hints that Brock and Kathy might eventually end up together. That's long gone. When I was a kid, occasionally my brother would talk me into playing chess with him, and eventually he'd corner my king so that I had no choice but to move him back and forth, back and forth as my brother repeatedly moved his own pieces to keep my king in check without quite being able to checkmate me. This series has become that kind of chess game: repetitive, nothing new happening, the characters making the same moves over and over in each book. Maybe if I'd read them over the course of years instead of months I wouldn't have noticed it quite so much, but it's really obvious and really boring.

Anyway, there's only one more book in the series that I haven't read yet. And I warn you, I'm planning a trip to the bookstore on Thursday.

B&N link

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Spider Trap by Barry Maitland

This is the ninth book in the Brock and Kolla series. My local B&N didn't have this one in stock when I dropped by a few days ago, so I ordered a used copy online for a buck and also bought the ebook for $9.99 +tax so I could read it right away. I'm worried that my fury at the publisher for the inexcusably piss-poor formatting of the ebook has leaked over into my appraisal of the text. Seriously, the formatting was obviously just a bad scan without any further proofing. Punctuation (especially quote marks) was missing, words were missing, parts of nonsense words were inexplicably stuck into sentences, paragraph breaks were missing or extra breaks appeared halfway through sentences. And it's not like this was a small publisher without resources. I think Minotaur Books--you know, part of St. Martin's--can afford to pay someone to glance through its ebooks to make sure they're, you know, readable before they upload them for readers to pay freaking ten bucks plus Tennessee's ridiculous almost-10% tax.

So anyway, the book itself. Meh. It started out promising, with Brock and Kathy assigned to investigate the execution-style murder of two teenaged girls in a poor neighborhood. When human bones several decades old turn up nearby, Brock is convinced there's a connection between the old murders and the new--and he has to face his own past as a detective sergeant in the neighborhood, and the unsolved cases he left behind.

Promising, yes. But in reality, the book is more about how Kathy has rotten taste in men and poor judgment when the plot requires it of her, and how Brock will not freaking break up with Suzanne but just goes back and forth without making any kind of decision. After nine books, it's getting damn old. Much of the action is summarized or observed rather than participated in by the main characters--there's a chapter and a half consisting of Brock and Kathy watching something important happen on TV. Yeah, really.

I have the next book, Dark Mirror, sitting in front of me. It too sounds promising, but I think I'm going to take a break from the series for a little while (cue cheering from our faithful readers). Maybe when I return to the last two books, I will remember why I liked the series in the first place--because frankly, after the weakly plotted and frustrating Spider Trap, I'm not eager to read anything else by Maitland.

B&N link

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Nowhere Hall by Cate Gardner

Usual full disclosure: Cate Gardner is a long-time online friend of mine. I admire her writing enormously.

Nowhere Hall is a short novella published this past September and no longer available as far as I know (which is why I linked to Gardner's website instead of a buy link below). It was a limited edition that sold out very quickly.

Cate Gardner's writing is hard to describe. She has a vivid style that manages to be both brisk and dreamy, with nightmarish imagery presented with an almost childlike amusement. Nowhere Hall starts with a man trying to step out into the street, and it's not clear at first whether he's just walking to work or about to commit suicide. It's not even clear if he's actually alive--and that's what I love about her writing, the way she makes you wonder what the subtext is beneath the events she describes.

Nowhere Hall is short, and follows hapless, aging officeworker Ron as he fails to step in front of a bus (maybe) and stumbles into a hotel called The Vestibule. As the setting shifts and changes like something from a dream, Ron is forced to face a person and event from his past while still looking into his bleak future. It's beautifully written, evocative, and wryly funny. Don't you wish you had a copy?

author's website

The Verge Practice and No Trace by Barry Maitland

The Verge Practice is the seventh book in the Brock and Kolla series. A world-famous architect's wife has been stabbed, and the architect has vanished. His car is found by the seaside with his clothes neatly folded and a note that just says "sorry," but police aren't buying it. They think he stabbed his wife and faked his suicide, and is hiding out in Barcelona. But when Detective Chief Inspector David Brock's team is assigned the case after it's gone cold, he and Detective Sergent Kathy Kolla start exploring other possibilities.

I really liked the book up until the time when I figured the whole plot out--with a hundred pages left to go. The theme of the book is basically The Meaning of Gender, and there are so many clues pointing to what actually happened that I didn't have any trouble figuring it out. I was really disappointed, even though the book itself is interesting as always. I also hated the ending.

No Trace is the eight book. In it, Brock's team has been assigned the case of two missing girls--and almost immediately, a third girl, six years old, is reported missing from her bedroom. Her father, a modern artist who made a splash five years ago after his wife's suicide, immediately starts a new work based on the girl's disappearance--and attracts immediate attention from his fans, who swarm into the area. But Brock and Kathy think there's something fishy about the third abduction, which is so much different from the first two.

This book was much, much better than the previous couple--dark, fascinating, themed The Meaning of Art (Maitland's insistence on themes is much more subtle usually than I'm making it sound, and adds to my enjoyment of the books). I thought I had guessed the murderer and was totally wrong, much to my pleasure. The plot has a number of twists that caught me by surprise, although the clues were laid cleverly and I should have caught them. And Brock's relationship with his sort-of girlfriend takes a surprising turn, while Kathy is still getting over her recent break-up with her boyfriend. In short, this is pure Maitland and exactly what I love about his books.

I'm glad I've reached the point in the series where the books are still in print and readily available. I bought No Trace at our local B&N and I'm hoping to pick up the next book today. But I am distressed that I've only got three more books to read before I've caught up and have to wait for the next one.

The Verge Practice B&N link (used book)
No Trace B&N link

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Babel by Barry Maitland

I was going to wait and review this one in one post with the next Brock and Kolla mystery after I read it, but what the hell.

Babel, the sixth book in this series, is set only weeks after the events of the previous book, Silvermeadow. Kathy is on leave and working through the panic and bad dreams she's been having as a result of those events. Her supervisor, Brock, is looking into the murder of a prominent philosophy professor* at a London university. It seems possible that the murder had something to do with religious fanaticism, and clues begin to point to the local Muslim community. Before long, Kathy finds herself drawn into the case informally even while she questions whether to retire from the police force.

The plot in this one was the weakest of all the Maitland mysteries I've read so far. I waited for the twist, but when it came, it was so goofy that I was really disappointed. I was also disappointed that I guessed a major plot point from the (unnecessary) prologue and turned out to be right. I don't want to find out I've guessed right; I want to believe I'm right and learn that I totally misinterpreted the clues. I want the characters to be right, ultimately. But Brock and Kathy misinterpret someone's vague statement without questioning whether they might be wrong, and it was glaringly obvious (to me, because I guessed right) that they did so to set up the 'what a twist!' moment at the end. But it was all spoiled for me because of that damn prologue. What the hell was Maitland thinking?

I did like the interaction between Brock and Kathy in this one. I really enjoy seeing the way their lives intersect more closely as the series progresses. So I'm about to pick up book seven.

*I admit to a surge of glee when I realized a philosophy professor had been murdered in this book, and imagined him to be the same philosophy professor from The Vices, which I read and disliked recently.

B&N link (used book)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Twenty Palaces by Harry Connolly

The book is subtitled "A Prequel," and it is indeed a prequel to the three books in the kick-ass Twenty Palaces series. I've thoroughly enjoyed all the books, so I was thrilled to hear that the prequel was available.

I wasn't sure what to expect, though, since the author released the book himself. I was very happy to discover that it's fully as good as the books published by Del Rey. Although it is a prequel, like all of Connolly's other books it works well as a standalone story.

Ray Lilly has just been released from prison and is going to live with his aunt and uncle. He lucks into a part-time job right away, but isn't so happy to run into an old friend from middle school. Turns out that there's something strange going on with Ray's former best friend, the guy who lost the use of his legs in a handgun accident--and Ray was holding the gun. His friend's walking again, good as new. Some people are calling it a miracle, others insurance fraud. But as Ray discovers by accident, there's some really weird stuff in the world, and his friends have stumbled into something horrible.

I really liked seeing Ray before he met Annalise, and in fact was surprised and delighted when she appeared in the book and we get Ray's first impression of her. I also like knowing how Ray made his ghost knife and how exactly he ended up as Annalise's wooden man.

Like the other books in the series, this one's a helluva ride. The action starts fast and doesn't let up. The writing is clean and to the point, without the excess of description in the first book, Child of Fire (I mention this in case some people were reluctant to pick up a book set before Child of Fire for that reason). Ray's a firmly likable guy, raw from his time in prison and trying hard to make his way in the world without falling into his old bad habits.

Right now the book's only available as an ebook ordered directly from the author (link below). [Correction: it's also available through Amazon and will be up in a few other online venues soon.] It's definitely worth the couple of bucks, and is an excellent addition to the series.

ebook buy link (directly from the author)
Amazon link