Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: Sisters of Misery by Megan Kelley Hall

If it is possible to make the rich look any more vile and horrible than they have been most recently following the near-global economic recession, then Megan Kelley Hall has done so with her slightly fantastic, suspenseful, and otherwise disconcerting novel, Sisters of Misery. Reminiscent of themes we’ve seen before, and the first book in a series (so far there are two books, with The Lost Sister hitting shelves last August), Sisters of Misery makes all those college frat movies about secret societies and evil (and loaded) old white guys getting what they want by doing just about anything short of acting like human beings look tame, and almost sophomoric. The novel follows Madeleine Crane, a high school student in the small town of Hawthorne who has been more or less forced by her mother, Abigail, to become “friends” with a group of high school girls calling themselves the Sisters of Misery (led by the wicked Kate Endicott) in order “keep up appearances.” When her aunt, Rebecca, and her cousin, Cordelia, move in with her and her family, tensions between the family and the town of Hawthorne grow. Cordelia doesn’t “fit in” with the regular crowd, too free-spirited and seemingly unconcerned with what everyone else thinks of her. Soon rumors spread that Cordelia has been “seeing” Kate’s boyfriend, and Kate sets out to get payback. But when things go wrong, and Cordelia disappears, Madeleine finds herself emotionally strained by her fear of the Sisters of Misery and her loyalty to her cousin. Strongest of all, however, is her to desire to figure out what happened on the night of Cordelia's disappearance and whether she had anything to do with it. Hall’s novel is neither a mystery, nor a fantasy, despite it containing elements of both. Madeleine’s search for the answers to Cordelia’s disappearance certainly hints at some of the old teen mysteries I read as a kid (Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys), though with a markedly darker tone, and the lingering sense of something fantastic is present and implied by many of the characters, but never solidifies, instead remaining illusive. Both of these elements create something nostalgic and also incredibly real (actual, not fictional as most fantasies must be). But what works most in Sisters of Misery is the way the story manipulates emotion in the characters and through the reading experience. Madeleine’s struggle with her involvement in Hawthorne’s elite and Cordelia’s disappearance (and Kate’s revenge) are given weight by Hall’s exceptional ability to craft character and emotion. Though the gritty realism of the novel makes for a disconcerting ride (precisely because it is too real), there are some moments in the novel that make you both love and hate Madeleine. She is very much the teenager she’s supposed to be, and makes all manner of mistakes, some of which make sense, and some that don’t. Madeleine’s mistakes, however, created a love/hate relationship for me. On the one hand, I couldn’t help wishing that she had grown a spine and did what any sensible human being would, but on the other I understood why she made many of the decisions she did and began to hope that she would redeem herself. With the emotions running high in Sisters of Misery, it’s no wonder that much of the novel is driven by suspense. Short chapters and Madeleine’s pension for digging up little clues that potentially expose even those she trusts make for a novel that is constantly twisting, constantly changing, and constantly leaving one completely disconnected, not because there isn’t a grain of truth to hold on to, but because you never know who will be implicated next, or how everyone is involved in Cordelia’s disappearance. Add in the cast of secondary characters, some of them so utterly loathsome that you wish you could strangle the life out of them yourself, and you can understand why it is that Sisters of Misery is not at all nice to people who take their wealth for granted. And this is what makes Sisters of Misery both a fun and exciting novel made somewhat more curious by its illusive fantastic elements. No matter how sure I was that Madeleine finally had it right, I could not rely on that assurance at all, because I knew that in a few chapters, Hall would tear away that sense of security, much like she does for Madeleine and leave me grasping for something resembling the truth. But, despite being an exciting novel, Sisters of Misery is also one that disappoints. After all of the suspense and excitement, I was left with an ending that neither cleared everything up nor sufficiently distributed justice to those who most deserved it. Instead, I was left with too many questions unanswered. The problem for me is that despite the insufficient ending, I am too addicted to the characters and the possible answers to be had in The Lost Sister to give them up. Regardless, I still wanted an ending that could lay to rest at least a handful of the the plot points, and though Hall could not deliver on that front, she certainly could deliver by giving me a cast of characters I either love or despise that I can't quite get out of my head (maybe because they're so real, or maybe because I want to know what will happen to them). Hopefully the second installment will tidy up the loose bits. If you’d like to know more about Sisters of Misery, you can check it out at Kensington Books. is available on Amazon and just about anywhere you order your books. Megan Kelley Hall can be found at her website.

Review: "24 Bones" by Michael F. Stewart

Title: “24 Bones” Author: Michael F. Stewart Pages: 238 Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Standalone/Series: Standalone Publisher: Drollerie Press
Seth, Horus, and Osiris are reborn, fated to re-fight their greatest battle. Samiya, an Egyptian woman, and Taggart, a Canadian professor of Comparative Religion, have nothing in common, until they find themselves on opposite sides of a bloody war for causes neither is sure they believe in. The Balance is in jeopardy, and either The Fullness: humanity, law, and reason; or The Void: animal instinct, chaos, and death; will soon rule the world. But which is the right side? Reason has ruled for centuries. Is it time for Chaos to have a chance?
I’ve reached yet another controversial for my preferences novel and it seems the year has been passing under this sign. I keep reading novels that hit the mark, check all the boxes that make me happy and yet, I am not sure whether or not I liked the experience or not. “24 Bones” has been checking the boxes from the minute I saw the cover, which is bewitching and then there is the fact that Drollerie Press is known as a reputable small press. As far as contemporary/urban fantasy is considered “24 Bones” is different from what is on the market right now or at least from what I have encountered. With a setting that is neither in the USA or in Europe, but in less investigated Egypt, and a mythology that is mostly known for mummies in popular culture, Stewart definitely strays from known tropes and thus evades the possibility that his novel might ring a belfry worth of bells. The experience with his take on Ancient Egyptian mythology had me thrilled and it kept me reading. The mythos about the god Osiris reincarnating, when his spine is assembled, captivated me. Assembling the spine however is in the hands of the three mythical societies: the brotherhoods Shemsu Seth [the darkness] and Shemsu Hor [the light] and the sisterhood The Sisters of Isis [destined to be in the position to force balance]. And these societies are in natural opposition. Power play is unavoidable and reading about their plans, machinations and secret strategies that resurface and change the game in the last moment certainly brought me joy. Stewart has a quality to his prose that borders on poetic and adds vibrancy to his descriptions, which I vastly enjoyed. In theory, this novel should have stood around the top in my list for book in 2009, but it sticks in the middle and I can’t say exactly why. The setting is fresh and so is the representation of the ancient struggle between good and evil, which never gets old as a story model for me, because the way it’s staged always changes. However there was no divine spark that hurled me into unhealthy reading and made me leave my answering machine to take reality’s calls. I didn’t click with the characters, because the novel was divided upon too many POV protags to be healthy. There were snippets upon snippets with different characters telling a different story, which ended up almost immediately dead or were re-introduced too late on. I had I hard time memorizing the new names, piecing the situations and sifting through everybody that makes an appearance. Given that the novel is on the thinner side this seemed unwise, because it didn’t give the primary characters that thought in the grand battle to reach the desired depth and fully flesh out. I have to say that the rehabilitated Samiya, who switched sides seemed to be most explored in-depth in comparison to the other characters that appear, but still I felt that the way she switched sides was rushed and I needed to witness more scenes that mark the doubt in what her place in the world is, her transition in mindset in order to accept her new role in the story. Volume would have solved this problem for me, but then again I am always greedy for more pages in everything, so it’s my individual opinion on the matter. The best “24 Bones” did for me? I got shown a glimpse into a mythology that people rarely show interest or appreciate for its value. I hope you listen to me vampire lovers. The worst the novel did for me? It poofed right off my memory, when I was done with it. Overall not a bad book, but as it turned out not the work to rock my world. However I do recommend it for the people that are dying to read something with Egyptian elements. There is much action and full blown wars going on in there.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My "Best of" List for 2009

I've been seeing "best of" lists popping up all over the place, so I'm a little late in getting mine up. And normally I might forgo the list altogether, but there have been a few really terrific books released this last year, so I feel somewhat compelled to mention them here-- just in case you missed them. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (review HERE) This is, by far, my favorite book of the year. If you haven't heard about this wonderful steampunk/zombie mash-up then you're not paying attention. Priest has been getting praise all over the book review blogs and it is well deserved. This book is so original and entertaining. The alternative history and steampunk elements are intriguing and well done. And did I mention the zombies? If you're even slightly inclined to read fantasy, you should like this book. Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson (review HERE) I really debated on whether or not to list this one as my #1, and "Boneshaker" only wins because of it's pure entertainment value. However, "Julian Comstock" would win if this was a contest based on the depth of the story. This is such a well written, thoughtful book. It's not one of those books that hits you left-and-right with a ton of action. Instead it's incredibly charming, humorous and more than a little bittersweet. I've heard people describe this book as somewhat anti-religious but I disagree. I think this is really a book that questions anything, be it religion or government, that is too heavy-handed. It's not a preachy book at all. It gently probes big issues and it's done in such a subtle way. Wilson never goes with one dimensional characters, nor does he take the easy way out with plot devices. Just a brilliant book in my opinion. Fire by Kristin Cashore (review HERE) I don't read a lot of teen fiction but the premise of this book really intrigued me. Written as a prequel to Graceling it can be read without any knowledge of Cashore's other book (as was the case for me). Like "Boneshaker" this one is very inventive. I won't go into a full synopsis, that's what the link to the review is for. Let me just say that this is a book about beauty and it's ability to cloud all judgement-- though in this case it's magically augmented. I can't say "Fire" is deep, but it is really hard to put down. Nicely romantic without going into bosom-heaving territory, it appeals to my girlish side. Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe I don't have a review up for this one yet-- I just finished it a short while ago. But I have to put on my list simply because it's part of such a great series. If James Bond was a P.I. in a sword and sorcery setting-- this is what it would look like. Eddie LaCrosse is one of those characters that's convincing as a bad-ass, but has the underlying conscience to stay likable. Lots of action and fast dialog, the book is fun and yet manages to throw in enough deeper plot elements to keep in interesting. Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson (review HERE) I haven't seen "Warbreaker" on a lot of 'best of' lists and I'm not sure if it's because the book came out early enough in the year to be forgotten, or if it's because it's not Brandon Sanderson's best work. (I think "Elantris" is still my favorite). Nonetheless, I think it's a great book. Like all of Sanderson's work, it's main feature is a unique magical system and likable characters. Some say he is the heir to David Eddings as far as his style goes, though I think his work doesn't tend to be overly precious, which was my main complaint about Eddings. Nowadays Sanderson is busy finishing up "The Wheel of Time" series now that Robert Jordan has passed away, but his stand-alone work is certainly worth a look. There's a few other books I've started but haven't had the chance to finish that I'm sure would make the list-- including Lamentation by Ken Scholes and The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V. S. Redick, but I have to finish those before I can officially add them to my list. Anyway, that's my list. I hope you like them too.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Tarot Cafe: The Wild Hunt by Chandra Rooney

Last week I presented to you the first six volumes of “Tarot Café”, which is the basis for the novel “The Wild Hunt”. I’ve heard superb stories revolving about the novel and I wanted to read the manhwa as well so that my review might reflect both thoughts on the quality of the novel as work and as a tie-in novel based in this universe. “The Wild Hunt” is special in its own way and I can say that reading was drinking old wine, it’s sophisticated and gentle and at the same time it takes you over. But first, the blurb:
Based on the best-selling manga!…Bryn McMillan’s boyfriend, Jack, has gone missing. She has the nagging suspicion that something terrible–and otherworldly–has happened to him, a feeling that only increases when she has vivid visions of Jack being chased by a vicious hunter intent on owning Jack’s soul. Always one to consult psychics, Bryn finds herself at The Tarot Cafe seeking a way to aid Jack in his spiritual struggle. But when she discovers what has happened to him, Bryn finds herself with an impossible choice between a life without love or an eternity of pain by her soul mate’s side.
“The Wild Hunt” is a bit tricky to review now that I have read the manhwa series. One hand I find the prose Rooney employs lyrical and it put me in a dream-like state, from which I did not want to wake up. The story uses mythology as it center piece paranormal phenomenon aka the Wild Hunt, which has been ongoing since everybody can remember, borders on endless and once prey for the hunters one cannot escape. The themes discussed here are the choices we make, the consequences they come attached with and how these choices define us as individuals. Naturally love takes center stage as we have Bryn decide whether she would prefer reality, which offers a promising acting career, or whether she would sacrifice it all in the name of love. It’s exactly why she is consulting tarot readers and has come to Barbara. “The Wild Hunt” is not exactly a tie-in novel, but more of a pocket story spin-off that can be fitted with ease in between volumes. Because the series has been concluded, thus all major arcs and loose ends tied up, Rooney can’t play with details, information and anything else that might be of significance for the series, thus the series main characters become secondary. Which is a shame, because Barbara, Aaron and Belus are the heart of what made “Tarot Café” the influential series that it still remains. Although this way the readers feel more drawn to the secondary cast rather than the main characters, I think Rooney did a splendid job at handling herself in another person’s world and imagination. What complicates my task as reviewer here is that the aspects I fell in love with are also the ones that leave a bitter taste in my mouth. For instance the prose’s addictive. Rooney conjures apparitions in great detail and her word choices are elegant and beautiful, but at the same time this prose slows the reader’s pace down and the novel progresses in slow motion, which for the impatient might be a problem. I simply got irked a bit. I am also pro-love and its majestic presence in literature, but Bryn seems to be sacrificing her own life for a man, who didn’t feel like including her in his own life. It’s a given that he is an artist and from personal experience I know their out-of-touch behavior, but Bryn’s sacrifice leads to an unhappy ending, which is predictable. Both lovers are united, but bound to the call of the Wild Hunt. It’s poetic, but not totally unheard of. Yes, I’m a bit reserved about this, because I’m pro-endings that deny canons and having Bryn chose her career would have rocked my world and it would have been an ending, which would fit the manhwa’s spirit. Otherwise, was this a good book worth my time? Yes, I can say that this one book I am happy to have read, because it has touched me in all the good places as a reader without sounding pet peeve alarms. Do I recommend it? Yes and without hesitation. I also think that there will be more of Rooney to come. PS: "The Wild Hunt" features original illustrations provided by the original creator Sang-Sun Park, which appeal to my aesthetics and are marvellous examples of what skilled artists can create.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winners! "View From the Bridge" and "Incarceron"

I am sooo sorry I am sooo late on picking a winner for "View From the Bridge." I am busier, and therefore flakier, than usual. But I've got a winner! And I've also selected the winner of the "Incarceron" giveaway as well. The winner of a copy of The View From the Bridge by Nicholas Meyer is: Jonnie Hartling, Edmonton, AB: Canada and the winner of an ARC copy of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher is: Wanda Bergman, Winnipeg, Manitoba: Canada Yaaa Canada!

Book Review: Beacons of Tomorrow (1st Collection) edited by Bret Funk

Featuring thirteen stories originally submitted to Tyrannosaurus Press’ The Illuminati, Beacons of Tomorrow is an interesting attempt at collecting together original short fiction from writers who have largely been undiscovered. While the collection holds some promise, many of the stories lack the literary flare of the speculative genre either because the characters, writing style, or plots were uninteresting or annoying, or because some of the stories were practical direct retellings of tales we’ve seen so many times before that they’ve been recreated in various television shows like The Outer Limits and Sliders. Still, there are a few gems here worth mentioning. Below are my mini reviews of each story: “A Dream Within” by Danielle Parker An interesting journey into a deserted city, Parker’s tale has a unique, almost Verne-ian style that lends an authentic air to the entire piece. “A Dream Within” is one of my favorites from the collection, though I think Parker could have gone a step farther with the story to give it that extra something that every story needs. “The Spider” by Simon Todd One of the things I liked about “The Spider” was how it went about portraying its horror elements. The supernatural elements notwithstanding, the descent of Christopher into madness made for an interesting read. Not a perfect story, for sure, but certainly one of the better ones in this collection. “Nirvana, Inc.” by Mark Hardwidge Despite having seen ideas like this before, I found Hardwidge’s take on greed and weird metaphysical companies making obscene promises rather enjoyable. It follows a rich business man who is unhappy with his life. When he is approached by a company promising him eternal happiness, he reluctantly gives up everything for the opportunity. The story has a pretty interesting ending too. “The Prisoner” by A. Christopher Drown What do you get when you mix a western with demons? A. Christopher Drown’s “The Prisoner.” While not as strong as it could have been, this story about a young deputy filling in for the most unusual night shift at his local jail is enjoyable and has the potential to spawn further stories in this particular version of the old west. Hopefully Drown will deliver in the future. “Intelligence” by Jennifer Graham Graham’s story is an interesting twist on the first contact cliché, though I felt like I had seen it before. Still, the story was entertaining in the way a lot of science fiction stories tend to be: interesting concept, decent presentation, and a little hint of the gosh-wow moment at the end. This one is definitely worth a read. “Over a Cup of Hot Chocolate” by Gary William I vaguely remember what this story was about. There’s some deal about the main character experiencing other lives, but the story never grabbed me. I finished it, but it didn’t stick with me primarily because the whole thing seemed meaningless in the end. Maybe there was deeper meaning, but the execution failed to make an impact. “Evil, Inc.” by Douglas Roper Roper’s story is another reason why I really don’t like superhero/supervillain stories told in prose form. While the idea is cute, the execution is too ridiculous for its own good, leaving a mostly irrelevant and forgettable story. “Evil, Inc.” happens to be about a bunch of dysfunctional villains trying to explain their failings to a new director of operations at a company making profits from their schemes. Cute? Yes, but ultimately not all that interesting. There’s a whole lot of telling and not a lot of story. “Slugger’s Holiday” by Charles Gramlich Of all the stories in this collection, I hated this one the most. The author’s use of sailor lingo throughout the dialogue and the exposition left me thoroughly annoyed, so much so that I stopped reading about two pages in. Gramlich desperately needed to pull back on his overuse of all the lingo so that whatever story he was trying to tell could come through. “Return to Arthanas” by Sean Bradley Ridiculously cliché, poorly plotted, too condensed, and overall a story that a) goes nowhere; and b) is sort of pointless. Bradley’s tale is about a half-elf prince who is trying to put together enough allies to kick the Imperials out of his kingdom. But none of that ever happens. There’s a really long fight in the beginning in typical old west style, and then a long lecture in the end about why princes should be smart. Anything that changes in the characters is shallow at best. One of the worst in the collection as far as execution is concerned. “A Pyg’s Perspective” by Terry Crotinger First contact with a hidden AI? Check. Some plucky robotic dialogue? Check. Story? Nope. Some great ideas get wasted here, because, ultimately, nothing happens. There’s lots of dialogue, but no conflict whatsoever. Somewhat boring, I’m afraid. “Woman of the Web” by Garrie Keyman Another curious concept (a writer afflicted by a strange woman who visits him through his computer claiming to be his muse) that falls prey to having an incomplete plot. Each section of the story represents the beginning and end of a larger story, and unfortunately there are no answers to why anything is as the beginning tells us. We’re just supposed to accept the unknown. Doesn’t work for me. “The Pale Prince” by Erik Goodwyn While this story is certainly interesting, it is also one I’ve seen before. In fact, the idea of a doomed man of some description meeting with some version of Death is so ingrained in mythology that short of having something new and brilliant to say about the narrative itself, anything trying to mimic the myth ends up sounding like a broken record. Such is the case here. “Labor Day” by Patrick Tucker I really wanted to like this story. It takes place in a world where people gain status by becoming super shoppers. The problem? Well, I’ve seen it before. It was an episode of Sliders. The only difference is the end, which is, unfortunately, mostly meaningless in the greater context of the world. So, while the idea had potential, Tucker didn’t go anywhere with it. It was just Sliders, but without Jerry O’Connel. Despite some severe eye-rolling for some of these stories, there were a few that I enjoyed. Hopefully the second collection is better than this first attempt. You can find Beacons of Tomorrow for sale at Tyrannosaurus Press, Amazon, or anywhere you get your books.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

The Empress of Mars is most certainly an experiment in expectations. Having read Baker's The House of the Stag (and loving it, by the way), and being wholly unfamiliar with her Company novels, I had expected The Empress of Mars to be another adventurous, incredibly internalized story, only with spaceships and other science fiction furniture instead of magic and half-demons. Only, that's not what I got. Instead, The Empress of Mars provided me with more of Baker's ability to craft character and a strangely vibrant vision of a Mars that just might be, without the need for explosions and laser pistols to keep things interesting. The Empress of Mars takes place on, well, Mars, obviously, and follows Mary Griffith, a worshiper of "the Goddess" and owner of a seedy bar called The Empress, practically the only thing she owns, and a business she is struggling to keep afloat. There, she and her daughters, and a ragtag group of unwanted men and women who have come to Mars for the chance to make a life for themselves, eke out a meager living under the stern hand of the British Arean Company. Mary has had a hard life, too, with the BAC breathing down her neck, but unable to do anything about her, and all manner of unsavory characters wanting to see her pushed off the planet for good. After a string of good luck, however, Mary finds herself the target of the BAC's legal rumblings and business acumen. Now everything rests on Mary's shoulders: her business, the fate of Mars, and, most importantly, her family. Baker's pension for character is certainly a feature of this installment in her Company series. Mary Griffith is one of a set of astonishing array of unique characters, all with powerful motivations, wonderfully realized dialogue, and Baker's own flare for creating fascinating black and white figures on both sides of the coin. You still hate her bad guys, but you at least understand why they do what they do and disagree with them either because you hold different beliefs or because their tactics are unacceptable. Her good guys have similar problems, and this makes her story incredibly character-driven, because as the story moves along, Baker creates for us a long string of flawed, but endearing figures that you can't help but love, even if you disagree with aspects of their lifestyles. There are no wooden characters here. Pacing and world-wise, The Empress of Mars doesn't leave too much to the imagination. Some might conceive of this as a flaw, considering that much of Baker's novel is not at all unlike what we might see going on today: legal blunders, corporations overstepping their bounds, bitter attempts to steal land from underprivileged people, etc. The plot does take some time to get moving, but once it does, Mars comes to life as a clear, but somewhat exaggerated (and necessarily so) reflection of our present. Everything is laid out for the reader, bringing focus to the characters and their struggles with what is going on around them and de-centering the wider struggle of mankind; this creates isolation in plot and world, providing ample space for Baker to develop the scenery and history of the Mars colonists. Only in the end do things move a little too quickly, and some questions are left unanswered, but perhaps for good reason (the supernatural might have played a welcome--or unwelcome, depending on your perspective--hand in the overall story, but that's up for the reader to decide on his or her own). Beyond a somewhat lingering plot, Baker's imagining of religion seems to have a stronger connection to exoticism than realism. I feel as though the insertion of the mostly-pagan worship of the Goddess was inconsistent with what actually might be true in our own future. Mary's relationship to "the Goddess," while interesting, reflects more of the old, somewhat absurd early renderings of Mars in science fiction. Granted, I have not read her other Company novels, so perhaps there are some clear and powerful motivations for the changes in religion and social dynamics that I am unaware of in reading The Empress of Mars, but regardless, this seems a somewhat absurd complaint to have when the overwhelming majority of my thoughts about this particular novel center on my love for Baker's writing and her ability to create memorable characters. If everything up to this point hasn't indicated whether or not I liked this book, then I'll clarify now: while The Empress of Mars is not perfect, I found myself thoroughly engaged by the characters and once again loving Baker's writing style. This novel may not be for everyone--after all, it is not about galactic wars or spaceships or many of the more explosive and action-packed elements of the science fiction genre--but it will certainly appeal to many readers, particularly those who enjoy stories centered on the characters, rather than on the shininess of the setting. You can find out more about The Empress of Mars at Tor. It is also for sale on Amazon and wherever else you get your books. If you'd like to learn more about Kage Baker, check out her website.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

No Malware Here...

I don't know if anyone has been getting a malware warning on my site over the last day or so, but I got one this morning when I logged on. Annoying! I had unusually little traffic on the blog yesterday and I couldn't figure out why, but when I saw that warning this morning I figured that must be the problem. Anyway, I did a site verification on google and then did a search on the site to see if I've been infected and as of right now I'm getting the 'all clear' from google. Hopefully that will clear the warnings from popping up on your computer-- I'm not getting them anymore. As far as I know, this site is clean. I also think I know what happened-- I found a piece of code in my blog html that was from some random search page. I don't even know what it is. The code was between the [head] and [body] tags in the widgets section of my blog. When it was embedded in my code, my page took forever to load. I don't know if they were attempting to do some sort of redirect-- or if they succeeded. But I, thankfully, found the code and removed it. My password is now much, much stronger and hopefully I won't get hacked again. I'm grateful (knock wood) that my whole site hasn't been corrupted.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Tarot Cafe" - vol. 1 - 6

It’s quite surreal to sit down and write a review that had to be posted in January this year. Yes, I have been slacking so long with this review and the story behind it is equally long. “Tarot Café” is both a Korean comic book series and a recent novel. I know the author behind the novel, so I requested a review copy, but I also was curious to see the original series, which is the basis for the novel. Finding the series, reading it and getting around to reviewing it has proven to be the hardest thing I ever attempted. The moment never seemed right, I had a huge problem with them being online and I couldn’t afford to get them as physical copies and then I couldn’t locate the last seventh volume. But I decided to bear with not knowing the ultimate end and just discuss the first six volumes and then review the novel before the year ends and my conscience commits seppuku as a sign that I have blown it big time. “Tarot Café” is a manhwa, which is the Korean equivalent for comic book and should not be confused with the Japanese manga. For starters although manga and manhwa both appear to have similar art styles, manhwa indulges too much into heads and facial features to be outside normal proportions, while the body figure seems relatively realistic. Then there is the major issue with how one should read them. Manga is read from right to left, while manhwa like regular comic books in the West is read left to right. “Tarot Café” has left me with mixed feelings about the art it provided. On one side the lines are clear, clean and when needed the pages blossom with details that are so miniscule one can wonder how they were added. On the other hand though, the characters seemed androgynous. If a woman were to be dressed with pants and had short hair you would need context to get the gender and sadly facially most characters had eerie resemblance, which further confused me as to who had a conversation with whom and who was saying what. Art aside, there’s much strength in the premise, in the format and in the execution. Tarot cards have been popular in fiction and in cinema, but we rarely get the in-depth exploration that I think they deserve. Park Sang-sun knows her tarot cards and each telling brings a new aspect to a card that we may know from the great Arcana or a totally new card. Then piecing their meanings in context to past and present to weave this tapestry that is the character’s life and tragedy is enchanting to watch. “Tarot Cafe” develops pardon the comparison, like a standard paranormal TV series as in Buffy or Supernatural. Barbara starts off with a lot of individual readings that don’t touch upon the main arc that is why Barbara wants to be mortal again, who is giving her that chance and who and why is trying to destroy her. This is pretty much Monster-of-the-Week episodes, where the setting is set and the viewers get to adjust to the frame, the characters and such. But reading by reading we dip into Barbara’s story, which is multi-layered, complex and quite compelling. Park has managed to interweave smaller arcs into bigger arcs, introduce new characters with their own troubles and joys. We see love, we see betrayal and torture, but also a speck of happiness here and there. Although the tone is serious and contemplative most of the time, since people don’t go to a seer, when everything in their life is fine and dandy, there is also quite a few slap stick moments, which are typical for the Asian comic book circles, and these moments have to do with the dynamics between Barbara and Belius, the demon, who has been there for Barbara for quite some time. In general, this is a good series to follow with a very intense build-up and a mystery about both Barbara and her quest for mortality, which I think people won’t see it coming. I can say for sure that I am not certain how it will end, though I would if I can find the last volume. For an even greater detailed review, then please visit my esteemed colleagues The Book Smugglers, who take a fantastic stab at it. [HERE]

Magazine Review: Interzone #225

Interzone serves up another unique mix of SF/F stories and non-fiction in its latest issue (#225). Unlike the previous issue, however, #225 takes a few more wild punches by delving into some less traditional areas of the speculative genre, with superheroes and witches gracing its pages. Unfortunately, I think the more varied approach in this particular issue makes it weaker than #224. Hopefully the fine folks at Interzone will go back to the more enjoyable styles of the previous issue, because I think the slightly more weird stories in that particular issue made it an excellent beginning point for a new subscriber like myself (I reviewed #224 here). #225 contains five new stories and their still amazing non-fiction section of book and movie reviews. Stories include "Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows" by Jason Sanford, "By Starlight" by Rebecca J. Payne, "The Killing Streets" by Colin Harvey, "Funny Pages" by Lavie Tidhar, and "Bone Island" by Shannon Page and Jay Lake. Fiction The stories for this issue didn't grab me in the same way as in #224. The strongest stories here, in my opinion, are "By Starlight" and "The Killing Streets," each somewhat unique in their own right and full of some interesting ideas, but none of the stories snatched me in like "Shucked" by Adrian Joyce or "Sublimation Angels" by Jason Sanford (both from #224). While I don't think many of the stories in this particular issue are bad, most left me wanting more. "By Starlight" takes place in a world of flying ships run by starlight, following a pair of women as they try to survive the treacherous skies of their world. I enjoyed the story, but felt that there needed to be more in terms of detail for the world, almost as though a short story is too simple for the kind of setting the author wanted to portray. Despite that, though, there's much to love about this story, particularly its sentimental nature and its fun, if incomplete, world. Much more could be said here, though, and I hope the author will take this tribal sky sailing concept to the longer format for a more enjoyable and in-depth read. "The Killing Streets" is somewhat more odd, utilizing the themes of betrayal and redemption in familiar ways, but set in a world where bizarre monsters called snarks attack people from below the ground and a terrible disease sweeps over the nation. The story unfolds a lot of interesting social dynamics, from the faults of protest movements to the disturbing level of social control governments will often go to in extreme circumstances. My only complaint with this story is that its ending was far too predictable for its own good. Despite there being a lot of interesting things going on with the snarks and the government (it's part dystopia and part horror), the lackluster plot took some of the flare away, leaving me wanting more, even if "more" would imply an artificial injection of adventure. Sanford's newest piece, "Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows," is sentimental in much the same way as "By Starlight," but places a heavy focus on the terror of a world overrun by strange creatures who live in the shadows. It's an interesting story, and I personally liked the emotional turmoil of the characters, but I felt like I had read this story somewhere before (in fact, it felt like a movie I had seen, like an episode of Doctor Who or Outer Limits). "Funny Pages," goes in the complete opposite direction by taking on the superhero/supervillian dichotomy in an obviously humorous way. Probably the most unique thing about this story is that it takes away the typical separation you see between hero and villain, placing many "enemies" in the same rooms (think of it as a way of bringing both sides down to Earth). The story was cute, but it did for me what most superhero novels tend to do: end up forgotten. I love superhero comics, but I have such a hard time taking seriously any superhero story written in prose form. A personal quirk, for sure, but I do recall at least enjoying "Funny Pages," but I don't expect that it will remain in memory for long. My least favorite story for this issue, however, would have to be "Bone Island." The story takes place on some island with witches and some guy with a bloody ax, but, to be honest, I can't remember what the story was really about. I think one part of the problem was my mistake in reading the little note from the authors on the front page that told me the story was based on a medical anomaly, which led me to spend the first few pages trying to figure it out. But, I never did figure that out and the way in which the authors approached the characters and the style left me bored, resulting in my complete disinterest in whatever was going on. Either this was due to a contrived attempt to be "literary," or simply my own personal disinterest in the subject matter. Either way, this is the one story that I didn't actually want to finish in #225. Non-fiction As with #224, I absolutely loved the non-fiction section of #225. Most of the book reviews pointed me to some interesting books I hadn't heard of before and Tony Lee and Nick Lowe tore into new DVD and movie releases with a vengeance. The style of attack is much the same as #224, which is not only enjoyable, but almost a form of storytelling in its own right. Lee and Lowe are a pair of unrelenting critics with the kind of knowledge most movie critics need today. They are the kind of writers I wish I could be in my own movie reviews, and I am learning much from them as a result. The magazine itself is almost worth paying the cover price just for the non-fiction. Overall, I think #225 is a mixed bag. While the non-fiction is stunning and brilliant, the fiction left me yearning for whatever was missing. I'm looking forward to #226, though, and hopefully there will be a return of some of that flare I saw in #224, something a little weird, a little speculative, and a lot of beautiful.

"Iron Man 2" Trailer

Okay-- just one more. You know I had to post this one...

"Robin Hood" Trailer

I'm all about movies today...

"Clash of the Titans"

Man. I loved this movie when I was a kid.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom

Some fans are so hardcore that any attempt to mess with their idea of 'canon' is met not just with resentment, but outright hostility. As an author of Lovecraftian horror, I've experienced that firsthand. So the bad news is that the hardcore fanboys are going to turn their noses up on "Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom". Too bad. The good news is that people who buy this entertaining graphic novel are going to have a fun romp.

This irreverent tale may use the trappings of the Lovecraftian mythos, but at its heart, Bruce Brown's script
successfully dips into a manga sensibility to move things along at a quirky pace with a snarky sense of humor. The plot concerns the young Lovecraft, who looks somewhat like Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbs", as he travels to another dimension where he saves a large beastie (a Cthulhueque type critter named Thu Thu Hmung) who becomes a friend/servant/pet. The creature escorts him to a castle where he is welcomed as a savior for a group of folk seeking to be returned to their paradise home, Ryleh (this is where the hardcore fans are throwing things at the screen). To help save the Ryleh folk he has to defeat the evil Dagon. Without ruining any surprises, I'll say that the plot becomes a bit more Lovecraftian as it edges toward a satisfying climax.

Visually, it's wonderful. Renzo Podesta's artwork is imaginative and moody. His use of sepia and off-beat alien landscapes provide Brown's twisted story and quirky characters an appropriate playground.


Yep, I loved it. Don't expect the sort of horror one associates with Lovecraft, this is more an irreverent tribute. And sure it pleased me, but give me a rubber band and a piece of string, and I'm good for hours. So to be sure, I kidnapped some teenagers and subjected them to Brown and Podesta. They smiled, nodded appreciatively,and commented about theme and story. Seriously. This was a crowd that would be happy losing themselves in "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" (Jhonen Vasquez) or "Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil" (Loren Bouchard). They chuckled in all the right places and gave appreciative murmurs for the panels that warranted such appreciation.

If you have a teen interested in graphic novels, especially someone who dresses in blacks and stays up too late checking out Adult Swim on The Cartoon Network, then this might be a worthy consideration for a stocking stuffer.

Monday, December 14, 2009

"The Sword-Edged Blonde" by Alex Bledsoe

A large crow cawed from a limb overhead and flew away into the forest. My eyes inadvertently followed the movement, which seemed to sparkle like the birds I'd seen on Rhiannon's window sill. On the tree he'd vacated, a trail of silver-tipped moss grew in a narrow thick line down the trunk, in the dead center of a burn scar from an old lightening strike. It, too, disappeared under the leaves. When I kicked the litter away, I saw that the moss continued in an unbroken line along the ground, green and alive despite being covered. I followed it, knowing it would eventually turn into the trail of gray clover. It did. Okay, I'd found a clue. But it told me nothing. Actually, it took away some certainties, so it was more of an anti-clue. Eddie LaCrosse, reverse investigator. So, divorced from context, what did this tell me? Something apparently came down the tree, across the ground and landed on the very spot where my pal Phil had found his bare-assed bride, and left a trail conducive to the growth of slightly off-kilter flora. Had the lightening scar been there before the moss? Could whatever left the trail also split the bark of the tree? I'd seen burning rocks fall from the sky; I'd seen lightening. I'd encountered all manner of animals that flew. What combination could result in what I now saw? Nothing came to mind. Except the obvious idea that Queen Rhiannon herself had left the trail after she'd fallen from the heavens and came out into the sun. But I wasn't ready to put my weight behind that.

 ~Excerpt from The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

 When I'm looking for something to read, I most frequently look for books in two genres: fantasy & detective fiction. Naturally when an author tries to fuse these into one story, I'm interested. Simon R. Green and Jim Butcher have probably been the most well known authors selling the hard-boiled detective in the fantasy milieu, but up-and-coming author Alex Bledsoe has brought a strong entry into the mix with The Sword-Edged Blonde.

 Eddie LaCrosse is a 'sword jockey' who works out of an office above a tavern in a run-down town known more for its criminal enterprises than anything else; but it keeps a private investigator like Eddie busy enough to keep from dwelling too much on his past. But when his childhood friend, King Philip of Arentia, asks for help, Eddie doesn't hesitate. Philip's wife Rhiannon, a mysterious beauty with no memory of her past, is accused of killing their child in a bloody ritual. When he sees the Queen for the first time, Eddie is suddenly confronted with a face from his past, and he realizes that unraveling the mystery surrounding the apparent death of the prince will answer questions about his own past--as well as Rhiannon's.

 "The Sword-Edged Blonde" defies a neat characterization because it has elements of modern fiction and traditional fantasy in a kind of mishmash of genres: Eddie carries a sword, though he switches out the models for different occasions; His sense of humor definitively has a modern edge to it; and the character names are blessedly ordinary and easy to pronounce. Unlike the books by Green and Butcher, this story doesn't take place the modern world, but exists in a Medieval setting. So the modern sensibility can be disorienting until you get into the rhythm of the story.

The action has a kind of James Bond feel to it as it's bloody, brutal and swift and Eddie doesn't shy away from doing whatever the situation requires. Bledsoe really hits the ground running with "The Sword-Edged Blonde." Many reviews compare the book to a Raymond Chandler novel and it's clear that Chandler's a huge influence. The first person narrative of Eddie LaCrosse is wry and world weary. He's a guy with a bleak past and a conscience that won't let him forget. He's everything a protagonist should be and he has great one-liners. "The Sword-Edged Blonde" is one of those books that you'll stay up late reading and find yourself looking to see if the sequel is on the shelves yet (it is). In fact, I've already picked up the next Eddie LaCrosse novel, Burn Me Deadly and I'm at least half-way through that one already... How's that for a recommendation? Fun book that, for my money, is even better than Harry Dresden.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

ZZzzzzzzzz

I feel like Garfield. If you don't know what I mean, just look at his eyes. See how they're about 3/4th's of the way closed? That's me. I caught a cold and it's been making me really sleepy. Or maybe it's the cold medicine. I can't tell the difference. Either way, I've done very little over the last two days other than sit on the couch reading or sleeping. Not that that's a bad thing... or it wouldn't be if I was doing it just because I felt like being lazy. Anyway, I hate to let the blog sit for too long, but it's getting too late to work up a decent post, so I'm going to the perennial fall-back post. The giveaway. Head on over to my GIVEAWAY PAGE and check out the newest short story collection I have up for grabs. I don't have any zombie bunnies this time-- but it's still worth checking out. I'll be back to regular programming soon-- I'm already feeling better.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Have Blogger-Reviewers Shut Down Kirkus Reviews?

Holy cow! I am so surprised. I got an email from the Sacramento/San Francisco Book review announcing that Kirkus Reviews, founded in 1933, is shutting down. ~From The New York Times Abandoning some of the best known names in trade publishing, the Nielsen Company said Thursday that it would shut down Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews, and sell a stable of other publications, including Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, to a newly formed media company. Nielsen’s plans to sell had been reported for months, but the news that E&P and Kirkus would close at the end of the year was a surprise. The company declined to discuss their financial performance, but executives said they had fought declining advertising and circulation, much like the newspaper and book industries they cover. Read the rest of the article HERE. According to the owner of the Sac Review, they are now only second to Publisher's Weekly in doing the volume of reviews they do every month. I'm not sure that makes them a name yet, but it's certainly interesting to see that print reviewing is indisputably on the decline. Are blogs like mine to blame? When I started this blog some 3 years ago, I did it on a whim. I never expected any audience to speak of and my traffic is modest to say the least. But I do have enough of an audience to get review copies, a lot of review copies, from various publishers in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. And like a lot of other genre blogs, snippets of my reviews are being used to promote certain authors-- all at very little cost to the publisher since I do the reviews for free. Is this an inevitable shift in the industry? Well, considering how poorly print publications are doing across the board I'd say yes. Though, for some strange reason, I had mentally categorized mainstream print journalism-- the stuff that's news oriented-- in a completely different universe than book reviews. Nowadays everyone seems to have opinions on how print journalism is hopelessly biased and have moved to seeking their news online. But reviews? To my knowledge they typically don't fall prey to the kind of bias I see everywhere else. So I'm guessing that bias isn't the issue-- but competition is. It's something to think about. I honestly don't feel particularly guilty because I'm seeing blogger-reviews of everything, not just books. And I'm a small fry in the blogoshpere, let me tell you. I've been hearing about bloggers who are flown in to certain events to reviews products for big companies-- I should be so lucky. One of my favorite blogs frequently gives away really, really expensive kitchen appliances. I don't know what this means long term. But I think the closing of Kirkus Reviews is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to changes the Internet is going to bring to marketing and reviewing new products. Who knew I was a trailblazer?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Sometimes, it's Good to be Wrong

I don't often pick up sequels when I don't connect with the first book in a series. Heck, I never pick up sequels unless I'm pretty impressed with the first volume. But being a reviewer means that sometimes I'll commit to reviewing books that I may or may not like-- it's a rough life. Not too long ago I reviewed Dawnthief by James Barclay and I was a little rough on it; which for me, means that I used the word "mediocre." But it was an honest assessment based on several factors, the most egregious was weak character development. And under normal circumstances that would be the end of the story. But this time, thanks to a previous commitment, I read the next two books in The Chronicles of the Raven series by Barclay-- and boy, did Barclay step up his game. I'm not sure I have ever been more wrong about the potential of a series. Without getting long winded--I'll throw up the reviews I did for Barclay's subsequent books below this commentary-- let me just say that I'm really glad I committed to reading the whole first trilogy by Barclay. Normally I'd let the reviews speak for themselves, but I'm limited to 200 words when I do reviews for The Sacramento Book Review and that leaves me little opportunity to do more than offer a brief summary and recommendation. What it doesn't really allow me to do is say how impressed I am at the growth of the author. Barclay grew in virtually every aspect as a writer. The characters achieved more depth, the world-building added more layers and everything from the politics to the sense of humor gained realism. There are still bits I could critique, (from a one-note villain to some positive-review-spamming *just sayin'* on the Amazon page) , but I feel I really need to comment on the very real improvement that was achieved from the first book to the second-- on to the third. I don't see this often enough and I would be remiss if I didn't offer a hat-tip to the author. "Noonshade" by James Barclay Noonshade, the second volume in the Chronicles of the Raven, picks up after the spell of the Dawnthief has been cast. Used to save the world, the Dawnthief has left a rip in the sky to the dragon dimension and as it grows bigger, so does the threat to Balaia. The Raven, a small band of mercenaries, now have been charged with finding a way to close the portal before enemy dragons come pouring through. But first, they must get past the invading Wesmen who are bent on destroying the colleges of magic. Showing great improvement in this sequel, author James Barclay uses multiple perspectives to tell his story. From the dragon allies fighting a battle in their own dimension to the mages trying to save the home of their magical lore, the story builds layer upon layer and reveals significant growth in Barclay's use of characterization. What had seemed to be an abundance of ideas that were loosely tied together now comes across as a well plotted fantasy full of originality. Fans of the first book will be pleased as this sequel and eagerly looking to pick up the next volume. "Nightchild" by James Barclay Five years have passed since the mercenary band known as The Raven retired, but a threat to a child born to two members of the group has brought them together again. Lyanna, daughter of Denser and Erienne, is the child of prophesy and her unfocused power is tearing the world apart. Fleeing the mage college that had awakened the child's powers too early, Erienne seeks help from the only surviving mages who can train Lyanna. Denser seeks out the remaining members of The Raven to find Erienne and Lyanna and protect them from the mage hunters who seek to kill the child before her power can be fully realized. Nightchild is the third book in the "Chronicles of the Raven" and is easily James Barclay's best book so far. Mixing terrifically atmospheric action with excellent characters, Barclay continues to show steady growth as an author and assurance with building a credible story. "Nightchild" is a bittersweet book that reminds us that love can be costly, but it is still a satisfying read and well worth the time.

Giveaway....

Up on my GIVEAWAY PAGE I have a copy of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher up for grabs.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Trying to Find a "Best of" in a Crummy Year of Movie Releases

December is an uncommonly busy time of year for me. Like most people I fret over Christmas and try to get the perfect gifts for my kids while trying not to leave my December born son feeling as if he has been forgotten in the Christmas rush. Being a blogger who focuses primarily on topics related to entertainment I also run across lots of "best of" lists on my favorite blogs and realize that if I wanted to, I could come up with my own list if I could find the time. But this year time isn't the main the main problem. No. The conundrum is that in trying to compose a list of that includes movies, the pickings are very, very slim. I thought this year was going to be good. I had a new Terminator to look forward to-- starring Christian Bale no less. And my favorite hunk Hugh Jackman had his own vehicle featuring his signature character Wolverine. Oh happy days! There was a "Transformers" sequel sure to appeal to my Transformer-mad son and re-imaginings of "G.I. Joe" and "Star Trek." That's a lot of sci-fi happiness for a fan of the genre. What could go wrong? Oh yeah. Most of them sucked. I didn't have time to see everything that might have interested me this year. But at the same time, there were a few I had absolutely planned on seeing but skipped once they were generally panned. I don't like wasting money on a movie I know I'm not going to enjoy. The movie that stands out to me as the biggest disappointment, the one I was absolutely going to see, but didn't, was "Terminator Salvation." I had had some misgivings when it was announced that McG (what a ridiculous name) was going to be directing the movie. Anyone who passes such drek as "Charlie's Angels" off on an unsuspecting public deserves to be met with immediate suspicion. The movie starred Christian Bale, and tantrums notwithstanding, he's a good actor and I've really enjoyed him as Batman in Christopher Nolan's wonderful movies. But once the reviews hit, and sites like Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 32% positive rating, I knew that this was a movie that would be a rental viewing. At best. Cross this one off the "best of" list. Yet, there's always Wolverine, right? The earlier "X-Men" movies were pretty good. Well, if you ignore the third one. But still, this is Wolverine we're talking about so it's gotta be good... Well, not so much. The thing is, the movie didn't have to suck and it wasn't all horrible. Hugh Jackman was reliably hunky and Liev Schreiber was a menacingly good Sabretooth. But oh the CGI. How can a big budget film have such unconvincing CGI? It wasn't a matter of too much (though that is always an issue) as much as what it had was poorly done. Add to that a haphazard script and a rushed feeling to the production and you end up with a general feeling of disappointment. There goes another one off the list. Okay then. There's always the silly action of "Transformers." I can watch this one with my kids. It's good family fun! Oh.... hell. This one turned out to be a Michael Bay disaster of epic proportions. One of the dumbest scripts ever with content sure to tick off every parent who thought they were taking their kid to a harmless movie featuring their favorite toy. This movie was literally criminally bad. I thought it couldn't get any worse until... I tried to watch "G.I. Joe." I almost don't have the heart to talk about "G.I. Joe." Horrible. Bad acting, script... Do me a favor. Don't ever try to watch this movie. Not everything sucked this year, but it wasn't a year that broke any ground. I liked "Star Trek," better than some bloggers who have commented on the movie, but it sure as heck wasn't "The Dark Knight." Truth be told I think the best movie I've seen all year was "Up." I hear "Zombieland" and "District 9" were good-- though I don't know if they can make up for all the bad, bad acting I've sat through this year. Maybe 2009 can still redeem itself. "Sherlock Holmes" comes out Christmas day and while it may not be an entirely accurate version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic, it looks like it has potential to be worth watching. On the other hand, "Avatar" may put the nail in the coffin of a seriously mediocre year in film. Maybe next year will be better, but this year, I'm not even trying to make a list.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Oh No They Didn't!

Okay, okay. It's a web series coming out next year. But I didn't actually think they'd do it. And I wish they had a teaser for this one! I'm soooo looking forward to "Iron Man 2"

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Heart's Blood" by Juliet Marillier

My chamber door was ajar. Inside, a child in a white smock was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the dark, with my little doll Roise on lap. The girl's hair was white too, drifting in a pale cloud around her head and shoulders. She was crooning a wordless lullaby. The hairs on my neck rose. 

A glance around the chamber told me she'd been investigating all my things. Clothing spilled out of the storage chest, my comb lay on the floor and the bedding had been disordered with more violence than such a fragile being seemed capable of. I took two steps into the room. The child raised her head, fixing shadowy eyes on me. "Hurt," she whispered. "Baby's hurt." Her skinny hand moved tenderly to stroke the silken threads that formed Roise's hair. Even by the fitful light of my candle I could see that the doll was the worse for wear. Some of her hair had been pulled right out and her skirt was in shreds. My stomach tight with unease, I cast my eyes around for knives, bodkins or other dangerous implements. "Oo-roo, baby all better soon," the child sang, rocking the doll in her arms. 

A rustling sound behind me in the open doorway. I whirled around. The young warrior in the bloody shirt stood there, the one from out in the woods. His arms were wrapped across his chest. A febrile trembling coursed through his body. Whatever it was that shook him so, rage, fear, a malady, it possessed him utterly. 

Brighid save me, what had I begun? "Tell me the truth." His voice was dry and scratchy, as if he'd been long out of the habit of using it. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Can you give us what we need?" Or did you speak lies and false hope? We have waited so long." 

 I almost yelled for Magnus. The young man had a sword and dagger at his belt. He sounded desperate. He looked poised on the brink of violent action. But I did not have to call out. I was the one who had set this in motion and I must be brave enough to deal with the consequences. "I wasn't lying," I said, doing y best to hold his nervous, darting gaze. "I'll do my best to help you. Tell me, what do you need most?" For a moment his eyes were full of whirling visions, images of pain and struggle. "Sleep." He spoke the word on a sigh. "Rest. That is what we long for. It is what we crave. Tell the lord of Whistling Tor to let us go."
~Excerpt from Heart's Blood

On the run from her abusive family, Caitrin ends up at Whistling Tor hoping to work for the strange, disfigured man who rules there. Trained as a scribe by her deceased father, Caitrin is hired to transcribe the old Latin books in the library. Thinking at first that it is a simple translating job, Caitrin soon realizes that the Tor is haunted by an unusual, ghostly host. And the old books may hold the key to freeing the unquiet spirits that keep the inhabitants of the Tor isolated from the rest of the world and, Anluan, their leader, from ever leaving his land. Despite Anluan's temperamental nature and the eerie nature of the host, Caitrin soon finds a home in Whistling Tor. Bringing a much needed heart to the lonely keep, Caitrin reminds the inhabitants that hope is never fully lost. But just as she begins to draw Anluan out of his exile, war with the Normans threatens and Anluan is forced to send Caitrin away to keep her safe-- and finally deal with her past. "Heart's Blood" is the first novel in a new series by well known author Juliet Marillier. Like her Sevenwaters series the book is set in historic Ireland and captures the feel of a different time very well. "Heart's Blood" suffers, ever so slightly, in comparison to the Sevenwaters books because Marillier set the bar so high. It isn't as historically detailed as the world in Sevenwaters, but it's easy to visualize the mist surrounding the Tor and uncanny host that inhabits the forest because Marillier excels at creating a mood. Like all of Marillier's books, "Heart's Blood" is primarily the story of a female protagonist. Caitrin is an interesting mix of stubborn insecurity. Her past has left her scarred, though it's something we're primarily told about and not shown. We learn the mysteries of the Tor through her eyes and get to know Anluan the same way. Anluan is harder to get to know, and like, than Caitrin. It's almost as if Caitrin is seeing something that we're not quite able to grasp, so a connection to the relationship between Anluan and Caitrin doesn't come as easily as it could. However, by the end of the book, there is comfort and satisfaction in seeing the two of them together. The best aspect of "Heart's Blood" really has to do with the host that inhabits the Tor. The mystery of how it came into being and their sometimes frightening behavior brings depth to what would otherwise just be a nicely romantic story. There aren't a lot of unexpected twists in "Heart's Blood" and I expect most readers will unravel most of its secrets well before they're officially revealed. That said, Marillier writes in a way that's easy to connect to and her books are always hard to put down. "Heart's Blood," still has Marillier's stamp of excellence all over it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"Dunraven Road" by Caroline Barnard Smith

Review by Harry Markov
I received “Dunraven Road” courtesy of the author, after falling in love with the cover, which apart from housing favorite colors of mine also promised an interesting and worthwhile read. My intuition towards covers has been nearly flawless so far, keeps an almost perfect score and has added this one to the list of well estimated titles. To be quite frank I expected another romance story, when I read that vampires are the main baddies in this novel, but the reader can expect a paranormal novel with gothic and thriller elements, with the necessary angst and turbulent relationship, but the drugs, decadence and murders prevents “Dunraven Road” to enter the stereotypical vampire mold. On the negative the reader will resort to patience and bear with the rough edges, too familiar elements and writing that accompany debut novels.
In the sleepy backwater of Dunraven Road, a group of hedonistic friends are trapped in a deadly prison of their own making. When Zach, their enigmatic leader, brings his long term plans to fruition and paves the way for a sadistic vampire cult, their fragile world begins to break apart. Fuelled by dangerous passions and an insatiable craving for `red', the group must decide whether to succumb to the sweet lure of the abyss, or stand and fight for their very survival.
The book starts on a small scale with local entrepreneur Zach, who has decided to expand his small drug dealing operation into something grander. He doesn’t quite enjoy his ordinary life, running his family story the Golden Harvest. On top of his priority list is power, financial and the other intangible influence over people. He is a leader and a schemer. It would seem that he is the main antagonist, who ruins lives through debauchery and addiction. However Smith has skillfully stripped him from his control page after page, rendering him from a power figure to a puppet, using his power lust. Zach is also delusional about becoming a vampire and that craving to reach immortality in an emo desperation, to be something greater than an ephemeral human is handled well, although such characters are predictable, such are the ones that control them. In this case this role is handed over to mysterious fame fatale Gwyneth, who comes from nowhere, sweeps Zach’s head and then steals his show. Although this relationship trope is classic, bordering on cliché, but one I enjoy greatly and seeing a femme fatale is always a delight for me. As far as the remaining inter-character dynamics in the novel are considered, I couldn’t buy several relationships such as the sick devotion Sapphire expresses towards Zach, which is a plot device to propel the plot by flinging her into danger instead of being organic. Then there is the romantic spark between Sapphire and Paul [artist and a former ‘red’ junkie] that feels forced without a natural catalyst. To mix world building with character issues the vegan vampire aspect and the characters that are introduced feel misplaced and didn’t work with me. The world building and establishing the vampire culture and history could have gone better, adding a few more pages into the novel, but strengthening the illusion that this world is real. However the atmosphere, story and the genre elements that transform book into experience are present and well executed. Although the reader solves the mystery of how ‘red’ is made, the actual weaving and revelation into the story produces a satisfactory result. Still to do with the ‘red’ I enjoyed the psychic side effects that come with its use, particularly demonstrated with Sapphire, who develops a second sight to dispel glamour, receives ominous visions and also become a bit of King’s Carry at the finally after taking an overdose. But the risk had been well measured and the sacrifice worked on logical and emotional level, which established her as a strong female heroine. Something that didn’t exactly stick with her in the novel. As a conclusion I can say that “Dunraven Road” marks a good as any start a career of a young writer with the usual technical difficulties, but overall the heart and spirit of the book were in the right place for me in order to overlook the jagging moments in the narrative, the obvious tropes and twists and enjoy what has been written. Also reading about vampires, who look at sex with humans as a random bonus to sucking their veins dry and treating them like dumb cattle is also something I have wanted to read from a long time ago.