Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Wishing for Perfection

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
2014
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars


This graphic novel is just cool.

It's the story of Katie, a chef who wants to open her own restaurant, and she also wishes she could get back with her ex-boyfriend, Max. Katie lives in an apartment above a restaurant named Seconds, and one night she meets Lis, the spirit of the house. Katie finds some mushrooms and a notebook in an old dresser, and by writing down a mistake and eating the mushroom, the past will be changed.

Katie quickly gets addicted trying to fix all of her mistakes, and each revision changes the universe. First she tries to prevent an accident in the kitchen that injured her friend, Hazel. Then she goes farther back in time and totally changes her relationship with Max, a decision that has serious consequences. 

But Katie can't stop trying to change things and make her life "perfect." Each morning she wakes up, she isn't sure exactly how the world will be different, and her life has changed so dramatically that she doesn't remember whole parts of it anymore, because they never really happened.

And by constantly changing the universe, Katie has angered the house spirit, and she accidentally created a monster. In the end, after multiple lives and some scary situations, Katie finally stops fighting herself and accepts things as they are.

"Listen: This is what I've learned. There are things we can't change, and we just have to accept that. And maybe that's some kind of grace."

The book was written by Bryan Lee O'Malley, author of the popular Scott Pilgrim series, and I picked it up because I had also enjoyed that graphic novel. The artwork is beautiful and I really liked the story. It's a good reminder that even though we wish we could change our past, actually doing so would have unintended consequences. Maybe we should just accept our mistakes as part of life, and move on.

Drift

DriftDrift by M.K. Hutchins


On an ocean world where communities live on the backs of gargantuan sea turtles and survival is key, orphan farmer Tenjat finds his lands ruined and takes the test to become a Handler, one of the warriors that defends the Turtle. But with another Turtle heading in their direction, will the new crop of Handlers be ready to defend it in time?

I saw this on John Scalzi's The Big Idea and just had to read it. Villages on the backs of giant sea turtles? What's not to like?

The worldbuilding is both my favorite part of this book and the part that kept me from really enjoying it. Allow me to elaborate.

As I said above, I loved the idea of villages on the backs of sea turtles warring with each other and with the nagas, the creatures that harried the Turtles at every turn. I also thought the idea of Handlers and Tenders taking care of the rest of the islanders by protecting them was also very cool. The magic system was fairly unique.

Here's the part I didn't like: As with some other Young Adult books, I found some logical flaws in the worldbuilding. Just as I found the faction system in Divergent to be illogical and the fact that the other three houses allowed Slitheren to exist among them knowing what buttheads they are, I just didn't buy the culture of the Turtles.

Survival is key on the Turtles and people become Handlers, Tenders, or Artisans if they have the aptitude and pass the test. Everyone else becomes farmers and are the only caste that breeds and they are looked down upon because of it. Huh? If survival is key, wouldn't you want the people with the talent breeding? Where do the inhabitants of the Turtles think babies come from? Also, this takes place in the chaste world of YA so there is no thought given to casual sex. Even if people on an island looked down on getting married, I guarantee there would still be people giving in to their throbbing biological urges.

All that aside, I still enjoyed the story of Tenjat rising from his orphan roots to become a handler. The romance with Avi was predictable and seemed bolted on but wasn't nauseating so I gave it a pass. I found the world refreshingly original, despite my problems with it. The ending was satisfying, if a bit pat.

The good and the bad balance out and since I liked it more than I disliked it, I'm giving it a three. It had to work for it, though.

View all my reviews

Dead Sea

Dead SeaDead Sea by Tim Curran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A freighter bound for South America gets enshrouded in a fog bank and emerges in another dimension, a graveyard of ships choked with carnivorous weeds, tentacled nasties of all shape and size, and a mysterious entity that wants them all dead. But will the survivors of the initial shipwreck manage to avoid killing one another long enough to escape horrors beyond human understanding?

Geek Alert: When I was a kid, I was way into cryptids, UFOs, and, of course, the mysteries of the sea. Since this book references both Bermuda Triangle and the Sargasso Sea, I was all over it.

Dead Sea is a paranoid survival horror story, very much a forerunner of Tim Curran's upcoming novella, Blackout. Two groups of survivors fight for their lives against horrible crustacean-fish things, squid- and jellyfish-like horrors, spidery things, and all sorts of other things that man was never meant to lay eyes upon.

Curran mines centuries of sea lore and spins something approaching gold with it. I'm not in a hurry to return to the ocean after reading this or even put my toe in any body of water that I can't see the bottom of. The characters gradually slide closer to the edge of sanity as they encounter centuries old ships and the squamous horrors of a world with two moons and time that flows differently than ours.

The characters do a lot to keep the story going forward. When the horror doesn't come from the environment, it comes from the disintegrating sanity of the shipmates and from Saks, the biggest asshole this side of Galactus's. Seriously, I could not wait for the rest of the survivors punch his ticket.

The ending was pretty satisfying. In a tale like this, you don't expect happily ever after, just a handful of characters better off than the rest. That's pretty much what we got.

In many ways, this book feels like a trial run for Blackout. For me, Blackout is Dead Sea 2.0, a condensed and refined version of the original. If Dead Sea is beer, Blackout is fine bourbon. Since I can't really fault Curran's earlier work being as spectacular as his most recent stuff, I'm still giving this a four, even though it had to work for it.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 1, 2014

Lucas Davenport Chases a Fiendish Killer and Debates the 100 Best Songs of the Rock Era
























Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another very entertaining entry in John Sandford's long-running Prey series, featuring Lucas Davenport. As most crime fiction fans know, Lucas worked his way up through the Minneapolis P.D. chasing a variety of twisted, violent killers. Now he's followed his boss, Rose Marie Roux, into a state job that allows, or requires, him to work high profile cases all over the state.

This one poses a serious challenge and pits Davenport against one of the most clever and ruthless killers he's ever faced. And unlike most of the Prey novels, even the reader doesn't know who the killer is until Davenport learns the truth very near the end of the book.

The case begins when a young woman is found murdered. The victim had been been sadistically whipped with what appears to be a barbed-wire lash before her throat was cut. Her body was then left naked and on display near a river bank. It's clear that a violent maniac is at work and the case is high profile enough to demand Davenport's attention, assisted by his long-time team member, Sloan, who is still working homicide for the Minneapolis PD and who draws the case.

Shortly thereafter, another victim, this time a male, is found raped, scourged and murdered in a similar fashion. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, though, blood found under the fingernails of the second victim provides a DNA match with a sex offender named Charlie Pope who was recently released from a state mental institution. Pope is now in the wind and the chase is on.

What follows is a genuine page-turner with a variety of unexpected twists and turns. The tension rises from the git-go and is broken only by one of Sandford's most entertaining subplots. Davenport's wife, Weather, has given him a new iPod. (The book was first published in 2005, only a few years after the device was introduced.) She's also given him a gift certificate for 100 songs. Lucas is determined to load the iPod with the one hundred best songs of the Rock Era and throughout the book, everyone has suggestions for the list. The discussions are often hilarious and one could debate the final list, which is added as an appendix, into eternity. All in all, it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Gardening For Dumbasses

Gardening Basics for DummiesGardening Basics for Dummies by Steven A. Frowine
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Me: Smell that? You smell that?
NobodyEver: What?
Me: Flowers, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. *kneels* I love the smell of flowers in the morning.

Don't feel dumb if you're stupid, not when it comes to gardening. Plants are precocious. As green of a thumb as you think you have, there's always a chance that no matter what you do you'll likely kill a plant or two. I've read a few of these gardening books and I've talked to knowledgable experts, and dammit, I still lose an azalea now and then. Hardy Mexican Patunias wilt under my hand. Impossible-to-kill succulents get themselves killed on my watch.

Gardening Basics for Dummies is aptly titled. This book has the basics laid out for beginners. In case it didn't sink in the first time, it repeats the basics time and again from chapter to chapter. I'm a bonafide brownthumb but even I only need to be told how to plant something in the same exact manner just once…okay, maybe twice…but not a dozen times!

IMO, too much time is also spent in garden design suggestions, replete with extensive diagrams. Looks a lot like page-filler to me.

Another issue is that the scope of gardening in general is very large. This book is meant to cover all of the U.S., which encompasses many varied climates. Yet it assumes throughout that you will have to prepare your plants for a frost season. Well, where I live we don't get frost. We get searing heat in midsummer, but there's no mention of how to prepare for that in Gardening Basics for Dummies.

However, there is plenty of helpful tips that if implemented will better your chances for a successful garden, whether it be flowers, vegetables, shrubs, berries, fruit trees, etc. Both annuals and perennials are given lengthy sections. Roses and bulbs, too. Hell, even grass gets its own fat chapter!

View all my reviews

Gallery Showing for the Artist Martin

ShopgirlShopgirl by Steve Martin
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Welcome to Steve Martin's gallery of portraits!

The subject is the vacuous LA social scene.

First up and the focal point of the show: Mirabelle Buttersfield

Miss Buttersfield is a wallflower coming into her own. She works at a high-end clothing store. Her thoughts on romance and relationships are juvenile.


Next we have a brief study on Jeremy.

He begins as a slacker an evolves into a more successful bit of trite pomposity. His thoughts on romance and relationships are juvenile.


The next subject is a catalyst for change within the arch of Martin's intended scope for this show: Ray Porter

Ray is too wealthy for his own good. It leaves him with too much time on his hands. His thoughts on romance and relationships are juvenile.


Aside from the above, a number of minor works fill out the show.

Critics have lambasted Martin's portraits as non-representative of the true human experience. Those people probably haven't met a Los Angeles socialite, a being who believes that who you know, who you fuck and who you wear is of paramount importance. Some have attacked Martin himself, as if laying blame on him for his subjects' vapid thoughts and actions. This is unfair.

For this reviewer, the portraits themselves are not the problem, it's the overall story that this collection presents that makes the work as a body fall apart. Or perhaps it would be more poignant to say that it falls on its face. As a whole it fails to "move". They are, after all, portraits. They do not move, not themselves nor the viewer.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Secret Place by Tana French


The Secret Place
Tana French
Viking Adult, 2014


Reviewed by carol

★    ★    ★    ★    ★



Here’s how I imagine it went down:

French and her besties are at their high school reunion weekend. They’re sitting around drinking wine and reminiscing when someone decides to pull out the old ouija board from the attic storage. Much to their surprise, they channel Agatha Christie’s voice from Cat Among the Pigeons. Flush with success, they try again, and discover Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (review here). 

Alright; maybe I just have my own upcoming reunion on my mind. But I was captivated by the way The Secret Place integrated the turbulent days of youth at a girls’ boarding school with a murder investigation by Dublin’s finest, proving again that French has talent in spades. If there is one thing her prior four books in the Murder Squad series have made clear, French is great at character creation. And atmosphere. Oh, and dialogue. Okay, fine; she’s good at all the components that make a book enjoyable. This time she’s also nailed the police procedural aspects of the case. 

The story begins with Holly and her three friends hanging at a playground, musing on the end of summer and their upcoming year together at boarding school. Fast forward to Detective Stephen Moran at the Cold Cases Unit. Holly appears at the police station requesting a meeting with him, six years after when they last met in events covered by The Faithful Place. The exclusive boarding school she resides at has a noticeboard where students can put up anonymous confessions. Holly has found a postcard with an old picture of murder victim Chris Harper.  The words “I know who killed him” are pasted across in cut-out letters. Moran seizes the opportunity to wedge his foot in the door of the Murder Squad, and personally takes the note to the case’s lead detective, Antoinette Conway. As she is currently without a partner, he offers her the benefit of his disarming interview skills when she returns to the school to re-interview the students. What follows is an exploration of what led to the death and how the detectives retroactively piece the story together.


The plot timeline is unusual, as it combines the current investigation with viewpoints from the girls and from Chris during the prior year. The investigation takes place within one incredibly busy day, while the events in the girls’ lives cover the entire previous year at school. It’s an interesting kind of time shifting for a murder mystery, but I came to enjoy it. Instead of learning about the prior relationships and circumstances through flashbacks, we live it with four of the girls and the victim, bringing a heightened sense of doom to their daily lives.


Characterization is stellar. The introduction to Murder Squad Detective Conway:

Antoinette Conway came in with a handful of paper, slammed the door with her elbow. Headed for her desk. Still that stride, keep up or fuck off… Just crossing that squad room, she said You want to make something of it? half a dozen ways.

Or the (re-) introduction of Detective Frank Mackey:
I know Holly’s da, a bit. Frank Mackey, Undercover. You go at him straight, he’ll dodge and come in sideways; you go at him sideways, he’ll charge head down.

Marvelous, really; contrast that with the books that focus on the appearance of the character first, or contain long soliloquies where the character helpfully identifies their history and preferences. In the prior examples, French distills two very different personalities into brief thoughts, so that when we finally meet them, dialogue can be focused and snappy, but still shaded with the layers of meaning from knowing the character. It is a beautiful technique that mirrors real life; if you follow me through my day, I don’t muse on each person interact with; rather, our interactions are defined partially by our history and word choice describing it would reflect it. French’s writing captures that shading without huge, potentially distracting expository swathes. 

One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the delicate balance between Moran and Conway. As her fierce personality is evident from the start, I was fascinated by Conway’s attempt to develop a working relationship with her. Initially, Moran is ingratiating himself out of expedience, but it becomes clear Conway understands his intentions. French does a nice job of keeping both Moran and the reader off-balance, guessing at what Conway thinks while having a sense of where it is going.
The setting is immersive, bringing back memories of adolescence in all its insecurities:


Two years on, though, Becca still hates the Court. She hates the way you’re watched every second from every angle, eyes swarming over you like bugs, digging and gnawing, always a clutch of girls checking out your top or a huddle of guys checking out your whatever. No one ever stays still, at the Court, everyone’s constantly twisting and head-flicking, watching for the watchers, trying for the coolest pose.

and glories:

Darkness, and a million stars, and silence. The silence is too big for any of them to burst, so they don’t talk. They lie on the grass and feel their own moving breath and blood… Selena was right: this is nothing like the thrill of necking vodka or taking the piss out of Sister Ignatius… This is nothing to do with what anyone else in all the world would approve or forbid. This is all their own.

It is worth noting for those who are new to French that while The Dublin Murder Squad is nominally a series, the connection is through the web of relationships in the police department. Each story tends to focus on a particular member of the squad and their emotional entanglement to the case at hand. Although they may reference events in a prior story, they usually aren’t spoilerish, nor is reading them in order needful. In this case, French seems to draw back from a detective’s emotional dissolution and instead focus on a more positive resolution.


I found The Secret Place to be a complex, satisfying story, delicately balanced between mystery and character story. There was no part that I was even considered skimming, as the flashbacks held as much interest as the police procedural. In fact, reviewing was a challenge, as I kept thumbing through my notes, tempted by my saved passages to re-read. Though I read an advance copy, I suspect this is one I’ll have to add to the paper library.


Many thanks to NetGalley and Viking for providing me an advance copy to review. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the excellent writing.

The Iron King

The Iron King
by Julie Kagowa

Review by Sesana
Three out of five stars

Publisher Summary:

Something has always felt slightly off in Meghan's life, ever since her father disappeared before her eyes when she was six. She has never quite fit in at school or at home.

When a dark stranger begins watching her from afar, and her prankster best friend becomes strangely protective of her, Meghan senses that everything she's known is about to change.

But she could never have guessed the truth - that she is the daughter of a mythical faery king and is a pawn in a deadly war. Now Meghan will learn just how far she'll go to save someone she cares about, to stop a mysterious evil, no faery creature dare face; and to find love with a young prince who might rather see her dead than let her touch his icy heart.


My Review:

I really did want to like this book. I'd be very happy to find a YA book/series about the Fair Folk that really hit the mark with me. It may be out there, but this wasn't it.

Kagawa definitely knows a few things about fairies, and that's kind of a drawback. There was just so much stuff that she wanted to include, and it meant that many things were given really short coverage. Early in the book, a kelpie shows up just long enough to be menacing, and is never mentioned again. It makes for a repetitive book. Fairy creature shows up, is described, vanishes from the story. Over and over.

By the same token, most of the book can be described as "Meghan gets herself into trouble, gets immediately rescued by somebody else". It's very Perils of Pauline after awhile, and it loses any and all dramatic tension. I also didn't appreciate that I was over 60% done with the book before Meghan first made a positive contribution to her own survival. And I just can't connect with a lead character who doesn't do any leading.

And there's a lot of borrowing. I don't mind an author taking bits and pieces from legends, folklore, and myth. That's what they're there for, in my opinion. I'd never criticize an author for using established bits of fairy lore, like the Summer and Winter Courts. Sure, they're verging on cliche, but it works. But I'm not comfortable with a book taking a lot of elements from a single source that isn't mythic. I'd bet good money that Kagawa has seen Labyrinth at least as many times as I have, because she takes a lot of elements from that movie, including at least one major plot element. I love that movie, too, but I would have much rather seen a lot less of it.

But in Kagawa's defense, the writing is actually fairly good. The general thrust of the plot makes sense, and I believe Meghan's motivations. And although it's obvious from very early on that there will be a love triangle in the series, romance is kept firmly on the sidelines for the vast majority of the book, and there's no instalove in evidence. I've seen far worse. And then there's the iron fey themselves, a really great concept to build a fairy series around. There's definitely promise for the series.

But I don't think I'll be sticking around. While Meghan isn't exactly unlikeable, she still doesn't get enough agency. That might improve in later books, but this one just wasn't enough to make me need to keep reading.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Zombielicious

Timothy McGivney
MLR Press
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Summary


Amidst a zombie outbreak, Walt, athletic and confident, meets shy and quiet Joey, the attraction between them both instant and electric. With strength in numbers, they band together alongside fellow survivors; Jill, an ex-porn star turned nurse who's made a startling discovery about her past; Ace, a disgruntled security guard who just can't live up to certain short comings; and Molly, the fiery redhead unwilling to give up on her dreams of stardom. In this apocalyptic new world of the dead, an anything-goes attitude has become the law of the land and lust, betrayal, true love and redemption are all just a gunshot away.


My Review


OK, I'll admit I have a weakness for zombie novels. Not that all of them are good, of course. Some move along at a breakneck pace, but the characters are so one-dimensional that it doesn't matter if they all die at the end. Others contain way too many boring, pseudo-scientific details about what caused the zombie contagion in the first place, and others contain zombies that are just not scary enough.

I'm happy to report that Zombielicious succeeded on all counts. The blurb and the cheesy cover art that reminds of B-horror films made me grin and I knew I was going to be in for a wild, action-packed, fun and lusty ride. I read the story in two sittings and loved the fast-paced and suspenseful action scenes, the suitably creepy zombies, the sad and touching moments, and the sizzling sex that was in turns tender, desperate, angry, and downright hilarious.

This story is told in the first person from the perspectives of five main characters, one character per chapter. This style worked well for me, as it made their stories more personal and made it easy for me to connect with them. It also worked well later on in the story, when the characters were together much of the time. It was nice getting differing individual perspectives on the same events.

There's Jill, an ex-porn star once known as Katie "Killer" Cummings who is now working as a nurse. There's Joey, who is a lab rat at a drug-testing facility in order to save enough money to get a place with his transgender friend, Ever. There's Ace, an ex-cop now working as a security guard who knows about Jill's past and harasses her every chance he gets. Then there's Walt and Molly, who are twins, and as different as night and day.

I enjoyed the easy interaction between the characters and though a couple of them were very unlikable, I was invested enough to care what happens to them. They live in a messed-up world where zombies are not the only danger.

In most of the zombie stories I've read, all the characters have died. The good news here is that Zombielicious ended with a glimmer of hope for the remaining survivors. I'm very much looking forward to the sequel.

If you're looking for a good time, great sex (gay and straight), a few good laughs, and lots of chills and thrills, then look no further.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Middle of the Road Dystopian

The Girl in the Road
by Monica Byrne
Published by Crown


Reviewed by Amanda
2 Out of 5 Stars

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Girl in the Road focuses on the brutal journey of two women fleeing from violence in patriarchal cultures: Meena, a young woman from India, and Mariama, a girl enslaved in Africa. Told in alternating first person narratives, their stories converge by the end in not entirely surprising ways due to the symbolic overlap we see in each of their tales. Both have been attacked by snakes, both show signs of mental illness, both have suffered tremendous loss, both encounter words and images that have a spiritual significance to them alone, both are journeying toward a future they hope will be better.

In Mariama's story, she flees her home after finding a light blue snake in her bed. Heeding her mother's advice, she decides to flee and becomes a stowaway in a caravan transporting oil to Ethiopia. During this time, a beautiful woman named Yemaya joins the caravan and Mariama adopts her in her mind as a mother/lover/goddess figure. Born into a life of poverty and subservience, and bearing witness to her mother's repeated rape by their owner, Mariama is a surprisingly driven, courageous character, but her childlike naivete and bluntly sexualized view of the world are a dangerous combination in one so young.

In Meena's story, she awakens to find that a snake placed in her bed has bitten her; she immediately assumes someone is trying to kill her and flees India for Ethiopia, the place where her Indian parents were brutally murdered before her birth. She undertakes the dangerous journey across "The Trail," a bridge consisting of "scales" that runs from India to Djibouti. The bridge is intended to harvest wave energy and to cross it is an illegal, dangerous act. As Meena's trek goes on, she begins shedding that which is inessential and facing the truth from which her traumatized mind has been shielding her.

There is a lot to like about The Girl in the Road. The futuristic setting is at once recognizable and alien, but doesn't overshadow what is essentially an emotional and spiritual story about violence and healing. The world of Meena (which is set a few decades after the story of Mariama) is a racial, cultural, and sexual melting pot, and reading a book with characters from diverse backgrounds was a pleasure. Byrne's prose is lovely and minimalist, and her inclusion of Indian and Ethiopian cultures is seamless.

However, there was a lot that I did not enjoy. First off, the persistent phallic imagery, both the snakes in the bed and The Trail itself, is fraught with psychological and symbolic implications that had me expecting the big reveals in the end. I'm not a prude faulting an author's use of phallic imagery; rather, my complaint is that it lessened the suspense toward the novel's end because it seemed a little heavy handed. I was also disappointed that, in a novel that initially challenged the stereotypical view of transsexuals, it ultimately bolsters that stereotype.

And then there was THE SCENE, a scene that has apparently generated a lot of debate. **Since discussing the scene in question involves spoilers, I'll post it for interested parties in the comments section below.  Be forewarned.

I do want to make it clear that this scene is not responsible for my 2 star review. The disappointment I feel stems from the book blurbs leading me to believe that this is a sci-fi action/thriller. This is certainly a very different reading experience than the one I thought I signed up for. In addition to my misguided expectations, this is a novel of unlikable characters that engendered my sympathy, but not my empathy.