Archive | January, 2014

Book Review Double Feature: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer & Necromancing the Stone

18 Jan

8041873Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone by Lish McBride

Henry Holt and Co. (October 12, 2010)/(September 18, 2012)

Both 352 pages

4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: Samhain Corvus LaCroix–Sam, for short–is a college dropout with a dead-end job. He’s also a necromancer, though he doesn’t know it until a chance encounter with the sinister Douglas Montgomery sets off a chain of events that will threaten everyone Sam cares about.

Review: If you think the titles are hilarious, then you’ll probably enjoy Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and its sequel, Necromancing the Stone. If you think they’re cheesy, give the books a chance anyway. It’s an odd series, not quite one thing or the other. It isn’t a comedy, exactly, nor is it horror. It’s not Young Adult, but it’s not really New Adult or Urban Fantasy.

It takes a few chapters for Hold Me Closer to warm up, but when it does, things start to get interesting fast. McBride makes some bold choices, especially <spoiler>killing off cute, funny Brooke and having the boys carrying around her reanimated head in a bowling bag</spoiler>. Some of these choices are more effective than others. The tone and point of view shifted frequently, and I sometimes got narrative whiplash. Sam’s sections are in first person while everyone else is in third, which was somewhat jarring. The Douglas and Brid sections both contained multiple flashbacks, and at one point there were nested third-person flashbacks from Sam’s mom inside his first-person narration. The structure felt unnecessarily complicated, and I would have enjoyed spending more time with Sam and less time flitting about in the heads of the other characters.

13409145Hold Me Closer, Necromancer is the rare book that tells a complete story while still leaving the door open for a sequel. The second book in the series, Necromancing the Stone, is actually better than the first in some ways. The narrative jumps around a lot less, and the magical world gets more developed as Sam earns his new place on the Council of magical creatures that governs the Pacific Northwest. McBride also delves deeper into Douglas’s past, making him if not sympathetic at least understandable. If the first book was about Sam discovering his powers, the second is about his choices in how to use them. He gets a little high-falutin’ with his moralizing, and as often happens, the supporting characters are a lot more fun than the protagonist.

There’s one part of Necromancing the Stone that really bugs me, however. Although she dances around actually naming him, Douglas’s minion (called only Minion) is a zombie Keanu Reeves. There are a ton of little winking jokes at his expense, and I found it distracting to the point of annoyance. Also, the lawn gnomes were a bit much. McBride simultaneously ramped up the camp and the drama, and I’m not sure that it works. I still really enjoyed both books–they’re unique in an industry that values copycats, and McBride is an excellent wordsmith. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait a long, long time for Sam’s adventures to continue; Lish McBride has said on her blog that she’ll be publishing a new, related series with her publisher before she returns to this one.

Book Review: What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World by Henry Clark

14 Jan

16089515What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World by Henry Clark

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (July 2, 2013)

368 pages

3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: When 12-year-old River and his friends Freak and Fiona find a strange sofa outdoors near their bus stop, little do they know that their lives are about to be turned completely upside. Parallel universes, teleporting furniture, vast conspiracies, and a coal fire that never stops burning are but a few of the strange things the three friends encounter.

Review: WWFSHSW is a sweet, weird book that’s almost, but not quite, great. It reminded me of Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, another middle grade fantasy with a lot of heart buried beneath its absurdity.

Like Smekday, it’s a little too strange for its own good, and I don’t see this book becoming a huge success in the manner of Percy Jackson. There was sometimes an uneasy balance between (literal) toilet humor, arch literary allusions, and the everyday struggles of the three heroes. Clark also has a strong subversive streak, and this book not-so-subtly criticizes cell phone addiction, corporate greed, GMO foods, strip mining, and  failure to question our leaders. The constantly shifting tone and clever little in-jokes made it difficult, as an adult reader, to feel fully immersed in the story.

Then again, I was an adult reading a book meant for middle schoolers.

Underneath all the imaginative world-building and weird McGuffins–a central plot point focuses on a zucchini-colored crayon–WWFSHSW is your standard adventure tale. The bones of the story are essentially the Hero’s Journey; the heroes are plunged into a strange world, meet a wise but potentially untrustworthy guide, battle monsters, journey into the dragon’s den to defeat the villain and save the world, and return home changed for the better. There’s nothing wrong with using these time-honored archetypes, but Clark might have gone a little overboard in dressing them up in silly hats. Dog hats, to be precise.

Grown-up fans of classic adventure, fantasy, and sci-fi will probably enjoy Clark’s debut novel, if only to count the number of allusions to their favorite books. Readers in the actual target demographic (grades 3-7, according to Amazon) will appreciate a book that never dumbs things down, and from which parents are, for the most part, conspicuously absent.

(Book Source: Hardcover checked out from my local public library)

Podcast Review: Welcome to Night Vale

9 Jan

NIGHT-VALE-LOGO-620x620Last year I was looking at pictures from Comic-Con, and I noticed quite a few people, usually fetching young women, dressed as Cecil from something called Welcome to Night Vale. They often sported short blonde hair, button-down shirts and ties, and a purple third eye drawn on their foreheads, but sometimes they looked entirely different. Intrigued, I googled “night vale” and found that it was…a podcast? How were people cosplaying a podcast? I shelved that mystery and went on with my life, until a friend mentioned that he loved this weird little show, which had become the most-downloaded podcast on iTunes. I gave it a shot.

I loved it.

I listened to all the available episodes in the span of two days, and then I loved it a little bit less. Which is not to say that it’s isn’t good, only that its flaws have become more apparent over time. We’re past the honeymoon stage and into the part of the relationship where I get annoyed every time the podcast loads the dishwasher wrong or leaves the seat up.

The most accurate description of Welcome to Night Vale I’ve seen is that it’s like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days crossed with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The format is 20-30 minutes of community radio updates, delivered by Cecil (and voiced by Cecil Baldwin), detailing the strange, macabre, and occasionally absurd goings on in a desert community populated by angels, mysterious lights in the sky, sinister hooded figures, and other oddities. Each episode includes a weather report that is actually an indie music break, an episode-long arc of breaking news, and the ongoing saga of Cecil’s infatuation with perfect, beautiful Carlos and his perfect, beautiful hair.

Cecil Baldwin’s voice is lovely, and he switches between chipper newscaster, portentous voice of doom, and squeeing fangirl with ease. His is typically the only voice we hear, although sometimes guest actors make an appearance. The voice of Carlos was, I admit, a disappointment, but I enjoyed Jasika Nicole (Fringe) as Intern Dana and Mara Wilson (child actress turned writer) as The Faceless Old Woman. The sound design is usually great, with spooky effects and hip incidental music, and though the weather report is hit or miss, it has introduced me to some artists I really like.

I don’t recommend binge-listening to this show, as I did. It’s better savored in small, deliciously weird bites. The writers sometimes get heavy handed with the absurdity, and consuming too many episodes in a row only exacerbates the issue. The host segments before and after the program try too hard to match the tongue-in-cheek weirdness of the show; Joseph Fink, the creator of Night Vale, frequently makes announcements of upcoming live shows and pleas for donations, which is fine, but he does it as if he’s part of the Night Vale universe in a way that grates on me for reasons I can’t explain.

There’s a fine line between horror and parody, and the show sometimes trips and falls flat on its face. Night Vale is at its best when it focuses on a character-driven story rather than being weird for the sake of weirdness. It sometimes meanders into beautifully philosophical asides, and other times it manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. Despite its unevenness, I still look forward to new episodes on the 1st and 15th every month, and I’ll be reviewing Fink’s Night Vale novel when it comes out.

(Source: Welcome to Night Vale is a free podcast available on iTunes)

Book Review: If You Go into the Woods by David Gaughran

7 Jan

11268433“If You Go Into the Woods” and “The Reset Button” by David Gaughran

Arriba Arriba Books (April 30, 2011)

23 pages

3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: In the first story, “If You Go Into the Woods,” a little boy is lured into a forbidding forest. In the second story, a recently divorced man feels that he is losing his identity.

Review: The first thing you should know is that these stories are short. Very, very short. They each clock in at about 2000 words, or eight manuscript pages. The other 8 pages of this slim digital volume include descriptions of and links to Gaughran’s other books, a four-page excerpt from his historical novel, an author bio, and a request for a review. 

The other thing you should know is there are, in fact, two stories in this volume. I did not realize this and was deeply confused when “If You Go into the Woods” ended and “The Reset Button” began. Gaughran included this information in the product description on Amazon, but I failed to read it. It was in the second paragraph, y’all! No one reads that far down.

Ahem, anyway. I have a huge amount of respect for Gaughran as an indie author pioneer–his nonfiction titles Let’s Get Digitial and Let’s Get Visible should be required reading for indies–and the production values on his short story collection were as good as you’d expect from one of the leaders in the field. Self-published titles usually get eviscerated for their proofreading and presentation, but I have no complaints on that front.

The writing itself is…serviceable. The language is stripped down and straightforward in a way that doesn’t appeal to me, but that’s more a matter of personal taste than an actual criticism. Gaughran is Irish, but given the somewhat stiff language and the settings (the Czech Republic and Sweden, respectively), the stories read as if they’d been translated into English. The cleverness of the ideas compensated for the lackluster prose, however, and “If You Go into the Woods” has a pleasantly creepy aftertaste that lingers long after the story ends.

If the purpose of this little collection is to entice readers to pay for one Gaughran’s full-length work, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, I’m not sure that it’s successful. Purchasers (note: I received this collection for free during a promotion) may feel disgruntled that they paid $.99 for two very brief stories and ads for his other works. Even if they felt that the stories were a good value, Gaughran’s novel is a sweeping historical saga set in South America. It has little in common, either thematically or stylistically, with these European fairy tales or his other fiction offering, a sci-fi short called “Transfection.”

As long as you approach these stories with the appropriate expectations–i.e. you actually read the description before downloading–I think you’ll be pleased with the 20-odd minutes of mildly unsettling entertainment they provide.

(Book Source: Free download from author promotion)

Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

4 Jan

16068905Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Published by St. Martin’s Griffin (September 10, 2013)

448 pages 

4 out 5 stars

Synopsis: In the real world, Cath Avery is a painfully shy college freshman who’d rather live on protein bars and peanut butter than figure out the arcane rules of the dining hall. Online, however, she’s a rock star. Her fanfiction novel, set in the fictional world of boy wizard Simon Snow, has thousands of fans. Given the choice, Cath would much rather lose herself in the fandom, but her outgoing twin sister, her sarcastic college roommate, and the cute boy who keeps showing up at her dorm won’t let her.

Review: Fangirl is a tough book to summarize because it’s not really plot driven. Things happen, of course, but they’re less important than Cath’s emotional journey and Rainbow Rowell’s magic, wonderful writing. This was a book I literally could not put down; from the moment I bought it, I carried it around with me, feverishly turning pages until there were none left. It’s funny, sweet, sad, and exactly the book I needed to read.

Introverts will recognize themselves in Cath, whose social anxiety during her first semester of college is nearly crippling. She grows and evolves over the course of the story but never fundamentally changes; Rowell doesn’t try to “fix” her with a makeover and a party montage. The book moves between Cath’s three different worlds–her family, her college friends, and her fandom–as she gradually learns how to be herself. There are no car chases, explosions, overwrought love triangles, or werewolves (although there is, technically, a vampire); instead, it’s a realistic, slice-of-life story that simply lets Cath’s first of year of college unfold. Fans of Stepanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss will love this book; fans of Twilight probably won’t.

Rowell includes “excerpts” from the Simon Snow books (which are a clear analogue for Harry Potter) and Cath’s fanfiction at the beginning of each chapter, as well as a complete story told over the course of several chapters. Readers will either love these sections or skip them all together, but skipping them would be a mistake. They weave in and out of Cath’s narrative, informing the choices she makes and being influenced by the events of her life. Also, I would really like to read the full-length Simon Snow series, so get on that, please.

I haven’t yet read Eleanor & Park, but I’m definitely going to pick it up, as well as anything else she publishes. She’s the real deal, and after one book, I’m already a Rainbow Rowell fangirl.

(Book Source: Purchased hardcover at Barnes & Noble)

Book Review: The Line by J.D. Horn

3 Jan

18010355The Line (Witching Savannah, Book 1) by J.D. Horn

Published by 47North (February 1st, 2014)

296 pages

2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis:

As the only magic-less member of a long line of witches sworn to protect the Line, the mystical barrier protecting our world, 20-year-old Mercy Taylor has never felt fully accepted by her family or “regular” Savannah society. When her great aunt, the matriarch of the Taylor clan, is murdered, it sets off a series of events that will change Mercy’s life forever.

Review:

After finishing a book, I often wonder why the author felt called to write it. What was it about these particular characters that clamored to have their story told? To me, The Line had a curious emptiness at its heart. It felt as if Horn had made a list of the elements most likely to appeal to readers of paranormal romance–plucky heroine, supernatural world, love triangles, Deep South quirkiness, melodramatic plot twists–and checked them off one by one. I read a few blog posts and interviews with the author, trying to glean why he’d written Mercy’s story, and saw that he has a fondness for Dark Shadows. His book embraces the melodrama of the campy supernatural soap, but misses the mark in so many other ways.

The only character that seemed to truly interest Horn was Oliver, Mercy’s gay, rakish uncle. Everyone else was flat, especially the wide-eyed Mercy, whom I found insufferably mealymouthed. Then again, the Sookie Stackhouse books, to which the Witching Savannah series claims to be the heir, gets similar criticism and still manages to be a bestselling behemoth.

The plot puts Mercy through the ringer, but all the events happen to her without requiring her to do anything. By the end, she’d been betrayed, double-crossed, deceived, and placed in peril so many times that it was almost funny. The revelations in the last quarter of the book–no doubt meant to be shocking–piled up one after the other like cars on the Interstate. And like a traffic accident, I found it difficult to look away. To Horn’s credit, I did keep reading to find out what happened next.

Despite a few genuinely charming Southern colloquialisms, most of the dialogue is stilted and heavy. Below is a quote from the police officer investigating Great Aunt Ginny’s death:

He bent back in and looked me squarely in the eye. “Really,” he repeated. “But I am sure you are aware that in most cases someone is murdered by someone they know. And more often not, buy someone in their own family.” He paused.

The proofreading was also a bit slapdash; I counted for or five instances where it looked as if the author had started to type a phrase, changed his mind, and moved on without deleting what he’d already written. For example, “You’re the one who looks likes more like your mama, you know” (1815/3785 on the Kindle). The sloppy writing and ludicrously one-dimensional characters (many of whom were villains of the mustache twirling persuasion) lent the book an amateurish feel, and the world’s shortest seduction scene was a disappointment as a fan of paranormal romance.

If you’ve already read everything by Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, and Kim Harrison and find yourself desperate for a quick paranormal romance/urban fantasy fix, you could do worse than spending an afternoon with The Line–but, like all low-calorie substitutes, it’ll leave you feeling unsatisfied.

(Book Source: Free download from Amazon’s Kindle First program)