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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.

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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)