Saturday, September 30, 2017

Meddling Kids (Edgar Cantero)

Meddling Kids
Edgar Cantero
Blumhouse Books/Doubleday
Fiction, Horror/Humor/Mystery
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 1977, a series of monster sightings in the small Oregon town of Blyton Hills ended with the capture of a costumed criminal exploiting old tales of a lake monster to cover a search for hidden treasure... and he would've gotten away with it, if not for four meddling kids and their dog, Sean! No strangers to solving mysteries and unmasking villains, the incident at Sleepy Lake was their biggest case, making the front page of the local paper - and it was also to be their last.
Thirteen years later, the surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club have grown apart, but all are still haunted by that final case - memories of monsters and mutilated corpses and ancient grimoires far too realistic to have been thrown together by one half-baked crook in a cheap salamander costume. Brainy Kerri tries to drink away her problems, while scrawny Nate spends most of his time in sanitariums, haunted by the ghost of their former leader, Peter, who overdosed at the peak of a Hollywood career. It takes wandering tomboy Andy to round the gang up (along with Tim, a descendant of the original Sean) to finally confront their memories in Blyton Hills - only, this time, they find themselves meddling in something much bigger than a bad guy in a rubber mask, something much more deadly, much more ancient... and much further beyond the abilities of even the famed Blyton Summer Detective Club.

REVIEW: An homage to and deconstruction of old teen mystery series like Scooby-Doo and the Hardy Boys, Meddling Kids explores what happens when young detectives grow up... and when their "hauntings" turn out to be all too real, in a story with Lovecraftian overtones. Cantero creates an almost hallucinatory atmosphere, steeped in late 20th century Americana, in a story that veers between campy nods to the source inspirations (the town is in the Zoinx River valley), pulp horror references, and fourth-wall-breaking narration that acknowledges line breaks and chapter endings, sometimes breaking down dialog into script-like notation and references to camera angles and close-ups. The characters are rather caricature-like, exaggerations built on two-dimensional genre archetypes (the Scooby gang was hardly a literary study of human nature, after all), but well suited to the not-quite-reality they inhabit. It all gets woven together in a plot that moves fast, if with some intentional logic leaps and coincidences (again, this isn't quite supposed to be Earth as we know it, but a sort of gritty overlay on the kind of world in which kid detectives like the Hardy Boys exist, a cartoon sketch inspired by reality but not bound strictly to it.) For the most part, it works for what it is, and I generally enjoyed it. Ultimately, some elements didn't quite come together, and the finale felt a bit flat and forced, costing it a half-star. A very unique reading experience, and if it wasn't quite the flavor of cocoa I prefer, I don't regret the purchase.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Frindle (Andrew Clements)

Andrew Clements
Fiction, CH General Fiction
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Nick Allen doesn't mean to be a troublemaker; he just gets big ideas and has to try them out. One time, he turned his classroom into a tropical island... which was great fun until the janitor complained about the sand in the hallway. Then there was the year he learned about the blackbirds and the hawks, how they made a high warning noise the hawk couldn't pin down - a noise teachers, apparently, also couldn't pin down. But in fifth grade, Nick's supposed to be growing up and getting ready for middle school.
Then he meets Mrs. Granger, a language arts teacher with a will as strong as his own, and Nick comes up with his greatest idea ever. An assignment to understand the origins of words leads Nick to invent his own word: "frindle," instead of "pen." He even recruits a few friends to help spread his word. It started as a way to tweak Mrs. Granger. But the game quickly becomes much larger than Nick anticipated, involving not just him and his teacher but the whole class, the whole school... maybe the whole nation.

REVIEW: How do words become words - and how do new words appear? This quick-reading story tracks the growth of a new word, as Nick pits the contradictory ideas he's been given - that the dictionary holds all the words in the English language, and that words only have meaning because everyone agrees they have meaning - against each other, and against the one teacher who has outsmarted his tricks. Nick really isn't a troublemaker, at least not a malicious one, but one of those clever kids who finds school boring, one who learned early on how to manipulate teachers because it was more challenging than the lessons, one bold enough to turn classes into real-world laboratories for his big ideas. He's the kind of kid who can do great things if he's not stomped down by conformist authorities, as they try to stomp Nick down here... the way they too often are stomped down in real life. It becomes not so much about the word itself but about a battle of wills between student and teacher, between innovation and tradition. Both end up growing and learning, in a story that's simple on the outside but has some interesting ideas and themes lurking beneath the surface.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Starfire: A Red Peace (Spencer Ellsworth)

Starfire: A Red Peace
(The Starfire trilogy, Book 1)
Spencer Ellsworth
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: After years of fighting, the vat-born crossbreed soldiers of the Resistance have thrown down their former masters, the blueblood Imperial humans... but the killing doesn't stop. John Starfire, Resistance leader and possible embodiment of a prophecy tied to the extinct Jorian race, now puts the entire human species in the cross-hairs - but he seems to have a particular obsession with one blueblood and his escaped children.
Jaqi, part-Jorian daughter of escaped crossbreed slaves, had just come into port at a backwater ecosphere when she heard the news of victory. Maybe she can finally settle into a normal life, even learn to read... but it's not more than a few hours before she's on the run again, with a hulking Zarran warrior, spoiled young bluebood fugitives, and a strange black box everyone seems evil bothered about getting their hands, claws, or other appendages on.
Vat-born Araskar became a hero in the Resistance, now honored with a prestigious role as Secondblade in John Starfire's forces, but for all the grafts and synthskin holding his body together, his mind's about to fall apart. Only the bliss of his pink pill stash keeps him going, as victory brings no end to the carnage and the vat-grown lives wasted around him. When he starts to suspect Starfire's motives, he faces a test of loyalty and a decision that could shape the future of the entire fractured galaxy.

REVIEW: Starfire: A Red Peace hits the ground running and rarely slows down, a space opera full of battles large and small. There's a distinct George Lucas flavor to the universe, with the crossbreed (clone?) soldiers and the fall of an empire and and long-hushed talk of a Force-like energy (known as Starfire) that enabled miracles, not to mention a universe full of strange sights and aliens that are more than white humans with bumps on their heads, but Ellsworth makes it his own, giving the reader a pair of flawed, jaded characters to follow. As Jaqi finds herself in over her head, being chased about by Resistance Vanguard soldiers without knowing just why, Araskar comes to question the very nature of the fight he was practically born into; though an adult, he was only pulled from his vat five years ago, a mass-produced soldier who has only ever known combat. The prophecy angle was a slight bit wobbly, and the near-nonstop fighting came close to inducing fatigue, but on the whole it's a fast-paced and very imaginative story with some nice mind's-eye candy along the way. I'll likely be keeping an eye out for the second book.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Emilie and the Hollow World (Martha Wells)

Emilie and the Hollow World
(The Emilie series, Book 1)
Martha Wells
Strange Chemistry
Fiction, YA Adventure/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Sixteen-year-old Emilie only meant to run away from home. She didn't intend to become a stowaway on a voyage through the aetheric currents to the long-rumored center of the hollow world. But a mishap trying to get to a ferry lands her aboard the Sovereign and right in the middle of an adventure wilder than anything she's read about in her books, full of strange sights, lost civilizations, rival philosophers, magic, betrayals, and more. Now, all she has to do is survive long enough to return to the upper world...

REVIEW: Emilie and the Hollow World is a bit of an odd duck as stories go. Emilie's adventure has a throwback feel to it, like something out of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs, set in a world where magic is real and science (or something like it) is in the hands of often-wealthy "philosophers." The Hollow World is full of strange sights and wonders and dangers aplenty, straight from an old adventure yarn. And therein lies part of the problem; those older stories, while often brimming with imagination, didn't always have the deepest characters or most compelling plots, both of which modern readers tend to expect - especially most young adult readers. Despite being sixteen (indicating this was written for a young adult audience), Emilie just plain doesn't feel like a teenager. She could just as easily have been thirteen or fourteen, though these days even middle grade audiences tend to expect a little more complexity in their characters and plots. Emilie's world, for all its wonders, feels strangely thin, particularly the surface world (where the only two types of people in existence seem to be pale-haired northerners and "nut-brown" dark-haired southerners, perhaps a deliberate simplicity to make the unique races of the Hollow World seem all the more exotic), and her reasons for leaving home come across as contrived - partly because Emilie is more of a plot construct than a whole character, the plucky adventuress runaway who weasels her way into an outsized adventure among real-live grown-ups and proves herself the heroine every boy and girl reading her secretly wants to be. None of the other characters have much more to them, either, several feeling rather extraneous, and the magic system feels haphazard and oddly convenient to the plot, particularly the properties of the aether. There's at least one more book in the series, but I doubt I'll go out of my way to track it down. While Wells demonstrates admirable imagination in weaving this homage to elder-day adventure tales, I guess I just want a little more than Emilie can deliver.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Charismagic 0 (Vincent Hernandez)

Charismagic #0
(The Charismagic series, Issue 0)
Vincent Hernandez, illustrations by Khary Randolph
Aspen Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/Graphic Novel
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: For centuries, magic has hidden from mortal men - but an ancient enemy is about to break free from the Void, the exile dimension. With his release, nothing will be safe, and nothing will be the same... particularly the life of one Las Vegas stage magician, Hank.

REVIEW: An intriguing concept, I'm not sure why this issue exists. It's like lopping the pre-credit opening scenes of a movie off and marketing it as a separate film, or maybe billing an advertisement as a series opener. It's also a bit hard to read on a Nook tablet screen; zooming in on the text in some of the page spreads made the writing blurry. The extra material means less than nothing, as I don't have an actual story to attach it to. I might read the next volume to see where it goes with its setup, but mostly because it's free on Hoopla.

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Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (David Petersen)

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152
(The Mouse Guard series, Book 1)
David Petersen
Fiction, MG? Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: For generations, the elite Mouse Guards have defended the territories from danger and scouted safe paths between hidden cities... so who would betray them? A routine search for a missing grain merchant exposes evidence of a plot against Lockhaven, the Mouse Guard headquarters - and it may already be too late to stop the attack.

REVIEW: Petersen's illustrated tale of a mouse society reads like Brian Jacques's Redwall, only without the blatant sexism and tedium. Like the best anthropomorphic animal tales, it treats its concept, characters, and audience with full respect, giving the mice the bravery and gravity of any human. It moves quickly, with action and intrigue and a decent battle at the climax, with excellent artwork. (As for the target age, I had to guess, based on where I usually see Redwall books in bookstores; the story may be a trifle violent and complex for young kids.) An enjoyable break from a mediocre reading streak, and a series I expect I'll pursue, especially as they become available on Hoopla (a free online lending service available through many libraries.)

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)

The Summer Tree
(The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, Book 1)
Guy Gavriel Kay
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: University of Toronto students Kim, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave just wanted to hear Lorenzo Marcus's lecture, a rare public appearance for the reclusive Celtic history expert. They had no idea that Lorenzo was actually Loren Silvercloak, a mage from the world of Fionavar, or that he'd come seeking "volunteers" to bring back home as part of a royal celebration, nor could they have foreseen what they would encounter when they arrived. For the realm of Fionavar was the first world crafted by the eternal Weaver, a world of gods and magic... and an ancient evil about to slip its bonds and resume its war against all of Creation. In the coming conflict, all will have a role to play - even five outsiders from another world.

REVIEW: Kay's trilogy is considered a classic, a Celtic-flavored epic with shades of Tolkien. At several turns, this works against immersion by modern readers. The world and characters are archetypes, the university students no exceptions. It's difficult to relate to archetypes, as they are, by definition, larger than life, infused with exaggerated purposes and a sort of innate brooding intensity that precludes indecision or other relatable emotions. Fionavar itself is a world of expected tropes - the generic pseudo-medieval kingdom, the hidden dwarves, the secretive faerielike races (Light and Dark, the former indescribably beautiful and the latter twisted and ugly), the proud riders of the open plains, etc. It, too, felt too archetypal to connect with through most of the book. While the descriptions were vivid, they were grandiose, creating more of a stylized tapestry than a realistic painting, constantly interwoven with histories and names and battles and more that were difficult to keep straight. The whole lacked a certain sense of wonder. Five people who didn't even know other worlds or magic existed are taken for (what seems at first to be) a holiday in a castle straight out of a fairy tale - and the denizens of the castle celebrate the fiftieth year of their king's reign with five otherworldly visitors - but only vague lip service is given to the sense of awe and disbelief and amazement this should invoke on all sides. (Even though they ostensibly know of other worlds in Fionavar, actual visitors from those realms are exceptionally rare, as the powers to do so are hardly common.) Everyone's rather casual about it, often seeming to forget that these students aren't from this world; one of the first things the prince heir does is involve two of these untrained outsiders in a highly risky venture, where their failure could well mean his own death. I get that this was all supposed to be part of overarching Fate and Greater Things and the unpredictable yet inevitable weaving of their threads through the tapestry of existence and whatnot, but it created a barrier to my immersion. Still, I managed to find enough to intrigue me to keep going, and I was getting to enjoy it on its own terms... until I came to the final chapters. And here I risk a vague potential spoiler, but a necessary one to explain my rating. Skip the following paragraph if you wish to avoid it.
I suppose I should've seen it coming (everyone had found their role except one woman, so there's pretty much only one reason for a pretty girl to exist in a world like this one, with a great and horrific evil stalking the land), but it still sent bristles down my spine and pain through my jaw as I ground my teeth at seeing yet another trope played out with rather gratuitous depravity. Yes, such treatment of females was (and, sadly, all too often remains) a staple of the stories Kay was deliberately emulating, and much that was considered acceptable in the 1980's when this book was published gets more scrutiny nowadays, but still... but still...
After the above, adding to the sour taste left in my mouth, the book itself ends with an abruptness that suggests not so much an intentional cliffhanger but a cleaver dropped in the middle of the manuscript. These issues managed to shave off any extra star or half-star that The Summer Tree almost earned earlier. I will admit I'm just curious enough about the overall story (and how Kay will justify those last incidents, if indeed he does at all) to consider picking up the second book - but it would have to be exceptionally cheap. It will also have to be paperback; in case it drops any further into aggravation, regardless of whether it's "authentic" to the style, I don't want to damage my wall plaster.

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Treasures of the Forgotten City (Danny McAleese and David Kristoph)

Treasures of the Forgotten City
(The Ultimate Ending series, Book 1)
Danny McAleese and David Kristoph
Ultimate Ending Books
Fiction, CH Adventure/Gamebook
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: As treasure-hunter Donovan, you're on the trail of the legendary lost city of Atraharsis; the treasures rumored to be hidden there may be the key to saving your great-uncle's legacy and making your own name and fortune. Using the hundred-year-old journal of the only man who ever claimed to see the place and live to tell the tale, you plunge into the unknown. Can you survive the city's dangers and solve its riddles, or will you be another victim of Atraharsis's many traps?

REVIEW: As a child of the 1980's, I grew up on Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I still have a weakness for multi-ending tales. The good ones create entirely new stories every time you read them, while the poor ones merely plod along a fairly linear track with random dead-ends. This book isn't one of the bad ones, but it's not quite one of the good ones. "You" are a fairly shallow character, far more interested in riches than in actual exploration; seen through this lens, the lost city is a fairly bland jumble of sandswept ruins and random passageways whose descriptions become repetitive. ("You" and your sidekick are also both boys - don't girls ever get to explore lost cities, here, or is it assumed girls won't read these books?) The book includes riddles and some math puzzles to work out, though on the Kindle edition the latter are rather redundant (not to mention impossible, as the screen shrinks the number tables it asks one to use to illegible size), as one just clicks on through the answer link; at least the word riddles, one has a chance of making a wrong choice. Dice or some other random number generator are also suggested, though I'll admit I just picked a random choice. I'll also admit that I didn't follow every branch or reach every ending; though there are dangerous, even fatal endings, several just looped back if you made a "bad" choice, and for some reason the adventure never really felt adventurous enough to lure me in for enough tries to reach all the endings. The target age would probably find it entertaining, but I've been spoiled by nostalgia.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Blue Fairy Book (Andrew Lang)

The Blue Fairy Book
(The Andrew Lang's Fairy Book series, Book 1)
Andrew Lang
Open Road Media
Fiction, CH? Anthology/Fantasy/Folklore
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: From Red Riding Hood's fateful encounter with the wolf to Beauty's imprisonment with the Beast, from the magic lamp and ring of Aladdin to a prince's encounter with a talking white cat, Andrew Lang collects many traditional stories.

REVIEW: Fairy tales and folk stories embody traditions of storytelling older than civilization, and Lang's Fairy books are classic collections of classic tales. Many, however, read rather stiff and stilted to modern sensibilities, having been filtered and retold through countless tellers and countless cultures before being written down and (often) sanitized with a Christian slant for Lang's audience. One can see fragments of much older stories in recurring themes and seemingly incongruous plot twists and elements, lost bits of symbolism and cultural touchstones. Some are tangibly based on similar roots; "The Bronze Ring" has clear elements of Aladdin's tale, and another story is a thin reconstruction of the tale of Perseus and Andromeda. After a while, the grandiose descriptions started running together (there are only so many jewel-encrusted palaces and silken brocades and hosts of hundreds or thousands of courtiers and soldiers in gleaming armor one can differentiate), and several stories felt overlong or too short, again reflecting fragments of larger, likely lost oral traditions. They can't help dating, with virtue invariably linked to beauty and royalty and wickedness with darkness and, usually, non-Christian roots. Lang also inexplicably includes chapters from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the journey to Lilliput. Most of the other stories were recorded folk tales, composed in ages past, while Swift's work was comparatively recent, written by a known hand, and intended for a clear satiric purpose. It just didn't fit. On the whole, while the stories in The Blue Fairy Book reflect important roots of modern storytelling and fantasy tales, inspiring writers and artists even today, I just couldn't really get into them.

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

John Dies at the End (David Wong)

John Dies at the End
(The John Dies at the End series, Book 1)
David Wong
St. Martin's Griffin
Fiction, Horror/Humor

***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: David Wong (not his real name) used to be an ordinary twenty-something Midwestern loser, stuck in a dead-end video store in "Undisclosed" (not a real city) and hanging out with other stuck losers like his best friend John (not a real name - or a real friend, in some ways, given what he gets David into.) That was before they took their first hit of soy sauce (not a real sauce), a mysterious drug that wakes them to the invisible forces around them that are often written off as hallucinations or supernatural nonsense. Suddenly, Undisclosed looks a lot less boring than is used to, with shadow people (not really just shadows) and impossible monsters lurking around every corner, many of which have an irritating way of trying to maim, terrorize, or simply kill the boys. David just wants to walk away and return to his ordinary, boring life (not a real life), but John won't stop investigating - and before they know it, they're both in way over their heads, facing an imminent invasion by a force that makes the Devil himself look quaint.

REVIEW: The title promises a fun, somewhat dark story, and that's more or less what it delivers. David's a deeply flawed protagonist, saddled with one of those friends who keeps making his life miserable, yet who is still somehow the most devoted companion a man could ask for, so he can't just walk away no matter how insane or outright annoying John can get. Their adventures are by turns absurd, surreal, grotesque, and horrific, overlaid with an almost desperate (by narrator David) sheen of existential levity in the face of seemingly certain doom and (literal) damnation. Descriptions could be crude, but vividly evoked the sense of twisted unreality David and John have been plunged into. It's certainly an original story, though I found myself growing irritated as it unwound; David goes out of his way to avoid engaging or advancing the main plot, deliberately veering off into tangents that didn't always pay off, and there was a bait-and-switch feel to the way several events played out. As a result, the book feels overlong, with an ending that feels like a flat letdown. (There's also an unsubtle sexism underlying the characterizations, another issue that grated on me the longer I read.) There are some great ideas and fun moments, particularly when it tweaks genre tropes, and it's definitely one of the most memorable stories I've read in some time, but this just isn't my cup of cocoa.

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