Book Review: The Night Owls (Timony, Timony)

December 17, 2010

*ARC Alert*

The Night Owls by Peter and Bobby Timony was released March 30, 2010 by Zuda Comics (softcover, black and white, $14.99, 192 pages).

A nerdy supernatural detective, a flapper with a mean right hook, and an ever-hungry gargoyle?  Yes, please! The Night Owls combines the tried-and-true aspects of the detective genre with Prohibition-era America, flirty comedy, and light-but-satisfying violence (great taste, less filling!).  Add simple, elegant grayscale art and an original cast of baddies and you end up with a great read for middle-grades and up.  The book ends on a rather sizable cliffhanger, and I’m praying for a second volume.


Book Review: Infinite Days (Maizel)

July 22, 2010

*ARC alert*

Infinite Days by Rebecca Maizel will be released on August 3rd, 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin (Trade Paperback, $9.99, 320 pages). It is the first in the Vampire Queen series and Maizel’s debut novel.

Like the “dog books” from my previous post, “dark” teen dramaromances have a certain formula– an awesomely hot and probably well-off teen girl, attending high school and possibly haunted by her dark past, falls for the hottest, most elite guy at school. He reciprocates. At least one of them is a vampire/faery/something hot and supernatural. The by now well-established minigenre includes books which I actually enjoyed, like Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, and a lot that I didn’t, e.g. the Twilight series and Alyson Noel’s Evermore. Infinite Days, admittedly, falls under that category and shares some of its flaws.

On the other hand, its premise is completely original and quite interesting– after 500-odd years of terrorizing the general populace, Lenah Beaudonte decides that vampirism holds only illusive charms and seeks a way to regain her humanity. After a hundred years of hibernation and a ritual that involved the self-sacrifice of her best friend and lover, she wakes up in the year 2010 and finds herself needing to learn how to be human again in a new and confusing century.

Lenah herself makes for a strong and often funny voice that I was able to connect with emotionally. Though she seemed at times to be a bit too capable, I surprised myself by liking her– she didn’t take the angsty, desperate tone of so many dramaromance “heroines,” and I’m willing to believe that a 592-year old can handle a lot. Her story, too, was well-though out and engaging, though it dragged the tiniest bit toward the end of part one. Overall, I loved her discovery of day-to-day existence and the backdrop of flashbacks to vampire life and lore that she contrasted it with.

I did suffer from some Pretty in Pink syndrome with this, though. You know, where by the end of the movie everyone in the room is going “No, Andie! You have to choose Ducky!” I found myself biased against Lenah’s love interest, Justin, perhaps because he was the Edward of this story (in role only, thank the gods). Personally I liked Lenah’s friend Tony a lot more, but I can’t complain too much since Maizel did give sufficient support for the romance and lack of it, respectively, and didn’t try to run with it too badly.

And as my final point, I want to say that this read like the first novel it is. I don’t mean that in a bad way; Maizel is obviously worthy of having been published and will no doubt have several more books ahead of her. What I mean to say is that you can tell just by reading it that this is her breakout book; the ideas are fresh and vibrant, but the prose is somewhat rough, even choppy in places. I have every faith that she will improve with practice.

So. Go ahead and pick this one up for its original take on the vampire mythos and likable main character, but be ready to accept that it’s a long read for its 320 pages, and that it does contain elements of established stereotype in the romance aspect of the plot. I would nevertheless recommend it to fans of the genre and perhaps those looking for a good book to introduce them to dark teen dramaromance hibbijabba (a genre that really needs a better name than I am providing).

Book Review: Shadow Bound (Kellison)

June 2, 2010

*ARC Alert*

Shadow Bound will be released June 29, 2010 by Dorchester Publishers (Mass Market Paperback, $7.99 on Amazon). It is Erin Kellison’s debut novel.

Twenty-six years ago, the spirit called Shadowman fell in love with an ailing woman who lived only long enough to bring his daughter into the world. Six years ago, Adam Thorne’s brother used monstrously inhuman abilities to murder his parents. The events seemed unrelated from the outside. But when Adam, now head of the Segue Institute founded for the study of wraiths like his brother, goes looking for Talia O’Brien, expert on near-death experiences, he finds that the young anthropology PhD is something wholly outside of human or monster. She, too, has been affected by the growing menace of the wraiths, but this can’t account for her ability to wrap darkness around herself like a cloak and sense the thoughts of others through touch. Adam had wanted her for her expertise, but she might just be the weapon that he needs.

I picked this book out to read because I love the idea of Talia’s heritage and the powers she inherited from it, and for the first half of the book or so I immersed myself happily in Kellison’s rich descriptive pose and driven characters. Talia and Adam were both decently-developed, and carried most of the story without too much help from side characters. I liked them each well enough alone, until they started getting to know each other.

Almost as soon as they were in a room together and conscious, the two had the hots for each other. Well, okay, they’re both attractive adults– they’re allowed. What bugged me was the fact that this instant desire didn’t abate at all for the entire book and kept cropping up at inappropriate moments. Talia is complaining about having to save Adam’s ass? I don’t need to hear that it is a very fine ass indeed right that second. It also seemed somewhat improbable that Talia would be a powerful supernatural being, incredibly hot, and a doctor– this wasn’t a huge issue, but maybe Kellison should have picked two out of the three. I wouldn’t have minded if Talia was only decently attractive, since that would have made more sense in regards to the fact that she seems completely unaware of her own magnetism.

For all that they found each other so attractive that they couldn’t concentrate on much else without mentioning it from time to time, the pair had a lot of issues to iron out. It seemed like every time they bonded over something, they would instantly find a reason to shut each other out and feel bad about it, and themselves. For the most part these were reasonable things to have problems with, but they were repeated ad nauseam in a way that made me feel as if the entire relationship was a step forward and a step back over and over. This pretty much sums up my problem with Shadow Bound— it’s a great premise with suitably scary villains and a good high-stakes quest, but little flaws in and between the characters become progressively more irritating as time goes on and make it harder and harder to enjoy the book. By the end, I wanted to take Talia, Adam, and their ill-timed sexual urges and dump them all in a lake.

My last, smallest complaint– and this much I admit is me being a literary snob –is the fact that the author on several occasions drew connections between Talia and “Sleeping Beauty”. This was barely connected to the plot at all, and was more of a side note for interest, and the earliest version of “Sleeping Beauty” that I know of is called “Sun, Moon, and Talia.” However, the casual way in which Kellison mentioned this makes me think she’s never read “Talia,” as the story itself is one of the most morally perverted pieces of folklore I’ve ever read. If you want to see what I’m talking about and don’t mind a little gouge-your-eyes-out fairy-tale fun, you can read it here.

My final word on Shadow Bound: pick it up for an interesting mix of dark fantasy and modern fairy-tale, but only if you don’t mind a few character flaws that really should have been ironed out.

This book contains explicit sexual content.

Book Review: Juliet (Fortier)

May 12, 2010

*ARC alert* Juliet will be released on August 17th by Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House publishing group (hardcover, $25.00).

Shakespeare’s pair of star-crossed lovers have been at the center of the world’s most famous romance for centuries. Everyone knows it from English class at the very least– in long-ago, far-away Verona, the young pair Romeo and Juliet fall madly in love despite the feud that sets their families as deadly enemies, and the rest is history. But not really, right, because Romeo and Juliet is a fictional story?

Perhaps. Regardless of whether it began in fact or fancy, the story of Juliet and her Romeo goes back farther than the Bard. As Anne Fortier shows us, it began in Siena, a city in Tuscany, Italy, a city famous for the blood feuds that went on for centuries between the houses of Tolomei and Salimbeni. Sound familiar?

This is the basis from which Fortier unfolds her epic and beautifully delivered story, which follows two young women, each bearing the name Giulietta Tolomei. One lives in 14th-century Siena and dares to love the infamous young playboy Romeo Marescotti, though she has been promised to the head of the Salimbeni house. The other has lived her life up until now in America, as Julie Jacobs. When her aunt and guardian dies suddenly, Julie inherits only a key to a safe-deposit box in Siena, which she is told contains a family treasure that her mother hid shortly before she died, when Julie was two. Instead of the solution to her credit card debt, however, Julie finds a box containing letters that suggest that Juliet was indeed a real person, and that her curse– “A plague on both your houses!”– may still be at work, and that Julie is its next target.

Though this is a work of fiction, it is astonishingly well-researched (for which Fortier thanks her mother) and given to us in  a way that makes it seem utterly plausible. It belongs to the same group as stories such as The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure; a character discovers that they have a connection to a famous event in history and that that event’s legacy is still at work in the world today. Secret societies optional. I’ve never particularly enjoyed this genre, and to a certain extent Juliet did not suit my personal tastes, but there is no denying that it is beautifully written and meticulously thought out. I found myself connecting with the medieval heroine more than the modern one– though Julie can be clever, Giulietta possesses a caustic wit which she doesn’t hesitate to apply to anyone who rouses her ire. Also, her Romeo is more of a knight-in-shining-armor than the bawling man-child Shakespeare made him out to be.

I do not know if the ardent fans of the more famous story will approve of this new twist, but I certainly enjoyed its insights into how things might have really worked out in medieval Italy. My one real criticism is that things got a bit confusing toward the end. I might have to go back and read again to figure out how the pieces of Julie’s mystery all fit together, and how her Romeo was involved. A lovely debut all the same- four stars.

This book contains explicit sexual content.

Book Review: Shiver (Stiefvater)

March 8, 2010

Grace, 17, loves the peace and tranquility of the woods behind her home. It is here during the cold winter months that she gets to see her wolf—the one with the yellow eyes. Grace is sure that he saved her from an attack by other wolves when she was nine. Over the ensuing years he has returned each season, watching her with those haunting eyes as if longing for something to happen. When a teen is killed by wolves, a hunting party decides to retaliate. Grace races through the woods and discovers a wounded boy shivering on her back porch. One look at his yellow eyes and she knows that this is her wolf in human form. Fate has finally brought Sam and Grace together, and as their love grows and intensifies, so does the reality of what awaits them. It is only a matter of time before the winter cold changes him back into a wolf, and this time he might stay that way forever. (synopsis from School Library Journal)

As a huge fan of all things werewolf… I honestly avoided Shiver for a long time. The strong romantic rather than adventurous thread and highly unorthodox approach to how werewolves work (winter as a wolf, summer as a human) were offputting to me. When I did eventually pick it up, though, I was sucked in almost immediately.

I’m failing as a reviewer here, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what makes Shiver so good. A good part of it is that Maggie Stiefvater is such an amazingly lyrical writer, but there’s something beyond that, just a magic to the whole book that helps you fall in love with it. There are a couple of flaws- I never really got what happened with the one female werewolf, for example, but overall it’s compelling and deeply moving; not at all what I had expected, which was basically Romeo & Juliet but with werewolves and a faint aftertaste of Twilight. Don’t make the same mistake I did and try to steer clear of it.

Book Review: Ash (Lo)

March 6, 2010

From a distance, I thought she was a puff of ash. Clever.

I try to judge books by their characters and story rather than blunt subject matter, but when I heard that someone had written a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, I couldn’t help my gut reaction: Yes! You go, Malinda Lo!

As a brief “public service announcement” (as Lo herself calls it on her blog): yes, I myself am gay, and I’ve been openly so since the day I figured it out. I am also a lover of fairy-tales and their retellings, especially those by Robin McKinley and Donna Jo Napoli, Shannon Hale, Gale Carson Levine, and others like them. Their romances, I might note, are straight. I like to read about love between men and women, but there’s a certain thrill to picking up a romance that speaks to me in a highly personal way. Part of what appeals to us as readers in fairy-tales is the understanding that yes, you too can have a happy ending. Love really can conquer all. Ash sends a much-needed message to young adults and all of its readers, I feel: Happy endings aren’t reserved for those who want “traditional” love. Love conquers all no matter what form it takes, and love isn’t wrong.

At the same time, though, this isn’t a book where the author beats you over the head with “OMG guys look at me I’m writing about lesbians!” Lo has mentioned in the teaser video for Ash that the fact that Ash falls in love with a woman is secondary to fact that she falls in love,  and says elsewhere on her website that originally, she did fall in love with the prince. It was only upon rereading her own manuscript that Lo realized, at the prompting of a friend, that it wonted for romance with Kaisa.

Okay, so /rant. On to judging the book by its characters and story.

Since this is a retelling of Cinderella, some elements are to be expected: the dead mother and cruel stepmother, the father that is often absent and soon dies as well. Aisling, called Ash, (which I felt was a delightful transformation of the impetus for “cinder” names) has two stepsisters, the younger of whom is traditionally kinder to her, and she is the sole hardworking servant of the household.

In this story, however, there are a few key differences beyond the LGBT twist. Instead of a fairy godmother, Ash has Sidhean, a mysterious fae man who warns her of the danger of his realm even as he presents a promise to steal her away. Ash, still grieving for her mother and downtrodden by her life as a slave, wishes to be stolen away by the faeries, tales of whom she has always loved. This changes when she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.

Without revealing too much about the book, it’s a wonderful retelling which contains elements of both the Perrault and Grimm’s versions, but is still entirely original. I believe that Ash’s original desire to be stolen away by the fairies is an allegory for something which real teens feel far too often: suicidal thoughts, and that this makes her finding Kaisa as a reason to live again that much more powerful. Neither of the young women is masculine or “butch,” and though Kaisa is the picture of a strong, confident young woman, Ash herself is somewhat submissive. I credited this to a quiet nature and to her last several years spent being trod on. All the same, even as Kaisa rescues Ash from her misery, in the very end the young heroine must save herself from Sidhean’s entanglement.

The ending itself was somewhat confusing, but for the sake of the rest of the story I’m willing to go along with it on the premise that Ash herself isn’t quite sure what happened. Perhaps someday (yeah, right) I’ll have a chance to speak to Malinda Lo and see how she defends it. Four stars.

Book Review: Keturah and Lord Death (Leavitt)

March 6, 2010

I will tell you a story of magic and love, of daring and death, and one to comfort your heart. It will be the truest story I have ever told. Now listen, and tell me if it is not so.

So begins Keturah and Lord Death, the story of a sixteen year-old girl who becomes lost in the woods and meets Death. With her gift for storytelling, Keturah is able to charm Lord Death into giving her one more day- and into promising that if in that time she is able to find her true love, she may live.

Keturah, of course, wants to live very badly. She immediately returns to her village and begins examining all of the local bachelors, but time is short, and her quest grows ever more desperate. Added to her concern for herself is concern for everyone in her beloved village, because before letting her go Death lets slip that there is a terrible plague on the way. Can Keturah save the ones she loves? Can she save herself?

I admit that the book-jacket synopsis (which of course wasn’t as wonderful as the one that I just wrote) didn’t make Keturah and Lord Death sound terribly magnificent, but this book is a gem. It’s one of those treasures that I stumbled upon accidentally, in a shipment from BookPig, in fact, but had never heard of before. But for whatever reason, I picked it up anyway, and now I’m terribly glad I did.

Keturah and Lord Death is a fairy-tale in the same way that The Book Thief is a story about the Holocaust- technically true, but so much more (for fairness’ sake, I have to add that while magnificent, K&LD is not the next great classic, as The Book Thief will probably be). It’s one of those books that puts you in a daze for an hour or so after you read it, and when people ask you, “Hey, what do you want for lunch?” you stare at them blankly and change the topic to a philosophical conversation about death.

There were a couple of moments where I felt like there was a brief jar in the story, but they were for the most part small, and the book was gripping enough that I didn’t really mind. The climactic finish was unexpected, but inevitable. Keturah and Lord Death will be one of those novels that becomes part of my consciousness and affects the way I look at the world for years to come. Five stars.