27 July 2015

Review: The Night Gardener

The Night Gardener The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since I kind of immersed myself into weird horror for adults, I've been trying to figure out how you can translate the sort of existential dread into a middle grade or YA audience. Especially when horror for kids typically means R L Stine or Christopher Pike, the room for the sort of creepy thing that I'm looking for seems difficult to nail down.

The Night Gardener, though, is probably the template I'd use. A little unsettling and plenty creepy without going too far over the top, it's maybe the closest thing to Weird For Kids we might see, and it's worth your attention.

The story revolves around two children who are servants at a very old home in Ireland. The house has a large, imposing tree on the premises, and everyone who lives at the home seems a little sickly and off. Then the nightmares start. And then there are footprints. And it all seems related to that tree.

It's a classic tale in a sense. Part ghost story, part creepy tale, its flaw may be the tone it has to balance for its audience and the length, which felt a little more overlong than it perhaps needed to be. These are minor flaws, though, as adult readers know what they're getting into and, if you're really into the setting and such, spending a little extra time won't mind.

Perfect as an exercise to see the boundaries pushed in fiction for young people, and especially great for those kids who like to be creeped out a bit. Definitely worth your time.

View all my reviews

26 July 2015

Review: Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good friend and great human being has been trying to get me to read this book since at least 2008, maybe a little earlier. I spent a year and a half reading one Dresden Files book a month between then and now, so I've become pretty well-versed in Butcher's style. So with all this in mind, and considering it's an author I like doing fantasy, now is as good a time as any to dive in, right?

The story is about a broader war between "furies," the magic users and such of this universe, and some loyalist factions. There is slavery, brutality, and all sorts of craziness going on along the way, and it's very traditional in a sense even with Butcher's take.

So why didn't I love it? I've been trying to place it since I finished the book. It was a good read, but I slogged a bit through it. I've never been one for dark fantasy, and this is is definitely on the dark scale (although I'm not sure I'd place it in the grimdark area). The characters are solid, I liked Tavi in particular but pretty much all the heroes are worthwhile (which is a standard for Butcher, I'm finding), and the worldbuilding is great, too.

I just didn't connect. I can't place it, I'm not sure if it was me or just how everything worked out or what, but it ended up being something I kind of endured rather than enjoyed.

I'll keep going with the series. Also in true Butcher form, the final act was really great and maybe I just needed to get over that hump first, but I would never dissuade anyone from reading it. It might just not be the type of fantasy I love?

View all my reviews

24 July 2015

Review: Forever for a Year

Forever for a Year Forever for a Year by B.T. Gottfred
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes, when you don't like a book, it's better to say as little as you can about it lest it become a big dump of nonsense.

So it is with <>Forever for a Year, positioned as a multi-point-of-view tale about a burgeoning relationship of first love between two high school kids. It goes through them falling for each other, first sexual experiences, jealousy, and so on and so forth.

Why doesn't this work? It is overboard as a cautionary tale, the actions simply aren't realistic for the setting put in place, it works under the assumption that sex and such are really the only things kids care about, and it's just a painful read. The voices of the characters come across as the sort of faux-realistic type that sounds like an authentic voice but just tries too hard.

Long and short, everything about it feels wrong.

I think we have a good number of books that portray realistic relationships enough that are higher quality than what exists here. I was hoping for better, and this didn't deliver. Readable but that's it.

View all my reviews

21 July 2015

Review: El Deafo

El Deafo El Deafo by Cece Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's always nice to see an award winning book for kids that deserves it these days. El Deafo, while somewhat flawed, is still an inspirational read that manages to be fun, informative, and touching all at the same time. The story about a girl (well, rabbit girl, but whatever) who becomes functionally deaf after falling ill and receives a hearing device that makes her feel like a superhero, the story does a great job of demonstrating the difficulty of the disability and both the expected and unexpected issues that come with it while keeping the tone light enough to have some fun with it as it goes on. The graphic format lends itself well to the topic, but the downside is that there is not a significant endpoint to the story and, much like other tales in this genre, the story just sort of exists without coming to an enjoyable conclusion. It doesn't take away from the ride, but just the destination. This book belongs in every public and school library, for sure. Kids who like realistic stories will find a lot to love here, and this is definitely a demonstration of where diverse books can go in an era where the clamor for such books is so significant. Definitely recommended.

View all my reviews

16 July 2015

Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak

Closer to a 1.5. I *really* didn't like this book.

I'm a firm believer that kids need creepy. There's a reason Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have persevered over time, and Serafina and the Black Cloak tries pretty hard to be in that same vein, but ends up wildly missing the mark.

Serafina is a girl who was found in the woods, battered and broken. Taken in by a man and kept secret for the first decade or so of her life, she is witness to a strange disappearance that she feels uniquely qualified to get to the bottom of, and so begins our tale of Serafina exploring and uncovering a dark, weird secret.

The first bit of the book, the parts that establish who Serafina is and what she's really up to? Pretty great. The moment we get to the meat of the plot, however, the story screeches almost to a halt, with a few interesting scenes scattered amongst a tale that plods toward a conclusion - a conclusion, by the way, that is a very pat, firm, almost Disney-style ending that nearly betrays the entire tale. It's a frustrating read because all the parts are there for a truly great read with some really interesting elements, but basically only a third of the story is really truly worth the time or effort, leading to a supremely disappointing story.

Of course, as is typical, I appear to be in the stark minority on this. People seem to overwhelmingly love this book, from the setting to the characters to the tale itself. As for me, while Serafina is an engaging enough heroine, she deserves a much better story than this, and middle grade readers who are looking for a creepy story to keep them up at nights deserve something that's much more substantial. I don't know if I missed something significant here or what, but this didn't do it for me at all.

11 July 2015

Review: I Am Princess X

Stealth YA mystery!

May and Abby were best friends growing up, and they developed a comic together. When Abby died, so too did the comic.

Until stickers with the comic started popping up all over Seattle.

May quickly recruits an at-home IT "expert" to help track down who has been putting Princess X comics up online and who the anonymous, mystery author is. Because May is convinced Abby is actually alive and well.

It's a fun premise, and at just a hair over 200 pages, a very quick and straightforward read. The mystery elements are there, but it's pretty light on a whole and, if the books have any fault, it's that the stakes don't feel terribly high and everything seems pretty simple. I didn't love the reveals, but that's just more nitpicky than anything else, especially for a genre I don't generally love.

Still, recommended for YA readers. If you're into Cherie Priest's adult work, this is probably going to throw you off a bit, though. Fair warning.

Review: Those Girls

Closer to a 1.5.

There are plenty of mean girl books. There are plenty of books that have absolutely despicable characters with little to no redeeming values. Those books sometimes know how to handle those topics, and Those Girls utterly fails at creating anything worth noting in this genre. Filled with characters who are rotten and criminal who seem to learn nothing from their actions, it's almost questionable as to what the point of this was at all.

The story follows a handful of girls around their senior year. They sleep around with each other's boyfriends, they frame them for different things. One is in a band, others can't be happy for her. It all culminates in a situation that just ended up being gross and disturbing, and I don't even know what anyone was thinking here.

I thought a few days away from this one might temper my mood about it, but it's clear this is one of the worst things I've read recently. Avoid this one at all costs - the rare times you'll need a book like this, there are a dozen better ones out there that might actually improve your lot in life a bit.

07 July 2015

Review: Silver in the Blood

Closer to a 3.5.

If you read Twilight and thought "Man, I wish the story focused more on those European vampires," I might just have the book for you. Granted, this is much better written and works more off of the Stoker-level Dracula/vampire tropes than the more popularized ones of, late, but it's still a good, albeit flawed, read.

The story takes place shortly after the publication of Stoker's Dracula, where some high society girls are brought back to Europe to meet their families in time for their birthday. Meeting the family, of course, results in taking their place among the Dracula family and learning of their true nature as vampire shapeshifters. Yep.

So the idea is a little corny, but the book reads more like a teen literary piece, keeping us firmly in the time period intended. The author seems incredibly fixated in pointing out how naked everyone is when they shapeshift, which was just strange, but the way the story flows and moves is something that did a good job in keeping my interest, so there is that.

I originally read this without knowing what it was about, so I wonder if at least part of the issue with the story is that the hook is given away so freely, but given the great cover and topic matter, it should still find an audience for what it is. Worth a look if you're into historical fiction or different takes on vampire mythologies.

Review: Shadowshaper

Sometimes books are frustrating.

Urban fantasy for the YA set is a mixed bag, with a lot of it going toward the paranormal romance. This is described as sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-type tale, but it really reminds me more of a teenage female Harry Dresden in that the city is, in many cases, a character along with our heroine and her abilities regarding shadows and those she's up against. The plot itself almost feels secondary to whatever is trying to happen here, which is never a good sign, and ends up being something where the notes the author is trying to hit seem to take precedence over good plotting and action.

The concept is cool but the execution ends up lacking in a few ways, with the actual meat of the story taking seemingly forever to get rolling and the thing truly picking up only toward the last quarter of the book. It tries to be true to the cultural heritage but ends up feeling forced in more than a few ways, which is unfortunate. There's just a lot of potential in play here with a lot of negatives going along with it.

This is a decent read, but ultimately left me with something to be desired. Certain readers will enjoy this, but it didn't work for me.

Review: The Fixer

While my love for teen romance novels is hardly a secret to those who have read my reviews for any length of time, political intrigue for the YA set is something I've wanted to see more of, and, time and time again, the stories seem to let me down. Gallagher Girls is the ideal in many ways, but it's less House of Cards and more James Bond. Embassy Row's first book was disappointing, and most of the rest try to be humorous spoofs. I figured I'd enjoy The Fixer, being a book more in line with some of my other interests. What I didn't expect was to love it.

Tess lives with her grandfather, who is falling more and more seriously ill. Her parents, dead in an accident, left her with him, and her older sister, Ivy, left them to go to Washington. With grandpa sick, though, Tess is off to DC to live with her sister. Quickly, she learns that her sister is a bit of an important big shot, someone who "fixes" the problems of high-profile people and politicians. At Tess's new school, that reputation is shifted onto Tess, who really doesn't want it. Quickly, though, it looks like she's going to have to anyway, and she learns how dangerous her sister's life really is.

I have very little to complain about when it comes to this book. It balances political intrigue and conspiracy with a great family story, at nearly 400 pages it doesn't feel as if it's dragging at all, and the story ends on a solid note while leaving a good opening for sequels as well. Nearly pitch perfect, and really does the whole concept well as a result. Truly, it might be closest to a House of Cards for kids we'll ever see, and that's definitely high praise from me, at least. I'm hoping the rest of the series can stand up to how good this one is, and I can't wait to see what comes next. Highly recommended.

05 July 2015

Review: Bios

As I traverse through Robert Charles Wilson's body of work, I'm somewhat impressed by how hit or miss it can be. This book is almost a love letter to scientific/science fictional exploration and study, but it doesn't work more than it works, even if the ending is enjoyable and the parts are greater than the whole. It's a simple tale, almost a novella, about clones and alien races and the dangers in study, and it is a markedly different take than a lot of the books like it I've read.

What is it lacking? I'd say a sense of wonder, but also a sense of horror. It's surprisingly mundane in its presentation, which, in one sense, may have been the point, but this is where relying on existing tropes does matter. We're very conditioned to find the extremes when we read about new races, civilizations, and so on. This doesn't give that sense of revelry throughout, and, if that was in fact the point, it's simply not direct enough to be clear or engaging.

I just felt disappointed. So much promise unfulfilled on this one. I can't imagine recommending this to anyone other than really solid fans of his.

Review: The Vorrh

Closer to a 2.5.

I finished reading this close to two weeks ago and I'm only writing a review now. This is emblematic of my frustration with The Vorrh, a book that came with a lot of buzz in some circles and, in the first 80 or so pages, really established something I thought I was falling in love with.

This is, at its heart, a sort of Weird fantasy tale. There's a small town bordering a forest that is believed to be magical or haunted or dangerous or some combination of all of those things. One man seeks to explore the Vorrh, others are trying to stop him, and just the strange character of the town in general ends up dominating everything.

It's a book that suffers from the same thing we see a lot of the New Weird doing (even if this is not explicitly categorized as such), in that the setting and mood of the book overwhelmingly take precedence over the plot, and what ends up happening is that the construction of the story takes a back seat over the worldbuilding aspects. What was constructed deserved a better tale to go with it, and it became repeatedly difficult to care about anything that was going on.

Just a definite disappointment. Some readers might find some interesting stuff here, and if you're into significant worldbuilding this might be one to look up, but otherwise...