Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Review: "Matt Archer: Monster Hunter" by Kendra Highley

I'd like to start by sharing the paragraph that convinced me to buy the book:
Before I had a chance to dig out some marshmallows for s'mores, the air turned sharp and the wind gusted cold into the campfire, sending up sparks. Uncle Mike rose to his feet, with an intense, alert expression I'd never seen before--like he could eat a brick and enjoy the crunch.
I laughed out loud when I read that. Original, well-used metaphors aren't that common, and a funny one to boot? Excellent. The rest of the book carries on in that vein, happily.

On to the plot. Matt Archer is your average ninth-grader whose biggest problems are a crush on a beautiful classmate, Ella, and a long-absent father figure when his world is rocked by the discovery that yeah, monsters are real. After his Green Beret uncle's mysteriously powerful knife picks Matt to wield it, he's got no choice but get out there and start slaying some monsters ... while staying out of trouble in school.

Highley keeps a nice balance between the parts of Matt's life that are about chasing and killing the monsters invading his part of the world and the parts of his life that are about being a teenage boy. He goes to classes, he argues with his siblings, and he struggles to work up the nerve to ask out Ella. My own teen years are a decade or so behind me, but I think younger readers will be pleased by the way Matt's life is depicted. As an older reader, I was happy to find that Matt's teen problems didn't make it hard for me to buy him as a soldier capable of slaying monsters.

The only real question I had about the story was how easily the adults accepted the idea of sending a 15-year-old and his best-friend sidekick off to fight creatures that units of Green Berets had trouble handling. It didn't bother me that much, however, and it's not something that's likely to matter much in subsequent books.

And, yes, Highley is writing a sequel to "Matt Archer: Monster Hunter." I look forward to reading it.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


After one heck of an intensive online course, I'm free -- briefly -- to resume book reviews.

Reviews waiting to be written include: "Throne of Glass"; "The Kane Chronicles, Book One"; "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"; "The Ripple" trilogy; "Curses!"; and "The Naming: The First Book of Pellinor."

Review: "Anna Dressed in Blood" by Kendare Blake

Kendare Blake's "Anna Dressed in Blood" puts a neat spin on a familiar ghost-hunter story.

Cas is the hero of the story, a high school student who goes through the motions at each school he attends -- he knows he's going to spend his life killing ghosts, just like his (deceased) father, so a diploma is an afterthought. He moves around the country with his mother, taking care of ghosts in need of killing. He meets his match in Anna, a teenage girl who haunts the house she grew up in and who kills anyone to pass within the house's door. She's the strongest ghost he's ever fought, and though he's convinced he'll take her down eventually, he's surprised by how much he really doesn't want to. But the trouble in Thunder Bay may not be Anna after all, and Cas will need all the help he can get to figure out what's really going on.

First things first: Cas. The stereotypical hero in a story like this is a man (or a boy, as the case may be) who is a social misfit. He does what he does very well, but he has a hard time functioning in "normal" society and frequently has a tough time with the ladies. Cas, however, has got the high school social structure down pat. When he starts at a new school, he deliberately seeks out the most popular girl in school:

I need to be plugged into the social pipeline. I need to get people talking to me, so I can ask them questions that I need answers to. So when I transfer in, I always look for the queen bee.

Every school has one. The girl who knows everything and everybody. I could go and try to insta-bond with the lead jock, I suppose, but I've never been good at that. My dad and I never watched sports or played catch. I can wrestle the dead all day long, but touch football might knock me unconscious. Girls, on the other hand, have always come easy. I don't know why that is, exactly. Maybe it's the outsider vibe and a well-placed brooding look.

That self-assurance and confidence were a welcome change; I get tired of reading about the hero who longs to fit in. Cas was  comfortable with himself and the way his job took him out of the usual society. Later, that attitude went a ways toward explaining his attraction to Anna -- but I still had a hard time swallowing that. I mean -- she's a ghost. Cas has obviously lived a lonely life, but why he turns to the one girl with whom he absolutely cannot have a future, I'm not sure. (Spoiler-ish: I have to admit, I found the scene where Cas and Anna kiss to be icky. She's dead. Not to mention she's killed dozens of people.)

But the revelation and resolution of Anna's roots aren't the crux of this book; that honor goes to the mystery of the ghost that killed Cas' father. The developments here were nicely foreshadowed, and I particularly liked the way Blake developed the killer ghost. He was particularly creepy and suitably intimidating. Actually, many of the ghost- or horror-related scenes were well done; the part where Anna drops Cas into a basement full of rotting but sentient corpses is an excellent example.

The sequel, "Girl of Nightmares," came out Aug. 7. At $9.99 for the e-book, it's not an automatic pickup, but I'll keep my eyes on it and grab it if the price goes lower (or if the public library makes a copy available).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review: "Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate)," by Gail Carriger

Vampires are all the rage right now, especially the urbane, civilized kind. Werewolves - hitching a ride, perhaps, on the height-of-fashion coattails of their undead brethren - aren't far behind. "Soulless" hops on that paranormal gravy train and takes us for a ride into Victorian England, where vampires and werewolves are registered members of society. Not everyone knows they exist, but the crown, at the least, does.

Alexia Tarabotti knows about them, too. She's a preternatural -- or, as the title of the book implies, she has no soul. (The vampires and werewolves in Carriger's world are troubled by an excess of soul.) As a preternatural, Alexia's touch reduces any paranormal to a mere normal. It's an ability that will come in useful as she and werewolf alpha Lord Maccon try to get to the bottom of a rash of bizarre vampire- and werewolf-related incidents.

Trying to figure out who's behind those incidents is ostensibly the main plot in this story. In practice, the book is really one long, drawn-out, when-will-they-finally-have-sex teasers. The romance is fine on its own, but it winds up eclipsing the mystery and lands those two in ridiculous situations. (Spoiler: I mean, they're all but having sex while they're trapped in the villains' lair and have yet to figure out how to escape with their lives. Priorities, people.)

I did like Alexia's character: She's spunky, independent and, for a pleasant change of pace, not fantastically beautiful. Her Italian heritage is amusingly cited time and again as a big, black mark against her.

Humor is one of this book's strengths, for that matter. None of the characters are to be taken seriously. Alexia's family is absurd, the werewolves are a study in contradictions (the weakling as the alpha's righthand man? Sure, why not?), and the vampires are cast as a group of squabbling children. Lord Akeldama, a loner vampire and Alexia's friend, is meant along the same lines, but he's a foppishly over-the-top gay who would be more amusing if his dialogue were less annoying to read.

Perhaps the most telling judgment of this book is that there are four other books in the Parasol Protectorate series and I haven't been inclined to keep going. In all, "Soulless" was entertaining but not all that memorable.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The next few months will be slow around here.

My goal for the last six months has been to do one review a week. I read a lot, so it's normally a reasonable goal. For the next few weeks, though, I'm enrolled in an intensive grammar-and-editing course, and the majority of my reading time will be spent on that. (I'm sure a review of "A Writer's Reference" would be enthralling, but I'll spare you.) 

I'll still post reviews when I'm able to squeeze in some leisure reading, but it won't be as regular. I hope to pick up where I left off after the course ends in August.

Coming up semi-soon: A review of "The Parasol Protectorate." I just have to get it written.

Review: "The Assassin ..." novellas by Sarah J. Maas

It appears that I haven't figured out how to work the timed posting feature yet. Here's the post meant for two weeks ago.

Sarah J. Maas' first novel, "Throne of Glass," comes out in August. Over the last few months and leading up to that debut, she's releasing four prequel novellas to build interest and back story: "The Assassin and the Pirate Lord," "The Assassin and the Desert," "The Assassin and the Underworld" and "The Assassin and the Empire." (That last one will be released in July.)

"The Assassin and the Pirate Lord" introduces Maas' heroine, assassin Celaena Sardothien, who at 16 already considers herself the best assassin in the world. She works for Arobynn, who is presented as something akin to a brothel madam for a stable of assassins. Celaena is beautiful, vain, self-centered and arrogant, but when she and fellow assassin Sam are sent to manage their master's purchase of 100 slaves, she realizes she can't abet human trafficking.

This was a good introduction. The antagonistic relationship between Celaena and Sam starts abruptly and isn't given much back story, and it resolves a bit too quickly, but that's a minor quibble. I generally like the characters — even the Pirate Lord, who is ostensibly the villain here. A bit more explanation of Celaena's role in the assassins' world would have been helpful - I found myself wondering a few times why it was so necessary for her to be disguised. We don't get that answer in this novella.

In "The Assassin and the Desert," Celaena is punished for her actions in "The Pirate Lord" with a vicious beating and sent to train with a covey of assassins in the Red Desert. She's out of her element and, though the assassins are familiar with her name, her reputation doesn't buy her the same awe it does back home. She has to convince the Mute Master of the desert to write her a letter of recommendation — essentially — but with a traitor at work in the assassins' base, her time to impress the master may be shorter than she realizes.

Sam isn't present in this novella, aside from in Celaena's thoughts, and I missed his character. The Mute Master's son steps into the leading man's role, in a way, and it highlights a weird contradiction in Celaena. She's very aware of her beauty and is a fairly worldly character, but we learn that she's never been in a relationship, nor even kissed a boy. It's rather odd for the way she's presented. Overall, the story arc is more developed than in the first novella, and there's more growth from Celaena.

"The Assassin and the Underworld" focuses less on action and more on personal growth. Back from the desert, Celaena finally learns what happened to Sam as punishment for their actions in "The Pirate Lord." She's dealing with her feelings for him at the same time she's trying to come to terms with her changed feelings for Arobynn. At the same time, she and Sam are working together to break up another web of human trafficking through the assassination of a key player.

Celaena faces the choice of remaining a kept woman or of leaving Arobynn and taking control of her own fate. It takes her longer to choose than I (and Sam) expected. We also finally get the reason that Celaena hides her identity: it's because she is presented to society as Arobynn's niece. Learning that earlier wouldn't have hurt anything, and it would have made parts of "Pirate Lord" less confusing.

The writing in these is top notch, and the characters are likable when they're supposed to be likable (and not, when they're not). Arobynn, in particular, comes across as a creepy, manipulative man. My only complaint, in fact, is that for all Celaena talks of herself as the BEST assassin EVER, it's not supported in the stories. She makes frequent mistakes, she gets caught, she gets played. I'm not sure whether we're supposed to believe she really is such an accomplished assassin or whether it's meant as a sign of her age; more clarification along those lines would be nice.

All in all, very good stories. I'm looking forward to "Throne of Glass" and the fourth novella — although judging by the description of "Throne of Glass," bad things are in store for Sam, in particular.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Left unfinished: "The Necro Device" by M.T. Dismuke

I should have known from the grammatical error in the book's description that this was not going to go well.
John and Mary Hilt are hired to restore the Mandiev mansion isolated between four surrounding towns. In the past, the Mandiev brothers had a fatal accident which killed hundreds of local citizens. The event marks the beginning of a deadly device that will control its creator and affect the community for years to come. Mary Hilt will unlock the madness that spawned from its awakening. The Necro Device is a mind-melting, suspense thriller loaded with secrets, twists, and a diabolical plot.

A betrayal, a machine, a darker intent...

It has a purpose.

 In the interest of giving it a fair shot, I stuck with the book through the first chapter, but even that much was flush with "tell" rather than "show" writing, sloppy punctuation, erratic changes of tenses and clunky dialogue. For example, this sentence taken verbatim from the book:

Drunkenly, a man stood up from his seat. "Me!" He slurs loudly. "I'll Do, whatever! And show everyone that you're all nothing but a bunch of freaks!" He stumbled slightly.

There may be a good story lurking behind the dross — the few reviews it has on Amazon are good — but this reads like a rough draft. A good editor would do wonders to improve readability.