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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye (Amra Thetys, #2)

The Thief Who Spat In Luck's Good Eye (The Amra Thetys Series) (Volume 2) - Michael McClung

Amra Thetys, thief extraordinaire, is fresh off a series of near-lethal adventures, and currently settling into a well-deserved vacation. Her wizard best pal, Holgren, has a better idea for how she should spend her free time. A duke has put up a considerable reward in exchange for the location of the lost city of Thagoth.

The money would be great, but Holgren has another reason to located the legendary city. He has a serious problem with the afterlife. Decades before, Holgren made a not-so-metaphorical deal with the devil, and now faces an eternity of misery should he leave this mortal coil. In Thagoth lies a potential source of immortality and Holgren's means of saving his soul from eternal torment.

Amra reluctantly agrees. As it turns out, finding Thagoth isn't terribly difficult. Getting there and staying alive once there, is another matter. Things go very wrong, very soon, and Amra is left wandering the lost city, alone and starving, for months. Eventually, she escapes the city, but not before acquiring a magical necklace that entangles her and Holgren in an age-old conflict between gods and mages of legendary powers.

While I really enjoyed this novel's predecessor, Amra and Holgren's latest outing lacked...something. The early part of the story, as the duo prepare for the journey, had the sparkle of the previous novel, but once they arrived at Thagoth, and Amra "loses" Holgren, the narrative lost momentum. Amra's reaction to what is a monumental event felt cold, distant, and I didn't find her struggle to survive very compelling. Honestly? I was bored.

Her solitary interlude doesn't last long, and things get moving again soon, following an "out of the frying pan, into the fire" structure, but the story never reacquires the dynamics that I liked in the first novel.

One problem is that the plot was too linear for me, too much like a D&D session. Roll the dice, there's a lich. Roll again, and the lich is chatty. Chatty lich asks a question. But you answer wrong. Lich attacks. You defeat lich with level 42, fire-enhanced katana. But, wait, the battle awakens an angry gargoyle.

Something is always happening, but if feels rather random. It's just an endless quest.

Amra and Holgren's motivation evolves from merely staying alive to "save the world from ultimate Evil," but the events seem far removed from the rest of the world, and the stakes don't feel particularly high. Early conundrums, like Holgren's damned soul, are too conveniently fixed and forgotten.

I like these two characters, but their quest, grim and joyless, sucked away all the crackling energy between the two. Two point five stars, but rounding up because I think the series has potential.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass, #1)

Throne of Glass - Sarah J. Maas

So I have an idea for a book. It'll be about a dentist. A really, really great dentist. She can perform painless root canals, and transform a mouthful of rotten teeth into a gleaming, Hollywood whiteness. And she'll tell you, ovah, and ovah, and ovah, how great a dentist she is.

But...you'll never actually see her perform any dentistry, because...well, just because.

Yeah, Throne of Glass, that's what it's like.

Celaena is the most killing-est, most bad-ass-ist assassin in the land. And she's only eighteen. But death, death on two legs. About a year ago, however, she was betrayed and is now serving out a life sentence in a jail/mine camp.

When we first meet her, she's being escorted somewhere by none other than the King's Captain of the Guard. The girl we meet at this stage is, admittedly, rather intriguing, confident despite her situation, hyper-aware of her surroundings, cold, calculating and ready for anything.

The Captain brings her to meet the Crown Prince, who offers her a bargain. Sign on to be his champion in a contest run by the King, and should she win, no more living on gruel and hacking salt from the depths of a mine. Of course, there's a catch, which is that winning will require her to serve as the King's personal assassin for four years. But after that, sweet, sweet freedom.

Celaena agrees because although she's tough, it's clear she won't survive much longer in the mines.

Okay, so far.

So it's off to the King's castle of glass for her. (Yep, the King lives in a castle of glass which makes me think of the Linkin Park song by the same name.) This possibly being the origin of the novel's title, though, the aforementioned silica throne doesn't figure much in the plot. But, whatevs....

There she gets a fancy room complete with a piano and billiard table. "Moving on up...Like the Jeffersons" She begins her training for the contest, working to regain the fitness that she lost while in the mines. And reminding the reader frequently, that she is the more lethal than cyanide.

Except, the only people who get dead are her fellow contestants who are being systematically slaughtered by something with big fangs, claws and a penchant for brain eating. The mystery of the dead contestants being the most interesting part of the story.

Meanwhile, we have the obligatory love triangle. As triangles go, it's pretty equilateral, in that both males are likable enough. First there's Crown Prince Dorian, who despite having an asshole for a father, is a decent human being. In the other corner, we have the Captain of the Guard, Chaol (whose name I pronounce Kale, like the leafy green.). Chaol has a stick up his ass and is conveniently young (twenty?). Too young, frankly, to believably be the Captain of the Guard. Especially when it turns out he has no military experience; has never killed anyone before. He and Caleana's relationship begins adversarial, but the two grow on each other. Like mold.

As triangles of love go, this one isn't bad. I mean, it's not like one of the guys is a towering monument to douche-canoe.

Unfortunately, the love triangle is the one plot thread to rule them all. Although the narrative introduces deeper themes--slavery and the destruction of culture by a conquering, imperialistic nation--there is little exploration of those themes. Celaena, a member of one of those conquered races, only briefly considers the fact that she is going to work for her people's oppressor. Yeah, it's a survival thing, but the events of her past, including the slaughter of her parents, don't generate much emotion, from her or this reader. Midway through the story, there's a mention of a friend/lover (Sam). According to other reviews, her relationship with Sam is explored in depth in a separate novella. Um, no, sorry, I shouldn't have to read "background" material to make a connection to characters in what is supposed to be "book one."

Is Celaena an example of a strong, female character? In as much as she's willing to do what must be done, yes. A lot of stuff is out of her control, she's a pawn, but she makes the best of it. Some of her traits, like the desire to always be the best, get repetitive and tiresome, but, hey, the girl's got hutzpah.

The problem, however, was that I never believed that she or anyone important was in danger. There was a conspicuous lack of tension. Celaena goes on and on about how awesome she is, and since A) this is never put to the test until the very end, and B) she's the protagonist, so presumably going to have a pulse at the novel's conclusion, there's an utter dearth of suspense. The only people winding up as corpses are her fellow contestants, most of whom are convicts and otherwise awful people; it's hard to care who gets murdered next.

The question of who's killing the contestants is interesting because it ties into the (mostly neglected) themes in the book. Such as why does the King hate magic so much? And if so, why are there magic sigils featured prominently on the castle grounds? Unfortunately, fascinating details of Celaena's world are short-changed in order to make room for the love triangle.

Despite my overall fondness for YA, I think this is a case where my age impacts my relationship with the book and its characters. I mean, if a story is going to present me with a stone-cold, killer woman, then she should show me the assassination, and the tone of the story should be much, much grimmer. My sixteen-year-old self would have been on this like a starving man at a banquet. (Or not--sixteen-year-old self loved twisted, violent shit.) Ever-so-slightly more mature me, however, wants more--more angst, more blood, deeper world building, much less twee.

Alina, from Shadow and Bone, is technically a weaker female heroine, but at the end, even she ends up with a higher body count than Celaena.

A Site Not Abandoned?

If it's online, I've probably got an account. My attention span, however, is about at long as this post. Which means after a few posts, I've abandoned most platforms.

 

I started this account after the great Goodreads kerfuffle of 2014, with the intent giving GRs the virtual finger, packing up my toys and playing elsewhere.

 

Except, I'm lazy. I'm used to GRs format. And cross posting at both sites was too much work.

 

But...this is a new year. A new me, who will stand by her principles and finally move on to a new book reviewing/blogging platform. Right?

 

Probably not, but the attempt will be made anew.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce, the eleven-year-old protagonist in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is all kinds of adorable. Especially when she's extolling the virtues of chemistry or using her precocious knowledge of balanced chemical equations to poison one of her sisters. (Poisoned lipstick, not lethal, revenge in an ongoing prank war.) The setting is 1950 in a picture-perfect English village, so cue up the usual quirky, sometimes rambling plot that typifies this kind of cozy mystery. Flavia lives in a sprawling mansion with her father, two sisters, and their handy-man-gardener.

The obligatory dead body arrives in the wee hours of the morning, when Flavia, hearing a peculiar noise, goes out to the vegetable garden and finds a dying man in the cucumbers. Flavia, being Flavia, isn't fazed by man's death, but is instead fascinated. (Me, always the gardener, well I'm thinking, "But what about the cucumbers? Won't somebody think of the cukes?") The stiff coincides with a peculiar incident the day before, when their housekeeper found a dead bird on the kitchen doorstep. The bird had a postage stamp impaled on its beak; an interesting coincidence since Flavia's father is an avid stamp collector.

Flavia immediately begins sleuthing, but her amateur detecting becomes more urgent when the police arrest her father for the murder. Especially problematic because he is Flavia and her siblings' only remaining parent, mom having passed years before. (Fiction, like Disney, is lethal on mothers.)

The strength and the weakness of the novel is Flavia. She's brilliant and dryly funny (at one point comparing her sister to a "disoriented bandicoot"). Sometimes too brilliant; sometimes unbelievably so, her thought processes sounding almost elderly. And yet, for all those smarts, she ignores what are clearly very important clues. This wouldn't be an issue if, right after dismissing one detail, she didn't make a Sherlock Holmesian leap of logic regarding another aspect of the case. Obviously, it's easier for the reader to see the big picture, but there were a couple of situations where Flavia missed or disregarded details that practically had flashing lights and the words, "IMPORTANT CLUE HERE" emblazoned on them.

If, however, Flavia's lack of internal consistency can be ignored, then she is a delightful guide to the quaint little world in which she resides. She's brave and bold, never hesitating to confront a suspect or nose about (trespass) in order to ferret out clues. The novel's secondary characters aren't deeply developed, but the various personalities that populate the village are distinctive enough to give the novel a sense of place. The place is England, so there's rain, and more rain, hedgerows, narrow lanes, stiff upper lips, people with names like Flavia, and churches with vicars.

Recommended to fans of cozy mysteries with quirky protagonists set in archetypal English villages.

The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble's Braids (Amra Thetys, #1)

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braids (Amra Thetys Book 1) - Michael McClung

Never let it be said that I don't judge a book by its cover.

I clicked over to the preview pages because the cover drew my eye. Okay, so the price--Free!--did as well. But, I'm all about covers. This one wasn't particularly dynamic, but the simple, balanced composition suggested "professional," as opposed to the badly Photoshopped (with ugly edge matching) disasters that still typify the self-pubbed market.

So...the book's contents.

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble's Braid's is an entertaining yarn. Amra Thetys is a thief, and "kick-ass" in a genuine, believable manner. In other words, she doesn't talk tough, but turn into a helpless ninny when the obligatory love interest arrives on scene. This is may be due to the fact that there is no love interest, which, coincidentally, may be the story's strength.

I love romance. And a truly sexy sex scene. A good romantic subplot is almost a necessity for me. Unfortunately, the trend lately has been to take a perfectly good heroine (or hero), introduce her to the love interest(s), and immediately devolve her into an addlepated lust monkey. Which is why so many of the urban fantasies I've read recently have been a disappointment. This novel isn't urban fantasy, but the premise, structured around a mystery, is similar to a lot of urban fantasy. Too often romantic fantasy novels plots are a series of poorly conceived coincidences designed to get the couple together (and fucking at inopportune moments).

Amra's goal is simple. To find the person who killed her friend Corbin and make that person dead. Though assassination isn't her M.O., makin' stealthy and creeping unnoticed into habitations is. Naturally, she assumes that killing Corbin's killer will be easy once she identifies the perp. The problem is Corbin's killer may be more than the usual tough guy.

Finding that she's over her head, she enlists the help of her buddy, Holgren, a mage. The nifty thing about Holgren is that he isn't a Gandalf. Meaning he doesn't exist solely to issue cryptic-prophetic statements, but otherwise stand around with his thumb up his butt, only using his powers as a last resort. Holgren is more than happy to turn a baddy into a cloud of bloody mist. Or cook up a super-speed spell. Holdgren's the kind of mage you want to have on a quest.

Other characters round out the plot, but the Amra/Holgren duo are at the core of the action. Amra isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, but she doesn't escape unscathed from her take-charge approach; instead she emerges from her adventures, bloodied, broken and scarred. Or, rather, more scarred, since she apparently carries some significant facial scars from events in her past. Which leads to another point in her favor; she's not particularly pretty. I.e., no blather about how hot she looks; or worse yet, descriptions of her makeup routine and wardrobe.

As character arcs go, Amra's is pancake flat. She starts and ends the story as pretty much the same person; she never has a dark moment (e.g.,"fuck this shit, I'm retiring to a tropic island"). That degree of depth, however, would probably conflict with the story's light, adventurous tone. I'd imagine, if the series continues through several novels, Amara's apparently complicated past will give subsequent stories a darker tone.

Recommended to readers in search of a genuinely kick-ass, capable heroine in a fast-paced, fantasy adventure.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel - Neil Gaiman

I don't do religion. Begging favors from an imaginary, father figure on a cloud isn't my style. To quote Serenity's Captain Malcolm Reynolds, "That's a long wait for a train don't come."

Instead, I've got my real life gods, creative people who consistently inspire me, artists, who even at their worst, are better than the rest.

Neil Gaiman is one of those creative deities. The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn't my favorite Gaiman, but it delivers what I expected, a journey into a magical world that lies just underneath our own.

A middle-age man returns to the quiet little English village where he spent the early days of his childhood. He's there for a funeral, but tired of the usual funeral small talk, wanders off and find himself at the house at the end of the lane. There, he meets the old woman who lives in there, and begins to fall into a lost memory.

And thus begins the meat of the story, a memory of a time, forty years before, when the man was just seven. His family, once well-off, have fallen on hard times, and as a consequence, sometimes take on boarders to make some extra money. When one of their boarders commits suicide, his death opens the doorway to something that shouldn't be in our world.

The boy meanwhile, has made a new friend. Since he's bookish and introverted, his only friend perhaps. Lettie Hempstock lives in the house at the end of the lane along with her mother and grandmother. Though only eleven, she's brave and unflappable, and he quickly realizes that she, along with her mother and grandmother, are something extraordinary. Which is fortunate, because it will take someone extraordinary to put the peculiar and somewhat malevolent force that has been unleashed back in its place in the universe. Things grow more complicated when that thing quite literally moves into the boy's home, taking his already uncomfortable relationship with his father and making it far worse.

I read one review that suggested that this story might work better for older readers, middle-age readers. Given my fondness for YA, and other less-than-mature habits, I'd argue that maturity isn't why I connected with the story. Instead, it seems that the narrative will resonate with those of us who know that the notion of childhood being "the best of times" is a fallacy. At least a fallacy for some of us.

Basically, I think any kid who grew up bookish and isolated will understand the protagonist. The power of the story for me is that it captured the constant sense of powerlessness--particular when confronting adults who just don't understand and who, nonetheless, must be obeyed--that characterized childhood. And the corresponding alienation.

The fantasy here isn't just the cosmic elsewhere that Lettie and her family navigate through so fluidly, but also the wish that all lonely children have for "that" friend, a special buddy who not only understands them, but who comes to the rescue when the world (in this case, parents) turns against them. Someone to turn the tide against the helplessness.

Interestingly, this does seem like the kind of book that middle-age authors tend to write, that book where they stop trying to hide that fact that much of the protagonist is drawn from themselves. Gaiman seems to have written The Ocean at the End of the Lane with his heart pretty much on his sleeve. He acknowledges in the author note at the end that there is a certain autobiographical element to the story. That would be my one criticism of the story and why it's not a keeper. There's just too much of the author in the narration, which imparts a kind of neediness on the tone.

OTOH, this...which I suspect is very much how Gaiman views the creative life, was so spot on, it made me ache.

"...work (doing find, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.)"



The nostalgia in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more of a melancholy flavor, which suits me fine, because that's how, on those odds times when I let any long lost memories sneak into my consciousness, is how I see childhood as well. The story resonated with me because I don't miss childhood.

Shadow and Bone (The Grishna, #1)

Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo

"Holy Guacamole, Batman, this is derivative! And yet, I'm devouring it like a box of Oreos. Have I been dropped on my head recently?" ~Me, at the 60-percent point in Shadow and Bone

I haz teh confuzzled. This book is everything I love to flay--shred, shred, shred, bits of book skin everywhere--and I read the hell out of it.

So there's Alina, an orphan who grew up in the household of a Duke, in a country with little cultural flavor outside of a preponderance of Russian sounding names. Her best buddy in orphan-y misery is Mal.

Alina's skinny and pale and ugly. Or so she says. (Interesting how "skinny and pale," the gold standard of hot in Hollywood, is unattractive here.) But that's okay, because she has Mal, and even as the years progress and he grows into a hottie, he's still her BFF. Except, he's got a host of girlfriends and they aren't Alina. Cue Taylor Swift singing "Teardrops on My Guitar."

When they are very young, both were tested for Grisha power, which is apparently not-Russian for "magic." Both were muggles, so fast-forward several years, and the pair is now in the army, and headed for a crossing of the Fold or Unsea. The Fold is a wasteland created by magic, populated with human-eating monsters, and a geographical inconvenience that cuts the country off from the real sea. Getting people and stuff across the blackness of the Fold requires armed expeditions with flame-throwing Grisha and other lethal magical folk. And even then, death happens on the journey.

Alina is terrified of the journey, and with good reason, since their caravan is almost instantly attacked by monsters. In the chaos, Alina is almost eaten, but saved by Mal. Then, just as both are about to become a monster snack, Alina's latent power--the ability to channel sunlight--awakens.

Her power is--of course--very rare and transforms her into an instant celebrity, the savior of the country, the one who will banish the Fold, etc., etc. Because she's special, The Darkling, the Grisha mage with the mostest power, instantly gloms onto her and whisks her away to world of opulence and glamour. Goes without saying that he is inexplicably attracted to her, because dirty old men in cute boy's bodies with a thing for girl-children are a requirement of the genre.

Alina will learn to used her power; discover that the glittery world of the Grisha has a dark side; find true love and fry the baddies with her supernova power. Because...special.

In addition to the shit-ton of tropes, there's the pseudo-Russian setting. My grandfather was Russian, but alas, he died before I got to know him, so I know little about that part of my heritage. Even so, the flavor of the novel doesn't feel authentically Russian, but instead like an excuse to give people names like Ivan and have them drink tea from samovars.

And yet, this was me, unable to put down this novel. I was like totally into the love triangle and preferring the moody-broody, pedo-hunk, The Darkling*, because...moody-broody, bad boy. I was simultaneously glad that Alina didn't get so caught up in being The Darkling's toy that she forgot about Mal. I liked Mal and was all, "Aw," when he finally gets around to admitting he loves Alina. Even though, somewhere in my head, a voice was yelling, "Of course, he loves her! Everybody loves a Mary Sue!"

Sigh.

Funny. I don't remember going for a ride and my horse bucking me off, and me landing on my head. But that's the only explanation for why I found this so bloody entertaining. Note to self: Always wear your helmet when riding 1200-pound monster with a mind of its own.

*I'm sorely tempted to read the sequel just to find out if The Darkling has a real name. Like...Bob.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

I'm not a fan of cyberpunk.

This is an uncomfortable admission because I'm a geek girl and a nerd. I'm a gamer and my nerd cred goes back to the days of adolescence when I taught myself to program in BASIC on a Tandy computer. The kind of contraption that had a TV screen for a monitor and a tape drive for storage--except we were too poor to buy a tape drive, so any code I wrote disappeared into oblivion whenever I shut the machine off.

But I found Neuromancer unreadable and DNFed Snow Crash after a couple hundred pages. It's possible that the tone of most cyberpunk with its "Gee-whiz, isn't all this technology Awesome? Here's a detailed description of my cool equipment!" is too contrived for me. Like a nerd, it desperately wants to be liked.

That said, Ready Player One is a fun romp through cyberspace. Kind of like Snow Crash, but without the Librarian and the tedious, info-dumpy, treatises into Sumerian history. Some of the aspects of Snow Crash that I enjoyed--the believably fucked-up version of the U.S. and the commentary on the inherent escapist elements of the internet/virtual reality--are present in Ready Player One, but the story is grounded in a likeable, introverted protagonist who nevertheless manages to cultivate strong friendships over the course of the story. The one thing I remember about Snow Crash is that the protagonist left me cold; I didn't give a rat's ass what happened to him.

Wade, aka Parzival, is a dork, but he's lovable. He's a kid from the wrong side of the trailer park stacks. Yeah, "stacks." In this future world, rednecks, in search of employment in the big city, move their mobile homes to shanty towns on the edge of large cosmopolitan areas. Because space is limited, their homes are literally stacked, one atop the other, supported by huge steel beams.

Wade, whose parents are both dead, splits his time between living in an abandoned van and his aunt's laundry room in a trailer in the stacks. Most of his time is spent in the van, where he can cruise the online world of OASIS without being hassled by his aunt (who steals his gear). OASIS, available to everyone, rich and poor, has become a world all its own, with an economy and government that functions better than that of any in the real world.

When the founder and creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves a sizable fortune to anyone who can find an Easter egg hidden in OASIS. The hunt is on for the treasure, and Wade is one of thousands of "gunters" intent on finding the three keys and gates necessary to secure the egg.

Of course, in this future world, corporations rule the real world, and one, IOI, wants to rule OASIS as well. If IOI, though its huge army of Sixers, finds the egg first, OASIS will no longer be a quasi-egalitarian place, and instead become a pay-for-play world only available to the elite and privileged.

So...evil corporation vs. every man/woman. I'm with that. And surprisingly, the endless references to 80s pop culture didn't wear too thin. Halliday, who grew up in the 80s, was obsessed with the era, and solving his various clues require that gunters have an encyclopedic knowledge of the time period.

Usually, anything or anyone that waxes poetic about the 80s makes my eyes twitch. I'm not particularly nostalgic, in part, because I'm a fan of living in the now. Because 80s pop culture is something I was there to experience, references to the time of big hair, birth of MTV, etc. make me feel old. And I don't like feeling old.

But I confess, it was fun reading along and going, "Oh, wow, I forgot all about that!" as Wade dug through some pretty obscure 80s references. OTOH, references to Serenity/Firefly and more recent geekyness gave me much warmer fuzzies.

With the exception of a few derailments into "Look at all my cool tech" info-dumps, Ready Player One moves at a brisk pace. The story's primary weakness is that Wade is sort of a Mary Sue.

Point of fact, because I was engaged with the story, I didn't realize the extent of Wade's super-duper-ness until writing this review. Wade has a serious case of "the boy who can do no wrong." Aside from spending too much time mooning over the girl of his dreams, Wade always makes the right decision; every plan he concocts works out well; he's always in the right place at the right time; clues fall in his lap. People in his periphery get hurt, killed (blown-up), but I don't think Wade ever suffers so much as a paper cut.

Nevertheless, Ready Player One is entertaining; wish fulfillment fantasy for anyone who's ever felt more at home online than in the real world.

Bad Blood (Latter Day Olympians, #1)

Bad Blood  - Lucienne Diver

We are defined by the company we keep.

This being particularly true for book characters. And when the secondary characters, the love interests, etc., are bland, not even a crisp, funny voice nor a snarky, clever antagonist can save a novel.

I wanted to like this. The first few pages are full of sparkle, lit up by Tori's, the protagonist's, sharp, observational humor. Consequently, my inability to connect with the story, to dig in and read for more than a few pages, was baffling.

My conclusion? Tori Karacis, former circus performer-turned PI, is a likable protagonist, especially for urban fantasy. She's estranged from her family, but without the angst or bitterness that typifies UF heroines. Her characterization lacks consistency because it's never clear (to me, anyway) whether or not, at the beginning of the story, she believes in Greek gods and other magical beasties in the pantheon. Consequently, there wasn't much curve in her character arc. Nevertheless, Tori is one of the better UF protagonists.

Urban fantasy, especially when structured like Bad Blood, is basically mystery dressed up with magic. And the strength of a good mystery novel is the setting and secondary characters. This is where Bad Blood fails. There's a flatness to everyone else in the story. No one has distinguishing characteristics, beyond the stereotypical, that is. For instance, Tori's assistant, Jesus, is the bitchy, style-conscious, gay guy. Her best friend is the bubbly, extroverted, blond, actress type (because this is Los Angeles). All the cops are grumpy, law-bots. Even gods lack color. Hermes the trickster, is tricksy in name only (disappointing, because I love me some sly characters).

The worst offenders are the two points in the love triangle--Apollo (yes, that Apollo), and Armani (yes, that's his name), the cop. The descriptions of the two are as follows: Apollo is gorgeous (well, duh) and currently moonlighting as an actor. His god power is the ability to turn any woman (willing or otherwise) into a puddle of estrogen. And he's...blond. (<=Where "blond" is spoken in Wicked's Elphaba's voice.)

Armani is a hard-nose detective type. I think he's a brunette; tall, dark and handsome, blah-blah-blah. He spends a lot of time scowling at Tori, which is supposed to be sexy, but mostly it's just stoopid. Did I mention he's tall, dark and handsome?

Right. It's like that. Not much more than the barest of character sketches. As usual, neither man is burdened with actual wit, intelligence or charm. Just big and musclebound. Sigh. Gone are the days when a generic description of male hotness would get me correspondingly hot. Now, it's show me the hot; don't tell.

And Apollo, with his sexy-mojo, borders on rapey. I know it's not meant that way, but Tori doesn't seem all that interested in him, but because of his god magnetism, she finds herself wanting to make like carpet and shag him in every room. Look at it this way. What if, instead of being tall, blond and god-gorgeous, Apollo was four feet tall, warty, toadlike, and with a sagging beer belly. Would his ability to compel Tori into the nekkid mambo be acceptable then? No. So...creepy.

The issues with the novel are probably more glaring because it has so much potential. Maybe if the story's voice was as toneless as the characterization, my apathy toward Armani and Apollo wouldn't have mattered as much. I would certainly have DNFed this straight away.

Despite the high stakes conclusion--a battle to keep Los Angeles from sliding off into the sea--Bad Blood was too easy to put down. (Read at least three other books while attempting this one.) Only finished because I was compelled by the power of "I paid money for this."

The Bagman (The Abigail Cobble Trilogy, #1)

The Bagman - Rachael Rippon

A story that features one of the most despicable collections of adults I've read; that says a lot in a genre (YA) where adults are usually asshats.

It's the height of World War II. The Germans are merrily bombing the crap out of England. But Abigail Cobble, an orphan, has bigger problems. Having spent most of the last few years being bounced from one orphanage to another, she is on her way to a new home, St. Winnifred's. St. Winnifred's is an orphanage of last resort where really incorrigible children are sent to be abused by nuns. Because nothing says, "God loves you," like being beaten bloody.

There's a method to Abigail's madness, though. St. Winnifred's is located in the same village where Abigail's sister, Tabitha, lives with her adopted family. For reasons that are explain as the story progresses, Tabitha was adopted by their aunt Theodora, while Abigail was not. Abigail has in her possession two lockets, one for her, one for Tabitha, that must be worn by each when they turn sixteen. Abigail and Tabitha are Cobbles, twins who are the embodiment of good and evil, and their magical jewelry is apparently essential to maintaining the balance between good and evil.

And their birthday is a just a few months away.

Abigail's new home, however, is inhabited by a boogieman known as The Bagman. A shadowy figure, The Bagman lives off people's fears and misery, and sometimes helps the nuns by administering punishment. Again, nice nuns--not. Initially, Abigail, thinks The Bagman is nothing more than myth, but when he shows himself and steals the lockets, she is forced to make a deal with the devil as it were.

He grants her seven wishes, with various stipulations and fine print, all written in his favor. The outcome of each wish will be judged, with either Abigail or The Bagman being the victor. At the culmination of a week of wishes, the one with the most wins...wins.

This is the sort of story that defies rating. Reading was a pleasure, but there was a peculiar sense of dissonance in the tone as well as a lack of internal consistency that felt like a stone in my shoe. Not big enough to hurt or cause a blister, but just enough to always distract.

First, the tone. Abigail is fifteen. She's been shuffled from one orphanage to another in a system that clearly doesn't expend much effort on niceties like kindness. She's bold enough to misbehave in order to achieve her goal. Despite that, she lacks much edge, and her reasoning follows that of a younger girl, someone eleven, twelve, at best. Though decisive, she's often wracked with unnecessary, slightly maudlin guilt. She makes decisions with a kind of single-mindedness that feels almost obsessive and at times, left me cold.

My other quibble lies in the manner in which the cruelty of the world is sanitized. One might gather, from the narrative's approach, that nuns abusing children to the point of crippling was very common place, de rigueur in this world, so why bother making much of it? This is probably a function of the novel's style, which is meant to mimic an older storytelling approach where stuff like cruelty is no big deal.

Except to my modern sensibilities, it is a big deal. I mean, one of the nuns literally shoved one of the children down a flight of stairs, breaking his legs and then denying him adequate health care, resulting in him being permanently disabled. And yet, the supposed good nun, Sister Kate, is devoted to St. Winnifred's and does nothing to temper the violent inclinations of Sister Bruga and others.

Sister Kate, of course, turns out to be an asshole in her own right (and too-stupid-to-live), so perhaps that's the point. But my complaint is that the story (and technically, the narrator) never seems to take a position on all this. Child abuse is wrong. The reader doesn't need to be told that ('least, I hope not). But usually, there's an underlying sense that the storyteller knows this too, that at least some judgement is laid on the villains. Here, it's like all the attention is focused on the toddler who burned down the house, all while ignoring the parents who left her alone with only matches as toys.

My guess is that the story's theme may actually be that humans do far worse to each other than the likes to The Bagman, but it gets sort of lost in the non-judgmental, simplistic depiction of the nuns.

Instead, there's a point where Sister Kate lectures Abigail, telling her that everything that has gone wrong is Abigail's fault, all caused by her selfishness. And I was like, "Whoa, she's a fifteen-year-old kid trapped in an abusive system, and labelled 'the evil twin.' If anything, you, the adult, are to blame."

Again, I reckon this is the point. Abigail is a child cast adrift in the Sea of Suck It Up Because Nobody Gives a Shit. But the underlying darkness of themes jars against the almost sweet, childlike tone of the novel's voice.

On that note, The Bagman might make a delightful read-aloud story for younger children who aren't afraid of a few scares. Especially since younger readers aren't likely to dissect the storyline as this fussy adult did

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

By Susan Cain Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (1st Edition) - Susan Cain

"Introverts UNITE! Separately, in your homes."

A book that strokes my ego, tells me it's okay to love my solitude, and assures me I'm full of awesome. (Sings song from The Lego Movie: "Everything is awesome; Everything is cool when you're NOT part of a team.") Works for me.

Nope. Teams aren't my thing. Yes, I can work with others toward a common, clearly defined goal. Many endeavors--building a skyscraper; putting on a play; team sports--require the cooperation of three or more people, operating as a unit.

Unfortunately, sometime in recent decades, some shit-for-brains MBA came up with the idea that solitary tasks like accounting, editing, or computer programming would also benefit from the team approach. It isn't enough just to show up, accurately balance the books, make small talk around the water cooler and then go home. Nope. Now, you need to be reminded that you are one of a team of hard-working ants and better yet, forced to attend team-building exercises where you learn to trust your fellow ants with your life, love and deepest secrets.

How this improves your ability to keep the company's financials in order or to write a complex sorting routine is never explained. Asking means you are not a team player.

In my decade or so in the workplace, I learned that being a "team player" meant being the unfortunate schmuck who picks up the ball and runs like hell after management has dropped it and is currently under the bleachers fucking the cheerleaders.

So, no, not a fan of the team approach to the average workplace.

In Quiet: the Power of Introverts in World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain makes my point--teams are not for every task--but does it far more gently. The book's thesis is essentially that many functions, like accounting, etc., benefit from introverts' innate need to work alone, their attention to detail, and the creativity that springs from being in one's head. The push to team-ify everything has resulted in a loud, obnoxious world that stifles innovation and often results in costly mistakes.

I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork...for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding. ~Albert Einstein



The book then goes on to present the many instances where introverts not only developed the technology that runs our world, but the fallacy that extroverts excel in people-oriented tasks like sales. It also demonstrates the fail in the notion that brainstorming or work in a committee produces more and superior "ideas" than working alone.

One of the most useful chapters in the book concerns communication between introverts and extroverts. As an extreme introvert married to someone who is somewhere in the ambivert-extrovert range, the descriptions of argument styles of example couples really hit home. Definitely something to remember next time the shit hits the fan in Casa de Kirby.

Unfortunately, Cain puts most of the emphasis on communication between romantic partners and parent and child, when, IMO, what's really needed is a primer on communicating in the workplace.

Because, ultimately, the real problem with putting disparate people together and expecting them to work together without conflict, isn't our lack of trust in each other, or a required fuzzy-wuzzy sense of team-ish camaraderie, but instead communication. If people can communicated what they want and take the time to listen to each other, all this team building bullshit would be a moot point. Well, it already is.

The Coldest Girl from Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown - Holly Black

"This is a vampire book? I mean, that's okay, I just had no idea it was about vampires." ~Me, a few pages into The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

It says a lot about my faith in Holly Black that I would buy a book without knowing anything about the plot.

It says a lot about her abilities as a storyteller that I would read and finish a book that features a protagonist cast from a tedious, "I haz teh noble, must save everyones" mold. Tana, the titular coldest chick in Coldtown, has a penchant for heroism that often blunders straight into Too Stupid to Live (TSTL).

(This is where I note that if you want someone to have your back, I'm NOT your girl. Point of fact, unless you're my spouse, pet, very close family member (distant relations need not apply), or bestest bud, my mantra in times of crisis is "Every woman for herself!" The only contact you'll get from me is footprints on your face as I book it out of town at lightspeed.)

So Tana's pseudo-heroism makes fuck-all for sense to me.

The premise: Vampires are real and part of the cultural landscape, with entire cities quarantined and walled to contain bloodsuckers and those infected from a vampire bite--"coldtowns." Because we love our reality TV, cameras are posted throughout these coldtowns and footage is fed to the normal, not undead populace at large. Big Brother, the Vampire Years.

For many centuries, vampire lived in secrecy, always killing their dinners/victims and never allowing an infected human to go free and "turn" into a new vampire. But recently, one vampire went rogue and begat and begat a whole bunch of new vamps, ultimately leading to the development of coldtowns, a means of controlling the infection.

Tana is an otherwise ordinary teen until she wakes up on morning in a bathtub after a wild party. "Where are my pants?" is hardly an unusual question after a long night of getting loaded, but Tana's sich is complicated by the fact that everyone in the house where she awakes has been killed--by vampires apparently. She stumbles around the house, looking for her boots, and finds her ex-boyfriend chained in a bedroom with a vampire, also chained. It's morning, but obviously Tana's ex is meant to be a snack for the vampire come nightfall.

Tana, in what will be a long string of "why bother?" moves, decides she must save not only Aiden, her obnoxious ex, but also the vampire. But in the process, she gets a small scratch, a possible bite, from one of the other vampires that is still lurking in the house. (Me, I would've grabbed my boots, lied to Aiden about finding help, and like Elvis, left the building.)

Aiden has already been bitten and is hankering for blood. Point of fact, he ravenous and dangerous. If he can abstain from drinking blood for eighty days, he won't turn; if he does drink human blood, he dies and arises perpetually young and beautiful. This is also true for Tana, assuming her bite has given her the infection.

Anyway, Tana decides that it's up to her to keep Aiden from immortality, because...I don't know why. Aiden seems to be a-okay with going nosferatu, and it's really none of Tana's business anyway. I'm not entirely sure why Tana is so opposed to the idea. Something about not becoming a monster and being able to see her little sister, but...meh...her motivations left me cold. Colder than an infected person.

As the title suggests, Tana, Aiden and Gavriel (the vampire) do the road trip thing and head for the nearest Coldtown. Along the way, they pick up a couple of gothy, vamp groupies, who are also headed for Coldtown in hopes of becoming vampires.

As per the genre, there's ample amounts of gothy, emo goodness, right down to the gauzy, ethereal fashions and dreamy, rave-style parties that go on every night. Stuff which, I confess, gives me the happy. As does Holly Black's storytelling voice.

Tana, however, maintains her pattern as the girl who must save everyone, bolting stupidly into danger like a panicked horse into a burning barn. It might work if the people she was saving were worth the effort, or, for that matter, people. At one point, she gets sort of miffed about vampires killing each other, and I'm like, "Seriously? Dude, they're vampires, the thing you are desperate not to be."

Ugh.

The best part of the story is Gavriel, the gorgeous, raven-haired (of course) vamp that she saves at the beginning. On the run from other vampires, Gavriel is the quintessential man of mystery. The unfolding of his backstory and motivations is the only reason to keep turning the pages.

Unfortunately, his appeal is dampened by his insta-love for Tana. This is the tropey "Very old man in a young body who inexplicably falls madly in love with a very young woman (a child really)" narrative. Hey, presented in the right light, i.e., a story that develops both characters and their relationship, it can work (for example, Liesmith by Alis Franklin). Here, however, it doesn't. Outside of the debt he owes her for saving his undead bacon, there's really no reason for the attraction. Maybe TSTL is what he wants in a woman?

Oh, and things really go downhill when Tana's little sister decides to run away and join her in Coldtown, setting up the standard endangered child cliche, which, as usual, only makes me hate the child. If the kid is that stupid, she's a turd in the gene pool. Bleh.

And yet...Holly Black, ya know? This is yet another book where the author's dexterity with words dragged me along even though key aspects of the story faltered and stalled like an old engine.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #3)

Dreams of Gods & Monsters - Khristine Hvam, Laini Taylor

"Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate."
Zuzana from Dreams of Gods & Monsters

As I write this, my hubs is reading the first book in the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series and agrees that Zuzana, sidekick to heroine, Karou, is witty to the point of being awesome. Dreams of Gods & Monsters serves to affirm my love for her and indelibly inks her into my "book people I'd like to hang with in real life" list. She's like the daughter I never had: brash, mouthy, strong. At least the young woman I wish my imaginary girl child would have become. Truth? She's the young woman I wish I was, but never had the courage to be.

Love. Her.

Oh, and Karou is terrif as well, but...you know me and humor.

"Epic." An apt word to describe this series. But wait. Don't run away! In this case it's a grand thing. A sweeping narrative across worlds that, yes indeedy, comes to a conclusion. Within just three books. No carrying on for ten books, adding more and more superfluous characters (cough, George R.R. Martin), and completely losing track of the story's central characters.

Nope, this sucker wraps up in three books.

The premise, in quick Cliff Notey summary: In the snowy streets of Prague, Karou, a young woman, leads a double life. Art student by day; by night, a thief, trafficking in teeth (yes, teeth), delivering her strange swag to a monstrous father figure named Brimstone. Meanwhile, in a distant world, angelic seraphins battle beastly chimarae in a centuries old war. And as the story unfolds, the connection between the two scenarios is developed.

There are adult readers out there who roll their eyes at YA and grumble, "Why would I want to read stories about teen angst? I want grownup stories." To which, my answer is: "Because...books like this."

This is no doubt a reflection of my choices as a reader, but honestly, the best, hands down, books I've ever read, books with the crunchiest, most mature themes, have been YA. Yeah, there's some crap--Twilight--and there's some that try to be deep--Divergent--and fall splat into a stinky hot mess. But the ranks of YA books feature some epically powerful yarns.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters picks up and carries the torch held by the previous two books, still examining the consequences of war, the futility and yes, even the necessity of violence. Exploring redemption and just what atonement means.

"What I did, Karou, I know I can never atone for." [...]"You can't atone for taking one life by saving another. What good does that do the dead?"

"The dead," she said. "And we have plenty of dead between us, but the way we act, you'd think they were corpses hanging on to our ankles, rather than souls freed to the elements. [...] They're gone, they can't hurt anymore, but we drag their memory around with us, doing our worst in their name, like it's what they'd want, for us to avenge them? [...]"


That's the essential theme of the series, that in the name of king, country, religion, or justice, we take up arms and kill each other. And sometimes it's necessary. And sometimes, not so much. And there is rarely a truly "right" side, just the side you happen to be on. But there's always someone left staring at the corpses, bleeding hot vengeance, and ready to perpetuate the cycle.

As with The Hunger Games and Red Rising, there's some powerful thinky stuff within the story. Yes, there's angst, but all good stories need angst. For me, the beauty of the story is that it's driven by a deeply romantic subplot. The kind of love story that romances should be, but often aren't. Where the obstacle to a happily ever after isn't a stupid misunderstanding, or the hero's inability to communicate (because he an alpha-hole), but the kind of vast Romeo/Juliet discord that feels insumountable. Where the non-romantic arcs are just as strong as the romantic and equally necessary.

Best of all, unlike most romantic fantasy, it actually serves up a happy ending. Or, at least, a happy middle. Because "happiness has to go somewhere."

All of this served up with enough humor to offset the angst. Zuzana and her guy Mik being the main purveyors of teh funny, but even Karou, and new addition Eliza get in some sly, observational wit.

Which leads me to another observation--"Yay for gal pals!" Fantasy can be a total sausage fest. Don't get me wrong. I loves the menz, but a common trope is the female protagonist who only has male pals. Point of fact, the strongest dynamics relationship-wise in Dreams of Gods & Monsters are between female characters.

Weaknesses? Yeah, there are some. Notably, by the last third of the book, things start wrapping up too easily. This, despite the inclusion of a new and greater menace (a thread that is left somewhat unresolved). Where, previously, it seemed that every plan Karou made bit her in the ass, now everything works out well. In some cases, with a strong suggestion of Deus ex Machina.

The story isn't ruined for this upbeat shift. Frankly, the characters deserve some good news after all the shit heaped on them in previous books. But the sudden change in fortunes feels a little out-of-place.

But...gorgeous prose, memorable characters, and heart-rending-feels-heavy moments, and happy endings for my fave characters...make for an addition to the keeper shelf.

Liesmith

Liesmith: Book 1 of The Wyrd - Alis Franklin

In theory, I should love romance novels.

In reality, at best, most have been moderately entertaining fluff. A good many have left me digging under the sofa cushions, searching for a misplace a crucial "girl" gene, because the romance left me cold and disinterested.

For me, the ideal romance would feature an even balance between the love and non-romantic story elements, concluding with an all important happily-ever-after. The couple should meet early on, but they don't need to realize their attraction until later (this allowing me to start "shipping" them beforehand). And the non-romantic plot elements should be there as something more than just a backdrop for the romance.

Unfortunately, the gods and goddesses of genre romance have decreed that the formula requires the couple to meet in chapter one, ideally on page one, fall into instant attraction (lust or love), and from there on, the focus should be with blinding clarity on The Couple. The hero and heroine will cease to be individuals, and non-romantic story elements can never take preeminence over the love story. Sit back, brace yourself and prepare to be nagged endlessly about The Couple, their feelings, their fucking, more feelings. It's all so...forced and awkward.

Liesmith: Book 1 of the Wyrd is so not like that.

Sigmund Sussman is the archetypal geek. Slightly pudgy, good with computers, bad with people (at least ones who aren't part of a RPG), he works for the local mega-corporation as a "did you try rebooting?" help desk minion.

As his name would suggest, Lain Laufeyjarson, is a lot more than the newbie addition to Sigmund's IT division. Under his cool hipster exterior is, well, several other exteriors, one being a certain god of mischief, currently hiding from fate in a corner of Australia. Lain is quick to glom onto Sigmund and make him his new work buddy.

Initially, Sigmund is baffled by Lain's friendly overtures, and is adorably clueless with regard to Lain's motives. It takes some prodding from one of his gal-pals, Wayne, to open his eyes to Lain's flirting. Even then, he doesn't quite know what to make of Lain. Sigmund is a nerd but he doesn't ooze desperation and jump on the first hot guy who shows an interest. Point of fact, he thinks Lain is too tall and lanky and not his type.

Lain, being immortal, is content to take his time romancing Sigmund, His past, however, decides to accelerate and catch up with him, forcing not only the issue of who he really is, but also who Sigmund once was.

See, once upon a time, Loki had a wife name Sigyn. Sigyn. Sigmund. Get it? To reveal more would be to spoil a substantial chunk of the non-romantic plot points. Once Lain's true (read: not human) form shows up, the fantasy aspects of the story ramp up, as the boundary between ordinary Australian city and the realms of Norse mythology grows thinner and thinner. Sword fights ensue, ravens talk, dead walk, and ultimately, it's up to Sigmund to step up and save the day.

Some reviews had complained that the story requires substantial knowledge of Norse mythology. All I ever learned about Norse mythology comes from the movies (Thor and The Avengers), comic books, and fan fiction. Of the three, fan fiction may be the deeper well of knowledge--seriously. With my smattering of understanding of the mythos, the story was accessible. It's possible, however, that for someone with no background at all in anything Loki/Sigyn/Odin/Baldr, this novel may be confusing.

On the other hand, the author, did what most have done with the tales of Asgard. She took a fractured and inconsistent narrative and made it her own.

In her notes following the story, the author discusses what she was attempting to do with the story, addressing the inherent challenge of making a romance between an immortal and a very young mortal believable. In particular, the inherent imbalance of power between two such people, and the necessity of showing that despite that, each partner brought something significant to the relationship. This, for me, is the strength of the love story, the slow unfolding of attraction and a construction of a solid foundation where two individuals are better together, but never lost to the amorphous Relationship.

There's a spot, early on, where Lain essential tells Sigmund he loves him. Unlike, however, Bones's creepy, over-the-top pronouncement in Halfway to the Grave, Lain's declaration is exquisitely subtle and one of the most romantic things I've read. Because he never uses the word love, but instead lists all the characteristics (good and bad) that he likes about Sigmund. And I was like, "Dude, he just told you he loves your soul." *Plop. Drops dead of feels.*

Also in the author's notes is a mention that this is published under a Harper Collins imprint, which was surprising because I assumed it was self-published. Not because of the quality; the writing is snappy and engaging, but because the story is just so not-formulaic. There's Sigmund, the pleasant to look at, but way not-sexy half of the couple. Oh, and although he's not as black as the guy on the cover, Sigmund isn't the usual Anglo-Saxon white as per romance standards.

There's the fact that Lain isn't even human and is basically a scary monster throughout much of the story. There's a constant romantic tone that is partnered with a complex and essential non-romantic subplot (where at times, the romance is the subplot). There's the absence of a sex scene every five pages (I assume the two will get to some sexing in the sequel).

Oh, and it's an urban fantasy that doesn't feature a bitter, friendless, female protagonist who is supposedly kick-ass, but often ends up needing rescuing from the love interest.

This sucker is just too original to be from a paint-by-numbers, take no risks, big publisher.

But it is. Go figure.

Journey Into Mystery: The Terrorism Myth - Kieron Gillen, Mitch Breitweiser, Richard Elson

Longer, coherent review to come... Nope. Still giddy and incoherent....

Because I love Thori, and Thori loves Hellstrom. As does Leah. As do I.

Come on. Can you blame us? I mean, have you seen Hellstrom's abs? YUM!

Also, Cadaver Thor needs a hug.

Into the Dark Lands (The Sundered #1) - Michelle Sagara West

I am just not getting into this. Erin, the protagonist, is sort of bland, or maybe it's the voice and the in-scene POV shifts (I think, technically, this can be excused as omniscient viewpoint, but not a plus since I really prefer one POV per scene.) Or maybe it's just that I don't really find the story all that interesting. Good versus evil, but with no real sense of danger or menace.

Because this is on my Kindle, and because I paid money for this, I'm reluctant to outright DNF it, so onto my "Maybe-later" shelf it goes.