Monday, January 31, 2011

Magic to the Bone by Devon Monk

In this world magic has a cost, it requires something from the user. Bruises, headaches or a cold in exchange for minor magic, something more painful for more. But some people want the power without the price, so they Offload, causing someone else to pay for their magic. Allie's job is to catch these people. She discovers her next case is a little boy dying from an intense Offload, and she gets a horrible shock when she recognizes the magic user. It's her father. He's a well-heeled businessman, and Allie wouldn't put killing a poor kid for more power past him. She thought when she left that world behind she wouldn't have to deal with the tricky, power-hungry world of big business anymore, but clearly now she is going to have to go back in.

I was put off from the start of the book by the fact that the author hurls a lot of jargon and unfamiliar situations at the reader, but never bothers to explain the why's and how's of it. This technique works to a point by immersing the reader, but here it was overdone and had the opposite effect; I had to set the book down and try to figure out what the point of things were. 

As the book progressed it became clear that the plot was very weak. The author originally had written this as a short story, and then expanded it into a novel. Perhaps she should have stopped at novella, as this book felt bloated and weighed down by unneeded characters, situations, and descriptions of things I didn't much care about (like what the buildings look like- again). Often the story was so lost among sub-plots that went nowhere that I lost track of the main plot. It was also very repetitive, which makes for dull reading.

The writing was often trite, but has potential. The pacing of individual chapters was alright, although the pacing of the book in general was wobbly. The main character rather got on my nerves. She seemed whiny, clingy, passive and unwilling to do what needed to be done when a situation came up. I did like to see a mixed race couple as the main romance. I see these extremely rarely in paranormal romances. The thought seems to be we can vampXhuman, wereXhuman, fairyXhuman, or any combination of different supernatural critters, but God forbid we have our single white female fall for a black guy. It was refreshing to see one where that was the case, but it wasn't viewed as a big deal.

This was an okay read for some distracted, mild entertainment, but far from memorable.

3 Stars

Monday, January 24, 2011

Angel at Troublesome Creek by Mignon F. Ballard

After her beloved aunt dies, Mary George attempts to kill herself. She fails, but an odd woman who claims to be an angel shows up and says she wants to help her. The angel, a World War II-era lady named Augusta, points out that Mary George's aunt's death is more than a bit suspicious. Before she knows it, Mary George is sleuthing about and looking for clues to why someone might have killed Aunt Caroline, with a guardian angel assisting her.

I found this book very generic. I was actually rolling my eyes at the bland plot and stereotypical mystery characters. At the end of the book I don't think there was a single character I cared about or had found interesting. The writing was just as simplistic as the plot. A late elementary-school aged child wouldn't have any trouble with reading it due to the lack of any complex words and basic, repetitive sentence structure. The dialogue was badly stilted, and I winced my way through a number of conversations. The author doesn't seem to realize that the reader might be able to use context to figure out the most basic things, and wastes a lot of time explaining things that didn't need such an elaborate explanation.

This book is fine if you have some time to waste or need a book where one only has to use minimal brainpower to follow what's happening, but otherwise you may find it frustrating.

2 Stars

Lords of the Night by Monique Ellis, Janice Bennett and Sara Blayne

As this book is really a set of three novellas by different authors, I shall review each one on it's own rather than the book as a whole.

The DeVille Inheritance focuses on a vampire who believes that if he can do something truly selfless, he will be able to regain a soul and go to heaven after his death. (Yes, he's a religious vampire. Roll with it.) The trouble is, can any act really be a selfless one if the person doing it intends to get a reward for his actions? When he rescues the bold and beautiful Ann Leighton from an attack in a bad section of London, he quickly finds himself entranced. Might helping this girl save her swaggering drunkard of a brother from a greedy suitor of Ann's be the thing that will save him?

I picked this book up on a lark, thinking it might be a bit of corny, vampiric fun. This was the first story and completely changed my mind. This story is really good! The author mixes family politics and responsibility, a budding romance and morality, with the result being a gripping, emotional and surprisingly intellectually-interesting story. All the main characters except the primary villain are interesting and made me wish for a proper novel so I could read about them more. There were also a number of unexpected plot twists, and the author often opted not to follow the same well-worn path of many other romance authors, instead finding new ways to keep the reader hooked.

The writing is a touch affected sounding at times, like the author was unsuccessfully trying a little too hard to make it sound like Regency greats such as Austen. However, for the most part the writing is smooth and easy reading. The dialogue is very smart and quick, but still sounds quite natural.

I wish I could read some work by this author that wasn't limited by the restrictions of standard romance novels, as she shows clear talent for creating a morally complex tale. Sadly, the requisite happy ending of this one didn't fit with the feel of the rest of the tale very well and felt rushed and tacked on.

The second tale, Dark Shadows, features a spunky red-head with a fondness for shaking up polite society and who enjoys causing a scandal or two. But when she meets the Earl of Revelstroke, she might have met her match, in more ways than one.  I only got a little way into this one before I gave up. The dull, overused stereotypical characters were particularly bothering after the excellence of the first story. The writing was far too heavy handed and melodramatic, I was longing for a red pen and wishing the editor had made better use of theirs.
In the final story, The Full of the Moon, the vampiric Baron Ramsdell rescues young Juliana Wittington from an awkward confrontation at a party. She admits to him that she is new to London, as is her cousin. Her cousin has taken to gambling under the advice of a "gentleman" named Woolsey, who Juliana is convinced is swindling him. Ramsdell decides he wants to help her and the two of them come up with a plan to teach the two young men a lesson and hopefully reveal Woolsey's cheating. But Juliana is unaware that as time passes, Ramsdell is finding her blood harder and harder to resist.

Although not as good as the first story, this was a fun read. The plot was rather predictable, but I enjoyed it all the same. The couple's project was a good way of bringing them together and giving them plenty of time to get to know each other. The writing is rather bland, but not what I'd call bad. I definitely didn't see the twist ending coming, although thinking it over afterwards I probably should have.

4 Stars

Angels' Blood by Nalini Singh

Elena is a vampire hunter and one of the best, due to her ability to sense vampires when they are nearby, a trick which makes finding them a lot easier. When the archangel Raphael contacts her he's not looking for someone to track down a lost vampire servant, instead he wants her to help kill a fallen angel. He believes she can learn to use her vampire-tracking power on an angel too, but Elena isn't at all sure this is a job she can handle. She takes the job; after all, who would refuse one of the most powerful and dangerous angels alive? However after a while Elena is wondering if Raphael might be more of a danger to her life (and/or sanity) than their target. He keeps pressuring her to join his bed, and she's not sure if she can say no. She's not even sure she wants to or how to tell, considering how entertaining he seems to find messing with her head and making her do things she doesn't want to do.

The "power=magic=control=sex=power" concept is very common in paranormal romance, but rarely is it done well and in a believable manner. Here it is. Raphael is shown as inhuman at the beginning, his main interest in Elena seems just to be about getting his power-trip from forcing a powerful hunter to do his bidding, slowly and surprisingly believably, becoming a relationship about something other than wrestling over who's tougher. I think the key thing that makes it seem possible is respect. Both characters learn to respect each other's abilities, weaknesses and pasts, in doing so they both learn to start letting go of the urge to try and run the whole world, which lets them realize that their relationship doesn't have to be about control and power. It's very rare for a paranormal romance to use character development so effectively, which makes this one a breath of fresh air into an often stagnant genre.

I wish the writing had been as good as the characters. It wasn't dreadful, but it felt sloppy and rushed in a number of spots. It was generally rather bland, I got the sense the author was trying not to make her writing a distraction or stand out, but instead it meant that when exciting stuff wasn't happening to keep the reader interested via the plot and/or characters, the writing had a tendency to drag and get rather dull.

Another problematic thing is that both main characters were so unlikable at the beginning and it was very difficult to empathize, like or be interesting in learning more about them until more than a third of the way through. I only stuck with it that far because of the interesting setting, a couple background characters and the fact that I had received it through Bookcrossing and wanted to write a proper review. Had it been a library book I would have put it down unfinished, which would have been unfortunate since it improved so much later on.

This is an interesting read, but one has to slog through a tough beginning to get to the "good stuff".

3 Stars

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

Sam Vimes is mostly happy with his wife and soon-to-be-born child and his job as Commander of the City Watch, but sometimes he misses the "good old days" back before he got the crime in the city under a semblance of control. When a knife-loving psychopath decides to go on a murdering spree, he is only too happy to join the fray. But during a rooftop chase on a stormy night something magic and odd happens: Vimes and his quarry are transported back in time 30 years. Vimes now finds himself penniless, homeless and without a single person who knows him in the messy situation of a city hovering on the edge of a city-wide riot and the supremely awkward one of meeting himself as a over-eager teenage watch trainee. Can one watchman from another time help keep people safe? and how much can he get away with before he has destroyed the timeline so badly there is no way to get back to his right place?

This book is definitely much more serious and dark than the other Discworld novel I have read (Guards! Guards!) but that isn't a bad thing. Pratchett easily glides his story between playful, introspective and action-packed moments. One moment the reader is laughing, the next brooding along with Vimes. This quick movement between styles can lead to a bit of mental whiplash, so I recommend taking a break here and there rather than trying to read it straight through.

The writing is not fancified and elaborate, but clearly conveys what the reader needs to know while staying interesting. Pratchett has a good ear for phrases that don't sound commonplace or cliche, but make perfect sense and don't require the reader to stop the story in order to try and figure out what the author was trying to say.

4 Stars

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Black Butler: Volume 1 by Yana Toboso

The head of the Phantomhive household is a successful businessman, does information gathering for the Queen and is only 12 years old. The secret of Ciel's success? A contract with a demon: the demon will work for him in exchange for Ciel's soul somewhere down the line. Most of the time Sebastian's work involves more mundane tasks of running a household to the whims of an owner who is still a child. But when the situation gets messy, Sebastian's weapons and unnatural powers come out, and nearly anyone who defies him or his master ends up 6 feet under in an unpleasant way.

I still don't really get the attraction of this series. I found this book quite bland. None of the characters really interested me, what little plot there is often seems overdramatic, the artwork is rather overly-smooth and neat and the design (while lavish) is very commonplace and standard-looking. There wasn't a sense of an author telling a story with their own flair and style, so much as an author with a huge marketing scheme behind them waving over-used fanservice-y scenarios at otaku who are determined to always be reading the popular series, and who fell for the idea that because it has as many anime/manga tropes crammed into it as it can hold (and some extra that really didn't fit) it must be the most anime-ish anime around.

There's really nothing that is easily pointed at as "this is what makes it a frustrating read" so much as a general sense that this could have potential, but is too busy running the characters around in drag, creating crazy (but commonly seen) hijinks that only the Super Awesome Guy can solve, and attempting scenes that seem to simply be there to fuel fanfiction rather than providing anything useful to the series itself.

This is definitely better than the anime, which I found so exasperating I could barely force myself to watch the half-dozen or so episodes I felt I had to watch in order to give it a fair try. There are hints of character depth and interesting backstory. It is interesting to look at. Characters have personalities and emotions. Useful stuff like that.

The art is mediocre for the most part, but now and then I found some really good panels. I really didn't care for the look of a cast of generic bishies, but in the better panels the artwork conveyed enough emotion, movement and planning on the artist's part that one could ignore the weak points for a bit. I found it interesting that Sebastian's face in this manga is slightly mask-like, his expressions, poses and movement seeming subtly non-human. In the anime they seemed to try and convey this idea of his being non-human by removing all but the slightest trace of personality, resulting in a cardboard-standup type of character. (This idea is tried in so many animes/mangas, and it almost never works. Why do they keep doing it?)

This series has possibilities, and may improve in the later volumes if the author can focus on a plot rather than frippery that's meant to... I have no clue what the point of it is. I don't know how much effort I would be willing to put into tracking them down, though, as I don't know what the likelihood is that such changes will happen considering how popular this has been in its current form.

3 Stars

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei by Koji Kumeta

What do you get when you mix a suicidal middle school teacher with a class full of unusual students who run the range from cyber-bully to stalker to illegal immigrant? A lot of amusing situations, mixed with more serious ones. Some are in the classroom and others take place outside as the teacher is sent out to help his students. One of my favorite parts was about a girl who had become a shut-in and refused to leave her home.  The teacher and one of his students convince her to come to the school, but she then decides not to leave and wants to live in the school.

Many of the situations are highly improbable, but amusing. This is very much a cultural satire and pokes fun at many manga stereotypes as well. (For example, the cyber-bully tells one girl "UR just a panty character, so flash em already." This girl appears in nearly every chapter with her short skirt fluttering.) I found myself giggling several times at the highly dramatic dialogue and character stereotypes successfully being played for laughs.

The art really stands out. It is bold and almost modern-art looking, with some fun visual elements that resemble traditional asian art. The layout is really nice; clearly showing the reader where to go, but never dull. The author isn't afraid to step his characters outside the boundaries of the panels or use unusual shapes and design, which is nicely complimented with most of the base panels being well-spaced and not too crowded with action.

Since most Americans aren't very familiar with Japan's cultural references and most of the wordplay is lost in translation, there is a very handy guide to the references.

4 Stars

Dead Man Walking: an eyewitness account of the death penalty in the United States by Helen Prejean

When Sister Helen Prejean agreed to become a penpal to a prisoner on death row, it began a chain of discoveries that have lead her to become a well-known advocate of abolishing the death penalty in the USA. As she got to know Pat Sonnier and subsequent prisoners she learned their side of the story and the problems they often experienced in trial. She met the families of these people and the families of their victims, as well as the men and women whose job it was to legally kill killers, even when they didn't believe it was the right thing to do.

This book was intense. By the time I had read about the first death Sister Helen went to, I was pacing my room. I couldn't sit still. The lead-up and worry and minuscule chance that it would be called off were more page-turning and stomach-churning than most books that are written for that effect. Sister Helen is a good writer, although she had a tendency to stick in clumps of statistics in poorly placed spots that were hard to slog through and broke the flow of the story. The other thing that annoyed me somewhat was the fact that she relied heavily on emotional and moral appeals rather than showing facts that backed up her claims, except for these info clumps where it seemed she had gone, done research, stuck it in there, and gone back to her story where we don't see much citation for her statements and they remain unconvincing to anyone who doesn't already agree with her stances. (Well, perhaps not too many folks who disagree with her are reading this book anyway.)

Good, harsh look at these secretive systems, but the pacing could have been a lot better.

4 Stars


The Tales Of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

These 5 tales are all constructed to sound similar to traditional fairytales with the twist of being told by wizards, but I found that most fell flat for me. "The Fountain of Fair Fortune" and "The Warlock's Hairy Heart" were alright, although bland. The rest felt like a waste of time (luckily they feature extremely basic writing and are very quick to read.)

Rowling has never had a way with words, but this was abysmal. The writing was choppy and stilted, with a tiny vocabulary (even for kid's stories) except where a thesaurus seems to have been used to stick in more interesting words that stick out like a sore thumb in Rowling's weak sentence structure. This book looks bigger than it is because of the large, double-spaced font with HUGE margins. If you put it into a normal-ish format this would barely qualify as more than a pamphlet. Dumbledore's notes were obvious and uninteresting, with feeble attempts at wittiness that just made me wince.

Harry Potter diehards will probably find the scant few hints about the Wizarding World worth the quick stories, but casual fans will probably want to skip.

1 Star

Lone Wolf and Cub: Volume 1 The Assassin's Road by Kazuo Koike

A wandering rōnin (masterless samurai) and his small son are looking for work. Their flag proclaims them to be the "Lone Wolf and Cub" who are known throughout the area as swords for hire. Ogami Ittō is doing his best to provide and care for his son in while in a dangerous line of work. Most of his jobs are assassinations, which hasn't made him very popular and he has plenty of enemies who would dearly like to run him through.

Although I imagine this is a pretty realistic idea of what life was like for a rōnin in the Edo-Period, I didn't find it to be a very compelling story. A most of his jobs were very interesting and contained likable supporting characters, but some lacked drive and left me wondering what the point of including that particular tale was. I also found the lack of over-reaching plot a bit bothersome. Even if all the plot had shown by the end of this volume was a hint of motive for Ogami's choices and what he hoped to accomplish by wandering Japan, I would have at least felt like there was a point to the book. Perhaps it is revealed more in further volumes.

I also found Ogami Ittō hard to like or relate to, he often seemed overpowered and smug. A few slip-ups or even a slight show of emotion now and then would make him feel a lot less wooden. I did enjoy the fact that he is not shown as noble and perfectly moral, but willing to sacrifice a good bit of his soul in order to keep his son and himself alive.

The incredible artwork does make up for a lot of the story's flaws. Reading these older mangas drawn in heavier, serious-looking, slow-to-create crosshatched pen and ink makes the relatively quick and easy modern process where the main artist creates what is basically a rough draft that is cleaned up by a team of assistants, before being swiftly screentoned and speedlined (if the whole piece wasn't done on a computer) look completely bland in comparison. Just think about how much longer and more care it takes to crosshatch all your shading than rub a piece of screentone against the paper and be done.

The artwork ranges from blocky and weighty to light and airy, without losing the artist's own style and the serious feel of the comic. The layout in this volume creates an amazing sense of space despite the fact that the book itself is very small.

3 Stars