Category Archives: Book Reviews

Vampire Nation

Don’t you hate when you pick up a book because the flap copy sounds so fantastic and intriguing but the book just doesn’t measure up? Here is a paragraph from the back of Arlene Russo’s book, Vampire Nation. 
Plunge deep into the heart of vampirism as renowned vampire expert Arlene Russo dispels centuries-old myths and unearths shocking revelations, from the startling discovery that Prince Charles is a direct descendant of Vlad the Impaler to the fascinating evidence that Robin Hood was a vampire.
Wow! I have to read that. The “fascinating evidence that Robin Hood was a vampire” consists of a) he bled to death; and b) he was buried in unconsecrated ground. Sigh. At the beginning of the book, Ms. Russo claims that she is only going to talk about “real” vampires, not vampire lifestylers (“dress up” vampires). Yet she not only devotes an entire chapter to vampire lifestylers (who may or may not have some overlap with “real” vampires), but still another to bondage fetishists (who may or may not have some overlap with vampire lifestylers). She also claims that “real” vampires do not believe they are immortal, yet every time Ms. Russo quotes one of them, s/he refers to non-vampires as “mortals.” Perhaps that is just vampirespeak for people who do not think they are vampires, kind of like “muggles” in the Harry Potter books. I never had any doubt that there are people who earnestly believe they are vampires. If people want to dress up in nineteenth century clothing and drink each other’s blood (and they are all consenting adults), well, lots of people have unusual hobbies. If they are not hurting anybody, what’s the harm? The evidence presented that “real” vampires are a human subspecies or mutant strain is purely anecdotal. The arguments for many of her assertions are, at best, sophistic (Cats eat fish. The Pope eats fish. Therefore the Pope is a cat). She also blatantly gets some of her “facts” wrong. For example, she states that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Colombine High School killers, were part of the tormented Goth subculture at the school. While that was an initial speculation, it was quickly discarded as untrue. They were neither bullied nor Goths. Just really sick and twisted individuals.
If you think you might be a vampire (or just want to dress like one), this book provides a lot of resources for that. Is vampirism genetic or a lifestyle choice? I remain agnostic as to whether these self identified vampires’ need for blood (or psychic energy) is physiological or psychological.
John Michael Greer gives a much more thought provoking treatment of vampires (at least the revenant kind) in his book Monsters: An Investigator’s Guide to Magical Beings.

Bleeding Violet

I read Bleeding Violet, by Dia Reeves last night. If you like Gail Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer  and Eternal, you’ll probably like this book.
Hanna’s father really loved her. But he died a year ago. Her aunt wants to have her committed and her mother, whom she hasn’t seen since she was a tiny infant, doesn’t want her. She doesn’t do herself any favors by whacking her aunt upside the head with a rolling pin and hitchhiking to the fictional East Texas town of Portero, where her mom, Rosalee, lives. At least she packed her meds. Hanna, who only wears purple clothes she makes herself, has bipolar disorder (she prefers the term “manic depressive”) and is prone to hallucinations and having conversations with people who may or may not be there. And then it really gets weird. Portero is riddled with dimensional doorways and sometimes things, nasty, horrible things slip in through the doors. The Mortmaine (they wear green, like Celtic fay) are Portero’s warrior class who must frequently swoop in to rescue the hapless citizens. Wyatt Ortiga is a Mortmaine initiate who sporadically attends high school, when he isn’t training or rescuing, and he is a major blip on Hanna’s radar from the moment she lays eyes on him. Does Hanna’s dysfunctionality doom the romance from the start, or does she find a soulmate?
This book is gritty and authentic. It is tragic and hilarious. Complex, deeply flawed characters in a surreal setting make this a compelling read (I read all 454 pages in one night). There are some very weighty issues – mental illness, suicide, abuse, sex and death in this story, but the novel isn’t about them – they are context. It is about finding one’s place in the world and redemption. It is about using innate talents and abilities (which may be disguised as disabilities) to do the right thing and save the world (or at least the little town of Portero). It is about embracing your inner Freak.

NaNoWriMo and Batty Malgoony

So I’ve finally worked up the nerve? insanity? to try NaNoWriMo this year. I’m all signed up, and I even have a buddy. The ordeal requires producing a 50,000 word first draft in 30 days. I only have to average 1,667 words per day. I spend a lot of hours during the week waiting to pick up kids from school/gymnastics/music, so hopefully I can convert at least some of that time into words. Still, it may end up being one long bout of coffee-fuelled sleep deprivation psychosis. I will apologize in advance for anything I might say or do in November. I opted to go with the drowned girl story, and I’ve been doing some research for it. I found a great article – lots of information – BUT it was written in 1894. It is very long-winded and pedantic, but I’ve gotten almost all the way through it. I’m working on my outline this week, so hopefully I won’t just sit and stare at the screen like an owl in the daylight come Sunday.
And now, for something completely different:
What could be more fun than a crazy circus tour where you have to draw in some of the characters? My six-year old daughter thinks Batty Malgoony’s Mystic Carnivale is a lot of fun (her favorite thing at school is art). My four year old son finds it a little creepy. While I generally encourage my kids NOT to write in books, I really liked the interactive “use your imagination” factor of this one. The illustrations were very appropriate for a mystic carnivale that only runs at night. I found the cow tied to the train disturbing and I wasn’t crazy about the road-kill cafe, but I know a lot of kids go through a Gross is Great! phase. This is the sort of book that I would think has a lot of both boy and reluctant reader appeal. One thing I thought was really good was that some draw-in areas were completely blank and some that needed perspective (for example, a chair and a tricycle) had very faint lines to help young artists understand how to draw those objects. I would recommend giving a sketch pad or packet of typing paper along with this book; that way children will have some artwork to hang on the fridge and can go back to their favorite scenes again and again.

Fablehaven 2 & 3

Fablehaven 2, Rise of the Evening Star, starts at Kendra and Seth’s school just before summer break. A new student joins Kendra’s class. She can easily see that he is a goblin, but to the other girls, he appears to be very, very yummy. An eccentric stranger appears, claiming to be a friend of Grandpa Sorensen and helps Seth and Kendra get rid of the goblin. But is Errol Fisk a friend or foe? As the assembled Knights of the Dawn race to recover Fablehaven’s hidden artifact before the Society of the Evening Star does: the question of when everyone has secrets, who can be trusted and who can not is the underlying theme. Interesting new characters are introduced, some traitorous and some true: the ancient and inscrutable Sphinx, Vanessa the adventurer, Tanu the potion master, and Coulter Dixon, the magical artifacts expert. Kendra and Seth get an eerie tour of the dungeon, where they see the mysterious Quiet Box and the door to the Hall of Dread, which houses prisoners who have no need of food or water.  Although it made me wonder how the grandparents ever got along all these years without Kendra and Seth after they lost control of the house yet again, the sibs did a good job of playing on each other’s strengths and working together to do what they needed to do. The book is a fast-paced action story that is a fast and fun read.
Fablehaven 3, Grip of the Shadow Plague, takes up where Rise of the Evening Star left off. Something is wrong in Fablehaven. The gentle nipsies and garden fairies, whose alignment tends to be neutral neutral, have started becoming chaotic evil. As this malaise spreads, Kendra is conscripted into the Knights of the Dawn and sent to Arizona to retrieve the second hidden artifact before it falls into the hands of the Society of the Evening Star.  But the team is in for more than one nasty surprise. Throughout the story, cautious Kendra has to become more like bold Seth and avowed non-reader Seth has to become more like book-worm Kendra. A little bit of time travel makes its way into this story, and while I thought that it was an interesting idea (paradox included), I did feel that larger-than-life Patton Burgess kind of stole the show away from Kendra and Seth. Once again, Grandma and Grandpa Sorensen are mostly useless side characters in need of rescuing, although they do divulge some interesting information about Kendra and Seth’s family history.  Like the other Fablehavens, it is a fun read.

Recipe for Going Bovine

1 cup Dancing Wu Li Masters
1 cup Jacob’s Ladder
½ cup Hyperspace
¼ cup The Five People You Meet in Heaven
¼ cup Stand By Me
1 tsp Angels in America
Pinch of Jean Paul Sartre to taste

Puree ingredients and bake at 350°F for an hour until firm. Remove from oven and sprinkle with cultural icons and fresh satire. Serve warm, with a side of irony. Delicious!

Cameron Smith, the chronic high school underachiever, resorts to smoking pot to numb the pain of living in his dysfunctional family. Not long after his humiliating firing from the Buddha Burger (no, it’s not vegetarian), he discovers that he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) variant – commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. There is no cure and the disease has a 100% mortality rate. An angel convinces him that if he can just find Dr. X, he can both save the universe and be cured. He goes on a road trip with a hypochondriac dwarf, a punk angel, and a yard gnome who claims to be the Norse god Balder. Or does he? Is it a dream? An alternate reality stream? Is he really going to save the world, or like Don Quixote, is he just tilting at windmills? This is a surreal story about life, death, and finding what really matters. As always, Ms. Bray’s word-smithery is superlative and her characters are fresh and vivid. If you’re going to read this book (and I highly recommend it), prepare to laugh, cry, and think. 


An Ugly Story Beautifully Told

*** Contains Spoilers ***
I finished reading After, by Amy Efaw today. It’s a story about a 15 year old honor student and star soccer player who gets pregnant and then leaves her newborn baby in the trash. I thought the story (horrible though it was) was beautifully written and thought provoking. It starts with a half-dead Devon being discovered by police and taken to juvenile hall (via the hospital – she’s hemorrhaging from her undelivered placenta). At first, she’s in such a state of denial that she has blocked out what happened. Over a period of eight days, her memories come trickling back, and the floodgates open during her declination hearing (the DA wants to prosecute her as an adult, her lawyer argues to keep her in the juvenile system). I thought using the scenes where her lawyer interviewed her to get the back story out were very effective. I wondered if the “Quotable Quotes” spouting character, Karma, was meant to be a metaphor for, well, karma. She was the one character that just didn’t work for me. Karma struck me as being a conglomerate, rather than one character with several facets. When I read the last page, I said, “What?!” out loud. Why on earth would Devon want to plead guilty at the upcoming trial? It just seemed to me that it ran counter to her whole realization process during the hearing. Maybe what the author intended was that after all those months of denial, she was going to take responsibility, and her soccer coach did say that she never cut herself any slack. However, when Devon was listening to all of the defense witnesses testifying and she realized that people still cared about her, even after she’d done something so terrible, she started to feel hope. She started to appreciate the even the paltry sacrifices her mother, who had also been an unwed teen mother, had made for her, namely not putting her in the garbage. Arguably, her mother’s lifestyle choices were a strong contributing factor to Devon’s behavior. Devon remembered that after her baby was born, she had hoped IT was dead. She could easily have made that happen, but she didn’t. Yes, Devon was guilty of a lot of things, but attempted murder wasn’t one of them. In the end, I really wanted Devon to get the help she so desperately needed and be redeemed rather than crushed under the wheels of the system.

Summers End

Well, it’s down to the last few hours of summer vacation. I have a little twinge of is-it-really-over-already, but I’m mostly happy about it. We met my daughter’s new teacher on Wednesday and toured the classroom. She’s finished all of the Rainbow Fairies books and is now starting on Disney’s Pixie Hollow books.
Last Saturday, I read the tween ghost story, Wait Till Helen Comes, by Mary Downing Hahn. It is the story of a blended family who moves from the city to a former church, complete with cemetery, far out in the country. The isolation stresses relationship fault lines and the family structure begins to crack as over-indulged Heather, younger stepsister to main character Molly and her brother Michael, makes friends with ghostly Helen. It is brilliantly suspenseful and creepy, with a touching resolution. My only issue was that Heather’s “deep dark secret” was not really a secret, and both adults in the story should have at least guessed at the root of Heather’s bad behavior, if not been actively aware of it. That said, what is obvious to me as an adult may not be so to the target audience for this book. I definitely recommend it.
On the other hand, I have been struggling all week to read Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart. I’m somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of the way through it, but I find it very slow going. It’s got a great premise – a man (Mortimer “Mo” Folchart) has such a talent for reading aloud that people, animals or things actually materialize off the page into the real world. The down side is that for each something that comes out of the book, something else has to go in, and his wife becomes trapped in the book-within-the-book, “Inkheart.” The uber-villain (Capricorn) from this story that Mo read nine years ago has finally caught up with him and his now-twelve year old daughter (Meggie). Even the author of the fictional book gets involved in the story. Have you ever dated someone who seemed to be a perfect match? They seemed really nice, were good looking, had a good job – there was every reason to adore them – but there was just no chemistry. This book is like that for me. I really want to like it, even love it, but it just isn’t clicking with me.

Book Review: Horseplay by Judy Renee Singer

I finished this book yesterday. It is a nice, light read about a 30-something woman who runs away from her manipulative, philandering husband in New York to become a working student at a dressage barn in North Carolina. It is written with a wry sense of humor (the ubiquitous Jack Russell terriers were hysterical) and the characters are spot on – for almost each and every one, I thought “I’ve met/know that person.” Her portrayal of life on a horse farm was also dead on. Since she states in her biography that she’s divorced, and her protagonist’s name is also Judy, I wondered how much was autobiographical. Although the author touches on themes of family (her relationship with her sister and various mother-daughter relationships) and friendship bonds between women, the book is first and foremost a romance novel. Judy has to find herself before she can find her man (which is a good thing). There are some risqué parts, but nothing explicit. Readers younger than 30 will likely enjoy the horsey backdrop and the foreign working students at the dressage barn, but may lack the life experience to really get the rest of it. If you’re looking for a light, “beach read” book in a horsey setting, this is a good one. You can find out more about the author at her website.

Eternal and Warriors

I have been trying to read Warriors for over a week now. I’ve gotten about a third of the way through it and can’t seem to get any further. I think part of the problem is that I had expected it to be more of a fantasy world (like sword & sorcery or other planet), but it was just a bunch of feral cats in the country. The other part is that I fundamentally disagree with the premise. Yes, I know it is told from the cat’s POV. Yes, I know it is a work of fiction. But I just couldn’t get past it. When the cats had the discussion about Rusty/Firepaw not being neutered if he joined the clan, I thought about all the animal shelters bursting at the seams with unwanted pets.  When they had stalking lessons, I thought about the impact of feral cats on wildlife and endangered species.  Additionally, housecats are not apex predators. In our neighborhood, we don’t have feral cats – we have coyotes. Owls, raccoons, foxes and snakes also view cats as prey items. I thought the writing was good, the characterization was very good and the pacing was good. I just couldn’t buy into the world.
I read Eternal yesterday. I couldn’t sleep afterward. Not because it was so scary (although I found the idea of being ogled in the shower by a guardian angel disturbing, and as a vegetarian, the scene where the vampire was eating pumpkin bread dipped in blood made me gag). I couldn’t sleep because it was deeply thought provoking and I couldn’t turn my brain off. On the surface, it is a campy tale of boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl, where the boy is an angel and the girl is a vampire. Ms. Smith cleverly uses “blog posts,” the internet and newspaper ads to make the world feel just like our everyday modern life.  But there are much deeper layers. The book asks questions about the nature of life and death. It makes social commentary about the haves vs. the have-nots (princess Miranda doesn’t have to pay for her crimes because she is über-rich and ultra-privileged and yet the hired help pays dearly for any infraction, real or perceived). The castle “blood-stock”  consists of throwaway people (runaways, illegal aliens, trafficked girls), and at first Miranda doesn’t question her right as a superior being to use and abuse them as she sees fit. As she learns more about their misery and degradation, she starts to question her lifestyle and what she’s become. I don’t know if it was intended to be an analogue to factory farming, but I saw parallels (maybe Ms. Smith was just writing about compassion in general). In the end, the story is about redemption and hope. Its conclusion, like Tantalize, is bittersweet.  All of this was done with humor and by the juxtaposition of incongruous things. It was never preachy or heavy handed. It will be a long wait for the next book, Blessed (2011!! Aaargh!).

Graveyard Book

I finished reading The Graveyard Book yesterday. It was one I had been intending to run down to Blue Willow and get a copy of for a while before it won the Newberry. A critique group friend loaned it to me Thursday night. One of our local chapter SCBWI officers was on the Newberry selection panel (can’t remember if it was 2006 or 7) and she gave a presentation at one of the monthly meetings on how the books are selected. I asked her if it was a requirement for a Newberry book that at least one character had to die.  The Graveyard Book certainly fits that criterion (even though she denied it was one). At least five characters that I can remember died over the course of the book, although the reader never actually met four of them, just heard rumors of their existence. And of course, everyone in the graveyard was dead (or undead). Things I really liked about the book: Mr. Gaiman made some interesting twists on well-known folkloric entities. Evocative writing. (Mostly) quick pacing. Highly unusual premise. The touch of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It takes a graveyard (to raise a child). Things I did not like: I found the first chapter to be a little slow (e.g., there was a scene between “the man” and “the man Jack” where I kept tripping over who was who). I wanted to know how the ghouls got their names, especially how one came to be called “The 33rd President of the United States” (that would be Harry S. Truman). I wanted to know more about the Jacks of All Trades. **SPOILER ALERT** I didn’t understand Scarlett’s reaction at the end in the Indigo Man’s cave when Bod saved her from the cold blooded killer. I don’t know what he could have done differently that would have pleased her. It wasn’t like he killed anyone. I didn’t see anything wrong with a little sleer-induced instant Karma. ** END SPOILER ** I was neutral about the illustrations. I enjoyed the book, although it left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied because not all my questions were answered. I would be interested in reading Silas’ story and finding out what happens to Bod next.