Sunday, July 21, 2013

Reading Report #1: Off to a Fast Start!

It's time for my weekly round-up on the books that I've been reading for the Throwdown. My strategy was to get off to a fast start to (hopefully) jump-start the contestants into reading more and to (hopefully again) make things a bit easier on myself. Without further adieu, the books:

Joyland by Stephen King

Thirty years. I've been reading Stephen King books for thirty years now. We've been through a lot together, Steve and I. We don't always see eye-to-eye, but every once in a while he still gives me goosebumps.

Joyland is the story of Devin Jones, a broken-hearted 21 year-old who takes a summer job at a carnival to nurse his wounds. He ends up finding friendship, love and a place in the world, but he also ends up haunted, literally and figuratively, and face-to-face with evil.

Dev's innocence and innate goodness shine through as he stumbles across the story of the ghost who haunts the Horror House and works to find her killer. But there's also a melancholy to the story. The Dev who is telling us the story is now in his 60s, and there's certainly a mourning of the loss of his youth and also the loss of a time when anything seemed possible. Even at 21 Dev is obsessed with what might have been, worrying over his former girlfriend and what she might be doing now and what he never got to do with her. It's not surprising that he would latch on to the story of a young girl murdered before she got a chance to live. While we certainly feel Dev's love for Joyland and the happiness he finds there, we also know that it's the beginning of the end for places like that, and soon it will be no more. There's a sense of loss for a way of life that doesn't exist any more (or never did in that kind of idealized form): a golden moment when youth and innocence and exuberance were enough to win the day and turn the shadows back.

I'm not saying it's a perfect book. Believability is stretched here and there and the big reveal and standoff is pretty abrupt. But if you're looking for a read that moves along briskly, has characters that are likeable and interesting and understands that golden moments, though awfully fine when they occur, never last, spend some time with Devin Jones in Joyland.

Chickenhare by Chris Grine

I picked up Chickenhare because it had a terrific cover quote from Jeff Smith, creator of the Bone series. I really love the Bone series, but that's sets a pretty high standard for all-ages adventure. I was hopeful about Chickenhare, but I was prepared to be disappointed. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.

As the story opens, Chickenhare (who has the head and ears of a rabbit, but the legs and feathers of a chicken) and Abe (the only bearded box turtle in existence) are in chains, being taken to Klaus (the evil taxidermist) to be sold. On the way we learn of the shromph (toothy little monsters) and Chickenhare sees a vision of a goat (wearing a top hat and a monocle) who asks for his help.

What follows is a fast-moving story with a lot of humor and a lot of heart as Chickenhare and Abe meet new friends (who are apparently not what they appear to be), execute an escape from Klaus and his henchmen, run afoul of the shromph, and find out the full story of Mr. Buttons, the be-monocled ghost-goat (Be-monocled Ghost-Goat is the name of my next band).

There's a nice arc to this paperback, but there are enough questions left that I can only hope the sequel is on its way.

The Doll by Taylor Stevens

If you're into action, schemes and doublecrosses, and women who can kick ass and take names, it's long past time that you met Vanessa Michael Munroe.

The Doll is the third novel to feature Munroe, and it's not a good starting place for the series. The plot is not really any more confusing to first-timers, but without the other two books, you'll miss a lot of the emotional impact. The Doll tells you that Logan is important to Michael, but unless you've been through the other two stories, you won't feel the horror as she's forced to make difficult choices.

The book opens with a motorcycle crash and ambulance pick-up that is the cover for a kidnapping, immediately splitting Michael from her lover and sometime partner Bradford. The action remains split for most of the book between Michael, forced to deliver a kidnapped starlet to a “collector” or cause the death of the one person on earth she's closest to, and Bradford, trying to figure out what happened to Michael, find Logan, and keep other people important to Michael safe. As per usual, Michael tries desperately to keep her violent nature in check, but when she loses that battle, no one is safe.

There's lots of twists and turns (and a big-time bummer), but the non-stop action will keep you reading.

Gustav Gloom and the People Taker by Adam-Troy Castro

Book one of Castro's series featuring a strange little boy who lives in an even stranger house and the adventurous, brave, and funny girl who moves in next door is a charmer.

The Gloom house is a shadowy, dark Gothic nightmare of a house surrounded by a well-manicured and brightly-painted subdivision (if you've seen Edward Scissorhands, you've seen the neighborhood). The only resident of the house that people see is Gustav, a sad-looking boy who never leaves the yard. Fernie What, whose mom is a noted adventurer and whose father an over-protective, statistics-obsessed Safety Officer, chases her cat Harrison into the Gloom mansion one night and ends up meeting Gustav, the shadows who inhabit the house, and the People Taker, a very bad man indeed. She also learns about the Pit, a doorway of sorts to the Dark Country and Lord Obsidian, the evil ruler of the Dark Country. When the People Taker threatens Fernie's family, she and Gustav have to try and save the day.

The book is funny and moves along nicely. And don't let the title fool you—Gustav Gloom may be the main mystery that needs explaining, but Fernie What, adventurous, monster-loving, and big-hearted, is the hero of the story.

I'm looking forward to the next in the series.

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido

Ci Song was the father of forensic science. Garrido fictionalizes his life and gives us a picture of Song Dynasty China and speculates on how Ci Song might have developed the skills that he is still known for today.

A promising student in the capital city, when his grandfather dies Ci Song and his family must return to their farming village and be ruled by Ci's older brother, who they had left there. He's a tyrant who makes everyone’s life miserable, but he is especially cruel to Ci. One day Ci finds a body and his brother is arrested for the crime. Ci thinks that this is his ticket back to the city, but then events lead to him being accused of a crime and he goes on the run. He works as a gravedigger and as the assistant to a con man, and both jobs allow him to hone his corpse-reading skills. He makes it back to school, but his luck goes sour again and soon he's caught up in a mystery that might mean his life.

There's a lot to like here. It's a very fast-paced story, the forensic details are interesting, and spending time in another culture, especially one as different from ours as 13th century China, is always fun. Despite a large cast, the characters are pretty easy to tell apart, and it's hard not to root for Ci as his luck goes from bad to worse.

However, I had a hard time believing that someone who thumbed his nose at authority as much as Ci did would have survived the times, much less been allowed as high up as he was. At a time when the Emperor's word meant death, flouting his authority was not a smart way to go. And I know, Ci was cornered and had no choice, but that doesn't mean he'd get away with it. I also never bought into his sister. She was there to soften Ci up; to let us know he cared about someone. But she was more of a plot contrivance than a character, never really coming alive.

Still, if you're looking for a mystery with a historical setting, interesting detail, lots of plot twists, and lightning-fast pace, spend some time with Ci Song and the birth of forensic science.

The Bulldoggers Club: The Tale of the Ill-Gotten Catfish by Barbara Hay

If you're looking for a gentle, humorous story with a strong moral and a country flavor, then you need to check out The Bulldoggers Club.

Four friends who live on ranches in Oklahoma decide to go fishing one day. The sneak onto someone else's property and not only catch a fish, but a huge fish—maybe a record-breaker. In order to see if the fish is a record-breaker, they concoct a lie about where they got the fish. But soon the lie spins out of control and the four friends aren't speaking. Can this situation be fixed?

Of course it can, but only if they make the right choices.

The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey

Pardon my french, but daaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn! Rick Yancey's dark paranoid vision of the aftermath of an alien invasion is absolutely unputdownable.

The 1st wave was an EMP pulse that shut down the power and took out 500,000 people. The 2nd wave killed billions. The 3rd wave killed 97% of those who were left. The 4th wave was when they realized the aliens had hidden sleepers among us and no one could be trusted. Now it's the dawn of the 5th wave.

Oh. My. Dog. Y'all this book is epic. Our main character is Cassie Sullivan, surviving (barely) on her own. As we see her day to day life, she tells us the story of how she got to where she is. Her voice is amazing: angry, scared, snarky, hopeful, despairing and paranoid. We feel her struggle as she tries to stay alive one more day in a world where anybody could be the enemy. We get some chapters narrated by others having a different experience, and the true meaning of the 5th wave becomes horrifyingly clear.

This book is gut-punch after gut-punch and I love every page. A sequel is inevitable (perhaps two), and I'm counting the minutes.

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