Beastly Bones (CBR8 #22)

I hate to say it, but William Ritter seems to have hit a sophomore slump with 2015’s Beastly Bones. I loved my experience reading Jackaby last year: it had so much of all the things that I love about books of the type. Much of that remains in book two, Abigail is still independent and self-assured, Jackaby is still his off-kilter self without being off-putting, we still have a live in ghost, and a shape shifter, and a relatively tightly paced mystery.

But… book two commits a sin that book one managed to avoid. Its main purpose seems to be setting up a larger story to be told in the next book (which is to be released later this year). Beastly Bones has a plot all its own – Abigail and Jackaby have been brought in to nearby Gad’s Valley, now home to the exiled New Fiddleham police detective Charlie Cane, dinosaur bones from a recent dig mysteriously go missing, and an unidentifiable beast starts attacking animals and people, leaving their mangled bodies behind. There is also the problem of bodies turning up with weird puncture wounds on their necks, and shapeshifting creatures on the loose.

All of that is resolved (mostly), some new characters get introduced, and things proceed as one would expect for a book aimed at a YA audience. But… I have this nagging dissatisfaction. Was Abigail still awesome? Yes. Was she given great feminist advice which she then turned to her own way of doing things re: her love life and career? Yep. Was there a plausible end to the mystery? You bet. Were characters given enough time on page? Mostly. Jackaby’s landlady ghost, Jenny Cavanaugh, is necessarily out of sorts in order to set up the third book which will focus on her (as book one focused on the titular Jackaby and book two focused heavily on Abigail’s interests and history), and off page because Jackaby and Abigail are away from New Fiddleham. However Jackaby quite literally does an infodump at the end of the book to explain how we’re getting from the events of this book to the ones upcoming. We didn’t need it. The YA readers didn’t need it. And after a bumpy start of the book it made me round this down to 3 stars. It simply wasn’t as strong as some of the other 4 star books I’ve read this year.

Do I still suggest this series to you? Absolutely. They are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for book three, Ghostly Echoes.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Advertisements

The Map (CBR8 #9)

Last year I was delighted with Jackaby by William Ritter. It had just the right mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and whodunit to be right up my alley. It’s got a bit of Sherlock mixed with a little Doctor Eleven for a male protagonist and a female protagonist who is smart, wily, and sarcastic in equal measure – and a great example of female agency in print. I immediately added the second book, Beastly Bones, on my to read list for 2016 as well as this fun little novella The Map.

The action of The Map is centered on one day – Abigail Rook’s birthday. She dares to hope that her employer Jackaby, detective of the supernatural, won’t make a fuss. She is let down. The pair are off for parts unknown using magical party crackers to teleport in time and space (I told you, a smidge timey wimey) using a cryptic map that may lead to a forgotten treasure.  Jackaby is going to give Abigail the present of adventure, just as soon as she comes around to it.

In some ways this short story felt much more akin to a television script than it did a novella, and that isn’t really a detraction. You probably need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one, for while certain characters don’t appear on page, they are referenced. The same goes for some of the action. This one also doesn’t give us any new character development, and may not be the best place to meet these characters as this is VERY plot driven, but if you are already into the world of Jackaby it is currently FREE on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for download.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Outlander (CBR8 #2)

It’s hard to exist in a reader world and not be at least obliquely aware of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic series – currently 8 books and counting not including the companion novels and novellas. Best I can recollect, I gave serious consideration to embarking on this series around the time of fellow Cannonballers embarking on rereads in preparation for the publication of book 8, and the release of the show based on the books on Starz last spring. I made the decision once I asked for the first book in the series as part of the Cannonball Book Exchange in December of 2014. Thanks to our Junior Cannonballers Bunnybean and Joemyjoe I received Outlander and then promptly forgot to read it (along with Daughter of Smoke and Bone I promise it’s on the to read list for this year!). When I went about setting up the Book Exchange for 2015 I realized that I had the book was still waiting for me, and I packed it with me for my Christmas travels.

The basic plot of Outlander is actually quite difficult to wrap one’s head around. It should be simple: Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the Second World War and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon. She is pulled through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. When she comes to she has travelled back over 200 years, to 1743. Discovered amongst a skirmish between redcoat soldiers and highlanders, Claire is pulled into the intrigues of lairds and spies.

But perhaps unbelievably that is not where the story ends. Because that recap is only the first fifth of the book, over the course of the next 600 pages Claire will be held captive, arrested, attacked at the hands of the ancestor of her husband, must choose a marriage for her safety,  is accused of witchcraft, and chooses to live a life on the run with her new husband. All of this while grappling with the choice between trying to get back to her previous life and husband or embracing her current life and marriage.

Gabaldon doesn’t write like your average author. Her books meander through several genres, and her characters don’t behave in predictable ways based on tropes. I had the benefit of having watched the full season of the television series adaptation, so while reading the book I knew what was coming, but during the show I was often surprised by the nooks and crannies of the story as Gabaldon (and the show producers and writers who stayed very loyal to the book) unfolded it.

But that doesn’t mean the story is without flaws. Perhaps they were more apparent to me because I had seen the show first, but there are many asides which help develop the world of Outlander which does nothing to forward the plot. I also have concerns about the only gay characters in the book being the villains, or guilty of villainy. I’m concerned about this typecasting in Gabaldon’s world, and interested to see if she introduces a character who is both gay and good. In the culture of a very Catholic 1743 Scotland the idea that the general populace would assume wickedness of someone who is gay reads, but Gabaldon does nothing to balance out that worldview. It was disappointing, and I remain hopeful based on what I’ve heard of the Lord John Grey books that she does in fact introduce the character that I’m looking for.

My other petty concern is perhaps a bit nitpicky, but here we are. We as the reader are seeing the world through Claire’s eyes, which makes sense in the idea that she is the outsider, the Sassenach, and the eyes most like our own upon encountering 1743. But when I was explaining the series to my friend Ale, I found myself saying that we are following Jamie’s story and the story of Scotland in the years of rebellion. To a lesser degree the story is about Claire’s battle with what time travelling means and making sense of her life once we get past a certain point in the narrative. Gabaldon does cover this ground, but I feel the show is able to handle it more deftly by giving us visual flashbacks to her husband Frank instead of Claire reciting her mental gymnastics on the subject. This in some ways makes the television show a better vessel for the story, in addition to the (hated by some) voiceovers changing to Jamie for the second half of the season. The book doesn’t do that, but once the characters are married Claire’s life is now bound forever to Jamie’s past and future, as is the story. While the book and show share a level of graphicness, and the large quantity of sex, there still felt to be something missing.

What I feel we must discuss is the character of James Fraser. This might be Gabaldon’s biggest achievement in writing – a universally loved male lead who shouldn’t necessarily make us all swoon (but we do, because of the depth of his love and devotion to Claire and the suffering he has endured in his short life). Gabaldon nails his characterization from the moment go. There is no other character in the book like Jamie, and while he may not always behave the way we might want a more modern lead to behave, the fact that Claire falls so irrevocably in love with him is a natural progression of the story, and we the reader do the same.

Ok, now that I’m done rambling, (and I know I’m rambling) I can heartily suggest this book and series to you and I’m SUPER excited that between Christmas gifts and my mom, I already own the series through book five. Prepare yourselves for more Outlander this year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (CBR7 #92)

Confession time: I listened to this book solely because I decided that I would not be finishing The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood for the Go Fug Yourself book club over on Goodreads. I spent two weeks actively avoiding listening to it on my commute to work, and on a three hour road trip to Philadelphia where I didn’t have a radio in the loaner car from work. I needed a palate cleanser, and I needed a moody atmospheric listen to go along with Halloween. Neil Gaiman sounded like a perfect idea.

And thanks to the fantastic review of Cannonball’s own Renton last year I had this on my to read list, and had downloaded it from Audible a few months ago when I saw it  Gaiman is in usual form here – he is playing with words, slowly releasing meaning in gradual layers. What I hadn’t remembered from Renton’s review was that part of it charm was in the artwork. To quote him “The most effective sections of the book have the text bleed into the artwork, as the story passes from paragraph to comic strip to full-page painting in one fluid movement.” Now, in listening to the Gaiman narrate the work I didn’t feel like I as missing it because as was also done in M is for Magic, the stories are interwoven with music to help create tension. That may have been what kept my rating down to a three and not up to a four like Renton’s.

So what was this novella all about anyway? Gaiman is at work with myths and lore again. We follow the tale of two men on a quest to the titular cave for gold, but it’s also rumination on what we do for love and greed. And also what we’re willing to sacrifice. A good read for anytime of the year, but definitely one suited to the fall and the shortening days.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

The Elephant Vanishes (CBR7 #84)

I’m at a loss for how to review this book. Earlier today on Facebook I quipped that some reviews just boil down to read it if you want, here’s a plot description. This might be one of those reviews. I had received suggestions to read Murakami based on other authors I liked and a sense of getting out of my own rut. Great! The suggestions were warranted. I did enjoy Murakami’s style, I just didn’t necessarily enjoy the fact that it was encapsulated in short story format.

I have struggled with short story collections in the past, and this year I gave it an honest try to attempt a variety and see if I couldn’t find something that worked. While I wouldn’t rate any of the ones I’ve tried this year below a three (Get in Trouble  and M is for Magic each have some great moments) I don’t love the style or methods that are often applied.  My roommate Ale suggests that people are either short story or novel writers, I also think we’re either short story or novel readers. I am a novel reader.

But, with my personal issues taken out of the equation I think this book is very likely worth your time and a good place to start. It does show its age in some of the technology referenced, but if you want to get an idea of Murakami’s style before diving into one of his novels, this would be a good way to do just that.

Okay, I think I’m done with this review, here’s your synopsis from Goodreads, and happy reading!

With the same deadpan mania and genius for dislocation that he brought to his internationally acclaimed novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami makes this collection of stories a determined assault on the normal. A man sees his favorite elephant vanish into thin air; a newlywed couple suffers attacks of hunger that drive them to hold up a McDonald’s in the middle of the night; and a young woman discovers that she has become irresistible to a little green monster who burrows up through her backyard.

By turns haunting and hilarious, The Elephant Vanishes is further proof of Murakami’s ability to cross the border between separate realities — and to come back bearing treasure.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

M is for Magic (CBR7 #53)

My adventures in short story reading continue, and I’ve reached the point where I’m convinced they aren’t for me. Not even the glorious, melodious Neil Gaiman reading his own collection, M is for Magic, to me could do the trick. I appear to be broken in some way.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good stories in this collection. There are several that are quite good, just not good enough to round the collections overall rating up from a 3 star. The stories in this collection rely heavily on source material and don’t often grow beyond them. Sometimes a great idea doesn’t need to, the riff is enough. But sometimes the reader is left wanting. There are eleven stories contained in M is for Magic (all previously published elsewhere) and they span Gaiman’s career from the 1980s to the 2000s. Let’s discuss:

“The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” – is a strong start to the series, a hardboiled whodunit featuring storybook characters. The best kind of riff.

“Troll Bridge” – tale of growing up and making choices, some of which lead to the troll bridge. I enjoyed the beginning of this one, but the end petered out for me.

“Don’t Ask Jack” – a story with no point. Moody and atmospheric, but leading nowhere.

“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge” – is a story of a con-man telling other con-men his greatest caper. It is one of Gaiman’s earliest works, and it age shows. There are lots of meandering bits which took away from the overall effect.

“October in the Chair”- an interesting idea, but with a slightly lackluster payoff. What if the months of the year were people who gathered around a fire to tell tales of their experiences? Gaiman excels at building out the personalities of each month, and the story October shares has its moments, but it just didn’t hold my attention.

“Chivalry” – this one was just a kooky bit of fun. A widowed woman finds the Holy Grail at a shop and brings it home. But, Galahad needs to retrieve the Grail and attempts to offer her all sorts of things in exchange. Probably my favorite of the collection.

“The Price” – another very good story. The pacing of this one is perhaps its greatest strength. A cat protects a family – so simple yet expertly executed.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”  This one was so strange. Girls are aliens, literally.

“Sunbird” I was not as impressed with this one since I put the pieces together very quickly and just waited for the end to arrive. Your mileage may vary.

“The Witch’s Headstone” was too long. TOO LONG. I mean sure, it was very entertaining. But did I mention that it was too long?

“Instructions” was short and sweet.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Landline (CBR6 #52) (Cannonball!)

As we approach Thanksgiving here in the U.S. I’m reminded of the things I’m thankful for, and in the last several years Cannonball Read is one of the things I am extremely thankful for. It’s helped reignite my love of reading, its introduced me to a group of people who also love to be bookish readers and talk about what they’re reading and why it’s affecting them the way it is. And its helped pull me outside of myself in my real life as whole new conversations are starting with coworkers and friends about what we’re reading, and what they think I should read next, and just how scathing or bonkers a particular review of mine has gone.

But perhaps most importantly it’s exposed me to authors and books I may have otherwise missed. The prime example of that are Rainbow Rowell and her four books (so far!). I have loved them each individually and I love them as a group. I have bought copies for family, will begin pushing them on friends immediately, and generally sing their praises. Not every book or author is for everyone, but Rainbow Rowell and her books are for me.

Landline, my 52nd book this year, is definitely a book for me even though I’m not married, I don’t have kids, and I certainly don’t have a magic phone that lets me talk to the love of my life 15 years ago. But, these characters jumped off the page, dug down into my soul and meditated there for a while letting me I think about the big idea. The plot (minus the magic phone, seriously don’t worry about the phone, accept the timey wimey-ness and move on) is relatively standard in adult fiction. What happens to your life when you take for granted those you love and who love you and you make not good decisions? What is the consequence? How do you make it right? Can you make it right? Should you make it right?

Georgie McCool, our protagonist, ruminates on just those points for the majority of the 300 pages of this book. She seemingly has made one poor decision too many, she sees herself as the nexus of her husband’s unhappy life. So when the opportunity to speak to Neal in the days leading up to his proposal 15 years ago happens, she must decide whether she’s trying to make it happen, or trying to spare him the pain that binding his life to hers will cause.

I was able to relate to the self-doubt Georgie feels, and also the perceived lack of career trajectory that she sees in Neal. Georgie has a problem I think a lot of super career driven people have – they don’t see that for many people their job isn’t what gives their life meaning. In my reading of this book it comes across that family and kids are what give Neal’s life meaning, and therefore it doesn’t matter to him that he left a relatively dead end science job to stay home and be a dad, a position he tells Georgie is absolutely necessary when they are first married, when she thinks they’re optional because she was raised without hers. But it’s this perceived slight, that Neal gave something up so that Georgie could do the thing that drives her (being a comedy script writer for television) causes Georgie nearly as much strife as the possibility of Neal walking away from their marriage.

This isn’t necessarily a happy read, even at the end, but the language and word choice keep you on your toes and enjoying the read. Rainbow’s characters sound like real people. Rainbow’s writing isn’t the big sweeping bold word choice that generally accompanies the classics of American literature, but its so precise, and rings so true that it just sits with you. She plays with form and function, and in Landline parenthetical phrases are used to clarify Georgie’s inner dialogue and if you’re a reader of my reviews, you know I love a parenthetical phrase. (I really, really do). Rainbow’s used other things in each of her books, and they each add a layer of meaning, a layer of depth, to the proceedings. They are the icing on a superbly baked cake.

You may ask yourself if I am so obviously in love with the book, its author, and its sibling books why am I not rating it 5 stars. The answer is simply that while I know Georgie at the end of this book, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got Neal nailed down, I don’t really know the other characters. This one doesn’t have the beautifully fleshed out supporting cast of characters that other Rowell books have. That slides this one firmly into 4.5 stars for me. But, I’ll let you know that if you saw my meltdown at half-cannonball time about wanting more, more, more at the end of Fangirl that I loved the Easter egg in Landline and it gave me enough closure to go ahead and rerate that a 5 star book, since I was being silly abut withholding it in the first place.

Read this book, and everyone in the pool, I made my cannonball goal!

Now off to book 53…

This review is part of the Cannonball Read.