Category: Romance

Urban Fantasy Mini Reviews: For a Few Demons More/A Kiss of Shadows

For a Few Demons More (ISBN 9781400104536)

Cover image for For a Few Demons More by Kim HarrisonAfter starting out with Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison and reading the first four books in The Hollows series in print, I had mostly decided the series wasn’t quite my thing. I was annoyed by the frequent spelling and grammar errors, cringing at a lot of the dialogue, and not really enjoying the constant stand offs between Ivy and Rachel. While browsing my library’s audiobook collection for something to alleviate the boredom of packing to move to a new apartment, I downloaded For a Few Demons More, narrated by Marguerite Gavin, which follows Rachel as she tries to solve a series of supernatural murders plaguing Cincinnati. Listening to the book in audio form sometimes highlights the bad dialogue, but not having to read the print pages took care of the fact that I was constantly being jarred out of the story by weird spelling errors. Combined with the fact that Rachel and Ivy have mostly stopped setting one another off every other chapter, I was actually able to really get into Harrison’s fast-paced action and enjoy this story. It seems that audio rather than print is the format for me to enjoy this series.

A Kiss of Shadows (ISBN 9780345490650)

Cover image for A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton If I had looked into this book a little bit more before impulse purchasing it as an Amazon Kindle Daily Deal, I probably would have known that A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton wouldn’t quite be my thing. I like my Urban Fantasy with a side of Romance, but this is really more Romance, or even Erotica, with a side of Fantasy that is only incidentally Urban. Merry Gentry is a fae princess who has been hiding among humans in Los Angeles, escaping the wrath of her aunt, Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness, and the Unseelie Court. Working for a detective agency, she stumbles over a case that involves the fae, and leads to her aunt discovering her whereabouts. But it seems that Andais has had a change of heart, and wants to bring Merry home to choose a consort, and help continue the faltering fae bloodline. While Merry makes for a strong and well-developed central character, I was struck by the relative lack of other female characters of any depth. Queen Andais mostly plays to type, and there are only incidental encounters with Merry’s Gran, and her childhood friend Keelin. Otherwise, the cast is overwhelmingly male. I also didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of Merry being welcomed home on the condition that she become a brood mare for the court. Overall, this series is definitely not for me.

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More Urban Fantasy

Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey

Attachments

by Cover image for Attachments by Rainbow Rowell Rainbow Rowell

ISBN 978-0-452-29754-8

“What did he have to mope about, really? What more did he want?…Love. Purpose. Those are the things that you can’t plan for. Those are the things that just happen. And what if they don’t happen? Do you spend your whole life pining for them? Waiting to be happy?”

The Courier newspaper is being dragged kicking and screaming into the new millennium as Y2K creeps closer. The management would rather their employees didn’t have access to the internet, or email, but that really isn’t an option anymore. Enter Lincoln, over-educated, and under-achieving, still living at home and not sure what he wants to do with his life. Lincoln is hired to work the night shift on the newspaper IT desk, where his job primarily consists of reading the emails flagged by the computer software that monitors every interaction. Mostly, he issues the occasional warning about pornography or web gambling. Courier reporters Beth and Jennifer theoretically know that someone is monitoring their email, but they don’t seem to care. And although Lincoln knows they’re technically violating the rules by using their work email for personal communications, he can’t quite bring himself to issue a warning. But he can’t seem to stop reading their conversations, either. Before he knows it, he realizes he has fallen for Beth, but how can he possibly introduce himself to someone whose email he’s been reading?

Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, before her breakout success with Eleanor & Park, Attachments is told in alternating chapters, one from Lincoln’s POV, followed by a chapter of made up of email exchanges between Beth and Jennifer. This necessitates a lot of written revelations that most people wouldn’t dare make on their work email today. I could accept that the conceit of the book allowed us to see Jennifer and Beth only as they appeared in their email, but I wanted more from Lincoln’s POV chapters. I wanted to understand how and why Lincoln’s life went astray, aside from breaking up with his first girlfriend, Sam, nine years before, which is a good precipitating incident, but not a complete explanation. The many flashbacks and emails make for a relatively slow start, so that the conclusion seems very abrupt by comparison.

Despite some issues with structure and pacing, Rowell has a great knack for creating wonderful romantic moments out of mundane details. You can see early glimmers of Rowell’s talent for YA romance in Lincoln’s memories of Sam, and Beth’s description of how she met her boyfriend, Chris. Despite these moments of picture-perfect romance, Rowell also writes relationships with realistic complexities. Beth and Chris live together, but her hours as reporter are at odds with his schedule as an aspiring musician. Jennifer and her husband, Mitch, are mostly happy, but Mitch has baby-fever, while Jennifer isn’t sure she really wants kids at all. There are so many different kinds of love in this book, from Lincoln’s first love with Sam, to Beth’s story of falling in love with someone who always left her wanting more, to Lincoln’s friends, Dave and Christine, who are married with kids, but still host Dungeons and Dragons every weekend. And beyond romantic love, there is friendship and family, from Beth and Jennifer’s supportive bond, to Lincoln’s difficult relationship with his mother and sister.

Quirky and charming, Attachments lacks the polish of Rowell’s more recent work, but has enough of Rowell’s signature wit and humour to satisfy fans.

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fangirlYou might also like Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

The Taken (Celestial Blues #1)

Cover image for The Taken by Vicki Pettersson by Vicki Pettersson

ISBN 978-0-06-206464-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

“People created chaos, not places, and they were damned good at it no matter where they lived. And when this glittering gem of a city teamed up with the world’s oldest profession, fantasy piled atop fantasy, it could convince just about anyone that impulse was a virtue, not a vice.”

Journalist Kit Craig and her photographer partner, Nicole Rockwell, are investigating a prostitution ring in their hometown of Las Vegas, when Nicole is murdered during an undercover meeting with a potential source. Griffin Shaw, one time private investigator, has been dead for fifty years, but unable to overcome the trauma of his death and pass over to Paradise, he serves as a Centurion angel, charged with collecting other souls who have met a violent end. It is he who is sent to retrieve the soul of Nicole Rockwell, but when he does Nicole one last favour before she passes over, he doesn’t realize that his actions will change fate, leading Kit to her death in pursuit of her partner’s murderer. Charged by a higher power with cleaning up his mess by collecting Kit’s soul, Grif is cast back onto the mortal plane. But instead of following orders, Grif breaks rank, and protects Kit, even as he enlists her help in figuring out a mystery that has been haunting him for fifty years: who killed Griffin Shaw?

Grif died in the fifties, but Kit is still living them as a rockabilly. She dresses in vintage clothes, hunts down antique décor for her house, and drives a classic car. While the persecution Kit faced for her interest in rockabilly seemed overstressed, it does create an interesting dynamic between her and Grif. Since Grif actually lived (and was murdered) in the fifties, Kit’s idealization of that period strikes a nerve with him, at the same time that her fifties décor makes him feel right at home, epitomizing the way Kit puts him off balance. Rockabilly also helps Grif pass in Vegas, even though he still looks and dresses exactly as he did when he died.

Despite the interesting and complicated dynamic between Kit and Grif, I didn’t feel any investment in the development of their romance. I was more interested in watching them try to mesh their different investigative styles, than in seeing them get together. Unfortunately for me, the romance was fairly central, and it was into the last hundred pages of the book before the mystery plot really picked up steam. The turning point comes at a confrontation between Grif and a Pure—a higher angel that was never human—over his refusal to let Kit die. From that point on, I was hooked, but it was slow reading prior to that. Unfortunately, while this explosive ending wraps up Nicole’s murder and the investigation into the prostitution ring, it leaves the question of Grif’s murder still hanging.

Although the rockabilly aspect of the story was overstressed, and the plot was a bit slow to get going, there were some elements that worked quite well. The Taken conveys a great sense of place, depicting Las Vegas as it might seem to the locals, past and present, rather than skimming the familiar, touristy veneer of the city. I also loved Vicki Pettersson’s writing style, which combined a surprisingly workable mix of hard-boiled narrative, and more lyrical prose. I would be interested in checking out Pettersson’s other work, but for this particular series, it is a lot to ask the writing to carry a slow plot and unengaging romance for three quarters of the book, and expect readers to keep going.

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Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsYou might also like The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams.

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 

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Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.

Letters from Skye

Cover image for Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmoleby Jessica Brockmole

ISBN 978-0-345-54260-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

Edinburgh

Friday, 19 July 1940

Dear Paul,

She’s gone.

The morning after the bomb fell, I went back to the house, intending to patch things up. All night, I couldn’t sleep a wink, thinking about how we argued and how she pushed me away after those letters came tumbling out of the wall. My stomach was in knots.

But when I got up to the flat, it was empty. The wainscoting still gaped open, but every last letter was gone. And both of my suitcases.

My mother, who has never been away from the house for longer than a few hours, has packed up and left. And I have no idea where she’s gone.”

Margaret was raised in Edinburgh by a single mother who never talked about her past, or Margaret’s father. They have never visited her mother’s childhood home on the Isle of Skye, even though they still have family there. When World War II breaks out, Margaret begins an epistolary love affair with her childhood friend Paul, who has gone to war. When her mother finds out, she begs Margaret not to fall in love, because war makes life so uncertain. But there is more to it than that; when a bomb damages their home, Margaret discovers a cache of love letters in her mother’s room dating from the First World War. This glimpse of the past leaves Margaret hungering to know the truth, but then her mother and all the love letters disappear, leaving Margaret to try to put the story together alone.

Letters from Skye is told as a pair of interwoven epistolary narratives, beginning with letters between Margaret’s mother, Elspeth, and David, an American fan of Elspeth’s poetry in the early years of the Great War, and then continuing with letters between Margaret and Paul in the early 1940s. The challenge of the epistolary format is believably including all the necessary details in the letters. Letters from Skye occasionally feels written more to the reader than between the characters, but overall Jessica Brockmole finds a way to make even the most expositionary discussions believable. Although it was not told in the epistolary format, I was pleasantly reminded of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, in which Claire must reveal the truth of her parentage to Brianna. Here, it is Elspeth who is determined to hide the truth, and Margaret who longs to uncover it. Letters From Skye was a lovely exploration of the power of the written word, the consequences of war, and the bonds of family.

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Already read and enjoyed Letters from Skye? For more historical fiction set during World War II, I recommend The Gods of Heavenly PunishmentThe Buddha in the Atticor The Book Thief

Eleanor & Park

eleanor-and-parkRainbow Rowell

ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9

That stupid Asian kid totally knew she was reading his comics. He even looked up at Eleanor sometimes before he turned the page, like he was that polite.”

After being kicked out of the house by her abusive step-father, Richie, Eleanor spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Now Richie has agreed to let her come home, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. While she’s happy to be back with her mother and siblings, the situation has gone from bad to worse; Eleanor is now sharing a single room with her four siblings, in a house with no phone, no door on the bathroom, and no privacy to speak of. Eleanor tries to keep her head down, both at home and at school, but being a big girl with red hair and funny clothes, she sticks out like a sore thumb. She seems like the inevitable target for the school bullies on the bus, until a quiet Asian boy stands up for her–sort of. Unlike Eleanor, Park has had a comfortably middle class existence, though he sometimes clashes with his father, a hyper-masculine Korean War veteran. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure.

Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, truthful details. Although Eleanor’s home life does eventually precipitate a crisis, a good half of the novel takes place as Eleanor and Park get to know one another on the bus to school, sharing comics and music, and, eventually—finally!—conversation. Rowell leverages this limited setting to its maximum potential, throwing together two people who are a perfect fit, and yet never would have come together otherwise.

Set in 1986, and heavily referencing the comics and music of the period, it would be easy to accuse Eleanor & Park of being a nostalgia book. However, it reads much more like a familiar stomping ground, a period which allows the author to easily and authentically provide those exquisite details that make this novel so compelling. In fact, the novel is set in the period when Rowell was in high school, in an Omaha neighbourhood where she once lived. While it helps to appreciate 80s comics and music, this novel by no means feels outdated, or like it couldn’t happen today.

The recipient of four starred reviews from major publications (Booklist, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus) Eleanor & Park has been receiving raves from all quarters. I can finally weigh in and say that these accolades are extremely well deserved. Eleanor & Park is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Page to Screen: The Host

Movie Tin-In Cover for The Host by Stephenie MeyerNovel by Stephenie Meyer

Film directed by Andrew Niccol

ISBN 978-0-316-12865-0

“To my mother, Candy, who taught me that love is the best part of any story.”

“Our world has never been more perfect, only it is no longer our world.”

The Earth has been invaded, but most of humanity was not aware of this fact until it was far too late. These stealthy invaders inhabit human bodies, called hosts, and go on leading human lives, quietly converting others until there are almost no humans left. Earth is not the first world they have conquered, but it is unlike any planet the Souls have inhabited before. Melanie Stryder is one of the few remaining humans, or she was until she is captured and becomes the new host for Wanderer, a Soul who has lived many lives but never settled on any one world. Melanie was supposed to fade away when Wanderer took possession of her body but, for the first time in her many lives, Wanderer finds herself unable to subdue her host. Human emotions and memories are so powerful and vivid that she feels sympathy for Melanie. Worse, it isn’t really sympathy, but empathy; Melanie’s feelings are her feelings. Soon Wanderer finds that inhabiting Melanie’s body often means wanting what she wants and loving those she loves. Melanie’s memories of Jared drive Wanderer into the wilderness in search of the man they both miss.

booktomovieMeyer’s novel gets off to a slow start, with some awkward exposition from the perspective of a minor character. The film manages to eliminate this awkward dialogue through an initial voiceover introduction. However, later moments of exposition in the film remain clumsily wedged into dialogue, a technique which is efficient but also breaks narrative flow. Overall, The Host hues close to the source material—Meyer was a producer on the film—except where it streamlines the plot for runtime, or strays for the opportunity to add visual effects or more dramatic action sequences. The Host presents a somewhat unusual challenge for film translation. Not only is it a first person perspective, but the two first-person characters share a mind and speak to one another in silence. In the film, this was achieved using an echoey voice-over to represent Melanie’s voice in Wanderer’s mind. Although Saorise Ronan is a remarkable actress, not all of their interactions with one another ring true. Indeed, the acting overall is a mixed bag, with most characters having good moments, as well as awkward ones that don’t quite pass muster.

Despite the science fiction premise, The Host is a love story—romance with a window dressing of science fiction. Meyer dedicates the book to her mother, who she says “taught me that love is the best part of any story,” and this certainly plays out in her work. Although the ending offers some hope of redemption for humanity, the problem of the occupation of Earth is by no means solved. (Although initially published as stand alone, Meyer has stated that there may be future sequels). Rather, Meyer focuses on resolving the conflict of having Wanderer and Melanie first love the same man, and then love two different men despite residing in one body. Unlike the book, however, the film seems to see the humour in the situation, and wisely chooses to play Meyer’s melodramatic two kiss scene (one with each love interest) for laughs when Wanderer frantically calls Melanie’s name, rather than that of either lover.

In “A Conversation with Stephenie Meyer” included in the book, Meyer has said that The Host and the Twilight Saga are not particularly similar. Overall, however, there are a number of strong similarities despite claims to the contrary. Love triangles (or quadrangles?) and romances complicated by age differences play a key role in both stories and Wanderer, much like Bella, is self-sacrificing to the point of absurdity. Although marketed as an adult novel, I would peg it squarely in the realm of YA despite some of the characters being slightly older.

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Looking for another sci-fi romance? I recommend The Rules by Stacey Kade.

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2013eclecticreaderThis titles fulfills the Made Into a Movie requirement for my participation in 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out

The Rules (Project Paper Doll #1)

Cover image for The Rules by Stacey Kadeby Stacey Kade

ISBN 978-1-4231-5328-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“Hey, you try living in a secret underground lab for the first six years of your life and see if your understanding of the metaphorical isn’t a little shaky. The point is, people notice when you are late. But they also notice when you are early…GTX didn’t own me, not anymore. But they still controlled my life, down to the smallest details.”

Ariane Tucker lives her life by five strict rules: never trust anyone; remember they are always searching; don’t get involved; keep your head down; don’t fall in love. These rules keep her safe even as she and her “father” hide in the backyard of GTX, the company that created her by combining human and alien DNA. Running would be suspicious—her “father” and rescuer works for GTX—but hiding is also suspicious. The only thing to do is live completely normally, right under their noses. Rule five always seemed like an afterthought to Ariane—how can you fall in love if you don’t get involved?—until Zane Bradshaw asks her out as part of a revenge plot by the queen bee, Rachel Jacobs, granddaughter of the founder of GTX. But instead of going along with Rachel’s plan, Zane wants to get back at her for betraying him. Normally, Ariane wouldn’t get involved, but then she discovers that Rachel’s infuriating presence enables her to access extra-terrestrial powers she thought she had lost a long time ago. Unfortunately for Ariane, it’s pretty hard to keep your head down when the most popular girl in school has a vendetta against you. And, of course, the problem with pretending to be in love is that pretty soon, you aren’t sure what’s real.

Alternately narrated by Ariane and Zane, we see both sides of the story as Ariane struggles to keep her secret, and Zane tries to puzzle it out without violating her tentative trust. His point of view is down-to-earth, while Ariane is slightly alien despite her human conditioning. Ariane’s latent telepathic abilities also provide insight into a number of other characters, as well as a good dose of comic relief (keep an eye out for Mrs. Vanderhoff). Despite the sci-fi premise, the focus is on real issues including pressure from parents, negotiating friendships, and surviving bullying. Although Rachel comes across as a cut-and-dried mean girl, I was left with hope for more interesting and well-rounded future character development as the series continues (assuming she’s even around). Zane’s character development on the other hand, already has an interesting twist; most of it happened before the book started, when his mother abandoned his family on his birthday. The Rules solidifies this development when he decides to take action, being the person he wants to be, rather than continuing the impossible struggle to please his father, the local police chief. Ariane herself is a delight, blending alien cluelessness with the keen insights of an outside observer. Although the action was packed into the last quarter of the book, The Rules was a real page-turner, and the hint of a conspiracy that extends beyond GTX provides ample fodder for future books.