Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Blood Oranges

Blood Oranges
by Kathleen Tierney
Recommended Ages: 16+

Siobhan Quinn is a runaway, a junkie, and a tough chick, living by her wits in the streets of Providence, R.I. Things start to get really dark for her when she sees her girlfriend being eaten by a ghoul. She kills it, of course. Under the patronage of a flamboyant character whom she calls "Mean Mr. B," she soon sets out on a career as a slayer of nasties. Then one inadvertent slaying lands her in the middle of... well, I don't want to spoil it. Before Quinn figures out what's going on, she gets turned into a werewolf and a vampire—doubly cursed, doubly damned, an abomination to abominations, etc., etc. Worse, someone (or something) is pulling her magical strings, controlling her transformations, and using her to track down and kill everyone who crossed him or her. Or it.

So, basically, it's a twist on a murder mystery in which the killer, or perhaps the weapon, is the one trying to solve the crimes. It's a riff on the horror and fantasy genres too, with a vampire who can go out in sunlight without incinerating or sparkling. Who also happens to be a werewolf who can turn hairy even when the moon isn't full. And all the other suspects are just as spooky and weird, if not more so.

Quinn narrates her own story in a style that I suppose may appeal to a certain set of readers, such as those who like their urban fantasy set to a heavy metal soundtrack (or whatever sub-style of metal may apply). It might not sit so comfortably with readers who are still comfortably locked in the groove of pop-culture fandoms such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which she puts down gently), Twilight (which she puts down hard), or Harry Potter (of which she opines that its action sequences flow like a pile of bricks).

I'm OK with authors using references within the genre to triangulate the coordinates of their unique fantasy world. What doesn't thrill me so much is a book that is so aggressively badly written that it keeps making excuses for its bad writing. Sometimes this may be excused, or even made into a virtue, by verisimilitude to a tale being told by a character who is emphatically not a writer. Sometimes this may even provoke interesting thoughts about the ambiguity of dealing with an unreliable narrator—for example, one who repeatedly admits to being a liar. But I would also caution that, in a world abundantly supplied with well-written books, writing badly on purpose may not serve the author's interests. And it may try a reader's patience to the point where he or she says, "Is this almost over yet?"

A super-strength "adult content advisory" applies to this book, which swarms with depictions of extreme violence, IV drug use, lesbian snogging, and strong language. It drops enough F-bombs to wipe out a small country, and other equally incendiary words ensure that if there is ever a movie based on this book, it will be rated R. As to occult content, I'm not sure there is any more harm in it than your common or garden tale of the undead, but Christian readers and their parents may find the author's anti-God attitude a bit abrasive.

It's not an altogether unenjoyable novel. I laughed at some bits that were meant to be laughed at. I felt sympathy toward some of the characters, at times. And I totally got the horror part. There were a couple of points in the audio-book version, narrated by Amber Benson, when I found myself saying, "No, no, no..." and would have put my fingers in my ears, if I hadn't needed to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel. In a starred review, I would give this book at least two stars, which admittedly is a pretty low score on the scale that I use; but I wouldn't review it at all if I could think of no reason to recommend it. I imagine it would go over well with people who follow the modern faerie tales of Holly Black and Melissa Marr, or who like their vampires tattooed, pierced, and generally messed up.

Kathleen Tierney is a pseudonym of CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan, an Irish-born paleontologist and award-winning author living in Rhode Island, USA. Specializing in creepy, dark fantasy and science fiction, her work includes the novels Murder of Angels, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, and the sequel to this book, Red Delicious; as well as such short-story collections as Wrong Things and A is for Alien. While I'm not particularly eager to continue reading this series, I have not ruled out reading one or two of the titles published under her own name.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Alien on a Rampage

Alien on a Rampage
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

In his second summer at the Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast, David (formerly "Scrub") Elliott expects to enjoy his time with Grandma, his sweetheart Amy, and a houseful of extraterrestrial tourists. But things get off to a disappointing start, and get worse from there. First, he suspects that the new alien handyman is up to no good. But far from being able to convince anyone to listen to his concerns, David soon learns that Grandma, Amy, and her security-chief Dad trust skull-faced Scratchull more than they trust him. The more he tries to prove his suspicions, the more Scratchull makes him look like a fool—or worse.

Then David realizes that nothing less than the survival of Earth is at stake, but for his efforts to save the planet he gets into even worse trouble. Just when he is about to be sent home in disgrace, he recognizes Scratchull's final, villainous plan to escape from his exile on Earth, a plan to turn the town's Pioneer Day celebration into a cosmic scene of terror.

Yes, David has a rough summer. His good-humored character is put to another severe test, as he faces discouragement, desperation, and the disappointment of the people he cares about. Plus, he has to deal with a missing Sasquatch, a forest meadow that suddenly turns into quicksand, a river that suddenly turns into a glacier, and a gooey alien who keeps losing bits of himself. Meanwhile, he is put in charge of a dog-like alien who needs constant exercise and who, if not fed hugely and often, may eat them out of house and home. Literally. And, after all, saving the world is a lot of responsibility for a thirteen-year-old boy.

I enjoyed the first book in the "Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast" series, but I think this second book is even better. It deftly combines the weirdness of visitors from other planets with comedy, wit, thrilling sci-fi danger, and a warm glow of puppy love (in more than one sense). The sinister genius of Scratchull's gadgets, the aftereffects of Grandma's scones, the furniture-chewing antics of the creature known as Snarffle, and the sarcastic retorts of the toothpick-chewing ex-sheriff Tate, fill what might otherwise be a predictable, formulaic story with creative touches. I am eager to beam up to Book 3, Aliens in Disguise.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rise of a Hero

Rise of a Hero
by Hilari Bell
Recommended Ages: 13+

The legend says that the great hero Sorahb will return when his country has need of him. If ever Farsala needed a hero, it is now. The Hrum Empire has destroyed its army and taken possession of most of its major cities. They still have most of a year to meet their deadline, when they must either subdue all resistance or abandon their plan to conquer Farsala, accepting it as an ally instead. The nation's slender chances of holding out that long depend on one walled city withstanding a siege, a band of lawless "swamp rats" evading capture, and the tiny remnant of her army being ready to make a last stand before the end.

Though oral history in the future will say that Sorahb indeed returned, the hero Farsala needs is really not one person, but three young people whose interests and approaches to fighting the Hrum couldn't be more different. One of them is Soraya, the daughter of the army's late High Commander, who was the shrewdest representative of Farsala's ruling "deghan" class. Soraya just wants to rescue her mother and little brother, who have been captured and deported as slaves. Though proud and haughty, and sometimes not a very sympathetic character, she learns a lot and grows greatly while accepting immense risks and hardships for her family's sake. Then there is Jiaan, Soraya's bastard half-brother, who takes command of the surviving army in spite of his half-blood pedigree. He too has picked up unusual leadership skills from his broad-minded father. The question is whether he will have vision enough to reorganize his country's defense around the strengths and values of the peasant class.

The final third of the newly-arisen Sorahb is a lowly peddler named Kavi, whose resentment of the deghans stems from an act of brutality that destroyed his career as a smith. As a spy to the Hrum, albeit against his will, Kavi's betrayal of his country has been so effective that it played a role in destroying the deghan way of life. No one could seem less likely to be part-savior of Farsala at this stage, but after seeing the results of his betrayal Kavi has a change of heart. Now he uses the trust he enjoys on both sides of the conflict to play a double game, cuing the Farsalan resistance into opportunities to frustrate the Hrum governor's plans. By spreading rumors, organizing supplies for the besieged city of Mazad, and planning even more daring escapades in the name of Sorahb, Kavi becomes a sharp thorn in the enemy's side.

Working independently, these three leaders will need a lot of courage, charisma, and luck to keep the Hrum off-balance for the months to come. The real test of whether they can win, however, will come when they finally meet in one place. Will they be able to overcome their bitter differences, and unite to realize the legend of Sorahb? This question smolders throughout the second book in the Farsala Trilogy, providing tension and cohesion to a complex tale. Originally titled Wheel, this book is the sequel to Fall of a Kingdom (a.k.a. Flame). As to how it all works out, that will be revealed in the third book, Forging the Sword.

Author Hilari Bell, a sometime librarian in the Denver area, says on her website that she specializes in "ethically ambiguous" fantasy. This claim is certainly borne out in this book, in which three patriots—none of whom has a spotless character—resist an empire that, in some ways, would be a better place to live in than the country they defend. Each of these three young heroes must consider the other side's point of view, and each other's reasons for the choices they make. Everywhere one sees good and evil mixed in subtle and thought-provoking proportions. And they always seem to find that wisdom consists in dealing honestly, reconsidering accepted way of doing things, and knowing what risks to take and not to take.

Among Bell's other titles are the "Goblin Wood" trilogy, the "Shield, Sword, and Crown" trilogy, the "Knight and Rogue" quartet, and the "Raven" duet. These and several standalone books look like attractive picks for teens and younger who enjoy adventures with swords, magic, and the occasional unicorn.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Aliens on Vacation

Aliens on Vacation
by Clete Barrett Smith
Recommended Ages: 12+

"Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast" is the name of the series, as well as the place young David "Scrub" Elliott finds himself visiting over the summer between sixth and seventh grade. It isn't that Scrub is into science fiction, so much. His main interest is basketball. He would rather be back in Florida, trading insane dares with his best friend and training for the all-star team. Instead, when his parents take off on separate business trips, he gets packed off to his grandma's crazy, retro-futuristic themed hotel in the woods of Washington. Equal parts throw-back to the hippie era and throw-up of sci-fi film cliches, the B&B seems to promise the lamest summer vacation ever. But that's before Scrub finds out that his grandma's clients are really visitors from other planets.

Grandma prefers not to call them aliens. Her term for them is tourists. For forty years, she has catered to honeymooners, hikers, and holiday-makers from across the Interplanetary Collective. The space-ships on her lawn are just for show. These tourists arrive via a system of intergalactic transporters, cleverly disguised as closets. Why do they choose Earth, of all places, as their vacation destination? Because it's a quiet, out-of-the-way spot where they aren't likely to meet other people they know. The only trouble with visiting such a primitive planet is that they have to keep their identity as space visitors secret from the natives, i.e. us. That's where Scrub comes in. His grandma puts him right to work, touching up the human disguises of the arriving tourists, and helping them orient themselves in this strange world.

At first, Scrub thinks being put to work in the B&B will be a drag on his plans for a fun summer of shooting hoops and goofing off with the local kids. But then he realizes that he's quite good at the job, and he enjoys it too. In fact, the local kids are more of a problem—they and Sheriff Tate, who is just looking for a reason to shut down Grandma's business.

It is fun to go along with Scrub as he tries to keep the aliens secret in full view of a small town, in spite of snarky teenagers, nosy neighbors, and one particularly cute girl with a freckled nose and a passion for UFO stories. Covering up extraterrestrial slips seems to get harder and harder as Scrub dances around the truth with Amy, has an intergalactic basketball shootout with the neighbor boys, and tries to keep a group of rambunctious alien boys separate from a boy scout troop during a camping trip in the woods. Through his own mistakes, he triggers an interplanetary incident that may ruin his grandma's business. Then it is up to Scrub, a boy of remarkable resourcefulness at times, to save the day.

Here is a deliciously loopy, funny story that will appeal especially to readers in the middle-school and junior-high range of ages. Scrub's voice is bright, down-to-earth, and engagingly honest even when he doesn't always say what is on his mind. His charm as a lead character, the colorful adventures he goes through, the whimsical people he runs into, and the underlying message of respect for people who are different from yourself, promise to make this a delightful series. There are two sequels so far: Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise. Clete Smith is also the author of Magic Delivery.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Untold

Untold
by Sarah Rees Brennan
Recommended Ages: 13+

In Book 2 of "The Lynburn Legacy," a dark ultimatum looms over the outwardly charming town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. The evil sorcerer Rob Lynburn means to return the town to its old ways, in which the sorcerous few held power over the non-magical many—an arrangement whereby good weather and prosperous fortunes were given in exchange for blood sacrifice. Rob and his sorcerers demand a victim—a human victim, mind you—on the winter solstice, not only to show that the town submits to them, but to ramp up their magical mojo. Standing in the way are Rob's estranged wife Lillian, the lady of Aurimere manor; his half-sibling sons Jared and Ash, who epitomize every teen girl's dilemma between the sexy bad boy and the really nice guy; and, epitomizing every teen girl, high school newspaper editor Kami Glass and her brave but very mortal friends.

When we met Kami in Unspoken, she was linked with Jared in a most intimate way. The pair had been hearing each other's thoughts since childhood, each discovering only lately that the other wasn't an imaginary friend. The link that bound them was a powerful spell that made Kami a source of power to Jared, like a magical battery. But now that link is severed—sorry if that spoils Unspoken for you! For the first time ever, they can't read each other's mind. To say this puts a strain on their relationship would be like saying Sorry-in-the-Vale is about to become a very interesting place to live. Their feelings are as mixed as the signals they send each other, a confused jumble of love and hate, desire and mistrust. Kami doesn't know who kissed her one night in a dark corridor—was it Jared or Ash? Neither boy knows whether she wants it to be him. And the decision she will be forced to make towards the end of this book, so that the town can live to fight another day, will only increase the jealousy issues between the two boys.

In case there can be too much teen romance, there is plenty of other stuff jazzing up this book's catalog of attractions. It has the characters who make charming and funny patter together. It has the family drama of a marriage coming unstuck, and the horror of a child being stolen. It has the suspense of an impending catastrophe, the thrill of a blood-drenched magical battle, the chill of an eerie magic ritual, and a hair-raising attempt to rescue prisoners from the bad guys' lair. It has the loneliness of a kid who has lost the respect of everyone he cares about, and the nobility of self-sacrifice, and the tantalizing promise of a third book in the trilogy—Unmade, coming in September 2014.

But supposing, for the sake of argument, that there cannot be too much teen romance, what then? Well, there's plenty more of that too. There is a subplot about girls accepting that one of their girlfriends likes girls... and maybe another girl struggling to accept the truth about herself. There is a goodly amount of teen snogging and petting, which very nearly leads to a great deal more; so, mature judgment will be the habit of a successful reader. The question "Who will end up with whom" seems to take up enough brainspace to ensure that all the other dilemmas will rush upon everyone with even greater urgency. In short, when the book isn't making your heart stammer with excitement and dread, it is making you giggle and go awww. And again it proves that its author, who also wrote the Demon's Lexicon trilogy and co-wrote Team Human with Justine Larbalestier, knows how to create a climax of frenzied intensity.

The Well-Beloved

The Well-Beloved
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+

This comparatively short novel was first published as a serial in 1892. It is known now in the revised version of five years later, which in a way makes it later than Jude the Obscure and thus Hardy's "last" novel. Typically as to Hardy's body of work, it portrays a tragic romance that challenges traditional sexual morals such as, in this case, monogamy. Added to this is a poetic sense of fate, giving the storyline a touch of magical symmetry, like that of a fairy-tale or a folk legend. At the center of the tragedy is a sculptor named Jocelyn Pierston, whose eye for beauty is both a gift and a curse. For, whether you read it as a literal truth or merely as the self-justifying whimsy of a faithless man, he considers himself the faithful lover of an ideal of womanhood—he calls her the Well-Beloved—who possesses one woman after another, never staying long in the same fleshly tabernacle.

And so we look in on Jocelyn's career at three stages in his life: as a young man of twenty, a young man of forty, and a young man of sixty. You know he doesn't deserve it, but the years are kind to him. He really keeps most of his youthful good looks, so that even at sixty women find him reasonably attractive, and would be surprised to learn his true age. But he pays dearly for this, and for his artistic eye. It begin when he jilts a girl from his native Isle of Slingers (based on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, U.K.), a lovely being named Avice, with whom he has been a sweetheart off and on since childhood. Breaking their engagement to be married proves to be the great mistake of his life, but he is carried away by an appearance of the Well-Beloved in the statuesque figure of Marcia. Their marriage plans don't come off either, so Jocelyn throws himself into his art.

Twenty years later, and another twenty years again, we drop in to find Jocelyn being captivated by successive generations of Avices. Both the daughter and the granddaughter of the original captivate him as much as the original. A sad sense that the first Avice was really the love of his life, and regret for things that should have been but can never be, smolders beneath the tragedy of a man whose true love passes between three generations of the same family. The wrong that he did to the first Avice is repaid with interest—and with a beautiful symmetry that an artist must appreciate—as Pierston's desire to possess their great beauty is denied again and again. And when the vision finally deserts him, it is such a strange mixture of blessing and injury that it will stir both thought and feeling.

I read this book by way of Robert Powell's audiobook narration. In a medium I have known to reach fifty CDs, this book fit comfortably on six disks. Within these very modest dimensions, however, Hardy brings to life a memorable and distinct corner of his fictional county of Wessex: a wind-tousled, surf-spattered spit of stone, haunted by history, inhabited by gritty folks who have intermarried every-which-way and who all know each other's business. It is a striking setting for a tale that touches on the brevity of youth's bloom of freshness and beauty, the sportive pranks of a genius that endures through one fleeting represtative after another, and the length (for some) of a life full of regret.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Daniel Hymn

The faithful in a faithless age
Rejoice in Daniel's holy page,
Wherein our troubled eyes may see
How we God's witnesses may be.

Of Daniel and three lads we sing
Who would not eat an unclean thing,
Yet far from waxing poor and weak,
By faith were found robust and sleek.

By faith that prophet told the dream
That ruin to the wise did seem:
As earthly realms returned to earth,
The heav'nly kingdom would come forth.

By faith were three young men too bold
To bow before a god of gold.
Cast into flame with hymns of joy,
These three the fire could not destroy.

The high king's reason God withdrew
Till shaggy like a beast he grew:
The dew his bed, his food the grass,
He glorified God's name at last.

When Belshazzar's vain pride was great,
God's finger wrote his sordid fate:
Then Daniel rose by faith to say
His empire soon would pass away.

Then some who loved not Daniel's wit
Conspired to cast him to the pit.
So faith seemed trapped by faithless laws;
But You, Lord, shut the lions' jaws.

Proud kings who knew not Daniel's God
Beheld His pow'r, were shamed and awed:
Meanwhile his visions showed as well
The hope of captive Israel:

"Believe, endure, and God will come
To bear His suff'ring people home:
Blest he who, faithful in his ways,
Awaits the promised end of days."

Dear Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
With Michael captain of Your host,
Make us, like Daniel and his friends,
Your faithful witness to the end.