Book review: Jackrabbit by Ian Healy
Review by Prof. Jenn
Ian Healy has delivered again in this next installment of superhero novels in the Just Cause universe. As I have written before, I have and continue to enjoy Healy’s ability to embody the coming-of-age voice, as well as the voice of the “regular Joe,” whether they are superpowered or not. (Sorry, “parahuman” is the correct term in his universe.) In Jackrabbit, though, we run into a new kind of parahuman–that of the Herald. The cheeky rabbit god and his buddy the frog god run into a new, insectile god in God’s Land–and it is revealed that this new god isn’t one invented by humans. This is a big deal, and not a good thing, at all. So (as it so often is) it’s up to our trickster god Leporidus to save the day. He begins his rescue plan by choosing a Herald–that is, a human who will embody the god on Earth. He selects hapless nerdy teenager Jay and, as it turns out, he has made an excellent choice.
Since I know Ian personally (we grew up together through Talented and Gifted programs in junior and senior high school as well as the theatre programs in said schools), I can slap him a virtual yet hearty high five in glorifying the nerd in this world. Even with today’s “geek chic,” nerds are still the victims of bullying today, and actually the nasty insect takeover of Earth event in this novel is connected directly to the theme of bullying. What Healy does very well is illustrate real human beings, whether it’s the coming of age type of Jay/Jackrabbit here or Mustang Sally in his earlier works, or “normal” folks trying to deal with the extraordinary, as in yet other novels in the Just Cause universe. And I love that the female hero is adorably annoying–it’s so great that she’s not flawless, but we still love her. Thanks for the realism and the joy amid the tense action. Also, thank Heaven for an African-American protagonist hero.
Usually I adore Healy’s Just Cause books without question, but I had a couple minor reservations about this one: a) why does Jay have to get all buff and huge when he transforms? Isn’t he a better Rabbit god herald by staying slight and quick? b) Bunny, Jay’s best friend, smacks of the stereotypical Gay Best Friend. In fact, he reminds me of the gay dancer friend in the 1984 movie Breakin’. maybe it’s the dance studio thing. Anyway… c) Jay turns real cheeky once he becomes Jackrabbit. he was pretty meek before. I’m not quite buying his snarky transformation. Maybe if he were already getting in trouble because of his wit and cheek, before he transformed? That way we can see exactly why Leporidus chose him, and his personality later would fit, etc. d) I hate to say it, as I love the ending, but I think it was a little too easily achieved. All of you, go out and read it and come back and tell me what you think.
Bottom Line: Jackrabbit is a fantastic novel and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Book Review: Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann
Review by: Prof. Jenn
How good a combination is a ninja-detective, seriously? What a perfect set of skills to be able to solve a murder in 16th-century Japan. Blade of the Samurai is a sequel to Claws of the Cat, which are historical thrillers starring Hiro, our shinobi protagonist, and his partner in solving crime, Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. With these two intellects at the helm of any investigation, no murderer will stay safe for long. Admittedly I haven’t read the first in this series, so I can’t tell you how the characters have evolved in this sequel, but I can tell you if this is your first foray into the investigations of these two, you will have no problem getting to know our characters, their situations, and setting immediately.
An official in the shogunate has been murdered, and a whiff of a plot to assassinate the shogun himself is in the air as Hiro and Mateo are conscripted to investigate the murder before Oda comes to invade Kyoto. The inclusion of real historical figures (Nobunaga Oda, Hattori Hanzo, etc.) and detailed descriptions of the 16th century Japanese setting plunges us right into the setting as good historical fiction does. However, the quick, clipped pace, the tension begun right as the story begins, and the short chapters make this also a well-crafted whodunit. This book is difficult to put down, and is a quick, exciting read. It’s also a fun addition to have the cultural differences pop up between Father Mateo and his Japanese surroundings (especially noble and samurai encounters, normal Western gestures and thoughts being offensive to the Japanese characters). The outcome of the mystery is complex and not cookie-cutter easy, and the end leaves us with many open ends ready for another sequel (Flask of the Drunken Master, out in 2015).
Bottom Line: Blade of the Samurai is highly recommended.
Two, two, two reviews in one!: Noah by Mark Morris and Noah: Ila’s Story by Susan Korman
Review by Prof. Jenn
Sigh. Well these books are pretty awful.
Noah is the official novelization of the the movie of the same name (screenplay by Aronofsky and Handel). The story follows Biblical figure Noah from the preface of him seeing his father killed by barbarians through his vision of cataclysm and subsequent construction of the Ark and the saving of all the animals, two by two. Ila’s Story is a novella/knockoff/something-or-other that retells the story in Noah but with much less detail and in the POV of character Ila.
Since I am a lit professor by trade, I can’t bring myself to write a completely negative review of anything, no matter how poor in quality. So here are the redeeming qualities of these two books: hm…let’s see…
- The Watchers are a cool concept (well everything here is a Biblical concept but you get what I mean), and seeing them in both their manifestations in this story is satisfying.
- It’s always interesting from a character study standpoint to delve into the complexities of psychological motivation in an old and/or archetypical character. Having all the sturm und drang of Noah’s psyche as he struggles to keep control of crazy circumstances is a neat exploration of an old character.
- The addition of Ila makes for more strong female presence in a story traditionally male-centered.
Yeah, that’s as kind as I can be. The fact of the matter is that the book is clunkily written, the women are only focused on motherhood and the men, nothing else, the violence is gratuitously graphic without furthering the story, and the villain is so stereotypical he’s actually kind of funny. Ila’s Story is actually even worse–there is no character development, no added richness due to the changed female POV, the writing is even more stilted and clunky, and this is even less okay with me as Ila’s Story smacks of being written for juvenile or YA readers. All readers deserve better, but especially young readers.
Having said all this, I must admit I have not seen the movie on which these books are based. Would my opinion of the books change if I had? I don’t think so, as bad writing is just bad writing. Maybe we can blame the bad writing more on the screenwriters than the novelists? Any of you seen Noah and can add to the dialogue here?
Bottom Line: I do not recommend either Noah or Ila’s Story.
Book Review / Interview: A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington
Review / Interview by Prof. Jenn
There are so very many vampires running around in pop culture these days. Between True Blood and the Vampire Diaries, and the continued popularity of Twilight (and does anybody still read Anne Rice?) we are inundated with the sexy undead these days. So why would Titan Press want to republish a vampire book, into the midst of the maelstrom? What does A Taste of Blood Wine have that makes it a worthwhile reading endeavor?
One word: character. This is not a romantic and mystical Dracula knockoff falling in love with an ingenue with no personality. This is a realistically-drawn female nerd who still has a healthy dose of fear for the main vampire character even after she sleeps with him. The vampire himself is science-minded (I mean, doesn’t it totally make sense that an immortal undead bloodsucker would try and use science to figure out how the heck this is happening to him?) and not at all whiny and apologetic about being what he is. He’s no brooding Edward or whining Louis, but a real person, still grieving for his family in completely realistic ways, and yes okay he happens to be beautiful, but isn’t it wonderful that he falls for the nerd, not her social butterfly sister?
The setting, too, is something unusual–we don’t get typical Victorian or contemporary society, but England in the 1920s. What a compelling scene, to see our friendly neighborhood vampire strolling across the WWI battlefield, finishing off some wounded for his existential crisis lunch. The Crystal Ring, which connects vampires to their geography in this universe, is also a compelling concept, as is the use and flouting of traditional vampire tropes.
The vampires of Blood Wine can exist in sunlight, though they don’t sparkle. They cannot be killed but fire or stakes in the heart, but can be crippled and rendered useless by extreme cold (and indeed killed by some forms of extreme cold, as we see. No spoilers here!). It’s fascinating to see how the various vampires have dealt with their “condition” in a realistic way: from Karl’s pragmatism in the face of grief, to Kristian’s insane self-worship and cult following, to Ilona’s pure rage, and then of course our hero Charlotte’s love-fueled choice, it’s all compelling.
Bottom Line: A Taste of Blood Wine is a great read. Highly recommended.
Now, please to enjoy the below interview with author Freda Warrington.
5 Questions: Freda Warrington
Interview by Prof. Jenn
1) With all the vampire craziness happening these days (between the popular TV shows and Twilight), what made you desire to add your own take to the lore?
Actually my Blood Wine series was originally written and published in the early 1990s, long before the explosion of Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and other more recent vampire fiction! In fact I began the first, A Taste of Blood Wine, way back in the 1980s as escapism from a difficult period of my life. So my influences were old school: the Hammer Horror films with a brooding Christopher Lee, the original Dracula novel, and Carmilla (by JS LeFanu) along with a selection of classic stories and the first couple of Anne Rice novels. Why did I want to add my own take to the genre?
Well, I’d long been fascinated by the vampire as a lonely, mysterious, dangerous yet intelligent and strangely attractive figure… However, I was frustrated that he or she was always a monster to be hunted down and staked. Ms Rice brought new life to the lore by showing vampires as thinking, feeling beings with their own story to tell. Part of their tragedy was that any kind of relationship with humans – other than predator and prey – became impossible. But I wondered, what would it be like if you could break through that barrier, despite the difficulties, and come to know this mysterious stranger as an equal?
So I did what I always do when I can’t find the story I want to read. I wrote it myself!
Obviously, human-vampire relationships and romances are commonplace now, but when I first started A Taste of Blood Wine, it was something quite fresh and unusual. My shy heroine Charlotte meets the devastatingly gorgeous, enigmatic Karl. At first he terrifies her, then gradually he begins to fascinate her…
The three books – A Taste of Blood Wine, A Dance in Blood Velvet, and The Dark Blood of Poppies – were first published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. They went out of print for a number of years, despite many plaintive emails from readers who wanted them and couldn’t find them. In fact I was just on the point of reissuing the series myself, when Titan Books stepped in and republished them in gorgeous new covers. I’m also writing a brand new fourth one, The Dark Arts of Blood. If you look at my website, www.fredawarrington.com, you’ll find all the details.
2) The early ‘20s is an unusual time period to experience as a vampire novel setting. What made you choose this era?
When I wrote the earliest version of A Taste of Blood Wine I actually set it in the 18th century! Later, when I came to rewrite it, I found that time period too Georgette Heyer-ish. I wanted something more modern – so my characters could zoom around in cars if need be! – but not too modern. I settled on the 1920s as a period that had not been overused, a decade with a perfect blend of old and new. You’ve got the Edwardian world morphing into the modern world, scientific advances being made, women starting to achieve emancipation. It’s a period of glamour, but also of horror, because the shadow of the First World War still hangs over everything. The social changes of the ‘20s mirror the internal journey that Charlotte makes as she develops from being a shy, suppressed individual into becoming her true self.
3) What lies in store for us in the sequels to A Taste of Blood Wine?
Ooh, without giving too much away… For a start, I couldn’t drag out the “will-she, won’t-she” tension of whether Charlotte will become a vampire over three or four books. In fact it never occurred to me to do so, because I wrote the first book as a one-off. So A Dance in Blood Velvet begins to explore the complications and difficulties of actually being a vampire. Not least the pain of leaving her family behind – every choice my characters make carries a price, and I’d also like to point out that these are vampires who are NOT AFRAID TO BE VAMPIRES! No abstinence or living on animal blood for them!
So just to give a flavour – an old flame of Karl’s intrudes unexpectedly into their new life, in such a wretched state that Karl can’t abandon her. Feeling insecure and rejected, Charlotte becomes fascinated and then disastrously obsessed by a prima ballerina, Violette Lenoir. However, Violette has secrets of her own, not least a mystical connection with the dark goddess Lilith. There’s also a pair of rival occultists in the mix – very much in keeping with trends of the 1920s! – who really stir things up for Karl and Charlotte.
As for book three, The Dark Blood of Poppies, that will be issued in May 2014 in the UK and October 2014 in the USA. You can see the cover on my website, it’s stunning – all blood-red and “Black Swan” style gothic gorgeousness! Anyway – it continues the story of Karl, Charlotte and Violette, and also introduces a different flavour of vampire-human romance in the form of the bitter, twisted vampire Sebastian, and the warm, passionate, but equally-screwed-up-in-a-different-way American beauty Robyn. If you want power struggles, tragic romance, painful voyages of self-discovery, sex, death and general mayhem, look no further!
I don’t want to say too much about the new one, The Dark Arts of Blood, as it’s still a work in progress, but I’ll try… Just as Karl and Charlotte think they’ve reached a state of equilibrium, a new menace arises that may be connected to a guilty secret in Karl’s past. Meanwhile, Violette tries to hold her ballet company together when her principal male dancer, the splendid, egotistical and irreplaceable Emil, goes off the rails in spectacular fashion and disappears… This one is set in 1927 and has silent films, the rise of fascism (but not where you might expect it) and yet more fraught relationships, murder, madness and mystery. In fact I think this one will turn out to be more of a mystery story than the first three… wait and see!
4) It’s a brilliant stroke to have our main vampire protagonist exploring the science behind his condition—trying to find a solution or an explanation. Do you have a scientific explanation set in your head for your universe, or are you discovering along with Karl?
You could say I’m discovering along with Karl and Charlotte! I have an explanation that’s more metaphysical than scientific, although it could turn out to be scientific on a quantum level. See my answer to the next question…
5) Discuss the fascinating concept of the Crystal Ring a little more for our readers.
The Crystal Ring is a parallel dimension of reality that my vampires can enter. This enables them to vanish, to escape danger, and to travel rapidly to distant places (so they’re not arousing suspicion by feeding in the same area all the time). More than that, it’s deeply entwined with whatever strange force makes my vampires, vampires. I can’t exactly remember where my idea for the Crystal Ring came from but I think it was partly inspired by the paintings of John Martin, and just from looking at the sky – you know when clouds form amazing shapes that resemble mountains you could actually walk on? Oh – and also a documentary about certain sea creatures (sharks or rays, I think) being able to perceive the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to navigate. I thought, what if my vampires could do that?
The Crystal Ring, also known as Raqia, is an unearthly place like a stunningly beautiful sky-scape, but semi-liquid, so they can more or less float or fly through it. Basically it occupies the same space as the sky. It’s not somewhere the vampires actually live. In fact it can be dangerous, because if they stay too long they become torpid and unable to escape back to Earth. The very highest level, called the “Weisskalt”, is so icy cold that a vampire could be frozen there forever – a fact that plays a big part in the plot, naturally.
The nature of this mysterious realm defies science, so Karl struggles to find an answer. Each character has his or her own theory. For example, the megalomaniac Kristian in the first book, a religious zealot who believes vampires to be “instruments of God”, insists that the Crystal Ring is the actual mind of God. Others, with more of a guilty conscience, might think it’s a layer of Hell. Charlotte comes up with a more plausible theory – as rational as something so weird can be – but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the books to find out!
Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Stuff of Nightmares by James Lovegrove
Review by: Prof. Jenn
Now obviously any Sherlock Holmes pastiche isn’t going to be Doyle. However, if one is going to set one’s pastiche in Victorian London, it needs to at least read like historical fiction. Especially if one is (rightfully so) writing said pastiche from Dr. Watson’s POV. It needs to sound like Victorian Watson’s narration. Stuff of Nightmares almost does this well, but the slip-ups are numerous enough to make it read in general as anachronistic. Here’s the low-down, according to me:
What I liked:
- background into Watson’s feelings about his wife, the invention of her miscarriages, his feelings about Holmes and the violent events he sees. He’s not simpering, but has honest reactions as a doctor and a human
- I always enjoy the premise of taking one of the many stories Doyle’s Watson was never going to put into print, and create it based on Sherlockian research. This isn’t your typical Sherlock-vs-whatever-1800s-villain-sounds-fun but original, actually well fleshed out, and action-packed
- an engaging, shudder-inducing villain in the lines of George Burnwell or Baron Gruner from Doyle
- feminism, but done correctly for the time period
What I didn’t like:
- Holmes’ character is inconsistent, unrealistic
- a long backstory narration almost as interminable as The Great Alkali Plain
- many narrative anachronisms in the form of contemporary word choice/diction
- steampunk Transformers?! Really, Mr. Lovegrove?! Seriously??
Bottom Line: it’s mildly entertaining but not among the best of the Sherlockian pastiches. You can find a better.
Book Review: Samurai Son by M.H. Bonham
Review by: Prof. Jenn
This review is a milestone for me–it’s the first novel I have gotten to review that I first saw in partial form in a class. It’s one of the pieces I worked with Bonham on during her tenure at DU, and I’m thrilled to see it not only complete, but polished and published.
Samurai Son is a Japanese-flavored adventure fantasy, replete with tengu, dragons, ninja and of course, samurai. It’s a YA novel, which means that there are some scenes of violence and sexual situations, but it’s not all Game of Thrones.
Samurai Son follows two protagonists, Akira and Kasumi, young samurai from different clans who end up working together to foil a plot to open a gate that will flood the world with oni (those are Japanese demons). It’s a good side-by-side coming-of-age plot, wherein our young male samurai is Luke-Skywalker-like frustrated with his training and his supernatural yet secret inner nature, and our young female samurai comes to terms with having witnessed an awful scene, and how and when family ties are important and when they need to be broken. The characters are interesting enough that a young reader has two heroes to look up to and interesting creatures to learn about that are different than the standard Celtic magic fare of most fantasy.
There are some moments where the tropes turn into cliche, but the overall Japanese setting sort of makes up for that. There are other sections where I wish I could have worked on with Bonham before it got to print. The portrayal of the ninja is particularly cool, and the magic system well thought out, especially who wields magic when, and how magic use is sensed. And again, the setting is so refreshing, as well as being a perfect backdrop for a magical adventure story.
Bottom Line: It ain’t perfect, but Samurai Son is recommended for teen readers especially.
Review by: Prof. Jenn
Guy Adams has created a charming “detective” duo in Max and Tom. His experience in writing Sherlock Holmes books means he knows how to set up an investigatory plot, but this isn’t your everyday police procedural. It involves the undead, too, but nowhere does one find the classic vampires or zombies (beware, the “z” word makes one of our protagonists cringe). In fact, even the minor minion characters are round, unusual, realistic in this crazy world Adams has created, and all are compelling enough to make us want to know what happens next.
Max and Tom are drunkenly leaving their bar (the Deadbeat) one night when they stumble across an undertaker’s service fumbling with a corpse. Except, this corpse seems to be breathing. As we progress through the story, we find that it isn’t the only one.
Adams seems to like writing his novels in the “change POV each chapter” structure, usually to good effect. It certainly is here–the POV switches aren’t too frequent that we don’t get to know or care about our characters, and change just when we need a new window on the proceedings. One habit I’ve noticed, though, is the quicker switches (and switches to unusual or minor characters) as the plot churns to a climax, which sometimes can be disconcerting.
I very much enjoyed the voice of Max in particular, and appreciate the beginning of the book being basically the end of the story, with the rest of the novel filling in the events till that opening one. It’s a cinematic way to go. In a good way.
Bottom line: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger is a highly recommended, action-packed thriller. WIth the undead. Yeah.
Book Review: Jago by Kim Newman
Review by: Prof. Jenn
One of the most brain-happy things Kim Newman does in his novels is incorporate pop culture, literary allusions, and history together in a postmodernist bird’s nest that houses the eggs which are his original plots. Jago is no different (at one point, even some of the characters remark that their situation is “postmodern”), but unlike his Anno Dracula series of books, Jago is a bit heavier on the original plot than the allusions.
Paul and Hazel have moved to a little English town called Alder to work on a dissertation and pottery, respectively. Across the village is the Agapemone, a classically-creepy obvious-cult wherein all the inmates are happy, brainwashed, blindly worship their smarmy leader, “share love,” etc. As the big music festival nears, the tension of the native villagers and London or “hippie” outsiders ramps up to a height. Of course, when the festival arrives, everything goes completely to Hell. Literally.
Jago is an intricate, multifaceted novel, taking the multitudes of various (round, well-written) characters and puts us in each of their POV at just the right times to make us scoot to the edge of our seat wondering what will happen next. Enough surprising character deaths (and gruesome violence) happen that by the time the climax occurs, we really truly don’t know what the outcome will be.
Also included in this volume are some short stories in the same universe as Jago. They are well-written, and marginally interesting re: backstory, especially for some of the more powerful/mysterious figures from the novel, but I could have done without them.
Bottom Line: Very dark, but very good. Highly recommended.
Joyland by Stephen King
Review by: Prof. Jenn
When a new book by someone like Stephen King is imminent, there is perforce lots and lots of hype. Especially through this particular label; Hard Case Crime is doing a really cool thing with its releases. The covers echo those of old-school pulp novels, and will always be real paintings, not digital works. They will not be published in e-book form, nor in hardcover, only paperback. Read more about the reasons for these (IMO: awesome) choices here.
So there are plenty of trappings and baggage already before one enters into a book like this. And when I heard “American nostalgia” I rolled my eyes, attempted to drown out the John Cougar Mellencamp song in my head, and took the plunge.*
Now I normally think of Stephen King the way I do about J.K. Rowling, and the way I used to about Anne Rice: an amazing storyteller, gifted as far as creativity and brilliant at character creation, just without the actual writing skill-chops to pull off the enormous ideas pouring forth.** Joyland, however, is an exception to this opinion of mine, and in fact makes me want to go back to other King pieces and see if I was wrong all along.
The story is told from the POV of our protagonist in his 60s, telling us the story of That One Summer as though we’re an old friend on the porch over a cold brew. The voice is parts dry humor, stoic melancholia at the passage of time, and pure wonder at the events narrated. The story itself centers around an amusement park, and our protagonist’s summer (and beyond) working there. It’s part warm and fuzzy coming-of-age story, part adventure, part eerie ghost story. In the best possible balance between the three.
I will admit, I did see ‘who dunnit’ coming. But not too soon, and I have a suspicion I only knew exactly when King wanted me to. The murder mystery is put forth perfectly–a writing professor of mine once said about murder mysteries: “It’s not what the reader knows, but when he knows it that’s important.”*** King feeds us just the exact right size and number of plot snippets at just exactly the right times through the arc of the story, until by the time we’re taking that final ferris wheel ride, it’s as tense and gripping (and admittedly over-the-top action movie fun) as it should be.
Bottom Line: Joyland is very highly recommended. Don’t miss it.
*It’s cool if you like those things–to each his/her own. It’s just not my thing.
**I have a feeling I’m dodging tons of hurled virtual eggs and tomatoes here.
***One Keith Abbott, from Naropa University.