Friday, 26 June 2009

Book review - The Trouble with Demons by Lisa Shearin

From the back cover:
My name is Raine Benares. I’m a seeker. People hire me when they need something found. I’m not usually the one being sought. But that all changed when I found the Saghred, a soul-stealing stone of unlimited power – and the bane of my existence. Now mages and madmen have me in their sights, not to mention demons...
An opened Hellgate leads to a demon infestation on the Isle of Mid, and while there’s never an ideal time to face down demon hordes, it’s hard to imagine a worse one. Already fighting the influence of the Saghred, Raine discovers she is also magically bonded to a dark mage and a white knight, two dangerous and powerful men on opposing sides – and Raine’s stuck in the middle.

This is the third in the Raine Benares series and I strongly suggest that you read them in order. Like its two prequels, The Trouble With Demons packs a huge amount of plot and action between its covers. For those new to Raine Benares world, she’s an elf detective with a contemporary voice, living in a world with elves, humans and goblins (who by the way are gorgeous). She’s trouble-prone and she’s the niece and cousin of two of the most notorious pirates in the land. The writing is fast, action-packed and witty. In short, it’s impossible to assign a genre to the book. It has a little bit of almost everything. Which means that they could probably be enjoyed by almost everyone.

One of what I’ve come to recognise as Shearin’s trademarks is a large cast of characters all with complex relationships and motivations. All my favourite characters are back and in terms of the love triangle, I see Raine begin to lean in a very definite direction. The action moved very fast, keeping my attention riveted, though perhaps at times it was a bit too fast. Raine is propelled from trouble to trouble with very little breathing time. I didn’t have too much trouble following the plot, but a few quiet scenes where the characters think about the problems would have let me appreciate them properly. Instead I found the pace so quick that a life-threatening incident would pass me by almost before I even registered it. This matters less because it is the third book – I’ve had time to get to know the characters, so do care what happens to them.

I’ve really enjoyed the whole series so far and would recommend it. I do find that there are small things that annoy me, but in fairness I think they annoy me because I enjoy the series so much. As I mentioned in my review of Armed and Magical, one of these things is the representation of 18 year old Piaras. This improves in The Trouble with Demons, though I still think he’s treated as someone younger than eighteen. My other main irritation is the tendency for small phrases to be repeated. I get the impression the author gets fond of some small line of descriptions because from book to book the same line will be used. These lines were witty the first time, but when repeated word-for-word in the next book I feel slightly cheated. They’re not too common, maybe a couple per book, so most people probably won’t even notice them.

As I said above, I’m often extra critical of books I really enjoyed. I probably go into too much detail over the small things, but I guess in a way that shows how much I enjoyed the book. If the only problems I have with it are small then it was almost perfect to me. Technically the whole series is Adult rather than Young Adult, but I don’t think it’s at all inappropriate for younger teens. A highly recommended continuation to a fun series.
(As far as I'm aware, they're not yet being published outside of the US but you can get them from Amazon UK)

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Book review - Strange Angels by Lili St. Crow

Dru’s life takes a turn for the worse when her dad turns into a zombie and tries to kill her. With her Mum long dead and no other family, Dru’s alone in a strange city with even stranger problems. She and her dad have travelled around hunting scary monsters for as long as she can remember, but something is different about this town. She doesn’t know what her dad was looking for here, but it seems he found it. The thing is, zombies don’t just happen. Someone did it to him on purpose. And that someone is looking is looking for Dru now. She may be tough and dangerous, but she’s about to get deeper into the Real World than ever before.

I was interested to read this book because I don’t seem to read that much urban fantasy. It had a lot that I expected in it – it was fast-paced, full of action and suspenseful. The characters and the use of backstory surprised me by their depth. Dru clearly has a hidden past which will be explored in the next books. And that brings me to my biggest problem with the book. Strange Angels reads like the most blatant first-in-a-series I’ve ever read. It felt like the pilot for a TV series; setting up scene, characters and the world and ending with a hook. Questions with no answers. The problem with that is there’s not going to be another episode next week, so I wanted far more closure. I also found that in some respects, it was too clichéd. For example the use of occult stores hiding the ‘Real World’ is nothing new and seemed to lack effort in a usually original story.

At first glance, Dru is a typical heroine for this type of story. She’s gutsy, knows a lot about monster slaying, is somehow very important to everyone though she has no idea why... However, as I mentioned, the use of backstory saved this. Dru has a real history, real problems, and reads like a real person. She’s not experienced enough and she’s in over her head, not knowing who to trust, yet she faces and fights these problems, making her a relatable and likeable character. Other characters were just as well developed, specifically Graves, a guy from school. His friendship with Drew is one of the highlights. The monsters were also original, especially the flame dog thing. They were coherently described and the action scenes were well written.

I actually think Strange Angels has been unfairly advertised. I admit I don’t know the genre that well, but it seems like the story inside is a lot different from what the cover would suggest. The cover looks to me like the most general, stereotypical urban fantasy clichéd cover. For example the tagline – DRU ANDERSON. Night Hunter. Knife Thrower. Heart Breaker. Yes she’s called Dru. There’s no specific mention of night, it just seems to be a sort of euphemism for ‘urban-fantasy-monster hunter’ and she’s not really the hunter so much as her dad was. Her dad has taught her how to fight, but not specifically with a knife, usually it’s a gun or unarmed. I guess she might be pretty, but to be a heart breaker you have to give someone the chance to lose their heart first and as she’s always moving and never really gets involved with people, I’m suspicious of this one too. I guess this is a really long-winded way of saying the cover’s misleading - the book’s not as formulaic and stereotypical as it suggests.

It wasn't my favourite read, though I'd say it's worth checking out. But if like me, you hate it when a book tries to get you to read the sequel by not finishing properly, Strange Angels will annoy you no end. I suggest you wait until the next book is out, then read them both together.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Book review - Graceling by Kristin Cashore

When Katsa first killed a man with her bare hands, she was eight years old. Her one blue and one green eye had indicated that she was graced but until then, no-one knew what her gift would be. The court were afraid of her, but her uncle the king saw Katsa’s potential. She soon becomes his personal thug, reputed through the seven kingdoms as his bloodthirsty brute. Katsa can see no escape. She never wanted to kill anybody, but gradually gives up on open defiance.
She can see the injustice around her though, and seeks to anonymously improve the lot of others. When the Lienid King’s father goes missing, no-one can think of anyone who would want to kidnap a harmless old man. Katsa’s determined to help, and soon finds that at last she has met her equal in a strange Graceling man whose powers match hers. The deeper they search, the more sinister the reason for the kidnapping seems to be. The trail leads to yet another kingdom, and a strange king.

I really enjoyed this, despite the fact that the plot veered in a direction different from the one I expected. From the blurb, I assumed that Katsa’s story would be about her stealthy and growing defiance to her uncle – I expected a bit more court intrigue. Instead, much of the story is taken up with a journey, travelling between the seven kingdoms. I confess I’d have preferred the court intrigue, but not by much. The plot is interesting and kept my attention.

Yes, as others have said, this is yet another book with seven kingdoms. Yes, some of the names are stupid. Others bloggers have used the name Po as an example, but I have to mention the little girl Bitterblue. Despite the painful contrivance of some of these names, Graceling also has successful creativity. The idea of people with different coloured eyes being ‘graced’ in some way is certainly to me completely unique and an interesting premise. Graceling takes this clever world building and adds an adventurous plot. It did feel a bit of a ‘quest’ book, but there is nothing wrong with that other than over-usage, and Graceling is different enough in other ways that it doesn’t matter.

Overall, an entertaining and enjoyable read. Kristin Cashore has created a world that readers will want to return to. Despite my disappointment in some areas, it held my attention. I just feel that it had a bit more potential.

* I suppose I should mention that it has some sex in it. It would probably be a 12A in movie terms.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Book review - Shrinking Violet by Danielle Joseph

Tere’s biggest ambition is to be a radio dj. While classmates ignore her because of her shyness and her mother criticizes her constantly, Tere finds sanctuary by rocking out with her ipod in her bedroom. When her stepdad, who owns one of the biggest radio stations, gives her a chance as an intern, Tere knows she has to step up to the mark. As SLAM’s newest hit, Sweet T is hugely popular. By day, Tere is the quiet girl at school. No-one would have dreamt of her double-life. But things get complicated when SLAM hold a song writing contest. The prize? A date to the prom with Tere. Not only does the thought of revealing herself to her whole school terrify her, she also wishes that she was going with a certain someone else...

Shrinking Violet was a really sweet read. Tere is at the start of the book cripplingly shy, something I think a lot of people can relate to. While Tere’s shyness is more extreme than in anyone I know, it’s written in such a way that perfectly evokes the need to fit in and avoid attention.
The characters are possibly the best part of this story, surprisingly deep. Tere’s mum, who criticises and nags at her constantly, has a much more complex personality than it seems at first. She irritated me a lot by answering for Tere when people talked to her, ‘Oh, she’s shy.’ This is a sure-fire way to undermine anyone’s confidence! The radio staff were fun, especially Derek the sleazy dj who also is surprisingly developed.

As Tere’s confidence grows, she makes a couple more friends at school, including the guy she likes. The group dynamic between them is amusing and believable and the relationship between Gavin and Tere is sweet. Shrinking Violet is definitely predictable and I wouldn’t say it’s groundbreaking either, but sometimes the well worn path is the best one. It’s a delightful read, though fairly short, and had more depth than I was expecting. I’d say it’s probably the ultimate comfort read for anyone in high school/secondary school. Somehow Danielle Joseph brought to mind the emotions and feelings I had at secondary school, though I couldn’t put my finger on when or how. It seems just that she understands what’s important to people of that age – how everything in school matters, even when you know that soon you’ll leave forever and never see these people again. Shrinking Violet somehow captures this, making it more special.
Oh and again, BEAUTIFUL cover!

* I don't think it's being published in the UK at the moment, but it's available from Amazon.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Book review - Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Fourteen-year-old Anax is about to take the examination. The examination will determine her fate in the Republic, a community cut off from the rest of the world. She has four hours, three examiners, and a whole lot of knowledge on her special subject, Adam Forde. But there might be more to the exam than meets the eye. The examiners seem to know more about Adam Forde than the official history. And if that’s the case, why are they letting Anax in on the secret?

Genesis was different. The most obvious difference is the writing style, which is a complex written transcript of the exam, with small sections from Anax’s point of view. It took me a few chapters to get used to this format – at first it felt quite static – but it was cleverly done, so although the entire story only lasts four hours, the retellings of the past give it pacing and a sense of distance and time.

Anax is an interesting character. As a historian, especially while she’s being examined, she tries to think logically and coherently, so tries to suppress her emotions somewhat. It’s interesting to see a character who is passionate about their favourite subject, but attempts to quash that passion and be analytical in her approach. With each exchange between Anax and the examiners, a further layer of complexity in the development of the republic is revealed. The history of the republic is carefully woven into the tale. As each development is explained, it brings the history closer to Anax’s present reality until it comes to involve her explicitly.

Genesis is clever, with some surprising twists and plotting. It’s also what I’d call an ‘issue-raiser’ book, questioning Anax’s world, rights, and morality, but not presuming to answer these for the reader, instead giving space for you to consider this yourself. Genesis would be great as a discussion book, ideal for book clubs, or even school English lessons.

Personally, I find I need a bit more movement in a book, but that’s more to do with my impatience than the book’s pacing. I also found Anax a difficult character to relate to, so methodical and controlled was she. I found however, that I was watching her with interest – as though the entire book was in third person. It was an interesting effect, perfect for the character. As I’ve said, Genesis is a clever book, but it didn’t elicit a reaction from me. I was interested in the outcome, but I wasn’t emotionally involved.

All in all, a thought-provoking, somewhat unique read. It’s definitely been cleverly crafted and worth reading. What do you think of the Uk’s shiny new hardback cover (first picture)? This is a tough one for me. I like it, but for some reason it makes me think non-fiction. It makes me expect a humorous fact-filled book about nature, like a QI book or something.