REVIEW: The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason

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Title: The Clockwork Scarab

Author: Colleen Gleason

Publisher/Publication Date: Chronicle Books, Pub. date Aug. 16, 2013

I was so excited when I picked up The Clockwork Scarab at ALA Annual 2013. I stumbled across the coupon for it in the book and was instantly smitten with the premise of Bram Stoker’s half-sister and Sherlock Holmes’s niece teaming up to solve mysteries.  Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes are both quick-witted, talented, and intelligent girls with a real passion for crime solving while still dealing with the kerfuffles that come from being sixteen-year olds in 19th century London. The book reminds me a lot of Gail Carriger (which is high praise indeed coming from me) in that it combines humor, adventure, mystery, and manners.

Their first case involves a series of mysterious deaths of young women of means, the only link seeming to be an Egyptian scarab. Mina and Evaline must figure out how the girls are connected, what the scarab means, and who is behind these inexplicable tragedies. There is a small bit of romance thrown in but nothing overly heavy handed and the girls remain the focus of the story throughout. Though the time-traveling nature of Dylan Eckhert did feel a little out of place to me. I felt that the story was more than strong enough to stand on its own and the time-traveling didn’t really seem to fit. Gleason ties it in with other elements of the plot so that it makes sense, it just didn’t seem to fit to me. I would have preferred that little storyline be left out, but not enough that it took away any real enjoyment from reading. It will be interesting to see how that storyline continues to develop throughout the series.

The narrative goes back and forth between Mina and Evaline as narrators which is a great way to give them both a strong voice as well as to help the reader get a better sense of the ups and downs of this new partnership. It’s fascinating to watch as Mina and Evaline learn to navigate around each other and work together, no easy feat for two such strong-willed characters who are both more than aware of their exceptional nature. Sixteen is such a great age because the girls have firmly developed personalities but are still dealing with the awkwardness that comes from being an exceptional sixteen girl, especially in the 16th century where expectations were pretty narrow.

I would definitely recommend this book for a good read. It’s thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable and I am greatly looking forward to reading more in the series as they become available. 

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REVIEW: Help for the Haunted by John Searles

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Title: Help for the Haunted

Author: John Searles

Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow, Pub. date Sept. 17, 2013

Help for the Haunted follows the story of sisters Sylvie and Rose in the aftermath of the horrific murder of their parents, Sylvester and Rose Mason.  Sylvester and Rose made a career of investigating spirits and possible hauntings, attempting to drive bad spirits out of the lives of people. As Rose tries to figure out how to be her sister’s guardian and Sylvie struggles to fit in at school, a place where she was already the odd one out because of her parents’ career, questions begin to arise about what actually happened to their parents and how guilty the accused murderer actually is. Adding an additional level of stress for Sylvie, she begins to suspect her house maybe haunted by some of the evil spirits her parents dealt with during their lives.

While the mystery of who killed Sylvester and Rose Mason does drive some of the plot, there is significantly more focus on examining how family does or does not come together in grief, how we all mourn differently, and how we reconcile who we are with some of the secrets we are forced to keep. Guilt and grief are powerful emotions that have the potential to change who we are. Searles does an excellent job delving into these difficult topics in a way that makes the characters sympathetic but still aware of the mistakes that they’ve made. Grief can be extremely isolating and it often seems easier to block ourselves away than actually deal with the pain. Putting two people in the same house who are dealing with this type of tragedy, neither in a very healthy way makes for an interesting dynamic.

Interspersed with the chapters on Rose and Sylvie are flashbacks to their childhood and how they were impacted by their parents’ career, specifically those instances dealing with Albert Lynch (the man accused of killing their parents). These flashbacks help the reader begin to make sense of how the girls were impacted by growing up with parents who had such a unique livelihood. Rose, daughter not mother, was especially impacted as her search for identity often butted up against what her parents, specifically her father, wanted for her and believed was appropriate for her. As Sylvie begins to better understand the dynamic between her sister and her father she begins to understand more and more about the hows and whys of what happened the night her parents died.

I really enjoyed this book, even though it did make me cry on a number of occasions. Searles has a real talent for creating believable characters with the many depths and foibles we see in real people. The book is definitely worth a read and would make an excellent book club selection since it offers numerous avenues for discussion. 

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REVIEW: The Grim Company by Luke Scull

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Title: The Grim Company

Author: Luke Scull

Publisher/Publication Date: Roc, Pub. date Feb. 4, 2013

The Grim Company has many of my favorite things in a book: fantasy, fighting, dysfunctional characters, and a fair bit of hilarity. And I did enjoy the book for the most part. Brodar Kayne was definitely my favorite part of the book. The Highlander is well advanced in age, has had a really shit time for the last few years, but just keeps on trekking. The rest of the pack have their ups and downs. Sasha was an enjoyable character but her last minute drug habit was oddly placed and then sort of overlooked. The Half-Mage is a great anti-hero. He supposedly acts for the betterment of all and yet, his weak willed nature always seems to get the better of him. Cole’s massive ego makes him ridiculous but since everyone else is aware of this it makes it a little easier to swallow. Jerek, the other Highlander, was part of where the book took an unfortunate turn for me. But I’ll discuss that more in a bit.

Plotwise, the book moves at a good pace. The evil overlord and the megalomaniacal nature of many of the so-called leaders of other lands, all of whom were responsible for killing the gods, serve as a good focal point for dislike. Every book needs someone you can really hate, and these jerks are definitely it. Our intrepid band of heroes end up in some sticky situations and Scull does an excellent job of questioning what really makes a hero. Our group sometimes behaves in a manner not consistent with heroic behavior but often aren’t given much of a choice. In a land that is ruled by the morally bankrupt, how do we determine who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? The head Augmentor falls into a similar category. Not a bad man in and of himself but forced to do distasteful things. Loyalty to the state or to a cause and an “ends justify the means” type of mentality make it impossible to peg many of the characters are truly good or truly bad. Since this tends to mirror real life, I find it an interesting concept in fantasy novels. Michael Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series tackles some of the same issues in a fantasy setting, though his “heroes” aren’t quite as off the beaten path as some of Scull’s. So, overall, I enjoyed the plot and most of the characters.

Which leads me back to Jerek, who is quite the sticking point for me in this book. Jerek is an unapologetically awful person. Yes, he displays extremely commendable loyalty to Kayne, but he is a really awful person. Which I am actually okay with. I have no problem with awful characters. Books need awful characters. Awful characters do a lot to help drive a book or to address issues that should be talked about. That being said, there is, in my opinion, a way to make characters awful and still sympathetic. Make him an outspoken and crass jackass. Make him violent with a vocabulary worse than every sailor and pirate who has ever lived. You can do all those things and I can still find him sympathetic. Jerek, however, comes across as a misogynistic rapist, or at the very least a would-be rapist. There are repeated implications that he’d as soon rape Sasha as he would look at her. He repeatedly refers to her as “bitch”, among other things, and views her with an anger and vitriol that we don’t see towards other characters. Does he like or respect the other characters? By and large, no. But they never seem to incur the same hatred that Sasha does solely because she is a woman. And that is where my issue is. I cannot find a character like that sympathetic. His behavior and language throughout the book took me out of the story every single time. I was constantly distracted by how uncomfortable I was by the author’s desire for me to somehow find this character sympathetic. So yes, while I enjoyed much of the book, it is highly unlikely that I’ll pick up the sequel.

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REVIEW: Backward Glass by David Lomax

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Title: Backward Glass

Author: David Lomax

Publisher/Publication Date: Fluxx, Pub. date Oct. 1, 2013

I was really intrigued when I picked up Backward Glass. The idea is that this mirror exists that allows certain people to travel forward or backward in time 10 years. Lomax sets up a excellent little set of rules that control how the mirror operates that prevents people from moving back and forth willy nilly and help to drive the plot along. The main character, Kenny Maxwell, lives in 1977 and happens on the mirror inadvertently after his family moves into an old house and he and his father discover the corpse of a baby inside a wall. Shortly after that Luka arrives from 10 years in the future and helps Kenny understand how the mirror works. Luka leads Kenny to some of the others who can use the mirror. Kenny is convinced that he and the others can find a way to save the baby that was found in the wall.

Of course, as with all good and well-intentioned ideas, something has to go wrong. Enter Prince Harming. A child’s rhyme unique to the local area references the backward mirror and a boogeyman of sorts that kills teenagers. Think Jason or Freddy Kreuger but a little less creepy. Despite the possible danger though, Kenny remains committed to his plan to find a way to save the baby. A lot of the book revolves around watching this group of teenagers from very different times and very different lives come together and develop friendships regardless. Making new friends can be difficult and it’s often impressive how even the smallest bit of common ground can be the basis for a friendship. But as with all friendships, especially those built on more tenuous connections, tension and fallout is inevitable. The group struggles to stay together and stick to the mission but nothing seems to go according to plan. Once Prince Harming does arrive, things go from bad to worse and Kenny finds himself stuck in the past.

I really enjoyed this book. The premise was interesting to me. Lomax does a great job adhering to the rules he developed for the mirror to ensure that the plot remains consistent. The characters are believable and even flawed still have you rooting for them to succeed. Some of the bumps in the road aren’t surprising considering the main characters are all teenagers but by and large the mysteries of the plot aren’t obvious or predictable. A good read and definitely worth a look for those interested in YA lit. 

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REVIEW: Betwixt and Between by Jessica Stilling

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Title: Betwixt and Between

Author: Jessica Stilling

Publisher/Publication Date: Ig Publishing, Pub. date Oct. 18, 2013

Betwixt and Between is a very interesting little take on Peter Pan. Ten-year-old Preston, a fairly carefree and happy child, visits his socially awkward man-child neighbor, eats a poison cookie, and dies in the woods of his neighborhood.  He awakens in Neverland, which in this particular universe, is where little boys go after they die before moving on to the actual afterlife. The idea seems to be that as long as these boys are in Neverland, their parents/loved ones can still sense them allowing them to grieve more freely? Why this couldn’t happen if they passed on completely wasn’t entirely clear. Neverland also seems to be a place where these boys can come to grips with what has happened to them since they have all died tragically. The island is run by a boy named Peter who is not a real boy and has always lived on the island, except for a small foray into London in pursuit of Wendy. Also on the island are two groups of adults, sometimes Cowboys and Indians, sometimes Knights and Lords, sometimes Cops and Fireman, but always two groups that play fight in neverending battles as they atone for their crimes against children in life, whether those crimes were intentional or not. And of course, Peter Pan would be nothing without Captain Hook and his pirates. These foul characters live on the other side of the island and the boys are strictly forbidden to go by them. While our cops and fireman groups unintentionally injured boys, either through car accidents or simply being an observer and not stopping something, the pirates are those who willfully hurt and killed children. Preston is different from the other boys and we see him as he attempts to come to grips with what happened to him, including the realization that his strange neighbor did not actually kill him. This becomes a much more pressing issue when he best friend Peyton arrives after also having been poisoned by a now unknown serial killer.

Interspersed with Preston’s story are also the stories of his grieving parents and the Wendy from Peter’s story. We begin to understand more of why these other plot lines get so much focus once we realize that Wendy spent time in Neverland while she was in a coma and that Peter managed to leave the island and go to London after Wendy mysteriously disappeared from the island. While there is a certain amount of pathos in being privy to the lives of Preston’s parents as they struggle with their grief and how they can manage to go on in the face of it, the multiple plot lines do slow the book at times. As someone who has experienced how debilitating grief can be, it’s sometimes difficult for me to invest in stories focusing on that. The emotional investment is often more than I am willing to commit to a book. Wendy’s portions of the story do fascinate me because we get some fictional insight into how her time in Neverland and the stories she told after awakening from her coma came to shape J.M. Barrie’s tales of Peter Pan. Stilling does an excellent job keeping the stories running smoothly while still intertwining them. The plotlines are connected but never become confusing or hard to follow, a feat that I always find impressive. Betwixt and Between deals with the death of a child, grief, how communities deal with a senseless tragedy, and how simple interactions between people can have a profound impact on a person. It is a deeply touching novel and one that made me cry in more than one spot. It’s more than worth a read but not one to necessarily be undertaken lightly since much of the plot could be triggering for a reader. 

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REVIEW: Chimera by David Wellington

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Title: Chimera

Author: David Wellington

Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow, Pub. date July 23, 2013

Chimera introduces Jim Chapel, a Special Forces veteran who rides a desk after being fitted with a prosthetic for the arm he lost. One day Chapel gets called into a very shady meeting by a man he refers to as Laughing Boy, a fairly unhinged CIA agent. Chapel is met by two very high ranking clandestine officials of different agencies who inform him that he has been handpicked to deal with a situation. A number of extremely violent and dangerous fugitives have escaped from a secret prison and must be stopped immediately. Chapel is equipped with a Bluetooth device that connects to a tech genius he calls Angel who can seemingly find him any bit of information and ensure the availability of cars, planes, trains, and more!

Chapel sets off on his mission but arrives too late to save the first victim. He does manage to save the victim’s daughter, a beautiful veterinarian who, surprise surprise, ends up becoming his sidekick on his very classified and very dangerous mission. He takes her along under the guise of keeping her from being silenced by the big bad government goons or the fugitives. Julia is a bright and very capable woman but when tracking down unhinged and extremely violent killers, it seems a bad time to pick up a woman. In case you haven’t figured it out, I am not always thrilled with the haphazard shoving of romance into thrillers just for the sake of having a love interest. Bring on the explosions, fist fights, high speed chases and leave the kissey face at home. I do understand that many people like a little sex with their espionage and heroics and in many cases it works when it’s subtle. Julia’s presence throughout the novel is often awkward and creates more difficulties than are needed to advance the plot. Additionally, Chapel seems to have enough identity crisis going on as he deals with his prosthetic and figuring out how he fits into this more active role without throwing in his constant waffling about whether or not he’s worthy of Julia. I think had Wellington waited until the second novel, it would have been less distracting.

The book progresses at a good pace and keeps the reader involved in the action. The plot bounces nicely between Chapel’s interactions with the fugitives as well as his frowned up investigating into the larger conspiracy that locked these men up and put seven people on a hit list. While some of the twists and turns are predictable, Wellington does an excellent job keeping the reader guessing with most of it. The overall conspiracy itself is fascinating and also thoroughly disturbing. Overall, the book is a good and interesting read. The romance angle was distracting for me but might not be for everyone. I’m not sure that I’ll actively await another book in the series but if I come across it in the future I would be willing to give it a read. Chapel is an interesting character and has the potential for a lot of growth in dealing with who he is as a soldier despite his missing arm and his advancing age. 

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REVIEW: Cold Spell by Jackson Pearce

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Title: Cold Spell

Author: Jackson Pearce

Publisher/Publication Date: Little, Brown, Pub. date Nov. 5, 2013

Be warned, this review contains more spoilers than most of my reviews. Read at your own risk.

Pearce’s Cold Spell is a re-telling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Snow Queen. The basic plotline remains the same. A boy and a girl are good friends. The boy is bewitched and stolen away by the Snow Queen. The girl sets off and endures numerous trials to rescue the boy. Boy and girl live happily ever after. Cold Spell adds a few additional elements, including werewolves, but sticks to the original plotline overall. Ginny and Kai are a fairly run of the mill teenage couple to begin with, madly in love with one another and assuming that the future will be a bright and beautiful thing as long as they have each other. Enter Mora aka the Snow Queen and suddenly Kai is bewitched and away and no one but Ginny finds this terribly odd.  So off she sets on her rescue mission.

Ginny begins the story not too far off the mark from what we see with many teenage girl stereotypes. She’s madly in love with Kai and much of her identity is wrapped up in her relationship with him. Kai is an extremely talented violinist and their plans revolve strictly around his future as a violinist. Ginny doesn’t have much real personality and she repeatedly mentions that she has no real talents or skills, nothing that makes her special. As someone who has taught high school girls before, I find this to be a disturbing concept. There is a multitude of stories out there, in books, tv, and film, that perpetrate this idea that girls and women are dependent on their significant other for their identity. Pearce though does seem to play this up intentionally to help highlight Ginny’s growth throughout the novel.

As Ginny embarks on her rescue mission she encounters a number of helpers along the way. Lucas and Ella, a werewolf tracker and his gorgeous but also kind and humble wife, help teach Ginny the importance of asking for help when needed and offer her a glimpse at what a family can be. Flannery, a strong willed heir to her mother’s throne, offers an interesting contrast to Ginny with her flamboyant personality and abundance of confidence. But like Ginny she is also trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in the world. All these people end up helping Ginny with her quest to save Kai and ultimately end up being the difference between her success and failure. This creation of community is an important one and one of the better parts of the novel because it highlights some of the growth Ginny is experiencing even as much of the narrative relives her past with Kai and how their relationship developed.

Throughout the course of the quest Ginny really does come into herself and she’s very aware of this. She specifically mentions at one point that she realizes that she can stand on her own and that she can exist without Kai. She would be sad to lose him but she begins to realize that the loss of Kai is not, in fact, the loss of her. I will admit, at this point, I did kind of hope that Ginny would rescue Kai and then ditch his ass to go be on her own. Which, while less romantic, I think is a storyline that we need to see more of in all types of literature. By the end of the novel and it’s epilogue, Ginny is a much more defined individual who has found a place in the world for herself that doesn’t revolve solely around Kai which I think is a positive ending. So in the overall, it’s a pretty good re-telling of The Snow Queen and an enjoyable read. Worth checking out if you enjoy fairytales and quest type stories. 

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