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REVIEW: Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

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Title: Seven for a Secret

Author: Lyndsay Faye

Publisher/Publication Date: Putnam, Pub. date Jul. 11, 2013

Seven for a Secret, the squeal to Faye’s Gods of Gotham, is set in New York City in 1845, shortly after the creation of the New York Police Department. Timothy Wilde, a talented detective, who gets pulled into a missing persons case by the lovely Lucy Adams. But there is much more to case than Wilde originally realizes since Lucy and her sister are of mixed heritage and New York isn’t exactly a staunch defender when it comes to preventing people from snatching supposed runaway slaves. Of course, there is always much more to the story than it first appears and Wilde quickly finds himself, his brother Valentine, and Lucy’s family, her sister Delia and her son Jonas, embroiled in a much larger conspiracy. The mystery as well as Timothy Wilde’s conflicts of conscious keep the plot moving along at a quick pace and never give the reader a chance to get board or distracted.

Not having read Gods of Gotham, I get the feeling that there were a number of things I may not have necessarily picked up on but overall the story is told skillfully enough that I wasn’t distracted by what I may not have known. For those of you that have seen Copper, there is a very similar tone given the comparable settings. Faye does an excellent job building her world and the descriptions of places and people serve as a real draw into the story. Her characters are also well fleshed out and tend to be good but flawed. One of my favorite things in a story is a character who is far from perfect but still manages to be a truly good person. Timothy and Valentine both fall into that category and it makes it wonderful to see how they navigate inside of a not necessarily upstanding world. Faye also isn’t shy about highlighting the issues present in the society of that time. 

Overall I was thrilled to have picked up Seven for a Secret and I am extremely eager to get ahold of Gods of Gotham and any future books in the series. Timothy Wilde strikes me as a character with real staying power and Faye obviously has the talent to develop storylines and characters to keep the series moving. 

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REVIEW: Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

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Title: Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells

Author: Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Publisher/Publication Date: Tor Books, Pub. date Mar. 19, 2013

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have once again put together an amazing anthology with stories from a fabulous group of talented authors. The fairy tale re-telling anthologies by them have always been some of my favorite. Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells focuses on Gaslamp fantasy (a personal favorite of mine) and includes tales from some of my favorite authors, including Jane Yolen and Tanith Lee. The entire collection reminds me a lot of Susanna Clarke’s Ladies of Grace Adieu and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell so if you enjoyed either of those this collection should be right up your alley.

My favorite thing about short story anthologies is how easy it is for me to devour an entire story at a time but still always have something to look forward to on my next reading. They are the ideal book for busy people. The other wonderful thing about anthologies is the chance to discover new authors, such as Theodora Goss and Elizabeth Bear. With anthologies there are always some stories that you like more than others and, sometimes, stories that you just really aren’t fond of. Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells was the first anthology in a long time where, while I did have my favorites, I enjoyed every single story included. I’m going to touch on just a few of my favorites.

“The Memory Book” by Maureen McHugh is the story of Laura Anne, a governess for the Finches. Laura Anne does well with the children but these is something just a little off about her and the Memory Book that she creates and cherishes may be much more than it seems.

“For the Briar Rose” by Elizabeth Wein is a tale that beautifully mixes art and literature. The story focuses on Margaret Burne-Jones, the daughter of Edward Burne-Jones who painted the Briar Rose series. Wein cleverly blurs the lines between reality and magic that is so often seen around beautiful works of art and how that creation can tie into motherhood. 

“The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear examines the darker side of that career when one is part of a household in which the master believes himself entitled to the staff. Bear looks at what happens when a mother becomes desperate for the safety of her children and the choices that cross a moral or ethical line but must still be made. 

“The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer is a delightful and adorable epistoloary between Ms. Charlotte Fleming, the daughter of a master of the Experimental Arts, and Lord Ravenal, a talented inventor of a magic sort. They correspond quite humorously as Lord Ravenal attempts to thwart the evil plans of his arch-nemsis, Wulfstan, and rescue his sister, Priscilla. Charlotte’s quick-witted nature comes through clearly in her letters and she proves that she is more than a match for the many intelligent men populating her world.

So, as I mentioned, a really wonderful little collection of stories that I’m sure I’ll revisit time and time again. Well worth picking up for your own collection. 

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REVIEW: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow, Pub. date Jun. 18, 2013

Neil Gaiman is an author that I’ve been reading for years and one where I tend to love everything he has written. My love of his books is tied up with a number of things in my life so I’m going to take a moment and discuss a little about that before I actually get to the review.

I actually come upon Gaiman’s work because of Terry Pratchett. My father loved Terry Pratchett and the fantasy genre in general. When I was a kid, my mom would bring home books for my dad and we had a system where I would start at the bottom of the pile and he would start at the top and we’d work our way through. As a result, I ended up reading things way above my grade level for a long time but it always meant that many of the warm and fuzzy feelings I have about reading are tied directly to those books. So enter Terry Pratchett and the fabulous Discworld series. I don’t remember the first time I read a Discworld novel but I know that I’ve loved every single one of them. So of course, when I stumbled across Good Omens there was no way I wasn’t going to read it. At some point during college a friend introduced me to the Sandman series but I didn’t really make the connection to the co-author of Good Omens. Fast-forward a few more years to a blind date just before a trip to London. The guy, very nice with a name I can’t for the life of me remember, shows up to our date with a copy of Neverwhere. I read that and then picked up a book of his short stories while I was in London and it was all downhill from there.

Part of what I love so much about Gaiman’s books is the mix of magic and realism. Even at the most fantastical, there is always an element of the real world in his books. It gives me eternal hope that no matter how dark reality may get there is always the potential for a little bit of magic somewhere. This is something that comes up prominently in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The narrator has returned to his childhood home after attending a funeral. He wanders down the road to the Hempstock farm and begins to remember the summer 40 years ago when he met Lettie Hempstock. The Hempstock’s are old, old magic and the darkness that Lettie and the narrator inadvertently bring back is also an old evil. This primal evil, known in the novel as Ursula, creates numerous problems in the narrator’s house between his parents and between him and his parents. But these problems, while new and odd to the narrator, are not terribly unusual to many readers. This idea that unhappiness and dysfunction are things which have been around forever and will be around forever is a sobering thought. But the Hempstock women are a sound counterpoint of hope, as is the adorable kitten that pops up throughout the novel. It is often the small things or the individuals that we meet throughout our lives that can make the biggest difference. Lettie, her mother, and grandmother are magic, but they are also kind and strong and a force to be reckoned with anyways. They are the family we choose, the hope that we find when we connect with others. And because of that they are beautiful and wonderful in the way that the universe is. 

I am an unabashed fan of Gaiman and Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the best books that I’ve read recently. It is beautiful and sweet and sad and one that I will easily re-read every year. 

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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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