book reviews by Althea

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Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce ***

A realistic and beautifully written exploration of what might happen if the tale of Rip Van Winkle (or any of the older stories of people being taken ‘Under the Hill’) happened in modern-day England.

Twenty years ago, 16-yr-old Tara disappeared after a fight with her boyfriend. Although the boyfriend was a suspect, nothing was ever proven, and her family was left to mourn and to come to terms with Tara’s presumed death.

Now, Tara has shown up on her parents’ doorstep. At first, she gives a sketchy story about having traveled the world for the last 20 years, but soon she tells her brother, Peter, a story of having gone with a handsome man on a white horse, to a Fairyland that resembled a free-love commune, with magic.

Naturally, Peter convinces her to see a shrink.

While the book is well done, I personally felt that there was too much psychological analysis and not enough action. I wanted to feel more magic and less mundane, domestic detail. I understand why Joyce made the decisions he did here, I just didn’t end up loving the result – although I did like the book.

The end was well done, with a sense of the inevitable that fits both the spirit of the folklore and the situation set up in the novel.


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The Emperor’s Knife – Mazarkis Williams ****

Picked this up without knowing that the author’s name is a pseudonym, and his-or-her identity is still a mystery to the world at large. There are a few clues on the Internet – but I still don’t know who this is.
I’d lean toward female – but I’d also recommend this to fans of Daniel Abraham. It’s not actually a debut novel, apparently the author has been ‘mainly writing’ for 10 years.

It does come across as a practiced, expertly-written story. This is the kind of fantasy I like – set in a vivid, well-thought-out world, with a focus on ‘real’ and interesting characters and plenty of danger and intrigue.

The Cerani Empire (vaguely influenced by the Ottomans) is a paranoid monarchy of the sort that thinks nothing of assassinating or imprisoning all potential rival claimants to the throne. But an insidious threat has infiltrated all the way to the royal chamber none-the-less. A mysterious plague is spreading; its visible sign tattoo-like geometric patterns that spread over the victims’ skin. At some point those infected lose self control, and become violent assassins. It is suspected that this is no true illness, but magic, and the marked individuals are tools in the plot of a Pattern Master.

In this situation we meet Sarmin, a prince who’s spent the last 15 years confined to his luxurious room. Mesema, a princess of the horse tribes who’s been summoned to be Sarmin’s bride by the scheming Queen Mother, Nessaket. The Emperor, Beyon, may interfere with those schemes, but it’s unclear where Beyon’s strength and cruelty end, and to what degree he may be a pawn himself. And of course, there is ‘The Emperor’s Knife,’ the guilt-haunted assassin Eyul, and the sorceress Amalya…

I definitely want to track down the sequels and find out what happens next in this world, even if  by the end of this book, most of the characters end up dead.

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Under the Dome – Stephen King ***

A mysterious transparent barrier appears, cutting off a small Maine town from the outside world.
And then things happen, and there are many, many details provided about the events that transpire.

In many ways, this book is classic King. If you’re a fan, you’ll like it. I nearly always find myself critical of King – but yet, I keep reading his books – hey, there’s something to them. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book, but still, from my perspective, it’s both too long for the actual content, and the content is overblown.

I would’ve liked it more if it were a more serious study of the psychological effects of insularity and isolation – and there are some nods in that direction, especially toward the end of the book. But for all King’s exhaustive detail regarding his many characters, there isn’t a lot of depth here. The evil folks are pure evil, and the good folks are unambiguously The Good Guys.

And a great deal of the book, for me is just ‘too much.’ Too many coincidences, too many ridiculous things shoehorned in.

This randomly-chosen small town Just Happens to be run by a used-car salesman with delusions of grandeur who Just Happens to secretly be the top meth lab kingpin in America, who Just Happens to have a son with a brain tumor who is a serial killer… etc. I was OK with the reason for it all being Aliens, but the logic doesn’t really hold up to much analysis – you just have to accept that, well, it’s aliens, and this is all a metaphor for the universality of unthinking cruelty.(?)

I also found the finale, like in many King novels, too overdramatic and not very believable. The fact that the “good guys” lived and everyone else dies was also just too much.

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The Rose of Fire – Carlos Ruiz Zafón ***

(The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, #2.5)

Not actually a book, but a short story –

This brief piece functions as a creation myth of the mysterious library featured in ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ and sequels.

It’s a lovely, atmospheric piece, but not a major work. It’s being pushed as a ‘teaser’ to the book series, but I’m not so sure that it works well as one, because it is really quite different from the novels on several levels.

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The Stonecutter – Camilla Läckberg ***

(Patrick Hedstrom #3)

This, the third entry into the Fjallbacka series, reminded me quite a lot in feel of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s ‘Harbor’ – but without the supernatural aspects.

As with the previous two books, Lackberg’s story centers on a grisly death which, under investigation, turns out to hinge upon the unsavory secrets of the past.

I did feel that this one suffered a bit from too much pop psychology.

One of the characters is described as suffering from DAMP – which I’d never heard of. Turns out it’s a concept popular only in Sweden, and describes characteristics which, in America, are more popularly referred to as ADHD. “DAMP” is the concept of Swedish psychiatrist Christopher Gillberg, and I have a feeling that Lackberg did quite a bit of reading up on his ideas for this book, because she also has a character with ‘Asperger’s Syndrome.’ The way he’s described sounds more like he’s fully autistic, rather than mildly – but his character seems like it was formed straight from Gillberg’s description of Asperger’s, rather than from Lackberg having ever met anyone like the character.

It’s an interesting insight into how even slightly different cultures may perceive issues of mental health quite differently.

It’s still a good, solid book – but not quite as good as the previous two.

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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – Genevieve Tucholke *

Do you believe that two teenagers Having Sex is quite likely worse than one of those teenagers committing Mass Murder? If so, this is the book for you.

Abstinence advocates and Twilight-fans, this book was written just for you.

(It was on the ‘free’ shelf at work, and the pretty cover sucked me in.)

At first, I thought this intentionally-florid YA paranormal romance might have something going for it, in a silly way. I liked the contemporary-gothic trappings, and I particularly liked the spooky abandoned train tunnel – just ’cause we had one of those when I was a teenager… but the further it progressed, the dumber it got.

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Dodger – Terry Pratchett ****

This may actually be my favorite book from Pratchett that I’ve read (and I have read quite a few).
I loved it even though it features a large number of historical characters (like Charles Dickens), a feature which often annoys me, if not done ‘just right.’ Although not without Pratchett’s trademark humor, this is a somewhat more serious historical piece than most of his output.

‘Dodger’ is a young man just growing out of being one of Victorian London’s street urchins. He lives with Solomon, an elderly Jewish watchmaker who has more in his past than one might expect.

Dodger ekes out a living by garbage-picking down in the sewers. But when an impulse drives him to come to the aid of a young lady being assaulted in an alley, he unexpectedly finds himself enmeshed in a chain of events that will open doors to him.

Fun adventure-mystery with plenty of twists and turns and vivid setting and characterization. However, I’m deducting one star for far too much harping on how everyone should have empathy for a serial killer because after all, he was just a traumatized individual himself. No, sorry. Pratchett may believe this, but I don’t think that reasons are excuses. Dodger should save his charity for victims, not murderers.

But, even with that one quibble, I’d still highly recommend the book, and not just for the YA audience it’s being marketed to, either. (I didn’t find it to be particularly YA at all, although it does have a bit of a ‘growing up’ theme.)