Friday, January 16, 2015

Year-end Book Review: Three-Star Series Books 2014

Photo by Stephen Mckenzie

Young Adult/Children's:

The Takers (The Oz Chronicles #1) by R.W. Ridley. Goodreads synopsis: Never say their name! If you do, they will find you! If they find you, they will eat you!
Thirteen-year-old Oz Griffin knows it's his fault that the Takers are eating everyone in sight. He also knows that a comic book written by a neighborhood boy is the key to defeating them. But every time he and his band of survivors try to read the comic book, the Takers draw closer. Can they get to the end of the story before the Takers devour them? Kirkus Discoveries Review.
The first volume in The Oz Chronicles recalls both Stephen King's The Stand and L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. When 13-year-old Osmond "Oz" Griffith wakes from an illness on the floor of his closet, he discovers the world overrun by man-eating monsters, the Takers, and it's largely his fault. In an effort to make things right, he gathers a band of survivors (a baby, an aged mechanic and a talking gorilla, among others), and sets off down his version of the yellow brick road, leading to the Atlanta Zoo. Along the way, he learns that his destiny was written by Steve, a boy from his past. Afflicted with Down Syndrome, Steve created new worlds, replete with battles between good and evil, in the comic books that served as his sole refuge from the teasing of Oz and his friends. Steve's untimely suicide leaves only the comic books as clues to vanquishing the Takers. Oz, suffering from guilt that he possibly caused Steve's death, must learn to accept responsibility, not only for his actions in the past, but for the future of civilization as he knows it. The lively narrative will capture the imagination of young teens, especially boys, who will enjoy the more horrifying aspects of the story. The plot is clearly defined, and the action never flags. Hopefully, Book Two is on the way. "2006 IPPY Award Winner".

Definitely the best cheap Kindle read I've happened on. Felt quite fresh and original and I genuinely wanted to know what was going to happen next. I'm pretty sure I will continue reading the series. 

The Lost Colony (Artemis Fowl #5) by Eoin Colfer. Goodreads synopsis: Ten thousand years ago, humans and fairies fought a great battle for the magical island of Ireland. When it became clear that they could not win, all of the faeries moved below ground—all except for the 8th family, the demons. Rather than surrender, they used a magical time spell to take their colony out of time and into Limbo. There they have lived for decades, planning their violent revenge on humans.
Now the time spell is unraveling, and demons are beginning to materialize without warning on Earth. If humans were to find out about them, all faeries would be exposed. To protect themselves, the faeries must predict when the next demon will materialize. But in order to do so, they will have to decipher temporal equations so complicated, even a great brain like Foaly can't understand them. But he knows someone who can: Artemis Fowl.
So when a confused and frightened demon imp pops appears in a Sicilian theater, Artemis is there to meet him. But he is not alone. Someone else has unlocked the secrets of the fairy world and managed to solve complex mathematical problems that only a genius could. And she is only twelve years old.

This is a consistently enjoyable series with well-drawn characters and imaginative plots. Always a fun read. 

Rebel (Faery Rebels #2) by R.J. Anderson. Goodreads synopsis: The faeries of the Oak are dying, and it’s up to a lone faery named Linden to find a way to restore their magic. Linden travels bravely into dangerous new territory, where she enlists the help of an unlikely friend—a human named Timothy. Soon they discover something much worse than the Oakenfolk’s loss of magic: a potent evil that threatens the fate of all faeries. In a fevered, desperate chase across the country, Timothy and Linden risk their lives to seek an ancient power before it’s too late to save everyone they love.

Sweet and diverting and a little different. Felt a little thinner and fluffier than the first in the series, which I really liked. 

Fearless (Mirrorworld #2) by Cornelia Funke. Goodreads synopsis: JACOB RECKLESS HAS ONLY A FEW MONTHS LEFT TO LIVE.
He's tried everything to shake the Fairy curse that traded his life for his brother's—legends such as the All-Healing Apple, the Well of Eternal Youth, the blood of a northern Djinn. And yet hope after hope is extinguished. After months of fruitless searching, Jacob journeys through his father's mirror one final time to deliver the bad news to Fox.
There they hear of one last possibility—an item so legendary that not even Mirrorworlders believe it exists: a crossbow that can kill thousands, or heal one, when shot through the heart. But a Goyl treasure hunter is also searching for the prized crossbow. Jacob must find it first—and somehow persuade Fox to do whatever it takes to save him.

I was merrily reading along in this series not realizing that this book was IT - the third hadn't been published yet. Rookie mistake. It's really quite cool - the setting is quite fascinating and original, the divisions and grievances between the different races feel authentic, and the story is well done. 

All Our Pretty Songs (Metamorphoses #1) by Sarah McCarry. Goodreads synopsis: This is a story about love, but not the kind of love you think.  You’ll see… 
In the lush and magical Pacific Northwest live two best friends who grew up like sisters: charismatic, mercurial, and beautiful Aurora, and the devoted, watchful narrator.  Each of them is incomplete without the other. But their unbreakable bond is challenged when a mysterious and gifted musician named Jack comes between them.
His music is like nothing I have ever heard. It is like the ocean surging, the wind that blows across the open water, the far call of gulls. 
Suddenly, each girl must decide what matters most: friendship, or love. What both girls don’t know is that the stakes are even higher than either of them could have imagined. They're not the only ones who have noticed Jack’s gift; his music has awakened an ancient evil—and a world both above and below which may not be mythical at all.  We have paved over the ancient world but that does not mean we have erased it. 
The real and the mystical; the romantic and the heartbreaking all begin to swirl together in All Our Pretty Songs, Sarah McCarry's brilliant debut, carrying the two on journey that is both enthralling and terrifying. 
And it’s up to the narrator to protect the people she loves—if she can.

Two and a half stars. It really overglamorizes being poor and getting high a lot - I don't mean this in a "it dangerously overglamorizes it and children will want to do it", but in the way that, if you string enough adjectives and descriptions together, you don't have a great novel so much as an adolescent wish-fulfillment journal exercise: "me and my BFF wear funky clothes and she's totally so beautiful and all the guys love her and etc. etc. funky clothes, piles of quirky accessories, crazy parties, we stay up ALL NIGHT all the time, OMG!" The re-imagined Orpheus myth part is kind of lovely, but it's buried under a lot of silly stuff. And the next book seems to be the story of the girls' two mothers, which we've basically already been told. This does not seem intriguing in the least.


Parasite (Parasitology #1) by Mira Grant. Goodreads synopsis: A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.
We owe our good health to a humble parasite - a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the tapeworm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system - even secretes designer drugs. It's been successful beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.
But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives...and will do anything to get them.

It broke my heart a little that this didn't live up to the Feed trilogy books by the same author. The beginning is completely gripping, but overall there are huge plot holes and the story and characters just didn't feel as rich and real. So it suffered by comparison, but I still couldn't stop reading. 

The Returned (The Returned #1) by Jason Mott. Goodreads synopsis: Jacob was time out of sync, time more perfect than it had been. He was life the way it was supposed to be all those years ago. That's what all the Returned were.
Harold and Lucille Hargrave's lives have been both joyful and sorrowful in the decades since their only son, Jacob, died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966. In their old age they've settled comfortably into life without him, their wounds tempered through the grace of time ... Until one day Jacob mysteriously appears on their doorstep—flesh and blood, their sweet, precocious child, still eight years old.
All over the world people's loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. Not even Harold and Lucille can agree on whether the boy is real or a wondrous imitation, but one thing they know for sure: he's their son. As chaos erupts around the globe, the newly reunited Hargrave family finds itself at the center of a community on the brink of collapse, forced to navigate a mysterious new reality and a conflict that threatens to unravel the very meaning of what it is to be human.
With spare, elegant prose and searing emotional depth, award-winning poet Jason Mott explores timeless questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility. A spellbinding and stunning debut, The Returned is an unforgettable story that marks the arrival of an important new voice in contemporary fiction.

Quite good, although the very spareness and elegance of the prose sort of kept me feeling emotionally distant from the action. Details very well the melancholy wrongness of the dead returning, even though in theory it should be the answer to everyone's prayers. The inevitable panic and bad behaviour when the status quo breaks down also seems very realistic. 

Waiting for Wednesday (Frieda Klein #3) by Nicci French. Goodreads synopsis: Waiting For Wednesday by Nicci French is the thrilling third novel in the highly acclaimed Frieda Klein series. Ruth Lennox, beloved mother of three, is found by her daughter in a pool of her own blood. Who would want to murder an ordinary housewife? And why? Psychotherapist Frieda Klein finds she has an unusually personal connection with DCI Karlsson's latest case. She is no longer working with him in an official capacity, but when her niece befriends Ruth Lennox's son, Ted, she finds herself in the awkward position of confidante to both Karlsson and Ted. When it emerges that Ruth was leading a secret life, her family closes ranks and Karlsson finds he needs Frieda's help more than ever before. But Frieda is distracted. Having survived an attack on her life, she is struggling to stay in control and when a patient's chance remark rings an alarm bell, she finds herself chasing down a path that seems to lead to a serial killer who has long escaped detection. Or is it merely a symptom of her own increasingly fragile mind? Because, as Frieda knows, every step closer to a killer is one more step into a darkness from which there may be no return.

The books in this series need to be read in order, as there are huge spoilers in each one for the ones before. The plotting and characterization are deft and intricate,but I'm getting more and more annoyed at Frieda's tiresome tendencies toward martyrdom. If the character doesn't show some growth, I won't stay with the series much longer. 

Cross and Burn (Tony Hill and Carol Jordan #8) by Val McDermid. Goodreads synopsis: Internationally best-selling crime writer Val McDermid's work speaks for itself: her books have sold millions of copies worldwide, won numerous accolades, and attracted a devoted following of readers around the globe. Her latest, Cross and Burn, picks up where The Retribution left off: following the best crime-fighting team in the UK-clinical psychologist Tony Hill and police detective Carol Jordan-who when we last saw them were barely speaking, and whose relationship will now be challenged even further.
Guilt and grief have driven a wedge between long time crime-fighting partners psychologist Tony Hill and ex-DCI Carol Jordan. But just because they're not talking doesn't mean the killing stops.
Someone is killing women. Women who bear an unsettling resemblance to Carol Jordan. And when the evidence begins to point in a disturbing direction, thinking the unthinkable seems the only possible answer. Cornered by events, Tony and Carol are forced to fight for themselves and each other as never before.
An edge-of-your-seat page-turner from one of the best crime writers we have, Cross and Burn is a chilling, unforgettable read.

And then there's this series, where the characters are invariably infuriating and they both know it, and yet it doesn't bother me at all, and I find this series uniformly gripping and enchanting. Way to be completely inconsistent, me.

It Happens in the Dark (Kathleen Mallory #11) by Carol O'Connell. Goodreads synopsis: The reviews called it "A Play to Die For" after the woman was found dead in the front row. It didn’t seem so funny the next night, when another body was found—this time the playwright’s, his throat slashed.
Detective Kathy Mallory takes over, but no matter what she asks, no one seems to be giving her a straight answer. The only person—if "person" is the right word—who seems to be clear is the ghostwriter. Every night, an unseen backstage hand chalks up line changes and messages on a blackboard. And the ghostwriter is now writing Mallory into the play itself, a play about a long-ago massacre that may not be at all fictional. "MALLORY," the blackboard reads. "TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. NOTHING PERSONAL."
If Mallory can’t find out who’s responsible, heads will roll. Unfortunately, one of them may be her own.

I guess maybe it was inevitable with a character like this. I loved the first few books so much, and the truth is that if she's truly a sociopath, damaged beyond repair by her early formative experiences, then expecting any kind of growth or evolution of her character would be unrealistic. But the whole thing is just starting to pall. Her terrorizing of suspects and near-psychic abilities seem cheesy and overdone. I just want Charles - brilliant, funny-looking, slavishly in love with Mallory - to quit being a doormat. Even the plot and the resolution seem way too theatrical. Elements of this plot also reminded me of The Man Who Cast Two Shadows - book two (I think) in this same series. Her standalone books have been really strong - I'll probably just read those from now on.

Broken (The Enemy Inside #2) by Vanessa Skye. Goodreads synopsis: A mother is murdered in an apparent robbery.
A young woman is raped and beaten in a home invasion.
Chicago Detective Alicia “Berg” Raymond doesn’t believe in random crime and is certain both cases are more than they seem—but can she trust her instincts, or is she too distracted by the feelings she has for former partner and new boss? For Berg, the need for justice burns deep and fills the emptiness where therapy and relationships fall short.
She’s certain the husband knows more than he’s willing to admit, but the trap to catch the killer is the loophole that sets him free.
The rapist is caught and sent to prison, but when Berg gets closer to the family devastated by his depravity, their behavior doesn’t add up.
As Berg fights to prevent another murder, she crosses the line between hero and villain—and there’s no turning back.

For the first few pages, I didn't think this was going to be very good, but when I picked it up again it was actually quite enjoyable. It was kind of like watching a well-written cop show on tv - you know that there's no way any real police work would get done with that many head case detectives running around screwing each other and yelling at each other and generally letting their personal lives intrude into every possible aspect of their work, but it's entertaining to see anyway. The plotting is sound and the characters are sympathetic for the most part. I would read more in this series. The only thing I really didn't like was the song lyrics heading each chapter - there are few cases where song lyrics written as prose don't just come across as incredibly cheesy, and this was not one of them.

One Kick (Kick Lannigan #1) by Chelsea Cain. Goodreads synopsis: Kick Lannigan, 21, is a survivor. Abducted at age six in broad daylight, the police, the public, perhaps even her family assumed the worst had occurred. And then Kathleen Lannigan was found, alive, six years later. In the early months following her freedom, as Kick struggled with PTSD, her parents put her through a litany of therapies, but nothing helped until the detective who rescued her suggested Kick learn to fight. Before she was thirteen, Kick learned marksmanship, martial arts, boxing, archery, and knife throwing. She excelled at every one, vowing she would never be victimized again. But when two children in the Portland area go missing in the same month, Kick goes into a tailspin. Then an enigmatic man Bishop approaches her with a proposition: he is convinced Kick's experiences and expertise can be used to help rescue the abductees. Little does Kick know the case will lead directly into her terrifying past.

I was in SUCH a weird reading place when I read this that I don't really trust myself to evaluate it with any validity. But this was a good Sunday slightly-hungover read. Engaging characters, pretty fresh take on a much-trammeled subject. I would read further in the series, which it looks like it will be.

MaddAddam (MaddAddam #3) by Margaret Atwood. Goodreads synopsis: A man-made plague has swept the earth, but a small group survives, along with the green-eyed Crakers – a gentle species bio-engineered to replace humans. Toby, onetime member of the Gods Gardeners and expert in mushrooms and bees, is still in love with street-smart Zeb, who has an interesting past. The Crakers’ reluctant prophet, Snowman-the-Jimmy, is hallucinating; Amanda is in shock from a Painballer attack; and Ivory Bill yearns for the provocative Swift Fox, who is flirting with Zeb. Meanwhile, giant Pigoons and malevolent Painballers threaten to attack. 
Told with wit, dizzying imagination, and dark humour, Booker Prize-winning Margaret Atwood’s unpredictable, chilling and hilarious MaddAddam takes us further into a challenging dystopian world and holds up a skewed mirror to our own possible future.

Oh, I don't know. I should have reread the first two first but I didn't like them enough to devote the time. I remember that I found Oryx and Crake okay, not great, and I was irritated by Atwood claiming that it 'wasn't science fiction" - it was science fiction, just not the best science fiction ever. I quite liked The Year of the Flood. This one was... okay again. In a way I agree with the people who were disappointed that Toby was suddenly a mushy pile of Zeb-love and jealousy, although I have a hunch that even the apocalypse wouldn't put an end to the same old tiresome male-female stuff, so it didn't ring entirely false. I couldn't really remember why we cared so much about Zeb's story. The Crakers were kind of charming, kind of annoying. It didn't really seem to tie the whole trilogy together in a satisfactory way, but like I said, that could be because I didn't reread the first two.

Stranger in the Room (Keye Street #2) by Amanda Kyle Williams. Goodreads synopsis: That bullet was meant for you.   
Summer is smoldering through Atlanta on Fourth of July weekend, as fireworks crack through the air and steam rises from the pavement on Peachtree. Private investigator and ex–FBI profiler Keye Street wants nothing more than a couple of quiet days alone with her boyfriend, Aaron—but, as usual, murder gets in the way. 
I will find her.   
A.P.D. Lieutenant Aaron Rauser is called to the disturbing scene of the strangling death of a thirteen-year-old boy. Meanwhile, Keye must deal with not one but two of her own investigations: In the hills of Creeklaw County, there’s a curious case involving chicken feed and a crematorium, and in Atlanta, Keye’s emotionally fragile cousin Miki is convinced she is being stalked. Given Miki’s history of drug abuse and mental problems, Keye is reluctant to accept her cousin’s tale of a threatening man inside her house late one night. But as a recovering alcoholic herself, Keye can’t exactly begrudge a woman her addictions—especially since Miki drives Keye to near-relapses at every turn. And yet, Miki is family, and Keye must help her—even if it means tempting her own demons. 
I always find her.   
All hell breaks loose when another murder—the apparent hanging of an elderly man—hits disturbingly close to home for Keye. And though the two victims have almost nothing in common, there are bizarre similarities between this case and that of Aaron’s strangled teen. Is there a single faceless predator, a calculating murderer targeting his prey at random? Only a skilled profiler like Keye Street can help the A.P.D. find him. With the threat of more deaths to come, Keye works on pure instinct alone—and soon realizes that a killer is circling ever closer to the people she loves the most.

Liked it, but not as much as the first in the series. Keye Street is still a great character - her struggle with alcohol and with growing up an adopted Asian child of Southern parents is detailed evocatively and effectively. Rauser is fine, although a little cliché - the cranky older detective with a heart of gold; I lost track of the number of times he 'scowled' or 'glared'. The mystery that's in the book's synopsis is completely engaging. The subplot involving the crematorium, however, seemed dull and the solution obvious, and involved two of the characters that made me cranky. Neil, Street's assistant, I suspect is supposed to be one of those characters whose brilliance and loyalty make up for his temperamental quirks, but to me he just came across as a total dick - he is amused when she's humiliated, runs away giggling when she's in trouble and kowtows to the racist old lady they meet in the course of the case. If someone served you a delicious Southern meal and then served your boss a dish of sticky rice and called her Eggroll because she's of Asian heritage, and your boss told the woman to get her head out of her ass, would you chastise them both equally, one because she's a racist cow and the other because she owes the older lady respect? Or would you put the racist old bitch in her place and leave with your boss? This kind of thing really pisses me off (possibly to a disproportionate degree). The subplot just seemed like padding, or an afterthought.

The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman #1) by Ben H. Winters. Goodreads synopsis: What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.”What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

Appealing and engaging treatment of the scenario. It really is interesting to think about how different people would act in this situation. I'm pretty sure I would lean more to the tequila-soaked debauchery side of things, but I like to think someone like Hank Palace would still be trying to get the job done. I wish I loved it, but I didn't - I liked it. I'm pretty sure I will finish the trilogy. 

Procession of the Dead (The City Trilogy #1) by Darren Shan. Goodreads synopsis: Quick-witted and cocksure, young upstart Capac Raimi arrives in the City determined to make his mark. As he learns the tricks of his new trade from his Uncle Theo he's soon on his way to becoming a promising new gangster. Then he crosses paths with The Cardinal, and his life changes forever.

Two and a half stars. Took me a while because I had the ebook from the library which expired and then I waited until it was available again. The description of the environment is appealingly strange and dark and the plot is quite interesting and different, but the writing and characterization were so flat that I could feel surprise but not much emotion over even events that were supposed to be disturbing or unexpected. Huge missed opportunity on the writer's part. 


Nicole said...

"We owe our good health to a humble parasite - a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation." EWWWWWWWW

Steph Lovelady said...

I read the Artemis Fowl books with N the summer he was 11. It took me a few books to get into them but I eventually did as the characters got more complex.

I agree the Year of the Flood was the best of that trilogy. The world-building, esp. the descriptions of the Gardeners-- was so great. (Have I already said this on your blog or was it somewhere else?)

The Returned sounds interesting.

Sasha said...

I think we may have talked about Oryx and Crake and the "not science fiction" think. Well for the love o' Pete if it's not science fiction (or "speculative fiction", if you will), then what is it??? I didn't read Year of the Flood mostly because I wasn't overly enamoured with O&C, but if it's actually better... maybe I should check it out. Or maybe if I'm not OMG-I-CAN'T-WAIT-TO-READ-THIS then I shouldn't put it on my to-read list, because it's not like I'm running out of books...