Best and Worst of 2010

December 31, 2010 at 8:50 pm (Best of, book review, books, Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, horror, Kelley Armstrong, L. J. Smith, novels, reading, urban fantasy, vampires, Worst of)

It’s New Year’s Eve and that means it’s time to roll out the best and worst reads of the year.

I only read seventy books in 2010. That’s thirteen less than I read in 2009 and eleven less than I read in 2008. And even though I posted ten reviews this year, two more than I did last year, my output over the past six months has been pretty paltry. As usual I have my reasons, the most salient being that I spent the last six months orchestrating a move and finding a new job. Even though I’m all settled now I’m still trying to get into a comfortable routine, and for that reason reviews may be few and far between for several months to come.

But I do love a good year end wrap up. As regular readers know I split my year end top ten into two top five lists: the five best books I read and the five worst. The lists consist of books I read this year, not necessarily ones that were published this year.

The Best:

1) Feed by Mira Grant – This haunting tale follows a team of news bloggers covering the Presidential election in a zombie ravaged USA. The characters and relationships are strong, the world well conceived, and the consequences of living in a fear-based culture all too familiar and relatable. Feed was so good I couldn’t even write a review for it despite numerous tries. I was so in love, I couldn’t articulate all of the things I liked about it without sounding like a moronic fan girl. So, best advice? Go buy yourself a copy and see for yourself why I’m speechless.

2) Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan – All the elements I’ve come to expect of a Kiernan yarn are present in this outstanding novel – the creative wordplay, the strong description and character development.  Kiernan creates a Lovecraft-ian world you can see, smell, taste, and touch from the very first page.

3) Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong – Comprised of one novella and three short stories, Men of the Otherworld is a delight from start to finish. Long time fans will find that the tales add texture and depth to the Otherworld series, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

4) Psybermagick by Peter Carroll – Once upon a time I was a practicing pagan. This year I decided to weed my New Age book collection, and that included reading all the books I never got around to reading while I was still practicing. Although I know many pagans and ceremonial magicians who frown on chaos magick, they do themselves a great disservice by writing off Psybermagick. This extremely humorous look at magic and mysticism had me doubled over with laughter. A fine addition to any New Age library for the insider jokes alone.

5) Living with Ghosts by Kari Sperring – This atmospheric fantasy novel was such a pleasure to read. Another book with strong characters and believable relationships, not to mentions loads of political intrigue and personal sacrifice, this story stayed in my head for weeks after I finished it.

The Worst:

1) Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly – This ho-hum horror novel is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences that make the book a nightmare to read. Craft considerations aside, the story itself is neither scary nor particularly original.

2) The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L.J. Smith – Like Hell Hollow this novel is overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Worst of all Smith killed all of the character growth her heroine Elena Gilbert underwent in the previous five books in the series, leaving nothing but a shallow, self-absorbed, and completely unsympathetic main character.

3) Sensual Celibacy by Donna Marie Williams – This book presented itself as an examination of celibacy within the realm of women’s studies, and turned out to be a study in false advertising. Despite the claims made on the jacket what I found was a book mired in stereotypically sexist assumptions about women’s sexuality, fanatical Christian declarations about the sinfulness of sex out of marriage, and out right lies about the effectiveness of birth control and sex education in schools.

4) The Path Through the Labyrinth by Marian Green – There’s a reason this beginner level book on magic and witchcraft is out of print. The advice and resources listed inside are dated and of little use to most modern day pagans.

5) Confessions of a Demon by S.L. Wright – I picked up Confessions of a Demon hoping for a detailed urban fantasy romp through my home town, but all I got was a predictable paranormal romance that treated New York as a backdrop rather than an integral part of the story.

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Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

October 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm (ARC, book review, books, fiction, mystery & suspense, New York, novels, reading, suspense/thriller)

It’s 2013 and the Big Apple has finally rotted to the core. Besieged by mass unemployment, race riots, declining property values, and a thriving criminal underground, New York City is no longer the land of opportunity. The only jobs that offer any kind of security are illegal, and the crime lords have new immigrants and recent college graduates lined up around the corner looking to get in on the action. Luckily, Renny got in on the ground floor. A fashion photographer by day and drug dealer by night, Renny moves contraband through the underground party circuit using a network of taxi cabs as his cover. But little does he know Officer Santiago of the NYPD,  working undercover as a cab driver, is hot on Renny’s tail. But Santiago isn’t interested in a little fish like Renny. He’s looking to bust Renny’s boss, Reza, before his criminal enterprise takes over the entire City.

Though the blurb on the cover promises “a mile a minute, kick-ass blast of tech noir,” that isn’t what first time novelist Adam Dunn delivers in Rivers of Gold. While he’s got the noir part down, Dunn still has a lot to learn about pacing and character development.

The first two-thirds of the novel flow like molasses. Full of unnecessary back story, and multiple information dumps that take the form of extended monologues that sound completely unnatural coming from the mouths of dope heads and police officers, Dunn saves all the high-octane action for the final third of Rivers of Gold. Unfortunately, all the tension he builds in the last few chapters of the book only lead to an average pay off.

Neither of the two main characters are strong enough to carry a novel. They reminded me of the cookie cutter characters present in most post-Jerry Orbach episodes of “Law & Order”. Renny is a dealer who thinks he’s hot shit but isn’t half as smart or cunning as he believes himself to be, and Santiago is a gruff but fair cop whose entire goal in life is to make detective. Neither of them are fleshed out any fuller than that, and because of it (cue broken record), I couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened to either of them.

Dunn is also very self-conscious in his writing. Rivers of Gold is full of sentences such as this one found on page 107, “His epiphany came in a climactic expectoration of enlightenment that nearly asphyxiated his cokehead consort.” As you can see, Dunn is so busy showcasing his ability to employ fifty cent words and alliteration he fails to deliver any actual meaning. Rivers of Gold is overrun by sentences like this.

Though I think Dunn might have been better off leaving Rivers of Gold in the proverbial trunk, there were aspects of the narrative that I found engaging. Though Renny himself is a flat character, Dunn imbued him with a very distinctive voice that was always interesting to read. I also noticed that the pace and overall tone of individual scenes improved the more characters Dunn introduced into them. Obviously, there’s something there. With a little more time and practice, Dunn probably could write the kind of pulsing narrative Rivers of Gold wanted, but failed, to be.

The verdict: Leave Rivers of Gold on the shelf; check in with Adam Dunn when his second or third novel comes out.

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The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls by L. J. Smith

May 26, 2010 at 6:29 pm (fantasy, fiction, L. J. Smith, novels, romance, young adult) (, )

NOTE TO READERS: This book review contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.

My love affair with The Vampire Diaries started back in 1991 at the age of twelve. I took an immediate shine to Elena, Stefan, and the rest of the gang, and spent many a night snuggled under my bed covers with the latest volume in hand, letting L.J. Smith’s spare and fast paced prose transport me from my hot New York City bedroom to the tree lined streets of Fells Church, Virginia.

I was beyond psyched when I found out Smith was reviving the series after seventeen years, but like many of the grown women who as pre-teens formed Smith’s original fan base, I was immensely disappointed in the result. The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Nightfall contained more holes than a block of Swiss cheese and more filler than a jelly doughnut. Drastic changes in tone and world rules made the book feel like it belonged to a totally different series. I, however, took comfort in the knowledge that after writing something as awful as Nightfall there was nothing Smith could do to make The Vampire Diaries series any worse.

I was wrong, of course; dead wrong. In The Vampire Diaries: The Return: Shadow Souls, Smith finds new and creative ways to destroy her characters, plotline, and world rules.

Shadows Souls picks up right where Nightfall left off. To rescue Stefan from the menacing kitsune, Damon, Elena, Bonnie, and Meredith must descend into the Dark Dimension, a land of eternal twilight where demons and vampires rule, and damned souls live out eternity as slaves with little hope of ever ascending to Heaven.  As they search for the hidden halves of a mystical key that will free Stefan, Damon and Elena grow closer until Elena is unsure which brother she truly loves.

Shadow Souls sports many of the same problems as Nightfall. For one, the timeline is still screwed up. Not that I expected the original timeline to have been magically restored. There’s not really anything Smith could have done to fix it short of creating a time warp, or saying the events of Nightfall were all just a dream. I have to give Smith credit, though, for reducing the presence of 21st communication technology in Shadow Souls. While it doesn’t restore the timeline, it does make the story feel a little more “timeless” thereby making it easier to imagine the action taking place in 1992 (as it should have  had Smith stuck to her original timeline) instead of 2009.

And, while I’m at it, I also have to give Smith credit for reinstating the original symbolism behind the act of exchanging blood. In the original tetralogy, exchanging blood was a metaphor for sexual intercourse. In Nightfall, however, Smith killed the metaphor by asserting that vampires don’t actually have sex because blood lust takes the place of sexual desire. The shift wasn’t just abrupt and disconcerting to fans, but it robbed the series of its sensuality and removed the idea of pleasurable, consensual sexual intercourse within a committed relationship from the series.

But Smith attempts to correct that mistake page 4 of Shadow Souls in which Elena states that “vampires show love by exchanging blood.” Sure, it’s not entirely on target, but saying that exchanging blood denotes love is far more in line with the original metaphor than the sexless, loveless definition put forth in Nightfall. And since “making love” is a euphemism for sex, I’m willing to accept Smith’s little revision. In addition to the reduced presence of 21st century communication technology, her willingness to revise a problematic definition shows that Smith did indeed listen to her disgruntled fans, and made an effort to correct the problems as best she could.

Still, it’s not enough to save Shadows Souls. At 608 pages it is just as bloated as Nightfall; overflowing with needless scenes, dialogue, and characters that slow the pace of the narrative and add nothing to the readers’ understanding of the primary characters or plot points. Smith’s editor over at HarperCollins should be given her walking papers because she’s obviously not doing her job.

In Nightfall, Smith indulged in what I rather generously called “character back-tracking.” Other readers called it “total character decimation,” but I tried to cut Smith some slack. Though I recognized many of the abrupt character turn arounds as inconsistent and illogical, for example Damon’s inexplicable return to vain, bad boy head space after taking small but firm steps to coming a good person in The Fury and Dark Reunion, I still thought the behaviors as “in character” based on the previous books.

I can’t cut Smith any slack for Shadow Souls, though. This time she really has  successfully managed to annihilate one of her main characters. The victim? Elena Gilbert, herself.

One of the primary pleasures of the original tetralogy is watching Elena go from self-centered, conceited “mean girl” to caring, selfless, and ultimately noble human being as her narrow world view expands. She grows, she allows herself to be changed by her experiences, and by the end of Dark Reunion she is a totally different person than she was in The Awakening.

In Shadow Souls, however, Elena morphs back into the conceited princess she was at the start of the series. It’s evident on page 3 when she says, “I…don’t think it’s vain to say that I’m beautiful. If I didn’t know I was, I’d have to have never looked in a mirror or heard a compliment.” And on page 14, when explaining that her supernaturally-charged blood is irresistible to vampires, she says, “… [N]aturally, they come after me…It’s as if the world is full of honeybees and I’m the only flower.” Elena has not talked about herself like this since The Struggle! Once she realized she was not the center of the universe, that there were people in her life who she loved more than herself, she stopped viewing herself as an object. Elena’s vanity is three books in the past, and seeing it pop up in Shadow Souls without any explanation or foreshadowing is jarring because it negates all the growth she underwent in volumes three through five.

Smith doesn’t seem to realize there is a disconnect between the selfless Elena of The Fury and Dark Reunion, and the selfish, conceited Elena who shows up in Shadow Souls. Throughout the book supporting characters go on about how caring, selfless, loyal, beautiful, and all around perfect Elena is despite the fact that she doesn’t do anything to warrant the praise, and actually does quite a lot to contradict it, the most obvious being *SPOILER ALERT* her decision to cheat on Stefan with Damon.

From the start of the book there is a heat between Elena and Damon that was not present in the last three volumes. Smith gives no explanation as to where this new passion came from or how it developed. Literally, you just open Shadow Souls and, boom, there it is. By page 26 Elena and Damon are “exchanging blood” and continue to do so right up until they rescue Stefan around page 500.

The fact that Elena cheats on Stefan, the boyfriend she claims to love so much she’d willingly die for him, and cheats on him with the brother who is responsible for putting his life in peril in the first place indicates a remarkable lack of caring and common sense on Elena’s part. She obviously isn’t thinking of Stefan’s feelings while she’s making it with Damon. She isn’t even thinking of Damon’s feelings. As Damon grows more attached to her, rather than end their little affair she fans the flames, continuing to tease and flirt with him, all the while claiming she could never ever be with him, that Stefan is her true love. Those don’t sound like the actions of a loyal, selfless, compassionate person, do they?

Smith realizes how badly this scenario reflects on her characters, so she uses magic to justify their behavior. She attributes Damon’s attraction to Elena to her supernaturally-charged blood that is virtually irresistible to vampires. He is thus compelled to “exchange blood” with her. By taking free-will out of the equation Smith saves Damon from being held responsible for his actions, much as being possessed by the kitsune excused him from being blamed for all the chaos he wrought in Nightfall.

Whenever they kiss a psychic link opens up between Elena and Damon, allowing them to access each others thoughts and internal landscapes. The first time they kiss Elena comes face to face with Damon’s inner child. (I’m serious. She really does. I’d tell you to stop laughing but…there’s no reason you should.) Elena feels such compassion for this scared little boy, wants so much to comfort him that she feels she must continue the affair with Damon just so she can save his inner child! By framing Elena’s conscious and repeated transgressions as compassionate Smith tries to redeem Elena in the eyes of the reader, but the whole inner child subplot is so ridiculous this attempt is a complete failure.

Now, I could have bought the Elena and Damon plotline if Smith had tried giving it some depth. Elena is only eighteen, and eighteen year olds DO do stupid shit like cheat on their boyfriends for no other reason than because they can. It seems like the only reason Smith included the inner child subplot was because she was unwilling to let Elena be imperfect. Ironically, it’s that choice that gives rise to Elena’s old vanity, destroys all of her previous character growth, and turns her into an unlikable heroine. Rather than watch Elena carry on the affair convinced of its necessity to saving Damon’s inner child, I would have liked to see her wrestle with her decision to cheat on Stefan. I would have liked to see her try to justify her actions to herself through non-magical means. I would have liked to see Elena experience some moral quandary or internal conflict over her feelings and actions. I would have liked Smith to allow Elena the luxury of being a person rather than an ideal. Doing so would have given the book some much needed grounding, and given Smith the opportunity to deal with relevant themes like honesty in relationships, desire versus love, and developing a of personal code of ethics. Furthermore, it would have allowed Elena to grow as a character. She would have had to face a new challenge – one just as frightening as any supernatural threat – and wrestle with questions she’d never had to ask herself before: Is it possible to love two people at the same time? Is it morally right? How do I deal with these feelings without hurting anyone? Is it even possible? What do my actions say about me as a person? Do I like what they say? These are questions teenagers across the globe ask themselves when entering the arena of sex and love. I have no doubt readers would have been receptive to a confused and imperfect heroine who was a little easier to relate to.

The only redeeming aspect of Elena’s “mean girl” persona back in The Awakening and The Struggle was her self-confidence and assertiveness. Elena Gilbert always got what she wanted and always had a plan for how to get it. Smith may bring back the bitch in Shadow Souls but she forgets the self-confidence and assertiveness. With her true love in mortal peril what’s Elena’s big rescue plan? Leave everything up to Damon. Follow Damon’s lead, let Damon decide what to do, do everything Damon says. Elena has virtually no agency and it’s really sad.

Oh, and did I mention that Elena cries or gets teary-eyed no less than 33 times through the course of the book? That’s once every 18 pages! Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Bonnie supposed to be the cry-baby? Tears punctuate emotionally moving experiences. But when a person cries at everything none of their experiences seem special. Elena cried so often that instead of sharing her pain or joy when she did, I just rolled my eyes at how overly-emotional she was being.

I did not recognize the Elena Gilbert I’d come to know over the course of five books in the helpless, thoughtless, conceited little girl who showed up in Shadow Souls. I spent all 608 pages trying to figure out why Smith was trying so hard to prevent her characters from growing and evolving, what narrative purpose was served by allowing Elena and Damon to regress. Then, it hit me: Smith doesn’t know how write anything else. All of her books contain the same recycled love triangle, the same seductive bad boys and resistant Mary Sues. She never gives the reader anything new or different. She hasn’t let Elena and Damon grow because she doesn’t know how to write growth or how to depict characters other than the tried and true “types” she has been using for decades. That realization was, for me,  a stake through the heart of The Vampire Diaries series.

I have a rule. I call it the two book rule, and the two book rule states that if any writer to whom I’ve been unwaveringly loyal writes two books in a row that fail to bring me pleasure I stop buying their books. I created the rule to save myself both time and money, and to affirm that I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on crappy books. Reading Nightfall and Shadow Souls wasn’t just a joyless experience, it was downright painful. So, it’s with great regret that I say I will not be buying any more books by L.J. Smith, not even the final installment of The Return trilogy. I don’t care about Elena, Damon, Stefan or the rest of the gang anymore because it’s obvious they are done growing, and where’s the fun in reading about people who don’t grow or change?

If you’re a fan of The Vampire Diaries I advise you to keep your distance from Shadow Souls. Reading it will only piss you off. This review only touched upon the most troublesome aspects of the story, but there are tons more. For instance, Smith’s continual use of female victimization and slavery as a plot device void of any social context or commentary. I could write a dissertation around that topic alone.

Don’t read Shadow Souls. Don’t read Nightfall, either. Instead, watch The Vampire Diaries television show. The writing, plot lines, character and relationship development, and pacing are all infinitely better. Smith could learn a thing or twelve.

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Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong

May 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm (fantasy, fiction, novels, short stories, urban fantasy)

In Men of the Otherworld Kelley Armstrong finally turns the spotlight on two of the most beloved characters in her popular Women of the Otherworld series. Readers get a glimpse life in the North American werewolf Pack through the eyes of Clay and Jeremy Danvers; learn about its history, and see how the organization functioned decades before Elena Michaels entered the fold.

Comprised of one novella and three short stories, Men of the Otherworld is a delight from start to finish. Long time fans will find that the tales add texture and depth to the Otherworld, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

Savage is the crowning glory of the collection. In it, Clay tells the story of how he became a werewolf, how Jeremy rescued him from the Louisiana swamps, and how, through patience and persistence, Jeremy gained his trust, admiration, and loyalty.

Savage feels familiar and new at the same time. Fans already know the basics of how Clay came to Stonehaven. They are familiar with both Clay’s and Jeremy’s individual habits and quirks. But to actually see where those quirks came from, and hear the details of how these two seemingly disparate men built such a strong bond delivers a great thrill. Armstrong maintains an easy pace throughout the narrative, and does an outstanding job laying the foundation and building blocks of their relationship.

Even though Clay narrates two of the four stories, Jeremy is the real star of this book. He is the only character who appears in every story. Infusion tells the story of Jeremy’s conception and birth, Savage details his relationship with Clay, Ascension is about how Jeremy rose to the rank of Pack Alpha, and Kitsunegari, the only story told by Jeremy himself, is about how he discovers the truth about his origins.

Jeremy is probably my favorite guy in all the Otherworld, so reading a story written in his voice was a major treat for me. I was surprised to discover that Jeremy has always seen himself as an outsider even within his own Pack; that beneath his calm, collected, and confident exterior lies a well of anxiety. It was also nice to hear how he feels about his girlfriend, Jaime Vegas, after years of hearing all about how she feels for him. In Jaime, Jeremy has found a partner to whom he can expose the most secretive parts of himself without fear of rejection; someone with whom he can find the acceptance he has never felt.

In her review of Men of the Otherworld, Donna over at Urban Fantasy wrote that the stories reminded her of why she connected with the series in the first place, but also reminded her how disappointed she was in the last two Otherworld novels. She’s referring of course to Personal Demon and Living with the Dead, both narrated by the much bemoaned Hope Adams.

I’ve never had a problem with Hope. I don’t love her, but I don’t hate her either. She doesn’t have much personality, but she’s not as annoying as, say, Paige Winterbourne. I may not have enjoyed Living with the Dead, but I adored Personal Demon. I loved the book’s complexity, as well as the dual narration.

Still, I can’t help but agree with Donna. Men of the Otherworld was so rich, so well written, and the characters so strong and engaging they made Hope look like a shadow. When it comes to ongoing series’ what keeps me, and I believe most readers, coming back book after book are the characters. Connecting with specific chararcters is like making new friends – you want to spend as much time with them as possible. Reading Men of the Otherworld was a warm and comfortable experience, like spending time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and stood in stark contrast to how I felt reading Living with the Dead.

Men of the Otherworld will rekindle interest and faith in the series among long-time fans, and make newcomers eager to explore Armstrong’s fascinating universe.

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Daughter of Hounds by Caitlin R. Kiernan

April 20, 2010 at 8:53 pm (Caitlin R. Kiernan, fantasy, fiction, novels) ()

Caitlin R. Kiernan is my personal savior. Last year, after months of reading nothing but crap books and seeing my numerous prayers for decent reading material go unanswered, I picked up Kiernan’s debut novel, 1998’s Silk, and was blown away by the stunning imagery and creative wordplay. It kept me from drowning in an ocean of mediocre writing, and wound up coming in at number three on my 2009, end of the year “Best of” list.

Soon thereafter, I purchased Daughter of Hounds not realizing it was the third book in a series of novels revolving around the Silvey family. When I found out, I figured I should read the first two books, Threshold and Low Red Moon, before diving into Daughter of Hounds, only neither of them appealed to me. The synopses on their back covers didn’t grab me the way the one on the back of Daughter of Hounds had. So I left it languishing in my “to read” pile for a year as I tried to decide whether or not to buy Threshold and Low Red Moon.

But, as you can see from the number of bad and luke warm reviews I’ve churned out since the New Year, I’ve been having another run of bad luck with regard to reading material. After so many duds I desperately needed something good to read which is why I finally reached for Daughter of Hounds. And I am glad I did because, once again, Caitlin R. Kiernan put an end to my losing streak.

Daughter of Hounds takes place in a Lovecraft-ian world where ghouls and monsters, having been banished from the surface of the Earth, live in vast, underground cave networks, silently plotting  to take back control of the world. Soldier is a changeling with a mission. Stolen from her crib as a baby and raised by the ghouls, it is up to her to dispose of anyone on the surface who might stand in their way. Eight year old Emmie Silvey isn’t much of a threat. Struggling to understand the psychic abilities she inherited from her father, all Emmie wants is for her dad to stop drinking and her step-mother to move back into the house. But when their paths converge, Soldier and Emmie learn that the lives they have been living aren’t the ones they were supposed to live.

First off, you do not have to have read Threshold or Low Red Moon in order to understand Daughter of Hounds. The book is whole unto itself, and Kiernan gives as much background as is necessary to understand the story.

All the elements I’ve come to expect of a Kiernan yarn are present – the creative wordplay, the strong description and character development. Kiernan creates a world you can see, smell, taste, and touch from the very first page.

What I appreciated the most about Kiernan’s style this time around was her willingness to trust the reader. So many of the books I’ve read over the last couple of months felt like they were written by authors who thought their readers were idiots. They spoon fed their story to the reader, not trusting them to make even the tiniest leaps of logic.

For example, when introducing a new character they would momentarily put the scene on hold to explain the new character’s entire background even if the details were irrelevant to the current scene. It was as if they needed to prove the character belonged in the story. Kiernan, by contrast, does not tell you everything you need to know about each character as they are introduced. Instead, she tells you what is important to know about that new character within the parameters of the scene, and allows additional information to trickle out as needed as the story progresses. Aside from building tension and giving readers an incentive to keep reading, Kiernan’s approach indicates confidence in her readers’ intelligence. She trusts they don’t need to know every connection, detail, and event in a characters life right off the bat in order to care about them or understand how they fit into the narrative.

Same goes for plot twists. I’ve read a lot of fiction in which each plot development warranted a complete re-hash of every event that occurred up to that point, as if readers are so forgetful they need to be constantly reminded of what they’ve read. Kiernan only spells out how particular plot twists relate to other aspects of the story when the relationship is unclear. Otherwise, she just lets the story unfold, and allows the reader to connect the dots. She expects her reader to have paid close enough attention to the text that she won’t have to spoon feed the story to them. Kiernan puts a lot of thought into her writing and expects her readers to do the same.

I enjoyed Daughter of Hounds so much I want to read the first two books now. I became so invested in this world and these characters that I need to know their back story. That’s what a good writer does – she makes you want to run out and buy everything she has ever written. And really, what sort of disciple would I be if I didn’t?

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Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

April 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm (ARC, fiction, mixed bag, novels)

When her husband’s sudden death reveals an avalanche of hidden debt, Meg Rosenthal has no choice but to sell off everything she owns . With her teenage daughter Sally in tow, Meg moves to the small town of Arcadia Falls after securing a teaching job at a prestigious arts school, hoping a change of scenery will help heal the growing rift between them. But when one of the students goes missing, Meg finds herself at the center of a mystery with roots that stretch back to the very founding of the school.

Goodman’s greatest success is her ability to maintain a break neck pace throughout Arcadia Falls. Though the book starts out slow with Goodman taking the first eighty pages to introduce her cast of characters, as soon as Meg begins uncovering the secrets of the school’s founders the story speeds up, and Goodman doesn’t tap the brake until the final page. Each new piece of information follows right on the heels of the previous one, and every time I thought I had the ending figured out, Goodman threw in a new twist that always killed my latest theory.

But the pace itself – not the characters, the storyline, or Goodman’s use of language – was the only thing that really kept me plowing through the novel. Had Goodman not put the pedal to the floor when she did, I’m not sure Arcadia Falls would have kept my attention.

Why? Well, for one thing, I didn’t like the main character. Like so many of the first person narrators I’ve discussed on this blog, Meg has no personality. She is bland. She’s polite, inquisitive, imaginative, and she loves her daughter, but that’s all we really know about her. Sure, she tells us about some of the major events in her life  – how she dropped out of art school to have Sally, how she was a stay at home mom until the day her husband died – but Meg never tells us how she feels about any of those events or how they affected her on a personal level. Occasionally she’ll ruminate on her past, but she doesn’t dig particularly deep when doing so.

Goodman’s writing is neither good nor bad. It’s competent. Her words don’t light up the page, but they get the job done. They’re functional.

Arcadia Falls is full of recurring themes and motifs. One is the conflict between raising a child and cultivating an artistic life. Another is dependence vs. independence. But, again, none of these themes are explored in-depth. Different themes figure prominently at different points in the narrative, but are often dropped before Goodman can really examine what they mean to the story, and that makes the book feel incomplete.

The ending was a real problem for me. Goodman gives Meg and Sally a laughably unrealistic, fairytale ending that I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with if, A) the fairytale motif, so prominent in the first half of the book and practically non-existent in the second half, had figured more prominently throughout the story, and B) if Meg and Sally had actually earned their happy ending. As is, neither of them do much but fall victim to circumstance and aren’t really transformed by the experience.

Goodman may know how to weave an intriguing and complicated yarn, but overall, Arcadia Falls is an average book. It’s not deep and doesn’t require a lot of thought on the reader’s part. It ‘s a decent way to pass the time, but it’s not a story that will stick with you.

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Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly

March 24, 2010 at 3:03 am (ARC, fiction, horror, novels)

You can identify good writing by how easy it is to take for granted. Tight, well-crafted, emotionally and intellectually engaging prose keeps the reader’s attention focused on the story. The words, sentences, and paragraphs flow so effortlessly from page to page there is no reason to consider that someone spent months, perhaps even years,  slaving over them, or that each unit of speech was deliberately put on the page to elicit a certain response from the reader. 

Bad writing, by contrast, draws attention to itself. A reader spends more time puzzling over poorly worded or clunky sentences, more time noticing grammatical errors and continuity problems, than following the story. Bad writing steals the spotlight and prevents readers from truly engaging the work.

If bad writing is an attention whore than Ronald Kelly is her pimp and Hell Hollow the brothel she calls home. When describing Hell Hollow to one of my writer friends I told her to recall every writing “don’t” she’d ever learned in class or workshop, mix them all together, and slap a cover on the mush. That is Hell Hollow in a nutshell.

This ho-hum horror novel follows four tween-age kids as they battle the evil Augustus Leech, a con-man, magician, and murderer who is basically the Freddy Krueger of Kentucky. I can’t tell you any more about the story than that because I spent all five hundred pages correcting grammatical errors, re-wording poorly written sentences, crossing out unnecessary text and dialogue, and wondering why Kelly’s editor didn’t fix all these problem before the book went to press.

The lack of craft here is mind-boggling. Hell Hollow is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences. Kelly has difficulty maintaining an age appropriate voice in his twelve year old protagonist, and the pop culture references his young characters throw around are twenty years out of date.

What bothered me the most was how Kelly tried to avoid using his characters’ names as a way of spicing up the narrative. For example, on page 170 Kelly writes, “The elderly farmer sat at the kitchen table and listened as the boy’s footsteps mounted the stairs,” when he could have written the shorter and more natural sounding, “Jasper sat at the kitchen table and listened as Keith’s footsteps mounted the stairs.”

I counted more than one hundred similar monikers throughout the book. Each primary character has at least six that Kelly uses liberally when attributing actions or dialogue. The villain alone has more than a dozen. Kelly refers to him as “the traveling medicine man,” “the sadistic traveling medicine man,” “the medicine show doctor,” “the man in the stovepipe hat,” “the lanky wanderer,” “the tall man, “the dark man,” and  “the murderess showman” all long after he has introduced the character by name.

Not only is this one of the many ways amateur writers attempt to liven up dull prose, but it indicates Kelly views his characters as “types” rather than people. He repeatedly refers to his four protagonists as “the city boy,” “the farm boy,” “the handicapped boy,” and “the girl.” And that’s all they are. They aren’t given much personality beyond the stereotypical image each of those monikers calls to mind. If you read this blog with any regularity you know I can’t get into a book unless it contains at least one three dimensional character. I think complex characters can save otherwise unremarkable stories, and it’s too bad Kelly didn’t bother to write any into Hell Hollow because I found it impossible to care about a world populated by stereotypes.

Perhaps worst of all, Hell Hollow isn’t scary. Kelly fails to build any sort of tension, and seems to think describing something as “dark” and “gloomy” automatically makes it frightening. At no point did I feel like the main characters were in real peril, even as they were fighting for their lives.

Actually, Hell Hollow is scary, but not for the reasons Kelly intended. The sloppy writing and lack of craft made me scream more than once, and the corrections I continually scribbled in the margins left my hands trembling. If you’re one of those masochists who read Twilight just to see how awful it was, you might enjoy picking Hell Hollow apart. But, if you’re looking for a chilling, well written and thought out horror novel, you’d best look elsewhere.

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