Dead in the WestDead in the West, by Joe R. Lansdale

I’d recommend this wild west zombie story mostly for folks who enjoy horror. It doesn’t stand out to me as much as some of the other things I’ve read from Lansdale, but it’s short and strange and I’m on a big historical supernatural kick at the moment. I also liked that these are magic-based zombies, which seem underused compared with the kind that come from viruses or some other contamination. Yeah, they all still shuffle after your guts, but supernatural zombies often lend a kind of “defeat the evil” vibe. Sometimes that feels like a refreshing change of pace from the post-apocalyptic infected hordes that are all over the place now.

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerHold Me Closer, Necromancer, by Lish McBride

When Sam learns that he has a secret, magical heritage, wackiness ensues. The characters and tone of this one are great, so it’s a must-read for YA fans. The romance explodes in intensity too quickly for my taste, and it skirts close to my pet peeve against supernaturally-induced making out. The rest of the book is cute enough that I’m overlooking that quibble. The chapter titles kept making me smile and hum the songs that they referenced, though most seemed more appropriate to someone my age than Sam’s. And the author gets bonus points for using a TMBG song.

Crucible of Gold (Temeraire, #7)Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik

So I mentioned I’ve got a historical supernatural fixation going on, right? I haven’t been thrilled with the last few entries in this series about dragons in the Napoleonic Wars, it started to feel like the plot was less of a concern than showing readers yet another new and exotic location. This book worked its way back to the larger story of the war though, and it gave me the feeling that the Lawrence and Temeraire World Tour of Being Treated Badly may be history. It was also much more fun than it’s last pair of predecessors, which always helps. When a series that I’ve loved starts to lose me, I always try to give it a few more books to pull me in again. This is the only case I can think of where that’s worked, and now I’m excited to read more of these.


The RookThe opening words of this novel are, “Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.” That sentence, and the premise it delivers so well, hooked me from the start. The body in question belongs to Myfanwy Thomas, a young woman who was made aware that an unknown enemy will erase her personality, her memory, and her very identity, leaving a stranger in her body. That stranger, helped by detailed notes from her predecessor, jumps back into Myfanwy’s life in order to find the person behind the attack.

Pretending to be the Myfanwy that the world already knows is no easy task. That Myfanwy has a meek personality, an unusual ability that she hates to use, and a tendency to hide in the background. She administrates a division of The Chequy, a secretive government agency made to protect the United Kingdom from supernatural threats, and she has a great memory for small details about the history and workings of the organization. The new Myfanwy knows only what she finds in the notes and files that she’s been left, and while she has similar skills and tendencies, she shows a level of assertiveness that surprises her coworkers.

The New Myfanwy / Original Recipe Myfanwy divide could have gotten confusing fast, but it was handled well. We get to know the first woman only through her letters and other people’s recollections of her. Her writing style doesn’t always mesh with the shy, retiring person we’re told about. At first that seemed inconsistent, but then it left me with the impression that Myfanwy’s new personality was similar to how she might have been without the childhood trauma that she faced. I liked that the author put real effort into exploring Myfanwy’s identity issues rather than just using it as a hook for the story.

The setting hits a great balance between the bureaucratic realities of Myfanwy’s office and the strangeness the things they deal with, which is a relief considering that the other supernatural agency books I’ve read stray predictably into ridiculous levels of weirdness or Bond-film badassery. The people of the Chequy appreciate the seriousness of their responsibility, and I liked that Myfanwy always took a moment to think about the victims that her enemies left behind. The Chequy’s traditional, chess-based structure, full of overlapping responsibilities and outdated ideas, provides good opportunity for drama. Myfanwy’s colleagues were all interesting, and I was glad we got to know them a little.

The first third feels a little uneven, probably because it starts off with some really cool action and intrigue, and then we get a lot of Myfanwy reading letters. The letters were good moments for characterization and introspection, but they did get exposition-heavy as well. Things evened out once I got further into the book, and it couldn’t have been too terrible a drag on the pace considering that I devoured the whole thing in a couple of days. The placement and specifics of one letter made a final twist too obvious, though.

There were some fun moments, but the book sometimes felt like it was trying too hard in the comedy department. Character descriptions could also have been improved, it felt like we were too often told about people based on how attractive Myfanwy thought they were (and in what way).

The only thing that seriously bothered me was Myfanwy’s nasty tendency to be snippy about the looks of other women she met, to the point of making a mental joke about hoping one woman had slept her way to the top (presumably because she shouldn’t get to be both beautiful and good at her job). That line and several similar moments stood out, especially because the book was filled with competent, proactive female characters. Do super-powered secret agents really need to be so superficial and jealous of each other? It’s unlikeable and unnecessary and just plain yicky. Those bits were also among the very few moments that made me remember I was reading a male author writing from a woman’s perspective.

Despite my few issues, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an urban fantasy novel that avoids that cookie-cutter feel. I hope we get to read more about this world.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Chain Letter (Chain Letter #1)Based on both my memories and the condition of this paperback, Chain Letter was one of the Christopher Pike books that I revisited most often in my teenage years. The plot is a better than average take on the I Know What You Did Last Summer story, because Pike’s villain pushes the guilty teens to act out in self-destructive ways. The pranks are fun if not exactly consistent, and the climactic scene where Alison is chased through her home and empty housing development by the villain is exciting and tense.

This book was much, much better than Pike’s Whisper of Death, but there were still some aspects that disturbed me while rereading it from an adult perspective. Massive spoilers are below the break.

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On one level, ABC’s Once Upon A Time is really interesting. It mixes fantasy elements and real-life drama, and each episode focuses on an individual story while still bringing us some movement in the larger plot of the town. But there’s a big problem for me when television that’s supposed to be somewhat family-friendly, even to the point of integrating classic Disney characters into its fairy tale cast, can’t stop doubling down on a major anti-family theme.

[This post includes major spoilers for those who haven’t seen the show at all, and minor spoilers for last Sunday’s episode.]

The show begins when a young boy, Henry, shows up unexpectedly on Emma Swan’s doorstep and announces that he’s the child she gave up for adoption. Emma returns Henry to his home, and learns that he believes everyone in his town is a storybook character under the influence of an evil spell that made them forget their true selves. Emma sees Henry’s fairy tale fantasy as a sign that he’s deeply unhappy, and she decides to move to the town to be near him.

In doing so, she ignores the wishes of Henry’s adoptive mom, Regina. The show presents that as totally okay,  because Regina is a controlling, emotionally distant woman who, by the way, is secretly the evil queen who cast the spell that trapped all the storybook characters in the real world in the first place. Regina also has a history of bad parenting, since she’s Snow White’s wicked stepmother.

Instead of giving the main characters of Once Upon A Time some level of nuance, Regina and Emma’s dueling moms routine is portrayed as a struggle of good against evil. The audience is told that Regina can’t truly care about Henry, because the curse that she used to doom the town has literally made her incapable of love. There are a few times when Regina feels like a more realistic woman whose obsession with revenge has just carried her too far into darkness, but then the show has her go and do something cartoonishly evil like kill her own father or rape a huntsman.

Henry thinks that Emma is the key to fixing the curse and helping his friends and neighbors remember their storybook selves. Emma doesn’t believe in Henry’s other world, but sometimes indulges his stories anyway. Emma and Regina clash over everything, especially when it comes to Emma’s relationship with Henry or her growing role in the community. Regina makes cutting remarks over Emma’s fitness to be a mother, while multiple characters make references to Emma being Henry’s “real” mother. At one point there’s even a suggestion that Emma might be able to challenge Regina for custody.

The last few episodes before the break seemed to have moved away from such directly crummy portrayal of adoption. But then on the most recent episode, Mr. Gold (who is fairytale’s Rumplestilskin) told Regina that her claim to be Henry’s mom was just a technicality.

Seriously, ABC? I want to like this show, but you aren’t helping matters. Adoptive families are real families, and you need to stop suggesting otherwise. I get it, Regina is evil. That doesn’t excuse the constant undercurrent of scorn heaped on her in the name of being an adoptive parent. I may check out the rest of the season in hopes that they find a way to move around that unpleasantness, but the idea of the good birth mother swooping in to save the town from the evil adoptive mom is such a major part of the show that I don’t have much hope of that happening.

Interested in a Kate Daniels novella as a New Year’s treat? “Magic Gifts,” a Kate and Curran story, is available as a free e-book until January 7. You can download a Kindle-compatible copy, an epub for Nook or other e-book readers, or a PDF to read on your computer. The novella will be printed in the upcoming Andrea-centered book, Gunmetal Magic, for those who either don’t want an electronic copy or missed out on the limited-time free release.

Get it here:

I recently came across a box of books from my teenage years, and most of them are Christopher Pike novels. I used to get every one of his new books and read them over and over. Some of them were just straightforward dramas but others involved supernatural elements, so I thought I’d post about them here as I reread them.

Whisper of DeathWhisper of Death is about Rox, a young woman who takes a stressful out-of-town trip with her boyfriend, Pepper. The pair return home to find that their town is empty. Their family, friends, and neighbors have disappeared. The radio and television play only static. Even long distance phone calls go unanswered. Rox and Pepper eventually find three other teens, and the group starts to wonder if their predicament can really be related to a dead classmate who seemed to have the power to control those around her.

I’ve got hazy, nostalgic memories about all the Pike books I’ve read, but rereading this as an adult was troubling. A lot of things about the book were creepy (in a bad way). A plot summary and my full spoiler-filled reactions are under the break.

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The Sookie Stackhouse CompanionThe Sookie piece included in this companion book (“Small Town Wedding”) was a good one, and in some ways I liked it more than the most recent book because it had a tight, cohesive story that tied in to a clear larger theme. I felt like this plot deserved inclusion in the main series rather than being shared in short story form, though. Sam’s talked about his family and the wedding in multiple Sookie books, so it was disconcerting for the characters in Dead Reckoning (Book 11) to just skip to talking about the situation in the past tense. Not all readers track down short stories, so this feels like a milder version of the “One Word Answer” problem, where fans who didn’t read an anthology felt as if they’d missed something.

After the story, there’s a “Timeline” section presenting the events of each book in condensed form. I guess it’s intended as a reference for those who are trying to remember specific details without re-reading, but it’s entirely skippable. Each book’s entry does include transcripts of written exchanges or phone calls between Eric and Bill, but they’re pretty dull with only a few exceptions. The Timeline is credited to the woman who wrote the summaries, and the text doesn’t make it clear if these little Bill/Eric bits were written by the same person or were provided by Harris.

The next section, written by Harris, is about the short stories. She mentions the events of “One Word Answer,” but those were also considered significant enough to include in the preceding timeline. Each story has a short description of its events and a mention of where it fits between the books, there are also descriptions of stories that focus on other Sookieverse characters.

Then there’s a Sookie-perspective chapter, also by Harris, about the various types of supernatural creatures in the world. It includes a family tree for any who are confused about the details of Sookie’s fairy lineage. That’s followed by a trivia quiz filled with laughably specific questions about the names of people or places that were mentioned once and the colors of various characters’ cars. The cookbook portion includes one series-relevant tidbit about Caroline Bellfleur’s famous chocolate cake that made it worth a skim.

The book is rounded out by Q&As with both Harris and Alan Ball, the creator of HBO’s “True Blood” adaptation. There’s also a section about Harris’s career and a personal essay from a fan club organizer that will mostly be of interest to other early fan club members. The final, largest section is an exhaustive A-Z listing of characters, places, things, and references from the books and short stories. Like the Timeline, I guess this could be an interesting reference, but I’m not sure when I’d ever personally use it.

A surprising omission was a complete bibliography of works by Charlaine Harris. All her books and stories are mentioned, but they’re in non-skimmable paragraphs and separated out into three different chapters. I’d like to have had a couple of pages in list form of all the books in each series, especially one that includes the short stories in the reading order and has a reminder of which anthologies those are found in.

This book was kind of a strange mix for me, and I’d recommend that even fans of the series check it out from the library before buying. I’m glad that I did.

One Salt Sea (October Daye #5)October Daye has faced a lot of challenges since recovering from the transformation spell that ripped her from her human family at the start of this series. Lately, though, she’s accepted new responsibilities, formed new friendships, and she’s even given romance another shot. But when a kidnapping threatens to spark a war between the land fae and their dangerous cousins from the sea, everyone that Toby cares about is in the line of fire. She’s got three days to find the missing kids in a maze of old enemies, confusing allies, and uncomfortable secrets, or else her people will be left to fight – and possibly die – in a war that they’re unlikely to win. Read the rest of this entry »

I haven’t watched a scripted show on MTV since the days of Daria, but this trailer for Death Valley caught my eye. They’re going for the horror/comedy thing, so I thought it might appeal to some of my fellow urban fantasy fans.

Death Valley premieres tonight on MTV at 10:30.

Entwined, by Heather Dixon

August 17, 2011


I often end up with mixed feelings about novels based on fairy tales, and this retelling of one my old favorites, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, is no exception.

I liked Azalea’s interactions with her sisters, and I especially liked that she seemed to mature as the story went on. Unfortunately the story was so packed with princesses and suitors that only the heroine got much attention. One of the secondary relationships was adorable, but the main romance felt tacked on.

The princesses got caught up in a cycle of sneaking away, being tired, and getting into trouble with little other movement in the plot. It all started to feel like “dance, rinse, repeat.” The antagonist took a turn for the menacing in the end, but that mostly managed to make me wish he’d managed more than blandly creepy earlier.

The setting was interesting and well-described, and the author did a good job of revealing details slowly. Certain other aspects of the writing didn’t work for me, though. Moments of pretty fairy-tale prose kept clashing up against modern slang, and things tended to get muddy during the action scenes.

I guess I like it best when adaptations go deep into the characters or add an unexpected twist to a classic story, and despite its promise, this one really didn’t do either of those things.