Fantasy: Runemarks, by Joanne Harris

Runemarks (Runemarks, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fans of post apocalyptic fiction, fantasy, mythology, coming of age themes, and computer games will probably love Runemarks, the debut young adult novel by Joanne Harris. Better known for her adult relationship novels (Chocolate, Coastliners, Blackberry Wine), Harris takes on Norse mythology, setting this book in an early Christian village. The landscape, with its gigantic horses carved into hillsides and its prehistoric burial mounds, plays a major role in this tale. Fourteen year old Maddy has been shunned by her village as long as she can remember. She’s obviously different, with the strange marking on her hand and her dreamy, otherworldly demeanor. She finally finds acceptance in the friendship and tutelage of The One-Eyed Man, a peddler who, during his yearly visits, recognizes Maddy’s specialness and educates her in the old ways, which include runes, spells, glamours, and all sort of “other” beings. Maddy is being groomed to go on a quest to save the worlds above and below.

Runemarks is exceedingly long. It’s very atmospheric, but unless the reader has a strong interest in its mythology and belief system, it fails to hold interest throughout all of Maddy’s ongoing trials and tribulations. Runemarks is well written, and recommended for anyone, young adult or older, who enjoys fantastical fiction.

Thriller: The Thirteen Hallows, by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman

Thirteen HallowsOne of the thirteen

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In a world separated from the one we inhabit, live a race of demons who love eating human flesh. Two thousand years ago, their entryway into our world was sealed off with thirteen locks, which can be opened only by their thirteen corresponding “Hallows”. Each of these objects, once ordinary but now imbued with fearsome power, is strong enough in its own right, but should the thirteen ever be reunited, the demons will triumph and engulf us forever. When Sarah Miller rescues an elderly woman from muggers, she is drawn inexorably into the race to keep the Hallows hidden, and her life will never again be normal. The woman has entrusted Sarah with her Hallow, an ancient, broken sword, counting upon her to deliver it to her nephew, Owen.

This is a story drawn from the mythology of Britain and Christianity, and as such, it has potential. Michael Scott is the prolific author of fantasy/science fiction/horror adventures, and in The Thirteen Hallows, he maxes out on the horror. An evil genius is out to capture all the Hallows, and he first half of the novel consists of a series of disturbingly graphic and gruesome murders, interspersed with too many surprisingly un-erotic sex scenes.

In the second half, Sarah hooks up with Owen, and the pair are pursued by the diabolical couple. One by one, murderers themselves die brutally, and now the police, who seem incredibly inept, are out to catch Sarah, believing that she is a deranged serial killer. The final, apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil takes place at a Welsh Halloween festival.

The Thirteen Hallows is the set up volume for a series. I have no interest in reading more of this saga, but I may look up a reliable source on the mythology surrounding the Hallows of Britain.

Historical Fiction: A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

A Curse Dark as GoldThe Miller daughter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charlotte Miller and her sister Rosie represent the end of the family line. For generations, they have owned and run Stirwater Mill, spinning yarn and dyeing cloth. Now that their father has died, Charlotte is tenacious in her determination to keep the mill in business, partly because of tradition and partly because the folks that comprise the little village of Shearing depend upon it for their livelihood. Besides the fact of her gender, Charlotte faces two formidable obstacles, one the sizeable debt her father left behind, and the other, the legacy of bad luck that has dogged the mill since it was first built. She doesn’t believe in curses or magic, but Rosie does, and when Rosie resorts to casting spells to help her sister, a stranger arrives. Calling himself “Jack Spinner”, this very strange individual can work wonders, in exchange for things that hold emotional significance to the person he assists. But when his price becomes unimaginable, Charlotte realizes that she must not merely believe in the curse, but must find a way to conquer it. In the process, she learns profound lessons about love, loyalty, and inter-connectedness.

Billed as a book for young adults, A Curse Dark as Gold transcends age limits. Fairy tales are timeless in their treatment of archetypal themes and concerns. In this reworking of the Rumpelstiltskin story, Ms. Bunce blends folkloric elements with modern ones and tells the tale from the heroine’s point of view. And Charlotte is a formidable heroine, making her stand against sexism, class-ism, marital problems, bankruptcy, and intimidation. Author Bunce’s characters, both good and bad, are richly delineated, and her themes are universal. There are magical elements in this book, but don’t expect a ride as wild as a Harry Potter’s. The balance between reality and magic is always maintained, and it’s this balance that makes the story so credible. What it does contain in tension, spookiness, suspense, embedded in a plot that is dark, resonant, and ultimately satisfying. The awards garnered by this debut novel are richly deserved.

The Six Sacred Stones, by Matthew Reilly

The Six Sacred Stones (Jack West Jr, #2)Strap on those wings, time to fly outta here!

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The plot is simple. A team of highly skilled people, who have given themselves names like Scimitar and Wizard, must garner all their high tech resources and mobilize to prevent the end of the world. Their quest is to locate the 6 sacred stones and place them on the 6 sacred pillars, which are located at various mystical places around the globe. Only then will the Dark Sun, the opposite of our star sun, be neutralized. That’s it. The plot.

The Six Sacred Stones is more a series of sensational action sequences using incredible devices, which do not yet exist in the more mundane world, than a novel. Reading this book is like watching a Road Runner cartoon. There is no character development, no mystery (you know the good guys will always come out ahead), and, considering all the escapes from the jaws of death, no suspense. Fans of chase scenes, sci-fi gadgets, and endlessly resourceful heroes will enjoy the story. Not recommended for more serious readers.

Mythology and Folklore: In the Forests of Serre, by Patricia McKillip

Telltale Hearts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Deep within a secret cave in a far northern land, a monster’s hidden heart is stolen. In the land of Serre, the king has arranged for the marriage of princess Sidonie of Dacia to his only son, Crown Prince Ronan. Sidonie’s father agrees in the interest of promoting peace between the two kingdoms, but is worried for her safety, because the King of Serre cannot ever be trusted. To ensure princess’ safety,the most skillful of all wizards, Unciel, sends a young protege, Gyre, as her guardian. And Sidonie will need a guardian, for her future husband, still deep in grief after losing his first wife and their newborn son, has been entranced by the magical firebird, who lures him deep in the forest in search of forgetfulness.

Patricia McKillip spins out a fairy tale for adults, on the universal and ancient theme of love, loss, redemption, and recovery. Based upon the Russian legend of the Firebird, and In the Forests of Serre transports readers into a dream world, inhabited by “trolls and magic stags, ogres, water sprites, hermits, wood-witches’, and a horrific monster. Hearts figure prominently in the tale, lost and found and lost again. As in all good tales of this sort, the fantasy becomes real and the pages fly by.

Lyrical, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

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Sci Fi: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the DogTo Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ned Henry and Verity Kindle are severely “time-lagged” historians living in mid-21st century England. Both work for the Oxford time travel research center, and when the book opens, Ned must find a Victorian vase known as the bishop’s bird stump, last seen in Coventry Cathedral on the evening when it was bombed by the Nazis. What ensues is a post-modern comedy of errors, for the science of time travel is still in its infancy, and glitches abound. This novel is a delightful pastiche of missteps and suppositions as Ned and Verity travel to late Victorian Warwickshire, to, among other things, return a cat (cats are now extinct in England) that mistakenly reached the future, and foster two seemingly impossible romances, to locate the bird stump, and to catch up on their sleep to get over the time lag. Filled with literary references, Victorian personalities, fish, and a frenetic plot, TSNOTD is a refreshing, witty, hilarious, intelligent way to lose yourself in a good book.

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Thriller: The Last Cato, by Matilde Asensi

Precious relics, fragments of the True Cross, are being stolen from churches across Europe and Asia. The  body of one of the suspects, covered in cryptic tattoos, is found. The Vatican assembles a team, to track down the thieves and recover that relics.  Ottavia is a Catholic nun who is a renowned paleographer; Farag is a Coptic Egyptian archaeologist;  Kaspar is an officer of the famed Swiss Guard. Painstakingly deciphering The the meaning of the tattoos, the team is astonished to learn that the key to the mystery is embedded in Dante’s Inferno, specifically, Purgatorio.  And they must endure and master the seven grueling challenges faced by Dante himself.

Sounds promising. But this is a novel well conceived but poorly executed. Part of the problem lies in its translation into English from the original Spanish. The translation is awkward and often jarring in its misapplication of words. The levels of Purgatory, for example, are referred to as “cornices”, where “terrace” would have been more appropriate. A large crucifix is described as “grandiose”, instead of “imposing” or “awe-inspiring”.

Another difficulty lies within the seven challenges. They are certainly grueling, so much so that these poor people, facing each within a day or two of the previous, simply could not have withstood more than the initial few. In addition, seven ordeals described in detail, along with their respective Inferno verses, makes for lengthy passages that tend to grow tedious. If this book were a movie, it would have to be produced in sequels.

On the positive side is the character of Ottavia, who is the real protagonist of the story, the seeker who must confront the central truth of her life and the choices she’s made. By comparison, Kaspar and Farag are undeveloped except as types. Also, there are some delightful discoveries embedded in the plot, surprises that heighten interest and imagination.

The Last Cato is not a bad book, just an overlong one. I suspect that it reads much better in Spanish. Author Asensi seems a competent writer who perhaps needs better editing.

Modern Lit: Capote in Kansas, by Kim Powers

3.0 out of 5 stars Metaphor

Capote in Kansas is a ghostly story, in which a pair of childhood friends attain tremendous literary fame, only to have their relationship destroyed by their success. The novel opens as both Truman Capote and Harper Lee are nearing the ends of their respective lives. Each has been a “one book wonder” of a sort, each now long paralyzed by a form of writer’s block. Both authors, who were simply human, after all, obsess over the choices they’ve made, struggling with enormous guilt and anxiety, somewhat existential in nature. Kim Powers takes the reader on an imaginary sojourn into their minds and hearts. Both are visited by ghosts and memories, unfulfilled wishes and waking dreams. How much of this plot is sheer, metaphorical fancy? Probably most of it. But it is based upon facts, and it might be interesting to revisit Capote in Kansas after reading some legitimate biography, to come to one’s own educated conclusion.

Classic Lit: Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling

4.0 out of 5 stars Factual and fanciful

With all the renewed interest in fantasy over the past decade, the 102 year old historical fantasy, Puck of Pook’s Hill, deserves consideration. Two early 20th century children, living in Pevensey, England, have a chance encounter with the legendary Puck, who undertakes to bring them a series of first hand accounts of the history of their region. Puck introduces them to eye witnesses to such events as the Norman Conquest, the waning of the Roman occupation, and the dissolution of the monasteries. As the historic individuals relate their tales, they are suitable impressed with the children’s abilities to resolve some of the mysteries that were not understood in their times. The selections of Kipling’s poetry that accompany each chapter are related thematically, and pleasingly rhythmic. Recommended for grade level 4 and up through adults.

( I’m happy to be able to say that a few years back I acquired the first edition shown in the photo. )

Paranormal Fiction: Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

4.0 out of 5 stars Lose yourself in a good book

Ignoring her own better judgment, Meggie does the impossible, reading herself into Inkworld. She’s planning a sort of sightseeing vacation, a brief tour to see the fairies, talking trees, and other amazing elements described to her so vividly by her mom. Just like Gilligan’s, Meggie’s own little tour turns into something quite different. Once again, author Funke creates a place out of time, populated with many of the characters from Inkheart (Basta, Dustfinger, Farid, Mo), and adding many more, eg, a good prince and an evil one, strolling players, Dustfinger’s wife and daughter). Once again, bonds of loyalty, love, selflessness drive and shape the energetic plot. Inkspell is a nonstop adventure set in a cruel, feudalistic society, where the written word, properly wielded, can be the most powerful force of all. Recommended for all who enjoy effective, credible fantasy fiction.