Paranormal Fiction: Blythewood, by Carol Goodman

Blythewood (Blythewood, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carol Goodman’s novels generally take place at in educational settings near bodies of water, where female protagonists must face mysterious circumstances fraught with danger. Blythewood is no exception, but this time around, the book is aimed at a young adult audience. Intriguingly, the story’s catalyst takes place during the horrific fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Avaline Hall has sought employment after her mother’s early death. Amidst the terror, Avaline escapes death through the actions of a pair of strange males, one a beautiful winged creature and the other a malevolent man in an Inverness cape. Little wonder that she lands in a psychiatric ward, until her estranged grandmother takes her under wing. Suddenly, Avaline finds herself a student at the elite school, Blythewood on the Hudson, following in the footsteps of her mother, who although she was expelled, is something of a folk heroine. Reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, no?

Avaline’s experiences at Blythewood open her eyes to the paranormal world of magic, fairies, and evil that coexists within the forests that surround the campus. As she struggles to fit into the snooty student body, Avaline encounters both the caped man and the winged boy again, making new friends, falling in love, and discovering special powers that she never suspected she possessed. Most of all, she wants to learn why her mother left school in disgrace, and who her father is. The adolescent angst is true to the genre, but the story was well written, full of quirky characters, and compelling enough to hold my interest. Not sure, however, whether or not I’ll check out Ravenswood, the sequel.

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Folklore and Fantasy: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our lives are shaped by our childhood impressions and experiences, and no one knows or expresses that truth better than Neil Gaiman. The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed, middle aged Englishman, who returns to his rural roots to attend a funeral. On a whim, he drives to the site of his former home, now a housing development where the country roads have been paved over, all except foThe Ocean at the End of the Laner the rustic lane that leads down the hill to the Hempstock farm. Old Mrs. Hempstock sees him arrive, and as they talk, snippets of memory begin to float to the surface. The summer he was seven, he and Hempstock granddaughter Lettie became friends, and he came to realize that there was something timeless about this family. They can see and do things that he can’t quite understand. Perhaps the duck pond, as Lettie insists, really is a sort of ocean. One morning, following a suicide in the neighborhood, a dark power is unleashed, and he and Lettie must embark upon a quest to vanquish something unspeakably evil.

What sounds like a prosaic sort of fairy story when I summarize it is much, much more in the hands of Neil Gaiman, though it does retain the key elements of the classic fairy tale. Mr. Gaiman writes beautifully, making every word count, and he is a master at conveying a genuine sense of the wonders and fears of childhood. His characters, which are few, are memorable and real. The action in Ocean vacillates between idyllic peace and heart stopping terror. Parents cannot always be counted on, and sometimes innocent mistakes bring serious consequences.There are omens (a fish that swallowed a sixpence), symbols (the number 3 is important), archetypes, and magic, but there is also a firm grounding in the ordinary. Emotionally powerful, mesmerizing, and highly recommended.

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Paranormal Fiction: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Victoria McQueen  has access to “the shorter way” , a bridge that was removed years ago but that she can still locate when she wants to find something. She discovered her gift as a child, when looking for her mom’s lost bracelet. Now, as a troubled adult, she must use it to find and  destroy a monster who preys on children. NOS4A2 is the story of her quest, which will turn into the most harrowing nightmare in a life filled with nightmares. Charles Manx is the monster’s name, and he cruises around at will in a vintage Rolls Wraith that sports the license plate NOS4A2 in honor of the vampire in an equally vintage horror movie. Manx’s current assistant is Bing Partridge, who speaks in rhyme and views himself as nice and normal despite having murdered his parents with a hammer. These two make up one of creepiest duos in modern literature. Over 500 pages of this lengthy novel lead up to an ultimate showdown in Manx’s “children’s paradise”, which he calls Christmas Land.

Joe Hill has a way with words, no doubt about it. In Christmas Land, he has conjured a timeless village which only Manx can enter and depart from at will – until Vic stumbles onto his scene.  Hill draws upon mythology (think vampire, incubus, Batman, immortality), poetry (the concept of inscape, the inner world of the mind described by G. M. Hopkins), music (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and countless Christmas carols), and magic.  He incorporates plays on word and ideas all over the place, and these are great fun to recognize. In many ways this book is Harry Potter for adults. He sets Vic  on a classic hero’s quest, and along the way she receives assistance from the unlikeliest of friends and family. During her struggle, she comes to know and accept herself and to release the deep love and empathy that she holds deep within. Hill has become a master of the contemporary horror novel, understanding that suggestion can be more powerful than the  most grotesque description can ever be. Rather than sicken his readers, he invites them to use their own imagination and fears to experience what his characters are experiencing. And it works. Very, very well. My only criticism of the novel is that its middle third fails to move along at the pace  of the first and final sections.

Most of the reviews I’ve read online contain comparisons between the work of Joe Hill and that of his more famous father, Steven King. It’s my belief that Hill’s writing deserves to be considered on its own substantial merits.

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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.