Review: Wide Open by Deborah Coates

Wide OpenWide Open by Deborah Coates
Read: February 23 – February 27, 2013
Personal read.

Book Blurb: When Sergeant Hallie Michaels comes back to South Dakota from Afghanistan on ten days’ compassionate leave, her sister Dell’s ghost is waiting at the airport to greet her.

The sheriff says that Dell’s death was suicide, but Hallie doesn’t believe it. Something happened or Dell’s ghost wouldn’t still be hanging around. Friends and family, mourning Dell’s loss, think Hallie’s letting her grief interfere with her judgment.

The one person who seems willing to listen is the deputy sheriff, Boyd Davies, who shows up everywhere and helps when he doesn’t have to. 

As Hallie asks more questions, she attracts new ghosts, women who disappeared without a trace.  Soon, someone’s trying to beat her up, burn down her father’s ranch, and stop her investigation.

Hallie’s going to need Boyd, her friends, and all the ghosts she can find to defeat an enemy who has an unimaginable ancient power at his command.

My Opinion: I saw this book in the “New” section of my library’s website, and it seemed interesting. I didn’t really know what I was getting into with it. I think I expected more general fiction/mystery with a ghostly touch. But instead I got weird. Like. Just very odd.

The premise (reading the Goodreads blurb) of Wide Open is OK enough, but for me it seemed like there were too many forces at play in the book. We had ghosts, we had the fact that Hallie is in the army, we have the big bad and his ancient power. And they didn’t really play nicely together. Not to mention that the fact that Hallie is in the army doesn’t really play much of a role in the book, except to give her a) a reason for seeing ghosts, b) a timeline, and c) something to repeat every few pages. Points A and B could have easily been taken care of by something else.

Pausing on Hallie for a moment, I have a bone to pick with how she was written. Swearing all the time does not make a badass character. Being in the army does not make a badass character. There needs to be a certain attitude, and I really didn’t find that Hallie had that. On the subject of characters in general, I didn’t find anything stellar here. Boyd was pretty typical sidekick, and the rest of the characters are firmly secondary.

The pacing of Wide Open was weird to me. A lot of time was spent investigating without really finding anything out. All the while, Hallie is counting down the days in her head until she has to leave to go back overseas. I imagine that Coates was trying to instill a sense of being rushed, or panic, but I didn’t feel it at all. I didn’t get emotionally invested in the characters or the story. I was mildly curious to see how it would end, but it didn’t have a great ending either. Not enough explanation for my tastes.

Bottom Line: Wide Open has too much and not enough going on. It didn’t grab me, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

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Review: House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones

House of Many WaysHouse of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones (Howl’s Moving Castle #3)
Read: February 20 – February 23, 2013
Personal read, 328 pages

Book Blurb: Charmain Baker is in over her head. Looking after Great-Uncle William’s tiny cottage while he’s ill should have been easy. But Great-Uncle William is better known as the Royal Wizard Norland, and his house bends space and time. Its single door leads to any number of places–the bedrooms, the kitchen, the caves under the mountains, the past, and the Royal Mansion, to name just a few.

By opening that door, Charmain has become responsible for not only the house, but for an extremely magical stray dog, a muddled young apprentice wizard, and a box of the king’s most treasured documents. She has encountered a terrifying beast called a lubbock, irritated a clan of small blue creatures, and wound up smack in the middle of an urgent search. The king and his daughter are desperate to find the lost, fabled Elfgift–so desperate that they’ve even called in an intimidating sorceress named Sophie to help. And where Sophie is, can the Wizard Howl and fire demon Calcifer be far behind?

Of course, with that magical family involved, there’s bound to be chaos–and unexpected revelations.

No one will be more surprised than Charmain by what Howl and Sophie discover.

My Opinion: House of Many Ways was my favorite of the “trilogy”. It was immensely engaging, and I find myself wanting to find more of Diana Wynne Jones to read. It also saddens me that there will be nothing new from this author, ever. I feel like her writing just kept getting better and better.

Like her previous works, House of Many Ways is chock full of flawed characters. You don’t always want to like them, but sometimes you find you can’t help it. It is wonderful. This is what I strive for my characters to be like when I write. The ones you just can’t help but love. I felt drawn to Charmain, who just wants to curl up with a good book, and doesn’t care to learn how to do housework. And the dog, it was just too adorable.

One note of criticism was that I felt like Charmain didn’t really get the same attention and growth as some of the characters in the previous novels. In the grand scheme of the plot, she was rather insubstantial, and could almost be pulled out entirely without affecting anything. Not a good thing for the main character.

Once again, the small book is fairly densely plotted. Either I am dense too or the complaints I have seen are the minority. I didn’t find the plot to be all that predictable. I was on high alert after Castle In The Air, but then I felt like Diana Wynne Jones pulled out all new tricks. It was a delightful surprise.

Bottom Line: Continues in the vein of the other Howl books with delightful writing and characters you can’t help but love.

Review: The Hollow City by Dan Wells

The Hollow CityThe Hollow City by Dan Wells
Read: February 19 – February 20, 2013
Personal read, 333 pages

Book Blurb: Michael Shipman has paranoid schizophrenia; he suffers from hallucinations, delusions, and complex, horrific fantasies of persecution. They are as real to him as your life is to you. He is haunted by sounds and voices, stalked by faceless men, and endlessly pursued by something even deeper and darker – something he doesn’t dare think about.

Soon the authorities are linking him to a string of gruesome killings, and naturally no one believes his protestations of innocence. On his worst days, he doesn’t believe them himself. Hounded on every side, Michael contemplates a terrifying possibility: that some of the monsters he sees are real.

My Opinion: Dan Wells is one of my favorite writers. Though, the more I read, the more I feel compelled to say that he has written one of my favorite books, because nothing but that book seems to stick out as excellent to me. Unfortunately, The Hollow City also falls into that category.

I will give Wells his due. The voice he has created for The Hollow City is fantastic. The story as told by a man spiraling into madness makes it all that much more interesting. He is unreliable, and it leaves you questioning what is real and what isn’t, not only in the book but in your own life. However, that was about the only fantastic thing about the book for me.

I longed for The Hollow City to be more of a crime thriller and less of a supernatural thriller. Wells certainly had the chops to make it happen, it just needed more police scenes and less of the weird ending that made me cringe and want to write the author a letter begging him to stop putting a science fiction twist on everything. For those of you who have read his debut series (John Cleaver), you will understand what I mean.

I was engaged in the story right until the last few chapters. I really didn’t like the ending, and if it weren’t for that, I would probably have enjoyed the book more overall. Though, the epilogue gave me chills, because it was so open-ended.

I don’t seem to have much to say about this book, because my excitement for it died with the ending.

Bottom Line: Fantastic narrative voice, but I found everything else to be a little flat.

Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

RampantRampant by Diana Peterfreund
Read: February 10 – February 16, 2013
Personal read, 402 pages.

Book Blurb: Forget everything you ever knew about unicorns…

Real unicorns are venomous, man-eating monsters with huge fangs and razor-sharp horns. Fortunately, they’ve been extinct for a hundred and fifty years.

Or not.

Astrid had always scoffed at her eccentric mother’s stories about killer unicorns. But when one of the monsters attacks her boyfriend—thereby ruining any chance of him taking her to the prom—Astrid finds herself headed to Rome to train as a unicorn hunter at the ancient cloisters the hunters have used for centuries.

However, at the cloisters all is not what it seems. Outside, the unicorns wait to attack. And within, Astrid faces other, unexpected threats: from the crumbling, bone-covered walls that vibrate with a terrible power to the hidden agendas of her fellow hunters to—perhaps most dangerously of all—her growing attraction to a handsome art student … an attraction that could jeopardize everything.

My Opinion: Can we talk about the cover for a second? This is a book about killer unicorns, right? So shouldn’t the cover be dominated by killer unicorns, instead of the generic young woman, the shiny sword, and if you look closely, a teeny tiny little unicorn that may or may not be killer? Young adult covers these days. If I had seen this book in a bookstore, I would not have been drawn to the cover at all. I saw it on Goodreads on a list, and I thought I would check it out.

Rampant was a typical young-adult novel. The idea of killer unicorns was really excellent in theory, but it lacked in execution. The world-building is lacking, the history of the unicorns and the cloisters and the hunters before Astrid’s group is lacking. There was a lot of “We can’t find records for that” or “We don’t know why” and it was just really weak. Without that plot element to infuse new life into the standard “destiny/romance” plot, it was really just like every other young-adult novel out there.

Astrid is angsty. She is shallow. Though I will say it is refreshing to see a teenager acting selfishly and not just accepting her fate and destiny with open arms. Phil was a little too uneven for my tastes. And I felt like the rest of the characters were not very well-developed at all.

Also, we have hunters from all over the world, and they all conveniently speak English. This was frustrating to me. Does anyone else remember Buffy, in the final season when they had the Chinese slayer potential? It made it seem more real because there was a language barrier, just like there would be in real life. I know it translates easier to television than it does to print, but I would have liked to see at least one of the hunters have a language problem.

For a book about killer unicorns, Rampant is light on the killer unicorns. It is also light on the training of the hunters. Most of it revolves around the romance aspect. Or the lack of romance, since dating is not allowed.

The plot moved slowly and raised a lot of questions I would like to see answered, but there was no indication of it near the end of the book. The third book in the trilogy hasn’t even been picked up for publication yet, which says something to me.

Bottom Line: An average young adult novel. Nothing new, nothing exciting. I might pick up the second book, but I am in no rush.

Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted GirlsThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Read: February 6 – February 9, 2013
Format: Paperback (library book), 357 pages
ISBN: 978-1-44341-234-6

Publisher: HarperCollins, 2012

Personal read.

Book Blurb: Paris. 1878. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventy francs a month, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work — and the love of a dangerous young man — as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modelling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Antoinette, meanwhile, descends lower and lower in society, and must make the choice between a life of honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde—that is, unless her love affair derails her completely.

My Opinion: Every so often a novel comes along that makes you sit back and realize the author really cares about their craft. For me, The Painted Girls was that novel. It was a bonus that it was a historical fiction novel, which is hard to do well. And an even bigger bonus is that Cathy Marie Buchanan is a fellow Canadian. Three for three, The Painted Girls.

I am, by no means, an expert on Belle Époque Paris, but I feel like Buchanan really took pride in her writing. She didn’t make outlandish claims for her characters, and the Author’s Note at the end details where the few liberties were taken, something I really appreciated.

Buchanan’s writing is sublime. She flits effortlessly through the lives of Marie and her sister Antoinette. While some of the secondary characters are lacking in depth and polish, I found the main characters really made up for it. While Marie is thirteen at the start of the book, she never descends too deeply into the teenage angst that seems to steep books featuring a younger protagonist. Yet, we get a true sense of her age. I never thought she was anything other than a girl just coming into her own. The same can definitely be said for Antoinette.

While The Painted Girls has a light plot, in the sense that it isn’t driven to some great climactic moment where everything comes to a head and then all is well with the world, the story itself is far from light. Buchanan treads the waters of poverty, love, loss, and desperation very well. She toes the line, never going over it, but always describing just enough to convey what life was like for these girls. There is drama, there is laughter. I felt emotionally invested in everything that was happening.

The one thing I didn’t like about The Painted Girls seems small in comparison to all the things I loved. The timeline jumps around a lot. There were times when it was hard to determine how much time had passed between the end of one chapter and the start of another. It was disorienting, and sometimes disconnected me from the story.

Bottom Line: Superbly written character-driven historical fiction.

Review: Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey

Saints AstraySaints Astray by Jacqueline Carey (Santa Olivia #2)
Read: January 28 – February 3, 2013
Format: Paperback (library book), 356 pages
ISBN: 978-0-446-57142-5

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing/Hatchette Book Group, 2011

Book Blurb: Fellow orphans, amateur vigilantes, and members of the Santitos, Loup Garron – the fugitive daughter of a genetically engineered “wolf man” – and Pilar Ecchevarria grew up in the military zone of Outpost 12, formerly known as Santa Olivia. But now they’re free, and they want to help the rest of the Santitos escape. During a series of escapades, they discover that Miguel, Loup’s former sparring partner and reprobate surrogate brother, has escaped from Outpost 12 and is testifying on behalf of its forgotten citizens – at least until he disappears from protective custody. Honor drives Loup to rescue Miguel, even though entering the U.S could mean losing her liberty. Pilar vows to help her.

It will take a daring and absurd caper to extricate Miguel from the mess he’s created but Loup is prepared to risk everything… and this time she has help.

My Opinion: This book took me so long to read. I was not invested in it at all, and I was waiting for it to be over. If it wasn’t such a short book, I would have given up on it.

It shares nothing with the first book except for the flaws. There is gratuitous sex, profanity and overuse of the word “baby”. I was so tired of all of the fade-outs on Pilar and Loup having sexy-times by page 50. It felt like every 5-10 pages there was some mention of it. We get it. The two of them are in love. They like having sex. I have no issues with sex in books, but it was overkill.

In my review of book one, I was very happy with  Jacqueline Carey’s character development. The selfishness, the anguish. Even though we never got a really good look in Loup’s head, the characters still felt solid. That aspect was severely lacking in Saints Astray. None of the characters had any substance to them, Loup especially. I know that being fearless would make her different, but for someone who is supposed to be essentially human, she was exceptionally blank.

Then we have the story. I think rather than Saints Astray, the title should have been “Saints Adrift”. Loup and Pilar set off on an adventure as bodyguards. Technically, the writing is great, but story-wise… the writing was severely lacking. Their being bodyguards was so unrelated to Outpost that it just made me sit and stare at the book for a minute. Then when Outpost-related things happened, they happened so fast. The worldbuilding remains thin, and even when Loup and Pilar are asked to explain their exploits, they respond with “That is a bit of a weird story”. If your characters don’t even know why they did what they did… it probably wasn’t a good choice. Overall, not worth the ending and having everything tied up for the series.

Also, for people being one-in-a-hundred to find Loup appealing rather than repulsive… there sure seemed to be a lot of them in the book.

Bottom Line: Jacqueline Carey remains strong technically, but Saints Astray is so glaringly different from book one that I found it to be jarring and unsatisfying, not to mention a little boring.

Review: Infected by Scott Sigler

InfectedInfected by Scott Sigler (Infected #1)
Read: January 26 – January 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover (library book), 342 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-40610-1

Publisher: Random House, Inc., 2008

Book Blurb: Across America a mysterious disease is turning ordinary people into raving, paranoid murderers who inflict brutal horrors on strangers, themselves, and even their own families.

Working under the government’s shroud of secrecy, CIA operative Dew Phillips crisscrosses the country trying in vain to capture a live victim. With only decomposing corpses for clues, CDC epidemiologist Margaret Montoya races to analyze the science behind this deadly contagion. She discovers that these killers all have one thing in common – they’ve been contaminated by a bioengineered parasite, shaped by a complexity far beyond the limits of known science.

Meanwhile Perry Dawsey – a hulking former football star now resigned to life as a cubicle-bound desk jockey – awakens one morning to find several mysterious welts growing on his body. Soon Perry finds himself acting and thinking strangely, hearing voices . . . he is infected.

The fate of the human race may well depend on the bloody war Perry must wage with his own body, because the parasites want something from him, something that goes beyond mere murder.

My Opinion: Oh boy, where do I start. We will start with the good, because unfortunately there isn’t much good to cover.

I loved the premise of Infected. This fusion of science and horror was thrilling. As I read, I immediately thought of the movie “The Crazies”, though aside from the apparent unprovoked homicidal tendencies, there really is no connection.

I was impressed with the level of science in Infected. I am not an authority, and I don’t know if any of it was actually accurate, but it made me feel like the author really cared about his book. He did the research. He put in the fancy words. They read a little dry at times, and there was at least one point where they used CDC as an abbreviation, assuming people know the organization (which most people do). And then they backtrack and explain it. In grisly detail.

Because Infected was released first via podcast, it has a very conversational narrative which read really easily. Hence the fact it only took me two days to read it, despite the fact that I wasn’t the biggest fan of it.

And finally, the gore. Some of the gore was kind of “meh”, but for the most part it was grisly and horrific… exactly what you want from a horror story. Fair warning, there is a lot of it.

With the good covered, we move on to the bad. And the bad was very bad.

There were far too many viewpoints, and I hated them all. I didn’t like the racist ‘Nam survivor CIA agent, and I didn’t like the rage-aholic almost-football-star who at 26, still refers to his abusive father as “daddy”. There were more minor viewpoints, that of the epidemiologist from the CDC, various other infecteds, etc. I can see this being effective in a podcast, but in print, it was just too scattered. I didn’t feel connected at all.

While we are on the subject of characters, let us stop at Perry for a moment. He is our main character in all this, and I just didn’t like him or believe what he was going through for five seconds. Over the course of the book he lost so much blood, and yet aside from a few blackouts, he doesn’t bat an eye. He should have been weak as a kitten by the end, if not dead. But no… he just got up and kept on going.

Perry also has an issue with female characters. I was really disgusted with the way he treats the woman he meets near the end of the book. I actually took it really personally, because the author describes this woman almost exactly to my proportions (height and weight) and then proceeds to comment on how fat she is. I know I am not the skinniest person around, but I am far from “fat”. Furthermore, women don’t have to conform to some set of measurements to be beautiful. This attitude that women are fat after a certain point is so harmful. I am so thankful that this isn’t a young adult novel.

Infected suffered from repeat-shit-itis, especially where Perry was concerned. And it was very tell-don’t-show, which is somewhat understandable considering the book’s original medium. But I would have liked to have read less about what a monster Perry was when he played football, and how immortal College students thought they were, and more about the parasites.

The ending of Infected wasn’t particularly effective. In my humble opinion, they could have cut a few chapters and it would have done much more to draw me in to the rest of the series.

Bottom Line: A science-horror crossover that delivers on both fronts. But watch out for the rapidly shifting viewpoints and the characters that you just can’t like. I will very likely not be continuing with this series.

(Cover image and book blurb courtesy of Goodreads)