Kate’s Review: “The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper”

72445Book: “The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes” by Scott Frost

Publishing Info: Pocket Books, 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: ILL from the library!

Book Description: Former Eagle Scout and lifetime audio freak Dale Cooper brings us his autobiography, culled from his private collection of personal tape recordings beginning with his thirteenth birthday. Discover the secrets, never before seen on television, of Twin Peaks’ most-wanted man, who scored a perfect 100 on his marksmanship test and once let a gentle, beautiful woman lead him astray. He’s Dale Cooper – the man who seems too good to be true – and this is his story.

Review: This “Twin Peaks” train keeps on chugging along!!! And while the revival of the show has been both wonderful and absolutely confounding, I have also been turning to the books that came before it. This time instead of focusing on poor dead Laura Palmer, we are getting to know a little bit more about the always optimistic, super enthusiastic, but also ultimately a bit tragic, Dale Cooper, the main protagonist of the show. Dale Cooper is one of my favorite characters of all time, his bubbly earnestness completely charming and absolutely adorable. I was a little skeptical that this book would be able to do him justice, as Kyle Maclachlan just brings him to complete and total life. BUT, I have GREAT news. This book pretty much manages to do it. A warning, though, if you want to see anything else about the town itself and it’s inhabitants, sadly it ends right before Cooper arrives. This is all Cooper, all the time, and while that was totally fine by me, it’s good to know that this is his story, not that of the beloved town.

Much like “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer”, you have to go into this book with the knowledge of the show to really get anything from it. We get to see Dale Cooper’s life through his ‘tapes’, transcribed audio recordings that start at his thirteenth birthday. And boy, did it just sound like good ol’ Coop to me as I read them. It really shouldn’t surprise me, as Scott Frost was a writer on the show, but I found myself smiling and cackling with glee as I read this book, it’s content far less heavy than “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer”. Even thirteen year old Dale Cooper is filled with joy and wonder for the world around him, as well as picking up on little hints and details about the people in his life that sheds a little light on things that happen to him later in life. This book explores more of the theory that Cooper is deeply intuitive to the point of being a bit psychic, and expands upon it through his childhood and his family members (specifically his mother; seems that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in this regard). I enjoyed reading about how he saw the changing times of the 1960s, how he viewed his coming of age, and what life was like for him when he first came to the F.B.I. I was ESPECIALLY waiting for mention of one of my other favorite characters on the show, Albert Rosenfield, because boy do I kind of ship the two of them, and without spoiling anything I can tell you that THIS BOOK DID NOT DISAPPOINT!

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The ship sails on. (source)

But along with the fan service that felt totally designed for me, this book also gave me a dark side of Coop that isn’t seen as much in the original series. His tapes do serve as his own diary in spite of the fact that he’s sending a fair number of them to Diane, and there were moments of despair and existential angst that I’m not as used to seeing in my man Cooper. He did have his darker moments in Season 2, and in the revival BOY are things bleak for him, but in this book I felt like we got to see a whole other side to Cooper that I tend to forget, or did even know, existed. He expounds upon the losses of the important women in his life with a subtle grief, or will disappear for months at a time, and I just felt like this book does add a new darkness to the character who can be seen holding chocolate bunnies or gleefully experiencing coniferous trees with childlike wonder. Sometimes this could be a bit too much, especially when we get to the Wyndam and Caroline Earle part of his life, but in the right amounts it was very pathos ridden and melancholy.

Plus, there were genuine moments of creepiness that I thoroughly enjoyed. Be it the brutal natures of some of the crimes that Dale investigated, or the weird moments of odd rambling that he would do with his tapes in darker, more harried mind spaces, there were parts of this book that gave me chills down my spine. Nothing was totally scary or freaky, but there would be moments that were turned just a little bit odd, and that when I thought about it for a moment I just felt weirded out. That’s the power of “Twin Peaks”, the little moments that are just a bit askew, but completely set you  on edge. This book is filled with them.

Do you have to read this book if you are a “Twin Peaks” fan? Probably not. It didn’t give me any new insights into anything, really. But it’s a fun little bonus that can be put to the mythos of the series as a whole, especially seeing some of these things being played out or alluded to in the new revival. If you can’t get enough of “Twin Peaks” and are still scratching your head over some of the stuff in the new series, “The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper” will probably suit you just fine.

Rating 7: A bit more enjoyable than “The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer” in tone, Frost has Coop’s voice down pat. Not much is added to the “Twin Peaks” experience, but it’s a fun, and at times creepy, read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper” is included on the Goodreads lists “TWIN PEAKS”, and “Books Written by Fictional Characters”.

Find “The Autobiography of F.B.I Special Agent Dale Cooper” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Julia Vanishes”

22400015Book: “Julia Vanishes” by Catherine Egan

Publishing Info: Doubleday Canada, June 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Julia has the unusual ability to be . . . unseen. Not invisible, exactly. Just beyond most people’s senses.

It’s a dangerous trait in a city that has banned all forms of magic and drowns witches in public Cleansings. But it’s a useful trait for a thief and a spy. And Julia has learned–crime pays.

Her latest job is paying very well indeed. Julia is posing as a housemaid in the grand house of Mrs. Och, where an odd assortment of characters live and work: A disgraced professor who sends her to fetch parcels containing bullets, spiders, and poison. An aristocratic houseguest who is locked in the basement each night. And a mysterious young woman who is clearly in hiding–though from what or whom?

Worse, Julia suspects that there’s a connection between these people and the killer leaving a trail of bodies across the frozen city.

The more she learns, the more she wants to be done with this unnatural job. To go back to the safety of her friends and fellow thieves. But Julia is entangled in a struggle between forces more powerful than she’d ever imagined. Escape will come at a terrible price.

Review: This book is a strange combination of a million and one elements that shouldn’t work together, but somehow, do! We’ve got an “Ocean’s Eleven” style thieves guild, essentially, operating in a world that is similar to our own, but at an undefined period of time (there are carriages, but also “electric” carriages, people use swords, but there are also muskets, at one point they use an elevator in a building, but they also sail their boats…), There is an inquisition-style hunt going on for witches, but there are also other magical beings that are thought only to exist in folklore. And in the middle of the story we’re presented with an entire new level of world-building with the introduction of a new set of beings with a god-like relation to history and current events.

Throughout this all, what holds things together is Julia, her narrative style and individual character arc. Julia, and her brother Dek (the spelling of character names/places is always confusing when you listen to an audiobook and never see the name spelled out! Ah, the challenges of book reviews!), are the orphaned children of a father who drank and then abandoned what remained of his family when their mother is convicted and executed as a witch. They are taken in by Esme, a woman who runs a successful thieves underground system, and grow up working jobs for this new family. Which all leads to the current circumstance that places Julia, requested by the client for her unique ability to go “unseen” by others when she chooses, as a spy in the household of Mrs. Och and thus caught up in complicated mystery that surrounds the young woman and her toddler son who are taking refuge there.

Julia’s growth through the story was one of its strongest appeals. Not only does she not understand her own abilities, especially when she discovers there is more to them then simply becoming invisible for a bit, but her own world views, and her understanding of her place in it, are consistently challenged. I particularly enjoyed the parallel that is drawn between Julia and another character, Pia, and the example they each set for the consequences that come from making the choices we do in life. Julia, at first, has a very pragmatic approach to her life and her work. She does the job, she gets paid. And this is a comfortable arrangement, allowing her to morally set herself back from her own actions. But when this approach comes to a head in the middle of the book, Julia must question her own definition of “living.”

While Julia’s is obviously the main arc of the story, I also appreciated the other views into poverty and the choices that are available to those struggling to get by that are presented by the other characters. Her brother, Dek, is a talented inventor, but due to their status as orphans and thieves, and his own deformities from a childhood illness, he worries about every being financially compensated if he came forward in an attempt to sell his goods. Another character, Wyn, hopes to be an artist, but struggles to get his foot in the door with an apprenticeship or a place in an art program. Again and again, we see these characters have doors shut in their faces and can understand the comfort that comes from the stability found in their role in this thieves guild, even if the work itself is morally questionable.

As for the story itself and the world-building, I was very surprised when about halfway through the book the plot suddenly expanded massively to include world-changing characters and events. Before it had been a rather simple murder mystery with a strange monster and a mysterious woman with a past. Suddenly these were all small pieces in a much larger moving plot machine. While I liked these expanded elements, they did seem to come out of the blue, forcing the entire story to shift completely, resolving some of the initial elements suddenly in the middle of the story while introducing new ones at the same time. It almost felt like two completely different books. I think this was simply a matter of pacing and of a few info-dumpy passages that were overwhelming. Ultimately, things did become clear, but there was a bit in the middle where I was honestly confused about who was after who and why.

The story does resolve itself for the most part in this book, however the door is clearly left open for sequels. Now that the cards are shown, per se, about the grander conflict going on in the series, I have hopes that any future books would be more settled in their own skin with what story they are wanting to tell. I was also given just enough of Julia’s abilities and origins to keep me coming back for the second book to find more answers alongside her. “Julia Defiant” will be up shortly, I suspect!

Rating 7: A great main character and interesting new world. But it felt like two books mashed together at times, with one focused on a simple monster story and the other setting up larger-than-life characters and plots.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Julia Vanishes” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy Books about Thieves.”

Find “Julia Vanishes” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Joint Review: “Triple Threat” by Gwenda Bond

31632115Book: “Triple Threat” by Gwenda Bond

Publishing Info: Switch Press, April 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: For the first time, Lois Lane has almost everything she wants. Non-temporary home? Check. Dream job? Double check. Incredible BFFs? The absolute best. And now, her online crush, SmallvilleGuy, is coming to Metropolis. If all goes well, they’ll turn their long-distance friendship into a some-kind-of-fairy-tale romance. But when does all ever go well? Before she can check boyfriend off her list, Lois must take down a mad scientist plus a trio of mutant teens, protect the elusive flying man from the feds (including her dad), and navigate her very first date with SmallvilleGuy. In the follow-up to FALLOUT and DOUBLE DOWN, Gwenda Bond’s reimagination of DC Comics’s first leading lady takes on her toughest challenge yet: Love.

Kate’s Thoughts

So I will wholeheartedly admit that after reading “Double Down”, the previous book in this series, I was starting to feel disheartened. While I absolutely loved Lois Lane and her relationship with SmallvilleGuy, I was starting to realize that I just wasn’t interested in Lois’ life in Metropolis, or her friends, or the mystery that they were all trying to solve. Plus, I was worried that Gwenda Bond wouldn’t be able to sustain the cute relationship between Lois and SmallvilleGuy, aka Clark Kent, aka the future Superman, because if she was to stick with canon, Lois and Clark don’t meet until they are adults. How much longer could I accept Lois and SmallvilleGuy just having an online relationship that doesn’t progress beyond that?

Well good news! Gwenda Bond just tosses all that canon out the window, because it is in “Triple Threat” that Lois and Clark finally meet in person!!!!! Most of the time I’m kind of irked when a new writer or content creator ignores the history of the characters, but in this case I’m grateful  that she did. Because I’m still really just here for Lois and Clark.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like Lois’s friends in Metropolis. Because I do, for the most part. But ultimately they are kind of inconsequential, because they just aren’t quite strong enough to stand on their own two feet next to Lois and Clark. And hell, next to the rest of the original characters that have shown up in the series thus far. I even find Lucy Lane infinitely more interesting than Maddy, James, and the rest of the gang. I also wasn’t too interested in the main mystery this time around, just like last time. Teenagers with mysterious powers, potential connection to SmallvilleGuy, blah blah blah.

The true strength in this series is definitely Lois, and to a slightly lesser extent Clark. It’s fun seeing them interact with each other, and be cute and hesitant boyfriend and girlfriend together. These were the parts that I liked, and boy did I like them a lot. I think that while I don’t want Lois to lose her reporter storylines, because that IS who Lois is and she does deserve to be on her own without Clark part of the time, she is stronger with Clark. And honestly, I think that’s kind of a shame.

But something else that I enjoyed about this book? Lex Luthor has shown up. And I think that he could potentially bring interesting storylines in the future should this series continue. Especially seeing the dynamic between the three of them has been switched up a bit.

“Triple Threat” brought us some wonderful and cute Lois and Clark moments. But while I greatly liked those parts, part of me wishes that this Lois Lane could interest me more in her own right, not just when she’s with Clark. However, for pure shipping and romance purposes, this really does a great job of showing what a great couple Lois and Clark are, both romantically and professionally.

Serena’s Thoughts

I had the same feelings going into this one as Kate has expressed. I’m mostly here for Lois and Clark, and while the system that Bond has put in place for them to interact through a virtual reality chat system is cute and all, it was beginning to wear thin. So, in this instance, I was more than thrilled when Bond just threw her hands up in the air and said “Canon schmanon!” and had them finally meet up.

Also, as Kate said, I had similar feelings in the first two books about the unfortunate comparisons that are inevitably drawn between canon characters and the original characters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these characters on their own, but they don’t have the emotional heft and weighty backstory that accompany even the most minor of original characters. Like Kate said, even Lucy, who has tiny, incremental scenes in all of these books, reads as more interesting than the story lines of Maddy, James, Dante, and the crew. This problem is only being expounded upon as the number of canon characters is beginning to heavily out number these originals. We had Perry, the Lanes, Lucy, and online-Smallville guy in the first two books. But here, we have the addition of not only Clark in the person, but his parents the Kents (who I always adore in every version!), and another heavy-hitting character with Lex. Even his father shows up!

This feels weird to say, as the concept of these books as an original take on Lois Lane as a teen is a great idea, and with that goal should come new characters. But whether it was the execution of these new characters or the fact that their storylines were frankly not that interesting ever (there’s a lot of relationship drama between Maddy and Dante that doesn’t fair well in a book where you have Lois and Clark meeting for the first time in real life. The comparison level of interest is never going to play in favor of that), my urge to skim these sections is at an all time high. At this point, there are so many canon characters and their storylines and scenes are so inevitably more interesting, that I almost think it would be best to just shelve these original characters largely. It feels wrong to say/admit that, but I kind of think it’s the truth. I love that Bond has brought in Lex and Clark (outside of the internet), but it’s kind of a game-changer move, and the reality is now that we have them, it’s even harder to think of a fourth book not predominantly focused on this threesome.

In the last two books, I’m also on the record as saying that I have never been a huge fan of the mysteries that are central to the plots. It’s a weird believablity issue, really. Which is a strange thing to say about a book that has a flying alien as a romantic hero. But, look, Superman aside, this is supposed to take place in the real world. So when I’m reading a mystery about teens with wacky abilities, and the science behind it, and the scientists themselves, are all pretty wacky, I end up being thrown out of the story. If my brain is waking up and questioning the physics of things, there are problems. This is also a strange problem, as the comics, cartoon versions, and my beloved “Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman” all have a long history of zany mysteries that are just like this. But, and we’re back to it, at the center of all of those plot lines you had Lois and Clark together and a great super villain behind it, Lex. Without those core elements, the wacky, unbelievability of these plot lines just stand out in a negative way.

But, as Kate said, this book gets major props for the things it did right. Namely, forgetting canon and bring in Clark early in Lois’s life, and the addition of Lex. Bond did some creative things with his character that laid a really solid groundwork to understanding how this teenage Lex could grow to be the super villain we all know and love. So for these things, I will be still be here when book 4 comes out!

Kate’s Rating 7: Once again I had little investment in the main story line, BUT there was so much Lois and Clark interaction (and a surprise cameo by Lex) that I was pretty happy with it overall.

Serena’s Rating 7: I’m staring to admit to myself that I just want a novel version of “Lois and Clark: Teenage Reporters” without any of the original added aspects of this series. Sorry, but not sorry.

Reader’s Advisory

“Triple Threat” is fairly new and isn’t on any Goodreads lists yet, but like it’s predecessors it would fit in on “Ladies of DC”, and “Books with Comic Book Heroes”.

Find “Triple Threat” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review and Giveaway: “The Cold Eye”

28962896 Book: “The Cold Eye” by Laura Anne Gilman

Publishing Info: Saga Press, January 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: In the anticipated sequel to “Silver on the Road,” Isobel is riding circuit through the Territory as the Devil’s Left Hand. But when she responds to a natural disaster, she learns the limits of her power and the growing danger of something mysterious that is threatening not just her life, but the whole Territory.

Isobel is the left hand of the old man of the Territory, the Boss—better known as the Devil. Along with her mentor, Gabriel, she is traveling circuit through Flood to represent the power of the Devil and uphold the agreement he made with the people to protect them. Here in the Territory, magic exists—sometimes wild and perilous.

But there is a growing danger in the bones of the land that is killing livestock, threatening souls, and weakening the power of magic. In the next installment of the Devil’s West series, Isobel and Gabriel are in over their heads as they find what’s happening and try to stop the people behind it before it unravels the Territory.

Review: After reading and loving “Silver on the Road,” I was excited to pick up this prequel. In the first book we were introduced to the unique, re-imagined West that is ruled by the enigmatic Devil who has sent out 16-year-old Isobel to travel the territory as his own brand of magical justice. In many ways, this book simply doubled-down on the same elements readers were presented with in the first novel, in some ways to its benefit and in others, less so. But ultimately, the “freshness” of the story/world/characters pulled through, leaving me with favorable impression of this second book in the series.

As before, the atmospheric world of the West was one of the biggest appeals with this book. The story starts out with Isobel traveling alone, and through her eyes we once again get to experience this strange, untamed landscape that effortlessly blends the ruthlessness of nature (with some added teeth from the magical elements) alongside the stark beauty of the rolling plains. Of course, there would be no story if something wasn’t amiss, and Isobel’s “sixth sense” leads her down a path of darkness and mystery.

While I enjoyed Isobel’s independent moments in the story, I was also very happy when she was reunited with Gabriel, as their friendship/mentorship was one of my favorite parts of the first book. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book also continued down these relationship paths without any addition of romance. Each respects and admires the other, but, if anything, they read as siblings on the page. It is refreshing to read a story about a 16-year-old female protagonist that proves you can draw an interesting tale and create viable and intriguing relationships without the need to insert romance into the equation. Believe it or not, teenage girls are capable of forming other types of relationships with those around them.

I did have a few frustrations with the story, however. And, like the pros to the tale which all built upon elements I loved from the first book, the negative aspects came from the same quibbles I had with the first as well. Namely, the pacing and the magical system. While the slow and meandering travels allow readers to fully immerse themselves in the world that has been built, it can also deflate the story from the brief action sequences that can be found, leaving readers wondering just how many descriptions of dusty saddles are really necessary. The last third of the book involves some high stakes and challenging moral considerations (of the kind that really make you wonder about the Devil’s thinking in sending out an untrained, teenage girl to deal with the forces at work in the Territory), but it takes a long time to get to this point, and I wish there had been a way to tighten up some of the storytelling of the first two-thirds.

And lastly, the magical system. I love the uniqueness of the magic that is set up in this book, especially that which is connected to the animals (the buffalo’s herd magic, and the speaking snakes). But as far as Isobel’s own particular brand of power, it is just as frustrating as it was in the first book. She does things, but never knows how she is doing what she is doing. And more often than not just lead into an action by an undefined “feeling.” I understand that she is learning what her role is as the Left Hand, but that means she must actually learn. Just discovering that something worked without any explanation or knowledge of how/when/in what circumstance she could hope to repeat the process, at a certain point simply feels like lazy writing. And a bit boring.

But, as I said, at this point in the series, the uniqueness of the world and the appealing nature of Isobel and Gabriel and their friendship is enough to keep me interested. But don’t take my word for it! Check it out for yourself and enter to win a hardcover copy of “The Cold Hand!”

Click here to enter the giveaway!

Rating 7: A strong sequel that builds on the elements I liked from the first, but also, sadly, doesn’t improve on my original quibbles either.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Cold Eye” isn’t on any relevant  Goodreads lists but it should be on “Best Alternate History Novels and Stories. “

Find “The Cold Eye” at your library using Worldcat!

Previously reviewed: “Silver on the Road”

Kate’s Review: “Riding the Bullet”

11605Book: “Riding the Bullet” by Stephen King

Publishing Info: Simon and Schuster, January 2000

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook download from the library!

Book Description: A Stephen King ghost story in the grand tradition, Riding the Bullet is the ultimate warning about the dangers of hitchhiking.

A college student’s mother is dying in a Maine hospital. When he hitches a ride to see her, the driver is not who he appears to be. Soon the journey veers off into a dark landscape that could only be drawn by Stephen King.

Review: As a longtime Stephen King fan, I have read a lot, and I mean a LOT, of his books. But given how prolific of an author he is, and given how long he’s been at it, there are still plenty of King books, novellas, short stories, et all that I haven’t read yet. And while I’ve hit most of his more popular and famous works, it’s the ones that I’ve never heard of that continuously surprise me on my reading adventures. Be it “The Long Walk” (written under his Richard Bachman pen name) or “Charlie the Choo-Choo” (a children’s book based on the book within his “Dark Tower” series), King has popped up and shown me new things in the past couple of years. So when I was looking for something to listen to in the car, I just punched King’s name into the search bar to see what was available. It was then that I saw a title I had never heard of before: “Riding the Bullet”. Seeing that it was short and that I’m always trying to expand my King repertoire, I downloaded it.

Even in a novella such as this one, King has created a cast of characters who feel so well explored and real that I got a sense for who they were and what motivated them. Specifically Alan Parker, our narrator and protagonist who is picked up by a ghost on the night his mother is sick in the hospital. As you read the story you get the sense that Alan has a strained relationship with his mother; though they are really all the other one has, Alan also notes moments in their past that could be seen as abusive. You understand the love he has for his mother and why he would drop everything to try and hitchhike down to see her when she has a minor stroke and ends up in the hospital. But taking this into account, even without King saying how deep this tension and complexity to their relationship goes, it makes things down the line seem believable in the face of incredulity.

I really enjoyed how king took the old urban legend/ghost story of the Phantom Hitchhiker and turned it on it’s head, with the hitchhiker being the one who is potentially in the presence of a ghost who leaves a trinket behind. In the usual story a person picks up a hitchhiker on the side of the road on a dark night. Usually it’s a man picking up a young woman. They talk and connect, telling each other their names and about their lives, and the driver drops the hitchhiker off to wherever she wants to go. They part on friendly terms, but as the driver is driving away he realizes that she left a sweater, or a scarf, or something behind. He tracks down where she lives based on her name, and when he brings the object back to the house, a family member will ultimately tell the driver that “She died ten years ago” or something to that effect. It’s a classic. In this case the ghost is George Staub, the ghost of a man whose grave Alan had seen in a cemetery on his journey south. While on the short but terrifying ride with George, Alan notices the button that the ghost is wearing: “I Rode The Bullet At Thrill Village, Laconia”, a rollercoaster that Alan once had the chance to ride when he was a child. But when he and his mother got to the front of the line, he chickened out. Now instead of trying to return the forgotten object (as there is no question that Staub is a ghost from the get go), it serves as a reminder for what happened that night, and the consequences to what happened in the car between Alan and Staub.

What I liked most about this story is that there is a certain ambiguity to it. The ambiguity isn’t whether or not Alan was picked up by a ghost that night, as that much is clear. But the ambiguity is placed within the choice that Alan makes (which I don’t want to reveal), and whether he ultimately has any culpability in the potential consequences that may, or may not, come because of it. It kind of digs into philosophy about what children owe to their parents, and what parents want from their children. As the story carries on beyond the encounter with the ghost, Alan has to grapple with these questions. He’s convinced that because of his actions, something bad will happen to his mother…. And the tension of this, of finding out whether or not this is the case, definitely had me on the edge of my seat in the car. I think that there wasn’t really a good release for the tension I was feeling, and that I could have used more story to really unwind from all of it. As it was, it just kind of tapered off, and I was left wanting a bit more.

I should also mention that Josh Hamilton was the narrator for this audiobook, and I thought that he did a great job. I know him best from when he played Serge on “Absolutely Fabulous” and also from a driver’s ed video I watched when I was a teenager (I WISH I COULD FIND THIS VIDEO). It’s so important to have a person who really dives into the story they are reading, and I was totally immersed in his narration.

Overall, I enjoyed “Riding The Bullet”, both for it’s effective suspense and for the bittersweet pathos that it had. Stephen King is so good at both horror and humanity, and “Riding the Bullet” is a solid example of both.

Rating 7: A solid ghost story with some fun references to various urban legends. King is so good with characterization that while I felt more could have gone into this book, I got a feel for Alan and George Staub alike.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Riding the Bullet” is included on the Goodreads lists “Riders Up!”, and “Theological Weird Fiction”.

Find “Riding the Bullet” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Shadowcaster”

30253091Book: “Shadowcaster” by Cinda Williams Chima

Publication Info: HarperTeen, April 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Alyssa ana’Raisa is the reluctant princess heir to the Gray Wolf throne of Fells, a queendom embroiled in a seemingly endless war. Hardened by too many losses, Lyss is more comfortable striking with a sword than maneuvering at court. After a brush with death, she goes on the offensive, meaning to end the war that has raged her whole life. If her gamble doesn’t pay off, she could lose her queendom before she even ascends to the throne.

Across enemy lines in Arden, young rising star Captain Halston Matelon has been fighting for his king since he was a lýtling. Lately, though, he finds himself sent on ever more dangerous assignments. Between the terrifying rumors of witches and wolfish warriors to the north and his cruel king at home, Hal is caught in an impossible game of life and death.

Review: I told Kate that I was struggling with how to start off this review because I have noticed a trend in my own reviews: nit-picky focusing on covers! I mean, the fact that I devoted time to griping about this cover in the limited word count available for our little features in “Highlights” posts…and then STILL want to rant about it more here? But I will resist, so please refer to our “April Highlights” post for my thoughts on this travesty.

“Shadowcaster” is the second book in Cinda Williams Chima’s “Shattered Realms” series that takes place a generation later in her “Grey Wolf Throne” world. I struggled with the first one, feeling that the characters were less interesting than the original cast and that the romance was a bad example of insta-love. So going into this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Which, as it turns out, was the appropriate approach as, in many ways, this is almost a second beginning to the series. We’re introduced to a whole new cast of characters and a timeline that is largely running alongside the events of the first book. There were still aspects of the series that I am struggling with, but I did find myself enjoying this book more than the first (a bit of a trend, I’ve found with this author, as I had the same experience with her first series in this world.)

This time around, our two main characters (though there are several others with POV chapters, including a few from Jenna, a character from the first book) are Lyss, the reluctant heir to the Grey Wolf Throne, and an Ardenian captain, Halston, who after being capture by the enemy begins to learn more about the other side of this war and story.

First off, I think the main reason I enjoyed this book more than the first was the fact that I enjoyed both of these main characters more. Lyss especially was very fleshed out and well drawn. Her struggles with identity and with her relationship with the queen, her mother, are thoroughly explored throughout the course of the story. After her sister’s death, a sister who Lyss and the entire country revered as the ideal princess heir, Lyss finds herself in the impossible role of needing to fill those shoes. Further, her own talents for warfare and military strategy, combined with her physical fighting prowess, call her to a role of action. Throughout the years, she has gained respect and acumen for her success in the war against Arden, but whenever she returns home, the duties of ruling chafe, especially given her penchant for frank and perhaps less diplomatic language and ideas. All of this, plus the shared loss of all their family (or so Lyss believes, not knowing as we do that her brother lives) creates an ongoing tension point in her relationship with Raisa, the queen. Lyss was a brilliant character, and her journey throughout the book neatly tied the plot’s action to Lyss’s own growth and challenges.

Halston received less page time, but he too was a compelling character. Throughout the story, Halston’s story makes it clear how difficult life in Arden is. Politics is tangled around every aspect of life, with the fear of angering the cruel king tinging every decisions. After being captured by Lyss and her troops, Halston begins to see the falsehoods that have been spread by the King about the war and the northern country with whom they fight. However, loyalty and a fierce desire to protect his family must drive his every decision.

One of my primary concerns with the first book was the insta-love relationship that seemingly evolved out of nowhere. With that in mind, I was extremely pleased to see the more developed and extended relationship that was drawn between Lyss and Halston. Both characters are given the proper amount of time and shared experiences to make a budding relationship between the two enemies believable. I was much more invested in this relationship than I ever was with Jenna/Ash.

While Ash was referenced in this book, only Jenna had page time out of the original characters. Ultimately, while I did like elements of her chapters, especially now that we have her dragon pal to appreciate, I did question these inclusions. Her story line felt largely separate from the rest of the action and her reference to Ash only reminded me how much I disliked that relationship from the first book. There were a few plot points that were introduced and helpful to driving the larger story line crossing between books, but these chapters were so few and so disconnected from our main characters and plot that I question there inclusion.

Adding to all of these POVS is another, fourth perspective from a young man who has a mysterious gem or mage mark on the back of neck similar to Jenna’s. His role is more important to the driving factors in this story, and as a character I found his story and history interesting.

However, all of this highlights my biggest concern with this book and now the series as a whole. There are so many characters! The first book had around 4 POVs if I remember correctly, and this one introduced another 3. It was obvious in the first book that certain narrators were stronger than others, and the rushed elements of the book (the romance, specifically) I directly attributed to the choice to include so many. There is simply not enough page time in an already lengthy book to fully develop this many characters and their relationships with each other. So, here, we are given even more characters. And while I liked the main characters in this story more than I did those in the first, this just presents me with more concerns. Even in this book I found myself skimming through characters’ chapters (specifically Jenna’s) to get back to Hal and Lyss. What’s going to happen going forward when they all need to share page time together? I don’t want to lose the awesomeness of Lyss, for the less interesting Ash. Or, even worse, focus on the shallow Jenna/Ash relationship at the expense of Lyss/Hal.

While I enjoyed this book more than first, largely due to the strength of its main characters, I came out of the reading experience even more worried about the direction of the series as a whole than I did in the first. After that book, I had hoped that my concerns would be addressed by spending more time with Jenna/Ash so that I could get more on board with these characters and see their relationship flesh itself out further from its unfortunately rapid beginning. But now not only is that not the case, but I’ve been given character alternatives whom I enjoy even more and who are ultimately will have to give up their page time and stories to these originals. Not only do I not know how all of these characters will be given their due in a limited number of pages left in the series, but I now have a strong bias for/against a few of them. But I guess I’ll just have to wait and see, fingers crossed.

Rating 7: A stronger book than the first, but one that raises questions for the series as a whole.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Shadowcaster” is a newer title and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads list, but it should be on “Music in Fantasy Fiction.”

Find “Shadowcaster” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “Flamecaster”

Serena’s Review: “Brother’s Ruin”

29964674Book: “Brother’s Ruin” by Emma Newman

Publishing Info: Tor, March 17, 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.

But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.

When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.

Review: I’m trying to increase my short story/novella reading, and so I was excited when I heard about this new steampunk, fantasy novella put out by Emma Newman. And while I feel like the novella aspect of the book may have weakened aspects of the story, overall, I was very pleased with this story which is the beginning of what looks to be an ongoing series.

Charlotte is in hiding. Not only is she a successful illustrator who must publish under a false name to hide her gender which might cripple her chances at success in a male-dominated profession, but she’s also a talented mage. And to be a mage is to give up one’s life to God and Country, be removed from one’s family (though the family is compensated based on the potential ability of their soon-to-be-lost family member), and be trained into serving in the elite Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. Charlotte has no interest in losing her family, her burgeoning profession, or, worst of all, her fiance. Mages aren’t allowed to marry, and as Charlotte is already engaged to a perfectly pleasing man, so being discovered for the Latent that she is would be catastrophic. Instead, when her family hits hard times, her father recognizes the signs of a magic in his house, but falsely attributes it to his son, and brings in the society mages to test him for abilities. Charlotte must help her brother trick them into accepting him into their group, all while solving a dark mystery into which Charlotte’s father’s debts have dragged them all.

I very much enjoyed the originality of this world. The mages’ society is both something to be esteemed and feared, and this balance is struck again and again throughout the novel. Families can greatly profit from sending a family member to be trained, but they also lose their loved ones in the process, and that loved one gives up the chance to lead a normal life. In one of the opening scenes, Charlotte and her brother witness a young boy being dragged away from his mother once he’s been discovered as a Latent mage. The horror and the tragedy of this early scene is an important reminder as the story progresses and the true danger that her family faces at the hands of her father’s debt collectors becomes clear. It would be easy to question why Charlotte doesn’t simply bring herself forth. In many other fantasy series, having great powers is always shown as a purely good thing. But the sacrifices that come with this life are made clear throughout the entire story. Not only does one give up one’s planned life, but the mages society itself is not without its own dangers and dramas.

Charlotte was a very good lead character. Through her eyes, we can see the fears that have driven her throughout her entire life. Not only does she need to hide her magic, but her own success as an illustrator, a profession that she shares, nay exceeds at, with her own father. He, of course, is unaware of this commonality and the fact that Charlotte has spent much of her own money supporting her brother, in particular. Also, right away, her relationship with her fiance is set up as a challenge. Charlotte has not been honest with him either about these aspects of her life. In truth, her closest relationship is with her sickly brother, the only one to fully know her.

One of the bigger challenges for me in this story was the introduction and use of the mage who aides her in investigating the debt collectors. He is presented as a very attractive man whom Charlotte is drawn to right off the bat. However, throughout the story he routinely misleads her, sends her into dangerous situations without giving her complete knowledge, and out-and-out manipulates her. This behavior is explained, but, for me, he never quite recovers as a heroic character. While Charlotte and her fiance are clearly not well-suited (talk about a wet blanket relationship), I wasn’t as able to forgive the flaws of this new love interest as easily as Charlotte seemed to. The end of the book sets them up to work together in the future, with only the barest hints of romance alluded to (she’s still engaged, mind you), so I’ll be curious to see what comes of this going forward.

My only other struggle was with the pacing and the writing in spots. Charlotte had a few revelations that felt out of the blue and un-earned, and the pacing was jarring in the middle when the plot had to gallop along to cover all the multitude of plot points that were jammed into such a short story. I feel that the story could have benefited from an extra 25-50 pages to fully flesh out the deeper emotional beats and ensure that the plot ran more smoothly.

The world building was strong, however, and Charlotte was a fun main character, so I’m definitely on board to see what troubles she finds herself in in the future! And to see what becomes of her brother, Ben, another character I very much enjoyed who is now trapped in a magical society that thinks he is more than he actually is.

Rating 7: A great start to a new series, if only rubbing up a bit against the restraints of a shortened page length.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Brother’s Ruin” is a newer book and not on any relevant Goodreads list, but it should be on “Popular Steampunk Fantasy Books” and “Novellas by women, about women.”

Find “Brother’s Ruin” at your library using WorldCat!