Thursday, February 25, 2010

Look away, fellow OCD sufferers

...just looking at this bookshelf picture gives me a headache:

I'm not sure why, but my brain is quietly but firmly declining to accept it.

[Via Apartment Therapy]


Yen Press Extravaganza (Part IV)

More graphic novels!

Tena on S-String: Vol. 2, by Sesuna Mikabe

While Sesuna Mikabe's Tena on S-String is typically described as a seinen (young men's) manga, the series' second volume focuses more on romance and humor than fantasy or fight scenes. 24-year-old music teacher Kyousuke Hibiki has ruefully accepted his new role as unpaid servant to Tena Fortissian, an imperious teenage girl with the ability to manipulate "soul scores", the musical manifestation of the threads of fate. While the first book in this series devoted considerable time to Tena and Kyousuke's hunt for the discordant notes warping the souls of the local animal population, volume two is mostly about their relationship, which is further complicated by the introduction of two new characters, Tena's arrogance, and Kyousuke's general cluelessness.

We're not big fans of harem-type stories, nine-year age gaps between romantic partners, or goth-loli jokes, so we're actually kind of amazed we liked this series as much as we did. It helps that neither character is currently interested in the other romantically, although the author is clearly laying the groundwork for an eventual relationship, and it really helps that Tena is the dominant half of the duo, while Kyousuke is surprisingly cute as her beleaguered, under-appreciated "slave". (The scene where he gets lost in a fantasy of finding a girlfriend who loves him for his laundry skills was great.) We won't be holding our breath until we can read the next volume, but we've read worse—much worse.

Soul Eater: Vol. 2, by Atsushi Ohkubo

Atsushi Ohkubo's Soul Eater is a hyperactive shounen (boys') manga about a group of students attending the Death Weapon Meister Academy, a school for "weapon meisters" and their half-human, half-weapon classmates. Talented meister-in-training Maka and her partner, a living scythe named Soul Eater, are determined to transform Soul Eater into the ultimate weapon, but first they need to collect tainted souls from ninety-nine humans and one witch—no easy task, especially when every opponent they take on is weirder than the last.

Soul Eater is stylish and fast-paced, with a great Tim-Burton-esque setting. We definitely could have lived without all the fanservice shots of half-dressed women with ridiculously huge breasts (particularly seeing as the male characters in this series are totally unprepossessing!), but the non-sexual scenes in this manga are undeniably fun, particularly for action-fantasy fans.

[Reviews based on publisher-provided copies.]

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

X-Men: Misfits, by Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman

X-Men: Misfits is a shōjo-style retelling of Kitty Pryde's introduction to the X-Men written by Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman and featuring sharp, clean-lined artwork by Anzu. The story is set before Professor Xavier's accident, and focuses on 15-year-old Kitty, whose mutant power is the ability to phase through matter—helpful when she wants to hide from nosey classmates, but decidedly unhelpful when she runs the risk of falling out of an airplane! Kitty has always felt like a freak, but when she receives a scholarship to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters she discovers that there are other people out there with powers every bit as strange and disturbing as hers... and some of them happen to be super-hot teenage boys.

Telgemeier and Roman's take on this X-Men backstory features every shōjo cliché in the book: Kitty is the lone girl in a boys-only school, she is immediately befriended by a group of the best-looking and most powerful students, and she finds herself torn between half-a-dozen romantic foils. She's adorably klutzy, too (what shōjo heroine isn't?), although she falls through stuff rather than over it. Frequent manga readers might find such a derivative storyline irritating, but we suspect manga newbies will enjoy themselves—after all, there's a reason these plot elements became so popular in the first place, and this cute, girl-friendly title makes excellent use of them.

[Review based on publisher-provided copy.]

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Superheroes and Beyond, by Christopher Hart

Christopher Hart's Superheroes and Beyond: How to Draw The Leading and Supporting Characters of Today's Comics promises to provide "the knowledge necessary to create great comic book characters... for beginners as well as more experienced artists". The book covers topics ranging from superheroes and heroines to action poses to light and shadow effects, with stops along the way to discuss specific comic "types" like the Female Reporter (props include microphone and briefcase!), the Mecha Bad Guy (typically a bearded dude, the opposite of the clean-cut superhero), or the super-sexy Evil Warrior Queen (think extra-long, extra-muscular legs... but lady muscles, not, like, gross bodybuilder muscles).

Hart's instructions are clear, detailed, and surprisingly funny—Superheroes and Beyond is full of affectionate little digs at comic book clichés, including characters like the Tabloid Publisher and his tips for drawing female characters ("for women, more, well, more of everything"). Sadly, there is always a difference between theoretical and practical knowledge when it comes to how-to books, so this title might not actually have you churning out professional-quality comic book illustrations at the drop of a hat—but, hey, at least you'll have plenty of fun trying!

[Review based on publisher-provided copy.]

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Harry Potter World

Some dude called Brian Orndorf was kind enough to post some photographs of the construction happening at the Harry Potter theme park, and I have to say: it does look kind of awesome. I'm not sure it's how I pictured the books, but it's very close to the movie set:

We're sincerely grateful to Brian, because there is little chance of us rushing out to see this for ourselves. Well, some of us might want to, but if *I* am going to pay big money to go to a book-themed kids' park, it is totally going to be Moomin World.

[Via Cinematical]


Monday, February 22, 2010

Set your alarm clocks!

Well-organized Jennifer Crusie fans TAKE NOTE:

St. Martin's Press is currently running a week-long giveaway of 35 bound-manuscript copies of Jennifer Crusie's upcoming solo novel Maybe This Time. They're looking for reader quotes to tempt booksellers to carry the books in their stores. (Apparently, romance novels inspired by Henry James novellas aren't automatic best sellers. Who knew?)

I'd post the rules, but they seem to be... well, flexible. (Read: stuff keeps crashing.) Anyhow, check out Crusie's site for the latest info, and good luck!


An embarrassment of riches

Whoa, what happened? Lisa Kleypas has been releasing the books in her Hathaway family series on a once-a-year schedule since 2007, but now she's putting the last two books out within a month of each other. Naturally, we're happy to see them (the more Kleypas books the merrier, as far as we're concerned), but did she, like, get sick of the Hathaways? Does she have a new idea sucking up all her imagination? Or is she just bored with writing historicals?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway, you can read excerpts from both books on Kleypas's website if you need something to tide you over. Enjoy!

P.S. Also, why'd they change the style of the cover art?! The first three books featured posed shots of women's bodies in richly-colored 19th century dresses. I wasn't a huge fan, but I *definitely* prefer them to this duller-than-dirt pile of letters, which makes it look like a Julia Quinn book... or something that belongs in an Easter basket.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Raiders' Ransom, by Emily Diamand

Raiders' Ransom, the debut novel from writer Emily Diamand, was the winner of the inaugural London Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition, and it's easy to see why: Diamand's blend of kid-friendly moralizing and high adventure is exactly the kind of one-two punch high-minded book critics love.

Diamand's futuristic fantasy is set in 23rd century Great Britain, a place where technology is limited, most of what used to be England is now underwater, and the remains have been divided between "Greater Scotland", the Ten Counties, and London-based groups of Viking-style raiders. Thirteen-year-old Lilly Melkun is a fishergirl in a small English village, earning her living on the water with the help of her pet, a telepathic cat who warns her of danger. When raiders kidnap the daughter of the English Prime Minister and Lilly's village is blamed, she steals a valuable and ancient jewel and sets out to ransom the girl. Along the way, she meets Zeph, a raider boy whose world seems absolutely alien to her... but when war breaks out between the English and the raiders, Lilly and Zeph realize that cooperation or death might be their only options.

While the majority of Raiders' Ransom was entertaining, beautifully written and fast-paced, the final chapters of the book suffer from "Second Book Syndrome", an all-too-common problem for fantasy authors. The last thirty pages of Diamand's book should have been devoted to either A) tidying up loose plot threads, or B) whipping readers along to a nail-biting cliffhanger. Instead, they're mostly spent setting up her sequel, providing us with neither excitement nor closure, a state of affairs which had us irritably checking online booksellers to see if the book was already out in England—after all, we need to find out what happens next, but we were most unhappy about being strung along until August 2nd, when Diamand's sequel (Flood and Fire) comes out here in the States.

[Review based on publisher-provided copy.]

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Re-re-re-working it

Hmm. I see they're making a movie of Dean Koontz's Frankenstein: Prodigal Son, which is a loose (very loose) continuation of Mary Shelley's novel.

A movie of a novel adaptation (with, naturally, its own comic book adaptation, which we did find amusing, although probably not in the way the author intended) of an even earlier novel seems like we're wandering awfully far from our source material, but I figure as long as it isn't written by Dr. Titley, we'll be fine.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Pillow Book of Lotus Lowenstein, by Libby Schmais

The Pillow Book of Lotus Lowenstein, the debut YA novel from author Libby Schmais, is a collection of journal entries written by Lotus Lowenstein, a fifteen-year-old Brooklynite who is convinced—despite significant evidence to the contrary, like her recent D in French—that she has the soul of a Frenchwoman. She quotes Simone de Beauvoir, insists that she's an existentialist, and obsesses over the diet advice featured in French Women Don't Get Fat. And when she and her best friend Joni develop a crush on the same boy, Lotus decides that she is cosmopolitan enough to handle a more, well, open relationship....

The first few chapters of The Pillow Book had us worried that this story was going to be as embarrassing as it was funny, à la Sue Townsend's The Diary of Adrian Mole or Susan Juby's Alice, I Think. Thankfully, Schmais dials back on the wince-inducing antics as her story continues, and by the end of the novel we were sincerely rooting for her protagonist. Lotus can be incredibly silly, but her underlying competence and judgment were obvious enough to make reading about her misadventures entertaining rather than painful. We had faith in Lotus's ability to see through her classmate's free-love sales pitch, win back Joni's friendship, and cook a Mireille Guiliano-approved meal, and we are happy to report that Mlle. Schmais delivered on all fronts.

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It's a journal!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid trailer's up, and it looks... painful. But in a funnier-than-you'd-expect way:

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I don't think that was why the audience was shouting "Blasphemy!"

Oh. My.

Nathan sent me an interview with Craig Titley, the screenwriter for the truly unspeakable Percy Jackson movie. In it, Mr. Titley reflects on the way his recent PhD in mythology changed his screenwriting, making it: "a deeper, smarter, more confident level of writing".

I'll let those of you who've seen the Percy Jackson movie have a moment to take that in. For the rest of you, treasure this quote:

"There was an early draft of the script where I address [the issue of Athena having a daughter]. Perseus is first at the camp and discovering that the gods are alive and well and have kids and he meets Athena’s daughter. He's like “Wait a second, how can you be Athena’s daughter? She’s a virgin goddess? What happened?” And she says “The Sixties.” Which was my solution to that whole problem, but that didn’t make the final cut so now there’s no explanation. And me and my whole class—and you—will be going "Wait a second! This is impossible!", that would make Annabeth at least forty years old, dude.

Maybe he should have aimed for a PhD in math.

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The horror...

Picture this, dear readers—

One day, you walk to the store and buy a chocolate chip cookie. You've noticed in the past that this store's baker isn't very good, so you worry that maybe the cookie will be too dry, or he'll use imitation vanilla or fake chocolate chips or something, but you still want to try it. After all, it's a chocolate chip cookie, and how badly could anyone screw that up?

But then you bite into the cookie, and you realize that—surprise!—the baker replaced all the flour in the recipe with talcum powder, and the thing you're eating is actually totally inedible. It might look like a cookie at first glance, but that's as far as it goes.

That's how I felt about Chris Columbus's "adaptation" of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which I had the misfortune of seeing this weekend. I have so many complaints I'm not sure where to begin, but I guess the cookie metaphor above comes close—I shelled out $7.25 to watch something that bore only a cursory resemblance to what I had to come to see.

I went in with concerns: Columbus had made some early calls that I thought were weird, including bumping up the three main characters' ages by several years, and I've seen the first two Harry Potter movies, so I knew he was a pedestrian director at best. But you know what? None of that stuff mattered, because everything about this movie was so bad that the things I had thought was going to irritate me didn't even register. Entire chunks of the plot were either heavily altered or completely re-written. Major scenes in the book—all of Percy's early time at camp, the fight on the St. Louis arch, the scene in the water park—were chopped out, and replaced with a generic road trip based on an entirely new storyline. Characters were removed (including Mr. D, Ares, and Clarisse), and new ones appear—Persephone shows up out of the blue, somehow transformed from Riordan's empty-headed Goddess of Spring into a voluptuous vixen in a black lace corset who hits on Grover and plays a major role in the final conflict.

Seriously, with all that, how could I be irritated over stuff like Columbus's decision to rewrite his heroine—blonde, level-headed, 12-year-old Annabeth—as a short-tempered, sword-swinging brunette played by a 23-year-old actress? Not that it mattered, as all of Annabeth's character development was condensed down to looking hot while playing with her sword and staring soulfully at Percy. Any actress between the ages of 15 and 25 with two working arms and the ability to look good in a leather breastplate could have played this role. (And I'm not even going to start on the way that she rarely wore a helmet during the camp training scenes—sure, everybody else was wearing one, and she's the daughter of the goddess of military strategy, but what does that matter? She might have gotten helmet hair!)

Don't see this movie. Don't tell yourself that will be okay because your expectations are already low. Trust me, they aren't low enough. I watched this movie with eight people, ages 11 to 31, and not one of us had anything good to say about it. Most of us were too upset to articulate anything beyond: "GYAH! That was so... so... BAD! I mean... GYAH!" It took more than an hour for us to calm down enough to wonder if Columbus had actually read the book, or if he'd just based his movie on a description from a friend. We debated what it would take to make us feel better (answer: our money back, followed by a personal apology from all parties involved), and discussed the fact that Columbus had removed all of the plot points that connected this book to its sequels, and wondered if that meant that he'd known he was making something too terrible to succeed...

...but I'm betting he didn't. If there's anything I learned from this movie, it is to never underestimate the delusions of Hollywood. If they could take a book chock-full of charm, humor, and cinema-friendly action sequences and make something this terrible out of it, they are definitely crazy enough to hope it will be a major box-office success.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Day Reading

Hello, darling readers! In honor of Valentine's Day, we'll be featuring two reviews on the site this morning. And because we understand that this is the kind of holiday that inspires mixed emotions, our book choices come from two very different places on the literary spectrum:

Cartoon Marriage: Adventures in Love and Matrimony by The New Yorker's Cartooning Couple, by Liza Donnelly and Michael Maslin

If the mere thought of Valentine's Day fills your heart with sunshine and joy, we suggest picking up a copy of Liza Donnelly and Michael Maslin's Cartoon Marriage. Donnelly and Maslin are both contract cartoonists for The New Yorker, and their book is a lighthearted collection of more than 200 single-panel cartoons about love and marriage, tied together by a handful of multi-panel original cartoons about their lives together. Touching on everything from sex to child-rearing to the perils of family camping trips, Cartoon Marriage skips merrily along, finding humor even in darker subjects like infidelity and divorce. (Just skip those if you prefer your Valentine's Day to be 100% sweetness and light.) Both artists stick to The New Yorker's tried-and-true formula of simple lines and a black and white palette, but their affection for their subject manner—as well as each other—is evident in every panel.

[Review copy provided by publisher.]

Hush, by Kate White

If, on the other hand, the idea of Valentine's Day makes you downright queasy, you might be better off pre-ordering your copy of Hush, the first standalone novel from Kate White. Sure, there's a heart on the cover, but trust us: the mushiness stops there. White's heroine is Lake Warren, a recently divorced woman struggling to retain primary custody of her children. Ignoring her lawyer's suggestion that she avoid any hint of impropriety that might jeopardize her case, Lake tumbles into bed with a handsome doctor—but when her paramour ends up with his throat cut within twelve hours of their liaison, Lake realizes that she may have risked more than a nasty court battle with her ex.

Hush offers a fast, adrenaline-packed take on the “woman in peril” genre, giving readers a healthy dose of drama and suspense. White's book frequently strains credulity—despite belonging to a pack of wealthy New Yorkers, none of the apartments in her book seem to have effective video security in their entrances, for instance—and it features a scene involving a shaved cat that is, like, super disturbing, but readers who don't mind a little mindless nail-biting are sure to enjoy themselves.

[Review copy provided by publicity agent.]

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Skeleton Creek and Ghost in the Machine, by Patrick Carman

Patrick Carman clearly appreciates a good literary gimmick. He promoted his Land of Elyon books via a four-month-long cross-country tour in a decorated bus, he contributed a novel to Scholastic's bell-and-whistle-laden 39 Clues series, and his latest work combines conventional YA horror writing with online videos.

Skeleton Creek and Ghost in the Machine are set in an isolated town in the Oregon wilderness. As the story opens, 15-year-old best friends Ryan and Sarah are still feeling the effects of an ill-advised trip to an abandoned gold-mining dredge outside of town: Ryan's leg was broken, their parents have forbidden them to see one another, and they're pretty sure they encountered the ghost of Old Joe Bush, a former dredge worker who died on the site twenty-odd years earlier.

Carman's story is divided into two parts—the books, which are told from Ryan's perspective in diary format (complete with fake handwriting and drink stains), and Sarah's videos, which consist of short clips of the Blair Witch-style hijinks at the dredge. The videos are posted online and accessed via passwords the characters exchange over the course of the series.

Ryan and Sarah's severed friendship adds an interesting element to the books, but Carman's ghost story plot is about as original as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Still, there is a reason why haunted house (or haunted dredge) stories continue to find a market—take a dark, creepy space, toss in some unexplained footsteps, add a few wide-eyed victims and voilà: horror gold! Carman doesn't even need to write a convincingly creepy description of his dredge; the videos do most of the work for him.

We're not arguing that these stories are great literature, or even genuinely scary if you're older than, say, nine, and we're not even going to start on the implausibility of a 15-year-old boy catching a Castle of Otranto reference off the top of his head. (Plus, Skeleton Creek ends on a shameless cliffhanger, so you can kiss the cover price of both books goodbye if you want to find out what happens.) But Carman's book/video hybrid is entertaining enough, and his blend of kid-appropriate horror and accessible technology might be the very thing to tempt reluctant readers to give reading for pleasure another shot... so we'll give him a pass on the Otranto thing.

But just this once.

[Review copies provided by publisher.]

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Hollywood gone wrong

Worst casting news ever: Columbia Pictures and Lakeshore Entertainment have signed Katherine Heigl to play Stephanie Plum, the hapless lingerie-buyer-turned-bounty-hunter heroine of Janet Evanovich's popular series. Apparently, Reese Witherspoon was previously attached to the role (not really spot-on casting either, IMO), but still about a thousand times better than Katherine Heigl. Seriously, you have to wonder if the bigwigs at Columbia/Lakeshore have ever A) read the books, or B) seen Heigl act.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Back on top

Megan informs me that Seattle currently ranks #1 on USA TODAY's annual list of the nation's most literate cities, thereby smacking down rival city Minneapolis (who actually dropped behind Washington D.C. this year) like the hand of God.

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Behind the times

Wait. There's a Flipped movie?!? AND IT'S COMING OUT THIS YEAR?

(...and why is it suddenly set in the fifties?)

Why am I so behind on Wendelin Van Draanen news? Turns out there's both a plot summary and a release date--October 12th--up on Amazon for the next book in the Sammy Keyes series, Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher. (Sammy's mother isn't going to marry Casey's father, right? Tell me the answer to that question is no.)

Note: Wendelin Van Draanen's blog mentions something about a possible TV adaptation for the Sammy books, as well as a horseshoe shoelace charm tie-in. Ready your allowances, young readers!

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Passion of the Hausfrau: Motherhood, Illuminated, by Nicole Chaison

Nicole Chaison is the creator of the website Blog-o-Hausfrau and the tri-annually published 'zine Hausfrau Muthazine, which launched in 2003. Her experiences—everything from giving birth in a hospital utility closet to discovering that her husband has (in the time it took her to go to the bathroom!) taken their two small children on an inappropriately terrifying ride at Disney World, rendering them too scared to sleep by themselves for months afterward—are the basis for The Passion of the Hausfrau, a comic, graphic-novel-inspired guide to the maternal experience.

The Passion of the Hausfrau is undeniably funny. Chaison's tone is goofy and confessional, enhanced by her lively black-and-white illustrations. She isn't always a sympathetic narrator*, and some of her behavior comes across as remarkably immature for a woman entering her fourth decade. (She sulks for a year over what she considers to be a passive-aggressive present from her mother. And the present wasn't even something juicy, like a weight-loss DVD or a copy of The Surrendered Wife or whatever, but an autobiography written by a successful football player from Chaison's hometown.) Still, she comes across as an enthusiastic and loving mother, and her self-deprecating memoir should resonate with anyone who has experienced the trials, tribulations, and rewards of being a stay-at-home parent.

*Clearly, I would also have a place in the judgmental hell Chaison describes in the chapter entitled "The Inferno: My Descent into the Realm of People Who Need to be Severely Punished". I'd probably end up somewhere near the "Unbelievably Irritating Nosy Bitch from Massachusetts", who snapped at the author for allowing her small daughter to urinate in the surf, rather than dragging her all the way back to the bathrooms. I'm sorry, and I definitely wouldn't have snapped at anybody... but I just don't think I could enjoy swimming after that! I am a delicate flower.

[Review copy provided by the publisher.]



When J. D. Salinger died two weeks ago, I decided not to write an obit for him, mostly because—I'm sorry; I'm a philistine—I've never felt like Catcher in the Rye or his Glass family stories were all that great. (Actually, I've always thought his mannered, self-conscious characters were... well, phony.) But I finally got around to reading some of the coverage of his death, and dude, who knew the man was such a skeeze? His relationships with women were insane, ranging from his crappy parenting to his deeply messed-up marriage to his ten-month-long affair with Joyce Maynard in 1972 when she was eighteen (and looked twelve) and he was fifty-three. (Seriously. She was a teen author for Seventeen. Where were her parents?)

Anyway, I hope they do make a movie of Catcher in the Rye, and I hope Brett Ratner (ooh, no, Michael Bay!) directs it. Suck on that, ghost of Salinger!


Monday, February 08, 2010

All Unquiet Things, by Anna Jarzab

Anna Jarzab's intriguing debut novel All Unquiet Things centers around Neily and Audrey, two wealthy California teens haunted by the death of sixteen-year-old Carly—the beautiful, damaged girl who was both Audrey's cousin and Neily's former girlfriend. Audrey's ne're-do-well father was convicted of her murder, but the teens' investigation raises some serious doubts about his culpability... and the disturbing suggestion that Carly's real killer is still at large.

Fans of Veronica Mars are going to love this book: both stories feature big-money California settings and center around determined and fiercely intelligent young adults mourning the loss of a troubled but charismatic girl. Unfortunately, All Unquiet Things would have benefited from the literary equivalent of a full television season—another hundred pages or so would have allowed the many dramatic revelations at the end of the story room to breathe. (Imagine trying to condense the complete first season of Veronica Mars into a two-hour movie. No matter how well-written or -acted it might have been, that would have been a lot of trauma to squeeze into a hundred and twenty minutes.) All Unquiet Things was impressive, and Jarzab is obviously an author to watch, but here's hoping that her next novel is long enough to truly showcase her talent*.

*Oh, and that it doesn't take as long to write as this one did—we definitely don't want to wait six and a half years to read Ms. Jarzab's second book!

[Review copy provided by the publisher.]

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Brilliant with a side of more brilliant

Clearly, soap opera stars + an Agatha Christie read-a-long = Two great tastes that taste great together.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

Freefall, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

All of the books in Brian Williams and Roderick Gordon's Tunnels series have featured elements from Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, but Freefall—the third entry in the series—is the most Verne-ish of the lot. The characters encounter everything from enormous fungi to giant bug-monsters, and the storyline borrows equally from classic sci-fi and action/suspense.

Freefall picks up immediately after the events of Deeper. Will's brother Cal is dead, his father lost, and his (fake) little sisters are planning to unleash a massive plague that will decimate the Earth's above-ground population. Will and his friends Chester and Elliott have fallen into the massive pit known as the Pore, waking up to find themselves stuck to a strange, spongy fungus growing in the most bizarre environment they've encountered yet—a nearly zero-gravity space full of enormous spiders, worms, and moths.

We're slowly warming up to these characters, and are upgrading Will and Chester from “Incredibly Annoying” to “Almost Bearable”. Will's father is still infuriating, but his mother won our approval when she checked out of the hospital, started looking for her long-lost family, and—having found them—gave her useless spouse a swift wallop upside the head. (Her motivation to make these changes came out of nowhere, but in a story this low on sympathetic adult characters we'll take what we can get.) Drake and Elliott, the renegade duo introduced in book two, are forgettable, but the Rebecca twins are still mustache-twirling little bundles of evil—and far and away our favorite characters.

The best thing about this series is also its biggest flaw: it has plot coming out of its ears. We usually enjoy it when a book features an overabundance of imagination, but Gordon and Williams appear to be having too much fun coming up with crazy new underground dangers to worry about things like pacing or character development. Unfortunately, decent pacing and character development are precisely what is needed to take this admittedly intriguing collection of subterranean settings and crazy-huge bugs and turn them into an equally impressive story.

[Review copy provided by the publisher. To read our thoughts on the first two books in this series, click here.]

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Tunnels and Deeper, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams's Tunnels series has a great back story. Their first book (originally titled The Highfield Mole) was allegedly inspired by a real—and very strange—place: the Williamson Tunnels, a mysterious labyrinth of tunnels built in Liverpool by an eccentric tobacco merchant in the early 19th century. Gordon and Williams self-published their book in 2005, but soon after it was discovered by Barry Cunningham, the literary agent who signed J.K. Rowling. (Copies of the original book are rare, and AbeBooksUK ranked it as the 2nd "most collectable" book of 2007.) Their book was republished as Tunnels in 2007, followed by Deeper and the just-released novel Freefall. The fourth book in the series, Closer, will be coming out in the U.K. this spring and a movie adaptation is planned for later this year.

Unfortunately, the background story for this series is better than its execution. I was willing to set aside the authors' bizarre stabs at literary styling (although I shuddered over phrases like “tawdry eggbeaters”) and the glacial pace of their plot, but I could not accept the near-total lack of sympathetic characters. We've complained in the past about implausibly noble, self-sacrificing protagonists, but very little time spent with the main character of the Tunnels series left us pining for Gregor, the saintly hero of Suzanne Collins's Underland Chronicles. Clearly, we had no idea how good we had it.

[WARNING: Significant spoilers ahead, people! DO NOT READ the following if you wish to remain in the dark.]

Tunnels introduces us to 14-year-old Will Burrows, an English teenager living with his bossy younger sister, television-obsessed mother, and perpetually abstracted museum curator father. Will and his dad are fascinated by archeology and spend every available minute on local digs, hoping to make the kind of major discovery that will guarantee them a place in history. But when Will's dad disappears and strange men in Edwardian garb start lurking around his school, Will realizes that his most recent find—a seemingly abandoned tunnel that leads to a subterranean city—is more mystery than he can handle.

As Deeper opens, Will, his friend Chester, and his newly-discovered little brother Cal are wandering in the tunnels outside the underground development known as "The Colony". They're hoping to find Will's father and make their way back to civilization, but first they need to escape the long arm of the Styx, the sinister group that controls the Colony and is led by the girl Will had always believed to be his younger sister.

The coolest things about these books are their dense, complex plots—plots that neither talk down to young readers nor sacrifice convoluted twists and turns in favor of the easygoing, oh-so-readable charm of books like the The 39 Clues series. Unfortunately, all the imagination and complexity in the world isn't enough to make up for totally unappealing characters, and that's what we've got here. Will's parents are ghastly: utterly selfish, wholly absorbed in their own pursuits, and perfectly willing to delegate 100% of the household management, from cooking to cleaning to paying the bills, to their twelve-year-old daughter Rebecca. Will at least has the excuse of being a child, but he's nearly as bad: he idolizes his father, ignores his mother, and is A-OK with his little sister doing the family's chores. (He makes no attempt to help or thank her, and even has the gall to wonder why she failed to wake him up for school at one point.) I have no idea what the authors wanted us to feel when we discovered that Rebecca is secretly Pure Evil, but the first thing that crossed my mind was: Hey, If I'd been forced to devote ten years of my life to taking care of those losers, I'd be a supervillain, too.

I spent most of the first two books in this series waiting for someone to change for the better, but it never happened. Apart from feeling guilty over dragging his buddy Chester into his wild adventure, Will never questions his own behavior. His mother—now living in a sanatorium—is as repulsive as ever. His father continues to explore the tunnels, blissfully unconcerned about his family living on the surface. (Sure, he was their sole breadwinner and his wife is totally crazy, but those kind of concerns are for the little people, you know? He is a man of science.) Admittedly, Chester hasn't irritated me yet, but I'm beginning to suspect that's because he hasn't had very many lines. My favorite character* continues to be Rebecca, who—much to my delight!—turns out to be evil twins... thereby bringing the total number of interesting characters in this series up to two.

*Human character, anyway. I also like the cat.

Check back tomorrow for our review of Freefall, the third book in this series.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Girls Gone Victorian

Whoa: this is the first time I've seen someone market a romance novel (from Katie MacAlister, one of Meg's favorite authors) as "steampunk". New literary sub-genre, or just a marketing gimmick? Only time will tell...

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

You do have to admire her gall, though.

My, my. Whatever could this be?

It appears to be a reprint (the one hundred and forty-seventh edition, I believe) of Nora Roberts's 1991 novel Genuine Lies, and it costs sixteen dollars.

Are you kidding me? SIXTEEN DOLLARS? For a reprint?!? In paperback?


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Like The Rules, but even sadder.

Huh. It turns out Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case for Settling For Mr. Good Enough isn't a joke. It's a real book (due out next week!), not just fodder for AustenBlog's "It worked so well for Charlotte Lucas" joke.

...actually, I would totally read a romance guide if the author wrote the entire thing in Charlotte Lucas's voice. That would be awesome.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Silk purse/sow's ear

I was poking around the bookstore over the weekend, and I ran across this:

Now, I'm not an Ayn Rand fan, but I am a fan of great cover art, and that is some really, truly great cover art. I love the muted colors and the strong shapes and the whole vintage vibe. I'd almost buy it based on the cover alone, but it costs $39.95, which is pure, unadulterated craziness. Seriously, who would spend forty bucks for an Ayn Rand novel, particularly one you could find in any used bookstore for two dollars or less?

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Eye candy

Jewelry designer Tom Binns has put together two lines of Alice in Wonderland-inspired jewelry: six limited-edition pieces that will retail for $1,000 to $1,500, and a lower-priced collection, Tom Binns for Disney Couture, which will sell in the $100 to $500 range.

I have zero desire to wear it, but his jewelry does have a certain charm. I feel a strong urge to poke my fingers into it... or maybe wave it in front of my cat.

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