The Figure in the Shadows

The Figure n the Shadows – John Bellairs; Dell Publishing; 1977

The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

White Cat

White Cat

White Cat by Holly Black; McElderry

White Cat by Holly Black is the only book I’ve read by the author. It was published in 2010 and is a young adult urban fantasy.  I picked up a hardback copy from a bargain table for $3.  I read this in one day.  I do not usually read young adult (or, really, urban fantasy for that matter), but it was an okay read for an afternoon wherein I just did not want to tackle anything but relaxing and lounging.

It’s actually the first novel in a (I think) trilogy. I believe the second book is published, but I have not actually seen it – but I cannot say I have really looked for it, either.  I picked it up for the price and because the premise seemed vaguely interesting. From the website:

“Cassel comes from a family of curse workers — people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they’re all mobsters, or con artists. Except for Cassel. He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider……”

Ultimately, it was not entirely as expected – which is both good and bad.  I was interested in the concept of curse workers because it seems a bit more unique than the standard “I have magic powers” that permeates much of urban fantasy.  Also, the main character who is written in first-person is male and the author is female – so I was interested to see if the author could pull off a convincing voice.  Further, the title has cat in it – and I do love cats. Sucker, I know….

Cassel is the main character – he’s one of three brothers in a family that is well-versed in utilizing their “curse worker” skills to con, assault, and thug their way through things.  Cassel, unfortunately, does not have the “worker” power.  Naturally, he’s marginalized in his family because of this.  Cassel, though, strives very hard to be normal.  In fact, that’s the subplot of the entire novel – Cassel’s effort to live a normal life among normal people; distancing himself from the antics of his family.  Unfortunately, one of the main things that holds Cassel back from normalcy are the skills he picked up from his mother, who is in jail.  His mother is the consummate con artist.  Also, Cassel struggles to deal with the memory of having killed his best friend, Lila, several years back.

Characters wear gloves to prevent purposeful/accidental touches by “workers.”  Some of this made sense, but some of this seemed forced. I am not sure it works entirely with the concept of curse workers (i.e. I am sure there are loopholes/problems that astute critical readers might discover), but I just accepted the element and read onward.

Curse Workers

from the novel’s website

Honestly, Cassel is a fairly likeable character. The author does pull off a decent male voice.  One of the fun nuances that enlivens [sic] Cassel is his love for coffee.  It’s little tidbits like this that develop characters and make them seem 3D. So, kudos to the author for that.  However, the girl who Cassel supposedly killed – she’s awful. Most of the time, reading this book, I disliked her and I truly do not understand why a decent chap like Cassel would even be slightly in love with Lila. She’s hideous.  She’s also the daughter of the big crime Czar of the Zucharov family.  Yes, they’re Russian.  This is something that the author does not pull off convincingly – a Russian crime family.  It’s a little hokey and none of the Russians have that “Russian-ness” that one would expect.  The problem with this is that it makes it seem like the author just made the family Russian because she could and it might make the novel seem a bit “exotic.”

Overall, three stars.  I am really not great at rating young adult novels. This one was something different than I expected, but it was not wretched and I was fairly entertained throughout. Definitely for youth 15+.

3 stars

Soulless

Soulless

Soulless

“Soulless” by Gail Carriger was published in 2009 by Orbit.  It is the first book of the “Parasol Protectorate” series starring, I assume, the character Alexia Tarabotti. My copy came with a small interview with the author and I went to her website.  Ms. Carriger is amusing and witty. Honestly, the novel itself is neither erudite or exceedingly intelligent, I feel like Carriger could easily write much more intelligent novels.  However, I’m not sure she really needs to. After all, I found this novel to be rather entertaining.

The basic idea of the novel is that since the “dark ages,” Europe (especially England) has come to terms with the existence of supernaturals – and the supernaturals have mostly integrated into the normal society.  The Crown has advisors who are supernaturals and help her to make national decisions.  Many of the upper crust of society contains both normals and supernaturals – including the supporting main character, Lord Macon, who is a werewolf.  Werewolves live in packs lead by alphas (Lord Macon is an alpha) and live in districts/counties.  Lord Macon also runs the BUR, which is a department which monitors supernatural activity in the district.

It has been said that this novel is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.  That is probably true.  I suppose the novel could be taken on a “serious” level, but I really feel there is an alternate way of reading the book:  for sheer fun. And in that reading, it is almost a spoof of “Victorian ideals” and the current obsession with Vampires and Werewolves in mass media entertainment. Carriger writes a very funny spoof. It’s not entirely intended as a spoof, of course. However, it amuses me to read the interactions between Alexia and the “upper-crust” of society as well as the interactions between the servants of the vampire/werewolf community.

Alexia is a fun character because she is stubborn and outspoken. She doesn’t fit into the society like she should and she possesses a lot more bravery and knowledge than her peers.  This is what attracts her to Lord Macon – and he to her. The sex in the book is really comical, a bit too much of it for my tastes – even though it’s not entirely graphic – but still amusing enough.

I would like to read the next book in the series.  It probably will not be just more of the same, because the end of “Soulless” leaves Alexia in some interesting circumstances and I’d be interested in seeing what happens next.  It’s not something that I am really burning to read, but I suppose for a light read that would be fine. Carriger obviously has a well-developed sense of humor and can channel classic English novels into a light novel.

3 stars

Black Blade Blues

Black Blade Blues

Black Blade Blues

This novel was published in 2010 and is the first novel by J. A. Pitts (John A. Pitts).  I have been trying to read up on genres that I usually paid no attention to such as urban fantasy, westerns, and so forth.  So I got this book on  lark because I liked that it was going to include some Norse stuff. Also, the main character is a blacksmith, which is definitely unique.

However, I did not like the main character at all.  She’s hardly believable.  But also, she’s just not a character I want to read about.  At all.  Sarah Beauhall is the daughter of really hyper-Christian parents.  She went to college for a degree in English (not unlike the author) and then somehow got involved in becoming a blacksmith.  She also works as an apprentice for another female blacksmith.  This was one of many things that irked me.  How many blacksmiths does the author think exist?  And of that number, how many, really, are female?   Beauhall is also in a SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) guild called Black Briar.  Anyway, Sarah is a bit too wild and rambunctious and she mangles all the friendships that she has.  She also gets fired from her two jobs (one as the apprentice blacksmith, two as the props manager for a movie group).  In the end, however, she’s the heroine that saves everyone and all is repaired in her relationships.

The plot is really quite predictable.  I really like the concept of utilizing Norse mythology in an urban fantasy setting.  I really do not like the way Pitts uses it.  I like the concept of dragons and Odin and witches.  I dislike using these concepts in a way in which all of the characters are somewhat petty, make dumb mistakes, and have obvious tragic flaws.  Also, the amount of relationship/romance fluff in the book is just downright obnoxious.  I guess Pitts wanted to focus on the characters in this manner, but honestly, I disliked all of it.  However, even supposing there was a reader who was all very interested in the relationship stuff, I think that by the middle of the book that reader, too, would find the incessant whining and acting-out of the characters to be tedious and tired.

Pitts does have a few interesting characters, like Qindra, but for the most part the characters are over-emotive and obvious.  The main character does have some snarky wit here and there, but it hardly makes up for her miserable whining.  Frankly, Beauhall is not a likeable character.  The dragons seem simply beastly, but though they have lived an exceedingly long time, they still make stupid mistakes and act over-emotionally.  (How does a DRAGON act over-emotively?!)  Overall, the book is not the worst book I have ever read. I could easily give it one star, but I do appreciate the overall general idea of the Norse mythology.  For that, Pitts is begrudgingly given a second star.

2 stars

Magic in the Blood

Magic in the Blood

Magic in the Blood

Magic in the Blood by Devon Monk is the second in the Allie Beckstrom series. Having read and enjoyed the first book in the series, I was happy to read this second novel. The title of the book relates to the plot in that much blood magic is being tossed around by a whole pile of villains.

Working as a Hound – tracing illegal spells back to their casters – has taken its toll on Allison Beckstrom. But even though magic has given her migraines and stolen her recent memory, Allie isn’t about to quit. Then the police’s magic enforcement division asks her to consult on a missing persons case. But what seems to be a straightforward job turns out to be anything but, as Allie finds herself drawn into the underworld of criminals, ghosts, and blood magic.

The story continues, more or less, where the previous novel had finished. Characters from the first book, such as Zayvion, Violet, and Kevin feature in this book as well. One of the things that I liked about the previous novel was the concept of magic that Monk created. Magic is a really common element in urban fantasy, so if an author wants to keep my interest, they had better come up with an interesting take on it.  I liked how it is something akin to a municipal utility.  Some of that seems to change in this book, as we meet several characters who are able to operate using magic without it acting in the typical municipal utility sort of way.

Ghosts appear in this book. They are not actually ghosts, though – which I found to be a relief. The last thing urban fantasy needs is some hackneyed, silly ghosts running around.  However, what Monk really does well in this book is to write the parts involving Allie’s father.  The scenes involving him are really creepy.  Again, at the end – was Mr. Beckstrom a good guy or a bad guy? I’m okay with the developments of this plotline.  By that I mean, we learn that Mr. Beckstrom was a member of the secret, powerful society called the Authority and Allie finds out that her father’s widowed girlfriend is pregnant.

Overall, I was satisfied with the book. There are times when Allie gets repetitive, though. I mean, I know it’s important for the reader to recall key details – but the reader does not even get the chance to forget. I think Monk needs to relax a little bit – readers are not complete idiots – we can handle remembering a few key points for a few chapters. Also, I really hate how Allie just swoons and gets ridiculous whenever Zayvion is in the room. I dunno if women really act like that or not, but it does serve to reinforce the notion that women are silly, emotive airheads.  On a positive note, I absolutely love Allie’s addiction to coffee!

3 stars

Magic to the Bone

Magic to the Bone

Magic to the Bone cover

I finished this book last night. It was published in 2008 and is Monk’s first novel. Its also the first in the Allie Beckstrom series. From the back of the book:

Using magic means it uses you back, and every spell exacts a price from its user. But some people get out of it by Offloading the cost of magic onto an innocent. Then it’s Allison Beckstrom’s job to identify the spell-caster. Allie would rather live a hand-to-mouth existence than accept the family fortune—and the strings that come with it. But when she finds a boy dying from a magical Offload that has her father’s signature all over it, Allie is thrown back into his world of black magic. And the forces she calls on in her quest for the truth will make her capable of things that some will do anything to control…

First of all, the reader can tell that a woman wrote this novel. One of the things that makes me leery of reading female authors in pulp fiction is that they fill their novels with sex.  Why is that? Males are supposed to be the sex-driven gender. But in novels, female authors seem to confuse sex for romance. There’s vast amounts of psychological speculation we could get into with this point. However, the last “urban fantasy” book I read was co-authored by a male and female author – and there was no sex in it. There were some vague innuendos and a few hints, but no sex. In this book here, Magic to the Bone (entirely authored by a female), there are at least two lengthy sex scenes. I’ll be honest – I don’t read them. I skip ahead a few pages.

I like some of the concepts that Monk is playing with in this novel because they are fresh and interesting. There are no vampires (thank God!) and there are no werewolves (thank God!).  Instead there is this concept of turning magic into something like a municipal utility. You know, like electricity and water. This is cool. And sure, there are hints that maybe there are magic users that preceed this sort of utility and that operate outside of this municipal faculty. But these are interesting concepts, to be sure. There is sort of a “conservation of energy law” that ties into the story. I think there is some work to be done with all of these concepts…. but this is Monk’s first book and, well, its not Scientific American. Its pulp urban fantasy.  Still it was nice to read something that didn’t involve vampires.

The main character can be amusing at points. (I don’t know how many more times she could say “Hells!” when exasperated, though.) Allie Beckstrom is not as assertive and intelligent as some of the typical female heroines, though. I mean, she’s stubborn and catty, but sometimes she’s pretty daft. There are times that she does some dumb things. For the first quarter of the book, I was slightly frustrated because she makes retarded choices and seemed to be really running in circles. Literally. However, by the end of the book, she seemed to develop a bit more, which is to be expected. I liked the other characters fairly well. The villains were a little underdeveloped, but I suspect Monk was just laying the foundation for more books.  I was interested in Violet, Allie’s stepmother, and Cody, the real victim in the book. And there is a cute kitten in the book that stole my heart.

Overall, this is a solid first book. And I would read further in the series.

3 stars

Magic Bites

Magic Bites

Magic Bites

I recently read “Magic Bites” by Ilona Andrews, published in 2007.

I read this book because I am starting to work my way through a list of what is called “urban fantasy.”  This term provoked an interesting discussion on the over-genre-ization of novels these days.  What the heck is “urban fantasy?” I mean, I know what people mean by it, but is it really something? Really? Isn’t it just fantasy or fiction?

Anyway, Ilona Andrews is actually:  two writers, Ilona and Gordon. From their website we learn:  “We write urban fantasy, an odd hybrid of a genre that includes elements of mystery, fantasy, and horror. Our stories are set in a modern setting that has a touch of paranormal to it.”  Frankly, I wasn’t very surprised when I found out that its a team of authors.  Somehow, though they do write seamlessly together, there was something about the writing in this little novel that made me think that either the author did a LOT of research on some very minor details, or the editor really was picky in some places. Turns out its not all culled from one brain!

“Magic Bites” is the first novel in the Kate Daniels series. The website says: “Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren’t for magic… One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst of knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires with their minds. In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice is rarely easy…”

Its an easy summer reading book. I mean, you do not have to muscle through this one. Which is nice. I was truly afraid it would be very… how can we describe it?… very romancy/girlie.  And sure, the main character is a chick, but she’s not some damsel in distress full of love-struck big hearts. And that is very much a good thing for the book.  Look at Kate’s picture on the front cover. Its a really good cover, actually, drawn by Chad Michael Ward. The picture isn’t some silly ditzy girl.

The enemies, villains and allies such are formed through alliances that seem more or less to want to keep the status quo.  One fantastic thing about the story is that vampires are not some neo-Gothic, emo romancy types. Vampires in this series are entirely monsters – basically, like zombie insects. And this is so wonderful because I am sick of the ridiculous characterization of vampires as “cool”. (Twilight/True Blood)  Anyway, I am interested in reading more about the beasts.

Some may be a bit confused or dissatisfied with the start of the book – feeling its very in media res. I suppose it does start that way, but its okay, and it works for the book.

3 stars

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