Review by: Mark Palm
I don't like it when people ask me what kinds of books I like to read. My usual answer is that I like to read all different kinds of books, but while technically true it always seems unsatisfying, which is how I would describe The Séance Society, unsatisfying.
The Séance Society is the story of Lee Plunkett, a private detective that is definitely not of the hard-boiled school, his girlfriend Audrey and his mentor/assistant, Mr. O 'Nelligan, an Irishman who quotes Yeats more than even a professor of Irish Literature. Through rather nebulous means they end up investigating the death of Trexler Lloyd, a rich inventor with an interest in Spiritualism. He is apparently electrocuted in a room full of people with his own invention, something dubiously named the Spectricator.
Set in the mid 1950's this book is a throwback to the "locked-room” mysteries of the kind made popular by Agatha Christie and others. The first problem I had with this book is that most of the characters seemed like dimly-realized clichés, from Trexler, to his slinky Spanish wife Constanza, the stodgy English butler, and an aging moll by the unfortunate name of Sassafras. Throw in a goateed con man, and a pugnacious cop named Tommy Bells, and you are hip-deep in stereotypes. That might have been forgivable if the protagonists were fully drawn, but Plunkett and his girlfriend are bland and O'Nelligan far too twee to be believed.
The plot has little momentum either, so the stiff characters are even more noticeable, and Mr. Nethercott even drags out that hoariest of mystery endings, where all the characters meet in the drawing room so that the sleuth can announce the murderer, after revealing how he cracked the case.
Now every thriller certainly doesn’t have to be violent or bloody, but I usually expect a decent respect for the crime of murder. The crimes in this book feel distant and muted. There is , in fact, a kind of spinsterish feel about this book that brings to mind nothing quite so much as a novelization of an episode of Murder She Wrote. There are flashes here and there that show that Mr. Nellicott has a feel for writing, but those flashes are merely that. Most of the time I found myself grimly slogging through the prose just to get to the end, and the boom that I was hoping for merely fizzled like a wet firecracker.
In truth I dislike writing "bad" reviews, but sometimes there is nothing else that one can do. I hope the next mystery I read actually surprises me.
Review by: Stacy Palm
Let me preface this review by saying that I really, really wanted to like this book, and I’m so very thankful that by the end I truly did enjoy it. I wanted to like it because I am a fan of Robin McKinley and love her work. With that being said, I was caught off guard with this book. I’m not sure what type of book I expected it to be, but it wasn’t anything that I was imagining. The story is more science fiction than fantasy which was the first kink in my expectations. The second was the use of nonsense words within the text of the story, which didn’t really work for it in this novel. The third was the beginning half of the novel where there tends to be a lot of occurrences where the characters mind will begin wondering aimlessly during conversations. These meanderings off topic were quite lengthy and put me off of the story for a period. However, I was very glad that I stuck with it because it was a truly enjoyable adventure that I immediately recommended to my daughter.
The great thing about Robin McKinley is her use and characterization of animals (and/or creatures such as the shadows.) There are not too many authors who can really bring to life our pet companions that way that Robin McKinley can do so deftly. She uses them in the craftiest of ways and by the end of the book you love them all and wish you could adopt them all. This wasn’t my favorite novel by her, but it is certainly worth the read.
Review by: Mark Palm
Early in The Fear Institute Jonathan L. Howard warns us that this book is not for our fanciful amusement but rather a story of madness, corruption, and lost hope. He is right about the latter and half right about the former. I wouldn't say that this book is amusing, but it is funny, in a very black and sick way and is full of thrills to boot.
The Fear Institute is the third novel about Johannes Cabal, Necromancer. Knowledge of the previous books isn't necessary though I read one, and liked it quite a bit though not as much as this one. Johannes Cabal is a Necromancer, and isn't the least bit ashamed of it. In fact, I would say that he is inordinately proud of his profession, but his character is far too cynical to admit that. One of the most enjoyable things about this book is Cabal himself, who no matter where he is seems as jaded and funny and cynical as a New York cabbie who moonlights as a stand-up comedian.
In this book Cabal is approached by a group of gentlemen representing an organization called The Fear Institute who wish to eradicate fear from the world. They say that the source of fear is an object found in The Dreamlands, and they wish Cabal to lead an expedition to the Dreamlands so they may find this object, and use it to obliterate fear from the world. The Dreamlands, of course, are a realm created by H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whose influence almost surely outpaces his talent. They have never been so well used as they are here, where Mr. Howard wields them with a mixture of fear and comedy that is one of the signatures of this book. If you never thought that humor and horror were flip-sides of the same coin I suggest you read this book. I would also be hard pressed to find a writer who riffed with so such love, but so much malicious skill upon Lovecraft himself, in a wonderful section where our crew, with Cabal leading them they cannot really be called heroes, visits Arkham itself to find the gateway to the Dreamlands. As for not being a hero it is not because Cabal is cowardly or tentative, far from it. He is such a devoted pragmatist however, and so devoted to himself and his goals that he is willing to throw almost anybody under the bus, at any time. That he rarely does without some decent soul-searching at least gives him a small flickering of likability. I for one didn't need it because Mr. Howard gives Cabal such a mordant and cutting wit that I often actually found myself laughing aloud even as the horrible specters of Lovecraft's mythos beamed down from ...wherever they beam from.
Once in the Dreamland things go not from bad to worse but from strange to stranger. Mr. Howard is at his inventive best here, and manages to throw some curves that leave even a cynic like Cabal with his jaw in the dust. If you want any idea of how black and how effective his sense of humor is just read the interludes, which are little primer-like chapters devoted to teaching children about the various gods and creatures of Lovecraft's mythos.
If all that is not enough Mr. Howard surprised me as near the end of this book as we begin to see a new sense of humanity taking hold of Cabal. Surprisingly this doesn’t at all seem at odds with the rest of the tone of the book because even Cabal seems a little taken aback about his small but significant transformation. He is also very busy. A small complaint, and one not too often heard is that I felt that the end of this book was a bit rushed compared to the more sedate pace of the earlier chapters. As we are speaking of endings this is a good time to say that this one really did catch me by surprise, although I feel that some readers who are less than careful may be left a bit baffled by it all. That's fine, and it works for me, although it would seem like we are being led to another book, and if so, well that also works for me.
Review by: Brennan Palm (age 14)
This week I spent every spare minute of my time reading The Companions on my Kindle. I had read the previous books by R. A. Salvatore featuring Drizzt and enjoyed them very much. At first I was reluctant, in part because of the main character's name, but after I got past that they were very good.
On the last night I was sitting on bed nearly rubbing my hands together like a cartoon villain in anticipation of the good part. Before that the book had been good, but took its time putting all of the varied parts in their places. Now that all was primed I turned the page, expecting explosions, and I got one – “Please read The Godborn and finish the story” the last page said.
I was left sputtering on my bed. The ending was sudden and it wasn't even a cliff-hanger. Everything seemed tied up and ready. Now go out and get the rest of the series. I don't mind series at all, but I do like it when a book is complete and stands on its own. This time I felt that this book was a bit short in that department.
The only other problem that I had was that this book seemed like two thirds of a book, with a beginning and middle, but the end just kind of tapered off. There was no real climax, just a note to read on.
Aside from this I liked the book a lot. It was well written, and the character seemed true to life and interesting. I guess that soon I will be reading The Godborn to find out what happened to Drizzt and all of the rest of the gang.
Review by: Mark Palm
I was once an avid reader of comic books. As their prices rose I discovered that the cost of a few comics could get a good used paperback. Since I was in puberty and wanted more, ah, sophisticated reading it was goodbye to Tigra and her blue bikini and hello to Henry Miller and Anis Nin. Ah, Literature.
I have kept my hand in comics since then, reading the occasional comic and several graphic novels. Now the world of comics has undergone some immense changes since I was a reader, and I think it should be briefly touched upon. The main difference is that where once characters usually had only one comic that was published in serial form, popular characters now have many limited runs and graphic novels that feature them. Instead of a straight soap-opera style story line characters are now used by varied creative teams, and used the way that traditional story-tellers used heroes and folk characters like Coyote, or Hercules. If you go to a comic shop you can easily find stories featuring Spider Man in the 1960s, the modern day, or 2099, Peter Parker is in his teens and his twenties, or he is Caucasian or bi-racial.
This comic, Injustice, is the first part of a longer story yet to be told. Basically the Joker, having tired of being thwarted by Batman comes to Metropolis to bring Superman down to his level. Since Superman is far more powerful than Batman this idea seems insane. But crazy is the Joker's specialty and if Superman has one weakness beside Kryptonite it's the space between his ears. The Joker’s plan succeeds. Without too many spoilers he crushes Superman's world, breaks his heart, and kills most of the citizens of Metropolis. Exit the Joker via Superman's fist.
Then the Man of Steel announces to the UN that humans cannot manage themselves any longer, and that he and his friends will enforce a world-wide cease-fire. Needless to say this divides the world of heroes and some join with Superman, and some oppose him. Also we see peripherally that most of the governments don't care for it either. The writer's sympathies clearly lie with Batman, Superman's main antagonist. In one jarring scene Superman and Wonder Woman put down an Australian demonstration by breaking the back of their local superhero. Ouch.
Now this story is meant to be epic, with a moral and ethical dilemma. Its point can be summed up by a quote from Batman: The Dark Night: "You either die a hero, or live long enough to become a villain." I am not sure where this story is going yet but from Batman's brooding monologue we are led to believe that Superman is one his way to being Mussolini in tights.
The story and the art are both solid if unspectacular. The visuals are good, but they look like a good comic, and lack that cinematic scope that the best comic artists use in such stories. The biggest problem that I had was that the story's width exceeded the writer's grasp. Having such two-dimensional and rather silly characters like Shazam and Hawk Girl in the middle of a gritty story seemed jarring. Batman mopes around, the Flash is frozen by inaction (ironic right?), and most of the rest of the heroes seem to be costume dressing. The best-rounded and even somehow touching character was Harley Quinn, the Joker's gun moll extraordinaire, who steals every scene she is in.
The basic plot seems rather derivative of a similar story used by Marvel not long after 9/11, where the government decided to enlist heroes to work for them. Of course this split their world down the middle, causing a huge rift. Now comparing one work against another is not always fair for a reviewer but his time the plot reveals one of the fundamentally minor but inescapable flaws of the DC universe: in placing their stories in Metropolis and Gotham City, in Central City and Smallville they lose a certain link with the external world which provides a kind of psychic connection that helps ground such fantastic material. In a Marvel story when a villain trashes a NYC or LA landmark it can't help but supply a natural fission that is lacking in a fictional setting. I can't get worked up over The Daily Planet or Wayne towers. Still, the thought of Batman using his brain to put Superman's brawn in its place will probably make me come back for a bit more.
Review by: Stacy Palm
There are a few children’s books that we adults consider rare gems that are to be treasured for enumerable years and passed down to our children, and their children, and so on. For me those books include The Giving Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, and I Love You Forever. Now I add to that list this wonderfully creative tale of the birth of Jesus told from his prospective. This story captures the heart of the moment in a very unique way. The illustrations are simplistically beautiful and add a depth to the narrator’s voice that is comforting. If you have not read this story I encourage you to look for it this Christmas season. I have a feeling it will be added to your family’s treasures for years to come.
Review by: Mark Palm
The Kindle is one of my favorite gadgets. With all of the digital libraries I have a huge choice of what to read. Barnes and Noble is an evil corporate giant to some, but it's a bonanza for me, and even the smallest public library has it gems. Nothing however, can seize my heart like an independent bookstore. Evidently, Deborah Meyler feels the same way. It shouldn't be a surprise since her novel The Bookstore is truly a love note to books, and the stores that sell them and the people that work and shop there.
In The Bookstore Esme Garland is a young English woman studying Art History at Columbia on a scholarship. When she discovers that she is pregnant by her boyfriend Mitchell she decides she needs more money to care for her baby. S ince she is on a student Visa there are very few jobs available, so luckily she lands one under the table at her favorite bookstore, The Owl.
All of the employees at this scruffy shop are well-drawn, from the laconic owner George, to the taciturn Luke, as well as Bruce, and the homeless men who help now and again. Under Ms. Meyler's hands the bookstore itself is a character, as is the whole of New York City. Rarely do you read a book that is so in thrall to its world and locations without being overly sentimental. If Ms. Meyler does not love NYC I would be deeply shocked. The same goes for books, and the people for whom they matter. I bet you could use this book a travel brochure for NYC, and as a fundraiser to keep that rare endangered beast known as the independent bookstore alive.
The story is not ignored either. Esme's struggles with her pregnancy, and coming to terms with the way that it will change her life are funny, and poignant. As she becomes a part of the bookstore crew their stories mesh with Esme's, making the book feel more open. Esme is observant, and witty, and Ms. Garland makes us cherish being inside of her head. In one tour-de-force scene Esme is forced to spend three days in bed after a miscarriage scare and Ms. Meyler manages to make it not only interesting, but emotional.
This book is not perfect, however. From his first scene to his last Esme's boyfriend Mitchell Van Leuven is a spoiled, egocentric, callous bully. I could not once see any sort of charm or attraction in him, and I don't know whether this was Ms. Meyler's intent, or a failure of characterization, but it makes Esme, who is such a smart and vibrant woman, seem simple to fall for the facile charms of such a vapid character. It certainly does not sink the book, but Mitchell's presence is like a black cloud.
There are some other sub-plots, about the death of one of the homeless men, Dennis, and Esme's academic career, and they are fine, but this book is at its best when Esme is looking at the city and its people, and just how her baby may or may not change her life. When we are deepest inside of Esme's heart, Ms. Meyler's prose sings. When dealing with the ups and downs of her engagement and day to day life with Mitchell I was interested, but certainly not captivated. My only other complaint with this strong novel is that the nearer we get to Esme's giving birth the story seems to run out of steam a bit, and becomes a bit condensed, as if Esme's fatigue were wearing the story as well as her down. It picks up at the end though, finishing on a cautious yet optimistic note. I felt that some readers wanting more of a romantic knockout may have been disappointed, but for me it rang quite true.
Review by: Stacy Palm
This book had a lot of good things going for it, but it also had it's share of negative things. Let me start by saying that overall the book was enjoyable, entertaining, and kept me interested and it is for those reasons that I would recommend this book to readers. This story is engaging in a "I want to know what happens" kind of way. The writer did an excellent job of moving the story forward without ruining the surprise ending. I thought this was an excellent story premise as I have a fondness for redemption stories.
There were two things that disappointed me about this book. One is general and one is very specific to me. The specific first, I work with abused and neglected children in the foster care system and I help those children get adopted. I was very upset to see the writer shine such a negative light on foster care and adoption. There are so many precious children needing good homes and we in this industry have enough problems disproving the many myths that surround foster care and adoption in the public. I wish the writer would shown more support for this very important topic. The general, I found the lead character to be to self-centered in her actions and thoughts, and while I understand that someone in the midst of addiction is acting very selfishly, I believe that selfishness should have dissipated more once she was clean. I could not come to respect the character because of this.
I know I seem harsh in my last paragraph, but this is a very important topic to me and to the children we serve. Having said that, I really did like the novel and I thought it was a very good mystery. Also, the writer did try to show at least one successful adoption story within the context of the book. I do believe Amber Garza is a talented writer and I hope to see more works from her in the future. I would recommend this book to others.
If you are a women or have spent much time around teenage girls, you know that there is something truly unique and miraculous about the emotional intensity of teen girls. There is nothing quite like it; the continual waves of the most heartfelt turmoil from joyous elation to grief stricken sadness. It's never ending drama of the most honest and raw feelings. It is a time when you can scream at the top of your lungs when angry because you can't find the right outfit to wear, or sit in a dark room sobbing your heart out while listening to rock ballads after your boyfriend didn't respond to your text. The pure unadulterated context of the moment is visible to all at this age.
Review by: Brennan Palm and Mark Palm
For a few years now, with varying degrees of success, writers have shown an exuberant joy in confounding expectations by taking two or more disparate genres and mixing them to create something new. (ie. Pride and Prejudice with Zombies)
Now we have a new entry in this game, Shakespeare vs. Lovecraft, which is exactly what it proposes to be, an exuberant mash-up of H.P. Lovecraft's eldritch horror and the timeless work of The Bard of Avon.
This short novel is not timeless, but mixing Lovecraft's ponderous tales of cosmic terror with Shakespeare's comedy is an enjoyable romp, light and breezy. It moves quickly, and is shameless fun for a quick read.