Review by: Mark Palm
It would be a massive understatement to say that there are a lot of books about vampires out there. Vampires have become a publishing phenomenon, almost a genre unto themselves. We are being buried under a wave of vampires. The problem is that even Sturgeon's Law, (ninety percent of everything is crap), doesn't quite get it. The upside is that some amazing novels (The Passage, The Twelve, and Salem's Lot leap to mind) have used this theme.
I wouldn't say that The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black is in that company, but it's pretty damn good. This is one of those books where you have to ignore the synopsis, because it makes the book sound lame. Trust me and forgive the crappy pun, but this book has teeth. The basic premise is that vampires exist, and are being managed by being exiled to abandoned and guarded cities called Coldtowns, ala Escape From New York. Ms. Black does an excellent job in her portrayal of the social phenomenon of vampirism in the modern day, from reality shows to streaming videos and blogs, but the heart of the story is not the world but the very personal story of a teen girl named Tana, and how vampires shape her life.
Without giving away most of the plot, I can tell you that she undertakes an unwanted road trip to the nearest Coldtown with a motley cast of characters including her ex-boyfriend and a mysterious vampire. As I have said in previous reviews, what gives this book such force is that Ms Black does not pull her punches. For the most part, in this book vampirism is violent and bloody and cruel, and its effects upon those who come in contact with it are almost always tragic. Most of the romance of the Vampire myth is blown away in this book, as are most of the characters that represent it.
One of the real strengths of this book is the main character, Tana. Ms. Black has created a vibrant and touching heroine, and she earns the term. She is put through her paces, too, as Ms. Black deals us an almost unbearably tense story that kept me on the edge of my seat, yet is free of panting melodrama or unbelievable heroics. Vampires or not, most of the book is gritty and grounded in realism, although there are a few too many close calls for Tana. Near the end of the book I really felt that she had just about used up her lucky rabbit's foot, but that is a small complaint.
Some of the sideline characters are less vivid than they could be, and the latter third of the book feels a little rushed, as if Ms. Black wanted to wrap things up quickly, but these also are small fish. I got through this book quickly enough, because I couldn't stop reading. I wanted to know how Tara's tale would end, and in the end, that is one of the best problems that a book can give you and Ms. Black did it very well.
Review by: Mark Palm
I have yet to see either a tornado or a hurricane, but I have seen my share of floods and blizzards. When I lived in Southwestern PA the big rivers would flood now and again, and while the power was undeniable there was no beauty in watching the dirty water swell and spread. Blizzards are another matter. Although on an intellectual level I know that they are harmful and dangerous whenever I lived through one I was always aware of their beauty. When I moved to Texas I realized that I missed snow, and now and again I find myself wishing for a good deep snow. In Snowblind Christopher Golden manages to show us the beauty, and the work day hassles that come with a big snow storm. He also makes it as scary as hell.
The Novel is set in the New England city of Coventry, and concerns two blizzards, twelve years apart. Mr. Golden gives us a large and varied cast and tracks their stories through the first blizzard. I don't wish to give away any spoilers which are so instrumental in this book, so just let me say that the storm is unusually dangerous causing dozens of fatalities, and most of the deaths are not natural. The characters are all finely drawn, and we care about them, and like a cook who knows that you cannot make an amulet without breaking some eggs, Mr. Golden lets us know how serious this all is by bumping off several characters that I came to like. The first blizzard takes up about a fifth of the book, but it sets up the cast for the next blizzard, which tracks the lives of people who survived the first one and follows their stories through a repeat.
As I said earlier Mr. Golden has a deft hand with character, but he also knows how to write action and how to scare the pants off of a reader. He does both with alarming but admirable frequency. There are many twists Mr. Golden reveals as he delves deeper into the unnatural aspects of the blizzards, but the most effective thing he does is not divulge too much. He keeps a lot of secrets’ back in the shadows, and do you know what? It's a lot scarier back in there.
There are several storylines in this book, and the author does a good job of juggling them all, following the plot as the lives of the citizens of Coventry overlap and entangle. Of special interest to me was how Mr. Golden showed how the effects of these occurrences touched them in their everyday lives in a way that most horror writers don't even attempt, much less pull off. As if it isn't bad enough that a loved one is killed by a supernatural entity during a blizzard Mr. Golden shows us the way it changes their everyday lives; marriages, childhoods and careers are altered and it is this commonplace touch that makes the story so hard-hitting.
There are a few nits that I could pick, but for the majority of this novel Mr. Golden had me just where he wanted me. I am not so sure that I want to see a blizzard the way that I once did.
Review by: Mark Palm
She Walks In Darkness is a trunk novel. That is to say that it is an unpublished novel that was found in the papers of Evangeline Walton, who is probably best known for her novelizations of the Welsh epic the Mabinogion. Throughout literary history trunk novels have been hit-or-miss. Sometimes they are diamonds in the rough, and other times they were in the trunk for a good reason. For me, this one falls somewhere in the middle.
Unlike the works for which she was most famous this book is a suspense novel, about a young American woman, Barbara Keyes, young and newly married to the archeologist Richard Keyes. Richard has taken Barbara to Italy for his work, where he is to study the area of Volterra from a nearby Villa. The young couple barely has time to set their foot in the door before a series of events consigns Richard to unconsciousness and places Barbara on her own, in a empty villa without transportation, and unable to speak more than a few phrases of Italian.
The book then veers towards the Gothic as Barbara is seemingly rescued by a cliché of a handsome Italian peasant, Floriano. Unfortunately for her he quickly devolves into a cliché of a laviscious peasant who is a polemic-spouting communist to boot. If that isn't bad enough he turns out to be the bastard son of the Villa's owner, the near-legendary villain Prince Mino. Things only get worse when the Prince himself shows up, gun in hand. He was supposed to have been dead, but faked the whole thing and was living in the endless labyrinth of catacombs that lie beneath the Villa.
Probably the most interesting part of the novel is the history of the area and the Villa, with its creepy semi-Minoan mythology. It was interesting, and scary, and provided a frisson that the earlier sections of the novel lacked. When Mino forces Barbara and an injured Floriano into the caves and tells them of the strange rituals that his ancestors held there I almost felt like I was approaching Poe territory. In these parts of the book Ms. Walton, through Barbara's voice, provides some of the best parts of the novel. The mixture of the strangeness and wonder of the subterranean world beneath the Villa are well drawn. Also interesting is the epistolary sections of the novel, where some of the necessary background history is discovered in the diary of an English soldier who happened to be an archeologist. The coincidence is rather clumsy, and some of the book becomes a bit to expositional, but it could have been worse.
One of the difficulties of the book is the character, and the narration of Barbara herself. She is a woman of her times. It was refreshing for a lead in a novel to not suddenly turn into Lara Croft or Indiana Jones in the midst of a crisis; but at times her lack of initiative and drive made me feel like a was adrift in a rudderless ship. Too often Barbara simply stands by and lets the events of the story wash over her. It is a difficult territory, trying to make the main character realistic but not letting their limitations push them to the back of the story. Ms Walton did a decent job, but I felt that she could have done better. Still it had some thrills and chills, so I will check out the next book that comes from Ms. Walton's trunk.
Review by: Stacy Palm
Nothing makes me happier than being able to share an experience with my daughter, Avalon. Switchers is a book that we chose to read at the same time so that we could discuss the different sections while we were both in the midst of the book. I have to say that I was very pleased with what this book offered us. This book is very appropriate for ages 12 and up. I did not need to worry that about any sexual situations or tension between love triangles, as there were none.
The characters in this book are imaginative and their talents even more so. I'm not giving to much away to let you know that the main characters have a special ability. This ability was one that my daughter adored and it lead to lots of conversations about what we would chose to do if we had this particular skill. The plot is not that strong, but the story really relies on the strength of the characters. Some of the supporting characters were so skillful presented that I came to care as much about them as the leading characters.
I would recommend this book for both young and older teens.
Review by: Mark Palm
One doesn’t have to be a cutting-edge commentator on modern culture to notice that the last few years have seen a huge increase in books and films that deal either with various forms of the apocalypse or dystopias. I am sure that there are a multitude of talking heads and pundit who have something to say on the subject, but on the whole I have decided to keep silent, except every now and then.
The Iron Bells is one or the other. It certainly seems to be a dystopia, but it also seems to be about the Apocalypse. Set in England, in the present or near future, the world has been invaded by Demons. They have possessed and taken over enough people in power that most religious institutions and practices are outlawed and there is an Inquisition, except that this time they are looking for practitioners of religion and magic, which exists in a kind of hazy form. Our story is about a young woman named Amaranth who is a member of the Resistance and is good with "blades". She seems to spend most of her time in the Underground running errands and seeking out caches of supplies. She is moody and dark and doesn’t seem to have many friends, except for Patrick, a brilliant nerd whom she protects from bullies and demons.
During one of her adventures she meets Dham, an American smuggled over from the States to help the Resistance because he is a Ringer, a person who has the ability to ring sacred bells to battle the demons. In rather typical fashion he has a cool name (pronounced Dam I take it), and Amaranth is reluctantly drawn to him. Another Ringer also shows up, a small Scottish girl named Catriona, (call her Cat), and Viola! Instant Love Triangle. Of course the two girls don't get along until each grudgingly comes to respect the other for their differences. While this is happening, Amaranth (call her Am) intercepts a incredibly important book that might hold the key to defeating the demons. Also she and the two Ringers are caught up in a secret mission to close The Gate that would keep any more demons from entering our world. Her best friend Patrick (call him Trick) is possessed by a demon and the Resistance plans on using him as a weapon. All of this unwinds in the decent but occasionally awkward first person present-tense narration of Amaranth.
Now Ms. Batista is a good enough writer that you care about what happens next, but I was never quite riveted by this book. There is a certain vagueness lurking in the heart of it that threw me off. All of our main characters have cool names and troubled backgrounds, but there is a unfinished quality to it that is hard to determine. In a book narrated by a teen I didn't want her to be erudite, but the demons, and how them came to control the world are problematically vague. I was never grabbed by this book. Now whether or not that is my problem, or the books, I cannot say, but I can't give it a hearty recommendation. Also the thing ends (barely) with a total cliff-hanger that just screams SERIES.
Review by: Stacy Palm
OH LA LA, I love a good story about highlander hotties! At first, I was a bit fearful that this book would read too much like a cheap knock off of my beloved "Outlander Series" by Diana Gabaldon, but I was pleasantly surprised. For those of you that have read Outlander you will greatly enjoy this book. The premise seems similar, but they are very different stories, however both are dripping with romantic moments in the vast Scottish Isle of days gone by.
This story has a strong female lead that is extremely independent and head strong. These qualities assist her in becoming an awesome female warrior later in the story. The story begins when the academically successful Isa finds herself transported back to the Highlands of the 1300's, but she is not alone. From there on out is a wonderful story packed with mystery, magic, and hot steamy love scenes.
There is an extreme twist to this story, which I desperately want to discuss, but it will be a spoiler for some people. Therefore:
Our heroine not only goes back in time to 1300's, but she continues traveling and ends up with a second lover in 85 AD! I will be honest, I was a little put off by Isa having two man that she was madly in love with, but I think that the author handled the situation quite well and I eventually came to an agreeable acceptance of Isa's actions. I really came to love this story and enjoyed the twist and turns this adventure led me on.
Review by: Mark Palm
A Study in Darkness is the second book in a trilogy by Emma Jane Holloway about the adventures of Evelina Cooper, Sherlock Holmes niece. I was pleasantly surprised by the first book in the series, A Study in Silk. So my expectations for the second novel were higher, and to my delight Ms. Holloway succeeds again.
As the title suggests, this book is darker and more serious in tone than Silk. It start off near where the second book ended, and once the story starts Ms. Holloway stamps her pedal to the metal for the rest of the way. I can't be sure but I wouldn't be surprised to discover that she was a talented juggler because she keeps an enormous amount of plot lines in the air and most of them are riveting. Most everyone from the first volume is here, and their stories not only continue but grow more and more entwined. If that isn't enough more members of the Bancroft and Keating families enter the story along with Mycroft Holmes, the enigmatic Schoolmaster, a wonderful automaton called Serafina, and even the Ripper murders.
The characters are all well-drawn and compelling, and as their stories unfold the author does a wonderful job showing us their motives. I enjoyed the moral complexity, as we see very few black or white hats; most everyone here is varying shades of grey.
If character isn't your bag than you can enjoy the plot. This book almost literally starts with a bang and never lets up. As in the first novel Ms. Holloway also makes sure that you feel the harsh side of the times. Even though this is an alternate history the hypocrisy and staggering unfairness of the Victorian Era is vividly brought to life as Evelina is disproportionately punished for a small indiscretion, and when she is shunned by society she enters the shadowy underworld of the times, where hunger and illness were the lot of the common man and woman. At the same time once cast down where the eyes of High Society do not see her Evelina feels a kind of freedom from the first time, a loosening of the ties of propriety. The paradox is beautifully explored by Ms. Holloway. She doesn’t turn away from the dark side of life.
Most of the story in this book is a continuation of the plot of the first, and while it is better to read the first one, it isn't necessary, as Ms. Holloway does an admirable job of filling the reader in. If at all possible you should read the first one, though, as it kicked butt, and there are so many interesting plotlines that I wished that the book were a bit longer at times, a rare thing indeed.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this book is that, having pushed the borders of convention in the ending of the first book, you get the feeling that Ms. Holloway wants to take it a bit further, as she puts Evelina and the other characters into tougher and tighter situations. Now this book isn’t perfect; I had some problems with the timing of the Evelina's romance, and I was disappointed that I foresaw the outcome of the Ripper murders. The character of Serafina is so poignant and true that you hope for more for her, but if wishes were fishes we'd all cast nets.
The ending, however complete and right it may seem, is still in some ways a cliff-hanger, and made me feel as if I were being set up a bit, but that's okay. This book is worth it, and if the third volume is as good as this, I won't mind at all.