Return to Sender: From the Files of Pyramid Investigations, by Tony Daniel

returntosenderEvery town has its ghost stories, and Atlanta is no exception. Crockett and Memphis Pete are just two ordinary guys caught up in them. The only thing is Crockett has become an unwitting medium who smokes too much and Pete is the reanimated mummy of a priest of Osiris obsessed with Elvis Presley. Together they help the various spirits of Atlanta and its environs find their way home.  When a legendary lost Confederate shipment of gold becomes the target of a voodoo master and a delusional historian, it’s up to the two hapless paranormal investigators to do whatever they can to make sure the good guys win. It’s a race against the clock, and time is almost up. (Goodreads.com)

 

Y’all. Here’s the thing: GO OUT AND GET THIS BOOK IMMEDIATELY. Okay, that wasn’t the thing I was thinking of – really it’s more that I don’t read crime fiction very often, but this one has the hook that will get me into most other genres: the paranormal.

Crockett and Pete are an excellent duo, and I mentioned to the author yesterday that after reading this I now hear everything in Mama Lady’s accent, so there’s that too. Excellent character development, with the exception MAYBE of Lucinda, but that’s not her fault that she’s a bit of a secondary story arc that is thrust into the main spotlight about halfway through. In fact, if I had any complaint about this novel, it might have been that I think the author could have developed the story in this into several novels, like a series. But that could be due to my own habit of writing books that are way too long for normal people to read.

In truth, this book was an easy read – because the scenes just flow into each other effortlessly, like a good play where you don’t realize you’ve left beat one and moved into beat two until you’re on the verge of beat three. The author clearly did his homework – since it is set in Atlanta I knew a lot of the places mentioned in the novel and never ONCE did I think anything like, “Hey, wait, he put the Varsity in the middle of Oakland Cemetary.” The characters, as I mentioned above, are compelling. I know that someone has worked hard on a character when I hear a different voice in my head as I’m reading.

I can’t seem to say anything that I want to say without spoilers, so I will just give you some bullet points that were highlights for me:

  • Peggy. Y’all. Just Peggy.
  • The depth of interaction between our detectives and Jimmy warmed my heart and broke it a few times.
  • The intricacy of writing two characters who speak in a very distinctive accent AND GETTING IT RIGHT.  (I tried that with Teeand in my Orana Chronicles novels and instead of sounding like a LOTR dwarf my British husband said he was a cross between Yorkshire and Scotland.)
  • Creating two distinct voices for a – okay, yeah – hapless detective like Crockett and the force of nature that is Pete.
  • PETE! Y’all. Love me some Pete (but then who doesn’t?).
  • The action at Stone Mountain. I could see it in my head and I haven’t been to Stone Mountain in decades.

Seriously – go read this RIGHT NOW. I’m already badgering the author for more.

*I purchased this book on my own, and am making this review on my own. I was not asked by the author or publisher to review this title.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

hunger gamesI don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that reading this trilogy changed my perspective on my life and the world around me. I think if I said that about the movies, that would be a lie, so I won’t say that.

These three books introduce us to a dystopian Earth – specifically the United States – after a massive war. The US has been renamed Panem and is divided into 12 districts, starting with 1 which is the most wealthy and going down to 12 which is a mining district filled with low socio-economics and poverty and all that fun stuff.

I can’t even separate them into their individual novels because I read them back to back like one long story. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, grows up over the course of the three novels – even though I think they only span three years. There was an uprising back in the day, you see, and after it was ended by the ruling class (as you would expect), they devised a yearly remembrance that would serve to keep something like that from ever happening again: The Hunger Games. Each district would put forth a tribute – a teenager, who would then participate in a reality-show-gone-wrong combat trial against all the other tributes. When I say combat, I mean to the death. Death, broadcast live to all the districts. Like what might happen if you combined Big Brother and Survivor.

Katniss, being of age, goes to the selection of the tribute knowing that she or her best friend/boyfriend Gage might end up as tribute, but it is worse than she can even imagine: her younger sister Primrose’s name is called. Unable to bear that thought, Katniss volunteers as tribute in place of her sister and the swap is allowed. From there, the first book (The Hunger Games) takes us through Katniss’s first Hunger Games in which she turns the rules of the game on their collective head. There are two tributes that make it through to the end rather than one, and as such Katniss has caught the imagination of the people of Panem as well as the attention of those in district one who would subdue the rest.

Book two, Catching Fire, brings Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games arena to face winners from past games – in the hopes, clearly, that one of them will defeat her and return order to the districts that are now brimming with hope. Katniss, the Girl on Fire, is becoming a symbol of hope for the people of Panem, and while she and Peeta are being trotted out as a power couple who fell in love against all odds, this is not who Katniss truly is – but Gage has lost hope in their bond. The rebellion is rising and Catching Fire in book two – with the Mockingjay, a symbol of Katniss from the first Hunger Games, as its logo. The “mockingjay” is a hybrid bird used in the conflict to carry messages long distances – you have probably heard the whistle and the song if you saw the movies. Oh, Rue! Too soon.

Finally, in book three which was named for that sweet bird and the pin that Katniss wears – Mockingjay – we see the fruits of the rebellion’s labour, and they are not pretty. Honestly, to read them I found the first book harder to make it through than the third due to the subject matter (teenagers killing other teenagers), but the movies are of course made with the flash-bang in full swing by number three. These books are hard to read at times, uplifting and depressing in equal measure, but they will remind us that if these kids can have hope, so can we. Read them, even if you have seen the movies. They are a stark reminder of what happens with absolute power, and that even the young should have a say in their society.

Guardian: Rise of the Nature Walker

[Warning: This post contains spoilers for Tempest! Read at your own risk.]

The third and final book in the Nature Walker Trilogy dives right in where Tempest left us – is Sath dead? Will Gin get caught in the throne room, holding the weapon? Has Taeben finally managed to separate them for good, and cleared his own path to the throne of Qatu’anari? Will Tairneanach be found out to be complicit?

Gin is the Nature Walker, the supreme druid, the connection between the magic of the All-Mother, Sephine, and the citizens of the Great Forest and beyond. She is a Guardian, a member of a council formed at the end of the Forest War with the purpose of keeping the peace among the races of Orana. How will this knowledge help her against the renewed fervor of Taeben’s plan to rule the world?

You’ll have to read it to find out…and I hope that if you do, you will comment below or review the book on Amazon/Facebook/your blog/anywhere! I love to hear from my readers and from people that love Gin and Sath as much as I do.

Tempest: Fall of the Nature Walker

[This contains spoilers for Wanderer – You have been warned!]

Tempest picks up after the events of Wanderer, and follows Gin and Sath as they go their separate ways – Gin with Taeben, the wizard with mysterious ties to Lord Taanyth in Bellesea Keep and Sath with Annilanshi, the Qatu female who got the Fabled Ones embroiled in conflict with Lady Salynth, the dragonkind sorceress trapped in the Western Tower by ancient magic.

While Anni and Sath settle into their lives in an embassy building on Qatu’anari, Taeben and Gin have, unbeknownst to the Qatu couple, settled into an embassy just up the beach. The wizard is using his connection to the Princess Royal of the Qatu in his master plan to take the throne – a stepping stone to ruling the whole of Orana.

Sath has no interest in his birthright or title. Anni has kept him under the control of her magical charm – at the urging of Taeben, who is keeping Gin subdued under his own ancient magic. It is only Gin’s younger sister, Lairky – who has not forgotten her previous run-ins with the Bane of the Forest – who feels that the exiled prince and her older sister need to find their way back to each other for the good of the Great Forest AND Qatu’anari.

This second installment leads down familiar paths with unfamiliar outcomes. Come back to Orana in Tempest: Fall of the Nature Walker.

Wanderer: Origin of the Nature Walker

Yeah, this is the point where I review my own book.

NOT REALLY! I won’t tell you what I think about it, but I will give you an idea of what it’s about, and then YOU can read it and YOU can come back and review it. Fair?

Welcome to the fictional world of Orana. The Orana Chronicles consists of the Nature Walker Trilogy, the Forest War novels, and some stand-alone novels.  In the tradition of the epic fantasy saga, the books build on each other to create a new and exciting universe, bursting with promise for adventurers brave enough to take up the journey.

Wanderer is the first book in the Nature Walker Trilogy and follows the story of Ginolwenye (Gin, for short), a wood elf that leaves her home in the tree city of Aynamaede and travels to the far ends of her world. She finds herself first with a group of outcasts led by a rogue druid from Gin’s home city, then she is taken in by the Fabled Ones, a guild of adventurers that undertake quests for others (and for their own profit, truth be told). A chance meeting in a tunnel with a Qatu (a race of bipedal felines that were made sentient by Orana’s magic) named Sathlir Clawsharp (Sath, for short) changes the course of Gin’s life – and Sath’s, truth be told.

In Wanderer, Gin is on a path to avenge her parent’s untimely deaths when she comes face to face with an ancient evil lurking in a cursed palace Keep. The Fabled Ones and Sath together may not be strong enough to rescue Gin from the dragon that controls the Keep – and the minions he has conscripted to work out his evil plan to take over Orana.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

It has just occurred to me that I never made good on my promise to tell you about The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.  I honestly thought I had already posted but apparently all my good intentions came to was an empty post in the Draft folder.  Well, nevermind, now’s as good a time as any, right?

In fact, I think it’s a very good thing that it has taken me this long.  You see, when I first finished this incredibly long drawn-out detailed novel,  I hated it.  That is saying something.  There are few books that I’ve read in my life that I’ve absolutely hated and will never open again (The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt being one, a painful lesson in Pretty Covers Do Not Equal Pretty Books or When Gorgeous Covers Happen to BAD Books, but I digress).  With a bit of distance, I don’t hate the book, but I can’t say that I would easily recommend it.

The narration duty alternates between different characters as well as different time periods, which was the first bit I found to be challenging with this book.  The three main narrators span three generations:  a professor/mentor, his student, and later that student’s daughter.  All of them become quite tangled up in the search for the real Vlad Dracul, or Dracula.  The first two narrators (chronologically, in the actual text the narration bounces back and forth quite a bit among the three) are drawn into the search for Dracula by a book that appears in each of their lives.  The third narrator takes up the mantle of her father’s search, both to find him when he disappears as well as to find out more about who he was and has become as a result of the search.

There are strange plot twists and loads of characters, and I have to say I was not at all satisfied with the end but I did not see it coming.  I suppose that is one point in the favor of this tale:  There were plot twists that I saw coming almost from the beginning, but the eventual wrap up of the story wasn’t one of them.  There are loads of characters and relationships…it wasn’t quite the experience of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches that actually required me to draw up a family tree to keep everyone straight, but it was close.  I did learn a great deal about the world during the Cold War, as well as a great deal of vampire lore that I didn’t previously know.  The author definitely did her homework and the facts that she is the daughter of a librarian and a university professor, is married to a Bulgarian scholar, and spent her formative years in Slovenia are all very apparent in her writing.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, then by all means should you get a copy of The Historian and give it a read.  If you’re a fan of modern vampire fiction, it may be a bit dry for you.  But if you’re a vampire fiction buff and have enjoyed Anne Rice and others that wrote about vampires pre-Twilight et al, this may be the book for you.  To be honest, I’m still not sure what I thought of it to the point that I might read it again, and that, I suppose, is the mark of a truly good book…or at the least an intriguing story idea.

Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

Cracking wise and cracking skulls.  Skulduggery Pleasant is an all new kind of hero.  First of all, he’s a skeleton.  Noticed that, did you?  Secondly, he’s immersed in another world that exists alongside ours.  Finally, he’s a magician, and a darned good one.  We’re talking fireballs from the palms, people.

I have only read the first book in this series, but I liked it enough to want to read the next one.  Stephanie is left an entire house in her uncle’s will, but that’s only the beginning of her weird day.  She ends up spending the night in the house alone, where she is attacked by someone claiming to want something her uncle had hidden.  Cue the hero to save the day, only this hero is a skeleton in a three piece suit.  They set out on a series of adventures to find the object sought by the dark side, meeting strange and wonderful characters along the way.

Now, while I did enjoy this book and I do look forward to reading the next one, I did find it to be a bit dialogue heavy.  If you have a 9-12 level reader who likes a lot of action, this might not be the book for him or her.  The action is there, and is so well written that I could clearly visualize it in my mind as I read, but even those scenes have a lot of talking going on between the characters.

It could be that the next books in the series have less exposition via dialogue.

All in all, I’m not sure that this is a YA/9-12 book that will really appeal to adults like some others in the genre do, but it has intrigued me enough to want to keep with it.  I’d love to hear what others think.

Insomnia and Morganville Vampires (the latter by Rachel Caine)

Ah, insomnia, how I do love thee.  While I’m anxiously awaiting my trip to the fae, I thought I’d talk a little about a great little book series I’ve discovered, the Morganville Vampires by Rachel Caine.

Yes, it’s about vampires.  Yes, it’s YA/Teen.  No, you really shouldn’t be surprised that I’m reading ANOTHER vampire novel…or so mean.  Stop rolling your eyes!  Anyway, moving on…

This series was recommended to me by no less than half a dozen customers at work, claiming it was better by far than the Twilight series (I’m sorry, I just can’t call a book about teenagers a SAGA), which I’ve read (and managed not to review…you may thank me now) and the Vampire Academy series which I have not yet read.  I picked up the Omnibus edition, which includes books 1-3, with the intention of reading it on the plane on my most recent trip back home to America.  It seemed reasonable, since I read three Vampire Diaries books in that space of time.

It did not happen, because unlike the other series, I found myself reading every word, hanging on every cliff, and not skipping whole paragraphs because I’d gotten bored.

At the risk of gushing, this series is so much better, more engrossing, better written, I could go on and on and on…sorry, back on topic.  This is one of the best in a genre that seems to be overrun with bad writing.  Slap a black cover on it and it will sell these days…but Morganville is different.  The characters are more real to me, even though the situations they are in are fantastic and involve the supernatural.  The plot twists involve action and adventure, not romance. Rachel Caine has been called the Queen of YA/Teen vampire fiction, and I’d tend to agree with that.

Okay, fair enough, there’s action and adventure in the Twilight books.  But that and my feelings on the sheer number of times a main character is killed and brought back in the Vampire Diaries series belong in other posts.  I said moving on, didn’t I?

The basic plot is this:  Claire is a sixteen year old genius who starts college early.  She attends a small school in Texas in a town called Morganville, but soon discovers that the town has some weird quirks.  She is your basic ill-at-ease, clumsy, awkward teenage heroine, but she displays a strength of character from early on in the novels that I don’t think you see in a lot of other vampire fiction these days.  After some unpleasantness she moves herself out of her dorm and into a house being shared by four other slightly older teenagers, none of which are students at the college she attends.

The plot changes gears here, as she finds out that Morganville is a town filled with and mostly run by vampires.  Humans don’t go out after dark.  If you’re lucky, you have a vampire patron that offers you protection…but that usually comes at a price.  I have to admit, making the vampires the bad guys was a refreshing change from the other novels that are so popular right now.  Claire is a strong heroine who comes into her own more and more as the novels progress.  I’ve only finished the first three, and I can’t wait to see how she continues to grow up in the next six novels.  If you like the genre but are sick of the emo stereotypes, go hang out in Morganville for awhile.  You’ll be glad you did.  Just…make sure your seatbelts are fastened and your tray tables are up.  The ride is fast paced, often turbulent, and just fabulous.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to think about a different kind of novel all together…Skulduggery Pleasant.  Stay tuned.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney

This post could also be titled Why the Book is Always Better than the Movie, by Nancy Dunne.  This is, in my grown up opinion, one of the best YA/9-12 series of books I’ve seen in a long time.  The main character,  Greg, is an awkward pre-teen who has been given a diary journal by his mother, and the books are basically his handwritten words with cartoons drawn in to help explain the story.  These books are hilarious, especially to those of us who were awkward but didn’t really know it at the time.

Greg’s mother and father play important roles in his story, as do his older brother Rodney and baby brother Manny.  Greg’s best friend Rowdy is the typical kid who has hit pre-teen land but would rather stay in little-kid world.  There are other characters who, when they make appearances in the book, will remind you of kids you knew growing up and will surely remind younger readers of other kids they see every day at school.

The movie…well, I’m not a movie reviewer, but I tend to always think that the movie/TV show is better than the book.  In this case, I believe it to be true.  There is so much in the book that can’t be put on the screen faithfully.  While I think the movie makers tried their best (and there is even a book to prove it that shows how the movie was made), this is one work that needs to remain on the page.  It’s the Diary…not the web log.

I loved these books and anxiously await anything else that Jeff Kinney writes.  Get them for your kids but read them yourself.  Neither of you will be disappointed.