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Thorn Jack: A Night And Nothing Novel
Thorn Jack: A Night And Nothing Novel
by Katherine Harbour
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.05
36 used & new from CDN$ 4.39

5.0 out of 5 stars How can the dreadful, the venerable, the sacred and sublime, reveal themselves to our dulled minds?, Jan. 11 2015
Ah, Tam Lin -- a timeless tale of love triumphing over faerie magic. It's one of those rare stories that works beautifully, no matter where or when its set.

And "Thorn Jack: A Night and Nothing Novel" is one of the best adaptations that I have seen, bringing the story to a modern day small college town. Katherine Harbour's writing is intoxicatingly lyrical ("a voice like ashes and velvet") and she weaves a spellbinding web of romance and otherworldly fantasy. Think Holly Black by way of Neil Gaiman.

After her sister's suicide, Finn and her father move to her grandmother's old house in Fair Hollow, hoping to get a fresh start. She also begins attending HallowHeart, a local college awash in myth and folklore, and filled with fun courses like "Symbols in Body Art" (tattoos), "The Mask in Theatre" and "Scandals in Biblical History." She makes some oddball friends, a few enemies, and learns a bit about the spooky folklore that permeates Fair Hollow life -- including a prediction that she will die on All Hallow's Eve.

Then during a lakeside party, she encounters the Fata siblings, Reiko and Jack. Obviously, there is something very odd about the Fatas, and Jack quickly takes an interest in Finn. But strange things begin to happen to Finn, as she begins to discover that Reiko has a strange hold over her "brother" -- and that Finn may be the only one who can set him free, if she can triumph over dark, tricky forces.

"Thorn Jack" is a novel awash in poetry, violins, leaves, ribbons and masks. Like the old-world HallowHeart, it has a poetic, eccentric beauty that seems both modern and very old and lushly poetic -- which seems appropriate since it mingles the traditional "Tam Lin" tale with the tale of a young college freshman finding her way in a brand new city.

And Katherine Harbour spins her tale in a hauntingly lovely manner, with scenes that feel like dreams (Reiko's final clash with Finn) written in lush, lyrical prose ("The young man before him seemed sculpted from moonlight, autumn leaves, and ice"). She also peppers the story with things that she clearly loves, like poets, certain novels, folktales, Renfaire-clothes, Celtic folk-punk and even descriptions of fairy-tale-like Victorian houses.

She also grasps the faerie folk as few authors do -- the scenes with them are shifting, shadowy and clearly dangerous, flickering between the real and the dreamlike. And Reiko is pretty scary, even from her first innocuous appearance.

Finn is one of those heroines that it takes a little time to warm up to, but you end up really liking her once she settles into her groove -- she's sensible, somewhat snarky, but also bright and arty. She has just the right combination of teen awkwardness and collegiate confidence, with a tinge of heartbreak over the loss of her fragile, glass-thin sister. Her friends are like colorful glass beads accentuating her, and Jack is the "sexy mysterious bad boy" archetype without coming across as Edward-Cullen creepy. He's had his heart removed, after all -- you can't expect him to be normal.

Straddling the line between young-adult and contemporary fantasy, "Thorn Jack: A Night and Nothing Novel" is a tale of glittering fae magic, rich prose and a clever twist on a classic tale. For those who love a good faerie romance, this is a must-read.

Queen Of The Dark Things: A Novel
Queen Of The Dark Things: A Novel
by C. Robert Cargill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.00
37 used & new from CDN$ 2.96

4.0 out of 5 stars You are unburdened by destiny (spoilers), Jan. 11 2015
C. Robert Cargill's debut novel "Dreams and Shadows" was one of my favorite urban fantasy novels of recent memory -- a tale of two young men touched by magic in a world of strange, dangerous magical creatures.

But with Ewan pushing up daisies now, I found myself curious about how Cargill's sequel would turn out. The answer: "Queen of the Dark Things" is a lot like its magically-adept protagonist Colby -- dark, witty, and riddled with a weird, dark, menacing underworld of supernatural beauty and oddity. This story is far more intimate than its predecessor, but it still has a complex narrative and some genuinely spooky antagonists.

Six months have passed since Ewan's death. Colby has driven the denizens of the Limestone Kingdom from Austin, disposes of dangerous creatures (like La Llorona) when he isn't drinking in the company of angels and djinni... and inadvertently runs afoul of the beautiful blonde goddess of Austin. Still grief-stricken over his only human friend's death, he wants to be left in peace. But he's a powerful wizard, so... no, he's not going to get that peace.

Ten years ago, during a trip to Australia, Colby met a little girl named Kaycee, who used dreamwalking to escape her lonely, sad life. But when a band of kutji (ghostly pirates) destroyed her body and her life, she became the Queen of the Dark Things.

And now she's coming to Austin, filling everyone and everything there with fear -- including Colby, who may not be able to triumph against her. With her come the kutji, the Seventy-Two and a vast web of demonic conspiracy that has spread through the centuries... and ends with the Queen seeking revenge on everyone who has hurt her. And since Colby is an integral part of this conspiracy, he may not survive what is coming to Austin.

One of the best things about "Queen of the Dark Things" is the wealth of supernatural creatures and entities, which are so many and varied that it gives the whole story an epic feel. Coyote, a djinn with a junk shop, demons, an alcoholic angel, a genius loci, the Clever Man, horse-faced demons and of course, the Queen herself -- not only is there a lot here, but Cargill gives the impression that there is a whole epic world out there that we have only seen shreds of.

And Cargill's writing is powerful and rich, with silken sweeps of magical imagery that can be incredibly disturbing (Wade's suicide because of the kutji) even as they are beautifully written ("a wrinkled prune wrapped around yellowed, mossy teeth and embers peering through clawed-out sockets"). And it's written in a dark, wry way reminiscent of Neil Gaiman or Jim Butcher at their best, with the world-weary Colby navigating his everyday life with his talking golden retriever. Yes, he has a talking dog, but it's played remarkably straight.

The book's biggest flaw is that it becomes top-heavy with exposition sometimes. Not only is there a pseudo-academic essay on folklore every few chapters, but the entire chapterlong scene with Orobas is non-stop exposition about everything Colby couldn't find out any other way.

Colby himself is still a fascinating and intriguing character -- he's self-destructively mopey over the loss of Ewan, getting drunk and passing out in fields. He's a likable guy because, despite his ruthlessness, he is still a good and caring person who wants to protect innocent people. The Queen is his opposite -- she is ruthless with the blind confidence of a child, with the twisted, festering resentment that has been building up for the last eleven years. Despite her cruelty, it's impossible not to feel sorry for her because of all the horrors he's experienced -- and there's no possible way her story can end without breaking your heart.

"Queen of the Dark Things" slows itself down with lots and lots of exposition, but the richless of C. Robert Cargill's world and his battered wizard anti-hero still make it a compelling read. And honestly, I'm dying to see what happens for Colby next.

by Lauren Oliver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 15.87
41 used & new from CDN$ 9.37

4.0 out of 5 stars No fear, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Panic (Hardcover)
When you're a kid, you take risks. Supposedly you take fewer of them when you get older... but in reality, the risks you take are simply more socially acceptable.

But every now and then, you hear about a dangerous trend that teenagers are embracing. This brings me to "Panic," Lauren Oliver's first non-fantasy/SF novel. Centering on the titular "game" that dominates the summer, this is a fast-paced, adventuresome little novel with pretty likable characters -- and dominated by the exciting feeling of a secret, dangerous sub-society.

In the small city of Carp, the teenagers have created Panic -- a potentially deadly game that is played for a fifty-grand cash prize. Every high school senior pays a dollar a day. And when the day arrives, anyone who wants to will participate in the first of the challenges: the Jump. The police try to threaten the teens into not participating, but nobody really cares.

This year, two impoverished kids are determined to win Panic -- scrawny Dodge, who wants revenge for the Panic challenge that left his sister crippled; and Heather, who wants to build a new life for herself and her sister. And so -- along with Nat's friends Bishop and pretty, selfish Nat -- they begin fulfilling the challenges. But the game is brutal, and the challenges aren't the only threat to the competitors...

Lauren Oliver is best known for writing fantasy and/or dystopian sci-fi, so it's worth noting that "Panic" is the first novel she's written that... well, is pretty much devoid of anything out of the ordinary. Well, except for the stuff the characters are doing as part of the game -- "Panic" sometimes feels like a present Hunger Games for a little blue-collar town. Or maybe a "Scorpio Races" minus the sea-horses.

But the real focus here is not on the game, or on a plausibly Evil Government... but on what the kids are doing this game to escape. Poverty, neglect, unemployment, disability, revenge, taking care of one's family members, and desperation to escape a tiny town with no real future -- that is what the real focus is, and what truly haunts the teenagers who take part in Panic.

And while she doesn't get too explicit about the poverty and struggles in Carp, Lauren Oliver does give you a feel for the desperation that these kids feel. Heather is a tough, capable heroine who seems to be sinking into her miserable life, unable to believe that things will improve. Dodge is a somewhat darker figure -- at first his only motivation is revenge, but gradually we see his genuine selflessness and caring for his friend. Nat is a pretty despicable, selfish character, though.

And since the whole story depends on a death-defying game, Oliver's writing has to capture adrenaline-fueled mayhem. She does that pretty well -- even when the kids are not doing the actual game, there's a feeling of tense unease and anarchy, running just under the ordinary things they're doing. And yes, there's some romance woven in there too, but it would have been roughly the same book without it.

Despite some vague similarities to the "Hunger Games" (there are kids, there's poverty, and there is a competition -- THAT'S ALL), "Panic" is a strong little standalone novel, with some solid characters and powerful writing.

Rooms: A Novel
Rooms: A Novel
by Lauren Oliver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.05
37 used & new from CDN$ 16.97

3.0 out of 5 stars Death is purification, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Rooms: A Novel (Hardcover)
"Rooms" is a ghost story. But not the typical kind of ghost story -- these ghosts are woven into the house they occupy. Always watching and aware.

And while it seems like just an artistic conceit at first, Lauren Oliver puts it to good use in her first novel for adults. "Rooms" moves slowly and painstakingly for a long time, as Oliver explores the personalities of the dysfunctional Walker family. But once she starts weaving the supernatural into the everyday, the novel begins its slow build towards the inevitable eruption.

After a long illness, Richard Walker has died in his country house. The ghosts Alice and Sandra are kind of relieved by this, especially when the rest of the Walker clan returns to the house -- the ex-wife Caroline, who dulls her pain with booze; suicidal teen son Trenton, who has barely recovered from a serious car crash; and wild daughter Minna, a single mom who immerses herself in sex and cosmetic surgery.

They're completely uncomfortable around each other, almost as uncomfortable as the reserved Alice is around the vulgar, blunt Sandra -- both of whom have their own secrets that still haunt them even after they die. As the family unwillingly spends time together, their problems and secrets begin to surface -- and the arrival of a new ghost causes new complications when Trenton senses her presence.

Though it has ghosts in it, "Rooms" is not really a ghost story. Alice and Sandra are more like a pair of grumpy old ladies living in the attic than something scary or even spooky -- they observe the people who lived there, and bicker between themselves. No, this is more of a story about the human characters, and the ghosts really are just another set of people in it.

Oliver's writing is clear and fluid, neither too stark nor too flowery. She switches perspectives with rare skill, flitting from first-person to third person seamlessly, and giving each person's thoughts a different flavor. And she conjures a thick fog of discontent and haunting misery, slowly untangling each character's story and exploring just why they are here, and why they are the way they are. It's a little TOO slow, actually.

And if there's a message, it's that people's secrets, resentments and lies will ultimately entrap them. Everyone in the book is trapped -- sometimes literally (by walls, wire and doors) and sometimes through depression or anger. The slow-burning plot starts to move faster as the secrets are revealed, building up to an inevitable... well, when you release that much energy, something has to blow.

The biggest problem is quite honestly the characters. Nobody in the book is very likable except Trenton -- and yes, that includes the ghosts -- and the gathering of damaged, distant people who barely tolerate each other becomes kind of tiresome by the halfway point. The closest to a likable character would probably be Trenton, a depressed teen boy who often seems to be lost in his own darkness. He spends a lot of time mulling over the possibility of suicide, his past near-death experience, and public humiliation. Poor kid.

"Rooms" is too slow and bleak for its own good, but Oliver's excellent writing and intriguing storycraft make it worth the read. Just don't expect spooky woo-woo ghosts.

The Odyssey
The Odyssey
by Barry B. Powell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.65
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5.0 out of 5 stars Sing to me of the resourceful man, O Muse, Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: The Odyssey (Hardcover)
Poor Odysseus. First he spent a decade fighting in a war he didn't want to go to in the first place. Then he spent ANOTHER decade trying to slog home.

And in one of many spinoffs of "The Iliad," the archetypical trickster-hero spends the entire epic poem "The Odyssey" doing his absolute best to get home, despite the entire universe conspiring to stop him. Barry Powell's new translation is an excellent follow-up to his translation of "The Iliad," giving Homer's deathless poetry a robustly classical yet still readable quality.

It begins ten years after the end of the Trojan War. Odysseus has been missing ever since the war ended, and everybody assumes he's now dead. His son Telemachos is moping, and his wife Penelope has been fending off her suitors for several years. The goddess Athena, after interceding on Odysseus' behalf, begins guiding Telemachos to find news of his long-absent father.

Turns out Odysseus is actually alive, and has been the captive of the lovestruck sea-nymph Kalypso for seven years. But when he finally gets away, he ends up shipwrecked on a far-off land (due to Poseidon being angry at him), and relates his bizarre story to the people who rescue him.

Among his adventures: his encounter with the Lotus-Eaters and a cruel man-eating Cyclops, the Laestrygonians, the sorceress Circe (who turns his men into pigs), the deadly Sirens, Scylla and Charibdis, and the wrath of a god when the crew eats sacred cattle. But even after all this weirdness and twenty years away, Odysseus is still determined to return home and reclaim his family and kingship.

Out of all the stories spun off from "The Iliad," "The Odyssey" is probably the most famous. Perhaps this is because it's one of the least tragic, despite the high death count -- with some divine help from Athena and Hermes, Odysseus can actually get home to Ithaca, his wife and his now-adult son (who is not king, for some reason -- a puzzling detail that I never quite understood).

It's also more colorful and magical than other such stories -- instead of mundane human enemies, Odysseus' story is awash in magical creatures both fair and foul. There are gods, sorceresses, man-eating monsters and a six-headed creature over a whirlpool. In fact, the story doesn't truly settle back to the "ordinary" life until Odysseus finally gets back home, and has to deal with more human enemies: all the men who want to bonk his wife.

And Odysseus' determination to get home is literally legendary. He's already an endearing character, being a clever trickster-king and a formidable warrior -- but his love for Penelope and his unshakeable, unswerving determination add a depth and intensity to his personality. Telemachos comes across as kind of pouty and sulky at first, but becomes a sort of secondary hero when he learns that his father is not actually dead.

And Barry Powell's free-verse translation is a pretty good one -- he maintains the quality of oral poetry ("she bound beneath her feet/her beautiful sandals -- immortal, golden! -- that bore her over the water") while being very fluid and easy to read, without getting tangled up in rhyme or line length. I could have used less supplementary material, though.

"The Odyssey" is a timeless, enchanted epic, expanding on one of the most likable characters of the whole Trojan War -- and Barry Powell's strong, colorful free-verse translation is definitely one worth checking out.

Not My Father's Son: A Memoir
Not My Father's Son: A Memoir
by Alan Cumming
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.00
41 used & new from CDN$ 16.44

4.0 out of 5 stars Not his father's son, Jan. 11 2015
A few years ago, actor Alan Cumming was approached by the BBC to be in the show "Who Do You Think You Are?," which delves into the ancestry of various celebrities. Then he got a shocking phone call from his father, claiming that Cumming was not actually his son.

This suckerpunch serves as the springboard for "Not My Father's Son: A Memoir," a book-length catharsis for Alan Cumming's myriad family issues. Cumming's memoir of family, abuse and personal upheaval serves two purposes -- to explore his traumatic childhood and how he struggles to most past it, and an exploration of a mysterious figure in his mother's family.

The news that his father may not actually be his father leads Cumming to reflect on his unhappy childhood -- a childhood where he and his brother Tom were mentally and physically abused by their dad, who would fly into screaming, savage rages at the slightest provocation. He also cheated blatantly on their long-suffering mother, who unfortunately did not divorce him until Alan was in his late teens. In the years that followed, an icy estrangement popped up between them.

Determined to know the truth, Cumming decides to get a DNA test to find out if his father's claims are true. And at the same time, he reflects on how this has overshadowed his life -- a breakdown, the failure of his first marriage, and the issues he's still working with. And while waiting for the test results, Cumming begins investing his maternal grandfather, a World War II hero who mysteriously left his family for south-east Asia and was killed under mysterious circumstances.

"Not My Father's Son: A Memoir" is a very non-linear biography -- Cumming bounces like a pinball between about half a dozen time periods. It sometimes left me confused about when he was talking about and what is going on, but Cumming seems to have been connecting these anecdotes by theme -- and it keeps you from ever getting numb from his tales of childhood abuse. He rips off the band-aid, lulls you into an uneasy peace... and then rips it off again.

And he provides a sort of genetic mystery along the way -- Cumming seems to have been kind of relieved that he might not be related to the man who had tormented him, despite all the weird implications about his mom. The answer (no, I am not going to say what it is!) provides a whole new tangle of problems and lies for Cumming to deal with.

And the stories of his childhood are raw, brutal experiences that bring tears to your eyes -- not just the raw pain of his mistreatment, but the cold gnawing fear that permeates life with an abusive person. His father is depicted not as an inhuman ogre, but definitely as a cruel, warped person who warps everything to justify his simmering rage and abuse. If he hadn't been so vile to everyone in his family, you would almost feel sorry for someone shunned and loathed by everyone he knew.

But Cumming's memoir is not only one of abuse, but of his present life. He comes across as a puckish, intelligent man who enjoys his job (he natters for awhile about the roles he took during all this personal upheaval), but who has struggled with personal issues for a long time. For instance, he explains that the disintegration of his first marriage was due to a nervous breakdown he had after his wife brought up the idea of having kids.

And it's rather sweet how much he adores his mother and older brother. However, a few comments he makes made me wonder if he feels some buried resentment over his mother not divorcing his father earlier, since she could not have failed to notice that both her children were being abused.

The book's end gives you the feeling that if Cumming hasn't exorcised all his demons (seriously, man, I hope you have had therapy!), he has achieved some emotional closure, and a measure of catharsis. The scars are clearly still there, but the wounds no longer seem to hurt so easily. And of course, he discovers what was up with his grandfather, which has a tragic poignancy all its own.

Despite the schizophrenic chronology, "Not My Father's Son" is a powerful, painful, witty little memoir about living your life, regardless of who has hurt you.

Young Frankenstein
Young Frankenstein
Price: CDN$ 11.98
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's pronounced "Fronkensteen", Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: Young Frankenstein (DVD)
There are some comedy movies that are so great, so beloved, that they need no introduction. "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "Airplane," "Animal House," "Ghostbusters"... ones that are recognizable merely by being quoted.

But one of the best is "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks' gutsplittingly funny parody of Universal's series of Frankenstein movies. While combining elements from at least three movies, it's a tight, fast-moving string of seamless gags, running jokes and wild-eyed mad science from Gene Wilder. And of course, it has one of those scripts that is just outstandingly quotable ("HE... VAS... MY.... BOYFRIEND!").

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) -- pronounced "Fronkensteen" -- is a talented young neurosurgeon who tries very hard to distance himself from his grandfather's notorious experiments. "My grandfather's work was doodoo! I am not interested in death! The only thing that concerns me is the preservation of life!" he yells at his class, just before accidentally sticking a scalpel in his own leg.

Then a solicitor informs him that he has inherited his family estate in Transylvania, including a castle, a quirky hunchbacked servant named Igor (pronounced "eye-gore") (Marty Feldman) and a shapely assistant, Inga (Teri Garr). While exploring his new castle, Frederick discovers his grandfather's lab and private journals -- and immediately embraces his family's legacy of necromancy and mad science.

So he and Igor start merrily robbing graves and stealing brains, despite the suspicions of the monacled Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars). Unfortunately, the monster who arises has an "Abby Normal" brain, and spreads terror throughout the region as soon as the housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) -- cue whinnies -- releases him. Also, Frederick's prissy fiancee (Madeleine Kahn) has arrived. Frederick must recapture the creature and save him from the rioting villagers... which may put his own life at risk.

"Young Frankenstein" is impressive enough as a comedy, but it's even more impressive when you consider that it parodies chunks from at least three different movies, including the little-known "Son of Frankenstein." Even more impressive is the fact that this movie was trimmed down from an original cut that was twice as long, mainly by chopping out every joke that didn't bring down the house.

So what do you get? You get a lean, sleek mass of jokes that are wildly quotable ("Give him the sedagive!"), memorable (the cat shriek during the darts game) and wildly bizarre (a certain odd sex scene involving "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life." And there are a lot of clever little touches. The whole thing is done in black-and-white, for a more "vintage" feel, and apparently Brooks rented the original electrical gear from the original "Frankenstein" movies.

But it also works as a story about a somewhat mad scientist who does what we all wish Victor Frankenstein had done -- try to help and protect the monster instead of shunning him. That's a good deal of the reason why the hypersensitive, cheating Frederick is nevertheless a very likable guy -- he's crazy, but he's also got a good heart and some real affection for the monster... when he doesn't think it's trying to kill him.

Wilder is friggin' awesome here, all bulging eyes and wild hair, alternately hammy ("... and penetrate... into the very womb of IMPERVIOUS NATURE HERSELF!") and childish ("There. I'm touching it. Happy?"). Marty Feldman's Igor is the perfect foil -- an impish little creature who just seems to be enjoying every opportunity to cause just a little confusion and chaos ("What hump?"). And all the supporting cast is similarly astounding -- prissy yet sexually voracious Kahn, innocently sexy Garr, mildly terrifying Leachman (whinny!), and a brief but delightful cameo by Gene Hackman.

"Young Frankenstein" is one of the greatest comedies ever made -- a fast-moving, relentlessly funny parody that is still a delight even to those who haven't seen Universal's monster movies. A must-see.

The Island of Dr. Moreau
The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H. G. Wells
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 4.00
68 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Man and beast, Jan. 11 2015
The mad scientist has been with us since the early 1800s. And while H.G. Wells didn't create the mad scientist stereotype, he certainly gave it a boost in his harrowing novella "The Island of Dr. Moreau" -- beast-men forced to live like humans, a crazy scientist carrying out mad plans, and a bland Englishman stuck in the middle of it.

After he is shipwrecked, the English gentleman Edward Prendick is rescued by a passing boat. The man who saved him, Montgomery, is taking a number of wild animals to a remote deserted island, where the creepy Dr. Moreau does some kind of research on the animals that are brought there. Naturally, Prendick is suspicious of Moreau's activities.

It doesn't take long for him to stumble across the products of Moreau's work -- grotesque hybrids of animal and human, who are surgically turned into humanoids and ordered not to act in animalistic ways. And with the laws of nature being horribly perverted, it's only a matter of time before Dr. Moreau's experiments lash out.

It's pretty obvious from this book that H.G. Wells was nervous about the ramifications of meddling in nature -- be it vivisection, evolutionary degeneration, or even just the idea that scientific progress could be used for horribly evil things. As a result, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is perhaps his darkest, most horrific book. Not his best book, but his darkest.

The first couple chapters are rather stuffy in the 18th-century style, with Prendrick fussily noting everything that's happened to him. But the creepiness begins to enter once he arrives on the island, and explodes into weird, almost dreamlike scenes once he encounters the Beast Folk. It's like a strange nightmare that you might have after watching the Chronicles of Narnia. And all this ultimately culminates in the slow decay of everything on the island.

Prendrick is also perhaps the weakest link in the book... which is not a good thing, considering he is the main character. When the only other humans on the island are.... well, a mad scientist and his sidekick, you need a protagonist who really grips your imagination. But he's honestly kind of bland, to the point where any number of the beastly folk have far more presence and power than he does. And they certainly elicit more sympathy.

"The Island of Dr. Moreau" is a dark, eerie cautionary tale about science run amuck, and only its bland protagonist keeps it from fully engaging. Not Wells' best, but an intriguing horror/SF story on its own.

The Forever Song
The Forever Song
by Julie Kagawa
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 13.71
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4.0 out of 5 stars We all have succumbed to the darkness and the monster (some spoilers), Jan. 11 2015
This review is from: The Forever Song (Hardcover)
Sarren is preparing to release a virus that will kill everything -- humans and vampires -- and only three lone vampires can stop him.

Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that. "The Forever Song" is a fast-paced, action-filled story full of blood, and darkness, and concludes Julie Kagawa's Blood of Eden series in a thoroughly satisfying manner -- think a balanced blend of vampire/zombie horror, a tinge of romance, and plenty of sword-swinging action in a post-apocalyptic world.

Allison, Kanin and Jackal are on the road to find Sarren, battling hordes of rabids and the occasional raider with a sniper rifle. But Allison is beginning to lose herself to the monster inside her, seeing humans only as "bloodbags" -- and it's all because of Zeke's death. As she struggles to keep in touch with her human side, the trio discover that Sarren has taken over Old Chicago.

And she discovers that someone she thought was dead... isn't so dead. Zeke is a vampire... and has been brainwashed by Sarren into trying to kill her. But saving him from Sarren's influence is only the start of Allison's troubles, as she finds that she must save him from his own hatred of what he's become.

"The Forever Song" pretty much confirms that it pays to set aside teen romance in favor of a vampire killing zombielike "rabids" with a katana. There's still romance, of course -- but the bulk of the book is a wild eruption of gore, steel and shadows. And that is why the book is so arresting, especially the prospect of taking down Sarren and saving the world.

Kagawa doesn't shy away from some darker stuff, such as Zeke and Allison temporarily losing themselves to their despair and grief. But she also tries to balance it out with Kanin's lessons about redemption and trying to be the best person you can, despite past mistakes.

She also paints a vivid picture of the world dominated by vampires, such a s a Chicago that is now a ruined, rusty shell of its old self. ("Fish glided past us in large schools, flitting through an eerie underwater world of drowned buildings and submerged roads, rusty cars lining the pavement"). And there's some snarky dialogue from Jackal ("They tend to be irrationally paranoid, and his poetry was about to drive me up a wall").

Angsty vampires tend to be tedious characters, but Kagawa handles it pretty well -- Allison's descent into Frenzy and demonic bloodthirst is pretty chilling, although she seems to get past it a bit quickly. And she's backed by a solid string of characters -- Zeke has been broken and left haunted by what he's become, and only has Allison as a lifeline. Jackal is fleshed out somewhat more, and Kanin's dark arc of sacrifice and struggle comes to a satisfying close.

After a lot of blood, death and mayhem, "The Forever Song" ends the Blood of Eden trilogy in a very satisfying manner -- and it leaves you eagerly anticipating whatever Kagawa has next in store.

The Giver (International Ed)
The Giver (International Ed)
by Lois Lowry
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.12
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5.0 out of 5 stars Memories need to be shared (some spoilers), Jan. 11 2015
Dystopian teen fiction is pretty hot right now, with blockbusters like "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent." But the grandaddy of them all was "The Giver."

And long before it became chic, Lois Lowry produced a hauntingly memorable story set in a world where emotions are suppressed, and only "The Giver" has the power to change it. It's a powerful little story -- whether read alone or with the three loose sequels -- with haunting prose and some very strong characters, as well as a message of compassion and acceptance.

A young boy named Jonas lives in a rigid, joyless community where people use emotion-deprivation pills and adhere to insanely strict rules -- they have no conflict, poverty or discrimination... but they also have no love, no fun, and no creativity. When Jonas is selected as the Receiver of Memories, he is suddenly flooded with feelings and memories of both the good and the bad from humanity's distant past.

And as he comes to realize what his people have lost in their quest to be the same, Jonas begins yearning for the world he knows must exist outside the Community. But his quest becomes a more personal one when he discovers another price for the Community's existence: the "release" of babies that they don't deem good enough. The only one who can change the Community is Jonas.

Pretty much all young-adult dystopian fiction owes a debt to the Giver Quartet -- it has young people discovering the cruelty and callousness of their societies, and finding different ways to rebel. But Lowry doesn't shy away from asking the serious questions in her story, such as lack of respect for life (if it's inconvenient or doesn't fit in), kindness, compassion, and the good AND bad roots of what it means to truly live.

Lowry's writing is simple but poetic, winding through with some quietly eloquent language ("Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too"). And she fills the story not with bombast and battle, but with tragedy and quiet triumph -- and while we can see that Jonas' actions will have shattering effects, his rebellion against his cold, sterile society is an oddly quiet one.

And as this book is the quiet grandfather of current dystopian fiction, Jonas is the quiet ancestor of the Katniss Everdeens of today -- he's an innocent young boy who discovers what being really alive is about, and the joys and horrors that come with it. He's not an action hero, but an everyman... well, everyBOY hero, struggling with the complex questions of what he should do to make his world "right" again.

It's also worth noting that while "The Giver" is part of a loose-knit series, it can be appreciated as a standalone novel. However, the ambiguous ending is less ambiguous with the sequels that came some years later, which explain what happened to Jonas and Gabe -- which was rather controversial, since it "ruined" the ending that fans had decided was the real one.

"The Giver" is a powerful, haunting little novel, like a quiet song that resonates powerfully in your memory -- and conveys some powerful lessons about human nature and compassion. A true and deserving classic.

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