leedock’s CBR-III Review #52-“The Isle of Blood” – Rick Yancey

Fifty freaking two. Oh, how I thought I never would complete ye! Hats off to you supernatural people who are doing  double or triple (?!) Cannonballs. You truly have powers beyond my comprehension. Bravo.

My pick for favorite book of the year is in this series but all three of the books are fantastic, horrifying, breathtaking and heartbreaking. The first two books in the series are reviewed here and here. Isle of Blood is the newest installment and probably my CBR-III swan song although I may be able to eek one more out by the January 7 deadline.

Barely recovered from the “mishaps” of his first two adventures with Doctor Pellinore Warthrop, Will Henry embarks on a new mission. As in all of the books in the series, a stranger knocks on the door. This stranger is delivering a package and demanding the antidote to the poison that the sender of the package infected him with to insure a speedy delivery. They soon discover that the poison in question is bogus and that his symptoms can be contributed to his own curiosity. He took a little peek inside the package. Curiosity kills the messenger but not before his “message” has been delivered. Inside the package is a nidus, the nest of the legendary Magnificum. The “holy grail” of the monstrumologist, the Magnificum has never been seen. The only clues to its existence are the nests it so lovingly creates out of human body parts and poisonous spit.  Something more worth running from than to but with this nest and the clues given by both the sender and the messenger, the Doctor races towards the penultimate discovery of his career. A discovery that will hopefully serve as a justification for everything he has ever done and everyone he has ever hurt in his tireless pursuit of monsters. When finally confronted with the Magnificum, will he be able to turn and face it?

In a uncharacteristically unselfish move, the Doctor leaves Will behind while he travels to find the Magnificum. A distraught Will goes through Doctor withdrawal but is offered a taste of what his life could have been like had his parents not died and Dr. Pellinore Warthrop not been his subsequent guardian. Placed under the care of the niece of the Doctor’s mentor, Will Henry is fed, bathed, clothed, educated and loved. Instead of living a nightmare, someone is there to sing him to sleep should he have one. Torn between his unnatural attachment to the Doctor and the comfort of a secure life, Will must decide what his future will be.

We have all encountered those people whose sheer personality caused us to gravitate toward them even when we knew our lives would most likely be the worst for it. They have some kind of magnetic pull that we just can’t resist. I was also reminded of Dr. Who. I suppose the fact that the Monstrumologist is referenced as “The Doctor”  repeatedly in the books helped, but also because he possesses that magnetism that cannot be denied. Although Dr. Who’s relationships aren’t entirely selfish, his companions always pay a hefty toll for their involvement. So it is with Will Henry and everyone else who gets caught in Dr. Pellinore Warthrop’s pull.

I recently read that the series was set for cancellation because of low sales, but apparently book bloggers and fans of the series somehow managed to convince the publisher to continue with the books and another is set to be published in 2013.

I strongly encourage you to read them. Please don’t let the YA label fool you. I’m not sure that I would feel comfortable allowing my son to read these when he is 14, the suggested age on the book jacket. There is nothing youth oriented about these books other than the 13-year-old protagonist who is, because of circumstance, well beyond his years.

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leedock’s CBR-III Review #51-“A Christmas Carol” – Charles Dickens

For the last several Christmas Eves I have made some kind of traditional Victorian holiday food or drink. It started mostly as way to figure out what the heck wassail really was after years of singing about it but expanded to sugar plums and figgy pudding. I had perused a list of Tudor holiday delights but let’s just say that I don’t think that I have the intestinal fortitude for most of that. This year, I decided to read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for similar reasons. Over the years I have seen many animated or film interpretations of the story, but I had never read it. In between the figgy pudding and wassail, I managed to give it a shot.

It is pretty much what you would think. More enjoyable than watching it because Dickens OWNED the English language and WORKED it, the only discernible difference is the Ghost of Christmas Past. I recall that generally being a female in most adaptations. The one that visits Jim Carrey’s Scrooge is much closer to accurate. Described as having a candle like head with an “extinguisher for a cap” it’s more interesting property was its shape shifting, “the figure fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body”. It was as if it morphed into people from Scrooge’s past to heighten the effect of the lesson being delivered.  More detailed descriptions of Scrooge’s nephew and his life appear in the written form, also,  and seem to hold more importance than the downtrodden Cratchit family.

The particular edition that I read had  an excerpt about Dickens’ first public reading which was of A Christmas Carol. Apparently he was coerced to do his first reading outside of his social circle as a trial run to test his reading chops in front of an uncritical and nominally educated audience of country folk. It was a benefit for a debt ridden adult vocational school which most likely appealed to Dickens’ childhood experiences with poverty and the workhouse. Most historians seem to blame his extensive touring and reading career that followed with his ill-health and eventual death at 58. Bah humbug.

Next year, I’m going to tackle making a drink called the Smoking Bishop since it is Scrooge’s drink of choice when he offers Bob Cratchit a raise. Besides, it sounds kind of naughty and vaguely anti-papist. God bless us, everyone!

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leedock’s CBR-III Review #50-“Foundling” – D.M. Cornish

What would Harry Potter have done without Dumbledore? Without the Weasleys or Hagrid? What if he had simply been given a knapsack, some potions, a few kind words and then summarily sent off into the abyss? Harry would have peed his pants, that’s what.

It is almost irresistible to compare D. M. Cornish’s first book in his Monster Blood Tattoo series to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but to do that is a bit too dismissive. This book can certainly stand on its own merit. The illustrations (also done by the author) and the extensive glossary contained at the end of the book are nothing short of astounding. “Foundling” is Dickensian in scope and written with the same blend of humor and pathos as old Charles’ canon. I could continue to gush, but that would only delay me from attacking the next two books in the series which are currently stacked on my bedside table.

Rossamund, an orphaned boy with an unfortunately female name, has spent his entire life at Madam Opera’s Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys & Girls preparing himself for a life of service, presumably in the navy. A favorite of some of the staff at the orphanage, Rossamund’s protected existence in the institution isn’t any more horrible than the average primary school, but he is anxious to begin his work outside and fears that he will never get the call.

When a stranger arrives and offers Rossamund the position of Lamplighter, he is disappointed in what he thinks will be a mundane life of lighting lamps on the highway and longs for the romantic life of the vinegaroons (sailors) or monster hunters that he has read about. On a foggy morning, because all such mornings should be foggy, he sets off with his instructions to meet with a sea-captain who will take him on the first leg of his journey to his new home and occupation. In a world where encountering  monsters both literal and figurative can be a daily occurrence, Rossamund’s journey easily swerves off course. Outside Madam Opera’s, he sees the world for the first time and  receives his hard knock education from  pirates, humans medically altered to harness and manipulate electricity and to sense things beyond normal human capacity in order to hunt down monsters, and a brave postman who dodges all kinds of dangers to deliver the mail (take that, USPS).

All of the characters are richly drawn and deliciously conflicted. Most of them find themselves terribly protective of  Rossamund, a tender but fearlessly loyal boy whose mysterious origins hint of great things to come. Easily one of the best of the almost (gulp) 52 books that I have read this year.

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leedock’s CBR-III Review #49-“Handling The Undead” – John Ajvide Lindqvist

I admire Lindqvist for tackling horror in a very unromantic way. What with all the sparkly vampires, lovesick werewolves and sexed up sweaty folks running from zombies, a little more gore and little less glamour are refreshing.

The basics of the plot are fairly simple. After a bizarre energy surge during a heat wave, the recently dead come back to life. What follows is how to handle that situation. Your Aunt Agnes doesn’t want to eat your brains, she just wants to get back home and carry on as she did when she was living. It is harder to vilify something that means you no harm, so how do you handle that on a personal level? When it is magnified by the thousands, how does the government handle it? How does the medical community handle the potential biohazard? A much more interesting dilemma than a mindless vessel hell-bent on munching on your cerebellum.

Lindqvist gives us three families as test studies. We get a peek at their struggle to come to terms with the impossible. Elvy is confronted with her husband who has recently died after a long illness and dementia. After years of caring for him, her burden is back on the doorstep knocking to come in. David, ironically a stand up comedian, thinks that he cannot possibly live without his wife but now finds out that it may be impossible to live with her. Mahler, a semi-retired journalist, digs his 7-year-old grandson out of his grave with his bare hands and attempts to restore him, rebuilding him like a Lego set.

An interesting premise. A new angle to an old tale. The problem is all of the things  that Lindqvist throws out there and never bothers to explain. I don’t have to have everything all tied up with a nice bow, but there are major plot points that are never addressed or dismissed in an offhanded way. Why did the dead awaken? What was the power surge, weird headache thing that happened preceding the “resurrection” and off and on afterward? A heavenly power station went on the fritz and the souls collected in the last several months were the collateral damage? That is as good a guess as any, but I shouldn’t have to guess. Also bothersome is the Armageddon angle that Lindqvist flirts with, but never fully commits to.

And the ending was ridiculous. I was sort of insulted by it.

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leedock’s CBR-III Review #46-“The Knife of Never Letting Go”, #47-“The Ask and The Answer”, #48-“Monsters of Men” – Patrick Ness

There is such a thing as too much information.

Part commentary on the age of information and part indictment of prejudice, Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is a marvelous metaphor for what faces kids today and how their struggle to adulthood is complicated by the readily available mixed bag of information swirling around them. The adults are not faring very well either.

What could be just one of the many new books with the “colonizing another planet because we’ve destroyed our own” theme, this trilogy creates a world with a rich language all its own, idealized versions of familiar animals, and a pioneer spirit that ignites men and women towards their own version of utopia–good and bad.

“The Knife of Never Letting Go” introduces Todd,  a boy living in a small settlement called Prentisstown. By Prentisstown’s standards, he is about to become a man at age 13. He is the youngest person in his all male town, the women having died from the noise germ. This same germ, supposedly given to them by Spackle, the indigenous people of the planet,  renders all males able to hear one another’s thoughts. It is a constant roar of noise: other men’s thoughts, fears, desires and the static of attempting to block what they can from each other.

While tramping around in the nearby swamp with his dog, Machee, Todd suddenly experiences silence for the first time in his life. What he discovers is a girl, Viola, who is guarding the bodies of her dead parents who were killed when their scout ship crash landed. Todd cannot hear her thoughts and with Viola’s silence comes the  realization that everything he was told about his history and the death of his mother may have been a lie. This new information forces Todd’s two guardians to help him escape the men of Prentisstown and the town’s mayor, whose power depends on his manipulation of information. Viola joins Todd on his quest to find the settlement of Haven only to discover that it may not offer the safety they seek.

The second book in the trilogy, “The Ask and The Answer”, is, as with most middle books of trilogies, the set up for the conclusion. Here, Viola and Todd are separated and become pawns of two powerful forces. The Answer are led by a healing woman, Mistress Coyle, who rebel against Mayor Prentiss’s increasing marginalization of the women of the town. The Ask are Mayor Prentiss’s military rebuttal to the rebels as he begins to ramp up his take over of the town. Both, however, have a history of violence, prejudice and fear of the indigenous Spackle, and a love of power. As Mistress Coyle teaches Viola the art of healing, she also exploits her knowledge of and affection towards Todd. The Mayor exploits Todd’s affection for Viola as he grooms him to be his right hand man. Both Todd and Viola struggle with whether or not to trust their new “mentors” while they try to find their way back to each other.

“Monsters of Men”, the last book of the trilogy, is the predictable battle approached in an unpredictable way. When another scout ship from Viola’s people lands at Haven, the Ask and the Answer race to meet it and gain their allegiance. What follows is the chaos of everyone’s version of what this new world should be and how to achieve that. Is violence the answer to peace?

The most interesting part of the concluding book is the introduction of the voice of the Spackle and their use of the “noise” which allows them all to think and act as one voice. When one of their own returns from slavery, he brings with him a need for vengeance against man, a vengeance the usually single and united voice of the Spackle must confront.

Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is about a lot of things: genocide, slavery, misogyny, coming of age, and colonization to name just a few. The books conjure a fantastic yet familiar world that deals with all of those weighty issues in a thoughtful but objective way. What could become preachy and a little too rife with metaphor, is simply a journey to another world where a boy has to decide what kind of world he wants to live in and what kind of man he wants to become.

Something should also be said about the animals in the books who become characters in and of themselves. In Todd’s world, animals’ thoughts are heard by humans with both humorous and heart breaking results. His loyal dog Manchee, the fearless horses Angharrad and Acorn and the innocent herd animals of the valley add a gentleness and sense of wonder to Ness’s world.

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leedock’s CBR-III Review #43-“Everlost”, #44-“Everwild”, #45-“Everfound” – Neal Shusterman

The Oz version of the afterlife.

What happens when we die is fertile ground for fiction. Generally reserved for adult protagonists (“Lovely Bones” excluded), what death holds in store for children and teens could be all lollipops, Toys ‘R Us and video games. Neal Shusterman, however, has chosen to engage fairy tale like characters (a wicked witch, a monster pirate, a chocolate ogre and an outcast) in a political and moral debate about the afterlife. Is it better to go into the light and get to where you are going or remain in limbo? Who, if anyone, gets to make that decision?

The purgatory of Everlost exists in tandem with the living world but, for the most part, cannot be touched by the dead. The first book of the Skinjacker Trilogy,”Everlost”,  introduces Nick and Allie who are killed when their parents’ cars collide. As they both are tossed through the tunnel of death toward the proverbial light, they bump into one another and effectively block themselves from wherever it is they are supposed to be going and land, instead, in Everlost.  After sleeping for nine months, they awaken in the woods next to their crash site and encounter a fellow lost soul who explains the rules of their new world and their new lives as Afterlights.

Shusterman lays out an Oz like world where people and beloved or significant places cross over to Everlost. The places that cross over are “dead spots” that appear more vividly to the dead and where the children can walk freely. The colorless part of their world is the living world, where the ground is a slow quicksand threatening to swallow them to the center of the earth if they don’t move quickly enough. Driven by a need to see if their families have survived the crash, Nick and Allie begin a quest across Everlost to find their homes. Blocked at every turn by a power-hungry girl who has set up court in the Everlost version of the Twin Towers and a horrifying deformed monster commanding his own pirate ship of misfits, the two learn that they aren’t in Kansas, or in this case, New Jersey, anymore.

“Everwild”, the second in the trilogy, begins to explore the idea of memories initiated a bit in the first book. As more time passes, the children begin to forget about their living selves and their physical appearance morphs into how they see themselves now. The struggle between assimilating into the Everlost world and hanging on to the people they were pits the “Sky Witch” Mary against Nick, the chocolate ogre. Mary rules over her Twin Towers,  filling them with children who have been convinced there is no alternative to the limbo they are in. Nick’s memories are blurring with his present so that the boy who died with a smudge of chocolate on his face slowly becomes consumed by it. Allie’s attempt to go home is thwarted by the McGill, a monster pirate,  whose boiling anger at the world has deformed his outward appearance. Throw in the scout of a Mayan afterlife King and discover the world of skinjackers, Afterlights who have the ability to possess living bodies, and the fairy tale world gains scope and depth.

The conclusion, “Everfound”, is the final battle between those who have firmly entrenched themselves in purgatory and are desperate to keep anyone from seeking escape through the light, and those who are trying to make sure that everyone “gets where they’re going.” It is a race to stop Mary’s camp from continuing to do the unthinkable–harvesting the living and eventually destroying the living world.

Told through third person narrative, the stories are embellished with excerpts from books and pamphlets written by two of the main characters. These little gems of propaganda are some of the best parts of the trilogy.

The series is just as much a metaphor for the insecurities of burgeoning adulthood as it is an exploration of life after death. The girl who had little control over her real life, now has power over hundreds of children and is not willing to let that go. The boy who dies with chocolate on his face is forced to carry the embarrassing mark that threatens to take him over completely, turning him into a Chocolate Ogre.

Part Oz, part Neverland, Everlost is a magical place to visit. Shusterman is a fantastic writer and I’m not sure that this review is doing him justice. My review mojo is winding down now. How is it that some of you people did double Cannonballs? Really. Don’t any of you watch TV?

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leedock’s CBR-III Review #42-“Unwind” – Neal Shusterman

What if pro-life and pro-choice fought an actual civil war. Care to guess what the treaty at the end of that would look like?

Unable to duke it out on the battlefield to a clear winner, both sides sign a treaty. Life begins at conception and is protected until age 13. If a child between the ages of 13-18 is considered problematic  they can be “unwound”. The child is dissected and given to donors so that, technically, life continues. Chew on that for a minute.

Shusterman’s little love note to reproductive rights follows three possible outcomes of such a tragic resolution. Connor is the bad boy, the one always in some kind of trouble. Risa is a ward of the state whose only means of escaping is demonstrating extraordinary talent as a pianist. Lev is a tithe, conceived and raised alongside his brothers and sisters for the sole purpose of being sacrificed. An unlikely group thrust together on the run from the Harvest Camp.

Dystopian fiction is at its most fascinating and most successful when it can really attack the world it has created from all angles. Whether it be zombie apocalypse or a world with dwindling resources struggling to survive, the exploration of all the crazy shit human beings would do under those circumstances is what’s worth the read. How all of our own baggage comes into play in a crisis.

I don’t know how I managed to miss this author or why he doesn’t seem to get the same hype of some of his less talented counterparts. Solid writing. Compelling world. Thoughtful  plot. One of the final chapters in the book is one of the most frightening and soul wrenching and well crafted pieces of writing I have ever had the pleasure to read.  Read it.

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