Friday, July 26, 2013

In the Deep Woods (1989)

By: Nicholas Conde

Genre: Fiction, Thriller, Mystery, Suspense

Children’s book author and illustrator, Carol Warren, never expected something like this could happen to her. She’d lived a normal life filled with good friends and family as well as success as an author. Everything changes when her best friend is found brutally murdered and Carol becomes involved in the investigation. At first she just wants answers about who killed her friend, but once she realizes someone she loves is a suspect, she will do whatever it takes to prove his innocence, even if it risks her own life.

The first thing I liked about this book is the heroine, Carol. Most books in this vein are focused on getting the heroine to fall for some hunky man working with her on the case and spawning an erotic romance as a side story, but that isn’t the case here. In fact, while Carol may date a few men in the novel, she’s not in the market for romance, and, actually, finds it very hard to get in the mood for it due to the dreadful crimes committed in the case. That is something that makes a lot more sense to me. Carol is also successful and independent, only relying on herself, and she has a great deal of self-respect and loyalty to her friends and family. However, this loyalty could also blind her to what is going on around her.

I also liked the fact that she had her own worries outside of the mystery, such as her father’s failing health and the fact that she’ll probably have to put him in a nursing home. She and her brother discuss it and wonder if it’s the right thing to do – and it’s very hard for Carol to imagine being ripped from her home in her final years. She has a very kind heart, loving deeply and honestly those who are close to her, and I felt for her in making that decision.

I thought the story was very suspenseful, and I whipped right through the novel because I needed to know what happened next. Is the killer who the police believe it to be, or is it an elaborate frame job? Was Carol really in danger of becoming the killer’s next target?

I also liked the scenes from the killer’s point of view and how he was styled. He is definitely creepy, especially in the point-of-view scene where he has his victim tied up in the woods and prepares to torture her. He reminds me a lot of Ted Bundy – how he uses the ruse of being somehow handicapped in order to gain the sympathy and trust of a would-be victim, and then gets the better of them. Also, his final act of murder as he begins to lose control toward the end of the novel is an obvious nod to the murders of nursing students committed by Richard Speck in the 1960s. The Green River Killer is mentioned in comparison to the killer in this novel, but I feel that there aren’t many similarities, aside from where the bodies are found.

I liked how the book dealt with the idea that a family member or friend that you’ve known your entire life could turn out to be a serial killer. Carol has to deal with the fact that the police believe her brother is the Deep Woods Killer, and another character reveals that they have a family member guilty of such atrocities. Even having someone in your family suspected of such crimes can do a number on the rest of the family, and of course, the suspect themselves – as despite the saying, “innocent until proven guilty,” in the public eye, it’s often guilty until proven innocent.

I’m not sure how I feel about the character of Paul Miller. He goes to elaborate lengths to disguise his true self and true intentions from Carol, despite asking her to trust and help him in his investigation. I can’t describe such over-the-top instances of this without giving away spoilers, but I can say that it is hard to accept that someone would go that far to keep up a fa├žade. These actions felt like they belonged in some espionage thriller, not a murder mystery. Also, it was because of his constant lies that I couldn’t bring myself to like him by the end of the novel. I found myself falling for his lies along with Carol, so I felt equally betrayed when I would find out he was just spinning another web of deception.

The other thing I didn’t really like was the ending – I found it rather anti-climactic. I wanted a dramatic show-down between Carol and the killer, and instead it is over in an instant. I felt a bit let down after all of that built-up tension and hours of reading.

Overall, it’s definitely a great read and I recommend it for mystery buffs. It’s very suspenseful and keeps you guessing until the final few chapters, and even then, I was hoping there would be some twist and it would turn out to be someone else. Still, it was a well-written mystery that kept my attention, and I would probably read it again.

7.5/10

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Caster Chronicles (2009-2012)

Beautiful Creatures (2009)
Book #1

By: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Genre: Young Adult, Supernatural Romance, Drama

Sixteen-year-old Ethan Wate thinks nothing would ever change in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. That is until Lena Duchannes moves into town, and Ethan’s world is flipped upside down. He finds himself instantly connected to this mysterious beauty, and as the two grow closer, he learns more than he bargained for: about her, about Gatlin, and even his own family. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. I only looked into it after finding out that one of my favorite actors is playing Larkin in the film adaptation. I thought it seemed a little Twilight-ish, and while there are some similarities, I found this book far more enjoyable.

As far as the similarities with Twilight are concerned, it’s a supernatural romance, only this time it’s the new girl in town who has the supernatural abilities, rather than the boy. Like Edward in Twilight, Lena tries to avoid a relationship with Ethan because she fears for his safety. Also like Edward, she is a part of a family where each member has a distinct ability different from the rest. However that’s where the similarities end.

This book isn’t just about the romance between the two leads, it’s also about friendship, bullying, and bigotry. Lena is tortured by the kids at school because she is different and labeled as dangerous by the locals. Ethan loses most of his friends in defending and loving her – making him a strong and endearing character in my eyes. He has a sense of himself and sticks to his beliefs of right and wrong despite what the people around him say and do. I’m glad the authors chose to tell the story from his perspective.

It took a while for Lena to grow on me because she was so closed off. We get to know her as Ethan does, and despite her early reservations we see her fall as much for him as he has for her. Their relationship is sweet and above all else, healthy. Neither one tries to control the other, and they work together to help solve the mysteries surrounding their connection and to keep her safe from what she ultimately fears – being claimed by the darkness.

Link is a true best friend to Ethan, never abandoning him, even when all of his other friends do. He accepts Lena as a friend and aids Ethan in defending her against the bullying students of their high school. Ridley, Lena’s cousin, is lovable despite the fact that she’s dark. She still seems to have feelings, at least for her cousin, despite the fact that once she was claimed by the darkness she wasn’t supposed to feel anything for anyone. She takes matters into her own hands when Lena wont, and her actions against the snotty popular girls are hilarious.

While the writing isn’t phenomenal, it’s decent. There were a few repeated details that weren’t necessary, like constantly telling the reader that Lena has green eyes, black curly hair that twists in a nonexistent wind, and is beautiful. The writers also had a way of making characters seemingly disappear in a scene, such as Larkin at the climax of the novel. There is so much focus on the main villain of the story that Larkin isn’t heard from for at least three pages even though he is also in the scene. I began to wonder where he was for a while. I did, however, like the homages to To Kill a Mockingbird and Carrie, both modern classics in my opinion.

The story was cute and a fun read. The characters all have distinct personalities and, if I didn’t love them right away, they grew on me as the story progressed – with the exception of the bullies and bigots in town, of course. Despite my reservations about reading this book, I enjoyed it, and am looking forward to getting my hands on the next entry in the series.

6.5/10

Beautiful Darkness (2010)
Book #2

By: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Genre: Young Adult, Supernatural Romance, Drama

Ethan thought everything would get back to normal after Lena’s sixteenth birthday, but all is not well in Gatlin. Lena is grieving over the loss of a loved one and has begun pushing Ethan away from her, getting dangerously close to turning Dark. When she runs off with Ridley and an incubus/caster hybrid named John, Ethan decides to go after her. She’s in danger, he can feel it, and it is up to him to save her, whether she wants to be saved or not.

I didn’t like this book as well as the first, mostly because of Lena. She was so mean to Ethan, a sweet, loving boy, utterly devoted to her, for most of the novel. She is nice to him one day, mean the next, she leaves him in the dust as she rides off on the back of John’s motorcycle, but throws a psychotic fit when he is tempted by the new girl in town, Liv. So it’s okay for her to dump him and run off with a strange guy, but he can’t be friends with Liv without her freaking out? The parts of the book that didn’t involve Lena, aside from the climax and everything following it, were the best scenes in the story.

I was a little irritated that Ethan was so strung out over Lena too. A lot of guys would have said, “Screw you, if you’re going to treat me like that!” He did feel that way at first, but he still wanted to try and save her, regardless of whether she was even still capable of loving him anymore. Lena was being so awful, I really wanted him to end up with Liv, who seems like a genuinely awesome character and who likes Ethan for who he is. I love Liv, and I hope she plays a big role in the following books of the series. Link is, as always, the loyal, goofy best friend, willing to do anything for Ethan, and still hoping he can find the good side of Ridley. Ridley, herself, goes through a bit of a transformation in this installment, so the future books of the series should be quite interesting.

I really liked that this book explored the underground Caster tunnels and revealed many secrets about Ethan’s family as well as Macon Ravenwood. The tunnels seem endless and you can make great time using them to get around, as time passes differently in the tunnels than the mortal realm. I found this exploration fun, and liked the events that happen along the way. Plenty of juicy secrets come to light and transitions made, lives forever changed with one journey.

The climactic scene could have been a little better. I was expecting quite a fight, but it was pretty uneventful. Also, Liv seems to disappear once the climax begins, because the authors no longer mention her, though I assume she was there the entire time. I know this is the story of Ethan and Lena’s romance, but don’t let your secondary characters fade away, especially one as sweet and fun as Liv. We get a brief mention of her current activities toward the end of the novel, so we can assume she made it through the fight okay, but otherwise, no Liv.

I don’t really understand why Larkin is even in this book. He is used so little, I don’t see his role necessary to the plot. He’s a powerful illusionist and very underused considering what he is capable of. I hope this isn’t his last hurrah. If so, his character has been cheated. Also, I wanted to see a bit more of Ethan’s relationship with his father and see how that is mending. Still, the end also left quite the cliffhanger, so I’ll be getting my hands on the next installment to find out what happens.

Overall, it’s decent, but not as good as the first entry due to aforementioned reasons. I hope these things are cleared up in the next two books in the series.

5.5/10

Beautiful Chaos (2011)
Book #3

By: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Genre: Young Adult, Supernatural Romance, Drama

Nothing in Gatlin has been the same since the events of the Seventeenth Moon. Lena Duchannes made a decision that changed the order of both the mortal and caster worlds and knocked everything off balance. Now the town is experiencing intense heat waves, insect infestation, and the evaporation of major water sources. It appears an apocalypse is near, and it is up to Ethan and Lena to stop it.

I think this entry is the most dramatic in the series thus-far. All the characters experience changes and have to grow in one way or another. Lena is no longer acting like an entitled little brat, learning to deal with the fact that Liv will always be a part of Ethan’s life, in one way or another. Liv has gone underground, spending most of her days in a study Macon set up for her in the tunnels, researching the supernatural events happening all over town. Ridley is trying to cope with life as a teenage girl at Jackson High and Link finds his newfound powers are good for more than just being a great basketball player and wooing the ladies. Ethan is just happy to have Lena back, but he is faced with much loss and many hard decisions.

I really liked the fact that we got to see Sarafine’s back story. As with the other novels, this one also contains flash backs, and Lena and Ethan witness Sarafine’s previous life, from her claiming until the day Lena’s father died. These scenes almost make the reader feel sympathy for Sarafine, but not enough to forgive her for the evil she has done, ultimately feeling the conflicting emotions that Lena, herself, is experiencing.

Amma has become more secretive and withdrawn. Her cooking isn’t as amazing as it used to be, she has been keeping things from Ethan that he should know, hiding out in her room, and delving into the darker side of voodoo. She has seen something in the cards that she will do anything to prevent from happening – including black magic.

John Breed actually gets a personality in this entry. He is no longer the annoying, girlfriend stealing, half-incubus. He actually seems to have a good heart and a desire to do the right thing – despite being raised by two evil incubi that want to destroy all mortals and casters alike. Ethan may hold a grudge, but Lena was equally as guilty, and there’s clearly more to John than there originally seemed.

I did have a good idea about the identity of “The One Who Is Two,” so that “twist” wasn’t much of a surprise to me. Also, I felt that the final fourth of the novel was a little inspired by the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It has an evil character named Angelus and requires a sacrifice to stop an impending apocalypse. I’m not saying it’s a rip-off, just that both things also existed in that season, and I found it amusing. Could Garcia and Stohl be fellow Buffy fans?

While this novel doesn’t have any scenes that really stand out in my mind, I am actually fine with that. I really liked that it dealt more with the relationships between the characters and less on major events, like fairs and dances. These relationships are the core of this story – Ethan’s love for Lena, for Amma, for his aunts and his friends – it all leads to an ending that makes me exclaim, “You can’t end it there!”

6/10

Beautiful Redemption (2012)
Book #4

By: Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Genre: Young Adult, Supernatural Romance, Drama

It’s been months since Ethan took the plunge to correct the Order of Things and save his friends and loved ones from an impending apocalypse. He wakes up in the “Otherworld” where he has breakfast with his mother and can visit with Aunt Prue whenever he likes. However, he can’t shake the feeling that he is not supposed to be in the “Otherworld,” and he misses Lena terribly. He will do anything to find his way home again, and Lena will do anything to make that happen. They reach across the barriers in an attempt to bring him back to the world of the living.

This final entry in the Caster Chronicles series is mostly based around Ethan’s adventures in the “Otherworld,” and despite how interesting that sounds, the book falls into competition with Book Two as being the weakest in the series. I just couldn’t get behind his quest. Maybe it’s because I’ve been away from the series for too long, but I don’t find Ethan’s romance with Lena as engaging as I once did. I felt he disregarded his mother’s feelings when he decided he needed to go back to Lena – and it was all about Lena – not his father who has been living under a spell so he doesn’t realize Ethan has died, not even Amma who has raised him and saved him from trouble countless times. He does eventually admit that he is torn about leaving his mother and that he does want to be with his father and Amma again, but for the most part Lena is all he sees and all he thinks about.

Lena, back in the mortal world, isn’t much better. As Ethan communicates to her through the barrier between worlds, she becomes consumed in aiding his quest to come home. She is willing to trade John to Abraham in order to get her hands on an object Ethan needs. She also freaks out on Macon for “spying on her” and on John for leaving Liv a note about what he was about to do (give himself to Abraham in trade), when it ended up saving her butt in the end. Abraham would have killed her had Macon not shown up when he had, yet she pouts and whines when she should be thankful. Really, Lena, if you want your uncle to take you seriously, you need to stop acting like such a child and use some common sense!

Truthfully, I was more entertained by the romances between Link and Ridley and Liv and John. Liv and John are just adorable together, and probably the most normal couple out of the three in their group. Even though he is half caster/half incubus, he genuinely cares about her and would do anything to make her happy. Then there’s the volatile love/hate relationship that is Ridley and Link – who communicate in a series of half-hearted insults and can’t seem to get over each other. It also helped their relationship that Link proved himself to be quite the hero during the showdown with Abraham – taking him on mortal style and winning.

Two interesting characters were introduced in this entry – Obidias and Xavier. Both men had angered the Far Keep and had been severely punished – Obidias given snakes for a hand that routinely bite into his flesh, and Xavier turned into a monster and forced to guard the gates of the Great Keep. Both men greatly aid Ethan on his journey – Obidias telling him what he has to do to get home and Xavier aiding him in the final battle. I really liked Xavier and I was glad that I got to see a flashback into his life and how he became the way he did. I wish I could have learned more about Obidias – but he is only in the novel for one chapter.

The one character that was just plain irritating to me was Angelus – one of the Keepers. He is evil, yes, but he’s also whiney and prideful – hateful of the very race he sprung from. He is, after all, a mortal, yet he refuses to believe that is so when he has modified himself so much he no longer resembles one. Despite his evil experimentations and his enslavement of dark casters for his own amusement, he still comes off more pathetic than villainous in his final confrontation with Ethan. I, for one, couldn’t wait for his character to be killed off, because he was more annoying than anything. Abraham Ravenwood was a legitimate villain; this guy was a prideful weakling riding on Abraham’s coattails.

I didn’t feel any real suspense. I knew that Ethan was most likely going to return to Lena, but I also didn’t really care that much if he did. I wanted to spend more time with his mother and get to know her character, as she has played a very pivotal role in the series despite being dead. It was also nice to finally meet the Greats that Amma always communicates with, but they also only get a chapter where they help Ethan and send him on his way – I still never really got to know any of them and I would have liked to. They have also served a large role in the series, and I felt they could have been given a little more face time.

The story in this one didn’t pull me in like the rest did. There was a cool new world to explore, but it wasn’t really plotted out very well – unlike the numerous tunnels in Books Two and Three. It is all about Ethan and Lena, and getting them back together again. Beyond that, nothing seems to matter, and that made it rather mundane to me. So much more could have been explored in dealing with the afterlife, yet so little was done, and I found myself rather bored and wishing the plot would just move along already. Characters with promise are underused, Ethan and Lena are both rather whiney and ungrateful, and the main villain is just irritating. I was hoping for a better finale.

5/10

The Series Overall: This is a cute supernatural romance series, but it does have its weak points – mostly Books Two and Four. Book One, Beautiful Creatures, introduces us to the characters and places them in regular high school situations that all readers can identify with. Many female readers can sympathize with Lena – most girls have been targets of girl-on-girl bullying at one time or another, and I know I would have loved to have my own personal Ridley by my side in Middle School. That sympathy for her and the fact that Ethan seems like such a great guy make the supernatural elements easier to digest. Book Three, Beautiful Chaos, is focused more on the development of these characters. Books Two and Four portray them at their most selfish and annoying – and that gets old quickly, but at least Book Two, Beautiful Darkness, explored the caster world in depth and revealed more about Ethan’s family that was completely unexpected.

My final ranking for the Series: 6/10

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Battle Royale (1999)

By: Koushun Takami

Genre: Action/Adventure, Foreign, Thriller, Japanese, Survival, Dystopia

Forty-two students are taken to an island where, as part of a special government Program, they are pitted against each other in a battle to the death. There is no way to escape, no point in fighting back, the only way to win is to be the last student left standing at the end of the three day gaming period. But maybe this class will be different – there are a few clever students, driven by rage, revenge and the drive to survive, that just might shake this game up a little.

At a length of 576 pages, this novel flew by rather quickly for me. The one thing that caught my attention and created suspense for me was the characterization in this story Takami has a knack for writing strong, lovable characters, and I had to keep reading to find out what happened to each of them. Of course, in a story like this, the reader has to be careful which characters they fall for because no one is truly safe. I would meet a character in one chapter, begin to care about him or her, and by the end of the chapter, watch them die in some brutal fashion. Among my favorites were Shuya Nanahara (protagonist, guitar player, rock music lover, and loyal friend), Yoshitoki Kuninobu (Shuya’s best friend), Hiroki Sugimura (loving, loyal, romantic, good friend of Shuya’s)¸Shinji Mimura (basketball star, talented hacker, smart, good friend of Shuya’s), and Shogo Kawada (quiet, badass, loyal and clever). Very few of the girls impressed me much, although I thought Mitsuko Souma was as intriguing as she was evil, Takako Chigusa was awesome for fighting until the very end, and Yukie Utsumi was a sweetheart. I thought Noriko Nakagawa was a nice girl, but her character really didn’t wow me – and since she is one of the leads, I felt she should have been a bit more interesting.

There were times when the book was hard to read because I knew most of my favorite characters weren’t going to make it out alive, if any did at all. I had hopes that a good sized group would make it out alive, but knew that was very unlikely to happen. All I could do was read through the chapters and hope for the best. None of these kids deserved to be thrown into such a perverse game, and I wanted as many to survive as possible.

The game is a government program conducted by the fascist Dictatorship of the Republic of Greater East Asia. What was once Japan has been replaced with this new “republic” and a government who will kill anyone who dares speak out against it. The students’ teacher fought the decision for their class to be selected and he was killed, any parent who objected faced the same fate. It is up to the kids themselves to figure out a way to survive, and many have a few tricks up their sleeves. Shinji and Shogo both had excellent ideas, if only their two groups could have united, the game wouldn’t have stood a chance.

The book packs a lot of social commentary on the impact of fear. It discusses how the game is used to scare the public and keep the citizens docile, and also the effect fear has on those trying to survive in a life or death situation. It shows the paranoia that envelops all of those involved and the fear of trusting anyone – for letting your guard down to the wrong person could cost you your life. It also shows the repercussions of such fear, such as an attempted poisoning of one character leading to the death of another, and a violent chain-reaction of death following suit.

While the characterization is excellent, the writing itself isn’t always good. This could be due to things being lost in translation, as this was originally a Japanese text. The twist revelation about Shogo was predictable, there were a few dangling modifiers and grammatical errors, and Kazuo is harder to kill than Jason Voorhees. At first I found this believable because the kid has a vast amount of martial arts training, but after a while, it got ridiculous. He was too smart, too quick, and too irritating. After a while, it seemed like the guy was everywhere, preying upon my beloved characters. I was begging someone to kill him already.

The ending is very satisfying, despite not all of my favorite characters surviving. Many died heroes or having completed what they set out to do before time ran out. I only wish there were a certain answer for the survivors – will they ever be at peace, or will they always be running from their government?

Overall, a great, suspenseful novel with very likable characters – ones you can’t help but love even though you know you’re probably going to lose them. It’s definitely a brutal, but interesting and worthwhile read.

7.5/10