Author: Polina Dashkova
Translator: Marian Schwartz
My rating: 4 of 5
When Mitya Sinitsyn is found hanged in his apartment, nearly everyone seems to arrive at the obvious conclusion that he committed suicide. But considering how strongly his wife denies the possibility of such a thing happening, family friend and journalist Lena Polyanskaya begins to pick at the threads of his death . . . and finds the obvious begin to unravel before her. The clues she discovers begin leading her on a dangerous trail going back fourteen years to a trip she, Mitya, and his sister Olga took as young professionals together. Because somehow, something that happened on that trip was significant in a way she never realized–if she can only figure it out before she ends up dead because of it.
Madness Treads Lightly is the first Russian psychological thriller/crime novel I’ve ever read. Actually, it’s one of only a few Russian novels I’ve read, period. I should probably remedy that. In any case, this was a worthwhile read, one that would likely be enjoyed by most people who enjoy crime novels in general. Plotwise, you’ve got an interesting story–not really a mystery, since it becomes pretty clear what happened and who committed the crimes. But it’s intriguing to watch Lena go all amateur detective while still being at heart a mom and a journalist–an ordinary woman, not some insanely skilled crime fighter or anything. There’s a lot going on, and a number of interlocking plot threads to follow, but it all comes together quite well. I honestly found the native look at everyday Russian culture and society in the 1990’s to be nearly as interesting as the actual plot, though. Things like the way capitalism and crime were interconnected, foods that were common, polite social customs, etc. are fascinating to see displayed in such a way that they’re clearly just a normal, unremarkable part of the characters lives. But Russian naming conventions, though; I still don’t understand. . . . One more thing of note is that, although I would certainly consider this a thriller of sorts, it has a pacing that wouldn’t fit with the typical Western conception of that genre. It’s more of a slow, steady unfolding of one plot element after another, which sounds kind of dull when I say it, but it actually fits the story and works. Recommended.
Author: Grace Ellis
Illustrator: Shae Beagle
Moonstruck, vol. 2
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Werewolf barista and (secretly) aspiring author Julie and her friends score an invitation to a fairy frat party. It’s one of the hottest parties of the year–literally. The entire frat house is bespelled to be a little piece of summer in the midst of Blitheton winter. Fortunately, Julie’s girlfriend Selena is smart enough to keep their entire group from eating or drinking anything. Julie’s friends, the idiot band that the run into at the party . . . not so much. Two of the band members manage to get themselves stuck in the frat house, unable to leave unless the entire band performs at the fraternity’s next party–which would be a lot easier if Mark would get his scrawny vampire butt back to the fraternity instead of refusing to go anywhere near. Naturally, because they’re way too accommodating, Julie, Selena, Chet, and Manuel somehow find themselves trying to sort this all out, only to find themselves caught in a bigger plot–a party war between two separate fairy fraternities. As if they didn’t have enough drama and complications to sort out between themselves already!
I really love the cute fluffiness of this graphic novel series. If you’re in the mood for epic, intricate plots and high stakes, this isn’t really the story you should be picking up. But if you want sweet relationships where the characters are trying to make it work, even as they deal with real struggles like trust issues, then Moonstruck is perfect. Of if you love casual urban fantasy, where all sorts of magical/supernatural beings live normal lives playing computer games, working in coffee shops, playing in bands, and hanging out with friends. Some Enchanted Evening does a good job of showing the growing relationships between this group of friends while providing some solid humor (Mark is an idiot–the whole band are idiots–and Chet’s whole Newpals thing is ridiculous but also amusing). Again, the plot isn’t so much a high-stakes, intense thing, although it does push the characters to deal with some of their issues, which is nice to see. It really does seem like it’s setting us up for something major in the next volume or two, though, especially Cass’s ominous and untold visions being thrown into the mix. The art is consistently super-cute–lots of pastels and fun extras thrown into the background. Recommended.
Author: Bill Myers
The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 3
My rating: 3 of 5
Wally and his pals Wall Street and Opera get the chance to take a trip out to visit Wall Street’s older brother . . . which would be super cool and fun, except for the fact that her brother has forsworn the faith of his family and chosen a lifestyle that his family definitely doesn’t approve of. Which makes the whole trip just a bit AWKWARD. And of course, any given day isn’t complete without Wally’s notorious clumsiness and dorkiness getting him into some kind of trouble. So, naturally, when you expose him to great stuff like hot air balloon races, mad bulls, and the great outdoors, disaster is bound to strike. But somewhere in the midst of all the craziness, Wally and his friends may just find out what trusting God is really all about.
As I’ve mentioned before, this is a classic series that I’ve loved since I was a kid, and My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord definitely continues the trends of the first two volumes of the series. You’ve got a hilarious, slapstick story that’s just good fun but that has distinctive spiritual and moral undertones that are fleshed out through the experiences the characters go through. Plus, the tone of writing in Wally’s voice is just too funny. I think this particular volume isn’t my favorite just because there’s too much of a dichotomy. I mean, in this series, there’s always that contrast between the humor and the actual point the author’s trying to make. But in this book, between the arguments Wall Street’s family have and the weight of the whole turning away from the faith thing, it just gets pretty dark (for a light-hearted middle-grade story, I mean), and it just doesn’t seem to fit–or rather, the slapstick seems an awkward fit in comparison. Still, My Life as a Broken Bungee Cord is definitely a good Christian middle-grade story that I would recommend.
Author: Charlaine Harris
Sookie Stackhouse, vol. 2
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience
Things in Sookie’s life had never been easy, what with her unwelcome gift/curse/whatever of telepathy, but they had definitely taken a turn for the stranger and more complicated once she started dating Bill, a vampire. Although the reprieve his presence gave her mind, what with being unable to read his, well . . . it certainly hadn’t been all bad, not by far. But Sookie’s life shows an extreme run of bad luck as she finds a coworker dead in the parking lot, gets summoned to Dallas to conduct telepathic interrogations, gets kidnapped, is attacked by a maenad, and fights with Bill. Not that she’s about to let all that stop her from investigating her friend’s murder and seeing justice done.
I found Living Dead in Dallas to be a solid follow-up to the first volume in the series, Dead Until Dark. It builds well upon the groundwork that was laid in the first book, developing Sookie and Bill’s relationship, getting Sookie further embroiled in vampire Eric’s schemes, and bringing some new mysteries and dangerous elements to add to the overall intensity of the story. The author does well keeping that small-town Southern girl vibe going, even when Sookie is dumped in the big city of Dallas and expected to manage. We get some solid character development in this volume as well–you’ve got a self-educated, smart woman who is very brave and has strong convictions . . . yet who is also remarkably brittle at times. She’s an interesting character. The story itself is kind of all over the place, but in a way that actually ties together eventually. There’s enough going on to keep things engaging, and the pacing is good. Other than a fair warning that this is definitely an adult book, I would generally recommend Living Dead in Dallas, especially to paranormal romance and mystery lovers.
Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations
Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.
Artist/Author: Jesper Ejsing
My rating: 5 of 5
Right from the moment I first opened the package containing Elsewhere, my first thoughts were “gorgeous” and “stunning.” The book itself is large and thick enough to have an impressive heft to it. And the cover is the breathtaking painting of a white dragon just lightly looking back at you with a faint smirk. And that’s honestly a good barometer for the rest of the volume. In this beautiful artbook, we are given over 400 pages of absolutely wonderful fantasy art. And right from the start, the author invites us to take the journey into his imagination alongside him–introducing the reader to his method and giving short explanations of the origins of and his feelings about certain works. What a journey, too! Here we see dragons (lots of impressive dragons), watch fierce battles, encounter a variety of strange beings in various habitats, and discover terrifying monsters.
Throughout, I’m impressed by . . . well, a lot of things actually. The sense of movement that Ejsing captures in his paintings, for one. He mentions in here that he tries to capture that moment where the outcome is undecided, where you don’t know who wins, and I feel that is done quite well. The sense of focus and balance is also impressive, feeding into that sense of motion and giving it order and meaning. And that is where these paintings really begin to truly come together and shine–because each one is telling a story, inviting us into a world only the artist can otherwise see. And the characters depicted in the paintings are full of personality and emotion, from their nuanced facial expressions to the movement of their limbs to the widely varied clothing that adorns them. The variety and sheer depth of imagination that is presented here is also impressive, and I have to admit that as a gamer, it will likely provide inspiration to me for years to come. Because so much of this work is tied to fantasy worlds that I know and love, like D&D and Pathfinder, worlds that Ejsing clearly has a passion for as well. My sole complaint about this book is that in a few rare instances, with the two-page spreads, there were some details lost in the centerfold, including important details like the faces of some individuals. But honestly, that is such a minor thing compared to how truly fabulous Elsewhere is as a whole, that it hardly bears mentioning. This is an artbook that I would definitely recommend, particularly to fans of fantasy art and to gamers. And hey, it would make a gorgeous coffee-table book for those of the geekier persuasion!
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Elsewhere from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.
Author: Bruce Coville
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Susan is actually excited to be going back to school–mostly because this year (sixth grade) her class is being taught by Ms. Schwartz, possibly the best teacher ever. They’re even supposed to be putting on a play soon, which has Susan’s aspiring actress heart soaring. But when class starts back after spring break, they find Ms. Schwartz gone without explanation and a substitute, Mr. Smith, in her place. Mr. Smith begins to suck all the joy out of learning, and Susan hates the change of teachers. But then she finds out a secret that makes all her previous complaints about Mr. Smith seem insignificant–he’s actually an alien plotting to take a group of children back with him to space to study! Now she’s got to convince someone, anyone, of the truth before it’s too late.
Bruce Coville is a consistently excellent author that I just really enjoy reading. My Teacher Is an Alien is no exception. It captures the environment of a sixth grade classroom, the interpersonal dynamics, and the complications of trying to get adults to listen when you’re that age. And in the midst of that mundanity, you’re introduced to this suspenseful, incredible situation with aliens and force fields and missing teachers. It makes for a great mix. This volume is also kind of nostalgic to read, being written in the 1980’s; it’s kind of nice to look back to a world where you would actually have to bring a camera (using film!) to get evidence, and then wait overnight for it to be developed at the drugstore. There’s just a different atmosphere to stories set (and written) in that time period. I also enjoyed Susan and her friend Peter’s characters; they’re interesting individuals with well-developed characters. In general, the story’s just pretty engaging and fun–recommended.