Author: Lish McBride
A Firebug Story
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.
I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.
Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.
Author: Ira Levin
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Joanna’s life seems to be going just as it should. She’s got a supportive husband, has two healthy children who argue only as much as any others their age, her photography is beginning to be recognized and profitable, and the whole family has just moved to the quiet suburb of Stepford. Only, Stepford isn’t exactly what she was expecting. In fact, in the whole area, Joanna has only found two other women who are remotely normal . . . all the rest seem to be perfect housewives, actors in commercials almost, focused only on their housework and pleasing their husbands. It’s all terribly backward for the times, and something about it just doesn’t sit right with Joanna.
Fair warning that 1) I’ll probably spoil something about this story somewhere in the review, and 2) I’ll likely ignore a lot of things that are typically commented on or have different opinions from those that are popular. This book is iconic enough–and well enough known–that I’m not really trying to avoid either of the above. The Stepford Wives is a psychological thriller set in 1970’s suburban Connecticut. It’s also a solid example of what I would term “suburban horror”–the whole idea that in the suburbs no one will give you too much grief about [insert horrible thing you do here] so long as your house is tidy and your lawn neat and green. So yeah, basically throughout the whole town, all the women are being murdered and replaced by robots because the menfolk in this backwards place prefer that over real, modern women with opinions and personality and interests outside the home. Blah, blah, social commentary, you get the picture. It’s a great insight, this far out from when the story was written, into the mindsets and social atmosphere that were prevalent at that point. From a strictly storytelling perspective, this story is fascinatingly written. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, Levin limits us to what Joanna knows but also sticks strictly to the facts. This happened, that happened, in minute detail at times–we’re given occurrences, hints, the passage of time, and Joanna’s gradual horrifying realization, but we never actually delve into her psyche and emotions. It’s all objective and almost clinical at times, the clear, spare way in which things are written. But I really like the way it’s done; in some ways, it increases the horror of what’s happening as you begin to realize along with Joanna just what’s going down in this place. Also, the pacing of the story is deliberate, spelled out in minute daily events, in a way that makes the progression seem inevitable. I enjoyed The Stepford Wives quite a lot and would recommend it to those interested in psychological thrillers/horror. Just don’t expect a fast-paced, emotion-drenched story coming in to it.
Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 4
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah’s team at Wona is coming together nicely–new name, cool new stuff to try out in-game. But not everything is settled and calm. As evidence arises that the Dream State beta-testers–including his girlfriend Chloe’s brother–may actually still be alive and held captive, Noah finds himself pulling together a team IRL to find them. And it seems likely that this dangerous mission will require all their skills (plus some fancy new gadgets) to pull off without losing even more of their friends.
Lost in the Game is a solid, enjoyable installment in this intriguing LitRPG series. I am again impressed by the world-building going on here, particularly when it comes to settings described in-game. And even though this volume is distinctly more focused on the real-life setting and plot, there are still some pretty awesome in-game moments–new skills that Noah gains which lead to insights into the Dream State’s ghost, dungeon crawls to dig for information on the missing beta-testers, even a big tournament with Siena the Blade. As with previous volumes, the descriptions of things in the game are immersive, detailed, and clear without bogging the story down unnecessarily; I truly admire how Keene pulls this off so seemingly effortlessly. Back in the real world, there’s some pretty intense mystery and intrigue developed as well, as Noah and his team attempt to track the missing beta-testers to an actual location. Things get . . . really real, more so than I was expecting, but it works, heightening the adventure and mystery, advancing the character development, and pushing the plot along. Again, as I’ve found in the other volumes of this series, Noah seems kind of calculating and perhaps even manipulative as a character; however, his character is well-written and consistent, and I find myself enjoying reading even while being concerned by his personal choices as a character at times. Lost in the Game, as well as the rest of the series, is a book I would definitely recommend, particularly to gamers and those who enjoy LitRPGs.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Lost in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.
Authors: Mac Barnett & Jory John
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
The Terrible Two, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Best friends Miles Murphy and Niles Sparks, better known as the Terrible Two (but only to each other), have taken their school by storm with a series of madcap pranks. As a pair of dedicated pranksters, it’s what they do. But they realize they may have gone too far when their pranks get Principal Barkin fired . . . only to be replaced by his father, also Principal Barkin. And while their former principal made a fun target for their pranking, the new principal is quickly sucking the life and fun out of everything. He doesn’t even react, even to the most innovate pranks. And to handle this new principal and get their old one back, Miles and Niles will have to team up with an unlikely ally to pull off a prank of epic proportions.
For those who enjoyed The Terrible Two, this book is a solid, fun follow-up. The Terrible Two Get Worse is a charming, funny middle-grade story full of tricks, friendship, and good clean fun. I appreciate particularly that this volume addresses the idea of pranking while doing no real harm–and fixing the messes you make. Because yeah, while middle-grade pranking is humorous and ought to be relatively innocent, it would be pretty easy for kids to go overboard. As far as Niles and Miles’ friendship, we get something more developed and settled here. In the first volume, they’re in this rivals-to-friends stage, but by this point, they know each other and have done lots together. They accept each others’ quirks, have secret handshakes, and are generally comfortable together. I wish we had gotten more of this friendship aspect, honestly–like, it’s there throughout, but there’s enough focus on plot that it gets a smidge lost in the shuffle at times. Still, though, I enjoyed the friendship represented here. The plot can get a bit angsty at times, if only because there’s such a dour antagonist at play, but rest assured that there’s plenty of good fun as well. As an aside, I also really enjoyed the way the illustrations are worked in as actual parts of the text; you couldn’t read the story completely without the specific pictures in the specific places that they are. For those who enjoy humorous middle-grade stories, I would recommend.
Author: Alex Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5
Welcome back to the weird, wonderful town of Gravity Falls for a collection of never-before-told tales! Follow Dipper and Pacifica as they go where no human has been permitted before (not that they were actually invited) in a quest to retrieve . . . Mabel’s stolen face. Or join the gang as they dive into the wonderful world of comics, breaking all genre boundaries (and the fourth wall) in search of Grunkle Stan. Watch in wonder as Mabel faces the challenges of dealing with none other than . . . herself? And enjoy a peek into the childhood adventures of the older Pines twins. Weirdest of all? The whole thing is narrated by none other than Gravity Falls’ own Shmebulock!
I enjoy this graphic novel so much! I’ve read Lost Legends three times so far, and it has yet to grow old. Because honestly? This book is basically the series, and when does that ever grow old? Seriously, these four stories are slated as tales that were just a bit too weird to make the cut for the cartoon . . . but I could totally see them being there. Not that I’m sad they ended up as a graphic novel instead, though. They’re perfect for this medium, especially the story where they go into graphic novels as part of the plot. It’s hugely fun to see the various styles on the page, going from old-school comics to manga to gritty contemporary stuff to superhero comics–plus the visual effect when they fall into the margins and cut through the pages. It’s great–probably my favorite story of this set. Throughout all four stories, we see the characters being very much themselves and in character. But we also get character growth, which is also amazing. At least two of these stories take place late in the series (one of them post-Weirdmageddon), and it shows. Pacifica begins to come into her own and make choices that aren’t totally based on her family’s approval. Mabel begins to realize how over-the-top and kind-of selfish she can be. Just generally the characters are fabulous and the stories are a lot of fun. Highly recommended to fans of the cartoon.
Authors: Jory John & Mac Barnett
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
The Terrible Two, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Miles really hates that his mom is moving them from his home near the ocean where everyone knew him as an epic prankster to some podunk Midwestern town that smells of cows . . . where no one even knows his name. Starting at his new school, he knows he’s going to have to act fast to solidify his role as an outstanding prankster before he gets stuck hanging out with the school tattle-tale suck-up, Niles. Only trouble is, this school seems to already have a resident prankster, one who seems to be two steps ahead of Miles at every turn–and one so good at hiding that the principal is convinced Miles is guilty of the pranks!
The Terrible Two is a fun, funny middle-grade story that I literally read in one sitting. It’s got great characterizations, relatable problems, and hilarious pranks. All told is a droll, matter-of-fact tone that just makes it even funnier, along with fabulous black-and-white illustrations that emphasize and elaborate on the story brilliantly. Oh, and it’s got cows. Lots and lots of cows. . . . But seriously, I really enjoyed the way the relationship between these two pranksters played out, going from annoyance and bafflement to outright antagonism and finally to this great bromantic pranking team. The Terrible Two is a lot of fun; recommended.
Author: Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5
Harlowe and her friends have been there, done that. They’ve made a name for themselves as teen detectives. Solved cases adults wouldn’t touch, even some paranormal ones. But now they’re growing up, and Harlowe feels like they’re losing something, maybe losing each other. So in one last try to keep the group together and make it work, she brings them something special: a haunted house, tied to her own family history and possibly to her parents’ deaths, with a huge payout if they manage to find the original deed and find out who the house really belongs to. None of them can resist. But they aren’t the first who have ventured into the house. Who’s to say whether they’ll be the first to succeed and make it back out alive?
I really enjoyed In the Shadow of Spindrift House, a paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant. Right off the bat, I loved the idea of teen detectives who have grown past the point where they can call themselves that, who have already had their popularity and are no longer cute. I mean, you see stories about kids going around solving mysteries and doing crazy stuff all the time. But what happens when those kids grow up? Are they able to adapt, or do they keep doing that crazy stuff . . . only now, it will get them killed or arrested or something? Just saying, it’s an interesting idea to play with, and I thought the author addressed it well, putting this solidly in a new adult fiction kind of genre. Only with lots of eerie paranormal stuff going on. I also liked the way the mystery and the atmospheric creepiness gradually built, tiny details adding up over the course of the story. The author also did a great job of creating characters and relationships that I cared about–enough so that certain parts of this story actually hurt, so fair warning there. There’s a certain lack of definition to some of the paranormal elements of this story, and I still can’t quite decide if there was enough definition, or if I would have preferred a bit more clarity. For instance, there’s a good bit of effort put into building the themes of nature and the sea, and we definitely can tell a lot just from that and from the historical stories that Harlowe and her friends uncover. But we never get a name for what we’re dealing with, or an actual explanation, or anything like that. So I guess I’d recommend this book for those who prefer things a bit more mysterious and open-ended. I would definitely recommend In the Shadow of Spindrift House, though, and I certainly intend to try more of the author’s writing.