Category Archives: Books

Get Yer YA Out: Personal Demons

Earlier this summer I was talking to someone in the publishing industry about what would be the next big thing in YA paranormal romance now that vampires, fairies, werewolves, and zombies have been overused. She suggested mermaids and angels. Sure enough, the only ARC I brought home from the ALA conference has an angel in it and I’ve seen some mermaid fiction with horrible titles (Forgive my Fins, seriously?!) in the bookstore. Stories about seemingly ordinary girls who are internally conflicted because two gorgeous boys happen to be in love with them are fairly common in YA fiction. Personal Demons manages to be more amusing than most examples of the genre because the main character Frannie is attracted to an angel and a demon. While reading this book I kept imagining Frannie trying to choose between a devil and angel perched on her shoulder. While Desrochers does fall into a few first-time author traps, there’s a certain sense of humor on display in Personal Demons that makes it fun to read.

The story opens from the point of view of Luc, an immortal demon who has concluded “If there’s a Hell on Earth, it’s high school.” He works in the Acquisitions department of Hell, giving human souls a little push that will send them on the path towards the devil. He notices Frannie in English class and thinks that she may be The One – someone with an extra-special soul who needs to be tagged for Hell. The book switches between narrators as Luc and Frannie discover their growing attraction for each other. Frannie is less of a doormat than some YA heroines, displaying tomboyish hobbies like training in judo and restoring old cars. Frannie is drawn to Luc but ends up being more than a little conflicted due to some personal issues like the death of her brother many years ago and she’s struggling with the expectations of her strict Catholic family. No sooner does Franny start to warm up to Luc but yet another gorgeous boy appears who also happens to be interested in her. His name, of course, is Gabriel. While Luc is a dark and dangerous leather-clad bad boy Gabriel is an angelically gorgeous blond with a surfer vibe.

One of the ways where I thought the book failed a little bit is that by only switching back and forth between Franny and Luc as narrators, the love triangle isn’t very believable. By letting the reader inside Luc and Frannie’s heads but leaving Gabriel to be an angelic cipher there’s never any doubt who Frannie is going to end up with. As Luc and Frannie develop their relationship further, the forces of good and evil take a particular interest in the fate of this teenage girl and Frannie’s unusual abilities alter her destiny. Frannie is certainly more active and strong-willed than some of the typical YA paranormal romance heroines (Bella, I’m looking at you), using her judo skills to punish a boy who was hitting on her and not taking no for an answer. I wish that Desrochers used dialog more than hobbies to establish character. Frannie drawing on her judo training to calm her mind and restoring cars with her granddad seems more like the writer is just doing character development by listing outside traits instead of relying on more subtle methods to define personality.

In the end though I was amused by the demon-human-angel love triangle. Luc’s full name is Lucifier Cain, which had me mentally cracking up when I read it, because could there exist a more stereotypical name for a demon? I think not. Also, Frannie’s friends have the most hilarious reactions to suddenly seeing her inexplicably pursued by two gorgeous boys. While it might not be the strongest paranormal YA romance out there, Personal Demons has a certain breezy charm and is definitely worth checking out if you enjoy reading love stories placed firmly within an epic struggle between good and evil.

On The Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: August 4 2010

The Bureau Chiefs' Nightstand

After a long day at work, the Bureau Chiefs like to relax in bed with books and comic books. Since there are 16 of us, our bed is 64 feet wide and our nightstand is the size of a small elephant. Here’s what is stacked up next to it.

Ken

After a long spell of reading only comics, the wife and I took a trip to nearby bookstore Legacy Books. I’m embarrassed to say I did not know this enormous independent bookstore existed, despite the fact it was about 15 minutes away by car.

I picked up a couple books: My Custom Van, a collection of comedic essays by Michael Ian Black, and The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier.

My Custom VanI tore into My Custom Van first because I needed exactly what Sarah Silverman’s blurb described: something “fun to read while you’re pooping.” And it is. If you don’t know Black, he’s one of a group of improv/sketch/comedy people who’ve been involved in a multitude of projects from The State to Wet Hot American Summer to Reno 911. I hadn’t put my finger on the guy as that guy until recently, and I’m only now starting to appreciate how greatly influential his brand of comedy has been on me for most of my life.

And My Custom Van is, indeed, fun to read while you’re pooping. (Also when you’re not!) As with any anthology or collection, there’s a few clunkers–”I Have An Indomitable Spirit” just sort of wanders all over the place–but the good essays are so good that they more than compensate for the less-amazing ones. “Taco Party” and especially “Using the Socratic Method to Determine What It Would Take for Me to Voluntarily Eat Dog Shit for the Rest of My Life” are brilliant pieces of comedy that I had to put down because I thought I was going to choke on my laughter. It’s now entered my “compulsively loan out to friends and family” pile.

The Brief History of the Dead is a complete about-face from My Custom Van. It’s a fiction about two worlds: the world of the living, and the limbo “City” that the dead reside in while there are still people alive who remember them. As the living world empties out due to a horrible new plague, the City likewise empties out until only a scant few remain. There are two leads: Luka Sims, the only newspapermen in the City, and Laura Byrd, a still-living woman marooned on an arctic expedition. People who know me know this is basically exactly the kind of thing I go for, and the peculiar choice of the definite article The in the title–as in The Brief History of the Dead, not A Brief History of the Dead–only piqued my interest further.

I’m only a few chapters in, but this is riveting stuff. Brockmeier’s prose is cool yet lush, and his ability to render this fantastical City so effortlessly is a testament to his skill. I’m still too early in the book to guess where exactly he’s going with this (though I have some theories), and definitely too early to tell if he can pull it off, but so far I’m glad I picked it up.

Anna

The Red NecklaceI finished The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest earlier this month, and after being immersed in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy I was having difficulty finding something to read that captured my interest. I settled on Sally Gardner’s swashbuckling historical young adult novel The Red Necklace. Set in the time of the French revolution, the necklace in the title of the book refers to a mysterious piece of jewelry, but it also can stand for the red line that appears when someone’s throat is cut. I’m only around a third of the way into the book so far but I’m finding it very entertaining. Yann Margoza is a Gypsy boy of unknown parentage who makes his living assisting a magician and a dwarf in a magic show that features an intricate automaton. Sido is the daughter of an aristocrat who enjoys looking over his shoe buckle collection while remaining utterly oblivious to the coming revolution. When the villainous Count Kalliovski kills Yann’s magician benefactor and demands Sido’s hand in marriage to settle her father’s debts, the unlikely duo get swept up plenty of historical intrigue against a backdrop of civic unrest. Gardner’s attention to detail makes The Red Necklace entertaining, as the excessive habits of Sido’s father are cataloged while Yann finds a new family in the form of Sido’s long-lost relatives in London.

Benjamin

The Four Fingers of DeathI think it was, hm, two weeks ago?  I was in the bookstore and suddenly saw the new Rick Moody book, The Four Fingers Of Death, which I believe had just come out that day.  I was excited for several reasons immediately, all at once.  First of all, there was a new Rick Moody book that I had had no idea was even coming out.  The last book I’d read of his was The Diviners, which was a great read, and I’ve been a general fan of his for quote a long time.  (Bonus Points for anyone who remembers the comic he wrote with Steve Dillon doing the art that ran in Details.)  Secondly, the cover just knocked my socks onto their asses.  It’s so good that you almost never want to even consider eBooks again.  It’s so good that I actually leave the dust jacket on when I carry it around on my commute.  It’s really really sharp, in other words.

The book itself, right. Well, it starts off a little bumpy for the first few pages.  Long time Moody readers will be instantly surprised by the extraordinarily florid first person narration, a big departure from Moody’s usual prose.  But after a few pages, it clicks, and it eases into a really compelling read.  It’s his take on futurism and sci-fi, but undercut with the usual melancholy and quiet beauty.  So far, a really fantastic read.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Nobody’s Angel by Jack Clark

Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel, the latest release from the Hard Case Crime imprint, is the definition of a cult novel.
Clark, a Chicago cab driver, wrote and self-published the novel. Until its publication by Hard Case Crime last month, the only way a reader could get one of the 500 copies available was to take a ride in Clark’s cab.

But beyond the novelty of its publication, Nobody’s Angel is an endlessly fascinating look inside the world of a cab driver. While technically a crime novel, with two crimes driving the plot forward, the bulk of the novel is taken up with an episodic series of cab rides, each a potential mini-adventure. Eddie Miles, an old school hack who serves as the novel’s narrator, knows Chicago’s history and geography intimately and has traced the trajectory of the city’s decline into violent crime.

Someone is killing cabbies, and as the crimes go unsolved, the city’s drivers become increasingly paranoid, making more and more narrowly selective decisions about the fares they pick up, mainly on a racial basis. That’s not to say the cabbies weren’t “selective” already: many don’t pick up African American fares at all, and most won’t drive to either the west or south sides of Chicago. Eddie describes Cabrini-Green as a kind of war zone that any smart hack avoids at all costs, with snipers ready to take shots at cabs just for the hell of it. In fact, Clark is unflinching when dealing with the racial politics of cab drivers, and that approach marks some of the novel’s most uncomfortable moments.

An air of nostalgia for a lost Chicago runs through the novel, and that can lead one to wonder what exactly Clark blames for that loss. City planning, housing projects, and gentrification definitely come under fire. In one extended scene, Eddie gives an old man a nostalgic ride back to his old neighborhood, one which was virtually destroyed and never rebuilt in the riots of the late 60s. Eddie is afraid and constantly stresses that no other cabbie would take such a fare, but his fears are never realized in this particular trip. At other points, Eddie tells stories of buildings, attractions, and routes that once existed but have now changed, all with the feeling that something essential in the city has been irrevocably lost.

A second crime plot involves a killer who is violently slashing prostitutes, and Eddie takes it on himself to do his own investigation. However, this and the cabbie killer plot get little attention until the final fourth of the novel or so, as the rest provides a vivid picture of the ups and downs of the cabbie’s daily life. For the most part, the crimes serve as MacGuffins that intensify the cabbies’ behavior and highlight relationships among the cabbies and between the drivers and the police.

Clark has a sharp, minimalist style that makes this a quick read. In addition, each chapter is headed with a different rule from the city’s public codes for cab drivers, most of which stand in ironic contrast to the cabbies’ actual behavior.

Personally, I have only a limited knowledge of Chicago, but I can imagine a reader with a real affection for or interest in the city loving this novel. I was fascinated enough with the detailed narratives of individual fares that permeate the novel, and I feel like I walk away from it with new information that helps explain why, sometimes, I have difficulty getting a cab.

At the very least, I learned that I might tip higher than most fares.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: The Millennium Trilogy

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I came late to the game for the first novel of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, I had a copy of the mass market paperback edition of the novel for almost six months before I decided to read it. But then, I quickly devoured it and its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, over the course of a week, wanting to do little more than read during that time. When the final novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, came out at the end of May, I tried to savor it a little more, but I still burned through the final 200 pages in an afternoon. I cannot remember a time that I was so obsessed with a series of novels–there were a few weeks back in 1992 where I was reading a Jim Thompson novel a day, but that’s the last I remember.

I also can’t remember a publishing phenomenon geared toward adult readers that so deserved its success based purely on the quality of the work. Certainly not The DaVinci Code, which, while a fast read, forgoes characters and replaces them with information dumping vehicles while also tranforming art appreciation into codebreaking. But the reasons for the success of Larsson’s books may be a bit difficult to pin down. Apparently, their popularity is due primarily to word of mouth. In the most basic explanation, The Millennium Trilogy succeeds because it ties gripping mystery plots with wholly formed, fascinating, yet damaged characters in its two main investigators, investigative reporter and publisher of Millennium magazine Mikael Blomqvist and punk researcher Lisbeth Salander. And while the steam does run out a bit in the middle of the third novel, the finale is an immensely satisfying conclusion that wraps the series up nicely.

On the surface, though, these novels seem like unlikely successes. The first 150 pages or so of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are filled with infomation on Sweden’s political, economic, and legal systems, and by the end of the third novel, the reader has learned quite a bit about twentieth-century Swedish political history. But in the midst of that is a series of mysteries that begins with the 40-year-old disappearance of a teenage girl on an isolated Swedish island and ends with a scandal that wracks the entire Swedish government.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with a deliciously simple mystery: thirty-six years earlier, a teenage girl disappears from the island home of the wealthy Vanger family during a period that no one could get on or off the island due to a severe traffic accident that cut off the only bridge to the mainland. This large-scale locked room mystery haunts family patriarch Henrik Vanger for decades until, coming to the end of his life, he hires disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist, who has recently lost a libel suit against a powerful industrialist. The novel takes its time to tease out the mystery, and like a true reporter, Blomqvist chases down various dead-ends along the way, most of which flesh out the Vanger family’s sordid history. However, the plot is also punctuated by moments of extreme violence, especially the brutal rape that Lisbeth Salander experiences, which also sets up the plots for the next two novels.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest fit together as if they were one long novel, and it might have been better for the last novel if they were. Hints from the first novel about Lisbeth Salander’s traumatic past are fleshed out here, and we learn that her life has been dramatically affected by a government cover-up that goes to the highest levels of Swedish politics. So, while the first novel fits solidly within the mystery genre, the second and third are closer to espionage novels, especially those of the 1970s, where an intrepid reporter would expose government corruption (think of a less depressing version of The Parallax View).

The investigations in each novel are always very methodical, though important revelations often hinge on Lisbeth getting some crucial information off of someone’s poorly protected home computer. As the political impact of the plots in the later novels grows, more investigators become involved, and by the third novel, there are at least four investigative units tracking down the same information. Because of that, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest becomes a bit repetitive in the middle, and the bad guys tend to remain somewhat dormant while the various investigators are at work. In addition, Blomqvist stays so far ahead of the bad guys in his investigation that his plan moves forward with a sense of inevitability and a lack of dramatic tension. But despite the novel’s predictability, the courtroom finale and subsequent epilogue are still exciting and satisfying, especially considering how we’ve been waiting to see the bad guys get their due for two novels.

The third novel is also dragged down a bit by an extraneous subplot involving Erika Berger, Blomqvist’s publishing partner in Millennium magazine and occasional lover. Berger quits Millennium when she’s offered a job as editor-in-chief of a major Swedish newspaper, and her tenure there is immediately darkened by a stalker whose tactics become exponentially more dangerous. Not only would this plot lift right out of the novel without doing damage to the overall narrative, but it ends in such a predictable and pedestrian way that it becomes disappointing in light of what has come before. It almost seems as if the plot were added to give the novel some dramatic tension while the rest of the novel was moving toward its inevitable conclusion.

The two main characters are most frequently cited as the reasons for these novels’ success. Lisbeth Salander is certainly a unique contemporary detective: a brilliant punk hacker with serious personality issues that may be Asperger’s. Mikael Blomqvist, however, is a bit of a throwback to an old-school style of investigative journalist while also serving as a “Mary Sue”–a fantasy version of Larsson himself. Like Blomqvist, Larsson was an investigative reporter who started his own magazine. However, Blomqvist also gets laid all the time and is virtually irresistible to women, despite the fact that he is middle-aged and slightly out of shape. Women are attracted to him because he’s “uncomplicated,” as we repeatedly hear throughout the novels. While his failure to maintain a serious romantic relationship comes under criticism from his sister and other women in his life, he doesn’t see a real impetus to change. On top of that, he’s so much damn smarter than everyone else, and that, again, draws away from the dramatic tension in the final novel. To Larsson’s credit, though, Blomqvist remains a charming and engaging character who we root for in his efforts to bring down the most corrupt in business and government.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story this week on The Millennium Trilogy, explaining the fascinating story behind the novels. Stieg Larsson completed the three novels before the first was even published, and he died tragically before seeing the first’s success. According to Entertainment Weekly, Larsson’s partner of 30 years may have about 250 pages of a fourth novel stored on her laptop, but that may never see the light of day due to legal problems with Larsson’s family. Other reports state that Larsson had plans for a ten-book sequence. Such information made me a bit nervous about the final novel. The first two ended with loose plot threads–or in the case of The Girl Who Played with Fire, a huge cliffhanger–and I worried that the same would be true of the third. However, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest does come to a satisfying conclusion that makes future novels unnecessary (the Berger stalker plot in Hornet’s Nest could easily be setting up the fourth novel as well, which would give further justification to its inclusion here).

EW also reports that David Fincher is set to direct the English-language films of the trilogy (Swedish versions have already been made and released), though no casting decisions have been made. Fincher is a good choice, especially if he approaches the first film more like Zodiac than Se7en by focusing in on the methodical, multi-tiered investigation. He’s also going to keep the film set in Sweden, which is going to fit his visual style well. Despite the adage that film adaptations are usually disappointing, I have some high hopes for Fincher’s films.

On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: May 19 2010

After a long day at work, the Bureau Chiefs like to relax in bed with books and comic books. Since there are 16 of us, our bed is 64 feet wide and our nightstand is the size of a small elephant. Here’s what is stacked up next to it.

Anna

It is summer, so light and fluffy reading is even more of a priority to me than it usually is. I’ll read a romance novel or three when I want something I can breeze through in a day. Unfortunately my recent fun reading choices were a little disappointing.

I bought a Nora Roberts omnibus, True Betrayals; Montana Sky; Sanctuary: Three Complete Novels but I thought the choices of the novels to include in the collection were a little off. If you read one book about a group of siblings finding romance while being terrorized by a sexually deviant serial killer followed immediately by a different book about a group of siblings finding romance while being terrorized by a sexually deviant serial killer, It does get a little bit repetitive.

I wrote before about my affection for the first two books in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series so I was disappointed to find the third book in the series, Fragile Eternity, a bit of a slog. Like many YA authors Marr isn’t afraid to pile on the angst but her characters seem to spend more time talking about how miserable they are than doing much about it. I’m around halfway through the book now and I’m hoping the ending will pull everything together.

I’m having better luck finding more entertainment on the manga front. I’ve finished Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku volume 3 about a gender-swapped feudal Japan and am finding it extremely thought-provoking. On the soapier side, I read Miki Aihara’s teenage showbiz trainwreck saga in Honey Hunt volume 4 and wrapped it up with a journey to a Wonderland filled with pathologically violent (but handsome!) men in Alice in the Country of Hearts volume 3.

Ken

I finished Son of the Rough South, and Karl Fleming’s tales of being at or near ground zero for the major events and catastrophes of America’s 1960s (from the civil rights movement’s first stuttering steps to JFK’s assassination to the Watts Riots to Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral) are so engrossing that I’m beginning to think like a heretic — namely, why bother with the historical fiction of the likes of James Ellroy when I can just read about the real thing, which is often equally as exciting? I am pretty sure words like that might get my ass kicked around here.

But, seriously, if you have even a remote interest in the time and the place, I cannot recommend the book strongly enough. It’s a potent refresher on the sometimes catastrophic violence and unbelievable bravery of the time, and of just how deeply entrenched racism was nationwide. When you wonder why things like affirmative action and hate crimes legislation exist, or why people getting bent out of shape about the Weathermen is silly as hell, this book will remind you.

After ROFLCon ended I had a day to myself in and around the MIT campus, so I got to feel like a smart guy by shopping in the MIT bookstore. That probably explains how I ended up with a book called Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City.

Granted, it’s a subject I’m a little nerdy about; like the book’s author, Mark Kingwell, I think cities are the most significant machines humans have ever created. I tend to view cities as organisms, a theory that Kingwell has touched on and has only begun to discuss. I must read more.

It’s a bit scattershot, though I’m still early in the book. Kingwell begins by defending the use of concrete in architecture, and then jumps directly to the competing theories on what a city is: organism, machine, communication network, or other model. But despite that scattershot approach, Kingwell’s bringing enough theory from different disciplines to hold my interest. And the subject matter may as well have been chosen exactly for me.

Dave L

Being a fan of conspiracy books, I had often heard references to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday but never read it. I picked up the new edition with the snazzy new cover and tore through it in a couple days (I’m a slow reader; most people could probably bang it out in two sittings, tops.) Like all good conspiracy books, the setting and specific enemies (in this case, “Anarchists”) make no difference, because the book isn’t about a specific threat but about the nature of those perceiving it. In this case, an undercover policeman infiltrates a cabal of nefarious plotters only to find out that Things, as you can imagine, are Not What They Seem. This leads to our protagonist pursuing Anarchists across London, England, and Europe, and then returning pursued by Anarchists. There’s a lot of silliness and humor along the way, along with serious discussions of philosophy and then out of nowhere Chesterton hits you with a line that stops you dead in your tracks.

“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

That is something, right there.

Things go a bit surreal towards the end, culminating not in a whodunit so much as a whydunit, and the answer being a bit less than satisfying. It’s also tempting to be disappointed at the very end, but one can’t say Chesterton isn’t playing fair; in an authorial afterword Chesterton reminds the reader the the novel has a subtitle.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire by Gabriel Hunt with Christa Faust

Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire is the fourth book in the Gabriel Hunt series of adventure novels created by Charles Ardai, founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint. The conceit of the series is that modern adventurer Gabriel Hunt authors each novel (though, curiously, none are narrated in the first person) with the help of a different writer. So far, the series has been a mixed bag, but even at their weakest, the novels remain entertaining and diverting. However, Christa Faust’s contribution to the series, Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire, cuts loose with the potential that this series has to offer, telling a riveting, action-packed story that is goofy as hell but a heck of a lot of fun.

The premise of the series is fairly straightforward and contains within it the potential for entertaining pulp adventures. Gabriel Hunt is a modern day Indiana Jones-style adventurer who seeks out lost and legendary antiquities with the support of his family’s $100 million Hunt Foundation, led by his more practical brother, Michael (I sincerely hope that Ardai intended that name as a joke). Gabriel is haunted by the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, when they were last seen on a cruise ship that was attacked by pirates several years earlier. As can be expected, Gabriel’s adventures often require him to team up with female scientists and archeologists. In addition, the novels offer a bit of continuity: the immediately preceding adventure is referenced in each new novel.

Of the four Hunt novels published so far, Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire is the best. Ardai’s contribution, Hunt through the Cradle of Fear, is a close second, providing an entertaining dose of world history as Gabriel Hunt searches for Homer’s lost epic of Oedipus and the secret of the sphinx. However, the first novel, Hunt at the Well of Eternity by James Reasoner, reads like a series of action set-pieces loosely held together by a plot, and does little to make the hero a compelling character. The third, Nicholas Kaufmann’s Hunt at World’s End, shows signs of strain in the series’ basic premise, as we get yet another instance of Hunt chasing after a lost artifact while being pursued by a villainous antiquities collector–basically, the same plot from the previous two novels.

Faust (who also wrote the fantastic, sexy Hard Case Crime novel Money Shot) cleverly eschews that particular plot formula as Gabriel’s adventure takes him to Antarctica to find a missing scientist, Dr. Lawrence Silver, whose daughter, Velda, has sought out Hunt’s assistance. Prior to the introduction of Velda Silver, however, Faust gives us a mini-adventure where Hunt must recover a legendary kindjal (some kind of decorative knife) from his female nemesis, Dr. Fiona Rush, in an ancient Moldovan temple. This opening adventure teases us with a little welcome bait-and-switch–it seems like Faust is giving us a plot that resembles the first three novels, but what follows ends up being quite pleasantly different.

For the Antarctic adventure, Hunt puts together a crack supporting team: Rue Aparecido, a top mechanic who can pilot or drive anything with a motor and who also happens to be Hunt’s former lover; and Maximillian “Millie” Ventrose, a giant fighter who will serve as the muscle on the adventure. Rue also has experience in Antarctica, and Gabriel hopes that will help them cut through the red tape that might hinder their expedition. In Antarctica, they also team up with Nils, a scientific partner of Dr. Silver who will help lead them to the last place anyone heard from the missing scientist.

The rest of the novel is filled with some pretty damn clever and entertaining twists and turns that are best left as surprises, because most of the enjoyment of this novel comes from the pure joy generated from Faust’s creative choices. Faust is clearly having a lot of fun here–most of the characters spend at least half of the novel naked or nearly so, due to the requirements of the plot, of course–and that fun is contagious. Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire is a blast, and I hope it serves as the model for future entries in this series.

Book Learnin’ with Doctor K: Memory by Donald E. Westlake

Billed as Donald Westlake’s “final novel,” Memory is actually an early novel, written in the 1960s but never published, by the great mystery and noir writer. Following the writer’s death in December 2008, Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai announced the aquisition of this unpublished work, which had been rejected by Westlake’s agent early in the writer’s career. Memory, in fact, is barely a crime novel: it begins with a crime, and it does have a noirish feel; plus, there is something of a mystery involved. Police occasionally get involved. But it hues closer to a late modernist meditation on identity and its connections to memory than it does to the crime novels that would become Westlake’s stock in trade. It’s like a Virginia Woolf novel without the formal experimentation or stream-of-consciousness style, or Kafka minus the nightmare landscape.

Paul Cole is an actor in a travelling company, having an affair with one of his co-stars in a small-town hotel when suddenly, her husband bursts in. The husband raises a chair, and Paul screams out “What are you doing?

The next paragraph begins with a nurse looking over Paul, and in the gap between the two paragraphs is a loss of memory that Paul will never recover. It’s a nice stylistic trick that Westlake pulls off here because, on the first page of the book, the reader is disoriented in a way that mirrors Paul’s experience and puts the reader in a position of sympathy with the protagonist. Also in that gap, Paul sustains a head injury that causes not traditional amnesia, but a gradual loss of memory that removes not only his past before the injury, but most new memories that he accrues after.

Paul is discharged from the hospital with very little money left and a sheriff on his back who wants to see the adulterer run out of town. Though he cannot remember much of his past life, he knows from the identification in his wallet that he is from New York City, and the thought of returning to his home in hopes of triggering his lost memory drives Paul forward. With what little money he has, Paul buys a bus ticket to go as far east as possible, which means the small town of Jeffords. In Jeffords, he tries to find a way to earn the money that will get him to New York, but due to a series of mistakes resulting from his gradually declining memory, this process takes months. Meanwhile, he builds a nice life for himself in Jeffords: working in a tanning plant, living in a boarding house with a nice couple, making friends, and building a romantic relationship with a young woman named Edna. However, the need to return to New York constantly nags at him even when he forgets exactly what he wants to find there.

The pieces of his life in Jeffords remain with Paul, even as he tries desperately to rebuild his past while also attempting to retain the new memories that he makes. Paul starts writing notes to himself to remind him of the most mundane details of his life, but as his memory regresses, these notes take on a more cryptic quality to him. Like a character in a Kafka story, Paul also faces a hostile world where government bureaucrats are indifferent to his problems and every barely-remembered friend could be a potential threat waiting to take advantage of his condition. Westlake builds sympathy for his protagonist by building up hope that the lost memory will eventually be recovered. However, as Paul loses even the memories of events that take place in the novel itself, the likelihood of that recovery diminishes.

In Paul Cole, Westlake created a compelling protagonist. As he tries to piece together his past, he sees a brash, young actor on the verge of career success that sharply contrasts the quiet, insecure amnesiac that he’s become. While Memory is by no means Westlake’s best work, it is also far from a failed early novel that deserved to be languishing in the bottom of a drawer for 50 years. Fans of Westlake will see early signs of his strength as a novelist while also getting a dark novel that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of his considerable oeuvre. And although the novel holds up on its own as a compelling read, those new to Westlake might be better off starting elsewhere, especially with one of the other great Westlake novels that Hard Case Crime has resurrected, like 361, Lemons Never Lie (written as Richard Stark), Somebody Owes Me Money, or The Cutie.

Get Yer YA Out: Wicked Lovely

It is probably a little unfair to Melissa Marr that I think of her work often whenever someone mentions Twilight. This is partially because her first book, Wicked Lovely, was published during the post-Twilight teen paranormal romance deluge. I didn’t jump on the Twilight bandwagon early, and I think I read Twilight, Eclipse, and Wicked Lovely in short succession.

But out of the many teen paranormal romances that I’ve sampled, I think her Wicked Lovely series is one of the best. There are also some interesting parallels in the behavior of the male characters, but where Twilight is filled with unintentional howlers, Wicked Lovely is a nice example of a teen urban fantasy that you might want to hand to the Twihard in your life if you wish to gently reprogram them.

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

There aren’t many new creatures to write about in paranormal romance. Typically you have vampires (Twilight, Vampire Diaries, too many others to mention), werewolves (Need, Shiver), even zombies (The Forest of Hands and Teeth). Wicked Lovely deals with the very popular urban fantasy device of fairies, except they are portrayed as mostly creepy instead of being regarded as eternally lovely magical beings.

Aislinn has the ability to see fairies. Everywhere she goes, she sees invisible creatures engaged in malicious acts, either torturing each other or playing tricks on the humans who walk through the world absolutely blind. Her grandmother has trained her since childhood not to react to any fairies that cross her path. Unfortunately Aislinn has captured the attention of the worst fairy possible for her, Keenan, who is king of the Summer Fey. Keenan is locked into a centuries-old quest to find his queen among mortal women, leaving behind a trail of ruined lives from girls who were forced to join his brainless harem of Summer Girls or had their lives altered in an entirely different way by becoming the eternally frosty Winter Girl.

Keenan begins to woo Aislinn, and she is terrified. He’s utterly beautiful and possesses the fairy mojo to force anyone to be attracted to him. Where Twilight romanticizes stalking and controlling behavior in the form of Edward the perfect vampire, Aislinn just wants Keenan to leave her alone. He shows up at her hang-outs. He enrolls in her school using a glamor to appear human. All of Aislinn’s friends are mystified as to why she’s so hostile to the new transfer student. Where Twilight’s Bella is mostly passive, Aislinn tries to take control of her situation through research and negotiation. She’s aided by her almost-boyfriend Seth, who is perhaps one of the most awesome punk rock boyfriends ever to appear in the pages of a YA novel. He’s entirely supportive of whatever decision Aislinn makes, goes to the library to research fairy history for her, lives in a converted train, and sports an amazing variety of piercings. It makes sense that Seth would be presented as practically perfect in every way since he’s shown to the reader as Aislinn sees him. Even though it is heavily idealized, seeing a relationship where two people were genuinely supportive of each other while facing a threat was a refreshing change of pace from the usual angst one finds in teen fiction.

I appreciated the way Marr developed Keenan’s character. While the reader can have sympathy for his motivations, he’s presented as a hamstrung monarch who is utterly befuddled when someone defies him. He’s convinced that Aislinn is his destined queen but he is so used to human women throwing themselves at his feet if he deigns to smile at them, he’s utterly at a loss when Aislinn rejects his advances. Wicked Lovely has an ending which is a nice twist on the “girl becomes fairy princess” conclusion that you might expect from reading a story about a girl pursued by a fairy King.

Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr

The second book in the Wicked Lovely series is structured in a way that I wish was more common in YA series. It isn’t a straight sequel. Instead of continuing the adventures of Aislinn, Keenan, and Seth, Ink Exchange focuses on Aislinn’s friend Leslie. There must be something in the water at Bishop O’Connell High School, because it certainly seems to produce teenage girls that fairies are inexplicably attracted to. Leslie comes from a broken and abusive home, but she’s hiding her family life from her friends and any authority figure. She’s fixated on the idea of getting a tattoo as a tangible reminder of the way she wants to change her life. Unfortunately the tattoo shop she selects is connected to the fairy Dark Court, and the tattoo of her dreams will cause her to be bound to the king of the fairy Dark Court.

One of the things I like about the Wicked Lovely series is that it explores dark themes, and there’s actually tension built up for the reader as they wonder about Leslie’s ultimate fate. She spirals down, trapped in the addictive power of the dark fairies and has to fight her way back in order to find herself again. Leslie is aided by one of Keenan’s advisers, a defector from the Dark Court named Niall. Aislinn appears briefly in a few scenes, but this book is entirely Leslie’s story. As a character, she’s initially more broken than Aislinn, and the Dark Court is far more malicious towards fairies and humans than the Summer Court introduced in the previous book.

One of the things that annoyed me about the Twilight series was that for a bunch of books about vampires it was unfortunately toothless. Action scenes happened offstage. There’s never any real narrative tension or reason to worry about what will ultimately happen to the characters. The Wicked Lovely books do a much better job of maintaining a consistent thematic atmosphere. The fairies don’t measure their actions against human morality and sometimes mortals are broken or used up. These books aren’t great literature, but they do serve their purpose as well-written teen paranormal romance. In a world filled with substandard Twilight knock-offs, that isn’t something to take for granted.