FantasticLand by Mike Bockoven

Since it opened in the 1970’s, FantasticLand was the theme park where “Fun was guaranteed!”. Like Disney and Universal, it was a major draw for numerous visitors to the Sunshine State. But when a hurricane ravages the Florida coast and isolates the park, the employees left behind find the park anything but fun.

Five weeks later, when authorities finally find a way to rescue the survivors, they come upon something out of a horror show. Photos soon appear online of heads on spikes outside of the rides along with viscera and bones littering the gift shops. Those who see the pictures are left wondering, how could a group of mostly teenagers commit such horrible acts?

FantasticLand is an interesting read as it is presented as a kind of investigation. Each chapter is told from one person’s point of view, transcribed from the interview in to a short story in first person narrative. There is only one actual interview and that is with an individual that numerous others reference throughout the rest of the book.

Numerous reviewers have compared FantasticLand to Lord of the Flies and I find that to be a very apt comparison. In both books a disaster of some kind leaves groups of individuals stranded and hoping for eventual rescue. The differences being in the former those stranded are both male and females of various ages from teen-aged to older adults, while in the latter the stranded are all young boys. This makes a difference in how the tragedies are dealt with and perceived, but at times there is little to be seen.

In both books those who are left behind form social groups or tribes. In FantasticLand, the tribes are based on where the employees worked in the park itself. As they worked together day in and day out, they were comfortable together and as such gravitated together when times were difficult. This formation of tribes also created a kind of rivalry with the tribes battling one another over necessities like food and water – even when no such fights were necessary as there was plenty to go around.

In a way FantasticLand can be seen as a kind of think piece. So many of the characters in the book are young adults; little more than kids in the high school/college age range. Their entire lives they have had information fed to them via social media, be it on the TV or computer or cell phone. Their every move has been documented and shared and either that or their job had given them a direction to go. When they are deprived of that direction and that audience, where are they to turn?

Like the aforementioned Lord of the Flies, FantasticLand can be a difficult read at times. Not because it is badly written – quite the opposite, I found it to be quite well written and researched. It is difficult because it is very violent and a bit depressing. In reading about what these young adults do, the reader is forced to consider what they them self might do. They must consider if they would volunteer to stay behind like these characters did and how far they would be willing to go to survive.

 

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Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3) by Seanan McGuire

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children may resemble a boring boarding school but there is more to the school that meets the eye. It is a special kind of school, a magical school, where students who have experienced fantastic adventures are slowly reintroduced in to the “real” world.

One of the students was a girl named Suni. Suni was supposed to be the savior of the sugary magical land Confection; she was to defeat the Queen of Cakes, marry, and have a daughter named Rini. Unfortunately, Suni was killed before any of these things could happen.

And yet Rini was born anyway.

With Suni gone and not having returned to Confection, the timeline is trying to correct itself. This means that Rini is slowly disappearing and Confection is slowly crumbling. It will be a race against time for Suni’s friends, both old and new, to try and make things right.

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third and most recent installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series. It picks up about a little over a year after the ending of the first book. Some students have left the school while some have remained and new ones have joined them, one of them being Cora.

Previously, McGuire touched on different ethnicities, skin colors, gender identities, and sexualities. Now the subject of body image and it’s accompanying anxiety is added to the mix through the character of Cora. In our world, Cora is seen as obese. Her weight seen as an affliction and something to be ashamed of, whereas in the underwater world she traveled to her weight was seen as a boon. The layers of fat that were a point of shame for her here were a point of pride among the merpeople she met. In returning to our world, Cora must once again face the negativity.

Unlike the first two books (Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, respectively) Beneath the Sugar Sky has a lighter feel to it. While there are some darker elements – the cemetery scene immediately comes to mind – it does not continue throughout the entire story. Much like the world of Confection, there is a lighter feel to the prose in this latest installment.

That is not to say the book is all light and frivolity. It is actually a meshing of darkness and light. It is a tale of friendship and love, even when we do not know the person we are trying to help.

Yes, there are a few confusing elements but they are minor compared to the overall tale. Alas, I cannot go into them too much as to do so would ruin the story itself as they are a key part to the plot. I myself had to reread a handful of passages a few times just to make sure I had everything straight in my head.

I do recommend readers read the previous books before delving in to Beneath the Sugar Sky. At the very least they should read the first book, Every Heart a Doorway as characters in that book return here. Other than that, I absolutely recommend this one to my readers. I tore through it in a single evening and am sure you will do the same. I cannot wait for the next installment.

Fox by Dubravka Ugrešic

With the shape-shifting and wily fox of Eastern folklore as an underlying motif, Fox is a novel that reinvents itself over and over again. It is a blending of literary trivia and the timeless story of a young woman trying to find love.

Through it’s narrative force the reader is taken from Russia to Japan, through Balkan minefields and on American road trips. We are taken from the 1920s to present day, as the novel explores the power of storytelling and literary invention. Of the notions of betrayal, and the randomness of human lives.

It is incredibly rare, dear reader, for me to not finish a book – much less write a review on it. Yet that is what I find myself doing with Ugresic’s Fox.

When I picked the book up off the shelf at my library, the blurb on the back seemed very interesting. It was only when I began reading, or at least trying to read, that I found myself sadly disappointed.

Perhaps it is because I do not find Ugresic’s writing style appealing. She has a kind of rambling style of writing, her words seeming to jumble together in an almost stream of consciousness style. Each chapter is its own unique story, centering on one particular event or another, but also interspersed with random bits of information that seem to pertain to what is happening.

Unfortunately, due to the style of writing, I found myself going cross eyed halfway through the first story. I could not even finish the second one before I was forced to put the book down.

Readers who are familiar with Ugresic’s previous works claim Fox is typical of her work. Perhaps it is because I myself am not familiar with her previous novels, or perhaps it is because there is something lost in the translation of this book in to English. Suffice it to say, I did not enjoy reading Fox. So much so that I did not even finish it.

Whether it is good or bad, I cannot really say. Nor can I honestly recommend it.

Infiltrator (Agent G #1) by C.T. Phipps

The International Refugee Society has twenty-six cybernetically enhanced “Letters”, and for the right price they will eliminate any one. These “Letters” have given up their families and their memories, exchanging them for ten years of service and a life of luxury when the time is done.

Agent G is one of these “Letters”. He’s been sent on a near impossible mission to infiltrate the Carnevale – the Society’s most dangerous competitor. It is while on this mission that clues from his hidden past begin to emerge. In the midst of all the violence and deceit, G will need to keep his wits about him and trust only a few.

After all, if an organization like the International Refugee Society will kill for the right price, how far would they go to keep the truth hidden?

One of the reviewers on Goodreads described Agent G as “If the agencies behind Johnny Mnemonic and Jason Bourne merged their R&D departments” and it is a description I completely agree with.

G is a highly trained agent, enhanced with what is referred to as Black Technology. Along with wiping his memories, his emotions are kept under strict control via the chip that is embedded in his brain. His body has also been subjected to several modifications, turning him in to the so called perfect weapon.

There is a lot of violence in Infiltrator – and I mean a LOT. Phipps does not skimp when it comes to that particular detail. People are killed left and right and not all of them are bad guys. Concepts like “collateral damage” are not even considered in G’s world of espionage. When an elderly couple comes across the carnage after G and one of the members of Carnavale have been ambushed, they are shot almost point blank before they can leave and possibly report what they saw. Deaths like this are fairly common throughout the book, underlining the fact that these are not nice people.

Overall, the plot line driving Infiltrator isn’t that original. Any one who is familiar with the manga and movies Ghost in the Shell or Battle Angel Alita have seen similar storylines – augmented individuals with forgotten pasts trying to remember the people they were, for better or for worse. Even the big reveal at the end, which has enough hints dropped through the story to make it fairly easy to guess, isn’t that original. Other books and movies have done the same thing and done it better.

At times I also found the dialogue a bit awkward and clunky. Even when the dialogue was between two characters it sometimes became difficult to tell who was speaking and there were a few times I had to go back to reread a passage to make sure I was following it properly.

The bottom line is Infiltrator is an okay book. Very violent and not very innovative, it gives us a story that has been done before but unfortunately doesn’t present it in a new way. While it might appeal to some, I wasn’t terribly impressed and I won’t be seeking out the rest of the series.

Sherlock Holmes: The Legacy of Deeds by Nick Kyme

It is 1894; Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson have been summoned to a Covent Garden art gallery. Dozens of patrons lie dead in a portrait gallery, their means of death unclear.

The search for clues leads them to cross paths with a mysterious figure in black, whose amazing speed and agility make capture impossible. This same person is suspect in a second murder when the servant of a visiting Russian grand duke is found mutilated in a notorious slum. The question is what connects these two events? And how are they connected to the apparent suicide of a teacher at a nearby girls’ boarding school?

So begins a case that reveals the shadows that past misdeeds can cast and the limits the detectives can face.

As a fan of the characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, I am always interested in the interpretations different authors can bring. What one author does, another might not, even if both are using the same characters set in the same universe.

Such can be said about Kyne’s The Legacy of Deeds. For while the characters bear the names we readers are familiar with, at times they did not seem to be the same individuals from the original Doyle stories.

To start with, the titular character Sherlock Holmes. While he is still the brilliant detective; brooding moodily when he is bored, cold and blunt when questioning others, skilled in combat, and completely dedicated to the pursuit of justice, his softer side is more evident. Something we do not see often – if at all – in Doyle’s version. It is certainly not something I am complaining about, dear reader, but it is something I thought pertinent to point out.

John Watson has also gone through a few minor changed from the original canon. He is still loyal to Holmes, clucking over him much like a mother hen and always trying to do the right thing, yet he is a bit overly melodramatic at times. Something Holmes himself comments on towards the end of the story. This does not detract from him doing what he can to assist Holmes and Scotland Yard in following the clues to their eventual conclusion.

One thing I did find different about The Legacy of Deeds was the actual conclusion. More often than not the culprit is revealed and arrested and the case is closed. This doesn’t quite happen here. For fear of giving away the end of the story, all I can say is that there is no clear cut resolution. The ending is shrouded in shades of gray much like the foggy streets of London where the majority of the action takes place. Some readers – much like our dear Sherlock Holmes – might find this bothersome. To not have an ending to a mystery that is neat and tidy can be irksome to some.

My overall impression of The Legacy of Deeds is a favorable one. While Kyme tends to use more modern day vernacular and phrasing for his prose, he has a good handle of the characters and uses them well. Fans of the Holmes genre will likely enjoy it and add it to their bookshelves as I have.

Spot and Smudge (Spot and Smudge #1) by Robert Udulutch

The Hogan family weren’t looking to start a war. All they wanted was to move closer to grandma, maybe adopt a dog, and hopefully leave the troubles of the big city behind.

But the quaint little town has several dark secrets behind it’s shiny facade. And the strange puppies the family adopts are more than what they seem to be.

There’s a strange connection between the two orphaned puppies and the town’s criminals; and that connection is pulling both sides towards one another in what will be an epic battle. One which the Hogan family aren’t prepared to fight, much less win.

But the grit of one devoted family, like the loyalty of a pair of pups, should never be underestimated. Especially if the pups are unlike any dogs the family…or any one…has ever seen.

As a dog lover, I was intrigued by the plot of Spot and Smudge, and when the opportunity came to get an e-copy, I jumped on it. Who doesn’t like a story like the one described above?

Turns out, dear reader, that person would be me.

First of all, let me say that Spot and Smudge has a great deal of disturbing scenes. There is drug abuse, alcohol abuse, human abuse, as well as animal abuse. This is a very dark book and the story does not stray for very long in the light.

Aside from the titular dogs, the majority of the human characters are sadly one dimensional. Even the “good guys” that we are supposed to be rooting for are like this. We are given very little information about the Hogan family aside from names and the most basic of backgrounds. We are told they are wanting to “start over”, but start over from what? They are wanting to move closer to Ms. Hogan’s mother, who loses her husband before the start of the book. A certainly believable reason, but sadly, once again an idea that is never fully looked in to.

The “bad guys” are bad because we are told they are. Aside from greed there is no ulterior motive for any of them. As I was reading, I kept hoping for some kind of back story – anything to flesh out these characters and keep them from turning out to be little more than pieces of walking, talking cardboard. Sadly, I was let down, because even the main bad guy (who appears for only a handful of pages) left me feeling flat. Pun definitely intended.

As much as I was looking forward to reading Spot and Smudge, I was unfortunately left sorely disappointed. And more than a little disturbed. This is not for any of the more squeamish readers, and sadly not one I can recommend. It is unlikely I will be reading or reviewing the subsequent titles in the series.

The Hangman’s Daughter (The Hangman’s Daughter #1) by Oliver Pötzsch

It is 1659 and the Thirty Years’ War has finally come to an end. There has not been a witchcraft mania in the area in decades but the discovery of a drowned boy changes things. Badly beaten and tattooed with the mark of a witch, the boy is recognized as one of the many orphans in the small village. With the boy being seen at the local midwife’s home on more than one occasion, fingers soon begin to point in her direction.

Jakob Kuisl is the town’s hangman; living with his family of wife and children on the outskirts of the village. It is he who is charged with getting a confession from the midwife and torturing her until it is given. He, however, believes her innocent. He is also not the only one; his daughter Magdalena and the village doctor’s son, Simon, believe her to be innocent as well.

When another tattooed orphan is found murdered, and then a third, the village becomes frenzied. Walpurgisnacht is approaching, a night when witches are said to dance in the forest and have consort with the devil. Some have even claimed to see the devil himself – a man with a hand made completely of bone. With the deadline fast approaching, Jakob, his daughter and the doctor’s son must try and find if they are dealing with mass hysteria or a very real enemy.

The Hangman’s Daughter is one of those books where the title and the description do not quite match the story inside. If one were to go by the description on Goodreads or on Amazon, one would be led to believe that Magdalena is the main character. Unfortunately, she is not and is at best a secondary character; one might even argue that she is a tertiary character.

The book description leads us to believe that Jakob Kuisl is a secondary character when in truth it is HE who is the main character. It is he who does the most when it comes to proving the accused’s innocence or guilt. It is he who first learns the truth behind the killings and who eventually faces the man with the hand of bone.

Description differences aside, The Hangman’s Daughter is a fairly well written story. Jakob Kuisl was a real hangman and his family as described did exist. The town he lived in and some of the people also did exist. Everything else though must be taken with a healthy grain of salt.

It is evident that Potzsch often takes dramatic liberty. However good a man that Jakob Kuisl might have been, it is quite unlikely he would have gone to the same lengths to prove a person’s guilt or innocence. Jakob is also one of the few characters that is actually “fleshed out” for want of a better word. Many of the characters, especially the townspeople, are little more mannequins – used to voice the cruelty and superstitions of the time.

The mystery itself is quite slow to develop. And when resolution finally comes, it feels almost anticlimactic. As if Potzsch ran out of steam when it came to the end of the book. Although maybe this could be attributed to the translation, one cannot be truly sure.

All in all, The Hangman’s Daughter is fairly enjoyable. The reader must of course take in to consideration the liberties the author has taken, but even with that it is a decent read. Over time I am sure I will be seeking out the rest of the titles in the series.

Bill the Vampire (The Tome of Bill #1) by Rick Gualtieri

There are reasons we fear the night. This guy is not one of them.

Bill Ryder is your average dweeb; he’s a computer programmer, gamer geek, and absolutely hopeless when it comes to the opposite sex. All he’s ever wanted in life was to hang out with his friends, collect his paycheck, and one day meet the woman of his dreams.

Bill’s life takes an unfortunate turn when he meets Sally. She was mysterious, aggressive, and beautiful – the poor sod never stood a chance. When she invites him to a party, he initially has his reservations but goes anyway. Too bad the party is a trap and when Bill awakens he’s now a member of the undead. And at the bottom of that particular food chain.

The head vampire has given him a 90 day ultimatum – either prove he belongs or be killed in a more permanent manner.

Poor Bill is in way over his head but he’s not about to go down without a fight. He’s got more than one trick up his sleeve; along with some unlikely allies and a severe attitude problem. The one bit thing Bill has going for him is a vampire like him hasn’t been seen for over 500 years. With all this going for him, Bill just might make the 90 day deadline, if he doesn’t get his teeth kicked in first.

Bill the Vampire is one of those books that was recommended to me several times but I never got around to reading. Upon reading it though, I see why I put it off for so long.

Allow me to be blunt, dear reader – Bill is a jerk.

Bill and his roommates embody everything of the stereotypical neck beard. And not in a good way. They believe themselves to be “witty” and “snarky” yet they are anything but. They are misogynistic, viewing the women around them as items to be ogled over and little more. And should any woman give them a dirty look or other verbal smack down, she is immediately labelled a “bitch”.

On the other side of the fence are the vampires. They are the diametric opposite to Bill and his friends. Led by the the self named Night Razor, they embody the age old enemy to freaks and geeks – the jock. Every one in the small group is beautiful; the women looking like they walked out of a print ad with the men looking they spend all their time at the gym.

Overall, Bill the Vampire is a decently written book. But that is about all it has going for it. Bill, as well as every other male character, were assholes (pardon my language). There were slight differences to separate the vampire from the humans, but they all felt alike. Much can be said for the few female characters as well, their actions and personalities were so alike it was only their names and physical descriptions that set them apart.

Personally, I think Gualtieri is either trying too hard with the character Bill, or not trying enough. The premise itself was truly promising, but the execution fell woefully short.

Should a person wish to read this first book of the series, I would advise them to tread carefully. The story itself is a virtual minefield of questionable language and other problems. And while it’s been compared to Revenge of the Nerds meets Return of the Living Dead, it’s not a good comparison. The movies are far more enjoyable.

It Devours: A Welcome to Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Nilanjana Sikdar is an outsider to the small town of Night Vale. Working beside the town’s top scientist Carlos, her guiding principles are fact and logic. These principles are put to the question when Carlos gives her a unique assignment; investigate the strange rumblings and disappearances that have been occurring around town.

Not wanting to disappoint her boss, Nilanjana follows the clues to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God – and to Darryl, one of the congregation’s most devout followers. Grappling with her beliefs as well as her growing attraction to Darryl, she begins to suspect there is more to the congregation that meets the eye. And that they are planning a special ceremony that could threaten the lives of every person in town.

Welcome to Night Vale is a currently ongoing podcast that mimics the style of NPR and small town talk radio. The difference being that Night Vale is not your typical town. Strange and mysterious events happen aplenty and the town is populated with a wide variety of individuals – from a mysterious glow cloud (all hail) to a literal five headed dragon and from numerous humans of all walks of life to some who are mostly human. And for the most part, the citizens of Night Vale get along well enough.

The reader who decides to pick up It Devours should have some prior knowledge about Welcome to Night Vale. While they don’t need to be fully caught up on the podcast, some knowledge about the town and characters is essential. The novel itself focuses on two original characters – Nilanjana Sikdar and Darryl Sanchez – but other characters such as Cecil and Carlos do make appearances. There are also references to the hooded figures, the black helicopters, and the Smiling God – all of which have been referenced before in the podcast.

This aside, It Devours is an interesting book. The two main characters come from opposite side of a unique spectrum. Nilanjana believes in science – that we should question everything and always seek the truth. Darryl believes in his religion – that we should question nothing and should believe the truths given to us. Naturally they butt heads but they both eventually realize they are simply different sides of the same coin. They both want the same thing even if they end up going about it in different ways.

The ideas of religion versus science are handled very well in this book. Neither is lauded above the other, neither is declared “right”. And the individuals who proclaim that their way is the right and only way are actually shown the error of their ways. Whether it be by being eaten by a giant sand worm or by realizing that they are in fact the creator of the tremors that are decimating the city.

The characters themselves are also presented in an uncommon manner. Very little is dedicated to their actual physical appearance. Instead, the reader is encouraged to get to know Nilanjana and Darryl by their words; their thoughts and actions dictating the kind of person they are. The same can be said of all the characters of Night Vale. So little is known about what they physically look like, the only exception being we know that Carlos has “perfect hair”. This allows the reader to imagine themselves or any person in any of the roles.

In general, the average reader could possibly enjoy It Devours. While knowledge of the universe via the podcast does make the read more enjoyable, the opposite could also be true. By reading the book one becomes interested in the universe and seeks out the podcast. Either way, I enjoyed It Devours and recommend it to my own readers.

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab

Here is Grey London, a dirty and boring city with no magic and a mad king. Then there is Red London, a city of excitement where life and magic are revered. There is also White London, a city slowly dying from being drained through magical war. Once, there was a Black London, but no one speaks of that land now.

Kell is from Red London. He is one of the last magicians that is able to travel between worlds. Officially he acts as ambassador and messenger, moving between the different Londons in service of the Maresh empire. Unofficially, he is a smuggler; a dangerous hobby that becomes even more so when he comes across a forbidden token from Black London.

Fleeing in to Grey London, Kell runs in to Delilah Bard; a thief with aspirations of her own. First she robs him, then she saves him, and finally she forces him to take her to another world for what she believes will be a proper adventure.

A Darker Shade of Magic is one of those books that several people, both online and offline, had recommended to me. With my love of fantasy type stories, I knew it would simply be a matter of time before I eventually read it.

Oh, dear reader, I do not know why I waited so long.

From the first page where we are introduced to Kell and the multiple Londons to the last page when we are forced to part ways with him, I was enraptured.

Schwab does a most admirable job in creating a world that is both familiar and new. Those who have been to London will recognize some of the places she describes; because even though they are in an earlier time, many of these places stand today. The Grey London she describes is the London of the early 1800’s, it is messy and dark and it isn’t always pleasant. But it is real.

The same can be said of Red London and White London as well. There is the air of familiarity but there is also the foreign. The people who inhabit these places are a result of the realms they live in and it is evident when Kell and Lila interact with them.

At times the background characters can come across as a little one dimensional, but this is often the case. Because they are often deemed as not important, the author often gives only the most basic of information to us, the reader. I am not terribly affronted or concerned with this as it happens quite often.

A Darker Shade of Magic is one of those rare books that I eagerly recommend to all of my followers. I am quite sure every one will find something in this book to love. Personally, I am looking forward to getting the next book in the series to read and review.