Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The House Witch 3

The House Witch 3
by Delemhach
Recommended Ages: 14+

Finlay Ashowan, palace cook to the royal family of Daxaria, has won the heart of Lady Annika Jenoure, one of the realm's highest-ranking noblewomen and, incidentally, a high-level spy. Now his only problems are figuring out how to marry her, when unions between nobility and common folk just aren't done ... and defending the kingdom against an aggressive enemy whose military is headed by Fin's estranged father. Well, he thinks those are his only problems (and they're plenty), but so many more are ready to line up behind them, such as a kitten familiar with pyromaniac tendencies, a network of enemies hidden within the kingdom waiting for the signal to strike, a savage king who has taken Annika's brother and his family hostage, and more tricks that Fin's fire witch father has up his sleeve. Oh yes, and also, not one but two bouncing bundles of joy (and trouble) on the way. Fin will have to learn to use his unusual powers – not all designed for conflict and violence – to save his kingdom, and when either he or Annika must make a perilous journey to meet with the Troivackian king, the only thing certain is that an awful sacrifice will have to be made.

Fin's journey from lowly cook to hero of the kingdom is an emotionally stirring marvel to behold. It's also a bit sexy and all kinds of hilarious, with plenty of suspense and lots of super scenes of magic, combat, and magical combat. The court politics of Troivack are perhaps a little over-the-top in nastiness; the ditto of Daxaria, ditto in silliness. But the relationships and characters established over three long novels pay off well in this installment, with breathtaking plot twists and a satisfying ending that only outstays its welcome a little bit.

This third book in a trilogy of identically titled novels (except for the numerals) is a pleasurable indulgence, full of action, romance and rollicking good fun. I'll put it bluntly: it could have used another pass with an editorial pencil. Not that it's badly written, but another round of polishing might have taken away a couple of grammatical errors, such as "could ofs" and dangling participles, and the occasional clunky sentence that cried out for a rewrite. Delemhach, whoever he, she or they is/are, has some capital ideas on the architectural, or strategic, level of writing but could perhaps stand to take some lowercase, constructive criticism on the level of tactics – like going to the trouble of calling the main character Fin, the redhead and the house witch in alternation, when just calling him Fin most of the time would be so transparently easy. When Fin's feline familiar made a telepathic speech including the words, "I am war, chaos, and seductively fluffy," I threw back my head and howled with laughter. Two pages later, my spirits were dampened by the following sentence:
The magnitude of his losses descended upon him in a sickening realization that began to consume him until he was left with nothing but the helpless action of seizing the grass beneath his hands in clumps – and screaming.
Just imagine, that sentence could have read something like "As he realized the magnitude of his losses, all he could do was pull up clumps of grass and scream." Just sayin'.

Definitely a candidate for Adult and Occult Content Advisories, this book concludes the House Witch trilogy by a Canadian author whose follow-up titles include The Burning Witch and The Princess of Potential.

The Clackity

The Clackity
by Lora Senf
Recommended Ages: 11+

Evie lives with her Aunt Desdemona, a paranormal expert, in the seventh most haunted town in America (per capita). She isn't afraid of ghosts, which is lucky, because she also suffers from panic attacks and although her parents disappeared in a house fire, she refuses to accept that they're dead. To make sure her aunt doesn't disappear on her, she keeps close tabs on her whereabouts. One of the few things she is strictly forbidden to do is go to the abandoned abattoir (fancy talk for slaughterhouse) on the outskirts of Blight Harbor. But she breaks that rule the day her snooping reveals that Des has gone to the abattoir, a chilling place that stinks of wrongness. And she goes back the next day when Des disappears, leaving he car parked outside the sinister building.

Evie follows Des's footsteps into the abattoir and meets a horrible creature that calls itself the Clackity. The Clackity strikes a deal with her, promising Evie that she can get her aunt back if she travels into (what I take to be) the land of the dead, at the end of a passage inside the abattoir, and visits seven houses there. And whoops, I haven't even mentioned Jonathan Jeffrey Pope, a serial killer whose ghost has been conspicuously absent from Blight Harbor's famous hauntings. He's been saving up his evil for something special. And now he'll be at Evie's heels while she travels through seven roughly house-shaped nightmarescapes, facing her most bloodcurdling fears. Above all is her fear of losing Des, so she's in a race against Pope, really – and when he's not breathing down her neck, the Clackity is meddling in her adventure in his own uniquely horrible way. Perhaps the worst part of it is the thought, which Evie keeps pushing aside, of what will happen when she finally brings Pope and the Clackity together.

Apparently based in part on a visit to a real-life abattoir, this book is sure to send shivers down the young spines of ghost story fans. It's really too disturbing to be left to kids alone; adults just have to experience its exquisite creepy-crawlies as well. A couple of the houses in the Clackity's netherworld wouldn't be too bad, if it weren't for Pope's ghost in cold pursuit. But no nightmare is left untouched, from doors that disappear after closing behind you and landscapes that seem to stretch onward forever, to plunges into a bottomless pit and encounters with child-eating witches. These are only the lighter removes in a multi-course feast of fear, headlined by two grotesquely evil spirits, testing the courage of a vulnerable girl.

I am totally slapping this book with an Occult Content Advisory, which concerned parents can take for what it's worth. Despite their Grimm Bros. trappings and appetite for children, some of the witches in this story are depicted sympathetically enough to suggest a more than fairy-tale witchcraft. But not all the magic in this book is of the dark kind – for example, the unexplainable shadow of a sparrow that perches on Evie's skin like a living, moving tattoo, and whose encouragement keeps her going through some super-dark places. And if you can stomach the sometimes paralyzing, suffocating fear that her adventure puts Evie through, you may be the type of horror maven this book was made for.

This is Washington state-based Lora Senf's debut novel and the first book in the Blight Harbor trilogy. The second book, The Nighthouse Keeper, is set for release on Oct. 17, 2023.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Gran Turismo

Let's get my little joke out of the way before it burns a hole in my brain: Someday, some movie house or cable channel is going to show a double feature of Gran Torino and Gran Turismo and for the occasion, I hope they get a Billy Ocean type to sing the inevitable theme song for the event: "Get off of My Lawn, Get into My Car."

Whew! Well, folks, it's been weeks since my last trip to the movies. The local theater has either been repeating stuff I've already seen, such as Oppenheimer, or stuff I never wanted to see, such as Barbie. I've been holding out for a movie I actually liked the looks of, and that was (in this instance) Gran Turismo: a PlayStation Studios flick about a PlayStation car racing simulator and the Welsh kid who became so good at playing it that the brass at Nissan decided, as a marketing stunt, to make him a real-life race car driver.

All right, that's a gross oversimplification. To correct that, I'd recommend watching the movie. The kid's name is Jann Mardborough, and somehow, beyond belief, his adventure is based on a true story – to the extent that the real Jann Mardborough served as a stunt double for the actor playing him. He was the son of a sometime professional footballer (in American, that's a soccer player) who is constantly pressuring Jann to turn off that stupid video game and start preparing for a real career. But the kid has dreams, and he fights his way to the top of an auto racing boot camp tailored to elite Gran Turismo players, and then he has to deal with the harsh reality of driving real race cars on a real race track surrounded by real drivers, to say nothing of pit crews, who hate his guts.

Boy, is that kid tested. But as things go in sports movies, as well as (apparently) video game movies, he aces the test in a way that makes all kinds of people proud, including people who never believed in him when it mattered. He gets beaten up, emotionally and physically. He experiences setbacks and downright tragedy. He also kisses a cute girl and forms a deep connection with a grizzled veteran of the racing circuit. It's a heart-string-yanking story of personal growth and heroic achievement, and the icing on top is footage at the end showing the real Jann (pronounced "Yon") right alongside the young actor who plays him.

Directed by Neil Blomkamp (late of District 9, Elysium and a couple more recent flicks I didn't see), the cast is headlined by David Harbour of Stranger Things and the 2019 Hellboy as Jann's chief engineer, Geri Halliwell (a.k.a. Ginger Spice) and Djimon Honsou as Jann's parents, Orlando Bloom as the Nissan U.K. marketing wonk who cooks up the whole stunt, Thomas Kretschmann as the father of a snotty rival driver, and (apparently) the actual creator of Gran Turismo in a cameo role as a sushi chef. The hero kid is played by somebody named Archie Madekwe, a name that means nothing to me but that I'm bookmarking in my brain in case I start seeing a lot more of it. He does a good job, covering a remarkable range of emotional states, despite playing a basically softspoken guy who spends a lot of time encased in a costume that inhibits scenery chewing (outside of one heart-stopping crash scene).

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Salter, Jann's engineer, blasts Kenny G and Enya at him through their comms when Jann freezes on the racetrack. It's a funny yet dramatically clinching moment. (2) The crash scene and its immediate sequelae. Wow. Gripping stuff. (3) The bit where Jann's race car "explodes" around him and we find him mentally in his bedroom back at home, driving his PlayStation – a striking inversion of a previous scene in which an imagined car builds itself around him while he's driving the simulator at his neighborhood arcade.

There really were a lot more scenes that made it for me, though. For a movie in which a blink-and-you'll-miss-it verbal referenace to Speed Racer isn't out of place, it carries a lot of weight and is just a top-quality piece of entertainment. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that I spent a goodly portion of this movie squeezing a rolled-up Reese's Pieces box in my fist, too caught up in the moment to blink or breathe. Don't sneer at it. Movies like this get re-watched.

Closer to Nowhere

Closer to Nowhere
by Ellen Hopkins
Recommended Ages: 12+

In a novel in the form of verse, young cousins Hannah and Cal share narrator duties. Hannah resents the disruption Cal brings to her perfect family when he moves in after his mother dies and his father goes to jail. Cal has behavioral problems – telling whoppers, disappearing for hours at a time and, now and then, having screaming meltdowns – but Hannah is slow to recognize that he's making progress.

It's all about feeling safe for the boy who has lost everything and is only gradually learning to trust that his new family won't be taken away from him, too. And now he has good reason to melt down. His mean-drunk grandma has dropped in for Thanksgiving, holding nothing back in her treatment of a kid who represents all of her dead daughter's bad decisions. His uncle and aunt, whose home has been his first point of stability in years, are thinking about splitting up. And his abusive dad has gotten out of jail and wants to take him back from the first safe place he has known since his mom died. Only a few well-placed words, the start of a new friendship and the first stirrings of a change in Hannah's heart may help decide whether Cal's next running-away stunt proves to be for good.

I feel for Cal and Hannah – a cagy boy whose narrative is structured around "Fact or Fiction?" challenges, and a driven-to-succeed girl who's all about the definitions of words. I know their type and, in a way, I see a little of myself in both of them. My heart was touched by their story.

As for the author's conceit of pitching this novel in the form of verse, meh. I was working myself up to deliver a massive burn on the idea that writing poetry is all about adding extra line breaks to prose. Without altering a word, this book could have been typeset in the form of paragraphs, saving perhaps dozens of pages and neither gaining nor losing artistically. But there was one chapter, or poem, at the heart of this novel that suddenly grabbed my heart and squeezed, and I had to admit, it was a beautiful moment – a single, moving page of legitimate poetry. (Hint: Watch for Cal's description of what he feels when the lady cop tells him to keep shining his light.)

Ellen Hopkins is a novelist and author of socially relevant verse novels for young adults whose books often come in sets of two or three, including the "Crank" trilogy (Crank, Glass and Fallout, based on her daughter's struggle with addiction), Burned and Smoke (featuring an abusive religious cult), Impulse and Perfect (exploring issues surrounding suicide), Tricks and Traffick (featuring trafficked teens), Triangles and Tilt (featuring the sexual awakenings of three moms and three teenagers), Love Lies Beneath and A Sin Such as This (a pair of soapy, sexy romantic thrillers). Her other titles include Identical, Collateral, Rumble, The You I've Never Known, People Kill People, What About Will? and Sanctuary Highway, addressing issues ranging from bullying and gun violence to the effects of child sex abuse and traumatic brain injury.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

And Only to Deceive

And Only to Deceive
by Tasha Alexander
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's the late 1880s, Victorian England, and a young lady named Emily has no sooner married a rich viscount than she finds herself a widow. She barely knew her husband, Lord Ashton (Philip to his friends), so she finds the socially expected mourning period rather tedious and decides to enliven it by learning about the man. Too late, she discovers that he deeply loved her and wanted to make her happy, and that he was a much more interesting character than she'd suspected. A patron of the arts. Passionate about ancient Greek artifacts. Well versed in the classics. So much more than the thoughtless sort of rich gentleman who normally goes off and dies of fever during an African big-game hunt within months of his wedding. To her horror, and that of the ladies closest to her, Lady Ashton finds herself falling in love with her dead husband.

But then comes a cold splash of reality. Ah, yes, it seems Lord Ashton is somehow connected with a scheme to steal antiquities from the National Museum and replace them with highly credible forgeries. If he's really involved in the plot, he wasn't the man of principle Emily had come to believe in. As much as it breaks her heart, only too recently given to the man who widowed her, Emily just has to find out for sure. But dangers and intrigues swirl around her. A man with a scarred face has been following her. Someone burgles and ransacks her Paris hotel room. Her husband's scorchingly handsome best friend, Colin Hargreaves, is up to something fishy – maybe up to his neck in it. And now credible evidence has come to light suggesting that Philip may still be alive after all, alive but not at all well, and stranded in the African bush. Obviously, nothing will stop Emily from going to him. Nothing except, perhaps, still more surprising discoveries, romantic encounters and risky detective work amid the social elite in London and Paris.

Emily is one of those ahead-of-her-time female protagonists of historical novels set in the era of corsets, like a certain Venetia and Enola Holmes of whom I've previously written. Partly due to the course of study she pursues while trying to understand her late husband, she becomes uncomfortably aware of the bounds that her society places around her, and even begins to reflect on the unlikelihood that her husband would like what she is becoming. If only there were a guy whose ideal woman was not just beautiful but independent, intelligent and strong-willed. Oh, who could that be ...?

Tasha Alexander is the wife of Andrew Grant, author of the David Trevellyan thrillers, who is in turn the brother of Lee Child, the creator of Jack Reacher. Quite a literary family, there. Apart from a film novelization titled Elizabeth: The Golden Age, her literary output comprises 16 "Lady Emily Mysteries" written from 2005 to the present day, plus a handful of related short stories. This is the first novel in that series; next after it is A Poisoned Season, while book 17, A Cold Highland Wind, is scheduled for release on Oct. 3 of this year. I doubt I'll have caught up with the series by then, but I'm interested in reading further, for sure.

The Notebooks of Doom (1-3)

Rise of the Balloon Goons
Day of the Night Crawlers
Attack of the Shadow Smashers
by Troy Cummings
Recommended Ages: 8+

When we first meet Alexander Bopp, he is scared to death – of starting over at a new school, after he and his dad move to the quirky town of Stermont. Unforgettably described as a "mop-haired, bug-eyed, gut-filled bag of bones," Alexander (Salamander to friends) will soon need all those guts, because Stermont is afflicted with monsters. And thanks to a notebook that he finds by chance, Al has the knowledge to fight back. He soon recruits a sometime bully named Rip and a functionally invisible girl named Nikki to re-form the defunct S.S.M.P. (Super Secret Monster Patrol), saving Stermont from rampaging air dancers (a.k.a. balloon goons), dirt-dwelling tunnel fish and renegade shadows that want to bring the town under eternal darkness.

Thrills and giggles ensue. Alexander and friends experience bizarre situations just enough to the silly side of spooky to ensure that little readers, or maybe pre-literate kiddoes interested in following along as you read to them, will only cover their eyes to wipe away tears of laughter. It's goofy, creepy fun with a few gentle lessons about making new friends and being loyal to them, having the courage to help out even in a scary situation, reocgnizing that people aren't necessarily bad just because they're different, and (of course) realizing that kids are smarter and braver than adults, which is terribly important. Isn't it?

The illustrations are whimsical but expressive. Select pages from the Notebook of Doom leave you salivating for more. And each book takes only a few minutes to read, making it quite possible that even a short attention span might stretch to devour these books in only a few reading sessions. To say nothing of such succeeding titles as Chomp of the Meat-Eating Vegetables, Pop of the Bumpy Mummy and Sneeze of the Octo-Schnozz.

Troy Cummings is the picture-book author of Otto the Ornament, The Eensy Weensy Spider Freeks Out, Giddy-up, Daddy!, Can I Be Your Dog? and Arfy and the Stinky Smell. These three books, which I read in a not-very-thick omnibus edition, are but the start of the 13-book "Notebook of Doom" series of very short, illustrated chapter books featuring Alexander Bopp and his friends, Rip and Nikki. These, in turn, are followed by (currently) four "Binder of Doom" books. For a full list of their titles, click here.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Her Colton P.I.

Her Colton P.I.
by Amelia Autin
Recommended Ages: 18+

I figured Harlequin's "Romantic Suspense" department would be somewhat similar to its "Intrigue" series, a title of which I read back here. You know, with more weight on the suspense and mystery and maybe lighter on the graphic sex. Whoops. Was I ever wrong. I've actually been holding off on reviewing this book for a few weeks, thinking I'd pull another one of those gimmicks like "one graphic novel and two (cough) graphic novels," but nothing else materialized to pair it with. So with apologies for not making it cute, here's my quick and (ahem) dirty take on this smutty thriller.

Chris Colton is the P.I. mentioned in the title. He actually owns a multi-office detective agency in Texas. He comes from a family of (mostly) lawmen and -women, at least as far as his siblings are concerned – despite the fact that they were pulled in all different directions as kids when their father turned out to be a serial killer and their mother, one of his victims. Nasty baggage this guy is carrying. But that's just the appetizer. He also built a house for his beautiful wife, Laura, only to lose her and their unborn child in a tragedy from which his heart still hasn't healed.

Now Chris has been hired to track down a couple's widowed daughter-in-law, who is preventing them from seeing their adorable twin grandsons. Chris is quick to realize that his clients are actually trying to kill Holly McCay so they can take custody of the boys and control their dead dad's money. Chris recruits a couple of his cop siblings to help him set up a sting to catch the McCays in their murderous plot – while, at the same time, they're working an ongoing serial killer case that dredges up foul memories of their father.

There's a lot of plot points in play in this book, including a dying serial killer dad (now on death row) who holds the secret of where he hid their mother's body over his grown-up kids' heads; a female killer whose alphabetized victims all represent a single, hated person in her mind; a missing youngest sibling who disappeared, quite possibly after klling a drug dealer related to her adoptive parents; and a bouncing baby addition to the wider Colton family.

There is absolutely an Adult Content Advisory in effect concerning this book. Despite the vividly specific depiction of the hero couple's lovemaking, however, it's also very pointedly a romance between two people who have never been with anyone else besides their respective, deceased spouses and the moment they meet each other, it's pretty much guaranteed to be a lifelong thing. They just have to get over some personal hang-ups to realize it for themselves – a process that may provoke the reader's impatience at times.

As for the mystery-suspense-thriller subplots circling around the romantic core, this book resolves some of them but leaves others dangling for a future book. This is, after all, the fifth installment of a 12-book, multi-author series called "The Coltons of Texas" which, I guess, is paced to give the alphabet killer time to cover the whole alphabet. The series starts with Colton Copycat Killer by Marie Ferrarella and includes such titles as A Baby for Agent Colton, The Pregnant Colton Bride and Runaway Colton. Meanwhile, Amelia Autin is the author of the companion books Reilly's Return and Cody Walker's Woman, the nine-book "Man on a Mission" series (also under Harlequin's Romantic Suspense label), and an installment (book 18 of 48) in the "Marry Me, Cowboy" series titled Gideon's Bride.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Mutant Mayhem

The full title of the big movie, not last weekend but the one before, was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. I've never been a big fan of the Turtles, but it looked like fun and, behold, it was. It has a scratchy, comic-book-arty look that appeals in a similar, visual way to the Spider-Verse movies. It's loaded with juvenile humor, urban attitude and bizarre, gross-out creatures. The action is almost non-stop, paced in a way that keeps the eyes moving almost to the limit of their ability to follow. Its reptilian heroes have teen appeal (though voiced by nobody I know). Other cast members include co-writer Seth Rogen, Ice Cube, John Cena, Rose Byrne, Jackie Chan, Paul Rudd, Giancarlo Esposito and Post Malone.

If you're not familiar with the concept of TMNT, you can probably guess a lot from the title of the franchise. It features, funnily enough, four teenage brothers who happen to be giant, anthropomorphic turtles, thanks to contact with a mysterious ooze in their infancy, and are now adept at martial arts thanks to their mutated rat "dad." They love pizza and long to go to high school and fit in with the human kids, but their dad hates humans and tries to confine them to the sewers. Stuff happens, the kids run a little wild, and the next thing you know, they're saving New York City from a crew of even weirder mutants whose leader, Super Fly, has decided to destroy mankind. Also, there's a little bit of a crush between the lead shellback, Leonardo (they're all named after Renaissance painters), and a human girl named April, who fancies herself a crusading journalist but has as much trouble fitting in among other teens as the Turtles.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The turtle bros. experience their worst nightmare: being "milked" by evil human scientists! (2) Pretty much any scene in which the turtles banter boyishly with each other, talking right over each other. Their eye-roll-worthy lameness is not lost on April, but you've got to admit, the young cast interacts exactly like a bunch of adolescent brothers and it isn't hard to imagine the actors improvising the scene. (3) April's TV news reporting debut, during which she (naturally) pukes on camera, nevertheless succeeding in turning public opinion in favor of the heroic young turtles.

I'm not saying this movie is for everyone. In fact, if it was a little louder and more visually agitating, it probably would have ruined my evening the way the first Fast and Furious flick did all those years ago. It's not going to calm hyperactive kids down or anything. But it's funny, thrilling and, in its own dark, dank, sewer-centric way, a feast for the eyes.

Monday, August 7, 2023

The House Witch 2

The House Witch 2
by Delemhach
Recommended Ages: 14+

Finlay Ashowan would just as soon spend his days cooking meals for a castleful of courtiers, but when he requests a week off after a gruelling festival, the king gives him another assignment – intelligencing out a foreign threat in the adjacent city of Austice. He'll have to manage without his powers at a house witch, since his magic is limited to home and hearth. Meanwhile, his romance with the noble Lady Annika Jenoure has reached a tipping point where it will surely either ruin both of them or break their hearts. She has her own covert assignment to deal with, and the pair's adventures take them into some of the most dangerous corners of Austice, all without a moment's rest from court intrigues, delicate diplomacy, marital politics, treasonous plots and most dangerous of all, the food Fin's assistants cook up in the castle kitchen during his vacation.

This second, unimaginatively titled installment in the House Witch trilogy suffers a bit from Middle of a Trilogy Syndrome, leaving an overall sense that it doesn't add much to the series other than connecting the first and third books. It incrementally moves forward with the question of how Fin and Annika can ever work as a couple, and builds ominously to the dreaded arrival of Fin's father in the Daxarian capital without leaving much time for that development to mature. Also, Fin takes some time off from his main calling as the castle's house witch, saving the kingdom in a low-key way by making the royal home as safe and comforting a place as can be, and consequently doesn't have a lot of scope to exercise his impressive and growing powers; everyone in the book, including you, feels impatient for him to return to where he belongs. There's a major theme of things needing to be gotten out of the way before we can address the main business at hand.

However, that impression of being a lightweight but odiously necessary middle part might be somewhat deceptive. There are some significant developments in this book. The hero witch and his kitten familiar discover a new dimension to their relationship, and Kraken applies his covert ops skills on the task at hand more effectively than Fin or even Annika do. The hero couple's romance, and another between Fin's mother and the captain of the royal guard, both come to a highly significant point, as does the jeopardy of Annika having to marry for diplomacy. The queen's perilous pregnancy comes to a climactic crisis, and Fin & Co. deal thoroughly (and entertainingly) with a concern about the kingdom's enemy in a brewing war already having forces hidden around Daxaria.

Yes, there is a The House Witch 3, and I've got it and have started reading it. There's also The Burning Witch, the first novel in a sequel series, and The Princess of Potential, another (but apparently separate) follow-up, all by the same Canadian author. Please observe an Adult Content Advisory for this book.