Book: The Shadow Men

"The Shadow Men"

From Beacon Hills to Southie, historic Boston is a town of vibrant neighborhoods knit into a seamless whole. But as Jim Banks and Trix Newcomb learn in a terrifying instant, it is also a city divided–split into three separate versions of itself by a mad magician once tasked with its protection.

Jim is happily married to Jenny, with whom he has a young daughter, Holly. Trix is Jenny’s best friend, practically a member of the family–although she has secretly been in love with Jenny for years. Then Jenny and Holly inexplicably disappear–and leave behind a Boston in which they never existed. Only Jim and Trix remember them. Only Jim and Trix can bring them back.

With the help of Boston’s Oracle, and elderly woman with magical powers, Jim and Trix travel between the fractured cities, for that is where Jenny and Holly have gone. But more is at stake than one family’s happiness. If Jim and Trix should fail, the spell holding the separate Bostons apart will fail too, and the cities will reintegrate in a cataclysmic implosions. Someone, it seems, wants just that. Someone with deadly shadow men at their disposal.

The Shadow Men starts strong. Authors Christoper Golden and Tim Lebbon dive right into the premise of their novel, and our protagonists don’t wait around before taking action. And, this is a good thing, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book that the entire story happened in just two days. Suffice to say: a lot happened, and there was no point in the novel where I paused, annoyed or otherwise, because of long pauses in action just to deliver exposition.

The clincher? The Shadow Men actually had a lot of exposition to cover. Especially since it had to establish two other Bostons existing with the one that’s supposedly in our world. But authors Golden and Lebbon are such experts at their craft that the exposition is delivered with the action–something you would think is more common in action novels, especially popular ones, but you’d be surprised.

But The Shadow Men‘s strength in delivering the action is also its one weakness. With so much happening, there were times that I had to go back and reread certain passages because I was starting to get confused. That, and there were moments when the action felt repetitive. Get caught. Run. Rinse, and repeat.

Aside from (just) one instance of this though, The Shadow Men is a stellar book. It ranks as my second favorite Hidden Cities novel, following the London-based Mind the Gap. It pulls no punches, never dilly-dallying when it comes to hitting the plot points, which had the effect of making readers (me, specifically) feel the adrenaline coursing through the characters–leaving us breathless.

I use the term “summer blockbuster movie” a lot when it comes to the I Am Number Four books, because of its penchant to prioritize action over character development and still remaining very entertaining. Following this logic, The Shadow Men would be something akin to an “epic movie” in which the action serves to make the viewers’ pulses race, as much as it pushes the characters to develop.

The Shadow Men came out in 2011. No other Hidden Cities book came out again after this. I hope that it’s because Golden and Lebbon are still looking for the perfect city and the perfect story to continue their series, and not because the publishers don’t want another one. Because I want another one.

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Book: Remembrance, a Mediator Novel

"Remembrance"

All Susannah Simon wants is to make a good impression at her first job since graduating from college (and since becoming engaged to Dr. Jesse de Silva). But when she’s hired as a guidance counselor at her alma mater, she stumbles across a decade-old murder, and soon ancient history isn’t all that’s coming back to haunt her. Old ghosts as well as new ones are coming out of the woodwork, some to test her, some to vex her, and it isn’t only because she’s a mediator, gifted with second sight.

From a sophomore haunted by the murderous specter of a child, to ghosts of a very different kind–including Paul Slater, Suze’s ex, who shows up to make a bargain Suze is certain must have come from the Devil himself–Suze isn’t sure she’ll make it through the semester, let alone to her wedding night. Suze is used to striking first and asking questions later, but what happens when ghosts from her past–including one she found nearly impossible to resist–strike first?

The Mediator series was one of the things I really enjoyed reading back in high school and college; mostly because of the heroine who wasn’t always heroic and the supernatural element that, for the most part, wasn’t very complicated.

When I found out that Meg Cabot was following up the Princess Diaries wrap-up Royal Wedding with a new Mediator book, I was ecstatic. And then I started reading the book.

I guess I should learn the lesson of managing expectations. Again.

The Mediator series, for the first four books, were very short novels aimed at Young Adults. At the time, when you say a book is intended for the teen audience, it wasn’t very long. But, I’m guessing, when Harry Potter‘s length increased alongside its popularity, and people didn’t mind; the publishers must have realized that they didn’t need to limit the number of pages of a young adult novel. A good story will have teens reading, no matter the length of a book. So when the last two Mediator books came out in 2004 and 2005, the book was no longer restricted by a small number of pages.

Both Haunted and Twilight flourished with the additional pages. Meg Cabot was able to flesh out her characters more, and made Susannah Simon’s world more immersive. Which is why, when I picked up Remembrance, I was excited to crack open the book immediately. It follows the thickness of the last two Mediator books, and the synopsis at the back promised a great adventure.

A third into the novel though, I was asking myself–Why wasn’t anything happening? In the decade that passed, has Meg Cabot lost hold of Susannah Simon’s voice? Where are her friends? Why is she so hung up on just Jesse and herself when she was able to juggle having a social life on top of school and being a mediator before?

Things started picking up when Susannah finally moved on from being self-centered to start dealing with her ghost situation. From that point on, Remembrance started to read and feel like the old Mediator novels. Which brings me to ask:

Did the Mediator novels work in the past because Meg Cabot was restricted to a certain number of pages? Were they structurally sound and well-paced because the author wasn’t allowed to ramble on and on for fear of running out of pages to tell her story?

Maybe.

But what about Haunted and Twilight? Were they flukes? Or has Meg Cabot gotten used to writing her protagonists one way? As very talkative and very self-centered? Then again, the remaining two-thirds of Remembrance is good, and very reminiscent of Mediator books past. So was the first third just an example of an editor failing to reign in the writer’s meandering thoughts?

At the end of the day, I did still enjoy the book. And I still would like to see more of Susannah Simon, her stepbrothers, and the rest of her ghost-hunting crew. But, here’s to hoping that when a next time does arrive, we won’t be subjected again to a rambling first act that fails to actually subtracts from the protagonist’s likability.

Book: Carry On

"Carry On"

Simon Snow is the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right. Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here–it’s their last year at Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

This book left me breathless, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Rainbow Rowell first introduced Simon Snow in Fangirl as a fictional character within a fictional world. That means we should already know something about Simon Snow, right? Well, partly.

Thing is: Author Rowell isn’t writing the Simon Snow from Fangirl, and neither is she writing the “canonical” Simon Snow. The Simon Snow in Carry On is her own creation based on the foundation she built for his previous use. And, I might be wrong here, but I also felt like she was writing Carry On for readers who didn’t read Fangirl. Which would make sense. But I also feel like this is the reason why Simon Snow’s characterization felt rushed.

Simon Snow doesn’t earn his right to be a reader’s hero, because from the get-go, he reads like a whiny brat who always has to get his way. And I know that he’s supposed to be an amalgamation of every Chosen One we’ve met in the past decade, but those Chosen Ones had a number of books under their belt–they developed from naive innocents into saviors who had the right to whine. To feel bad about their destiny. To question their roles in the grand scheme of things.

Simon Snow had one chapter. And not a prologue at that.

It’s a testament to Rainbow Rowell’s ability to hook readers that one doesn’t just put down Carry On and move on to another book. Although Simon is an insufferable git, Rowell gives us two other characters who you would want to stick with: Penelope Bunce, and the mysterious Lucy. And it’s through them that I found a reason to continue reading.

Carry On is actually a masterful chosen-one story, with Rowell subverting tropes and writing amazingly flawed characters. The plot is well structured, and the big bad is threatening throughout–and even especially after the reveal of his identity and his role in the grand scheme of things. So I kind of feel bad that I’m not a hundred percent in love with the book.

Maybe it’s because of the love story. Because unlike in Eleanor & Park, or in Fangirl, or in Landline, or in Attachments–there’s nothing about Simon Snow nor Baz Pitch one would want to root for. Sure, it was obvious from the get go that they were into each other, but there was nothing about their romance that made me want to root for them to end up together.

I wanted them to solve the mystery, to save the world, and maybe have happily-ever-afters. But end up together? Why would I want that, when I’ve seen nothing about the growth of their relationship? Why would I want that when all I know about their relationship is told through anecdotes that does nothing to advance their character growth.

This is the first Rainbow Rowell book I’ve read where I didn’t fall in love with the love story. I just felt… nothing. No, that’s not true. I felt sorry for two supporting characters who were obviously in love but never got back together. But for the main couple?

I didn’t feel like Simon and Baz earned their happy ending together.

As a chosen-one story, I would recommend Carry On to fans of Harry Potter, and the Hunger Games trilogy, and especially to fans of the Inheritance saga. But as a love story? There are better books out there.

There are better Rainbow Rowell books out there.

Book: iZombie

"iZombie"

Gwen Dylan’s got a dead-end job and a best friend who’s barely there. The dude she hangs out with is kind of a dog, her town’s social scene sucks the life right out of you, and it seems like any time she meets an eligible guy, his job gets in the way.

But Gwen’s not the girl she used to be.

She’s a zombie.

Her best friend Ellie is a ghost. Her buddy Scott is a were-terrier. Her town’s a feeding ground for a pack of beautiful but bitchy vampires. Her new crush belongs to a centuries-old secret society of monster-hunters. And her dead-end job? Digging graves by day…and digging them up for a snack at night.

See, Gwen’s got to eat at least one brain a month or she turns into a shambling monster straight out of a midnight movie. But every brain she eats contains a lifetime of memories–and her latest meal came with a side order of unsolved murder.

Now Gwen and her friends have to find the killer before they, too, fall victim to a fate worse than un-death…

It took a year, and a television adaptation, to get me to decide that I do want to read iZombie. And after another month of waiting (because I had to order through Amazon)… I devoured the whole series in one sitting.

iZombie, the graphic novel series, is exceptional. And I can’t believe I waited so long before I read it. It’s very different to the witty television series that Rob Thomas created off the material though. Because once you’ve read the books and watched the series? You would know that they are two completely separate beings. Two very amazing things. But we’re here to talk about the graphic novels. And I must say:

I absolutely hate the fact that there are no more stories about Gwen, Ellie, and Spot. The three are such fun characters that, from the get go, you know you’re going to enjoy hanging out with them–and that you’re going to root for them to survive the craziness the series immediately promises.

And iZombie really doesn’t hold back on the crazy.

From zombies who have lived for thousands of years, spirits who become trapped in the bodies of animals, vampires who have a no-kill policy, and a legendary hero that comes back to life–the series has them all. And the best part? You don’t even question them, because they’re part of the fabric that creators Chris Roberson and Michael Allred weaves beginning in their first issue.

But, I feel like getting into the iZombie bandwagon late worked out well for me as a reader because I was able to devour the story in one sitting. I don’t think I would have liked it as much had I been forced to wait for issue after issue–because the crazy that made it so fun to read, spread through time? It would have also infuriated me to no end.

With all that said though, what I really just want to say is: if you haven’t read the iZombie graphic novels yet–go find them. Read them. Enjoy them.

Book: Ang Lihim ng San Esteban

"Ang Lihim ng San Esteban"

Unang beses na magbabakasyon si Jacobo sa San Esteban sa Ilocos, at magkahalong pananabik at kaba ang dala ng biyahe papunta sa probinsya ng mga magulang niya. Siguradong marami siyang matutuklasan tungkol as kasaysayan ng kaniyang pamilya mula kay Lola Carmen! Ngunit hindi niya inaasahang may mas malaking lihim sa mga lumang bahay at multo ng San Esteban. Ang mga ito kaya ang susi sa misteryong pilit na ikinukubli ni Lola Carmen?

Quick translation: It’s Jacobo’s first time to visit San Esteban in Ilocos, and he’s feeling a mix of nervousness and trepidation about the trip; wondering if the town would live up to the stories he’s been told growing up. But what he didn’t expect was that he would discover a big secret about a house in San Esteban. A secret that his own grandmother is working hard to keep.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was… It wasn’t what the book turned out to be. Although, to be fair, I think I already judged the book in the first chapter–when the author made a twelve-year old travel to a provincial town he’s never been to on his own. Now, unless this was a recounting of real events, I see no reason why he couldn’t have been taken there by his parents.

It all goes downhill for me from then on. Jacobo isn’t really developed as a character. If I’m to compare him to someone from current literature, he’s a Bella Swan. He exists solely to become an anchor for readers to attach to. His inquisitiveness is his only redeeming trait, and that’s only because we need him to be inquisitive for the story to move forward.

The book introduces many characters with potential to make the main story more… engaging. But the author drops the ball on all of them. The town jokester who turns out to be really friendly with the nuns is wasted as he becomes a sidekick to our bland hero, and the mysterious clairvoyant appears only once–to make us think that something ominous was about to happen–only for that warning to actually ruin the story because suddenly our hero is trapped in a house with nowhere to go.

That is, until he decides to break rules. And by then, it’s already too late. We’re already 80% into the story, and the remaining pages only serve to wrap up a mystery that never became mysterious in the first place.

I wish I could say something more positive about this book. I really do. But I’ve already sat on this book for two weeks now. I can’t think of anything nice to say about the book. Nothing at all.

But the folks over at Good Reads seem to have found something to like about the book. So why don’t you also check out what they have to say? Maybe I missed something.

Book: High Tide at Midnight (Trese 6)

"High Tide at Midnight (Trese 6)"

The unceasing rain muffles the screams of the victims being pulled down, down into the murky flood waterse.

In the places too high to be reached by teh flood, the party continues for the priviledged, who indulge in a new designer drug which grants them the supernatural abilities of enkanto and aswang.

These are the murders and mysteries Alexandra Trese needs to solve as the tide continues to rise at the stroke of midnight.

I subscribe to the belief that rain washes away the past and affords us new beginnings. And what better way to start a new beginning here at the blog than with a book that revolves around rainfall–and the things that come with it? Trese‘s sixth installment: High Tide at Midnight.

In this collection, the Trese siblings and their allies face off against the growing threat of evolved monsters–and paves the way for an actual big bad that sets out to make the world of Trese more complicated. And engrossing.

Now, I am not blind to the dissatisfaction some readers are feeling from the recent releases of Trese. Some readers feel like the novelty has worn off, and that the stories are too fast-paced. Rushed, even. Personally, I like the no-time-to-breathe storytelling that Trese employs. But I do see why there might be unrest with other readers.

Because as fast-paced as Trese is, there is still that unshakable feeling of statis. That no matter how dire things become, the status quo will remain the same. One, because the main characters are too invincible. And two, because you do not actually care about said main characters. Especially the titular one.

Alexandra Trese can die and you’ll only feel sad because it means Trese is probably done as a series.

Trese stories are fun because of how writer Budjette Tan and artist KaJO Baldisimo bring to life old mythological creatures in our modern world. But if the novelty is no longer enough for a reader, then I think the series has nothing else to offer.

Yes, I really mean that.

Trese, six installments in, is about the adventure and the action. It is not about the characters. If it were, our heroine Alexandra Trese wouldn’t be as one-note as she is. There would be more peripheral characters whose lives would actually be changed by the supernatural goings-on. And you will actually fear for the lives of said characters. Because we do not have these, any development that happens will be plot-related, and everything continues to feel… unmoving. Static. But fun. And thrilling. And still.

The sixth book is no exception. I love the introduction of the new one-note characters: the gruff guardian, the chaotic-good husband-and-wife team, the metal smith, and even Manang Muning. It all feels exciting. Especially when they fight with the flurry of sea monsters who want to take over the mortal world. But at the end of the book, there was no lesson to be learned. There was no emotion to be felt. Just exhilaration. And the desire to see what happens next, not because I cared, but because I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. How will the creators end the story? How else are they going to twist the world of Filipino mythology?

But I could care less if Trese 7 completely revolves around Maliksi and the Kambal. Or Hank defending the Diabolical while the Trese siblings take care of the action off-frame. I will still feel the adrenaline regardless of who is in the pages. The Trese siblings don’t make the Trese books. The modernized mythologies do. And while I continue to love it, I know and accept that I will also lose my interest in the series eventually.

Yes, I worry that if the creators don’t push the story beyond the plot twists and the big bad, then there will come a time when I will stop feeling excited for the new releases. And like with some of my friends, Trese will become just one of the comics I used to read.

Book: Dwellers

"Dwellers"

Rule No. 1: You don’t kill the body you inhabit. Rule No. 2: You should never again mention your previous name. Rule No. 3: You don’t ever talk about your previous life. Ever.

Two young men with the power to take over another body inhabit the bodies and lives of brothers Jonah and Louis. The takeover leads to a car crash, injuring Jonah’s legs and forcing them to stay in the brothers’ house for the time being.

The street is quiet. The neighbors aren’t nosy. Everything is okay.

They are safe, for now.

Until they find a dead body in the basement.

Exciting. That was what I thought when I read the back synopsis. And, well, reading the book was an emotional roller-coaster for me. And not in a good way.

The first few chapters bored me. I understand the need to pace the readers for the mythology of body swapping in a Philippine setting, but I couldn’t stand the main character. He was bordering on whiny, and his woe-is-me act took the pages that should’ve been given to universe-building. And it’s not like I’m looking for an explanation for the ability to swap bodies. I’ve read Every Day. I liked Every Day. What I needed was investment. I needed to invest on the main character, and I couldn’t do it. I preferred the other guy. The quiet one. The one who did things. I probably would’ve liked this book better had it been told from the other guy’s perspective.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From being bored at the start, I became curious as to what was up with the dead body. A positive change. This was the book’s promise. The premise. To hell with the lack of emotional pull, the mystery might be enough. Except, it’s not. The detective work was done by the other guy, not the main character. Because our main character is stuck in a wheelchair. Yes, he’s in a wheelchair. And it’s one of the main reasons why he can’t be on the move. And while I understand the need for the character to feel trapped, as a reader, I didn’t want to be trapped with him.

I was promised a mystery, and I was getting a whiny narration about being trapped in something I had no control over.

And then, suddenly, there were spells. And there was an extensive back story that, I felt, wasn’t really needed except to push the plot along, to give a sense of urgency to a meandering storyline that was clearly going to end soon.

Curiosity became annoyance. I was annoyed at the digression. I didn’t care for the past lives. It didn’t feel important. It felt tacked on. It was taking time away from what was more important. The dead body. The mystery. And, then, finally, the digression was done. We were back to the main storyline. And from being annoyed, I just became angry.

The mystery wasn’t solved. It was cut. The answers were given without further ado, just so the whole thing can be wrapped up. It felt like an episode of Scooby Doo, except, without the fun factor.

I felt gypped.

And while I think I understood the exercise in futility and the feeling of entrapment, which might be the book’s themes–I still finished that book with a feeling of disgust. The book did not deliver on its promise. The book did not live up to Project 17.

I seem to be the only one who wasn’t a fan though. The Last Girl, in her very short reaction, liked the book enough to gush about it. And Good Reads users have rated the book 3.91 stars out of 5. So this could just be me.