Shades of London, Books 1-3 by Maureen Johnson

The actual title of this post should be “Books 1-3 plus that novella that came out in 2014,” but that was rather inelegant.

name-of-the-starThe Name of the Star
When Louisiana native Rory Deveaux’s professorial parents take a sabbatical in the UK, Rory jumps at the chance to attend boarding school in London. The early chapters of The Name of the Star depict her acclimation to life at Wexford, befriending her new roommate (Jazza) and developing a flirtation with one of the male prefects (Jerome). Because the phrase “boarding school in London” is totally my cup of tea (har har) and because Rory is amusingly snarky, I was already loving the book at this point, and that’s before I even got to the part with Jack the Ripper and ghosts!

A copycat of the notorious killer is on the loose, and since Wexford is located in Whitechapel, many of the crime scenes are nearby. After a near-death experience by choking grants Rory the ability to see ghosts, she actually witnesses the perpetrator (who has mysteriously failed to show up on any CCTV recordings of the murders) which brings her to the notice of a special secret police squad tasked with controlling any unruly members of the spectral population.

Several more fun characters are then introduced, and here I must compliment the narrator of the unabridged audiobook, Nicola Barber, whose facility in accents made me feel like I was listening to a BBC show. (I especially liked that Callum, a former football hopeful now dispatching meddlesome ghosts on the Underground, sounded rather like Lister from Red Dwarf!) In fact, I think this would make a pretty great BBC show, with its mildly diverse cast and the fact that the heroine is not merely brave (she eventually assists the squad in their ghosthunt), but funny, too. Admittedly, there were a couple of moments where Rory did some dumb things, but one could argue she didn’t really have better alternatives.

I haven’t loved a book this much in quite a long time, and I am both happy and bummed that there are two more (only two more!) in the series currently.

madness_underneathThe Madness Underneath
It is with true regret that I must report that The Madness Underneath suffers from an unfortunate case of Middle Book Syndrome. A crack created at the end of the first book seems to be providing a way for the buried dead of Bedlam to make it to the surface, and Rory’s newfound skills as a human “terminus” are effective in dispatching one murderous ghost, but this plotline fizzles out partway through. (Sidebar: it’s a crazy coincidence that this article comes out the very day I finish this book!) Then Rory falls in with a cult whose philosophy and goals don’t make a lot of sense, and shortly after her costly rescue, there’s suddenly a cliffhanger ending. If I had to wait for book three, I would probably be peeved that that’s all there was.

That is not to suggest that nothing of merit happens, however. I actually really liked how Rory’s return to Wexford was handled—how she was just simply incapable of caring about things she used to care about. So far behind in schoolwork that it’s overwhelming, she can’t muster the desire to try, and yet is blindsided when it is suggested that perhaps she ought to withdraw prior to exams. So caught up in the ghosthunting gig, boyfriend Jerome’s suspicions (and then guilt over same) become just another nagging problem, so she ends their relationship. I liked that Callum feels more antagonistically towards ghosts than the others do, and yet everyone seems to respect each other’s point of view. I liked the Marc Bolan reference. And, of course, before the more serious stuff starts to happen, there are at least a dozen lines of dialogue that made me laugh. (There’s also a dream featuring ham lunchmeat that I think might be an homage to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Restless.”)

Even though this particular installment was kind of disappointing, I continue to look forward to subsequent books just as much as before.

boy_in_smokeThe Boy in the Smoke
This short novella visits four defining moments in the life of Stephen Dene, leader of the ghost police, offering insight into the thoughts and background of a notably reticent character. Some of these incidents have been referred to in previous books, but not in this much detail.

“The Forgotten Boy” recounts a time when Stephen’s parents forget to fetch him from school at the end of term. (They’ve gone to Barbados instead.) His sister Regina comes to his rescue, determined to save him from a life doing what their parents expect, but she’s erratic and Stephen soon figures out that she’s using drugs. In “The Break in the Chain,” Stephen is attending Eton when he gets word of Regina’s death by overdose. (His parents “worked out their grief at a resort in Switzerland.”) He manages to carry on for several years, determined to fulfill his duty of succeeding at Eton and carrying on to Cambridge, until a visit from his unfeeling family leads him to commit suicide (in a scene that is absolutely riveting).

“The Specialist” find Stephen recovering at a psychiatric hospital and being recruited by Thorpe to lead the reformed team. And in “The Boy in the Smoke,” Stephen has finally achieved his dream of becoming a police officer. Practically the first thing he does is search for Regina’s ghost, only to find she did not return. Lastly, he fulfills his promise to come back to visit the ghost who saved his life and this slim little book comes to an end that left me rather verklempt.

Is this book essential to understanding the Shades of London series? No, but I’d say it’s essential to understanding Stephen, and very definitely worth the time.

shadcabThe Shadow Cabinet
What do you get when you take a series that first beguiled me with London, boarding school, Jack the Ripper and ghosts, and then remove half of those things? A book that is reasonably good but which I just cannot love with anything approaching the ardor I originally felt.

The Shadow Cabinet offers a lot more information about the cult and their goals, introduces the concept of powerful stones that prevent London from being overrun by spirits as well as a secret society tasked with protecting them, and unleashes creepy, evil siblings Sid and Sadie upon the world. More attention, though, is devoted to Rory’s personal plight. Now in hiding from family and friends after running away from Wexford, she and the team are searching everywhere for one of their own who they believe has become a ghost.

The resolution to book two’s cliffhanger is pretty satisfying, I must admit, and I found that I did care a lot about whether certain characters made it out of Sid and Sadie’s proximity unscathed. I also really liked getting to know more about Thorpe, the group’s MI-5 overseer, and that Rory apparently receives permission to tell her two closest friends from Wexford what’s really been going on. And then there’s also the part where Stephen asks the bad guys, “Do you want to test that theory?” which surely must be another Buffy reference, right?

I’m still looking forward to the fourth book, which I believe is going to be the last in the series, but I must admit that my expectations are lower now than they once were.

A Bevy of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the first in what will be a series of posts collecting reviews of these books in a somewhat shorter-than-usual format. In this installment: Afterimage, Bad Bargain, Blooded, Carnival of Souls, One Thing or Your Mother, and Portal Through Time. All are set during the show’s second season.

Afterimage by Pierce Askegren
I’m pretty sure Afterimage is set between “What’s My Line” and “Ted”—the former is a definite, despite the season being referred to as early autumn even though “What’s My Line” takes place after Halloween, but the latter is a guess based on a couple of thoughts Joyce has about needing to get out more, which the author (writing in 2006) might’ve intended as a lead-in to “Ted.”

The book gets off to a slow start and, in fact, not much seems to happen for the first sixty pages. Our heroes encounter some strange folks about town, and it’s pretty obvious to the reader that “Hey, these are characters from the movies being shown at the new drive-in!” but it takes quite a while for the characters to catch up. That said, around page 100 things begin to improve, which is right about where Jonathan appears. I knew he was in this, and was hoping for more of an active role. Sadly, all he does is go to the movies with Xander and then get afflicted by a mysterious sleeping sickness, along with 29 other Sunnydale residents.

Speaking of the drive-in, it occurred to me that this is totally a Sailor Moon plot. Creepy yet charismatic bad guy comes into town and advertises a free drive-in. The local residents swarm the place and then creepy guy feeds on their energy. Our heroine destroys the evil projector with her tiara machete, and the bad guy dissolves. He does not, alas, proclaim “Refresh!”

Still, this was a pretty enjoyable outing, and had some nice touches, like a glimpse at Xander’s bickering parents, a spot-on depiction of petulant Harmony, and Cordelia demonstrating her intelligence and leadership skills. In fact, while Buffy is important, I think Xander comes across more like the protagonist of this one, which is a nice change.

Bad Bargain by Diana G. Gallagher
Bad Bargain is set in season two (between “What’s My Line?” and “Ted” would be my guess) but written in 2006, three years after the end of the series, which allows author Diana G. Gallagher to use her knowledge of later events to color what would otherwise be a fairly dull tale of demonic critters infesting a rummage sale.

In another of her attempts to recapture a normal teen life, Buffy is volunteering at the school rummage sale to benefit the marching band. She’s roped Willow and Xander into participating, too, and this scintillating event has even come to the attention of Spike and Dru, who head to Sunnydale High for a spot of shoplifting. All goes awry when a spell to locate one kid’s missing amulet ends up inviting a host of microscopic Hellmouth beasties, who proceed to infect most of those present. The day is ultimately, of course, saved, though Willow theoretically suffers trauma from being parted from the cute-looking critter who beguiled her into becoming its protector. That part is kind of dumb (and I didn’t think Gallagher captured Drusilla’s mode of speech well, either).

What’s interesting, though, is that Andrew is in this. In fact, he and Jonathan have fairly prominent roles, which I thought was quite fun. In a nice bit of dramatic irony, Jonathan has become possessed by some demonic whip thing and subsequently angsts when he realizes that he nearly killed his best friend. In addition, Gallagher includes a few comments that suggest that these events spurred actions by the characters as seen in the show. For example, Oz muses about painting his van and, after the pests have been sent back where they belong, Princpal Snyder remarks, “Next year’s fund-raiser for the marching band will be something simple, like selling candy.” Hee!

Blooded by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
It’s difficult to pinpoint the timeline for this one. Angel’s stint as Angelus is mentioned, as is the death of Jenny Calendar, but he was apparently able to regain his soul in a way that did not involve Willow. (This book was published in August 1998, and I have to wonder if Whedon wasn’t willing to give away the plot details for the season two finale, so Golden and Holder had to be super vague about it.) I do think this is the end of season two—despite what Wikipedia claims—because Oz and Willow’s relationship is still new, her hair is still long, etc.

Anyway, the gang goes to a museum for a field trip and Willow ends up freeing and being possessed by the spirit of an ancient Chinese vampire-sorcerer. She gathers minions, attacks Xander, and causes her friends to fret. Eventually, Xander gets possessed by a Japanese mountain god and there’s a big battle and spells and Giles wears a headband with a kanji on it. In the end the day is saved through teamwork (yes, really).

On the whole, this book is pretty boring. However, there are a few things to recommend it. For every two or three bits of clunky dialogue, there is occasionally one that is at least slightly amusing or which I can easily hear in the actor’s voice. It was also prescient about a few things. Cordelia’s lack of skill as an actress is mentioned, which will come into play on Angel, and she makes the comment, “I’ll never admit it if you tell her I said it, but I’d hate to think about what Sunnydale would be like if we didn’t have a Slayer in town.” This is interesting, because she is the one who allows us to see exactly that in season three’s “The Wish.” There’s also some good stuff here with Willow’s desire for power and strength, and how that made her vulnerable to the vampire-sorcerer dude. Most of the resulting darkness is played as his fault, but it dovetails nicely with her eventual character arc on the show.

In the end, there are far better Buffy tie-in books, but this wasn’t too bad.

Carnival of Souls by Nancy Holder
Carnival of Souls turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting. Wedged snugly between “Ted” and “Surprise,” the story is set around the episode “Bad Eggs,” which is a great place to put it because, hey, if the book’s at least moderately good, it’ll still be on par with that notoriously rather lame episode.

The premise is that a carnival has come to town, and its proprietor is some kind of devil demon thing that uses prisms to hypnotize visitors into giving in to the temptation of the seven deadly sins so that it might feed off of their souls. Our heroes are not immune, so Buffy becomes proud, Cordelia greedy, Xander gluttonous, Willow envious, Giles angry, Angel lustful, and Joyce slothful.

Really, the specifics of the carnival itself are not very interesting. What I most liked were the many scenes of the group all together, doing their investigation thing, and how good a lot of the dialogue was. Some of Xander’s lines are especially easy to hear in the actor’s voice, and I actually laughed at one of Buffy’s mid-slaying puns. Plus, I liked that they gave Jenny Calendar something significant to contribute.

All in all, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if not for the matter of the kittens.

Early on, Giles acquires a pair of kittens with the intent to use them as payment to Clem in exchange for information, fully cognizant they’ll be used as currency in a demonic poker game. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when Angry!Giles summons a demon that destroys his apartment, no one asks what happened to the kitties, including Buffy and Willow, who were loving on them in a previous scene! Still worse, if you interpret the text in a certain way, you might conclude that Giles sacrificed them as part of the ritual. Ugh! Why?! It was absolutely not necessary to include them and taint this otherwise decent book.

One Thing or Your Mother by Kirsten Beyer
One Thing or Your Mother is the best Buffy tie-in novel that I have ever read. Well done, Kirsten Beyer! I’m sorry that, as this is also the last Buffy tie-in novel to be published, you never got to write another one.

Set between “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Go Fish,” One Thing or Your Mother finds Buffy contending with several different problems. Aside from the recurring menace of Angelus, there’s the fact that Joyce has been contacted by the school about her daughter’s poor grades (with the end result that Buffy acquires a tutor), the disappearance of a young girl followed by sightings of a child vampire, and the strange behavior exhibited by Principal Snyder that ultimately imperils the whole town. True, none of these elements is particularly exciting, but each is competently executed, and done in a way that has bearing on what’s going to happen next in the series.

Where Beyer really shines is in capturing the characters—not just in dialogue, at which she admittedly excels, but in thought as well. Too many times to count, the thoughts attributed to Buffy and the others in these books have been downright insipid, but not this time. In addition, the scenes with the Scooby Gang together in the library are so spot-on they’re just about episode quality. Granted, this doesn’t match up to the very best of Buffy—a lot of which can be found in season two—but with a little reworking and simplifying, this could’ve made a solid episode better than the worst of Buffy—some of which can also be found in season two. I also thought Beyer did a great job with Spike.

Perhaps once I’ve completed this project I’ll have to come up with the Top Ten Buffy Novels for those who only want to read the cream of the crop. One Thing or Your Mother has definitely secured itself a spot on that list.

Portal Through Time by Alice Henderson
Set between “Bad Eggs” and “Surprise,” Alice Henderson’s Portal Through Time evidently takes place very early in 1998, because Buffy is still sixteen (she turns seventeen on January 19th) and Angel has not yet lost his soul. A vampire called Lucien has done a lot of research into time-traveling magic and recruits some assistants to help him with his plan: go back in time and kill four very famous Slayers so as to disrupt the line and allow the Master (of whom he is a devotee) to rise unimpeded. Angel gets wind of the plan, so Buffy and pals end up traveling to Wales in 60 C.E., to Sumeria in the time of Gilgamesh, to Tennessee during the Battle of Shiloh, and to Paris during the French Revolution.

Sometimes being a reviewer (or at least being one who sets geeky goals) means reading things so that others don’t have to. Such is the case with Portal Through Time. Although there are some things Henderson does well—I like her attempts to recapture the feel of the show by employing quick cuts between scenes to humorous effect, for example—the overall concept of a magical means to travel back in time is just not very well thought out.

For one, if such magic did exist, you can bet that Willow would’ve used it to wipe out Warren before he could do harm to anyone she cared about. And two, even within this book there are complications and possibilities that are not pursued. Near the end, for example, Buffy stakes Angelus and then reuses the incantation to go back in time to the same spot and keep that from happening. So why does everyone seem so secure that once they’ve thwarted the vamps in a given time period the Slayer is now safe? The vamps could just go back and try again!

On top of this, Henderson’s writing is frequently redundant, like when she reiterates several times that if the vampires arrive at their destination during the day they will have to wait until nightfall to take action, and sometimes just plain bad. During an interminable passage in which Buffy is creeping through the woods around the perimeter of Shiloh, she ends up getting shot in the leg and suddenly develops a fondness for deer. Behold:

She forced herself to focus on the grand trees and shadowed valleys, golden fields in which the deer gathered at dusk… She imagined the fields and groves of trees without the thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers, but instead full of foraging deer and black bear.

I should not be snickering when there are thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers in a scene. And maybe you see nothing wrong with that quote, but to me it sounds nothing like Buffy and is just the author clumsily inserting an anti-war message.

Sometimes it can be fun to read a lousy book, but in the end this one is just too long and boring for me to recommend doing even that.

The Lying Game, Books 2-3 by Sara Shepard

In which I catch up on The Lying Game and circumvent the fact that I don’t have much to say about these frothy books by offering two short reviews in one post.

Never Have I Ever
Former foster child Emma Paxton has assumed the life of her privileged (and murdered) twin sister, Sutton Mercer. The only person who knows her true identity is hunky loner, Ethan Landry.

In this, the second book of the series, Emma fairly promptly crosses her sister’s friends off the suspect list (after being convinced of their guilt in the first book) and sets her suspicions upon the so-called Twitter Twins, two girls who want retribution for a particularly cruel prank Sutton played on them. While Emma sleuths and gets into peril, Sutton’s ghost hangs around and occasionally informs the reader about the small flashes of memory she conveniently experiences.

It’s hard to know what to say about a book like this. It’s teen suspense by the author of Pretty Little Liars, which means that there will be a fair amount of bad decision-making and ridiculous drama that somehow ends up being addictive anyway. I mean, it’s inconceivable that the twins are really Sutton’s killers—this is book two out of four, after all—and none of these girls is particularly likeable, but have I acquired the third book from Audible* and loaded it onto my .mp3 player with the intention of starting it as soon as I finish this review? You bet I have!

* Dear audiobook narrator,
Please learn to pronounce the letter T. Shirts don’t have buh-ins, windows don’t have cur-ins, and Facebook posts aren’t wrih-in.

Two Truths and a Lie
Usually, these books are pretty fun to read, even if they are silly, but Two Truths and a Lie sucked the enjoyment out of the experience by relying on one of my most disliked YA plots: there is angst, and the heroine could do something simple and obvious to fix it, but she is convinced for some inexplicable reason that she cannot do this thing to fix it, so things just get worse and worse until she finally does the simple and obvious thing, at which point the angst is dispelled.

In this particular instace, Sutton’s sister Laurel has discovered that Emma (in the guise of Sutton) has a secret relationship with Ethan. So, Laurel proposes that Sutton’s friends play a nasty prank on him, ‘cos that is apparently what they do. It takes Emma ages to realize that she could easily a) warn Ethan or b) tell her friends that she likes him. I also get the feeling Sara Shepard was under some Meg Cabot-like time constraint with regards to getting this book ready for publication, so she resorted to Meg Cabot-like tactics for fleshing out one’s word count, like reiterating obvious things like, “Wait, so he was at the hospital the night Sutton died? Then he couldn’t have killed her!” Uh, yes, I got that.

Like the other books in the series, this one focuses on one main suspect for Sutton’s murder who is ultimately cleared in the end. Again, there was no chance of the killer being identified before the series conclusion, and therefore no real suspense. I also do not believe that the suspect suggested at the very end of the book will wind up to be the actual perpetrator, ‘cos that leaves no room for surprise twists.

I gripe, and yet I am first in the library queue for Hide and Seek, the fourth and ostensibly final volume, which is due in July.

Durarara!!, Vol. 1

Story by Ryohgo Narita, Art by Akiyo Satorigi, Character Design by Suzuhito Yasuda | Published by Yen Press

Here is the sum total of my Durarara!! knowledge prior to reading volume one of the manga:

1. It is based on light novels.
2. There is an anime.
3. People were really excited about the license.

It turns out that those light novels are by the creator of Baccano!, another exclamatory property with an anime that I’ve never seen, but which has been praised by various reputable sources. So, even though I knew nothing about Durarara!! itself, I was definitely curious.

In the space of six pages, three concepts and one narrative conceit are efficiently introduced. Time for another list!

1. Inside a pharmaceutical laboratory, a speaker (presumably male) promises a girl in a tank that he will “get us out of here.”
2. A trio of anonymous hands chat about the Tokyo neighborhood of Ikebukuro and the twenty-year-old urban legend of the Black Rider.
3. Timid fifteen-year-old Mikado Ryuugamine moves to Ikebukuro to reconnect with a childhood friend and attend high school.

Each of these threads will be developed and expanded upon in the volume to come, with some slight overlap but so far not much. Because of that, I’ll address them separately.

1. We learn the least about this subplot in this volume, but it appears to have something to do with Seiji, a boy in Mikado’s class, who lives with his possibly evil sister. Seiji briefly has a stalker who sees something she shouldn’t, and I wonder if that doesn’t tie in with the next item on our list.

2. We see the anonymous chatters a few times throughout the volume and it soon becomes clear that Mikado is one of them and I’m pretty sure the Black Rider is another. Seriously, the Black Rider is the most awesome thing about the volume. A competent fighter with a body seemingly comprised of shadows, the Black Rider takes courier jobs around Ikebukuro, dispatches thugs efficently, and lives with a “shut-in doctor” who would not be averse to a romantic relationship even though the Black Rider has no head.

3. Mikado, alas, is not so interesting, though the fact that he came to town because he wanted something strange and exciting to happen to him is at least somewhat encouraging. He reconnects with his friend, Kida, meets some of Kida’s otaku friends, and is warned against associating with various unsavory people, including someone named Shizuo, who hasn’t really appeared yet but looks kind of awesome, and Izaya, an informant with bleak ideas about the afterlife who extorts money from those who intend to kill themselves.

There are some series that bombard one with so much information that one ends up frustrated. If I were more astute, I might be able to pinpoint how, exactly, the creators of Durarara!! manage to avoid this pitfall, but they do. Granted, there is a lot going on, but the exposition is sure-handed, leaving one with the expectation that all will eventually make sense. Perhaps it’s the light-novel foundation that inspires this confidence, though that is certainly no guarantee of quality.

“Weird but intriguing” is my ultimate verdict for this volume, and I look forward to the second volume very much. It’s a stylish title, one that’s more cool than profound at this stage, and I realize that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it pushed the right buttons for me so I’ll definitely be back for more.

Durarara!! is published in English by Yen Press. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris

From the back cover:
It’s not every day that you come across a naked man on the side of the road. That’s why cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse doesn’t just drive on by. Turns out the poor thing hasn’t a clue who he is, but Sookie does. It’s Eric the vampire—but now he’s a kinder, gentler Eric. And a scared Eric, because whoever took his memory now wants his life. Sookie’s investigation into who and why leads straight into a dangerous battle among witches, vampires, and werewolves. But a greater danger could be to Sookie’s heart—because this version of Eric is very difficult to resist…

Review:
I think I’d been lulled into a false sense of “hey, this series isn’t that smutty” by the previous book, Club Dead, in which Sookie’s vampire beau Bill is missing and in which the closest thing to a sex scene is Eric’s… enthusiasm when Sookie drinks his blood at one point. But now that Sookie and Bill are good and broken up (yay!), she is free to pursue other opportunities, which manifest in the form of an amnesic Eric who has been cursed by a witch for spurning her advances as well as for owning a profitable nightclub she’d like to take over. He ends up hiding at Sookie’s place while he’s not himself and though she resists his charms for a while, she eventually goes “to hell with thinking” and then we get way too much detail about what they get up to together.

Anyways, aside from the “Sookie hooks up with Eric” plot, there are two main things going on: the big bad coven of witches is attempting to take over various supernaturally owned businesses and eventually the vampires and werewolves ally together to take them out. Sookie gets involved in the attack and it’s not a pleasant experience. Secondly, Sookie’s brother has been abducted and she spends most of the book thinking that his disappearance is somehow connected to the witches. Of the two, I preferred the Jason storyline, as it has far greater potential for interesting complications down the road. The witches were rather dull, really.

I seem to like the endings of these books more than what comes before, and that’s no exception here. I like where Sookie and Eric are at the end of the volume, I like Bill’s menacing return (I actually went “ohhhhh shit”), and I like the ultimate fate of Debbie Pelt. This last possibly frees Sookie to hook up with Alcide the hunky werewolf next, and while part of me cringes at the idea of this series becoming something akin to the works of Laurell K. Hamilton, the other part appreciates that Harris doesn’t keep her heroine tied down with notions of true love.

And really, that’s about all I have to say about Dead to the World. It was fluffy and pleasantly diverting. I’ll keep reading more. I’ll keep going “ooh” at certain things and “ew” at others. I still haven’t summoned the fortitude to give the TV adaptation another shot, but that might be only a matter of time.

Yurara, Vols. 1-5

By Chika Shiomi | Published by VIZ Media

Yurara Tsukinowa can see spirits and sense their painful emotions, but she can’t actually do anything to help them. Or so she thinks. When a new school year finds her in the same class as Mei Tendo and Yako Hoshino, two hunky boys who use their spiritual powers to ward off vengeful spirits, she ends up helping them out, but not entirely alone. You see, Yurara has a guardian spirit—also named Yurara—and it’s this spirit who manifests when spiritual nasties are afoot, causing regular Yurara to adopt the spirit’s good looks and feisty personality until the threat is dealt with. “That was awesome!” Mei proclaims after spirit!Yurara’s first appearance. “She’s beautiful and strong!”

At first, the series is pretty episodic. Before Yurara came along it seems the boys simply drove off the spirits—Mei possesses offensive powers of fire while Yako’s water-based abilities lean toward the defensive end—but now that she’s around to actually communicate with the ghosts the encounters typically end with the spirit being able to pass on peacefully. The exception is the case of Mei’s mother, a ghost who claims to be hanging around so that her husband and sons can’t bring chicks over, but who is really worried about protecting her son from an evil spirit.

As time goes on, Yurara begins to learn more about the boys and is especially intrigued by cheerful, glompy Mei, whose skirt-chasing demeanor is really a way to hide his sorrow over the spirit-induced death of his first love. When Yako asks whether there’s someone Mei loves, Mei replies, “You should know. There is… but she’s not here.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it now, the plight of loving someone who is gone and will never return actually comes full circle, alighting upon Yako by the end of the series. Because the more he’s around Yurara, the more Mei falls in love with her. She returns his feelings in her normal guise, but when under the influence of spirit!Yurara, she’s drawn to Yako instead. This makes for much confusion, as you might imagine.

The latter half of the series is primarily focused on this romantic triangle/square, and I ate up all of the attendant angst with a spoon. I sighed a bit when a contingent of mean girls harrasses Yurara for hogging the boys’ attention, but was pleased when she actually ended up befriending one of them. Really, this shoujotastic twist on a supernatural tale was exactly what I was craving when I began Yurara, and so I found it very satisfying. My one quibble is that early on, Yako seems to acknowledge the fact that he’s in love with “a phantom of a person no longer of this world,” but later seems surprised to realize that it’s the guardian spirit who loves him and not Yurara herself. Perhaps that’s not so much a flaw, though, as it is something to ponder over.

I shan’t spoil the ending except to say that I liked it and that it paves the way for Rasetsu (now released in its nine-volume entirety by VIZ), in which a slightly older Yako meets a girl who reminds him very much of spirit!Yurara.

Ultimately, Yurara is not a masterpiece, but it was exactly what I wanted it to be and I enjoyed it very much. Now on to Rasetsu!

Yurara was published in English by VIZ. All five volumes were released.

The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes

From the back cover:
Banished!

Old Witch likes nothing better than to fly about on her broomstick crying “Heh-heh!” and casting abracadabras, but now she has been sent away… by two young girls.

Amy and Clarissa love to tell stories about Old Witch… until one day they decide she is just too mean and wicked. Drawing a rickety old house upon a barren glass hill, the girls exile Old Witch there with the warning that she’d better be good—or else no Halloween! For company they draw her a Little Witch Girl and a Weeny Witch Baby.

Old Witch tries to be good, but anyone would get up to no good in a place as lonely as the glass hill… as Amy and Clarissa find out when Old Witch magics them into her world, a world of make-believe made real.

Review:
If you’ve got a clever and charming child and are looking for a clever and charming Halloween book that they might enjoy, The Witch Family just might fit the bill.

Amy and her best friend Clarissa, both “ordinary real girls,” are almost seven. Amy’s vivid imagination has been captured by the tales her mother tells about the wicked Old Witch, and she enlists Clarissa—who, with her faulty memory but pleasant disposition, is content with the sidekick role—in drawing a series of pictures that continue Old Witch’s adventures.

The story is presented in a really neat way. For example, it’s immediately clear through vocabulary that Amy is concocting Old Witch’s story herself. (She’s fond of big words, but doesn’t always know how to spell or pronounce them, so when she sentences Old Witch to live alone on a glass hill as punishment for her evil ways, she declares, “I banquished her!”) But a lot of the book is told from Old Witch’s point of view, so kids would probably enjoy the “is she really real?” mystery.

It’s certainly a fun Halloween tale, but I think Amy is the most fascinating character of all. What a bright little girl! Seriously, I found myself wishing for an epilogue that read, “And then Amy became a super-famous novelist” or something. There’s a real whimsy in the language used, and I love that she does typical little girl things like write the bumblebee who’d been in her yard into the story and give him a noble and heroic part to play. She’s also inserting herself into the story in a way, by giving Old Witch a little witch girl named Hannah to keep her company who looks so much like Amy that no one can tell them apart when Hannah comes to visit Amy on Halloween and goes trick-or-treating with her friends.

I find I haven’t a lot more to say about the book than this. It’s very cute. There are kitties and weeny witch babies and things to make adults giggle and the most adorable bee on the planet. Thanks for the recommendation, K!

Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

From the back cover:
There’s only one vampire Sookie Stackhouse is involved with (at least voluntarily) and that’s Bill. But recently he’s been a little distant—in another state, distant. His sinister and sexy boss Eric has an idea where to find him. Next thing Sookie knows, she is off to Jackson, Mississippi to mingle with the under-underworld at Club Dead. It’s a dangerous little haunt where the elitist vampire society can go to chill out and suck down some type O. But when Sookie finally finds Bill—caught in an act of serious betrayal—she’s not sure whether to save him… or sharpen some stakes.

Review:
It’s been more than a year since I promised “Club Dead, coming soon!” at the end of my review of Living Dead in Dallas. I didn’t forget the pledge; it just took me that long to be in the mood for another round of salacious vampire shenanigans. But what better time to revisit the series than Halloween Week? This one was such an improvement over the last, however, that I’m going to make a sincere effort to get caught up on the series.

Part of what makes Club Dead interesting is that there is so little Bill and when there is Bill, he’s wronging Sookie in ways that culminate with her disinviting him from her home. As the book begins, he is working on a top-secret assignment for “the queen of Louisiana” (there’s a lot of detail about the vampire hierarchy in this book) and tells Sookie he’s heading to Seattle to work on it. This turns out to be a lie, as she learns later that Bill is being held captive in Jackson and that he was preparing to pension her off and return to his vampire love, Lorena.

Despite the betrayal, Sookie agrees to help Eric (Bill’s superior, in a manner of speaking) find Bill and is matched up with a brawny werewolf named Alcide Herveaux, who can introduce her to the supernatural element in Jackson. Alcide’s got baggage of his own, so in addition to treading lightly around “the king of Mississippi” and the werewolves the king has hired to search for Bill’s girlfriend (thankfully, he never got her name), they’ve also got to avoid Alcide’s crazy ex, Debbie Pelt.

All of this is fairly entertaining—even if a large amount of the plot is contingent upon guys finding Sookie extremely hawt and wanting to boff her—but it did seem randomly strung-together at times. For example, after Bill is rescued the gang must next prevent the crucifixion of “Bubba” (Elvis in vamp form) and foil a convenience store robbery. I really liked the ending, though, and once again find myself hoping that Sookie will not forgive Bill’s transgressions, now weightier than ever before. Sure, it’s a little ridiculous how many guys are hot for her, but her steamy encounters with both Alcide and Eric are more fun to read than detailed sex scenes starring Bill. (The fact that Eric gets fleshed out a great deal is one of the best aspects of the book, actually.) Plus, Sookie’s reaction to these tempting guys is pretty amusing. “I was not pleased with my moral fiber!”

I find that I haven’t much to say about the book beyond this. It’s diverting and amusing and has even rekindled my curiosity about True Blood. It’s not fair to compare something like this against oh, say, Price and Prejudice, but for this particular genre, it exceeds expectations.

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

From the back cover:
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.

He’s obsessed with serial killers but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat—and to appreciate what that difference means.

Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

Review:
It’s hard to resist a book with a title like I Am Not a Serial Killer, at least for me, and when I picked this up I figured I was in for something akin to “Dexter: The Early Years.” But that was before Wells pulled a genre switcheroo.

Fifteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver is a markedly self-aware sociopath, in that he is fully cognizant of his lack of empathy and bizzare compulsions and narrates about them in an articulate manner that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is uncommon in others of his kind. He’s seeing a therapist and trying to keep “the monster” at bay by following a series of strict, self-imposed rules (a what-to-avoid list gleaned from intensive serial killer research) designed to keep him from going down a dangerous path. When mutilated bodies start showing up in his small town, John is excited and fascinated, but the more he learns about the crimes and the fact that the killer never intends to stop, the more he comes to realize that he may be the only person who can prevent the deaths of more innocents by letting “the monster” out to kill the perpetrator.

Soon it becomes clear that John is dealing with something supernatural. Ordinarily, it would bug me when a “real world” mystery suddenly veers into the supernatural for its resolution, but it actually kind of works for me here. John is such a broken person that he can’t understand why the culprit is doing certain things, and eventually realizes that even a demon is more capable of genuine human emotion than he is. This ties in some with the depiction of John’s family life—an absentee father who never follows through with promises and a mother who loves with desperate urgency to try to make up for her ex-husband’s shortcomings—since one of the most important moments of the book occurs when John is finally able to achieve a bit of real understanding with his mom instead of just faking it.

I guess the book is somewhat gross. None of the descriptions of the crimes bothered me, but the mortuary scenes—John’s mom and aunt run a funeral home and allow him to assist sometimes—are clinical and grim. They made me think of my late grandmother and made me want to call my parents. That said, I appreciate how familiarity with the mortuary layout and equipment pays off later in the story.

Ultimately, I Am Not a Serial Killer is pretty interesting. Though I’m not sure I buy the extent of John’s self-knowledge, he’s still an intriguing protagonist, and I thought Wells did a decent job of making him simultaneously sympathetic and abnormal. When I picked up the book I didn’t realize it was the first of a trilogy, but it was a pleasant surprise. Look for a review of book two, Mr. Monster, in the near future.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 8

By Joss Whedon, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

Because I’ve spent so much time and energy in the attempt to quantify why and how Season Eight lost me, I find myself sorely tempted to dismiss this final volume with a simple “meh,” but I suppose I can summon one more burst of effort.

This volume comprises the last five issues of Season Eight (#36-40) and also includes a fun Riley one-shot by Jane Espenson called “Commitment through Distance, Virtue through Sin.” When last we left off, Buffy had turned down sex-spawned paradise to return to this dimension and help her friends fend off the demons that poured in once her mystical boinkage with Angel created a new universe. Then Spike showed up.

As usual, the arc actually starts off pretty well. We see how Angel was convinced (by a talking dog who gets some great lines of Whedon dialogue) to take up the Twilight cause, and some of how Spike became involved. (Please note at this point that Spike has just apparently read Buffy’s name in the newspaper, where she is labeled a terrorist. This will be relevant in a moment.) Now with Buffy and the others, Spike says that “the seed of wonder,” the source of all magic in the world, can stop all of this. And it just so happens to be in the Sunnydale Hellmouth, guarded by the revived Master.

So everyone goes there or maybe they were there already. I have honestly lost track. Anyway, Twilight is very displeased that its parents have abandoned it, and while Buffy and friends are ostensibly protecting the Seed, Twilight possesses Angel and makes him attack Buffy. Long story short: Giles attempts to kill Angel with the scythe, but it’s absolutely hopeless and Angel breaks his neck (just like Jenny Calendar). Buffy, mad with grief, has just had enough and she breaks the seed, severing the connection between this world and magic. Willow, who had possibly been making some headway against the attackers, is promptly stripped of her powers. Though I often criticize Georges Jeanty’s art, Willow’s expression at this moment is some of his best work.

Issue #40 picks up four months later and largely serves to set up Season Nine. Buffy is crashing on the couch at Dawn and Xander’s San Francisco apartment, working in a coffee shop and routinely dealing with confrontations with Slayers and Wiccans who feel that she betrayed them. Dawn has gone back to school and Xander has once again found gainful employment in construction. Giles left everything to Faith in his will (ouch!), including a London flat. She is also apparently the only one willing to care for a catatonic Angel, which I think is pretty awesome. Given their affinity, it makes perfect sense that she’s the one willing to forgive him when no one else can so much as even look at him.

So. Here are the things I disliked about all of this:

1. I swear sometimes that Whedon is actively trying to get me to hate Buffy. In issue #31, she confesses her love for Xander. In issue #34, she boffs Angel. In issue #36, she is still glowy about that, despite the havoc that ensued. “You gave me perfection and you gave it up. That’s not just the love of my life. That’s the guy I would live it with.” Um, did you forget the 206 girls he killed to get to that point? I can buy Faith’s actions so much more easily than Buffy’s because though she forgives him, it’s not like she’s forgotten all that he’s done.

As if this weren’t bad enough, in issue #37 Buffy is talking with Spike and begins daydreaming about making out with him. A throwaway comment suggests that perhaps this is a remnant of Twilight mind control, and I hope that’s true. I’m not suggesting that Buffy is usually virtuous or that she doesn’t make some impulsive choices when lonely, but holy crap. What a horndog!

2. Remember that newspaper that mentioned “terrorist Buffy Summers”? Well, how is Buffy able to resume life in San Francisco under her own name? In a recent Q&A, Scott Allie says “Buffy didn’t become a household name,” but issue #36 sure seems to indicate otherwise.

3. So far, I feel nothing about Giles’ death. It just doesn’t feel real. There wasn’t enough impact or something. Hearing his will helped it sink in more (and he gets a middle name: Edmund), but, odd as it sounds, I want to be sobbing over this, and I am not.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good things in this volume. Looks like there’s 3 of those, too.

1. There are some great scenes between pairs of characters. Giles and Buffy have a nice scene and Giles and Xander do, as well. Probably my favorite scenes involve Spike and Buffy, though, because he is pretty frank concerning how disgusting he finds everything.

Spike: Under all that demon viscera, you still reek of him, and that’s not a treat for me—but it can’t be Buffy if she doesn’t bonk the bad guy, right?

Buffy: Snark!

Spike: Comes with the sizable package.

As mentioned, Willow’s grief is pretty amazing, and Kennedy haters will rejoice to learn that Willow soon breaks up with her. Less awesome is the throwaway reveal that Willow possibly loved her sexy snaky mentor, whom she will now never see again thanks to Buffy.

2. The fulfillment of the “betrayal” issue. Back in issue #10, Buffy and Willow went to visit a… seer or something, who shows Buffy a glimpse of herself (a pose that is finally realized in issue #39 after the seed has been destroyed) and says that it’s due to “Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected.”

At first, I was kind of annoyed that the traitor was not conclusively identified, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is quintessential Whedon. Buffy betrayed everyone by boinking the enemy, bringing down demon hordes, and then ridding the world of magic. Buffy and Angel betrayed the new universe they created. Angel betrayed Buffy by killing Giles… Ultimately, I think the prophecy refers to Buffy herself, but it’s kind of neat that it can be interpreted in several different ways.

3. One might not expect a one-shot prequel starring Riley and his wife Sam to be kind of awesome, but this one is. It’s full of great dialogue (and when I mentioned my favorite line to Jane Espenson on Twitter she actually replied!) and reminds us once again why Sam is so fantastic. I think I now want a mini-series focusing on these two as they are occasionally summoned away from bucolic corn-growing bliss to save the world.

So now the big question is… will I read Season Nine?

While there were some things I disliked about earlier arcs in Season Eight, Brad Meltzer’s penultimate “Twilight” arc was the proverbial straw that broke the fangirl’s back, and I resolved to stay away from further Buffy comics once this particular season had wrapped up. Advance press for Season Nine, however, has made me change my mind.

Season Nine just sounds so much more like something I’d want to read (and will be co-written by Andrew Chambliss, who penned my favorite Dollhouse episode, “A Spy in the House of Love”). For example, the synopsis for the second issue begins “Buffy continues her nightly patrols while trying to cobble together a sensible life…” That sounds great to me! Much better than all this big-budget sprawl. And the Angel and Faith companion series sounds like it could be even better!

I may end up disappointed, but I just don’t think I’ll be able to resist.