Book Review: Twenty-Sided Die

Dice Shaming

 

Brian Prisco gives good nerd.

I figured he would, since the co-worker who  handed me the trade paperback, saying, “My friend’s book finally arrived! Oh, my god you have to read this!” is fearlessly fluent in nearly all species of fandom.

If you can’t trust a woman who carries an R2D2 lunchbox, drives a yellow car detailed with Charlie Brown stripes, is willing to talk about the relative BAMFness and Kinsey placements of Doctors War through Twelve, and has a little, knitted, science blue sweater warming the Zachary Quinto action figure she keeps in her work cubicle, you have no trust in you to give.

Plus, the cover is excellent.20-Sided Die

Twenty-Sided Die is a Kickstarter-funded collection of short stories connected by a group of  small-town misfits who have bonded—more or less—over Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, comic books, summer camp, philosophical conversations about cannibalism and literature (and boobs), bullying in its various forms, and the sheer hell of navigating high school and what may (or may not) come after.

The main characters are distinct and unforgettable—and if one of two aren’t entirely likeable (possibly by choice), they still have our sympathy.  We know these guys, and in many ways, most of us are these guys:

Dobby, the vicious, DM whose main motivations appear to be junk food and unrepentant spite;

Caleb, the fundamentalist paladin whose karma is about to hit his dogma;

Spence, a simmering wizard who is desperate to blow this popsicle stand;

Scotty, a snarky band nerd of a dwarf who would like to graduate without losing too many teeth to a privileged, troll-sized bully; and

Ben, a trailer-trash, Hinton-esque Outsider (please for to note the capital O) with the heart of a ranger.

My favorites among the supporting cast are Dory, a girl whose thermonuclear response to Dobby’s mysogenist insults in “Geek Out”  is worth twice the price of admission, and Mr. Ambler, a former dork turned cool teacher* who is one of the few adult providers of perspective and sanity in remarkably, if realistically, unfair situations.

The stories cover a lot of ground, with varying impact.  Some are clearly meant to be squinted at in WTF delight (“Human Consumption”), some are quietly powerful (“A Steady Hand” and “Grendel”), and others are a sucker punch in the solar plexus (most of the final third of the collection).  The best of them are hilarious, infuriating, heartbreaking, victorious, and tragic—sometimes all at the same time.

One in particular (“Wages of Sin”) is so breathtakingly inappropriate on so many levels and yet so masterfully written with such undeniable truth that it transcends itself and firmly establishes Dobby in my headcanon as chaotic evil personified. I am in awe .

I only had one difficulty in reading Twenty-Sided Die:  about a third of the way through,  I stopped seeing it as a series of  loosely connected stories.  Whether by design or chance or something in my own head,** the stories drew more tightly together, almost gelling into a novel—and a damned good one, too.

This wouldn’t be a problem, except the perspective shift—which again, may be all mine—lent a kind of uneven randomness to the first third, but only (I stress)  in comparison. And since this collection isn’t a novel, and presumably wasn’t meant to be, it naturally didn’t develop quite the way I kept thinking it should.

It’s completely unfair to judge short stories by long fiction standards—especially short stories that hold up on their own individual merits like these do—and the only reason that I’m saying all this is that my  unreasonable expectations are based on my sympathy for and involvement with these characters (even Dobby, which was a shocker, believe me).  I want more from and about them, and for them, too.***

So, I hope Mr. Prisco will forgive me.

And keep acing those charisma checks writing, please.

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*If the general atmosphere didn’t seem more D.C. than Marvel to me, I would suspect Mr. Ambler is actually Agent Phil Coulson in disguise—I’d still like to check his desk drawers for Captain America collectibles.  And Ben strikes me as Clint Barton with better luck—the bow isn’t the only parallel I saw.  I love them both and their conversations were my favorite parts of this collection.

**Possibly helped along by the “Chapter #” heading above the title of each story.  I’m not complaining about it—I don’t know if this was done on purpose or was simply a formatting issue, and I didn’t even consciously notice until I was writing this post—but it might have had a subliminal effect.

***I want Ambler to have his day, man.  I need Ambler to have his day.

 

Book Review: Alice Close Your Eyes

Full Disclosure:  I’ve never met Averil Dean face-to-face, but I consider her a good friend—it’s a Betsy Lerner thing, a bloggerbuddy thing, an e-mailing, occasional care-packaging, shared parenting-woeing, mutual why-do-I-want-to-do-this-writing-thing-again-oh-right-thanks thing.

And the woman can writeas anyone who’s visited her blog will agree.  She classifies her posts as Poetry, Porn, and Petulance, but there’s far more to them than that.  She’s savvy, insightful, earthy, brave, and has paid her damn dues, thank you.

So when she offered me an ARC of her new book, Alice Close Your Eyeswith several disclaimers about not being sure it was my usual cup of tea and that she would understand if I was too busy—my reply, verbatim, was, “OH MY GOD, GIMME!”

I tried to summarize the story myself, but kept dropping spoilers, so here’s the official blurb, instead:

Alice Close Your EyesTen years ago, someone ruined Alice Croft’s life. Now, she has a chance to right that wrong—and she thinks she’s found the perfect man to carry out her plan.

After watching him for weeks, she breaks into Jack Calabrese’s house to collect the evidence that will confirm her hopes. When Jack comes home unexpectedly, Alice hides in the closet, fearing for her life. But upon finding her, Jack is strangely calm, solicitous…and intrigued.

That night is the start of a dark and intense attraction, and soon Alice finds herself drawn into a labyrinth of terrifying surrender to a man who is more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. As their relationship spirals toward a breaking point, Alice begins to see just how deep Jack’s secrets run—and how deadly they could be.

Like all blurbs, this is only a surface description—and like Averil’s posts, this book is far more than advertised.

It’s an exploration of changing points-of-view, mistakes, and motivations, of loss and missed opportunities, broken pieces and unfilled needs, and the many, many different kinds of devotion and desire.

It’s also an exercise in symbolism both subtle and shouted so loudly that even the characters can’t help but notice.  And so precisely written that every single plot point and flashback and spiraling erotic moment slots into place with a click.

The characters all hold their own, even though they’re  filtered through Alice’s memory,  mindset . . and misinterpretations.  Jack, who knows he’s being played, but can’t back down.  Molly, who broke my heart more than once.  Alice’s grandmother, who, with the best intentions, may have taught Alice the worst interpretation of vengeance.  And Alice herself—writer, orphan, semi-recluse, lost girl interrupted—who thinks her eyes are wide open and her vision is true . . .  and who is very, very wrong.

About those erotic moments:  they may be dark, they may be frequent, but not a single one is gratuitous.  Each is a payment offered or extracted, a manipulation, a binding, a powerplay, a promise, a punishment—or any combination.*  Averil’s talent for infusing a scene, an act, a single touch, with the emotional tensiondark or light—that defines true erotica, is undeniable: there’s a scene in a craft fair booth, a fully-clothed moment of supercharged choice, that rivals, at least for me, any other scene in the book.

This isn’t a mystery with sex scenes tacked on—it’s a symbiosis.  And a damned good story .

Someone, can’t remember who, described this book as erotic noir.  So I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a light read.  And it isn’t—there are some tough, true things in here, things that happen and shouldn’t and do anyway.  The world of these characters was broken when they got here,  and that they have trouble coping with the unfairness isn’t surprising.

The level of involvement I had with these characters would have been, except I know Averil Dean and what she can do.

You should find out for yourselves.

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* And, if I may, the dom/sub dynamics between Alice and Jack are fascinating on several levels. In both their intimate relationship and the plot, Alice has the power and Jack has the strength.  They each have the need, even the craving, for aftercare, even if they’re unable to express it, or even accept it.  They could be the saving of each other—but their inability to trust each other, or themselves, upsets the necessary balance.

“Don’t let the dragon hit you on the way out”: a review of PrinceLESS

Princeless-issue-1 image

Saturday, one of our young patrons came up to the reference desk with a chapter-book sized graphic novel from another library.  She told me—with some prompting from her mother—that it was The Best Story EVER and she’d wanted to borrow volume two, but the other library had sent the first one again.

Luckily, we had volume two on the shelf, and the young patron danced her way to check-out.

By the time I returned to my chair, it was break-time, so I snagged the unneeded volume of the best story EVER, meaning to drop it off at customer service, so they could check it in and send it back home.

Instead, I opened the book and skimmed a few pages on the way.

And went past to the break room, still reading.  And finished it at lunch.

And took it home.  And read it to Sunny, after wresting it from Jane, who had stolen it right out of my hands.  And pried it away from Sunny again this morning, because I needed to check my spelling and she was hiding behind the easy chair in the living room, sounding out the words to herself, and giggling.

I don’t know if it’s The Best Story EVER . . . but it’s very, very close.

Princeless volume one coverPrinceLESS is the story of Princess Adrienne, who refuses to buy into a system that has  kings sticking their sixteen-year old daughters into towers guarded by fierce monsters, just to find sons-in-law as ruthless and misogynistic as they are.   She’d rather learn swordfighting with her twin brother—who is not the heir their father wants, being a bright and thoughtful boy—and argues so loudly against the Tower method of courtship that her parents, who have already placed five of her older sisters in towers, agree that she won’t have to go.

Adrienne wakes up the morning after a drugged birthday dinner in the bedroom of a tower guarded by dragon Sparky, who enjoys snacking on princes-in-a-can, unaware that the people who trained her to guard princesses are the same people who sell dragon-killing weapons to hopeful suitors.

Adrienne is so done with all this.

So when she finds a sword under her bed, she explains things to Sparky—who is understandably upset to learn that she’s nothing but knight-fodder—puts on a slightly singed suit of armor, and goes forth to rescue her sisters.

After she puts a saddle on a dragon (and maybe a seatbelt), finds some armor for a warrior woman that’s more substance than style (No Metal Bikinis!), escapes her father’s wrath (maybe burning down her tower was a bad idea), and makes a new friend (a girl who smiths like a dwarf and hits like a really big hammer) . . . and figures out where her sisters are.

Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin have created an amazing story about a young woman who doesn’t understand why she should follow a tradition based on a story full of plot-holes, illustrated by golden-haired princesses who don’t look like her and perfectly coiffed princes who don’t interest her.

Most of the characters are so invested in this system that they can’t see that it doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.  Even the king complains that he’s running out of daughters to lock up, and still no son-in-law . . . but his pride won’t let him change the status quo.  There’s also some question as to whether Adrienne’s sisters will want to be rescued, as they’ve all been taught that someday their prince will come and give them the happily ever after that they’ve been told they want.    Volume one includes a short, flip-side story (illustrated by D. E. Belton) about one of Adrienne’s hapless princes that shows how unfair the system is to both sides.

It’s a remarkably well-rounded world, in which tradition has always trumped common sense—until Adrienne decides she wants more.

But despite her brains and fighting ability, she’s no Mary Sue—she’s new to this knight gig, and has some fairly embarrassing (and hilarious) problems along the way.   As she says at one particularly undignified point:

“Someday . . . they’ll tell about the heroic deeds of the brave Princess Adrienne.  When they sing those songs . . . I hope they leave this verse out.”

Lucky for us, these books don’t.

They’re full of brilliant and often snarky commentary on gender roles, class, inequality, privilege of all kinds,  and what children really take away from fairy tales.

I know what I want my kids to take away—which is why I’m thrilled they love PrinceLESS as much as I do.

Pretty sure you and your kids will, too.

Book Review: Blood Moon

He moved on to the next aisle and found himself in front of a wall hung with sculptures, a theme of hearts: two blackened hearts bound together with rusted chain link, another pair of hearts twisted in barbed wire.

He felt something in his own chest twist at the sight.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Alexandra Sokoloff is one hell of a writer.

The first book in her Huntress/FBI thriller series, Huntress Moon, blew me away, as you can tell from my review.  An eerie merging of the logic and legwork of a police procedural and the intuition and symbolism of magical thinking—something at which the author has always excelled—it unearthed a fundamental connection between an unlikely serial killer and the man charged with tracking her down.

In the second book, that connection is becoming a serious problem.

Blood_Moon_7The last time FBI Special Agent Roarke encountered the Huntress, he not only allowed her to escape, he used the information she supplied to take down her targeted prey.  At odds with his partner, who believes Roarke is becoming far too sympathetic to his quarry, he himself wonders if he’s losing all objectivity when it comes to the woman whose victims are the worst kinds of predator.

But as he and his team design the perfect trap for the Huntress, they find evidence that an old evil has returned after twenty-five years of dormancy, and may strike again during the next full moon—the Blood Moon.  And Roarke must decide whether to arrest the Huntress or work with her to take down the killer whose heinous crimes led Roarke into law enforcement and sent the Huntress into a life controlled by signs, portents, and ruthless murder.

Honestly, it was nearly impossible to set this book aside for mundane things like eating, driving,  and work and if I hadn’t misplaced the charger for my eReader (it’s been a heck of a week all ’round), I wouldn’t have tried to sneak it under the dinner table, too.  As it was, that virus actually came in handy, and I read the last hundred or so pages all at once—whew, what a ride!

This book is so tightly written that I can’t share much without spoiling it further than I have, but I think I can mention an extremely effective technique that I marveled at in the first book:  the switch between Roarke’s past tense and the Huntress’s present tense.  This helped delineate the two characters—his logical piecing together of the past versus her living from moment to intense moment .

This continues in Blood Moon, with one addition: Roarke experiences recurring dreams which are also shown to us in first person.  This not only intensifies those scenes, but brings his viewpoint that much closer to hers.  It’s subtle, but the impact is undeniable . . . and possibly inevitable.

If you haven’t read Huntress Moon—and if not, why not?—I recommend reading that one first.  Though Blood Moon does a good job of dropping information from the first book, it won’t be the same as experiencing it; in my opinion, you need to earn the Huntress’s real name with Roarke and his team and you’d be cheating yourself if you skip.

And I highly recommend reading the first two before the third comes out—because I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen next and I desperately want to know.

That’s a deliciously frustrating place for a reader to be.  Come enjoy it with me.

Book Review: The Trouble with Chickens

My friend Grace is the cataloger at my library, which means that almost every item in the library passes through her hands.  And one of the perks about being friends with catalogers is that they’ll let you know that the latest books in your favorite series have arrived and about any new releases they think you might like.*

Grace has joined the valiant struggle to find something Janie will read, so she sometimes calls down to ask if I want to try this or that book and then put the title in question on hold for me to pick up at the circulation counter.

Last Tuesday, though, she met me at the time clock, handed me a children’s book and said, “Here.  You have to read this.”

“Me?  Or Janie?”

“Both.”  And she started quoting random lines at me.

I can take a hint when it’s handed to me and raved over, so I brought it home.

J.J. Tully is a retired search-and-rescue dog who’s minding his own business  when a hen missing two chicks walks into his doghouse.  All chickens are trouble and this one is crazy, but he agrees to look into the disappearances for a cheeseburger—because this dog doesn’t work for chicken feed.

It seems like an easy enough case, until the mysterious notes start showing up—notes that can only lead to the one place chickens and outside dogs think twice before going: inside the house.

Where a criminal mastermind is plotting within his Cone of Shame . . .

I confess, this book wasn’t an instant hit with my kids:  Janie wasn’t interested, mostly because I was, and Sunny was under the impression that if she ignored me, bedtime would ignore her.    So, I sat on the couch and read the first chapter out loud.

It was short, so I read another one.  Halfway through, I had two kids on either side, their heads interfering with my view as they looked at the illustrations.

“Well?” I said, when I reached the next break.

“One more, please,” Janie said.

“Yeah,” Sunny said.

I stopped at chapter six, but we read the rest of the book the next night.

“Are there any others?” Janie said.

“Yes, but they haven’t been released yet.”

“Get them when they are, please.”

“Yeah,” Sunny said.

So there you go.

Doreen Cronin** didn’t just write a mystery—this is a hard-boiled detective story that could have easily been called the Maltese Leghorn.  The language, cadence, tension, and wry humor are perfect, as are the characters’ expressions in each of Kevin Cornell’s excellent illustrations.  There’s a criminal mastermind and a couple of betrayals and a tired hero narrator who could have easily been played by Bogie.

In fact, with only a little adjustment, you could take out the animals and put in humans—but why on earth would you want to do that?

If you have kids, find this book.  If they’re upwards of seven or eight, they can probably try it on their own, but it makes a great family read.

If you don’t have kids, find this book anyway.

It’s okay—it’s crime fiction.***

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*And that you can be next in line, right after they’re finished reading them all.  Apparently it’s even perkier to be a cataloger, but my brain doesn’t work that way.

**Who also wrote several of our other favorites, including Diary of a Fly (and also of Worm and of Spider, too), Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, and Duck for President.  She’s awesome.

***It would be okay regardless, as I’m sure many of you are jumping to tell me, but others may be laboring under more literary dignity than we, poor souls.