Saturday, June 24, 2017

Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet and Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace is the fourth book in the Sin du Jour series about a catering company that caters to supernatural clients with menus right out of fantasy and folklore. While I am not wild about the swearing and the rampant sexual weirdness that happens in the novels, I really appreciate Wallace's ability to create characters who are engaging and fascinating and completely unique. Here's the blurb:
Catering for a charismatic motivational speaker, the staff of the Sin du Jour catering agency find themselves incapacitated by a force from within their ranks. A smile and a promise is all it took.
And for some reason, only the men are affected. It’s going to take cunning, guile and a significant amount of violence to resolve.
Another day of cupcakes and evil with your favorite demonic caterers. Publisher's Weekly: After the terrifying events of Pride’s Spell, the Sin du Jour gang (New York–based caterers to the supernatural), and especially Lena Tarr, are still reeling. In fact, it’s been over a month since Lena left the apartment she shared with her friend Darren and took a job at a diner called the Ugly Quesadilla. When Sin du Jour’s head honcho, Bronko Luck, tracks her down and tells her that she and all of the Sin du Jour gang are still in danger, she reluctantly returns. Meanwhile, the Sceadu, a shadow government for the supernatural community, is choosing a new president, and Sin du Jour has been hired to cater an event for one presidential hopeful. When prickly new coordinator Luciana Monrovio steps in and Jett Hollinshead is pushed out, Lena starts noticing the crew acting very strangely around Luciana. It’s time to get back in the game, even if it kills her. This story is darker and a bit more serious than previous installments. Wallace’s imagination is still as wonderfully twisted as ever, and the cliff-hanger ending will have fans eager for more.
SPOILER, Luciana's actually a succubus, while the "human" candidate for president of the Sceadu is an incubus, her mortal enemy, so you can just imagine the characters getting caught in the crossfire, all while trying to "wake up" the men of Sin du Jour, who are under Luciana's spell. Like all the SdJ books, Idle Ingredients is under 200 pages and tightly written with a zesty plot full of adventure. Reading these books is like indulging in some delicious appetizers that you can't get enough of. A solid A, with a recommendation to anyone who enjoys books about food and the supernatural.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber was yet another book recommended to me as somewhat similar to the Night Circus, which I loved, or the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. Unfortunately, it's really nothing like either of those novels, though I could understand mistaking it for Night Circus because the Caraval is a magical carnival with a mystery at it's heart. Here's the blurb: Whatever you've heard about Caraval, it doesn't compare to the reality. It's more than just a game or a performance. It's the closest you'll ever find to magic in this world . . .
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever. Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away.
The characters in the book aren't really good people, underneath it all, which bothered me a great deal as I read the book. Certainly Scarlett and Donatella's father is truly an evil, cruel and abusive man who kills, maims or beats anyone who gets in his way, and he uses Tella as a punching bag to keep her older sister Scarlett in line, which is probably why his wife left him, though his daughters can't seem to understand this. Scarlett is a huge whiner and a wimp, who believes in doing whatever her father tells her so she can marry some man she's never met and "save" herself and her sister by moving in with him. Tella, however, isn't taking the abuse of their father anymore, so she runs off with a handsome "sailor" who drugs Scarlett and takes her with him to Caraval, where he's played "the game" before, to win a "wish" from Legend, the master of ceremonies for Caraval. Scarlett whinges and whines her way through the game, then freaks out when her father and some nasty older man, her fiance whom her father has literally sold her to, appear and try to capture the girls and force them to do what he wants for his own gain. But all is not as it seems, and when Tella kills herself (no one ever really dies during Caraval) Scarlett suddenly grows a spine and tells her father she will report his crimes unless he leaves and never comes back. Suddenly, Scarlett sees him as "an old bully" and nearly forgives him for selling her and tying her to a bed so that her fiance could rape her. I found that disturbing and disgusting, and unrealistic. All ends well, however, except for a final letter that hints at a sequel, which I won't be reading. I'd give this book a B-, mostly for the decent prose and fast plot, but I wouldn't recommend it to those who loved the Night Circus, which was a far superior novel. 

The Murdstone Trilogy by the late Mal Peet is billed as a humorous satire on genre writers, and while there were some lovely moments of British-style dry humor, I found the protagonist to be more pathetic than funny. Here's the blurb:  
Award-winning YA author Philip Murdstone is in trouble. His star has waned. The world is leaving him behind. His agent, the ruthless Minerva Cinch, convinces him that his only hope is to write a sword-and-sorcery blockbuster. Unfortunately, Philip—allergic to the faintest trace of Tolkien—is utterly unsuited to the task. In a dark hour, a dwarfish stranger comes to his rescue. But the deal he makes with Pocket Wellfair turns out to have Faustian consequences.Publisher's Weekly: Philip Murdstone has written five quiet books in the “Sensitive Dippy Boy genre,” which his agent—the curvaceous, ferocious Minerva Cinch—insists he must abandon if he (or, more importantly, she) is ever to make any money. “You may be perfectly content in your badgery little cottage living on poached mice and hedge fruit,” she tells him, “but my tastes run a little richer.” Cinch wants high fantasy, “Tolkien with knobs on,” and she even draws him a hilarious template (on the back of a page from Murdstone’s most recently submitted manuscript): “mock-Shakespearean without the rhyming bits.... Bags of capital letters.” Murdstone has no aptitude for this, but Peet is certainly up to the task, alternating the writer’s story with a summary of the epic fantasy he produces after a fateful (and highly drunken) encounter on the moor with a dwarfish creature named Pocket Wellfair. Whether the story Murdstone turns in is actually his or he is merely taking dictation from Wellfair will depend on what readers conclude about Murdstone’s sanity/sobriety. Either way, the fantasy is a big hit, which means Murdstone has to come up with the next book in the trilogy—quick. The novel was published for adults in the U.K., and it’s easy to see why: there isn’t a teenage character in sight, and the concerns—about career, reputation, parochialism, and looming bankruptcy—are all adult, too. Regardless, Peet’s book is enormous fun, especially for those familiar with the literary conventions it skewers, and it’s a brilliant valedictory for the author, who died in March of 2015. 
Things end so badly for poor Murdstone, left to his demons in a fancy insane asylum, but I couldn't feel a wealth of compassion for him as he was too much like the cliche of a teenage boy, always drooling over women's breasts, goggling over his crush on Minerva, his agent, who is a cold and ruthless woman who wouldn't even consider going out on a romantic date with someone as messy and weird as Murdstone (it's obvious she's only using him for monetary and political gain), and never really getting the hang of writing this epic fantasy book that he's agreed to produce because he's too much of a wuss to say NO to Minerva. There are many bathroom and flatulence jokes, discussion of genitals, lots of drunken ridiculousness and almost incomprehensible British dialects/accents used when swearing or describing the hideous people of the town where Murdstone resides...all very immature and inappropriate for a supposedly grown man. I was disappointed and disgusted with this supposed satire, but I prefer humor that isn't quite so sophomoric and moronic. I'd give it a C, and recommend it to those who find teenage boy "gross out" humor amusing.

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis is the book that my Library Book Group is discussing in July. It was recommended by a member of the group as funny and delightful, and I found it to be neither. Here's the blurb:  
Millie Bird, seven years old and ever hopeful, always wears red gumboots to match her curly hair. Her struggling mother, grieving the death of Millie's father, leaves her in the big ladies' underwear department of a local store and never returns. United at this fateful moment with two octogenarians seekers, she embarks with them upon a road trip to find Millie's mother. Together they will discover that old age is not the same as death, that the young can be wise, and that letting yourself feel sad once in a while just might be the key to a happy life. Millie, the abandoned child (her mother is plain evil, in my opinion, for leaving her child in a store and never coming back) befriends Karl, the typist whose fingers were partially amputated when he pawed and cried over his dead wife's body like a crazy person and the lid to her coffin slammed shut on his hand. Karl keeps escaping the nursing home and the police, because he's always stealing something weird, like typewriter keys and mannequins, or doing something weirder because he's a creepy old guy who still seems to want to have sex with every woman he sees. Agatha is Millie's neighbor and, since her husband died, she's become something of a hermit and a judgemental, nasty old woman who shouts cruel things at everyone she meets. Millie is no better, doing crazy things like writing signs all over the department store so her mother can find her, even when it is apparent that her mother is never coming back for her. She's also obsessed with death and dead things. She tells an entire train full of people that they're all going to die, and she keeps a morbid list of dead things she's seen. She insists that Karl and Agatha help her get to the place where she's sure her mother is staying and somehow waiting for her.  Unfortunately, they never get there, and afterAgatha and Karl finally hook up, leaving poor Millie alone again, there is panic as they try to find her and rescue her from a cliff jump with the mannequin.Then we learn via one paragraph that 10 years late Karl and Agatha die, and Millie speaks at their funeral. We also learn that she had a husband and two grown children when she died. And that's all Ms Davis sees fit to tell readers who have tried to understand what is going on in this dreadfully morbid book with it's insane characters. I found myself wishing desperately for some sort of anti depressant to be handed out like candy for all three characters, who are manic and depressive and a danger to themselves and others. Why bother with the road trip at all if we never get to where Millie's mom is, or even learn where she went and why she isn't being held accountable for abandoning a child. None of this is at all humorous or delightful, and I wish I'd never read it Lost & Found, because no one is ever truly found here. I'd give the book a C, and only recommend it to someone who isn't depressed easily. 

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