A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. I love antiques, cats, D&D, and vintage Ken. Though my job requires me to dabble across the board genre-wise, my heart belongs to the Victorians and epic fantasy.


I've been writing at least something about everything I read since May of 2010.

Crush, Berrybrook #3 by Svetlana Chmakova

Crush - Svetlana Chmakova

Jorge Ruiz is bigger than most of his classmates, but he uses his powers for good and helps keep the peace in the halls of Berrybrook Middle School, which, despite its utopian-esque levels of diversity and vibrant club-driven atmosphere, still has a bullying problem. Of course it does, because middle school. Anyway, Jorge is a decent guy and loves hanging out with his two best friends, but one day as he's musing about how complicated life is getting with everyone else pairing off and breaking up, he can't get his mind off of Jazmin.


This is a deceptively simple story about crushing, love, and friendship. I have zero criticism. Chmakova has a way of balancing her characters and making a tight story out of the swirling, hormonal chaos that is middle school. She focuses  on a few characters and realistic problems and captures something special. I mean, I hated middle school and yet this made me remember some of those fleeting moments of dizzy happiness. 'Crush' is sweet. I also appreciated how the crisis aspects of the storyline were resolved this time around. In 'Brave' Jensen's problems were solved, but in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth. This felt like a more responsible and realistic way to deal with behavior problems.


Berrybrook Middle School


Next: '?'


Previous: 'Brave'

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Time Quintet #3 by Madeleine L'Engle

A Swiftly Tilting Planet - Madeleine L'Engle

Years have passed since 'A Wind in the Door'. Charles Wallace is a teenager and Meg Murry is the pregnant wife of Calvin O'Keefe. Dramatic changes in her protagonists seems to be one of L'Engle's hallmarks, and with a little research, I see she can go back and forth on a character's age. Much like Gaudior, L'Engle sometimes finds moving through time easier than space.


It is Thanksgiving and the family is gathered together, except for Calvin who is away on business. Calvin' mother, Mrs. O'Keefe, however, is at dinner and a little out of place. During dinner Meg's father receives a phone call from the President saying that nuclear war is imminent based on the threats of a South American dictator. Mrs. O'Keefe responds to this news with a "rune" calling upon heaven's aid to help them in this dark time. Charles Wallace feels the importance of this, and resolves to use the rune to prevent the war.


I may be pushing against the tide here, but this was the most enjoyable one yet. I really struggled with the flatness of 'A Wrinkle in Time'. This novel has some problematic elements, especially with its romancing of Native American culture and its lack of dynamic female characters. For the first charge there is only the defense that L'Engle's People of the Winds were one tribe only, she doesn't say that all Native Americans were "pre-fall" innocents. In the universe of these books, she would have represented all humans, Native American or not, as being that innocent before the Echthroi's corrupting influence touched them. Not the most satisfactory defense, but it works for me.


The second charge against female characters I can say much less about. In this book they are all tools for breeding and marrying except Mrs. O'Keefe providing some critical plot assistance before shuffling off, and Meg Murry providing some kythe-aid while pregnant and in bed. There's not much defensible in that, but I feel Meg has deserved some time with her feet up so it didn't bother my reading.


Anyway, this was entertaining from start to finish, something I couldn't say about the previous two.


Time Quintet


Next: 'Many Waters'


Previous: 'A Wind in the Door'

The Gathering Storm, The Wheel of Time #12 by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson

There was an understandable amount of fanfare around the release of 'The Gathering Storm'. Jordan's death in 2007 left many fans wondering if they would ever see the end of the beloved series. The announcement that Brandon Sanderson would finish the series was a relief - though I had never heard of him - and anticipation began building. 'Knife of Dreams' had began the process of moving the many and varied story-lines back towards the single arc of the march towards the Last Battle. 'The Gathering Storm' reaps the benefit of that with two killer story arcs.



Rand has been trapped in his flesh case of emotion ever since his capture and beating at the hands of Elaida's Aes Sedai. He has been moving ever more towards hardness and retreats further from any hope of a life after confronting the Dark One. As he moves into Arad Doman to head off the Seanchan and attempt to repair the kingdom that has arguably suffered the most at the hands of the Forsaken, he is about to be pushed beyond the brink. Cadsuane, Nynaeve, and Min can do little but watch, and Aviendha is dealing with her own problems and avoids Rand, which probably doesn't help his situation. He has an interesting meeting with Tuon, now at the helm of the Seanchan Empire.


Egwene, however, is one hundred percent winning the game all the time. Her imprisonment in the White Tower continues to work to her advantage. Siuan, Gareth Bryne, and, shockingly, Gawyn along with some back-up singer Aes Sedai POVs lead up to a satisfying climax to the divided White Tower story-line. Just imagine me gushing for several paragraphs. I loved every minute of it.


Plain and simple - this is the best overall book since 'The Shadow Rising', a bit ironic seeing as how the breakout star of that book - Mat Cauthon - is the sole liability of 'The Gathering Storm'.


On my first read of the book when it came out I didn't really notice the discrepancy in Mat's character - he had never been a favorite, and there is too much awesome going on elsewhere in these pages - but on this reread with everything being experienced so close together the difference was glaring.


Sanderson does an excellent job of continuing the story that Jordan left behind, but he's not funny and his attempt to conjure Mat's 'wool-headed' conception of women came off as misogyny rather than charmingly naive. That opening diatribe at the opening appearance of his character was almost painful.


But, I never did mind about the little things.


Wrapping up, there is very little Perrin here - he examines some wagons - and Faile takes care of some business. Thom is with Mat and holding on that letter of his....


The Wheel of Time


Next: 'Towers of Midnight'


Previous: 'New Spring'

The Missing Chums, Hardy Boys #4

The Missing Chums (Hardy Boys, #4) - Walter S. Rogers, Franklin W. Dixon

'The Missing Chums' is the fourth book of the Hardy Boys mysteries and the first released after the simultaneous launch of the first three in 1927. This is a marketing move still used by publishers for some juvenile series. I've also always loved how incredibly outdated the title of this one is, revise THAT Harriet Strathmeyer. Ha.


I never read the revised version of this, likely because of that silly title, but I can imagine this would have been drastically altered after seeing how our boys behave in this round. They put themselves in a great deal of danger, blithely discount the proper authorities until the case is wrapped up in a neat bow, and show a lack of respect to their long-suffering Aunt Gertrude.


I forgot to mention that this title is also the introduction of good ol' Aunt Gertrude, an often tiresome relation, but one who offers a great deal of color to the series and a much needed tonic to the blissful perfection of the rest of the Hardy family.


The mystery here is that shortly after a strange encounter on the waters while testing out Biff Hooper new speedboat (every teen boy in Bayport gets a motorcycle and a speedboat it seems), Chet Morton and Biff go missing! Could they have been lost in that sudden storm, or is it something else? As most of Bayport assumes our two supporting characters are dead, the Hardy Boys refuse to give up, especially when they connect the boys' disappearance with a high profile case Fenton Hardy is working on.


A trip to a snake infested island caps off a so-so mystery, but a good adventure story. Much like in 'The Secret of the Old Mill' I couldn't find anything objectionable enough to merit revision.


Hardy Boys


Next: 'Hunting for Hidden Gold'


Previous: 'The Secret of the Old Mill'

The Secret of the Old Mill, Hardy Boys #3

The Secret of the Old Mill (Hardy Boys, #3) - Franklin W. Dixon, William G. Tapply

The third Hardy Boys mystery begins with the boys being duped by a stranger at the rail station. They change a large bill for him, which turns out to be counterfeit. In the revised edition the brothers would never be so daft, so it was their chubby chum Chet who takes the fall.


Counterfeiting, the boys are informed by their father, is becoming a serious issue in Bayport, and up and down the Eastern seacoast. Mr. Hardy suspects that production may be centered near their own city! Meanwhile, the boys went on a fishing trip and discovered a disused mill is being repaired and put back into business. However, they aren't interested in Chet's father's business as their rates for milling are outrageous. A theory is floated about that they're developing a new breakfast cereal and are understandably hush-hush about it. Meanwhile they befriend the lonely young boy (after saving his life, natch) who lives tat the mill, and try to pump him for information. The biggest development is the boys finally getting a sweet motorboat for their very own, and naming it the 'Sleuth'.


There are some interesting chase scenes and additional character studies, but while the original 'Secret of the Old Mill' is superior writing, the mystery was too thin to recommend it very much. The revised book tried jazzing up the story with cleverly delivered threatening notes to the Hardy's, but also fails to gel. The original gets three and a half stars for fun slang and period details circa 1927.


Hardy Boys


Next: 'The Missing Chums'


Previous: 'The House on the Cliff'




The House on the Cliff, Hardy Boys #2

The House on the Cliff (Hardy Boys, #2) - Franklin W. Dixon, Leslie McFarlane

At last! I've been collecting the vintage, unrevised Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels and after a few bites decided to wait and read them in order, but it took me forever to find the second book for either series. After a lucky visit to Providence R.I.'s Cellar Stories bookstore I found 'The House on the Cliff' and I'm back in business.


I read the later, revised edition years and years ago, but didn't feel a need to read it again. Reading the original brought back to me enough of the more ridiculous elements that were added to soften the objectionable edges of the original.


In this story, the brothers and a few of their best chums are out for an extended ride on their motorcycles. For a lark they decide to check out the gloomy, abandoned house on the cliff and see if the rumors of hauntings are true. There's a bit of a frightful episode and the boys flee the house. Later, the boys witness two speeding motor boats, one is blown up and a man left for dead. The boys make a daring rescue.


This triggers an interesting investigation into jewel smuggling (drugs in the later book), disappearing fathers, and lots and lots of bullets. Problematic elements included those bullets and the boys cheerfully loading their firearms, unrepentant thugs, and bumbling and lazy policemen. Actual horribleness is Frank using a colloquial racist expression (top of page 77 if you're curious) and, of course, a sinister Chinese man named Li Chang who sure would like 3 white men in his power. Joe's response is merely that he "doesn't want to go to China." Haha.


The racist elements needed to go, but the revised edition takes away over 20 pages. Descriptions are changed, authority figures become above reproach, and the Hardy Boys have a minimum involvement with undesirables. The main villain, a hardened, if naive, criminal whose only fault was lusting after Fenton Hardy's pledge to leave him alone is revised into a sad sack who is just misunderstood and wants to reform himself and turn the House on the Cliff into a home for kids who ain't learned so good.


The mystery itself wasn't as solid as 'The Tower Treasure', that and the old timey racism knocks the stars down to three and a half.


The Hardy Boys


Next: 'The Secret of the Old Mill'


Previous: 'The Tower Treasure'

The Bloodprint, Khorasan Archives #1 by Ausma Zehanet Khan

The Bloodprint - Ausma Zehanat Khan

Here's another fantasy I wanted to love, but it fell flat.


'The Bloodprint' launches the reader into a world torn apart by conflicting ideologies. The forces of The Talisman, led by a mysterious entity known as the One-Eyed Preacher, conquer more lands every year, subjugating women and selling them as slaves, and burning libraries and banning scholarly pursuits. Few seem able to stand against them, but an order of women known as the Companions of Hira may have a chance against Talisman forces.


We meet Arian and her friend/apprentice Sinnia in the opening pages breaking up a slave chain. Arian is First Oralist of the Companions and a master of the Claim. The Claim is magic derived from memorized lines passed down from a sacred text unseen for centuries. Its words offer comfort and power to their wielders. Arian has lost her family to the Talisman and fears she can trust only a few, even other members of her order are suspect. Thankfully it seems she is super bad-ass and powerful and can do just about anything she wants, until she can't. Khan shows us Arian at the height of her strength and early on has her accomplish a nigh-impossible task and collects an artifact of Extreme Importance. We know this because we are told so.


I wanted to like this more, but on the whole I couldn't get into the deeper mysteries or lore of this fantasy universe because Khan started us at the top. She may have wanted to skip the cliché of the humble beginning and get to the good stuff, but Arian ends up becoming more of a Mary-Sue than a strong woman of fantasy. We see little peaks of her training, but its too little, too late.


Supporting characters and subplots, Sinnia especially, seemed underdeveloped and I would have liked to have spent more time with her as something other than Second Prettiest Girl in the Room.


I don't know, Khan is on to something here, and I like the trend in genre fiction this diverse, female-centric title represents, but the execution fell short of where it needed to be.


Khorasan Archive


Next: 'The Black Khan'

A Wind in the Door, Time Quintet #2 by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wind in the Door - Madeleine L'Engle

It took awhile for me to warm to this book, but in the end I liked it better than 'A Wrinkle in Time'. Why? I liked that L'Engle was writing more in the open about science, and about faith, and the hocus-pocus that comes about when you put the two together. I mean that in the best way possible. It worked for the story, and for Meg, who really shines here.


Meg is a girl who was portrayed as troubled and a little at odds with the world outside of her family. Only by comparison with Charles Wallace does she seem able to get along at all. This book being about Charles Wallace's struggle to adapt was fitting.


I was on the fence about reading more of these - I never did as a kid - but now I'm confidant that I'll keep going.


Time Quintet


Next: 'A Swiftly Tilting Planet'


Previous: 'A Wrinkle in Time'

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces - Katherine Arden

Every once and awhile I need to read a middle grade novel that doesn't bother the fussy, persnickety man I've become. It often seems when I'm reading books meant for kids that I'm being too particular, that not all books can be 'Harriet the Spy' or 'Stepping on the Cracks', deceptively simple stories that leave the reader open to the possibilities of fiction.


Will 'Small Spaces' become a classic? I don't know, but its a supremely effective scary story with few, if any, of the pitfalls I often find in modern kiddie stories.


Ollie has recently lost her mother and has had trouble reconnecting. School has become difficult, her father doesn't have all the answers, and books are the only places where she feel a little good about things. Unfortunately the books she likes don't seem to have any girls in them, but she's willing to put up with that.


One day she stumbles upon a distraught woman about to throw a book into the river. Ollie rescues it and runs away, ignoring the woman's warnings. Its an old book, about a smiling man who grants wishes for a price....


Ollies school is headed on a field trip to a local farm that has recently become prosperous, but has rumors of a dark history. On the way home the bus stalls by cornfield filled with scarecrows, and the strange bus driver warns them to get moving before nightfall. That 'they' are coming. Only Ollie and two others head into the woods, but there adventure is only beginning.


This was fun to read and I think kids will respond to Ollie, who is different in a real way from her peers as opposed to the quirky manufactured heroines that populate much of YA. The problems and puzzles that beset Ollie and her companions are scary to contemplate, but surmountable. Young me would have loved it, and older me approves.



The Show Must Go On, Backstagers # 2 by Rian Sygh

The Backstagers, Vol. 2: The Show Must Go On - James Tynion  IV, Rian Sygh

The heart of this one is an arc that seems to have been pared down and tweaked to be made into 'Ghost Light'. It was a touching story, but it failed to make the impression on me, it likely would have it I had read this before the novel.


The novel, by comparison, would then have made me a little angry. Oh well, competing branches of franchises will often rob from each other.


Jory and co. are driven to investigate deeper into the mysteries of the backstage then ever before, uncovering old heartache and meeting up with their counterparts from another school. This volume also addresses directly the possibility that time gets pretty messed up deep in the backstage and its possible to go missing for months when you only thought you'd been gone a few hours. Not the most comforting of thoughts.


Oh, and Jory and Hunter have confirmed their couple status, but there was so little build up it was more confusing than joyous. Have I forgotten how easily that happened in high school or was that a little weird?


The Backstagers


Next: 'Volume 3'


Previous: 'Rebels Without Applause'

Rebels Without Applause, Backstagers # 1 by Rian Sygh

The Backstagers Vol. 1 - Rian Sygh,  James Tynion IV

After discovering the tie-in novel for this series, I sought the comic out. I was 100% in this for Jory and Hunter, and I got it, but it felt a trifle underdeveloped.


Jory has transferred to the all-boys school St. Genesius and is forced by his mother to join an after school program to make friends and keep him out of trouble while she works late at her new job. Jory is reluctant, but decides to join Drama Club. Confronted with some serious flake behavior, he retreats backstage and runs head over heels into crazy supernatural business.


The backstage is connected to an eerie, fascinating and often dangerous world of magic, rivers of psychedelic paint, and rumors of lost stage crews. But those are just stories, right? Hah! Jory joins veteran Backstagers Hunter, a whiz carpenter and shameless flirt; Beckett, mad lighting genius; Sasha, comic relief and loveableish klutz; Aziz, besties with Sasha and generally the one questioning any hi-jinks going on; and then there's the Stage Managers, two guys trying to keep a handle on things and get through their senior year intact - effectively non-entities, but they're in love, so....


This first volume mostly fleshes out the premise, but I have hopes for the rest of the series.


The Backstagers


Next: 'The Show Must Go On'

The Ghost Light, Backstagers Novels #1 by Andy Mientus

The Backstagers and the Ghost Light - Andy Mientus, Rian Singh

This was a fun, accidental read. It arrived damaged as I was unpacking items for Tuesday release and when the publisher said they didn't want it back it went home in my purse briefcase.


I hadn't heard of the comic book, but this did inspire me to order a set for myself and for the store. The premise is that the stage crew at an all-boys prep school are actually privy to the mysterious and dangerous world of the Backstage. Behind every curtain there is a magical world where many strange things can be found. Where did you think the sets and costumes and props come from anyway?


I was in drama club in high school - we were too small to have anything like a dedicated stage crew, we took turns and making the sets and props was part of the fun of hanging out after school with your friends. Blocking and learning lines were mostly secondary.


The novel purposely reintroduces the main cast and their relationships with each other, spelling out some of the mischief that's gone on in the comics. We have two gay couples, a trans boy with an incurable crush on the girl brought in to star in the seasonal musicals, some brosephs, and a supernatural invasion brought about by the breaking of the stage's 'ghost light' - the light backstage that is perpetually burning to keep away spirits.


If there was some shallowness to the whole enterprise, I blamed it on the fact that this was a novel following on the heels of a comic book franchise, and that the deep characterization would be present there.


It turns out, not so much, as the comic is done in pretty broad strokes (with even more queer behavior (yay)) but I still enjoyed this.


The Backstagers


Next: 'The Backstagers and the Theater of the Ancients'


Previous: 'The Backstagers Comic - Rebels Without Applause'

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

The Motion of Puppets - Keith Donohue

I could have saved myself a lot of time if I had known from the start of this that 'The Motion of Puppets' was a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.


This was a bizarre novel, Kay falls in love with a puppet standing in a closed-up Antique Doll store she passes on her way home every day. One night, returning home by herself she sees a light in the window and investigates. She awakens in the body of a puppet and must abide by the strange rules and customs of the other puppets she meets there.


Meanwhile, Kay's husband is frantic to find out where she's been. His work, a translation of a biography of a pioneering photographer, is put aside and in the face of increase suspician from the police and estrangement from old friends and colleagues, he tries to find her.


There were interesting character studies here, and a decidedly creepy aesthetic with the use of the puppets and the mythological elements. I hated the ending, however. It cut short the momentum of the story and left little room for resolution. I can handle a 'bad' or a 'sad' ending, but I need more than what Donohue was offering.

Wildcard, Warcross #2 by Marie Lu

Wildcard - Marie Lu

I liked 'Warcross', it was a nice sf thriller for youngish readers with a bit of romance and future nihilism thrown in. I liked the twist.


'Wildcard' promises to be more of the same and it wraps up loose ends nicely, but I couldn't get back into the flow. For one thing, the gaming wasn't as central here, and I'll be the first to say that Quidditch was my least favorite thing about 'Harry Potter', here it added important flavor and the supporting characters around the game colored the book. I missed them here. I mean, they showed up, they were present, but they were very much a sideline job even when individual teammates were actually doing important plot things.


Anyway, the plot revolves around Chen's bargaining with Zero, the shadowy terrorist behind the shenanigans in Warcross and her decision whether or not to help him shut down the neurolink that her ex-love interest is going to use to mind-control the population into obeying the law.


I liked it enough, it just didn't spark the imagination.




Next: Seems pretty wrapped up to me.


Previous: 'Warcross'

Sawkill Girls, #1 by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls - Claire Legrand

The girls of Sawkill Island have been preyed on for decades, even centuries, and no one wants to talk about it.


Marion and her sister have been brought to Sawkill by their mother when she gets a new job as housekeeper for a prestigious family. If not all of the homes are large, they're all well cared for and the air is filled with money and the lawns with horses. Marion has been the steady one in the family, the rock her mother and sister lean on ever since their father died.


Zoey's father is the sheriff and she mourns her best friend, the latest in a seemingly long line of girls going missing. She blames Val, the popular girl who seems to have had a relationship with latest girls to vanish. She can't prove it, so she's watching and waiting.


Val has the perfect, shallow life screwing around with dumb boys and leading innocent girls to sacrifice. Yeah, Legrand doesn't try to keep that a secret. Val has been taught from early childhood by her mother, and her grandmother before her, to do whatever IT wants her to do. To resist is futile, etc. The problem is she starts developing feelings for the girl the monster seems to want. What's a girl to do?


The premise could have worked, but the story falls flat and the cartoonish misogyny of the demon hunters (oh yeah, there are demon hunters) does little but add to the message of girl power Legrand seems to be trying to espouse here. I found that hard to believe with the focus on the appearances of the girls and the limp excuses as to how so many disappearances could have been tolerated for so long. No one, male or female, seems to do much thinking in this book except for Zoey and she gets co-opted pretty quick by the white girls. Eh.


Sawkill Girls


Next: 'Volume 2'

The Collectors, #1 by Jacqueline West

The Collectors - Jacqueline West

FIrst of all, the good.


The squirrel was funny, and I liked the fact that our protagonist was a boy who's hard of hearing.


That's about it. The premise here is that there is a hidden world just below our own, in some cases literally. WIshes - true wishes are made under certain circumstances such as on a coin thrown into a fountain or in the breath blowing out a birthday candle - can come true with the help of a species of magical creature. These wishes can, obviously, be dangerous and have serious consequences, so there is a group of people, known as collectors, who collect these wishes and make sure they don't come true.


West makes a good attempt at covering the moral grey areas from a child's point of view, but the story never came together for me. It came off as a little slap-dashed, and I'm not looking forward to a sequel.


The Collectors


Next: 'Volume 2'



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