A Man With A Spooky 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 write something about every book I read, but only publish reviews close to the release date of the book. If you see something on my shelves and there's no review, feel free to ask me about it!

Who Won Second Place at Omaha? by Diane Kagan

Who Won Second Place at Omaha? - Diane Kagan

Diane Kagan is an actress with a long history on the stage and a respectable amount of appearances in film and television. She is also, evidence this book, completely fucking crazy. This was published by Random House for chrissakes. What was going on in 1975?

"Who Won Second Place at Omaha?" is a surreal journey through a private house/museum filled with dolls and puppets and mannequins. It is a showcase for a series of black and white photographs depicting dolls ranked on shelves and staircases, in cabinets, in pieces, in looming clusters, and pressed against window panes. The narration is in vignettes and is sheer lunacy.


We were visiting a friend's bookstore and he greeted us by saying he had something for my husband - something completely creepy. I was expecting either an ordinary doll collector's book, because everyone thinks all dolls are creepy, or some twee faux-macabre art book.


Nope. It was this.


Our narrator greets visitors at the door - all persons are off-camera - and reassures them that they have the right time. It takes so long to come up from the workshop, you understand. The voice is mostly this host/collector explaining the various personalities of the dolls and cryptically commenting every so often about a stray second place award ribbon from Omaha. Who does it belong to? Everyone is a winner here....


We never do find out who this particular winner is, perhaps the Jumeau from the cover, but we do hear many tales of woe - laments about loneliness, missing arms, abandonment anxieties, and decaying clothing. Some are happy - Raggedy Ann and Andy are just fine in their plastic bags - suffocation is not a problem for them the narrator assures you. They've been lying there for five years and haven't said a word.


The photographs are often stunning and the collection itself is impressive, with many photos of rare and obscure items arranged in an interesting fashion. The text is gleefully demented, but it may not impress anyone who isn't also a doll hoarder like my husband. He was in tears from laughing over this thing.


In his words: "Every. line. exposes her psychosis more. This is amazing. This is insane."

Flight of the Dying Sun, Heirs of Ash #2 by Rich Wulf

Flight of the Dying Sun - Rich Wulf

So this was an enjoyable enough parade through Eberron, the quest is sufficiently high stakes, and the characters are beginning to come into sharper focus. However, that focus is all sneers, and I just can't reward that kind of behavior.


Wulf relies heavily on sneering. Characters sneer at each other when they make witty ripostes, when they mock each other, when they monologue, when they accept a plate of stew for dinner. Even when it seems like a nice, friendly conversation, a sneer creeps in.


On top of that, this trilogy is riddled with typographic errors: words repeated, words omitted, words misused - the best being a flag described as hanging 'limpidly' in 'Voyage'. The flag was translucent? Is this some magician's trick? I expect errors in these tie-in, mass market books, but there are so many errors.


Another potential issue is that 'Flight of the Dying Sun' makes heavy use of flashbacks, but with little warning and without the usual narrative tricks that signal the reader to what's going - a little bit of white space is mostly all we get.


I was surprised, in a good way, that we got as open and candid an explanation as one could ask for about the Day of Mourning - the magical event that left the entire nation of Cyre dead and surrounded in mist - as I thought that was going to be a deep secret forever. This doesn't have to be canon, many DMs will continue to offer alternative explanations in game, but it was nice to have an answer laid out like that.


Another book will round out the trilogy, let's hope people start smiling, or even grinning.


Heirs of Ash


Next: 'Rise of the Seventh Sun'


Previous: 'Voyage of the Mourning Dawn'

Voyage of the Mourning Dawn, Heirs of Ash #1 by Rich Wulf

Voyage of the Mourning Dawn - Rich Wulf

Seren Morisse left home after her father at the end of the Last War. The stipend from the Brelish government was only enough to keep her mother, so she left home for the capitol and didn't look back. As a young woman Wroat with no real training she had few options, but she discovered she had a talent for stealing. She fell in with an old man, Jamus, who needed a young accomplice and taught her the trade. When a risky job backfires and Jamus is murdered by their employer, Seren joins the Cannith Guildmaster she robbed and his small crew on an airship seeking out the lost Legacy of Ashrem d'Cannith - an avowed pacifist and genius artificer who claimed he was working on something that could change the future of Khorvaire and all of Eberron.


'Voyage of the Mourning Dawn' follows Seren and the crew of the 'Karia Naille' as they seek to discover the whereabouts of the Legacy and what exactly it is. Others, particularly a sinister changeling named Marth, are seeking the Legacy, too.


This was a decent start to a trilogy, but I haven't fallen in love with any of the characters yet. Seren remains a cypher despite a lot of time spent with her, and the rest of the cast is only given a brush of characterization. The villain Marth is given enough time that the reader has some doubts about how villainous he actually is. Eberron is a setting that deliberately blurs the often rigid lines of good and evil in Dungeons and Dragons.


This is the first long-format (more than one book) storyline that I've read in Eberron since the first trilogy and I'm hoping to get a little deeper into some Eberron lore. The next book promises a meatier flashback of the 'Day of Mourning' when the nation of Cyre was swallowed up by a magical terrorist attack (or industrial accident?), so that should be good.


Heirs of Ash


Next: 'Flight of the Dying Sun'

Bound by Iron, Inquisitives #1 by Edward Bolme

Bound By Iron - Edward Bolme

'The Inquisitives' is a series of standalone Eberron novels, much like 'The War-Torn', that share thematic elements. In this case, instead of characters permanently altered by war, we're focusing on mysteries. Inquisitives are the detectives of Eberron, investigating crimes for money or for subtle reasons of their own.


'Bound by Iron' begins with a young girl in Karrnath being extorted by a dwarf claiming to be a member of a legendary troop of fighters. As proof he displays an iron band about his arm. The crime is stopped by an actual veteran of that company, Cimozjen. 


Cimozjen is a paladin of Dol Dorn and discovers the arm band belonged to a colleague, Torval, who he thought dead in a battle years previous. With the help of unscrupulous chronicler Minrah (a freelance journalist) he recovers the body and they start an investigation into what happened to Torval after he became a prisoner. This opens up into a conspiracy around other prisoners of war who were never released from custody - against the terms of the treaty ending the Last War. In the investigation they are joined by a warforged who was sold into gladiatorial slavery (warforged are constructs created for battle, but by the terms of the Treaty of Thronehold they were acknowledged as free persons) and must adjust to a life outside of the arena. 


The book periodically flashes back to Cimozjen's activities in the war, his bond with his fellow soldiers, and especially his friendship with Torval and why the paladin would risk so much to discover what happened. 


Bolme is a good writer, his 'Orb of Xoriat' was very good too, he provides a lot of action, convincing fight scenes, and understands the character of the world he's writing in. I really liked his treatment of Cimozjen as the old veteran seeking justice and his dynamic with the naïve warforged Fighter/Four was always charming. However, particularly with the character of Minrah, there were some big problems with the novel as a whole. Minrah is young in years for an elf, but despite her brilliance of observation she wasn't very useful or interesting, tending to flee from confrontation or huddle behind the others. The book also ends in an abrupt way - tying up most loose ends to be sure - but not in a way that makes me satisfied. This is the only appearance of Cimozjen and the warforged known as Four and that's too bad.


There is a lot going on in Eberron, but its steam-punk, noir aesthetic is what really sets it apart from other campaign settings like 'Forgotten Realms' or 'Dragonlance'. I liked the idea of a series that might evoke noir classics from Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It's not a genre I've read much of - those two authors are pretty much it - but I'm hoping for some more of that flavor once we get into Halloween Bingo.


The Inquisitives


Next: 'Night of Long Shadows'

Fables, Vol. 8: Wolves

Fables, Vol. 8: Wolves - Shawn McManus, Andrew Pepoy, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Bill Willingham

It's been over two years since I broke off reading 'Fables' because I'd reached the end of my library's collection. A chance spotting at a used bookstore allowed me to snag the next two books in line.


There are couple of hanging plot threads I need to reacquaint myself with, but this was a great collection and I'm sad it took me so long to get to it. The main plot is, of course, Mowgli tracking down Bigby and bringing him back to Fabletown for a special mission. That mission is awesome.


I also liked the Cloud Kingdom subplot that brought more intrigue into play - and I love Cinderella. 


There's not much else I can say, since I don't want to spoil anything. Its hard to believe that this story isn't even halfway through - not even counting the spinoffs. Worth checking out and worth the wait.




Next: 'Sons of Empire'


Previous: 'Arabian Nights (and Days)'

The Great Airport Mystery, Hardy Boys #9

The Great Airport Mystery (Hardy Boys, #9) - Franklin W. Dixon

Frank and Joe are out for a ride in their new coupe, they intend to have a look at the new airport being built outside of Bayport. Suddenly, a plane come swooping down, erratically, and starts heading right for them! It's only with quick thinking and a lucky turn that the boys get out of the plane's way before it crashes on the road.


They help the pilot out of the wreckage only to be accused of causing the crash! The boys are upset and, helped by the plane being an air-mail carrier, coverage of the dispute gets into the papers. Aunt Gertrude was not available for comment, but she would have had some harsh words to say about this kind of scandal.


This is only the beginning. The boys are about the graduate high school, that is, they will if they can get the marks they need on their examinations. A decision has to be made about their futures, too. What happens after high school? There's a lot at stake as thefts begin occurring at the airport and the Hardy Boys are in it up to their necks. 


The mystery and adventure here, as usual, come second place to me to the surrounding character and feel of the book. This book is just as much about the Hardys confronting the end of high school, the break-up of their friend group, and thoughts of the future as it is about air-mail theft. This is well-travelled ground, but the "gang" getting together to plan a Class Picnic as one last hurrah together before real life sets in brought back some good memories. A nice addition to my pet theory of Chet + Biff = Love was Chet's initial objection to inviting the girls because "he didn't care for girls". He got over his objection once he was reminded who was doing the baking! 


If the above plot sounds confusing, it's because this was another novel that was completely over-hauled in the early 1960s for no good reason. I suppose the wonder of aviation had grown thin in thirty years? The revision involves the boys jetting off to the Caribbean and Montana and thwarting thieves from within a mining company...it's a little much if you ask me. I don't recall, but at what point do they send the boys back to high school? I read 'What Happened at Midnight' early on in my renewed interest in this series, but that was a summer book and still floated the idea that the boys may be forced into college. Admissions must have been a whole lot simpler in 1930.


Hardy Boys


Next: 'What Happened at Midnight'


Previous: 'The Mystery of Cabin Island'

High Tide, Fear Street Super Chiller #12

High Tide - R.L. Stine

A plot with genuine surprises and my admiration for some totally legitimate psychiatric practices combats with my absolute disgust for the relationship dynamics present in 'High Tide' makes for a noice Super Chiller! I remember the Super Chiller's being, uh, bigger, but its literally 16 more pages. Was the Super part, the Maturity of the protagonists? Everyone's in college and living in apartments or rented cottages with roommates. 


Adam can't stop thinking about how his girlfriend Mitzi drowned last summer, and about how it was all his fault. He's haunted by vivid nightmares of that fateful water scooter ride and awake he has hallucinations of missing limbs, phantom scooters, and dead girls. For some reason he and his doctor still feel he's adequate as a lifeguard at Logan Beach....


Another lifeguard and erstwhile buddy is Sean, who is violently jealous about his "girlfriend" Alyce, whose every word and gesture indicates she wants nothing to do with him. He entertains Adam with a story about how he once almost beat a guy to death for going out with his girl after a slow campaign of escalating threats. He tells Adam to not look at Alyce again. Fun guy.


Adam's current girlfriend is Leslie, who has some anger problems of her own, albeit a trifle more legitimate. She totally freaks out when Adam breaks a date with her, saying he isn't feeling well, being mentally ill and all, and she sees him holding hands with some floozy from the beach. She should really just calm down.


Rounding out the main cast is Adam's womanizer roommate Ian who consistently borrows all of Adam's clothes, his car, and doesn't buy groceries. But, he doesn't complain too much when Adam's screams wake him up in the night, so he's a keeper.

There are a couple of fellow Shadyside alums, Joy and Raina, who show up on the beach for a good time and then there's TV Psychiatrist Dr Thall who has been working with Adam for a year on those nightmares and may resort to some experimental treatments....


No one in this book deserves to be in the horrific, toxic relationship hell they are in. It was stunning. Sean's behavior is supposed to be disturbing, but where Stine ends up going with it....wow. The 1990s were not that long ago, but a whole lot more was tolerable. I enjoyed the insane plot twists, but its the couples that will keep me up at night. This should really get five batshit stars, but I just can't.


Fear Street Super Chiller


Next: 'Cheerleaders: The Evil Lives!'


Previous: 'Silent Night 3'

Truth or Dare, Fear Street #28

Truth or Dare - R.L. Stine

April sure is glad she sat next to Dara in that science lab. She doesn't know Dara that well, she only just moved to Shadyside, but she's loaded. She invited April to come to her family's ski cabin for the weekend - vacation cabins are, like, the number one murder sites but ok - and allowed April to invite Jenny and Ken, too. Jenny and Ken are the most beautiful people April has ever seen, they're so amazing, but she's sick of them making out in front of her all the time. In the limo that was sent to pick them up, is also Dara's friend Josh, who is cute in a nerdy way.


Dara meets them at the cabin - but it turns out Dara's parents couldn't make it! Also, Dara's family apparently shares the cabin with another family and their son Tony and his girlfriend Carly Rae are there by mistake, but have already made out in every room. Dara's none to pleased, but decides to make the best of mixed company with a little party game.


There are few shockingly over the top reactions to the truths that are shared, but other than April admitting she knows something she doesn't want to know, it all seems innocuous until the horror begins the next morning!


This brings us back to standard thriller territory, but I liked how April not only had some mean comments about everyone in her head, but totally took charge of the situation in-between freaking out about that murder stuff. At one point she leads the interrogation of the suspect, coolly making herself a cup of coffee before sitting down at the table. Right on April, but readers will have to find out for themselves if you can survive.


Fear Street


Next: 'Dead End'


Previous: 'Wrong Number 2'

The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

The Swallows - Lisa Lutz

Alex Witt left a position at a prestigious boarding school under mysterious circumstances to come to the near-bottom-of-the-barrel Stonebridge Academy - which, I'm sorry, but are there really boarding schools that have as bleak a reputation as this on? Graduates are described as barely getting into decent schools, if any. Sorry, side bar.


Witt is quick to discern that underneath the usual prep school atmosphere nonsense that there's something wrong with the culture of the students. Forced into teaching creative writing, she finds the answers to a routine questionnaire troubling, full of references to oral sex, objectification, and something called 'the Darkroom'.


Searching for answers she inspires students Gemma and Norman, and others, to act against the toxic culture of silence and manipulation. Additionally, faculty member and aspiring novelist Finn Ford provides perspective.


The reaction against a regressive and dangerous culture in a school setting made me think about 'Lucifer With a Book', but that may have just been shared boarding school genre tropes. This had a really great pace, and is much more than a #metoo novel. I would have liked to hear more from some of the other students - but that may have interfered with the great pace I just mentioned.


It was interesting that this had a Vermont setting, since I live in Vermont and border a community with a prep school - but I didn't find much resonance there. Again, if there's a weakness to the book it's that the chosen point-of-view characters are interesting, but other than Witt herself, they don't shed much light on the broader community of the school.

A Man With a Bingo Card! Halloween Bingo 2019

A simply gorgeous card!



I can't wait! Yay, I love ALL of the new squares.

Night Games, Fear Street #40

Night Games - R.L. Stine

Yeeesssss, this is what I'm talking about! 'Night Games' has a great pay-off.


Diane Brown is not your typical Fear Street heroine. She's apparently the ugly friend even though she has all the boys coming after her. Her scraggly blonde hair and poor clothes have nothing on her friend Cassie's red hair and model looks. Diane does have the requisite rage-fueled boyfriend, Lenny. Gauging from the cover though, Diane does seem to be a bit hard on herself. Also, why is she going into a cemetery with Lenny? They never go near a cemetery in this book. Huh.


The book opens with Diane, Lenny, Cassie and Cassie's boyfriend Jordan walking home late one cold night after dancing at Red Heat. They're surprised to see an old friend of theirs, Spencer, climb out the upper window of a darkened house and approach them. Is he a burglar now?! Naw, he's just sneaking out late and causing mischief! He calls it his Night Games. The boys are all in, and the girls reluctantly agree. They get into it later.


The Night Games get serious when the the pranks begin focusing on Mr. Crowell, the hardass math teacher who lives alone, has excellent taste in home furnishings and really, really loves Christmas. Uh-oh. What are they going to do to the gay man's house? Fear Street needs gay dollars to gentrify!


The book focuses on Diane's poor choice in boyfriends, because of course an ex gets involved and there's some history with Spencer, too; homework and lab partners; and academic probation; but stick with it! This turned into my favorite Fear Street book. I'm not even gonna hint.


Fear Street:


Next: 'Runaway'


Previous: 'Boy Next Door'

The Fire Game, Fear Street #11

The Fire Game - R.L. Stine

Jill Franks and her best friends Andrea and Diane are in the library alternatively studying geography and admiring Andrea's oversized purple sunglasses with the heart-shaped lenses, when Max and Nick interrupt by goofing around with their disposable lighters, like you do.


Some background: Andrea and Jill have been friends forever, but Diane is new this year, but they've really hit it off on the gymnastics team together, even if she's mousy. Max and Nick are totally in love with Jill and her long dark hair. Probably to impress Jill, Max sets a folder on fire. Dawn freaks out, but Andrea, with short red hair, waves the fire out and throws the folder away.


Next period, there's a fire, and it started in the library waste basket.


They get out of a pop quiz in geography and are ready to impress Diane's old friend Gabe who's just moved to town from Center City. Gabe is hot and all, but he's pretty lame in how he shoots down anything and everything in Shadyside, even when they start talking about all the mysterious death, serial killers, and attackers that have plagued their peers in the last few years. Doesn't faze him one bit.


He's more interested in the fire and he starts daring the other boys to set fires. This, somehow, escalates. The fires get bigger and Jill starts to think that Diane and her "unreasonable" fear of fire might be on to something.


This has an abrupt ending, but fairly satisfying and - unlike the villain - unexpected.


Fear Street


Next: 'Lights Out'


Previous: 'Ski Weekend'



Any Opinions on Bookmooch?

Some time ago I did some research on book-swapping sites and I liked Bookmooch best, I use it infrequently - most of my books get donated to the library - but I keep a few points available in case something on my wishlist pops up.




Does anyone else use it, or is there any other site you prefer for book trading?

The Second Generation by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

The Second Generation - Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis

I'm just a sucker for punishment, so I'm going to keep going down the Dragonlance rabbit-hole a few more books.


Unlike other recent reviews, this Dragonlance novel was new to me. It represented a return by Weis and Hickman to TSR in 1994, after the fairly successful 'Darksword' and 'Rose of the Prophet' trilogies and the still-in-print 'Death Gate Cycle' for Bantam-Spectra. Sidebar: 'Rose of the Prophet' had queer characters, which, despite other issues, made it ground-breaking and I have really fond memories of that trilogy that I won't ruin with a reread...yet.


Anyway, 'The Second Generation' is my first new Dragonlance in almost twenty years so I was a little too hopeful. My main problems with my other rereads have been the lack of depth to world-building and how the stories didn't seem to merit a second go-round.


Well, this first go-round wasn't that awesome. I had a lot of issues with how women are treated and the lack of depth to the stories in general. I've already read a little ways into 'Dragons of Summer Flame' and I'm not convinced that the insights into the characters provided here are necessary. 


There's a little blurb in the front of the book warning readers that these stories may contradict other books they've read, but don't worry, its because the Heroes of the Lance are so legendary all sorts of things have been written/said about them. This is patent bull-shit. I'm sorry TSR, but you made decisions with those 80-odd books covering every single side character and their histories and you should stick to them. How did it feel to the fans who had bought and enjoyed those novels and discover they're no longer canon? Boooo! 


So, these stories begin the over-writing and ret-conning of Dragonlance, for better or worse depending on your biases. I have strong feelings about it, obviously, but the real deciding factor is that these stories are just not that good. I don't think Weis and Hickman were feeling the characters the way they used to and the two new stories for this book dealing with Steel Brightblade and Gilthas Three-Quarter-Elven make women all the more insignificant in this universe. Where is the Weis that protested Hickman's decision that Laurana would betray millions to save her boyfriend?


We'll see if she turns up again.




Next: 'Dragons of Summer Flame'


Previous: 'The Test of the Twins'

No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant

No Ivy League - Hazel Newlevant

This graphic memoir follows Hazel as they exit the bubble of their home-schooled existence to work in Portland's "No Ivy League" to earn some summer cash so they and their friends can go to a concert across the country. The No Ivy League battles English ivy in public forest, keeping the invasive plant from strangling trees.

Hazel is intelligent, well-meaning, and adjusting to the realities of being 17. The other kids in their group have different priorities and Newlevant subtly conveys Hazel's disconnect with her art via the expressions of characters and wordless panels.

I read an early, unfinished draft of the book so many pages were still uncolored or blank, but Newlevant's intentions are clear. Hazel researches and uncovers truths about Portland, OR's history of segregation and discrimination, and scrutinizes their own education and their parent's motivations for keeping them out of public schools. This is an honest, realistic look at a young person's first brush with privilege and the decisions they make because of it. This is a true story, but nothing all that ground-breaking occurs, but this narrative is one that hopefully will open some eyes.

This book is available in comic book stores exclusively on August 7, standard bookstores will get in within a few weeks.

Test of the Twins, Dragonlance Legends #3 by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman

Test of the Twins - Tracy Hickman, Margaret Weis

Reading this over again, it felt like a lot of padding had been added to make these books into a marketable trilogy.


'Test of the Twins' follows Caramon and Tasslehoff's terrible vision of a future where Raistlin succeeds, Tanis teaming up with Dalamar, more Kitiara (urgh), and Raistlin's journey through the Abyss with Crysania. I like mucking around with time-travel, and the angle that events have to be changed to prevent the end of the world was great, however, Raistlin's journeying mostly made no sense. The Abyss and the Dark Queen are attacking his mind, but he keeps behaving completely out of character to these situations. On top of that, the climactic battle scenes didn't have the same element of fun as in the 'Chronicles'.


That said, we have a nice tidy ending - though it is a bit at odds with the subsequent Krynn-shattering events of the novels of the '90s. People keep behaving as if the War of the Lance was this legendary thing and yet it ended only two years previous, and foreshadowing is made about the great future of the Temple of Paladine and...uh....ok. Sure. Never mind. Forget I said anything.


For now, I'll keep going.


Dragonlance Legends


Previous: 'War of the Twins'


Next: 'The Second Generation'

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