Review: The Screaming Staircase

Posted on September 27th, 2016 @ 23:02
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The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co, #1)The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

My rating:


When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . .

For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions.

Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive.


[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

An entertaining book, even though it didn’t blow my mind as I would’ve expected from the author of the “Bartimaeus” series.

In a United Kingdom where the dead tend to come back fairly often as ghosts—whose touch is lethal to the living—agencies have sprung up. Gathering all kinds of young people with the ability to see or hear spectres, under the supervision of adults, these groups patrol cities at nights and investigate various hauntings, in order to send ghosts back to the grave. Lockwood & Co. is one of such agencies. And so, when young agent Lucy Carlyle finds herself looking for employment in London, she applies for a job there… an unusual one even for her line of work, since Lockwood’s doesn’t have any supervisor, and his two other youth are a little on the reckless side. Well, especially Lockwood himself.

This trio of characters follows a typical dynamic (2 boys, 1 girl), with banter and sometimes tense relationships. Lockwood tends to act before thinking, and appears as too easy-go-lucky at times; George is the librarian, the one who remembers they should do their research before investigating; and Lucy, the only one of the three with the ability to hear ghosts and potentially communicate with them, is somewhere in between: more thoughtful at first, yet possessed with instincts that sometimes cause her to make strange decisions. All in all, this dynamic highlighted potential flaws in the team (Lucy didn’t tell them immediately why she went to London, Lockwood doesn’t talk of his family or why there are no adults supervising his agency…) as well as room for growth (learning to trust each other, among other things).

The descriptions of ghosts, places and hauntings are vivid enough, and it’s very easy to picture every happening. They convey an idea of a darker London, whose mists may not only be mere pollution or weather-related, but also announce the coming of ghosts. The story as a whole, a bit like in the Bartimaeus series, has a semi-Victorian feeling: the time is now, yet readers may find themselves forgetting this since the era itself isn’t so important (and the use of rapiers and iron filings could go well in a historical setting). This may or may not be a problem; personally, I quite liked it. The atmosphere throughout the novel, though, wasn’t exactly horrific for me; I’m not sure if I could consider it the right amount of “scary” for a ghost story presented as such.

On the downside:

- The plot felt too disjointed when it came to its two main parts. I’m not sure why exactly, nor what could have made it better, but I got this feeling that the cause-and-effect relationships were forced together, instead of one appearing as logically following the other.
- I could have done without the fat-shaming (towards George). I don’t know if this was supposed to make Lockwood (tall and thin) look better, or Lucy appear superior, but it achieved neither. I really don’t see any point to that.
- I mentioned the characters’ dynamics and room for growth, however by the end of the book I thought this was lacking a bit, and the team didn’t feel like a team as much as I had expected after all the “surviving together” (the fire, the burglary, the Red Room…). The relationship between Lucy, George and Lockwood remained a wee bit… flat?

Conclusion: 2.5 stars. I enjoyed it on the surface, as light reading, but I’m not particularly eager to pick up the second book either.

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Review: Golem

Posted on September 26th, 2016 @ 19:58
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GolemGolem by Lorenzo Ceccotti

My rating:


Set in a future, post-Eurozone Italy, entrenched in a bizarre form of hyper-capitalism, GOLEM follows a young boy kidnapped during a political protest gone sour, who learns that he has the power to not only change the city, but reality itself. This intensely imaginative political-sci-fi graphic novel is a visual tour de force, created by contemporary design icon Lorenzo Ceccotti, better known as LRNZ, whose design-influenced illustration is a lush, fluid blend of manga masters like KATSUHIRO OTOMO with western comic icons like JOSH MIDDLETON, creating a style that is wholly unique and absolutely breathtaking.


[I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Some pretty good artwork in places, although I expected something more original, especially considering the length of this volume.

The basic idea in itself is, I’d say, typical enough of dystopian stories: country (here, Italy) in the not-too-far future, dominated by an apparent benevolent ruler (president Oudeis) who’s actually a tyrant, with “the masses” living day to day in blissful ignorance, smothered with all the latest technological toys and gizmos they could desire. Also a “terrorist”/”freedom fighters” group, because dystopian stories need that. All in all, terra cognita here, not bad, and not exceptional either.

The world depicted in this comics is interesting, and chilling, too, however it gave a strong Japanese vibe, and this felt a little strange. Lots of Japanese-sounding names (the Yoko brand, the Shorai “terrorist group”), aesthetics that clearly reminded me of quite a few cyberpunk/futuristic manga… Again, not bad per se, yet I couldn’t reconcile this vision with Italy. Not to say I expected stupid clichés here (nope, I didn’t want to see pasta everywhere, that’s just as bad as the French baguette as far as clichés go!), just… something that would’ve felt more European-centric?

The art was pretty good in some parts, though average in others, and most often dynamic: the fights looked and felt like fights, bodies in movement giving an impression of speed. As a work of art, as in painting/drawing, it was definitely interesting to look at.

The characters in general were sympathetic. Not unexpectedly at all, the rebels all have their quirks and cool tech and moves (cooking, hooked on computers, a sort of probabilities-projecting technology allowing them to predict their enemies’ moves by a couple of seconds…). However, I never got a real feeling for them, especially the two kids at the centre of it all.

Conclusion: In general, my impression was that of a story with good foundations, but not told as it would’ve deserved—both too long and too crammed considering its conspiracy aspect. The bland characters didn’t help.

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Review: Gaslight & Grimm – Steampunk Faerie Tales

Posted on September 23rd, 2016 @ 22:33
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Gaslight & Grimm: Steampunk Faerie TalesGaslight & Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales by Danielle Ackley-McPhail

My rating:


Once Upon a Time, ageless tales were told from one generation to the next, filled with both wonders and warnings. Tales of handsome princes and wicked queens, of good-hearted folk and evil stepmothers. Tales of danger and caution and magic…classics that still echo in our hearts and memories even to this day, told from old, cherished books or from memory at Grandma’s knee.

Oh yes, tales have been told…but never quite like these. Journey with us through the pages of Gaslight and Grimm to discover timeless truths through lenses polished in the age of steam.

With tales by James Chambers, Christine Norris, Bernie Mojzes, Danny Birt, Jean Marie Ward, Jeff Young, Gail Z. and Larry N. Martin, Elaine Corvidae, David Lee Summers, Kelly A. Harmon, Jonah Knight, Diana Bastine, and Jody Lynn Nye.


[I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I found this anthology quite inspiring in general, and it left me with a better impression than anthologies generally do. I appreciated that most stories, while building upon the foundations of original tales, didn’t hesitate to stray from them at some point, instead of being “mere” retellings almost identical to their inspirations. For instance, the one inspired by “Rapunzel”.

The ones I liked best:
- “When Pigs Fly” (original story: The Three Little Pigs): airship and their badass captains, on a backdrop of Alliance vs. Rogues conflict. I was bound to like this one.
- “From the Horse’s Mouth” (The Goose Girl): a gritty retelling, that doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of a country at war.
- “The Giant Killer” (Jack the Giant Killer): with Jack being more of a Jane, with interesting devices and a tendency to get into trouble… but always with a certain style.

Remarks on a couple of other stories:
- “The (Steamy) Tale of Cinderella (Cinderella, obviously): set in a fleet gathered around the princely ship, where the fated ball is to be held. But the Prince isn’t just some charming vapid man, Cinderella is more interested in machines than in snagging a man, and there’s a nice LGBT dimension. I do regret, though, that the latter was presented a little abruptly, out of nowhere—there could have been so much more, instead of the (at first) traditional approach of shaming same-sex relationships. Fortunately Cinderella’s and the Prince’s decision is an interesting one.

- “The Hair Ladder”: I liked the different relationship dynamis between “Rapunzel” and “the witch”. I wasn’t convinced by the mother, however, as she was much too selfish and vain, and felt like a cardboard villain.

But overall, these stories were more 3 to 4 stars each than anything really bad. “The Walking House” (Baba Yaga) is probably my least favourite.

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Review: A City Dreaming

Posted on September 21st, 2016 @ 23:42
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A City DreamingA City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

My rating:


M is an ageless drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and the ability to bend reality to his will, ever so slightly. He’s come back to New York City after a long absence, and though he’d much rather spend his days drinking artisanal beer in his favorite local bar, his old friends—and his enemies—have other plans for him. One night M might find himself squaring off against the pirates who cruise the Gowanus Canal; another night sees him at a fashionable uptown charity auction where the waitstaff are all zombies. A subway ride through the inner circles of hell? In M’s world, that’s practically a pleasant diversion.

Before too long, M realizes he’s landed in the middle of a power struggle between Celise, the elegant White Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, Brooklyn’s hip, free-spirited Red Queen, a rivalry that threatens to make New York go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquired—he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steampunk universes, and demonic coffee shops. M’s New York, the infinite nexus of the universe, really is a city that never sleeps—but is always dreaming.


[I got a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Quite a strange book, in that it didn’t exactly have a plot, more of a collection of “slice of life” moments. Well, moment in the life of a being able to bend reality to his will, or almost, surrounding himself, whether he wants it or not, with other exceptional beings.

After years, decades of wandering around, M is back in New York, where he gets reacquainted with old friends and enemies (not mutually exclusive), gets entangled in the local magic politics, finds himself facing strange worlds and creatures at times, all the while trying to remain “in good terms with the Management”—in other words, balancing feats of magic just right enough to live nicely, without getting much of backlash. And let’s be honest, M’s friends are often worse than his foes, considering the dire straits they take him into.

The New York M evolves in is definitely strange and enchanting in its own ways, mixing daily mundane places and events with happenings out of this world. Immortal mages trying to kill each others, the two Queens of New York trying to get the upper hand each int their own sly ways, revenge and curses, magical underground trains, apprentices coming out of nowhere, traders playing at human sacrifice… There are so, so many odd things in that city, in M’s world in general.

The major problem I see with this novel is the fact it’s a collection of mini-adventures, connected by a loose red thread much more than by any kind of solid plot. M meets some old friend who drags him on a crappy errand, or has to go and trick pirates to free another friend who got kidnapped, or finds himself in an alternate world whose rules may very well trample his own perception of reality… and so on. The blurb was misleading, in that its wording led me to believe there would be more of a plot (there’s no real war between the Queens, for instance, and some of the stories felt repetitive). Instead, the connectors are people and places rather than events leading to other events, and not in the way of a more traditional narrative. Which is an interesting thing or not, depending on how you perceive it.

While I wasn’t too convinced at first, in the end, this technique nevertheless offered glimpses into a magical world, and I found myself wanting to see which new adventure would unfold in every new chapter—not to mention that whenever connectors met, they still gave a sense of things tying together, but just a little, just enough, not as a series of convenient coincidences. (Because -that- can also be a problem, when a plot is too well packed and loose ends are too nicely tied.)

These stories also provide an interesting view on modern life: night scenes, drug addiction, poverty (so many people around you, who won’t see you as you’re being dragged down…), making and losing friends, art and pleasure, unpleasant acquaintances, wealthy lifestyle vs. a more subdued kind of existence, choices to make in the face of adversity, responsibilities, humanity… There’s a strong current of life to this New Work, carrying its people just as much as its people carry it, and the author pictures it funny, dark and loving tones all at once.

Conclusion: I can’t say I absolutely loved this book, however it contains a lot of imaginative elements, and the New York, the City with a capital C described in it, was such a vivid backdrop that it may just as well be called a character as well. 3.5 stars, going on 4.

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Review: Nine Candles of Deepest Black

Posted on September 18th, 2016 @ 19:11
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Nine Candles of Deepest BlackNine Candles of Deepest Black by Matthew S. Cox

My rating:


She saw it coming. She knew it would happen―but no one believed her.

Almost a year after tragedy shattered her family, sixteen-year-old Paige Thomas can’t break free from her guilt. Her mother ignores her, doting on her annoying little sister, while her father is a barely-functioning shell. He hopes a move to the quiet little town of Shadesboro PA will help them heal, but Paige doesn’t believe in happiness anymore.

On her first day at school, a chance encounter with a bullied eighth grader reawakens a gift Paige had forgotten, and ingratiates her into a pack of local outcasts. For weeks, they’ve been trying to cast a ritual to fulfill their innermost desires, but all they’ve done is waste time. After witnessing Paige touch the Ouija board and trigger a paranormal event, the girls are convinced another try with their new fifth member will finally work.

Once the darkness is unleashed, it’s not long before they learn it will give them exactly what they asked for―whether they want it or not.


(I got a copy from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.)

A little lengthy at times, but overall an enjoyable “coming of (witchcraft) age” story that, while resting on archetypical elements, turns out to go deeper than what could be expected at first. Even though, looking at it with a more mature eye, I wouldn’t shelve it as a favourite, I can say that teenage!me would probably have loved it (I really was into that kind of witchcraft stories at the time).

For once, I’ll start with the elements I found problematic. First, depending on its moments, the story reminded me of “The Craft”—incidentally, a movie I had liked when it came out in 1996—since it rests on similar premises: girl moves to a new town, arrives in a school where she doesn’t know anyone, quickly becomes friends with the local wannabe-witches, then becomes the last member they needed to perform their rituals… and said rituals turn out to be not-so-nice magic after all. I don’t know if this was on purpose or not (after all, the author listed his inspirations at the end of the book, so I don’t see why some would have been hidden and others not). This said, this kind of plot is definitely not unique, and I’ve seen it in several other movies and books, so…

Quite a few tropes, like the ones mentioned above, are also involved—the goth-looking girls being bullied because they dress in black, the Ouija board… I’d deem this as “problematic… or not”, because truth be told, there are days when I just love myself a handful of tropes.

Finally, another thing I sometimes had trouble with were the descriptions, more specifically the ones about clothes. They’re not bad; it just felt odd when Paige’s outfit, for instance, was described every time she changed. The really strange thing here is that a character not changing clothes during a whole movie or series spanning more than a couple of days would bother me, yet when I see it mentioned in written form, actually I’d prefer it not to be. This is clearly linked to the medium: I’ve had the same feeling with other novels, too. As for other descriptions, the ones of the “mirror world” were creepy-good, although I wasn’t too impressed with the antagonist’s appearance, to be honest.

Where “Nine Candles” shone for me, on the other hand, was on the tropes it did -not- use, and on the presence of Paige’s family. For instance, in this story, you won’t find the typical, vomit-inducing love polygon, causing the main character to balance between which love interest to choose why the world is getting destroyed. Vapid love has no place here, as another character quickly finds out when she fails to get what she wants, and the one truly strong love is actually the one of family bonds. Because what’s thankfully missing as well is the Absent Parents trope, with our MC happily traipsing around unsupervised like every 16-year-old in the world does.

In fact, Paige’s family is very present, and turned from slightly annoying in the first chapters to a solid cluster that nothing can break. “Annoying” because of the initial situation: the father depressed and absent in mind after the death of the elder sister Amber, the mother only paying attention the younger sister Melissa, and Paige being somewhat invisible in the middle—it was a bit extreme, and led to Paige appearing at first like a pouting child. Especially since Melissa is really, really cute and nice, and not at all the spoiled brat cliché often expected when younger siblings are mentioned. But then, it turned into situations where Paige made a fragile truce with her mother, rediscovered her relationship with Melissa, and more. And Paige’s “wish” during the ritual (not a spoiler, everybody did expect The Ritual, right?) was a noble one, not a selfish one, confirming her character as a good person.

Families are present throughout the whole novel: as loved ones; as people to trust and who’ll support you even though they’re not convinced you’re saying the truth; as potential victims; as triggers of darker deeds; as ways of highlighting to which extent some characters are superficial, too. More than one aspect, and more than one family, is explored here, and I really liked that.

Conclusion: in its theme, not particularly original, yet definitely worth it for the inclusion of family themes (not only biological families—Paige and Co are also a second family for Sofia, for instance). It would make a good coming of age-slash-horror story for teenage readers. 3.5 stars.


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