Saturday, May 24, 2014

An Ideal Pairing: the Aran Islands and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races

This is the third installment in the Ireland Series about studying abroad in Galway, Ireland. Read Part I here. 

YOU CAN’T visit the Aran Islands and not jump on a bike. Possibly a horse would work, too. But there’s no better way to explore the stone fields of karst limestone carpeting the islands than on two wheels. The day Arcadia arranged a bike tour of Inis Mór, the largest of the three islands, the weather was overcast with light winds, ideal for the ferry ride over to village Kilronan. The harbor was sparse, dotted with quaint bed and breakfasts, cobblestone streets, and shops selling merchandise like the famous Aran wool sweaters.

A bike rental was available just a brief walk from the pier. The owner fitted us with bikes and gave us maps. Serious cyclists could take the longer routes that would take them past the Aran Seal Colony, Kilmurvey Beach, and all the way to the Dun Aonghasa World Heritage Site, a half-circle stone fort situated on the cliffs, built by Celts back in 2000 B.C. This trip would take the majority of our time here, a little over half a day. 

The Aran Seal Colony. Selkies, anyone? Hmmm... Image Courtesy of Marjorie Claire's Emerald Isle Blog. 2010. <>.

For us slackers, there were other sights to see closer to the harbor, which would allow us to take our time and explore. I hadn’t ridden a bike for a while, but the island terrain was well-suited to bike travel, even for beginners. Hills rolled gently up and down, creating a seamlessly smooth path that guided us through a maze of slab-rock fences cookie-cutting the landscape. We followed the road signs written in Gaelic and English, passing by quiet farmsteads and fields dotted with horses, cows, and sheep munching on sparse fauna.  Old abandoned churches were about a dime a dozen out here; I recalled my uncle saying they made good camp sites for the avid bike traveler.

We hopped off for a break near a historic lighthouse and signal tower cresting the bay, and hiked up to take a closer look. There was plenty of fun scrambling up and down the rocks to get to the top of a sentry post, where we gazed out upon the vast expanse of the sapphire-blue Galway Bay.

I couldn’t help but think of Maggie Stiefvater’s enchanting novel The Scorpio Races while writing this post. Incorporating touches of magical realism, The Scorpio Races takes place on the mythical island of Thisby, where every year the islandfolk hold a deadly horse race. The winner has the chance to become richer beyond their wildest dreams. The catch isn’t so much the race course as it is the horses themselves: the bloodthirsty capaill uisce, or water horses, come from the sea itself and if left unchecked, they will eat their riders. Their alien beauty, incredible speed, and bond with the ocean entrances Sean the stable boy, who develops an unlikely relationship with one of these fearsome beasts. Meanwhile, fellow villager Puck has fallen upon hard times. Her family is in risk of losing their home, so Puck enters the race in hopes of winning the money. However, she is wary of what the capaill uisce are capable of and chooses instead to rely on her own small horse, Dove, and her knowledge of the island itself to succeed.

It’s a surreal and darkly atmospheric book with slow but steady plotting, much like a mirror of the quiet island life itself. The relationship between Sean and Puck, as well as between them and their respective horses, is quite captivating to watch unfold. I was delighted to find a book focusing on a more obscure myth than we see in most fantasy novels nowadays, that of the water horse, which is spun with a mix of Irish, Scottish, and Manx folklore. You bet I was picturing the Aran Islands when Stiefvater was describing the herd of fairy horses pounding across the beaches, or when she described the perilous cliffs along the race’s path. It’s a great pairing, and I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy of The Scorpio Races for anyone reminiscing over their past Aran Islands adventure.

To be continued…

Disclaimer: the above is presented as fiction, not fact.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

May 2014 Book Review: Sweet Evil


By Wendy Higgins

~Book Review~

Warning! Minor Spoilers!

CUTE writing, lots of hot innuendo-ing, fantastic world-building, and characters Kaiden, the Twins, and Blake were awesome. I only wish the plot was as much. The potential, oh the potential! The Dukes of Hell walk the earth, each the embodiment of a sin or a vice. Their children, the Nephilim, are enslaved to do their will. Let’s take Kaiden Rowe, for instance. As the son of the Duke of Lust, he’s charged with making others give in to seduction. Sound like a great idea for a story? Of course it does! There are many Dukes, each one with a different "sin” (you have your traditional Seven Deadlies and then you have some new ones that are primarily “acts” such as lying, adultery, theft, murder). How the Dukes’ children have to deal with being agents of Hell or forging their own path creates enough tension to make me squeal with delight!

Unfortunately, instead we follow sweet, demure Anna around. Anna’s likeable, but she reminds me of a Bambi that every once and a while grows fangs but for the most part plays a passive, reactionary role. Anna has seen colorful auras around people for as long as she can remember, but it isn’t until she meets the alluring rocker Kaiden Rowe who has a British accent (gasp!) that she realizes this ability is to aid her father Belial, the Duke of Substance Abuse (wuh, waaaah!), in making people give in to their drug or alcohol addictions. Fans of star-crossed romance rejoice: Wendy Higgins couldn’t have done more to make Anna Kaiden’s polar opposite. This is innocent meets experienced, naïve meets jaded, “saint” meets “devil” type fantasy love. It’s okay, though. All of the PG-rated teasing and dropped innuendos really make Sweet Evil an entertaining read—Higgins obviously knew what readers wanted, and tried to push the envelope as tastefully far as she could for a teen book.

Where I was not amused was the lack of a satisfying climax. I mean, if you can’t give me one in the romance department, then at least rev up the stakes for the big battle. Kaiden, Anna, and the other Nephilim children taking a stand, duking it out with the Dukes, shedding some blood, sweat, and tears—yeah, nowhere to be seen. The sense of danger to the main characters’ lives was not present (not counting the angst. I know you were worried, but never fear. There’s lots of angst). Sadly this is a trend that continues throughout the series. It has potentially explosive set-ups for a big kabang confrontation (Prophecy! Epic battles! Nephilim armies!), and then it just doesn’t go there. This is Twilight plotting as opposed to Harry Potter, Vampire Academy, or Percy Jackson.

Worth the read? Definitely. Sweet Evil was a very creative take on angels and demons, the romance was sexy, and I appreciate that Higgins didn’t limit her story to American borders. We have a few people of color, like Blake the son of Envy (Filipino-American) and Kopano, the son of Wrath (born and raised in Malawi), who plays a romantic part in Anna’s life. In Sweet Peril (Book II), they travel overseas where we meet another interesting character Zania, the daughter of Hatred (from Syria). Just be forewarned for some plotting frustration. If you like more action in your angel/demon books, I’d recommend Jessica Shirvington’s The Violet Eden Chapters or Courtney Allison Moulton’s Angelfire books. Sweet Evil is more like the Fallen series by Lauren Kate, but incredibly more well-developed and compact.

Btw, Sweet Evil is another fail in the “oh, I forgot, they’re teenagers so they need some sort of guardian. I’ll just make one up who takes actions most convenient for the advancement of Anna and Kaiden’s sexy kitten luuuuv” phenomenon going on in teen paranormal books.

Recommended for fans of: Becca Fitzpatrick, Cassandra Clare, Jennifer Armentrout
Upcoming Book Review: ??? I don’t know! Life has been busy and I haven’t had time to read! What Duke’s vile treachery is this? Rawr!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

May 2014 Book Review: A Fistful of Nothing


By Dan Glaser

~Book Review~

"DIESELPUNK"— post-steam, and pre-cyber punk, characterizes A Fistful of Nothing, quite well, as this is the 1950s set in a distorted underground Hollywoodholes. The atmosphere and time period run together with cinema-like quality, and if you’re going to embark with Jim on his investigation to solve two brutal murders, then you’d better brush up on your 1950s lingo: “For a habitual pantywaist, the hopped-up shitkicker threw a nasty right hook into Jim’s side, and the alarming jab stung like salt and sweat as it slapped his gut” (Chapter 1). Names like “The Mad Dog,” and “The Kid” abound. 
Jim “Jimbo” Maynard’s a classic hard-boiled noir detective, maybe the ancestor of Harry Dresden (Dresden Files by Jim Butcher). What begins as a gambling dispute ends up with two dead bodies on Jim’s lap. To find the culprit, he’ll have to out-talk and sift through a whole assortment of untrustworthy, “nutso”-characters from L.A.’s underworld.

The prose is over-the-top purple at times, but toward the end of Part I, I found that I’d settled into a comfortable rhythm with it. The plot also picks up then—before you never felt like Jim was in much danger, but going into Part II, the stakes are raised. The murder mystery is fully enhanced by the wonderful bizarre underworld—usually I like to race along to find out who dun it and how, but in “A Fistful of Nothing,” I found myself lingering over details and enjoying how the case unraveled. However, I wasn’t quite sold on Jim’s motivations for getting so involved in the case in the first place and why the first death struck him so hard; for me, his character didn’t veer too much from the brooding detective model obsessed with Fortuna to really stand on his own. I really liked Betty, though, she was funny:

“You got bourbon. I wanna get wet, sister.”

“So go find a puddle or something.” (Chapter 3)


The Hollywoodholes Series promises more gritty violence, murder, and one-liners to come. I enjoyed the sneak peak at the end into Book II: A Lungful of Glass, and the destination it takes place. 

Recommended for fans of: Jim Butcher and Simon R. Green
Upcoming May Book Review: Sweet Evil by Wendy Higgins