Fiction

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

GRACELING by Kristin Cashore

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Katsa is used to being feared. She travels all over the Middluns, killing and maiming for King Randa to frighten his subjects into submission. Her Grace for fighting makes the tasks easy physically, but not emotionally. That’s why she started the Council and began sneaking around between official assignments, using her Grace to do good. It is on a Council mission that her life gets complicated. She rescues the Lienid grandfather, like she was supposed to, but she never expected his grandson, Prince Po, to be there. She didn’t expect to be recognized. And she definitely didn’t expect the complicated feelings she would develop toward this fellow Graceling. As she gets swept into the mystery of the Lienid kidapping, Katsa also finds herself getting swept up in a complicated friendship with Po, one that will have her questioning her choices, her identity, and the very nature of her Grace.

In this character-driven fantasy, a good vs. evil plot is just along for the ride as the main characters explore their identities as individuals and as a couple. With a cast of well-developed characters, and a genuinely disturbing evil to fight, this book is engaging and thought-provoking. A great read for YA fantasy fans.

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

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As a young man, the French priest Father Latour was assigned as a missionary to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Over the course of his life, he served the diverse community, learning much about the Mexicans, Indians, and Americans who lived there and striving to help the poor, spread the faith, and work for justice.

This Willa Cather classic is a work of fiction based on the life of the real French bishop of Santa Fe.  Laid out as a series of vignettes about different people and circumstances, the story provides a beautifully written, poetic glimpse into a romanticized Old West.

Written in the early 20th century, the book contains prejudicial language and ideas about the various Latino and American Indian populations, some of which are less common today.  Since Cather (and her characters) are trying to understand and respect the people and cultures she writes about, it provides an interesting historical perspective on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th century–and forces today’s white readers who believe themselves to be enlightened and tolerant to examine their own language and behavior for unwitting prejudice.

Although it is short, don’t expect this to be a quick read! The rich, dense prose deserves to be savored.  Fortunately, the vignette formate makes it easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz

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When an editor receives the final installment in famous author Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd mystery series, she is immediately sucked into the story.  A housekeeper has died falling down the stairs–a seeming accident.  But when the wealthy estate owner is decapitated at the foot of the same staircase days later, it must be connected.  Detective Atticus Pünd hadn’t intended to take any more cases since he learned he is dying.  But the facts of the case are too strange to pass up.  It seems everyone in the village had a motive for one or both murders, and yet none of the motives seem to explain all of the events.  As the novel draws to a close and Pünd is about to reveal the murderer, the editor realizes that there is a chapter missing.  She puts in a call to her boss, asking him to contact the author, and instead receives startling news:  the author is dead–an apparent suicide.  It turns out that he, like his character Pünd, was dying of cancer.  But something doesn’t sit right about the author’s death, and as the editor searches for the final chapter of his manuscript, she begins to suspect that he may have been murdered, as well.

This intriguing double mystery reads a bit like an Agatha Christie.  It is riddled with quirky suspects and red herrings–both in the framing story and the mystery “novel” within.  I found the Pünd plotline more engaging at first, as it took me a little while to get into the framing mystery once the Pünd story abruptly ended.  But it was a neat concept and definitely kept me reading to the end.  I recommend it to fans of classic whodunit mysteries.

THE MYSTERY OF BLACK HOLLOW LANE by Julia Nobel

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People think it must be great growing up as the daughter of a famous child-rearing expert.  But sometimes Emmy wishes she had a normal mom–or at least that her mom spent less time on her work and more time paying attention to the things Emmy is interested in.  When her mom announces that she has accepted a job on a reality TV program and that Emmy will have to go to boarding school on the other side of the ocean, it seems like proof that her mom’s work is more important than she is.  It makes her feel a little bit less guilty about the secret she’s been keeping from her mom: the mysterious note and the box of “relics” from her long-absent father.  “Keep them safe,” the note commanded.  Emmy never knew her father, has no idea what these “relics” are, and doesn’t know who wrote the note or what kind of danger the mysterious writer anticipated.  But when she arrives at her new elite English boarding school, she begins to uncover more pieces of the mystery of who her father was, and in the middle of the web of secrets is a danger much more real and terrifying than Emmy could have imagined.

This intriguing start to a mystery series is a great middle-grade page turner.  The plot draws on common enough tropes–missing father, secret society, “heroic trio uncovering secrets at a boarding school” with a pleasant Harry Potter vibe–but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in likable characters and an engaging mystery to puzzle out.  I look forward to the sequel!

THE PERFECT COUPLE by Elin Hilderbrand

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The maid of honor’s body washed up on the Nantucket beach the morning of the wedding.  It was the bride who found her.  Needless to say, the wedding was canceled.  Now it is up to the chief and his lead detective to interview the shell-shocked bridal party and figure out what happened.  The simplest explanation, of course, would be that it was an accident.  Girl has too much to drink, goes for a late night swim, washes up on the beach the next morning.  But what about the abandoned kayak that belongs to the father of the groom?  Why does the other bridesmaid seem so reluctant to discuss the MOH’s love life?  Why was the bride on the beach so early in the morning carrying a suitcase?  And where is the best man?  As the investigation unfolds, it becomes clear that everyone has at least one secret and no one is as perfect as they seem.

A character-driven mystery, this novel will appeal to some mystery fans, but also realistic fiction fans who like some good old-fashioned family dysfunction.  In the end, exactly what happened is less important than the complex web of relationships between the characters.  A fast and enjoyable summer read!

DEATH PREFERS BLONDES by Caleb Roehrig

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Margo started pulling heists because she was bored.  She certainly didn’t need the money, being the heir to the Manning fortune; in fact, the tabloid accounts of “Mad Margo,” the wild party girl, provide a useful cover for her real illegal activities.  The four acrobatic drag queens who form the rest of her team all definitely need the money, though, and when a job that could be worth millions falls into their laps, it is impossible to pass up, even though it involves breaking into the highly fortified mansion of a Russian mobster.  Unfortunately, although they pull off the heist unscathed, Margo underestimated the danger she has gotten them all into.  And when things at her father’s company take a dark turn, Margo suddenly finds herself in over her head with hitmen chasing her around the globe.  The only people she knows she can trust are her team, but she may need to take a chance on a young accountant who is quickly becoming more than just a friend.

The premise is gimmicky and the plot absurd, but it sure is a fun ride!  There is a weird balance of far-fetched action plot and intense, realistic character development, which made for strange pacing.  But once I got into it, I had trouble putting it down.  I’d recommend this novel to teen thriller fans.

If you liked Death Prefers Blondes, you might like Kristen Orlando or Ally Carter.