Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blood Price

Vicki Nelson is a PI and former cop who happens upon a very strange and grisly scene on a subway platform. The event is only the beginning of a series of murders that is so bizarre and inexplicable that, even though she's never been one to believe in the supernatural, soon it seems to be the only possible explanation. Not that she'd ever let her former partner know that - he shouldn't be telling her information about the investigation as it is, and he still hasn't forgiven her for quitting her job on the police force - a job that nearly broke her heart to leave, even though she was certain it was her only real choice.

When Vicki is officially hired to investigate the killing by a victim's girlfriend, she stumbles across irrefutable evidence that the killings are fueled by a malevolent magic, and the killer strikes again and again, each death bringing the city of Toronto closer to the unleashing of an ancient, powerful creature. She teams up with writer Henry Fitzroy - even though she finds out he is a vampire, she is certain he is on her side. After all, if he weren't, she wouldn't feel such a strong attraction to him...would she? As their research leads them closer to uncovering the source of the killings, it seems they are always one step behind the killer.

This is one of the first books published in what has since become an immensely popular urban dark fantasy genre. I read this years ago, when it first came out, and enjoyed it immensely. Reading Tanya Huff's short story in a recent urban fantasy anthology reminded me how very much I enjoy her books, so I thought I'd revisit them. I'm glad to say this first one in the Vicki Nelson series held up very well. Even though I read this seventeen(!) years ago, I remembered quite a lot about the characters and their relationships with each other. It was surprising to me that, aside from the lack of cell phones and the Internet, the book did not seem dated at all.

Vicki is a strong heroine with serious problems of her own, an engaging character that it was easy to root for. Her back story is seamlessly woven into the present mystery along with flashbacks from Henry's life, which gives depth to the characters and makes their motives and actions believable. This series has been made into a television show, and there is also a spin-off trilogy featuring Tony Foster, a character who is introduced in this book. This is a must-read for those who enjoy urban fantasy, not just because it is one of the first of its kind, but because it is a well-written, action-packed story with compelling, memorable characters.

Books in the Vicki Nelson series:
1. Blood Price
2. Blood Trail
3. Blood Lines
4. Blood Pact
5. Blood Debt

Blood Price (#1 in the Vicki Nelson series) by Tanya Huff (DAW Books, 1991)

Also reviewed at:
BC Books: "Blood Price is a great book. You get such a feel for the characters, especially Vicki, and each one comes across solid and three dimensional."
Savvy Verse and Wit: "The dialogue and interactions between Vicky and Henry are hilarious and had me laughing for much of the book's latter half."
Tez Says: "Neither bad nor amazing, the novel has an important role in the history of urban fantasy in fiction. It was around this time that the genre was revived through Tanya Huff, Jim Butcher and Laurell K. Hamilton, and readers – and writers – have a lot for which to thank them."

Monday, December 29, 2008

A new category

So I've been looking over the categories I've assigned to my different blog posts during the last year and a half or so, when I first started blogging. The most recent change I made was adding the year of publication, which I thought might be useful - and it's been interesting to see how recent most of the books I read are.

I've decided to add a new category called "rereads" - because if a book is good enough to read again, that's saying something! I'd love to know what other people's favorite rereads are, too - would anyone else like to join me in taking a little time to re-tag blog posts as rereads if you don't use that category already?

Also, I'd love to hear what categories, in general, you find most useful when you're browsing through someone's blog. Do you use them to find particular things? Do you use them in your own blog? Do you go for the fairly general or the very specific when you decide which tags to use? Or don't you ever use them at all? I wonder about these things! :-)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The House of Night

Zoey Redbird is a teenager living in a world in which vampyres coexist with humans, although they stand apart. While most successful actors and musicians are actually vampires, and they are superhumanly beautiful and strong, Zoey is not thrilled when she is suddenly singled out at school and marked with the vampyre's mark of a crescent moon on her forehead. Her friends are completely freaked out, and her mother and stepfather, members of a conservative religious group who find vampyres to be abhorrent, are even more so.

Zoey does not get along with her stepfather, and she sneaks out of the house in order to avoid being waylaid - she knows that she must get to the House of Night - a sort of boarding school for fledgling vampires - quickly, or she may not survive the transformation. But first she must go to the one person she knows will accept her for who she is, fledgling vampyre, or no - her beloved grandmother, who is Native American and lives out in the country. Near her grandmother's house, Zoey has an accident, and a near-death experience that leaves her with the unwelcome knowledge that she has been chosen by the vampypre goddess Nyx for some nebulous reason.

All Zoey knows is that she has some sort of destiny, that she has been singled out when what she really wanted was to be able to fit, unnoticed, into her new life. But sadly, when she arrives at the House of Night, she causes a huge stir. And things there are not what she imagined - just like at her old school, there are petty politics and bullies - except for the fact that when the students are fledgling vampyres, the potential for real harm increases exponentially. Luckily there are true friends to be made at her new school, as well as some potential for romance. If she can survive her first year there, that is...

This was an interesting first book in a YA series, written by a mother/daughter team, and it raised many intriguing questions that have hooked me enough to want to continue to the following book, Betrayed, at some point. I liked Zoey, but I admit I was a bit baffled by how horrified she was about being chosen to be a vampyre. I mean, come on - if all the best and most famous and beautiful people are vampyres, why would she be so upset? Why would her friends be so horrified? Jealous, I'd believe. Combined with the fact that Zoey is in such a powerless situation at home, with her overbearing stepfather and the mother who appears to have abandoned her children to side with her new husband in every matter, I would have thought she'd jump at the chance to be strong and independent, no longer intimidated by anyone. Still, the characters were interesting, as well as the premise. I am curious to see where the next book will take Zoey in her new life at the House of Night.

Books in the House of Night series:

1. Marked
2. Betrayed
3. Chosen
4. Untamed

Marked (#1 in the House of Night series) by P.C Cast and Kristin Cast (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
A Bookaholic's Review: "The different spin on the vampire world was fresh, and I’m always looking for something different from the norm."
Un-Mainstream Mom Reads: " I was rooting for Zoey from the very first page, and cannot wait to read the next book in the Casts' wonderful series."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Looking for Alaska

Miles Halter is a quirky teen who has no real friends to speak of, and he has finally managed to convince his parents to send him to boarding school - the same boarding school his father attended. Miles has the rather odd obsession of collecting (and memorizing) the last words of famous people, and one of his favorite quotations is writer Francois Rabelais' final words: "I go to seek a great perhaps." Miles is looking for his "great perhaps" as he takes his step into the unknown world of Culver Creek Boarding School.

Once at school he becomes friends with his roommate, nicknamed "The Colonel," who is equally intelligent and quirky, and the Colonel introduces Miles (soon nicknamed "Pudge" because he is so skinny) to his friend Alaska. Miles immediately falls head over heels for Alaska, even though she is evidently supremely happy with her boyfriend. She is beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic, with a wicked sense of humor - and she is also deeply troubled and impulsive, with wild mood swings.

Miles is soon ensconced in the Culver Creek world of student dramas, friendship, cigarettes, pranks, and the occasional forbidden drinking binge. He is also challenged intellectually and spiritually by his classes, in particular his world religions course, which he finds thought provoking and, perhaps, applicable to his own life. Each section of the book counts down the number of day before an unknown event, an event that looms menacingly in the future, an event the reader can be sure will change Miles's life irrevocably.

It's not difficult to say why I loved this book. First and foremost, Miles's voice pulled me straight in, and as I listened to the audio version, I found Jeff Woodman's voice and interpretation to be just right for Miles, the way he speaks, how he thinks. I also loved that the book was made up of inextricable parts of laughter, thoughtfulness, loss, friendship, passion, and longing. Much like life, particularly during the teen years when all those things are heightened to an almost unbearable extent. I loved the characters, their conversations (which revealed so much about the characters, from what they said as much as from what they didn't say), their relationships with each other. And the prank...let's just say it's beautiful. Priceless. I defy anyone to read that scene without laughing out loud! And even though other parts of the book were painful to listen to, the conclusion left me feeling content and hopeful - and looking forward to reading more books by John Green.

Looking for Alaska by John Green; narrated by Jeff Woodman (Brilliance Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf: "It’s really an outstanding book. I usually feel that the highest praise I can mentally (or in this blog) give a YA book is that it will make kids think. But then I read this book, which made me, a sophisticated adult reader with an actual literature degree, think."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "To anyone who’s ever been a teenager, fallen in love, gone through hard times, crumbled and tried to pick up the pieces, you’ll feel at one with Green’s writing. It’s magic what he does with a pen."
Things Mean a Lot: "Looking for Alaska is about loneliness, friendship, longing, loss, love and life. The writing style is simple, but still full of achingly beautiful passages."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Who watches the watchmen?

Set in the 1980s in an alternate U.S. where Nixon is still president, the Cold War is in full swing, and mutually assured destruction is a button's push away, Watchmen is a gripping, dark tale. One of the teenagers who shelves books at my library loaned me his copy, and I thought I could whip right through it and get it back to him quickly; instead I found myself taking a very long time to read it - it is much denser and more complex than the typical graphic novel. It was originally published in twelve installments back in the 1980s, and as a novel it won the Hugo award for best novel in 1988.

The novel opens with the death of a man, who turns out to have been an aging ex-superhero called the Comedian. Another superhero, a sinister yet compelling figure called Rorshach, suspects there is more to his death than meets the eye. Despite the fact that superheroes have been outlawed, Rorshach has continued to act as a vigilante. He tries to warn the few surviving superheroes that he suspects someone is out to kill those who remain. At first they do not believe him, for he is known to be one of the more paranoid members of their former ranks. But then events indeed appear to corroborate his suspicions, and it seems that something must be done.

The narrative switches from present to past, flitting from character to character, and is supplemented by pages of straight text from various sources that serve to flesh out the back story as well as a very dark story-within-a-story, a tale from a comic book one of the characters is reading. The resulting effect is of a mosaic that comes together, piece by piece, telling a story that is chilling and evocative. I highly recommend reading this if you intend to see the film, which is to be released this coming spring. There is no doubt but that, whether the film is disappointing or delightful, the complicated backstory and character background that the book provides will enhance the movie-going experience.

The book's superheroes are not two-dimensional figures who have the good of mankind first and foremost in their priorities. They are flawed men and women, in some cases psychotically so, and aside from Dr. Manhattan (my favorite of the superheroes, mainly because of the way his unique superhero characteristics are portrayed so perfectly using the comic panels), possess no superhuman abilities. They have a depth and complexity that, if I were not an avid reader of graphic novels, I might have been surprised to see. This is definitely not a book for young children - aside from the many scenes of graphic violence, the bleak and depressing atmosphere and events, it is best appreciated by mature readers who will appreciate its complexity and biting social commentary.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics, 1987)

Other blog reviews:
The Book Review: "The characters are what make Watchmen great. There are so many fascinating and deep characters here, and Moore uses them to explore morality on virtually every level."
The Fickle Hand of Fate: "The one most impressive feature is the sheer weight of all the subtle things going on at any given time. From the slowly counting doomsday clock, to the slow wash of blood through every chapter, to the chapter titles that are quotes by anyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein."
Paperback Rider: "The characters are complex (as is the plot), and the story is told in a manner that still seems innovative. There are sequences in ‘Watchmen’ that are absolute masterworks of the combination of text and visual storytelling."
Stainless Steel Droppings: "Its message is both unsettling and hopeful depending on where one places their focus as the events unfold in the final chapter. In short, Watchmen is a very good story and well worth your taking the time to read it, before the film’s release."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An "unjustifiably forgotten" fantasy tale

I'd heard Lud-in-the-Mist mentioned in various blogs in the past year or two, but I had never heard of it before that, despite the fact that it is apparently a seminal work of fantasy literature. It sounded intriguing. Then it was mentioned in glowing terms in a short story I read by Neil Gaiman a few months ago, and it seemed like one of those hints from providence that I should probably give it a try. So I put it on hold at my library.

When it arrived, I found that there was an enticing endorsement by Neil Gaiman on the cover: "The single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century." Writer Michael Swanwick writes, "Lud-in-the-Mist is simultaneously one of the least known and most influential of modern fantasies. It is an underground classic among fantasists, many of whom list it among their favorite books." Now, there is the sort of praise that tends to heighten one's expectations just a bit.

The story is about a city called Lud-in-the-Mist, which is the capital of the kingdom of Dorimare. The city is not too far from the borders of Fairyland, but a sort of schism has developed between the folk of Lud-in-the-Mist and those in Fairyland, despite a long shared history. The word "fairy" is hardly to be spoken in Dorimare - it has become an offensive word, and the rejection of all things fairy has been written into the laws in such a way so as to be nearly ridiculous, as if refusing to admit the existence of a thing will cause it to cease to be.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is our hero, and he is not a typical hero at that: he is middle aged, stubborn, short-sighted, self-involved, and a bit pompous. But he has a good heart, and it is that that enables him to overcome his shortcomings and undertake to do what must be done, even when it goes against all he has ever been taught, and all that society approves of. As the story unfolds, we see a land that is out of balance, and as that balance tips further and further from equilibrium, all kinds of strange and upsetting things happen. Nathaniel's daughter, along with the other girls at her finishing school, begin acting strangely and, one day, they simply disappear. His son, it seems, as been tricked into eating forbidden fairy fruit, and now longs for unseen, unheard things. Someone is smuggling fairy fruit into Lud-in-the-Mist, and, whatever odd things are occurring, the mysterious but well-respected Dr. Endymion Leer seems always to be nearby.

The story unfolds like a puzzle box, and nothing, it appears, is exactly what it seems. Fairyland is alternately a menacing presence and a mystical, appealing one. The "rational" land of Dorimare is alternately a place of dreary, meaningless routine and a safe world in which all is as it should be. Which is right? Which is true? Where, in fact, do the greatest dangers lie? The reader takes a journey along with Nathaniel and other colorful characters down a twisting and turning path of discovery.

Hope Mirrlees has a deft hand with imagery, and her writing was a delight. I loved the place names (the Debatable Hills, Swan-on-the Dapple) and the character names (Moonlove, Mumchance, Polydore). Her description of Nathaniel, for example, gives so much with just a few words:

Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, the actual head of the family, was a typical Dorimarite in appearance: rotund, rubicund, red-haired, with hazel eyes in which the jokes, before he uttered them, twinkled like a trout in a burn.

I enjoyed the novel very much, but at the same time I never felt that full sense of being completely immersed in the story, of being intimately connected to the characters and events. This seems to happen, with me, anyway, when a story is more about an idea that is being played out by the characters, rather than a story that stems from the very beings of the characters themselves. What also served to distance me a bit from the story was the fact that Nathaniel, when his daughter goes missing, is a bit upset. But then when his son disappears, he is so distraught and moves heaven and earth to get him back. It made me lose a bit of sympathy for him, there!

I read on more from intellectual curiosity than from a visceral sense of connection to the story - and that's fine. I think that it was the huge build-up to the anticipated storytelling experience that made me feeling a wee bit let down. Still, I'm very glad to have read the novel. Its palpable atmosphere of mystery is sure to stay with me, and it is easy to see why it has influenced so many writers over the years.

Lud-in-the Mist by Hope Mirrlees (Cold Spring Press, 2005; originally published in 1926)

Also reviewed at:
Framed and Booked: "This is not an easy, lighthearted fantasy. It takes some time and thought to really get into the story. As one who likes to breeze through books, I will probably have to read this one several times in order to enjoy all the layers."
Jenny's Books: "...
the book itself is delightful – it’s funny in places and haunting in places, and Hope Mirlees has an excellent turn of phrase."
Quixotical: "It is truly one of the finest works of fantasy I have had the pleasure of reading. The descriptive prose swiftly transports the reader into a classic (and very English) fantasy world full of wit and aphorisms that I for one am powerless to resist."
Things Mean a Lot: "I found it funny and mysterious and frightening just in the right amount, and, on top of that, it’s beautifully and very elegantly written."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Divided in Death

This series, written under a pseudonym by Nora Roberts, has been regular reading fodder of mine for years. It's odd that I have yet to complete it, even though I've been reading it for such a long time. Mainly that's because these books are a dependable, gripping read, something I know will not only be absorbing and compelling, but also because revisiting the characters is like stopping by for a visit with old friends, to catch up on their lives. So I wait until I'm facing a long plane ride or going though a difficult time where I will benefit from a comprehensive break from reality.

While the books are set in a futuristic version of New York, I would not classify these as science fiction - they are really fun police procedural murder mysteries that typically focus on the psychological aspects of murder and violence, with a dash of romance for a bit of leavening. The "science fictional" trappings make the series fun and a bit different, but lend more to the atmosphere and are not an intrinsic part of the books. The mysteries tend to be character driven - my favorite kind - and events in the personal lives of the characters become wrapped up in the investigation, which tends to heighten the tension of the novels.

As with any series, some books are more successful than others, and I found myself enjoying this one very much. The book opens with an angry woman who has just discovered her husband has been cheating on her (with her good friend, no less), and goes to her friend's apartment to confront them. She breaks in, only to find that her husband and friend have been brutally murdered. It turns out that the woman, a former member of the Secret Service, now works for Roarke, Eve's husband. Eve is called into the investigation, which soon reveals itself to be much more than a domestic dispute.

At the same time, information about Eve's troubled past surfaces, and the ramifications pose a serious threat to the equilibrium of her relationship with Roarke. The more Eve uncovers the disturbing details surrounding the marriage of the murder victim, the more she finds herself examining her own marriage, her role in it, and its future. Eve is a compelling character, a very strong woman who regularly faces down the demons from her past in order to protect others, and her job as a police investigator is very much a part of who she is. Roarke has demons of his own, and he has dealt with them in a very different way; yet, until now, their marriage has managed to withstand certain differences of opinion. However, there are issues in which compromise is simply not an option.

This book was particularly successful because of the way in which the author seamlessly weaves together the personal storyline with the murder investigation, creating a gripping read that also gives the reader plenty of food for thought. Robb also has a deft hand with humor, and just when the book seems overwhelmingly dark, something happens to give it a lift. Eve, for example, has no problem facing down rampaging lunatics and cold-blooded serial killers. But send her into a salon for a facial or haircut, and she's already sneaking out the back door. It is surprising to me that I have yet to tire of this series, given how very many books have been written. This is no doubt due to the author's ability to create intriguing murder mysteries, but is also a testament to her skillful creation of the characters, who possess a wonderful amount of depth and detail, always leaving me curious to hear more about their lives.

Divided in Death (#18 in the Eve Dallas series) by J.D. Robb (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004)

Books in the Eve Dallas series:

1. Naked in Death
2. Glory in Death
3. Immortal in Death
4. Rapture in Death
5. Ceremony in Death
6. Vengeance in Death
7. Holiday in Death
8. Conspiracy in Death
9. Loyalty in Death
10. Witness in Death
11. Judgment in Death
12. Betrayal in Death
13. Seduction in Death
14. Reunion in Death
15. Purity
in Death
16. Portrait
in Death
17. Imitation
in Death
18. Divided
in Death
19. Visions in Death
20. Survivor
in Death
21. Origin in Death
22. Memory in Death
23. Born in Death
24. Innocent in Death
25. Creation in Death
26. Strangers in Death
26. Salvation in Death

Monday, December 15, 2008

Witches, wicked as they come

I started reaidng this book to my girls in October for our second Halloween read, after Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, and it was well received (although the 9-year-old seemed to like it more than the 7-year-old). It is a darkly comic tale about a little boy whose parents die, and his beloved Norwegian grandmother becomes his guardian. While he'd much prefer to live in Norway with her, his parents had made it clear that they wished him to attend school in England, and so his grandmother moves there to live with him. He doesn't mind school, but he loves spending time with his grandmother, who tells him all kinds of strange and interesting stories, particularly about what seems to be her favorite topic: witches. And these are not storybook witches, either - they are real, dangerous creatures masquerading as nice women. They abhor children, and in fact their sole purpose in life appears to be doing away with as many children as they possibly can.

The first part of the book is rather episodic and consists of his grandmother's stories about how to identify a witch (which it is nearly impossible to do with certainty), and darkly humorous cautionary tales about what happened to ignorant children who met up with witches and did not realize it until it was too late. The boy isn't quite sure whether or not his grandmother is really telling the truth, but she does have a finger missing on one hand, and although she refuses to talk about it, he suspects it might have had something to do with a witch.

The story really takes off when he and his grandmother stay at a seaside resort, and he stumbles onto a meeting of what appear to be nice women from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - but he learns to his astonishment and horror that they are actually witches assembled for their annual meeting with the head witch of all the witches in the world, the most horrible, wicked, evil witch ever: the Grand High Witch! Not only that, but he overhears their dastardly plot to rid England of every last child in one fell swoop.

This book is often challenged in libraries because it is dark and a bit disturbing, but it is also funny as well - that is a combination that seems to baffle and upset some adult readers. But I'd venture to say it wouldn't bother too many children. After all, aren't they always being told cautionary tales about people who act nice and look nice but really are out to harm them in some nebulous, unexplained way? At least here the villains are clear, and while bad things indeed happen, there is a definite sense that the strength derived from the loving relationship between the boy and his grandmother is something not even a legion of wicked witches will be able to withstand. And that, I think, is a comforting notion.

This made for a great read-aloud, and Quentin Blake's whimsical illustrations were a perfect complement to the text, the cartoonish images serving to remind the reader that it is, after all, a story not to be taken too seriously. We had a wonderful time wrapping up our Halloween season (which extended well into November with this read) with this exciting, funny novel.

I saw the film with Anjelica Huston years ago, and enjoyed it (although I thought it was a shame that they changed the ending that way) - and I just learned that there is a new stop-motion animation version of the film in the works, which will certainly be something to look forward to. In the meantime, I'll watch the first version with my girls and see what they think of it.

The Witches by Roald Dahl (Farrar, 1983)

Also reviewed at:
Maw Books Blog: "The Witches was a fun read that I look forward to reading with my kids when they are older."
The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog: "An amazing book- as the judges of the Whitbread Award were rumored to have described it as “deliciously disgusting,” and most decidedly dark as well. "
Nothing of Importance: "I honestly can't tell you how much I enjoyed this book. It was a pure delight, but definitely not a delight of the sugar-coated variety."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A haunting, gothic tale within a tale

I had heard many, many good things about this book at the library where I work, as well as from friends and acquaintances. But it wasn't until I read some of the reviews listed below that I finally decided to take the plunge. As a children's librarian, I simply don't read that many books for adults - mainly because there isn't much time, if I'm attempting to keep up with all the books being published for young readers, but also because I have such a towering pile of books from my favorite writers of adult books already.

But sometimes you need to give a book a chance, and between Valentina's, Chris's, Nymeth's and Ladytink's reviews, I was intrigued. I decided on a whim to listen to the audio version of this one, and I was so glad I did. It seems meant to be read aloud, as it is composed of stories within stories, and, as there are two readers, the narration truly brings the story to life.

The basic premise is this: Margaret Lea is a lonely young woman who lives in an apartment above her father's used book store. She is haunted by a ghost from her past, the surrounding events of which slowly unfold throughout the course of the novel. She writes biographies of obscure, dead writers (the only writers whose work she reads), biographies that are published in obscure publications. So she is dumbfounded when the celebrated writer Vida Winter, a woman known as Dickens of modern day of British literature, contacts her, requesting that Margaret write her biography. Margaret is understandably reluctant to do so, as it is well known that Vida Winter has never told her life true story to anyone, always making up fantastical and wonderful stories that are patently false. In fact, Margaret travels to Vida Winter's house determined to refuse her request.

But still...there is something about the woman, about the way she asks Margaret, "Do you believe in ghosts?" The way she is clearly in terrible pain from the illness that is slowly but surely ending her life, that makes Margaret waver in her resolve. Soon she is being told a story to end all stories, a ghost story, a story of a strange pair twins growing up in a rambling old house full of dark secrets and deep silence and, perhaps, ghosts. The story ensnares Margaret's imagination, and before long it relentlessly starts calling to the the ghosts from her own past, forcing her to face things she thought she'd successfully buried years ago...

This audio book was 13 discs long, and even so, I became more and more concerned as the book wore on to its inevitable conclusion - I enjoyed the telling so very much, I simply didn't want it to end! I loved the Gothic feel of the novel, the complex plot with its twists and turns, the unforgettable characters, the drafty old house that was nearly a character in and of itself, the unreliable narrator that made me rethink things constantly, trying to sort out the truth from the misleading red herrings. This is a story in which not is all as it seems, even the events as they are presented.

My only issue with the book, which is an admittedly minor gripe, is the following, and if you've read the book, I'd love your input. It is a major spoiler, so be forewarned and highlight the following text at your own peril! At the end of Vida's tale, when she describes the aftermath of the fire, it seems to me that she would immediately have known which of the sisters was which, based on the clothing they were wearing. One was in bed, after all, and would probably have been wearing a nightgown or pajamas or something, right? And the other, who she'd been watching down in the library, would have been dressed in something else, I imagine. I thought so, anyway, and that made the subsequent ambiguity less believable to me.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and I particularly recommend the audio version. The narrators did a wonderful job, their voices combining with Setterfield's vivid imagery to paint unforgettable pictures in my mind. This will be on my list of favorite novels read this year.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; narrated by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner (Recorded Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "This book is supurbley written. It haunted me as much as the story Vida Winter told Margaret Lea within its pages."
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog: "Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life."
Reading Adventures: "Populated with a cast of lonely characters searching for their own truths, this book is an amazing read, and well worth picking up!"
Stainless Steel Droppings: "I have cherished the reading of this book over the last week. All other books were set aside. When I wasn’t reading The Thirteenth Tale, I was thinking about it, remembering it."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "There are so many things that I loved about this book. The characters are wonderful. Vida Winter is someone that I wish truly existed just so that I could sit in her library in front of her fireplace and listen to her tell me her stories."
Things Mean a Lot: "I recognized Vida Winter’s story as soon as she begun to tell it. And no, I didn’t know how it all was going to turn out, but I was instantly reminded of Jane Eyre, of Rebecca, of Tideland, of “A Rose for Emily”, of every novel or story I’ve ever read with a classic Gothic feel, old or new."
Valentina's Room: "It is indeed a book about books, but not only. It’s a Gothic mystery, an incredible page-turner and simply a well-crafted story. Read it."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Yotsuba&!, Volume 2

In this second volume of the very funny and sweet manga series, the little green-haired Yotsuba is back, starring in stories just as hilarious and touching as in the first book. I have to sheepishly admit that the "&!" at the end of the title completely baffled me until my nine-year-old pointed out the (now obvious) fact that each book is divided into sections, and each section is labeled: "Yotsuba & ____!" Duh.

This volume sees Yotsuba trying her hand at drawing ("Yotsuba & Drawing!", playing a delightful trick on her father while he's asleep ("Yotsuba & No Bother!"), and showing off her surprising swimming skills at the pool ("Yotsuba & Pools!"), among other things. It is hard to describe how endearing she is, and how wonderfully Azuma depicts the relationship between Yotsuba and her father - as well as her friendship with the next-door neighbors. I haven't laughed so much reading comics since the days of and The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I love the way these volumes are structured, with the various episodic stories coming together to form the larger whole of each book.

This manga series would be an excellent choice for younger children who love graphic novels but who aren't yet ready for more mature themes and plotlines of most manga series (at least most of the ones at my library), which seem to be geared more toward teens and adults. Yet the characterization and humor are sophisticated enough to be appreciated by readers of any age.

This book counts as my first manga read for Rhinoa's Manga Challenge. If you're thinking of joining the challenge and don't know where to start, try this series. It is sure to make you laugh!

Books reviewed in the Yotsuba&! series so far:
Volume 1

Yotsuba&!, Volume 2 by Kiyohiko Azuma (ADV Manga, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Warren Peace: "I must be turning into a softie in my old, old age (29), because I, like the rest of the internet, have fallen head over heels for this cute little girl and her gang of followers. Whodathunkit?"

B&OT review of Yotsuba&! Vol. 1

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Meredith Gentry returns

This seventh installment in the Meredith Gentry series keeps up the same fast and frenetic pace as its predecessors. I will do my best to review without major spoilers to the series, but be forewarned that this series really must be read in order, or the books will make very little sense.

The basic premise is that the presence of faeries is an acknowledged fact to the rest of the world, and that those in America made a binding agreement with the founders of the U.S. never to wage war on American soil - or they will be banished. Meredith is half human, half faerie, and she is a faerie princess of the Unseelie (or dark) court. Dark, we learn quickly from the beginning of the series, does not mean evil; nor does the light, or Seelie court, mean good. They are different, but good and evil exist in both courts, as is repeatedly and graphically illustrated. The Seelie court, as it is more aesthetically pleasing (on the outside, anyway), has better PR with the media - but Meredith is slowly changing the public's perceptions on that score.

Meredith has been put in the unenviable position of trying to get pregnant before her insane cousin, the current queen's son, can sire a child. Whoever does so first will become the next ruler of the Unseelie court. Unfortunately her cousin has no intention of playing fair, and asssassinatin attmempts and underhanded behavior are the norm. This novel continues the story, launching Meredith into dire situations, heartbreaking and breathtaking and mystical situations, forcing her to make nearly impossible decisions for herself, her future children - not to mention the future of her two races.

I am always amazed and delighted by Hamilton's ability to weave an enchanting, gripping tale, and this seventh book in the series is certainly no exception. There is no other author who consistently has me up way past my intended bedtime, as I think, "Oh, I'll just read to the end of this scene, and then I'll stop." She somehow has these overlapping narrative arcs going on so that as once scene ends, another has already begun, and I just keep turning those pages. Even when I'm rereading one of her books! It's infuriating - and delightful.

Books in the Meredith Gentry series:
1. A Kiss of Shadows
2. A Caress of Twilight
3. Seduced by Moonlight

4. A Stroke of Midnight

5. Mistral's Kiss
6. A Lick of Frost
7. Swallowing Darkness
8. Divine Misdemeanors

Swallowing Darkness (#7 in the Meredith Gentry series) by Laurell K. Hamilton (Ballantine Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
All Booked Up: "I know I'm waiting for the next book quite eagerly..."
Darque Reviews: " Fans will be thrilled with the magical surprises shared by faerie, and stunned by the shocking end to this installment."
SciFiGuy: "Swallowing Darkness is one of the strongest installments of the Meredith Gentry series and fans of Laurell K. Hamilton will not be disappointed."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Dewey

I felt incredibly bereft when I returned from vacation to find that my fellow book-blogger, the friendly and enterprising Dewey of The Hidden Side of a Leaf, had passed away. Dewey has been a presence in this amazing book-blogging community as long as I've been blogging. Her insightful and often funny blog was a place I loved to stop by, and her friendly comments to my posts were always very welcome.

I loved her Weekly Geeks and the many other wonderful things she did to get us thinking and writing and working together. She once stopped by my blog, saying she liked the way I added links to other bloggers' book reviews at the end of my reviews, and she wondered if I'd mind if she made doing that a Weekly Geeks "assignment" for those who wanted to join in. Mind? I was thrilled!

One of the things that I love about blogging is the way we get to bring forward a particular side of ourselves to highlight, and keep hidden whatever other aspects of ourselves we wish. Of course there are other things going on in my blogging-buddies' lives besides the books they're reading and reviewing and thinking about buying, and I don't know why I was so astonished to discover that Dewey had been so very ill and in so very much pain. I'm glad that our community was there as an outlet for her (heaven knows it's an outlet for me!) and I admire how strong and cheerful she was, as well as her commitment to the things she felt were important. The thought of all those piles of unread books in her house gives me a pang whenever I think about it. I will miss her very much.

The above image is a painting by Tamara Berk called "Dawn," and is used with her permission. Other beautiful paintings by Tamara Berk can be seen here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Chalice

Robin McKinley is a masterful storyteller. She is on my list of authors whose books I read as soon as they are published - I never even bother reading the reviews or even the cover flap - I just flip to the first page, full of anticipation, and start reading. And I'm never disappointed.

This YA fantasy novel is set in a fictional country in which the rulers and their circle are connected to the land in a concrete, visceral way - particularly the person who is known as the Chalice. Our heroine, Mirasol, is a beekeeper who suddenly finds herself thrust into the position as Willowlands' new Chalice after a fatal accident befalls the previous Master and Chalice. She is woefully unprepared. The previous chalice had no apprentice, and neither did the Master. She feels inadequate and ignorant, yet she somehow manages to rise to the occasion as crises present themselves.

Matters are complicated by the new Master, the previous Master's younger brother, who was sent away seven years earlier to become a Priest of Fire. Now he is barely human, and his own circle as well as the inhabitants of Willowlands find him a fearsome figure, and are unwilling to put their trust in him. Yet Mirasol, wiser than she realizes, senses in him a kind heart that, given time, might enable them to heal the land. However, the Overlord has other plans, and the apprentice Master he sends is someone she can barely stand, and she fears the land will not survive such a Master. But what is a simple beekeeper to do?

I loved the way McKinley simply throws the reader into the story - it might be confusing to those readers who must have everything explained to them immediately. But for me, as the facts and strange customes of Willowlands slowly unfolded themselves to my understanding, it echoed the confusion of Mirasol as she is thrust into such a complex, overwhelming situation. As always, the characters shine, the plot is a joy to follow, and the imagery is vivid. My only problem with the book was that it ended too soon. McKinley always keeps me wanting more. I hope she'll return to this fascinating world in future books.

Chalice by Robin McKinley (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008)

Other reviews:
Em's Bookshelf: "This is the first Robin McKinley book that I've read and I loved it. With its magical elements and its down-to-earth heroine, Chalice is one of the best fairy tales I've read this year."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Manga Challenge!

Not that I need an excuse to read more manga, but who could resist Rhinoa's Manga Challenge? It sounds like a lot of fun. The rules are:

Read at least 6 manga novels in 2009 (cross overs with other challenges are fine and please feel free to read more!).
Sign up at her blog with Mister Linky.
She will put up a post each month with a Mister Linky for us to add our reviews to.
You do not need to set a list of books to read in advance, just fill them in as you go if it's easier.

I love reading manga - my main challenge is finding the time to write reviews, since they are such quick reads. I think I will not make up a list at this point, and just read what appeals to me as I go along.

Thanks for hosting this fun challenge, Rhinoa!

I will list my books on the sidebar as I go along, and then I'll do a wrap-up post at the end of the challenge. It's not too late to join in!

Becoming a true princess

"The Goose Girl" was always one of my favorite stories in my Grimm's fairy tale collection when I was growing up. I'm not sure why - it may have been because I'd never heard of it anywhere else or seen it as a movie (like "Cinderella" and "Snow White.) It was also so very odd, with the horse's head hung over the bridge, which I found both fascinating and horrible. What can I say? It appears my taste for dark fantasy was forming even back then.

The first time I read this, I was excited to see how Hale would explain all the things that I'd always wondered about when I read the fairy tale. How did the princess allow her lady's maid to take her place so easily? And what about that poor horse? Even though I knew how the story would end, Shannon Hale's retelling was a riveting read all the same, with a depth of character not found in traditional fairy tales and plenty of twists and turns and deft world-building.

The story is about Ani, a princess who lives in the shadow of her vibrant, successful mother. Ani is different from the day she is born, with odd abilities that are unsettling to those around her (except her father). Instead of inheriting the throne, as she expects, she suddenly finds herself sent on a long journey to marry a prince of another kingdom in order to maintain peace. Ani's serious issues with self-confidence land her in a spot when she finds herself betrayed, on the run, in fear for her life, and subsequently trying to live what others would call a normal life after having been waited on hand and foot since she was a baby. While she at times tried my patience with her timidity and self-doubt, Ani does rise to the challenge, discovering things about herself - and the responsibility of being a princess - that she never would have without facing such difficult trials.

There are now several books in the Bayern series, and finding my memory of this one to have faded a bit, I thought I'd listen to the audio version before continuing on with the series. I was delighted to find it is a Full Cast Audio production. These are fabulous interpretations of children's books, with each character's dialog spoken by a different actor, and a single narrator reading the rest of the book. They do a wonderful job! I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this exciting novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the second in the series.

The Goose Girl (#1 in the Bayern series) by Shannon Hale (Full Cast Audio, 2005)

Books in The Goose Girl series:
1. The Goose Girl
2. Enna Burning
3. River Secrets

Other reviews:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "
Overall, I thought it was a nice story, although a little longer than it warranted and without any twist or hook to really grab my attention."
Love and Hate: "Shannon Hale's writing is beautiful. Her descriptions are beautiful. The story is beautiful. The goose girl and her yellow hair are beautiful. I love everything about the book."
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "There were lots of twists and turns and the story telling was beautifully woven."
Things Mean a Lot: "I don’t think I have been this completely enchanted by a book since I read Stardust for the first time."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Dragonfly Pool

I am always delighted Eva Ibbotson publishes a new novel, so I checked this one out of the library as soon as I saw it. The story is set in England in 1939 and features a young girl named Tally. We are first introduced to Tally through the eyes and thoughts of other characters - it seems they've all heard that she is to go away to boarding school, and they are all very upset about how much they will miss her. From her own father and the aunties she lives with to Tally's elderly neighbor whose dog she walks, to her childhood friends - all are devastated by the prospect of her absence. But because they love her and realize that the scholarship to a private boarding school is a precious opportunity for her, they do their best to put on a cheerful and supportive front.

Tally herself is extremely reluctant to leave. Who will take care of her father? He is a doctor, and instead of working for wealthy clients and living in the nice part of down, like his brother, he lives in a modest home and does his best for working class clients, only charging what they can afford. But Tally agrees to go, because her father insists that it is truly the best thing for her. And she expects to hate it, especially after hearing all about her wealthy cousins' boarding schools - but it turns out that Delderton, an experimental school, is precisely the place where Tally can thrive - emotionally, intellectually, and socially.

A school trip to perform folk dancing in the small country of Bergania - a country that has thus far stood up to Hitler, refusing to allow his troops to enter - takes Tally and her friends on an unforgettable adventure. Here we are introduced to Karil, the crown prince of Bergania, a sad, lonely boy who longs to connect with someone. Tallys' chance meeting with Karil sparks a chain of events that takes her down a path of danger and discovery, in a riveting tale of friendship, bravery, loss, and redemption.

The story is delightful, not only for the characters and the plot, but because of the wonderful storytelling itself. For example, as Tally is leaving for school on the train, Ibbotson writes:

People don't die from getting into school trains and Tally, as she leaned out the window to wave, stayed incurably alive, but as she saw her father and the aunts standing very upright on the plaform she felt a sense of desolation such as she had never known.

One of my favorite characters is Pom-Pom, the dog:

Prince Dmitri's mother, the old Princess Natalia, brought a small, low-slung dog with a topknot and an ancient pedigree. Pom-Pom was descended from a long line of Outer Mongolian pedestal (or snuggle)
dogs, which had been bred to warm the feet of the Great Khans in their drafty palaces and now wheezed through the corridors of Rottingdene House, seeking the dark, familiar world of legs and shoes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this YA book, with its combination of fairytale and historical novel with a dash of alternate reality thrown in. The characters are charming and complex and utterly believable, and I closed the book feeling I'd spent a delightful time with some very dear friends. I highly recommend this one!

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson (Dutton Children's Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Pictures and Conversations: "Whenever I talk about Eva Ibbotson’s writing I almost forget to mention that she writes cracking stories filled with believable characters. She does, of course. But I might read her books even if they didn’t have great plots just for the joy of living in her sublime language for a while."
Welcome to My Tweendom: "Fans of Ibbotson should love this, as should fans of Creech, Birdsall, and even Cushman. With strong boy and girl characters and a fast moving story, the appeal crosses gender lines as well. A perfect choice for the tweensters during this season of gift-giving!"

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho...

...it's off on vacation we go! Have a happy Thanksgiving (if you're in a place where that's being celebrated), and I'll see you all when we get back at the end of the month. It's a bit daunting to think about all the blog reading I'll have to catch up on - not to mention all the book reviews, since I'm behind already! But I'll worry about that when I get back...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The extraordinary Temeraire

I discovered this book through a fellow librarian at work, who not only recommended the series, but specifically the audio version. When she said it was swashbuckling adventure during the Napoleonic wars, I wasn't too interested. That is, until she said, "with dragons." Then I was intrigued, and since I've come to trust her taste in books (she is, after all, a Miles Vorkosigan fan), I picked up the first book of the series and started listening.

The premise is that the air corps of the military forces in the world are made up of different breeds of dragons. Each breed has different strengths and advantages, and each dragon must be "harnessed" by a partner shortly after hatching, or it will not be socialized and trainable.

Laurence, a captain of a British sailing ship, captures a French ship, and on board the captured vessel, they discover a dragon egg. It is an amazing prize, but there's just one hitch: the dragon egg is perilously close to hatching, and they are days from shore. One of the ship's officers must attempt to harness the baby dragon, or they risk losing it to the wild, which would be a grievous loss, as every able-bodied dragon is sorely needed to help defend the country against Napoleon. They draw straws, and Laurence includes himself among the officers, because he is an honorable man. None of them wants to be part of the Aeriel Corps - those men who live separately, perforce, from society. Laurence and his officers are seamen, with lives on land, aspirations in the Navy. Laurence is privately embarrassed by his own relief when he is not chosen, although he can see what a poor choice the lad with the short straw is - he's terribly afraid of heights, but he tries, when the time comes, to harness the creature.

However, as Laurence is soon to learn, when dragons are concerned, it's best to expect the unexpected. Laurence's life is turned upside down when the little dragon approaches him, and the dismay he initially feels at the consequences - losing his place in society, his pretty fiancee, his naval career - quickly dissipates as he comes to realize that harnessing the young dragon, Temeraire, is the finest thing that could ever have possibly happened to him.

This first book in the series follows Laurence and Temeraire as they explore their new world together and try to find a place for themselves in the Aeriel Corps. Temeraire is an unusual dragon - his breed is unlike any other in the Corps, and Laurence, as a sea captain, is an unusual dragon rider. But together they make an excellent team, and the development of their relationship as the book progressed was my favorite aspect of the book.

I have seen this book compared with Jane Austen's novels, and it seems an odd comparison for a fantasy novel set during wartime. Yet it is an applicable comparison, especially in the dialogue of the book, as much is conveyed with few words, and what remains unsaid is nearly as important as what is spoken aloud. The audio version is a treat! Simon Vance is such an effective narrator that I found myself forgetting that it was a single person telling the story - it seemed like a host of characters, each with a distinct voice. I particularly enjoyed Temeraire's voice - Vance uses the perfect expression and intonation for his speech.

I was a tad reluctant to read the book initially, because of the love I bear Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, and the fact that most other dragon novels (particularly those about riders bonding with dragons) simply do not hold a candle to the amazing world she created in those novels. I need not have worried - Novik's world is so very different, as are the dragons and their relationships with humans, and it quickly became an entirely separate thing, set as it is in a world that is in every respect realistic to its time period (except, of course, for the dragons).

This was a truly delightful novel, with excellent characterization, tight writing, and effective world building. I am so pleased that there are many more books in the series that have already been published, and I intend to listen to the audio version of all of them. I highly recommend this one!

Books in the Temeraire series:
1. His Majesty's Dragon
2. Throne of Jade
3. Black Powder War
4. Empire of Ivory
5. Victory of Eagles

His Majesty's Dragon (#1 in the Temeraire series; UK title: Temeraire) by Naomi Novik; read by Simon Vance (Books on Tape, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
All Booked Up: "...there's a bit of everything, from battle, to society, to politics and beyond. The pacing seems to be well done, and this is a book where all the positive hype on LibraryThing and elsewhere seems to be correct."
Mikko Reads: "This is perfect entertainment: light and quick to read, but also funny, smart and touching. The main characters in the book are particularly charming."
My Life as Seen Through Books: "I found this book to be a creative and fun read, and the relationship between the dragons and their "handlers" is nothing short of sweet. I mean, who wouldn't want their very own dragon, especially one that's strong, powerful, intelligent, and wholly devoted to you?"
Reading Adventures: "Overall, a very enjoyable read."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not so hot

I enjoyed the anthology On the Prowl, and I also like Kim Harrison's books, so when I saw this book on the shelves at my library, I thought I'd give it a try.

Tanya Huff's story "Music Hath Charms" opens the anthology, and I enjoyed it very much, which was not unexpected, as she's a favorite author of mine. After that, though, the stories were a fairly mixed bunch. I think that it takes a skillful writer to put together a short story in which there is a mandatory romantic element that feels believable and right, while at the same time crafting a well-written fantasy story. At least it feels that way after reading one after the other. Many of them seemed more wish-fulfillment fantasies than actual well-crafted tales.

The first three stories of the book were my favorites: Tanya Huff's, as I mentioned, along with "Minotaur in Stone" by Marjorie Liu (an interesting premise and some vivid imagery, but again, I didn't quite buy the abrupt intense love of the two main characters for each other) and "Demon Lover" by Cheyenne McCray (a slightly predicable but intriguing tale of a succubus and one of his victims).

Of the others that worked for me, I enjoyed Kim Harrison's story, although it relied a bit too much on a twist that, as I reread it, made me feel as though she'd cheated a bit to pull it off. I also enjoyed "Brother's Keeper" by Lilith Saintcrow, which sets up an intriguing murder mystery in which the victim is the main character's brother. But there's no conclusion to the story - it's as though the author submitted the opening chapter to a novel, and suddenly it all ends. We never even find out whodunnit. It was frustrating, but the character is in such an unusual predicament that I'd certainly pick up the novel to find out what happens! I scrolled through the author's books on Amazon, but I didn't see any featuring Selene, the main character in this story. I saw several series, though - are there any fans out there who'd recommend them?

All in all, I am glad I got this from the library. I'd have been disappointed had I shelled out the money to buy it.

Hotter Than Hell, edited by Kim Harrison (Harper, 2008)

Also reviewed by:
The Good, the Bad, the Unread: "While all of the stories are well-written and none are truly awful, many of the stories are forgettable or unsatisfying."
Janicu's Book Blog: "I feel somewhat disappointed in a lot of the stories in this anthology. In most of them I found too much of the sexual attraction, not enough to make me believe in the relationship."
Riley's Reviews: "I will say, this has to be one of the first anthologies in which I genuinely liked every story -- each was a winner for me in its own way."

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The most recent additions to our household

If it were up to me, our house would resemble something from My Family and Other Animals. But I would probably be a single parent at that point - and also I must realistically admit that there are only so many hours in a day, and it's time consuming to take care of the dog and two cats that we already share the house with.

But still, the girls have been clamoring for pets of their "very own" to take care of, and I was lucky enough as a child to be allowed to take care of little critters of my very own (hamsters, mice, parakeets, gerbils) - and it was very rewarding. I also learned a bit about responsibility, and putting another's needs before my own. So (to make a long story short) we caved.

Of course, as a librarian, what was I to do but conduct a bit of research about which small animal would best suit our needs? The more I read about rats, how sociable and intelligent they are, the more intrigued I became. I don't remember rats being an option when I was little (of course, I bought all my little critters at Woolworth's, so there wasn't a great selection!), but I sure would have enjoyed them. The little girls we have are called "dumbo rats" because of their large, low-set ears. They remind me very much of the Ratatouille rats!

They are so much more affectionate than any of the little rodents I had as a child. My hamsters and gerbils put up with me, tolerated my holding them - but these rats actually run up to the cage door when they see us come into the room. When we put out our hands, up our arms they run to our shoulders, and they love hanging out there and checking everything out! We keep a box of bedding nearby, and they are pretty much litter trained, as long as we remember to allow them to access the box every so often. They're inquisitive little explorers, and the kids have been having fun setting up playgrounds for them using boxes and Legos and tubes to connect them (the strawberry house above is part of the Lego set).

I had been very concerned about the cats, but they appear only mildly interested, as they obviously have far more important things on their minds. They'll sniff noses with them (more, it appears, to humor us than for any other reason), and then they go on their way. The dog, however, seems to harbor a suspicion that they are squirrels in disguise. And she really, really wants to get them! So we have to be very careful.

They sure love all kinds of food - broccoli, beans, crackers, sunflower seeds, grapes - you name it. I keep hoping one of them might turn out to be a gourmand like Remy. And maybe one day I'll come home from work to find a wonderful meal ready and waiting....

Hard times in northern England

Joe and Annie, brother and sister, were left by their desperate mother at the workhouse when they were very little. She promised she would soon return for them, but years went by, and she never did. Instead, they are farmed out to a horrible, abusive family who appear bent on working them and starving them until they are too weak to work or eat. The story opens with Annie, the younger of the two, being hit so hard on the head by the enraged "Mistress" that she is knocked unconscious. She and Joe are locked in the shed with the chickens, and Joe realizes that if they don't manage to escape somehow, they will never survive.

To complicate matters, Annie is an unusual child - she can see ghosts, and she can channel spirits of the dead, speaking with their voices. Joe is annoyed by this, and although her spirit-voices give useful warnings and advice, and he never seems to believe them except retrospectively. Their desperate flight to Manchester, where they believe their mother went, leads them through the countryside where they encounter a friendly tramp, a bizarre dog-like woman in the forest, and a traveling carnival - and to the city, where Joe encounters incredible poverty and gangs of street urchins, among other inhabitants of the city.

I was attracted to this novel because of its Dickensian feel, and it is certainly a vivid illustration of the difficult times the poor endured during the Victorian era in England. In fact, the book was inspired by a true story the author heard about an old farm near her house:

Many years before, a farmer and his wife had taken in a young boy and girl from the workhouse to work on the farm. Time passed, yet people noticed that the children didn't seem to get any older. Then a mother came looking for her children, and the horrible truth emerged: The farmer and his wife had been working the children to death and replacing them with similar-looking children from different workhouses.

While I enjoyed the book for the most part, I found Joe to be a difficult character to like, and at times I lost sympathy for him altogether and found it difficult to care what happened to him. What further alienated me from the book at those times was that his actions didn't seem fully believable to me. For example, he risks his life to get his sister to safety when they escape the farm. He takes great care of her during the days following, remembering how his mother had exhorted him to take care of Annie. When he later suddenly abandons her - not just leaving her, but taking a coin in return for leaving her, it just didn't make sense to me - it seemed more that the author was controlling his actions to make a point than a natural result of the character's personality and the narrative flow of the book. When I get the sensation that the author is moving characters about like pawns in order to serve her ends, it throws me out of the story.

Still, I kept reading - for while I couldn't care too much about Joe, the book was very interesting indeed. I think that children unfamiliar with the conditions that existed back then will be fascinated by this journey into the darker side of Victorian England, and they will come to respect Joe by the end of the book, as I did. This would be a good choice to read with children, or as a child/parent book club pick - there is fodder here for wonderful discussions.

The Whispering Road by Livi Michael (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005)

Also reviewed by:
A Fort Made of Books: "It isn’t an easy book to read. Joe isn’t an easy hero to sympathize with. Perhaps you will find that the ending repays all your struggle through the middle parts—though the same cannot be said for many of the tragic lives depicted in its pages."

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Book of Ballads

I first heard about this book through Chris and Rhinoa's blogs, and when I read that here are stories inspired by traditional ballads (which I find fascinating and evocative) illustrated by Charles Vess (one of my favorite artists) in graphic novel format (what fun!), with stories written by many of my favorite writers (Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Midori Snyder, Emma Bull) - how could I possibly resist?

The fascinating introduction by Terri Windling is not to be missed. Did you know that, if a certain bishop hadn't chanced to rescue an old manuscript that was being used to light a kitchen fire back in 1765, the ballads on that paper would never have been published - the same ballads that were an enormous inspiration to authors such as Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Southey, Goethe, and Sir Walter Scott? That story, and many more, are told in the introduction.

Each ballad of the collection is highlighted in its own separate tale - and these are stories inspired by the ballads, not simply illustrated retellings, so there are lots of fun surprises and interpretations that offer food for thought. At the end of each story is the text of the version of the ballad that inspired it. Some are funny, many are dark and violent, and in each one the illustrations are perfectly paired with the tone and atmosphere of the story.

Here are the stories and authors included in this wonderful anthology:

The False Knight on the Road by Neil Gaiman
King Henry by Jane Yolen
Thomas the Rhymer by Sharyn McCrumb
Barbara Allen by Midori Snyder
The Three Lovers by Lee Smith
Tam-Lin by Elaine Lee
The Daemon Lover by Delia Sherman
Twa Corbies by Charles de Lint
Sovay by Charles de Lint
The Galtee Farmer by Jeff Smith
Alison Gross by Charles Vess
The Black Fox by Emma Bull
The Great Selchie of Sule Skerry by Jane Yolen

The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I wish the illustrations could have been in color! Not because the black-and-white artwork isn't effective - it absolutely is - but because I know how gorgeous Vess's work is in color.

This wonderful collection is sure to appeal to readers who enjoy graphic novels, folktales and legends, fantasy stories, and ballads.

The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess (Green Man Press, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "Such a stunning collection, highly recommended to anyone with a love of the arts in any form."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "a book that I think should be in the collection of any lover of folklore, fairy tales, ballads, myths, legends, and fantasy."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One last book

It was a lovely surprise when this book by Madeleine L'Engle, published posthumously, showed up among the new books delivered to my library. It has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time, not because I didn't want to read it, but because I didn't want to have read it, if you know what I mean. She is one of my favorite writers, and I've read all her books, and it was nice to have this one to look forward to reading for a while.

The introduction, written by L'Engle's grand-daughter, tells how L'Engle never managed to publish this manuscript, and it ended up being a sort of special, private book for her two grand-daughters. It is set during the time of L'Engle's life that she spent in the theater, and while it might seem a bit dated to some readers, I found myself enjoying the glimpse of life during World War II - it was an interesting read because it was written during the time it was set, not as a retrospective historical novel - yet it was published so many years afterwards.

The story is a fairly simple coming-of-age story (and my library places it in the young adult section, although the editors who originally rejected it felt it was too old for teenagers). It tells the tale of Elizabeth Jerrold, who has just graduated from college, and who, against the wishes of her grumpy guardian Aunt Harriet, has taken a position as an apprentice to a summer theater company at the beach. She is a scholarship student, and Aunt Harriet grudgingly sends Elizabeth $20 a week for her room and board. Elizabeth adores the theater, and she's made some wonderful friends. She doesn't mind the hard work - she gets to the theater early to sell tickets and run errands, and she loves the acting lessons she and her fellow apprentices have in the afternoons. She is having the time of her life - but suddenly Aunt Harriet is determined to put an end to her fun.

Elizabeth is smitten with the director, who is obviously attracted to her. Her friends - as well as the reader - can immediately see that she's far too good for him, but of course Elizabeth is going to have to learn that sort of thing on her own. I found him extremely patronizing and irritating - he calls her "little Elizabeth" and "sweet child," and says things like, "I'm very fond of you, funny one." Ick. But he's the important director, handsome and suave, and he is easily able to sweep the intelligent, talented Elizabeth off her feet.

Elizabeth experiences an unforgettable summer, meeting famous stage actors, witnessing some of the negative aspects of the theater when spiteful, self-absorbed actors show their true colors, coming to terms with her unusual and sometimes painful past, and learning to trust herself in matters of the heart. I enjoyed the 1940s setting of the book, and the way the characters lived and breathed the theater (some of their conversations reminded me of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, when the characters got carried away discussing plays), as well as the relationships among Elizabeth and her apprentice friends. I was sad when I closed the book - not only to say goodbye to the characters, but to say a final farewell to the last book by one of my favorite authors that I'll ever get to read for the very first time.

The Joys of Love by Madeleine L'Engle (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dory Basarab's debut

I discovered Karen Chance's books last year and have very much enjoyed her unusual blend of action, contemporary fantasy and horror - with a dash of romance. I love the sense of wonder her settings invoke, and the way she weaves historical events with modern times, mythology and legends and combines them with tough, independent, likable heroines. There is a glut of this kind of book in the marketplace these days, so much that I am often reluctant to take the plunge with a new author, but Chance's books stand out from the rest, with their well-developed, unusual characters, plots that are anything but predictable, and her skillful storytelling style.

This book is set in the same time and place as the Cassandra Palmer series, and while it features some of the same characters, our heroine is someone new: Dory (Dorina) Basarab, who is an unusual kind of vampire assassin. Born of a human mother and a newly turned vampire father (someone readers of other books will recognize), Dory is a Dhampir. She is human, mostly, but with sensitive, heightened senses and preternatural strength, unusual longevity - and she lives constantly on the brink of insanity, cursed with a berserker kind of rage in which she blanks out, remembers nothing later, but when she comes to is generally covered with blood (other people's) and surrounded by bodies (mostly dead). Vampires fear and hate her - and humans do, too. She lives a solitary life, neither fish nor fowl, and is occasionally called in to "deal with" rogue vampires when needed.

Her roomate, Claire, is the one thing she cherishes about her life. Claire (featured in "Buying Trouble," a short story in the collection On the Prowl, which I'd recommend reading before this novel, if possible) is a "psychic null" - her presence nullifies the effect of magic anywhere near her. Aside from being a dear friend, Claire's presence enables Dory to control her rages, to be more human, to be the sort of person she aspires to become.

As the novel opens, Dory finds out that Claire has been abducted, might be killed at any moment, and Dory is frantic to find her. But suddenly she is called out to take care of the most psychopathic and demented vampire ever, and if she is to obtain the kind of help she needs to rescue Claire, she must locate and kill the vampire first. Not only that, but she's partnered with the most irritataing, high-handed, nasty-attitude-bearing man she's ever met (another familiar character from the Cassie Palmer books). Dory is tugged back into a world she's been trying to distance herself from, facing creepy, powerful adversaries as well as monsters from her own forgotten past, her loyalties tugged in every direction, on an action-packed roller coaster ride to a wonderfuly explosive conclusion. Along the way she enlists the help of a group of unlikely companions (my favorite of whom is the redoubtable Olga).

This was an enjoying whirlwind of a read, exciting, funny, and touching at times, and while I'm excited about the forthcoming publication of Curse the Dawn, the fourth book in the Casandra Palmer series, I'll be looking forward to more books about Claire and Dory.

Click here to read Karen Chance's thoughts on Midnight's Daughter.

Books in the Dorina Basarab series:
1. Midnight's Daughter
2. Death's Mistress

Midnight's Daughter (#1 in the Dorina Basarab series) by Karen Chance (Onyx, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Cherie's Blog: "I obviously adored this first installment into this new series. It not only introduces us to yet another amazing storyline in this supernatural world we have all come to love, but also allows us the opportunity to view the world and its characters in a new light."
My Favourite Books: "Karen Chance knows how to spin a pretty involved story with an amusing, wry and flamboyant main character."
Reading Angel: "I absolutely love the world that these books are written in. There are lots of fun magical creatures to meet. Dory is one kick=a$$ chick!!!"

B&OT reviews of Karen Chance's Cassandra Palmer series:
1. Touch the Dark
2. Claimed by Shadow
3. Embrace the Night