Thursday, January 31, 2008

The ghosthunters' second adventure

In this second book of the Ghosthunters series, Tom is now a full-fledged member of the ghost fighting team, along with ghosthunting guru Hetty Hyssop and Hugo, the Averagely Spooky Ghost. They receive a letter from Alvin Bigshot, the manager of a posh seaside hotel, asking for their assistance with a few "small but unpleasant problems." The team gathers up their ghosthunting equipment, disappointed that it appears to be nothing more than a routine, boring job, but excited all the same about getting to spend a few days at the beach.

It turns out that Mr. Bigshot has grossly underestimated the situation at the hotel, worried that, if word of the haunting gets out, the hotel's reputation will be ruined. The ghosthunters face anything but a boring old routine job - except, misguided by Mr. Bigshot's description of the problems, they haven't brought the correct equipment to deal with it! The situation worsens as it becomes evident that the fire ghosts they had believed to be wreaking havoc in the hotel turn out to be a side effect of the true culprit: a GILIG, or gruesome invincible lightning ghost! There is little known about these horrific ghosts because those who have run up against them in the past have not survived to tell their tale...

I read this book aloud to my seven- and nine-year-old children, and they enjoyed it immensely, inevitably begging for one more chapter each night. "It's too exciting! We can't stop there!" I was slightly less enthusiastic, wishing for a bit more character development (silly me). I missed Tom's know-it-all big sister from the first book, and the kids and I were all annoyed by how poorly Hetty Hyssop and Tom treated poor Hugo, their ghosthunting partner. Still, it was a page turner, and the kids were certainly pleased with it. They may continue with the series on their own, but I believe I'll stop with this one and move on to Inkheart, which I've been meaning to read for ages.

Books in the Ghosthunter series to date:

1 Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost!
2 Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost!
3 Ghosthunters and the Totally Moldy Baroness!
4 Ghosthunters and the Muddy Monster of Doom!

Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost! by Cornelia Funke (The Chicken House, 2007)

Other blog reviews:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Molly's personal reading challenge

Molly hasn't offered to host a reading challenge or anything, but I love her idea for her own personal challenge. She'd been considering joining in on the Mythopoeic Challenge, but then she realized that she has tons of books sitting around her house that she either started and never finished, or bought and never started. Who of us isn't in that same situation?

So her reading challenge for 2008 is to read at least 10 books in her own library which she has not read at all, or which she started but never finished. I'm on board with that! I tend to neglect books that I've been given or have bought because I always have all these library books that are on a deadline. I have all year to do this, and I think I can manage ten books! It will be very satisfying. I'm not going to even pick out any particular titles beforehand - it'll just be what I feel like reading, as long as it's from my bookshelves. I think I will include rereads in this, even though Molly isn't - after all, it's a personal reading challenge, right? Anyone else feel like joining me?

Books read for Molly's Personal Challenge 2008:
  1. Water Tales by Alice Hoffman
  2. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
  3. A Hidden Magic by Vivian Vande Velde
  4. Please Write in This Book by Mary Amato
  5. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
  6. So You Want to Be a Wizard by Diane Duane
  7. The Light Princess by George MacDonald
  8. The Devil's Other Storybook by Natalie Babbitt
  9. Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle
  10. Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rachel Morgan's Fifth Hollows Adventure

Events in earlier books come to a head in this latest installment in the Rachel Morgan Hollows series. Rachel, an earth witch/bounty hunter, keeps finding herself pushed deeper into demon-dealing and darker magic against her will - but the alternative is allowing friends to die or powerful artifacts to fall into the wrong hands, leading to all-out interspecies warfare. What's a simple earth witch to do? Rachel's black-and-white view of the world from the earlier books (similar to Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake's) has shifted to accept many shades of gray, whether she's comfortable with it or not.

The book opens with Rachel discovering a demon has entered her house - an event she believed to be impossible, because she and her partners Ivy and Jenks live in a church. Not only has it happened, but the demon turns out to be unbelievably powerful - and undeniably insane. It is only through the assistance of Ceri, the elf Rachel previously rescued from a life of agonizing servitude as a demon's familiar, that they are able to hold off the demon long enough to find a way to survive. However, in the wake of the event, their home must now be resanctified - an enormously expensive process, but without it they will be left to the mercy of any vampires or demons who feel like dropping by.

If it weren't for the gobs of money needed to resanctify the church, Rachel wouldn't be at all tempted to work a job for her nemesis, Trent, who wants her to be security at his wedding, where at least one demon is certain to show up. Before she can make a final decision on the matter, she's called into the morgue to identify some bodies - someone is killing werewolves, and the Inderland police force is clearly trying to cover it up.

As usual, Rachel is up to her neck in problems. When Ivy takes off and Piscary is released from jail, she realizes her troubles are only beginning...

This series has hit its stride with the two most recent books. Events and details from previous books come back and are developed with surprising twists and turns, and the relationships between the characters continue to gain in depth and intensity. Rachel has come a long way from the first books, and as she experiences love and loss, her approach to life is gaining some wisdom and restraint. This was a gripping, exciting read, and I am looking forward to the forthcoming book (in just a few weeks) to see how Rachel will deal with the momentous events that take place in this book.

The Rachel Morgan (Hollows) series in order (so far):
  1. Dead Witch Walking
  2. The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
  3. Every Which Way but Dead
  4. A Fistful of Charms
  5. For a Few Demons More
  6. The Outlaw Demon Wails
For a Few Demons More by Kim Harrison (HarperCollins, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Struggle and Emerge (spolier alert)

Monday, January 28, 2008

I'm it! A fun reading meme

I've been tagged by Nicola and Nymeth for this reading meme, created by Eva at A Striped Armchair. Here goes:

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Well, there are actually a lot of them - but I have found over the years that my instincts are generally spot-on for this sort of thing, even though it is irrational. I have invariably regretted it when I have gone against those instincts! Right now it's Atonement. Not reading it. Nope!

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

Only three? This is a hard one. I guess it would depend on the event - I guess I'll take the world cruise (as long as I'm dreaming, I might as well dream big) - and I think I would take Jilly Coppercorn, Miles Vorkosigan (so we'd be sure not to have a boring cruise) and - since we're on a ship and all, I'd have to pick Reepicheep!

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Well, having had to suffer through Moby Dick three times for three different lit classes (one in high school, two in college), and have to pick that one for the most boring novel. The most boring book, however, has got to be The Bibliographic Record and Information Technology by Ronald Hagler. I had to read it for a class in library school, and I swear, that thing was like a narcotic.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it?

I don't know that I've outright pretended, but often at work I nod and agree with library patrons that this book or that (which I've no intention of reading) is really wonderful, just so I won't be pressed to read it (and also not to offend someone who loves that author). I am not going to read A Thousand Splendid Suns, for example, or books by Nicholas Sparks or Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler. Better to nod knowingly, smile and move on.

You’re interviewing for the post of Official Book Adviser to some VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (If you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead and personalize the VIP).

That is a tough one. I'd have to know more about the person and what they felt like reading. Something funny and irreverent? Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job. Something more weighty and thought-provoking? To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Maybe they'd like short stories - maybe something by Isabel Allende or Charles de Lint.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

Definitely Japanese - I can read Italian, and I can make my way through books in Spanish and French (or at least if I studied them for a year or two, I could). But I can't see ever becoming competent enough to do that in Japanese, and there are so many interesting books by Japanese writers that I'd love to be able to read in the original language. Russian is a close second, though!

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

This one's easy: A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle. I have read that book every year or two for years now. It helps keep me grounded and focused, and it brings things into perspective. And it's funny - depending what's going on in my life (when I first read it, I was just out of college, and now I'm older, married, with young kids), I get different things from it, a deeper understanding of things that flew over my head before because they weren't relevant at that time. I like going back to Crosswicks, L'Engle's country house - it's one of those safe, comfy book places I love to revisit.

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)?

Where to start? I have heard about so many different books, series and authors through book bloggers, and as I discover who has my same reading taste, I'm more likely to branch out with an unfamiliar author because I trust their judgment.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free.

My dream library would have those sliding ladders so I can reach the books on the top shelves (and slide back and forth shouting "wheee!"), which is something I've wanted since I was a kid. I am not at all picky about the editions, bindings, etc. - I just want my favorite books and authors to be there, and I would like magically expandable shelf space, so that there is always room for one more book, and I don't have to put anything sideways on top of the books because more books won't squeeze in. I'd also need a fireplace, a comfy leather chair or sofa with an ottoman coffee table to prop my feet on, some cats to curl up on or near me, and a dog to relax on the carpet in front of the fire. Oh, and while I'm dreaming, how 'bout some floor-to-ceiling windows (French doors, maybe, that lead to a terrace overlooking a lovely view) and gorgeous artwork on the few walls not covered by bookshelves.

Tag 4 people.
Now that my semester has started, I'm having trouble keeping up with all my favorite blogs, so sorry if I'm re-tagging anyone.
Virginia Gal (Gypsy Thoughts)
Molly Malone (Red-Headed Rover)
Chris (Stuff as Dreams are Made On)
Ladytink (The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A witch librarian sleuth - what's not to like?

I had never heard of this book, but when I read Stephanie's review of it a couple months ago, I thought it sounded like fun. After all, I love mysteries and books about witches, and I'm a librarian, so how could I resist?

Ophelia is a librarian who has moved to small-town Summerset, where her grandmother lives. After Ophelia lost a loved one in a tragedy she blames herself for not somehow being able to prevent, she turned her back on her past and her heritage as the granddaughter of a witch. Abby, Ophelia's grandmother, is a wise woman, but Ophelia can't see any use in following that path, since it let her down when she needed it most, and now she buries herself in her job at the library, enjoying her grandmother's company but keeping everyone else at a nice, safe comfortable distance.

But when a Rick Davis, a handsome stranger comes to town, stirring things up and asking all kind of nosy questions, Ophelia's safe little world starts to shake on its foundations. Abby warns that Ophelia is in danger, and she will have to confront the situation, because there is no running away from what's to come. When Rick and Ophelia literally stumble across a dead body, Ophelia finds herself drawn into a mystery that it seems only she can solve.

I found myself growing a bit impatient with Ophelia's refusal to accept her gift of sight or her grandmother's advice, and she was so prickly and rude to people that she almost lost my sympathy a few times. But the other characters, particularly Abby as well as the irrepressible Darci, who works at the library, tempered Ophelia's personality and made me see her through their more loving eyes. Rick was a bit of a problem as well - despite Ophelia's telling him to get lost on several occasions, he pretty much ignored that because he could tell she was attracted to him. I'm a firm believer in "no means no" and would have respected him more had he kept his distance and managed to gain her affections in a different way. And it was also a bit irritating that Ophelia's idea of doing research consisted solely of Google searches on the Internet. What kind of librarian are you? I kept wondering!

But still, it was a fun read, and the mystery was solid, with lots of twist and turns and surprises along the way. I always enjoy a little paranormal spice thrown into a mystery, and Abby's predictions and Ophelia's visions served nicely to ratchet up the tension. This was an entertaining start to a promising series, and I definitely intend to check into the further adventures of Ophelia and Abby.

Books (to date) in the Ophelia and Abby mystery series:
  1. Witch Way to Murder
  2. Charmed to Death
  3. The Trouble with Witches
  4. Witch Hunt
  5. The Witch is Dead
Witch Way to Murder by Shirley Damsgaard (Avon Books, 2005)

Other blog reviews:
Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Amazon book reviews

Have you ever wondered about the people who review books and things on Who exactly are these top-50, top-10, etc. reviewers? How do they determine who these people are?

I have occasionally reviewed books on Amazon, just for fun, but since I started this blog I haven't had the time. I just came across this article on Slate, called "The Murky Demimonde of Amazon's Top Reviewers" by Garth Risk Hallberg. It is fascinating! I can't say I ever thought much about the reviews on Amazon - I doubt they have a lot of influence on my reading habits, since I tend to use sources that are better known and trusted than anonymous reviewers, and ever since I heard about the Amazon review fiasco in Canada, I've taken them with a fistful of salt.

Hallberg writes: "...Amazon had been hailed as a harbinger of 'Web 2.0'—an ideal realm where user-generated consensus trumps the bankrupt pieties of experts. As I explored the murky understory of Amazon's reviewer rankings, however, I came to see the real Web 2.0 as a tangle of hidden agendas—one in which the disinterested amateur may be an endangered species."

He goes on to talk about how these top reviewers write an insane number of reviews. The "number 7" reviewer, for example, has reviewed 3,500 books, CDs, and movies on Amazon. And the "number 1" reviewer, Harriet Klausner, "has averaged 45 book reviews per week over the last five years—a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader." Forty-five book reviews per week? If I can review three or four books in a given week here on my blog, I'm feeling pretty proud of myself. But 45 a week? That's just silly.

A fun read-aloud

Bob is a rat who loves to cook. He also loves to read, which is of course a wonderful thing. Wonderful, that is, until he's so distracted by the allure of a book that he grows careless and finds himself trapped by two hungry cats. Luckily, Bob has read a good many books and knows how to spin a riveting tale. It also helps that the cats (Muffin and Brutus) are as attracted by the smell of his delicious butter cookies as they are by his own ratty self. So when Bob invites them to try his latest recipe, giving them some saucers of milk to accompany the cookies, they agree to listen while he tells them a story. At least until the story's over. Then they will eat him.

The little whiskered Scheherazade comes up very fascinating stories to entertain the cats. There’s one about Bob’s Great-Great-Grandpa Sherman, who adventured up a magical beanstalk when Jack, a very unimaginative sort, didn’t seem to think the climb was worth his while. Other delightfully fractured fairytales include “The Three Rats,” who are fed up with the freeloading Big Bad Wolf (and his wife…and his daughter) and hatch a scheme to get rid of them once and for all; and “The Chimney Troll,” who helps Bob’s Grandma Lois spin straw into gold, and when she pays the price, he gets a lot more than he bargained for!

Between each of these tales are “cookie breaks,” in which the reader returns to the story of Bob and the hungry cats. Muffin is very enthusiastic about Bob’s tales, and is always ready to hear another. Brutus would rather just eat Bob and be done with it -- then he gets caught up in the stories as well. But what will happen to Bob as the book nears the end? This is a perfect bedtime read-aloud. The stories stand on their own, so there is a feeling of conclusion at the end of each one – but also a tantalizing feeling of suspense that builds with every cookie break. I read this over several nights to my 7- and 9-year-olds, and we all agreed that it was a lot of fun.

How to Save Your Tale: If You Are a Rat Nabbed by Cats Who Really Like Stories about Magic Spoons, Wolves with Snout-Warts, Big, Hairy Chimney Trolls...and Cookies Too by Mary Hanson; illustrated by John Hendrix (Wade Books, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
What You Want to Read
Tales from the Rushmore Kid (author interview here, too)
Seven Impossible Things
The Edge of the Forest

And here's another author interview!

Check out Mary Hanson's Youtube book trailer - very fun!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Daisy Dalrymple, flapper detective

This first installment in the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series is set in 1920s England. While Daisy is "the Honorable" Daisy Dalrymple, she is not a typical wealthy society girl. Her father and brother both died during the war, and her family no longer possesses the fortune it once had. Daisy does not wish to sit around, doing nothing but look ornamental, as she would if she lived with her mother or other relatives. Instead, she shares a flat with a friend and has taken a job writing articles for Town and Country magazine.

Her first assignment takes her to Wentwater Court, a lovely country estate where Lord Wentwater and his family live. Because of Daisy's social status and the fact that she is acquainted with several members of the Wentwater family, she is welcomed as a guest and an equal. Daisy is excited to visit with old friends and to get to work on her first big writing piece.

It becomes quickly apparent to Daisy that things are not as they should be at Wentwater Court, however. Lord Wentwater has remarried Annabel, a remarkably beautiful young woman, and his children appear less than thrilled with their new stepmother, who is just about the same age they are. The tension is increased by the presence of a guest, Lord Stephen Astwick, whom no one seems to like at all, and who is pressing his clearly unwelcome attentions on Annabel, and for some reason she seems to feel compelled to accept his presence without a fuss. Daisy can't even figure out why Lord Stephen was invited to Wentworth Court in the first place.

No one seems terribly sorry when his body is discovered, drowned in the pond, where he has fallen through the ice. The police are called in as a matter of course, and the death is accepted to be a skating accident - until Daisy notices something odd about the photos she has taken. When she confides in the handsome police detective, the last thing she expects is for suspicion to fall on the members of the Wentwater household, and the better she gets to know them, the more difficult it is to believe that one of them is most definitely guilty of murder.

This is a fairly formulaic English mystery, basically a cozy, but with a bit of police procedural thrown in. However, the characters are interesting, especially the ongoing relationship between Daisy and Phillip, her childhood friend who persists in proposing to her, even though she declines, insisting they'd be a disastrous match - as well as the developing relationship between Daisy and Alec Fletcher, the handsome police inspector. This is a promising beginning to a mystery series, and I plan to read about Daisy Dalrymple's further adventures.

Books in the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series (to date):
  1. Death at Wentwater Court
  2. The Winter Garden Mystery
  3. Requiem for a Mezzo
  4. Murder on the Flying Scotsman
  5. Damsel in Distress
  6. Death in the Water
  7. Styx and Stones
  8. Rattle His Bones
  9. To Davy Jones Below
  10. The Case of the Murdered Muckraker
  11. Mistletoe and Murder
  12. Die Laughing
  13. A Mourning Wedding
  14. Fall of a Philanderer
  15. Gunpowder Plot
  16. The Bloody Tower
Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn (Kensington Books, 1994)

Other blog reviews:
Young Librarian
Annie's Books

Friday, January 18, 2008

A favorite from one generation to the next

I read this book when I was a kid because my brother read it and enjoyed it. That may not sound like a big deal, but my brother had dyslexia and did very little pleasure reading. His third-grade teacher recommended it to him, and I remember him reading and talking about it - he loved it. So of course I had to see what it was all about. E.L. Konigsburg became one of my favorite authors from that point, and to this day I am delighted whenever she publishes a new book (I have her latest one on my book pile right now and am looking forward to it with great anticipation).

Twelve-year-old Claudia is feeling unappreciated. She is a stellar student, does her chores, takes care of her younger siblings, but somehow she feels unimportant to the rest of her family. She hatches a scheme to run away from home - she won't be taken for granted after that, she's certain. She is a planner, though. She isn't just running away; she's running to.

While Claudia is a meticulous planner, she is not much of a saver. That's where her little brother Jamie comes in. He never spends any of his money, and he also knows how to keep his mouth shut. Even so, Claudia doesn't confide in him until just before she's ready to leave. He doesn't have any gripes that make him want to leave home, but he is flattered by Claudia's trust in him and excited by the prospect of an adventure. With Claudia's planning skills and Jamie's financial expertise (and bag of cash), they make a good team - most of the time. They don't always see eye to eye, but what siblings do?

They catch the train to New York City, and Claudia leads Jamie to their new home away from home: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They blend in with the children from school groups during the day; at night they hide in the bathrooms till the museum is closed, and once they learn the routines of the night guards, they are free to roam the museum as they please. Soon they become caught up in the mystery of a lovely statue that has recently been sold to the museum, which some experts believe to be an early work of Michelangelo. The children become fascinated by the statue and, as they learn more about it, become determined to discover the truth about it - after all, they are in a unique position to look for clues.

Claudia is especially touched by the statue, and it becomes increasingly important for her to discover the truth about it before she can go home. Jamie doesn't really understand, because he is younger and is basically along for the ride, but Claudia wants to go home a different person - she wants her adventure to have changed her in a fundamental way. And somehow, she knows, the statue of the angel has the power to do just that. But how can she hope to discover the truth when the world's foremost art experts are stymied?

While the book is now a bit dated (most kids would have no idea what an automat is, for example), it is still a gripping read. I read this out loud to my 7- and 9-year-old children, and they both enjoyed it (and they never actually asked about the automat - they figured out it was some sort of restaurant). Living in a museum, being able to experience things that regular museum visitors cannot (like sleeping in priceless antique beds once slept in by kings and queens) is a wonderful fantasy to explore. I don't think I ever visit an art museum without thinking about Jamie and Claudia's adventure (and envying them) - especially when I walk past an indoor fountain - and when I visit the Met, I expect to see them tagging along with a school tour group, trying to fit in.

I have very much enjoyed all of E.L. Konigsburg's novels, but this one is one of my favorite books from my childhood. It was especially rewarding to read it to my children and share in their enjoyment of it, too.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Aladdin, reprint edition, 2007 - originally published in 1968)

Other blog reviews:
An Adventure in Reading
TeacherDad's Book Review's
Bookworm Readers
Wendychoi's Weblog

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A couple of adorable pipsqueaks

Pip and Squeak are two little mice who live in a mailbox. They are setting off to a party, very excited to bring their most wonderful present - cheese - to their friend.

When they open the door to their mailbox, the mice are delighted to see that it has snowed. "Get the sled!" cries Squeak. Their sled, a letter in an airmail envelope, one end curled beneath their paws like a toboggan, whizzes over the snow as they hurry to the party.

Later, as they're trekking across the snow, Squeak squints at Pip as she realizes something awful. "You forgot the cheese!" Her whiskers quiver in indignation. What will they give Gus now? Poor Pip slinks off to find "something better." But what can possibly be better than cheese?

With some ingenuity and a lot of determination, Pip sets off to find just that. This is a delightful picture book with a very satisfying ending that tickled me so much I just had to bring it home to read to my own children, who then read it to their friends when they came over to visit - and build a snowman - today. Schoenherr's wonderful illustrations complement the story perfectly, bringing to vibrant life a snowy day and two very endearing mice. I could almost hear the snow crunching beneath their paws as they traveled to the party - and I loved that their little breath clouds were visible, too.

Snuggle up with your own pipsqueaks and read this book together - you will all enjoy it, I guarantee.

Pip and Squeak by Ian Schoenherr (Greenwillow Books, 2007)

New photo project at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is partnering with Flickr to share access of its photo collections. The project is called The Commons, and users are invited to add tags to the photos in order to make them more accessible. According to the Library of Congress, the key goals of the partnership are to give people "a taste of the hidden treasures in the huge Library of Congress collection" and to encourage user to add tags, because "the input of a tag or two can make the collection even richer."

The site says that "These beautiful, historic pictures from the Library represent materials for which the Library is not the intellectual property owner. Flickr is working with the Library of Congress to provide an appropriate statement for these materials. It's called 'no known copyright restrictions.' Hopefully, this pilot can be used as a model that other cultural institutions would pick up, to share and redistribute the myriad collections held by cultural heritage institutions all over the world."

I think this is very cool - it opens up access to things that most people would never get the chance to see, and it allows people to chime in with their thoughts and put their own knowledge to good use. As a librarian, I find it very interesting to see the tags that people come up with. We often talk about the disconnect between subject headings in the library catalog and actual terms that people use to search for information. Most people would not enter "cookery" as a subject, for example, when they're looking for a book about cooking, but that is still the Library of Congress subject heading for that subject. When you understand how people search for information, you can make it more easily accessible to them. So this partnership with Flickr and tagging initiative is particularly interesting to me.

Check out the photos they offer - there's a lot of interesting stuff! And if you haven't been to the LOC's website lately, take some time to check it out. The American Memory Project is incredible - I could spend hours just clicking through all the amazing things available there. And just now I found this link to some recently discovered photos from Lincoln's inauguration. There is information on the Library's digital preservation efforts, and even tips on how to preserve your own digital memories. We make lots of jokes about our "tax dollars at work," but here is proof that at least some of that money is being well spent!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A grumpy rat and a lonely little girl

I picked up this book having heard nothing about it, simply because it looked fun. I've read picture books by Lynne Jonell, (I Need a Snake and When Mommy Was Mad come to mind), but this is her first novel for older readers.

Emmy is a good girl. Even though her parents travel constantly and barely pay any attention to her. And even though at school no one seems to notice her. And even though she has a very horrible nanny who's always making her do things Emmy dislikes (like drinking awful tonics and spending all her time after school being shuttled from one activity to the next). Mainly she's good because Miss Barmy (the awful nanny) says that her parents might want to spend more time with her if she is a good girl.

Emmy tries her best, but it is hard. And that is why she enjoys sitting near the rat who is the class pet at school - the rat is not good at all. He is a cantankerous old thing who even bit her once when she stuck her fingers through the bars of its cage.

One day when the rat is acting particularly grumpy, and Emmy is all alone in the classroom with him, she wonders aloud why he is always so mean. She is stunned when the rat replies with the question, "Why are you always so good?"

This unusual conversation is the beginning of an amazing adventure for Emmy, who discovers that in her life, things are not at all what they seem. In fact, she is perilously close to losing the things she holds most dear. Luckily she is resourceful and has a kind heart, and those qualities bring her help and support from the most unexpected places.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, with its surprising twists and turns and sheer creativity. Jonathan Bean's illustrations complemented the text beautifully, especially the flip-book drawing that progresses along the margins throughout the book, echoing the theme. I was excited to learn that, even though this is a standalone story with a satisfying conclusion, Emmy will be returning in another adventure later this year. I'll be looking forward to spending some more time with her.

Books in the Emmy series:
  1. Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
  2. Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls (to be published in September, 2008)
Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell; illustrated by Jonathan Bean (Henry Holt and Co., 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
The Book Pile
Your Friendly Librarian

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Facing the challenge head on!

Okay, I'm in. Serendipity is at it again - everyone's posting about wonderful books I read years ago and have been meaning to reread, like Tam Lin and Fire & Hemlock (Rhinoa) and Thomas the Rhymer (Nymeth) and Someplace to Be Flying (Chris), among others. It turns out these are all Mythopoeic Award winners. And - get this - guess which other book is a Mythopoeic Award Winner: none other than Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (to understand the strangeness of this, see my recent post on book serendipity). So you can see I have no choice, and I've officially joined the Mythopoeic Award Challenge.

So the challenge is to read seven books between January 1, 2008 and December 31, 2008 from the list of Mythopoeic Award Winners, also to include nominees for fantasy and scholarship, which gives a whole lot to choose from. In fact, it was hard to narrow the list down to just seven, since these are exactly the kind of books that I love to read.

So here is my list, a mix of never-reads and rereads:
  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  2. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  3. Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
  4. Heir Apparant by Vivian Vande Velde
  5. A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  6. Spirits That Walk in Shadow by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
  7. The Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate) by Jonathan Stroud
I will add links as I finish them and post reviews. And now I'm very excited to start reading these wonderful books! Thanks to Foxy Writer for hosting this challenge, and thanks also to my blog buddies (you know who you are), for egging me on to take the plunge. This is going to be fun!

Describing the indescribable

I have no doubt that, when I look back over the books I read this year, this one will be among my favorites, and the most memorable. Anyone who's read anything by Robin McKinley will understand the way her novels grip readers, making them at the same time obsessed about getting to the end of the story to see what happens, yet reluctant to do so, because then it will be, sigh, over.

This one admittedly started out a bit slow. There is a long lump of exposition that might have discouraged me a bit if I hadn't had complete trust in McKinley. Trust her; believe me, the payoff is worth it. The information at the beginning really is crucial to the rest of the story, and as far as being a bit slow goes, McKinley's "a bit slow" is far superior to most other writers' "moving along at a fast clip."

Fourteen-year-old Jake has spent his entire life at the Makepeace Institute of Integrated Dragon Studies in Smokehill National Park. The dragons were discovered in remote parts of Australia, but they were killed in such great numbers that there are hardly any of them left. An ecologically-minded scientist saved some, brought them to America years earlier, kept them in cages and studied them, and finally set them free after gaining national park status and protection for them. No one knows why Australian dragons can survive in such a harsh environment, but they do, even though hardly anyone - even the inhabitants of Smokehill, sees them. If they do, it's always from a distance. Smokehill is surrounded by a barrier supported by a technology so advanced, no one has ever been able to break through it.

Jake is homeschooled, has two other friends (most people can only handle a short time inside Smokehill before they start going crazy craving things like restaurants and movie theaters). His mother died a couple years before the novel opens, and so did his beloved dog, and Jake isn't doing so well. Neither is his father.

Jake's tells the story, and his voice is compelling and immediately pulls the reader into the narrative. While he doesn't pretend to have skill at storytelling, his conversational way with words is of course a perfect vehicle for the story. He says things like, when he's trying to explain something particularly unexplainable: "I mean, I've told you a lot about Halcyon already, but I'm guessing you've been finding it a little hard to believe--you weren't there having the brain version of the hamster running up the inside of your pantleg, and I was, and I still tried really hard to make out that it was just dreams and shock and native goofiness."

This book is about trying to explain the unexplainable, and if anyone can do it, Jake can. Because the dragons are so aloof, no one knows much about them beyond the notes taken by the scientist years back, when they were still in cages. Smokehill has a wide assortment of other dragon-like animals, so that when tourists come there's something to see, but the real dragons are a rarity. When Jake finally convinces his dad to let him take the overnight solo hike that he'd been planning two years earlier, right before his mom died, the last thing he expects to find is a dying dragon. How could a poacher have gotten through the amazing fence? And when he sees that she'd had babies, and one of them is still alive, how could he not try to save it? Even when the heat from its little body is burning through his skin?

Dragons are marsupials, it turns out, and Jake's little dragon has imprinted on him. No pouch? No problem. The inside of his shirt will do just fine. And if a fourteen-year-old has trouble with burns on his stomach, a baby dragon making baby dragon bodily fluids under his clothes, and letting him sleep no more than 20 minutes at a time, those are the least of his problems. Because Smokehill's mission is to observe dragons only - no interference. And Jake's impulsive act of saving the dragonet's life is actually a federal offense. It could mean life in prison for Jake - it could easily mean the end of Smokehill. But only if someone finds out...

This novel has more sense of wonder than anything I've read in years - it's really more a first contact story than anything else, for all that it's set on earth and involves two indigenous species. For a human, to stand beside an 80-foot-long creature might be an indescribable experience. But after you've read this book, you'll know exactly what it feels like. I highly, highly recommend this amazing novel.

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007)

Check out Robin McKinley's blog!

Other blog reviews:
Aspiring Inspirer's Dreams
It's All about Books
Sandstorm Reviews
Under the Covers

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Serendipity - does it influence what you read?

How do you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, friends' recommendations? I know a lot of us gather up gems of books loved and recommended by fellow bloggers - I sure do. But do you ever have an experience where, say, you read a review of a book. Then you see someone reading it on the bus. And then, there it is, in the window of a book store or on display at the library. Do you take that as a sign and go with it? Or do you just shrug at the coincidence and keep walking?

I tend to take it as a message that yes, now is the time to read that particular book. It may be silly, but it always seems to work out well when I listen to my instincts and get the book. For example, the other day I was putting together titles for my annual Year's Best list at the library where I work. This is something I've been doing for five or six years now - I put out a little ballot box and some voting forms, and I ask people (adults and kids) to write down the most memorable book or books they read during the past year (doesn't matter when they were published). Then I compile them into a list with book summaries, and they can peruse the list for reading ideas. I get some great book recommendations that way myself!

Anyway, one of the recommended books was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I'd heard of the book but didn't know anything about it. When I read the book description in the library catalog, I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn't think any more about it. Then a day or two later, I read a post at Dark Orpheus's blog about Hugo winners. I wondered how many I had read (it turned out more than I expected) - but guess what book won the Hugo in 2005? Of course! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. And then, to top it all off, a patron at the library happened to mention - completely out of the blue, that the audio version of Jonathan Strange was one of the best audio books she'd ever heard!

This is just a recent example, but things like that happen to me all the time. Does anyone else choose reading material this way? I have, of course, added Jonathan Strange to my list - and I think I'll try the audio book while I'm at it. Do you have any fun book serendipity stories? If so, I'd love to hear them!

By the way, the wonderful illustration above was done by David Wiesner as the poster for Philadelphia's first annual book festival (in 2007). I love it!

Minerva Clark is having a horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad day

It is truly an awful day for 13-year-old Minerva: she's fallen flat on her face at the video arcade (in front of some beautiful mean girls, of course); her revered older cousin has been arrested; and somehow she finds that she's agreed to be a guinea pig in her older brother's demonstration at an opening at the art gallery where he's exhibiting his work - a demonstration that includes having electrodes hooked up to her head, in front of who-knows-how-many people. But that's not all - as she sits there, feeling humiliated and foolish, a thunderstorm is headed her way.

Minerva is a fairly typical seventh grader, obsessing about her appearance (she's taller than most everyone her age; her hair is bushy and uncontrollable; she's clumsy, etc.). What might happen if an electric shock were to destroy that part of her brain that is focused on adolescent self-loathing? If her mind weren't pointlessly obsessing about inconsequential matters, say, and a murder happened, and suddenly she's making connections and seeing subtle things she never noticed before? Maybe the worst day of Minerva Clark's life is actually the best day of her life.

This was funny and moving, with engaging characters and a clever plot. It was fun to see how liberating it was to Minerva to feel perfectly satisfied with herself - it was very empowering, and it gave her so much freedom. The book wasn't preachy or overly hard-hitting about it, though, and Minerva's grit and determination to get to the bottom of the mystery definitely won me to this series. Plus her ferret is so darn cute! I will certainly be checking up on Minerva's further adventures.

Books in the Minerva Clark mystery series (to date):
  1. Minerva Clark Gets a Clue
  2. Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs
  3. Minerva Clark Gives up the Ghost
Minerva Clark Gets a Clue by Karen Karbo (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2005)

Other blog reviews:

Friday, January 11, 2008

A moral dilemma

The first volume of this manga series opens in the realm of the Shinigami, a kind of Japanese death god (or, more aptly, demon). The landscape is harsh and barren, and the Shinigami are gruesome, nightmarish creatures. One of the Shinigami mentions to some others that he dropped his "death note" in the human world. This appears to be a serious faux pas.

Cut to modern-day Japan, where a notebook falls out of the sky. Teenage straight-A student Light happens to see it fall, and he picks it up. Inside the book are written some instructions: "The human whose name is written in this note shall die."

Further rules (time of death, means of death, etc.) follow, and at first Light thinks it's a stupid, sick joke. But just to see what happens, he decides to write someone's name. He's a smart kid, though, and figures it's best not to take any chances. On the news he hears of a man who's killed several people and is holding others hostage in (where else?) a preschool. It seems a safe bet to experiment on the man, and when he drops dead of a heart attack right on cue, Light begins his crusade.

He writes name after name of convicted criminals in the book, and they die, one after the other. The next thing he knows, Ryuk, the Shinigami who dropped the book in the first place, appears in Light's bedroom. Ryuk is a ghoulish figure who's a sort of cross between the Joker in Batman and some of the darker characters from Sandman. It turns out that Ryuk was bored out of his skull in the Shinigami realm and wanted to stir up some trouble, so he dropped his book on purpose. Light is more intelligent and resourceful than Ryuk had dared to hope, and Ryuk gleefully sits back to watch events unfold. Light learns more about the cost of using the death note (he won't go to heaven or hell when he dies, for example, and he's the only one who can see Ryuk). Even so, Light moves forward with his plan to kill all the bad guys and make the world a better place. A better place over which, of course, he will rule.

But not if L, a mysterious crime investigator who is determined to stop Light's killing spree, has his way. It appears that L is resourceful and intelligent as well, and he will prove a tough adversary for Light. With L hot on his trail, Light makes plans to protect himself and continue his crusade.

This first volume in the Death Note series is gripping, at times humorous, and thought provoking. My library shelves the series in the adult section (for obvious reasons), and I would recommend it to older teens and adults. There has been some controversy in China regarding this and other similar series, and I can see why it would cause a stir. At the same time, what a great way to discuss ethics, especially among teens. Is Light right to do what he's doing? After all, he's killing only convicted criminals. Why do some people think he is wrong? Some think he's on the same level as the people he's killing - is that true? What would you do if you found a death note? These are all questions that can generate some interesting discussion. I'm enjoying the interplay among the characters and am very curious to see the direction the next volume will take.

Death Note, Vol. 1 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (Shonen Jump Advanced, 2005)

Other blog reviews:
Reading Interests of Young Adults
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Way of the Geek

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My first reading challenge

I have never participated in a reading challenge before, although I am often tempted. I'm not sure why I haven't taken the plunge - I guess I just tend to be ornery about what I read and when I read it. I love that feeling when I've finished a book and get to choose a new one to read next. What do I feel like? Something for kids, adults, science fiction, a graphic novel, a reread of a favorite, a brand-new author? Who knows? It's a book buffet!

I guess that with a part-time job, two kids, graduate school, writing, and a growing obsession with making pottery, when it comes time for books, I don't want to feel stressed or pressured about reading certain books in a particular order. I know, it's supposed to be books I want to read, for fun! But still, making one more commitment in a life that seems at times to be one long string of commitments is too much.

But check this out: I finished Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge!

So how, the inquiring reader might want to know, does one finish a challenge without actually committing to participate in it? Well, I kind of went about it backwards. I read the books, and then I sidestepped into the challenge. Plus Bellezza's letting the manga I read count. :-) (Isn't she sweet? It's easy to see why she has a big mwah! on her sidebar.)

So the books I finished are:
Singing Shijimi Clams by Naomi Kojima
Fruits Basket, Vol. 1 by Natsuki Takaya
Deathnote, Vol. 1 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

Thanks, Bellezza!

So, now that I've taken the plunge (in a sneaky, sideways sort of way), maybe I'll do another one. Foxy Writer's Mythopoeic Award Challenge is very alluring...

An adventure through the dimensions

I picked up this book last night in a moment of book panic - I'd left my current read at home, and it was dinner hour at work, and I had nothing to read! Luckily, when you work in a library, that isn't an insurmountable problem. I'd read a blog review of it (Nicola's), and I love what I've read by Gaiman so far, so it seemed a good choice.

When I got back to work after dinner, I kept thinking about the book, wishing I could return to it. I read some more after work, and finished it this morning. It was that sort of book. It reminded me a bit of Diana Wynne Jones's wonderful books about the Multiverse, with a dash of Robert Heinlein's kids' books (like Have Spacesuit Will Travel) thrown in.

14-year-old Joey Harker once, as he tells readers at the beginning of the book, got lost in his own house. Sure, they'd put on a new addition, but still - his own house? That's what a poor sense of direction he has. So when his social studies assignment is to get on a bus, blindfolded, and then find his way home from whatever part of town he's dropped off in (without the blindfold), it is no surprise that he gets very lost. Almost immediately.

What is surprising is that he's not simply lost - he's as lost as it is possible to get: he's in a different dimension. A dimension in which the McDonald's sign has a tartan pattern to it, and his house isn't really his house anymore. There's a woman who kind of looks like his mother, and a girl his age who looks, well, like Joey would if he were a girl. But this is definitely not where he belongs. He runs outside the house, only to find a frightening figure in a reflective silver suit and mask who asks Joey to trust him - and behind the mask, his face looks like Joey's, only older. Joey is understandably freaked out, but before he can decide what to do, some men on flying disks brandishing nets come after them, and all Joey can do is run.

That's just in the first few pages of the book. It turns out that Joey may have a rotten sense of direction on earth, but he has a fine sense of direction for journeying through dimensions - and journey he does. He adventures through the Altiverse, finding himself aboard flying pirate ships bound for destruction, and venturing into the In-Between, the bizarreness of which is, he says, "like a 3-D collaboration between Salvador Dali, Picasso and Jackson Pollock. With a liberal dose of Heironymus Bosch and the really cool old Warner Bros. cartoons thrown in for good measure."

Now what 14-year-old would actually think in those terms, I don't know, but I'm along for the ride. I did wonder that my library shelves this book with the chapter books for younger kids, rather than with the young adult books. The language and concepts are more complicated than I would expect for that audience (vocabulary words include things like "teratogenic poison," "combinatorial abstract," and "memetic talisman"). The publisher recommends this for ages 9 -12 (probably based on the age of the main character), but I'd recommend it for 12 and up (and, as always, for very interested kids who are younger than that).

This is a fast-paced, gripping adventure, but it is also a moving coming-of-age story. I highly recommend it.

Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves (Eos, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Back to Books
Becky's Book Reviews
Brenda Cooper

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Murder at a Japanese Inn

Rei Shimura is a young Japanese-American woman living in Japan. She is an underpaid English teacher, and she lives in a rundown apartment in a rundown neighborhood. But she is enjoying her life. Back in America, with her wealthy parents, life would certainly be easier, but the allure of Japan is too strong for her, even though she must make sacrifices to live there, and even though her parents don't quite understand why she needs to experience life in Japan on her own.

Although she teaches English to survive, Rei's true love is antiques. Finding herself on her own for New Year's, she decides to take a little getaway. She travels by train to Shiroyama, stays at an inn her boss has recommended, and hopes to spend a relaxing time sightseeing and exploring the antique shops in the area.

Instead, she finds herself caught up in a murder investigation, after the elegant wife of a wealthy Japanese businessman (or "salaryman") dies in the night. Rei discovers the body in the snow, and is called upon by the police to help with translating English during police interviews, as two of the other guests at the inn are native English speakers. One of them is a handsome Scottish lawyer to whom Rei is alternately attracted (he is very handsome and charming) and repelled (he's exactly the kind of man she came to Japan to get away from).

I enjoyed the setting of this mystery, especially all the interesting facets of Japanese culture that are woven though the narrative. The mystery was engaging, with a few red herrings sprinkled throughout the text, but it was not difficult to solve, at least not for this reader. I don't typically read mysteries just for the mystery, though - if I don't care about the characters, than I don't care whodunit. I could have done with a bit more character description and depth - sometimes I couldn't really feel that that motives for characters' actions were quite solid enough - but that is a small quibble for this most promising first novel in a mystery series. I will definitely be reading about Rei Shimura's further adventures.

Books in the Rei Shimura mystery series (to date):
  1. The Salaryman's Wife
  2. Zen Attitude
  3. The Flower Master
  4. The Floating Girl
  5. The Bride's Kimono
  6. The Samurai's Daughter
  7. The Pearl Diver
  8. The Typhoon Lover
  9. Girl in a Box
The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey (HarperTorch, 1997)

Winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel

Other blog reviews:
Brian's Books

Monday, January 7, 2008

Further adventures in the Hollows

In this fourth book in the Rachel Morgan series, Rachel travels away from the Hollows, the setting for the first three books, on a rescue mission. I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: this series is best read in order - each book has its own separate plot arc, but events carry through from one book to the next, so starting with this book would make for a confusing reading experience. If you are at all thinking of reading this series, beware of spoilers in the following paragraphs!

Previously, Rachel and her pixie partner Jenks had a serious falling-out. Jenks has moved out, and Rachel misses him dreadfully and regrets not having trusted him with sensitive information, which was why he left in the first place. She learns that Jenks's son Jax is in trouble - apparently Nick, her ex-boyfriend, has gotten him involved in some sort of shady activity, and Rachel is not happy.

She feels responsible - after all, it was her ex-boyfriend who got Jax involved in the first place - and she fully intends to give Nick a piece of her mind. Jenks returns, anxious to rescue Jax. He wants to go with Rachel to Michigan, but the cold weather there is too harsh for a pixie to be able to survive. The solution to that: grow Jenks to the size of a regular human. His new size makes for some problems - one of his strengths as a partner in the firm was his size and ability to flit around without being seen. Ivy cannot accompany them, and Rachel and Jenks have some issues to work out before they'll be able to work as a team to accomplish much of anything at all.

Once again, Kim Harrison has combined humor, suspense, deft characterization and a touch of romance to create a very compelling story. Rachel is continually challenged to walk a narrow line between beneficial earth magic and delving into darker, more dangerous magic in order to save the lives of those she loves. I am looking forward to reading the next installment in this gripping series.

The Rachel Morgan (Hollows) series in order (so far):
  1. Dead Witch Walking
  2. The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
  3. Every Which Way but Dead
  4. A Fistful of Charms
  5. For a Few Demons More
  6. The Outlaw Demon Wails
A Fistful of Charms by Kim Harrison (HarperTorch, 2006)

Other blog reviews:

The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog
Digigirl's Library of Paranormal Romance
Books & Travel & My Various Musings

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Clemency Pogue's second adventure

I very much enjoyed the first in the Clemency Pogue series, so I had high hopes for this one. I have found that sometimes the second book in a series challenges the assumptions I had, based on the first book, about the setting or characters in the series. In this case, I'd imagined Clemency's parents to be a bit unconventional (they did leave her to her own devices quite a bit) but loving and caring (they read her the fairy tales that saved her life in the first book, among other things).

In this sequel, though, her father brings home some boxer puppies that belong to his wealthy employer, who insists that her father (for no good reason that I could see - he's not a vet or dog breeder) "bob" the boxers (trim their ears and cut their tails off). This is understandably upsetting to Clemency, who is immediately besotted with the little pups, and her father is reluctant to do it but fears losing his job. There is a rather disturbing illustration of her father staring doubtfully at an enormous, sharp pair of shears in his hands while Clemency frolics with the puppies on the kitchen floor. I was surprised to find her father in this position, and that he was letting himself be pushed into doing things he clearly doesn't think are right. This subplot was rather disturbing to me, especially after the whimsy and humor of the first book.

I am unclear why this subplot was in the book in the first place - it has little to do with the main storyline, which is also quite dark. Chaphesmeeso, Clemency's grumpy but very funny hobgoblin friend from the first book, now has an apprentice. But there is a little problem - his apprentice is a human changeling, stolen from his parents as an infant. We learn that usually the clay baby that is substituted for the child simply dissolves into nothing the first time it's given a bath (and there is a scene of a baby dissolving before the eyes of its horrified and frantic mother to illustrate the point), but the clay baby that was substituted for Chaphesmeeso's apprentice never dissolved. It is living with its human family, unaware that it is not human, but feeling miserable because, try as it may, it can never fit in.

Clemency becomes friends with the apprentice, and she is sorry to learn that he can never become a true hobgoblin until his changeling is destroyed. But the reader is treated to sections of the narrative from the changeling's point of view, and in his mind he is very much alive and believes he is a human child. How on earth will Clemency come up with a satisfactory solution to this dilemma? It seems that the very balance of the world of Make-Believe is at stake.

I enjoyed Clemency's creativity and determination to do the right thing, but this story was not as enjoyable as the first one. Its darker tone mixed with glib and rather superficial humor was a bit jarring, and unfortunately the story never really gelled for me. Yes, the language was fun and witty, but it just wasn't enough for this reader.

To date, the books in the Clemency Pogue series are:
  1. Fairy Killer
  2. The Hobgoblin Proxy
  3. The Scrivener Bees
Clemency Pogue: The Hobgoblin Proxy by J.T. Petty; illustrated by Will Davis (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2006

Other blog reviews:
Katie's Book Blog

Friday, January 4, 2008

Another amazing bookstore

I have posted in the past about very cool bookstores, but I just came across this amazing one and absolutely had to add it to the list. It is located inside a former Dominican church in the Netherlands, and its architects, Merkx and Girod, recently won the Lensvelt de Architect Interior Prize for their design. For more information and amazing photos, see this article and this flickr page. Add this one to the library/bookstore touring plan!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A "modern faery's" tale

Holly Black's Ironside is the third in her modern faerie tale series. Actually, I hesitate to call it a series, because although it does consist of three books set in the same fictional world, the second book, Valiant, involves different characters (but the ones from the first book do appear peripherally). Ironside is the true sequel to Tithe, focusing on the same characters. Being the crazy stickler that I am when it comes to reading books in order, I would recommend reading them in the order in which they were published, because there is some crossover, and I think I would have missed some subtle points otherwise. Please stop reading here if you don't want spoilers to the plot of Tithe!

Anyway, Ironside continues the story of Kaye, who discovered that she was a pixie in the first book and fell in love with Roiben, who is now about to be crowned as ruler of the Unseelie Court. Things are a bit awkward between Kaye and Roiben these days - Kaye is, after all, only a pixie, not a noblewoman of the sort that royalty usually associates with. Having been brought up among humans, she also lacks much knowledge of faerie culture, and is therefore not at all politically savvy. Roiben, having difficulties of his own in accepting his new role in the darker court, is keeping his distance - is he trying to keep her safe, or is he rethinking the wisdom of their relationship? At the coronation, feeling insecure and also having overindulged in faerie wine, she is goaded into requesting the one thing that Roiben, knowing the true meaning of what she asks while Kaye remains clueless, cannot grant. He sends her on an impossible quest instead, which appears doomed to separate them for the rest of their lives.

Back in the human world, Kaye goes to visit her mother and feels compelled to reveal the fact that she is not her true daughter - that faeries substituted Kaye for her real daughter years ago. This, of course, complicates matters, so that nothing is the same for Kaye, no matter which world she's in, human or faerie.

Each time I read one of Holly Black's modern faerie tales, I'm a bit surprised and how very dark and gritty they are. I was a bit unclear why the dark court was so dark and violent - I think, in my mind, I took some of the conventions from Laurell K. Hamilton's Meredith Gentry series, which are the only books that I've read that examine the Seelie and Unseelie courts in a way that isn't superficial and stereotypical - not simply good vs. bad.

I enjoyed seeing what happened to Kaye's friend Corny, who, in the wake of the first novel, was left emotionally scarred. In these novels, no one has easy choices, and each decision can have enormous, disastrous consequences. Still, I gladly return to Holly Black's world with each book because the stories are intriguing and unconventional, and the characters are multidimensional and very engaging.

Books in the Modern Faerie series:
  1. Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale
  2. Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie
  3. Ironside: A Modern Faerie's Tale
Ironside: A Modern Faerie's Tale by Holly Black (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Book Diva's Blog

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Power of Fairy Tales

If the first book read in the New Year is any indication of the year to come, then I'm going to have a very good year! This children's novel explores the life of Cadence, a.k.a. Rapunzel, who is going through a particularly rough patch in her life.

Her father, a poet, has battled clinical depression his entire life, but now he has had a breakdown and is in the hospital. Rapunzel is stuck in her tower (Homework Club) where, under the watchful eye of the horrible Homework Witch, she must sit and do homework after school instead of going home, eating popcorn and hanging out with her dad. Her mom's job as a labor and delivery nurse makes for late and uncertain hours, so Rapunzel is on her own much more than she was when her dad was around.

School is not going very well either - even though Rapunzel discovers that she has tested very high on an IQ test, her grades do not reflect her supposed intelligence, and she is in no way interested it spending Fridays with the group of "gifted" children doing even more boring, irrelevant school work - especially not if she has to improve her grades in order to attend.

One day she returns home from school and discovers a piece of torn paper stuck between the cushion and side of her father's favorite chair, the place where he sits and writes his poetry. Rapunzel can't read the entire thing, just an intriguing section that says, "You are the secret to my success as a poet and a human being. Writing these letters every day has helped me keep my heart open, to be willing to live, to keep the darkness..." The word she reads prompt Rapunzel to write her own letters to the post office box in the address. She has no idea who she's writing to, but if the mysterious person was able to help her father, surely her or she can help her, too. She hopes. Her letters to the unknown owner of P.O. Box #5667 make up the novel.

Rapunzel sees the world in terms of fairytale tropes and themes, and her ability to see and use metaphors gives her a unique tool for dealing with the problems in her life. Her father is under an evil curse (which is as good a definition of clinical depression as any medical dictionary's). I was reminded of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood novels, which deal with fairy tale and mythological archetypes in a different but pertinent way, emphasizing the power such themes and images have in our lives. Rapunzel's mother, who is not very present in the pages, comments about Rapunzel's wild imagination, but it is not just imagination at work here, nor is Cadence suffering from delusions - she is using her clever mind to make some kind of sense of a chaotic, often painful world.

As an adult reading children's books, I am often struck by a duality I never experienced much when I was reading them as a child. As I read this one, I felt very closely connected to Rapunzel, of course, as the book's feisty, determined heroine. But I also felt such sympathy for her mother, who is dealing with the same difficult situation plus trying to somehow make things as easy as possible for her daughter. And as a parent, it is bittersweet to realize that we cannot protect our children from the pain and heartbreak of life. We make poor decisions for the best of reasons. We offer our support, but often they must find their own way of dealing with difficult problems. As Rapunzel's poet father says, "You must be willing to have your heart broken in order to live."

I thoroughly enjoyed this heartfelt, touching novel. Cadence's voice rings through, clear and believable, and I have a feeling the characters will be staying with me for a very long time.

Letters from Rapunzel by Sara Lewis Holmes (HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)

You can visit Sara Lewis Holmes at her blog, Read Write Believe, too!

Other blog reviews:
Jen Robinson's Book Page
Shelf Elf
Just Like the Nut