Thursday, February 28, 2008

A promise...or a curse?

In this tenth installment of xxxHOLIC, my favorite manga series, there are some unusual developments. The premise of the series is that teenage Kimiharo Watanuki has become the servant of mysterious space-time witch Yuko Ichihara. In return for his service, she will make it so he no longer sees ghosts. Watanuki cooks elaborate meals for her, performs tasks at her request, and runs odd errands as well.

This volume opens in the sweltering heat of summertime. Yuko requests that Kimiharo fill several jugs with pure water from a particular well in the city. This apparently innocuous task turns out to be more difficult than he could have imagined - the well is in the yard of a private home, and he basically must trespass in order to obtain the water. He sees a mysterious figure at the window, and it gives him the creeps.

Meanwhile he makes a pinkie-promise with his beloved Himawari-chan, but the result of that promise leads him into trouble. Domeki, Watanuki's friend (although the word "friend" barely begins to cover their bizarre and complex relationship), points out that whenever Kimiharo is involved with Himawari, something bad comes of it. And, looking back on events in previous volumes, readers will have to agree with Domeki. But how can such a sweet, pretty girl cause so much trouble?

Certain events from previous installments are made clear in this volume, and there is a sense of further developments to come. This was a more serious story than some of the others, and while I wasn't laughing as much as usual, I enjoyed seeing the characters change and grow throughout the course of the story. Watanuki can be a nut, but he is a kind, decent person, and I'm growing quite attached to him. The artwork is splendid, as always, although this volume unfortunately lacks the color panels that are included in earlier volumes. There were the usual translation notes at the end, though, which I find enormously helpful and interesting (I learned, for one thing, that tempura is said to have come from Portuguese visitors to Japan in the 1500s, adapted to Japanese tastes. Who knew?). I am now waiting impatiently for the next installment of the series.

xxxHOLIC, Volume 10 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2006)

See also B&OT reviews of
xxxHOLIC #9
xxxHOLIC #11

Will libraries really disappear by 2019?

That's what business consultant Ross Dawson thinks, as mentioned in Slate's very cool library architecture slide show. (See his Extinction Timeline.) The above photo is one of the images from the slide show, depicting the Western History Reading Room at the Denver Public Library.

Libraries are certainly more than a place that stores books these days, providing computer and Internet access and training, a public meeting space, programs, and other wonderful things. Are they truly doomed? I hate to think so - and not just because I work in a library. Libraries have always been one of my favorite places to be, from the time I was a child. They have offered me way more than books over the years - I sure hope they aren't really headed for extinction.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A swashbuckling historical space adventure

Yes, it's a space adventure, and it's historical - set in an alternate Victorian era, where space travel was discovered by Isaac Newton and works through alchemy. Our hero, Art Mumby, narrates the story, but there are also sections written from the point of view of Myrtle, his insufferable (to Art, anyway) older sister.

The story opens at Larklight, the Mumbys' strange, rambling, planet-like mansion that's orbiting Earth. Art and Myrtle live there with their father, a scientist who studies the strange creatures that come from other planets and solar systems. Instead of an expected guest arriving one day, they find themselves overrun with enormous, intelligent spiderlike creatures. Art watches in horror as they envelop his father in a thick webby wrapping and carry him off. His last words to Art are to get his sister and flee. Myrtle, typically, is not to be hurried - she must gather some belongings, including a hairbrush, her diary, and a locket with a picture of their dead mother in it. They narrowly escape the spiders, Myrtle complaining all the while, and blast off in a lifeboat. It is only once they are well away that Art realizes he hadn't thought to set off any emergency flares. No one would know where to find them!

Before too long, they find themselves heading toward a crash landing on the moon, and from there they embark on hair-raising adventures involving aliens, pirates, the British Royal Navy, more gigantic spiders, automata, and have many other strange, wonderful and terrifying encounters.

This is one of the best books I've read so far this year. I thoroughly enjoyed the odd juxtaposition of the Victorian time period with space travel, and the many bizarre, creative touches that lent the book a marvellous sense of wonder. Art is a typical young British boy, dreaming of action, adventure and daring deeds. Myrtle, who annoys Art to no end (and not without reason) hates living out in the middle of nowhere. Her dreams are of visiting England, buying fashionable dresses and going to all the wonderful places she's read about. Art finds out there's more to action and adventure than he thought, and Myrtle, shockingly to her, discovers that she can rise to the occasion when circumstances demand (even if she considers it most unladylike to do so).

I particularly enjoyed the humor in the book - there are hilarious references to Star Trek and H. G. Wells, which younger readers might not catch (the first time around, at any rate), but that had me laughing out loud. The novel's characters - from Art and Myrtle to the aliens we meet along the way - are memorable and engaging. I am so pleased that there is a sequel, not just so I can enjoy further adventures in the world of Larklight, but so I can spend more time with these wonderful characters. I highly recommend this novel!

Books in the Larklight Trilogy (to date):
Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space by Philip Reeve; illustrations by David Wyatt (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006)

Other blog reviews:
Blogging for a Good Book
Book Bits
Lissa Reads
Words by Annie

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A very strange school

Eleven-year-old Reynie Muldoon has lived at an orphanage as long as he can remember. He has always found it difficult to fit in with the other children because he is extremely intelligent; they make fun of his vocabulary and the things he says in class. His only friend there is his beloved tutor, a kind woman who, one day during breakfast, points out an ad in a newspaper inviting children to take a test to be selected for "special opportunities."

Reynie finds the test, unlike the others he has taken in school, to be a true challenge. When he, along with several other talented children, is selected from among the hundreds of others who took the test, he embarks on an adventure the likes of which he has never imagined.

First the children are taken to a very strange old house to meet Mr. Benedict, the man behind the test. There, they learn of a danger that is menacing the entire country, and they find out that, in their unique position as highly intelligent, talented, resourceful children, they are the only ones who have a hope - a slim hope, but a hope - of stopping it. When they agree to try, they are taken to a very strange school located on an island (I was envisioning Alcatraz, although it is connected to the mainland by a guarded bridge). The children must infiltrate the school and manage to ferret out its secrets in order to foil the villain's dastardly schemes.

I listened to this book on audio, and I have to say I am not a huge fan of Del Roy - his voice has this dropping intonation at the end of sentences that starts to bug me after a while, but that is probably just me. Other readers are better at differentiating characters' voices (Nathanial Parker, who reads the Artemis Fowl books, is exceptionally skilled at that - and of course Jim Dale is the king!), but I found myself confused at times about which character was speaking.

The plot had very exciting moments, but also times when the pacing was a bit sluggish. After a very detailed description of the tests and problems they had to solve in order to be chosen to be on the team, I was a bit disappointed that, once at the school, the children seemed to flounder around with very little direction. At the same time, it was fun to watch the characters battle their own weaknesses and learn to fight together, as a team, despite personality conflicts. The second half of the book took off, and the tension grew to a very nicely action-packed climax. One must seriously suspend disbelief to accept a few major plot developments, but it was an intriguing and memorable story that should appeal to many young readers.

Books (to date) in the Mysterious Benedict Society series:
  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (to be published May, 2008)
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart; read by Del Roy (Listening Library, 2007)

Other blogger reviews:
Reading and Breathing
Blogging for a Good Book

Monday, February 25, 2008

The art of reading aloud

Twelve-year-old Meggie lives surrounded by books, and her father, Mo, is a bookbinder. Her mother disappeared years earlier; her father, Mo, misses her more than Meggie does (she was only three at the time and barely remembers her). Meggie's life is a bit unconventional - Mo travels a great deal and takes Meggie out of school to accompany him. But books have always been Meggie's company - books and her father, two things she knows she can depend upon.

Only suddenly it appears she can depend on neither of them. A mysterious stranger appears one stormy night, and Mo sends Meggie to bed with no explanation. Meggie of course creeps out of her room to eavesdrop, and she overhears them talking about someone named Capricorn who has discovered where they live. Before she knows it, they've packed up and are heading to her aunt's house, ostensibly so her father can repair books in her aunt's collection. Maggie tries to get Mo to tell her what is going on, what they are running from, but Mo refuses. Instead, she gets some information from the mysterious stranger, Dustfinger, who tells her that Capricorn is the blackest villain ever, and that he would do anything to get what he wants - in fact, he simply takes pleasure from terrifying people. And, for some mysterious reason, he's after Mo and Meggie.

It turns out that Mo has the ability, when he reads aloud, to read characters out of their books - they suddenly appear in the real world - but something from the real world disappears into the book, as a sort of way of keeping things equal on both sides. Mo doesn't know what will come out or what will go in. Capricorn wants him so he can use this ability to his own end.

I loved the concept of the book, and the fact that the characters (particularly Dustfinger and Aunt Elinor) are interesting and complex. I found that that plot meandered quite a bit, and I felt a bit frustrated with Maggie, Mo and Elinor as they bumbled here and there and never really pulled it together to come up with a way of fighting the bad guys. After all, they had the upper hand, possessing the power of reading characters from books, yet they seemed only to react to events initiated by Capricorn and his henchmen. It also seemed that, despite the talk of Capricorn being so horrific and evil, he was rather weak and ineffectual - his henchmen were not very bright, rarely managed to carry out an order, and as far as creepy bad guys go, Capricorn was simply not quite there for me.

However, despite the lack of a tightly-written, taut narrative, I found Maggie to be an endearing heroine, determined to the end to be strong and protect those she loved. Although this is the first volume of a trilogy, there is a satisfying conclusion to the book, with a few loose ends that, no doubt, will play a role in the second volume.

Books in the Inkheart trilogy:

  • Inkheart
  • Inkspell
  • Inkdeath (forthcoming)
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (The Chicken House, 2003)

This book is #2 of 10 for Molly's Personal Reading Challenge.

Other blogger reviews:
A Striped Armchair
The Bookling
Not Enough Bookshelves
Word for Teens

Friday, February 22, 2008

I've got the going-to-the-movies blues

My husband and I took the kids to see Spiderwick last weekend, and it was a fun movie, a bit dark, but very exciting. We all enjoyed it. But what I really didn't enjoy was having to sit there a full half hour before the movie started, watching commercials. And they weren't even interesting commercials - they were awful things, low-budget local stuff and annoying larger-budget things - that were even repeated several times.

So, I thought, let me get this straight: I just spent $30 (plus popcorn and drinks) to sit here and be subjected to commercials for a half hour? It's bad enough that, after that, they give you another 30 minutes of coming attractions (many of which totally wreck the movie because they show you every plot twist and turn and joke in the whole film) - but at least those are movie related. Even my kids were irritated. The movie actually started a full forty minutes after its set time to start. Sure, we could have showed up 30 minutes after the start time, but we probably wouldn't have been able to get seats all together at that point.

Maybe I'm more sensitive to commercials because for the past year and a half we have not had any TV reception. We rent lots of movies and TV shows on DVDs through Netflix: no commercials! I love it! I am so tired of being bombarded with shouting voices urging me to buy buy buy in order to be happy. At Christmas time my kids actually have trouble coming up with a list to send to Santa because no one is telling them what they want. The more you don't have commercials, I think, the more they become annoying. The same for radio. I mostly listen to NPR or podcasts (no commercials). It's gotten to the point that commercial radio in the car is difficult to handle because of all the irritating jingles, shouting voices, nag, nag, buy this, you need that. I'm beginning to think that people become desensitized to commercials because they are so used to them.

I have to say, it kind of ruined the whole movie thing for me. And I have always loved going to the movies! But now it's becoming more appealing to get a large-screen TV, stay at home, and watch what I want to watch without having a half hour of my life wasted by a bunch of boring commercials. Maybe I'm just getting old....

A vampire of a very different kind

Kim has an odd ability to think in pictures - bright washes of color and shapes that she aspires to portray in her artwork. In high school she tended to keep to herself, and had no real friends until the charismatic Shaina arrived from California, and - for some odd reason - singled Kim out to be her friend. Kim's life changes dramatically - she suddenly has a best friend, other friends at school, fun and parties and a sense of belonging. Until something terrible happens, taking away her happiness, her friends, and plunging her into a deep pit of depression where not even art is appealing anymore. Kim goes away to college, hoping for a fresh start.

Jaimie arrives at college nervously hoping she'll manage to fit in. It is her first time away from her family of elemental magic users - she has never spent much time around "normal" people before, and she's been given a very long list of topics she is forbidden to discuss with outsiders. She has very little clue what awaits her at college, so when she opens her assigned dorm room door and finds Kim there already, she's very surprised to find that she is going to have a roommate. Hiding her true nature will be even more of a challenge than she thought, but if she wants to learn to live on the "Outside," she has little choice.

It doesn't take long before Kim's overwhelming sadness reveals itself to Jaimie - but unlike Kim's family, Jaimie immediately realizes that Kim's sadness is not mere depression. It is somehow being caused by something outside Kim, and Jaimie suspects the culprit is a rogue viri, a sort of vampire that feeds off human emotions. Normally viri move through the world undetected, feeding harmlessly from people's emotions, but sometimes they become addicted to darker feelings, and there certainly appears to be something odd about Kim, something that makes her especially attractive to these vampiric creatures. Jaimie knows little about viri, other than the fact that one killed several of her relatives a few years earlier. How can she hope to help Kim when she is forbidden to even talk to her about what she suspects? Before she knows it, she's broken a lot of rules, but Rugee, the Presence (in the form of a very strange lizard) who has accompanied her to college, seems in agreement that Kim must be protected. However, the elders who arrive to investigate the situation are not at all pleased with Jaimie's behavior.

This novel is narrated in turn by Kim and Jaime, which was a bit confusing in the beginning because their voices are similar. It wasn't until I became used to their vocabulary and grew to knew their personalities better that I didn't have to keep referring to the "Jaimie" or "Kim" heading for each chapter. Jaimie has appeared in other of Hoffman's novels, but although I read them so long ago that they were fairly vague in my memory, this book stands well on its own.

This is my first official book of the Mythopoeic Challenge, but I would have definitely read it without that impetus - I love Nina Kiriki Hoffman's books. I particularly enjoyed this one, with its interesting characters and powerful sense of wonder, as well as the college setting (it gave me the same feeling I remember from Tam Lin, a book with a college setting that I'll be rereading for the Mythopoeic Challenge) and the unusual elemental magic Kim's family members perform. This is the kind of book that made me resent anything and everything that prevented my getting back to it. I highly recommend it!

Spirits That Walk in Shadow by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Viking, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Reading in the Dark

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Death Note, Volume 2

In this second volume of the Death Note manga series, Light Yagami continues his quest to rid the world of dangerous criminals by writing their names in the supernatural notebook dropped by Ryuk, a bored Shinigami death god. The American FBI has sent agents to help Japanese investigators track down the mysterious killer When they all die mysteriously, panic sweeps through the Japanese police force, with many agents dropping out of the investigation, fearing for their lives. Light's father, however, remains as the chief investigator on the case.

The mysterious crimefighter "L" agrees to meet with task force members face to face, and his brilliant mind is pitted against Light's, who continues his crusade against the wicked. Light's intelligence and attention to detail serve him well, but he overlooks the fact that the wife of an FBI agent he has killed, herself a former agent, has become suspicious and is startlingly close to discovering his identity.

Although Light's mission - to rid the world of evildoers - is laudable, he's not above killing innocent people in order to prevent being caught. In fact, he seems very undisturbed by the necessity of doing so. He is a firm believer in the end justifying the means, and although Ryuk, the Shinigami, is supposed to remain detached from events surrounding Light and the death note, he is clearly surprised by Light's resourcefulness and seems even to admire him. The mysterious L (pictured on the cover) is certainly an odd duck. He appears to be superintelligent but lacking in certain social skills. My sympathy for Light waned as I read this installment in the series, but I didn't find myself particularly drawn to L at this point. It will be very interesting to see how the plot develops from here.

Death Note, Volume 2 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (VIZ Media, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Rhinoa's Ramblings

B&OT review of Death Note, Vol. 1

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Betsy, Queen of the Undead

Betsy is having a bad day. She gets laid off from her job, her birthday party gets canceled, she gets run over by a car and wakes a funeral home. Clearly she is supposed to be dead, but for some reason she's not. And she knows there's no way she could have survived the accident. So she tries to remedy things - jumps off buildings, drinks poison - but nothing works. And every man she talks to looks at her in adoration - despite the horrible outfit she was buried in - and - worse yet - the cheap, knockoff shoes. What on earth has happened to her?

She comes to realize she is strong and fast - unbelievably strong and fast. When she comes across a mother and little girl being attacked on a dark city street, she dispatches the bad guys with very little effort, and it is only when she feels the fangs pushing through her gums that she understands that she has become a vampire.

And it turns out that Betsy is not just any vampire - she possesses very unusual powers. That is, according to Sinclair -- an infuriatingly sexy vampire who is pushy, overbearing and annoying...and did I say sexy? Betsy is the prophesied Vampire Queen whose destiny is to overthrow Nostro, a powerful, sadistic vampire (and walking fashion disaster). Betsy just wants to return to her old life as much as she can, get her collection of designer shoes back, and possibly find another job. Unfortunately she's drawn the attention of Nostro, and events are soon well beyond her control.

I must admit I was skeptical when I began this book. A friend at work insisted I would love it, and it had been sitting on my book pile for quite a while before I finally picked it up - and I'm glad I did! It was funny and creative and unpredictable. It sets all the usual genre conventions on their ears and kept me laughing all the way through. Admittedly you need to be in the mood for a silly, Janet-Evanovich-style romp - if you are, you are in for a treat. The plot is gripping, with fun, surprising twists and turns, the characters are memorable, and the dialogue is snappy. I'm pleased that Betsy returns in subsequent books in the series, and I plan to pick up the next one soon.

Books in the "Queen Betsy" series:
  1. Undead and Unwed
  2. Undead and Unemployed
  3. Undead and Unappreciated
  4. Undead and Unreturnable
  5. Undead and Unpopular
  6. Undead and Uneasy
Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson (Berley Sensation, 2004)

Other blogger reviews:
Books to the Sky
Eat. Sleep. Read.
The Paperback Stash

Monday, February 18, 2008

The allure of the sea

Aquamarine: Hailey and Claire are two best friends who can't even remember a time before they knew each other. But the unthinkable has happened - Claire is moving to Florida, and this is their very last summer together. To make matters worse, the swim club near the beach where they've spent every summer of their lives is going to be demolished. It has become so dilapidated and run down that only Hailey, Claire and the sole surviving employee spend any time there anymore. Their final summer together is complicated by an amazing appearance of a mermaid in the murky swimming pool, and only two friends who know each other's strengths and weaknesses so well could possibly hope to cope with the tangle of events that follow.

Indigo: In a small town where it rarely rains, the two McGill boys grow up slightly apart from everyone else. Townspeople think that there's something very strange about them, with their love of water and the webbing between their fingers. But thirteen-year-old-Martha loves that they're different. She hates her town, hates how everyone dreads rain ever since the town was flooded years earlier, and she hates how the other kids treat her two friends. Most of all, she hates how people pity her because her mother died the year before, and she certainly hates that her father doesn't seem to care much about anything anymore - not even that horrible Hildy Swoon with her casseroles is elbowing her way into his life, and shoving Martha out. Trevor (Trout) and Eli (Eel) McGill represent everything that isn't her town - their differences simply show that there's more to the world than boring old Oak Grove. Then the rains begin, the town's barrier to keep out the water keeps the water in, and big changes start happening.

This book has been floating around the house for a long time. I have not read anything by Alice Hoffman before. Years ago I tried Turtle Moon and for whatever reason, I could not get into it and gave up after fifty pages. My friend Devinoni loves Alice Hoffman, though, particularly Practical Magic (he's always careful to say the book but definitely not the movie), so I thought I'd give this a try (plus it's also the first of my 10 books to read for Molly's personal reading challenge).

I found the book to be sweet and simple, with engaging characters and settings that were described in such sensory detail that I felt them settle around me as I read. These two novellas have the feel of short stories - I think I read the entire book in an hour or two - so it was a good way to get a taste of Hoffman's writing style, and it did make me interested in reading her longer works (maybe Practical Magic next?).

Water Tales: Aquamarine and Indigo (Two Novels) by Alice Hoffman (Scholastic, 2003)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

No! That's Wrong!

A gust of wind blows through a village in China, whisking a bright red pair of underpants from a clothesline. They sail through the air, finally landing on the head of a little white rabbit. The rabbit is thrilled with her jaunty new red "hat."

She scampers through the forest with her hat, allowing all her friends to try it on. It's a bit too small for the elephant, and too big for the fox, but all the rabbit's friends just love it anyway. Each illustration is outlined in black, and in the white border are the words, "No, that's wrong. It's not a hat." The rabbit continues through the woods, sharing the hat with her many friends, including the hen, the pig, the heron, and the crocodile. All agree that it is a terrific, magnificent, fantastic, special hat. Meanwhile the narrator insists, "No, that's wrong. It's not a hat."

Finally the rabbit meets up with the donkey, who asks, "Why are you wearing underpants on your head?" "It's a hat," insists the rabbit. But donkey shows her proof: pictures of people wearing underwear, so the rabbit tries putting them on the "right" way. But how is a rabbit's tail possibly going to fit? And when it doesn't, is the rabbit going to let that killjoy donkey take away her pleasure in the wonderful hat? Not if her friends have anything to say about it!

This deceptively simple story takes a humorous look at fashion, peer pressure, friendship, and the value of believing in oneself. Younger children will delight in the hilarious premise of animals wearing underwear on their heads. Older children will appreciate the more subtle concepts of the book, and will root for rabbit as she searches for a way to silence that critical voice once and for all.

Award-winning Chinese illustrators Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu have teamed together to produce this, their first picture book, a delightful combination of humor and insight. The dreamy landscapes, adorable animal creatures and simple text combine to create a charming story that has definite kid appeal.

No! That's Wrong! by Zhaohua Ji and Cui Xu (Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 2008)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A diabolical child genius

Artemis Fowl is only twelve years old, but he is a real genius, a technological whiz, and a plotting schemer - definitely someone to be reckoned with. Despite the fact that his father has disappeared, his mother has retreated into an imaginary world, and he is on his own with only Butler (his manservant/bodyguard) and Butler's younger sister to keep him company, he remains undaunted. He has a plan to restore his family fortunes - an audacious, unbelievable plan - and he is determined that nothing - and no one - will get in his way.

Artemis has discovered something that hardly any humans know: fairies are real. Not only are they real, but, if Artemis has his way, he will trick them into handing over a lot more than a pot of gold.

Meanwhile, Holly Short of LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance- an elite sort of fairy police unit) is doing her job, protecting earth from marauding trolls and such, making sure the fairy presence in the world remains unknown to humans. Little does she suspect that she is about to be kidnapped by none other than Artemis Fowl...and little does he suspect he may feel a bit differently about his scheme when he meets Holly face to face.

I read this book a few years ago, when it first came out, and I enjoyed it. Several other installments in the series have been published since then, and I found myself in the position of not quite remembering the first one enough to continue with the series without having to reread it. So I decided to listen to the audio version, and Nathaniel Parker, who narrates it, does such a wonderful job that I believe I enjoyed it more the second time around! He does all the accents very well, as well as the different voices of the characters, and he has the narration and rhythm of a true storyteller. I intend to listen the rest of the series instead of reading it, as I had originally intended. The story itself is gripping and has a dark, gritty quality that makes it a good recommendation to teen boys in particular - the ones I have given it to at my library invariably come back to read further in the series. I also enjoyed the unusual combination of fairy magic and human (and fairy) technology. I'm looking forward to listening to Artemis Fowl's next adventure.

Books in the Artemis Fowl series to date:

  1. Artemis Fowl
  2. Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident
  3. Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code
  4. Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception
  5. Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer; read by Nathaniel Parker (Listening Library, Unabridged Edition, 2004)

Other blog reviews:
Musings of a Bookworm
ShayanB's Weblog

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Wedding Planner's Daughter

Twelve-year-old Willa has been moving from town to town her entire life – just as soon as she seems to be settling in somewhere, making friends and putting down some tentative roots, her mother brings out the suitcases, and off they go again. But now things are different: they have moved to Cape Cod, where Willa’s grandmother lives, and it looks like Willa’s new friend Tina is becoming her first-ever best friend. Willa adores her new life: her grandmother’s delectable candy shop, the kindly bookstore owner who saves special books just for her, the allure of the beach and sand – not to mention her handsome classmate, Joseph Francis Kennelly.

Willa’s mother Stella runs a glamorous wedding planning business, and her weddings are famed for being the most perfect romantic weddings ever – so perfect that some famous soap opera stars have asked her to plan their extravagant Cape Cod wedding. But ironically Stella is the least romantic person Willa knows. Ever since her own marriage ended tragically with the death of her new husband, Stella is determined not to have any stars in her eyes and to keep her feet – and her daughter’s – firmly planted on the ground.

But Willa has other plans for her mother – namely Sam, their handsome neighbor who is also Willa’s English teacher. She thinks he would make a wonderful husband for Stella – and the perfect father for herself, which is something she’s been wishing for ever since she can remember. Unfortunately, what Willa wants and what Stella wants are two very different things.

At first glance this book appears to be a fluffy preteen chick-lit read, and indeed, it starts out that way. But as the story progresses and the characters develop, the story takes on a deeper emotional resonance while still maintaining its sense of fun. Some of the plot elements (as well as the silly names for peripheral characters, like "Duke and Dora" for the soap opera stars) did stretch credibility a bit, and Stella's treatment of Willa at times made me want to shake the woman in frustration, but the book offers up a solid, sweet (sometimes bittersweet) mother-daughter story with engaging, memorable characters.

Books in the Wedding Planner's Daughter series (to date):
    The Wedding Planner's Daughter
    The Cupid Chronicles
The Wedding Planner’s Daughter by Coleen Murtagh Paratore (Aladdin Paperbacks, 2005)

Other blog reviews:
All Five Stars
The Ice Coffee Book Club

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

One nosy coyote

Mercy Thompson is back in her third adventure, and this time the shapeshifting mechanic gets in way over her head. It starts out as a favor she needs to repay - and while she knew that it wasn't a great idea to owe a favor to the fae, at the time she had no real choice, and now she's stuck.

Mercede's mentor and friend, Zee, is clearly worried about asking Mercy to involve herself with the fae, but Uncle Mike, fae and pub owner, thinks Mercy's talents may be useful - and she does owe them a favor, after all. It turns out a serial killer as been on the loose at the fae reservation. When the presence of the fae became known to the general public, the fae offered to live on enclosed reservations, as a sort of way to make humans feel safe and secure (a completely false sense of security). Not much is known of what happens on the reservations, and Mercy has never before set foot inside.

Zee and Uncle Mike believe that Mercy's acute sense of smell when she's in her coyote form may help to track down the murderer. Zee is concerned about Mercy drawing attention to herself - after all, because the unique abilities of walkers, the fae killed off most of her native american ancestors when they first arrived in the new world. Unfortunately, Mercy's talents do nothing but call attention to herself, and the deeper she is drawn into investigating the murder, the deeper she is drawn into very real danger - from magical and nonmagical beings alike.

The murder mystery itself is full of twists and turns and is fun to unravel, and at the same time Mercy's personal life is also undergoing some serious changes. Her refusal to commit one way or another to Adam, the alpha werewolf she's very attracted to (but fears losing her independence if she gets together with him) has created a weakness in the pack, and she realizes she is going to have to make a choice between Adam and Samual, the man she's loved since she was a teenager.

The plot packs some hard punches, but it also reveals previously unseen aspects of the characters and their relationships with each other. I am firmly hooked on Mercy's adventures, and now will have to wait impatiently for the next one. This is is an excellent, well-written series.
Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs (Ace, 2008)

Other blog reviews:
The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Listerary Escapism
Twisted Librarian
LesleyW's Book Nook

Monday, February 11, 2008

Small in size, but not in spirit

Nine-year-old Tiffany, a farm girl who is a whiz at making cheese, is minding her own business one day when she sees some extremly tiny blue men in a little boat-basket on the river. They give her some sort of warning that something bad is coming, and off they run. Then a creature with long sharp teeth, a thin face and enormous eyes briefly emerges from the river, and Tiffany feels she must do something about it. She runs home, consults a book of fairytales, and returns to the river with a large iron skillet. Using her sticky little brother as bait (she's resented the whiny little guy since he was born, and she figures she'll save him from danger anyway), she lures the creature from the river, whacks it with the pan, and sends it running.

From then on the little blue men seem to pop up everywhere, and for some reason they appear to hold her in awe - although she can't figure out why they keep calling her a hag. Tiffany decides to barter some vegetables and go to "school," a place with a collection of tents where people of varying degrees of knowledge swap lessons for food. There she meets Miss Tick, a witch who tells her a little bit about what is going on - but not nearly enough. Before Tiffany can learn much at all about being a witch, her little brother disappears. Tiffany discovers that her little stunt with the river monster brought him to the attention of the Queen of Faerie, and when he is kidnapped, Tiffany must pool all her slim resources to bring her sticky baby brother back. Luckily, she has a little help from a mischievous group of rabble-rousing, alcohol-swilling little blue men.

I think it's safe to say that any book by Terry Pratchett is worth reading, and this one is no exception. I enjoyed Tiffany's stubborness and resourcefulness (but I couldn't help but marvel at her mature self-possession and cunning - she appeared a bit young to speak and act the way she did), and the Mac Nac Feegle (little blue men) were a hoot. There is humor, but there is also warmth and emotion, and I rooted for Tiffany the whole way through. This one is definitely to be recommended.

Wee Free Men is in film production now, due to be released in 2010. That should be a lot of fun!

The Tiffany Aching series (part of the larger Discworld series):

  1. The Wee Free Men
  2. A Hat Full of Sky
  3. Wintersmith
The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (HarperTrophy, 2003)

Other blog reviews:
Adventures in Reading
Bella Reviews
Hot Books for Teens and Tweens
A Wasteless Chase of Time

Monday, February 4, 2008

Gone skiin'!

It's our annual brother/sister dual family ski trip! There isn't too much snow where we'll be, but we're hoping for the best. At least the company is sure to be a lot of fun. And we always cook up a storm, so we'll be eating well. See you all when I get back!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

A feisty "little" girl

T.J. has recently moved to the suburbs after having spent her whole life on a farm. While she understands the move wasn’t her parents’ choice – they lost a lot of money in the stock market - she still feels desolate at having to leave her beloved horse behind. Her older brother seems to have weathered the transition well; he’s finally found some friends to play in a band with, but T.J. feels like a country bumpkin, a total outsider.

At night she’s been hearing odd sounds in the walls, a scritch, scritch sort of sound. But whenever she turns on the lights to see what’s happening, the sounds stop. Sometimes it seems she can actually hear voices, so when a little door in the wall suddenly opens one night, and a very little person steps out into her room, she’s surprised – but not too surprised.

The tiny little person is Elizabeth, T.J. discovers: a Little. (As in The Littles and The Borrowers). T.J. is sick and tired of hiding in the walls, living afraid, never going out, not knowing anyone her own age, and always having to follow her parents’ long list of rules. She is leaving home, going on an adventure, and she can take care of herself. T.J. is dressed in punkish clothes which she has fashioned for herself, and she has a very big attitude. One of the most important rules is to always hide their existence from big people, and Elizabeth appears pleased to have broken it so successfully.

The novel is told in alternating viewpoints, first from T.J.’s, then from Elizabeth’s point of view. When Elizabeth’s adventure doesn’t go very well and T.J. discovers her living in the garden shed, cold, alone and afraid (not that she’d admit it), the girls team up to find out how Elizabeth can find other Littles – she can’t go back home, because her parents left in a fright after Elizabeth spoke about them to T.J. Their search turns into an adventure that takes both friends far from home, way out of their comfort zones, and teaches them more about the world – and themselves – than they ever imagined possible.

I always enjoy Charles de Lint’s books, and this one is no exception. It does lack the narrative complexity and dramatic intensity of some of my favorites (such as The Blue Girl and The Dreaming Place, two other books for teen readers). That may be because the novel is based on a short story, which appeared in an anthology called Firebirds Rising (edited by Sharyn November). Even so, I find anything Charles de Lint writes is worth reading - I love that feeling I get from his books that the world is a magical place, if we open our eyes and really look at things. My library places this book in the YA section, but I’d say that even younger readers would enjoy it – ten or eleven and up – because of the very tight focus on the characters and straightforward narrative.

Little (Grrl) LOST by Charles de Lint (Viking, 2007)
Other Books & Other Thoughts reviews of Charles de Lint's books:

Other blog reviews:

Friday, February 1, 2008

Fruits Basket, Volume 3

This third volume in the Fruits Basket manga series seems to be a transitional book, with the relationships between the characters gaining more definition and depth, and events being set up for things to come in future volumes.

This sweet manga series tells the story of teenaged Tohru Honda, whose mother died within the past year, and who has been taken taken in by some members of the Sohma family. She lives at their house and runs the household for them in return for room and board - and she also keeps their secret: the Sohma family members are possessed by spirits of the Chinese zodiac. Each one is a different animal, and whenever they are particularly stressed or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into that animal.

In this installment, it is Valentine's Day, and kindhearted Tohru is spending all her hard-earned money on chocolates for all the guys she cares about in her life - and since she started living at the Sohma household, that means a lot of chocolate. She meets another Sohma relative from the zodiac (but I won't tell you which one), and his arrival creates even more tension among members of the household. He realizes immediately that Tohru's presence has created a much improved atmosphere in the family - Kyo is actually learning to keep his temper (a little), although Tohru seems fairly oblivious to her effect on them.

The story is all about family dynamics and mysterious events from the past that effect people's current behavior. although we don't yet know exactly why. It will be fun to watch events unfold in future volumes!

Fruits Basket, Volume 3 by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop, 2004)

Here are reviews of:
Fruits Basket, Volume 2
Fruits Basket, Volume 1

Other blog reviews:
Fruits Basket (this appears to be a blog dedicated to the series!)