Monday, March 31, 2008

A mind-blowing video game (literally)

In a not-too-distant future, fourteen-year-old Giannine Bellisario takes a birthday gift certificate to her favorite gaming place, intent on spending an hour or so in a different world, doing something fun. She has to trick the artificial-intelligence bus computer into letting her off near the gaming center because of the protesters picketing out front. The group called CPOC (Citizens to Protect Our Children) believes that the center's virtual reality games are harmful to children. Giannine tells us that the group insists that children should only watch G-rated movies and read books without any violent, supernatural or frightening elements. "That about kills my entire reading list," she says.

Once inside the gaming center, she looks through the available games and picks one called Heir Apparent, which appears exciting, has wizards and dragons - and also some good-looking characters. This particular game has a variety of ways for the player to win, not just a single series of set choices. Once inside the game, Giannine finds herself in the body of a singularly smelly farm girl who learns that she is the king's illegitimate daughter, declared the heir to the throne on the king's deathbed. But there are many people, not least of which are the king's legitimate sons as well as the queen, who are opposed to her gaining the throne and will try to kill her. And kill her they do.

After she dies and is sent back to start again as the stinky sheep girl, there is an interruption in the game, and a presence appears, apparently from the real world, telling her that the CPOC protesters had entered the gaming center and smashed some of the equipment. They cannot disconnect her from the computer until she successfully completes the game, or she may suffer brain damage. And oh, by the way, she'd better do it quickly, because if it takes her too long she'll suffer brain damage anyway.

Vande Velde tells (and retells) the story with admirable skill, and even though Giannine repeatedly finds herself back at the sheep farm after making one fatal mistake after another, she learns from her mistakes and applies fascinating approaches to overcoming those mistakes on her next try. Never does the narrative become repetitive and dull - there is always something new, a different angle to captivate the reader.

The story is funny and exciting, and - as with all of Vande Velde's books - her turns of phrase are a pleasure to read. Her amusing chapter titles had me grinning ("Morning Comes Early When There's No Snooze Button" is one I particularly enjoyed. And here is my personal favorite passage. Giannine has been given a magical potion to drink, with a bit of added mint (which she detests) to cover up the unpleasant taste:

Not one of her best tasting potions had Orielle said? Imagine a ninety-five degree August day, and a construction worker slaving away on the melting asphalt. Then imagine licking toothpaste out of his armpit.

I read this book for the Mythopoeic Challenge, and I can easily see why it was a contender in the YA category. It is funny, exciting, even moving at times. I highly recommend it!

Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde (Magic Carpet Books, 2004)

Other blog reviews:
Miss Print
Someone's Read It Already


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Further adventures in Death

This second book in the Abhorsen Trilogy transfers the focus from Sabriel, heroine of the first book,to a narrative that alternates between Lirael, a teenager growing up among the Clayr, and Sameth, Lirael and Touchstone's teenage son.

Lirael is a very lonely girl. Her mother died when she was only five, and she has no idea who her father was - only that he was someone her mother met outside the Clayr's glacier home. The Clayr are gifted with the Sight, and their foretelling of the future is invaluable to the king and queen, particularly in this time of unrest in the Old Kingdom, when the dead are rising in numbers greater than anyone has seen since the time of the interregnum (the setting and events recounted in Sabriel).

But Lirael is still waiting for the Sight to come to her at fourteen - she watches in helpless frustration as children years younger gain the precious Sight and move on to perform real, valuable work for the kingdom. Lirael yearns only for the Sight, to truly belong - but her path, it seems, leads her in a different direction. Her magical skills are impressive (but unimportant to her - she'd much rather have the Sight), and she is given a job at the library - a sprawling place with many forbidden rooms and locked doors behind which, Lirael learns to her fascination and fear, lurk dark and terrible creatures. With her only companion, the mysterious Disreputable Dog at her side, Lirael explores the library, learning skills and collecting information that she will direly need in the days to come.

Meanwhile, Prince Sameth, at school in Ancelstierre, the land across the wall where his mother went to school, is on the brink of graduation and is preparing to return home to his parents and sister. But suddenly he finds himself abducted and pursued by legions of the dead. Attempting to combat the necromancer who controls the dead leaves Sameth wounded and traumatized, with an overpowering fear of the land of the dead and his role as Abhorsen-in-waiting.

I enjoyed Tim Curry's reading of Sabriel so much, there was no question but that I'd listen to this one, too. And - no surprise - it did not disappoint. My favorite aspect of this series - aside from the wonderful characters - is the complex magic system that Nix has developed. It works in very specific, well-explained ways. It's not just waving wands and speaking words - through the course of the novels, Charter magic becomes almost a character in itself.

While Sabriel is a standalone novel, more of a prequel to the rest of the series, really, Lirael is the first part of a larger story to be concluded in Abhorsen. It is suspenseful, touching, humorous at times, horrific in others (even though the word "zombie" is never mentioned, that's what the dead are, in varying degrees. Think of an army of zombies controlled by a single, twisted mind...). I very much look forward to hearing Tim Curry read the conclusion of this wonderful trilogy.

Books in the Abhorsen Trilogy:
1. Sabriel
2. Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr
3. Abhorsen

Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (#2 in the Abhorsen trilogy) by Garth Nix; narrated by Tim Curry (Listening Library, 2006)

Other blog reviews:
Back to Books


Saturday, March 29, 2008

That tricky devil!

This is a book I remember reading and enjoying when I was a child, and I recently had the pleasure of reading it to my own children. It is a collection of short stories, all about the devil and his antics, and it made for a very entertaining read-aloud. My husband walked through the room while we were reading, and he ended up sitting down and listening, too - and laughing. That's how good these stories are!

My very favorite is called "Ashes," and it is the entire reason I put this book on hold to read to my kids. Whenever anyone talks about cremation, and keeping people's ashes in an urn, I think of this story and try to hide my smile ('cause, you know, I don't want to look insensitive or anything). It's about a not-very-nice man who dies, and (of course) ends up in hell. Meanwhile, up in the World, the urn with the man's ashes gets knocked into the fireplace, spilling and getting mixed up with the pork ashes from the dog's bone. Suddenly, down in hell, the man finds himself accompanied everywhere he goes by a pig that constantly gazes at him in adoration. It drives him crazy, and he needs to figure out how to get rid of the pig.

There are other funny tales, my second favorite being about Walpurgis the goat (and if I ever get a goat, that will definitely be his name), a beautiful goat that the Devil covets, and the clever old woman determined not to let the devil have him. And there are others that give food for thought, such as "The Imp in a Basket," in which a very kind clergyman discovers an imp in a basket outside the church, and while at first he is horrified, upon reflection he decides that even though an imp is a creature of hell, it is still a baby, and all babies deserve a chance. Maybe if it's treated kindly, he thinks, it will develop some goodness. The villagers, however, don't see eye to eye with him at all.

These stories have the flavor of folktales and the ingenuity, creativity and humor that are uniquely Natalie Babbitt. The book is an excellent read-aloud, and would also be a fun book for a children's book club - beneath the humor there is a lot of substance to spark an interesting discussion. Now I need to hunt through my bookshelves for The Devil's Other Storybook, which I seem to remember buying at the library's book sale a few years ago. Apparently Babbitt had so much fun with the first book that she decided to write another.

The Devil's Storybook by Natalie Babbitt (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984 - reprint)

Other blog reviews:
My Book Journal

Friday, March 28, 2008

An honorable thief

Shamera lives in Purgatory, the worst part of Southwood - although, as daughter of the former captain of the guard, she was raised in the castle. That was before the invasion that killed both her parents and saw the "old man" - her mentor, the king's mage adviser, imprisoned, blinded, and bereft of his magic. Shamera managed to save him - he is the only thing she has left from those earlier happier days, and she supports them with the gains from her thefts from the houses of the conquerors (and if her choices happen to be men who were involved in the maiming of her mentor, and if she casts bad-luck runes to get back at them, the old man doesn't really need to know about that).

But when Shamera returns from one such excursion to find the old man under attack by an invisible enemy and fails to save him, Sham is determined to avenge his death. Lord Kerim, the Reeve of Southwood (the new regime's ruler), is also on the lookout for the killer. But the Cybellian conquerors do not really believe in magic, despite their fear of it. When Sham agrees to come to the castle to hunt down the killer, disguised as the Reeve's mistress, the last thing she expects is to actually like the man. But it seems the enemy likes him, too, and he is its next target. She has a sneaking suspicion their enemy is a demon, but what Cybellian would ever believe something as "far fetched" as that? Sham enters into a world of political intrigue, rivalries and forbidden magic as she searches for a way to defeat an invisible foe.

Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series has become one of my favorite series, so I thought I'd check out her previously published work. This book is actually the third book in the Sainim series - but it's a standalone novel, the only one in the series my library has right now. The cover of the book pictured above is the new, updated cover for a re-release of these older books, so I'm hopeful my library will be getting the others as they are republished.

While this novel had many almost stereotypical trappings of the high fantasy novel (the thief with a good heart, the woman who can disguise herself as a boy yet is ravishing when she dons a dress, etc.), I never felt as though I were reading a rehash of overused material. Sham always shone through as a believable character, and the book was never in danger of becoming clich├ęd or predictable. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I look forward to reading the rest of Briggs' earlier novels.

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge, hosted by Karl at Stainless Steel Droppings. You can check out the reviews of the many other book bloggers who are participating in the challenge here.

Books in the Sianim series:

1. Masques
2. Wolfsbane
3. Steal the Dragon 
When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs (Ace reissue edition, 1998)

Other blog reviews:
The Liorn's Den

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Minerva Clark, super sleuth

Minerva is back in her second mystery, and she is just as much fun this time around. It's summertime, and things are fairly dull. It seems unfair that after all the excitement of successfully solving a murder and related crime scheme she is stuck at home, cleaning out the refrigerator. Worse yet, her oldest brother has signed her up for a summer class -- in electronics, of all things.

Then she gets a phone call from a Chelsea de Guzman, a classmate she normally wouldn't associate with (or, more realistically, the other way around), who is hysterical because she inadvertently gave away something valuable of her father's. Minerva isn't overly fond of Chelsea and her drama-queen, mall-going ways, but she has a kind heart - plus the prospect of a mystery to liven up her boring summer is intriguing.

Minerva doesn't suspect that her snooping will lead her down some dangerous paths, and she will need all her resourcefulness and newfound self-confidence to navigate them safely. As Minerva works to solve the case, storm clouds from her personal life are gathering on the horizon. Her mother has called and will be coming into town - for the first time since the accident (in the first book) that left Minerva the unusual kid she is - a teenager who thinks she's perfectly fine exactly the way she is. But what, she wonders, will her mother think of the new person she's become?

This was an enjoyable sequel to the first Minerva Clark mystery. Minerva's character gains depth as she comes to terms with the changes that have happened to her, which has also affected her relationships with her brothers and her best friend. I enjoyed my sojourn in Minerva's world, and I'm looking forward to returning there soon. Plus there's the added bonus of the sweet corgi on the cover, which looks quite a bit like Molly Mallone's bouncing bundle of doggy joy!

Books in the Minerva Clark 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 Goes to the Dogs (#2 in the Minerva Clark series) by Karen Karbo (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2006)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Hollows...on Halloween

It is Halloween in the Hollows, the time of year when the more...unusual residents of the city come out in amazing costumes and have a wonderful time. There are parties, dances, all kinds of fun things to do - unless you're Rachel Morgan, who has to stay inside on hallowed ground after sunset because a demon is on the loose, trying to kill her. But what else is new?

The previous book in this series saw some enormous changes in Rachel's life, and three months have passed since then. She is trying to move on, hold herself together, and remain positive. But now someone is summoning Al, out of his prison cell in the ever after, and sending him to kill Rachel. Complicating matters (but in a good way) is the arrival of Marshal (the handsome witch who helped Rachel out on the werewolf island several books earlier), as well returning memories from a vampire attack, which further complicates her relationship with Ivy.

Harrison has come a long way since the first Hollows books - each one is better than the last, and this one is no exception. Many plot strands that began in earlier novels come to fruition in this book, and mysteries about Rachel's heritage (what exactly Trent's father did to her DNA when she was a child, for example) are finally revealed. Rachel's mother is more present in this novel, and displays some unexpected characteristics (both to Rachel and the reader). The interesting revelations aside, in this novel Rachel finally comes into her own. At last she is learning to control her incredible impulsiveness and weigh her options before she acts, so that when she does something incredibly dangerous and arguably insane, it is truly because there is no other possible alternative, and too much is at stake for her not to act.

This was an excellent follow-up to previous books in the series, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Books (to date) in the Rachel Morgan Hollows series:

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

The Outlaw Demon Wails (Book 6 in The Hollows series) by Kim Harrison (Eos, 2008)

Other blog reviews:

Beyond Books
The Good, the Bad and the Unread

Monday, March 24, 2008

A most unusual detective

I have a crush. On a skeleton. That's right, a skeleton. His name is Skulduggery Pleasant, and he is witty, charming, an accomplished mage, and a kick-ass fighter. What's not to like? He even wears stylish suits.

12-year-old Stephanie Edgley's favorite uncle has died, and she first spots Skulduggery at the funeral. Only, of course, she doesn't realize he's a skeleton. He is wearing a hat, a scarf that obscures his face, and has a lot of frizzy hair. She does feel that there's something strange about him - and as far as Stephanie's concerned, in a life where everything is same old, same old, boring, boring, boring - strange is a good thing.

Skulduggery is at the reading of the will later that week, even though all that eccentric Uncle Gordon has left him is a few cryptic words of advice. Stephanie, on the other hand, suddenly finds herself in possession not only of Uncle Gordon's wonderful old house, but of a considerable amount of his financial resources, as well. Little does she know that Uncle Gordon, writer of horror novels, wasn't exactly writing fiction. And Stephanie's presence in his house draws her into a world she never knew (but always secretly wished) existed.

It takes her a few moments to process the reality of a world that contains a living, (not exactly) breathing skeleton (among other equally unusual, unbelievable things), but from that moment on, she never looks back. Somehow, it seems, this was what has been missing from her life, and now that she's found it, she's not about to let it go. Skulduggery the detective has a new partner, whether he wants one or not - especially when it becomes clear that Uncle Gordon's death was from distinctly unnatural causes. Stephanie has some detecting to do, and nothing is going to stop her.

This is one of the best audio productions I've ever heard. From the jazzy, creepy introduction music to Rupert Degas's amazing reading, I had a grin on my face from beginning to end. Stephanie's fighting prowess as an untrained 12-year-old wasn't too terribly believable, but her gumption and determination were. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with Skulduggery, especially as revealed through their very humorous dialog. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I am waiting very anxiously for the second book to be published. I intend to wait for the audio version and will be most annoyed if Rupert Degas is not the narrator. I highly recommend this one!

And I've just heard that Skulduggery will be made into a movie!

Books in the Skulduggery Pleasant series:

1. Skulduggery Pleasant
2. Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire
3. Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones 
4. Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days
5. Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy; narrated by Rupert Degas (HarperChildren's Audio, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Pageturners Book of the Week
The Book Tub


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Once Upon a Time Challenge II

Who can resist this challenge? It's the second annual (I'm assuming it will be annual) Once Upon a Time Challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. I was new to the blogosphere and missed out on the first one last year (still being rather clueless about this whole reading challenge thing), but I've heard so many great things about how much fun everyone had who did it, that I jumped right on the bandwagon without looking back - even though I wasn't sure which books I'd choose to read.

I am going to do "Quest the First," mainly because my semester is heating up and I don't have much time right now to figure out specific books from each genre: Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

But that may well change...or I may go on to do both quests, just for fun, since fantasy is my true reading love. I've decided not to combine the books I chose with the Mythopoeic Challenge books since both challenges involve fantasy novels. 'Cause then it wouldn't be as much of a challenge, of course!

So for now (and this is, of course, subject to change depending on personal whim/availability of the books), my picks for the Once Upon a Time II challenge are the following:
  1. The Bronze Pen by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  2. When Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs
  3. Waifs and Strays by Charles de Lint
  4. Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
  5. A Stir of Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
I will add links as I post reviews, and I will also go to the review site and link to my reviews from there. It will be fun to read reviews of other people's choices! And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do....

To be, or not to be...a princess

It is the beginning of the fifth grade school year for Jillian James. She would love to fit in with the "princess" clique at her school - they seem to have a lot of fun together, and they are all interested in the same things. But whatever she does, it seems she is destined to make a mess of things and cause infinite amusement to the princesses, much to Jillian's shame and annoyance. Nigel, one of the boys in the class, is nice to her, but that only makes everyone tease her more - so how can she be friends with him? Even if his interests do have more in common with hers than those of the princesses?

Mrs. Bright, the teacher, is tired of all the cliques and nasty behavior of the students, and she has the children write journals in class and gives them projects to try to get them to work together. Jillian's progress from envious loner to a much more self-confident and independent girl is recounted in the pages of her journal, along with occasional comments and remarks from Mrs. Bright.

This is another pick for my library's summer reading program, and I enjoyed reading about the ups and downs of Jillian's life in Australia. It was a bit unbelievable to me that she would write so frankly and honestly in a journal that she knew her teacher would be reading, especially when her teacher reprimands her for some of the things she writes about, but it was still a very fun book that would certainly appeal to young readers, particularly those who love reading school stories.

The Diary of a Would-Be Princess by Jessica Green (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Rave Reviews Log

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Septimus takes "flyte"

It has been a year since the close of Magyk, when Septimus Heap was taken on as the apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. He spends most of his days at the wizard tower, learning magic and carrying out whatever tasks Marcia (the ExtraOrdinary Wizard) sets for him. She is moody and annoyed because of a shadow that is following her around, gaining form and substance with the passage of time - she is taking measures to get rid of it, but it is a frustratingly slow process.

Meanwhile, DomDaniel, the villain from the first book in the series, is back, even though his bones were picked clean by the Quake Ooze Brownies at the end of the first book. Septimus's oldest brother, Simon, madly jealous that Septimus took his "rightful" place as apprentice, has recovered DomDaniel's bones and is now the necromancer's apprentice. Simon storms into the castle on an enormous black horse, snatches up Jenna, heir to the throne but also Simon's stepsister. No one believes Septimus when he says Jenna's been kidnapped - surely Simon has just taken her out for a ride, they all say, even the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. So Septimus sets off to bring her back.

I found this second installment in the Septimus Heap series to be alternately enjoyable and irritating. I love the world that Sage has built, and all the many amazing things in it, such as the Dragon Boat and the ice tunnels beneath the castle, as well as the wide array of characters and their relationships with each other. At the same time, I found it immensely annoying that, although Septimus has been training to be a wizard for a year and is the seventh son of a seventh son (and therefore possesses great magical powers), he hardly does any useful magic at all - and neither does anyone else - except for Simon. The "good guys" bumbled around incompetently for most of the book, and most of their successes were due to blind luck and extremly unlikely coincidences.

The exception here, for me, was Jenna, the princess. She had no intention of waiting around to be rescued (luckily, because no competent rescue was really going to happen), used her ingenuity and intelligence to figure out how to get away, and throughout the rest of the book she was the one who saw things for what they were and did the things that needed to be done. Without Jenna, the book would have fallen apart.

I read the first book in this series, and for the second I thought I'd try out the audio version. Gerard Doyle did a very nice job of narrating the book, and I think I enjoyed it more than I would have just reading it. Despite my quibbles, I do believe I will check back into the world of Septimus Heap and Jenna to see where their destinies lead them in the next book of the series. I have come to care for these characters (even as they occasionally annoy me), and I am particularly rooting for Jenna!

Books in the Septimus Heap series to date:
  1. Magyk
  2. Flyte
  3. Physik
  4. Queste (to be published April 2008)

Flyte (#2 in the Septimus Heap series) by Angie Sage; narrated by Gerard Doyle (Recorded Books, 2006)

Other blog reviews:
Family Reads
An Opinion on Everything
Confessions of a Book Addict

Monday, March 17, 2008

As long as the grass is green and the water runs

Four old Native American men (or are they women?) have disappeared from a mental institution. The director of the facility seems concerned that there is more to their disappearance than meets the eye (to the amusement of his colleagues), but as events unfold the reader begins to agree with the harried director. The escapees refer to themselves as the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye, Ishmael and Robinson Crusoe, and they're on their way to "fix" the world. Coyote occasionally joins them. I love coyote!

Then there are the characters who come from a Blackfoot reserve in Alberta, Canada. They are all looking for something in their lives (love, work, education, etc.), and they all seem to have gotten lost along the way. Luckily for them (maybe), the Lone Ranger and his (her?) crew are on their way to Canada, and they intend to fix things up a bit. But when Coyote gets involved, who knows what can happen?

Interspersed throughout the narrative are tellings of Changing Woman or First Woman, Coyote, and characters from Judeo-Christian traditions, which are at times hilarious and at others poignant. The stories are varied but relate the same general events with the same general theme. Contrasting with these stories are images from Hollywood western films and western novels, along with all their awful stereotypes of native peoples.

It's difficult to convey the mood of this novel - it is extremely funny in places, made me angry in others, and at times brought tears to my eyes. It is a patchwork quilt of a book, with a piece here, a scene there, and a bit of a story here, and together they form an unforgettable tale that left me feeling that, for a while at least. all was right with the world.

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King (Bantam, 1994)

Other blog review:

So Many Precious Books

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Keladry's page years

Keladry of Mindelan returns in this second book in the Protector of the Small series. Her first, probationary year as page has passed, and she is now truly one of the other pages. No longer is the constant threat of failure hanging over her head; she is familiar with the routine of hard training in the morning, long, demanding classes in the afternoon.

Even so, these subsequent years of page training are harder in many respects: heavy weights are added to the uniform, making running and fighting even more difficult; the same boys who tried their hardest to sabotage her efforts the first year are back, equally determined to make Keladry's life difficult. They are older and more cunning, and Keladry must find other ways of foiling their efforts than physical force. Kel is also finding herself attracted to Nealan of Queenscove, her sponsor and best friend from the first year. But he only sees her as one of the boys, becoming infatuated with one or another of the lovely court ladies, bemoaning the fact that they don't know he exists.

There is plenty of action and adventure in this installment, as Kel meets up with a group of desperate bandits during patrol, and must conquer her paralyzing fear of heights in order to get all her group members to safety. Kel's leadership earns her the respect of her fellow pages, and she finds unexpected support in her efforts to resist the underhanded actions of those others who wish to thwart her.

Kel continues to be an admirable heroine, making mistakes but learning from them, and growing up along the way. She is feisty and kind, always taking the part of the weak and defenseless, rescuing stray dogs and taking shy housemaids under her wing - and she gains as much from their friendship as they do from hers. Bernadette Dunne's narration enhances the story, bringing characters to life, and she has a wonderful way of putting an occasional smile into her voice as she reads that invariably has me smiling along with her.

In a series that culminates with the book Lady Knight, there is never any doubt that Keladry will succeed in her quest - but it is a delight to watch her make her way. The castle has become a familiar, welcoming place, from the classrooms to the armory, the kitchens to the library, and I look forward to accompanying Kel through their halls in the next book in the series.

Books in the Protector of the Small series:
  1. First Test
  2. Page
  3. Squire
  4. Lady Knight
Page (#2 in the Protector of the Small series) by Tamora Pierce; read by Bernadette Dunne (Listening Library, 2000)

Other blog review:
All Booked Up

Harry Potter film news

I'm probably the last one to know, as usual, but I just found an article saying that the final film of the Harry Potter series will be released in two parts, in order to do justice to the very long novel (and probably to make twice as much money along the way).

Cynicism aside, I for one am happy to draw out the inevitable as long as possible, and to have an extra film to look forward to. Until I get to go to the HP theme park...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The little blue men are back!

Tiffany Aching, the irrepressible heroine of Terry Pratchett's delightful novel The Wee Free Men, is back in this sequel. She and Miss Tick, the first witch Tiffany ever met, have decided that she must learn more about being a witch, and so Tiffany is leaving her home and family - and her beloved Chalk countryside - to be apprenticed to Miss Level, a rather unusual witch up in the hills.

Tiffany doesn't know it, but there is...something...that is after her, something as old as time that is attracted to her power and energy. Tiffany blithely continues on her way, not realizing that it is biding its time, waiting for just the right moment to take over her body and her mind.

Luckily the wee free men are aware of the situation, and they are determined - somehow - to help Tiffany before it's too late. There are laugh-0ut-loud moments in the novel, as well as edge-of-the-seat tension, action and adventure. Tiffany has a long way to go in her journey to become the witch her Granny Aching was, but she has the gift of knowing what's important, a good heart, and steely determination. (Luckily for her, because the thing that is after her is known to be unkillable and unstoppable.)

I listened to this book in audio format, and it was an extremely enjoyable experience. Stephen Briggs did a wonderful job, particularly with the voices and accents of the Mac Nac Feegle. He had me giggling as I listened (which, because I was listening to it on my iPod, had people slowly backing away from me - and the more I tried not to laugh out loud, the harder it was not to!). I am happy that Tiffany's adventures continue in a subsequent book in the series, Wintersmith, and I'm looking forward to reading all about them.

This is my second book read for the Mythopoeic Challenge. And I'm glad I did!

The Tiffany Aching series (part of the larger Discworld series):
  1. The Wee Free Men
  2. A Hat Full of Sky
  3. Wintersmith

A Hat Full of Sky: The Continuing Adventures of Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett; read by Stephen Briggs (HarperChildren's Audio, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Adventures in Reading

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A difficult path

Does the walker choose the path, or does the path choose the walker? This is a question that is raised repeatedly throughout Sabriel. Sabriel is a child with a destiny, and almost before her childhood is ended, that destiny is thrust upon her. The path that has chosen her is a difficult one, indeed.

Sabriel has lived almost her entire life at Wyverly College, a private girls' boarding school in Ancelstierre, which is close enough to the border of the Old Kingdom that magic still works, although its power is somewhat diluted. Sabriel's father, Abhorsen, lives in the Old Kingdom and travels from place to place working powerful magic to keep the dead in the realm of the dead. Sabriel, too, has been learning these arts to follow in her father's footsteps, and she looks forward to finally joining him on his travels through the old kingdom, now that her years at Wyverly College are drawing to a close.

Then disaster strikes. Abhorsen disappears - he seems to be trapped in the land of death somehow. Sabriel, who hasn't been to the Old Kingdom since she was four or five years old, must leave Wyverly and journey on her own through the Old Kindom in search of him. She soon finds that she knows next to nothing about where to go, how to travel, and the dangers that await. Creatures from the realm of the dead pursue her in her quest, and all along the way are people begging for her help. Something has happened to the Old Kingdom, and the charter stones, which embody the magic that protects that land and the living, are being destroyed. With their destruction, more and more of the dead are coming into the world to prey on the living. Sabriel must help them - but she must also locate her father before it's too late to bring him back.

I read this book many years ago, and I remembered enjoying it, but I never did continue on with the series. I have become obsessed with audio books since I got an iPod for my birthday, so it seemed a good idea to listen to this one and continue on with the trilogy - especially since the narrator is none other than Tim Curry, who is an amazing reader. (He narrated the first few Lemony Snicket Unfortunate Events books, and they were so much fun! It was a pity that Lemony Snicket read the subsequent ones. I know he wrote the books, but really, who can compete with Tim Curry?)

Curry does the voices very well, skillfully portraying characters' emotional states through their dialogue. His take on the character of Mogget (an immensely powerful magical being in the form of an irascible, smart-ass cat) was particularly delightful. I had thought to listen to this one and read the others in the trilogy, but if Curry reads them all, I'm listening to them all. The story is gripping and moving, the magical world complex and believable, and Sabriel is an admirable heroine. She struggles down the path to the greater good, risking the things she holds most dear, and I rooted for her every step of the way.

The Abhorsen Trilogy:
  1. Sabriel
  2. Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr
  3. Abhorsen
Sabriel (#1 in the Abhorsen Trilogy) by Garth Nix; read by Tim Curry (Listening Library, 2002)

Other blog reviews:
Graculus's Blog
Outside the Outsiders


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

So the next time you feel guilty about spending too much time behind the pages of a book... can make yourself feel better - even virtuous and superior - by going to this site and reading the article about how great reading is for you! It says things like: "Being a bookworm doesn’t just make you smart. It makes you mentally tough. It builds so much cognitive reserve that bookworms’ brains may be bolstered against bad things like pollution and toxins."

I just love it when science validates my reading addiction. :-)


A faery in exile

Anita is enjoying life - she has the lead in the school play, she's falling in love with someone special, she has friends and family who care about her, and she's just about to turn sixteen. Evan, her amazing boyfriend, is taking her out on a special boat ride on the Thames for her birthday - but then there is a terrible accident on the river, and they both end up in the hospital. From then on things become very strange, and Anita's life turns in a terrifyingly unexpected direction.

At first she suspects she is having some sort of hallucination brought on by the accident. She is transported to a different word - the land of faerie, where she is told she is the lost princess of King Oberon and Queen Titania. She disappeared into the mortal realms 500 years earlier, but handsome Gabriel Drake, a faery nobleman, has rescued her. The realm, dark and neglected after centuries of neglect by the king, who has been in mourning since her disappearance, begins to return to life with her return.

Anita is confused and overwhelmed, but continues to believe she is dreaming it all, even though memories of her previous life are beginning to surface in her mind. An only child, she is a bit unsettled by the appearance of so many sisters, who treat her with surprising familiarity. And Evan - he is really Edric, servant to Gabriel Drake, and she is furious that he duped her into falling in love with him in order to get her to return to the land of Faerie. And even as she begins to believe she truly is a faerie princess, she is torn. How can she leave her parents in the mortal realms behind without a world of explanation? Is it truly her destiny to walk between the worlds? But what if she doesn't want that destiny?

This is another pick for my library's upcoming summer reading program. It was...enjoyable, but predictable. The characters were a bit flat to me - the sisters were mostly interchangeable, and Anita herself was slightly annoying in that she spent so much of the book trying to convince herself she was dreaming, no matter what anyone did or said. Once that was over with, though, and she started to try to take control of her life, the pacing picked up nicely. I also found some of the motivations of the characters to be a bit sketchy. King Oberon has been in mourning for 500 years for his missing daughter, yet he barely spends more than five minutes with her when she returns. Then he conveniently (for the plot) takes off on an extended journey around the kingdom to set things to rights.

I've heard that subsequent books in the series are better, so I may check them out at some point. I do think the series would be very appealing to teen fantasy fans, although I preferred Holly Black's modern faery tales to this one.Books in the Faerie Path series:
  1. The Faerie Path
  2. The Lost Queen
  3. The Sorcerer King
The Faerie Path by Frewin Jones (HarperCollins, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Anilee's Reviews
The Compulsive Reader
Em's Bookshelf
YA Bookmark

Monday, March 10, 2008

I'm it! Another meme

My read-headed pal Molly tagged me for a meme ages ago, and so I thought I'd better get moving on it. Here are the rules:

Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
Open the book to page 123.
Find the fifth sentence.
Post the next three sentences.

So here goes:

The nearest book is Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King (an author recommended by Charles de Lint). Here are the sentences:

What was that? says one of the Pigs.
Sounded like a fart, says one of the Raccoons.
Okay, says one of the Moose, who farted?

I think Molly will particularly appreciate that passage. Tee hee. :-)
This meme has been floating around for a while, so if you haven't been tagged yet and have a book sitting nearby (and who doesn't, after all?) consider yourself tagged, and join the fun!

Queen Betsy is back - and looking for a job

Betsy Taylor, undead fashion maven and unwilling queen of the vampires, returns in her second adventure. All she really wants is to get a job (the bills pile up for the living and the undead alike) and to live her life in as normal a manner as possible. Unfortunately for Betsy, that is not going to happen any time soon.

On the mundane side, her house is riddled with termites. On the supernatural side, there appears to be a vigilante group out hunting - and killing - vampires. Betsy is dismayed to learn that, because she is Queen, it is her responsibility to protect her "people" from such things - even if she thinks they mostly probably deserve it. It isn't until one of her vampire friends - who she knows would never wantonly attack anyone - is nearly killed that Betsy realizes she needs to take some action. Complicating matters is the presence of the supremely sexy vampire Sinclair - Betsy finds him attractive, but has difficulty putting up with his high-handedness and domineering personality. If only he weren't so darn charismatic. Even her own mother is smitten with him, for heaven's sake!

I enjoyed the first book in this series, and I did wonder if Davidson would manage to keep up the momentum and tone in the second, and she certainly did. I enjoyed it immensely - Betsy is an endearing character - she is quirky and definitely into her shoes and fashion, but she is also a decent person, someone who does the right thing without taking time to think (which, because she is a vampire, often lands her into trouble). The books are light and funny, well written and with a bit more substance than one might expect. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment in the series.

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 Unemployed by MaryJanice Davidson (Berkley Sensation, 2004)

Other blog reviews:
Audrie & the Daily Favorite
CheriePie's Books
Sleep. Eat. Read.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Artemis Fowl heads north

Things have changed for antihero Artemis Fowl since the first book in the series. Now that his mother's feeling better and has taken control of the household again, Artemis no longer enjoys the immense freedom he once had. He finds himself at private school, facing yet again another psychologist. In the middle of the interview, he receives a phone call from Butler. Evidently some Russian mafiosi are holding his father (missing for more than a two years and presumed dead) hostage.

Meanwhile, in the faery realms, there are serious criminal issues to be dealt with. Captain Holly Short at first suspects Artemis of being the culprit, but once he's brought in and questioned, it becomes clear that he is innocent. However, his skills would be invaluable in catching the true troublemaker - and he, in return, requests their assistance in rescuing his father. Holly understandably has some trouble trusting Artemis (he did kidnap her in the first book, after all), and it is fun to watch the two characters come to an understanding throughout the course of the book.

I enjoyed listening to Nathaniel Parker narrate the first Artemis Fowl novel, and the second one was just as delightful. It was fun to watching the human/fae team attempt to work together, with often humorous results, and underneath there were also quite serious undercurrents as Artemis had to make incredibly difficult decisions in his attempt to rescue his father before time ran out, while holding up his end of the bargain with Captain Short and Commander Root at the same time. There is plenty of action and adventure, and not a little violence, which makes it a better choice for teen than younger readers. Artemis did start out as an antihero in the first book, but he is beginning to realize that the end may not, in fact, justify the means, and that life contains more shades of gray than pure black and white. I'm looking forward to listening to the next installment in his adventures.

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: The Arctic Incident (#2 in the Artemis Fowl series) by Eoin Colfer; read by Nathaniel Parker (Listening Library, 2004)

Other blog reviews:
Back to Books
Otaka's Scoop
Outside the Outsiders

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A bevy of unusual aunts

Harriet Bean returns in this third installment of the Harriet Bean series. In previous books, she discovered a plethora of unusual aunts she never knew she had, and in this story she discovers yet another - Aunt Formica - who is a cowgirl, living in America. Her aunts Thessalonica and Japonica invite Harriet to travel with them from England to America to visit Aunt Formica, who is in some sort of trouble and needs their help. Once she finally arrives out west (nearly halfway through the book), we discover that Aunt Formica lives on a cattle ranch, and she's having trouble with cattle rustlers.

I have not read the other books in this series, but I listened to this one on CD because it's one of the children's books my library system has chosen to highlight during next summer's reading program for children. Maybe if I'd read the others, I'd have been more taken with this one, but I must say it left me fairly cold. There wasn't much of a mystery, the resolution was a bit silly and not terribly believable, and there was no character development to speak of. It seems to me that successful authors of books for adults often seem to whip off some kids' books without thinking much about it. I can't imagine this would have grabbed an editor's eye otherwise, and I'm puzzled why it was recommended for our library to highlight.

Other books for this same audience that I'd recommend instead include Clementine by Sara Pennypacker and the Judy Moody books (for strong female characters), the Cam Jansen series (for more thoughtful mysteries), and the Mercy Watson series (for humor).

The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean (#3 in the Harriet Bean series) by Alexander McCall Smith; read by Charlotte Perry (Recorded Books, 2007)

Other blog review:
Oodles of Oddies

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Breaking the gender barrier

Ten-year-old Keladry of Mindelan is the first female to take advantage of the king's decree that permits girls to train to be knights in the kingdom of Tortall. The King's Own warrior, Alanna, followed that training in the Lioness books, but she did so disguised as a boy.

The very old-fashioned Lord Wyldon, who is in charge of page training, thinks that girls are unsuited to be warriors; the king needs Lord Wyldon's support. When Lord Wyldon agrees to take on Kel as a page, he does so with one stipulation: that she be given a year of probation. If she does not pass, she must go home. Alanna is incensed when she hears this - and not only that, but Lord Wyldon insists that Alanna keep her distance from Keladry, so no one will say she succeeded only with Alanna's help.

Keladry encounters a lot of hostility when she arrives at the castle, and she is very much on her own. Luckily her childhood was spent among the Yamani, a culture that prizes stoicism as well as defensive fighting skills among men and women, and these values and skills give Kel strength as she endures insults, ostracism and hazing.

Kel is able to endure all kinds of harrassment, but not when she witnesses it happening to others. From the very beginning of the book, Kel shows herself as someone willing to risk her own safety for others - from rescuing kittens from a hideous spidren (an enormous spiderlike creature with a human head and horrible appetite) to standing up to bullies among the other pages. Her kind heart and stubborn refusal to give up eventually win her friends and supporters from among the other pages, but there are those who will sabotage everything she does in order to get her to give up and leave protecting the kingdom to the boys.

Kel is an admirable character, with believable strengths and weaknesses, and readers will be rooting for her throughout the novel. Bernadette Dunne's narration brings the story to life, particularly Keladry's internal discourse and the dialog among the characters. Although this is the one of several series Tamora Pierce has set in the fantastical medieval kingdom of Tortall, it is not necessary to read the others in order to enjoy this one. In fact, my library shelves this series with the chapter books for ages 9-12, but the Alanna books are in the teen section - so this series would be a good one for younger readers to begin with. I enjoyed the audiobook very much and intend to listen to the remaining books in audio as well.

Books in the Protector of the Small series:
  1. First Test
  2. Page
  3. Squire
  4. Lady Knight

First Test (#1 in the Protector of the Small series) by Tamora Pierce; read by Bernadette Dunne (Listening Library, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
All Booked Up
Shimmerin Angel

Sunday, March 2, 2008

An eventful walk through the forest

Jennifer is a very nice but slightly plain young princess whose father rules a tiny, unassuming kingdom. One day when she's relaxing on a sun-warmed rock by the river (after helping the servants do the laundry), an incredibly handsome prince walks by on his equally lovely steed. He introduces himself, with a breathtakingly brilliant smile, as Prince Alexander, "the king's son." From there on out he never refers to his father without adding, "the king" as a descriptor. Alexander's horse has lost a shoe, and he is looking for the closest blacksmith

Jennifer is smitten, of course, and although Alexander is clearly disappointed when he learns that he must stay in Jennifer's drafty old castle until the blacksmith returns from his fishing trip, Jennifer is secretly delighted. Jennifer's father is less enchanted with Prince Alexander, and in order to get away from "my father the king this" and "my father the king that," which is just about all Prince Alexander talks about, Jennifer's father suggests they take a walk in the gardens.

In the gardens there is a gate that leads into the forest. When Jennifer tells Alexander the forest is enchanted, and the gate is there to keep out all the bad things lurking there, Alexander insists on opening the gate (which, strangely, is unlocked) and going through. Once in the forest, it quickly becomes apparent that the path has a mind of its own, and soon they are lost - but of course Alexander won't admit any responsibility for their plight - he blames Jennifer! Eventually his thoughtless behavior lands him the victim of an immobilizing spell. Jennifer, determined to rescue him (not that he deserves it), ventures through the haunted forest, braving witches, dragons, wizards, giants and dragons - and learns a few lessons about appearances along the way.

I have enjoyed many books by Vivian Vande Velde, but I'd never read this one before. I picked it up at a used bookstore a few years ago (which makes this my third Molly's Personal Challenge book), and when it recently resurfaced I decided to read it to my kids (7 and 9 years old). It made for an excellent read-aloud because of its episodic nature, action and adventure, and brief chapters, and we also enjoyed the lovely full-page black-and-white illustrations. The dialog brought the story to life, and the characters, although at first glance stock fairytale characters, inevitably put an interesting, amusing spin on their expected stereotypical natures. We will be choosing another Vande Velde as a read-aloud soon. This one was definitely a hit!

A Hidden Magic by Vivian Vande Velde; illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Magic Carpet Books, 1985)

Other blog review:
The Cozy Apartment