Friday, May 30, 2008

An unusual career guide

13-year-old Nita Callahan seeks refuge from some bullies at her local library, and as she's waiting for them to lose interest in her, she finds a book she's never noticed before. It' s in among the career books that have titles such as So You Want to Be a Doctor and So You Want to Be an Architect, but this one is called So You Want to Be a Wizard. At first, she thinks it's a joke, and she reads it with a sort of wistful desire that it could be real. If it were, and she could be a powerful wizard, she'd never have to worry about bullies again.

She takes the book home, but on her way the bullies catch up with her, and not only do they beat her up - again - they also take her beloved space pen, the kind the astronauts use. Later, looking through the book, she reads aloud the Wizard's Oath, and strange things begin to happen. She hears the trees talking, for one thing - and she can talk back to them! She encounters Kit, a classmate from school, and is astounded to find him casting a spell - he has a wizard's manual, too, and he's also recently taken the Oath.

The manual informs them they must pass a test, a sort of initiation into wizardry. Kit and Nita have no idea what such a test might entail, but when they take the train to Manhattan, a simple errand becomes an adventure fraught with peril and mystery in an alternate New York City bereft of sunlight and stars, with demonic machines hungry for human flesh and a lone, powerful figure intent on their destruction.

I read this book to my seven- and nine-year-olds, and while I believe it was a bit too complex for my younger daughter, they both enjoyed it immensely. I read it myself quite a few years ago, and while I remembered loving it, the details were hazy in my mind. It was fun rereading it with them.

Nita is a feisty heroine; she hasn't the stomach for violence when it comes to combating bullies, yet she proves her courage when what matters most is at stake, while still maintaining her compassion. There is no sitting around waiting to be rescued for Nita, and it is always a pleasure to read books with such heroines to my girls - she and Kit work together as a team, using their various strengths to solve their problems. Much is at stake in these books, and sacrifices are made in the monumental battles between good and evil. Nita and Kit's adventures continue throughout many more volumes of this series, and they change and grow, meeting even more difficult challenges. I look forward to rereading these books with my girls, but I do think I'll wait till they're a little bit older before we begin the next one.

This book counts towards Molly's Personal Reading Challenge, and is book six of the ten books from my own bookshelves that I'm hoping to read this year (library books are the mainstay of my reading habit).

Books in the Young Wizards series:
1. So You Want to Be a Wizard
2. Deep Wizardry
3. High Wizardry
4. A Wizard Abroad
5. The Wizard's Dilemma
6. A Wizard Alone
7. A Wizard's Holiday Book
8. Wizards at War

So You Want to Be a Wizard (#1 in the Young Wizards series) by Diane Duane (Magic Carpet Books, 2003 reprint)

Also Reviewed at:
Mervi's Book Reviews

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Guard's three finest

I discovered this beautifully illustrated book from Nymeth's irresistible review last April. I'd never heard of it, but after reading her review and descriptions of the amazing artwork, I immediately requested it from my library, and I'm very glad I did! And so this is my second book for the Irresistible Review Challenge. Thanks, Nymeth!

Mice are in constant danger from predators, and the mouse society depicted in the book has formed an elite group of mouse protectors called the Mouse Guard. They defeated a weasel warlord several years earlier, and now that relative safety has been established, the role of the Guard has changed. Instead of soldiers, they have become escorts, bodyguards, weather watchers and pathfinders. Their purpose, as ever, is to protect the towns and citizens of their community.

The story opens with a little mouse traveling alone, taking his store of grain to sell at a nearby village. He sits down to have a rest and awakens to find an ominous shadow falling across him. Cut to three of the Mouse Guard who have been summoned to search for the missing grain peddler. They do indeed track him down, but among his belongings they find evidence that the mouse was a spy. Determined to discover who is behind the treacherous plot, the mice work together to investigate the peddler and his past, braving all kinds of dangers in their search for the truth.

I was captivated by the gorgeous illustrations of this book. The text is often spare, allowing the pictures to convey much of the story on their own. It often gave me the feeling of reading a wordless picture book, making me slow down and immerse myself in the artwork. I'm so text oriented that slowing down and spending time with the illustrations does not come easily to me, but I always find it a rewarding experience, particularly so with this book. The mice are adorable, but at the same time so fierce and brave, battling enormous serpents and gigantic crabs, and lives are sadly lost in these combats.

I enjoyed the story, which was straightforward and full of action and adventure, but it was not until the end of the book and its epilogue, told from the point of view of Gwendolyn, the head of the mouse guard, that I felt a personal connection with a character. Gwendolyn's words made me see the other (heretofore interchangeable) mice through her eyes, and it was then that they took on more sympathetic, personal qualities. It made me wish there had been a section at the beginning of the book from Gwendolyn's point of view. Still, it has made me look forward to reading the next installment in the series, which takes place the following winter, so I can follow the further adventures of these valiant, adorable little mice.

Books in the Mouse Guard series:
1. Mouse Guard: Fall 1152
2. Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (forthcoming - December 2008)

For more information (and to see more gorgeous illustrations) about the Mouse Guard series, check out their official site.

Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen (ASP Comics, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Bear Alley
Bookshelves of Doom

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Villians that say "Moob"

In this sequel to Larklight, siblings Art and Myrtle Mumby are in for another rousing adventure. They are renovating Larklight, their unusual dwelling (it orbits the earth and used to be a sort of spaceship), and they receive an invitation from an acquaintance to get away from the furor of the construction crew and take a relaxing vacation at the seaside resort of Starcross. Their father has an important meeting to attend, so Art, Myrtle and their mother take the journey to the resort, located on an asteroid orbiting Mars, and at first it looks as though they will have a pleasant little vacation together. Mr. Mumby plans to join them later.

But soon it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. The ocean, completely lacking when they first arrived, mysteriously appears and reappears in a place where no water could possibly exist. Myrtle, heartbroken because of her beloved Jack's refusal to reply to her letters, spots him outside the hotel talking with a breathtakingly beautiful Frenchwoman. Someone tries to kill one of the hotel guests. There is something odd about the hat in the closet of Art's room - and the strange sound he hears in the night, a softly spoken "Moob." They find themselves facing an unimaginable enemy with no idea whatsoever how to begin to fight it. Luckily they are resourceful and intelligent, and Art's unusual mother has a few tricks up her sleeve.

I have a weakness for books that blend genres in fun and unusual ways, and this series, with its combination of space opera, mystery, boy's adventure, and Victorian novel, is simply irresistible. Reeve has a gift for language, and no matter whose point of view he tells the story from, the story ratchets along, exciting, funny, and with turns of phrase that made me keep having to stop the audio track, go back, listen again, and grin. The old-fashioned language heightens the humor tremendously - for example, Art shares his worries about his situation as the climactic scene approaches, saying, "My army consisted of me, two elderly gentlemen who were not feeling quite the ticket, a grumpy goblin, two anemones, a large crab, and a blue lizard of the gentler sex." And Myrtle - I just love her! She tries so hard to be ladylike, as she imagines a proper Englishwoman must be - but when push comes to shove, she rises to the occasion despite her qualms (and is often quite embarrassed afterwards).

I enjoyed listening to this book, but I am definitely planning on getting my hands on a copy of the printed version so I can take a look at the illustrations by David Wyatt, which I enjoyed so much in the first book. This is an excellent series, humorous and gripping, with engaging characters, surprising plot twists, and an incredibly imaginative setting. I highly recommend it!

Books in the Larklight series:
1. Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space
2. Starcross: A Stirring Adventure of Spies, Time Travel and Curious Hats
3. Mothstorm (forthcoming - fall, 2008)

Starcross: A Stirring Adventure of Spies, Time Travel and Curious Hats by Philip Reeve; narrated by Greg Steinbruner (Recorded Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Finding Wonderland
Original Content
A World of Stories

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A woodcarver's daughter and a fey king

For my first official review for the Irresistible Review Challenge, I read Lord of the Fading Lands, a book I'd never heard of, solely because of the wonderful review posted by Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers blog. I loved their review format - a sort of conversational, back-and-forth piece that shared both their passion for the book as well as intriguing details about the plot and characters that made me want to read it. This is by no means the only book I've added to my list because of their reviews - but it's probably the one that's been on there the longest.

There is a lot of backstory to this tale, but rather than bogging it down with details and explanations, it is inserted seamlessly into the narrative, giving the setting depth and complexity. Our heroine is Elysetta, an ordinary citizen of Celieria, tall, red haired, and gawky. She lives with her parents and her two little sisters, and while she has romantic notions about the graceful Fey who live in the Fading Lands, devouring their legends and poetry, the reality is that Ellie is going to be betrothed to the odious Den, son of the neighboring butcher, even though she finds him repellent.

Meanwhile, Rain Tairen Soul, king of the Fey, risks his life in order to determine why the Tairen - the great cats that are inextricably connected to the fate of his people - are dying out. He is granted a vision of a woman who may change that fate, and for the first time in a thousand years he ventures forth from the Fading Lands, determined to find her. He himself is a legendary figure - the people of Celieria can barely believe it when he appears among them. He is the king from stories and ballads who, devastated by grief at the death of his mate, nearly destroyed the land in storms of fire centuries earlier. Ellie watches in awe with her two little sisters as he and the other Fey arrive on an ambassadorial visit to Celieria, and the last thing she expects is for him to swoop from the sky and declare her his truemate.

Their encounter sparks a chain of events that resonates throughout Celieria and the neighboring land of Eld, ancient enemy of the Fey. Celierians barely remember the wars with Eld, and Rain's attempts at warning them of a gathering darkness on the border fall on deaf ears - after all, his is bound to see evil there, after his age-old war with Eld, but Celieria and Eld have been at peace for many long years. The plot strands twist and turn, showing treachery at the heart of Celeria's royal court. Rain is determined to protect Ellie, and Ellie despairs of ever being any sort of respectable queen - after all, she is only the daughter of a woodcarver. Or is she? Her parents adopted her, but no one knows who her true birth parents are. All she knows is that her dreams are haunted by a dark presence, and that she's been plagued with terrifying nightmares her entire life.

This first volume of the Tairen Soul series is a gripping tale, creating an intricate world with characters who are complex and believable. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop - the political intrigue, the growing sense of peril for Elysetta, and the machinations of those who wish to harm her. Ellie's growing relationship with Rain is told with humor and sensitivity, and it is delightful to watch their romance develop. Their weaknesses and faults make them all the more sympathetic to the reader. This volume of the series has a satisfying conclusion, but there are many unresolved issues that make me very much look forward to reading the subsequent book, Lady of Light and Shadows.

Many thanks to Ana and Thea for their irresistible review, which led me to read this book!

Books in the Tairen Soul series:
1. Lord of the Fading Lands
2. Lady of Light and Shadows
3. King of Sword and Sky
4. Queen of Song and Souls

Lord of the Fading Lands (#1 in the Tairen Soul series) by C.L. Wilson (Dorchester Publishing Co., 2007)

In addition to their irresistible review of this book, the Book Smugglers have posted a most interesting interview with C.L. Wilson.

Also reviewed at:
Lady Caella's Dream World
Sula's Space

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bartimaeus is back

I enjoyed listening to the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand) so much that I knew I'd have to get the audio version of the second book, and I'm glad I did! Simon Jones is a wonderful reader, particularly when he is narrating the sections of the book that are told from the point of view of the djinni Bartimaeus - his dry humor and caustic, witty remarks have me chuckling throughout.

There may be spoilers in the following review, so if you are interested in this trilogy, I suggest you take a look at my review of the first book, and stop reading right now. This book is set several years after the end of the first one, and Nathaniel, although he's promised never to summon the djinni Bartimaeus again, finds himself in a tight spot, and out of desperation he goes back on his agreement and performs the summoning.

Nathaniel is now in a position of considerable power, but the efforts of the Resistance, a group we met in the first book that is opposing the high-handed rule of the magicians, are becoming more and more troubling. The responsibility of putting an end to the Resistance has fallen to Nathaniel, who at fourteen years old is a nice scapegoat for the other, older magicians, who are unwilling to risk their own positions of privilege in the case of failure - but perfectly happy to attached themselves firmly to his coattails if he succeeds.

This book, like the first in the trilogy, is told in alternating sections told from Nathaniel's and Bartimaeus's points of view - but also with the added (and most welcome, in my opinion) point-of-view character of Kitty Jones. We briefly met Kitty in the first volume. She is a young girl who is a member of the Resistance, and we travel to the past to discover exactly why she is so determined to put an end to the magicians' hold on power. But as her involvement with the Resistance progresses, she begins to doubt their methods of petty theft and vandalism, doubting that they will be able to spark effective political change in that way.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel's position in the government becomes ever more precarious. London is beset by attacks of a much more powerful, destructive nature than anything wrought by the Resistance thus far, and he is charged to discover and apprehend the perpetrator immediately - or his job will be taken over by the police, and Nathaniel will be demoted to a boring civil service position and lose his apprenticeship in the bargain. His only real ally is Bartimaeus (an unwilling ally at that), and they are soon involved in a convoluted mystery with red herrings, magical artifacts, mysterious Prague graveyards, werewolves, and gleeful, cavorting skeletons.

Nathaniel, while exhibiting some selflessness in the first volume, seems unfortunately destined to follow the typical magician's path toward egocentricity, arrogance and moral corruption. Given the fact that he was taken away from his family as a young boy and put into the care of an arrogant and egocentric magician, this is not surprising. Kitty is resourceful and courageous, willing to risk her safety for those she cares about - and to do the right thing, which is a nice change from Nathaniel's behavior. And of course Bartimaeus's voice, which is unfortunately not as present as in the first book, adds a wonderful touch of humor and insight (often at Nathaniel's expense) and lifts the story well above other YA fantasy novels.

I read this as part of the Mythopoeic Award Challenge, and I'm very much looking forward to completing the trilogy, with its compelling blend of fantasy, adventure and mystery.

Books in the Bartimaeus Trilogy:
1. The Amulet of Samarkand
2. The Golem's Eye
3. Ptolemy's Gate

The Golem's Eye
(#2 in the Bartimaeus Trilogy) by Jonathan Stroud; narrated by Simon Jones (Listening Library, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews
Bloggin' 'bout Books
Here, There and Everywhere

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Need someone to listen? Call Anna Smudge!

Eleven-year-old Anna Smudge may have wealthy parents, but that doesn't mean her life is easy. For starters, she rarely sees her parents. They are intensely involved with their business, and they seem to have very little to do with their daughter, who is an only child. Anna is bullied at school by Jacob, a fellow classmate, who despises her for no apparent reason and does all he can to get her in trouble. She gets into trouble, though, even without his help - she is very slow at doing things, often running late, and that causes problems for her.

Things begin to change, though, when Jacob falsely accuses her of biting him, and the teacher (without even asking to see the bite mark) sends Anna to the principal, who scolds her without bothering to listen to her side of the story, leaves a message about her "misbehavior" on her father's answering machine, and then sends her to the counselor's office. Instead of the person Anna expects to see, there is a new counselor, a young, pretty woman who listens calmly to Anna, not only making her feel better about herself and her inability to rush and multi-task, but also giving Anna the inspiration to become a psychiatrist herself - after all, Anna is a great listener.

One of Anna's friends prints up business cards, and Anna is set to go. She listens calmly to people who seem to need help, and she finds that she does have a knack for making them feel better. When the bully Jacob grabs Anna's new business cards and throws them to the winds, however, Anna finds all kinds of people from all over the city calling her for help. One of them just happens to be Donny "the Meatball" Fratelli, an escaped convict who is a hit man. His employer is the mysterious Mr. Who - a supposedly fictional crime lord who, it turns out, is all too real. And when Anna secretly erases the principal's incriminating message from her father's answering machine, she inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Donny being hired out to kill her own father! Anna needs to act quickly to save his life.

This novel has many aspects that I would typically associate with superhero comic books: the villains are larger than life and often amusing; the characters fall into clear, stereotypical categories, there is a great deal of exaggeration that strains the believability of the story, and the ending has no real narrative conclusion, leaving plenty of room for the next book to pick up where this story left off. Unfortunately, those qualities work fine for comic books, but not, in my opinion, very well for a novel. I do believe my qualms may well be those of an adult, however; most kids will probably enjoy the ride without thinking too much about it. I like my characters to have solid motives so their actions are believable, and I like the narrative to flow from those actions in a way that makes sense.

For example, when Anna's business cards go flying all over the city, it prompts the appearance of a news van at her school the following morning, complete with reporter and cameras to find out who Anna, the professional shrink, actually is. This was a bit baffling. As was the fact that Anna is repeatedly called a professional shrink, but no one every actually pays her. Anna's therapy consists of a few kindhearted words that turn people's lives around instantly, and suddenly everything is all better. And when it is finally revealed who the dreaded Mr. Who actually is, the story goes beyond far-fetched.

I love the idea, though, of these young kids finding a passion for a profession and supporting each other as they follow their dreams. Anna's other friends include a young boy with a love of food who aspires to be a chef, and a girl with a nose for news who dreams of being a reporter. The illustrations are bold and expressive and give the book great appeal. Here is a picture of Donny "the Meatball," one of my favorite characters, because he has hidden depths. I wish there were more of these illustrations to accompany the text.

I enjoyed watching Anna's relationship with her friends develop, as well as the way the effects of her newfound confidence in herself as a shrink influenced the rest of her life. This series will focus on Anna and her other "professional" friends as they band together in an effort to capture the evil Mr. Who. The next installment, due to be published in May 2009, will be Quenton Cohen: Professional Chef.

Anna Smudge, Professional Shrink (Book one in The Professionals series) by MAC; illustrated by Glenn Fabry (Toasted Coconut Media, 2008)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features

In a fairly recent post at Nymeth's blog in which she reviewed The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, she included the following passage from the book:

“And please, please stop patronizing those who are reading a book – The Da Vinci Code maybe – because they are enjoying it. For a start, none of us know what kind of an effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction books exert on others. And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing."

That passage came to mind as I thought about what to say about this book, which is written in the vein of Captain Underpants and other fairly silly books for kids. Often when I'm at the library, I see children run to their parents excitedly with an armful of books to check out, but one look at the books, and the parents are nixing a whole bunch of them. The kids seem so disappointed, and I want to say, "Isn't reading supposed to be fun? Aren't we supposed to be instilling a love of reading in these kids?"

This is one of those books that some parents will eye with distaste, and it certainly isn't for every reader - but it's fast-paced, full of adventure, and funny. And if it brings kids pleasure and makes them want to read another one, isn't that the point? Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now.

The book opens with a warning to readers, saying that the story is so frightening that certain people (including the faint of heart, pregnant women, children under 46" tall - as well as those who are scared of bats, rats, or old hippies) should put the book down immediately. As the story begins, Grampa and Wiley are carving pumpkins in preparation for Halloween. When they see a commercial for Colonel Dracula's Monster Truck Spectacular, they both know they just have to go - even though a tornado is headed their way and Gramma has expressly forbidden it.

When they make it to the colusseum (barely) in one piece, they find themselves chosen from the crowd to drive a British Mini Pip-Squeak car in a game of chicken against Dracula's terrifying mudsucker monster truck - while being pursued by gigantic robotic lobster claws. As hair-raising as that particular experience is, their troubles are only just beginning. As if it weren't bad enough that Gramma's going to be furious when she discovers that they've gone out during the tornado, wait till she find out that Dracula seems to be very interested in her - for she's the spitting image of the portrait of his dearly departed wife! Grampa and Wiley had better act fast if they want to keep their family together.

The large, bold illustrations and sizable comic-book-style font makes this an appealing book to even the most reluctant readers. It seems angled to attract boys, but both my daughters devoured it in a single sitting and giggled the whole way through. The humor tickled my funny bone as well: one of the monster cars had a large sharpened stake on its roof and was called "Vlad the Impala" - and in a later scene, when Grampa and Wiley go into Dracula's lair, they find a shelf full of various skulls, one of which is labeled "Abby Normal" (Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite films, so I particularly appreciated that one!).

Books in the Wiley and Grampa's Creature Feature series:

1. Dracula vs. Grampa at the Monster Truck Spectacular
2. Grampa's Zombie BBQ
3. Monster Fish Frenzy
4. Super Soccer Freak Show
5. Bigfoot Backpacking Bonanza
6. Hairball from Outer Space
Night of the Living Eggnog
8. Phantom of the Waterpark

9. Curse of the Kitty Litter

Dracula vs. Grampa at the Monster Truck Spectacular (#1 in the Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features series) by Kirk Scroggs (Little, Brown and Company, 2006)

Monday, May 19, 2008

High school detective has a serious problem!

Jimmy Kudo is a brilliant student and amateur detective whose idol is - you guessed it - Sherlock Holmes (his father is a mystery writer, and he's grown up immersed in detective stories). Jimmy is a local hero, respected by his peers as well as the police, who value his insight and assistance with difficult cases. However, he is also arrogant and a bit full of himself - but luckily, he has his friend Rachel (who calls him "detective geek" and pokes fun at him for taking himself so seriously) to keep him from becoming too self involved. Despite her jokes at Jimmy's expense, it is clear that Rachel adores him - but as brilliant as he is, Jimmy hasn't a clue about that.

When he takes Rachael to an amusement park, there is a grisly murder on the roller-coaster involving a decapitation (it becomes immediately evident why this manga series is kept in the YA section of my library) , and Jimmy is quickly able to determine the true culprit, despite an array of baffling evidence. On the way home, though, Jimmy follows some suspicious characters he'd seen earlier that night, and he runs into what appears to be a clandestine, illegal money exchange. He is caught spying on the men, who capture him and give him what is supposed to be an untraceable poison, a substance that hasn't yet been tested on humans. Jimmy is surprised when he wakes up later - he'd thought he was dead for sure - and he's even more surprised to find himself in the body of a seven-year-old!

Suddenly no one's taking Jimmy seriously anymore. He finds himself living with Rachel, who thinks he's just a cute little boy named Conan, and helping her loser detective father with his cases - without getting any credit for it. He hopes to use her father's resources to track down the men who gave him the substance in order to figure out how to change back into his real self - but he doesn't know where to start.

This is a promising beginning of a series, full of humor and suspense, and very clever mysteries. Aoyama gives plenty of clues, and it is fun to try to solve the puzzles before "Conan" does. Jimmy is much more likeable in his little boy form, and it is fun to watch him squirm when Rachel reveals her true feelings for Jimmy to the little boy, telling him to make sure to keep them a secret! I will be looking forward to more excitement, romance and mystery-solving in volume 2 of this series.

Case Closed, Volume 1 by Gosho Aoyama (VIZ Media, 2004)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Presenting...the Irresistible Review Challenge!

reWhen I started writing this book blog a little over a year ago, I never dreamed that it would it be so fun, nor that I'd meet so very many wonderful people who enjoy reading as much as I do. Not only that, but through the many passionate, well-written reviews of my fellow bloggers, I've been exposed to an amazing number of wonderful books and authors I might otherwise never have heard about, let alone considered reading. More and more books have gone onto my TBR list (and my bookshelves...and my library card) - and I've begun to notice that the ratio of books loved to books read has skyrocketed.

So, in tribute to the many book bloggers who've added shocking numbers of books to my reading list, I present the Irresistible Review Challenge, which begins now and runs through Labor Day. Here are the rules:

1. Read 8 books between now and Labor Day (September 1) that you were inspired to read after reading a fellow book-blogger's review. Ideally the books will be ones you'd never heard of or would probably not have considered reading had it not been for the review. If you expanded your horizons or went beyond your usual reading comfort zone because of the review, all the better!
2. Write a review of the book on your blog.
3. (The most important step) Make sure you link to the review that inspired you to read the book in the first place!
4. Books read for other challenges count.
5. There is no need to make a list ahead of time - for this type of challenge, it's probably best to remain open to serendipity in the bookblogosphere!

Interested? Just let me know in the comments, and I'll add you to the list of participants I'll be putting in my sidebar. I'm planning on having some book giveaways to add to the fun, and anyone who participates in the challenge will be eligible. Hope you'll join the fun!

Friday, May 16, 2008

A windowless tower prison

This book had me from the first line: "My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years." How can a reader resist a beginning like that?

Written in the form of a diary kept by Dashti, lady's maid to a young noblewoman, the book is set in a fictionalized ancient Mongolia. Dashti is a peasant girl, a "mucker," from the steppes, and upon the death of her mother she travels to the city, looking for work. She knows songs of power, and can sing them to heal, soothe, and for other useful purposes. This gift allows her to obtain the necessary education and training to serve as a lady's maid, and she gladly swears fealty to Lady Saren - even offering to accompany her to the tower when Lady Saren refuses to marry the man of her father's choosing.

At first Dashti is astounded by the sight of seven years' worth of food, unable to believe her good luck at knowing she won't be going hungry. But after a few months of the dark, windowless tower, never being able to catch the slightest glimpse of the sky, and Lady Saren acting depressed, hardly even talking to her, Dashti yearns to be outside in the fresh air. Still, she does not sit around complaining, but does her best to comfort her lady and keep as active and engaged as she can. She learns that Lady Saren lives in absolute terror of Lord Khasar, the man her father has ordered her to marry, although Dashti is unable to find out exactly why. When the young man Saren wishes she could marry instead shows up at the tower one night under cover of darkness, Lady Saren orders Dashti to speak with him - to pretend she is Lady Saren. Dashti is reluctant, but eventually finds herself talking and laughing with him through the tiny hatch at the bottom of the wall, as if she's known him all her life.

But then he leaves. Winters come - they are dark and cold; summers come - they are stuffy and unbearably hot. Worst of all, Lady Saren's dreaded Lord Khasar comes, and Dashti quickly discovers he is indeed a man to fear.

Dashti's intelligence and compassion color all that she writes in her book of a thousand days. I enjoyed the unusual setting, including the evocative names of the kingdoms ("Goda's Second Gift," "Thoughts of Under" and "Song for Evela," among others) and the way Dashti's mucker heritage informed how she perceived the world around her - but did not prevent her from forming her own opinions based on new experiences. I truly enjoyed this book, as I have all the books I've read by Shannon Hale, and this retelling of the Grimm brother's story "Maid Maleen" is inspired and memorable.

This is my final book read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge II - which makes my challenge complete! Don't forget to stop by the review site for this challenge - there are over 300 reviews posted there so far, so it's definitely worth a look.

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Everyday Reading
Read, Read, Read
Sassymonkey Reads
Valentina's Room

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spy School

On the surface, 15-year-old Cammie Morgan is a student at an exclusive boarding school for privileged, wealthy girls. But that is just her cover. In reality, the Gallagher Academy is a school for spies in training. Many of the girls are the children of spies, wishing to follow in their parents' footsteps; some are simply extremely bright children who have scored well on the aptitude tests and entry exams and who have spy-ish ambitions. Cammie's mother is a spy - and also the director of the academy. Cammie's father, who was also a spy, went on a mission several years earlier and was never seen again.

Cammie is starting her sophomore year, which means she is finally old enough to take Covert Ops, a class she's been looking forward to taking for years. The new teacher is a very hot James Bond-type guy, and Cammie's not sure how she feels about him, especially after seeing him wink at her beautiful mother. On their first assigned "mission" for class - to go into town and shadow a faculty member (who happens to be the most paranoid faculty member on staff) at the local carnival, Cammie learns there's more to covert ops than she previously thought. Although she is nicknamed "Chameleon" for her uncanny ability to blend into her surroundings and escape notice, she realizes that someone has noticed her, and it's a very good-looking, friendly boy her own age. She chats with him for a while, makes up some lies about herself so as not to give away her true identity, and hurries off to catch up with her classmates and finish the mission.

But she can't stop thinking about Josh. He thinks she's a normal girl, and for the first time Cammie sees the allure in that. She runs into him again, and they start seeing each other, Cammie sneaking off through the underground passageways of the school. Her friends are suspicious - is Josh really what he seems, or is there more to him than meets the eye? With her super-genius spy-trained friends to help her investigate, Cammie discovers creative ways to put into practice everything they've been learning in school. But she soon realizes that even genius girls don't always have the best judgment, and she has a whole lot to learn about romance, boys, friendship - and covert ops.

This was funny, exiting novel with an interesting premise that never took itself too seriously. Cammie is a genius, sure, but she's also fifteen and makes the same kinds of mistakes that every teenager makes - although possibly without the spy gadgets and genius pals for backup. I enjoyed listening to the audio version for the most part, although I did feel the reader's voice was a bit too breathy and sweet for a tough-as-girls spy in training. And when she did Josh's voice, it unfortunately came out sounding exactly like the voice of Bart's friend Milhouse on The Simpsons, so initially I had a hard time seeing him for the hottie Cammie and all her friends made him out to be. Still, I plan to listen to the next book in the series, because it sure was a lot of fun.

Book in the Gallagher Girls series:
1. I'd Tell You I Love You, But then I'd Have to Kill You
2. Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

I'd Tell You I Love You, but Then I'd Have to Kill You (#1 in the Gallagher Girls series) by Ally Carter; narrated by Renee Raudman (Brilliance Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Sassymonkey Reads
WORD for Teens

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Anita Blake, vampire hunter: the prequel

This graphic novel tells a story only alluded to in the first book of the Anita Blake novel series. We know from Guilty Pleasures that Anita had a run-in with a vampire, leaving her with horrific scars that she usually keeps covered with long sleeves - as well as a cross-shaped scar on her arm that mirrors the one Jean-Claude bears on his chest.

A vampire is killing children, and the police have asked Anita to help track him down. Edward is also looking for the vampire - but for his own reasons, and he wants Anita to help him. Manny and Anita follow the trail of the killer to a house that appears to be empty of all but coffins, but a nasty little surprise awaits them.

I enjoyed reading this story - it filled out a small gap in the Anita Blake series, although there were no huge surprises or revelations. From the size of the hardbound book I was expecting something a bit longer, but the story ended about halfway through. It turns out the story was published in two comic-book-size volumes, which are collected here, and those make up just the first half of the book. The second half is a sort of fan guide to Anita's world, with illustrations of characters and descriptions about them and how they fit into the series. I suppose it would appeal to die-hard fans of the series - and I did enjoy looking at the illustrations - but personally I wasn't terribly interested in it. I feel I know enough from having read the series already. Luckily, I got my copy from my library or I might have been just a tad disappointed.

The illustrations are lush and detailed, and convey the dark horror from the novels very effectively. I am very much looking forward to the publication of the hardcover Guilty Pleasures, Volume 2, which is due to be released in August. A glance back into the past is fun, but I find it more interesting to move forward with the characters into the future.

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: The First Death by Laurell K. Hamilton, Jonathon Green and Wellington Alves (Marvel Publishing, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Books 4Ever
Reading (B)log

Monday, May 12, 2008

Bringing the magic back to England

In an alternate 19th-century England, magic is a thing of the past. Yes, there were once powerful magicians who performed marvelous, unbelievable feats of magic, but now magic is like Latin or ancient Greek: scholars dedicate their lives to studying it, but no one can actually perform spells anymore. It's the profession of nobleman who can afford to sit around studying old textbooks, and there are societies of learned gentlemen who meet to discuss magic and its history. It is considered eccentric, if not utterly ridiculous, to actually attempt to do magic.

But there is a prophecy of two men who will restore magic to England after an absence of hundreds of years. The men are completely different in personality and temperament: Jonathan Strange is creative, impulsive, passionate and curious. Mr. Norrell is self-centered, egotistical and timid. He hoards all the books of magic in England so that he can be the one to "control" the magic. But times are changing in England, and despite the two men's differences, they find their destinies entwined as a heartless foe preys on their country and loved ones.

It is hard to decide where to begin in describing my feelings about this novel - first and foremost, I'd have to say ambivalence. It wasn't until over halfway through the book (and it is a long book - 800 pages) that I began to like it, in fact. We are not introduced to the two main characters for a very long time - and the first one we meet is the highly annoying Mr. Norrell. Call me superficial, but I find it hard to enjoy a book if I haven't got a single character I can identify with. There aren't too many likable characters in this one, but after a while I did begin rooting for Strange (although he was fairly annoying at times as well).

The writing is exquisite - Moore's use of language is exceptional, and in the narration as well as the dialog she captured the feeling of 18th-century Britain very well. But at times I felt like screaming at her to get on with it, already, to stop meandering all over the place and tell the story. At other times the footnotes and off-topic ramblings captivated my attention. The third-person narrator got on my nerves - at times it was omniscient, going into people's thoughts and hearts and relating private things to the reader. But at other times it got all coy and would only give out bits of rumor or things written in letters, as though the book were a completely factual historical narrative. One kind of narration or the other is fine with me, but it must be consistent. The narrator shouldn't be omniscient at times and limited at others, just to suit the aims of the storyteller - otherwise, to this reader at least, it feels too contrived and throws me out of the story.

I do not know how I would feel about this book had I read it instead of listened to it on CD. The reader, Simon Prebble, did an excellent job, although I did find it disconcerting when he mispronounced the word "sidhe," a particularly important and often-used word in the book, because it took away a bit of his authority as the storyteller. Aside from that minor quibble, though, his narration was very compelling. Listening to the book rather than reading the text makes me slow down and really take in the language, rather than rushing through to see what happens next - that is not an option with an audiobook.

In the end, I was glad I had read this book, and I have the feeling that the characters and events will stay will me for a long time to come. But I don't have the feeling that it will be a book I'll be rereading in the future. This was one of my picks for the Mythopoeic Award Challenge, and I can certainly see why it won the award!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke; narrated by Simon Prebble (MacMillan Audio, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Books for Ears
This Delicious Solitude
Girl Detective

Friday, May 9, 2008

The plot thickens at Cross Academy

This manga series follows the life of Yuki Cross, the adopted daughter of the headmaster of Cross Academy. The Academy has two classes: the Day Class and the Night Class. Yuki is one of the few who know the secret of the alluring Night Class students: they are all vampires. Headmaster Cross has a vision of peaceful coexistence between vampires and humans, and he's hoping to promote that with the night school. However, vampires can be dangerous, and Yuki, together with her friend Zero, are charged to be Guardians of the school, protecting the day students from the Night Class - and its secret.

This volume takes us back to Yuki's past. We learned in the first volume that Yuki was rescued from a terrifying vampire attack when she was very small, and her rescuer was pureblood vampire Kaname Kuran, who is also the Night Class president. In this installment, we travel back into the past for a closer look at this incident, as well as the friendship that grows between Yuki and Kaname throughout her childhood.

In the present day, Yuki's relationship with Zero is finding new feet as well, after a particularly startling revelation that occurred in the previous volume. There are many unanswered questions that may be answered in future installments. Who is the old friend the headmaster refers to when he speaks with Kaname? The one who appears to be the inspiration for the Night Class initiative? Why does Zero continue to be sent on vampire hunt missions? And is the petite, innocent-looking new Night Class student really the same vampire who slaughtered Zero's family when he was a boy? And how is the Night Class/Day Class plan supposed to result in humans and vampires peacefully coexisting when the two groups are rarely allowed to meet, and the Day Class is completely unaware of the existence of vampires?

The plot is definitely thickening, and the characters are moving into place. Tension is building between Zero and Yuki - he hates all vampires; he hates himself. She has admired and idolized Kaname since she was a child, and she clearly has feelings for Zero. It appears her loyalties are soon to be tested...

I'm enjoying this series so far. Yuki is a brave and likable heroine, and the set-up for things to come is certainly intriguing. It will be interesting to see the direction the next installment takes.

Vampire Knight, Volume 3 by Matsuri Hino (VIZ Media, 2007)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A ballad brought to modern life

Janet Carter has grown up in in the shadow of Blackstock College in Minnesota, where her father is an English literature professor. She has been surrounded by the classics of literature her entire life, loves to read, writes poetry, and fully intends to become a lit teacher herself. So it is only natural that, upon finishing high school (it is in the early 1970s), she enrolls at Blackstock College herself.

She finds herself living in a triple room with Molly, a girl she immediately bonds with, and Tina, a girl who is very unlike her in many ways, that she has a more difficult time understanding and getting along with. They find boyfriends among a group of outlandish theater majors, guys who speak in Shakespearean quotes, live and breathe old plays and poems, wander about at night playing the bagpipes, wear unusual clothing, and are exceptionally skilled at evading questions about certain topics.

The novel covers all four years of Janet's time at Blackstock, her friendships and relationships, her quest to discover more about a ghost that supposedly haunts the college (throwing books from the window of the dormitory), and her studies and feelings about the courses she takes, particularly literature. Janet is passionate about what she reads, whether she likes it or not, and she applies what she learns to her own life, trying to see herself and world around her with as much clarity as possible. So when she comes face to face with a truth that seems too far-fetched to be believed, she is a bit more open to the possibilities than another college student might be. But if she's learned anything from the great writers and philosphers, it's that decisions have consequences. Soon she finds herself faced with responsibility for a decision that has tremendous ramifications, not just to her own life, but to the lives and futures of her dearest friends.

This novel is part of Terri Windling's fabulous Fairy Tale series, all of which are well worth reading. I read this when it was first published, back when I was only a few years out of college, and as an English major I'd been so steeped in the classics that are such an integral part of this book that it felt a bit like a comfortable visit back to my university days. I have to say that, rereading it, those days seemed sadly far more distant, and my memories of much of that literature have certainly faded. It made me want to reread things like "The Eve of Saint Agnes" and Shakespeare's sonnets and buy season tickets for the theater.

While Tam Lin is most definitely a fantasy novel, it is firmly set in the present (well, 1970s present), and the magical elements are wispy and atmospheric for most of the book. The characters and their relationships take the forefront, and they are engaging and believable, driving the narrative toward its compelling and magical conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the world and characters of Tam Lin, and I know I'll be back for another visit before too many years have passed. This is a wonderful comfort book, and I'm glad I have my own copy on my bookshelf.

If you are interested in the ballad of Tam Lin, you can check out this site entirely devoted to the ballad (who knew?), which offers a page with lyrics from one of the many versions, and you can also listen to this version of the song performed by Thumpermonkey and Vanessa Hawes.

This is one of the books I chose to read for The Mythopoeic Award Challenge, and - since I own my own copy (and it's one of the beloved books I refuse to lend anyone in case I don't get it back), it counts for Molly's Personal Reading Challenge, too.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (Tor, 1991)

Other blog reviews:
Jenny's Books
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Someone's Read it Already
Things Mean a Lot

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

What ARE kids reading?

Check out the report recently published by Renaissance Learning, which explores the reading habits of children in American schools. Their report is particularly interesting because, as they say in the introduction to the report, it is "the first comprehensive report to provide detailed information about books schoolchildren are actually reading. While and other online booksellers boast lists of best sellers and a local librarian can advise on which books are in frequent circulation, neither can tell you if any of these books were ever opened, much less if they were read cover to cover."

The report goes on to list the top twenty books read last year by students in grades 1 through 12, by gender, U.S. region, and reading achievement level. I can't with any authority whatsoever speak to their means of gathering data for this study, but I found their lists fascinating! The first grade list, for example, lists Green Eggs and Ham as the most popular book - but when divided according to gender, boys had a slight preference for Dr. Seuss's The Foot Book, with Green Eggs coming in second place, and with girls it was the reverse. In the fourth grade list, however, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume ranked number one for boys and girls. Neat, huh? I love this kind of thing!

This is a fascinating look at the books children read at school, and I love how they've also divided the data by gender and region. The study also includes interesting articles about reading by authors including S.E. Hinton, Mary Pope Osborne, and Christopher Paul Curtis. What a great tool for librarians, teachers and parents!

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Geeky blog visit fun!

Yes, I'm hopelessly behind on Dewey's fun Discover New Blogs Week extravaganza. But I've still been having a lot of fun visiting blogs I've never been to, and so many lovely people with wonderful blogs have already stopped by mine.

In my wanderings around the blogosphere during the past week, I visited some great places:

Mog's Book Blog: Well, I admit I chose this one because "Mog" reminded me of "Mogget," who is a wonderful character in Garth Nix's Abhorsen series. But once I got to to her blog, I found out that we we are both big fans of the Bronte sisters, among other authors, and that she enjoys reading challenges, too!

Tiny Little Reading Room: I am a bit partial to librarians (since I am one myself), so it seemed only natural to stop by a tiny librarian's blog and check out her tiny little reading room. It is worth a visit - there are great reviews to all kinds of interesting books by authors such as Charlaine Harris, along with discussions about reading challenges and other book-related matters.

Free Listens is a fascinating blog. Seth posts reviews of free audio books and stories, tries not to give spoilers, and gives his honest opinion about the quality of the reading and recording. Apparently many of these books are just regular people, reading, which sounds interesting to me. What a great idea for a blog - I'll definitely be stopping by to check out some of these free books soon.

Ax for the Frozen Sea has reviews and reflections on books and life in general. I had fun reading reviews of books I've read and enjoyed, books I've been meaning to read, and books I hadn't thought about reading but am now considering after reading her reviews. I love the photo header, too!

Reading Derby also has a lovely photo header. I thought I'd stop by since Darcie signed up late and might not get too many visitors - and I've very much enjoyed the visitors I've had here this week! Darcie reads a wide variety of books, and also talks about her thoughts on life as well.

Thanks, Dewey for this great idea! I love meeting new bloggers, and this was a great way of doing that.