Monday, June 30, 2008

Arthur's adventures take a rather Grim turn

This second book in Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series begins almost immediately where the second book leaves off. It is Tuesday, the day following Arthur Penhaligon's first big adventure, and while the Will promised Arthur at least six years before he'd have to return to take on his responsibilities as heir, suddenly everything is going wrong. Grim Tuesday is contesting Arthur's ownership of the key (which he nearly lost his life gaining in the first book). Apparently Mister Monday owed Grim Tuesday hundreds of thousands of (the equivalent of) dollars, and in lieu of the debt (which Arthur and the Lower House can't begin to repay), Grim Tuesday demands that Arthur hand over his key.

Arthur does not want to go back to the House, but it soon becomes apparent that if he doesn't act quickly, his family will lose their house and income. Grim Tuesday works quickly - Arthur's house is going to be foreclosed on, and suddenly all the stock his parents own loses its value. His entire neighborhood is going to be sold and subdivided for a new shopping center. Clearly Arthur must become involved, even though at this point all he really wants is some semblance of a normal life.

Soon he is back in the world of the House, but nothing is going right. Because of the debts, Arthur's phone to the Lower House has been disconnected, and before he knows it, he's on his own in Grim Tuesday's very dark world, impressed on a work team that's headed down to the pit where Grim Tuesday mines Nothing to make things to sell at great profit. But the Nothing is leaking out of a huge fissure, and as blobs come together, they form the dread Nithlings. Arthur must find a way to Grim Tuesday's chambers and locate his section of the Will, or not only will his family lose all their financial means, but he'll end up slaving in a work crew for as long as his weak, asthmatic lungs manage to hold out.

This was an exciting book to listen to - Corduner does a great job telling the story, incorporating the different characters' voices and ratcheting up the tension with the tone of his voice. Arthur has come a long way from his first adventure, and he's learning to shoulder his new responsibilities, as much as he wishes he didn't have to. I enjoyed revisiting some of the characters from the previous book, as well as meeting some new ones and learning a little more about the mysterious Architect, who built the House and the secondary realms (of which the Earth is but one), and who left it all in the hands of such underhanded trustees as Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, and the other morrow days. I'm very interested to see where Arthur's adventures take him in the subsequent book, Drowned Wednesday, in this very original fantasy series.

Books in the Keys to the Kingdom series:

1. Mister Monday
2. Grim Tuesday
3. Drowned Wednesday
4. Sir Thursday
5. Lady Friday
6. Superior Saturday (forthcoming July 2008 - U.S.)
7. Lord Sunday (forthcoming date tbd)

Grim Tuesday (#2 in the Keys to the Kingdom series) by Garth Nix; narrated by Allan Corduner (Random House Audio, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Reading Adventures (with Drowned Wednesday)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Waking up the bad ones

Twelve-year-old Travis and his eleven-year-old sister Corey are going to spend the summer at their grandmother's new country inn in Vermont. They'd be going to summer camp instead, but they were asked not to return after last summer - apparently the camp administrators don't have much of a sense of humor, because they did not think any of the pranks and practical jokes the siblings loved to play were at all funny. Given a choice between summer school and Grandmother's house, it was easy to make a decision. And when they arrive and see the inn with its cozy rooms and swimming pool - and taste the marvelous food - they decide that their summer is definitely looking up.

The first evening they learn that the inn has a history of being haunted - it's even in a book about haunted houses of New England. But their grandmother tells them that since she purchased the place, no ghosts have been seen (not that she believes any ever existed). Some guests are indignant about that and even ask for their money back, and business, frankly, isn't that great. Well, think Travis and Corey, if ghosts will bring Grandmother's inn more business, then the ghosts will show up - what fun! First, Corey decides to dress in a white nightgown and make a ghostly appearance outside in the middle of the night. And inside the inn, it will be easy to make creaking and moaning noises. They can't wait to get started.

At first, their plan appears to be working perfectly. But what they don't count on is that their shenanigans will wake up some real ghosts - and waking them up, they learn, is much easier than laying them back to rest! Research shows that the inn has a dark history, and the two siblings find themselves in a precarious position as they realize that it is up to the two of them to set things straight. After all, who can better understand a bunch of angry, trick-playing ghosts than a couple of dyed-in-the wool pranksters. Yet one of the ghosts is different from the others, and turns out to be a malign force indeed...

I don't know what it is about the summertime that makes me yearn for a good, old-fashioned ghost story - maybe fond memories of all the fun summer reading I did as a child. This one certainly hit the spot. The novel has a timeless quality, even though it is clearly set in the present day, that reminded me of ghost stories from my childhood, and the remote setting with its historic ties to one of the grimmer aspects of American history gave it a nicely creepy feeling. I have long enjoyed Mary Downing Hahn's ghost stories, and this is a great addition to her works.

All the Lovely Bad Ones: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Jen Robinson's Book Page

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Half vampire, half werewolf

Riley Jenson appears to be a werewolf, but she is actually half vampire. This means that she has the reflexes and mind-clouding ability of vampires, but still changes into a werewolf at the full moon. She lives with her twin brother, Rhoan, and they both work for Melbourne's "Directorate of Other Races," which is a sort of police force that is supposed to control crime among supernatural beings and protect humans from them. Rhoan is a guardian (a sort of top-level agent), but Riley appears to be a sort of secretary, despite the fact that her supervisors want her to become a guardian, too.

The books opens as Riley gets a feeling that her twin is in trouble. Not mortal danger, just...trouble. Because she and Rhoan (for no good reason I could tell) keep their brother/sister relationship secret, she has trouble convincing his boss that he needs help, being able only to say it's a "feeling" she has. When Rhoan hasn't returned from his mission by the following morning, when he was scheduled to, they send another agent to investigate, but Riley decides to do some searching on her own.

Werewolves, it seems (at least in this universe) have hormones that rage as the moon nears fullness, and - unless they find their sought-after soul mate, becoming monogamous thereafter - they basically need to have copious amounts of rampant sex with however many mates they have or can get. Humans simply don't understand this need (which is unlike anything that actual wolves experience, one might add) - and that is possibly why I found my belief in the strength of Riley's concern for her brother to be a bit undermined by the constant time-outs for sex with different (always very rich, Ferrari- or Porsche-driving, stunningly handsome) people along the way to his rescue.

She finds an incredibly handsome, naked rich vampire on her doorstep, who is also looking for her brother, and while she doesn't trust him, her boss pairs the two of them together to search for Rhoan. Other guardians have been disappearing lately, including Riley's closest friend (the agent sent to search for Rhoan). Riley's concern for her missing friend is, typical of her self-centered nature, not expressed by worry for her friend's well-being - instead, Riley laments that she doesn't make friends very easily, so she hopes nothing bad has happened to her friend!

The plot was fast paced (except for the frequent sex detours, which seemed tacked on and did little for character or plot development, unlike, in my opinion, those in Laurell Hamilton and Kim Harrison's novels) and intriguing, complete with cloned villains, secret laboratories and strange, hybrid creatures. But I spent most of the book trying to figure out if I liked it or not. Riley was very self absorbed and displayed appalling judgment on many occasions, so I kept losing sympathy for her. Her passionate determination not to become a guardian was never fully explained. She clearly loves the adrenaline rush of the investigation, so what was the big deal? Why cling to a job as secretary when her abilities lie in a different direction? Certainly not cowardice, as she is fearless and a strong, able fighter, thanks to her mixed heritage.

I'm still not sure how I feel about this one. Often the initial book or books in a series are a bit uneven (I felt that way about the first Kim Harrison Rachel Morgan book), but they get better and better as they go along. I like the idea of a vampire/wolf hybrid, but don't feel it was explored fully in this book, at least - if it's just that she's a faster, stronger werewolf, it's not as intriguing as it might be. Even though she can run and fight in 4-inch heels (and stake vampires with her wooden heels when the opportunity arises). It was certainly a fast-paced adventure, and it introduced some interesting characters (I particularly liked Rhoan and his partner), so I may try the second one in the series.

Books in the Riley Jenson series:
1. Full Moon Rising
2. Kissing Sin
3. Tempting Evil
4. Dangerous Games
5. Embraced by Darkness
6. The Darkest Kiss

Full Moon Rising (#1 in the Riley Jenson series) by Keri Arthur (Bantam Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:

Friday, June 27, 2008

A cat with a hidden agenda

Ninette Dupond is a dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet. Her father disappeared not long after she was born, and her mother has recently died. She is lucky to have a job as a dancer, and even luckier when she gets an opportunity to fill in as the leading dancer in a matinée, after one of the star ballerinas has an accident. Unfortunately for her, she catches the eye of a wealthy older gentleman - who happens to be the patron of the dancer she's momentarily replaced. Despite her good reviews, Ninette finds herself kicked out of the ballet company, alone, with no income, and rent due in three days.

The choices of a woman like Ninette in turn-of-the-century France are few - and when the Folies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge reject her, she becomes desperate. So desperate, in fact, that when the tomcat who's been hanging around her apartment and neighborhood as long as she can remember suddenly speaks to her, right into her mind, she listens to him. She follows his advice because he offers her an alternative to the inevitable fate of prostitution that is all that stands between her and eventual starvation. He offers her money - a purse of coins he's "found" - and a plan: to go to England, impersonating a Russian prima ballerina, and find work in the town of Blackpool. Nina agrees (not without misgivings) and sets off for her new life.

Nina doesn't know that the cat is an Elemental Spirit sent by her father, an Elemental Wizard, before he died. And she doesn't know that her innocent deception has set into motion a destructive force bent on her demise...

Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters novels are always to be counted upon for an enjoyable, gripping read with interesting settings, well-developed characters, and unexpected plot twists. Her writing style tends to be straightforward, and this series is not overly complex and would definitely appeal to teens branching out from YA to adult books. I find it particularly interesting to see the creative ways in which Lackey adapts each particular fairy tale to her retelling. This one, obviously, is based on Puss in Boots, but - as with the others in the series - it is a very loose adaptation. It is not strictly necessary to read the series in order - the books all stand alone - and I think I enjoyed the more recent ones more than the earlier books.

Books in the Elemental Masters series:
1. The Fire Rose (Beauty and the Beast)
2. The Serpent's Shadow (Snow White)
3. The Gates of Sleep (Sleeping Beauty)
4. Phoenix and Ashes (Cinderella)
5. The Wizard of London (The Snow Queen)
6. Reserved for the Cat (Puss in Boots)

Reserved for the Cat (#6 in the Elemental Masters series) by Mercedes Lackey (DAW Books, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Fantasy Book Blog

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A magic spyglass

Alex and his family have just moved from suburban Maryland to rural Virginia, where their parents have bought and fixed up a wonderful old house to be a bed and breakfast. Up in the tower room they stumble across an old spyglass, and when all three of them touch it, it whisks them back in time. This is the first book in the Time Spies series, and each book takes the children to a different place and time. In this first installment, the children travel back to the time of the Revolutionary War - and even get to play a part in the defeat of Cornwallis.

I discovered this series through Becky's irresistible review at her Young Readers blog (thanks, Becky!), and I read it to my children (ages 7 and 9) over the course of a few evenings. The kids seemed to enjoy it well enough, but they weren't passionate about it, probably because it is a very simple book with very little character development. In fact, the characters were fairly interchangeable, particularly the older two children (and I kept forgetting which was the boy and which was the girl). There was the usual friction between the older siblings, but I never felt I had a good understanding of their motives. One moment the older sister, Mattie, is insisting they mustn't use the spyglass because it's dangerous; a few pages later she's enthusiastic about embarking on another adventure. I guess the characters never seemed very real to me - it felt as though they were merely a vehicle to trot the story into a particular time period so the reader could learn all about it, history brought to life through the story. The time-travel setup also felt a bit contrived to me - within moments of being in the house, the kids just happen to promptly discover a hidden entrance to the tower room as well as the magical spyglass (perhaps having recently finished The Door to Time made this one pale in comparison - although to be fair, that one is meant for an older audience).

That said, I think this series would have immense appeal to readers of series such as The Magic Tree House, which also has zero character development but takes the reader to interesting places and time periods. I enjoyed the fact that the little sister appears to know more about what's going on than either of her older siblings, and that there is a sense of mystery (who is the mysterious letter writer who appears to be orchestrating these time-travel trips for the children?) and further adventures to come.

Books in the Time Spies series:
1. Secret in the Tower
2. Bones in the Badlands
3. Giant in the Garden
4. Magician in the Trunk
5. Gold in the Hills
6. Message in the Mountain
6. Flames in the City

Secret in the Tower (#1 in the Time Spies series) by Candice Ransom (Wizards of the Coast, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Read to Recommend
Young Readers

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kinsey Millhone is back

Kinsey Millhone, private investigator, is following up an insurance claim, and at the same time her grumpy, elderly neighbor has a nasty fall and ends up in the hospital. When he is discharged, he needs some nursing help at home, and his one remaining relative, who lives far away, asks Kinsey to vet the woman who has applied for the job. Everything looks good.

The point of view switches between Kinsey and the prospective nurse, who is a thoroughly unpleasant sociopath of a woman. She is taking on someone else's identity (hence the lack of red flags on Kinsey's initial background check), and she is out to take her poor old charge for every cent she can.

I am not a big fan of open mysteries, and I found this one to be unappealing. There wasn't much of a mystery at all, more of a slow setting up for the plot to defraud the old man, with Kinsey always one step behind until the very end. There were too many disturbing details about the woman's abusive treatment of her patient for my liking - pretty awful stuff. Meanwhile, not much is happening with Kinsey's personal life - she has no romantic attachments, no new ambitions, and her recently discovered relatives from previous books are nowhere in sight. She seems to be stagnating, which didn't make for very compelling reading. There were also lots of extraneous details that had nothing to do with either of the plot lines, so that much of the beginning of the novel read like notes from Kinsey's day planner. I kept wondering what the point was.

All in all, I have to say this one was a disappointment. I have been with this series since the letter A (I think only four or five had been published when I first started reading it), and I've been reading the books ever since. At this point, though, I think I've had enough. It's a bit sad, but there are so many wonderful books out there; I think I'm going to give the rest of this series a miss.

T is for Trespass (#20 in the Kinsey Millhone mystery series) by Sue Grafton (Putnam, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Lyvvie's Limelight

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

May I have this dance?

Tiffany is now thirteen years old, and she is apprentice to Miss Treason, a very old witch who has scared off every other young witch ever sent to learn from her. But Tiffany (who listens to her second - and third - thoughts) sees beyond Miss Treason's exterior and realizes she can learn many worthwhile things from the elderly witch. Tiffany stays on, and she makes herself useful, and she learns a great deal indeed.

Miss Treason takes Tiffany with her to watch the darkMorris dance, the dance that welcomes in Winter. Tiffany loves to dance, and as she watches the dancers, she realizes there's an empty spot among the dancers, a spot that should be filled. Before she knows it, she's in the midst of the dance - but without realizing it, Tiffany has made a huge mistake and stumbled into the midst of a very old story. The Wintersmith, instead of dancing with the Summer Lady, dances with Tiffany and falls in love with her (as much as a noncorporeal season can).

He makes it snow little Tiffany-shaped snowflakes. He makes ice flowers for her - it's really kind of sweet. But the real Summer Lady is a bit annoyed with Tiffany's interference, and the Wintersmith wants Tiffany to be his bride - so winter can remain as a permanent season. And it's not as though Tiffany doesn't have other issues to contend with. Miss Treason announces that she (Miss Treason) is going to die in a few days, and Tiffany must plan the funeral before she does (what fun is having funeral if you can't attend it, too?). Events spin out of control, but luckily the Nac Mac Feegle are around to take care of their "big wee hag," and a hilarious romp ensues.

I enjoyed Stephen Briggs' reading of A Hat Full of Sky so very much - particularly the way he does the Feegles - that I had to give this one a listen as well (and I plan on going back and listening to the first one, which I'd originally read, because it is just so much fun). He brings all the characters to life, and his storytelling style, combined with Pratchett's sheer comedic genius, had me annoying everyone around me as I continually burst out laughing, listening to it on my iPod. Although I almost cried at the end of the book because I was so sad to say goodbye to Tiffany and all the characters from the trilogy that I've come to love to spend time with. These are definitely among the best books I've read in the past few years.

Books in the Tiffany Aching trilogy:
1. The Wee Free Men
2. A Hat Full of Sky
3. Wintersmith

Wintersmith (#3 in the Tiffany Aching trilogy) by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Stephen Briggs (HarperChildren's Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Adventures in Reading
The Scrawl

Monday, June 23, 2008

Irresistible Review Challenge book giveaway!

Now that the solstice has come and gone, we are officially into summer. And that means that it is definitely time for me to give away some books. Anyone who has signed up for the Irresistible Review Challenge is eligible to put their name in for a book (see the sidebar to see who has signed up).

It's not too late to join us! The challenge lasts all summer long, and you know you've been adding books to your TBR list after reading irresistible reviews on other people's book blogs. This is a great way to give people credit for their wonderful reviews, and let the rest of us know about all the other great book blogs out there.

To see some of the Irresistible Review Challenge reviews posted so far, check out the sidebar. And if you are participating in the challenge and I've missed linking to your review, please let me know and I'll be sure to add it. I try to keep up, but sometimes I miss them - sorry!

If you are participating in the challenge and are interested in any of the books listed below, just let me know in the comments. If more than one person is interested in a particular book, I'll do the proverbial drawing. If I don't have takers, I'll open it up to anyone who wants the book. the giveaway will run though next Sunday at midnight. Here are the books:

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller - this is an ARC. The book description reads: ..."a powerfully uplifting story of two unconventional women. Meri is newly married, pregnant, standing on the cusp of her life as a wife and mother, and recognizing with some terror the gap between reality and expectation. Delia Naughton is her neighbor in the adjacent New England townhouse, the wife of the venerated senator Tom Naughton - a man whos infidelity is an open secret in Washington circles. Delia and Meri find themselves leading strangely parallel lives, reckoning with the contours and mysteries of marriage, one refined and abraded by years of complicated intimacy, the other barely begun."

The House with a Clock in Its Walls/The Ghost in the Mirror by John Bellairs - Two books in one! Click here to read Chris's review. The book description reads: "Newly orphaned, Lewis is a plump ten-year-old who has come to live with his Uncle Jonathan; he finds himself very much at home in the old, odd mansion and he quickly becomes fond of both Uncle Jonathan and his next-door neighbor. But there's something odd going on: the ticking noise in the walls of the house, the strange things Uncle Jonathan does..." And as an added bonus, the illustrations are by Edward Gorey! This is one of my favorite creepy children's series, recommended for ages 9 -12 years old, and these two books (in one volume) are the first two in the series.

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg - this is an advance uncorrected proof, a collection of short stories. Book description: "Beloved author Elizabeth Berg explores topics that will resonate with women everywhere - from struggles with food and eating, to love and relationships, to life and aging, to small acts of rebellion along the way. In 'The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted,' a woman goes on a happiness binge after ditching Weight Watchers, and finds out what it truly means to feel beautiful. In 'Returns and Exchanges,' a woman starts a dating service for people over fifty, lamenting the loss of the razzle-dazzle in her own marriage, and realizes she might find true love after all. These wonderful stories connected by character and theme - and eleven of which have never been published - illuminate the difficulty and surprise of changes in women's lives.

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman - This is a wonderful book! Especially for someone like me, who had to peek at the end of Because of Winn-Dixie to make sure the dog didn't get offed before she'd read the book. Book description: "Nobody understands Wallace Wallace. This reluctant school football hero has been suspended from the team for writing an unfavorable book report of Old Shep, My Pal. But Wallace won't tell a lie - he hated every minute of the book! Why does the dog in every classic novel have to croak at the end? After refusing to do a rewrite, his English teacher, who happens to be directing the school play Old Shep, My Pal, forces him go to the rehearsals as punishment. Although Wallace doesn't change his mind, he does end up changing the play into a rock-and-roll rendition, complete with Rollerblades and a moped!" (Ages 9-12)

Love Marriage by. V.V. Ganeshananthan - this is an ARC. Book description: "Yalini is the American-born daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants who were the first in their families to have a Love Marriage. Consequently, she is caught between the traditions of her ancestors and the lure of hte modern world. But when she is summoned to help care for her dying uncle, a former member of the miltant Tamil Tigers, Yalini finds her heart and mind opening in unexpected ways. The author's lyrical, richly textured prose yields an extraordinary story that spans generations."

Comfort Books

The poll results are in! The #1 kind of comfort book (as in book that is read when people are going through a difficult time in their life) is:

A reread of a favorite book, preferably for children or teens, preferably fantasy

Romance followed fantasy as a close second, and something humorous right behind romance. So would the best book to beat depression be a reread of a favorite novel with humor, romance and fantasy? I think something like that might succeed in chasing my blues away!

What about you? Is there one particular book you turn to during tough times that always helps? Or something that from a category that I neglected to put on the poll?

As always, thanks for voting! It's fun to see what everyone thinks.

(Above image used by permission through Creative Commons licensing)

A tattoo to die for

This YA novel, set in the same fictional world as Wicked Lovely, focuses on Aislinn's (of the first novel) friend Leslie. She and Aislinn have drifted apart lately, between Aislinn's new, secret life (which events from the first book detail) and the very bad things that have been happening in Leslie's own life. First, her mother took off. Her father has been drinking; her brother is so into drugs that his own sister has become nothing more than a means of obtaining the drugs he needs.

In the aftermath of a brutal experience at the hands of her brother's "friends," Leslie decides to get a tattoo, something that will enable her to take her body back for her own. And she doesn't just want any tattoo; she wants something different, something special. She's been hanging out at Rabbit's tattoo place, watching him create amazing art, and she's been saving up her money from waiting tables. She just hasn't found the right design yet. She's not sure what she wants, but she'll know it when she sees it.

When Rabbit finally shows her a book of one-of-a-kind designs, she sees it immediately - a design with knotwork and wings, and mesmerizing eyes. Rabbit tells her that it will change her in some way, to have that tattoo, as though he's trying to warn her. But her mind is made up. What she doesn't know is that Rabbit has ties to the Dark Court, and that tattoo will tie Leslie to the king of the court. Since the demise of the winter queen, the Dark Court is weak. When the tattoo is complete, Leslie will serve as a conduit that will provide sustenance to the Dark Court - for as long as her strength - and sanity - last.

Although Leslie has been through difficult times, she learns from those experiences, and she is through with being a victim. Unfortunately Aislinn, worried about bringing her friend into the dangerous world she now inhabits, has been trying to shelter Leslie from it, in order to keep her safe. So Leslie has no idea what she what she's up against.

When I first started reading this book, I felt an initial pang of disappointment at leaving Aislinn behind and following the adventures of a new character. That lasted maybe half a page. Leslie is an engaging character, determined to solve her own problems, and despite her traumatic experiences, she maintains her ability to feel compassion - and act on it. I've read that Marr is planning on writing more books in this dark faerie world, and I, for one, am looking forward to reading them.

Ink Exchange (sequel to Wicked Lovely) by Melissa Marr (HarperTeen 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Midnight Twilight's Book Blog
Reader Rabbit

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A locked door and a coded message

Eleven-year-old twins Jason and Julia Covenant have just moved into Argo Manor, an enormous old house on a cliff overlooking the sea. Julia is less than enthusiastic about the move, much preferring the civilization of city life with its trendy shops, restaurants, and many things to do. But Jason is immediately enthralled with the old place, even as he quickly becomes convinced that, because of the odd houses he hears when no one else is in the house, it must be haunted.

Their parents leave for a few days, entrusting the children to the care of Nestor, the old caretaker who lives in a cottage on the premises. The twins' new friend, Rick, rides his bike up to join them, and together the three explore the house and its grounds. Climbing up the cliff stairs after a swim, Jason slips, nearly plummeting down the cliff side, but when he catches hold of a rocky part of the cliff, he discovers an old box hidden in a recess. The contents of the box lead the friends on a scavenger hunt to uncover the many secrets of Argo Manor, starting with the mysterious locked door, covered with gouges and scars.

The more they discover, the more questions are raised. The old caretaker clearly knows more than he's letting on, including exactly what Ulysses Moore, the previous owner of the house, was up to - and why the beautiful but vindictive Oblivia Newton is so determined to purchase Argo Manor for herself. The twins are very different from each other, and for the most part their differences are complementary, and Rick is a good, helpful friend who quickly proves his worth in a crisis. I enjoyed the interplay between the siblings, which conveys their affection for each other as well as their ability to drive each other crazy (and leaves Rick wishing he had a sibling of his own).

This first installment in the series sets the stage nicely, raising all kinds of intriguing questions, full of danger and excitement, and ends with a scene that is sure to have readers clamoring for the next book in the series. I enjoyed listening to the audio version of this very much - it was a gripping, well-told story with evocative music at key moments. I'm looking forward to the next book in this series.

Books in the Ulysses Moore series:
1. The Door to Time
2. The Long Lost Map
3. The House of Mirrors
4. The Isle of Masks

The Door to Time (#1 in the Ulysses Moore series) by Pierdomenico Baccalario; narrated by Michael Page (Brilliance Audio, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Fern Folio

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Vampire Knight, Volume 4

This series, which centers around a boarding school where the day students are regular humans and the night students are actually vampires, reveals a few surprises in this fourth installment. Yuki, our heroine, is devoted to her fellow classmate and school guardian Zero, who is fighting to control his lust for blood, worried he'll become like the vampire monsters he despises. She is also crazy about Kaname, the handsome head of the night class, who charges Zero to keep Yuki safe.

In the previous volume a new vampire had arrived at the school; it was clear she was bad news. It becomes evident, unsurprisingly, that the new vampire, Maria, is from Zero's past. Maria tells Yuki that she will destroy Zero unless Yuki does the unthinkable: kills her beloved Kaname, who saved Yuki's life when she was a little child.

Hino does a good job of revealing more of the characters' pasts and feelings for each other as this series progresses. There are humorous scenes that lighten the tension, while a sense of foreboding lurks in the shadows as the characters struggle to make difficult decisions. This is an engaging manga with interesting twists and surprises, and I'm looking forward to seeing what transpires for Yuki and her friends in Volume 5.

B&OT reviews of Vampire Knight:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

Vampire Knight, Volume 4 by Matsuri Hino (Viz Media, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Avid Book Reader
Vampire Heart

Friday, June 20, 2008

A trip out of town gone bad

Anita's friend Jason has just suffered a bad breakup with a girlfriend, and on top of that he receives news that his father is dying of cancer and has only a few weeks to live. Anita agrees to accompany Jason home to visit his estranged father. Even though she's not actually his girlfriend, she's a girl, and she's his friend, and Jason thinks her presence will help things go more smoothly.

They don't count on the fact that Jason's cousin, whose father is on the brink of running for president, has picked that weekend to get married - nor on the fact that Jason looks almost exactly like his cousin, enough to be his twin. They stumble into a media frenzy, and, as is usual for Anita, things quickly spin out of control. Soon the wereanimals from the nearby are involved, and Anita has not only stepped on the toes of their packs, the master of the Jason's hometown city, but has also jeopardized Jean-Claude's position of power as well. To complicate matters, Marmee Noir, the big bad of big bads, decides to get in on the action, with the usual complicated results.

Laurell Hamilton is, as always, a true master of pacing. I know better than to start her books in the evening, because then I'm up in the wee hours of the night reading, saying to myself, "Just one more chapter. Just one more page!" and reading and reading until I'm absolutely no good for anything the following day. But somehow I am always unable to resist, and it happens every time. I have been enjoying watching Anita come into her own - there is less angst in this installment in the series, and while she continues to be required to make difficult decisions, she is easier within herself. Meanwhile, the tension continues to build, with Marmee Noir's increasing powers leading ever toward the fulfillment of her mysterious plans for Anita...

And here I am again, waiting for the next book to come out. Sigh.

Books in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series:
1. Guilty Pleasures
2. The Laughing Corpse

3. Circus of the Damned

4. The Lunatic Cafe
5. Bloody Bones

6. The Killing Dance

7. Burnt Offerings

8. Blue Moon

9. Obsidian Butterfly

10. Narcissus in Chains

11. Cerulean Sins
12. Incubus Dreams

13. Micah
14. Danse Macabre

The Harlequin
Blood Noir
17. Skin Trade

Blood Noir
(#16 in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series) by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
All Booked Up

The Good, the Bad, the Unread
Laura Likes...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Devil is back!

The Devil returns in this second collection of folktales about his misdeeds, trials and tribulations. My girls and I had enjoyed reading Babbit's first collection, The Devil's Storybook, so much that we immediately decided to read this one as well. It had a few fairly enjoyable stories, but unfortunately none of us found the book nearly as engaging as the first one. It read almost as though these were the stories that hadn't made it into the first collection, and that was a bit of a disappointment.

Our favorite story was "Lessons," which was about a parrot who lives with an old woman, but who used to belong to a clergyman. Living with the clergyman gave the parrot a rather interesting vocabulary, so that when the Devil comes along, hoping to make some trouble, the parrot has a few tricks up his feathered sleeve. There was another story that was very strange, called "The Ear." It left my 7- and 9-year-olds scratching their heads in puzzlement at the end, but I found it intriguing, with imagery that is sure to remain in my mind for a long time to come.

I highly recommend the first Devil's story collection - it is delightful and makes a for great read-aloud. This one, sadly, didn't live up to our expectations - but those who loved the first book will find it hard to resist another visit to see what that tricky Devil is getting up to!

The Devil collections:
The Devil's Storybook
The Devil's Other Storybook

This book counts towards Molly's Personal Reading Challenge - I might just get there by the end of the year!

The Devil's Other Storybook by Natalie Babbit (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The coroner's teenage assistant

Seventeen-year-old Cameryn Mahoney lives with her father and grandmother in a very small town in the Colorado mountains. Her ambition, to the dismay of her traditional Irish grandmother (who'd much rather she learn to cook), is to become a forensic pathologist. This is no vague dream to her - she dedicates her time to reading and research, and has amassed a fair amount of theoretical knowledge. But she wants more.

Her father, annoyed that the sheriff has a new deputy to help him out, while he remains on his own and overworked, agrees to take Cameryn on as his assistant. Cameryn's first experience with him - going to a hotel room to recover the body of a "floater," a man who's been dead in a bathtub in a hotel room for days - leaves her shaken but determined to do her job.

Justin, the sheriff's new deputy is also there on the scene. He is handsome and friendly, but for some reason her father distrusts him, and Cameryn tries to maintain her distance. But when a murder - the first murder in their tiny town in years - happens, she and Justin find themselves working together. Cameryn's world-view takes a sudden shift when she discovers the murder victim is a friend of hers, and that a psychic predicted the discovery and location of the body. Cameryn is a rock-solid, feet-on-the-ground, hard-scientific-evidence-required kind of girl, and she is taken aback when the psychic reveals astonishing facts about the case. The medical examiner would be a good ally to have, but he is furious about Cameryn's involvement in the investigation, and dismisses her thoughts and ideas, even when it seems they have validity. So she decides to take matters into her own hands...

This book is definitely not for the squeamish, as it relates very graphic details about decomposing bodies and autopsy methods, but for those who enjoy gritty mysteries with forensic clues, it is a winner. The characters are engaging and believable, and their relationships, combined with the strands of the mystery, had me hooked from the beginning. I always love discovering an enjoyable new series - especially when there several books already published. This one is the first of three, so far. I would recommend this book to older teens with the caveat about the graphic details, and to anyone who enjoys a solid forensic mystery.

Books in the Forensic Mystery series:
1. The Christopher Killer
2. The Angel of Death
3. The Circle of Blood
4. The Dying Breath

The Christopher Killer (#1 in the Forensic Mystery series) by Alane Ferguson (Viking, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Book of the Week

An advocate for the dead

If it hadn't been for the fact that there was a shortcut through the cemetery...and if Johnny hadn't been dared to knock on the door of a mausoleum...and if he hadn't actually gone up and knocked on the door...and if the door hadn't opened...he might never have realized he could actually see - and talk to - the spirits of the dead.

But he did. And he can. And the dead are not happy that their cemetery - their home - is about to be destroyed. New buildings are going to be built there, and the bodies will be moved somewhere else. Where exactly, no one knows. The dead seem to think that Johnny can help them, somehow. But what's a boy to do? Who would listen to him? And what could he possibly have to say that would be worth listening to?

Johnny wishes he could help - really, he does. Especially as he grows to know the people who were buried there: Solomon Einstein (taxidermist, amateur physicist and distant relative of Albert Einstein), "escapist" and magician Antonio Vicente (very popular at children's parties), Ms. Sylvia Liberty (suffragette), and William Stickers (than man who would have invented Communism if Karl Marx hadn't), among others. Even though they aren't exactly famous, they are still part of the town's past, and tearing away the past so callously seems incredibly wrong to Johnny.

I was dismayed to learn, after I'd finished this book, that it's actually the second in a trilogy. There was no mention of that on the audiobook that I checked out from my library! I hate when that happens. Even so, I have to say that the book stands well on its own, since I never once felt I was missing out on any backstory. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book to listen to, and I will definitely read the other two in the trilogy. While not as unabashedly humorous as the Discworld novels, it is a sweet and funny story about the importance of the past and the willingness to take risks in order to change the future.

Books in the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy:

1. Only You Can Save Mankind
2. Johnny and the Dead
3. Johnny and the Bomb

Johnny and the Dead (#2 in the Johnny Maxwell trilogy) by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Richard Mitchley (Chivers North America, 1993)

Also reviewed at:
The Bibliophilists
The Secret Irrelevance Graveyard

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The reinvention of Winnie

Winnie is packing to go to overnight camp for the first time. But she won't be on her own - her two best friends, Zoe and Vanessa, are coming with her. Winnie's not too sure about going to camp, even so, but her father assures her she's a natural born camper, and she'll have a wonderful time.

Having two best friends is usually great - there's more fun to go around, for one thing. But there's always the risk of the best-friends group getting split up. What if Zoe and Vanessa are put in a different cabin from Winnie? That would be awful. Winnie's fears are realized, and the three friends are dismayed when Winnie is, in fact, placed in a different cabin. But when Winnie sees the cool things her cabin-mate has brought, including horse-show ribbons and other horse-related paraphernalia, Winnie thinks that it might just be fun to be on her own and meet someone new.

Her new roommate is great, and Winnie expands her circle of friends. But in her delight at suddenly being with people who have no preconceptions of her, Winnie takes a few...liberties...with the truth about herself. When a new friend admires her artwork, asking her where she learned to draw that way, Winnie says, "From my mother." Her mother had artistic talent, but she died when Winnie was little. Wanting to feel what it's like to actually have a mother, Winnie tells everyone her mother is a famous artist. One lie leads to another, and Winnie begins avoiding Zoe and Vanessa, who know everything there is to know about Winnie's life - but Parent's Day is coming, and when Winnie's dad gets there, the truth is certainly going to come out.

This is a great book for kids about to embark on their own first-time summer camp experiences, as well as those who enjoy books about friendship and relationships. Winnie is an endearing character, and readers are sure to identify with her struggle to come to terms with the things she wishes could be and the way things actually are.

Books in the Winnie series:

1. Winnie Dancing on Her Own
2. Truly Winnie
3. Winnie at Her Best

Truly Winnie by Jennifer Richard Jacobson; illustrated by Alissa Imre Geis (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Monday, June 16, 2008

Where there's a will, there's a way

Arthur's first day of school is not going very well. It's bad enough that he had to start a week later than every one else, because he was hospitalized after a particularly bad asthma attack - but now his gym teacher is making him do a long-distance run with the rest of the class because Arthur doesn't have a note from home excusing him. The run starts out okay, but then the asthma hits, and before he knows it he's on the ground, gasping for air but unable to take any in.

It is at that moment that he sees a very strange sight: two strange men approach him, who appear to be a servant and a master. The servant assures the master that Arthur is about to die, and it is safe to give him the keys. He is an heir, he can accept the keys, he will die, and the keys can be returned to the other man. The master hands Arthur something - it looks like the hand of a clock - and the moment Arthur's hands close around it, he feels much better. The two men start to argue, and then everything becomes confused. People rush up to help Arthur, who is still in the throes of the asthma attack. The men vanish, and Arthur, afraid someone will take the clock hand, hides it beneath a bush. He is taken to the hospital, and from that point on things go from strange to bizarre.

Strange creatures pursue Arthur, and in their wake the leave a sort of pestilence, the kind of illness that killed Arthur's parents when he was just a baby. Arthur must follow what appears to be his destiny as the named heir to some kind of will, a will literally made manifest and determined to set matters straight. Arthur could care less about being an heir, but he enters a massive, ornate house that only he is able to see, in an attempt to stop the plague from spreading - but he will contend with forces and beings beyond his greatest imaginings. Most of them do not wish him well.

I loved Garth Nix's Sabriel series, so I was excited to try out the Keys to the Kingdom, which is targeted at slightly younger readers. This first book sets the series in motion very nicely, immediately establishing Arthur as a sympathetic character that I was rooting for from the very beginning. The fantasy elements are unusual and interesting, and there were plenty of surprises along the way. I found it an enjoyable book to listen to - Allen Corduner does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension with his storytelling style. I am looking forward to listening to the next book in this exciting series.

Books in the Keys to the Kingdom series:

1. Mister Monday
2. Grim Tuesday
3. Drowned Wednesday
4. Sir Thursday
5. Lady Friday
6. Superior Saturday (forthcoming July 2008 - U.S.)
7. Lord Sunday (forthcoming date tbd)

Mister Monday (#1 in the Keys to the Kingdom series) by Garth Nix; narrated by Allan Corduner (Listening Library, 2003)

Also reviewed at:
Reading Adventures
Gamila's Review
Marianne the Librarian
Sarah the Librarian

Saturday, June 14, 2008

An adventure of mythic proportions

Things aren't going too well for Percy Jackson - even though he tries, he can't seem to stay in any one particular school for more than a year - and often less time than that. Severe dyslexia and ADD have made his studies extremely challenging, not to mention frustrating. But his new school hasn't been so bad - he really likes his classics teacher, even though his math teacher seems to have it in for him, no matter what he does - and his buddy Grover is fun to hang out with, even though his geekiness does tend to attract bullies.

Everything changes, though, on the field trip to the museum, which isn't a huge surprise. Other school field trips have ended in disaster, and Percy is determined that this time it will be different. No matter how much he is teased, he is determined not to react, not to get in trouble. Really, it isn't his fault that one of the bullies ends up in the fountain. And it certainly isn't his fault that his mean old math teacher turns into a horrific monster. But even so, Percy is asked to leave his school - again. This time, though, he suspects that something very strange is going on - especially after overhearing an intriguing discussion between Grover and his classics teacher, a conversation about Percy.

Back at home, things are disturbingly the same. His horrible stepfather is playing poker with his buddies, bossing his mom around and taking Percy' s cash. Things look up when his mom says they're going to the beach for a week, just the two of them. But what starts out as a nice vacation turns into a nightmare as they are suddenly attacked and pursued by horrific creatures. Percy learns that his father wasn't exactly human - he is a being from Greek mythology. And for some reason his father's enemies seem to think that he - Percy Jackson - has stolen a lightning bolt from Zeus. If Percy can't find it and return it, an all-out war between the gods will result. Percy is only twelve, and it seems like a tall order. But he has Grover and a new friend, Annabeth, to give him a hand. But can they possibly be a match for the most powerful gods of Olympus?

Listening to this book was a real treat - I enjoyed Jesse Bernstein's boyish voice, which worked well with the first-person narrator. With all the hype about the latest Percy Jackson novel coming out, I decided it was time to start this series - I was particularly interested because boy readers, in particular, are so incredibly passionate about the series. I love Greek mythology, and those who are well versed in myths will have an edge in figuring out the mysteries and secrets of the novel. However, I can see it inspiring readers who are unfamiliar with the myths and characters to learn more about them after finishing the book.

My only issue with the book was the character of Annabeth, whose mother is Athena. While Percy is brave and strong and embodies many of the characteristics of his immortal father, I found myself wishing that Annabeth were a bit more like her mother, the goddess of wisdom, who is also a warrior goddess. Annabeth, Percy and Grover keep falling into trap after trap, and I kept expecting Annabeth to see through the deception, but she rarely did. While this is clearly a book targeted at boys, it would still be nice to have a strong, smart female character. Don't get me wrong - Annabeth certainly knows her own mind, but her status as a demigod seems much less substantial than Percy's, which I found a bit annoying. That quibble aside, though, I found the book to be entertaining, exciting and original, and I look forward to reading about the further adventures of Percy Jackson.

Books in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series:
1. The Lightning Thief
2. The Sea of Monsters
3. The Titan's Curse
4. The Battle of the Labyrinth

The Lightning Thief (#1 in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) by Rick Riordan; narrated by Jesse Bernstein (Random House, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Traci's Book Bag

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mazes, mobiles and mysteries

Calder Pillay and his two best friends, Petra and Tommy, are having a terrible time with their new teacher, who is as far from their inspiring and beloved teacher from the previous year as it is possible to be. She takes away Calder's pentominoes, calling them a "toy," (most insulting), and refuses to let anyone draw or write anything when they take a field trip to a museum (which makes Petra perfectly miserable). But even their teacher's negativity can't take away from the friends' joy and enthusiasm when they visit the Calder exhibit and see all the amazing mobiles and sculptures. Calder, who was named after the artist, finds a room where people can design their own mobiles - but the teacher won't even let them do that - instead, she insists on taking them all to the gift shop.

When Calder's father takes a business trip to England, he decides to take Calder with him. They stay in the remote village of Woodstock - where they are astonished to find a sculpture by Calder in the town square, a recent anonymous donation. The townspeople aren't fond of the modern style of the artwork, and there is quite a bit of contention in the village. Calder loves the sculpture, however, as well as the whole experience of being in England. He explores during the day while his father takes care of business - but one afternoon, when his father returns, he finds that both the Calder statue as well as the Calder child have disappeared.

Petra and Tommy come to England along with the clever, elderly Mrs. Sharpe. Although they have little in common but their friendship with Calder, they determine to work through the friction between them and team up to find their friend. As in the the previous two books in the series, there is a fascinating interplay of patterns, numbers and shapes that keep the characters - and the reader - thinking and exploring throughout the course of the novel. The illustrations also offer a secret message to observant eyes, which also adds to the fun.

While the first two books were mysteries, this one was not. The two friends try to solve the mystery of Calder's disappearance, but they really don't; nor does Calder rescue himself. I found that a tad disappointing - I felt as if the patterns and clues and hints were, to some extent, red herrings, and that the stroke of luck that saved the day undermined the power of the novel to some extent. I would have rather seen Petra and Tommy's commitment to finding Calder pay off in a more explicit way. Still, that is a small quibble, and I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. I particularly liked the interplay between Petra and Tommy as they sought to find common ground in the absence of Calder, to resolve the tension between them that had been building since the beginning of the previous book. This is an excellent series, and I certainly hope there will be more to come.

My kids are still a bit young for these books, but I know they will enjoy them in a year or two, particularly this one because they are big fans of this Calder mobile from our local museum:

Books in the Calder Pillay series:
1. Chasing Vermeer
2. The Wright 3
3. The Calder Game

The Calder Game by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Help Readers Love Reading
Shelf Elf
Year of Reading

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sibling rivalry at its worst!

Will has so many brothers who have so very many complaints that his parents rarely have time to listen to his troubles. So he makes a deal with his grandfather: on his weekly visits with him, Will will share the very worst thing that happened to him all week, and his grandfather, who has lived a long time and has suffered many troubles himself, will share a story about something bad that happened to him during his life.

The first week, Will is almost disappointed when it seems like nothing bad will happen to him, after all. But then something does, and he can't wait to tell his grandfather about it: during school, when he is in the bathroom, he doesn't realize until it's too late that there isn't any toilet paper. He has to call out for his teacher - a female teacher - to bring him some. How embarrassing!

Will's granddad admits that it may have been a bit embarrassing, but as far as bathroom stories go, it was actually a bit tame. And he goes on to tell his bathroom story, about when he was a kid and they didn't have any toilet paper, so they just had to use what was lying around. Newspaper, chip bags - and once they even had to use aluminum foil! His rear end was magnetized for a week, and thumbtacks and compasses and all kinds of things kept sticking to it - he had to check carefully before he sat down. Will has to admit that his story does fall a bit short compared to his grandfather's.

No matter what awful things happen to Will at school, his grandfather always has a story that makes his look pretty pathetic. Finally, he appeals to his father for help, and his father tells him a story he'd completely forgotten about, something that Will's' big brother did to him when Will was just a toddler, something so awful that he just might be able to top one of Granddad's stories.

This was a pick for my library's summer reading program, and even though it's the third in a series, I didn't feel I missed out on much just picking it up on its own. With its large text, many humorous illustrations and quick pace, it is sure to appeal to reluctant readers and those who are still a bit intimidated by long, uninterrupted blocks of text - as well as to those who are up for a quick, funny read. Will learns a surprising truth at the end of this book, and it's one that we'd all do well to keep in mind!

Books in the The Will and Marty series:
1. The Legend of Spud Murphy
2. The Legend of Captain Crow's Teeth

3. The Legend of the Worst Boy in the World

The Legend of the Worst Boy in the World by Eoin Colfer; illustrated by Glenn McCoy (Hyperion Books for Children, 2007)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A wonderful detective team

Ottoline's parents are avid collectors of many interesting things, and they frequently travel around the world on their collecting expeditions. Ottoline stays at home with Mr. Monroe, a hairy little creature her parents found in a bog in Norway, who has been her dear friend, caregiver and constant companion from the time she was an infant.

Her parents make sure Ottoline and Mr. Monroe are well taken care of, and have hired a number of business to come to the apartment to take care of such necessary things as folding clothes, changing light bulbs, plumping pillows, cooking meals, making beds and cleaning bathrooms. This allows Ottoline to focus her attention on more important things, such as writing and drawing in her notebooks, reading the newspaper and maintaining her own collections. Her parents also send her postcards regularly, and these are reproduced in the book, front and back, and her mother displays an intriguing ability of knowing exactly what is going on (or will be going on) when the postcards arrive.

Ottoline is an intelligent, curious child. When Mr. Monroe spots a flyer for a missing lapdog, Ottoline brings it home and soon discovers a connection between the lapdog and a series of burglaries that have occurred in her neighborhood. Ottoline, who we learn has recently completed her certification as a Master of Disguise from the Academy of Subterfuge, comes up with a plan, aided by the fearless Mr. Munroe, to nab the perpetrators.

When this book came into my library, I immediately snatched it to bring home to my girls. I knew right away that its intricate, whimsical line illustrations (many with captions, arrows, and instructions to turn to other pages for further information) would be extremely appealing to them. The book was certainly appealing to me, and in the end I read it to them over the course of two evenings, and we loved it! Mr. Monroe charmed my children to no end, and we all pored over the drawings, which contain important clues regarding the mystery and are just plain fun to look at. Ottoline is smart and kindhearted and makes a delightful detective, and Mr. Monroe is absolutely adorable. I am very much looking forward to reading the next book in this quirky new series. I highly recommend this one!

Books in the Ottoline series:
1. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat
2. Ottoline Goes to School
3. Ottoline at Sea (forthcoming)

Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell (HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Look Books

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A creepy alphabet book

This delightful picture book could well qualify as a child's first foray into the horror genre - in a whimsically creepy sort of way. This story, told in rhyming couplets, features "two children, their diminutive but no less courageous gazelle, and a large number of extremely dangerous trolls, monsters, bugbears, creatures, and other such nastinesses, many of which have perfectly disgusting eating habits and ought not, under any circumstances, to be encouraged." I had no idea that Neil Gaiman had written a picture book until I read Chris's irresistible review of it. Thanks, Chris!

The two children take a spooky boat ride into the hidden underbelly of the city, replete with all the nasty creatures mentioned above. Their exciting adventures are recounted in simple rhyming couplets, and the wonderful accompanying illustrations offer a variety of objects that start with each alphabet letter. My children, well beyond the usual age for alphabet books (seven and nine years old), had a great time reading the book with me, looking for objects that started with each letter - as well as the out-of-order letters. My seven-year-old was particularly taken with the children's pet, bursting out as we read with, "I just LOVE the gazelle!"

This book might not be for every child, but for those who enjoy a bit of creepy atmosphere and humorously gruesome characters, it's a must-read. And a great gift idea for Halloween!

The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Gris Grimly (HarperCollins Publishers, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Phoenix & Dragon Wings

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Two sisters, an ugly goblin and a hidden kingdom

Cath at Read Warbler wrote an irresistible review of this book, and while it took me ages to get to it, I am so glad I finally did! Best of all is the fact that this is part of a trilogy, and all the books of the trilogy have already been published. So no waiting around for subsequent books to be released.

The story, set in 19th-century England, is about two sisters, newly orphaned, who travel to the country estate that is to be their new home. Kate is the elder of the two, probably about seventeen or eighteen years old, and very beautiful. Her little sister, Emily, is quite a bit younger, energetic and outspoken. The two girls meet their guardian, a cold, bookish bachelor who sends them to different house on the estate to live with their two elderly aunties.

The land around them is old and fascinating to the girls, who enjoy being outside in the open air as much as possible. One night they become inexplicably lost on their way back to the house. After walking and walking, they finally come across a group of gypsies. One of them, a tall, cloaked man, offers to take them up on his horse and back to the house. Emily agrees readily, but Kate feels an immediate distrust of the man, refusing to go near him. He mocks her the whole way home, and when they arrive she feels a that she's been bit foolish and unnecessarily paranoid. But after Emily runs into the house, the man, Marak, removes his hood and reveals his true, shocking form. He is a goblin - the king of the goblins, in fact - and he is determined that Kate will be his bride.

Kate is equally determined that she will not be his bride. But Marak has magical powers, and when she turns to her family for help, they believe she is overstressed, hallucinating, overwraught from grief. While Marak is hideous and frightening, as Kate comes to know him better she finds that he is always truthful, and is driven by the need to protect his people. She discovers that the humans around her can be selfish, duplicitous and downright cruel. In an unexpected turn of events, Kate finds herself entering Marak's kingdom of her own free will, and from there she embarks upon an adventure that will forever alter the course of her life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I'm so grateful to Cath for recommending it in her review. It is always a pleasure to discover an author you know will become a favorite, and to have all those as-yet-unread books to explore! The characters were very well drawn, and I particularly enjoyed watching the relationship between Kate and Marak evolve. The goblin kingdom was mysterious and different, full of wonder. I particularly loved the protective spell in the shape of a snake, which becomes an intriguing and humorous character in its own right. I am very much looking forward to the next book in this gripping trilogy.

Books in the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy:

1. The Hollow Kingdom
2. Close Kin
3. In the Coils of the Snake

The Hollow Kingdom (Book 1 of the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy) by Clare B. Dunkle (Henry Holt and Company, 2003)

Also reviewed at:
Coffee and Ink
For the Freaks
Little Albatross

And also: Check out this post at Becky's Book Reviews for an interview with Clare Dunkle!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Not crazy, to possibilities

I discovered this book through Valentina's irresistible review last month, and the premise of the story and her liking for the characters made me really want to read it. It's about Lucas Swain, a teenager living in London with his mother, older sister and little brother. His father has been missing for the past five years, and no one knows what happened to him, where he might be - or even if he's still alive.

One day Lucas discovers an urn on a shelf at the taxi office when he goes into request a cab, and it seems so incongruous sitting there amidst the smoke and card playing and grime. At first he doesn't realize what it is, but the Tony Soprano-like cab driver informs him that the urn contains the ashes of an old woman; someone left it in the back of a taxi and never came back for it - it's been sitting there for years. It seems that whoever's ashes are in that urn is begging Lucas to get her out of there, and fast.

His better self, he tells us, would have found a way to rescue the old woman right then and there, but his real self turns and walks out. Still, he can't get the urn and the old woman out of his mind, so he turns to his grandmother, Pansy, for help. Even before the Tony Soprano cab guy tells him the name on the urn, Lucas somehow knows who it is: Violet Park. He feels there is a mysterious connection between himself and Violet Park, and as the story unfolds, he discovers many things about his family, his life and himself because of that connection.

I found the characters in this novel as engaging as Valentina did, and I particularly loved Lucas's voice and the way he described things, which revealed so much about his character. He describes his grandmother:

Pansy is a live wire. She'll talk about anything and has theories about stuff she's hardly heard of, like jungle music, PlayStation and Internet dating. She swears all the time; but she never actually says the word, just mouths it with her face screwed up, her gums and false teeth colliding slightly, the insides of her mouth sticking together and then pulling apart so swearing becomes this strange, spongy, clacking sound. It's quite effective.

Even when Lucas is describe ordinary things, like what he sees on his walk home, made me like him and want to know more about him, good and bad things alike. I may never think of crows the same way again after reading this description of them:

That part of the heath is covered with enormous crows. They've got massive feet and they walk around staring at their massive feet like they can't believe how big they are. They all look like actors with their hands behind their backs, rehearsing the bit in that play when the king says, "now is the winter of our discontent..."

Rescuing Violet sets Lucas on a course of discovery from which there is no turning back. He can't un-know the things he discovers, even if part of himself wishes he'd never learned them. He comes to realize how much his life and his family's lives revolve in a sort of holding pattern around the missing part that is his father, and what that really means. Even though Violet Park is long dead, her presence sure shakes things up! I am so glad I read Valentina's review of this one - this is my third book for the Irresistible Review Challenge, which runs through the end of August, so it's not too late to join!
Me, the Missing, and the Dead (UK title: Finding Violet Park) by Jenny Valentine (HarperTeen, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
A Rainbow of Books
Three Legged Cat
Vulpe Libris

Monday, June 2, 2008

A princess with a serious lack of gravity

This is one of my favorite books from my childhood, and last week I had the pleasure of reading it to my own children. What fun! It begins, as many fairy tales do, with a princess, a christening, an inadvertent slight, and a curse. In this case, the curse is placed by the princess's mean old witch aunt, and it causes the baby to be unaffected by gravity. She is so light, she floats up into the air, and that causes all kinds of hilarious problems for the baby, her royal parents, and her nurses.

She is a happy baby, though, always shrieking with laughter, and she quickly becomes a favorite of everyone in the palace. As she grows older, though, she seems to be a bit too lighthearted - she can't seem to take anything seriously because, of course, she's completely lacking in gravity. Yet with all her laughter, it seems she rarely smiles. The king's wise men theorize that if she were to cry, her gravity would return. But there seems little chance of that happening.

Her favorite place in the world to be is the lake that is next to the castle. When she swims, the water holds her down, and instead of being constantly followed about (and tethered to) attendants as she must be on land, when she is in the lake she can be on her own for a while. She adores the precious freedom that only the lake can give her.

A traveling prince becomes separated from his retinue and ends up on the shore of the lake, where he encounters the princess and falls hopelessly in love with her. She appears to enjoy his company in her own superficial, lighthearted way - but when she realizes her beloved lake is drying up, she can focus on nothing else. Soon she begins to waste away as the lake's water level sinks lower and lower by the day. The prince longs to bring back her happiness, but - as with all fairy tales - there will be a hefty price to pay.

I have loved George MacDonald's stories and books my entire life, and this one has always been a special favorite. Even though he wrote in the 1800s, his stories have an immediacy and relevance, and while the language can be a bit old fashioned at times, it is very much in keeping with the fairy-tale atmosphere his work evokes. The version I read of this as a child was in an anthology with very few pictures, but the book I read to my girls has lovely black-and-white illustrations by Maurice Sendak, which were a delightful accompaniment to the text. This is a wonderful read-aloud, funny, fantastical and very satisfying.

As an added bonus, this book counts towards Molly's Personal Reading Challenge - it looks like I may be able to complete it by the end of the year after all!
The Light Princess
by George MacDonald; illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969 - originally published 1863)

You can download this book for free from Project Gutenberg!