Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blood Price

Vicki Nelson is a PI and former cop who happens upon a very strange and grisly scene on a subway platform. The event is only the beginning of a series of murders that is so bizarre and inexplicable that, even though she's never been one to believe in the supernatural, soon it seems to be the only possible explanation. Not that she'd ever let her former partner know that - he shouldn't be telling her information about the investigation as it is, and he still hasn't forgiven her for quitting her job on the police force - a job that nearly broke her heart to leave, even though she was certain it was her only real choice.

When Vicki is officially hired to investigate the killing by a victim's girlfriend, she stumbles across irrefutable evidence that the killings are fueled by a malevolent magic, and the killer strikes again and again, each death bringing the city of Toronto closer to the unleashing of an ancient, powerful creature. She teams up with writer Henry Fitzroy - even though she finds out he is a vampire, she is certain he is on her side. After all, if he weren't, she wouldn't feel such a strong attraction to him...would she? As their research leads them closer to uncovering the source of the killings, it seems they are always one step behind the killer.

This is one of the first books published in what has since become an immensely popular urban dark fantasy genre. I read this years ago, when it first came out, and enjoyed it immensely. Reading Tanya Huff's short story in a recent urban fantasy anthology reminded me how very much I enjoy her books, so I thought I'd revisit them. I'm glad to say this first one in the Vicki Nelson series held up very well. Even though I read this seventeen(!) years ago, I remembered quite a lot about the characters and their relationships with each other. It was surprising to me that, aside from the lack of cell phones and the Internet, the book did not seem dated at all.

Vicki is a strong heroine with serious problems of her own, an engaging character that it was easy to root for. Her back story is seamlessly woven into the present mystery along with flashbacks from Henry's life, which gives depth to the characters and makes their motives and actions believable. This series has been made into a television show, and there is also a spin-off trilogy featuring Tony Foster, a character who is introduced in this book. This is a must-read for those who enjoy urban fantasy, not just because it is one of the first of its kind, but because it is a well-written, action-packed story with compelling, memorable characters.

Books in the Vicki Nelson series:
1. Blood Price
2. Blood Trail
3. Blood Lines
4. Blood Pact
5. Blood Debt

Blood Price (#1 in the Vicki Nelson series) by Tanya Huff (DAW Books, 1991)

Also reviewed at:
BC Books: "Blood Price is a great book. You get such a feel for the characters, especially Vicki, and each one comes across solid and three dimensional."
Savvy Verse and Wit: "The dialogue and interactions between Vicky and Henry are hilarious and had me laughing for much of the book's latter half."
Tez Says: "Neither bad nor amazing, the novel has an important role in the history of urban fantasy in fiction. It was around this time that the genre was revived through Tanya Huff, Jim Butcher and Laurell K. Hamilton, and readers – and writers – have a lot for which to thank them."

Monday, December 29, 2008

A new category

So I've been looking over the categories I've assigned to my different blog posts during the last year and a half or so, when I first started blogging. The most recent change I made was adding the year of publication, which I thought might be useful - and it's been interesting to see how recent most of the books I read are.

I've decided to add a new category called "rereads" - because if a book is good enough to read again, that's saying something! I'd love to know what other people's favorite rereads are, too - would anyone else like to join me in taking a little time to re-tag blog posts as rereads if you don't use that category already?

Also, I'd love to hear what categories, in general, you find most useful when you're browsing through someone's blog. Do you use them to find particular things? Do you use them in your own blog? Do you go for the fairly general or the very specific when you decide which tags to use? Or don't you ever use them at all? I wonder about these things! :-)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The House of Night

Zoey Redbird is a teenager living in a world in which vampyres coexist with humans, although they stand apart. While most successful actors and musicians are actually vampires, and they are superhumanly beautiful and strong, Zoey is not thrilled when she is suddenly singled out at school and marked with the vampyre's mark of a crescent moon on her forehead. Her friends are completely freaked out, and her mother and stepfather, members of a conservative religious group who find vampyres to be abhorrent, are even more so.

Zoey does not get along with her stepfather, and she sneaks out of the house in order to avoid being waylaid - she knows that she must get to the House of Night - a sort of boarding school for fledgling vampires - quickly, or she may not survive the transformation. But first she must go to the one person she knows will accept her for who she is, fledgling vampyre, or no - her beloved grandmother, who is Native American and lives out in the country. Near her grandmother's house, Zoey has an accident, and a near-death experience that leaves her with the unwelcome knowledge that she has been chosen by the vampypre goddess Nyx for some nebulous reason.

All Zoey knows is that she has some sort of destiny, that she has been singled out when what she really wanted was to be able to fit, unnoticed, into her new life. But sadly, when she arrives at the House of Night, she causes a huge stir. And things there are not what she imagined - just like at her old school, there are petty politics and bullies - except for the fact that when the students are fledgling vampyres, the potential for real harm increases exponentially. Luckily there are true friends to be made at her new school, as well as some potential for romance. If she can survive her first year there, that is...

This was an interesting first book in a YA series, written by a mother/daughter team, and it raised many intriguing questions that have hooked me enough to want to continue to the following book, Betrayed, at some point. I liked Zoey, but I admit I was a bit baffled by how horrified she was about being chosen to be a vampyre. I mean, come on - if all the best and most famous and beautiful people are vampyres, why would she be so upset? Why would her friends be so horrified? Jealous, I'd believe. Combined with the fact that Zoey is in such a powerless situation at home, with her overbearing stepfather and the mother who appears to have abandoned her children to side with her new husband in every matter, I would have thought she'd jump at the chance to be strong and independent, no longer intimidated by anyone. Still, the characters were interesting, as well as the premise. I am curious to see where the next book will take Zoey in her new life at the House of Night.

Books in the House of Night series:

1. Marked
2. Betrayed
3. Chosen
4. Untamed

Marked (#1 in the House of Night series) by P.C Cast and Kristin Cast (St. Martin's Griffin, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
A Bookaholic's Review: "The different spin on the vampire world was fresh, and I’m always looking for something different from the norm."
Un-Mainstream Mom Reads: " I was rooting for Zoey from the very first page, and cannot wait to read the next book in the Casts' wonderful series."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Looking for Alaska

Miles Halter is a quirky teen who has no real friends to speak of, and he has finally managed to convince his parents to send him to boarding school - the same boarding school his father attended. Miles has the rather odd obsession of collecting (and memorizing) the last words of famous people, and one of his favorite quotations is writer Francois Rabelais' final words: "I go to seek a great perhaps." Miles is looking for his "great perhaps" as he takes his step into the unknown world of Culver Creek Boarding School.

Once at school he becomes friends with his roommate, nicknamed "The Colonel," who is equally intelligent and quirky, and the Colonel introduces Miles (soon nicknamed "Pudge" because he is so skinny) to his friend Alaska. Miles immediately falls head over heels for Alaska, even though she is evidently supremely happy with her boyfriend. She is beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic, with a wicked sense of humor - and she is also deeply troubled and impulsive, with wild mood swings.

Miles is soon ensconced in the Culver Creek world of student dramas, friendship, cigarettes, pranks, and the occasional forbidden drinking binge. He is also challenged intellectually and spiritually by his classes, in particular his world religions course, which he finds thought provoking and, perhaps, applicable to his own life. Each section of the book counts down the number of day before an unknown event, an event that looms menacingly in the future, an event the reader can be sure will change Miles's life irrevocably.

It's not difficult to say why I loved this book. First and foremost, Miles's voice pulled me straight in, and as I listened to the audio version, I found Jeff Woodman's voice and interpretation to be just right for Miles, the way he speaks, how he thinks. I also loved that the book was made up of inextricable parts of laughter, thoughtfulness, loss, friendship, passion, and longing. Much like life, particularly during the teen years when all those things are heightened to an almost unbearable extent. I loved the characters, their conversations (which revealed so much about the characters, from what they said as much as from what they didn't say), their relationships with each other. And the prank...let's just say it's beautiful. Priceless. I defy anyone to read that scene without laughing out loud! And even though other parts of the book were painful to listen to, the conclusion left me feeling content and hopeful - and looking forward to reading more books by John Green.

Looking for Alaska by John Green; narrated by Jeff Woodman (Brilliance Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf: "It’s really an outstanding book. I usually feel that the highest praise I can mentally (or in this blog) give a YA book is that it will make kids think. But then I read this book, which made me, a sophisticated adult reader with an actual literature degree, think."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "To anyone who’s ever been a teenager, fallen in love, gone through hard times, crumbled and tried to pick up the pieces, you’ll feel at one with Green’s writing. It’s magic what he does with a pen."
Things Mean a Lot: "Looking for Alaska is about loneliness, friendship, longing, loss, love and life. The writing style is simple, but still full of achingly beautiful passages."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Who watches the watchmen?

Set in the 1980s in an alternate U.S. where Nixon is still president, the Cold War is in full swing, and mutually assured destruction is a button's push away, Watchmen is a gripping, dark tale. One of the teenagers who shelves books at my library loaned me his copy, and I thought I could whip right through it and get it back to him quickly; instead I found myself taking a very long time to read it - it is much denser and more complex than the typical graphic novel. It was originally published in twelve installments back in the 1980s, and as a novel it won the Hugo award for best novel in 1988.

The novel opens with the death of a man, who turns out to have been an aging ex-superhero called the Comedian. Another superhero, a sinister yet compelling figure called Rorshach, suspects there is more to his death than meets the eye. Despite the fact that superheroes have been outlawed, Rorshach has continued to act as a vigilante. He tries to warn the few surviving superheroes that he suspects someone is out to kill those who remain. At first they do not believe him, for he is known to be one of the more paranoid members of their former ranks. But then events indeed appear to corroborate his suspicions, and it seems that something must be done.

The narrative switches from present to past, flitting from character to character, and is supplemented by pages of straight text from various sources that serve to flesh out the back story as well as a very dark story-within-a-story, a tale from a comic book one of the characters is reading. The resulting effect is of a mosaic that comes together, piece by piece, telling a story that is chilling and evocative. I highly recommend reading this if you intend to see the film, which is to be released this coming spring. There is no doubt but that, whether the film is disappointing or delightful, the complicated backstory and character background that the book provides will enhance the movie-going experience.

The book's superheroes are not two-dimensional figures who have the good of mankind first and foremost in their priorities. They are flawed men and women, in some cases psychotically so, and aside from Dr. Manhattan (my favorite of the superheroes, mainly because of the way his unique superhero characteristics are portrayed so perfectly using the comic panels), possess no superhuman abilities. They have a depth and complexity that, if I were not an avid reader of graphic novels, I might have been surprised to see. This is definitely not a book for young children - aside from the many scenes of graphic violence, the bleak and depressing atmosphere and events, it is best appreciated by mature readers who will appreciate its complexity and biting social commentary.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (DC Comics, 1987)

Other blog reviews:
The Book Review: "The characters are what make Watchmen great. There are so many fascinating and deep characters here, and Moore uses them to explore morality on virtually every level."
The Fickle Hand of Fate: "The one most impressive feature is the sheer weight of all the subtle things going on at any given time. From the slowly counting doomsday clock, to the slow wash of blood through every chapter, to the chapter titles that are quotes by anyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein."
Paperback Rider: "The characters are complex (as is the plot), and the story is told in a manner that still seems innovative. There are sequences in ‘Watchmen’ that are absolute masterworks of the combination of text and visual storytelling."
Stainless Steel Droppings: "Its message is both unsettling and hopeful depending on where one places their focus as the events unfold in the final chapter. In short, Watchmen is a very good story and well worth your taking the time to read it, before the film’s release."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An "unjustifiably forgotten" fantasy tale

I'd heard Lud-in-the-Mist mentioned in various blogs in the past year or two, but I had never heard of it before that, despite the fact that it is apparently a seminal work of fantasy literature. It sounded intriguing. Then it was mentioned in glowing terms in a short story I read by Neil Gaiman a few months ago, and it seemed like one of those hints from providence that I should probably give it a try. So I put it on hold at my library.

When it arrived, I found that there was an enticing endorsement by Neil Gaiman on the cover: "The single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century." Writer Michael Swanwick writes, "Lud-in-the-Mist is simultaneously one of the least known and most influential of modern fantasies. It is an underground classic among fantasists, many of whom list it among their favorite books." Now, there is the sort of praise that tends to heighten one's expectations just a bit.

The story is about a city called Lud-in-the-Mist, which is the capital of the kingdom of Dorimare. The city is not too far from the borders of Fairyland, but a sort of schism has developed between the folk of Lud-in-the-Mist and those in Fairyland, despite a long shared history. The word "fairy" is hardly to be spoken in Dorimare - it has become an offensive word, and the rejection of all things fairy has been written into the laws in such a way so as to be nearly ridiculous, as if refusing to admit the existence of a thing will cause it to cease to be.

Nathaniel Chanticleer is our hero, and he is not a typical hero at that: he is middle aged, stubborn, short-sighted, self-involved, and a bit pompous. But he has a good heart, and it is that that enables him to overcome his shortcomings and undertake to do what must be done, even when it goes against all he has ever been taught, and all that society approves of. As the story unfolds, we see a land that is out of balance, and as that balance tips further and further from equilibrium, all kinds of strange and upsetting things happen. Nathaniel's daughter, along with the other girls at her finishing school, begin acting strangely and, one day, they simply disappear. His son, it seems, as been tricked into eating forbidden fairy fruit, and now longs for unseen, unheard things. Someone is smuggling fairy fruit into Lud-in-the-Mist, and, whatever odd things are occurring, the mysterious but well-respected Dr. Endymion Leer seems always to be nearby.

The story unfolds like a puzzle box, and nothing, it appears, is exactly what it seems. Fairyland is alternately a menacing presence and a mystical, appealing one. The "rational" land of Dorimare is alternately a place of dreary, meaningless routine and a safe world in which all is as it should be. Which is right? Which is true? Where, in fact, do the greatest dangers lie? The reader takes a journey along with Nathaniel and other colorful characters down a twisting and turning path of discovery.

Hope Mirrlees has a deft hand with imagery, and her writing was a delight. I loved the place names (the Debatable Hills, Swan-on-the Dapple) and the character names (Moonlove, Mumchance, Polydore). Her description of Nathaniel, for example, gives so much with just a few words:

Master Nathaniel Chanticleer, the actual head of the family, was a typical Dorimarite in appearance: rotund, rubicund, red-haired, with hazel eyes in which the jokes, before he uttered them, twinkled like a trout in a burn.

I enjoyed the novel very much, but at the same time I never felt that full sense of being completely immersed in the story, of being intimately connected to the characters and events. This seems to happen, with me, anyway, when a story is more about an idea that is being played out by the characters, rather than a story that stems from the very beings of the characters themselves. What also served to distance me a bit from the story was the fact that Nathaniel, when his daughter goes missing, is a bit upset. But then when his son disappears, he is so distraught and moves heaven and earth to get him back. It made me lose a bit of sympathy for him, there!

I read on more from intellectual curiosity than from a visceral sense of connection to the story - and that's fine. I think that it was the huge build-up to the anticipated storytelling experience that made me feeling a wee bit let down. Still, I'm very glad to have read the novel. Its palpable atmosphere of mystery is sure to stay with me, and it is easy to see why it has influenced so many writers over the years.

Lud-in-the Mist by Hope Mirrlees (Cold Spring Press, 2005; originally published in 1926)

Also reviewed at:
Framed and Booked: "This is not an easy, lighthearted fantasy. It takes some time and thought to really get into the story. As one who likes to breeze through books, I will probably have to read this one several times in order to enjoy all the layers."
Jenny's Books: "...
the book itself is delightful – it’s funny in places and haunting in places, and Hope Mirlees has an excellent turn of phrase."
Quixotical: "It is truly one of the finest works of fantasy I have had the pleasure of reading. The descriptive prose swiftly transports the reader into a classic (and very English) fantasy world full of wit and aphorisms that I for one am powerless to resist."
Things Mean a Lot: "I found it funny and mysterious and frightening just in the right amount, and, on top of that, it’s beautifully and very elegantly written."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Divided in Death

This series, written under a pseudonym by Nora Roberts, has been regular reading fodder of mine for years. It's odd that I have yet to complete it, even though I've been reading it for such a long time. Mainly that's because these books are a dependable, gripping read, something I know will not only be absorbing and compelling, but also because revisiting the characters is like stopping by for a visit with old friends, to catch up on their lives. So I wait until I'm facing a long plane ride or going though a difficult time where I will benefit from a comprehensive break from reality.

While the books are set in a futuristic version of New York, I would not classify these as science fiction - they are really fun police procedural murder mysteries that typically focus on the psychological aspects of murder and violence, with a dash of romance for a bit of leavening. The "science fictional" trappings make the series fun and a bit different, but lend more to the atmosphere and are not an intrinsic part of the books. The mysteries tend to be character driven - my favorite kind - and events in the personal lives of the characters become wrapped up in the investigation, which tends to heighten the tension of the novels.

As with any series, some books are more successful than others, and I found myself enjoying this one very much. The book opens with an angry woman who has just discovered her husband has been cheating on her (with her good friend, no less), and goes to her friend's apartment to confront them. She breaks in, only to find that her husband and friend have been brutally murdered. It turns out that the woman, a former member of the Secret Service, now works for Roarke, Eve's husband. Eve is called into the investigation, which soon reveals itself to be much more than a domestic dispute.

At the same time, information about Eve's troubled past surfaces, and the ramifications pose a serious threat to the equilibrium of her relationship with Roarke. The more Eve uncovers the disturbing details surrounding the marriage of the murder victim, the more she finds herself examining her own marriage, her role in it, and its future. Eve is a compelling character, a very strong woman who regularly faces down the demons from her past in order to protect others, and her job as a police investigator is very much a part of who she is. Roarke has demons of his own, and he has dealt with them in a very different way; yet, until now, their marriage has managed to withstand certain differences of opinion. However, there are issues in which compromise is simply not an option.

This book was particularly successful because of the way in which the author seamlessly weaves together the personal storyline with the murder investigation, creating a gripping read that also gives the reader plenty of food for thought. Robb also has a deft hand with humor, and just when the book seems overwhelmingly dark, something happens to give it a lift. Eve, for example, has no problem facing down rampaging lunatics and cold-blooded serial killers. But send her into a salon for a facial or haircut, and she's already sneaking out the back door. It is surprising to me that I have yet to tire of this series, given how very many books have been written. This is no doubt due to the author's ability to create intriguing murder mysteries, but is also a testament to her skillful creation of the characters, who possess a wonderful amount of depth and detail, always leaving me curious to hear more about their lives.

Divided in Death (#18 in the Eve Dallas series) by J.D. Robb (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004)

Books in the Eve Dallas series:

1. Naked in Death
2. Glory in Death
3. Immortal in Death
4. Rapture in Death
5. Ceremony in Death
6. Vengeance in Death
7. Holiday in Death
8. Conspiracy in Death
9. Loyalty in Death
10. Witness in Death
11. Judgment in Death
12. Betrayal in Death
13. Seduction in Death
14. Reunion in Death
15. Purity
in Death
16. Portrait
in Death
17. Imitation
in Death
18. Divided
in Death
19. Visions in Death
20. Survivor
in Death
21. Origin in Death
22. Memory in Death
23. Born in Death
24. Innocent in Death
25. Creation in Death
26. Strangers in Death
26. Salvation in Death

Monday, December 15, 2008

Witches, wicked as they come

I started reaidng this book to my girls in October for our second Halloween read, after Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, and it was well received (although the 9-year-old seemed to like it more than the 7-year-old). It is a darkly comic tale about a little boy whose parents die, and his beloved Norwegian grandmother becomes his guardian. While he'd much prefer to live in Norway with her, his parents had made it clear that they wished him to attend school in England, and so his grandmother moves there to live with him. He doesn't mind school, but he loves spending time with his grandmother, who tells him all kinds of strange and interesting stories, particularly about what seems to be her favorite topic: witches. And these are not storybook witches, either - they are real, dangerous creatures masquerading as nice women. They abhor children, and in fact their sole purpose in life appears to be doing away with as many children as they possibly can.

The first part of the book is rather episodic and consists of his grandmother's stories about how to identify a witch (which it is nearly impossible to do with certainty), and darkly humorous cautionary tales about what happened to ignorant children who met up with witches and did not realize it until it was too late. The boy isn't quite sure whether or not his grandmother is really telling the truth, but she does have a finger missing on one hand, and although she refuses to talk about it, he suspects it might have had something to do with a witch.

The story really takes off when he and his grandmother stay at a seaside resort, and he stumbles onto a meeting of what appear to be nice women from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - but he learns to his astonishment and horror that they are actually witches assembled for their annual meeting with the head witch of all the witches in the world, the most horrible, wicked, evil witch ever: the Grand High Witch! Not only that, but he overhears their dastardly plot to rid England of every last child in one fell swoop.

This book is often challenged in libraries because it is dark and a bit disturbing, but it is also funny as well - that is a combination that seems to baffle and upset some adult readers. But I'd venture to say it wouldn't bother too many children. After all, aren't they always being told cautionary tales about people who act nice and look nice but really are out to harm them in some nebulous, unexplained way? At least here the villains are clear, and while bad things indeed happen, there is a definite sense that the strength derived from the loving relationship between the boy and his grandmother is something not even a legion of wicked witches will be able to withstand. And that, I think, is a comforting notion.

This made for a great read-aloud, and Quentin Blake's whimsical illustrations were a perfect complement to the text, the cartoonish images serving to remind the reader that it is, after all, a story not to be taken too seriously. We had a wonderful time wrapping up our Halloween season (which extended well into November with this read) with this exciting, funny novel.

I saw the film with Anjelica Huston years ago, and enjoyed it (although I thought it was a shame that they changed the ending that way) - and I just learned that there is a new stop-motion animation version of the film in the works, which will certainly be something to look forward to. In the meantime, I'll watch the first version with my girls and see what they think of it.

The Witches by Roald Dahl (Farrar, 1983)

Also reviewed at:
Maw Books Blog: "The Witches was a fun read that I look forward to reading with my kids when they are older."
The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog: "An amazing book- as the judges of the Whitbread Award were rumored to have described it as “deliciously disgusting,” and most decidedly dark as well. "
Nothing of Importance: "I honestly can't tell you how much I enjoyed this book. It was a pure delight, but definitely not a delight of the sugar-coated variety."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A haunting, gothic tale within a tale

I had heard many, many good things about this book at the library where I work, as well as from friends and acquaintances. But it wasn't until I read some of the reviews listed below that I finally decided to take the plunge. As a children's librarian, I simply don't read that many books for adults - mainly because there isn't much time, if I'm attempting to keep up with all the books being published for young readers, but also because I have such a towering pile of books from my favorite writers of adult books already.

But sometimes you need to give a book a chance, and between Valentina's, Chris's, Nymeth's and Ladytink's reviews, I was intrigued. I decided on a whim to listen to the audio version of this one, and I was so glad I did. It seems meant to be read aloud, as it is composed of stories within stories, and, as there are two readers, the narration truly brings the story to life.

The basic premise is this: Margaret Lea is a lonely young woman who lives in an apartment above her father's used book store. She is haunted by a ghost from her past, the surrounding events of which slowly unfold throughout the course of the novel. She writes biographies of obscure, dead writers (the only writers whose work she reads), biographies that are published in obscure publications. So she is dumbfounded when the celebrated writer Vida Winter, a woman known as Dickens of modern day of British literature, contacts her, requesting that Margaret write her biography. Margaret is understandably reluctant to do so, as it is well known that Vida Winter has never told her life true story to anyone, always making up fantastical and wonderful stories that are patently false. In fact, Margaret travels to Vida Winter's house determined to refuse her request.

But still...there is something about the woman, about the way she asks Margaret, "Do you believe in ghosts?" The way she is clearly in terrible pain from the illness that is slowly but surely ending her life, that makes Margaret waver in her resolve. Soon she is being told a story to end all stories, a ghost story, a story of a strange pair twins growing up in a rambling old house full of dark secrets and deep silence and, perhaps, ghosts. The story ensnares Margaret's imagination, and before long it relentlessly starts calling to the the ghosts from her own past, forcing her to face things she thought she'd successfully buried years ago...

This audio book was 13 discs long, and even so, I became more and more concerned as the book wore on to its inevitable conclusion - I enjoyed the telling so very much, I simply didn't want it to end! I loved the Gothic feel of the novel, the complex plot with its twists and turns, the unforgettable characters, the drafty old house that was nearly a character in and of itself, the unreliable narrator that made me rethink things constantly, trying to sort out the truth from the misleading red herrings. This is a story in which not is all as it seems, even the events as they are presented.

My only issue with the book, which is an admittedly minor gripe, is the following, and if you've read the book, I'd love your input. It is a major spoiler, so be forewarned and highlight the following text at your own peril! At the end of Vida's tale, when she describes the aftermath of the fire, it seems to me that she would immediately have known which of the sisters was which, based on the clothing they were wearing. One was in bed, after all, and would probably have been wearing a nightgown or pajamas or something, right? And the other, who she'd been watching down in the library, would have been dressed in something else, I imagine. I thought so, anyway, and that made the subsequent ambiguity less believable to me.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and I particularly recommend the audio version. The narrators did a wonderful job, their voices combining with Setterfield's vivid imagery to paint unforgettable pictures in my mind. This will be on my list of favorite novels read this year.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; narrated by Bianca Amato and Jill Tanner (Recorded Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "This book is supurbley written. It haunted me as much as the story Vida Winter told Margaret Lea within its pages."
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog: "Diane Setterfield will keep you guessing, make you wonder, move you to tears and laughter and, in the end, deposit you breathless yet satisfied back upon the shore of your everyday life."
Reading Adventures: "Populated with a cast of lonely characters searching for their own truths, this book is an amazing read, and well worth picking up!"
Stainless Steel Droppings: "I have cherished the reading of this book over the last week. All other books were set aside. When I wasn’t reading The Thirteenth Tale, I was thinking about it, remembering it."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "There are so many things that I loved about this book. The characters are wonderful. Vida Winter is someone that I wish truly existed just so that I could sit in her library in front of her fireplace and listen to her tell me her stories."
Things Mean a Lot: "I recognized Vida Winter’s story as soon as she begun to tell it. And no, I didn’t know how it all was going to turn out, but I was instantly reminded of Jane Eyre, of Rebecca, of Tideland, of “A Rose for Emily”, of every novel or story I’ve ever read with a classic Gothic feel, old or new."
Valentina's Room: "It is indeed a book about books, but not only. It’s a Gothic mystery, an incredible page-turner and simply a well-crafted story. Read it."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Yotsuba&!, Volume 2

In this second volume of the very funny and sweet manga series, the little green-haired Yotsuba is back, starring in stories just as hilarious and touching as in the first book. I have to sheepishly admit that the "&!" at the end of the title completely baffled me until my nine-year-old pointed out the (now obvious) fact that each book is divided into sections, and each section is labeled: "Yotsuba & ____!" Duh.

This volume sees Yotsuba trying her hand at drawing ("Yotsuba & Drawing!", playing a delightful trick on her father while he's asleep ("Yotsuba & No Bother!"), and showing off her surprising swimming skills at the pool ("Yotsuba & Pools!"), among other things. It is hard to describe how endearing she is, and how wonderfully Azuma depicts the relationship between Yotsuba and her father - as well as her friendship with the next-door neighbors. I haven't laughed so much reading comics since the days of and The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. I love the way these volumes are structured, with the various episodic stories coming together to form the larger whole of each book.

This manga series would be an excellent choice for younger children who love graphic novels but who aren't yet ready for more mature themes and plotlines of most manga series (at least most of the ones at my library), which seem to be geared more toward teens and adults. Yet the characterization and humor are sophisticated enough to be appreciated by readers of any age.

This book counts as my first manga read for Rhinoa's Manga Challenge. If you're thinking of joining the challenge and don't know where to start, try this series. It is sure to make you laugh!

Books reviewed in the Yotsuba&! series so far:
Volume 1

Yotsuba&!, Volume 2 by Kiyohiko Azuma (ADV Manga, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Warren Peace: "I must be turning into a softie in my old, old age (29), because I, like the rest of the internet, have fallen head over heels for this cute little girl and her gang of followers. Whodathunkit?"

B&OT review of Yotsuba&! Vol. 1

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Meredith Gentry returns

This seventh installment in the Meredith Gentry series keeps up the same fast and frenetic pace as its predecessors. I will do my best to review without major spoilers to the series, but be forewarned that this series really must be read in order, or the books will make very little sense.

The basic premise is that the presence of faeries is an acknowledged fact to the rest of the world, and that those in America made a binding agreement with the founders of the U.S. never to wage war on American soil - or they will be banished. Meredith is half human, half faerie, and she is a faerie princess of the Unseelie (or dark) court. Dark, we learn quickly from the beginning of the series, does not mean evil; nor does the light, or Seelie court, mean good. They are different, but good and evil exist in both courts, as is repeatedly and graphically illustrated. The Seelie court, as it is more aesthetically pleasing (on the outside, anyway), has better PR with the media - but Meredith is slowly changing the public's perceptions on that score.

Meredith has been put in the unenviable position of trying to get pregnant before her insane cousin, the current queen's son, can sire a child. Whoever does so first will become the next ruler of the Unseelie court. Unfortunately her cousin has no intention of playing fair, and asssassinatin attmempts and underhanded behavior are the norm. This novel continues the story, launching Meredith into dire situations, heartbreaking and breathtaking and mystical situations, forcing her to make nearly impossible decisions for herself, her future children - not to mention the future of her two races.

I am always amazed and delighted by Hamilton's ability to weave an enchanting, gripping tale, and this seventh book in the series is certainly no exception. There is no other author who consistently has me up way past my intended bedtime, as I think, "Oh, I'll just read to the end of this scene, and then I'll stop." She somehow has these overlapping narrative arcs going on so that as once scene ends, another has already begun, and I just keep turning those pages. Even when I'm rereading one of her books! It's infuriating - and delightful.

Books in the Meredith Gentry series:
1. A Kiss of Shadows
2. A Caress of Twilight
3. Seduced by Moonlight

4. A Stroke of Midnight

5. Mistral's Kiss
6. A Lick of Frost
7. Swallowing Darkness
8. Divine Misdemeanors

Swallowing Darkness (#7 in the Meredith Gentry series) by Laurell K. Hamilton (Ballantine Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
All Booked Up: "I know I'm waiting for the next book quite eagerly..."
Darque Reviews: " Fans will be thrilled with the magical surprises shared by faerie, and stunned by the shocking end to this installment."
SciFiGuy: "Swallowing Darkness is one of the strongest installments of the Meredith Gentry series and fans of Laurell K. Hamilton will not be disappointed."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Dewey

I felt incredibly bereft when I returned from vacation to find that my fellow book-blogger, the friendly and enterprising Dewey of The Hidden Side of a Leaf, had passed away. Dewey has been a presence in this amazing book-blogging community as long as I've been blogging. Her insightful and often funny blog was a place I loved to stop by, and her friendly comments to my posts were always very welcome.

I loved her Weekly Geeks and the many other wonderful things she did to get us thinking and writing and working together. She once stopped by my blog, saying she liked the way I added links to other bloggers' book reviews at the end of my reviews, and she wondered if I'd mind if she made doing that a Weekly Geeks "assignment" for those who wanted to join in. Mind? I was thrilled!

One of the things that I love about blogging is the way we get to bring forward a particular side of ourselves to highlight, and keep hidden whatever other aspects of ourselves we wish. Of course there are other things going on in my blogging-buddies' lives besides the books they're reading and reviewing and thinking about buying, and I don't know why I was so astonished to discover that Dewey had been so very ill and in so very much pain. I'm glad that our community was there as an outlet for her (heaven knows it's an outlet for me!) and I admire how strong and cheerful she was, as well as her commitment to the things she felt were important. The thought of all those piles of unread books in her house gives me a pang whenever I think about it. I will miss her very much.

The above image is a painting by Tamara Berk called "Dawn," and is used with her permission. Other beautiful paintings by Tamara Berk can be seen here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Chalice

Robin McKinley is a masterful storyteller. She is on my list of authors whose books I read as soon as they are published - I never even bother reading the reviews or even the cover flap - I just flip to the first page, full of anticipation, and start reading. And I'm never disappointed.

This YA fantasy novel is set in a fictional country in which the rulers and their circle are connected to the land in a concrete, visceral way - particularly the person who is known as the Chalice. Our heroine, Mirasol, is a beekeeper who suddenly finds herself thrust into the position as Willowlands' new Chalice after a fatal accident befalls the previous Master and Chalice. She is woefully unprepared. The previous chalice had no apprentice, and neither did the Master. She feels inadequate and ignorant, yet she somehow manages to rise to the occasion as crises present themselves.

Matters are complicated by the new Master, the previous Master's younger brother, who was sent away seven years earlier to become a Priest of Fire. Now he is barely human, and his own circle as well as the inhabitants of Willowlands find him a fearsome figure, and are unwilling to put their trust in him. Yet Mirasol, wiser than she realizes, senses in him a kind heart that, given time, might enable them to heal the land. However, the Overlord has other plans, and the apprentice Master he sends is someone she can barely stand, and she fears the land will not survive such a Master. But what is a simple beekeeper to do?

I loved the way McKinley simply throws the reader into the story - it might be confusing to those readers who must have everything explained to them immediately. But for me, as the facts and strange customes of Willowlands slowly unfolded themselves to my understanding, it echoed the confusion of Mirasol as she is thrust into such a complex, overwhelming situation. As always, the characters shine, the plot is a joy to follow, and the imagery is vivid. My only problem with the book was that it ended too soon. McKinley always keeps me wanting more. I hope she'll return to this fascinating world in future books.

Chalice by Robin McKinley (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008)

Other reviews:
Em's Bookshelf: "This is the first Robin McKinley book that I've read and I loved it. With its magical elements and its down-to-earth heroine, Chalice is one of the best fairy tales I've read this year."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Manga Challenge!

Not that I need an excuse to read more manga, but who could resist Rhinoa's Manga Challenge? It sounds like a lot of fun. The rules are:

Read at least 6 manga novels in 2009 (cross overs with other challenges are fine and please feel free to read more!).
Sign up at her blog with Mister Linky.
She will put up a post each month with a Mister Linky for us to add our reviews to.
You do not need to set a list of books to read in advance, just fill them in as you go if it's easier.

I love reading manga - my main challenge is finding the time to write reviews, since they are such quick reads. I think I will not make up a list at this point, and just read what appeals to me as I go along.

Thanks for hosting this fun challenge, Rhinoa!

I will list my books on the sidebar as I go along, and then I'll do a wrap-up post at the end of the challenge. It's not too late to join in!

Becoming a true princess

"The Goose Girl" was always one of my favorite stories in my Grimm's fairy tale collection when I was growing up. I'm not sure why - it may have been because I'd never heard of it anywhere else or seen it as a movie (like "Cinderella" and "Snow White.) It was also so very odd, with the horse's head hung over the bridge, which I found both fascinating and horrible. What can I say? It appears my taste for dark fantasy was forming even back then.

The first time I read this, I was excited to see how Hale would explain all the things that I'd always wondered about when I read the fairy tale. How did the princess allow her lady's maid to take her place so easily? And what about that poor horse? Even though I knew how the story would end, Shannon Hale's retelling was a riveting read all the same, with a depth of character not found in traditional fairy tales and plenty of twists and turns and deft world-building.

The story is about Ani, a princess who lives in the shadow of her vibrant, successful mother. Ani is different from the day she is born, with odd abilities that are unsettling to those around her (except her father). Instead of inheriting the throne, as she expects, she suddenly finds herself sent on a long journey to marry a prince of another kingdom in order to maintain peace. Ani's serious issues with self-confidence land her in a spot when she finds herself betrayed, on the run, in fear for her life, and subsequently trying to live what others would call a normal life after having been waited on hand and foot since she was a baby. While she at times tried my patience with her timidity and self-doubt, Ani does rise to the challenge, discovering things about herself - and the responsibility of being a princess - that she never would have without facing such difficult trials.

There are now several books in the Bayern series, and finding my memory of this one to have faded a bit, I thought I'd listen to the audio version before continuing on with the series. I was delighted to find it is a Full Cast Audio production. These are fabulous interpretations of children's books, with each character's dialog spoken by a different actor, and a single narrator reading the rest of the book. They do a wonderful job! I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this exciting novel, and I'm looking forward to reading the second in the series.

The Goose Girl (#1 in the Bayern series) by Shannon Hale (Full Cast Audio, 2005)

Books in The Goose Girl series:
1. The Goose Girl
2. Enna Burning
3. River Secrets

Other reviews:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "
Overall, I thought it was a nice story, although a little longer than it warranted and without any twist or hook to really grab my attention."
Love and Hate: "Shannon Hale's writing is beautiful. Her descriptions are beautiful. The story is beautiful. The goose girl and her yellow hair are beautiful. I love everything about the book."
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "There were lots of twists and turns and the story telling was beautifully woven."
Things Mean a Lot: "I don’t think I have been this completely enchanted by a book since I read Stardust for the first time."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Dragonfly Pool

I am always delighted Eva Ibbotson publishes a new novel, so I checked this one out of the library as soon as I saw it. The story is set in England in 1939 and features a young girl named Tally. We are first introduced to Tally through the eyes and thoughts of other characters - it seems they've all heard that she is to go away to boarding school, and they are all very upset about how much they will miss her. From her own father and the aunties she lives with to Tally's elderly neighbor whose dog she walks, to her childhood friends - all are devastated by the prospect of her absence. But because they love her and realize that the scholarship to a private boarding school is a precious opportunity for her, they do their best to put on a cheerful and supportive front.

Tally herself is extremely reluctant to leave. Who will take care of her father? He is a doctor, and instead of working for wealthy clients and living in the nice part of down, like his brother, he lives in a modest home and does his best for working class clients, only charging what they can afford. But Tally agrees to go, because her father insists that it is truly the best thing for her. And she expects to hate it, especially after hearing all about her wealthy cousins' boarding schools - but it turns out that Delderton, an experimental school, is precisely the place where Tally can thrive - emotionally, intellectually, and socially.

A school trip to perform folk dancing in the small country of Bergania - a country that has thus far stood up to Hitler, refusing to allow his troops to enter - takes Tally and her friends on an unforgettable adventure. Here we are introduced to Karil, the crown prince of Bergania, a sad, lonely boy who longs to connect with someone. Tallys' chance meeting with Karil sparks a chain of events that takes her down a path of danger and discovery, in a riveting tale of friendship, bravery, loss, and redemption.

The story is delightful, not only for the characters and the plot, but because of the wonderful storytelling itself. For example, as Tally is leaving for school on the train, Ibbotson writes:

People don't die from getting into school trains and Tally, as she leaned out the window to wave, stayed incurably alive, but as she saw her father and the aunts standing very upright on the plaform she felt a sense of desolation such as she had never known.

One of my favorite characters is Pom-Pom, the dog:

Prince Dmitri's mother, the old Princess Natalia, brought a small, low-slung dog with a topknot and an ancient pedigree. Pom-Pom was descended from a long line of Outer Mongolian pedestal (or snuggle)
dogs, which had been bred to warm the feet of the Great Khans in their drafty palaces and now wheezed through the corridors of Rottingdene House, seeking the dark, familiar world of legs and shoes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this YA book, with its combination of fairytale and historical novel with a dash of alternate reality thrown in. The characters are charming and complex and utterly believable, and I closed the book feeling I'd spent a delightful time with some very dear friends. I highly recommend this one!

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson (Dutton Children's Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Pictures and Conversations: "Whenever I talk about Eva Ibbotson’s writing I almost forget to mention that she writes cracking stories filled with believable characters. She does, of course. But I might read her books even if they didn’t have great plots just for the joy of living in her sublime language for a while."
Welcome to My Tweendom: "Fans of Ibbotson should love this, as should fans of Creech, Birdsall, and even Cushman. With strong boy and girl characters and a fast moving story, the appeal crosses gender lines as well. A perfect choice for the tweensters during this season of gift-giving!"