Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A magical story collection

This is a collection of stories that were almost all previously published between 1986 and 2001, featuring young protagonists who are lost in one way or another. The themes and subject matter common to de Lint's novels are all present here: magic in urban settings, the power of music and art, hidden doorways into other worlds, and beings from mythology, faerie and folktales brought to life.

Some of the stories are set in Newford, a fictional city where many of de Lint's stories and novels take place, and feature characters from previously published works. I particularly enjoyed the author's introduction to each of the stories - he tells a bit about the history of Newford and how it came to be, which I found to be particularly fascinating because Newford is one of my favorite fictional settings. Other tales are set in other cities and countries and deal with things - like vampires and trows - that are not typically found in Newford.

I am not an avid reader of short stories, mainly because they either don't give me enough (I want more of the story, more about the characters - and it frustrates me when it ends too soon), of because there isn't enough there to pull me in - it's more about an idea or concept, and that kind of story tends not to be as appealing to me. That is a sweeping generalization, of course - I love the short stories of Poe and Lovecraft and George MacDonald, among others - I just don't tend to pick them up as often as a nice, meaty novel that I can live in for a few days.

De Lint's collections, because they are often woven of the lives of favorite characters and familiar places, have the feel of a novel to me, in the sense that the stories and characters are interconnected . I like that! For example, the story "Somewhere in My Mind There is a Painting Box" is about Lily, a teenager living in the Appalachian mountains who loves painting and drawing. She discovers a rusty old box of paints in the woods one day, and the name on the box is the name of a famous painter who had disappeared in the woods twenty years earlier. Lily stumbles upon the mystery of what happened to him, which opens a door of possibilities that result in a difficult choice for her, an important decision that will affect the rest of her life. This is the very same Lily from the children's book A Circle of Cats, which tells a story about her when she was a young girl - and it is the same Lily from de Lint's novella for adults, Seven Wild Sisters. Each of the works stands along, but it gains a bit more depth when read in conjunction with the others.

Friends often ask me which book of de Lint's they should start with, and while I'm a total stickler about reading books in order, I'm at a bit of a loss with this particular author. The first book of his that I read was The Little Country, which is unrelated to Newford and worked great for me. But it really does work to start just about anywhere, because of the way he moves back in forth in time and from character to character. I'd say to wait a bit on Onion Girl and Widdershins (and read those two in that order), and that the short story collections are a great place to start.

De Lint is one of my favorite authors because his themes and characters resonate so well with my own beliefs and the things that fascinate me. I love the way the mythological is brought to life and the magical and ordinary exist side by side for those who keep their eyes and hearts open. De Lint's fictional worlds are among my very favorites to visit and revisit.

This is the penultimate book for Carl's Once Upon a Time II reading challenge. Stop by the review site to see a whole list of reviews about the fantastical and mythological that other

Waifs and Strays by Charles de Lint (Viking, 2002)

Also reviewed at:
Not Really a Pixie Girl
Opinions of a Reformed Dropout
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Things Mean a Lot

B&OT reviews of other works by de Lint:
A Circle of Cats
Little (Grrl) LOST
Widdershins
Wolf Moon

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A ship that comes alive at night

Fourteen-year-old twins Connor and Grace live with their father in the lighthouse of a seaside town in the year 2505. The twins have never known their mother, and despite Grace's keen intelligence and Connor's skill at sports, the two children have never quite managed to fit in with the other townspeople. They do feel at home in the lighthouse, with their father, though. So when he dies, leaving behind nothing but debts, the twins' world shatters.

In the days following the funeral, the twins stick together. They comfort themselves with happy memories of their father, and with the knowledge that at least they still have each other. Sometimes they sing an old sea shanty about Vampirates, a song their father used to sing to comfort them - even though it's about terrifying vampire pirates, it reminds them that things could be much, much worse.

Penniless, they have two choices: to live with the rich bank manager and his wife, who are childless - and who would treat them like pets, dress-up dolls to order about and control as they wished - or the orphanage. The twins determine on a third choice - they sneak aboard their old boat - which is no longer theirs - and sail away from town. They intend to sail up the coast and find work, but when their ship is capsized by a sudden storm, Connor and Grace fall overboard and nearly drown.

Connor is rescued by a passing pirate ship, and Grace is rescued by a ship of another kind altogether - although she does not realize it at first. Connor is treated well by the pirates on his ship, but they think his stubborn belief that his sister is alive - that he, in fact, caught a glimpse of a legendary vampirate ship and must rescue her as soon as possible, is a result of a hallucination. Grace is frantic that her brother has died, but finds herself locked in a room on a very strange ship, and is determined to discover the truth of her situation.

Grace and Connor are brave and resourceful, and their concern for each other is the motivation behind all their decisions. Connor's willingness to believe in the unbelievable enables him to move on after so many horrible things have befallen him. Grace's willingness to see beyond the surface appearance of things enables her to make the best of a terrifying situation. This is a promising beginning to an exciting series; it has a satisfying conclusion yet leaves a few strands nicely unraveled so readers will be anxious to read about the twins' further adventures.

I listened to this book on CD, and it was a very good read-aloud. Daniel Philpot did a great job creating a creepy atmosphere and giving characters their own voices. I particularly enjoyed the sea shanty he sang - I would have had to make up my own tune had I read the book. As it is I've had the song stuck in my head for the past few days! I'll tell you a tale of Vampirates, a tale as old as true...

Books in the Vampirates series:
1. Demons of the Ocean
2. Tide of Terror
3. Blood Captain

Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean
(#1 in the Vampirates series) by Justin Somper; narrated by Daniel Philpott (Recorded Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Book Trail
Sand's 2007 Reads
Shout Out!
The Reading Tub

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The most popular book in the classroom

It's the beginning of a new school year. Ms. Wurtz has put a blank notebook in the writing center of the classroom, but she hasn't told any of the students about it. Inside she's written a note telling the kids that the notebook is for them to write in, if they want, during Center Time. They can write about whatever they wish, and they should leave it for other kids to write in, too. She wants them to "talk" to each other in the pages - and they won't be graded on what they write.

There are only two rules:
1. Have fun.
2. Sign your name, so everyone knows who you are.

The first student to find the book is Lizzy. She's very excited and says she hopes that only the girls find it. Her entry is decorated with sweet drawings of hearts and clouds. Her best friend Yoshiko discovers the book next (after a hint about the notebook from Lizzy), and she is excited too, and illustrates her entry with a cute self-portrait.

Then things get interesting. A boy named Luke discovers the notebook and writes: Howdy, My name is Luke. It rhymes with puke. Accompanying this text is a graphic cartoon drawing of a boy throwing up. Lizzy retorts in the following entry: Luke, this is supposed to be a nice book. Nobody wants to see pictures of you barfing in it.

The situation escalates, with Luke writing hilarious - but insulting - stories about the girls, the other boys laughing and egging him on, and the girls retaliating in their own "sweet" way. Ms. Wurtz finally says she'll take the notebook away if they can't figure out a way to get along. The notebook has become a fun, creative outlet for all of them, but when each child in the class has a different idea of how the book should be used - and writes up different sets of rules, it looks like finding a way to get along will be an impossible task.

I enjoyed the humorous interplay among the students in the class, the whimsical illustrations and the creative way in which the children manage to approach their problem. While the kids are a bit stereotypical (there is the brainy boy who sticks to the facts and draws pictures of Mars rovers, the horse-crazy girl, etc.), they represent an interesting cross-section of the class, and their differences make the story interesting. This book would be especially appealing to kids who tend to be intimidated by longer books with small print uninterrupted blocks of text. Each child's entry is in a different font style, and there are very funny illustrations on every page. After just a few pages it is easy to tell which character is writing, both by the font style and the unique voice.

I bought this book for my seven-year-old during spring break, and she enjoyed it very much. I'm also going to recommend it to my nine-year-old - she loves this kind of humor, too. This book is a recommended summer reading pick at my library - and also counts as book 4 of ten in Molly's Personal Reading Challenge.

Please Write in This Book by Mary Amato; illustrated by Eric Brace (Holiday House, 2006)

Friday, April 25, 2008

There is no coincidence - only "hitsuzen"

This 11th volume of my favorite manga series is the narrative equivalent of a gathering of storm clouds. Many things are set into motion here, and there is a sense that they will be played out in future volumes. Yuko, the space-time witch who runs the magic shop where Watanuki works, often says, "There is no such thing as coincidence in this world. There is only hitsuzen." Hitsuzen means fate, something that is bound to happen. There are many meetings and events in this book that appear to happen for an unknown, mysterious purpose.

Watanuki is healed from the accident that befell him in the last volume. Even though he learned that Himawari causes accidents and bad things to happen to the people she cares about, he still loves her and refuses to give her up. It doesn't seem that things can be too hopeful for the two of them. Watanuki is still amusingly infuriated by his friend Domeki, but it is also becoming evident that he truly does respect and care for him (in his own ridiculous way).

Part of the storyline is the development of these relationships, and part of it centers on a young girl who comes into the store for help. She keeps hearing frightening noises in her house and begs Yuki for a way to make the house less terrifying - with unexpected results.

This manga series "crosses over" with another series by the same authors called Tsubasa. I read the first one long ago, but I haven't had a chance to get back to it since then. Each volume of xxxHOLIC mentions the connection between the two series, but also states that it is not necessary to read one to understand the other. But for the first time I felt that wasn't the case. Something is happening in the world in which Tsubasa takes place, and it is affecting Yuki and the magic shop, and it is definitely something that is potentially dangerous to both worlds. This is the first time I remember seeing Yuko seriously worried about something, which makes me wonder what is going on. I think I will start reading Tsubasa to see if I can find some clues while I wait to see what happens in this series.

I enjoy this series very much because of the unusual, likable characters, the engaging mix of humor and dark fantasy, and the fact that it is never predictable. I am looking forward to seeing how these events play out in future volumes - and I hope the series won't conclude too quickly, because the journey is so much fun.

xxxHOLIC, Vol 11 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Deep Thoughts
Kuriousity

See also B&OT reviews of:
xxxHOLIC, vol 9
xxxHOLIC, vol 10

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anita Blake, vampire hunter

I don't know why it took me so long to check out the graphic novel version of Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series. Sometimes, I guess, I have such strong images of the characters in my mind that it is invariably disappointing when a book is transformed into a film or, in this case, a comic book. And true, the characters in the Marvel version were nothing like the ones in my imagination, but that didn't deter my enjoyment of it one bit.

I loved the artwork. Even though when I read the novels I had completely different images in my mind, it was easy to put them aside and enjoy Brett Booth's interpretations. I loved the lush colors and dark feeling of these illustrations. The books are narrated in the first person, by Anita, so she doesn't spend a whole lot of time describing herself, aside from her height and her dark features. In the comic she is curvy, muscular and very sexy. It was fun to see the clothing the characters wear, which is always described in interesting detail in the books. The artist takes the over-the-top exaggeration of comic book worlds and applies them perfectly to Anita Blake's life, and I just loved how the whimsy of Anita's stuffed penguins and penguin t-shirts contrasted with the grotesque aspects of life as an animator and vampire executioner.

I found the adaptation to be very faithful to the book, with the illustrations supplying everything left out by the narration and dialog. This hardbound collection contains the first six comic books, which make up the first half of the first novel of the Anita Blake series, Guilty Pleasures. The second volume, which will conclude the book, is due to be published this coming August. There is another graphic novel out called Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: The First Death, which is a prequel to the series that, according to Amazon.com, was "written exclusively for comics, and featuring the adventures of a younger Anita Blake as she teams up with popular characters Edward and Jean-Claude for a vampire hunt fans will absolutely love sinking their teeth into." Sounds good to me!

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: Guilty Pleasures Vol. 1 by Laurell K. Hamilton, Adapted by Stacie Ritchie and Jess Ruffner-Booth, Artwork by Brett Booth (Marvel, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
The Dragon's Loss
Literary Escapism

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A disreputable - and highly entertaining - history

Frankie Landau-Banks, fifteen, is returning to her exclusive boarding school as a sophomore. Last year she was a geeky freshman, all but invisible except for the fact that her popular sister helped to smooth her way. Now her sister is off at college, and Frankie is on her own. Over the summer, though, she suddenly attained curves and height, and Matthew, the incredibly hot senior she'd been mooning over her entire freshman year, suddenly is very interested in her.

But Frankie is not content to be the girlfriend of a popular guy, hanging out on the sidelines while the boys have all the fun. Frankie is smart and creative and finds immediate practical applications for the knowledge and understanding gleaned from her high-quality education. As much as she loves Matthew and enjoys being with his friends, who are goofy and smart and fun be with, she feels that they don't take her seriously. Her own family (except her sister) doesn't take her seriously, a frustrating fact that is reflected in their nickname for her: Bunny Rabbit.

Frankie's father has often mentioned being part of a secret society when he attended her boarding school (before it became coed), something to do with basset hounds. When he gets together with his old boarding school friends (all powerful, wealthy men, firmly entrenched in their good-old-boy network), they reminisce most annoyingly, refusing to let Frankie in on any of their secrets (which they would certainly do if she were a boy). When Frankie discovers that Matthew and his friends are part of the very same secret society, and he lies to her about it, excluding her from that part of his life - never even considering for one millisecond to invite her (or any of the girls) to join them, Frankie feels angry and shut out. And she decides to do something about it. Meet Frankie Landau-Banks, criminal mastermind.

She finds it both exhilarating and annoying that, when she figures out an ingenious way to take control of the secret society anonymously, no one begins to suspect her. She is devious and intelligent, and the pranks that she masterminds are not just silly and outrageous - she has very specific points to make. Even if none of the other Basset Hounds realizes that.

At one point one of the boys is briefly suspicious of Frankie - not, of course, of actually being involved, but of knowing something about the society. She overhears him talking about her with Matthew, who replies, "She doesn't even know anything about anything. I promise you, she's harmless." Later, Frankie thinks this over:

Matthew had called her harmless. Harmless. And being with him made Frankie feel squished into a box - a box where she was expected to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with.

Frankie wanted to be a force.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Frankie is an exceptional character - I love her unabashed intelligence and willingness to examine her own faults and weaknesses. I love that she doesn't take things at face value - her reflections about a seemingly thoughtless comment or casual interaction with someone give her amazing insight into other people and how they see the world. I love that as much as she adores Matthew, and is amazed that he has chosen her out of all the other girls in school to be his girlfriend, she doesn't allow herself to be blinded by that. She examines what he says, how he treats her, and sees it for what it is. I love that she likes being smart and hates being underestimated. I love that she is angry by closed doors, angry enough to do something about them. Frankie is a force, and it was a pleasure to read about her exploits.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Abby (the) Librarian
Page Numbered (includes author interview)
The Reading Zone

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The code of chivalry

In this third installment of the Protector of the Small quartet, Keladry of Mindelan is fourteen years old and extremely tall for her age. Now that her page years are officially over, she longs to gain some practical experience in the field. Her worst nightmare is becoming squire to a "desk" night and being stuck doing paperwork for the rest of her career.

Kel has a burning desire to protect the defenseless and defend her country, something that has been evident in all her actions since the first book in the series, which is why she started down the difficult path of being the first female page in the first place. But when no knights come forward to ask her to be their squire, even the prospect of a boring desk job starts to look good.

Her dream - the dream she's had since before she became a page - is to serve as squire to the Lady Alanna. But when her best friend, Neal of Queenscove, confesses that Alanna has requested for him to be her page, Kel is devastated.

During her long wait at the castle for a knight to request her, Kel is both fascinated and repelled by the Chamber of the Ordeal, a magical chamber into which all squires, in order to attain their knighthood, must enter. No one talks about what happens inside, but the sudden paleness in their face when the ordeal is mentioned does nothing to soothe Kel's fears. As with anything that scares her, Kel must do what she can to confront it. When she places her hands against the bronze door of the chamber, it throws her into nightmarish situations in which she is exposed to all her deepest fears.

This is an exciting continuation of the series, in which Kel learns a great deal about politics, commanding soldiers in battle, and the true nature of chivalry - and also learns a lot about herself and the kind of knight she wants to be. When I was growing up, there were, of course, lots of books about girls - but it seemed the ones I enjoyed the most were so often about boys doing fun, exciting things, especially when it came to action and adventure, warfare and chivalry. I'm glad there are so many more books - many of them by Pierce - that feature strong heroines doing exciting things. But this series goes beyond the gender-barrier-breaking theme. It depicts a character with a burning drive and a deep commitment her goal, despite uncertainty, criticism and outright malice from others, never compromising her integrity. And that's something to inspire any reader.

Books in the Protector of the Small series:
  1. First Test
  2. Page
  3. Squire
  4. Lady Knight
Squire (Protector of the Small #3) by Tamora Pierce (Listening Library, 2007)

Also reviewed here:
All Booked Up

Monday, April 21, 2008

A body beneath the azalea

Daisy Dalrymple returns in this second mystery set in 1920s England. Once again she finds herself on a writing assignment at a manor house for Town and Country magazine. This time she's visiting a pal from school, but when she arrives she finds out that as far as Lady Valeria, her friend's overbearing mother, is concerned, Daisy is not a welcome guest. After all, Daisy is an independent woman with a career, despite the fact that she is from the upper classes - how gauche (and threatening to the status quo). Lady Valeria is clearly worried Daisy's independence might give her daughter ideas of her own.

Daisy wants to write the article, take photos and get out of there as quickly as possible. But then, while on a tour of the gardens, she is present when one of the gardeners discovers a body buried beneath a dead azalea bush. When the shy young Welsh gardener is arrested with no evidence at all against him (beyond the fact that he is an outsider, and everyone is so terrified of Lady Valeria - including the police - that they wish to wrap up the unpleasant matter as quickly and expediently as possible).

Daisy just knows the gardener is innocent - and she's furious that the police aren't taking the investigation seriously. So she rings up Alec Fletcher, the Scotland Yard investigator she met in the first book, and begs him to intervene. The romantic tension is evident between the two, but Alec knows that someone of Daisy's status couldn't possibly consider him in a romantic light - or could she? Meanwhile, there is the challenge of a cold trail to follow and an innocent man to exonerate.

This is a delightful, character-driven cozy with a fairly straightforward mystery to solve. As far as I'm concerned, the mystery is simply icing on the cake; the characters and dialog are delightful in and of themselves. I'm so pleased there are many books in this series - I look forward to visiting 1920s England, Daisy and her friends on a regular basis.

Books in the Daisy Dalrymple mystery series:
  1. Death at Wentwater Court
  2. The Winter Garden Mystery
  3. Requiem for a Mezzo
  4. Murder on the Flying Scotsman
  5. Damsel in Distress
  6. Death in the Water
  7. Styx and Stones
  8. Rattle His Bones
  9. To Davy Jones Below
  10. The Case of the Murdered Muckraker
  11. Mistletoe and Murder
  12. Die Laughing
  13. A Mourning Wedding
  14. Fall of a Philanderer
  15. Gunpowder Plot
  16. The Bloody Tower
The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn (Kensington Books reprint edition, 2001)

Other blog reviews:
Rabid Reader
100 Books

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Stonekeeper: adventures in a dark world

This first volume in a dark fantasy graphic novel series opens with an intense and disturbing prologue, in which Emily and her parents are involved in a terrible car accident. Emily and her mother manage to crawl from the overturned car, but her father is trapped, and they are unable to extricate him before the car plummets over the side of the mountain.

Cut to Emily, her mother, and her little brother Navin, who are on their way to their new house. It is an old place that belonged to Emily's grandfather, an eccentric inventor who had mysteriously disappeared years earlier. As Emily and Navin explore the house, mysterious creatures follow them around unseen. In the middle of the night they hear a strange noise, and when their mother goes down to the basement to investigate, she is attacked and carried away by a horrific, tentacled creature. The children give chase, guided by a mysterious amulet Emily found in her grandfather's study. They travel to another world, beset by nightmarish creatures but finding unexpected allies along the way (including a very cute pink bunny named Miskit).

I picked this book up because of the cover artwork, and when I flipped through it and glimpsed pieces of the story, I had to bring it home. It sets the stage nicely for subsequent volumes, and does manage to develop the family relationships fairly well along the way. It is a bit disjointed, though - some of the scene changes had me flipping back to earlier sections of the book, trying to figure out how things fit together. At the same time, the pacing was excellent, the suspense continually building and never letting up.

This book is not for the faint of heart - it is scary and offers a relentless look at loss and grief that may well be upsetting to younger readers. That said, it is exciting and emotionally honest, with amazing artwork that depicts a true sense of wonder. Kibuishi is the editor of the acclaimed graphic novel anthologies Flight (volumes 1 - 4), and the first one of those is on my reading pile as I write this. I look forward to reading (and looking at) the further adventures of Emily, Navin and Miskit.

Amulet, Book One: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (GRAPHIX, 2008)

Other blog reviews:
A Year of Reading
Back to Books
The Daily Cross Hatch
One Hundred Scope Notes

Friday, April 18, 2008

The conclusion of the Abhorsen Trilogy

Abhorsen concludes the events begun in Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr, the second book in the Abhorsen trilogy. The book opens in Ancelstierre, the non-magical realm that borders the Old Kingdom. Sabriel and Touchstone, the king and queen of the Old Kingdom, have been trying to gain Ancestierran political support. Unfortunately the political party who is responsible for sending thousands of Southerling refugees across the border into the Old Kingdom (and certain death) stages a highly effective assassination attempt.

Meanwhile, Prince Sameth and Abhorsen-in-Waiting Lirael are at the Abhorsen's house. They desperately need to find Sameth's friend Nicholas, who is in the company of the necromancer Hedge, supervising the excavation of an ancient artifact. Nicholas is very sick, possessed by the spirit of something dark and powerful that craves destruction. The Greater Dead necromancer, Chlorr of the Mask, surrounds the Abhorsen's house with legions of the Dead. Lirael, Sameth and their companions Mogget the cat and the Disreputable Dog must travel a hidden, dangerous path in order to bypass the dead and get to Nicholas - and the mysterious metallic hemispheres - as quickly as possible.

As they gain understanding about the artifact and the ultimate goal of Hedge and Chlorr, it becomes clear that, should the two metallic hemispheres somehow be joined, it will unleash a destructive force powerful enough to destroy the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre. Once again Tim Curry delivers a masterful performance, ratcheting up the suspense as he narrates the exciting conclusion to the trilogy. It was hard to let these characters go at the end, after having spent so much time in their company. Luckily there is Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories, so I can look forward to revisiting the Old Kingdom some time soon.

And here's some excellent news, straight from the horse's mouth (so to speak): Nix is going to write two more books set in the Old Kingdom. The first will be called Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen, the story of the young woman who eventually became Chlorr of the Mask, and the projected publication date is 2010. The other will probably be out the following year.

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

Abhorsen by Garth Nix; narrated by Tim Curry (Listening Library, 2006)

Other blog reviews:
Frames and Pages
My Stuff

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A haunting tale

From the outside, fourteen-year-old Susan Backstrom seems to have the perfect life. She is gorgeous, always impeccably dressed, plays sports, lives in a lovely old house, and seems to have everything under control. She might even appear to be a bit stuck up, since she never stays around after school to hang out and talk with the other kids.

On the inside, Susan's life is stultifying and always, always, tinged with fear. Her father looms as a terrifying figure, and everything she does is viewed through the lens of his approval. Even so, Susan longs of a little bit of freedom, and when a science project comes along that justifies her spending time at the library in the afternoon, instead of coming home immediately after school, Susan jumps at the chance.

At the library she overhears some kids talking,complaining that they have nowhere to go where they can have some peace and privacy. They decide to explore an abandoned old house at the edge of town, a place with a reputation for being haunted. Susan recognizes one of the voices as belonging to Julio, the son of her parent's housekeeper - the only kind-of friend Susan has ever had, even though her father put a stop to their spending time together long ago. She surprises herself by approaching the other kids, who are angry that she's been listening to their conversation. She turns aside their anger and asks if she can come, too.

The old house hides many secrets, and from the moment the friends step inside, their perceptions of the world radically change. The walls pulse with a strangeness that only Susan seems to understand, as if the difference between her life and the others' has given her a power to navigate spirits, unearthly power, and dusty old bones. Despite the strangeness and fear, this house is infinitely safer than her own, and she is drawn there, day after day, dreading the return to her own cold, frightening house and the things that happen there. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows it is only a matter of time before she will have to pay the price for her newfound freedom, but she can't think about that right now...

I love Nina Kiriki Hoffman's books - they are evocative and exciting, with characters I quickly come to care about and who stay with me long after the books have ended. A Stir of Bones had me from the beginning, with its dark and disturbing undercurrents and compelling plot.

Don't just take my word for it that Hoffman is a wonderful writer. Here's an excerpt from a review Charles de Lint wrote about this book, her first YA novel (from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September 2003):

"Hoffman is one of those authors that, while she certainly appeals to a genre audience--at least one with an interest in contemporary fantasy--is also an excellent ambassador to the wider world of literature beyond our few shelves of the bookstore. Her books are the kind that I can hand to my friends who only read mainstream and they are immediately enamored--not realizing that they're reading a fantasy, for all the fantastical goings on in their pages."

This is my third book read for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge, and I highly recommend it! Don't forget to stop by the review site for links to reviews of many wonderful books others are reading for this challenge.

A Stir of Bones
by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Viking, 2003)

B&OT review of Spirits That Walk in Shadow by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Yay! Awards!


I am thrilled that Rhinoa has awarded me this lovely blogging gold card, saying very nice things about my blog. Thanks, Rhinoa! And then, within the space of a day or two, Ladytink gave me this adorable seal of approval:


How cute is that? Although I don't suppose I have the authority to give the second one, not being winged and sparky, I am supposed to pass on the gold card. But how to choose? I see that Rhinoa passed it on to quite a few of those blogging buddies that I try to visit as frequently as I can, like Chris (who is indeed a lovely bloke!) and Nymeth (one of my oldest blog buds) and Ladytink (of the above seal of approval). I can't begin to say how many books they've added to my tbr list and book pile in the past year! And Rhinoa, too - right back at you!

There have been so many benefits to writing this blog in the past year (April is my anniversary month!) since I started writing it: meeting people who share my interest and taste in books - and how they have expanded my horizons with their lovely, tantalizing book reviews; discussions about books, characters, settings, genres, learning about all kinds of things (book-related and not) that I never would have discovered otherwise. Oh, and the book challenges - they're lots of fun, too! The only downside to blogging that I've discovered is that, added to my lament of "so many books, so little time" is "so many blogs, so little time."

I offer the gold card to all those in my "People I like to visit" blogroll - and the only reason there aren't more blogs in there (see all the many wonderful book blogs in the list below it) is that I simply don't have time to visit them all! But hope springs eternal...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The queen of Procrastination

Moxy Maxwell has been assigned one book to read over the summer: Stuart Little. And summer is almost over. In fact, Moxy has about eighteen hours left in which to read Stuart Little, or, her mother threatens, there will be Consequences.

Moxy looks up the word "consequences" in the dictionary, and she is astonished at the effect of that one word: "It interested Moxy a great deal that a single word - twelve letters that could be erased with a #2 eraser - was powerful enough to make her feel as if she might throw up."

It's not as if Moxy hasn't tried to read Stuart Little. Stuart has accompanied her everywhere all summer long - to the pool, in the car, in the back yard. And it's not as if Moxy doesn't like to read - she loves to read. Sometimes she stays up late into the night reading. It's just that she wants to read what she wants to read, not what someone tells her to.

Moxy procrastinates in creative, hilarious ways, coming up with one reason after another why she hasn't read the book, why she can't read it yet, why she'll be all finished soon. The clock is ticking down, though, and it's the very last day of summer vacation. She absolutely must finish the book, or she won't be allowed to participate in the synchronized swimming event she's been practicing so hard for all summer long. But the dog needs trained. And her room is messy. And she has a great idea for raising money for her college tuition...

This book is another Summer Reading Program pick for my library, and it is delightful. Moxy carries on the tradition of such irrepressible heroines as Clementine, Junie B. and Ramona. The chapter headings are a hoot, and the photographs that accompany the text (taken by Moxy's twin brother, with captions) make the events of the book even funnier by casting them in a realistic light. I identify with Moxy's dislike of being made to read things not of her choosing, and I found the book especially funny because I picked it up knowing full well I should have been working on an assignment for class instead.

This book has definite appeal to kids (and adults) of all ages, but I would particularly recommend it to kids who shy away from longer, denser books. The large print, wide white margins and many photographs throughout the book make it a very appealing pick for reluctant readers and those transitioning to chapter books. It's also a fun, quick summer read - and what's not to love about that?

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little by Peggy Gifford; photographs by Valorie Fisher (Schwartz and Wade Books, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
The Book Nest
Comics in the Classroom
Confessions of a Bibliovore

And the winner of the most popular fictional fantasy vacation destination is...



It's a tie! Between Discworld and Harry Potter's world. There were 23 votes altogether, with HP and Discworld getting 5 votes apiece. Narnia and Neverland tied for second place, with 3 votes each, followed by Pern and Wonderland with 2. Middle-earth, Oz and Wonderland tied for last place, with just one vote apiece.

If you voted, what was it about your choice that made it the obvious one for you? Are there any fantasy worlds you like to read about but would never, ever want to visit? Is there a world you'd pack up and move to, given the chance? Is there a fantasy world not mentioned in the poll that you'd pick instead?

If it were at all possible, I'd opt for a fantasy cruise that stopped at each one of these places for a while. Anyone else want to come?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The allure of discovery

Amedeo Kaplan is the new kid in town. The only problem is that, in his new town of St. Malo, Florida, people move in and out so often that he's just one face among many, anonymous and alone. And there is more to him (as with everyone) than meets the eye. Amedeo has a dream to discover something - not necessarily anything of immense importance, maybe just a fossil or a forgotten remnant of another time. He is inspired by stories about people who inadvertently made discoveries, like the French boys who stumbled across the cave of Lascaux with its amazing prehistoric artwork hidden inside.

He gets a glimpse of a place worth exploring when he first goes next door to make a phone call at his new next-door neighbor's house. Mrs. Zender is an eccentric woman, a retired opera singer, and she is one of my favorite characters in the book. She drinks champagne all day long, is a drama queen extraordinaire, self-centered yet kind and perceptive - and also a bit of a bully.

One afternoon Amedeo sees William Wilcox get off the bus at his bus stop. Amedeo knows who William Wilcox is because William has a Story. Not just any story, but a story of discovery. His mother coordinates estate sales for people, and he'd helped her with a Chinese screen not a single antiques dealer had been interested in, finally selling it for a huge sum to the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC. William and his mother are clearing out Mrs. Zender's marvellous, if run-down, old house. Amedeo invites himself in and offers to help - for a variety of reasons not even he seems to fully understand.

Amedeo's story is intertwined with the story of his art collector godfather, Peter Vanderwaal, whose father recently died. Peter is putting together an art exhibit on works that were forbidden during Hitler's regime, and the discovery Amedeo makes from among Mrs. Zender's things sparks a scavenger hunt into the past that brings to light some dark and disturbing secrets.

Konigsburg never disappoints, and this book is no exception. The power of art is a recurring theme in her work, and it is a particularly resonant one in this book, mixed as it is with the history of the Holocaust. The novel certainly explores some difficult terrain, but the characters and their relationships leave the reader feeling inspired and empowered. E.L. Konigsburg is an author whose books I reread regularly, and I gain a new insight every time I revisit them. I hope she will be writing for many years to come.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
BooksForKidsBlog
Destined to Become a Classic
Ms Yingling Reads

Other B&OT Konigsburg Review:
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Monday, April 14, 2008

A baffling mystery in Ancient Rome

Seven boys attend a prestigious school in Ancient Rome called the Xanthos School. Their teacher, Xantippus, is Greek and seems to them a learned, humorless man. It is hard to pay attention when the school is open to the street, and so many interesting things are happening outside. One of the boys, Caius, keeps poking another, Rufus, with his stylus. Rufus can't concentrate, and when he is scolded, he writes "Caius is a dumbbell" on a wax stylus and hangs it up on the wall. A fight between the boys ensues, with Rufus getting kicked out of school.

The next morning, the boys arrive at school to find their teacher missing, and soon they discover that the very same words on the wax tablet have been painted on a temple in bright red paint: Caius is a dumbbell. What has Rufus done? The temple is dedicated to the Emperor, and although Rufus claims he's innocent, he is sure to be arrested for desecrating the temple if his friends can't prove his innocence. The boys' search for the truth takes them into dark and scary places where they discover things are not always what they seem.

I read this book to my children, 7 and 9 years old. The older one had been studying Ancient Rome in school, and I fondly remembered reading this when I was a child. At first I thought it was going to be too complex for them, with the strange names and unfamiliar setting, but from the very first night we began the book, they begged for another chapter every single time we read it. I had to stop to explain things a few times (particularly who was who - and even I had trouble telling the boys apart, as they are rather indistinguishable from each other), but we all truly enjoyed it. I had no idea that there was a sequel to this one called The Roman Ransom, and we will definitely be reading that one some time soon.

This book was written sixty years ago, and I have no doubt it will still be read sixty years from now. It is exciting and funny, presents an intriguing mystery with well-placed clues, and it explores both the bright and dark side of human nature. I also enjoyed learning about the inspiration for the novel: "During the 1936 excavations of Pompeii, a temple wall came to light on which had been scribbled, in a childish hand, the words: CAIUS ASINUS EST. That scrawl from the days of Ancient Rome was the inspiration for this book."

Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld; illustrated by Charlotte Kleinert; translated by Richard Winston (Harcourt Children's Books, 1956)

Other blog review:
Incredibooks

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A mysterious pen and an aspiring writer

Twelve-year-old Audrey's life has changed a lot since her father became ill. He has a heart condition, and he must stay at home, resting, kept away from any sort of excitement that could damage his heart. He had to leave his position as editor of the town newspaper, and Audrey's mother is now working at a job where her supervisor makes her miserable, which makes her tired and short-tempered around the house. Audrey leaves school early, so her father won't be left home alone - she and her mother live in fear that her father could have a heart attack while no one is home to call the paramedics.

One one of Audrey's rare free afternoons, she is out in the yard writing a story when she sees a white duck. It reminds her of stories her grandmother used to tell her about a very smart white duck she'd had when she was a little girl. The duck seems to want Audrey to follow her, and Audrey can't resist seeing where the strange duck wants her to go. She follows it to a cave, and even though, years earlier, she'd promised her parents not to go into the cave, she follows the duck inside, and there is a strange old woman in there. Audrey finds herself spilling all her hopes and dreams in a way that secretly horrifies her - normally she is very private, confiding in the old woman her dreams to become a writer. The old woman gives her a pen that eventually reveals itself as having mysterious powers, and so Audrey's adventures begin.

I am always very excited when a new book by Zilpha Keatley Snyder comes out. I grew up on her novels, reading them again and again, particularly the series that begins with The Headless Cupid. This one was a sweet wish fulfillment story, but to be honest it is not my favorite. It seems almost as though it were written years ago, but not published until now. The mention of Richard Nixon and Golda Meir made it seem a bit dated, especially as they were referred to as though they were contemporary to the characters. I did love the character of Audrey - she is not a whiner, and it was great how she took on extra responsibility so willingly because of her love for her dad. I guess I expected her to solve her problems in a more creative, surprising way, so that it was kind of a let-down at the end, even though things resolved themselves nicely.

This is my second book read for Carl's Once Upon a Time II reading challenge. People are reading tons of wonderful books for this challenge, so be sure to stop by the review site to see links to the many great reviews other challengees are posting there.

The Bronze Pen by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008)

Other B&OT reviews of Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books:
The Magic Nation Thing
The Treasures of Weatherby

Friday, April 11, 2008

The stories belong to Anansi

Fat Charlie Nancy is not, in fact, fat - but when he was a kid and was just a bit plump, his father started calling him that, and - as with every nickname his father ever gave anything - it stuck. Fat Charlie has a complicated relationship with his father. Complicated in the sense that Fat Charlie does not want to invite his father to his upcoming wedding because he knows that, as always, his father will make him incredibly, excruciatingly embarrassed.

Rosie, Charlie's very kind fiancée, won't think of not inviting his father to their wedding - so Charlie tries to get in touch with him, only to find out that his father has just died. Charlie flies from London, where he lives, to Florida, where he grew up, for the funeral. There an elderly neighbor tells him that he has a brother - a brother he has never even heard of! How to get in touch with this mysterious brother, Charlie asks? "Just tell a spider," says the old woman. And when, a bit drunk, Charlie later does just that, the last thing that he expects is for his brother to turn up, shake up his life and push him over the edge into a world in which the ancient gods from African stories are living, breathing, powerful creatures. Oh, and one of them is Charlie's dad.

Gaiman weaves a hilarious tale with the skill of a (I can't resist) spider, with gods and goddesses, a dedicated policewoman, a charismatic brother with unusual abilities, the most annoying boss ever to appear in a novel, some wonderfully odd (and powerful) little old ladies, an unforgettable mother-in-law-to-be, and a nasty, villainous tiger bent on revenge.

Aside from Gaiman's masterful storytelling, which never fails to pull me into a tale and make it utterly believable, no matter how far-fetched the plot may be, Lenny Henry's narration of this story is immensely effective. He does the voices of characters so well that I could tell, without dialog tags, who was speaking at any time. He does East End accents, Caribbean accents, American accents, and when he goes into storyteller mode, recounting the adventures of Anansi the spider, it evokes a starry night, firelight, and rapt attention from a crowd of listeners.

I read this book for the Mythopoeic Award Challenge, and I have loved every one of these books so far!

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman; narrated by Lenny Henry (HarperAudio, 2005)

Other blog reviews:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Bold Blue Adventure
Brother Willow's Walk

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A harrowing survival story

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a complete and utter Holocaust wimp. I am still recovering from reading Anne Frank's diary back in middle school. When I toured her house in Amsterdam some twenty years later it hit me in a way I wouldn't have thought possible. I live close to DC, and am ashamed to admit I haven't yet had the fortitude to visit the Holocaust museum. Schindler's List? I don't think so.

All the same, I found myself picking up this book, which tells the story of a group of Ukrainian Jews who successfully managed to hide in a warren of caves for a year, narrowly avoiding capture by the Nazis, surviving despite insurmountable odds, with a strength and perseverance that are absolutely incredible. It is another one of my library's summer reading program picks for this summer, and it was an excellent choice.

The story is told from the points of view of two modern-day cave explorers, Peter Lane Taylor and Chris Nicola. The first part is a detective story: Chris, one of the first Americans to explore the Ukraine's famous Gypsum Giant caves, hears rumors about several Jewish families hiding in the caves during WWII, but at first can find no one to corroborate them. Years later, with the help of the Internet, he discovers some survivors and talks with them about their experiences there during the war.

The book alternates between interviews with the survivors and scenes of Taylor and Nicola exploring the caves and discovering artifacts from the survivors' 344 days spent below ground. It is not an easy book to read. Although it is targeted at a younger audience (the publisher recommends it for ages 9 - 12), it doesn't pull any punches. We read about the Ukrainian Jews who do not escape, about how they must dig their own graves before being shot and thrown into them, and how some of them do not, in fact, die, and are buried alive, calling out for help as the Nazis walk away. I don't think my 9-year-old could handle that. I can barely handle that.

But still, it is an amazing book, and I'd like my children to read it one day when they're a bit older. I'm glad I read it. Alternating between the past and present is an effective way to tell the story (and it also breaks the survivors' account into smaller, more easily absorbed pieces). The photographs are an excellent accompaniment to the text - there are stunning photos of the caves, maps of its astonishing maze of passageways (it is the 10th longest cave system in the world), photos of the families who hid in the caves before the war, right after the war, and a wonderful group photo, a recent one, of one of the families of survivors along with their children and grandchildren - none of whom would be here today had it not been for their grandparents' strength, persistence and ingenuity. That picture gave me goosebumps - and made me smile.

Here is a link to an excerpt from an article that appeared in National Geographic Adventure Magazine about Priest's Grotto.

The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
OMS Book Blog
Propernoun Dot Net

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A scavenger hunt through time

Cassandra is running out of time to break the geis that was placed on her years ago. Mircea, the vampire who was one of her only friends throughout her lonely, difficult childhood, is also effected by the geis, and is now on the precarious brink of losing his sanity. The risk of a master vampire running amok means he will be cruelly imprisoned in a way that will probably push him permanently over the edge.

Her challenge is to find the Codex, a book that was written hundreds of years earlier, supposedly by Merlin himself. There's a little problem, though: the codex is spelled to unwrite itself over time, so unless she can pinpoint its exact location in the past, far enough back that the spell she needs still exists, it won't help her. Oh, and there are a few other problems as well. There are others who are after the Codex as well - dark mages, war mages, vampires, beings from ancient religions. Many of them also want Cassandra dead. Many of them only want Cassandra dead.

To complicate matters, a group of children show up on her doorstep, refugees asking for Cassandra's help. People she thought she could trust turn out to have a different set of motivations altogether. But Cassandra does have some friends willing to stand by her - to make it, say, rain frogs if a diversion is needed. Unfortunately the forces they are up against are greater in power and number. Cassandra must learn to understand and learn to use her powers as the Pythia in her race against - and through - time.

This series had me from the first book. The complex, detailed back story gives Cassandra's life a depth and breadth that make it stand apart from the many other vampire and supernatural fantasy series that are currently popular. Events are well set up and, as the story progresses, apparently unrelated pieces fall into place seamlessly and unexpectedly. The characters are complicated and well rounded, never stereotypical, and their interactions are believable, often humorous, with dialog that brings everything vividly to life.

Books in the Cassandra Palmer series:

1. Touch the Dark
2. Claimed by Shadow
3. Embrace the Night

Karen Chance was Penguin's guest blogger last week, and she's writing some fascinating things over there - check it out!

And here is something kind of interesting - it's a video trailer for the book! I like the idea, but having just finished the novel, it seems to me that whoever made the video never actually read the book - it has a completely different mood and atmosphere. But I still like the idea!

Embrace the Night (#3 in the Cassandra Palmer series) by Karen Chance (Roc, 2008)

Other blog reviews:
Darque Reviews
In Bed with Books
Literary Escapism

Monday, April 7, 2008

Queen Betsy takes control (kind of)

In this third installment of the "Queen Betsy" series, Betsy, the undead (and unwilling) Queen of the vampires, receives yet another shocking revelation - not only is her stepmother pregnant, but she had a baby and gave it up for adoption years earlier. And, um, that baby is actually the daughter of the devil - who, according to the Book of the Dead, is destined to rule the world.

Betsy is sick and tired of finding out all these things in bits and pieces, and she decides to face her fear of the dread Book of the Dead (which is supposed to drive the reader crazy if too much is read at a time) and find out what other awful things are in her destiny. Unfortunately, even though she is the Queen, that doesn't render her immune to the effects of the Book...

As usual, Betsy's hands are full - dealing with the results of her temporary insanity, her failing night club, her spawn-of-Satan sister, and her relationship with Sinclair, who finally seems to have had enough of Betsy's ambivalence about him. This was fun and entertaining, like the others in the series, and it's always amusing and enjoyable to see where Betsy's complicated life is going to take her next.

Books in the Queen Betsy series:
1. Undead and Unwed
2. Undead and Unemployed
3. Undead and Unappreciated
4. Undead and Unreturnable
5.
Undead and Unpopular

6. Undead and Uneasy

Undead and Unappreciated (#3 in the Queen Betsy series) by MaryJanice Davidson (Berkley Sensation, 2005)

Other blog reviews:
Eat. Sleep. Read
Fifty Books

Saturday, April 5, 2008

An apprentice, a djinni, and a powerful amulet

In an alternate version of England in which the government is composed of powerful magicians, a 5-year-old boy is sold off to become an apprentice. His birth name is Nathaniel, but that, too, must be stripped from him along with everything else from his former life. From now until the time he is twelve and chooses his new name, he will simply be called "Boy" by his master. Birth names hold power; his must be forgotten. Nathaniel's new master, Arthur Underwood, is not a kind man - but his wife is, and she takes Nathanial under her wing and treats him with kindness, even calling him by his birth name, and Nathanial comes to adore her and work hard for her approval.

We skip forward in time, away from the third-person narration about Nathaniel, to a moment in which a young boy of twelve or so is calling up a dangerous entity - a demon? a djinni? - it isn't clear. This part of the story is told from the entity's point of view. His name is Bartimaeus, and while Nathaniel's part of the story is certainly interesting, the book crackles with life when Bartimaeus speaks. He is not pleased at finding himself summoned - by a scrawny wet-behind-the-ears boy, no less, and is even less pleased by the task he is set: to steal the amulet of Samarkand from the very well-protected home of a powerful magician.

And so the story alternates between the third-person passages about Nathaniel and the first-person narration of Bartimaeus. Gradually the time gap between the storyline merges, and the plot is off and running, whisking the reader along with it. The theft of the amulet begins a chain of events that will dramatically change Nathanial's life - and his impatience, impulsive nature and high-handedness ensure that if anything can go wrong for him, it likely will. With Bartimaeus as his unlikely (and unwilling) servant, we are in for a bumpy ride.

Nathaniel is not always a terribly likable character, and he came close to losing my sympathy for him. He was self-centered, arrogant, hot-tempered and impatient. However, he is a believable character and, considering his upbringing, behaves exactly the way one might expect - and actually does harbor a few admirable qualities, all things considered. But Bartimaeus had me from the very beginning. His wry sense of humor, wit, charm and intelligence make for an engaging, often hilarious narrator, particularly when read aloud by Simon Jones, whose storytelling skills enhance the narrative considerably.

This book is on my list for the Mythopoeic Challenge (along with the rest of the trilogy), and it is easy to see why it is among the books on the Mythopoeic Award list. I look forward to reading about the further misadventures of Bartimaeus.

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

The Amulet of Samarkand
(#1 in The Bartimaeus Trilogy) by Jonathan Stroud; narrated by Simon Jones (Listening Library, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
My Book Reviews
Reading Rebels
Someone's Read It Already

Friday, April 4, 2008

An underground superhero

Billy Hooten is not anyone's idea of a superhero. He's kind of geeky, gets harassed regularly at school, is into comic books, building robots (that don't work), and feels a sickening sense of dread in the pit of his stomach whenever he thinks of gym class. Because of Billy's surname and round glasses, the mean kids at school call him "Owlboy," an irritating nickname...at least until Billy makes an astonishing discovery.

It all begins with a cry for help coming from across the wall that separates Billy's yard from the cemetery. Despite the fact that Billy is rather timid by nature, he can't resist the desperation in the voice. Before he realizes it, he is sprinting across the cemetery, through the door of a crypt, until he finds himself face to face with an enormous, pigheaded creature. The hulking monster is angry, clearly violent, and is coming for him! Is it luck that makes the monster trip and slide and end up in a heap, or is it...destiny?

The frightened goblin who'd been calling for help informs Billy that he is Monstros City's new Owlboy, a superhero who protects the innocent and downtrodden (monster) citizens of the city beneath the cemetery. Billy is naturally dubious - but he can't help being intrigued. Soon he is caught up in a world he never knew existed, pursued by villains more gruesome and vile than he could have imagined. Through it all, he is plagued by doubt - could he possibly be the real Owlboy? Comic book worlds are great and everything, he realizes, as long as they're in comic books. When they are brought to life, however, everything changes.

This is the first book in the Owlboy series, another pick for my library's Summer Reading Program. It is fast-paced and exciting, and what it lacks in character development and plausibility it makes up for in action and adventure. I was never clear why these monsters were in need of a protector any more than the humans up in the "real" world, much less where the city came from, but kids who love superheroes probably won't have a problem with that. I also had difficulty with the depiction of Billy's parents, particularly his mother, who is (conveniently to Billy's plans) moronic beyond belief. However, several intriguing mysteries were set up in this first volume (the disappearance of the previous Owlboy, for one), that will likely lure fans to read subsequent volumes in the series.

Books in the Owlboy series:
1. Billy Hooten: Owlboy
2. Owlboy: The Girl with the Destructo Touch
3. Tremble at the Terror of Zis-Boom-Bah
4. The Flock of Fury (to be published December 2008)

Billy Hooten: Owlboy (#1 in the Owlboy series) by Thomas Sniegoski; illustrated by Eric Powell (Yearling, 2007)

Other blog reviews:
Bookshelves of Doom
Wands and Worlds

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The leash...of death (insert scary music here)


My dog's retractable leash finally gave up the ghost the other day. It was a few years old when we got our current dog, who is almost ten now, so it was time to buy a new one. It came in the mail yesterday, which was great, and my dog and I were happy.

Until I happened to read the insert that came with the leash. Now I'm feeling lucky to be alive, considering how long we've been using retractable leashes. Apparently any of the following can (and probably will) happen when using the leash:
  • If the leash or collar breaks, the cord can "snap back with enough force to cause serious eye damage, broken teeth, cuts and bruises" (note to self - buy mouth guard and safety goggles before next walk)
  • If the cord runs across skin, it can cause abrasions or severe cuts. Cuts and burns are more likely if the cord wraps around any part of the body (but can apparently happen even if it doesn't - like a surprise attack)
  • Because the leash is longer than regular leashes, my dog can build up speed and pull really hard, possibly pulling me to the ground (perhaps dragging me on my belly behind her like Indiana Jones - but probably without the panache)
  • I most definitely must not use the leash while on wheels (for example, a bike, skateboard or roller blades) - this totally kills all the plans I had for this leash
  • If I allow slack to build up in the cord, I'm likely to get tangled up in it (causing rope burns, abrasions, and -- for those not faint of heart -- see the next bullet...
  • If the cord wraps around fingers or catches on a ring, a hard pull on the leash can amputate fingers or break bones!
  • To avoid this painful amputation/bone breaking, I can remove my rings and wear heavy gloves (should be fun this summer)
  • Bystanders are also at risk for any and all of these injuries! "In particular," the insert continues, "they can be cut by the cord if they contact it" (must be the retractable razorblades embedded in the cord) "or if it wraps around them. " They might also (gasp) "trip on the leash." Yes, let's worry about tripping because amputation and fracture are not enough.
  • I can't even tell you what it says about going near small children in strollers. I imagine I'll have to struggle valiantly with this homicidal leash to prevent it from randomly attacking toddlers
  • And last, but not least, I must not attempt to open the plastic housing and fix the leash myself should it break. "The leash housing contains a pre-wound spring that can cause injury if opened." It probably is designed to aim for the eyes.
Anyone feel like going for a walk? I think I'll just huddle here in in the closet until my therapist gets here...or possibly the police. Is that the sound of a leash slithering across the floor in my direction? Is it? AAAAAAArrrrgh!

.....

St, Patrick's Day, Plum style

It's St. Patrick's day in the Burg, and when bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is involved in anything, even an apparently innocuous holiday, expect the unexpected - not to mention the hilarious.

The first sign of something a bit odd comes when Stephanie spots Grandma Mazur dragging an enormous duffel bag down the street. A little man all dressed in green tries to wrest the bag from her, but when Stephanie and her friend Lula join in the fracas, they manage to scare him off...but that's just the beginning.

Grandma takes off on a road trip, leaving a note behind for Stephanie's frantic mother. "You find people, right?" her mother demands. "Then find your grandmother!" Stephanie's search takes her to Atlantic City, where events soon spin out of control.

What do you get when you have a wounded racehorse, a leprechaun, a pot of gold, a bloated mobster gunning for stolen money, Lula with a rocket launcher, a streaker at a car wash, and the most memorable "diversion" in the history of Atlantic City casinos? Just another day in (and out of) the Burg.

This is the third in a series of related holiday books involving Stephanie Plum. These books are novellas, short and sweet and very funny. They keep fans from going too stir crazy while waiting for the numbered mystery series books to be published and, as with all of Evanovich's books, they never fail to make me grin.

This was the first one I have listened to, however - customers at my library have been raving about Lorelie King's narration of Stephanie's stories. Many of them wouldn't consider reading one of these books because they enjoy the voices and characterization that King lends to them. At first I had a bit of trouble because, since I've been reading them for so long, it turned out that I had my own very clear ideas of what their voices sound like in my mind. But after a while King won me over, and now I'm thinking about revisiting earlier installments in the series in audio format, just for fun. Stephanie fans will not be disappointed in this short and sweet addition to the series. And readers may never think about leprechauns in quite the same way ever again...

Stephanie Plum Holiday series:
1. Visions of Sugar Plums
2. Plum Lovin'
3. Plum Lucky

Other B&OT review of Stephanie series:
Lean Mean Thirteen

Plum Lucky by Janet Evanovich; narrated by Lorelei King (MacMillan Audio, 2008)

Other blog reviews:
Biblioharlot's Bookshelf
Bookhound
Books, Memes and Musings

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Flowers with a deadly message

Enola Holmes, little sister to Sherlock Holmes, makes her third appearance in The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets. She is still living incognito in London, using all her considerable resourcefulness to make sure her older brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, do not discover her whereabouts. If they do, they will send her to some horrible boarding school where she'll be corseted and taught all kinds of useless, boring things.

In the previous book in the series, Enola had desperately appealed to her missing mother for help - using a secret code the two of them know, involving the language of flowers, placed in the personals in the newspapers. Her mother never replied, and at the opening of this book, Enola has been moping in her room for weeks, devastated at her mother's refusal to answer her plea. It isn't until she reads the newspaper and discovers that Dr. Watson is missing that she manages to shake free from her despondency.

Enola is ambivalent about her brothers - she admits to idolizing Sherlock, but she's afraid of him, too, and she feels that Mycroft is high handed and pompous. But she adores Dr. Watson, and the thought of him in danger is most distressing. She knows Sherlock will be trying to find his colleague, but she is determined to help all she can, to try to discover his whereabouts as quickly as possible. The reader knows where Dr. Watson is from the beginning, as the opening scene of the book shows him in dire straits indeed.

Enola is an engaging heroine, with faults and weaknesses, but also intelligence, ingenuity, and a caring heart. She visits with Mrs. Watson, hoping not to upset her further but desperately seeking a starting point for her search. And there she finds a most upsetting clue - a bouquet made of flowers that signify bad luck and ill intentions. From there Enola follows a trail of clues that has her honing her skills at disguise and fleeing for her life along the rooftops of London as she tries to unmask the enemy and locate kind old Dr. Watson.

This is an excellent addition to the Enola Holmes series, which not only presents an intriguing historical mystery but also gives us further insight into Enola's character. She continues to follow her dreams despite her intense loneliness and separation from her family. I hope that in further books she will come to realize that she may possibly have misjudged one - or both - of her brothers.

Books in the Enola Holmes series:
1. The Case of the Missing Marquess
2. The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
3. The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets

The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets
(#3 in the Enola Holmes series) by Nancy Springer (Philomel Books, 2008)

.....