Friday, October 31, 2008

Chris Crutcher on book banning

I have only read one book by Chris Crutcher, Whale Talk, and I enjoyed it very much. I read it several years ago, but it is one of those books that lingers in memory because of the extremely likable main character and the fact that it was such a moving, compelling story. I have every intention of reading more of Crutcher's work - and at the library where I work, I often recommend his books to kids who enjoy edgy, contemporary books, books about kids overcoming problems, books about sports, books about teens in difficult situations finding ways to overcome them and succeed. Often the kids come back to tell me how much they enjoyed the book, and to ask me for other recommendations. I love when that happens!

Crutcher's books are among many that are routinely challenged in public and school libraries across the United States. Earlier this month, he received a letter from a concerned parent who, after reading a portion of one of Crutcher's books, is in the process of challenging it (as well as every other one of his books) in an attempt to have them removed from the school. Crutcher has published an open letter in reply to that parent, which you can read here in its entirety.

I was impressed by his response, which was very thoughtful and much more respectful and evenhanded than I'd have been able to write. It brings up some interesting ideas that are important to keep in mind, whatever your opinions on censorship, when it comes to discussing the topic. I particularly liked this portion of his conclusion to the letter:

You're a guy with concern for your kid. So be concerned. Restrict him from whatever books and video games and television programs and movies you want to. Show him what you believe to be right and wrong. Lead by example. I don't have any right to stop you from doing that and I wouldn't try. But I will continue to write stories that reflect what I see, whether people like you choose to make personal attacks or not. In my view I have an obligation to the people who do believe they get something from my books, to continue to write, whether you want to take poorly-thought-out shots at me or not.

If you are looking to read some banned books for next year's banned book week, you might want to consider some of Chris Crutcher's. But why wait till then?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The lamest fairy ever

Charlie (Charlotte) lives in New Avalon, a place where many people, for no understandable reason, acquire a fairy. There are many different kinds of fairies, and you can't see them or communicate with them - in fact, Charlie's father is of the opinion that it's a ridiculous superstition, and that fairies do not exist. But Charlie knows they do. Her best friend has a clothes shopping fairy, which is totally "doos" (i.e.awesome) - whenever they go shopping, the fairy enables her to find the most amazing deals on beautiful designer clothes that always fit her perfectly (don't we all know some annoying person who has that fairy?). Fiorenza, Charlie's arch-nemesis at school, has a fairy that makes all the boys her age hopelessly besotted with her. Some people have never-miss-a-shot fairies, which enables them to do very well at Charlie's school, which specializes in sports. And she's beginning to suspect that Steffan, the hot new boy at school, has a never-get-in-trouble fairy, even though he is as sceptical about the existence of fairies as Charlie's father.

Charlie's fairy, however, is a total dud, at least as far as she is concerned. She has a parking fairy, which enables her to always find a parking spot in the most convenient place whenever she's in a car. She's only fourteen, so not only does it not help her because she can't drive, but she's forever being dragged around to other people's medical appointments and on pointless errands just so they can find a parking spot. It's infuriating. She has decided to take matters into her own hands - she's going to ditch her fairy simply by refusing to ever get into a car again. She walks everywhere, and although she's racking up demerits from being late to class, she is determined to get rid of her lame fairy no matter what - even if it means teaming up with the odious Fiorenza, whose mother knows more than anyone about fairies, not that she's telling.

What follows is a sweet and humorous tale of friendship, persistence, and self-awareness, with a dash of romance. I was puzzled by the frequent tooth-sucking, which was a bit odd, and also by the fact that her mother supposedly has a fairy that lets her know what her kids are up to, yet she was blithely unaware (or perhaps unconcerned?) about what Charlie was doing - occasionally dangerous things - throughout the book. Charlie is an admirable character who has a few important facts about life that she needs to come to terms with, and I rooted for her every step of the way. I loved her enthusiasm about sports and her unswerving dedication to achieving the goals that she set for herself (even if some of them were misguided, as she eventually figured things out and and quickly reset her sights on something more beneficial). I was excited to read this book after enjoying the Magic or Madness trilogy so much, and this one certainly lived up to my expectations. I'll be looking forward to further books by Larbalestier, who is now officially on my "I'll read whatever she writes without even reading the cover flap" list.

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Bean Bag Books: "How to Ditch Your Fairy is a funny and charming read, and not to mention completely doos!"
Cheryl Rainfield: "The book was a great read, and made me wish for a fairy of my own."
Karin's Book Nook: "a delightful story about fairies, friendship, and first love."

B&OT reviews of other books by Justine Larbalestier:
Magic or Madness
Magic Lessons
Magic's Child

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Stories of magic and mystery

I do not often read short stories, but lately, mostly because of other book-bloggers' tantalizing reviews, I've been picking them up more often. This one I think I heard about on Chris's blog, but when I tried to find his review to link to it, I couldn't! (Let me know if I missed it, Chris - or maybe I just hallucinated the whole thing!). Anyway, this collection is targeted at children, and while the publisher's age range is 9-12, my library places it in the young adult section, and I agree with their choice.

There is a wide range of stories here, some long, some short, and all of them with some sort of supernatural or mystical element. They have all been previously published - in fact, the final story, "The Witch's Headstone," is actually a chapter from the recently published The Graveyard Book (which originated in this short story) - so if you are planning on reading that, I'd advise you to skip that story altogether and read it in its full context.

I thought "Chivalry" was hilarious - it's about an old woman who finds the holy grail at a thrift shop, and she thinks it looks so nice on the mantelpiece in her parlor that when a dashing knight shows up to claim it, she has no intention of giving it to him. The matter-of-fact tone and the relationship that develops between the two characters made the story one of my favorites in the book.

"Don't Ask Jack" is shivers-up-the-spine creepy, a story about a toy oozing with secret malevolence. This spooky one would make for a great Halloween read-aloud, and will definitely stay with me for a long time.

"How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is a story about two teens who end up at the wrong party, and discover that the pretty girls they meet there make the Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus concept just a bit too literal. This particular story embodies my main reason for shying away from short stories: it sets up a wonderful premise with compelling characters - and then it ends, leaving me wishing it were a novel and dying to know more.

"The Price" is another creepy story that skates along the edge of reality, about a mysterious tomcat who shows up at the narrator's house one day. You might never look at a cat the same way again after reading this one!

I also enjoyed "October in the Chair," which is about the different months of the year sitting around telling tales to each other - it's the kind of tale that gives you a sudden shift of vision, a glimpse at the world in a new light. It's dedicated to Ray Bradbury, whose stories often have that same effect on me.

I very much enjoyed this story collection, as I have all of Neil Gaiman's books that I've read so far. I still prefer novels, of course - and perhaps some of these stories will turn into novels as with "The Witch's Headstone" and The Graveyard Book!

M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen (HarperCollins, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Swede & His Blog: "I think perhaps the best thing I can say about M is for Magic, instead of saying how good a collection it is, how entertaining and well-written it is, is to shove it into the hands of my youngest relatives as soon as possible."
Hello My Name is Alice: "Just let your imagination run wild when reading this."
Thinking Aloud: "
Gaiman’s tales are rendered with haunting and poignant strokes."

Monday, October 27, 2008

I've got the blues...

Budget cuts, the sinking economy, the effect on services - we have all been hearing about it lately. And of course a budget crunch is going to have an impact on the library - despite the fact that as times grow tough, the library offers so many things to those who are having financial difficulty, so it seems a shame to cut the library's services. While my library system has been well supported and does (and will, I hope, continue to) offer a wide range of services to the community, we have been informed of some of the many changes that are to come. It's hard to argue with them, really, as the money isn't there, and we clearly need to cut back.

But still, I'm upset. One of things my library does is offer a summer reading program (SRP) with incentives to encourage children to read over the summer. Kids who read during the summer months return to school with better literacy skills than kids who don't - it's simple, but true. Toward the end of the school year, we children's librarians go around to the public schools to talk up the SRP and get kids excited to come to the library to sign up. We read dozens of books and prepare many book talks for kids in all the different grades with enticing, teasing descriptions of the books we've chosen to highlight for the summer. It's a blast - we use puppets, act things out, use silly props. We tell them all about the different free programs we offer throughout the summer - puppet shows, arts and crafts, clowns, music, live animals, science demonstrations - all kinds of things.

It is so much fun, and it works - the kids come in to sign up - more every year - and they ask for the books that appealed to them from the book talks. The best thing is that we are able to reach many of the children whose parents wouldn't normally take them to the library in the summer. Often the parents come from other countries and are unfamiliar with the wonderful free services provided by the public library. Or maybe they are just not library users. The kids initiate a trip to the library - they get library cards, and their parents become familiar with the library, too. With luck we soon have a family of dedicated library users, and kids who are reading and learning and coming back for more.

Well, not next summer, and maybe not the summer after that. We'll still do the SRP, in a more limited form, but no more school visits, and no more book talks. No more staff programs in the summer. Sigh. It's a depressing prospect. We are thinking about other things we might be able to do, but I feel as though I've just lost the ability to perform an important aspect of my mission as a children's librarian.

So, here I am, feeling sorry for myself (and the kids who might miss out on an important opportunity), and I come across this post by a friend and regular patron of my library. Talk about warm fuzzy feelings! It reminded me that, even though they're taking away some of the whistles and bells, we are still lucky to have the resources we do, and there is still a lot we can do to promote literacy and a love of books, just by being there, being friendly, and making the library a place kids - and their parents - want to be.

The image above has been used under Creative Commons licensing. It is called Melancolia by Thiago Fonseca and illustrates my feelings perfectly! See this page on Flickr for more info.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The first book of Pellinor

Maerad is an orphan, living a difficult life as a slave in a rough, isolated settlement in the country of Edil-Amarandh. She has vague memories of a horrible battle, after which she and her mother were taken into captivity and brought there, although her mother died years earlier. Maerad is now sixteen, and her only possession is the harp her mother had, which she plays occasionally, during special occasions, for the Thane of the holding. The rest of the time life is a long series of dreary chores, punctuated by attempts to protect herself from the spite of her fellow slaves or the unwanted advances of men.

One day as she is milking the cows, she starts to see a stranger standing in the barn. He is a Bard, a singer and keeper of history, endowed with magical Gifts that allow him to speak with animals and influence the minds of others. He immediately recognizes that Maerad is a Bard as well, although she has not been taught and cannot yet use the Speech. He offers to take her with him, although he warns her that he might be bringing her into danger. Maerad doesn't hesitate to leave her hateful life behind, but she doesn't know that she is taking the first steps down a most difficult path, a path that has already been described in prophecies and songs. An epic adventure ensues, with this book only the first part with three more volumes to come.

I am a huge lover of fantasy novels, as anyone who reads this blog will be aware. However, I really need to be in the mood for a big thick high fantasy, and this one sat on my shelf for way too long before I finally decided to pick it up. I was hesitant about making the commitment, not only because it is such a long book, but because it is followed by three more thick ones, and do I really need another series on my tbr pile? Apparently I do!

I was hooked by this book from the very first page. Yes, it has many of the typical elements of a high fantasy novel - the prophesied hero(ine) as an orphan, discovering her true heritage in a world beset by the threat of evil, and long journeys across the countryside, battling creatures of the dark on the way to combat that evil, etc. But there is much that sets this book head and shoulders above its many fictional counterparts. First of all, the storytelling is superb - I felt at once I was in the hands of a master storyteller, and all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the deft weaving of plot, character, setting, and theme.

The characters are quirky and interesting, not at all stereotypical, and the setting is a richly constructed world with its own history and myths, social structure, politics, and well-thought-out magical system. The skillful world-building gave me a true feel for the culture of the place, reminding me very much of Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels. And Croggon's skillful characterization, the way the characters' relationships with each other developed, brought to mind those little humorous respites from the darker action in the Harry Potter books, where friendship flourishes and, even if it's only for a little while, life is just fine. Such moments remind the reader exactly what the heroes and heroines are fighting for - what's at stake - ratcheting up the tension when the plot turns critical.

I thoroughly enjoyed the opening book of this series. Maerad is a strong character, with believable strengths and weaknesses, one I quickly came to care about, along with the other characters who accompany her along her fateful path. I tend to lose patience with fantasy series that have huge casts of characters and constantly switch viewpoints, mainly because I always have one point-of-view character I can't wait to get back to, and have to put up with the other ones meanwhile. Croggon uses an omniscient narrator here, but she tends to stay close to Maerad's point of view most of the time, which makes for a more personal reading experience. While this is just the first volume, and there is clearly much more to come, the book does have its own narrative arc and ends with a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this first book of the Pellinor series, which I am certain will be on my list of favorite books read this year.

Books in the Pellinor series:
1. The Naming
2. The Riddle

3. The Crow
4. The Singing

The Naming (#1 in the Pellinor series) by Alison Croggon (Candlewick Press, 2006 - first published in Australia as The Gift by Penguin Books Australia, 2002)

Also reviewed at:
Someone's Read It Already: "Croggon’s love for her characters, as well as her love of language, poetry, and words, enriches the story from being a fairly typical epic fantasy to something more."
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops: "A fascinating group of characters keep this tale engaging and certainly had me hooked on one of the best fantasy series I have come across."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A wish gone awry

When the princess Melisande is born, her father the king decides they should not have a christening party - after all, everyone knows how those can turn out, because it's nearly impossible not to offend or forget to invite one fairy or other. The queen worries that all the fairies will be offended - and being able to tell the king, "I told you so" is poor comfort when, in fact, her worries come to pass.

The throne room is so full of offended fairies, and Malevola (of "Sleeping Beauty" fame) steps forward first, saying that the princess shall be bald. The king slaps his hand over the next fairy's mouth, and with some quick thinking and smooth talking, he is able to convince the other fairies to go home peacefully. Things could have turned out far worse - and indeed, the little princess is perfectly happy running about with pretty green caps covering her smooth bald head. The queen, however, is despondent about her lovely daughter's lack of hair. The king comforts her that he still has a wish left over from his fairy godmother, and the princess can use it for hair, if she wishes, when she grows up.

When Melisande is grown, however, she could care less about her hair. She wishes for prosperity for her subjects - but they already have that. Her generous wishes for others do not work, because they have already come true. The queen gives her a wish to ask for, and as soon as Melisande repeats her words, the king knows they are in trouble - with hair that grows an inch every day and twice as fast every time it's cut, Melisande is soon beset by hair that is growing completely out of control. Eventually they are so desperate that they fall back on the usual solution - the prince who can solve the problem will have Melisande's hand in marriage. A sweet and amusing tale with sudden twists and unexpected turns ensues, and my children and I enjoyed it very much indeed.

While Melisande is rather passive (as is typical with this sort of fairy tale), and it is left up to the prince to save the day with his quick wits, there were elements in the story that made it surprising to think that it was written over a hundred years ago. The prince asks the princess if she'll marry him should he succeed in solving her problem, and she replies that her father has promised that she will. He tells her, "Your father's promise is nothing to me. I want yours. Will you give it to me?" In this way, they meet on a much more equal footing than in the usual tales, and I liked that!

Melisande is generous and resourceful, finding uses for her hair that succeed in helping the kingdom in a time of need. I also enjoyed the mathematical theme - it reminded me of Demi's retelling of the Indian tale One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale, which also explores this concept in an unforgettable way. This fairy tale is typical of E. Nesbit in that she takes ideas that are not necessarily new or unusual, but reworks them in such a clever way and with such wonderful characters that it becomes something altogether fascinating and unique.

I adored the illustrations of this book - for more on the work of P.J. Lynch, see this wonderful post by Valentina.

Melisande by E. Nesbit; illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Walker Books, 1989)

Also reviewed at:
Geranium Cat's Bookshelf: "This is a lovely subversive fairytale."
Sara's Holds Shelf:
"Having had a love/hate relationship with my own long hair for years, I could really relate to Melisande's plight."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A seafaring adventure in the House

Twelve-year-old Arthur Penhaligon returns in this third installment of the Keys to the Kingdom series. The first two books followed the same general plot: Arthur is drawn into the House, another world in which he must defeat one of the Morrow Days (each named for a day of the week) and retrieve a piece of the Will that the Morrow Days broke into pieces in order to keep it from Arthur, who is the rightful heir. The Morrow Days each appear to represent one of the seven deadly sins (Mister Monday is Pride; Grim Tuesday is Greed, etc.) I wondered if the third book in the series would follow in the same way - but of course, having read quite a few books by Garth Nix at this point, I shouldn't have bothered to ask.

Yes, Arthur must retrieve a piece the Will from Drowned Wednesday, but his path in this book is quite different from the others, and this particular Morrow Day is completely unlike the ones we've met before. The story begins on Wednesday, of course, the third day in the "real world" since Arthur discovered that he is the rightful heir. Time passes differently in the House, and Arthur returns from each adventure only moments after he left. He is in the hospital after having broken his leg during his adventures in Grim Tuesday, and he receives an invitation to meet Drowned Wednesday. He realizes he's going back to the House, whether he wants to or not.

His classmate Leaf, who helped him out in earlier books but has no idea what is going on, stops by Arthur's hospital room. She is dying to know what is really happening, and Arthur finds himself telling her the truth. She is envious - it all sounds so exciting to her. But when a wave of water comes crashing through the hospital wall and carries them off on Arthur's bed to a watery world of pirates, gigantic rats and sea monsters, Leaf might have to revise her opinions. Once again Arthur is out of his league but does his best to set matters to rights. He appears more resigned to his responsibilities in this book, which is a good thing because his resistance to taking up his place as the rightful heir grows tiresome after a while. He seems more confident in this book, no longer looking to everyone else to help him solve problems, but rather sizing up the talents and abilities of those around him in order to discover effective approaches to problems on his own.

I have listened to this entire series in audio format; they are all excellent productions - the narrator, Allan Corduner is a wonderful storyteller. I enjoyed spending more time with Leaf, and it is always great to see the feisty Suzy Turquoise Blue, who has been Arthur's companion in the House since the first book. I look forward to listening to Arthur's continuing adventures in the House, especially as this book takes a most unexpected direction at the very end!

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

Drowned Wednesday (#3 in the Keys to the Kingdom series) by Garth Nix; narrated by Allan Corduner (Listening Library, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
ReadingAdventures: "If I was a bit disappointed in Grim Tuesday, it is fair to say that I was delighted with this installment in the Keys to the Kingdom series."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On the Prowl

This anthology contains three novellas and one shorter story at the end. All feature strong women protagonists who have some sort of supernatural or paranormal characteristic - a werewolf, a psychic, a shapechanger. I picked it up because I enjoy books by Patricia Briggs and Karen Chance, and while I unfortunately read it out of order (read this before Briggs' new book, Cry Wolf, to get the most from it) as far as the Alpha and Omega series goes, I still enjoyed it very much.

Briggs' story, "Alpha and Omega," opens the anthology with a bang, setting in motion the chain of events that brings Anna, an abused werewolf, together with Charles - a relationship that neither one expected, and that is sure to define Briggs' new series. While I admittedly prefer Mercy Thompson as a lead character - I love her feisty spirit - I found I soon became involved in Anna's story. She appears at first to be a rather weak and ineffectual character, but eventually reveals hidden strengths that make her relationship with Charles all the more intriguing.

Eileen Wilks' story, "Inhuman," is a paranormal mystery with a touch of romance. The heroine is Kai, a telepath who keeps very quiet about a certain aspect of her abilities. She has become friends with a cop named Nathan, who has some secrets of his own. A killer is on the loose, and it seems that Kai is its target, but there's something odd going on that is likely to push the friends' secrets - and their feelings for each other - out into the open. I've never read anything by Wilks, but I found this story intriguing, with appealing characters and an unusual premise. I do not know if these are characters she's written about before, but I'd like to read more of her work.

"Buying Trouble" by Karen Chance is set in the same world as her Cassandra Palmer series, although it focuses on a different character, a psychic null named Claire who is using her abilities to nullify magic in her thankless job at an auction house. Her presence makes theft and foul play (at least using magical aids) less likely to happen, but the appearance of a magnetically handsome man and a peculiar artifact throw Claire into a different world where startling revelations await. This story and Briggs' story were my two favorites in the book, and I hope that Chance will write more about Claire and her unique situation. This one was a definite thrill ride, full of action, romance and humor.

I didn't much care for the final story in the anthology, "Mona Lisa Betwining" by Sunny. The other stories took care to be complete stories with characters who were introduced to the reader, even if the settings came from other, previous works. This one had me baffled from start to finish - it felt as though I'd opened a book in the middle of a story and started reading from there. The premise, as I understood it, was a woman who has grown up in the human world finds herself ruling a society of werewolves, or "children of the moon," and her unique human outlook gives her a perspective that will make her position challenging. Oh, and there's a man she's attracted to who chases her through the woods, and they have a romantic interlude that was fairly meaningless to me, as I had no idea who he was or why her relationship with him was important to the story.

That last one did not make me particularly interested in further exploring other books by Sunny, but the other three stories more than made up for one disappointment. For readers who enjoy novels by these authors, the stories are a fun way to experience another corner of these fictional worlds. For those who are thinking about giving one of the series a try, the anthology provides a great introduction to the authors' characters and writing styles. I enjoyed that the stories were long enough to give a satisfying read, rather than just a tantalizing taste of a story.

On the Prowl by Patricia Briggs, Eileen Wilks, Karen Chance, and Sunny (Berkley Books, 2007)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Enola Holmes is back - and better than ever!

I am always delighted when a new book comes out in Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes series. This book is the fourth, and it is the best one yet! Enola is Sherlock Holmes's little sister, whose mother took off in the first book, leaving Enola on her own. Enola's big brothers are much older than she is, and, of course, they think they know what's best for her. They want her to give up her "hoydenish" ways, put on a corset and attend a boarding school for genteel young ladies - a fate worse than death to the brilliant, creative and highly independent Enola. Luckily Enola's education, thanks to her eccentric, suffragist mother, includes exactly the sort of skill set that enables Enola to thwart her brothers and lead the sort of life she prefers.

This installment of the series opens in the London ladies' lavatory, where Enola is astonished to run into Lady Cecily, in the young woman from The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, in the company of two horrible woman who appear to be keeping her against her will. Enola quickly realizes that Lady Cecily is in great trouble, but when she hurries to follow her friend, she runs into her brother Mycroft. Mycroft and Sherlock have been searching for her since she escaped their clutches (and the dreadful boarding-school fate) eight months earlier. In her struggle to evade Mycroft, Enola is left with a cold trail to follow. Futher investigations reveal that Lady Cecily is in desperate straits indeed - but helping her will be a challenge, as Enola's every move makes her own whereabouts more likely to be discovered by her brothers.

I love that this series stays so true to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories and the Victorian time period with the mysteries and the setting and the characters. Sherlock Holmes is such a product of that society that he honestly cannot fathom why his sister acts as she does - although in this book, it seems, he is finally beginning to gain a better understanding of her. Enola is brilliant and brave, but also touchingly vulnerable. She's living all alone now that her mother has left, and while she clearly idolizes Sherlock, she can't trust him, as much as she'd love to, and it is so difficult for her to maintain her distance from the one person who might possibly begin to understand her. The mystery is fun, and it is always a pleasure to witness the resourceful Enola at work on a case - but what really has me hooked is the story of her personal journey, trying to make her way in a society that has no use for a woman of her intelligence and skills, and the bittersweet relationship she has with her brothers. I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment in this captivating mystery series.

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
4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan

The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (#4 in the Enola Holmes series) by Nancy Springer (Philomel Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Mistsandstars: "This is an intelligent, fast paced, well written series that will charm and intrigue you."
InkweaverReview: "Enola’s innovative disguises, fascinating searches for clues, and desperate escapes from Sherlock and Mycroft keep her story exciting from start to finish."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A perilous underground quest

Summer is not starting out well for eleven-year-old Gregor. Instead of getting to go to camp, like his seven-year-old sister, he is stuck in roasting hot New York City babysitting his two-year-old sister, Boots, while also keeping an eye on his grandmother, who his some issues with her memory. His mother has to work full time in order to support them, and since his father disappeared two years earlier, life has been fairly rough on all of them. It really takes its toll on Gregor, though, who is clearly having to grow up quickly and assume more responsibilities than a typical eleven-year-old American boy.

One day Gregor takes Boots with him down to the laundry room in the basement of the building. Boots is a sunny child, and she entertains herself while Gregor sorts clothes and loads the machine. When he looks up and suddenly his sister is nowhere in sight, Gregor panics, searching all over the laundry room for her. Finally he sees her disappearing through a grate in the wall. He runs to her and grabs onto her legs to pull her out, but instead finds himself being sucked into the air chute himself. Soon he and Boots are falling in a slow, drifting sort of way reminiscent of Alice down the rabbit hole (although here, the slowness is explained by strange air currents).

When they reach the bottom they find themselves in a bizarre, frightening world of enormous rats, cockroaches and bats. They meet people who live in a beautiful hidden city, who speak in an odd but pleasant way, and who lead lives that Gregor can barely begin to comprehend. Before long Gregor is caught up in a quest that had been prophesied generations earlier, a quest that is harrowing, dangerous - in fact, it's downright deadly.

I have been hearing good things about this series from many of the young patrons of my library, and at first I resisted - do I really need another series to get caught up in? When I saw the audiobook, I decided that would be a good way to check it out, and I was very glad I did. Not only is it a riveting adventure tale, but it involves well-developed characters whom I came to truly care about. I loved Gregor's relationship with little Boots - while at times he grew impatient with her (what eleven-year-old wouldn't?), their interactions were so sweet and real, and Boots, a child with very little vocabulary, effortlessly worms her way into the hearts of everyone around her, including this reader.

I enjoyed the dynamics of the characters' relationships, particularly those on the quest, who are of different species and backgrounds. It was an effective portrayal of people with a common goal trying to work together, even though under normal circumstances they would not spend much time together at all. This would be a great choice for a children's book club or a group classroom read, because there are many fascinating discussion points. I very much enjoyed Paul Boehmer's excellent narration; he truly brought the story to life with his expressive storytelling style.

For those of you who are reluctant to start a new series: it appears this one concludes with book five. I will doubtless be disappointed when that happens, but for now, it feels good to know the this series is not an open-ended commitment! While this first volume has a very definite and satisfying conclusion, there is certainly room for the story to continue. I look forward to following the further adventures of Gregor (and, I hope, Boots) in the Underland.

Books in the Underland Chronicles:

1. Gregor the Overlander
2. Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
3. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
4. Gregor and the Marks of Secret
5. Gregor and the Code of Claw

Gregor the Overlander (#1 in The Underland Chronicles) by Suzanne Collins; read by Paul Boehmer (Listening Library, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Julie Sternberg: "You'll forget the roaches are roaches. You'll even grow to like them. Really."
Novel Reads: "Gregor the Overlander is one fantastic thrill ride for readers of any age."

An evocative Halloween tale

My children and I have been reading through all their favorite Halloween picture books, which is a fun family tradition (we pack them up with the Halloween decorations, then bring them out once a year, which makes them extra special). This year I also read The Halloween Tree to them, as I had such fond memories of reading it when I was a child.

It is a story about a group of friends, all boys, who can't wait to go trick-or-treating on a cool, gusty Halloween night. They are each dressed up like a different classic Halloween character: a ghost, a witch, a mummy, a skeleton, a grim reaper, and so on. They're all gathered together when they realize one of them is missing - their dear, wonderful friend Pipkin, who is the sort of exuberant, full-of-great-ideas kid that makes everything seem much more fun when he's around. They hurry to his house - but horror upon horrors, Pipkin is sick. He looks awful, but he insists he will catch up to them. He tells them to go across the ravine, and he'll meet them.

Across the ravine, the boys encounter a creepy old house, the quintessential haunted house, complete with a Jacob Marley knocker and a dilapidated, creaky front porch. Around back, they discover a wondrous sight: an enormous tree with thousands of lit jack-o-lanterns hanging from it. They meet a tall, mysterious man who introduces himself as Mr. Moundshround. He takes them on a whirlwind journey into the past and across the world in search of their friend Pipkin, and on the way they discover truths about the deep dark past of Halloween.

This story is all about the telling. It evokes the spirit of autumn, of childhood and friendship, of the mystery and excitement that is Halloween night, creating images with words that are more poetry than prose. At first my children were a bit impatient with it, particularly the younger one, who is only seven; as usual, Bradbury pulls no punches with the vocabulary. I advised them to let the words wash over them, let them form pictures in their minds - and that seemed to work. The nine-year-old appeared to enjoy it a bit more - and in fact, I think they'll get a lot more out of it a few years from now. But still, the story has stayed with them, and as different aspects of Halloween present themselves to us, the girls often recall this scene or image that character or setting from the novel.

This is, however, definitely a boys' book. I have loved it for years, but, as with many of Bradbury's stories I read as a child, it always left me feeling a bit excluded, as though I were standing with my nose pressed against the glass of a marvelous world of baseball and spaceships and distant planets in which boys seemed to have most of the fun. My girls seemed a bit puzzled by the statement that one of the great things about Pipkin was that he "hated girls more than all the other boys in the gang combined." But still, we all enjoyed it. And who can evoke the spirit of Halloween better than Ray Bradbury?

Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallow's Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up from a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (Knopf, 1972)

Also reviewed at:
Design with Spine: "It's pretty much mandatory for me to read Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree every October."
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog: "This was a fabulous book (and movie) and should be shared with the entire family."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Terry Pratchett fans, check this out!

First of all, check out Nymeth's wonderful interview with Lawrence Watt-Evans, author of many wonderful books including, most recently, The Turtle Moves. She is giving away two copies of The Turtle Moves (to residents of North America) - just stop by her post at the above link and leave a comment asking to be entered in the drawing. Spread the word at your own blog, and you get an additional two entries!

Victoria Gardella picks up the pieces

I enjoyed the first two book in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, which I discovered last year through Chris and Carl V.'s book reviews (thanks, guys - and I got a kick out of seeing your names in the Acknowledgments section!). Now seemed the perfect time of year to read the third book in the series, as part of my fun, creepy Halloween season reads. Some spoilers to the other two books may follow - I highly recommend starting with the first book if you are interested in this series. Gleason does a marvelous job of filling readers in on earlier events, but there's a much greater payoff if you start at the beginning.

This book begins with Victoria, now the leader of the vampire-slaying Venators, trying to shoulder her new responsibilities while continuing to grieve for the loss she suffered at the end of the second book. Her duties as Venator continually take her away from the typical life of an upper-class Regency-era woman, while also stripping her of the people around her she loves most. Victoria has learned a great deal so far, not only about herself, but about her duties, which she agreed to perform when she accepted her life as a Venator. Young as she was, she had no real idea what she was agreeing to, but there is no doubt of the importance of her role as the Gardella, and she soldiers forward as best she can.

This installment in the chronicles is set in 19th-century Rome and involves a mysterious locked door to an alchemist's abandoned workroom, a demon who is gathering an army of supporters, and a plot to take take away from Victoria that which she holds most dear. Max is back, as taciturn and arrogant as ever, yet with a new vulnerability that leaves Victoria unsure how to handle their relationship. Sebastian returns as well, as does Victoria's irresistible attraction to him, and an interesting secret about him is revealed. Sebastian's grandfather, a powerful and attractive vampire, shows a keen interest in Victoria, and Sebastian's loyalties appear to be neatly divided between the two.

Colleen Gleason has definitely hit her stride with this book. It begins with a slow build-up that establishes an evocative setting, complex characters, and complicated motives. Then everything is set in motion, and a whirlwind ride ensues, careening on to an action-packed, twisting, turning finish. What I enjoy most about these books is the combination of dark suspense, romance, and humor. I go from biting my nails to laughing out loud and right back again - it's a lot of fun. I also enjoy the fact that it is always eminently clear exactly what is at stake: no one is safe, and likable characters can - and do - suffer and die. I'm pleased that the fourth book has already been published, and I look forward to returning to the dark world of the Venators.

Books in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles:
1. The Rest Falls Away
2. Rises the Night
3. The Bleeding Dusk
4. When Twilight Burns
5. As Shadows Fade

The Bleeding Dusk (#3 in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles) by Colleen Gleason (Signet Eclipse, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Stainless Steel Droppings: "Heavens above, the last 100 or so pages of this novel felt like riding on a roller coaster with a never-ending plummet!"
Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic: "I enjoyed the first two books in this series....a lot. But Colleen Gleason kicked it up a notch with The Bleeding Dusk."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "The finale of this book is every bit as heart pounding as “that scene” in Rises the Night. Just wait."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Moist von Lipwig is back!

I so enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Going Postal, particularly in audio format (read by Stephen Briggs), that I was delighted to find that not only is there a sequel, but Stephen Briggs narrates it! Making Money picks up not too long after Going Postal ends, and we see Moist chafing at having a risk-free, steady, boring life. Particularly as Adora Belle, the woman he loves, has been away for a while (she's up to something a bit mysterious involving dwarfs and golems and mining).

Moist starts creating pointless situations that involve risk taking - yet when he is offered an opportunity "to make money" from Lord Vetinari, he turns it down. Still...something niggles at him, as he continues to go about his nice, safe, ordinary life. Finally, Moist takes the bait and soon is facing daunting new challenge, this time involving the royal mint. And of course, he finds himself immediately (and delightfully) way over his head.

Moist is a lovable character because he is so clever and wily, thinks quickly on his feet, has his heart in the right place, but is at heart a bit of a scoundrel. (But only to those who deserve it). He really likes people, and people sense that, and for that reason (to the unending despair of Moist's enemies), they trust him. Before long Moist is embroiled in a hilarious situation involving mad scientists, an army of golems, a little bug-eyed dog named Mr. Fusspott (who also happens to be the chairman of the bank), hidden rooms, necromancy (oops, I mean post-mortem communications - because necromancy is, of course, illegal), a man with very peculiar teeth, and an unforgettable villain.

I find Pratchett's books to be so effective because of their humor, their wonderful characters, insanely creative premises that just tickle my funnybone, and their wicked, cutting satire and social commentary. I never know what's going to happen next, and I just sit back and enjoy the ride. I hadn't read any Discworld novels lately, but I've so enjoyed the ones I've read this year that I've decided to go back and reread them all in order. I recommend reading this one after Going Postal, but you don't really have to read any of the others to enjoy and understand these two. If you are in a reading slump or are looking for something to take your mind off the "real" world, I highly recommend one of Terry Pratchett's novels. The "real" world is as present there as here, but when you come back from Discworld, you'll feel a lot more optimistic about this world!

Books in the Discworld series:
1. The Color of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort
5. Sourcery
6. Wyrd Sisters
7. Pyramids
8. Guards, Guards
9. Eric
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
18. Maskerade
19. Feet of Clay
20. Hogfather
21. Jingo
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. The Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. Nightwatch
29. Monstrous Regiment
30. Going Postal
31. Thud
32. Making Money


Making Money by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Stephen Briggs (Landmark Audiobooks, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Framed and Booked: ..."the narrator of this audiobook did such a delightful job of capturing the different voices and giving them such great nuances that I can't imagine reading can be better."
Things Mean a Lot: "I am in awe of how many intelligent, wise, insightful, perceptive and interesting characters Terry Pratchett has created."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Alpha and Omega

This book is the first book in a new spin-off series to Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson books, which I discovered late last year. I enjoyed them so much that I've been going back to read Briggs' earlier books - she is an excellent storyteller.

CryWolf opens with Anna Latham, a young woman (and werewolf) who is traveling with two men readers of the Mercy Thompson series will already be familiar with: Bran, the Marrok (werewolf leader) and his son, Charles. Charles has been seriously wounded in an event that occured earlier, which included the rescue of the abused Anna from a dysfunctional werewolf pack.

During the first part of this novel, I kept feeling that I had missed something - it felt as though I'd mistakenly picked up the second book in a series. I even went online to make sure this was, in fact the first book - it is.

It wasn't until a few days after I finished it that I happened to pick up an anthology called On the Prowl in which I serendipitously found a novella called "Alpha and Omega," which tells the first part of this story. While the novel does cover, very generally, what happens in that story, I felt it was a huge mistake to leave it out. They should have reprinted it in the beginning of the novel, because it introduces the main characters in such a way that their motives immediately become clear and understandable. Without it, we are told, not shown, and that weakens the beginning of the book.

Aside from my gripe about the beginning of the novel, however, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book. I was initially reluctant to lose the focus on Mercy, who is an extremely admirable and sympathetic character, but Anna's story gripped me from the start. After a horrible experience with her old werewolf pack, she is leaving with Bran and Charles, to whom she feels a deep, inexplicable attraction. For the first time in years she feels safe. Charles tells her she is an Omega wolf, but she doesn't quite understand what that means. And there will be little time to find out. Barely arrived at her new home, she and Charles are sent out into the Montana wilderness to track down something dark and powerful that is threatening the very existance of her new pack.

There are point-of-view shifts that take us into the minds of other characters, and they serve to add a greater depth to the story. As with all of Briggs' books, there is excellent characterization and effective dialogue, as well as an intriguing plot. This one has a sizzling dash of romance and a chillingly wicked foe to fight. While I'm very excited about the new Mercy Thompson novel (Bone Crossed) that's due out in February, I'll be looking forward to this next book in the Alpha and Omega series, too.

Cry Wolf (#1 in the Alpha and Omega series) by Patricia Briggs (Ace Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
The Good, the Bad, the Unread: "Cry Wolf is a great start to what is probably going to be a wonderful series."
Jaybleland: "I also enjoyed the point of view of the story changing from Anna, to Charles, to Bran, to Asil. I love Mercy Thompson voice, but I really enjoyed the multiple perspectives in this book."
SciFiGuy.ca: "Anna is a unique werewolf and very different from shapeshifter Mercy. It will be interesting to see how she fits into future plans and appearances in the Mercy Thompson universe."

Friday, October 10, 2008

The sister's tale

Sometimes I'm resistant to reading a book in a series when the protagonist is a different person from the one I've come to expect - there's always an initial period of adjustment until I get caught up in the story. In this case, however, I was pleased to find that the story follows the life of Emily, younger sister to Kate, who was featured in the first book. Kate's story comes to a satisfying conclusion in the first book of the trilogy, but I was left to wonder about Emily, who had taken the whole going-to-live-with-the-goblins-underground event so very much in stride.

This volume also features Seylin, Emily's friend from the first book who can take the form of a cat, but who, in goblin form, is made fun of by his peers because of his strikingly handsome elvish features. Emily doesn't think about his looks one way or another - to her, he's a very good friend. In fact, she misunderstands when Seylin becomes romantically interested in her, and her rebuff sends him out of goblin territory in a search for people more like himself: the elves. The storyline alternates between Seylin's quest for his heritage and Emily's quest to find Seylin and set matters straight between them. Marak, the goblin king, appears to have greater control - and interest - in the situation than either of them suspects.

I enjoyed this second book in the trilogy, although it was a bit darker than the first one. The lives of the elves are wretched indeed, as is the sense of hopelessness as far as the possibility of goblins and elves ever being reconciled. There is something that is fundamentally wrong about a society that must abduct women from other races in order to survive, and that issue is never really addressed in either of the first two books. True, the captives become, for the most part, reconciled to their imprisonment underground, and some truly grow to be happy. But still, I can't help but wonder if the third volume will address this issue. The characters are the true strength of this series, and I am very much looking forward to reading the conclusion to this compelling trilogy.

Books in the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy:
1. The Hollow Kingdom
2. Close Kin
3. In the Coils of the Snake

Close Kin (Book 2 of The Hollow Kingdom trilogy) by Clare B. Dunkle (Henry Hold and Company, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Here, There, and Everywhere: "I totally enjoyed this book... almost, as much as book one. I can't help it... Marak was such a great character in book one that it will hold the top spot to this trilogy I am sure."
Read_Warbler: "I liked its humour, its pacey plot, the characters are all very real with weaknesses as well as strengths and I liked the satisfying ending. I have no complaints whatsoever. Excellent."
Someone's Read It Already: "Overall, I’d say it’s got some problems, but for those who enjoyed the first volume, this will be a necessary bridge to the third volume and, of course, an integral portion of the story."

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

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hunter and prey

In the first book of in the Morgan Kingley series, Morgan, an exorcist in a world where demon/human "partnerships" are the norm, comes up against some very powerful demons and manages to survive. But along the way she begins to suspect that there is more about her past than her family has ever let on. In this second installment, Morgan's life is at risk - a sociopathic demon called, simply, "The Hunter" is on her trail. Even the other demons are frightened of him, which doesn't make Morgan feel any better about her situation.

Spoilers for those who haven't read the first book follow - so you may want to stop reading here. Morgan is still hosting the exiled demon king Lugh, and she is able to converse with him via her dreams. Lugh senses a block in her memory, urging her to confront it - if she doesn't understand her past, how can she hope to combat a situation that may well have roots in that past? Morgan resists his advice, but quickly realizes that he is right. How can it be that Lugh, one of the hated demons, has become her ally? More than an ally, perhaps, if Morgan's increasing attraction to him has any significance. If it's in her dreams, does it count? If it doesn't count, then why does she feel guilty about it when she's awake, and the only one she really wants to be with is her boyfriend - ex-boyfriend - Brian.

Morgan is forced to team up with people she can't quite bring herself to trust, but whose help she needs. Nothing is black and white in her world, nothing is quite what it seems - and nothing is ever easy. I enjoyed this second book in the series - it further develops Morgan's character, and it was interesting to watch her struggle to come to terms not only with issues from her past, but with her dawning realization that demons can be as unpredictable and multi-dimensional as humans. I did find myself wishing that Morgan would use her area of expertise - she's supposed to be a kick-ass exorcist, after all - more effectively instead of being bounced around as a constant reaction to the events of the book. Maybe it's just me, but I wanted her unique abilities to play a more substantial role in the plot - otherwise, what's the point of making her an exorcist in the first place?

While I'm still feeling that this series is more of a tide-me-over-till-the-next-book-comes-out-in-a-beloved-series series, it's growing on me, and I am becoming intrigued by the human/demon social issues that are at the center of these books. Morgan is an admirable heroine, and I do love a character that's constantly getting into precarious situations. So I am looking forward to reading the forthcoming book when it is released next month!

Books in the Morgan Kingsley series:
1. The Devil Inside
2. The Devil You Know
3. The Devil's Due

4. Speak of the Devil (forthcoming)

The Devil You Know (#2 in the Morgan Kingsley series) by Jenna Black (Dell Spectra, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Amberkatze's Book Blog: "I did enjoy it but I also have to say that it wasn't better than the first book."
Darque Reviews: "Ms. Black crafts a well-detailed storyline and keeps readers fully engrossed while she exposes the heroine’s strengths and weaknesses."
SciFiGuy.ca: "Morgan is a complex character; vulnerable and courageous, with a dash of self-deprecating humour."

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Will the real witch please stand up?

Larwood House is a boarding school that houses many "witch orphans" - children of witches who have been burned at the stake. Therefore, when a note appears among some papers on a teacher's desk that says, "Someone in this class is a witch," it is an extremely serious accusation, for this is a world in which being a witch results in an immediate death sentence.

The narrative alternates among several of the students in class 6B. There's Nan Pilgrim, who is the butt of everyone's jokes, particularly in gym class, where she can never do anything right. When everyone learns that she is a direct descendent of the most infamous witch in history, her life goes from miserable to unendurable. There's Charles Morgan, who is a loner. He keeps to himself to the point of making up a code for the mandatory daily journal entry so that he can write about personal things without any of the teachers realizing what he's talking about. There's Brian Wentworth, son one of the Larwood House teachers, who is constantly being bullied by the very students all the faculty think so highly of. And Nirumpam Singh, who manages to successfully navigate his way through the complex social issues at the school - and seems to know more than he lets on.

Soon everyone is looking at everyone else, wondering who the witch can be. Because there is no doubt that very strange things are happening - from the dozens of unusual birds who suddenly fly through the music room window to the mysterious disappearance - and reappearance in an enormous jumbled pile - of hundreds of shoes owned by everyone at the school, faculty and staff alike. An inquisitor will be called in - and inquisitors possess devices that can immediately and infallibly identify a witch - who will inevitably be put to death, even if he - or she - is only a child. Chaos ensues, resulting in an hilarious and suspenseful roller-coaster ride to the finish.

I read this one aloud to my children (7 and 9) as a fun pre-Halloween read, and we all enjoyed it. They had some difficulty keeping the many characters straight, however, especially at the beginning of the book. The plot is action-packed with lots of twists and turns, and they always clamored for more whenever I had to close the book. They also had a lot of fun speculating about who was the witch and why. We had some great conversations about it, and it was fun to watch them take clues from the text and run with them. This is a funny, exciting read, and it also explores important issues such as prejudice and the danger of false accusations and malicious rumors, which face children(not to mention adults), even in nonmagical worlds.

While this book stands perfectly well on its own, it is probably best to read the Chrestomanci books in the order listed below. This was a reread for me, and I'd actually forgotten it was part of the Chrestomanci Chronicles (much to my children's annoyance when I admitted it), so I will go back and read them the others in the proper order. Reading - and rereading - Diana Wynne Jones's books is always a treat!

Books in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci (This is the order in which Diana Wynne Jones recommends they be read):
1. Charmed Life
2.
The Lives of Christopher Chant
3. Conrad's Fate
4. Witch Week
5. The Magicians of Caprona
6. Any of the short story collections
7. The Pinhoe Egg

Witch Week (#3 in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci) by Diana Wynne Jones (Bullseye Books, 1982)

Also reviewed at:
Rhinoa's Ramblings

Other B&OT reviews of Diana Wynne Jones's books:
The Game
Deep Secret
The House of Many Ways
The Pinhoe Egg


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Make up your list, and check it twice!

If you haven't made up your list of favorite books you've read that were published in 2008, please consider taking the time to put one together. Dewey has a fabulous idea of getting everyone's input and coming up with a top ten book-bloggers' 2008 list! Click here for more details. The deadline is October 25, so you can make your list now and edit it as necessary until then. I've already added a few titles to my list from last week.

All you need to do is post a list on your blog, and then stop by The Hidden Side of a Leaf and leave your link. That way all the links are in one convenient location for compiling everyone's suggestions. Join in, it's fun! Plus, think about all the great book suggestions that will result from Dewey's (and her helpers') ambitious endeavor! And if that's not enough incentive, Dewey is also giving away books to those who participate and leave links to their lists by October 11th. So what are you waiting for?!

Jacky rides again!

Jacky Faber has got to be one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. She is jaw-droppingly resourceful and clever and a fiercely loyal friend. She has an unrepentant love of being in the spotlight, a fabulous sense of humor and the heart of an adventurer. When a new Jacky Faber novel comes out, I do the happy dance all around my library. No one is surprised - they roll their eyes and give each other a knowing look. They've gotten used to me over the years. :-)

This sixth installment of the series opens with Jacky sitting on the hatch of her lovely little schooner, relaxed and happy as a lark, chatting with her dear friend Higgins. Of course her time of peaceful pleasure is destined to be short, because Jacky tumbles from one adventure to another (and if she didn't, her readership would be sorely disappointed!). A set of sails appears over the horizon, and before we know it Jacky is in over her head once again. This time her adventures take her into the brig of a British naval ship, up the steps to the guillotine, on the stage of a ballet theater, and across battlefields with the troops of Napoleon's army. It's all in a day's work for Jacky, who finds herself in one tangled situation after another.

I thoroughly enjoyed this rollicking adventure novel, as I have every one of the Bloody Jack books. It was a nice change to see Jacky taken out of her element (aboard ships) and given some entirely new situations to challenge her abilities. Along with all the action, there are occasions of introspection - Jacky's adventures do not leave her unchanged; each one is a personal journey in a series of coming-of-age tales that leave her a stronger, wiser person. I did miss spending time with old favorite characters, but we are given many new ones to come to know and enjoy, and there are, as always, some characters from the past who show up to surprise Jacky and the reader - plus a dash of romance to keep things lively. This book could stand alone, as it has its own narrative arc and conclusion, but it is best read in the order of the series. It would be a shame to miss out on any of Jacky' past adventures, and this one gains greater depth in the context of preceding events. I highly recommend this book as well as the entire series. I just wish Meyer could write these books as quickly as I read them...

Books in the Bloody Jack series:
1. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy
2. Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady
3. Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber 4. In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber
5. Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and the Lily of the West
6. My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War
7. Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy

My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War
(#6 in the Jacky Faber series) by L.A. Meyer (Harcourt, Inc., 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog
Pink Elephants and Black Balloons

Monday, October 6, 2008

The perfect Halloween read

Some schools have a very cool program called "DEAR" - Drop Everything and Read. Basically, at a certain time of the day, they all stop what they're doing and read for 30 minutes. Don't you wish they had that at work? Anyway, there are some authors whose books, when they come out, make me drop everything I'm currently reading and immediately start reading the new book. That happened with this one, which I've been waiting for with great anticipation, particularly as it's the Halloween season, my favorite time of year for spooky reads.

The book opens with a fairly chilling scene: a killer is silently making his way through a house at night, methodically (and with a repellent sort of quiet glee) killing each member of the family. We see no blood or violence, but it is clear what is happening. When the man gets to the last and youngest member of the family, he finds the crib empty. The child is a bit of an escape artist and, finding the front door ajar, he has toddled outside and up the street to the cemetery. Jack, the killer, is clearly not an ordinary assassin. He sniffs the air and effortlessly follows the child's trail. Little does he expect the baby to see the ghosts that congregate there, nor that the spirit of the boy's dead mother will appeal to them to save her son.

That boy, called Bod, short for Nobody, is raised in the graveyard by the ghosts and a mysterious guardian, for it is the only place where he can be safe. His new family tries the best they can to ensure he learns the important lessons he'll need in order to survive - not just as a living, human boy - for they know that the threat that initially pursued him to the cemetery is still out there, waiting for him to venture beyond the graveyard fence.

I loved this book. It is essentially a coming-of-age story, but with, of course, an interesting twist. The fantastical elements not only add a delicious sense of peril, but they serve as a compelling means of exploring the human psyche, of defining what, in the end, it really means to be human. I loved the characters, Bod's ghostly parents, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, his guardian Silas, and the young witch who was buried in the unconsecrated land beside the cemetery. The setting was so evocative that I feel as though I've strolled through the graveyard, slipped through the ivy, and sat with my back against the sun-warmed side of a crypt. This is sure to become one of my favorites to reread during the Halloween season. I highly recommend it!

For some extra fun, you can visit Neil Gaiman's website to see a very cool video tour: "At each stop on the tour, Neil will read one chapter from The Graveyard Book. Beginning on October 1st, we will post the video readings daily. By the end of the tour, on October 9th, you will be able to watch the master storyteller himself read The Graveyard Book in its entirety right here."

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean (HarperCollins, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Stainless Steel Droppings
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

Other B&OT reviews of Neil Gaiman's books:
Anansi Boys
The Dangerous Alphabet
Interworld
The Wolves in the Walls

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A secret in the attic

Twelve-year-old Henry goes to live with his aunt, uncle and three cousins after his parents are kidnapped while traveling in South America. Henry's parents are ridiculously overprotective, to the point of not allowing Henry to join in on many normal childhood activities, so Henry is delighted when he gets to ride in the back of his Uncle's pickup truck on the way back from the train station.

He is given a room up in the attic, a small space that has been partitioned off from the rest of the larger room, and his three cousins, all girls, seem fairly welcoming, as do the neighborhood boys, who invite Henry to join in on their baseball games. One day he notices something odd about the wall in his attic room: the plaster is cracking, and beneath the plaster there are faint outlines. He chips the plaster away with his new pocket knife (a gift from his uncle, something his parents never would have permitted him to own), and discovers dozens of cupboards of all shapes and sizes hidden beneath. He can peek through the cupboards, but he can't fit through. He sees all kinds of strange things in each one - a post office, a beautiful meadow, something dark and foreboding...

Henry and his eldest cousin, Henrietta, can't help but explore the mystery and wonder the cupboards have to offer. There is much they don't know - how to open each one, where they lead - and how to get to the tantalizing places they see. Their exploration sets loose something dark and dangerous that threatens Henry and his family, and he and Henrietta must find a way to set things right before it's too late.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and it was an interesting tale with lots of twists and turns. The narrative did seem to lack focus in certain sections, though, adding extraneous details and scenes that, in the end, did not contribute much to the book as a whole. The characters never reached that place in my mind in which they formed as wholly believable people - they seemed to behave in a way that suited the author's intentions rather than the characters' personalities. For example (minor spoiler here), Henry's uncle tells him that Henry's parents are not, in fact, his real parents. Henry basically shrugs and moves on with things - never once asking - or wondering - who his real parents are...until it's convenient to the narrative. There were several occasions like this that threw me out of the story because it suddenly wasn't believable.

This appears to be the first in a series, which is good because there are so very many questions that are never answered in this book, particularly the origin of the cupboards. Also, almost all of the action centered around the house in Kansas, and I for one was eager to see more of what lay in the lands through the cupboard doors. Maybe subsequent books will explore these mysterious possibilities. I hope so!

One Hundred Cupboards by N.D. Wilson; narrated by Russell Horton (Listening Library, 2007)

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Dingo

Miguel is a senior in high school, and life seems pretty normal, pretty predictable. He goes to school, helps his dad in his music store, hangs out with his friends. It doesn't seem like anything will ever change - until the day Lainey walks into the store, accompanied by her enormous dog. There's something about her, something that makes the whole rest of the world pale in comparison, and when strange things start to happen, he is able, more or less, to take them in stride, because of Lainey, how he feels about her, how she seems to feel about him.

There is certainly more to Lainey than meets the eye, strange things, mysterious things - and, it turns out, a sort of ancestral curse. Miguel finds himself in the company of Johnny Ward, a violent teen from his school that he'd had a few run-ins with in the past. Johnny is needed to help break the curse, but even though Miguel sees there's more to him than he'd imagined, he is certainly not to be trusted. Events carry them to a world before time, to the spiritland of the ancient Australian deities, to the place where a very powerful being awaits them...

I enjoyed this YA novel, as I do all of Charles de Lint's books. I love the way he weaves mythology with contemporary life, the magical with the commonplace. This one was fairly simple by his standards, a straightforward telling with few surprises for the careful reader, yet with characters to care about, and the marvellous sense of wonder that is always present in de Lint's work.

Dingo by Charles de Lint (Firebird, 2008)

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Melody's Reading Corner
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Wonderful with Words