Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dramacon, Volume 2

This second book in the three-volume Dramacon manga series picks up exactly one year after the first book ended. Aspiring manga writer Christie returns to the very same manga convention of the previous book. This time she she has a different collaborating artist (as a result of events in Volume 1), Bethany, who is very talented - her design is on the con's official t-shirt.

At the end of the last book (skip this paragraph to avoid some minor spoilers), Christie has broken up with her boyfriend not only because of his horrid behavior, but because she is very attracted to Derek, a handsome young man she met at the con. He never did ask her for her phone number, but as they left the convention, Derek's sister gave her his. When Christie finally got up the nerve to call, a girl answered, and she panicked and hung up. So she's very excited to see him again. And she's just as attracted to him as ever - even when she discovers, to her shock and dismay, that he has a girlfriend. And of course she is tall and blond and beautiful.

All the expected complications and hijinks ensue, in a delightful combination of action, character development, and hilarious dialogue. The idea of each of these volumes taking place at the same convention, after a year's time has passed, is a very effective way of showing the characters' growth. They look different, have grown up a bit, have different (or more focused) goals - and the reader catches up on their lives along with old friends as they meet up again. The romantic element is certainly the main part of the book, but there are lots of other things going on as well, including Christie's dream of becoming a successful manga writer and Bethany's issues with her mother, who is vehemently against the impracticality of trying to become a professional artist.

The artwork is a perfect accompaniment to the text, using manga conventions (such as the chibi characters) to their full extent, creating vivid (and often humorous) pictures of all kinds of vivid emotions and drama. It will be interesting to see what kinds of changes Christie's next convention, one year later, will bring to her life in the third and final book of the series.

Books in the Dramacon series:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

Dramacon, Volume 2 by Svetlana Chmakova (Tokyopop, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy: "LOVED IT. I cannot wait to read the entire series. And I'm adding it to my Best Books of 2006 list."
The Shady Glade: "Despite the fact that the book mostly centers on characterization as opposed to plot, it was extremely engaging and very hard to put down."

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Enchantment Emporium

This new urban fantasy novel by one of my very favorite authors, Tanya Huff, introduces a cast of characters I quickly grew to adore. The story is set in Canada, and our heroine is Alysha "Allie" Gale, a young woman from a mysteriously magical family, who has just received a letter from her grandmother that says if she's reading it, her grandmother is dead. It goes on to say that she has bequeathed her shop in Calgary to Allie.

Allie has recently lost her job at a museum, due to lack of funding. She's also nursing a broken heart, as the man she has been in love with since childhood has found his perfect man. He's still her best friend, but she can't help being depressed that he'll never be anything more. Getting away, for the first time in her life, from her myriad controlling aunties sounds like a great idea, but when she arrives in Calgary, she discovers that her grandmother's "junk shop" is actually full of magical artifacts (including a repulsive monkey's paw and a mirror with a mind of its own) and caters to the magical community. What was her grandmother up to? And what's with all the yoyos she sells?

She has never truly believed that her grandmother is really dead, and she is determined to find out what happened to her. Allie's aunties want to know what's going on, and they keep calling to find out, but the more Allie discovers, the less she wants to tell them. Before she knows it, she's embroiled in a sticky situation involving dragons, a surprisingly tall leprechaun, a sorcerer, and a tabloid reporter with the bluest eyes she's ever seen...

I hesitate to say too much about this one, because the narrative unfolds in such a lovely, complex way that works perfectly and is full of delightful surprises (and some not-so-delightful ones as well). The relationships among the characters are presented very effectively through actions and dialogue, so that I quickly felt emotionally connected to them. The mysterious Gale women, with their unusual pie-baking skills and charmed way of navigating life, are fascinating - but not half as fascinating as their men.

There is a lot of complexity in this novel, in both plot and characters, as well as a lot of subtext, with many things not explicitly spelled out. I found myself going back to reread sections in order to glean the truth of what exactly was going on, which was a lot of fun. Allie is an engaging heroine - smart and strong but with enough inexperience that she makes quite a few mistakes along the way - but usually for just the right reasons. The Gales reminded me a bit of Nina Kiriki Hoffman's mysterious families of magic users, and readers who enjoy her novels, as well as those who are up for an intriguing modern urban fantasy romp, would be sure to enjoy this one. I do hope Tanya Huff will write more books centered around this fascinating family - it feels as though we've just begun to scratch the surface of everything it has to offer.

Here is a fascinating interview with Tanya Huff at SciFiGuy's blog.

The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff (DAW Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
SciFiGuy: "I loved every minute that I spent with the remarkable Gale clan and didn’t want it to end. Charming and funny, this is a novel about family, love and magic that you won’t want to miss."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This is one of those books that's outside my typical reading taste, but because people are so passionately fond of it, I thought I'd give it a try. Having only skimmed the plot-revealing portion of reviews, I had no idea what to expect when I started reading (or listening, in this case, as I checked the audio version out of the library - which was and still is, not surprisingly, on a waiting list).

The story is told through a series of letters (along with a few journal entries), and while at first I was a bit confused about who each character was (with audio books you can't quickly flip a page or two to check something), between the different readers' distinctive voices and the distinct voices of the letters themselves, I was quickly pulled into the story and things became clear.

The book is set in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the war. The protagonist is Juliet, author of a humorous newspaper column that became very popular during the war, as it helped raise people's spirits during such a difficult time. Now that the war is over, however, she has decided to do write a book about something different, but she's having difficulty deciding on a topic that truly interests her.

When a letter arrives from out of the blue from a Mr. Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island of Guernsey, a whole new world opens up to Juliet as she begins corresponding with him, and then many of his friends, all of whom belong to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She learns about their experiences during the war, when the island was occupied by the Germans, and an article about the literary society is only the beginning.

I hesitate to say any more about what happens, as it is a joy to watch everything unfold through the letters of Juliet, her friends, and the people of Guernsey. The letters paint a vivid portrait of each character and their fascinating relationships with each other, bringing them to life so that I came to care a great deal about all of them. (Well, except for one or two, but I doubt I was supposed to like those particular characters.) It is a wartime book, and dreadful things happen, but in the end the story is an affirmation of life. When the book ended I had that bittersweet feeling you get when you finish a particularly wonderful book: delight in the story and characters and sadness at having to say goodbye.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; read by Paul Boehmer, Susan Duerden, Rosalyn Landor, John Lee and Juliet Mills (Books on Tape, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Bermudaonion's Weblog: "This book is charming and delightful. It made me want to visit Guernsey and made me miss the art of letter writing."
Diary of an Eccentric: "Each letter was written in the distinctive voice of a single character, yet put together, they created a rich picture of loss, survival, and joy experienced by the people of Guernsey under Nazi rule."
It's All About Me (Time): "The comments on the back cover say that you won't want it to end and it's true. I now want to visit Guernsey and I will be very, very disappointed if the characters from this book don't live there!"

Once Upon a Time III Challenge Wrap-Up

I am so bad about putting together wrap-up posts! I of course had a blast doing this challenge, as it focuses on my very favorite genre. Not only do I get to read and write about my favorite kinds of book, but I get all sorts of great ideas and suggestions of new books to add to my list. Which, despite the fact that the list and the pile are overwheming these days, is definitely a Good Thing.
For Quest the First, I read and reviewed the following:
Rogue's Home by Hilari Bell
The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett
Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce
The Dark Hills Divide by Patrick Carman

For Quest the Second, books in different fantasy subgenres, I read and reviewed:
Fantasy: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
Mythology: Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore
Folklore: Return of the Emerald Skull by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell
Fairy Tale: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

I regret that I did not manage to read more short stories for the short story weekends, but I did read and review:
"The Peony Lantern" by Kara Dalkey
Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

Many thanks to Carl and to all who participated and made this challenge so much fun!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Death: The High Cost of Living

This graphic novel features characters from Neil Gaiman's popular Sandman series, but because it is a standalone story, it can be read on its own and is a great introduction to the series. The protagonist is teenage Sexton (he's heard all the bad jokes about his name, so don't bother), who sits at his computer composing a suicide note. He wants to check out, not because his life is unbearable or horrific, but because it is empty and meaningless. He is jaded, bitter, and bored.

His mother decides to spring clean the apartment, despite the fact that it's actually summertime, and Sexton gets kicked out of the house for the day while she gets to work. He may seem a bit spoiled and melodramatic, but he gains the reader's sympathy with his matter-of-fact kindness and respect for the severely handicapped boy he passes in the hallway on his way out. He heads to the city dump, a place that reflects his dark mood.

When the pile of garbage he's standing on collapses without warning, Sexton plunges into the pile of trash and is trapped beneath a refrigerator. A lovely dark-haired girl answers his cries for help, introducing herself as Didi. She takes him back to her apartment so he can disinfect and bandage his wounds.

She tells him that she is Death, brought into the world to live as a human once every hundred years so she can fully experience humanity, the better to understand the value of the lives she takes. He thinks she has some serious psychological issues, but when strange things start to happen, Sexton finds himself along for the ride. Suddenly life doesn't look quite so meaningless - and when he finds himself locked into a dark underground room by a crazy, scary man, and is stuck there with a dead body and Didi, life starts looking pretty precious indeed.

The characters drive this compelling tale, and Death is the star. She is charming, upbeat and funny, exactly the sort of person you'd like to have waiting for you on the other side (or to help you cross over). Although as I write this, it occurs to me that I also have a great fondness for Discworld's Death. I would love to be a fly on the wall if the two of them are ever in the same room together.

This is an excellent introduction to the world of the Sandman and his family of immortals. Oh, and a word of caution - these books are dark and violent, definitely for mature readers. The illustrations are lush and colorful, and as an added bonus there is an informative and amusing public service story about STDs, narrated by Death, with practical advice on safe sex. For those who choose not to follow her advice, Death smiles and says, "I'll be seeing you!" I've been meaning to reread the first few books in the series and continue on through to the end, and my visit with Death in this book has made me impatient to get started.

Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham an David McKean; with an introduction by Tori Amos (DC Comics, 1994)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "At base, there’s not a whole lot to this story other than watching Death bubble her way around New York City trailing Sexton in her wake… but she’s so charming that it’s just about enough."
Things Mean a Lot: "this one does hold a special place in my heart. It’s a Sandman spinoff, but you don’t need to have read the series to understand and enjoy the story."
Valentina's Room: "Reading Death felt like reading a Charles de Lint short story, for some reason. Just this is enough to qualify as a great read. The fact that it was in graphic novel form gave it an extra appeal."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dramacon, Volume 1

In this opening volume of the 3-volume Dramacon series, teen manga writer Christie attends her first manga convention, along with her boyfriend Derek, who illustrates her books. From the opening scenes we see that Christie is a peacemaker, smoothing the waters when Derek loses his temper at the hotel's check-in desk. Once at their table in the writers' room, Derek blatantly flirts with all the pretty girls, while Christie sits there stewing and eventually having a hysterical (in both senses) meltdown.

That's when she runs into tall, dark and handsome Matt, who seems to understand her in a way that Derek just doesn't. The storyline may seem stale and overworked, but trust me, the way it's presented is definitely not. The inevitable complications that arise are funny and sweet, as well as surprising, and the artwork compliments the pacing and characterization perfectly.

As far as I'm concerned the fact that there are only three volumes in this series is a plus - the story is clearly headed in a specific direction. The convention setting is a highly effective backdrop for the romance and action, as in the absence of adult family members, it seems that anything can happen. This atmosphere of independence and excitement allows for Christie to re-evaluate her choices she's made in her life so far, and it was a pleasant surprise to watch the characters develop so completely in this charming coming-of-age story. I look forward reading (and watching) the further adventures of Christie and her friends.

Books in the Dramacon series:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3

Dramacon, Volume 1 by Svetlana Chmakova (Tokyopop, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
The Fickle Hand of Fate: "The art is great, switching styles just a little bit to suit the tone of each scene. It's subtle, funny, and it works."

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline

Fourteen-year-old Enola Holmes, younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, appears in this, her fifth adventure. Enola has been on the run since her first appearance in The Case of the Missing Marquess, fearful of her brothers' intention to enroll her in a private boarding school for girls. They are motivated by what they believe is her best interests, now that her mother has disappeared, and they cannot understand why she flees whenever she comes into contact with them.

The problem is that they have no idea what is best for Enola, because they don't really know her at all. Enola has set herself up as a private investigator - only she must pose as the investigator's secretary, because who in 19th-century London would consult a female detective? In this mystery, Enola's landlady receives a mysterious message that is frightening and confusing, and she asks Enola for help. Before Enola can find out very much, her landlady is abducted, the flat turned upside down, and the only clue Enola finds is the embroidery on the crinoline of an old dress in her landlady's wardrobe.

I do love this series. Enola is such an engaging heroine - she is determined and resourceful, and despite the fact that she is so very much alone, she retains her pluck and impulsive kindness. The mysteries that she solves invariably involve elements that are particularly feminine, things that the thugs who have ransacked the apartment (and her confirmed bachelor brothers) would never notice or understand, such as the language of flowers or the importance (or incongruity) of such lovely embroidery on a garment no one would ever see but the wearer. This particular book was more interesting to me for the characters involved. I loved that deaf old Mrs. Tupper, a very minor character in the past few novels, suddenly became a real person in this book. It surprised me as much as it did Enola, and the peek into Mrs. Tupper's past was fascinating. The mystery itself seemed rather obvious as compared to previous books in the series, but the historical background (particularly as it related to the Crimean War and Florence Nightingale) gave it depth and interest.

I was saddened to learn (see the interview link below) that this is the penultimate book in the Enola series. I am anxious for a reconciliation between Enola and her brothers - on her terms of course - however, and as each book in the series involves a small bit of progress as far as their relationship is concerned, I am hopeful about a positive resolution to the series. This is an excellent choice for young readers who enjoy mysteries and are ready to move beyond Nancy Drew and other such mystery series, as well as those who are interested in history and those who simply enjoy a strong, intelligent female protagonist.

Here is a fascinating interview with Nancy Springer in which she discusses her thoughts about the Enola Holmes series.

Books in the Enola Holmes series:
1. The Case of the Missing Marquess
The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets
4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan

5. The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline
6. The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye (forthcoming 2010)

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline (#5 in the Enola Holmes series) by Nancy Springer (Philomel Books, 2009)

Have you reviewed this book? Please leave your link in the comments and I will add it to my review. (That goes for any of my other reviews, too!)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Code of the Woosters

Who would think that a silver creamer shaped like a cow could possibly cause so much trouble? Not Bertie Wooster, that's for sure. When his Aunt Dahlia stops by early one morning (unfortunately, Bertie's not feeling too well, due to the effects of Gussie Fink-Nottle's bachelor party the evening before) and asks Bertie to stop by an antique shop an sneer at a cow creamer, Bertie is quite happy to comply. Apparently his uncle, who collects such items, is interested in purchasing it, and she hopes that if Bertie acts unimpressed by it, his uncle will get a better price.

Alas, the uncle is outwitted by his cow-creamer-collecting nemesis, Sir Watkyn, and the creamer is spirited off to Sir Watkyn's estate, Totleigh Towers. When Bertie receives a telegram from Gussie (the newt-loving character previously introduced in Right-Ho, Jeeves) saying that his engagement to Madeline Basset (Sir Watkyn's daughter) is off, and begging Bertie (and Jeeves, of course) to come to Totleigh Towers immediately to help sort things out, Bertie agrees. His plans are complicated, however, when Aunt Dahlia shows up, demanding that Bertie steal the cow creamer. When Bertie refuses, Aunt Dahlia pulls the ultimate ace from her sleeve: if Bertie does not return from Totleigh Towers with that cow creamer, he will never, ever again be invited to dine on the delectable cuisine of her sublime chef, Anatole. A fate, as far as Bertie's concerned, worse than death. For without Anatole's amazing culinary creations, life is simply not worth living.

All sorts of wonderful complications ensue, resulting in a another twisting, turning, laugh-out-loud story in the Jeeves and Wooster series. I enjoyed revisiting characters from earlier books, particularly Gussie and Madeline, who always make me smile, and I loved meeting Stephanie "Stiffy" Bing and her ferocious, policeman-pursuing Scottie dog. Wodehouse is in complete control from beginning to end, and I am always happy to sit back and enjoy the ride. I am thoroughly enjoying my beginning-to-end audio journey through the Jeeves and Wooster series.

Books in the Jeeves and Wooster series:
3. The Code of the Woosters
4. Jeeves in the Morning
5. Mating Season
6. Return of Jeeves
7. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit
8. How Right You Are, Jeeves
9. Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
10. Jeeves and the Tie That Binds
11. Cat-Nappers

The Code of the Woosters (#3 in the Jeeves and Wooster series) by P.G. Wodehouse; narrated by Alexander Spencer (Recorded Books, 1989; originally published in 1938)

Also reviewed at:
The Bookshelf Reviews: "Wodehouse's ways of intertwining mystery, suspense and adventure with light, chuckle-inducing hilarity perfect this novel, getting Bertie into so much trouble, it seems he can't get in any deeper...until he does."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fragile Eternity

So, what happens after the happily-ever-after? Often we wonder, we imagine - particularly when a novel has an ending like Wicked Lovely - how the characters manage to live out their lives in the wake of what has happened to them. Did the ends tie up a little too neatly? One might think so - but in this direct sequel (but third book in the series) to Wicked Lovely, we see that happiness is a long way off for these characters.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in this series read the first too books first - otherwise this third one is bound to be very confusing. Possible spoilers for those who haven't read them follow, so be forewarned!

Aislinn, once a mortal teenager, is queen of the summer court. Her consort is Keenan, a handsome faery who cares for her, but is in love with Donia, queen of the winter court. Aislinn is in love with her mortal boyfriend, Seth. It would be an impossibly difficult situation simply on a personal level, but the fact is that the prosperity of the summer court is dependent on the relationship between Aislinn and Keenan. The fact that they are not true consorts weakens their court, and as high summer draws near, Aislinn finds herself being drawn more and more to Keenan, despite the fact that she knows that she really does not love him. Seth tries to understand, but he knows that his time is limited, and eventually Keenan is going to be the only one left. He comes to realize that his mortal weakness when compared with the faeries makes him a huge liability to Aislinn, and he despairs of ever being able to meet her on an even footing. Donia, who loves Keenan, must do what is best for her people, even if it means turning against her friends in order to maintain the winter court's strength.

The first part of the book is a slow unfolding of everyone's feelings for everyone else, complete with anger, betrayals, and angst. If I hadn't read and loved the first two books so much, I might have been less patient with the characters, although I often wished I could reach into the pages and shake some sense into them. Then, about halfway into the book, certain elements click into place, and the rest of the tale gathers momentum and is soon hurtling down steep paths and haring around breakneck curves. One of my favorite things about this series is that each character, even relatively minor ones, is a fully rendered, completely believable individual. These books are very character driven, and this depth of characterization makes the stories incredibly compelling. I would have been happier with a more conclusive ending, but I enjoyed this installment in the series and will be waiting anxiously for next one. Fans of Holly Black's Modern Faerie series would likely enjoy this series, too (and for those who are waiting for the next installment in this series, I suggest giving the Modern Faerie series a try).

Books in the Wicked Lovely series:
1. Wicked Lovely
2. Ink Exchange
3. Fragile Eternity

Fragile Eternity (#3 in the Wicked Lovely series) by Melissa Marr (Bowen Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Fuzzy Cricket: "While this is a love story, to its core, it is also a story about balance. Finding balance in ourselves and with the people we live with, care for. Giving and taking in relationships."
In Bed with Books: "Suddenly I wasn't angry with these characters for blundering toward their own doom, but worried they would meet a doom no one wanted but no one could prevent because of misunderstanding."
My Friend Amy: "I seriously fell into this book and did not want to come out. It seems so rare these days to be transported completely away by a book and so I'm thankful when it happens!"
NineSevenEight: "Approximately halfway through things started happening. Exciting/cool/interesting things that kept me hooked until the highly frustrating and rather ambiguous cliffhanger-type end."

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Rolling Stones

Teenage twins Castor and Pollux Stone are extremely intelligent, precocious kids, and when they get an idea in their heads, there isn't too much the rest of their family can do (except for attempts at damage control). When they get it into their heads that they are tired of boring old Luna Colony and would like to fix up an old spaceship and make a bit of money by trading for goods with people who live out on the Asteroids and. Their arguments ("We'd be out of your hair" and "Not late for dinner") don't carry much sway with their father, especially when he is convinced that it's time for the twins to go to Earth for a few years and attend school there.

But somehow the idea of the spaceship, of leaving Luna colony for awhile, worms its way into the hearts of everyone else in the family, particularly their grandmother Hazel, who is one of the founders of Luna colony and a true explorer at heart. Their mother doesn't say a whole lot, but a few words from her carry a whole lot of weight. Before they know it they have purchased a ship big enough for the entire family, including older sister Meade and little brother Buster. What better name for their new cruiser than The Rolling Stone? Off the Stones go on an unforgettable road trip through the solar system, full of action and adventure, laughter and peril.

I have read several "juveniles" by Heinlein, and while I think my favorite is still Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, I enjoyed this one very much. Castor and Pollux are fairly interchangeable and act almost as a single character, but they are an entrepreneurial force to be reckoned with, and it was fun to see how they managed to keep all their other family members on their toes. I appreciated the strong female characters, particularly grandma Hazel, who is incredibly intelligent, savvy, and courageous. The roles they played on the ship, particularly regarding cooking and childcare, were still fairly traditional by 1950s standards, which did make me laugh a bit, considering the depth and breadth of Heinlein's imagination regarding other matters.

I do not think a book for teens would be published today that includes the long expository passages that are present in this one - and I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, sentences such as "A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second" may stop some readers in their tracks. But I remember as a child, reading Heinlein's juveniles and other novels that never pandered or patronized to their audience, I felt almost flattered to encounter such language. I felt that if the author thought I could understand it, well, then, I'd reread it or look words up or ask someone about it until I did understand it.

I have heard (but have not found a source to corroborate) that this book inspired the "Trouble with Tribbles" episode on Star Trek. The adorable little furballs in this novel are called flat cats. And they stole my heart. Here the twins are in Mr. Angelo's shop on Mars, where he tells them about the flat cat they see on the counter:
It had no discernible features, being merely a pie-shaped mass of sleek red fur a little darker than Castor's own hair. "They're affectionate little things and many of the sand rats keep them for pets....It just purrs and snuggles up to you. Pick it up."

Castor did so, trying not to seem gingerly about it. The flat cat promptly plastered itself to Castor' shirt, fattened its shape a little to fit better the crook of the boy's arm, and changed its purr to a low throbbing which Castor could feel vibrate in his chest. He looked down and three beady eyes stared trustfully back up at him, then closed and disappeared completely. A little sigh interrupted the purrs and the creature snuggled closer.

I found myself wishing I could have a flat cat! They are especially endearing in free-fall. Since reading this book I have discovered that it is available as a Full Cast Audio production, and I think it would be a wonderful book to listen to on a family road trip (even if it's just in a boring old car instead of a wondrous space ship).

The Rolling Stones (UK title: Space Family Stone) by Robert A. Heinlein (Baen, 2009; originally published in 1952)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kitty Goes to Washington

In this second volume of the Kitty Norville series, werewolf/disc jockey Kitty is requested to testify at a Senate hearing in Washington DC. Now that the existence werewolves, vampires, and other such supernatural creatures has become known to (if not entirely believed in by) regular humans, there is concern about how to deal with this new development. Should supernatural creatures enjoy the same rights as human citizens? Do they pose a danger to society?

Kitty has come a long way from the beginning of the first book, in which she was a submissive, unquestioning member of a pack headed by an ineffectual alpha. Through her radio show, she has been gaining self confidence - when she's on the air, she always seems to know just what to say. She can only hope the same thing will happen when it is her turn to testify. As day after day goes by without Kitty being called to the stand, she begins to suspect that someone (perhaps the senator who appears determined to expose Kitty as an evil. soul-less, slavering monster) is delaying her testimony so that she will be forced to take the stand on the day of the full moon, when her self-control is at its worst.

This is a very entertaining sequel to the first book, with Kitty changing and growing, coming into her own as events conspire to make her life increasingly difficult. New characters are introduced, familiar characters make appearances, and elements from the previous book are explored in greater depth. Of the new characters, I adored the vampire Alette. I hadn't realized until reading this book how often the matriarchal vampires are depicted as thoroughly despicable, vain and self-centered, with no remaining humanity whatsoever. Alette is a gracious vampire who appears to believe in noblesse oblige (or undeadness oblige, so to speak). This series is officially on my favorites list, for its engaging characters, intricate plot twists, and mix of humor, horror, adventure - with a dash of romance.

I would like to thank Joanne of The Book Zombie, who hosted a fantastic book giveaway that involved not one, not two, but the entire series of Kitty Norville books, and I won them! (Insert fluttering clouds of colorful confetti and party horn noises here.) I had just finished reading the first book at the time (from the library), so I was delighted to have the entire series in my hot little hands. So thank you again, Joanne! You are the best.

Books in the Kitty Norville series:

1. Kitty and the Midnight Hour

2. Kitty Goes to Washington

3. Kitty Takes a Holiday

4. Kitty and the Silver Bullet

5. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
6. Kitty Raises Hell
7. Kitty and the House of Horrors (forthcoming January 2010)

Kitty Goes to Washington (#2 in the Kitty Norville series) by Carrie Vaughn (Warner, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog: "The first book didn't really have that subtle humor that I love but Washington did so in my mind it will always be one of the best books in the series."

Musings of a Bookish Kitty: "It was entertaining, at times funny, and suspenseful. Carrie Vaughn has created characters that I’m drawn to."
My Friend Amy: "I enjoyed this Kitty book as much as the first one and was enthralled by the latest addition to the vampire characters in these books."

Stop, Drop and Read: "Instead of a specific problem, Kitty Goes to Washington is a series of events that interact with each other leading up to the climax. I liked Kitty's strong personality and her attitude towards the situations she was in, making her a great female werewolf protagonist."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Katie Loves the Kittens

The day Sara Ann brings home three little kittens is the happiest day in Katie the dog's whole entire life. She loves the kittens. She loves them so much, it makes her howl. AROOOOO! She always howls like that when she's happy.

The problem is that Katie's happy howls frighten the little kittens, who scatter in all directions, climbing up curtains and lampshades to get away from her. Sara Ann scolds Katie, telling her to stay away from them until they get used to her. Katie slinks off to her bed, feeling very, very sad because she didn't want to scare the kittens.

Katie tries not to scare them. She really does. When she peeks around the corner and sees Sara Ann playing with them, she wants to join in so badly. She tries to control herself. She tries and tries, gritting her teeth with the effort until she is nothing but a quivering lump of agitated, levitating dog. But it's no use. AROOOOOO! Happy howls escape her, she bounds into the room, and the kittens are frightened all over again. What is poor Katie to do?

This picture book arrived today in the delivery of new picture books at my library. I giggled and giggled as I read it, and soon everyone in the workroom was reading over my shoulder and laughing along with me. The illustrations are absolutely delightful. Katie's mournful, disappointed doggie face makes me want to reach into the book and gather her into my arms. And the kittens! Himmelman manages to capture that impossible cuteness of very young kittens just perfectly. Katie is so doglike in her behavior - all she wants is to see the kittens, play with them, smell them. Young children will be able to identify with her longing and disappointment as Katie's canine nature makes her do things she really doesn't mean to do. Learning to be patient and quiet isn't a challenge just for rambunctious dogs, after all.

I rarely review picture books these days, because I find it difficult enough to keep up with all the other books that I read. But I could not resist taking a moment to write about this one. It is a truly delightful picture book that is certain to appeal to dog and cat lovers of all ages.

Katie Loves the Kittens by John Himmelman (Henry Holt and Company, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
We Love Children's Books: "Cartoony drawings with lots of white space put Katie and the kittens center stage and simple lines explode with expression and animation."
The Well-Read Child: "The simple, yet engaging storyline is perfect for beginning readers and kids with short attention spans."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Horrid Henry

This book introduces Horrid Henry, wildly popular fictional hero in the UK, to American readers. If my children are any judge of the matter, Henry will be just as popular here in the United States.

Henry lives with his mother and father and his little brother, Perfect Peter. Henry's parents are rather ineffectual and unimaginative, typically responding to Henry's misbehavior with a chiding, "Don't be horrible, Henry." Perfect Peter seems like sweet kid at first, but he's such a suck-up that we quickly found ourselves rooting for Henry, who might act horribly at times, but he usually has reason to (not that it justifies his actions, but it does make the stories funny!).

The opening story won my heart. Harry wonders what life would be like if he behaved for a change. Every time he's tempted to do what he usually does (knock down his brother's block tower, refuse to eat his vegetables, shirk his chores), he catches himself and does the opposite. Soon the entire family dynamic is thrown upside down, with disastrously hilarious results. The reader is left to muse along with Henry: Who knew that being good could be so much fun?

This book includes four separate stories, which make for great read-alouds, as each section reaches its own satisfying conclusion. This is a great transitional book, perfect for those children who are ready to move beyond traditional easy readers and onto big-kid chapter books, but who are still daunted by large blocks of text and prefer lots of illustrations to help them decode the more difficult passages. The writing is spare and simple, and the pictures are whimsical and appealing. I am so pleased to have this series to recommend to young readers at my library. They are sure to come back, demanding more. (I love when that happens - it's the best part of my job.) And luckily there are a ton of Horrible Harry stories out there to fill that demand.

I usually put a list of the books in a series here, but there are way too many in different formats to make it worth my time. Instead, if you're interested, check out Francesca Simon's website. The Horrid Henry website is also a lot of fun!

Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon; illustrated by Tony Ross (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2009; originally published in the UK in 1994)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "I think the thing that I love best about Henry is his voice. Francesca Simon gets what it means to be a kid, to think like a kid, to talk like a kid, to act like a kid. Everything is just so right."
Diary of an Eccentric: "Don't expect to find any role models in these books, though. Horrid Henry is the brattiest kid I've ever come across in books, and Perfect Peter is a bit over the top. But that's what makes them funny."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas

The first volume of the Southern Vampire series saw Sookie Stackhouse, Louisiana bar waitress and telepath, fall in love with the vampire Bill (after saving his life), catch a serial killer, and come to an agreement with Eric, a very powerful vampire, to help him out with her telepathy skills from time to time. This installment opens with another murder - the body of one of Sookie's co-workers is discovered in a car in the parking lot of Merlotte's when Sookie arrives at work one morning. To complicate matters, the body is in the car of a police officer.

Before Sookie can find out more about the murder through the use of her telepathy, she is summoned to Eric's bar, where she finds that her skills have been promised to the vampires in Dallas, who are looking for a missing person. Sookie and Bill set off for Dallas, where what appears to be a simple job turns out to be more complicated - and dangerous - than Sookie could have ever imagined.

This was an enjoyable read, full of action, adventure, interesting supernatural (and mythological) phenomena, and interesting characters. Sookie is coming to realize that Bill is really not human, as much as she cares about him, and that there are things about him that she will never truly understand. Whether or not this will threaten their relationship remains to be seen, but there are some definite ups and downs here, and while at one point toward the end, Sookie says she will try to meet Bill in the middle, it seems to me that she is the one doing all the accommodating. So it will be interesting to see the direction their relationship takes in the next book. There were separate elements to this plot taking place, and I enjoyed the skillful way they came together toward the end to form a very satisfying - and surprising - conclusion.

Books in the Southern Vampire series:
1. Dead Until Dark
2. Living Dead in Dallas
3. Club Dead
4. Dead to the World
5. Dead as a Doornail
6. Definitely Dead
7. Altogether Dead
8. From Dead to Worse
9. Dead and Gone
10. A Touch of Dead (Sookie Stackhouse: The Complete Stories) - to be published October 2009

Living Dead in Dallas (#2 in the Southern Vampire series) by Charlaine Harris (Recorded Books, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Avidbookreader: "I love the idea of dis­cov­er­ing other myth­i­cal and super­nat­ural crea­tures who are still hiding from mankind. North­ern Louisiana hasn’t been the same for Sookie now that she’s firmly entrenched in this fas­ci­nat­ing yet dan­ger­ous “new” world."
Medieval Bookworm: "I...enjoyed this installment in the series even more. The plot is a little more exciting, especially when it comes to danger to Sookie, the characters get fleshed out a little bit more, and overall it was a ton of fun to get back into Sookie’s world."
Reading Adventures: "Once again, I really enjoyed this read. There were several laugh out loud moments, and the relationship between Bill and Sookie seems to be developing very nicely indeed!"

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Undead and Unpopular

In this, the fifth volume of the Queen Betsy series, there is a lot happening in Betsy's life: she's planning her wedding with Eric (despite the fact that he thinks the whole thing is silly, because in his mind they are already married); she's dealing with political vampire issues, as a delegation of vampires has arrived from Europe; one of her friends has been diagnosed with a potentially deadly illness; and everyone keeps telling her there is a zombie in the attic (which she knows us utterly ridiculous, and doesn't she have enough to worry about without being told such absurdities?). Plus her birthday is coming up, and she's spending a lot of time trying to convince everyone not to throw her a party (while not-so-secretly hoping they will). To complicate matters, her stepmother is constantly dropping her stinky, lovable baby on the doorstep for Betsy to babysit.

This one was a fun, quick read (I read it in two rather short sittings last weekend), and because I have come to love the different characters, from Betsy's intelligent, sharp-tongued best friend and her incorrigibly upbeat gay doctor housemate to Cathie, the ghost from the previous book who's decided to stick around and, of course, Betsy's sexy vampire fiance, Eric.

However, this was not my favorite. The plot was scattered all over the place, with no real focus to the narrative. And one of the main plot points was centered on two characters that we met in a previous book, but (as is mentioned in an author's note, which was helpful) between this book and the previous one, Davidson wrote a short story for the anthology Dead and Loving It, called "A Fiend in Need." Events from that story are important in this book, and I was left wondering what the heck was going on as far as those characters were concerned. Fans of the series will certainly enjoy visiting with the characters in this book, but it would be a mistake to read it without having read the previous books in the series. And even for those who have, I'd advise reading that short story first.

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

Undead and Uneasy
7. Undead and Unworthy
8. Undead and Unwelcome

Undead and Unpopular (#5 in the Queen Betsy series) by MaryJanice Davidson (Berkley Sensation, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
The Eye of Loni's Storm: "It’s blood drenched chicklit. Admittedly, it’s not as good as her previous installments, but I still can’t get enough to Betsy, Sinclair, Jessica, Tina and all the situations they find themselves in."
The Reading Spot: "This episode lacked a little story (and the zombie threw me and left me going, Huh?), but was a good installment."
Wardrip Writes: "I love MJD, I love her sense of humor, I love her writing style. I didn't love this book. It seemed to be missing that irreverent sense of witty snarkism that always make me enjoy an MJD story."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Three Good Deeds

Howard is not a particularly nice child. He gets his best friend into trouble, then takes off without sharing any of the blame. He has ideas that are less than kind, such as throwing red dye all over a white goose, just for fun. And when the kids in town run after the old woman who lives outside the village whenever she comes into town, he joins them, imitating the way she walks, calling her "the old witch." But he's not a completely horrible child. It's not his idea to make fun of the old woman, but still, he does.

The old woman is old and unattractive, and Howard thinks she really does look like a witch. But he never suspects she might actually be a witch. So when he goes to the pond where her beloved geese live, steals some of their eggs, and gets caught, he's a little scared, but not that much. After all, she's just an ugly old woman. But suddenly she's muttering strange things at him, and the whole world shifts and changes. Or rather, Howard shifts and changes...into a goose.

"Three good deeds," the witch tells him. He must do three good deeds in order to change back into a boy. But that seems an impossible task, in a world where the humans want to eat him and the other geese are nasty and hiss at him. It looks as though Howard may have feathers and webbed feet for a very, very long time.

I read this book to my children (8 and 10 years old), and it made for a great read-aloud. It has the feel of a fairy tale, with more introspection and characterization than is typically present in such a story. Howard is certainly a flawed individual, but as a goose his life becomes so very difficult that he gains the reader's sympathy fairly quickly, particularly with his first act of impulsive kindness. I loved the way the geese are portrayed - they are not just human characters masquerading in geese shape; they have a clearly defined goose culture and attitude, which is hilarious at times (often at poor Howard's expense).

I enjoyed this one very much, as I have everything I've read by Vivian Vande Velde so far (Heir Apparent is my absolute favorite). This story is particularly effective because of its depth. Not only is it a funny adventure/fairy tale, but it offers readers some food for thought about kindness and how even the smallest of our actions can have a great impact on others. I never closed the book at bedtime without both children clamoring for more (and it was hard to resist reading just one more chapter - if they'd known how hard, they'd never have let me off so easily!).

Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde (Magic Carpet Books, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Cynsations: "This delightful middle grade novel feels very much like a sort of old-fashioned story, told to the reader. It has a cleverly interwoven novel, a reflective narrator, and a timeless setting."
Mayra's Secret Bookcase: "The devious simplicity of the tale is what makes this book stand out. This is one of those excellent books which can work on two levels: as a light, fun, superficial story, and as a deeper, more complex one with a serious theme."

Other B&OT reviews of books by Vivian Vande Velde:
Heir Apparent
A Hidden Magic

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Miki Falls: Winter

In the opening pages of Spring, the first in the 4-volume Miki Falls series, our heroine Miki has fallen through a window and is lying on the ground, shards of grass scattered around her. What follows is an extended flashback, which is recounted in the subsequent volumes.

In this final installment of the series, Miki and Hiro are trekking through dangerous mountain passes in an attempt to flee to safety. The Deliverers will do anything in their power to stop the young lovers, whose relationship is breaking the rules mandated by the mysterious council of Elders. Miki wonders if she would truly do anything in her power to get away from the Deliverers. They might kill her - would she, in fact, kill them?

The trouble that's been brewing during the course of this series comes to a head in this final volume. Decisions must be made, and actions must be taken, but the question remains of which side will have the power to take those actions and make those decisions. Miki has been told that she is a "neverfind" - she will love someone and lose that love, never to find it again. Hiro and Miki's love is strong, but will it be strong enough? Finally the series catches up with that opening scene, then moves on to a very satisfying conclusion.

This was an exciting read, with many plot strands that were introduced in earlier volumes coming together, with a few surprising revelations. I was left to wonder about a few things, though, such as Hiro's mother, who (as I remember) briefly appears in the first book and is never seen again. And the parent in me was feeling anxious on behalf of Miki's parents, as she has run off with Hiro after leaving a note for them, so they must be frantic about her, but they never did enter the picture. Not that they should have - the series maintains a tight focus on the two main characters. But still, I felt bad for them.

As always, I love the artwork and Crilley's unusual, effective way of arranging the frames. In this volume I was particularly struck by the lovely panels depicting Miki and Hiro's flight through the mountains. Crilley manages to evoke the chill of the snowy setting through his black-and-white (with shades of gray) illustrations with incredible vividness. I felt a little chilly just reading that part of the book! I also enjoyed the connections with mythology, particularly the use of the arrow that brings the couple together in the first book. It had a connotation that I did not notice in the first book, but that became quite clear in this one.

I love the fact that this series has only four volumes, as much as I'm sorry to say good-bye to the characters. The four-volume set has a nice narrative arc that flows well from book to book and ends in a perfect way, and for those readers who are daunted by the prospect of starting a 20+ volume series, Miki Falls presents a perfect choice.

Books in the Miki Falls series:
1. Spring
3. Autumn
4. Winter

Winter (#4 in the Miki Falls series) by Mark Crilley (HarperTeen, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Biblio File: "I continue to adore Crilley's unusual framing structure, lots of trapezoids and small and large frames on one page--many of his pages remind me of a shattering mirror."