Sunday, January 25, 2009

Gone skiing...

Be back in February! This is our first trip out west, hence the expression of uncertainty on the above skier's face. Everyone keeps telling me how expert runs on the East Coast are the baby runs out west, which makes me feel a bit trepidatious about the whole thing. I'm excited about going, though, all the same! (Even if I might be sticking to those baby runs.)

I hope to be able to access the Internet occasionally (I start to get the shakes if I'm unconnected for too long, lol), but if not, I'll see you when we get back!

The above image is from Eloise Hidden's Flikr photostream and is used under Creative Commons licensing.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Conspiracy or simple error?

Theodora Baumgarten is a motivated teen who knows exactly what she wants as far as her future is concerned. Unlike all the other students at her high school who are utterly obsessed with attending the vaunted IASA (space academy), Theodora wants nothing to do with it. "There's no air, you're squashed into a ship the size of a juice can, and it takes years to get anywhere interesting. If you get there and aren't killed by a meteor or a solar flare or a systems malfunction."

So while everyone else is frantically cramming all the courses they believe will appeal to the admissions officers at the academy, Theodora is calmly following her own chosen path - to attend UCLA - and stay on terra firma. When all the students at her high school are called into the auditorium for a mandatory assembly, Theodora is irritated at the waste of time but duly joins the student betting pool, putting her money on the most obnoxiously gung-ho astronaut wannabe in her class. She is understandably shocked when the Admiral from IASA calls out her name as the one and only student from her school to receive the coveted academy appointment.

Theodora is not happy. Nor is she given the chance to protest. No one turns down an academy appointment - and her protests that she never filled out the application are ignored. Before she knows it she is swept up in a rush of packing and sent up in a nauseating trip to the RAH (the Robert A. Heinlein space station), where she is to present herself as a new cadet. How could this have happened, she wonders furiously. Her only hope of uncovering the conspiracy is her best friend Kimkim, computer hacker extraodinaire. If only they can get through the security codes and succeed in communicating with each other, Theodora knows she'll be able to get to the bottom of the matter - and return to earth - and get to UCLA, which is far superior to being ordered about and lied to up at the RAH.

This is a very short book - a novella, really, and while it is a delightful story, a clear homage to the Heinlein juveniles such as Have Space Suit Will Travel, I'd advise picking it up at your local library rather than paying the $20.00 cover price for a book you'll be able to read in less than a half hour. I thoroughly enjoyed the story - as I do everything by Connie Willis - particularly the character of Theodora. She is a strong, intelligent, resourceful heroine, and she has an open mind and a willingness to see things from a new perspective. I loved the futuristic setting, which is presented so matter 0f factly and with fun little details that are dropped here and there along the way, creating a very believable sense of place. While this novella is marketed to young adults, it has appeal for all ages and makes for a fun, short futureworldly visit. If you haven't read Connie Willis, pick up one of her books as soon as possible. Her collection of short stories Impossible Things would be another great one to try, especially for those who have joined Carl's Science Fiction Experience 2009.

D.A. by Connie Willis; illustrated by J.K. Potter (Subterranean Press, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Mouldering Earths and Book-Dust: "Willis manages to keep the pace quick and the humor plentiful. Also, I am a sucker for a plucky heroine, and Theodora Baumgarten certainly fits that bill (with a name like that, how could she not?)."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Happy Howlidays!

The anthologies I've read lately have been hit or miss, as far as the stories go, so I was a bit hesitant to pick up this one. But when I saw stories by Charlaine Harris, Karen Chance and Patricia Briggs, I had to give it a chance - and I'm glad I did. It offers some very compelling tales, all dealing with werewolves and some aspect of the holiday season. I enjoyed stories about some favorite characters and worlds, and I was introduced to some new authors and series, too (because evidently I don't have enough series on my plate at this point and must have more).

Check out the review links below for some great synopses of each of the stories. I particularly enjoyed the first one, by Charlaine Harris, which features Sookie Stackhouse (I really need to reread those and continue on with the series some day), which was sweet with some fun surprises. Patricia Briggs offers a poignant tale about a father and a daughter who are at odds with each other; Carrie Vaughn's story about her character Kitty was great fun and has inspired me to read more of her work; and Karen Chance's story, set in the world of Cassandra Palmer, is an action-packed tale that made me even more impatient to read her next book.

I loved the twisted humor in some of the stories, and my favorite of those was "SA" by J.A. Konrath. It concerns a man who is experiencing blackout periods with disturbing consequences and comes to the conclusion that he must be turning into a werewolf. Not to fear, though - he discovers a shapeshifters hotline. Not that he really, completely believes he's a werewolf, but he calls, just in case. The hotline attendant understands that he is worried about who he might have killed, and tells her that shapeshifters - "therianthropes" - are attracted to evil people, as far as victims go. He asks her if she is a shapeshifter, and she replies that she is a weresquirrel:

"When the moon rises, you turn into a squirrel?"
"Yes."
"A squirrel with buck teeth with a big fluffy tail?"
"That's the one."
Weston wasn't sure if he was supposed to laugh or not.
"Do you shrink? Or stay full size?"
"Full size."
"And you eat people?"
"No, sir. Not all therianthropes are carnivores."
"So, if you don't mind my asking, what do you do when you change?"
"I hoard nuts."
Weston chose his next words carefully.
"Are they...evil nuts?"
"Sir, I'm going to put your sarcasm down to you being on the edge of a nervous breakdown, so I'll ignore it."

If you think that's funny, wait till you get to the part about the Shapeshifters Anonymous meeting!

I loved the great mix of humor, horror, suspense and romance. The same editors produced the anthology Many Bloody Returns, which I'm now looking forward to reading as well. This is a solid anthology that has added a bunch of new authors to my list, and I recommend it.

Wolfsbane and Mistletoe edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P.Kelner (Ace Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Darque Reviews: "Each story is written as a stand-alone, but among them readers will find entertaining additions to some of the most followed series."
Nalini Singh's Weblog: "I loved all the stories - each author's voice is unique and the stories cover the spectrum from dark to laugh out loud funny."
SciFiGuy.ca: "
There are more then enough great stories in this collection to recommend it, although it is not quite as strong as last year's anthology."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Queen Betsy's life gets even more complicated

Betsy, the unwilling Queen of the Undead, returns in the fourth installment of MaryJanice Davidson's over-the-top vampire series. Beware of possible spoilers to follow for those who haven't read books one through three.

Betsy is in the throes of a wedding preparation that Eric, her betrothed, simply doesn't comprehend. In his eyes, they've been married every since that fateful night in the first book - but Betsy is the sort of woman who's been planning all the intricate details of her wedding, the dress, the flowers, the food, the napkins, etc., since she was about four. The date keeps changing, though - but it is unclear whether the postponement's because she needs more planning time or because she's getting cold feet.

There's not much time to think about that, however, as her life becomes overrun, as usual, by bizarre and often humorous events. Betsy is the only one who can soothe her evil stepmother's colicky new infant - but how can she spend all the time she'd love to with her little half-brother when a serial killer is on the loose, and one of the killer's victims shows up as a ghost, demanding that Betsy do something about it? The plot for this one seemed a bit scattered, not nearly as focused as the others; however, it mirrored the way Betsy approaches her life - a bit of this, a bit of that, and suddenly she's off on a madcap adventure that's sure to bring on some laughs.

These books are a nice antidote to a stressful life - the literary equivalent of a warm bubble bath followed by a foot massage. It's nice to know that there are a few more Queen Betsy novels around for me to read - I think I'll save them up for some future date, when the going gets particularly rough!

Books in the Queen Betsy series:

1. Undead and Unwed
2. Undead and Unemployed
3. Undead and Unappreciated
4. Undead and Unreturnable
5.
Undead and Unpopular

5. Undead and Uneasy
6. Undead and Unworthy

Undead and Unreturnable (#4 in the Queen Betsy series) by MaryJanice Davidson (Berkley Sensation, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Smugglers: "This was my least favourite installment in the series so far but I will sure keep on reading. In this point in time, I am far too attached to Betsy and I still very much care for her."
Eat. Sleep. Read:  "The books were low on plot, and even in dangerous situations there wasn't much suspense because of Betsy's wise crackin', but they're meant to be like that, so you don't hold it against them."
Nichtszusagen: "Mostly, it's a fitting episode in the series--a fun, quick read with MJD's trademark snark. If you like the series, you'll like this. If you don't, this won't change your mind."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dairy Queen

D.J. Schwenk has taken on a whole lot for a lone fifteen-year-old girl. Her father has hurt himself working on their farm; her mother is working two jobs; her older brothers are off at college. Someone has to run the farm, and D.J. has agreed to do it - milking the cows, cleaning out the barn, haying - it is hard physical labor, but she's determined to succeed. When a family friend sends Brian, a boy from D.J.'s rival school's football team, to come help out, to say that D.J. is not happy would be a massive understatement.

D.J. and Brian have a history that goes beyond simple football rivalry, including the fact that he and his other rich-kid friends do things like moo at D.J. when she's in town, making fun of her for being a farm girl. Brian is clearly not happy to have to help at the farm, either - it turns out that the family friend who's sent him there is his football coach, and Brian has been told that he won't be on the team unless he works there. The fact that D.J. is in far better physical shape and makes him look like a whiny, ineffectual kid as they go about the farm chores in awkward silence does not help the situation.

When Brian loses his temper and tells D.J. that she is just like the cows on their farm, the way she mindlessly does all this hard work, D.J. is pretty angry. But then, the more she thinks about it, the more everyone seems to be like cows, working at pointless jobs they don't care about. The more she thinks about it, the more she becomes determined not to be a cow, the more she examines what, in fact, she is passionate about, and she starts thinking about the best way for her to pursue that passion.

Despite her ambivalence toward Brian, talking with him does give her a different perspective on her life. She comes from a family that simply doesn't talk about things. Brian points out what at first appears to be blindingly obvious, saying, "When you don't talk, there's a lot of stuff that ends up not getting said." But the more she thinks about those words, the more she realizes how many important things are not getting said - and how very damaging silence can be. There are unspoken words in so many areas of D.J.'s life - between D.J and her father, her best friend, her English teacher, and her brothers. D.J. starts wondering what might happen if, as hard as it seems, she starts to say some of those words.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. D.J.'s voice carries the narrative effortlessly, drawing the reader in as she recounts the vicissitudes of her life with honesty and humor. I loved that the cows on the farm are all named after football players (Joe Namath is D.J.'s favorite), and that her father is determined to pull his weight somehow and decides (to D.J.'s chagrin) to prepare all their meals. I enjoyed D.J.'s evolving relationship with her silent little brother, and I loved the way D.J.'s passion for football gives her the inspiration for leaving all cow-like behavior behind.

This was an engaging book to listen to - I enjoyed Natalie Moore's interpretation of D.J.'s character, complete with her Midwestern accent. I don't believe this qualifies as a series, but there is a sequel called The Off Season, and I very much look forward to reading it.

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock; narrated by Natalie Moore (Listening Library, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Book Beetle: "D.J. is a super lovable character and you're rooting for her from the start. A lot of girls would be able to relate to her as she struggles with her self-confidence and new feelings."
Library Queue: "I thought the book was funny, sweet and heart-breaking all at the same time."
There Is Always Something to Read: "A father who doesn't listen, a mother who has secrets of her own, and a girl who loves football, and you have a great story about friendship, love, trust, heartbreak, and determination."
What I'm Reading: "This book IS funny, but not cow in a tiara kind of funny. It's the kind of funny where you recognize the characters and what they are going through and it makes you smile - you KNOW people like this."

And here is an author interview at Shelf Elf.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Adventures in ancient Egypt

In this second volume of the Ulysses Moore series, eleven-year-old twins Jason and Julia, accompanied by their friend Rick, continue in their search of clues to unravel the many secrets of Argo Manor. The first book ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger, which finds the children in a strange place - but when the walls around them suddenly collapse, Julia finds herself separated from the boys. She ends up back in Argo Manor, while the boys realize that they have somehow ended up in ancient Egypt.

The boys are determined to search for a map mentioned in Ulysses Moore's journal - with the complication that Oblivia Newton, villain from the first book and Ulysses Moore's nemesis, is hot on the trial of the map as well. Meanwhile, Julia must fend off Oblivia's hulking henchman, who is determined to break into Argo Manor for reasons of his own.

The adventure and time-travel aspects of this series are sure to appeal to young readers. I did find the dialog to be a bit flat, and the characters, particularly the children, are fairly interchangeable, so it was difficult to become emotionally involved with them. Oblivia is a thoroughly unpleasant woman, but is so two-dimensionally evil that she is not the most interesting of villains. The setting is evocative, however - particularly the subterranean maze of archives and the intriguing manner in which the archivists record and locate items in their collection. This series would likely be of interest to readers not quite ready for series such as Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Snicket'Series of Unfortunate Events. For readers who are particularly interested in ancient Egypt, I'd recommend Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. Lafevers.

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

The Long-Lost Map (#2 in the Ulysses Moore series) by Pierdomenico Baccalario; narrated by Michael Page (Brilliance Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
INFODAD.COM: "...a book that tries to accomplish little beyond entertainment, and does a nice job within its limited scope.
Shelly's Book Blog: "This story reminded me of the Indiana Jones movies because of the search for an historic relic from an ancient civilization."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Graceling

Katsa is a young woman who lives at the court of her uncle, the ruler of the Middluns, one of the Seven Kingdoms. She is Graced, which means she possesses a talent at which she is especially gifted. Such talents can be mundane (such as exceptional skill at fishing) or politically useful, and those who have useful talents are sent to their king, to be put to use. Gracelings have eyes of two different colors, which makes them immediately recognizable to others. Katsa is an incredible fighter, and when she accidentally kills a man (who has accosted her), her uncle decides to put her to use as an enforcer, threatening and punishing those who do not follows his rules.

Katsa feels like a thug, and she begins to hate herself as much as she hates what her uncle forces her to do. She gathers her friends, though, and forms a sort of underground resistance that enables her to do positive things with her abilities. As the book opens, we find her on a mission to rescue someone who's been kidnapped, and on that mission she meets Po, a man who has a Grace to rival her own.

The two become friends, after a period of adjustment for Katsa, who is a prickly person and doesn't allow people to get very close to her. There's just something about him that gets past her defenses and makes her look at the world - and herself - in a different light. She and Po travel forth to investigate something that turns out to be a threat to all the Seven Kingdoms, and they come up against a foe so twisted and cunning that it seems impossible that they could begin to find a way to foil his plans.

I loved this book from the first chapter. Katsa is a likable, admirable heroine - strong and kind, stubborn and intelligent, but because she is an orphan brought up as a feared outsider forced to act as a thug for her borderline psychotic uncle, she has a few self-esteem issues to sort out. The characters shine in this book, and the way in which Katsa's relationship with Po unfolds is utterly delightful. The fantasy world is a fairly generic one, but the intriguing magic, well-developed characters and the taut pacing combine in a skillfully told story that turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2008. Fans of Tamora Pierce are sure to adore this book, which is apparently the first book in a series. While it has a satisfying, conclusive ending, there is no doubt that I will be ready to hear more about the adventures of Katsa, Po, and their comrades in the Seven Kingdoms.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "Katsa is a strong heroine with a good head on her shoulders. She was very likable and fun to read. Her struggles seemed real and not superficial and one of the things I really liked was that she was concerned about the other girls she would meet."
Bookshelves of Doom: "In short, I adored it. It's an adventure story with spot-on character development, a super-duper romantic love story (that yes, made me cry), a survival story with lots of political intrigue and yeah, there's more."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "Graceling has it all: an interesting premise, an action-packed, conflict-filled plot, characters and settings that feel real, and fluid, descriptive prose. I can't wait for the second book!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My favorite science fiction series

I could write pages and pages about Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga - the complex and interesting characters, the fascinating settings, the social commentary, the gripping, complicated plots, the humor, the amazing world building, the irresistible blending of genres - but I will spare you. Take my word for it, though: even if you think you don't like science fiction, you might want to give these a try. They are not about gadgets and high-tech gobbledygook speak. They are about people, people you come to know and care about, in worlds that you'll wish you could visit.

This thick volume is an omnibus containing books eleven and twelve in the series (Komarr and A Civil Campaign) along with the novella Winterfair Gifts, which was published in the anthology Irresistible Forces). I know I'm a hopeless stickler about insisting that books be read in order, but the payoff of reading the books in the Vorkosigan Saga in order is tremendous. The first books do not feature Miles (one of my top-ten favorite literary characters of all time); they are about his parents, who come from two different planets (so different that their cultures are diametric opposites) yet find that their differences complement each other perfectly.

Komarr deals with a turning point in Miles' life - a career change that puts him in the position of having to find his footing in a completely new situation. In this case, it's the planet Komarr, where there's been a disaster that might, in fact, have been simply an accident - or it could have been sabotage. This novel is a wonderful blend of science fiction and mystery, with an added dash of romance as Miles finds himself falling for a beautiful, married, miserable woman who, he's sure, wouldn't look twice at him even if she were single.

A Civil Campaign is my very favorite book in the series, and it was a pleasure to reread it in anticipation of reading Winterfair Gifts, which had somehow slipped past my radar when it was first published. It deals with Miles' "campaign" to woo the woman he is so desperately in love with, only he has to learn that all is not, in fact, fair in love and war, and romance cannot be conducted with the tactics and maneuvers that come so naturally to him and have been so effective in other areas of his life. This is a hilarious novel, a perfect blend of science fiction, political intrigue, romance and humor, and it has a most satisfying ending that is sure to put a silly grin on every reader's face.

Winterfair Gifts has an element of mystery as well, and it brings back beloved characters from earlier books and is told from the point of view of a relatively minor character, which adds an interesting perspective. I almost hated to read it, because it is the last (so far) in the Vorkosigan saga. Apparently Bujold is working on a new installment in the series, though - which, according to Wikipedia, is due to be published in 2010. That's great, really, but I hate to have to wait so long!

Books in the Vorkosigan saga:
Falling Free (a kind of slightly related prequel, not really necessary to read first)
1. Shards of Honor
2. Barrayar
3. The Warrior's Apprentice
4. The Vor Game
5. Cetaganda
6. Ethan of Athos
(almost a spin-off)
7. Brothers in Arms
8. Borders of Infinity
9. Mirror Dance
10. Memory
11. Komarr
12. A Civil Campaign
13. Diplomatic Immunity

Miles in Love (Omnibus edition that contains the novels Komarr and A Civil Campaign and the novella Winterfair Gifts) by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Deep Thoughts: "Wonderful books, amazing author, what's not to like?"
Eating Muffins in an Agitated Manner: "On one level, Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels are exciting space operatic romps with royalty, conspiracies, secret missions, captivating characters and delightful derring do with cousin Ivan, that idiot, but what pushes them that extra notch up on my scale is the way Bujold sneaks in quite serious sociological and psychological themes almost casually among the action, romance and comedy."
The Good, the Bad and the Bookish: (On Winterfair Gifts):
"Sadly this is a novella, but Bujold has incorporated every essential element into this tale of Miles’ next stage of life – the Count and Countess, a love story, a treacherous plot, substantial growth for at least one character, humour (including a brief reprise of butter bugs), a sense of place and time, really smart characterisation, an absorbing plot, and a satisfactory resolution that leaves room for a sequel but doesn’t demand it. Though I do – more please!"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A new breed of ghost story

I receive lots of emails offering me advance reading copies of this book or that (often a book that is completely unrelated to the kinds of books I review here), and I rarely agree to accept any, mainly because I have so many books on my list to read that I know I'm going to enjoy, and I dislike feeling pressure to read something that I might not feel like reading at that moment. Reading is the one area of my life that I have complete control over at this point, and I like to keep it that way, thank you very much!

But when I received an email from Patrick Carman describing his latest book, Skeleton Creek, I was immediately intrigued because of its interesting format. It is a book that is told from the points of view of two teens who are best friends. Ryan is a writer, and the book is his journal - it appears to be hand written on lined notebook paper. Sarah, however, is a filmmaker - and her point of view is interspersed with the text in the form of videos to be viewed on a "secret" website with passwords to access them. It's a book/video hybrid, and it works particularly well because this story is an evocative, suspenseful ghost story.

The book opens with Ryan recovering from an accident. He is stuck at home in his room with a horribly broken leg, and the cause of his accident is at first only hinted at. Their parents blame the accident on Ryan and Sarah's friendship, as it is apparently not the first time they have gotten into trouble, and they have been forbidden to see - or even communicate with - each other. But Ryan and Sarah are best friends and have no intention of complying. What's more, they've stumbled across a mystery that is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to either of them in their boring little town. Ryan has trouble remembering exactly what happened on that fateful night - but when Sarah emails him with a password that allows him to access her website to view the footage she filmed that night, it all comes rushing back.

In a creepy Blair Witch-style video, we see what the friends see as they approach the old dredge in the woods, and we see what the camera recorded after Ryan fell, when Sarah dropped it on the floor to rush to his aid - shocking images that neither of the friends will see until later...

The book alternates between Ryan's journal and Sarah's videos, and the suspense increases with each segment through the final gripping chapter. Many questions are raised throughout the narrative - there are puzzles and clues, codes and symbols. I found myself turning back and rereading sections of the book as new information came clear - and re-watching the videos revealed details I missed the first time around. I love the fact that things are not spelled out - there are intriguing topics that are touched upon, and I imagine that many readers will feel compelled to discover more about Morse code, mining, alchemy and elements, among other things.

The mystery is compelling, and the footage of the old dredge is incredibly spooky. I did wonder a bit at the friends' determination to find out what was going on, however. It seemed rather extreme, given the extent of Ryan's injuries, to be simply the product of boredom, of living in a town where nothing interesting ever happens. Why are the friends - particularly Sarah - so obsessed with the dredge? The passwords for the videos that Sarah gives Ryan may provide some insight - Lucy Westenra, Amontillado, and Peter Quint are among them. Again, I can see readers who are unfamiliar with those names looking for clues there, and perhaps discovering some further spine-tingling reading material. Still, I'd have pegged Sarah for someone who would use more film references than literary ones (but perhaps she was referring to the movies - there was a reference to Poltergeist at one point).

I loved the format of this book, and I think the subject matter is a perfect fit - what better way to really make a ghost story even more compelling than to add a soundtrack and "real" images? The two formats are integral to the work - the text would make no sense without the videos, and vice versa. The alternating viewpoints heightened the tension, making it difficult to put the book down. The novel will certainly appeal to reluctant readers, but also I love the way the format lends itself to making the book a shared experience. A group of friends could read this to each other on a dark and stormy night, then watch the videos together, speculating and sharing thoughts and trying to solve the mystery. My ten-year-old daughter practically tore the book from my hands when I explained how it worked. She loves books and she loves movies, so this was just perfect for her! She couldn't wait to get home from school so she could keep reading - and watching. She did wait for me to watch the final part with her (and she declined to watch it right before bed, which I felt was a wise decision).

This book is due to be released on February 10, 2009. Be aware that there's a brutal cliff-hanger ending, though - but not to worry; the second book will be coming out in September. There are lots of great places to go for further information about this book. Here is a trailer, and here is a fascinating interview with the author, and here is a very cool site that has related videos and discussion.

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman (Scholastic Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Zombie: "Ghosts, gold, secret societies, conspiracies. The ending of Skeleton Creek left me wordless, and I eagerly await the next installment."
Book-a-Rama: "It was quite an interesting (and I'll bet expensive) concept. Both the author and publisher have taken quite a risk, but it works."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Night things and a plucky heroine

In this first in a series of graphic novels, young Courtney Crumin moves to the suburbs with her vapid parents to stay with their wealthy elderly uncle, Professor Aloysius Crumrin. His house is a rambling old Victorian mansion, the creepiest house in town that everyone tells all kinds of dark, speculative stories about. Her uncle is a cold, unfriendly man who makes it perfectly clear that he wishes to be left alone.

Courtney's parents are delighted, because they feel the move is a huge improvement to their social status. Courtney, on the other hand, is not at all pleased. She is an outcast at her new school, where not only is she hopeless as far as finding a group to fit in with, but she's immediately set upon by a group of bullies on her way home on the very first day - and when she runs into the woods to escape them, she finds even worse things lurking there. To top things off, she doesn't even feel safe in her new home - there are dark creatures roaming its halls at night. Her parents don't seem to notice them - but her uncle does.

Courtney "borrows" a book about magical creatures that she finds in her uncle's off-limits study, and she begins to use her new-found knowledge to her advantage - although not without risks and ill effects. She is surprised to discover an unlikely ally in her uncle, which is a lucky thing when she finds herself well in over her head. Courtney comes up against all kinds of night things (and unpleasant human day things, too), tricky faeries, obnoxious changelings, inscrutable black cats - even her own dark side. She is not a sweet, nice little girl - she is headstrong and sometimes unkind, but she does try to do the right thing (by her lights, at any rate), and in the end she is an admirable, feisty, strong and thoroughly likable young heroine. She is very much alone in many ways, but she comes to terms with that in a satisfying way that readers are sure to identify with. The excellent artwork fits the dark stories perfectly, adding touches of whimsy and humor to some of the spookier moments and lending wonderful expression to the characters' faces.

I disagree, however, with the publisher's rating of "Y" (ages 7 and up) for this series. This is a dark series, with disturbing and violent events (in the first story, one of her classmates, a fellow bully victim, is devoured by a goblin in the woods, for example), and where older readers would be more likely to see the dark humor in the stories, some younger children might find it an altogether different experience. My library shelves this in the teen section, and I agree with that decision (not that it might not be the perfect fit for some younger readers). I would recommend this for ages twelve and up.

I am looking forward to reading the further adventures of Courtney in the next volume in this engaging graphic novel series.

Books in the Courtney Crumrin series:
1. Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things
2. Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics
3. Courtney Crumrin in the Twilight Kingdom
4. Courtney Crumin's Monstrous Holiday

And also:
Courtney Crumrin Tales: Portrait of the Warlock as a Young Man
Courtney Crumrin and the Fire Thief's Tale
Courtney Crumrin and the Prince of Nowhere


Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things, Vol. 1 by Ted Naifeh (Oni Press, 2002)

Also reviewed at:
Comics Worth Reading: "Whether getting the school bullies to leave her alone, learning the benefits of anonymity, or discovering that the neighborhood demon child is really a changeling, Courtney is a modern-day heroine, winning the day in a challenging world."
The Entropy Pump: "Her sometimes gruff behavior and the few moments of genuine emotional reaction show a kid who's coming to grips with certain facets of growing up as an outsider, but who at times also embraces who she is, warts and everything included."
Let's Fall Asleep: "Naifeh’s artwork achieves a great balance of cartoon and detail work. The settings are always carefully balanced and fully imagined (his cross-hatching technique is really solid) while the characters have very simple faces that really show Naifeh’s talent for conveying complex expression."

Monday, January 12, 2009

When much is taken, something is returned

Mau is a boy who has just embarked upon his island nation's manhood ceremony: he is dropped off on a nearby island and must make his way back home by himself - surviving on his own, building a boat to return - and when he does, he will be a man. However, on his way back an enormous tidal wave sweeps through the area. Mau survives, but he find himself his nation's sole survivor. Neither boy nor man, he feels like a hermit crab who is out searching for his new shell but cannot find it.

Meanwhile a boat from an alternate version of 19th-century England is swept onto the island by the tidal wave. Its sole survivors are an upper-class girl who calls herself Daphne and a foul-mouthed parrot. Luckily Daphne is not the sort to swoon at inopportune moments. She is an intelligent girl whose father has nurtured that intelligence, taking her to lectures at the Royal Society. Although neither speaks the other's language, she and Mau form an alliance that becomes a true friendship as they work to survive together after each has suffered unspeakable loss.

Mau is furious with the gods for allowing such a catastrophe to happen. Daphne is worried she'll never see her father again. Each has questions, and questions that lead to more questions - and somehow, as they grow to know each other and see the world through the other's eyes, they gain a new perspective on things, even though it becomes apparent that there are no simple answers. There is, as the god of death tells Mau, what happens and what does not happen. "Does not happen" become Mau's mantra as he struggles to help the survivors who show up, half drowned, wounded and malnourished, on the shores of his island.

As with all of Pratchett's novels, Nation is wonderfully written. While the subject matter is difficult (at times gut-wrenching), the story is leavened by some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments as well. One of my favorites is when Daphne finds herself face-to-face with a group of cannibals, and she manages to impress them with her courage and quick thinking.

"You are very clever," said the old man shyly. "I would like to eat your brains, one day."
For some reason the books of etiquette that Daphne's grandmother had forced on her didn't quite deal with this. Of course silly people would say to babies, "You're so sweet I could gobble you all up!" but that sort of nonsense seemed less funny when it was said by a man in war paint who owned more than one skull. Daphne, cursed with good manners, settled for "It's very kind of you to say so."

I adored this book. It is difficult to articulate the skillful manner in which Pratchett weaves his narrative, infusing it with humor and empathy, creating characters as three-dimensional as real people (more, actually, than some I know!), and spinning a tale that had me dreading the moment it would end. Because it ends, as all great stories do, much too soon. As the book drew toward the final chapters, I felt as though I had received the most delightful gift. I know already that I will be picking this book up again and again - what an amazing book to be my first read of 2009. While it is marketed as a young adult novel, it has definite appeal to adults as well. I highly recommend this novel - it is funny, moving, gripping, and thought provoking. And the epilogue? It rocks!

Nation by Terry Pratchett (HarperCollins, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Bookgeeks: "Being Pratchett, it is of course laugh-out-loud funny in very many places, but it’s also moving without being mawkish, and to balance those two elements in the same book, for a younger audience, is a huge achievement."
Things Mean a Lot: "In the past few years I’ve read many books that I loved, but I hadn’t been this awed in a long time. I hadn’t found something that resonated this deeply with me in a long time. So much of what I think and feel and believe is in this book."
Valentina's Room: "Although this book was more serious and complex than I expected, being Terry Pratchett's, it was full of truly hilarious moments."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Presenting...the Golden Hammock awards!


I started out poring over my book lists, trying to figure out which of the 200+ books I read this year could be sorted into tidy top-ten lists of this and that - graphic novels, YA, etc. And I realized I wasn't really having much fun. So instead of that not-fun activity, I present you with the following Golden Hammock awards. Obviously not to be taken too seriously (because I haven't really got any cute little golden hammocks to award. They're metaphorical. Although now that I think about it, I really wish I did have some!). And they are for books I read this year, no matter when they were published.

And so, with out further ado...the first annual Golden Hammock awards for 2008!

The Golden Hammock for the book that made me laugh out loud the longest and loudest (and giggle quietly to myself whenever I thought about certain particular scenes) goes to: The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (and also to the subsequent books in the trilogy, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith.

The award for the best steampunk novel goes to Larklight by Philip Reeve (and its sequel, Starcross, was very enjoyable, too!).

The award for the newly discovered series I became most immediately addicted to goes to the YA series The Mortal Instruments (of which I've read only two so far, City of Bones and City of Ashes but I'm eagerly awaiting the third, which is soon to be published).

The award for sweetest love story goes to Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist because, well, it was just so sweet and funny.

The best ghost story award goes to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Obviously!

The award for the best audio book goes to Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, read by Rupert Degas. This is the best audio book I've had the pleasure of listening to, from the excellent interpretation of the story and characters, the music and sound effects to the interview with Skulduggery himself at the end of the book.

The award for the best book with mythological themes goes to Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. If I hadn't listened to Skulduggery Pleasant this year, I'd have awarded this one best audio book as well - it is definitely a close runner-up. Lenny Henry does a fabulous job of reading this wonderful book.

The best fantasy novel award goes to House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones - a pure pleasure from beginning to end by one of my very favorite writers.

The award for best coming-of-age story goes to Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley.

The award for best romantic relationship goes to Graceling by Kristen Cashore.

The best alternate history award goes to His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik.

The award for the best-received read-aloud with my children goes to Madeleine' L'Engle's Meet the Austins; however, Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld is a close runner-up.

The award for best boarding school story is a tie between Looking for Alaska by John Green and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E.Lockhart. They are both fabulous books!

The best southern Gothic award goes to Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest. I'm planning on reading more of her work this year.

The award for favorite newly discovered manga series goes to Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma.

The award for favorite new author goes to Justine Larbalestier, whose Magic or Madness trilogy is just wonderful, as is her charming book How to Ditch Your Fairy. I'm very much looking forward to her next effort!

The award for most enjoyable reread goes to Blood Price by Tanya Huff, and I'm looking forward to rereading that entire series this year.

The award for best anthology goes to Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner (review forthcoming). The award for best short story collection, however, goes to Waifs and Strays by Charles de Lint.

The award for best illustrations (excluding picture books, which I unfortunately rarely have the time to review) goes to Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell.

The award for favorite new kick-ass heroine goes to Jaz Parks in the first book of the series by Jennifer Rardin, Once Bitten, Twice Shy.

The award for best science fiction novel goes to Heir Apparent by Vivian Vande Velde.

The award for funniest vampire novel goes to Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson.

And last, but not least, the award for most anxiously-awaited book in a series goes to My Bonny Light Horseman by L.A. Meyer. And yes, it was worth the wait.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! I'm sorry I haven't been around much lately - it's going to be a busy spring for me, and I'm afraid that I'm going to be spending less time blogging than I'd like. Don't you hate when life interferes like that? First of all, I'm entering the final semester of my library program. I'll be doing a practicum at some school libraries, which will be in addition to my normal working hours at my public library. I'm excited about that, because while I've volunteered at my children's school library and have a fairly good idea what happens on the elementary school level, I am looking forward to gaining some experience in a high school library, which I know will be very different from the library I had in high school back when mammoths roamed the earth.

In addition to the practicum, there are comprehensive exams coming up at the end of March. Big scary ones with sharp teeth and claws that have an uncanny ability to loom in the shadows when I'm least expecting it. So I have a lot of reviewing to do, especially given the fact that I started this program in 2004 and have been taking only one course at a time, because it was all that I could manage. Five years ago is a long time - I'm afraid I'm going to have to learn everything all over again!

I'm going to try to keep up with the reviews and, of course, everything you all are doing and reading and talking about on your blogs, but time will be limited. I keep trying to write shorter reviews, but there's always so much to say! I suppose having less time for recreational reading will mean that the stack of books to review will not pile up as quickly, but that's pretty cold comfort. At least I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!