Saturday, February 28, 2009

+Anima, Volume 1

Cooro is a young boy who is known as an +anima - a human who shares the characteristics of an animal. He has the black wings of a crow, and can fly - but he does not know where he came from. We first see him as a baby, falling from the sky through the roof of a human household. Presumably the humans raise him, but then eleven years later, he's traveling on his own in search of others of his kind.

Cut to a circus, where a pretty young mermaid - apparently another +anima - is starring in the sideshow. The circus manager, an overbearing, controlling type, seems to be holding her against her will. Cooro is caught peeking through the tent, and when the manager discovers his wings, he forces Cooro to be part of the act, too. But a boy who can fly is difficult to hold captive - and Cooro is determined to rescue the mermaid as well. But that particular +anima has a few surprises in store for the crow boy...

This is a sweet, humorous manga of adventure and discovery that introduces and interesting cast of characters, several of whom have just a bit of trouble getting along. Thus far it does not delve very deeply into the characters or their motivations beyond their desire to find other +animas. My library shelves this in the teen section, but - at least as far as this first volume goes - I think it would be appropriate for younger (ages 9 to 12) readers as well. This is an enjoyable start to a light-hearted fantasy series.

+Anima, Volume 1 by
Natsumi Mukai (Tokyopop, 2006)

Friday, February 27, 2009

An extraordinary storyteller

Melissa, Amanda and Peewee have no idea what to expect when their Aunt Sally comes from Canada to take care of them while their parents are on a trip to Paris. Their father is clearly reluctant to ask Aunt Sally to come, but when their usual babysitter get sick (with the bubonic plague, no less), Aunt Sally appears to be the only alternative to canceling the trip altogether - and their mother refuses to do that.

Given their father's ambivalence to his sister, the children are a bit cautious when they finally come face to face with the aunt they've only known through holiday cards. She is certainly unusual in appearance, with her high yellow beehive hairstyle, high-heeled lace-up boots and incredibly sparkly eyes. But she is kind and fun to be with and respectful of the children. particularly Peewee, the youngest, whom she insists upon calling by his real name, Frank.

Soon the children cannot begin to understand why on earth their parents wouldn't want Aunt Sally around - she has a great sense of humor, draws beautiful pictures and, best of all, she tells the most amazing stories. These aren't just any old stories - they are stories about her childhood (and their father's) on Vancouver Island, a place that seems exotic to them, Ohio natives that they are. Aunt Sally seems constantly surprised by how little their father has told them about Vancouver Island and his boyhood, and the children hang onto her every word - even though the stories veer well into tall-tale country.

With humor and flair, Aunt Sally tells the children about their German neighbors' dog, about the great uncle who chased her brother out the upstairs window when he wouldn't eat his vegetables, about the neighbor who took them on a cougar hunt (my personal favorite - it is hilarious!), about the fat little mean girl - and all the while, there are hinted, half-told stories about the trolls that loom like a storm cloud on the horizon...

I read this book to my children (ten and eight years old), and it lent itself perfectly to being read out loud in installments. The episodic nature made it easy to find a non-cliffhanger stopping point (even though the girls begged for more all the same). The characters and situations in Aunt Sally's stories were described in vibrant detail, while the children in Ohio (particularly the two sisters) were fairly interchangeable and served more as a vehicle for Sally's storytelling. Aunt Sally pulls no punches with her vocabulary words, but as one of the children always asks the meaning of an unfamiliar word (usually just after one of my own children asked me), they are integrated nicely into the storytelling.

On the surface The Trolls is a simple tale, a narrative constructed of stories within stories along with the daily events of a week-long visit from Aunt Sally. But beneath that deceptively simple exterior lie deep and complex themes about the nature of family, trust, and the far-reaching consequences that can arise from a single thoughtless action. This is the first book I've read by Polly Horvath, but it certainly won't be the last.

The Trolls by Polly Horvath (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

An Incomplete Revenge

I have been an avid reader of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series since the first book, Maisie Dobbs, was published in 2003. They are historical mysteries, set in England in the period between the wars. World War I has profoundly altered Maisie's life - she served as a nurse in the war - and the mysteries she solves tend to be linked to the war in some way, exploring complex situations tangled up in the war's aftermath. The first book in the series is more psychological and character driven, exploring Maisie's past, but the books that follow are more traditional mysteries.

In this installment of the series, Maisie is asked to investigate matters in Heronsdene, a village in Kent where her client is thinking of purchasing some land. A series of unexplained fires and some burglaries is of concern, and Maisie sets off to determine the underlying cause. It is the season for hops picking, and Maisie's assistant, Billy, is going with his family on their annual visit to the countryside to pick hops, breathe some fresh country air, and make a bit of money on the side. He and his family come to Heronsdene instead of their usual destination, so he is able to aid Maisie in the investigation.

On the surface the villagers are a friendly lot, although they are suspicious of the hops-picking Londoners and the group of gypsies that are there for their annual visit. There are certain matters, however, that they will not discuss - or, if pressed, they lie about outright. Maisie must pick her way carefully through the lies and misdirection to uncover a most horrible secret that lies at the heart of the current troubles of the picturesque village.

I enjoyed the audio version of this book very much - it is the first one I've listened to, and the narrator, Orlagh Cassidy, did a tremendous job with the voices, the accents, and the general storytelling style. The Maisie Dobbs novels tend to be quiet and powerful, psychological rather than action packed, with vivid descriptive passages that, when listened to aloud, are wonderfully evocative. The next book in the series will be published this month, and I intend to listen to the audio version of that one as well.

Books in the Maisie Dobbs series:
1. Maisie Dobbs
2. Birds of a Feather
3. Pardonable Lies
4. Messenger of Truth
5. An Incomplete Revenge
6. Among the Mad

An Incomplete Revenge (#5 in the Maisie Dobbs series) by Jacqueline Winspear; narrated by Orlagh Cassidy (BBC Audio Books America, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Book-Blog.com: "Winspear's series is more about the atmosphere of the books, the feel of England after the War, when people were still smarting from their losses, a time that was slower than ours but which had seen its horrors."
A Reader's Journal: "Winspear brings together an interesting cast of characters and weaves an interesting tale of events that she brings together in a satisfactory conclusion. I love this series.

Graphic Novels Challenge 2009

Yes, another irresistible challenge. My only hesitation about joining this one was knowing how many more books are going to be added to my list as I read everyone's reviews! Although since most every blogger I follow has joined it, I'll be reading those reviews anyway. :-)

This challenge is hosted by Laza of Gimme More Books! and is set up so that those who join can choose from among the following challenge options:

Minor: Read 6
Major: Read 12
Masters: Read 18
Doctorate: Read 24

You know I'll have to go for my doctorate! I will not be making up a list; I will post links to reviews here as I go along, and I'll also be posting the reviews at the challenge blog. I encourage you to stop by, even if you're not interested in joining the challenge (although you may change your mind about that once you've read a few of the many wonderful reviews that have already been posted).

Books read for the Graphic Novels Challenge 2009:
1. Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh
2. Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale
3. Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics
by Ted Naifeh
4. Boneyard, Vol. 1 by Richard Moore

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Blood Trail

In this second book of the Vicki Nelson series, ex-police officer Vicki gets a call from her friend Henry (vampire and romance novelist), asking her to help out some friends. The big friendly dog she meets at his apartment turns out to be a werewolf (much to Vicki's embarrassment, after she's been patting him and cuddling him, thinking he's just a lovable furry mutt, not someone who could instantly transform into a strapping young - unclothed - man). He and his sister have come to Henry for help because someone is murdering members of their family - a sharpshooter is picking them off when they are outside, alone, at night.

Vicki agrees to help, although she is aware of her limitations, as the progressive eye disease she is suffering from has rendered her night vision useless. She finally admits to her disease to Henry, who points out that his strengths complement her weaknesses (and secretly he's thrilled at the chance to get her all to himself, out in the country, for a while). Once at the farm where the werewolf pack lives, Vicky is inducted into an altogether different way of life, as the werewolves may look like humans in their human shape, but they have their own way of thinking and behaving that takes a little getting used to - including their disdain for clothing (it impedes quick shape changes).

I enjoyed this reread very much - I recall it as being one of my favorites, mainly because I found the werewolf characters to be delightfully refreshing and, at times, downright hilarious. Since this book was published, many other similar werewolf characters have emerged in other books, but these were among the first I'd read about that were not mindless, slavering beasts at the mercy of moon phases - nor are they fully human, even when they are in their human shape. They have their own culture and code that is often foreign and confusing to Vicky, and it is fully believable as described.

I was a bit disappointed when the culprit was revealed before Vicky was able to figure out who it was - the sudden shift to an open mystery took away the suspense for me and lessened the impact of the climactic scene. Still, I found this to be a highly enjoyable read. Vicky is an easy character to like, despite her failings, and Henry and her ex-partner Celluci make up an entertaining love triangle. The relationships from the first book continue to be developed as the series progresses, and I'm looking forward to the third book so I can continue revisiting these interesting characters.

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


Blood Trail (#2 in the Vicki Nelson series) by Tanya Huff (DAW Books, 1992)

Also reviewed at:
Tez Says: "Vicki’s a wily, likable character, with a medical condition that makes her stand out from the archetypal urban fantasy heroines populating the genre with their sameness. But I much prefer homicide detective Mike Celluci to Henry, for the simple reason that Mike seems real to me – and not just for his Italian swears."
Books, Writing and Life: "I was impressed by the strong characters and excellent writing. Being a guy, I sometimes find it harder to relate to female characters, but with this series it was not an issue."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bewitching Season

When this book showed up among the new purchases for my library, I immediately snatched it up, because it appeared to have many elements that appeal to me: it's historical, set in 19th-century England; it involves magic; and it also has a dash of romance. I find that sort of combination irresistible.

The book opens as twin sisters Persephone (Persy) and Penelope (Pen) Leland are having lessons with their governess, Miss Allardyce (fondly called "Ally" by her teenage charges). They're not the lessons one would expect, either - they are lessons in magic. Ally comes from a magical family, and her mother has researched English families and knows which ones are reputed to have magical powers; magic is hereditary, and those who possess the talent must be trained. So, unbeknownst to the girls' parents, they been learning much more in their lessons than deportment and dancing.

The girls look identical, but they are very different. Persy would prefer to read and study magic than to attend social functions, but Pen is delighted that their coming-out season is nearly upon them. She cannot wait for the balls and dinner parties that await them in London. Persy feels panicked at the thought of coming out - she just knows that she will trip and fall or humiliate herself in one way or another, particularly when she is presented to the queen. The terrifying prospect of the upcoming season is slightly ameliorated when the Lelands are visited by their neighbors, Lochinvar Seton and his father. Lochinvar has changed from the beastly boy who used to torment them mercilessly when they were children into a kind, thoughtful and incredibly handsome young man. Maybe dancing with him at one of the balls wouldn't be so horribly awful, thinks Persy. But surely he must be more interested in her sister, who is so much more charismatic and charming...

Ally precedes them to London, and when the girls and their family arrive, it is to find that Ally is not to be found. A letter from her arrives, and the girls can immediately tell that it was written under duress. So, on top of the bustle and preparations for their coming out, the parties and dances and shopping for gowns and hats, the girls must find a way to rescue their beloved governess - and foil a dreadful plot that is brewing at Kensington Palace, home of the young Princess Victoria.

This book did indeed possess those things that prompted me to read it in the first place, and I did enjoy it, but not quite as much as I'd have liked. It was rather predictable, without any real departures or surprises. And there were several key plot points that just did not feel believable enough to me. For example, Miss Allardyce is abducted because she possesses great magical talent - yet she is depicted as utterly helpless against her abductors - doesn't even attempt to escape - and is held captive amazingly easily. Ally's magically gifted family does nothing more than perform a spell to determine where she is located, and they leave it up to the young girls to find their daughter, not trying further, just sitting around with red-rimmed, worried eyes. Ally has repeatedly cautioned the girls to be quiet and careful about their magical skills, because it can be dangerous for others to know about them - yet her sister performs a magic spell in front of strangers in their magical shop and leaves a powerful, magical book lying out in the open. The plot hinges on this carelessness, which did not feel believable to me.

Still, I did enjoy the novel, particularly the sisters' relationship with each other and their little brother, and the well-developed historical setting, the descriptions of balls and parties and dress shops. I would have prefered a more seamless blending of the various story elements that are presented in this book, but it is a first novel, the first in what is apparently a series, and I'd say it is a promising beginning. This would have appeal to those who have enjoyed Sorcery and Cecelia by Wrede and Stevermer (definitely my favorite in this wonderful subgenre) the College of Magics books by Stevermer, and the series by Libba Bray that starts with A Great and Terrible Beauty. A sequel called Betraying Season is due to be published in May - you can check out The Magic Of Ink for a preview.

Books in the Leland Sisters series:
1. Bewitching Season
2. Betraying Season


Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle (Henry Holt and Company, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
The Compulsive Reader: "Bewitching Season is a fun and romantic read with the added plus of cleverly disguised historical details, making it educational without being stuffy."
Literate Concepts: "It is a good growing up story as well as a lesson in that things don't always turn out the way you would think or expect them to. It is very uplifting and at times was downright humorous. I'm looking forward to the next Leland sisters book."
Read a Great Teen Book!: "I was drawn to this story because it has all the elements I love in books--it's historical, it's fantasy, it has a romantic side plot, and has a mystery to solve--but in actuality this book didn't really do much for me."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Boneyard

I had not heard of this graphic novel series until reading The Book Zombie's review last month. Her description of the story's combination of humor, horror and the fantastical hooked me immediately, and when I got my own copy, I was not disappointed.

The book opens as Michael Paris, a young man who's just inherited some property from his grandfather, is driving out to the country to finalize the details of its sale. It isn't until he arrives that he discovers that the property is actually a graveyard, and the townspeople are up in arms because they claim that it is an evil place and must be destroyed. The mayor is the most passionate advocate of its destruction and urges Paris to sign the papers immediately.

But Paris is not the sort of guy to jump to conclusions - luckily for the odd denizens of the graveyard. Paris discovers a whole host of creepy but evidently harmless creatures living there, residents who will be displaced should the graveyard be razed as the mayor insists. Paris maintains that each side should have its say, and then he'll decide what to do. The situation becomes a kind of political campaign, with each side overtly courting his favor. Poor Paris doesn't know if he should be more frightened of the (admittedly sexy) vampire, the werewolf, the swamp monster - or the matronly ladies, each bearing a freshly baked pie, he discovers in his hotel room when he comes out of the shower wearing only a towel.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is more to the situation than meets the eye, and that not everything is as it seems in the town of Raven's Hollow. I enjoyed the quirky characters and original premise of this first book in the series, which is a compilation of the first four issues of the comic. The dialogue is fabulous, and there is something on every page to make readers smile or laugh out loud. The images included in the Book Zombie's review were in color; my library's copy, alas, is entirely in black and white. Even so, the images are a perfect complement to the tone of the story. The book has a satisfying conclusion, yet leaves an impression that there is much more in store for our young hero and the boneyard characters. I'm very much looking forward to the next book in this very funny series.

Boneyard, Volume 1
by Richard Moore (NBM Publishing, 2002)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Zombie: "This first volume in the series did a bang-up job of introducing the citizens and setting of Raven Hollow. It set in motion some sub-plots that I hope to learn more about in future issues..."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A new tale of sisterhood

This new story about friendship from the author of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series centers on three girls whose once-close friendship has faded as they've grown older and have fewer interests in common. Now it is the last summer before they all start high school.

Jo is spending the summer at the beach, but unlike past summers, her father won't be with them. An incredibly cute boy and a stolen kiss on the bus ride to the beach house give her other things to focus on instead. A chance comment from an elderly uncle sets Polly on a course to change herself into something different - but she risks losing herself along the way. And Ama, initially delighted to have won an academic summer scholarship, is dismayed to find herself hiking through the wilderness (with creepy bugs, blister-inducing hiking boots, and a slutty roommate) instead of soaking up knowledge in a cool, clean indoor academic environment. When she learns her experience is going to be graded, she is dismayed and horrified.

The novel tracks the girls' experiences throughout their summer, weaving backstory into the current narrative to create a clear picture of their former friendship as well as the changes in their lives that have caused them to drift apart. While the Traveling Pants books were about true and fast friends (albeit with a few bumps on that road), this book is about the way friendships can and do change over time into different, but no less precious, kinds of relationships. The girls are separated - and lost - through most of the book. They face their challenges alone, but the lessons they learn bring them insight that leads them on a winding road back towards their friends.

I enjoyed this novel - there are few writers who delve as skilfully into the nuances of friendship as well as Brashares. I did have some initial difficulty telling the girls apart, particularly Jo and Polly. Polly's issues worried me - I do not know what is in store for her in the next book, but her destructive and dangerous behavior is not something to be believably resolved as simply as it appears to be at the end of this story. I really identified with Ama - she was my favorite of the characters. The trials and tribulations of her wilderness experience left me laughing and and crying. Her issues with her hair were particularly hilarious. The Traveling Pants books are a tough act to follow, and while I did not immediately bond with these characters the way I did with those in the first series, I found 3 Willows to be a sweet, touching novel, and I'm certainly on board to continue with the further adventures of Jo, Polly and Ama.

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brashares (Delacorte Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Garish and Tweed: "It sounds like Brashares is planning on at least a sequel, but in the meantime this is a fine stand-alone title that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to fans of the Pants books or girls who like stories about friendships."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "It's the kind of book that entices you to read one more chapter, and then one more, until the book is suddenly finished"
Through a Glass, Darkly: "One of the reasons I like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants so much is that it seems so mystical, this group of four girls who have been friends for so long. And one of the reasons I enjoyed 3 Willows was that I know a thing or two about friendships drifting apart, and I liked the ways these girls reconnected."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Here Lies the Librarian

Peewee (Eleanor) is a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Indiana in 1914. She lives with her big brother and helps him out in their gas station/auto repair shop. The story opens as a tornado whips through town, and when they emerge from their shelter, they find that the tornado has touched down in the cemetery, unearthing graves and depositing bodies in trees.

The tornado damage is reported in a local newspaper, which mentions that the library - closed since the death of the town's only librarian - was damaged as well. The newspaper article comes to the notice of several library school students, three wealthy young women, all friends, who drive fancy cars, wear lovely, fashionable clothes, and decide that working at the small-town library will be just thing to give them real-world library experience.

One of the librarians takes an interest in Peewee, inviting her to help in the library (she'd been banned from there by the grumpy old librarian back before it closed), and Peewee is drawn to her and the library in spite of herself. She's a bit suspicious, asking if she's trying to turn her into a librarian. But she is told that no one can turn Peewee into anything except Peewee herself. And that is a concept that is carried through the book.

Out-of-control car races, savage bullies, bodies in trees, quirky characters, library tea parties, courtroom dramas - this book has it all. It offers a clear picture of life in small-town Indiana in the years before World War I. Peewee is a sympathetic character who may be a bit too stubborn for her own good, but she has a good heart and a quick mind, and it was an enjoyable experience to follow her life as she grows into the kind of person she decides to be. Her voice carries the narrative with humor and passion, and as read by Lara Everly the audio book was a gripping and enjoyable tale.

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck; narrated by Lara Everly (Listening Library, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Book Bits: "This is an entertaining story about small town life and the beginning of automobile racing, with a sideline in libraries and librarians as well as women's rights.
The Magic of Books: "Although the main character is a girl of 14 on the verge of "growing up", it has a number of appealing aspects that boys would enjoy. Some of these include the obvious racing, mechanics, car manufacturing, and outsmarting bullies."
Reader Monkey: "The ending was fairly predictable, although the description of the final race is fast-paced and the details make it fun to read."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Where it all began

I have been enjoying Terry Pratchett's novels for years, but there are gaps in my reading, particularly in the Discworld series. After having such a blast with his Tiffany Aching novels last year, I decided to start at the beginning and read all the Discworld novels in order (but within no specific time frame - it will take me a while, as you can see by the sheer number of books in the series). It has been longer than I like to think since I read this one - at least twenty years, which makes me feel old. I had vague memories of an incompetent wizard and surprisingly clear memories of a trunk with many legs. Anyone who's read this book will, I have no doubt, remember that trunk - in fact, it might even be their favorite character!

The novel opens with a huge fire blazing through the city of Ankh-Morpork, and then we backtrack to get the story of how the fire started. It all began with the arrival of something never seen before: a tourist. The concept of tourism is nonexistent in Ankh-Morpork - but the concept of fleecing a tourist who has no idea what his money is worth? Well, that one is quickly grasped and embraced. Twoflower, the tourist, is set upon by all sorts of rascals set out to get a share of the gold he keeps in his unusual chest. Made of sentient pearwood, the chest follows him about on dozens of little legs and has its own unique way of ensuring Twoflower and his money will not be unwillingly parted.

Rincewind, a failed wizard, is initially among those who wish to fleece the tourist. But he finds himself in the position of having - on pain of dire consequences - to accompany Twoflower in his travels and keep him alive. This is not an easy task, as Twoflower, an eternal optimist, is intent on experiencing as much of Rincewind's world as possible, including tavern brawls and anything else he deems fun and exciting. Twoflower's idea of fun and exiting nearly gets Rincewind killed in all kinds of creative ways everywhere they go, dragging them into one impossibly hilarious situation after another. Rincewind can't figure out why everything's going wrong for him - but somewhere Discworld's gods and goddesses are having a game of dice...

This a fun novel that pokes affectionately at fantasy stereotypes and introduces characters and concepts that will be more developed in subsequent books of the series. It is not necessary to begin reading Discworld novels with this first book, and while it's a wonderful little book, it's certainly not the best one - the series gets better and better over time - but it sure is fun to see where it all started. I look forward to continuing my exploration of Discword from the very beginning.

Books in the Discworld series:
1. The Color of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort

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

The Colour of Magic (#1 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Books, 1983)

Also reviewed at:
Adventures in Reading: "As Pratchett has described it himself, it’s a novel of travel and exposes the reader to the Discworld at its roughest stage. This is the “primordial goo” that the rest of the Discworld bubbles forth from and definitely worth a read."
A Book a Week: "Like Adams, Pratchett lampoons everything and anything, including his own story. He clearly had an incredible amount of fun writing this tale and inventing the Discworld in general. Or letting it invent itself. The fact that the reader has just as much fun is a byproduct."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I think I'll take the train...

Okay, so I just spent way too long scrolling through the pictures on this website - and laughing till tears came to my eyes! Granted, I amuse easily, but these are so funny. The above is just one of many wonderful signs from around the world that people have uploaded to the site - it was hard to choose from among them. If you love playing with words and have a slightly twisted sense of humor, I bet you will spend a lot of time there, too. But mind the luggage gangsters! And in case you're hungry but dieting, I leave you with this gem:

When Twilight Burns

Much has happened in the life of Victoria Gardella since her coming-out season, when she made the fateful decision to embrace her heritage and become a Venator, a vampire slayer with supernatural speed and strength. This, the fourth book of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, picks up immediately from where the third book left off. Inevitable spoilers to the other three books likely follow - I recommend starting with the first book if you are interested in this series.

This installment presents a different sort of challenge for Victoria, who has already faced unimaginable horrors and great loss in her life. Now, because of surviving a vampire attack in the last book, Victoria must not only continue to fight against vampires and their dastardly plots and schemes, but she must also fight against a darkness that is growing inside her. The darkness prevents her from seeing clearly, and because that clarity is essential to her work as a Venator, it leaves her incredibly vulnerable.

Aside from Victoria's inner struggles, she has aroused the suspicion of a policeman who understandably focuses on her when she is found at the scene of several murders. Vampire attacks are taking place during daylight hours - and there seems to be a plot against the royal family, too. Victoria's plate is full, and once again the reader is hurtled along at a breakneck pace, as plot strands pull the story here and there, finally coming together in a dramatic finish. There was a more conclusive ending to this book, compared to the others in the series, which will make the wait for the fifth (and final, apparently) book slightly more bearable.

My only complaint, which I mentioned before in an earlier review, is the errors in the Italian one of the characters tends to sprinkle throughout her dialogue. These are simple mistakes, easily corrected. Syntax, for example, and basic grammatical errors, such as adjectives that don't agree with their nouns: "povero" modifying widow, which is feminine, so it should be "povera" instead. It seems nitpicky, I know, but when I read something like that, it throws me out of the story - it undermines the storytelling and the authority of the storyteller. I must say I was comforted by Nymeth's thoughts on the matter in one of her recent reviews.

At any rate, that is a minor complaint about an otherwise highly enjoyable series. Readers of historical romance as well as vampire fans are sure to enjoy this one.

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

5. As Shadows Fade

When Twilight Burns (#4 in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles) by Colleen Gleason (Signet Eclipse, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Back to Books: "I'm addicted to the characters and this series and can't wait to find out how it all ends in the last book."
Stainless Steel Droppings: "When Twilight Burns has something for everyone: action, adventure, suspense, tension, drama, factual historical elements, romance, and of course those pesky undead!"
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "...my heart was just beating non-stop from page one to page 356 (yes, that includes the sneak peak of book 5). The action was intense, the romance was steamy, the characters were incredibly real and believable as always."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A world where technology and magic collide

Kate Daniels lives in an alternate, future Atlanta, Georgia, which has become a strange place indeed. It has periods in which magic takes over and technological things (cars, electric lights, etc.) stop working. And it has other periods when the magic phases out, and technology takes over again. The fluctuations can be inconvenient, particularly if you are driving in your car at the time. There is no reason given for this situation - the reader is simply thrown into the story and, without huge infodumps to stop the action, the background becomes quickly evident.

Kate is a mercenary who is very talented at what she does - so much so, in fact that her guardian has repeatedly encouraged her to join him and work for the Knights of Merciful Aid, as he does. But Kate is stubborn and has issues with kowtowing to authority, and she has always refused, preferring to work for herself, make her own decisions, and keep certain things about herself as private as possible. As the book opens, however, Kate receives the devastating news that her guardian has been killed. This time the investigation is personal, and Kate goes against her instincts to join the Knights in her hunt for her guardian's killer. It appears the Masters of the Dead, a group of necromancers who control vampires (which are creepy, mindless creatures controlled remotely by the Masters) and the Pack, a group of paramilitary shapeshifters, each blame the other for a number of recent murders, and Kate is suddenly thrust into the midst of the mire when it becomes clear that her guardian's death is connected.

Patricia Briggs has a blurb on the cover of this book: "Splendid...an edgy, dark fantasy touched with just the right amount of humor." I don't know that I'd call it splendid, but it did hold my attention, presenting an intriguing world and interesting characters. Frankly, it is hard to pick up a new urban fantasy series without bracing myself for all the clichés and stereotypes that are bound to be there. Yes, we have the tough, stubborn, "kick-ass" heroine, once a refreshing character but now omnipresent in the genre. We have tense, potentially violent political situations among supernatural groups of characters, and we have the usual cast of were-creatures, vampires, wizards and the like. But happily there were new angles - the bizarre, creepy nature of the vampires, for one, as well as an interesting take on the way magic works - and some intriguing hints of mysteries to be explored in future books of the series. I found the choice of title to be unfortunate, however; it led me to expect a lighter, more amusing story, when in fact the novel tends more toward the serious and dark. Serious and dark is fine with me - it's the false expectation that was confusing. I will be interested to see how Kate's story evolves in the second book of this series.

Books in the Kate Daniels series:

1. Magic Bites
2. Magic Burns
3. Magic Strikes


Magic Bites (#1 in the Kate Daniels series) by Ilona Andrews (Ace Books, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Look What I Found in My Brain! - "There's a lot of good action in the novel, and I appreciated that it goes to some fairly dark places."
Reading, Etc.: "I enjoyed the second read of this book. I like the fact that Kate has problems, foibles and isn’t perfect. I look forward to learning more about her in future books."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

YA Challenge 2009

Who could resist joining this fun challenge hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog? Not me, that's for sure! I imagine I will read more than the twelve YA books required for this challenge, but for me the fun is the community and discussion that result when so many book lovers read together. So thank you, J. Kaye!

I am not going to put together a list in advance, because that tends to take the fun out of it for me, so I will post my twelve books here as I go along, and link to this post from the challenge button on the sidebar.

1. The Riddle by Allison Croggon
2. 3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brashares
3. Boneyard, Volume 1 by Richard Moore
4. Bewitching Season
by Marissa Doyle
5. Beyond the Deepwoods by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
6. The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
7. The Circle of Blood by Alane Ferguson
8. Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce
9. Rogue's Home by Hilari Bell
10. The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
11. The Death Collector by Justin Richards
12. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

The second book of Pellinor

Maerad, unwilling heroine of prophecy destined to - possibly - save the world, returns in this second installment of the Pellinor series, which was every bit as compelling as the first. The action picks up where the first book left off, as Maerad and her companion, teacher and friend, Cadvan, flee from the dark powers that pursue them. They are on a quest (or what appears to Maerad to be a wild-goose chase) for something called the Treesong - but how to search for something when no one seems to know what it is?

They journey from city to city and across the countryside, Maerad growing into her magic and learning more about her abilities on the way, enduring hardship but meeting interesting, compassionate people as they go. Maerad is growing up, and as she does she comes to realize that not only is the world a vastly complex place in which things are not always what they seem, but that she herself has her own darkness within that must be acknowledged and confronted. It seems increasingly that as soon as she grows to love someone or someplace, she's destined to become separated from it, and she must face many perils and situations all by herself in this book. It seems fitting that, as a child of destiny, she travel the length and breadth of her land in order to see for herself what exactly is at stake should she fail.

I continue to enjoy this well-crafted series. It swept me up with the first book and continued to do so in this one. The characters gain depth and complexity as the story continues, particularly Maerad, as she is young and has a lot of growing to do. The pervasive sense of the culture of the land, with its mythology and history, combined with lyrical prose and compelling characters - as well as the sense of wonder that fills this fantasy world to the brim - make me very excited to read the next book.

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

3. The Crow
4. The Singing

The Riddle (#2 in the Pellinor series) by Allison Croggon (Candlewick Press, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Keep on Reading in the Free World: "This book was awesome - it lived up to all of the anticipation. In this book we really begin to see Maerad develop as a character - there are dark sides to her that were not fleshed out in the first book."
Someone's Read It Already: "If you enjoyed the first book, with all its poetic and semi-formal language, then you will definitely enjoy the second book and its exploration of the lands, people, and history of Annar and the bordering lands."
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops: "The Riddle was a pleasant surprise, as I haven't had a lot of luck with sequels lately, yet I devoured this book in two sittings! The Elidhu continue to fascinate me, and the Winterking's power over Maerad is obviously enticing."

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Saving the world with wit and style!"


Skulduggery Pleasant - detective, snappy dresser, wizard, smartass - returns in this sequel to the eponymous first book in the series, along with his apprentice Stephanie Edgley (who is now known as Valkyrie Cain). Oh, and did I forget to mention? Skulduggery is dead. Well, kind of. He's a living skeleton. But he doesn't let that hold him back. As he says, "I like to think that I've grown into a very well-adjusted skeleton."

The audio version of the first book in the series, Skulduggery Pleasant, was an Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production honor book, so I decided to listen to it, and I'm glad I did. It had creepy music, sound effects, one of the best narrators I've ever heard, and the icing on the cake was a delightful interview with Skulduggery himself at the end of the book! But don't worry, if you didn't catch the interview, you can listen to it here at Skulduggery's own website, which is a very fun place to visit. Of course I had to listen to the second installment in the series, and it was just as rewarding as the first.

The following may contain some spoilers, so if you are interested in this series, I'd suggest you check out my review of the the first one. In this installment, Valkyrie is settling into her new life as Skulduggery's apprentice, studying magic and martial arts, and she loves it. She has learned how to create a mirror image (literally - the image walks out of the mirror) of herself, so she isn't bothered with the drudgery of attending classes while she pursues her own unusual schooling. She's feeling confident in her developing powers - that is, until she comes up against Baron Vengeous, Skulduggery's old foe, who is once again intent on bringing back the faceless ones, an ancient, terrifying race. Vengeous's first move is to bring back the Grotesquery, a horrific creature made up of various parts of ferocious mythical creatures.

Skulduggery and Valkyrie must work together to prevent the return of the faceless ones, but before long it is clear that they are in well over their heads. To add to Valkyrie's woes, she is forced to attend a family reunion for her father's side of the family, and it is amusingly clear how little she has in common with them when she finds herself wishing, as she suffers through the reunion, that the vampire legions would just hurry up and attack already. I found this sequel to be just as enjoyable as the first - the characters are compelling and fascinating, and the dark storyline, complex plot and and wry humor are an irresistable combination for this reader. I highly recommend this delightful, fantastical series, and if you can find the audio version, you will definitely not be disappointed.

Books in the Skulduggery Pleasant series:
1. Skulduggery Pleasant
2. Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire
(#2 in the Skulduggery Pleasant series) by Derek Landy; narrated by Rupert Degas (HarperCollins Audio, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
The Fickle Hand of Fate: "This is one of those rare finds in which I loved ALL of the characters, couldn't predict the twists and turns, and couldn't be distracted from the book for more than ten seconds."
Fields of Gold: "This book was extremely enjoyable and I am absolutely in love with the characters."
The Official Blog for Jamieson Wolf: "Landy manages to write a dark Gothic fantasy that is laugh out loud funny and also incredibly original, fresh and new."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics

This second collected volume of Courtney Crumrin (graphic novel) tales sees Courtney beginning to settle into her new life. If she hasn't made friends at her new school, at least she's figured out how to get along without making too many waves. She and her uncle have formed a friendship - and he's even teaching her from his many books of magic.

Then her teacher reveals a few surprises, leaving Courtney feeling rather bewildered and resentful. Courtney also discovers mysterious events afoot that her uncle seems determined to prevent her from learning about. Of course, Courtney being Courtney, she ignores him and investigates on her own, discovering a truly horrific being that has all the other wizards in town cowering in fear. The monster, she learns, has an easily understandable, straightforward sort of evil nature; this does not prove to be the case with some of the so-called "normal" humans around her, unfortunately. This volume also sees her venturing forth on a nighttime adventure in cat form in a delightful chapter that reminded me a bit of Charles de Lint's compelling tale, A Circle of Cats. I loved her cute cat shape!
This volume in the series is a bit darker than the first, but it maintains the same quirky humor and evocative artwork. Life is not easy for Courtney. She has tough decisions to make, and things don't always turn out right; sometimes they're downright heartbreaking. But not to worry - Courtney is a tough, determined little girl, and she is unafraid to take justice into her own hands, which leaves the reader to ponder the moral ambiguity of her actions. This is a delightful, thought-provoking series, and I'm very much looking forward to spending more time with Courtney in future installments.

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 Coven of Mystics (#2 in the Courtney Crumrin series) by Ted Naifeh (Oni Press, 2003)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The first Jeeves novel

The first Jeeves stories were just that: short stories, but this is the first full-length novel featuring that redoubtable butler, Jeeves, and his kind-hearted but "mentally negligible" young man, Bertie Wooster. The version I listened to was narrated by Alexander Spencer (not the reader in the cover image), and he did a very good job with the voices and pacing of the tale.

Bertie has taken up playing the banjolele, an activity that has all his neighbors up in arms because of the noise. Bertie thinks it's a lovely sound that he's making, and in his typical fashion has made the instrument his life's ruling passion. Even Jeeves has had it with the banjolele, and when Bertie is kicked out of his flat and decides to move to a house in the country, Jeeves informs him that he won't be accompanying him - unless Bertie gives up the banjolele. Bertie refuses, and he finds himself out in the country with a new "man," trying to convince himself that his decision to sacrifice Jeeves for his art was the right one.

Once in the country, Bertie runs into some old friends - one from school days, and the other his ex-fiancée. The two friends are crazy about each other, but his friend has some ridiculous ideas (according to Bertie) that prohibit him from proposing marriage. Bertie decides to take matters into his own hands and play matchmaker, and what ensues is a delightful misadventure full of surprising, delightful, absurd laugh-out-loud moments. I particularly enjoyed the episode with the heliotrope pajamas and the local policemen.

I wish I could remember whose review prompted me to go back and have a listen to Wodehouse - I'd love to thank them (it must have been a few months ago). It had been way too long, and audio is a perfect medium for Jeeves and Wooster stories. Unless you happen to be in public, listening to it on your earphones, giggling. Then it's just a tiny bit embarrassing!

Novels in the Jeeves series (there are many short story collections, and the American and UK versions often have different titles, but here is one version of the list. See wikipedia for a more thorough list):

1. Thank You, Jeeves
2. Right Ho, Jeeves
3. 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

Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse; narrated by Alexander Spencer (Recorded Books, 1984)

Also reviewed at:
Book Reviews: "This book has all the elements Wodehouse is so famous for. The simple to follow, yet multi-layered plot, the confusion about who’s going to get engaged to who, and of course that humour which inescapably makes you laugh."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Devil's Due

Morgan Kingsley, exorcist, returns in this third installment of the Morgan Kingsley series. She lives in a world in which demons are a part of everyday human life. Hosting a demon means gaining incredible strength and powers for rapid healing, but there's just one tiny catch: you sit in the back seat while the demon drives, and you are powerless to control the actions of your body. And should the demon leave or be exorcised, the host is often left irreparably brain damaged.

Morgan was raised in a family that believes hosting demons to be the ultimate sacrifice for the good of society - as those who host can become ideal police, firefighters, rescue workers - any activity for which strength and healing are a bonus. But Morgan could never seriously consider hosting a demon - the idea of allowing another being to take control of her body, her life, her actions was repellent to her. So she became an exorcist, exorcising illegal demons, those who take over unwilling hosts. Spoilers may follow - if you are interested in this series, check out my review of the first book, The Devil Inside.

In this installment Morgan is approached by a distraught mother, whose son is a member of a extreme group that is against demons and everything about them. Upon returning from a vacation with her husband, the woman discovers that her demon-hating son has suddenly decided to host a demon. She believes he was coerced, but the proceedings appear to be legal and binding. Morgan reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, and while at first she believes the young man must have had a change of heart, sudden death threats, attacks on her life, and new information that comes to light reveals a different story. Meanwhile Lugh, the demon she's still hosting, is growing more and more determined to have control in her life. She is dismayed by her attraction to him, as he appears to her in her dreams, but she is growing to respect - and perhaps even care - for him. He needs her help, and she is going to need to learn to relinquish some of her control in order to help him (and ultimately get rid of him) - even though that goes against her every instinct.

This series has definitely grown on me, with its interesting and unsual premise and atypical cast of characters. The complexity of the characters increases the tension, as Morgan has ambivalent feelings about many of them, making it hard for her to decide whom she can trust. I can't help but wonder as I read, however, why, if all it takes is the brush of skin on skin for a demon to change hosts, is Morgan stuck hosting Lugh when no one is happy about it? Why don't they transfer him to a different host? Maybe I missed something along the way.

I find the idea of an alien entity in one's body, controlling one's movements while no one else is any the wiser, to be very creepy. Especially during those times when I find that I've arrived at my destination with no memory of the drive there. While I was reading this book I came across an article in Discover magazine: "Could an Inner Zombie Be Controlling Your Brain?" I had to laugh (and give a little shiver). At any rate, I did enjoy this installment, which takes Morgan further into a dark world of demon politics and power plays, putting her into dire situations in which difficult decisions must be made. I look forward to continuing her story in the fourth book, Speak of the Devil, which is to published in fall 2009.

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

4. Speak of the Devil (forthcoming)

The Devil's Due (#3 in the Morgan Kingsley series) by Jenna Black (Dell Spectra, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Darque Reviews: "As the storyline moves steadily forward, Ms. Black fills the pages with more deliciously dark and dangerous action than ever."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Merlin Conspiracy

Don't you love it when you discover that there's a book by a favorite author that you think you've read, but then it turns out you never did? That happened with this book by Diana Wynne Jones, one of my top five favorite authors - and it turned out to be the sequel to Deep Secret, which I'd reread fairly recently, so that was serendipitous!

The book alternates between the viewpoints of two characters: Nick (whom we met in Deep Secret) - a young man who yearns to learn magic and to be a Magid one day - and Roddy, a young woman in an alternate world who has lived her entire life traveling across the land with the Royal Progress. Nick has reluctantly agreed to accompany his adopted father, a famous mystery writer, to a writers' conference in London. From there Nick is suddenly whisked away into an alternate universe.

Meanwhile, Roddy and her best friend, Grundo, discover a conspiracy surrounding the new Merlin (here Merlin is a position, the leading wizard of the nation who stands at the ruler's right hand) - a conspiracy that threatens not just the king, but the very essence of their land and its magic. Only no one believes them (which make sense, because part of the conspiracy involves a spell that confounds all the members of the Royal Progress). Roddy doesn't know where to turn - and in an attempt to find help, she meets up with Nick, who is blundering around trying to find his way back home.

This is a complex tale with all the twists, turns and delightful surprises that are to be expected in Diana Wynne Jones's books, and I very much enjoyed it. It does stand alone as a novel, but without the background from Deep Secret, I believe most readers would suspect they were missing part of the story - and personally, I hate feeling that way. I loved the development of the characters and their relationships with each other - and the fact that just when you think you have things sorted out, something shifts and you need to re-examine the book in a different light. The dialog is wonderful, revealing character and providing many laugh-out-loud moments, and there are plenty of memorable characters to love (my particular favorite is Mini the elephant) and intriguing places to visit. This is a complex, intelligent, delightful fantasy novel, and I highly recommend it.

Books in the Merlin Cycle:
1. Deep Secret
2. The Merlin Conspiracy

The Merlin Conspiracy (#2 in the Merlin Cycle) by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 2003)

Also reviewed at:
Someone's Read It Already: "The story’s a bit complex, and it’s got a strong dose of adults-ignoring-children’s-warnings going on, so if you enjoy that aspect of the Harry Potter books, I’d say this is the Diana Wynne Jones book for you."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

From pamperered princess to swashbuckling outlaw

Fairytale meets Western in this humorous, rollicking adventure tale featuring Rapunzel, a pampered only child growing up in a beautiful castle. Her mother, Gothel, is the ruler of the castle - at least, Rapunzel believes she is her mother.

When Rapunzel becomes dissatisfied with her life, yearning to see the world beyond the picture-perfect palace and gardens, beset by disturbing dreams that hint at forgotten people and places, Gothel grows angry. "Ignore the dreams, my dear," she says, "And they'll go away." But Rapunzel can't ignore them. Against Gothel's wishes, she finds a way out of the castle - and what she discovers beyond its walls shakes her world, leaving her horrified, angry and determined to take action.

And so her adventures begin - taking her from a safe, stultifying existence to the rough-and-tumble life of a wild west outlaw. When she teams up with Jack, a young man she meets in her travels, they journey together, experiencing all kinds of hilarious and hair-raising adventures. But Rapunzel knows she must return to face Gothel - yet how can she hope to defeat someone with such amazingly strong magical powers?

This graphic novel was great fun to read. I particularly enjoyed the slapstick humor and the many "inside" fairytale jokes that are a great payoff to fairytale fans. Rapunzel is an excellent, feisty, tough and kind heroine, and the wild west setting was a surprising and effective backdrop for the tale. I will be looking forward to further works by this talented team - and I hope I won't have to wait too long!

Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale; illustrated by Nathan Hale (Bloomsbury, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Bookends: "'Punzie' and sidekick Jack are a great team with snarky repartee, a humorous flair, and friendship that hints of a budding romance."
Eva's Book Addiction: "Anyone who loves fractured fairy tales will dive right into this luscious tale, only wishing it were longer."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Giant moths, mysterious aliens, and swashbuckling space adventure

It is the holiday season at Larklight, and when former space pirate Jack Havock and his motley crew of shipmates unexpectedly show up, Myrtle and Art Mumby - as well as their parents - are delighted. Their happy Christmastime reunion is interrupted, however, by Mr. Mumby's announcement: "A most vexing thing has happened! The Pudding has gone Rogue!"

The rogue pudding is the least of their worries, however - dire peril awaits them all, as an unimaginably powerful and deadly foe is on the move from the outermost reaches of space. Art, Myrtle and their companions are soon to be caught up in yet another exciting, hilarious adventure - and as usual, I'm delighted to be along for the ride.

I love this series - it is funny and entertaining, exciting as well as thought provoking, with memorable characters and a fantastical steampunk world that can't be beat. As with the previous two volumes in the series, most of the narration is from Art's point of view, but there are also sections from his sister Myrtle's journals. There are also the footnotes, which I love - they explain things with which the reader might not be familiar, but also contain asides that often leave me giggling. For example in the beginning of the book, Art writes about Myrtle and Jack's reunion, saying, "But they did not have to look at each other long in the dappled shadow of that mistletoe before they seemed to forget their differences and warm to one another once again." And here there is a footnote, and at the bottom of the page Art has commented, "What Jack Havock sees in my sister is one of the Mysteries of Known Space. She is an absolute horror and looks like a loony fish." Ah, sibling affection!

I have read that this third volume appears to be the final in the series, but I refuse to believe that Art, Myrtle and Jack don't have further adventures in store! I highly recommend this excellent series. While I'm waiting for the next one (which must be in the works), I believe I'll go back and read Philip Reeve's other books. If you have not read this series, you are in for a treat.

Books in the Larklight series:
1. Larklight
2. Starcross
3. Mothstorm

Mothstorm: Or, the Horror from beyond Uranus Georgium Sidus, or, a Tale of Two Shapers : A Rattling Yarn of Danger, Dastardly and Derring-Do upon the Far Frontiers of British Space! by Philip Reeve; illustrated by David Wyatt (Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Books Are King: "I enjoy the voice and writing. I enjoy the story and the alternative world the author has created. It all just makes me quite happy."

Friday, February 6, 2009

Waiter Rant

Waiter Rant is a book that grew from a blog in which the writer, an unhappy and frustrated waiter, vented about his experience dealing with unreasonable and borderline psychotic customers - something to which anyone who has worked in a restaurant (or with the general public) can relate.

I don't read a lot of nonfiction (especially since I've been slogging through another graduate degree - I prefer the escape of fiction these days), but I love eating and cooking and going out to eat, and there's something about books on the subject that I find immensely appealing. Among my most recent favorites are Ruth Reichl's series of books that begins with Tender at the Bone, Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef and, of course, Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. I was unsure about this one, as I'd never read the blog, and I've worked as a waiter and a hostess (and even a barista in Italy), so I wondered there would be enough fresh or unusual material to keep my attention.

The Waiter talks about how he stumbled into waiting tables after losing his job in the healthcare industry. He stagnates at the restaurant, with a love/hate relationship with his job and many of the people around him. He works with peculiar people who are certainly interesting to read about, but I couldn't help but wonder why he put up with them - certainly there were other restaurants that weren't so dysfunctionally run. He talks about regular customers, annoying customers, his co-workers, the mechanics of tipping, and his insanely paranoid boss.

I found that I enjoyed the book, but not as much as my aforementioned favorites. Part of it was, I think, the fact that it was a blog morphing into a book. To me it lacked the even flow I expect from a memoir - it seemed a bit choppy, with the mood and tone changing radically from one part of the book to the next. While the author came through as a clear character, aside from a few people who were simply bizarre, none of the other characters stood out - I had no clear idea of his friends, his coworkers - who they were, what they looked like, how they spoke or dressed that differentiated them from everyone else. They appeared when it was necessary for a scene, like walk-on actors, and disappeared when they were no longer necessary.

One thing that kept me reading was the author's honesty - he is candid even when it makes him appear in a negative light, and he relates his insecurities and fears with an astonishing openness. The other reason I continued turning the pages was that every now and then the writing simply took off - a wonderful scene would suddenly spring to life, such as the one in which The Waiter deals with a drunk, depressed customer in a most empathetic way. I will be curious to see what topic the former waiter turns to for his next book, which will presumably move away from this world in which he found his literary feet, and into new and unexplored territory.

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip - Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by The Waiter (a.k.a. Steve Dublanica) (Ecco, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Both Eyes Book Blog: "Waiter Rant is one of the all time great compulsively readable books; the sort of book that will forever change the way you regard something you may have taken for granted in the past, in this case the act of dining out.
Errant Dreams Reviews: "One of the things I like best about the book is the balance of material. The Waiter waxes philosophical, but always ties it back to reality and brings it back around to storytelling."
The Fickle Hand of Fate: "Equal parts personal history, work anecdotes, and insider information, Waiter Rant is a quick, smooth read."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Introducing Jaz Parks

Jaz parks is a CIA operative who is recovering from a disastrous mission. She is surprised to be informed that she is being partnered with Vayl, a mysterious, near-mythic operative, the best assassin the department has ever had - and one of a very few vampires to have gained acceptance among humans. She's been assigned him at Vayl's own request, no less, and she has no idea why. She's never met him, only heard rumors, and she can't imagine how she could possibly be of any use to him as an operative - but what Vayl wants, Vayl gets.

The last thing Jaz expects is to actually enjoy working with Vayl. They seem to make a good team, despite the fact that Vayl clearly has his secrets - and Jaz has hers. They become involved in what appears at first to be a clear-cut case of hunting down a terrorist, which then turns into a complicated plot involving much more than they'd bargained for.

I was delighted by this first installment in the Jaz Parks series. Jaz is an engaging heroine, tough and headstrong and brave, but vulnerable as well. There is a lot of back story here, which lends the narrative unexpected depth as well as further mysteries to explore in future books. The relationship between Vayl and Jaz is nicely developed, although I was disappointed that, after Jaz gets the news that she's being paired with Vayl, the book immediately skips to six months later, so the reader is unable to witness their initial meeting or the early stages of their partnership. The novel is gripping, with constantly increasing tension and a few unexpected turns of events, and it kept me reading much later into the evening than I intended. I'd like to thank Ladytink for her recommendation of this one. Even though I have a hopeless number of ongoing series in my life, I'm pleased to add this one to them, and I'm very much looking forward to the further adventures of Jaz and Vayl.

Books in the Jaz Parks series:
1. Once Bitten, Twice Shy
2.
Another One Bites the Dust
3. Biting the Bullet
4. Bitten to Death
5. One More Bite
6. Bite Marks

Once Bitten, Twice Shy (#1 in the Jaz Parks series) by Jennifer Rardin (Orbit, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog: "I enjoyed the characters, the biting wit, and how my interest never once waned in the entire course of the book."
SciFiChick.com: "I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this novel. Rardin ads a perfect blend of humor and humility to an otherwise strong female lead character."
Tempting Persephone: "[Jaz is] strong, sarcastic, but there’s a whole lot of sensitivity there, too. Her backstory runs deep and unfolds over the course of the novel, which in turn adds another dimension to the running plot."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A brief but welcome return to Harry Potter's world

This slim little volume of short stories from Harry Potter's world is welcome to all those who have been missing regular visits to Hogwarts, Hogsmeade, the Weasleys' house, quiddich matches, and all those fun and magical places and situations. However, while there are some bittersweet ties to those characters and events we've been missing from the original Harry Potter series, this book is a separate entity altogether.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a collection of stories told for generations to young wizards and witches - only this particular collection has been translated by Hermione Granger herself and contains notes written by Albus Dumbledore approximately eighteen months before the events at the end of the sixth book in the series. The tales have a fairly standard folkloric quality to them, reminiscent of fairy and folktales from around the world - only, as is pointed out in the introduction, rather than magic being the cause of the characters' problems, as happens in most muggle fairytales, these characters have magical abilities yet are still beset with problems that they must somehow solve themselves.

Topics range from witches dealing with recalcitrant kings, wizards learning lessons in dealing kindly with muggles, and dangerous magical quests. The final story in the collection, "The Tale of the Three Brothers," will be a familiar one to loyal Harry Potter readers and casts some light on events in the final book of the series.

This was an enjoyable read, particularly Dumbledore's notes, yet it had that superficiality of fairy and folk tales - characters with little depth, stories with a moral or lesson, inspiring little emotional involvement from the reader. I enjoyed the tales - they were clever and fun - but felt like I'd been served a portion of cotton candy when I was really craving a hearty, substantial meal. I love the fact, however, that all the proceeds of this book are going to a charity established by Rowling in 2005 called The Children's High Level Group, "to help the 1 million children across Europe still living in large residential institutions." To date sales from this book have raised more than 4 million pounds! The price is reasonable for this nicely bound little volume; the stories are sure to appeal to fans of Harry Potter; and the the cause is certainly a worthy one.

Books in the Harry Potter series:
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (Children's High Level Group, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "I definitely enjoyed Dumbledore’s commentary, but ultimately, I was left somewhat unsatisfied. They’re a nice supplement, and a fun read, but they’re over too soon, and we don’t learn much that we didn’t already know from the main series."
Musings of a Bookish Kitty: "The best part of this little book of stories is not the tales themselves, but Dumbledore’s commentary. He offers his own interpretation of each one along with the stories’ histories and how they have been perceived over the ages. His comments are both meaningful and hilarious. I found myself giggling quite often."