Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Mystery of Grace

It is always a happy day when I get a new book by Charles de Lint in my hot little hands, and so I was very excited when my copy arrived for me at my library. This book is not set in Newford, that fictional Canadian city that is the setting of so many of his novels, and it stands alone, not part of a series or recurring characters. It is representative of much of his work, with the Native American, musical, and artistic themes that are central to many of of his books. And yet...and yet...this one is darker and is in some ways a departure from his earlier work.

How to review this one without giving anything away? I try not to include spoilers in my reviews (and I always give warnings for any possible minor spoilage). So I will very brief and very general, and utterly spoiler-free. The book opens with a scene of a man and a woman waking up in bed. Apparently they met the night before at a Halloween party, hit it off, and she ended up coming home with him. But it is not a simple one-night stand. They seem to have found a real connection, something deep and surprising, given the short time they've known each other.

John Barnes is an artist, a talented, handsome, introspective kind of guy, and he has been carrying a load of guilt for years about his little brother's death. It was an accident, but he's always held himself responsible. He finds himself telling Grace about it - and there is the introduction of the theme that is central to the book. Not just death, but how we deal with death, how it affects us, our lives, our actions, and how we somehow manage - or don't manage - to make peace with that final separation and move on. Grace (Altagracia) Quintero is an attractive young woman covered with tattoos, each of which, from the portrait of her namesake saint to the portrait of her deceased mother, has a meaningful connection to her life. She works at a garage and loves to fix up vintage cars. Since her grandfather died several weeks earlier, however, she has cut herself adrift from her friends, started smoking again, and feels generally restless and dissatisfied.

John watches Grace get up and go into the bathroom. It is late at night, and the sun is just coming up. He hears her in there, and then there's just silence. He calls out to her, but there is no one there. She has vanished.

And that's how it begins. There is a flashback, and the rest of the book alternates between John's third-person viewpoint and Grace's first-person narration - and it is fairly clear that the book's main focus is on Grace. And that's all I'll say about the plot of the book. Any more would ruin it.

As for how I feel about it, that is difficult to say. I skimmed through Carl's review a few days before I started reading, and I noticed that he took exception to a particular event that happened about two-thirds of the way through the novel, and the direction that the book took after that. So I was prepared, I think, in a way that he wasn't, which helped. There is foreshadowing here and there, which I might not have noticed without that heads-up, and yes, while I was not pleased either, at least it didn't blindside me. Too much. I do wish things could have ended differently, or at least that the ending were more specific and did not leave it up to me to guess and wonder about certain things. At the same time, while I didn't care for that particular direction the story took, what happened after that did feel right and believable and true to Grace, which is of course what I have come to expect and enjoy about de Lint's books.

I did enjoy this one, and I really loved the characters, who are believable and complex and utterly sympathetic. I felt as though I'd been in John and Grace's apartments, as well as at the office where John's three best friends work. The book's exploration of love and loss takes it to some dark and depressing places, and while it is very well written, I do not think I'll be rereading this one for the sense of coming home that I get from so many of de Lint's books. And that's okay. It's good for a writer to take a new direction, try something else, go for a different sort of emotional resonance. He does it very well in this one.

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint (Tor, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Fantasy Book Critic: "I thought it was a wonderfully written, charming, and at times thought-provoking novel that in no way sullies Charles’ reputation as one of the masters of contemporary fantasy."
Someone's Read It Already: "
I did enjoy the story. It’s pure de Lint in so many ways: the small but strong female character; the passion over something that’s just a bit one side of mainstream; the philosophy; the idea that there is something beyond this world that is actually worthy of our faith."
Stainless Steel Droppings: "Charles de Lint is talented and he remains firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of writers I admire. This one just fell a bit short for me."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Short Story Weekend: "The Peony Lantern" by Kara Dalkey

For my first Short Story Weekend for the Once Upon a Time Challenge III, I read a story called "The Peony Lantern" by Kara Dalkey. It originally appeared in Pulphouse magazine (Winter 1991), and I read it in my fifth annual collection of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling).

The author writes: "I came across the idea for this story from a book of woodblock prints by a nineteenth-century Japanese artist, Yoshitoshi. The book was called Thirty-Six Ghosts, and it contained thirty-six beautiful prints, each based on a Japanese ghost story or other theme of the supernatural....Plate number 27 was The Peony Lantern." Here is a reproduction of that print, and seeing it made the story even more evocative for me.

The story is told from the point of view of an old man who makes lanterns now, and is from a long line of lantern makers, but earlier in his life he served as Chamberlain of the Wardrobe for a young samurai named Shinzaburo. As a gift for his master's young wife, the narrator makes her a lovely peony lantern, and he is honored when he is told that the Lady Tsuyu adores it. When the samurai is called to war and falls in battle, it is the narrator's task to inform Lady Tsuyu of her husband's untimely demise. The day after he gives her the horrible news, he returns to her household to see if there is anything he can do, because he knows how much his master loved her and would wish to see her well taken care of. But when he arrives, the place is deserted:
A neighbor said the whole household had packed up and stolen away in the middle of the night. I found myself wondering if Tsuyu had taken my peony lantern with her. As I passed the house one last time, I saw on one white shoji panel many spots of a dark red stain. Ah, I thought, where the lady has gone she will have no need of lanterns.
But two years later, one of the samurai's old servants comes running up to the narrator, exclaiming Lord Shinzaburo is back - he had not died after all. The narrator cannot believe it, but when he sees his former master, it realizes it is true. And when, on the first day of O-Bon, the Festival of the Dead, the narrator makes another peony lantern at the request of his master and hangs it on the gate post, it sets in motion a mysterious and terrifying chain of events...

This story, with its ghostly processions of silk lanterns and haunting atmosphere, might be better suited for R.I.P. Challenge time. It has a classic ghost story feel, and the historical Japanese setting was a perfect backdrop for the events. The narrator is more an observer than a participant, but his actions have unmistakable consequences, and the ending packs a nice little punch.

"The Peony Lantern" by Kara Dalkey; from The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Fifth Annual Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (St. Martin's Press, 1992)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rogue's Home

We first met Sir Michael and his unwilling squire, Fisk, in the initial book of this series, The Last Knight. That first book was more in the vein of a fantasy adventure novel; this one is a compelling mystery/fantasy hybrid.

In opening of this second installment, which (like the first) is told from the alternating viewpoints of Michael and Fisk, Michael suffers the consequences of the decision he made at the end of the first book, which puts him in a difficult position when he realizes that Fisk's family is in trouble. Michael has always been a romantic (hence his notion of being a knight errant instead of staying home to be the boring old steward of his father's estate), and he has a good heart, but he is fast becoming disillusioned with many of his former ideas.

Fisk heads home to his family, whom we get to meet for the first time, followed by Michael, who hopes he can help. Fisk's parents have passed away, and it seems his brother-in-law, with whom he has an understandably strained relationship, has been framed for a crime he did not commit. He has lost his respected position in town, and must borrow money from the few friends he still has in order to keep a roof over his and Fisk's three sisters' heads. Michael and Fisk set out to investigate the crime, but it appears someone is always a step ahead of them. With mysterious fires breaking out across the city from the time the two arrive, the townsfolk become increasingly suspicious and hostile toward them. Michael and Fisk have learned a lot about each other, and now they must combine their strengths and skills in order to catch the culprit before the entire town goes up in flames.

There is a cast of interesting and unusual characters, from the tough old woman who left her disreputable town life behind in order to live in the secluded marshes outside the town, to the the cantankerous cook who works for Fisk's family, to the wily sheriff who always seems to be everywhere Michael and Fisk don't want him. Michael and Fisk are a wonderful combination, as Fisk's common sense and cynical nature are a perfect complement to Michael's romanticism and inclination to think the best of everyone until proven otherwise. And can it be that they have each learned a little something from the other? One thing they've discovered is that relationships are complex, and that appearances can be deceiving. I'm certainly looking forward to accompanying them on their next adventure, wherever it may lead them.

Books in the Knight and Rogue series:
1. The Last Knight
2. Rogue's Home

Rogue's Home (#2 in the Knight and Rogue series) by Hilari Bell (Eos, 2008)

Have you reviewed this book? Please let me know, with a link in the comments, and I'll add it to this review. I couldn't find any blog reviews out there!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Flora Segunda

I was delighted to learn that a sequel has been published to Flora Segunda, a YA fantasy novel I read a few years ago. I recalled the first book with such fondness that I immediately decided to treat myself to a reread in order to more fully appreciate the sequel. I checked out the audiobook from my library, and I have to say, I think I enjoyed this even more the second time around.

Thirteen-year-old Flora Fyrdraaca is a few days away from her fourteenth birthday, an important rite of passage in Califa, where it is celebrated with a ceremony called a Catorcena. She is ambivalent about this upcoming rite of passage, because it means she will then go to the barracks to begin training to be a soldier, as has every Fyrdraaca in a long, long line of Fyrdraacas. It is a family tradition - her own mother is the commanding general of the Califa army, and her father, now a shadow of his former self, also fought in the war against the Huitzil War (a war from which her eldest sister, the first Flora, never returned).

Flora's house, Crackpot Hall, used to be a glorious place. All the big houses have butlers, powerful magical beings that take care of the house in wonderful magical ways, but Flora's mother mistrusts magic and has banished Crackpot's butler. So it falls on Flora's shoulders to run the household, as her mother is often away - she cooks and cleans, takes care of the horses, not to mention five frolicking and often destructive gazehounds. She cannot board at Sanctuary School because of her duties, but also because of Hotspur, her father (whom she calls Poppy). Poppy is an amazing, wonderfully realized character. At first he seems sad and pathetic, a soldier whose spirit was broken in captivity. Then we witness his madness and his rage, which is terrifying to Flora - not to mention the other, more subtle aspects of his behavior, such as the self-inflicted cuts on his arms.

One day Flora, desperate to make it to school on time, takes the elevator in Crackpot Hall (despite her mother's expressly forbidding its use), and she ends up in the vast, dusty Bibliotheca, where she meets the wispy, diminished, banished butler, Valefor. He begs her for some of her Anima, or Will, before he fades away into nothing. In return, he will help her out, take over some of the chores - help her finish up her invitations and Catorcena dress. Flora is moved by sympathy for him, not to mention a bit of self interest. But she does not realize that her actions will have far-reaching, not to mention life-threatening, consequences.

This book is so dense and complex, wonderfully creative and surprising that it is difficult to do it justice. Flora is a compelling, sympathetic heroine, and readers will empathize with her on many levels. Her life is not easy, but she only occasionally wastes time feeling sorry for herself. She dreams of being a Ranger, a sort of magical military spy (the group was disbanded after the war on the insistence of the Huitzils), rather than go to the barracks. Her idol, the Ranger Nini Mo, gives Flora inspiration, and her words of advice (gleaned from years of poring over yellow-back adventures novels starring the now deceased Ranger) often spring to Flora's mind as she navigates the many difficult decisions she is faced with in the novel. Flora's mother, Buck, is not physically present in much of the book, but her strength of character is a powerful presence throughout nevertheless.

And then there's Udo, Flora's best friend. At first he appears to be a rather superficial fop, but of course Flora would not waste her energy on a best friend like that. Rather, Udo is a loyal, intelligent friend who adds more than a dash of humor to this quirky tale that otherwise might linger a little too much on the dark side of things. Crackpot Hall is a character in and of itself, with its 11,000 rooms with their unusual, evocative names (such as
The Cloakroom of the Abyss, The Hallway of Laborious Desire, and The Stairs of Exuberance). When Udo and Flora accompany Valefor, freed from his years of imprisonment in the Bibliotheca, through the house, he gives them a running commentary:
"The Slippery Stairs, where Anacreon Fyrdracca broke his nose sliding down on a tea tray...Beekeeping Room, don't bother them, Udo, and they won't bother you...Formerly Secret Cubbyhole...Because it can't be secret if you know where it is, that's why, Madama Smartie...Luggage Mezzanine...I wonder if that salesman is still in the linen basket, I should come back and check...Eternal Atrium, look how large that tree has become, I must raise the roof in here or it's going to go right through the ceiling...The Gun room, what on earth did Buck do with my .50 caliber Gatling...The Halfway Point..."
And then there's the plot - twisting, subtle, surprising, Byzantine, exciting...all this, and more: a notorious pirate with a secret, menacing half-bird Quetzal overlords, oubliettes, harebrained but well-meaning daring rescues, a gigantic fearsome tusked Butler, time travel, elusive magical Semiote Verbs, and more. There is indeed a lot going on, action-wise, but that's not to say that there is by any means a lack of depth and emotional resonance. Flora's relationship with her father, in particular, is complex and touching. Flora grows up a lot in those last few days before she becomes an official adult, and I am very much looking forward to her further adventures in Flora's Dare.

Listening to the audio version of this book made me realize it is truly one of those stories that is meant to be read aloud, as the excellent narration highlights the evocative language and characters' distinctive voices. I highly recommend this novel to all lovers of fantasy, regardless of their age, and I think it will have tremendous appeal in particular for fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Reeve and Terry Pratchett.

And here is an interview with the author.

Books in the Flora Segunda series:

1. Flora Segunda
2. Flora's Dare

Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog (#1 in the by Ysabeau S. Wilce; narrated by Danielle Ferland (Recorded Books, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Little Blog of Stories: "Flora is independent, curious and willful, and the book is just great. Set in a magical alternate world California, Flora's tale is like the beautiful love-child of the story of Aladdin's Lamp and Zorro tales. I can't recommend it or its sequel enough."
Tamaranth's Non-Ephemera: "Flora's language is occasionally quite childish, but she's a brave and resourceful -- if occasionally reckless -- character with an innate talent for magick, who matures and changes over the course of the novel."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Ghost's Grave

Twelve-year-old Josh is so excited about his summer, mainly because he's going to be on the summer baseball team. He hasn't made too many friends yet, but now that he's made the team, he knows that friendships will follow. He bursts into the house to tell his mother and stepfather the great news, only to find that the two of them are going to India for work - without him - for the entire summer. He is going to travel to Washington State to stay with his stepfather's Aunt Ethel.

Josh is very unhappy about the prospect of spending the summer out in the middle of nowhere with an old woman he's never even met. When he finally arrives, things are even worse than he'd imagined. Aunt Ethel is a scarily terrible driver - and her truck is so old, it doesn't even have seat belts. When they get to the house, which is very isolated, they discover a bat has flown inside, and Aunt Ethel has a fit, running around, trying to kill it. Finally she gets her shotgun and blasts it, and there's bat blood all over the cake she made him, and they have to throw it out. Josh feels terrible for the poor little bat, who hadn't done anything wrong but make the mistake of coming into the house.

All in all, it is not an auspicious start to his summer. Things look a little brighter in the morning, when he wakes up to find Aunt Ethel making spaghetti for breakfast. She's a bit eccentric, but she's kind, and she tells him about a treehouse in the woods nearby, so he sets out to explore. That very first day he finds that the boring summer he expected is going to be exactly the opposite. For starters, the treehouse is haunted, but the ghost is friendly and needs Josh's assistance. Willie the ghost is a wonderful character, a one-legged miner who died in a mining accident a hundred years earlier. When Josh agrees to help him, he is launched on an action-packed, danger-filled summer adventure that involves screaming peacocks, stolen money, stray cats, graveyards, and a masked man with a gun.

Fans of ghost stories are sure to love this one. Even though the ghost isn't creepy, there is still plenty of suspense, because living, breathing humans can be menacing enough to put chills down readers' spines. The characters are well realized and believable, and I particularly enjoyed the development of Josh and Aunt Ethel's relationship. This books is one of this year's Virginia Reader's Choice awards. I highly recommend their wonderful website as a great means of finding excellent children's books.

The Ghost's Grave by Peg Kehret (Puffin Books, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Reading by Pub Light: "This is a light, interesting read, with a few non-preachy life lessons and subtle shades of morbidity thrown into the mix. "

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Dark Hills Divide

Twelve-year-old Alexa Daley lives in a world that is entirely bordered by walls - enormous, looming walls, that are supposed to keep the townspeople safe from lurking evils from the forests outside. Most people are unsettled by the thought of what lies beyond the walls, but not Alexa. In fact, when she accompanies her father on their annual visit to the town of Bridewell, the thing she is most excited about is the fact that from the window of her bedchamber, she can catch a glimpse of the world beyond the walls. This year she's particularly thrilled because she has "borrowed" her mother's spyglass so she can get a better view.

Alexa loves being in Bridewell because her father (the mayor of a nearby city) is usually too busy to pay much attention to her because of his duties, and that means she can explore to her heart's content. Her special friends include the librarian, Grayson, and Warvold, the founder of Bridewell itself. She has one enemy at Bridewell, an unpleasant guardsman named Pervis Kotcher, who has an abiding dislike for her and tries to thwart her at every turn. This summer, though, an unexpected turn of events, coupled with an astonishing discovery, leads to Alexa finally being able to realize her dream of going outside the walls. What she finds there is almost too much for a twelve-year-old to bear, as Alexa finds that she is the only one with the knowledge to prevent a catastrophe from befalling Bridewell.

This was an interesting beginning to a middle-grade fantasy series. Alexa is a character who is very alone - she moves in an entirely adult world, and never appears to see another child during the entire course of the book. Her character is compelling, and events move swiftly from one exciting or intriguing scene to the next - and because of this I believe younger readers will be swept up in the story and perhaps not have some of the questions that remained with me at the end of the book. I wondered at the timing, for example. It seemed a bit contrived that Alexa should happen upon a way out of the walls by chance, only to find that time is running out and a conspiracy is about to culminate a plan that's been years and years in the making that she is just in time to try to thwart. There was no apparent reason for the conspirators to have waited so many years to initiate their dire plans, at least not that I could see.

Children who love books in which animals are characters, such as the Narnia and Redwall series, are sure to find this appealing. I found the little squirrel to be particularly charming, in a manically heroic sort of way. There are many other appealing elements as well, including trapdoors and secret passages, mysterious stones with puzzles in them, and confusing prophecies. The concept of walling out parts of our world for various reasons is an intriguing one that offers young readers fodder for discussion and thought.

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time III challenge.

Books in the Land of Elyon series:
1. The Dark Hills Divide
2. Beyond the Valley of Thorns
3. The Tenth City
4. Into the Mist

The Dark Hills Divide (#1 in the Land of Elyon series) by Patrick Carman; narrated by Aasne Vigesaa (Brilliance Audio, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "Overall, I think that this book will appeal to younger fans of fantasy novels. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, and the atmosphere varies from brooding menace to magical possibility."
A Patchwork of Books: "...this book is somewhat similar to a lot of other fantasy/adventure novels that I've read. However, it had many of its own quirks and original aspects that made it enjoyable to read and allow me to get involved enough to want to know what happens in the next book!"

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Miki Falls: Summer

This second installment of the four-volume manga series Miki Falls picks up where the first volume left off. Hiro and Miki have become friends, even though Hiro's "superiors" have forbidden him to fraternize with regular humans (he has chosen to become a Deliverer, a sort of otherworldly person who has certain mysterious abilities that have to do with relationships and love). Miki is happy to spend time with him, and she's fascinated by his work. She is amazed to witness the complexities of romantic relationships, and she is surprised to find that even apparently happy couples often have serious issues.

Her own relationship with Hiro becomes complicated when she discovers him with another Deliverer, who is beautiful and rather hostile toward Miki. Later, Miki sneaks a look at Hiro's relationship book and finds that Yumi, her best friend, is having boyfriend trouble. There must be something Miki can do to stop her friend's relationship from falling to pieces.

Miki is faced with tough decisions in this volume, and she makes some poor choices and has to live with the consequences. But she is smart and kind, and she doesn't give up - she learns from her mistakes and carries on the best she can, which is what makes her such an engaging heroine. The book maintains such a tight focus on Miki's relationship with Hiro that it excludes secondary characters almost too much. The plot line involving Yumi and her boyfriend, for example, would have been more powerful had we been able to see the couple happy together, engaged in some activity or conversation, so that we would share some of Miki's concern for them. I hope we'll get to see more of these other characters a bit more in the next volume of the story. I enjoyed this volume very much, and I am looking forward to following Miki's adventures in the next season of her series, Autumn.

Books in the Miki Falls series:
1. Spring
2. Summer
3. Fall
4. Winter


Summer
(#2 in the Miki Falls series) by Mark Crilley (HarperTeen, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Manga Life: "...a love story at heart. But more than that, it’s a story about personal sacrifice and of what people will do, and the means they’ll use, to ensure that they bring about paths of happiness for themselves and their friends."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Kitty and the Midnight Hour

Kitty Norville works the night shift at KNOB in Denver. She lives a fairly simple life - she goes to work, plays music for her show, and, on full moons, meets with the other werewolves of her pack to hunt in the countryside outside the city. One night a single phone call changes the course of her life: a caller phones in to comment on a National Enquirer-type tabloid story about Bat Boy, a local urban legend figure, saying it is actually a vampire. There ensues a discussion of vampires that sparks a spate of other phone calls, and by the time her shift is over, she realizes that her shift had turned into a radio talk show.

She expects to lose her job, but apparently the new format is a huge hit. She uses her background knowledge as a werewolf to answer callers, although no one knows what she is. It seems that half the callers are paranormal beings with issues and concerns, and the other half are humans who are curious but most don't actually believe in any of it.

For the first time in her life - since being changed into a werewolf from an unprovoked attack several years earlier, Kitty feels she has some control over her life. She loves her new show, loves the popularity and the feeling of doing something more important than just choosing songs to play on the air. But Carl, the leader of her pack, does not like it, and neither does the leader of the Denver vampires. They are worried that the discussion will expose them to the rest of the world and cause a dangerous backlash.

Kitty has always been a very submissive werewolf. In most books in this genre, the heroine is a strong, dominant wolf, and the submissives are relegated to secondary characters. This book examines the psychological issues of being a human suddenly possessed of wolf instincts, and how difficult it is when you actions feel instinctively right on one level and horribly wrong on another . Her reactions to Carl are disturbing because as a human she doesn't particularly care for him, yet her wolf acknowledges him as the leader, which makes him the one safe place, the most important being, the one she most wants to please. As Kitty comes into her own, particularly as she gains confidence and self-assurance through her program, her wolf also becomes more dominant. When she is told she must stop the program - even as it's being syndicated, and she uncharacteristically refuses, the consequences are beyond what she imagined. When she increasingly feels that she cannot trust her pack to be what they are supposed to be and Carl to lead as he is meant to lead, she is surprised to find herself turning to an usual person for support.

This is a gripping start to a series that I will definitely continue reading. I discovered it through a short story I enjoyed in the anthology Wolfsbane and Mistletoe. Every time I try a new paranormal series I go in very skeptical, thinking that there isn't likely to be anything new or different here. Many such stories take place in a world where it is taken for granted by everyone that supernatural beings exist side by side with humans - there has been some sort of shift in which vampires, werewolves and such are part of society, for better or worse. Here we actually see how that happens, or at least the catalyst for that happening. Often the heroines start out strong and feisty and become more so as the series progresses. Here we see Kitty struggling to overcome the life that was foisted upon her, to embrace what she values in her humanity as the wolf inside her urges her in different directions. While she has a long way to go, it was heartening to see the changes she begins to make in her life despite the many forces arrayed against her. I look forward to the further adventures of Kitty Norville.

Books in the Kitty Norville series:
1. Kitty and the Midnight Hour
2. Kitty Goes to Washington
3. Kitty Takes a Holiday
4. Kitty and the Silver Bullet
5. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
6. Kitty Raises Hell
5. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
6. Kitty Raises Hell
7. Kitty's House of Horrors (Forthcoming January 2010)

Kitty and the Midnight Hour (#1 in the Kitty Norville series) by Carrie Vaughn (Warner Books, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
The Hook Line and Stinker: "This was a fun first book with both werewolves, vampires and a vampire hunter who becomes Kitty's friend and I have already started collecting the rest in the series to read at some time."
Unmainstream Mom Reads: "Because the story is laying out background and introducing characters, the book does not get good until about page 70. From there, it's non-stop all the way to the end."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Once upon a time...there was a really fun challenge!

I am very excited that Carl is once again hosting the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I love it because I get to have fun reading books in my favorite genre, fantasy, and also because I get to read about all the other books fellow challengees have chosen. The fact that it tends to add dozens of books to my list does not bother me - the ones that I add are almost always ones that I end up adoring.

My initial plan is to jump in with at least the first two quests, and continue from there. I love the concept of tailoring the challenge to each person's interests. Those who aren't sure about fantasy (and the subcategories of folklore, fairytales, and mythology), can simply commit to reading one book - yes, just one! - and perhaps, if they wish, moving on from there.

I am not going to write a formal list of choices, but here is a selection of potential choices from my TBR pile and list of books that I am hoping to get to soon. This is also a fine time to keep going on my personal 2009 challenge of rereading Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (or at least making some decent progress on the series) - and since I've only read the first one so far, I'd better get cracking. If you adore any of these, please let me know, and I'll bump them up to the top of my list.
  • Need by Carrie Jones
  • Nightlife by Rob Thurman
  • If Angels Burn by Lynn Viehl
  • Ill Wind by Rachel Caine
  • The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs
  • Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception by Maggie Stiffvater
  • The Good Neighbors by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh
  • Rogue's Home by Hilari Bell
  • Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (reread)
  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (reread)
  • Diggers and Wings and Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett (some rereads, some new)
  • The Foundling by Lloyd Alexander
  • Courtney Crumrin in the Twilight Kingdom by Ted Naifeh
I also love the idea of the short story weekends, and I'm looking forward to participating in them, too. Thanks for hosting this again, Carl - it's begun to feel like one of my rites of spring!

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim returns in this second installment of his quirky, action-packed romance graphic novel series, and his troubles are far from over. The story opens with a flashback to Scott's high school days, when he was new to school and became friends with Kim, the current drummer of their band, Sex-Bob-omb. He rescues her from some psychopathic bullies, and they began dating.

Cut to the present, as Scott's roommate Wallace threatens that if Scott doesn't break up with Knives, his high-school girlfriend he was seeing when he fell in love with Ramona in the last book, Wallace is going to tell Ramona about her. Scott genuinely likes Knives, and he is a non-confrontational sort of guy. But he really, really doesn't want Ramona to know about her, and in a hilarious but pathos-filled scene, Scott finally tells Knives they can't be together anymore.

Knives turns out not to be the timid, compliant girl she appears to be, and her fury and bitterness at the end of the relationship spur her to take some drastic measures, particularly when she sees Scott with Ramona and realizes what has happened. My favorite scene of the entire book is when Knives stages a surprise ninja attack on Ramona in the Toronto Reference Library. Meanwhile, the second of Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends whom Scott must defeat arrives in town. He turns out to be a famous actor and former pro skater, a formidable opponent - but to compound Scott's troubles, his ex-girlfriend calls. She needs an opening band to replace once that canceled, and she's wondering if Sex Bob-omb would like to play. It is clear that Scott has yet to recover from that relationship, but until we see him huddled and trembling on the floor in the wake of her phone call, it becomes evident that he has a ways to go before he can put the relationship behind him.

I find it difficult to articulate what it is about this series that has me hooked. I love the quirky quality - you never know just where it's going to go, and it's fresh and surprising. The relationships among the characters are portrayed so well, through the bold, energetic illustrations as well as the dialogue, and there is an emotional resonance present that is not typical of many graphic novels. The social commentary is there, but it's clever and understated, and the humor is often sneaky and surprising. Readers who are looking for something different, something that will make them think and laugh, will be sure to enjoy this series.

Books in the Scott Pilgrim series:
1. Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
3. Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness
4. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (#2 in the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
A Book a Week: "The art is simple, attractive, and easy to follow. It's set in Toronto and spends a surprising amount of time in recognizable Toronto libraries, so I would love it for that alone. But the story and the characters don't need any help. They've got me hooked."
Painted Smiles; Written Words: "The characters really are nothing short of adorable, but that doesn’t stop the series from having some fantastically dynamic action shots. And it’s a mixture of detailed and stylized backgrounds and surroundings that moves the story from the real world, surreal in varying degrees, to what feels like an epic video game."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Big Joke Game

Ozzie Hinkle is having a bad day. For someone who loves to tell jokes and laugh, he is pretty glum. The trouble began at school, where he got in trouble because he wrote an unflattering (but very funny) limerick about his teacher. Then, after school, even though he has a great time playing a new board game with his best friend (games are his absolute favorite thing in the entire world), he makes a joke (again, he thinks it's very clever and witty) at his friend's expense, and his friend is so insulted he refuses to play any longer.

He gets home to find that his teacher has called his mother about his behavior, and Ozzie is sent to his room to wait for his father to come home - and his mother tells him he's going to be sent to a military boarding school to straighten out his behavior. That sounds horrible to him. He gathers up his life savings ($3.81) and decides to run away. He'll live off the land until he finds a fun place to live with other young free thinkers (who can take a joke) and grow up to be a famous comedian and show everyone. He climbs out the window and is making his way down the rose trellis when it rips off the side of the house and he finds himself falling...

He wakes up in an odd place, a place with empty space rather than sky. He meets another boy just about his age who's wearing a red devil suit and has little sharp fangs that protrude from his mouth. He introduces himself as Beelzebub, Ozzie's "guardian devil" (guardian angels are apparently for "goody-goodies," which Ozzie clearly is not) and explains that they are in limbo. Spread out in the valley below them is an enormous board game, and Ozzie must play it - and win - if he's ever going to get back to Earth. Beelzebub (or Bub, as Ozzie calls him) tells him that limbo is a place where nothing changes, ever, and that if Ozzie wants, he can stay there and play the game - the Big Joke Game - forever.

Ozzie sets to playing with enthusiasm, and the game is fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the visit to Troy (something Ozzie is learning about in history class) and the giant centipede. Even though this is set in the 1970s, avid video gamers will find they have a lot in common with Ozzie, and this book may well be the grandfather of all the virtual reality gaming books that have become so popular. Ozzie has a blast, but things don't always go well for him in the game - particularly when he's on a game square that prohibits making jokes. Bub is a bit unsettling to Ozzie at first (particularly the way he switches his tail around), but soon he proves himself to be a good companion and friend. If only he hadn't made a comment to Ozzie about him showing a lot of promise "for being our kind of guy." What exactly did that mean, anyway? Ozzie isn't so sure he wants to be their kind of guy, even if Bub seems all right, for a devil. And does he really want to stay and play the game forever?

I was so excited to finally be able to read this book again - and to read it to my children at the same time! I used to wish I could play the Big Joke Game - only I worried that I wouldn't be as good at making up limericks as Ozzie - he is quite skilled at that. It held up very well to rereading - although in my memory, the game was longer and more complex than it turned out to be. It is clear that Ozzie has A Lesson to Learn, but it is a fun learning, not heavy handed or moralistic, and no doubt will give readers food for thought as far as their own actions are concerned. This is a delightful tale, rendered even more enjoyable by Vasiliu's detailed illustrations, which accompany the text perfectly. What a joy it was to reread this book. I can only hope there are many more copies out there, waiting to be discovered. Or, better yet - that new ones will be reprinted and published soon.

The Big Joke Game by Scott Corbett; illustrated by Mircea Vasiliu (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1972)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Visions in Death

Eve Dallas, tough-as-nails New York cop, returns in her nineteenth futuristic mystery, and this time she runs a race against time to stop a serial killer rapist who is on the loose. The victims all fit a specific profile, and they are usually walking in a park, alone at night, when they are attacked, strangled and mutilated.

When a psychic comes forward with information about the killings, Eve's first reaction is to send her packing. But the psychic comes highly recommended by a personal friend, and Eve is a good cop - she is prepared to use any and every potential tool to solve the case, despite her personal misgivings. There are brief point-of-view sections from the killer's perspective that serve to heighten the tension while making the reader aware of the killer's motive.

The murders are disturbing and violent, and they bring unwanted memories of her own abusive childhood back to Eve, who suffers horrendous nightmares but uses them to fuel her determination to catch the killer. The investigation moves at a quick pace, but not quick enough to catch the murderer before he strikes again. Roarke is her mainstay, as always, but Eve is also beginning to realize how many friends she has acquired over the years. She is a bit unsettled by all these ties to other people, particularly as she has always been such a loner, yet she can't help but marvel and appreciate the fact that they are in her life.

The meshing of Eve's personal life and the murder investigation makes for gripping reading, as there is more at stake than the simple solving of a mystery. The tension rises from chapter to chapter, yet there are moments of comic relief that break through the dark, disturbing storyline from time to time, both with quick snatches of dialogue as well as scenes that made me burst out laughing. There are graphic depictions of violence in this novel that are not for the faint of heart, so be forewarned.

This is the first Eve Dallas novel I've listened to as an audio book, it was such an excellent experience that I doubt I'll ever go back to reading the text versions again. Susan Ericksen is a talented narrator, able to infuse her voice with different emotions, and giving Roarke his sexy Irish brogue and Eve's coworkers their New York accents. At first I didn't care for the way she did Peabody, which sounded a bit doofy to me, but over time it grew on me, and by the end of the book it sounded just right. This is one of my favorite mystery series, and while each one stands alone as far as the mystery goes, the series is best read in order because the characters' lives and relationships gain a depth that is better appreciated if readers start with the first book in the series.

Books in the Eve Dallas series:
1. Naked in Death
2. Glory in Death
3. Immortal in Death
4. Rapture in Death
5. Ceremony in Death
6. Vengeance in Death
7. Holiday in Death
8. Conspiracy in Death
9. Loyalty in Death
10. Witness in Death
11. Judgment in Death
12. Betrayal in Death
13. Seduction in Death
14. Reunion in Death
15. Purity
in Death
16. Portrait
in Death
17. Imitation
in Death
18. Divided
in Death
19. Visions in Death
20. Survivor
in Death
21. Origin in Death
22. Memory in Death
23. Born in Death
24. Innocent in Death
25. Creation in Death
26. Strangers in Death
26. Salvation in Death


Visions in Death (#19 in the Eve Dallas series) by J.D. Robb; narrated by Susan Ericksen (Brilliance Audio, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
3Rs Reading Den: "The twists and turns will keep you glued to your seat, trying to figure out who is behind this latest series of murders in the city that never sleeps. An excellent audio experience that I recommend to anyone that enjoys thrillers and mysteries."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Miki Falls: Spring

This four-volume manga series starts out with teenage Miki falling, literally from a building. It was no accidental fall, either: her first words are I don't know what my plan was when I threw myself out the window. She lands and lies there on the ground, unmoving, in pain, and her thoughts go back in time...

Miki is a teenager starting her senior year of high school. She is determined that this year is going to be different, she is going to be different, no longer the pushover that runs around trying to please everyone, to live up to everyone's expectations. But things at school seem to be the same, really - except for the handsome new boy who's moved to town. But even though all the girls think Hiro is the hottest guy in school, his cold, aloof behavior soon has them thinking about other, more accessible guys. Miki feels the same way, until a chance encounter with Hiro reveals a side of him that makes her determined to get to know him, despite his coldness.

Miki's determination to befriend Hiro eventually leads to a friendship forming between the two of them. She realizes that he has a secret - his unusual behavior makes that clear, although she can't imagine what it must mean. She watches him and learns things, and eventually snoops around enough to discover the truth about why he must hold himself apart from everyone, and why he can't be friends with her, mustn't be friends with her. But love happens where it will, even if it's inconvenient and forbidden...

The flashback is not over, it seems, and we do not return to the fallen Miki at the end of this volume. But her story continues in the next book of the series, Summer. Miki is an engaging character, and while her determination to form and meet her own expectations for herself turns into a determination to solve the mystery that is Hiro, she is a tough girl who knows what she wants and goes after it.

The story is intriguing, and the supernatural elements are unusual and surprising. I am unclear (so far, anyway) about the reasons for the fact that Hiro must keep to himself, but perhaps that will be made clear in subsequent volumes. I enjoyed the artwork immensely, particularly the gradations of shading that lent the pictures more depth than is typical of the manga I've read so far. The faces are wonderfully expressive, and the unusual format used in the layout is a lively, effective way of presenting the story. I will be interested to see where Hiro and Miki's relationship takes them in the next volume of this charming supernatural manga romance.

Here is a fascinating interview with Mark Crilley. Enjoy!

Spring (#1 in the Miki Falls manga series) by Mark Crilley (HarperTeen, 2007)

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know, and I'll add a link to your review here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

That magic childhood book

People who grow up to be avid readers can usually talk for hours about the books that they loved the most when they were children, the ones that gave them that special magical feeling, that took them to another world, that sparked their imagination. There were books that I read over and over again, such as Anne McCaffrey's Harper Hall and, later, Pern books. And Madeleine L'Engle, Beverly Cleary, Diana Wynne Jones (although she didn't have that many published back then) and the Chronicles of Narnia. I loved the Black Stallion books, Marguerite Henry's horse stories, Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Edward Eager, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E.L. Konigsburg, and E. Nesbit.

There were other books that aren't available anymore these days, books I checked out over and over again from the library. I loved these books - sometimes when I was at the library, I just looked on the shelves to see if they were there, even if I didn't plan on checking them out. One of them was The Ghost in the Swing by Janet Patton Smith. It is out of print, and used copies run about $100, or they did the last time I checked. I'd been looking in used book stores for it, not to mention eBay and other online used book sellers, hoping to find it at a bargain rate. My husband finally bought me a copy for my birthday a couple years ago, and what a joy it was to reread that one after so many years. I'm planning on reading it to my children when the Halloween season rolls around, to see what they think of it. The other book I adored was called The Big Joke Game by Scott Corbett. That one is out of print, too, and is $50 or $60.

As part of my last course in library school, I'm doing a practicum in two school libraries, an elementary school and a high school. When I was helping a child find a book at the elementary school, imagine my shock when I saw, sitting there on the shelf, a copy of The Big Joke Game. It had been in the library, according to the stamps on the back of the book, since the year it was published: 1972! Not only that, but it was in pretty decent condition: a few dog-ears, yellowed pages, but the binding was solid. Compare this to the library books I end up throwing in the trash because they are so shoddily made that the bindings crack right in two within the first few months we own them!

Anyway, the librarian very kindly allowed me to check the book out, and I've read it to my girls (review forthcoming). I'm pleased to say that not only did it hold up wonderfully to my fond memories of it, but that they enjoyed it as much as I did! It was also interesting to me to see how linked my memories of the book were to the marvelous illustrations.

There's another one by Corbett that I'd love to reread, my second favorite of his, called The Red Room Riddle. I don't remember too much about it besides the deliciously creepy feeling it gave me when I read it - he managed to create a palpably haunting atmosphere. Maybe someday I'll run across that one, too.

What about you? What are the books that you wish you could reread that seem to have disappeared into the mists of time? Are there childhood books that make you happy, just thinking about them? Or are there any that you have vague memories of but can't remember the title or author? Favorites you checked out over and over again at the library? I'd love to hear about it!

The above image is by Bea Douglas. Click here to see more of her lovely images.

Bone Crossed

This fourth installment in the Mercy Thompson series takes up right where the previous volume left off, as Mercy copes with the aftermath of some very traumatizing experiences that occurred at the end of the previous book.

As always, I try to limit anything that might be construed as a spoiler, but even more than most series, this one should be read in order. Events from previous books have a continual impact on the events in subsequent books, and the complexity of the world, the relationships of the characters - not to mention the characters themselves, is best appreciated by beginning at the beginning, with the first book (Moon Called).

The opening scene has Mercy making a crucial decision regarding her relationship with Adam. But before the ramifications of that decision can make themselves known, Mercy's mother shows up, having heard on the evening news about what happened to Mercy at the end of the previous book. But before Mercy can assure her mother that she is all right (or rather, that she is all right as she can be, and she has support in her friends), Mercy's vampire friend (or as close to a friend as any vampire can be) Stefan suddenly appears in the middle of her house, and he is in terrible shape, burned to a crisp, close to death. But before Mercy can begin to do figure out what to do about Stefan, an old school friend shows up on her doorstep, asking her for Mercy's help to deal with a ghost that is haunting her house. Yup, it's another typical day for Mercy, who ironically would love nothing more than to be left alone and work on cars at her garage and repair shop. That, of course, is not to be.

Mercy is a walker, a characteristic passed onto her by the Native American father she never met. She can shift at will into the form of a coyote, and much like the Coyote of legend, chaos seems to follow at her heels. Her walker abilities also enable her to see ghosts, but she really has no idea of the nature or extent of her powers - only that vampires fear them, for some reason. Soon Mercy finds herself caught up in a dangerous chain of events that have her facing some tough decisions, as usual. And as the series has so aptly illustrated thus far, such decisions have far-reaching consequences that will have to be dealt with in the future.

I have thoroughly enjoyed each book in this series. Mercy has come a long way since the first book, when she was a loner, trying to be self sufficient and avoiding ties to those around her. Even her mother realizes before Mercy does that she has created quite a community for herself, a group of friends she would (and does) trust with her life. Being part of that group means making different kinds of choices - trying not to endanger them, allowing herself to depend on them, trying to find a comfortable place between independence and dependence. Of course there isn't much time to think on these matters, as Mercy is being pursued by a day-walking vampire called "The Monster" and doing her best to save her best friend's child from a malefic ghost.

There are so many things I love about this series: the way in which the supernatural characters are believable and complicated, yet are quite clearly other, the tantalizing hints of Mercy's untapped potential, the well-crafted writing, dialogue, sensory imagery, and pacing, the constantly evolving relationships among the characters, plus the guest appearances of famous beings from mythology and folklore. The stories are dark and disturbing, occasionally humorous, always suspenseful, and often touching. The novel ends with a satisfying conclusion, yet leaves plenty of loose ends and unfinished business to make me sigh and wait impatiently, all over again, for the next book. And to wish I hadn't read this one quite so quickly. Mercy is fast becoming one of my favorite heroines, and I hope to be reading about her adventures for a long time to come.

Books in the Mercy Thompson series:
1. Moon Called
2. Blood Bound
3. Iron Kissed

4. Bone Crossed
5. Silver Born (forthcoming)

Bone Crossed (#4 in the Mercy Thompson series) by Patricia Briggs (Ace Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
All Booked Up: "Patricia Briggs has written up an intriguing world, where legends can be real, but not everything has been revealed yet."
Darque Reviews: "The characters are exceptional, especially the heroine who relies on her own strengths and shows her emotions in a very human way."
Saving My Sanity: "This was another excellent entry in Brigg’s Mercy series and I really enjoyed my time in her world yet again....I think my greatest delight in the book was the slow and realistic progression in Mercy, and in her relationship with Adam, as she deals with what happened to her in Iron Kissed."
SciFiGuy: "There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing, some very dark and dangerous scenes and a few new revelations about Mercy’s abilities, the pack and the vampires. And a little time left over for romance."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Yokaiden - an original English manga

Hamachi is an unusual young man - unlike the other boys in his village, he is very interested in the creatures from Japanese mythology and folklore called Yokai. Most people are afraid of them, and some, like the ronin warrior passing through the village, hunt and kill them. Hamachi just wants to observe them and write about them, like his favorite author, Mizuki, who wrote a comprehensive guidebook of Yokai that Hamachi cherishes.

Hamachi's parents are dead, and he lives with his grandmother, a thoroughly unpleasant woman who is always scolding and criticizing him (while he is invariably pleasant in return). One day he discovers a yokai called a kappa, whose foot is caught in a trap. Hamachi frees it (by cutting off its foot, for which the unfortunate creature isn't sure whether to thank the boy or throttle him). Later he finds that same kappa has killed his grandmother (who was the one to set the trap in the first place). Furious that the creature could do such a thing, he takes off in search of the realm of the yokai so he can enact revenge on the kappa.

This is the first original English manga that I have read, and I enjoyed it very much, particularly the creatures from Japanese folklore, many of which were unfamiliar to me. Hamachi is a bit of an idiot at times, but he is also sweet (particularly when he's putting up with his grandmother). I loved the villagers, their comments and opinions on things, as well as the yokai themselves. The artwork is effective and appealing, and while it has a typical manga look, it possesses a distinctive character of its own. The story is interspersed with informational pages about the various yokai that appear in the narrative, and there are some comic strip "outtakes" at the end that are hilarious. This is the only volume of the series to be published so far; volume two is due to be released in October of this year (appropriately in time for Halloween).

Yokaiden, Vol. 1 by Nina Matsumoto (Ballantine Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Animanga Nation: "Delightfully inventive, utterly charming and completely entertaining, Yokaiden’s first volume tells a wonderfully compelling story filled with interesting creatures and plenty of humor."
Precocious Curmudgeon:
"Matsumoto has a solid visual sense as well. Her character designs, human and yōkai, are varied and charming, and her storytelling and layouts are clear and energetic."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Zorgamazoo

A young girl named Katrina Katrell has a gift for spying the unusual, the strange, the things that no one else has the time or inclination to look for. Unfortunately for her, this ability is not something her nasty governess, Mrs. Krabone, appreciates. The book opens as Katrina catches a glimpse of something truly unusual on the subway. When she tries to tell Mrs. Krabone what she's seen, her governess has had enough:

You listen to me. This lying must end.
When we get home, here is what I intend:
I will call up my friend, a Lobotomy Doc,
a talented man at the butchery block.

His scalpels are polished to shimmering shine.
He'll slice from your eye to the top of your spine.

He'll cut from your brow to the top of your head.
Your brain? He'll replace it with something instead,
something quite nice, lie a pastry or cake,
or why not a succulent caribou steak?

your original brain, he will lock in a box.
For that's what they do, those Lobotomy Docs.
Yes, the entire book is written in rhyming verse, just like that, and the story leans toward the dark and creepy. Poor Katrina has parents, but they simply do not care about her; they travel around and take no interest in her at all. And Mrs. Krabone's lobotomy doc is no empty threat: that very night the doctor arrives, and Katrina, hearing him describe in grotesque detail exactly what he intends to do to her, escapes through her bedroom window.

Meanwhile, in a part of the world hidden from humans (except for those sharp-eyed ones like Katrina), there lives a Zorgle named Morty - in fact, he's the very creature that Katrina spied from the subway platform. He is a timid sort, unlike his dauntless, adventurous father - but his father is in the hospital, very ill, and Morty spends a lot of time with him. But despite Morty's timidity, he suddenly finds himself sent on a quest - a dangerous, adventuresome quest - and he's not sure he's up to it. Luckily he runs into Katrina, and the two of them pair up. It turns out they make a pretty good team.

I read this book to my children (ages 8 and 10), and they both enjoyed it, although the older one was more enthusiastic. The younger one found that the rhymes made things a bit difficult to understand, especially at first, until she got used to it. The idea of writing an entire book in rhyming verse is truly impressive, and it felt like Weston really had fun with the language. That's always fun to see, especially in a book for children.

The plot was full of interesting twists and turns, and my girls were always curious to see what was going to happen next. I would have enjoyed the book more had there been more character development. At one point, poor Morty does something particularly clumsy, and Katrina really lets him have it. She's uncharacteristically nasty, which made me lose a bit of sympathy for her, and that lapse was never truly addressed to my satisfaction. It was a bit odd, but there was something about reading this book aloud, with the unchanging rhythm of the text, that made me incredibly sleepy, every time we read it. It made my eyelids grow unaccountably heavy, but judging from the other reviews I've read of this book, I am alone in experiencing this side effect.

I occasionally felt that the story and characters took a back seat to the language and rhyming, and occasionally I grew impatient with, for example, pages of description about an object of minor importance to the novel (such as the lottery contraption). All in all, the book was charming and creative, a truly impressive endeavor. And I loved the illustrations, with the creepy, Edward Gorey-esque atmosphere they lent to the narrative. Fans of Dr. Seuss, the Baudelaire orphans and Araminta Spookie will have a fun time with this dark, rhyming romp.

Here is an interview with Robert Paul Weston at Fatalis Fortuna's blog.

Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston; illustrated by Victor Rivas (Razorbill, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Educating Alice: "Not only is this whole book in verse, but there’s some fun stuff happening with the story, pages, and such. There’s a very strong authorial voice that is connected to the design. Well done indeed!"
The Fickle Hand of Fate: "This would make an excellent read-aloud and vocabulary builder for younger kids, a great introduction to some of the possibilities in poetry, or just an exciting adventure to read to yourself."
Kiss the Book: "Readers will delight in Weston’s ingenious use of language and his brilliant rhythmic verse. A must read-a-loud for all!"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What a bunch of knuckleheads!

In this hilarious memoir of his childhood, children's book writer (not to mention the Library of Congress's first national ambassador to children's literature) Jon Scieszka recounts his childhood as one of six brothers growing up in Michigan in the 1950s and 60s. The book is divided into short chapters, each centered on a theme or specific event, which always includes plenty of photographs and illustrations.

He talks about the relationships among his siblings, events at his Catholic school, how he came to love reading (despite "those weirdos" Dick and Jane), and why, when his teacher asked, "What's so funny, Mr. Scieszka?" his response was a "life-choice fork in the road" for him. Thank heavens for his readers that he made the choice he did!

I loved so many things about this book, its honesty, its humor, its focus on memories of events that readers will certainly relate to. Adult readers will appreciate the reminiscences of things that Jon didn't question at the time, yet looking back on them realizes were a bit unusual and recognizes the humor in them.

There's the chapter about his cub scout field trip to the hospital where his mother (the den mother for the troop) worked as a nurse. "We didn't know where other cub scouts went on field trips, so we just went along." Jon thinks they might get to see some cool stuff, like an x-ray machine, or maybe doctors performing surgery. But what he didn't really understand was that his mother was a prenatal nurse. So the boys got a lecture about the first nine months of life. "I had no idea what she was talking about. I was looking around for an X-ray machine." Finally when the boring talk was over, one of the boys found the models and handed one to Jon, saying, "Here's all the guts." When he handed it to Jon, it fell apart:
A little baby popped out and bounced on the floor. We suddenly realized we were playing around with models of the insides of pregnant ladies. We freaked out and didn't touch anything else in the room for the rest of the field trip.
This memoir has taken its place among my very favorite biographies that I recommend to children at my library, who come in every year looking for something not too objectionable for their biography assignment. And since the usual "rule" for that particular assignment is that the biography must be 100 pages or more, I was delighted to see that Knucklehead is 106 pages long. Its wide margins, large font, many pictures and illustrations, short chapters and laugh-out-loud humor will make it appealing to reluctant and willing readers alike.

Click here for a wonderful article about Scieszka on NPR, followed by an excerpt of several chapters from Knucklehead (including one of my favorites, about the cat, the car trip and the pecan nut log. My iced tea almost came out my nose when I read that one!). My favorite Scieszka quote from the article:
"If the day gets really bad, I can always pull out fan mail," he says with a laugh. "Who else gets mail where kids write to you and say, 'Dear Mr. Scieszka, We were supposed to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead. So I'm writing to you.'"
Jon Scieszka is dedicated to promoting literacy among young readers, particularly boys. If you haven't seen his wonderful website, Guys Read, or read the eponymous anthology, they are definitely worth your time.

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories about Growing up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (Viking, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Ms. Yingling Reads: "Jon Scieszka's memoir was the most hysterical thing I have read in a while. The only problem I have with it is this: Why has this man not done a fiction series of books for middle school boys just like this?"
The Reading Zone: "This is a fantastic book for reluctant readers and readaholics. And for anyone who has grown up with younger brothers and sisters and done all of those things your mom would die over if she found out about."

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Circle of Blood

Cameryn Mahoney returns in this, the third installment of the Forensic Mystery series, set in the small town of Silverton, Colorado. This is my favorite kind of mystery series, in which there is a mystery to solve, but the characters' lives are of equal importance, and the mystery itself is relevant to their lives. Because of this, it is essential to read this series in order to fully appreciate the events and characters. If you are interested in a gripping YA mystery that involves forensic evidence and pulls no punches when it comes to describing autopsies, you should definitely begin with The Christopher Killer, the first Forensics Mystery.

This book opens with Cameryn, assistant to the county coroner, and her father (the coroner) arriving at the scene of a brutal car accident. The driver, a teenage boy, has been decapitated and has been partially thrown from the car. If he'd been wearing a seatbelt, Cameryn's father points out, he'd probably still be alive. Camryn is clearly unsettled by the death - the boy was her age, and now his life is over, finished, and anything he might have wanted to do will forever be left undone. It makes her want to push her family for the truth about her mother, because she knows they've been keeping things from her, and she decides that has to stop.

Then the body of another, younger teen is discovered, and Cameryn has an ethical dilemma: she knows her mother had given the girl a ride in her car, but because of her mother's history, she doesn't think the is emotionally prepared to being questioned by the police. Surely the death is a suicide, just as it appears, and it won't matter that Cameryn is holding back information from the police. Unfortunately the police include her friend Justin, who seems more interested in Cameryn than her father would like, but who's become a good friend since his arrival in Silverton. It's hard to lie to him, but she feels that she has no choice.

Cameryn's decision means a difficult road for her in this novel. It is hard enough simply being a teenager, getting a hard time at school for being the coroner's assistant, recovering from the traumatizing events of the previous novel, and having to deal with her father and grandmother's silent disapproval of her mother. All the secrets make her feel very alone.

This is a tightly written mystery with a dark, psychological bent that will keep readers turning the pages (and possibly deciding against reading it during mealtimes, at least not during the autopsy scenes, which are quite graphic). I enjoy the characters in Cameryn's life, particularly her disapproving Irish grandmother, who adores her but can't come to terms with Cameryn's professional ambitions, and Dr. Moore, the acerbic medical examiner, listens to opera music as he cuts open the decedents. One of the strengths of this series is the fact that the adults are not two-dimensional constructs who happen to be in authority, but are complex people who can and do make mistakes, and who change and grow along with the younger characters. I am excited that the fourth book is due to be released in May.

Books in the
Forensic Mystery series:
1. The Christopher Killer
2. The Angel of Death
3. The Circle of Blood
4. The Dying Breath

The Circle of Blood (#3 in the Forensic Mystery series) by Alane Ferguson (Viking, 2008)

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know, and I'll add a link to your review.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life

This one is entirely Kiirsten's fault. Her excellent review of the first two volumes in this graphic novel series completely won me over. She described the books as possessing that quirky combination of humor and oddness and compelling characters that never fails to entice me. And she was absolutely right.

Scott Pilgrim is an unprepossessing kind of guy. He's twenty-three years old, is dating a high school girl (in an odd kind of platonic way), plays in a bad band, is unemployed, and even though he seems like a total slacker loser, comes off as sweet and funny and manages to grab the reader's sympathy in spite of himself. He shares an apartment with Wallace, who is gay and boy crazy and always has a funny, caustic remark at the ready.

When Scott has vivid dreams about a pretty Rollerblading girl, and then actually runs into her in real life at a party, he becomes obsessed with her. He learns that her name is Ramona Flowers, she is American, and she works as a delivery girl for Amazon in Toronto, where the story is set. Scott's initial encounter with her doesn't go too well, since he's still reeling about the fact that he's seen her in his dreams. He hatches a plan to see her again (a plan that involves ordering merchandise from Amazon and paying for it with Wallace's credit card), and this time things go a bit better. She admits that she's been using Scott's head as a shortcut when delivering packages: "It's just, like, this really convenient subspace highway happens to go through your head, it's like three miles in fifteen seconds," Ramona tells him. Of course he falls in love with her, but little does he know that Ramona happens to come with a some emotional...baggage...so to speak.

This was such a fun story. I found the characters to be quirky and engaging, and the dialogue rang true and kept me laughing as I read. The characters' relationships were believable and realistically portrayed, as with, for example, Scott and his little sister Stacey. She calls him up in the middle of the night after Wallace tells her about Scott dating the teenager. Their phone conversation perfectly captures the mixture of bafflement, affection and concern a little sister would feel towards a beloved but exasperating brother in such a situation.

I won't reveal any surprises, but let me say that the final scenes of the story are unexpected and hilarious. This is a delightful, intelligent, refreshing read, and I am very much looking forward to the continuation of Scott's story in the next volume of this series. The book classifies itself as "T" for teen, ages 13 and up. My library shelves these in the adult section, though, probably because while (at least in this volume) there is no graphic sexual imagery, there are some fairly adult themes. To date there are five volumes, the most recent of which was released just last month, and there is also a film in the works, which should apparently be released some time in 2009.

Books in the Scott Pilgrim series:
1. Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life
2. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
3. Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness
4. Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together
5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (#1 in the Scott Pilgrim series) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
A Book a Week: "It's silly, fun, and clever, and highly recommended for anyone who likes video games, ninja delivery girls, Toronto Public Library, sarcasm, and/or comedic love triangles. Also good art and crappy bands."
Painted Smiles; Written Words: "If you’re not convinced by now that you should be reading Scott Pilgrim, you probably don’t have a soul. So take it from me and treat yourself to Scott Pilgrim. It’s like a soap opera on crack cocaine."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Sea of Trolls

Jack is a young Saxon boy who lives on the coast of England, and his life is filled with typical farming chores: herding the sheep, helping his parents, watching Lucy, his spoiled little sister, and, occasionally, helping the bard who lives at the Roman villa. The village is in awe of the bard, an educated man who can tell amazing stories, do magic, and help protect the village. Jack is astounded when, of all youths in the village, the bard chooses him, Jack, to be his apprentice. Jack is pleased and impressed when he sees how deftly the bard handles his father's objections to the idea, and soon Jack is working harder than he ever has before in his life - and he is not a lazy boy - to learn all the amazing things the bard has to teach him.

But he doesn't have long to learn before something terrible happens. The village is attacked by Viking berserkers, and Jack and his little sister are kidnapped and enslaved, taken on a dragon-prowed ship across the sea, away from everything they've known. The berserkers are frightening to Jack and Lucy - they behave in hard, brutal ways, always fighting each other, and despising weakness in any form. Jack quickly realizes he must learn to understand them in order to survive - and keep his sister safe - but everything they do, everything they believe, is so strange and violent, and soon he will be sold as a slave, and his sister given to the half-troll wife of the berserkers' ruler, King Ivar the Boneless.

Jack's adventure is a marvellous coming-of-age story, a magnificent blend of epic fantasy and historical novel, full of mythological imagery and magic. The characters are complex and reflect the culture and beliefs of the time and place in a way that adds depth to the story. I loved that Jack is constantly having to reshuffle his preconceptions and beliefs as he witnesses the baffling contradictions of these people. At first they seem wicked and cruel and inherently evil. But how can the fearsome giant who captured them, Olaf Onebrow, be all evil if he can be so kind to little Lucy, whittling wooden animals for her to play with? Just as he thinks maybe Olaf isn't so bad, he sees him kill someone in cold blood.

This story is hard-hitting and does not shirk from portraying violence, and there is a lot at stake here. This world is a tough one, and bad things happen to good - and bad - people. Jack is not in a pleasant fantasy world, although he does seek to travel to a mythical kingdom in order to save his little sister. This is a hard place, a violent place, but also a place of great wonder and enchantment. Thorgil, the Vikings' shield maiden, is a wonderful character, full of rage and strength and an incredible stubbornness, who seems to embody the best and the worst of the berserkers. I listened to this story in audio format, as read by Gerard Doyle, and he did a wonderful job of bringing the story to life. It is lengthy, however - fourteen hours long - but it was so enthralling that I hardly noticed; I was sorry when it was over. I would recommend this to fans of historical fiction, mythology and epic fantasy, and to those who simply enjoy a gripping adventure tale. I am looking forward to reading the next volume in this evocative trilogy.

Books in the Sea of Trolls trilogy:
1. The Sea of Trolls
2. The Land of the Silver Apples
3. The Islands of the Blessed (forthcoming)


The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer; narrated by Gerard Doyle (Recorded Books, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
The Silver Key: "Farmer's book is a wonderful blend of action, myth, Norse legends, viking raids, and magic, all wrapped up in a well-told, albeit lengthy, tale."
Writing Slash, Raising Kids: "It's great. Good epic fantasy, with enough twists to keep you reading, and no real missteps in plot. There is humour, though despite book reviews comparing it to Terry Pratchett... no, not quite. It does, however, compare to Tamora Pierce, though the female character is a bit of a... well, she's different."