Sunday, May 31, 2009

Well Witched

Three friends are stranded in a town where they did not have permission to go. They have missed the bus, and their return tickets won't work on the other bus line. But of course Josh - the leader of the trio, the one with all the ideas, the one that Ryan and Chelle feel almost pathetically grateful to be friends with - Josh comes up with an idea. He leads them to an old, overgrown well, climbs down it, and emerges with a fistful of coins. The money is tarnished and moldy, but it serves its purpose and gets them back home.

All's well that ends well - or so the three friends believe. But then very strange things start happening. Ryan, from whose point of view the story is told, has strange visions and experiences. Chelle phones him in a panic, saying that she has been talking incessantly, but the words are not her own. And Josh is having a strange effect on anything electrical around him. Soon it becomes clear that their theft of the coins has robbed the well of more than money: it has robbed the spirit of the well of the wishes it was supposed to grant. The children must now find a way to grant the wishes, or, it appears, the consequences will be dire.

Granting wishes isn't as easy as it might seem. The children discover that when people make a wish, their real wish tends to be hidden inside it - it is not usually expressed outright in their wish. For example, the wish for a Harley Davidson might actually be a wish to be a different sort of person altogether, the kind of cool, tough person who would own such a bike. What happens if granting the wish as it was expressed actually prevents the actual wish from coming true? Or, what if it makes everything worse? The well grants the children powers to help them in their mission, but soon things start going terribly out of control.

This book surprised me in several ways. First of all, I was not expecting it to have such depth and complexity. It is a supernatural story, and it is fun and exciting, but it does not simply skim the surface as many such children's stories do. It takes a forceful look at friendship, family relationships and divorce. It is dark and scary, leavened by humor in places, with well-realized characters.

I was also surprised by the author's style. Hardinge has a way of expressing herself that is whimsical yet evocative. Here are just two of the many passages that made me stop, smile, and reread:
Mrs. Lattimer-Stone did not sound particularly glad, or particularly anything. Her voice was pleasant and husky yet without any rises or falls. She never smiled. Sometimes she drew her mouth in and narrowed her eyes to show that she was thinking a smile.

***

Ryan had not noticed on his last visit what a sad town Ebstowe was. Apparently it had been very popular about a hundred years before. The big sweeping promenade along the seafront looked a bit lost, as if it was wondering where the women with big hats and white parasols had gone. Now that the pocked, brightly colored plastic towers of the funfair came into view, Ryan thought it seemed very strange next to the rest of Ebstowe, strange and wrong. It was as if somebody had found a gentle, dignified old lady whose friends were all dead and forced her to wear a funny hat.
This was a thought-provoking, exciting and unusually complex novel, the first one I've read by Hardinge. I've heard great things about her first book, Fly by Night, and I will certainly be reading that one soon.

Well Witched (UK title: Verdigris Deep) by Frances Hardinge (HarperCollins, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Book Bits: "This is an original paranormal story that pulls you in right from the start. What I like best about Well Witched are the characters, and their growth throughout the book."
In the Booley House: "...it gets dark and complex and very good. The emotional issues are rich and compelling, and nicely balanced by the action."
Shermeree's Musings: "I didn't really like the characters at first, but I started cheering for most of them about halfway through. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep you turning the page to find out what happens next."
Valentina's Room: "The best definition for it would be 'supernatural thriller for children, with a hint of horror in the mix.'"

Friday, May 29, 2009

Swords and Deviltry

This collection of stories introduces two of the most famous characters in fantasy literature: Faffhrd and the Gray Mouser. Fritz Leiber, who is said to have coined the term "sword and sorcery," wrote these stories back in the 1960s and 70s, and, according to the publisher, the game Dungeons and Dragons was inspired by them. Over the years I've read a story here and there, but I have always meant to go back and read them from the beginning. This book is a true introduction to the pair of scoundrels who figure prominently on so many action-packed stories, as the reader meets each of them individually, and then witnesses their very first meeting and the friendship that subsequently develops.

The first story is Faffhrd's. He lives in a city in the north, and he longs for adventure. In Faffhrd's world, the women are powerful witches, and their magic is cruel and cold, full of sharp spikes of ice. Faffhrd's infatuation with a beautiful actress leads him to hatch a plan to leave with her - but it appears he's not the only one with that intention, and soon Faffhrd is in the midst of more adventure than he could have imagined.

The second story is the Gray Mouser's. He is a wizard's apprentice, and as the tale opens we see him returning from a quest for his master, only to find that his master has been murdered in his absence. The duke's daughter, who was also being taught by the wizard (and in whom Mouser appears to have a romantic interest), was unwillingly involved, as her father coerced her into helping him overcome the wizard's magical defenses. The story tells of the Gray Mouser's attempt to avenge his master's death.

The final story tells how the two men meet, and recounts a rip-roaring, drunken adventure the two men have during the course of their first evening spent together, a tale that is alternately humorous and darkly disturbing.

It is always interesting to go back to see where characters who have become stock figures in literature (such as hard-boiled detectives) originally came from. I was surprised by the depth of characterization and the vivid world-building, and I was nearly bowled over by the eloquence of Leiber's prose. I did not always identify with the two men, whose actions and attitudes occasionally left me feeling less than sympathetic towards them. However, if I didn't always agree with what they did, they were a fascinating pair to travel along with. I did wonder why, as the Gray Mouser shows himself to be a powerful magic user in his first story, he did not use those powers at all in the third tale.

This audio version includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who is clearly a fan of our two heroes. Readers of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series might be interested to know that the characters of Bravd and the Weasel are based on Faffhrd and the Gray Mouser. I'm looking forward to continuing with the adventures of these two rogues, and luckily there are quite a few story collections left to go.

Books in the Faffhrd & the Gray Mouser collections:
1. Swords and Deviltry
2. Swords Against Death
3. Swords in the Mist
4. Swords Against Wizardry
5. The Swords of Lankhmar
(novel)
6. Swords and Ice Magic
7. The Knight and the Knave of Swords

Swords and Deviltry: narrated by Jonathan Davis and with an introduction by Neil Gaiman (#1 in the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story collections) by Fritz Leiber (Audible Frontiers, 2008; originally published in 1970)

Also reviewed at:
Stainless Steel Droppings: "Was it as good as Robert E. Howard’s best Conan stories? Not quite, but it was a darn good tale nonetheless. Fafhrd is a brave and savage hero, the Gray Mouser a more civilized, suave hero. Together they make a very entertaining duo."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dead Is the New Black

Sixteen-year-old Daisy Giordano is the only "norm" in a family of psychics. Her mother helps the police locate missing people, one of her sisters can move things around via telekinesis, and the other is a mind reader. Daisy's father was a norm, too, but he disappeared mysteriously several years earlier.

Daisy lives in the town of Nightshade, where things are a bit odd, as the reader will soon discover. So when beautiful, popular cheerleading captain Samantha shows up at school extremely pale, dressed all in black, and dragging a portable coffin with her, not much is said about it - but soon all her wannabee friends are dressing the same way and dragging their own coffins. Daisy wouldn't think too much of Samantha's sudden fashion change if students at school weren't collapsing in class and ending up in the hospital.

Daisy and her friend Ryan, son of Nightshade's chief of police, decide to do a bit of investigating on their own. Daisy can't help but be distracted by the handsome guy her longtime friend has turned into, and it seems Ryan might be interested in her - or is he? It's hard to keep her mind on potential romance, though, what with disappearing bodies, attacks in nightclubs, and cheerleaders dropping like flies.

This is a fun, fluffy beginning to a series, with an engaging heroine and a Sunnydale-type setting. The writing is spare and the plot is action packed, intriguing questions are raised, many of which are not addressed in this first book. I loved the fact that Daisy loves to cook and is, in fact, a wonderful cook. I was puzzled by her social standing at school and the changes that happen to her during the course of the novel - it seemed a bit contrived, more a plot device than a believable change, but maybe it will be further explained in subsequent books. I enjoyed her relationship with her sisters, and also the developing romantic angle. And I particularly loved the unusual diner jukebox. This is a very fast read, one that would definitely appeal to those who enjoy fantasy and vampire stories, as well as those who are looking for a quirky, light supernatural read.

Books in the Dead Is series:
1. Dead Is the New Black
2. Dead Is a State of Mind
3. Dead is So Last Year

Dead Is the New Black (#1 in the Dead Is series) by Marlene Perez (Harcourt, Inc., 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Amberkatze's Bok Blog: "Teenagers with teenage problems with a twist of paranormal and some cool characters make this a series I definitely want to spread the word about."
Karin's Book Nook: "The story is simple and predictable, but still very enjoyable....If you enjoy stories with a little mystery, a little romance, and a lot of supernatural activity then DEAD IS THE NEW BLACK is for you."
Rimasbookjournal's Weblog: "I started reading this book in Wal-Mart (Wally World, if you prefer to call it), and I couldn’t put it down! So I had to buy it from there and finish it about two in the morning."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Language of Bees

There is so much buzz about this latest book in Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series, what with the amazing promotional blog tour that's been going on this spring, that I almost hesitate to write a blog post about it! But I do love these books - I've been reading them ever since the first one was published in 1994 (and I have reread them at least twice - they are that good). She does not pump them out, either - she writes other books and series, so the wait between installments is often several years. But they are so worth the wait.

The books take place in England and feature Sherlock Holmes - his later career - what happens after the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle books leave off. But they are told from the point of view of Mary Russell, a teenager when we first meet her in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, whose brilliant mind is an excellent match for that of Holmes. If you have not read the series, I suggest (I know, I always do, but it's important!) starting at the beginning of this one. There are themes and plot lines that continue from book to book, and in the case of this particular series, the character development is a joy to follow from one book to the next.

This latest book opens with a surprising encounter (for Holmes and Mary as well as the reader): after returning home to England from their lengthy journey across the globe, they find a young man waiting for them - Holmes' son. There is a flashback that details events leading up to Holmes' discovery that he had a son (and faithful Holmes fans will immediately be able to guess who the young man's mother was). Damian understandably bears resentment toward this father who he did not meet till he was grown up, but he is in trouble - his wife and child are missing - and he hopes Holmes will be able to help. Mary and Holmes encounter a baffling array of clues and potentially connected events, from sacrifices at old circles of standing stones to dinner parties with members of the Bohemian art world in London.

King's novels are dense and richly woven, with characters and places that are evocative and memorable. This one is no exception. The writing is skillful, the dialogue serves to reveal much about the characters, and Mary's voice is strong and carries the narrative beautifully. I could have hoped for a slightly more conclusive ending, though - or at least more of a denouement. The ending came a bit too abruptly, and left me wondering about many things. I hope I won't be wondering about them for several more years! Despite that minor detail, I enjoyed the book very much. This is one of my all-time favorite series (although I have enjoyed the Kate Martinelli novels as well), and because of the wonderful characters and richly told stories, it is also one of the few mystery series that I enjoy rereading, even if I remember who did it. The books are about so much more than the mystery - as far as I'm concerned, the whodunit part is just the icing on the cake.

Books in the Mary Russell series:
1. The Beekeeper's Apprentice
2. A Monstrous Regiment of Women
3. A Letter of Mary
4. The Moor
5. O Jerusalem
6. Justice Hall
7. The Game
8. Locked Rooms
9. The Language of Bees

The Language of Bees (#9 in the Mary Russell series) by Laurie R. King (Bantam Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Here, There, and Everywhere 2nd Edition: "If you like mysteries and don't mind reading of a woman that is every bit as smart (if not smarter) than her famous husband, Sherlock.. then you are in for a treat!!"
A Striped Armchair: "It’s become my favourite in the series, which is saying a lot, and I think the books just keep getting more and more wonderful. King had better not wait three years to publish the next volume!"
The Tome Traveller's Weblog: "I can't recommend this series highly enough, it has been a favorite of mine for many years. Writing does not get any better than the smart, snappy prose of Laurie R. King."

The Light Fantastic

This sequel to the first Discworld novel, The Color of Magic, picks up right where the first one left off. The wizard Rincewind (who isn't much of a wizard since he he was a student and sneaked a look into the Octavo, a powerful spell book, and one of the spells lodged itself in his mind, scaring all the other potential spells away), his friend Twoflower (the Discworld's very first tourist), and the many-legged luggage are in dire straits indeed. They manage to extricate themselves with a flashy bit of deus ex machina, and the story continues.

Discworld, which is a flat world that rests on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stand on the back of a gigantic turtle named Great A'Tuin, suddenly finds a menacing red star on its horizon. The star is getting closer, and is having a deleterious effect on the Discworld's inhabitants. The powerful spell in Rincewind's mind seems to have something up its sleeve, and Rincewind isn't too sure he wants anything to do with it. He just wants to go home, back to the city of Ankh-Morpork, where he's not constantly about to fall from dizzying heights or being threatened by villainous thugs. In this book we first meet Discworld's greatest hero (or former greatest, as he's getting up in years), Cohen the Barbarian.

The wizards at Unseen University are concerned that the Octavo is growing restless, and as inexplicable magical things happen and the red star approaches, they become agitated. There is some friction between the traditional wizards, who like the dramatic, loud approach to magic with arcane ingredients and lots of theatrical, booming noises, and the newer ones, who prefer a more understated approach. My favorite character at Unseen University is the librarian, who is transformed into an orangutan in this book (and when you think of it, shouldn't every respectable library have an orangutan librarian? I wish mine had one!). Here is a passage about him I particularly enjoyed, in which Trymon (one of the modern wizards) goes into the library looking for information:

The job of magical librarian, who has to spend his working days in this sort of highly charged atmosphere, is a high-risk occupation.

The Head Librarian was sitting on top of his desk, quietly peeling an orange, and was well aware of that.

He glanced up when Trymon entered.

"I'm looking for anything we've got on the Pyramid of Tshut," said Trymon. He had come prepared: he took a banana out of his pocket.

The librarian looked at it mournfully, and then flopped down heavily on the floor. Trymon found a soft hand poked gently into his and the librarian led the way, waddling sadly between the bookshelves. It was like holding a little leather glove.
I hope there's an opening at that library soon, particularly as I have yet to hear about my application to Hogwart's.

While I enjoyed rereading the first book in this series, I must say I enjoyed this one even more. There is just as much humor and silliness, even more social commentary, and the characters gain additional emotional depth and resonance. Pratchett has an impressive command of language and is able to paint detailed pictures and evoke vivid sensory impressions that linger in the imagination long after the story has ended. I look forward to continuing my revisit and moving on into uncharted Discworld waters.

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 Light Fantastic
(#2 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Books, 1986)

Also reviewed at:
A Book a Week: "Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a fitting conclusion to the beginning of the Discworld books. It's a pleasure to be treated to Pratchett's creativity and imagination for the full length of a novel, and at some points I even read slowly, savouring the inventiveness of his use of language and description."
5 Squared: "As always, there are some deeper, more serious themes interwoven in the Discworld silliness. Here, Pratchett takes on Doomsday Zealots and Blind Religious Fervor."
Kate's Reviews: "I love the way Pratchett writes, drawing you in and he is so descriptive and clever that you feel like you are really there. I had no trouble imagining the red star, the trolls or the luggage. He is a fascinating writer and I have found myself just wanting to read more of his work."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mystery of the Pirate's Ghost

Eleven-year-old Abby Hubbard and her brother, ten-year-old Kit, get an enormous surprise one spring day when their mother receives a letter from a law firm in Boston. Her half-brother, a man she's never even met, has died - and in his will he's left her a beautiful old house on the New England coast - but only if she and her family agree to live in it. They decide to move after Mr. Hubbard is able to get a transfer to his company's New England branch, and when the beginning of summer rolls around, Abby and Kit say goodbye to their friends and their old house in Pennsylvania and head for New England.

Their new house was built in 1690, and the children are fascinated to learn about its history from their mother's half-sister, Aunt Ann, who lived in the old place with her brother until his death. She tells them that it was partially burned down during the Revolutionary War, and that there are stories of an old smuggler's tunnel leading from the house down to the beach - although no one has ever found any proof of that. She also tells them the legend of one of their ancestors, said to have been a pirate - and that over the years the ghost of that pirate has been glimpsed on stormy nights.

Kit and Abby are thrilled with their new house, and are even happier when they make friends with some other children who live nearby. But before they know it, they find themselves in the midst of some mysterious happenings, and their curiosity leads them to explore things that the adults around them do not appear to notice. Disappearing furniture, overheard snippets of conversation, and strange sounds in the middle of the night - what can it all mean?

I received this book through the Weekly Reader book club when I was a kid. I loved the Weekly Reader club! It was so exciting receiving books in the mail, addressed to me, opening up the packages to see what wonderful new books were inside. I remember loving this book and its detailed illustrations, which I used to pore over (particularly the one with the skeleton in it, which I found delightfully spooky), and reading it again and again. I read other books by this author, mysteries similar in tone and style, but unfortunately this is the only one I own, and they all seem to be out of print now. I read this one to my children (ages 8 and 10) over the past several weeks, and it is always so delightful to share a book with them that I loved as a child.

My girls really enjoyed it, although I was a bit surprised about the many lengthy passages that were full of description and details that, I think, would be considered irrelevant by today's editorial standards. I don't remember feeling bogged down by these details as a child, and my daughters did not complain, but at times it felt to me like a bit too much. Books for younger readers seem to be more streamlined these days, without the descriptive rambles about irrelevant details that sprinkled these pages. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. Maybe impatient readers would give up - or just skip over those parts if they were reading to themselves. Or maybe they would enjoy the extra description and feel more a part of the book because of it.

It was also a bit dated in the terms of gender roles. The fact that Mr. Hubbard is the breadwinner, and Mrs. Hubbard is the quintessential 1960's housewife is certainly reflective of the time period and was not an issue for me. But I could not help cringing a little every time Abby was set a chore like setting the table or shelling peas, but Kit was not. And at one point Abby has to go to church with her mother and great-aunt while Kit gets to stay home and do some exciting demolition work that has to with the mystery they are trying to solve. And no one even questions the unfairness of this! I remember being irritated by that as a child. (Although, thinking back, I totally identified with her, because that kind of thing was constantly happening to me. And maybe that was the point?)

At any rate, this was a very enjoyable jaunt into my childhood, and I felt privileged to be able to revisit this book with my own children, who enjoyed it every bit as much as I did when I was a child. Honness creates a marvelous sense of place with her coastal New England setting, and the historical details were appreciated by my children, who have been learning about the time periods discussed in the book. I will be on the lookout for other books by Honness in used bookshops - but I'm glad I still have this one, which was always my favorite. Many of my beloved childhood books involved mysterious old houses, pirates, hidden passageways, and mysteries, and this one has them all.

Mystery of the Pirate's Ghost by Elizabeth Honness; illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush (J.B. Lippincott Co., 1966)

Also reviewed at:
Kinnie's Korner: "if you like ghost storys then you will like this book. I like this book because its exciting and scary!"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

First in a Series Challenge!

J. Kaye is hosting another fun challenge (how on earth she manages to keep track of all these is amazing to me) - this one is called 1st in a Series, and of course I'm joining in! Anyone who reads this blog knows what a sucker I am for a good series, and while I'm in no chance of exhausting my current ones I'm working on, there is always room for more.
This challenge was hosted in 2008 by Thoughts of Joy, who will no longer be hosting it. So J. Kaye took up the challenge (literally) and has decided to host it herself. Woohoo!

Here are the guidelines:

1. Anyone can join. You don't need a blog to participate.
2. Read 12 books that are the first in any series. You may read & list your chosen books any time during the year.
3. Challenge runs January through December, 2009.
4. You can join any time between now and December 31, 2009.

To join, just go to J. Kaye's Book Blog and sign up here.

I haven't decided on all my books yet, but here are some I've been hoping to get to soon. I will list them here as well as on the sidebar as I go along (otherwise I get hopelessly befuddled about which books I'm reading for which challenge). Anyone care to join me? Or have suggestions? Comments? Any and all are appreciated, as always.

Partial potential list:
1. Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (#1 in the Southern Vampire series)
2. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (#1 in the Hungry City Chronicles)
3. Nightlife by Rob Thurman (#1 in the Cal Leandros series)
4. Murphy's Law by Rhys Bowen (#1 in the Molly Murphy series)
5. Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz (#1 in the Blue Bloods series)
6. A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole (#1 in the Immortals After Dark series)
7. Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost (#1 in the Night Huntress series)
8. The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King (#1 in the Mary Russell series) - reread :-)
9. Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez (#1 in the Dead Is series)

Dead Until Dark

Sookie Stackhouse lives in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. She lives a fairly normal, boring life, and nothing much seems to happen from day to day, so she is fascinated by oddities, "collecting" them in her mind to mull over in quiet moments. So when a vampire walks into the bar where she works as a waitress, she is thrilled - particularly when he takes a seat in her section. In Sookie's world vampires are known to exist - and vampirism is said to be caused by a virus - but they are not usually seen in small towns like Bon Temps.

Sookie has what she calls a disability: she is able to read minds. At first glance it is difficult to understand why she would feel so negative about her "condition," but she explains in detail the many disadvantages. For one thing, everyone in town thinks she's crazy because she spends so much time trying to concentrate and keep her mental shields up when she's around other people that it becomes difficult to maintain coherent conversations. It makes dating a disaster, too - particularly when it comes to physical intimacy, and she can hear every thought, flattering and otherwise, that her date has about her.

When she talks with the vampire, though, she is astonished to find that his mind is one amazing, blessedly restful blank. Later, when she mentally "overhears" some other bar customers plotting his demise, an act that is immoral and illegal, as vampires have rights the same as regular humans, Sookie takes it on herself to help him out - and that decision will have life-altering consequences. As Sookie struggles to adjust to the new turn the course of her life has taken, the peace in Bon Temps is shattered by a series of gruesome murders.

I read this book when it first came out and found it an engaging supernatural mystery. I read several of the sequels, and enjoyed them as well, but somehow I have fallen behind in the series, and I decided to start reading it from the beginning. I listened to the audio version of this one, and I enjoyed Johanna Parker's narration very much. For some reason I remembered the book as being much funnier than it seemed to me this time around - Sookie is a resilient heroine, and she does find the humor in many situations, but she suffers such resounding loss, time and time again, that the book turned out to be quite a bit darker than I remembered.

Harris does an excellent job of setting up her alternate world, and the vampires are clearly creatures that are not human. Sookie is a likable heroine, young and inexperienced, true, but compassionate and intelligent, and one who quickly learns from her mistakes. The secondary characters pose intriguing possibilities. Bill, despite his distinctly unvampiric name, is rather inscrutable and appears to have his own agenda. Sam, Sookie's boss, has his own secrets and motivations. Sookie's grandmother is a delightful and refreshing depiction of an elderly southern women, and Jason, Sookie's handsome, irresponsible brother, is more complicated than he appears. It was Sookie's expressive voice, as the narrator, that really pulled me into this story and - even though I'd read it before - kept me anxious to return to it every time I put it down. I'm looking forward to another gripping listening experience with the second installment in this series.

Books in the Southern Vampire series:
1. Dead Until Dark
2. Living Dead in Dallas

3. Club Dead
4. Dead to the World
5. Dead as a Doornail
6. Definitely Dead
7. Altogether Dead
8. From Dead to Worse
9. Dead and Gone

10. A Touch of Dead (Sookie Stackhouse: The Complete Stories) - to be published October 2009

Dead Until Dark (#1 in the Southern Vampire series) by Charlaine Harris; read by Johanna Parker (Recorded Books, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
The Novel World: "The characters are cleverly written and Sookie is a hilarious heroine throughout the novel."
Romance Rookie: " I enjoyed the mystery and the slow unveiling of how things work with the vampires."
Sam's Book Blog: "This is a paranormal romance wrapped up into a mystery. It was a fun story for me."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Curse the Dawn

Cassie Palmer has come a long way since her first appearance in Touch the Dark. She has accepted (however reluctantly) the fact that she is, in fact, the Pythia. As in the Oracle of Apollo. Except, as we discovered in the last book, Apollo is not exactly the deity one might expect. Unfortunately for Cassie, the last Pythia never had time to train her, and so it's a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition when it comes to using her powers.

Typically the Pythia has years to train her successor, but in this case, the power passed to Cassie and not one of the initiates in training - and those in power are not to pleased about that. Cassie is an unknown, a renegade as far as they are concerned. They far prefer a known quantity, someone raised to be obedient and unquestioning. If Cassie should die, the power will pass to someone else - and anyone, as far as the the power players are concerned, would be better than independent Cassie. It would be much easier for her to learn to use her powers if people weren't constantly trying to kill her - not to mention the people she cares about. Caught between the mesmerizing, charismatic vampire Mircea and the skillful, volatile war-mage Pritkin, each trying to protect her in his own way (and possibly for his own unknown reasons), Cassie is determined to stand on her own two feet and make her own decisions. If only they didn't keep withholding vital information from her....

Cassie is a very endearing heroine - she makes plenty of mistakes but always for the right reasons, and has a penchant for getting herself into dangerous, hilariously incongruous situations. As the book opens she is shot in the backside, and that is just the beginning. As with previous books in the series, the action hurtles along at a breakneck pace, and the characters are well realized, particularly through revealing, realistic and often humorous dialogue. The resulting strength of sympathy for the characters ratchets up the tension as they are exposed to one peril after another. Tight writing, engaging characters, compelling, action-packed plotlines, and plenty of humor make this one of my very favorite series. A fifth book is scheduled for release in the spring or summer of 2010, but meanwhile I will be looking forward to reading Death's Mistress, the second book in Chance's new Dory Basarab series, which is due to be published this coming January.

Books in the Cassandra Palmer series:
1. Touch the Dark
2.
Claimed by Shadow
3. Embrace the Night

4. Curse the Dawn

Curse the Dawn (#4 in the Cassandra Palmer series) by Karen Chance (Onyx, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Darque Reviews: "Curse the Dawn unfolds at a quick and steady pace, with strong characters, a creative storyline and the seductive lure of power. "
e.f. danehy's random ponderings: "Unlike the other series in the genre I’ve read, Chance is willing to do some crazy things to her characters. And I’m not talking “dangerous” things or “complicated” things — I mean crazy crazy things with hilarious results."
Scooper Speaks: "With lovable characters and great pacing, Curse the Dawn, book four in the Cassie Palmer series, is the best book in the series. Don’t get me wrong, all the books were good, but Curse the Dawn surpasses them."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Good Omens

Cue the soundtrack for this novel: "It's the end of the world as we know it...and I feel fine." Well, more than fine actually, because the more I read, the more I grin, and as I expected, the Gaiman/Pratchett combo is utterly irresistible. If only I could figure out why R.E.M keeps morphing into Queen...

This is a book about the apocalypse, told from the points of view of various characters, angelic, demonic, witch-ish (witchly?) and human. Central to the book is the unlikely alliance between Crowley (a.k.a. the original serpent) and Aziraphale (the angel of the flaming sword) - sure, they stand on opposite sides. But really, neither of them can think of any good reason why the world should come to an end. The antichrist has been born, it's true, but maybe with the right kind of upbringing, the catastrophe can be averted. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for them, there was a bit of a baby mix-up at the hospital...

Stephen Briggs, who narrates this audio book, is an unbelievable reader. I don't think I'll ever read a Pratchett novel to myself without Briggs' voice sounding in my head- and I certainly won't mind that one bit. With twists and turns, hilarious asides, and unforgettable characters, the book explores faith, fate, and the human spirit. Highly recommended.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman; narrated by Stephen Briggs (ISIS Audio Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Bookshelves of Doom: "I think that Neil Gaiman really tempered Terry Pratchett's usually outrageousness, which was why I ended up liking it so much more than any of Pratchett's solo books. Together, they actually really, really reminded me of Douglas Adams."
Eclectic/Eccentric: "The writing is a fantastic mix of Pratchett and Gaiman, who themselves declare that they aren't sure who wrote what and are convinced that at some point the book started spontaneously producing its own text."
Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-holic: "The end of the world doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. It can be positively hilarious!"
The Written World: "It may seem about the Apocalypse, but there are many other things at play in the novel. I will not list them here, I will leave you to find them out for yourself because this is a book I STRONGLY RECOMMEND!!!!!"

Monday, May 18, 2009

Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List

Naomi and Ely are best friends - they have been since they were toddlers. Ely's two moms are like extra mothers for Naomi, who remembers being read bedtime stories by them, and being tucked into bed together, side by side. Never could she imagine her life without him - even when her father and one of his mothers had an affair that broke up her own parents' marriage, Ely was always there.

Ely loves Naomi, too. He understands her in a way no one else can. Except he doesn't really understand her. He doesn't get the fact that she loves him desperately, helplessly - even though she knows he's gay. Because it's always been the two of them, closer than close. He's going to be her first. He's the man she's going to marry. How could being gay really be more than a bump in the road? It seems to Naomi like something that will eventually work itself out - after all, she is clearly way more important to Ely than any of the boys he goes out with.

The delicate balance in their relationship is one reason why they've created the "No Kiss List" - a list of boys so hot that neither one is allowed to kiss them, lest their own relationship be threatened. But then one day Ely tells Naomi that he kissed her boyfriend. Who was not on the list. But Naomi feels that's beside the point, and things head downhill fast.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this book, but I opened it with fairly high expectations and a sense of anticipation. I loved Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, its intelligence and humor, its deft characterizations, and its honest exploration of a developing relationship, complete with all the baggage and misplaced emotions that are inevitably carried into it. In this YA novel, Cohn and Levithan explore a relationship that is extremely complex because Naomi and Ely have known each other for so long.

Nick and Norah was told in alternating viewpoints by the two main characters, and with the two names in the title of this book, I expected that same format. And so it started out. But then, after Naomi's voice in the opening pages, the following chapter is narrated by her current boyfriend, Bruce the Second. We eventually hear from Ely, but also from Bruce the First, the doorman, Bruce the First's Sister, and Naomi's friend Robin. I tend to be rather resistant to point-of-view changes as a books progresses - I become attached to the narrator. But here, the voices of the various narrators are so expressive, and what they have to say is so interesting, that I was immediately drawn into the narrative, no matter which character was telling the story. And soon I looked forward to hearing from each one, from one chapter to the next.

These shifts in viewpoints make for a very powerful story. They illustrate the fact that relationships are complicated - because people are so complicated. Seeing Naomi and Ely's relationship through each other's eyes gives the reader some insight into their friendship. Seeing them through the eyes of their boyfriends, their neighbors, their friends illuminates facets of their characters - and their relationships - that would otherwise remain in the shadows.

There are so many things I loved about this book. I loved the characters, first and foremost. They felt so real to me that when I closed the book, I felt as though I were saying goodbye to some very dear friends. I didn't always agree with what they did or why they did it, but I certainly understood their motivations. I loved the book's honest exploration of love, sexuality, and friendship. It is fairly explicit about sexual relationships, so the book might not be for everyone - although I personally think it can be a good thing to read outside one's comfort zone. Most of all, I loved that the book poses difficult questions, and that it is sure to make readers stop for a moment and think. I hope Cohn and Levithan will continue collaborating. I can't wait to see what they come up with next.

Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

Also reviewed at:

The Book Muncher: "...Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List was a beautiful story. It explores sexuality and the fine line between friendship and something more."

Bookshelves of Doom: "...but Nick & Norah, even with its angst, was ultimately a sweet book. Naomi and Ely is not. But there's more to think about here -- not just about friendship and family, but about who we love (romantically and/or platonically) and why."

Things Mean a Lot: "I loved this book so much. It’s smart and bittersweet and wise, and it doesn’t try to oversimplify things."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Magic Burns

I have become rather picky about the series I read these days, because there are so very many of them out there. As many of them continue beyond even a dozen installments, following a series requires a fairly substantial commitment. Anyone who visits this blog a time or two will quickly see that I have a particular fondness for contemporary fantasies, particularly those with a mystery/action adventure slant. (I'm not too fond of the "paranormal" label for these, because to me the word paranormal connotes psychic phenomena rather than werewolves, vampires and the like.)

At any rate, as more and more authors pile onto the "paranormal" wagon, it has become increasingly difficult to sort through them all to find the true gems. That's where all you excellent blog reviewers come in - your recommendations have been indispensable in steering me in the right direction (with this genre as well as with many other kinds of books). Even so, I came to Magic Bites with a bit of skepticism, but as I read about Kate Daniels' version of Atlanta, a place where magic and technology are constantly vying for supremacy, I found myself being drawn into her world, caring about the characters, and wondering about Kate's mysterious heritage.

We learn more about Kate in this second installment in the series, but at the end of the book there are still some mysteries left to explore. She is still worrying about paying the bills, but she is now working in a job that she'd never thought she'd have. When she is asked by Curran, the werelion (and alpha to the local pack of shapeshifters) to hunt down some stolen maps, she is drawn into a complex and dangerous situation involving a missing witch whose disappearance appears to be connected with ancient beings from Celtic mythology. Kate finds herself protecting Julie, the witch's teenage daughter, who is being hunted by ferocious, lethal beings Kate has never seen before. Compounding Kate's troubles is the fact that the magic phases are fluctuating at a higher, more powerful level than usual, which wreaks havoc on the magical community, particularly on the self control of its inhabitants.

Kate's relationship with Julie brings a new side of Kate's character to light, which gave the novel some humor while using Julie's perilous situation to ratchet up the tension. There is definite sizzle between Kate and Curran, and it will be fun to watch how their relationship progresses in the next book.

I loved the bizarre and evocative environment, an Atlanta that's been transformed by the phases of magic and tech, and in particular the witch's park and meeting place - what unforgettable imagery! I also find her conception of the way vampires work - mindless beasts that are controlled remotely by necromancer mages - deliciously creepy and an interesting take on an often overdone theme. I'm definitely committed to this series, and I anxiously await Kate's further adventures.


Books in the Kate Daniels series:
1. Magic Bites
2. Magic Burns
3. Magic Strikes


Magic Burns (#2 in the Kate Daniels series) by Ilona Andrews (Ace Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Darque Reviews: "This fast-paced tale is vividly detailed and has the beginnings of a romance fans will be anxious to read more of in Kate’s next adventure."
Lesley W's Book Nook: "Kate is a spunky, smart-mouthed heroine, who doesn't always think before she opens up her mouth, but is usually able to think fast enough to get herself out of any trouble her mouth gets her into."
Lurve a la Mode: "The descriptions of magic waves taking over, dousing electricity, are so…well cool really. You really get the sense that something sentient is literally eating away at Atlanta and tearing it to ruins. I may never again look at Atlanta the same way during a shopping raid."
Unmainstream Mom Reads: "Packed chock full of action, myths, monsters, epic battles, sexy shapeshifters, danger, and a fast-moving plot line, Magic Burns is a very good book."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kin: The Good Neighbors, Book 1

I have read and enjoyed Holly Black's YA faery stories Tithe, Ironside and Valiant, and I absolutely adore Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin graphic novels, so I was delighted when this graphic novel they co-wrote arrived at my library. The premise is not an unfamiliar one (particularly in Black's dark world where the land of faery is enmeshed with the human world, unbeknownst to most people): Sixteen-year-old Rue has suddenly started to see very strange creatures, things that none of her friends can see, and she has no idea what is happening to her.

That is only one disturbing element in Rue's very troubled life. Her mother disappeared three weeks earlier, following a huge fight with her dad. Now her father sits alone, depressed, in the dark at home, and Rue worries (although she says she doesn't) about where her her mother is, and when - or if - she's coming back. When a young university student is found murdered, and her father, a professor, turns out to be the last person who saw her alive, things get even worse. He is taken away by the police, and Rue is faced with a very spooky, intimidating man who claims to be her grandfather and wants to take custody of her...

Naifeh's arresting black-and-white illustrations are a perfect fit to the dark, brooding nature of the storyline. Rue is an intriguing character - she stands on her own two feet and doesn't let herself be swayed by her own fears - or her friends. The tale - at this point - is not a huge departure, plotwise, from other such stories. But it is an interesting beginning, which ties up some plot strands but leaves enough unresolved that I'm very curious to see what happens in the next book.

Kin (The Good Neighbors, Book 1) by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh (Graphix, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Book Nut: "It's all set-up, no action, no resolution. And just leaves you feeling weird. However, I'm going to have to get the next volume if only because I'm curious what happens to Rue."
Charlotte's Library: "...because the story is broken up into frames (it is, after all, a graphic novel), which feels like a very jumpy way of story-telling to me, I felt that I shared Rue's confusion and lack of a coherent reality in a very immediate, empathetically engaged way."
NineSevenEight Book Reviews: "The plot is perhaps a bit complex for the short format--at times I found myself a bit confused as to what, exactly, was going on, but aside from that, the book works both as a cohesive whole and as the beginning of a longer story."
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "Beautifully drawn, I fell in love with this tale straight away. I warmed to Rue, as usual Holly describes very realistic characters with real flaws you can truely empathise with. She makes the fantastic feel so much more mundance and possible."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Hob's Bargain

When raiders attack Aren's village, life as she knows it comes to a sudden, heartbreaking end. On that very same day, something happens to the magics that the bloodmages have been using to contain the land's wild magic, and it all breaks free, allowing creatures only known from legends and songs to reappear. Some, like the hob who lives on the mountain, are benefic, but others, such as hillgrims, with their sharklike teeth, are malicious and dangerous

Aren, who has been hiding her own magical gifts her entire life (lest she be taken by the bloodmages and turned into one of them, cruel and inhuman, destined to eventually go mad), now finds herself admitting to her skills so that she can use them to save the village. Despite all her efforts to help them, she is viewed by her fellow villagers with distrust - people she has known her entire life. Even so, when the time comes to make a sacrifice for them, she never hesitates. Beset by the dangerous wildings, raiders, and the inevitable approach of bloodmages, Aren looks to the hob for help - and he offers her a rather interesting bargain.

This is the second of the earlier books by Patricia Briggs that I've read (the first is When Demons Walk). The first cover is the rerelease, and the second cover is the original one, which does look a bit dated, I think. Plus I imagined the hob in a much different way. I discovered Briggs through her Mercy Thompson series, which I have come to adore. So it's fun to go back and read earlier books. This book is high fantasy, and the magical world, with its blood magic/wild magic clash, makes for an interesting place.

It is the characters, of course, that really captured my attention, which is what I've come to expect from Briggs. Aren is a strong woman, and she has an admirable capacity to move forward despite disapproval and tragedy, to do what must be done. The hob is a complex figure, mischievous and fearless with sorrowful, moody depths beneath the humor. I particularly liked Aren's childhood friend Kith, the one-armed fighting machine - their shared past gives their relationship depth, particularly the way she behaves in certain situations as though, because of their childhood rivalries, she still has something to prove.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy adventure with a dash of romance and believable characters that I came to care about. I look forward to reading Briggs' other earlier works, as I am able to find them. Some are going to be rereleased, which is great news, because those old paperbacks don't hold up very well, particularly in library collections. Here is a complete list of books by Patricia Briggs, including some interesting bits of news on forthcoming titles.

The Hob's Bargain by Patricia Briggs (Ace Books, 2001)

Also reviewed at:
Book Minx: "The world Briggs built is amazing and left me wanting to know more about it, as was the same for the characters. She had some fantastic characters in this book."
The Written World: "All I can say is that this was another excellent book from an author that I have come to greatly enjoy. It is not paranormal, like her present series are, but it stretches the imagination and has a very readable storyline."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It

10-year-old Brendan Buckley has a notebook with CONFIDENTIAL written on the cover in big black letters. It's where he writes important questions, things to think about and try to answer, because Brendan is a scientist. And scientists, according to his fifth-grade teacher, ask questions.

Brendan has a lot of questions. Questions about dust, and where it comes from. Questions about rock collecting. Questions about what makes people be mean to other people if their skin color is different, and why it bothers him when a little girl says that his mother can't be his mother because, with his dark skin and his mother's light skin, they "don't match." He even has questions about whose bladder can hold more, his or his best friend Khalfani's - and, true scientist that he is, he devises a way to find out about that one.

Then, just as his summer vacation begins, he discovers the biggest question of all. While his grandmother is having her hair done at the mall, Brendan makes a beeline for a mineral and gemstone exhibit. He's excited because he wants to start collecting rocks during the summer, and he's having a fascinating discussion with the president of the rock club when his grandmother appears and yanks him out of the mall so fast his head spins. It turns out that the man is Ed, his mother's father: "That man was my grandpa. The grandpa I'd never met. The grandpa who was 'gone.'"

Brendan applies his scientific mind to the questions raised by this unexpected encounter. Why won't his mother talk about her father? Why had they never met, when he'd been living only miles away Brendan's entire life? What could make a father and daughter refuse to see each other for at least ten years? He tugs at the tangled knot of questions with admirable persistence. He applies skills learned at school (observation, forming a hypothesis, predicting, testing it, etc.) as well as at Tae Kwon Do, which he and Khalfani have been practicing with dedication for several years. I love how he relates all the things he learns to other things in his life, such as geology:
Slate had once been an easier-to-break rock called shale, but heat and pressure had turned it into something stronger, the book said. More than once, Grampa Clem had told me that black people had been made stronger by all the trials they had been through. That sounded just like metamorphic rock, I thought. I rubbed the slate between my fingers.

Brendan is a curious kid, intelligent, thoughtful and kind, and very, very determined. The characters surrounding him - his parents, his slightly wacky but kind grandmother, his grandfather Ed, his best friend - they are all fully dimensional characters that, together with Brendan's honest, unique voice, make for a touching, gripping novel, one that poses questions that are sure to make readers think. It is easy to see why this book won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award.

Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It by Sundee T. Frazier (Yearling, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "...the book shows him to be curious, eager to learn, sincere, and genuine. He's a thinker. But he's also a feeler. I love that I do. I love the way we see the world through his eyes."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Infinite Sadness

This third volume in the Scott Pilgrim series starts up where volume 2 left off: the night that his ex-girlfriend, Envy, and her band, Clash at Demonhead, are performing. There are lots of informative flashbacks, particularly those detailing Scott's relationship with Envy (a.k.a. Natalie) back when they were freshmen in college.

In the present, the next evil ex-boyfriend of Ramona's that Scott must fight turns out to be Todd, the bassist for Clash at Demonhead. He is a formidable opponent because, Envy informs Scott (after he's been thrown through a brick wall), Todd is a vegan - "graduated top of his class from Vegan Academy and everything." Scott and his friends are understandably skeptical about the fact that being vegan could give one superpowers, but Todd explains that most people only use 10% of their brains because the other 90% is "full of curds and whey." Vegans, on the other hand, can access 100% of the power of their brains.

All the wonderful characters from the first two books are here, including Scott's gay roommate Wallace, Scott's teenage ex-girlfriend, Knives Chau (who is now dating "Young" Neil), Stephen Stills, and Kim (Scott's high school girlfriend). Bizarre and highly entertaining events follow, including an encounter between Knives and Envy's drummer (who has a bionic arm and knocks the highlights out of Knives' hair), combat at a frightening discount store called Honest Ed's, a costumed band member extravaganza, gigantic mallets and cat fights, an incriminating gelato, and craters being created on the moon (to impress girls, of course).

This series is surprising and intelligent, with quirky, interesting characters that spring to life through their inimitable dialog and O'Malleys' arresting illustrations. I lose myself in these stories, happily suspending my disbelief because the plot and characters are immensely creative and never, ever predictable. Hanging out with Scott Pilgrim and his friends is the reading equivalent of a trip to an amusement park.

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 & the Infinite Sadness (#3 in the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Racing Entropy: "Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness not only raises the bar on the previous two books, it pretty much blows them out of the water - which is saying something."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Whales on Stilts!

"On Career Day Lily visited her dad's work with him and discovered that he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation."

M.T. Anderson's first book in his Thrilling Tales series for middle-grade readers opens with this intriguing statement, and presents an outlandish, ridiculously far-fetched mystery adventure story, an homage to (and satire of) the pulp science fiction and adventure tales, with a healthy dash of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories, Tom Swift, Goosebumps and H.G. Wells thrown in for good measure.

When Lily discovers her father's boss is actually some sort of whale/human hybrid, and that he has some diabolical plans up his sleeve, she knows she has to do something - even though her father thinks there is a perfectly legitimate reason for the fact that his boss wears a grain sack over his head, has blue rubbery skin, and accidentally lets it slip in conversation that he's planning on taking over the world.

She turns to her two best friends for help, knowing that they will believe her. Katie Mulligan lives in Horror Hollow (and therefore has extensive experience with supernatural creatures such as zombies, vampires, and flesh-eating viruses) - she is even featured in her own series of action/adventure novels, the Horror Hollow series. Jasper Dash, Lily's other friend, also has a series of books written about him and his adventures as a Boy Technonaut. Lily is shy and does not have a series of books about her, but Katie and Jasper are confident that, with her intelligence and pluck, she will figure out a way to save the day. They are adamant that she remain the heroine in this story, and they will lend their talents as sidekicks during her struggle to save mankind.

This book is bound to have appeal for kids who enjoy Lemony Snicket, as well as those who have read enough Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Goosebumps books to understand the satire and tongue-in-cheek humor. Personally I did not find that the mix of completely over-the-top events and the glib author asides as appealing as many of the series' popular fans. Yes, I adore the image of whales surging from the ocean, supported by specially made stilts, stomping across the land with laser beams shooting destruction from their eyes - who wouldn't? But I never felt any real connection to any of the characters, and that lack of emotional resonance makes me unlikely to pick up further titles in this series (although I highly recommend Feed, a memorable and powerful YA novel by this same author).

I read this one aloud to my 8- and 10-year-old girls. The older one loved it, couldn't wait to get back to it at reading time, and groaned with disappointment when it came time to close the book for the evening. The 8-year-old was less enamored and would not have minded had we chosen not to finish it.

I found the illustrations to be a wonderful accompaniment to the text - from the pictures that depict characters exactly as they are described (it irritates me when an illustrator doesn't bother to read the text) to the very funny vintage-style advertisements for items such as Horrow Hollows book #241 and Jasper Dash's Gargletine Breakfast Drink).

Books in M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales series:
1. Whales on Stilts
2. The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen
3. Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware

Whales on Stilts (#1 in M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales series) by M.T. Anderson; illustrated by Kurt Cyrus (Harcourt, Inc., 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Burning Leaves: "Whales on Stilts probably contains more outrageous, overblown fun than most of the books I’ve read as of late, even if it’s skewed towards a younger audience."
Confessions of a Bibliovore: "Every five seconds, I looked up from the book and went "Huh?!??!" The rest of the time I was rolling around laughing."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Moving Day

Nine-year-old Allie Finkle, heroine of Meg Cabot's series for middle-grade readers, is honest and funny as she talks about her life. Allie has decided that, because life is so complicated, she will write down a list of rules to keep in mind, in the hope that following them will make things easier. Each rule is a title of a chapter, which serves to explain its particular importance. Among her rules are the following:

Don't stick a spatula down your best friend's throat.

It doesn't count if it doesn't hurt.

Always wear a helmet when you're skateboarding because if a car hits you, your brain will splat open, and kids like me will spend their time waiting for the cars to go by so they can cross the street looking for bits of your brain the ambulance might have left behind in the bushes.

You can't let your family move into a haunted house.

In this first book, she learns that her parents have bought a new house, and that they will be moving at the end of the school year. She's not too sure how she feels about this. On one hand, maybe she'll have a new best friend, since she's not entirely thrilled with the current one, who cries whenever she doesn't get her way and always wants to play the same game, over and over, without letting Allie have a turn to be the character she wants. On the other hand, moving will mean she'll have to get rid of her wonderful rock collection (10 grocery bags of rocks are, according to her mother, "simply too many").

When they go to see the new house, which is a rundown old Victorian with gingerbread trim that her mother adores, all Allie can think is that it looks horrible, old, and definitely haunted. Things are not looking good - until she meets Erica, the girl who lives next door, who is just her age, friendly and fun - and definitely does not cry at the drop of a hat. Her house is similar to the new one, but it's been fixed up and looks warm and welcoming, not haunted.

Allie is just starting to think that moving might not be so bad, when Erica's big brother says something about the attic of the new house - and warns her not to go up there. Immediately Allie thinks of a horror movie she'd watched with her uncle, about a zombie hand that was up in the attic, and she knows with a dreadful certainty that they must absolutely not move into that house. Visions of the creepy zombie hand making its way from the attic in the middle of the night make her want to scream and run out of the house. Of course no one believes her, so she hatches a plan to make sure they will not move after all.

My second grader adores this series and urged me to give it a try. I have enjoyed Cabot's Princess Diaries series and have been meaning to try more of her books, and this one was just as enjoyable. I loved the humor that resulted from the way Allie narrates the story, the way she says things that give the reader information without realizing their true import herself. She is fiesty and kind, and is not afraid to stand up for her convictions when it really matters, despite knowing at the time that her actions may well have unpleasant consequences. And she discovers a few important facts about friendship along the way. I'm looking forward to continuing with this sweet, funny series.

Books in the Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls series:

1. Moving Day
2. The New Girl
3. Best Friends and Drama Queens
4. Stage Fright

Moving Day (#1 in the Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls series) by Meg Cabot (Scholastic Press, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "I loved Allie. I loved her family. I loved how this one was written. Allie's voice is unique and wonderful and above all authentic."
The Compulsive Reader: "A lively narrator, Allie will keep you entertained with her many exploits and her stark honesty."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lady Knight

Eighteen-year-old Keladry of Mindelan has come a long way since she struggled through the trials and tribulations of her first year as the only female page in Tortall. Now that she's finally a knight, she is excited to be given her first assignment, particularly as the realm is gearing up for war against Scanra.

A vision she received in the Chamber of the Ordeal in the previous book leads her to believe she will come up against a necromancer, who is using the death of children to fuel horrific fighting devices on behalf of the new ruler of Scanra. She is itching to get started - and then she receives her first assignment: she is not to be on the battle lines after all. Instead, she is to be the commander of a refugee camp. Babysitting duty, she thinks angrily, but of course she swallows her disappointment and takes charge of the new camp and its embittered survivors of war.

It galls her that the necromancer is still out there somewhere, killing children and using their spirits to create the grotesque machines that climb the walls of the fort to attack with razor-sharp, knife-like appendages. It isn't long, however, before Kel must make a fateful choice between going after the mage and blindly following orders...

Bernadette Dunne is such a wonderful audio book reader that I simply had to wait for the audio version to finish up the Protector of the Small quartet. This book is a departure from the others in the series, which are more about Kel's schooling, her struggle to be accepted as a fellow warrior and a female. Now that Kel is a knight, her challenge is to prove her worth despite her inexperience, and she, of course, is more than able to rise to the challenge. She is strong and determined and willing to make personal sacrifices in order to do what is necessary and right.

This novel focuses more on war and military strategy, and there is a much larger cast of characters, so my emotional involvement was mostly limited to Kel. She is focused only on her goal, and there is no time to spare for romance - but that was all right with me. Kel is doing what she has trained for since she was ten, and she never loses focus on her goal. The book's pace sags in places, but the characters are so interesting that I didn't really mind. As it moves towards the conclusion, the tension ratchets up, and there is a nice long denouement that ties up loose ends in a most satisfying way. I very much enjoyed this series and Keladry's coming of age, and I was sorry to say goodbye when I reached the end of this final volume.

Books in the Protector of the Small quartet:
1. First Test
2. Page
3. Squire
4. Lady Knight


Lady Knight (#4 in the Protector of the Small quartet) by Tamora Pierce; narrated by Bernadette Dunne (Random House/Listening Library, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Bogormen: "While I still love the book, I guess this is my least favourite of the quartet. Not that it's not well written, it just gets repetitious at times, and could probably easily have been 50-100 pages shorter."
Off the Shelf: "I am not sure exactly why this book fell flat. In the third book Kel was having some interesting relationships with other squires and in this book nothing. Not a hint of romance. She kind of swears off men. Lame."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Coyote Blue

Old Man Coyote says, "When everything is right with you, but you are so afraid that something might go wrong that it ruins your balance, then you are Coyote Blue. At these times I will bring you back into balance."

Sam Hunter is a chameleon. He's an incredibly successful salesman, and he excels at being exactly what others want him to be. He has buried a secret in his past, buried it so deep he hardly even thinks about it, concentrating instead on being financially successful. Things seem to be going fine...until Coyote shows up.

Before Sam knows it, his life has been turned upside town. He's lost his home, his job, his security - and when he sees the golden-eyed Native American man dressed in black buckskins fringed with red feathers, he knows exactly who's responsible. It's Old Man Coyote, with eyes just like Sam's. But Sam can't dwell too much on his losses, because he's fallen head over heels in love with a lovely unusual woman, Calliope.

Sam's love for Calliope spurs Sam on in a new direction - away from meaningless safety and meaningless talk, and towards something real and meaningful. That road, however is anything but smooth. The many fearsome - and hilarious - obstacles include deranged bikers, fanatical garage sale customers, car chases, a seven-foot-tall Las Vegas security guard named Minty Fresh, an an encounter with the Jackal-headed death god himself.

I read this book in 1994, when it was first published, and I enjoyed it every bit as much this second time around - more, actually, because I'd completely forgotten that a beloved character from my favorite Christopher Moore novel, A Dirty Job, was introduced in this one! What a treat. Old Man Coyote is such fun to spend time with - particularly when he gets to Las Vegas. He is an imperfect god, and as in all the tales, he tries to out-clever everyone, fumbles and bumbles, but somehow manages to come out on top.

This book reminded me in theme and tone of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and I encourage anyone who has enjoyed that one to give this book a try. It is funny and touching, thought provoking, endearing, and - as with all of Moore's books - it kept me grinning and giggling the whole way through.

Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore (Simon and Schuster, 1994)

Also reviewed at:

Unbound! : "There is the usual silliness and some genuinely touching moments among the chaos and a moment of tranquility provided by a very zen mechanic."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

City of Glass

This final volume of The Mortal Instruments trilogy begins shortly after the second installment ended. Potential spoilers for those who have not read the first two books may follow - if you are interested in this action-packed fantasy trilogy, please check out my review of the first book, City of Bones.

During the first books of the series, we have heard a lot about talk about the Shadowhunters' home country of Idris, and now Clary is excited to be going there. Jace is worried about her going, but he's unable to convince her to stay in New York. He worries that if the Clave, the hidebound ruling council of the Shadowhunters, discover that she can create runes - something no other Shadowhunter is able to do - they will imprison her, or worse, thinking that she is an enemy, not a true Shadowhunter.

When the time comes to leave, Clary doesn't get there in time - and Simon gets pulled through the portal into Idris during an attack. Simon ends up imprisoned by the new Inquisitor, and Clary somehow reopens the portal in a panic to follow everyone. What she doesn't know is that entering Idris through an unofficial portal without permission is a crime punishable by death. Clary's troubles continue to mount in this novel, as do Jace's, not the least of which are their romantic feelings for each other that continue unabated despite their discovery of their true relationship. The tension mounts as Valentine draws ever nearer to gaining the final object that will enable him to become the ruling force of the Clave, Idris, and all the Shadowhunters. That is, all the Shadowhunters who will remain once he's culled those he deems unworthy from among them.

I have enjoyed this trilogy very much - the characters are interesting, there are intriguing twists and turns, realistic dialogue, bursts of humor, and steadily mounting tension. The "hints" provided are rather heavy handed in this book, however, which of the three was the most predictable, with the fewest surprises. After hearing so much about Idris, it seemed almost a city like any other, except for the tall glass buildings that were described more in earlier books. It felt a bit like we were skating on the momentum built up by the earlier books with description and characterization, but there was so much going on - so many plot threads weaving together at once, that I didn't really care. The book was a no-holds-barred thrill ride from start to finish, and the ending was particularly satisfying, a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

I am looking forward to Cassandra Clare's next novel,
The Clockwork Princess, which will be the first in a new trilogy called The Infernal Devices, a prequel to the Shadowhunter series that will be set in Victorian England. Click here for more information.

Books in The Mortal Instruments trilogy:
1. City of Bones
2. City of Ashes
3.
City of Glass

City of Glass (#3 in The Mortal Instruments series) by Cassandra Clare (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "Though the books are thick, time flies when you're reading the books. They're just that good. The series as a whole was good. There were some things that were predictable, but not in an oh-no-not-that-again way.:
Karin's Book Nook: "
Cassandra Clare works magic with this novel. The excitement begins on the first page and doesn’t stop until the final sentence. "
TV and Book Addict: "It was a great wrap up to the story. The first two were kinda bleh but this one...wow!"
Wondrous Reads: "New characters are introduced, old ones return, and both bring with them a whole host of complications and revelations."