Monday, September 28, 2009

The Haunting of Granite Falls

Alex MacBuff lives at Carra, an enormous old castle in Scotland. He is an orphan, and even though he is only twelve years old, he is the laird of the castle - and he takes his duties as laird quite seriously. So when a millionaire from Texas shows up, offering to purchase the castle, Alex accepts. He is sad to see the old place go, but the sale of the castle will provide the money necessary for him to take care of his elderly aunt and all the castle staff, who have been so good to him over the years.

There is just one little problem. Mr. Hopgood, the American millionaire, is buying the castle for his daughter, whom he adores. But she is recovering from polio, and he worries about anything that might frighten her. So he makes Alex promise that the castle has no ghosts before he signs the paper. Alex promises...but now he has to find a new place for his beloved ghosts to live.

There's Krok, a Viking warrior; Uncle Louse, who was once a vampire but now is old and, to his eternal shame, has no teeth; Miss Spinks, a governess who constantly tries to drown herself; five-year-old Flossie, a poltergeist; and Cyril, a hellhound with enormous eyes, a drooping belly, and a very long ghostly body. All these ghosts are like a family to Alex, and it is with an aching heart that he sends them off to live with his aunt in her mansion - along with her disapproving, snobbish ghosts - and heads off to boarding school.

Once at school, Alex doesn't know that Cyril runs off from Dunloon, having been scolded by the snooty ghosts for bringing his favorite toy, a wonderfully smelly dead ferret, into the house to be sat upon by Alex's uncle. Nor that the ghosts run off after Cyril, and arrive at Carra only to find that the castle has been knocked down. Or that the ghosts fall asleep among the stones of the castle, only to wake up on a ship to learn that Carra is being transported to Texas to be rebuilt.

Alex is invited by Mr. Hopgood to come to Texas while Carra is being put back together, to make sure that everything about the castle is just as it was in Scotland. Alex is delighted - and he and Helen, Mr. Hopgood's daughter, become friends. They are looking forward to Carra's completion - but there is a plot afoot to kidnap Helen, and three very despicable villains are behind it. As the construction on the castle moves forward, so do the kidnappers' nefarious plans...

The villains are definitely two-dimensional, nasty through and through - but that sort of characterization works perfectly for the book because the villains are so over the top that it adds to the humor. Adolfa, the criminal mastermind (who has changed her name from Janet because her idol is Adolf Hitler) is a deeply disturbing (and clearly disturbed) individual, who belongs to an organization called CREEP:
CREEP stood for the Council for the Re-Education of the English People. The loonies who belonged to it wanted Britain to be run like a police state with everyone marching about in uniforms and being flogged if they didn't obey the rules. CREEP wanted to get rid of dogs because they made a mess, and they wanted to get rid of the queen because she kept talking about peace and goodwill, whereas what CREEP wanted was a blood-thirsty war to make Britain great. (They thought that wars were good for people.) There were a lot of things that CREEP wanted to get rid of: old people, because they weren't any use, and pop concerts, and vegetarians. And like all people with mad ideas, they started by throwing bombs.
That passage reminded me a bit of Roald Dahl, and it made me laugh (a bit uncomfortably, as no doubt it was meant to). So on top of being a vile kidnapper, Adolfa wants to use the ransom money to fund CREEP's bomb-throwing activities. Now there's a villain you just know is going to get what's coming to her in a fun and surprising way.

I read this book aloud to my 8- and 10-year-old girls to get us all in that Halloween spirit. It is a delightful book, scary and funny at the same time, full of action and adventure, plot twists and turns, and wonderfully quirky characters. It is a testament to Ibbotson's skillful characterization that my daughters' favorite character turned out to be the ghost of a severed hand. Despite its gory appearance, the hand is kind and thoughtful, and it writes messages to the Carra ghosts using a tube of blood-red lipstick. I was reminded of how much I loved "the feet," a particular ghost in Ibbotson's The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, another favorite of mine by Eva Ibbotson that is sure to be a read-aloud at my house in the near future.

The Haunting of Granite Falls
by Eva Ibbotson; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Dutton Children's Books, 1997)

Reviews of other books by Eva Ibbotson:

A Countess Below Stairs
The Dragonfly Pool

Have you reviewed this book? Please leave me a link in the comments! Thanks.

And the Choir Boats winner is...

I went to random.org and used their number generator, and it picked #3, which means the winner is...

Kailana of The Written World!

Congratulations! Kailana, I will email you for your mailing address, and pass that on so you can receive your free copy of this wonderful book. I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

Thanks again to everyone who entered. I loved hearing about your favorite fictional worlds, some of which I was unfamiliar with, so now I have some new places to explore.

Please take a moment to check out my recent interview with Daniel Rabuzzi, the author of The Choir Boats, who has some fascinating things to say - including which fictional world he'd most like to visit. Thanks!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Interview with Daniel A. Rabuzzi, author of The Choir Boats

I recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing The Choir Boats, the first book in a new historical fantasy series by Daniel Rabuzzi. He kindly agreed to an interview, and I was able to ask him a few questions. I hope you find his answers as fascinating as I did!

1. How many books will there be in the series? What is the next one called? Is there a projected publication date?

The sequel is called The Indigo Pheasant, or, A Tax from Heaven, and I hope to have it published by 2011. The sequel will cap off the first round of adventures for the McDoons... but I have four other books sketched out in my mind ... if a publisher sees an audience developing for my tales of Yount, then we'll get a total of six one day...

2. One of my favorite things about the book is the way music, math and dreams are part and parcel of the way magic works in the book – can you tell us more about that?

Thank you for that observation. For me, the magic in all of us stems from our wonderful ability to sing, to speak and to divine the mathematical laws that undergird our world. The connections between these three abilities-- separated more often than not in our schooling today-- are still very apparent to us when we dream. Our oldest tales capture these connections, and move them beyond dream. I think of the power of the runes in Scandinavian mythologies, for instance, and of the flow of spirit in the Dreamtime stories told by the first nations of Australia. I am fascinated by the explosion of discoveries within the neurosciences as a result of functional MRIs, and other non-invasive brain scans-- our incredible brain is far more plastic than we realized, and our musical and mathematical aptitudes seem to be more tightly intertwined than previously realized.

3. I found the character of Maggie to be particularly compelling, especially as we are tantalized with brief glimpses of her, but she remains mysterious. Will she be featured more prominently in the next book?

Ah, such a great question! Maggie will absolutely feature more prominently in the sequel...in fact, without giving away too much, Maggie will emerge as the main character, the deciding (and decisive) protagonist... I think about Maggie all the time...

4. I enjoyed the mentions made of other characters from books set in that same location and time period as though they were actual, living contemporaries of the characters in the book. What made you decide to do that, and why did you include the particular characters you mention?

I surprised myself when I first did that, as it happens! The pen has a mind of its own sometimes... I found that I had referred to Lucky Jack Aubrey without any idea that I was going to...but it seemed quite natural, since I love the Aubrey/Maturin novels, which take place in the same era...since I also love Jane Austen, I decided to include some references...it just felt right that Sally would know Elizabeth Bennet (who will be Mrs. Darcy upon Sally's return in the next book-- won't that be interesting?)....I also love Dickens and thought it good to include a few of my favorites as well, albeit in younger versions since, of course, Dickens's world is a decade or two after mine and Austen's...

5. I love the cover as well as the interior illustrations, and I love the fact that the artist is also your wife. Can you talk a little bit about how that collaboration came to be?

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the project was collaborating with Deborah. She is my first (and fiercest) critic-- she reads everything I write. When the time came for Chizine Publications to do the cover, I recommended that they use a photograph of a woodcarving she had done as part of her "Sea Beast Series" (which she exhibited at Mercy College in Manhattan two years ago). The creature had the feel of the ones in the Interrugal Lands. Chizine was amenable, and their wonderful book designer Erik Mohr did a great job with it. The illustrations-- which Deborah matched painstakingly to each chapter's theme-- followed naturally. I want Deborah to illustrate all the Yount books!

6. Who are your favorite authors – the ones you loved as a kid as well as the ones you read today?

So many, so many... as a kid (but all remain favorites to this day!): Sendak, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Lord Dunsany, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, LeGuin, and as many fairytales and folktales from every possible place as I could find. Since then: Borges, Thomas Mann, Calvino, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Ellen Kushner, Nalo Hopkinson, Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Greer Gilman, Delia Sherman, Z.Z. Packer, Theodora Goss, China Mieville, Catherynne Valente, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Bharati Mukherjee. Some particular recommendations: Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, Susanna Clarke's Strange & Norrell. Some very new books that are very good indeed: David Anthony Durham's Acacia series, Ken Scholes's Named Lands series, Cindy Pons's debut Silver Phoenix, and Malinda Lo's debut Ash. I am writing about the latter four in upcoming entries of my blog Lobster & Canary.

7. In the contest to win a copy of The Choir Boats, I’ve asked those who enter to tell me which fictional country they’d most like to visit in person. So I thought it would be fun to ask you, too. Is there one you’d choose over all the others?

Well, if I really had to choose just one, it would be Tolkien's Middle-Earth, but specifically the Elvish kingdoms of Beleriand during the First Age. LeGuin's Earthsea and Alexander's Prydain would run Middle-Earth a close race though!

8. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I absolutely love to hear from readers, who should feel free to contact me at drabuzzi AT earthlink DOT net.

Thanks!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ghost in the Machine

I am delighted to announce that the sequel to Skeleton Creek, the gripping book/video story that I read/watched, loved and reviewed last fall, is here! Its official release date is October 1, in just a few days' time - and believe me, it is the perfect read for this time of year, particularly for those of you participating in Carl's R.I.P. Challenge.

This book follows the same format as the first, which lends itself perfectly to the spooky atmosphere of the story. It is told from teenage Ryan's point of view, written in his all-caps "handwriting" in a lined composition book. His story is interspersed with videos filmed by his best friend, Sarah. Sarah is an aspiring filmmaker, and she shoots her part of the story, skulking through the very creepy abandoned mining dredge with her camera, filming potential clues in their sleepy little town. She uploads them to a secret site, and then emails Ryan the password (which is always something from a spooky book, film or television show). Readers access the video themselves, going to sarahfincher.com, and get her side of the story. The combination book/video hybrid makes for a gripping experience that will appeal to those who love mystery, suspense and horror novels and films alike.

The book comes in a delightful package. There is a flexible translucent plastic sleeve that covers the novel (above), and the composition book (on the right) slides out from inside it. I love those cute little skulls all over the cover, complete with fake spots and stains. The illustrations, wonderful black-and-white sketches that adorn the pages with Sarah's passwords, give readers a clue about the background behind them (a ship's steering wheel for "THEANCIENTMARINER," for example, and a topiary labyrinth for "JACKTORRANCE").

The first installment left us with a video cliff-hanger of the worst kind, but happily the quandary in which our characters find themselves is resolved in the video that opens the second book. And from there, the text and videos sweep the reader along at an unrelenting, break-neck pace. I found myself keeping my laptop open on my lap as I read, so I'd be ready for the next video installment - and the eerie music and sounds from Sarah's site were an ideal soundtrack, making the written part just that much more spooky.

Ryan and Sarah are still forbidden to see each other, following the accident that happened before the opening of the first book. They had been exploring the abandoned mining dredge in the woods, and Ryan had shattered his leg when he'd fallen from a high wooden walkway. He'd felt someone shove him - it wasn't an accidental fall, but of course no one would believe that. Instead, their parents have demanded Ryan and Sarah not email each other, call each other - or even, when Ryan's leg is finally healed enough for him to return to school - talk to each other at school.

But the investigation conducted in the earlier book has led them to believe that there is a conspiracy right in their own hometown, the place they'd thought was the most boring place on earth. Ryan's own father seems to be involved, as does the grumpy librarian, who screams at Sarah for filming outside the public library. The other names they've found in a secret room of the dredge are unfamiliar to them...but each one they track down turns up to be dead. It is clear that someone wants them to stop poking around - the park ranger, in fact, seems to be stalking Sarah whenever she goes outside. Ryan discovers creepy writing on the wall of his bedroom, and he knows with a dreadful certainty that the ghost from the dredge has been in his bedroom - while he's sleeping: Don't make me come looking for you. But is it possible that Ryan wrote it himself? In his sleep?

The more Sarah and Ryan uncover, the more important it becomes to learn the truth of what happened in their town, years before they were born. Unfortunately, their search involves lying, sneaking around, and going directly against their parents' wishes...and getting themselves into more danger than they believed possible.

I enjoyed the first book in this series, as much for the novelty of the format as for the spooky, suspenseful tale it contained. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed this one even more. The first volume sets the stage, introduces the players, and presents intriguing clues and details. In this second volume, the characters gain depth and complexity, particularly Ryan as he uses his journal as a sounding board, trying to sort things out by writing them down.

Here is a passage I found to be particularly effective:

So now I'm alone in the house again, and I can't help thinking about what it feels like to live in Skeleton Creek. I've been trying to put my finger on it for a long time. No one new ever moves here. It's the same old people keeping mostly to themselves. There's a kind of Gothic loneliness about everything.

You know what it feels like?

It feels like the dredge dug the heart out of my town and chucked it into the woods. All that's left are the ghosts walking around.

I also enjoyed getting to know Sarah a little better. She is a very strong character, tenacious and brave, moving forward to get the information they need, even when she is clearly scared out of her wits. The mystery is tangled and confusing, and it is unsettling for the teenagers (and also the reader) to see their ordinary town, and people they've known their entire lives - including their own parents - in a darker, potentially threatening light. There is a chilling but satisfying conclusion that leaves a few threads dangling, which makes me hope for possible future installments in this gripping series.

Ghost in the Machine (Volume 2 of the Skeleton Creek series) by Patrick Carman; illustrations by Joshua Pease (Scholastic, 2009)

Also reviewed at:

Books and Literature for Teens: "If you like ghost mysteries, grab this book and let the story of Skeleton Creek suck you in. Hey, this would even be a great thing to read during a sleep-over. But if you're faint of heart or don't like to be scared, then you know you shouldn't read this book."

MariReads: "SKELETON CREEK was a really great introduction to the characters and story, and GHOST IN THE MACHINE was the perfect sequel, bringing the mystery to a shocking close."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Faceless Ones

My favorite detective is back! Not only is he dashing and witty, brave and daring, but he can summon fire with a snap of his fingers - and he is very distinctive. In fact, he's probably the most distinctive detective ever, because he's a living, breathing (well, he doesn't actually breathe, when it comes down to it), walking, talking skeleton. He first met up with Stephanie Edgley, a.k.a. Valkyrie Cain (then a twelve-year-old) in the first book; she became his assistant, and they had some amazing adventures together in the second book; and in this, the third book, Skulduggery and Valkyrie (now fourteen years old) have their most hair-raising, perilous adventure of all.

The book opens at a murder scene: "The dead man was in the living room, facedown on the floor beside the coffee table." The victim is just one of four murder victims, all of them Teleporters. Someone is killing Teleporters, who are notoriously difficult to harm, given their ability to instantaneously transport themselves from one location to another. Skulduggery and Valkyrie become convinced, as they investigate the murders, that the deaths are part of another plot to bring back the destructive, godlike beings known as the Faceless Ones. But she and Skulduggery are personae non gratae as far as the Sanctuary is concerned. With the Sanctuary impeding their every move, and their foes always a step ahead of them, answers are elusive. But the more they manage to discover, the more they realize how very much is at stake...

This was an excellent installment in the Skulduggery Pleasant series, even better, I think, than the second one, which I enjoyed but wished had more of the humorous interplay between Valkyrie and Skulduggery that I loved so much in the first book. The humor is back, while the story itself becomes darker, the dangers even more intense and frightening than before. The novel has that mix of horror and humor that is so appealing to me, and the characters continue to grow in new and often unexpected ways. I particularly enjoyed the philosophical questions raised by the wonderful Dr. Kenspeckle, who is a curmudgeonly but immensely talented magical doctor who is fond of Stephanie but infuriated by the fact that Skulduggery allows someone so young to endanger herself time and time again. Stephanie can see that he has a point, but she remains devoted to her partner - even though so many characters warn her that he is not what he seems, that there is a darkness and anger inside him that she simply doesn't understand.

After one particularly narrow escape, Skulduggery says to Stephanie:
"Never do anything like that again. You could have been turned to dust, and then I'd have to explain to your parents why they were burying their beloved daughter in a matchbox."
"Kenspeckle would never let you hear the end of it either."
"Skulduggery looked at her as he led the way back to the door. "I've been meaning to ask you, with everything Kenspeckle has been saying: Do you think I should treat you differently?"
"No," she said at once.
"Don't be so quick to answer."
"Nooo..." she said slowly.
"You are amusing to me, but the question remains. Maybe I should leave you in the car on occasion."
"But I never stay in the car," she reminded him.
Another intriguing issue is the reflection that Valkyrie conjures, a magical double of herself that eats breakfast, goes to school, and does homework while she and Skulduggery are off fighting magical crime and trying to save the world. When Valkyrie comes home, she basically uploads the reflection's memories into her own mind, then sends it back into the mirror. They used to be minor memories, classwork, school gossip, things like that. But when she finds out that she's actually missed out on some important, eventful things, milestone events that involve a boy at school she secretly kind of likes, Stephanie is forced once more to take a hard look at the decisions she's made.

Skulduggery Pleasant has become one of my absolute favorite YA series. I highly recommend it to adult readers as well as kids ten and up, and I think it would be a hit with boys and girls, fans of Artemis Fowl, Maximum Ride, Percy Jackson, anyone who loves mysteries, humor, peril and adventure. The audio production of these books is nothing short of extraordinary. The soundtrack, with creepy echoing footsteps, occasional howls and screams sets the scene beautifully, and Rupert Degas is an amazing narrator. His voices bring the story to life, bringing out the humor and the horror so vividly that, even though I received a review copy I still found that I had to purchase the audio version. Which would you rather do, read a screenplay or watch the film? Same thing here. If you only listen to one audiobook this year, give Skulduggery a try. You will not regret it!

Click here to listen to an interview with Skulduggery, and you'll see exactly what I mean. And here is an interview with Derek Landy.

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

3. Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones

The Faceless Ones (#3 in the Skulduggery Pleasant series) by Derek Landy; narrated by Rupert Degas (HarperCollins, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
ReadPlus: "Landy has created an assortment of fascinating characters from the strong, manipulative females such as China Sorrows and the Sea Hag to Fletcher Renn, the last Teleporter in existence."
The Writer's Notebook: "It's a great ride that it's impossible not to love. I read them all in a day each. You probably will, too."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Sandman: The Dream Country

This third Sandman collection contains four tales that stand on their own, plot-wise, while still connecting to the same characters and situations as the previous books.

The collection opens with "Calliope," a dark, disturbing and ultimately very satisfying story about one of the muses, captured by an aspiring writer, and held captive in order to assure him a majorly successful career.

The next story, "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" is a whimsical yet bleak tale about what cats really dream of - and it's not a new toy mouse to play with! The illustrations are wonderful in this one, really giving a sense of the wildness and otherness we so often ignore in our beloved pets.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (which won the World Fantasy Award in 1991), Shakespeare and his players perform a play for the very faeries who are featured as characters. Charles Vess is one of my favorite illustrators, and his artwork is a perfect match for the story. His rendition of Bottom with the donkey's head made me laugh out loud. I enjoyed watching the faeries watch the play, and it was delightful to eavesdrop on their commentary: "Besides -- if you ask me, none of those women are women at all. They're males, I can tell," says one of the fae in the audience. "Human males taste more like rabbit than the females - and they stick in your teeth. Oh yes."

The final story, "Facade," is about Urania Blackwell, a superhero who's no longer working because of difficulties with her superpowers. I'm not sure if this is a known superhero from previous comics, or one made up for the purpose of the tale. At any rate, her situation of isolation and depression is grim and unsettling. Death happens to be passing by, and she and Urania have an enlightening discussion - one that gives Urania some food for thought, while also revealing some fascinating insight into Death herself.

This is my final reread of this series before I move on into new territory with the rest of the books. I am enjoying myself immensely - first-rate storytelling, intriguing characters, excellent artwork, and a nicely dark and creepy tone that echoes through the stories, making them perfect autumn reads.

Books in The Sandman series:
1. Preludes & Nocturnes (collects The Sandman #1-8)
2. The Doll's House (collects The Sandman #9-16)
3. Dream Country (collects The Sandman #17-20)
4. Season of Mists (collects The Sandman #21-28)

5. A Game of You (collects The Sandman #32-37)
6. Fables and Reflections (collects The Sandman #29- 1, #38-40, #50, Sandman Special #1 and Vertigo Preview #1)
7. Brief Lives (collects The Sandman #41-49)
8. World's End (collects The Sandman #51- 56)9. The Kindly Ones (collects The Sandman #57-69)
10. The Wake (collects The Sandman #70-75)


The Sandman: The Dream Country (#3 in the Sandman series) by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Kelley Jones Malcolm Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran (Vertigo, 1990, 1995)

Also reviewed at:
Once Upon a Bookshelf: "Since each of the comics were standalones, it didn’t really give much time to really get into a story, and you didn’t get any character development. The only thing that was really really good were the illustrations in the comics."
Jenny's Books: "Anyway, the other three stories are very, very good. I like “Calliope” the best. It’s not that I don’t like the other two – I do – but I just like “Calliope” way the best. "
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "My favourite story was "Dream of a Thousand Cats". It was a great idea that humans changed the world and all concept of the world by dreaming the same dream at the same time."
The Wertzone: "an excellent addition to The Sandman mythos, although it can be criticised for being on the short side....But the quality of the actual stories more than makes up for it."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nightlife

I've been intrigued by the reviews I've read of books in this new-to-me series, and I finally brought this first book home from the library to give it a try. It ended up sitting on my shelf, being passed over again and again as I turned to other books - when suddenly it occurred to me that one of the things that most appeals to me about the urban fantasy series I read is that they all have strong female protagonists. Could it be that I wasn't picking this one up because the main character was male? Am I that shallow and, possibly, sexist?

So I decided I'd better remedy that and give it a try. And, I have to say, I wasn't immediately drawn into the story. But by the third or fourth chapter I found myself captivated by the relationship between Cal and his big brother, Niko. And from there, the story took off, and I never looked back.

The premise is that Cal (Caliban) is half "Grendel" (as he and his brother call the terrifying creatures), half human. His brother has protected him his entire life, taught him how to defend himself, and the two of them have been on the move, trying to avoid the demons, and they are now living in New York City. What better place to remain anonymous? But now, it seems, they've been discovered. At least, Niko has seen (and killed) a Grendel he saw in Central Park. They're not sure if they've been discovered, but it looks like it's time to run. They have no idea what the demons want with Cal, but they know he must have been conceived for a reason - and whatever that reason is, it can't be good.

Cal's world is a dark and frightening one, where no one can be trusted, and nothing is as it seems. The only constant in his life is Niko, but even his relationship with his brother isn't an entirely positive one - Cal feels immense guilt for what his brother has sacrificed in order to keep him safe all these years. While their relationship takes center stage in this book, the supporting cast of characters is a fascinating one. There's the young psychic girl who hangs out in an ice cream parlor and helps those who come to her - refusing all payment, except for an ice cream or milkshake here and there; a most unusual car salesman, who raises all kinds of intriguing possibilities for future books in the series; and also a doctor who has a few secrets in his past.

It was interesting to discover that Rob Thurman (according to Wikipedia) is the name Robyn Thurman uses, and I'm wondering why she or her publishers thought it better to have the author appear to be male rather than female. Would men be less likely to pick up an urban fantasy featuring male characters that was written by a woman? Would I have let this sit on my shelf so long had I known that the author was a woman? I have no idea. And really, what it comes down to is that the story has to speak for itself - and it certainly does.

In the end, I enjoyed this book very much. The pacing is tight, the characters are interesting and complicated, and the magical world is believable and compelling. There were many pop culture references that seemed oddly out-of-date for a teenage protagonist (Marcus Welby, for example), and Cal and his brother seemed amazingly well educated for two young men who'd spent so much time on the run. The relationship between the brothers, though, rang true on every page. Here's a passage that made me smile. Cal is trying to evade his brother's questions about a sensitive topic, but Niko won't allow him to get away with it:
"I could guess if you wanted. I'm rather good at that."
As if I didn't know. He was hell on wheels when it came to anything involving intellectual muscle flexing. When we were kids he was busy dragging Colonel Mustard off to jail while I was still trying to figure out what the hell a conservatory was.
The book ends with a satisfying conclusion, but leaves enough unanswered questions and unresolved issues to entice readers into the next book. I am looking forward to more of Cal and Niko's adventures, which continue in the next book of the series, Moonshine.

Books in the Cal Leandros series:
1. Nightlife
2. Moonshine
3. Madhouse
4. Deathwish
5. Roadkill
(forthcoming, March 2010)

Nightlife (#1 in the Cal Leandros series) by Rob Thurman (Roc, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
The Good, the Bad and the Unread: "There’s a lot going on, not all of it pleasant for our protagonists, but there were good moments of humor interspersed throughout. The villains were a shade stereotypical, but I guess you can’t have everything."
LesleyW's Book Nook: "The major focus of the story for me was the relationship between the two brothers, they are siblings who've had to learn how to get along and depend on one another. But I don't think it would have worked as well if it hadn't been for the secondary characters..."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Choir Boats Giveaway!

Daniel A. Rabuzzi, author of The Choir Boats, has graciously agreed to give away a copy of this book to one of the visitors of this blog (U. S and Canada only). Interested? I hope so! It is one of the best books I've read this year, and I'm so pleased to offer someone else the opportunity to step inside its rich, magical world.

To enter, simply leave a comment below telling me which, of all the fictional worlds out there, would be the one you'd most like to visit, and why. There are so many of them out there - Narnia? Earthsea? The Discworld? Middle-earth? Xanth? And if your email address isn't prominently displayed on your blog, please leave that in the comments as well. I have a feeling that, once you read The Choir Boats, you will have another fictional world to add to your list of favorites.

The contest will be open until midnight (U.S. Eastern Standard time) on Sunday, October 26. I will choose a winner at random and post the results. Good luck!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Choir Boats

The adventure begins, as so many do, with the arrival of a letter:
Dear Sir,
You seek something new, a way to your future by reclaiming your past. We can show that to you, if you take the chance. Enclosed are a key and a book. The book explains itself: others have gone before you, and have left instructions for those who would follow. The key is another matter. We cannot tell you all you need to know about the key, only that you must learn about its peculiar abilities yourself. This is not a game. If you seize the chance, you will be engaged in a great mission upon which the fates of many depend...
The recipient of the letter is Barnabas McDoon, a prosperous merchant who lives in London in the year 1812. It is the postscript of the letter, however, that truly sets Barnabas to wondering about the possible sender: "We cannot promise heart's desire. But we know what you seek and can help you regain what you have lost. Will you take the chance?"

Barnabas is intrigued but suspicious. His partner, Sanford, feels much the same. Sally and Tom, Barnabas's niece and nephew, become fascinated as more information about a hidden land called Yount, a mythical place to which their uncle has been invited to sail, is revealed. But Barnabas is, at heart, a practical man - definitely not the sort to leave his business unattended and gallivant off to parts unknown. But when his beloved nephew is kidnapped by a mysterious, menacing stranger and transported to Yount itself, Barnabas doesn't hesitate. Soon Barnabas, Sanford, his niece and her tutor are sailing away across the sea, desperate to find Tom, accompanied by new friends with strange but fascinating ways. The journey is perilous, but its dangers pale in comparison to all that lies ahead...

I love the rich, evocative language used to tell this story. The descriptions are poetic, painting vivid images both of Victorian London as well as the mysterious lands beyond the horizon. Here, one of the characters, Reglum, describes to Sally some of the unusual creatures and phenomena that exist in this unusual land:
"...In another place there is a sort of antelope we would call in English something like 'Chiming Sebastians.' As they skip along they utter ringing notes that sound like they are chiming out, 'pass the mustard, pass the mustard.' Imagine herds of them loping over the savannah, how the air shimmers with their music!"

Reglum raced ahead like the antelopes he described, saying, "Natural phenomena too are not always hideous in the Interrugal Lands. Once, while serving on the
Curlew, I saw a rainbow created by starlight only, the oddest colours refracted over the sea. We do not yet fully understand the optics but no Marine who saw that sight shall ever forget its beauty..."
I adored the characters, who are complex and fascinating, as well as the way in which so much about them is revealed through skillful use of dialogue. The story abounds with strong female characters in particular. There is the intelligent and resourceful Sally, who is not just a whiz at learning from textbooks but has a keen mind for applying her learning in unconventional ways. And then there is Maggie, a black servant girl and math savant living on the edge of starvation in London, who finds an unexpected ally in another strong woman. I loved that there is ambiguity in the characters - there are "good guys" and "bad guys," most definitely - but those are definitions not to be taken at face value, and as the story progresses they require periodic re-examining. Characters make mistakes and suffer the consequences, which can be harsh indeed.

Another aspect of the book I found highly enjoyable were the many references to beloved characters from literature who are portrayed as contemporaries of the characters in this novel. Sally corresponds regularly with Elizabeth Bennet, for example. Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower are also mentioned, along with news of the war against Napoleon. I had to smile at the reference to the never-ending legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, from my favorite Dickens novel. It is not necessary for the reader to know who Ralph Nickleby and Daniel Quilp are in order to appreciate the story, but it certainly adds to the fun.

The illustrations are lovely and evocative. They are a perfect complement to the atmosphere of the story - and I love the fact that the artist who created both the woodcarvings on the cover as well as the interior illustrations is the author's wife! The image on the cover is from a series of carved sea monsters called "Here There Be." Click here to view the entire amazing series.

This book is targeted at young adults, and while I think that it has considerable appeal to that audience (strong readers in particular - those who enjoy books by Tolkien, Dickens, Croggon and other complex literary works), I fear that the YA "label" might prevent it from finding its way into the hands of adult readers as well. There are important young characters in the novel that teen readers would be sure to identify with - but there are also adult characters who are every bit as appealing. It seems to me to be one of those rare and wonderful books that offers a reading experience that may differ from younger reader to older reader, but is no less rich and rewarding to each. This first volume in the series concludes at a natural point in the narrative, although some intriguing questions are raised that beg to be answers. I anxiously await the next book in this powerful, compelling series.

Click here to read the prologue and first three chapters of the book.

The Choir Boats (Volume 1 of Longing for Yount) by Daniel A. Rabuzzi; cover and interior illustrations by Deborah Mills (ChiZine Publications, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Fantasy Book Critic: "...once I got into the novel and immersed myself in its wonderful atmosphere and its usage of charming archaic language and obscure or made up words that fit perfectly, I could not put it down until I finished it."
Grasping for the Wind: "
The Choir Boats is Gulliver's Travels crossed with The Golden Compass and a dollop of Pride and Prejudice. Rabuzzi has a true sense of wonder, which is clear in his narrative construction and a through knowledge of the time period in which his story is set."
Unbound: "In many ways this is a gentle read, perfect for curling up on the sofa with a hot chocolate and allowing yourself to be drawn away."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

Well, I'm a bit late to the party here, but you know how it is when life interferes with fun blogging time. That doesn't mean I appreciate you wonderful book-bloggers any less!

I know I'm supposed to talk about my favorite blogs that haven't been shortlisted for awards, but how to choose? I love you all! My blog reader is chock full of blogs that I am determined to read, even when I'm far behind, because I don't want to miss a word! It seems that every day I discover a new one, and I find myself panicking about all the great blogs to read and the lack of time to get to them all every day the same way I panic about all the great books out there that I (let's face it) will never manage to get to. So sad. But still, I try!
One blogger I do want to highlight is my dear friend Margaret from Bookworm Barista. I kind of shanghaied her one day, sat her down next to me with my laptop, and we put together a blog for her to talk about books in, because she is one of the few people I know (in person, that is) who is as passionate about books as I am. And she was moving away, and I didn't want to miss out on any of our book conversations! And before too long, the book-blogging community discovered her little corner of the blogiverse, and now there is no stopping her! Making connections is what blogging is all about, after all. (Plus, of course, there's that pleasure of being able to chatter away about things that interest me without being able to see anyone rolling their eyes and looking at their watches.)

Anyway, Margaret has been going through some tough times these past few weeks. I admire her greatly because she still manages to be upbeat and enthusiastic, funny, friendly and kind - particularly on her blog. She reads anything and everything, writes engaging reviews about it all, and is utterly addicted to challenges. If you are ever stuck in a reading rut, stop by her blog and you'll be sure to find something to tickle your fancy.

Thank you to everyone who visits here, and for all those of you whose blogs keep me coming back for more. My life has become richer since meeting and talking with all of you, and I look forward to more bloggy goodness in years to come!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lady Audley's Secret

Lady Audley's Secret was published (as a serial) in 1862, and for more than fifty years after its publication, it was one of the most popular mystery novels among English-speaking readers. She had many admirers among her fellow authors. According to the introduction of my Dover edition:
Thackeray once walked to the local railroad station three times in a single day to enquire weather his copy of her latest novel had arrived. Tennyson declared himself "steeped in Miss Braddon" and engaged in reading every word she had ever written. R.L. Stevenson wrote to her from Samoa that "it is something to be greater than Scott, Shakespeare, Homer, in the South Seas, and to that you have attained."
It is odd to think that such a hugely popular novel should fall into relative obscurity years later, but happily it is still available, if not as well-known as the book that inspired it, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. I read Lady Audley's Secret in high school, back in the mesozoic, and it was one of my favorite obligatory reads ever. I have kept that same copy over the years, moving it from place to place, and with the R.I.P. challenge in full swing, I thought now would be the perfect opportunity for a reread.

[And let me take a moment to say that the Dover edition of this book is so well made that, aside from some very slight foxing on the top pages, it looks brand new - and it's a paperback! This warms the cockles of the heart of this librarian, who is saddened to see hardbound bestsellers snapping at the spine after being on the library shelves less than a year, and now many publishers use this hard plasticky glue that doesn't allow mending glue to bond to it, so we have to throw the poor, wounded books into the trash. Grrr.]

While the book is a sensational rather than a true Gothic novel, it contains the elements of the perfect R.I.P. challenge book: dark old house with an ominous shady walkway in the gardens, a portrait that shows the lady of the house in a rather sinister light, missing persons, blackmail, mysterious graves, cryptic telegrams and an overall dark, suspenseful atmosphere. The descriptions fairly drip with foreboding:
The lowing of a cow in the quiet meadows, the splash of a trout in the fish-pond, the last notes of a tired bird, the creaking of wagon-wheels upon the distant road, every now and then breaking the evening silence, only made the stillness of the place seem more intense. It was almost oppressive, this twilight stillness. The very repose of the place grew painful from its intensity, and you felt as if a corpse must be lying somewhere within that gray and ivy-covered pile of building - so deathlike was the tranquility of all around.
The story, while told in an omniscient third person point of view, most closely follows the character of young Robert Audley, a well-off young man who has completed his studies to be a lawyer, but is so content to drift through life, enjoying its pleasures and the company of his friends and family, that he has never actually bothered to practice law. A chance meeting with George Talboys, an old school friend returned from several years in Australia, completely alters the course of his life. George suffers a tragic loss that makes Robert, for the first time, take interest in something beyond himself. He brings George with him to visit his uncle at Audley Court, thinking a change of scene might be of help. Sir Michael Audley has recently remarried a beautiful young woman, and the more Robert learns of her, the more he feels a suspicion about her, a suspicion that grows to a dreadful certainty with time. Robert fears to learn the truth, yet he feels compelled to discover all he can, if only to prove that his is, thankfully, mistaken. His search takes him to some squalid and atmospheric locales, such as the following neighborhood:
Brigsome's Terrace was, perhaps, one of the most dismal blocks of building that was ever composed of brick and mortar since the first mason plied his trowel and the first architect drew his plan. The builder who had speculated in the ten dreary eight-roomed prison-houses had hung himself behind the parlor door of an adjacent tavern while the carcases were yet unfinished. The man who had bought the brick and mortar skeletons had gone through the bankruptcy court while the paper hangers were still busy in Brigsome's Terrace, and had whitewashed his ceilings and himself simultaneously....Solvent tenants were disturbed at unhallowed hours by the noise of ghostly furniture vans creeping stealthily away in the moonless night.
I have done my best to introduce the book without giving anything away. Still, it is not difficult to guess what is happening in the novel - it's almost an open mystery, but for a few intriguing details - yet that hardly matters. The characters quickly move from the expected stereotype to become believable individuals, and they definitely carry the story. The novel, even though it was written so long ago, has a surprisingly modern feel to it and could easily be an historical novel set in Victorian times. As I read I kept marveling at Braddon's use of language, as well as her characterizations of women in the story. It seems that it might have been rather subversive, as one particular character does some despicable deeds, yet she still manages to gain sympathy and understanding from the reader (at least this reader). I leave you with one more passage, just because I love her evocative descriptions:
He was a man of about fifty years of age, tall, straight, bony and angular, with a square, pale face, light gray eyes, and scanty dark hair, brushed from either ear across a bald crown, and thus imparting to his physiognomy some faint resemblance to that of a terrier - a sharp, uncompromising, hard-headed terrier - a terrier not to be taken in by the cleverest dog-stealer who ever distinguished himself in his profession.
I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this dark, atmospheric novel. Fans of Wilkie Collins should not hesitate to try this one, as well as Braddon's many other wonderful novels.

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; introduction by Norman Donaldson (Dover Publications, 1974, 1887, 1862)

Also reviewed at:
Eve's Alexandria: "If her story proves somewhat predictable for modern tastes, there is a strange pleasure in watching your suspicions proved correct, and the novel has other points of interest."
A Striped Armchair: "The plot isn’t really the point; instead, the heart of the novel is in the characters, all of whom are very finely drawn. From the kind-hearted but lazy friend, to his fox-hunting, ‘gypsy faced’ cousin, the characters manage to be both stereotypical and immensely human."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Darkfever

I was excited to start a new paranormal/urban fantasy series (because I am apparently a glutton for punishment), and I got the audiobook of this one because I was in the mood for something gripping to listen to when I work out. Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my expectations.

The premise is this: MacKayla Lane is a young bartender in her early twenties. She lives in the southern U.S., and her sister is studying in Ireland. Because her cell phone isn't working, she misses an urgent message from her sister, and it isn't until after she finds out her sister has been murdered that she accesses the message. When it becomes apparent that the police are giving up on the case, Mac flies to Ireland herself - against the wishes of her parents - determined to discover her sister's murderer and bring him to justice.

What she doesn't realize is that both she and her sister are "Sidhe seers" - and the Sidhe she sees are unseelie in the extreme and are bent on a nefarious plan that threatens the survival of humanity. Her sister was looking for something called a "Sinsar Dubh," Mac learns, and she decides to discover all she can about whatever that is, in the hope of discovering more about the killer.

The plot was interesting and held my attention, for the most part. The Irish setting was well described, particularly the creepy scenes in which Mac is lost in the fog or navigating the forgotten dark areas of the city. Normally I love a first-person narrator, but Mac had an annoying way of skipping over the central action of a scene (important scenes, I might add), and then describing them later, in retrospect. And there was a lot of "I couldn't have known then, but" and "Later I learned" that interrupted the narrative flow unnecessarily - and often served to dispel the tension and sense of mystery.

It was the character of Mac herself, I think, that prevented me from truly enjoying the book. She is incredibly self absorbed. She describes her outfits, her cosmetic products (and their colors, repeatedly), and her lovely body, shapely legs, glossy hair, etc. And her behavior was baffling to me. She forms a partnership with a man who is physically and emotionally abusive, who gives her reason after reason not to trust him - yet when she meets an old woman who clearly has knowledge of the fae world, knowledge that might help her track down her sister's killer, she choses not to pursue it.

Still, I kept listening, and I know many readers who adore this series - so clearly, while it wasn't my cup of tea, it could well be yours. Moning creates an interesting setting where unseelie forces are poised to break through into the human world at any moment, and there are many intriguing questions raised along the way. Some are answered at the end, but others remain to be explored in further volumes of the series.

Books in the Fever series:
1. Darkfever
2. Bloodfever
3. Faefever
4. Dreamfever
5. Shadowfever (forthcoming)

Darkfever (#1 in the Fever series) by Karen Marie Moning; narrated by Joyce Bean (Brilliance Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: " The foreshadowing sort of hit you over the head with a blunt object and then poked you in the eye to make sure you knew it was there....Don’t get me wrong, I liked Mac a lot and I think the plot is interesting and the writing is decent."
Cubie's Confections: "I fervently hope the rest of the series lives up to the promise of this first book because it truly blew me away- I read it and then downloaded the audiobook because I needed to listen to it too."
Eat. Sleep. Read:  "Moning did a great job of drawing me in right away. Fast paced, witty, suspenseful and completely unpredictable: I couldn't put it down!"
Lissa's Long Yarn: "I tend to like my books to be more self contained. This one felt like it was more of a set up, and full of background information for the rest of the series. So many more questions asked then answered, and I felt like there was very little resolved."
Stacy's Place on Earth: "I got quite a kick out of Mac. She's part Barbie, part fearless spitfire."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Something Wonky This Way Comes

It's always a happy day in my household when I come home from work with a new Mercy Watson book! Even though both my girls are well beyond the reading level of these books, they still love them. Who wouldn't love reading about the antics of Mercy Watson, the porcine wonder, depicted with such bright, humorous illustrations?

Mercy is a happy pig, the surrogate child of Mr. and Mrs. Watson, who firmly believe she is unusually intelligent and perceptive. In reality, Mercy is a sweet and friendly pig who, given any particular situation, typically does what any toast-with-a-great-deal-of-butter-loving pig would do. At the end of the day, she comes off smelling like a rose, and the Watsons are further convinced that she is truly a porcine wonder.

In this installment, Mercy accompanies Mr. and Mrs. Watson to the movies to see a film called When Pigs Fly. Mercy is unimpressed until she hears that the drive-in movie theater serves popcorn with real butter. Then she's as excited as can be. Their elderly next-door neighbors, Eugenia and Baby Lincoln, join them in their convertible, along with some neighborhood children. When they reach the theater, Mercy is entranced by the smell of hot buttered popcorn, and off she goes in search of some, with hilarious results.

Favorite characters from previous books are at the movies, too, including police officer Tomilello, animal control officer Francine Poulet, firemen Ned and Lorenzo, and even Leroy Ninker, the little burglar from Mercy Watson Fights Crime, who has given up his illegal ways and is now working at the popcorn stand. It was bittersweet to see them all, because this is, sadly, the final book in the Mercy Watson series. Although...in a note in the back of the book, Kate DiCamillo does leave room for hope, because saying that is the final book makes her very sad: "I hate writing those words. I hate writing them so much that I might have to write another Mercy Watson book just to cheer myself up." I certainly hope she does!

These are excellent transitional books for growing readers who have mastered the elementary easy readers and are yearning to move on to chapter books. The print is large and bold, the lines spaced neatly apart, and there are colorful illustrations on nearly every page. The stories are equally appealing to boys and girls, and particularly to those who enjoy funny books. Some of the surnames are difficult for new readers to sound out (Tomilello and Leapaleoni, for example), but they are fun to say once you get them down. Even more advanced readers can certainly enjoy a quick Mercy Watson read - I get a grin on my face every time I open one of these books. Mercy Watson is, without a doubt, most definitely a porcine wonder. If you haven't met her yet, I urge you to make her acquaintance without delay!

Books in the Mercy Watson series:
1. Mercy Watson to the Rescue
2. Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride
3. Mercy Watson Fights Crime
4. Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise
5. Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig
6. Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes

Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes (#6 in the Mercy Watson series) by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Back to Books: "Another fine entry, though not our favourite, in the Mercy Watson series, which is perfect reading for kids who are at the age where they can read but are not ready to move away from large print or still want to have colourful pictures."
Creative Literacy: "This book is definitely full of characters, Mercy mischief, lots of buttery foods (Mercy's favorite), new language and vocabulary for transitional readers and lots to talk about."
Toby: "The awesome thing about this book is that all of the characters from the other five books come together for what I believe is the best Mercy Watson adventure ever."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lost at Sea

"Raleigh is eighteen years old, and she has no idea what she's doing. If you've ever been eighteen, or confused, or both, maybe you should read this book."

Yes, and yes! I really couldn't put it better than that blurb from the back of the book.

During the past few months I have had the immense pleasure of reading O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels. This one is an earlier work, and it is more introspective and packs a hefty emotional punch. It also contains the wonderful humor and quirkiness of the Scott Pilgrim series, but is slightly more grounded in reality.

Raleigh is an eighteen-year-old who is on a car trip with three students from her school. She narrates much of the story, sharing her thoughts and feelings with us, often addressing the reader in the second person. Raleigh has been through some sort of emotionally-charged experience, and she isn't quite ready to talk about it yet. So we get bits and pieces as we travel along on her road trip, and slowly, like a the lens of a camera gradually bringing an image into focus, we begin to understand what has happened. Mostly. I had a few questions at the end, but they were good ones, interesting things to ponder and interpret.

O'Malley skillfully captures that sense of isolation that so many of us feel in our teen years, that feeling of being adrift, of not connecting, of having our lives spread out before us but feeling unable to focus sufficiently to see where we are actually going. Or where we want - or need - to go. The artwork accompanies the text beautifully, alternating from dreamlike to whimsical to poignant.
Many thanks to the reviewers below, all of whom teamed up and made me realize that this was a book I absolutely had to read. They were right (but that's certainly not surprising). I'd especially recommend Lost at Sea to those who aren't so sure about this whole graphic novel thing but are thinking of giving one a try and aren't sure where to start, as well as to those who enjoy a not-so-linear story that is thought provoking, not to mention slightly ambiguous. This would be a great choice for a book discussion group, too, as it leaves readers with much to ponder and discuss.

Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
A Book a Week: "...O'Malley has managed to capture that terrifying, confusing, painful, yet unique, tender, and beautiful feeling of growing up and being somewhere between a kid and an adult."
The Book Zombie: "I think that this book carries such a powerful message, that is, no matter how confused or lost we may feel, odds are that the people around us are feeling the same way."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "Of course we all know that we’re not alone in the world, but that’s easy to forget sometimes. When someone else can capture an experience that’s universal, yet so personal like this, it can really make a difference"
Things Mean a Lot: "Lost at Sea is such a lovely book. It’s tender, sad in a quiet sort of way, and occasionally very funny."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Sandman: The Doll's House

This second Sandman collection contains standalone tales as well as a continuation of the story arc that began in the first stories, collected in Preludes and Nocturnes. It opens with"Tales in the Sand," a story set in ancient Africa - or might it be an Africa in the far future? It is a story within a story, told during a warrior's coming of age ceremony, about Sandman (they call him Kai'ckul) and an ancient ruler, and their star-crossed love. I loved the feeling of archetypes at work, the sense of wonder that folktales evoke, as well as the insights the tale offers into the psyche of Dream.

The following stories move into the present, as we see Dream still having to deal with the consequences of his decades-long imprisonment described in the first book. Several of the more nightmarish denizens of his world have escaped into the waking world, where they are wreaking all kind of disturbing and grim havoc, and he must track them down. We also meet more of Dream's siblings, Desire and Despair, who appear to be plotting against him as they contrive to hatch a plan involving a young girl named Rose. Rose is the granddaughter of Unity Kincaid, one of the victims of the sleeping sickness that afflicted people all over the world when Dream was imprisoned. Unity had been raped while she slept, conceived a child and delivered it, all while sleeping. Rose is plagued with unusual, foreboding dreams, and her sense of isolation and confusion only increases when she is sent off on her own to track down her missing younger brother.

I very much enjoyed the first Sandman collection, and this one packs an even more powerful punch. The stories are dark and dreamlike yet have a sharp, realistic and often disturbing edge to them. I love the standalone stories, and the fact that the nature of Dream and the Endless make it perfectly natural to have tales set in the Middle Ages as well as modern times, to weave back and forth through time and geographical location as the stories dictate. I love the sense of mythology, the different styles of artwork that lend themselves so well to the telling of each particular story, and the emotional impact of the tales. The collection is a fascinating combination of fantasy and horror, the kind of fantasy that surprises and delights, and the kind of horror that crawls under your skin and makes you shudder. It's horribly delightful!

This second collection includes:
1. "Tales in the Sand"
2. "The Doll's House"
3. "Moving In"
4. "Playing House"
5. "Men of Good Fortune"
6. "Collectors"
7. "Into the Night"
8. "Lost Hearts."

Books in the Sandman series:
1. Preludes & Nocturnes (collects The Sandman #1-8)
2. The Doll's House (collects The Sandman #9-16)
3. Dream Country (collects The Sandman #17-20)
4. Season of Mists (collects The Sandman #21-28)

5. A Game of You (collects The Sandman #32-37)
6. Fables and Reflections (collects The Sandman #29- 1, #38-40, #50, Sandman Special #1 and Vertigo Preview #1)
7. Brief Lives (collects The Sandman #41-49)
8. World's End (collects The Sandman #51- 56)9. The Kindly Ones (collects The Sandman #57-69)
10. The Wake (collects The Sandman #70-75)


The Sandman: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, and Steve Parkhouse (DC Comics, 1995, 1990)

Also reviewed at:
Once Upon a Bookshelf: "Okay, yeah, I totally enjoyed this one more than the first. Loved the story of the whole collection, but especially the prologue at the beginning – the folk-tale like story that tells of the woman and the Dream Lord falling in love."
Rhinoa's Ramblings: "Gripping and deeply disturbing, it introduces some more of Dream's family and explains more of their role in our realm. They are not supposed to manipulate humans, it is the other way around but some seem to forget this."
Stephanie's Confessions of a Book-a-Holic: "Gaiman looks at the blackest side of the human heart in The Doll's House. He truly has a gift of insight into the human psyche. And he knows what makes people scared....But it is also a fantastic read!!"

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bitten to Death

This fourth installment of the action-packed Jaz Parks series sees Jaz traveling to the Greek town of Patras and learning a whole lot more about vampires - including details about her partner Vayl's mysterious past. Vayl had once been a member of the vampire Trust in Patros, although he left years earlier - something nearly unheard of in the vampire world. The only other vampire who has left a Trust is Edward Samos, the criminal mastermind Jaz and her team of CIA operatives have been trying unsuccessfully to terminate during the course of this series.

In Greece, Jaz and her small team of three must find a way to work with the highly suspicious, resentful, and (a few) apparently psychotic vampires in order to set a trap for Samos. Vayl's past relationship with the vampires has ramifications that Jaz does not at first comprehend. It is a political and social quagmire, complicated by wounded werewolves and cursed artifacts - not to mention the creepy visions in blood that begin to plague Jaz whenever anyone is wounded.

This series is up on my list of favorites these days, for several reasons. First of all, the characters are interesting and complicated, and their complexity stems directly from their past experiences, giving them solid motives for their actions. They grow and change from book to book as a result of the events they experience. Second, there are lots of surprises along the way. As the plot unfolds, I start to think I know where things are going, but invariably there is a twist in a new and surprising direction. Rardin is not afraid to take risks with characters, and she wraps up some major story arcs in this one, while still leaving plenty of intriguing questions and issues to explore in future novels.

Jaz is an engaging heroine, strong and smart, definitely tough, but not unbelievably so. She has her fears and vulnerabilities, and it is fascinating to see her work through (and around) them. One of my favorite things about her is that in times of stress she talks inside her head with her dead grandmother, who is always doing something entertaining, like playing poker with dead celebrities. During one tense moment when Jaz is about to die a fiery death and is wracking her brains for a way to save herself:
Well, you'd better figure it out, said Granny May. Now why, facing death as I was, would I imagine her and Jimmy Durante playing croquet? Hush up and concentrate! she snapped. Because all of us imaginary characters in here don't relish the idea of roasting! This comment was followed by a chorus of hell yeahs from the rest of the cast, who'd gathered in lawn chairs at the edge of the yard. They seemed to be slugging beers and vodka tonics in equal doses in preparation for the big finale.

Great. I can't even experience a moment of sanity at my death.
This quirkiness and humor amidst some very dark scenes is, I think, my favorite characteristic of this series. Now I'm starting to get a little bit anxious because I only have one more published book in this series to go, and then I'll be in waiting limbo. I recommend these books to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy with tight, action-packed plots, memorable characters, and a touch of romance and humor.

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

Bitten to Death (#4 in the Jaz Parks series) by Jennifer Rardin (Orbit, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review: "She’s not afraid to bring plot lines to a close so it’s almost like you get two explosive endings for the price of one book! ...Rardin gives us a little more of a glimpse into the tortured psyche of Jaz Parks (always interesting) and carves out new and intriguing directions for future books to head in."
Love Vampires: "The action in Bitten To Death is non-stop as Jennifer Rardin delivers another fantasy/spy caper fuelled with high octane fantasy thrills and sharp wit."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Scarlet Moon

This retelling of the red riding hood story is perhaps better suited for the Once Upon a Time challenge than the current R.I.P Challenge, but it does have werewolves in it, and the woods are creepily evocative, so I'm making it an official R.I.P. IV challenge read.

Ruth is a survivor of a wolf attack, a terrifying incident that took place when she was a child walking in the woods with her older brother. Shortly afterward, her brother and cousin both leave for the holy land, called to fight with the Duke in the Crusades. In their absence Ruth grows up to become her father's right hand in the blacksmith's shop, despite the disapproval of some of the townsfolk. She is wary of the woods after her experience, but her grandmother lives there, having been exiled from the village on suspicion of witchcraft, and Ruth must travel through the woods in order to visit her.

Years pass without news of her brother and cousin. One day while working at the forge, she encounters a nobleman who is captivated by her strength and honesty. It seems like a fairytale that he should be interested in her - and she in him - but then a series of wolf attacks occurs at the village, and it seems everyone is hiding secrets...

This is a very short, sweet story with romance and an eerie atmosphere. I enjoyed the historical setting as well as the characters. Lucy is thoughtful and strong, and she values herself. Her father is a kind man, but he keeps to himself and is not one to discuss emotions, so it is lucky she has her grandmother to speak with. I particularly enjoyed this exchange between Lucy and her grandmother, as Lucy is trying to come to terms with her feelings for the dashing Earl of Lauton. Lucy admits to being frightened, and her grandmother asks her,
"Of what, dear?"
"Losing myself. When I look into his eyes I feel as though I am drowning, and I become terrified. What if he does have feelings for me? What if he even wants to marry me? All I've ever known is fire and steel, and I don't know how I'd give that up. I don't know who I'd be without them."
And the grandmother, who is a wise woman in more than one sense, tells her that it's not what Lucy does that dictates who she is. She goes on to say:
"I loved your grandfather, and we were very different people. In loving him, though, and marrying him, I didn't lose myself. Rather I gained something I had long been in want of. Love makes you more than what you are, not less. Besides, if you're worried that you'll miss 'fire and steel,' you needn't. The fire and steel are in you - they always have been."
I appreciated that discussion, particularly in a teen novel amidst so many that are of the "you complete me" and "I'm nothing without you" romantic philosophy (you know who you are).

I found the ending of the book to be a bit rushed, and things tied themselves up so quickly and neatly that it felt slightly disappointing. Still, this is an atmospheric, romantic tale with a dash of horror that will appeal to fans of fairytale retellings, fantasy, werewolves, romance, and historical fiction.

Scarlet Moon by Debbie ViguiƩ (Simon Pulse, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Book Minx: "The best part of the story for me was probably Viguie’s descriptions of the forest and the atmosphere she created there. It was also great having the heroine not a dependent little snot prancing around the woods."
The Book Stacks: "This series has been especially popular with teens in my library, as indeed most fairy tale retellings have been lately."

Friday, September 4, 2009

Kitty and the Silver Bullet

There are series that I enjoy, series I can take or leave, and series that have me tapping my foot impatiently, waiting for the next installment to be published. As I think about my favorites, it occurs to me that the ones that I love most not only have exciting, surprising, twisty plots and occasional bursts of humor; they have characters that are complex and believable (usually a strong, intelligent female protagonist with integrity), and these characters change and grow from book to book in an interesting, believable way.

Kitty is one of those heroines. I've read some reviews of the first book in this series, Kitty in the Midnight Hour, that complain that she is too wimpy and submissive. Well, yeah, she's submissive - she's at the bottom, dominance-wise, of her werewolf pack, which is led by a controlling pair of alphas. But... but...Kitty finds things in her life that have nothing to do with being a werewolf (such as her increasingly popular radio show), and she slowly gains confidence in herself, which gives her the courage to fight for her independence. Aside from the taut pacing and intriguing plot lines, my main enjoyment in this series has been watching Kitty grow and change. Too often the "kickass" heroines in this genre spring forth, armor clad and ready to fight from the get-go. Here we witness the evolution as it is happening.

In this fourth book of the series, Kitty finds herself in the position of having to return to her home city of Denver - a place she has been avoiding because of certain events from the first book. Once there, Kitty finds herself facing a personal family health crisis, as well as a political crisis that involves her old werewolf pack and the vampires of her city. Kitty vows to remain uninvolved, to keep out of the political turmoil, mind her own business, not make any waves. But when a young, abused werewolf appeals to her for help, Kitty finds she cannot stand back and allow the abuse to continue. Kitty has some tough choices to make in this novel, but this time she has friends - and her own pack of two - at her side. Still, it isn't long before she realizes she is in way over her head.

I enjoyed this installment in the Kitty Norville series very much. Once again, thanks to Joanne of The Book Zombie, whose generous giveaway netted me all the books in this series! It gives me a little thrill of delight to have the remaining books sitting patiently on my bookshelf, waiting for me. There are only two left, so we'll see how long I can hold out before snatching up the next one!

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


Kitty and the Silver Bullet (#4 in the Kitty Norville series) by Carrie Vaughn (Grand Central Publishing, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog: "There’s an enormous battle, but the main strengths of the story: the characters and the humour continue to shine through."
Sam's Book Blog: "I am happy to say that I have yet to not like a Kitty book and of course this one doesn't disappoint."
The Symposium: "Aside from the chance to get a better understanding for the structure of the vampire’s lives in Kitty’s world, I was pleased to see that there was a great deal of character growth in this book..."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mort

Gangling, earnest Mort is not a likely candidate for any of the professionals who show up to choose apprentices at the Discworld's version of a job fair. His father isn't surprised when his son is the last person remaining - but then Mort watches in astonishment as a living skeleton appears, riding an enormous horse (whose name, he later discovers, is Binky). It is Death, and Mort agrees (after ascertaining that being dead is not a requirement) to become his apprentice.


After a few understandable misunderstandings, Mort learns all about the trade. He doesn't necessarily like what he hears as far as it all works, though. THERE IS NO JUSTICE, Death tells him. THERE IS ONLY ME. That's hard to live with for someone like Mort, and even though he knows that their job is to usher souls on to the afterlife, he can't help shouting out warnings when people are about to be killed. And when he's sent out on his own to do the job, and the person about to die is a particularly lovely princess Mort had already been admiring, he can't help but wonder what harm there would be if he interfered and prevented her assassination. He's about to find out...

I am having such fun with my reread of the Discworld series. They really do keep getting better and better. The writing is wonderful, evocative and humorous - take this description of the city of Ankh-Morpork:
Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it's the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it's just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let's just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.
The characters are delightful. It is fun to watch Mort coming of age amidst all the chaotic events of the novel, and Death himself has a thing or two to learn along the way. There are surprising turns of events, appearances of characters from previous books in the series, and a sweet and funny romance. And there is substance beneath the humor, as the novel examines what it means to be human, how death influences the living, and how our beliefs shape our destinies. The books in this series are so clever and deftly written, with such memorable and compelling characters, that as I finish each one, I'm already planning to reread it some day.


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


Mort (#4 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett (Corgi Books, 1987)

Also reviewed at:
Just Add Books: "It’s a fast, funny ride through the Discworld, and the afterlife..."
Just One More Page: "I love any book where Death himself is a character, but I think that Terry Pratchett’s Death is coming to be my favourite (maybe he and the others I love can battle it out) and as such, this is my favourite Discworld novel to date."
The Wertzone: "But it's the serious thinking about life and the place of people within it that makes Mort stand out a little bit more than some of the other early books."