Monday, November 30, 2009

Reading Challenge Wrap-Ups

I have really been enjoying the few (compared to most book bloggers) reading challenges I've done this past year, but I have to say, I've been terrible about doing wrap-up posts. So here are the challenges I've completed so far this year:

It almost felt like cheating to join this challenge, offered by Challenge Maven J.K. at J. Kaye's Book Blog, but I could not resist. I stopped counting at twelve, though - and here is what I read:

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
The Death Collector by Justin Richards
The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
Rogue's Home by Hilari Bell
Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce
The Circle of Blood by Alane Ferguson
The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer
Beyond the Deepwoods by Stewart & Riddell
Bewitching Season by Marissa Doyle
Boneyard, Volume 1 by Richard Moore
3 Willows by Ann Brashares
The Riddle by Allison Croggon

If I had to pick favorites, I think I'd have to choose Flora Segunda (a reread) and The Riddle, but I honestly enjoyed them all.

This is another fun challenge hosted by J.K, and again, I stopped listing them once I reached the challenge goal of twelve books. There is no doubt that I am a series junkie, and it's always fun to try a new one on for size. Here are the books I read:

Dead Is the New Black by Marlene Perez
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Dramacon, Vol. 1 by Svetlana Chmakova
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon
Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
Moving Day by Meg Cabot
Once Bitten, Twice Shy by Jennifer Rardin
School Spirit by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
The Ghost and Mrs. McClure by Alice Kimberly
The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

My absolute favorite from this challenge is Graceling, but the Carrie Vaughn, Jennifer Rardin and Ilona Andrews are now among my favorite adult paranormal/fantasy series, and I adore the children's series by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel as well. Dead Until Dark was a reread, and I've been enjoying moving through that series, too. I have to say that I did enjoy all of these books, and if J.K. offers this challenge again next year, I will certainly do it again!


Last, but certainly not least, is Carl's wonderful R.I.P. IV challenge, which I always enjoy immensely and has become one of the seasonal milestones of my reading year. This year I imbibed:

As Shadows Fade by Colleen Gleason
Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender
Club Dead by Charlaine Harris
Harper, Suzanne - The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney
Ibbotson, Eva - The Haunting of Granite Falls
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Need by Carrie Jones
Scarlet Moon by Debbie Viguie
Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones by Derek Landy
The Ghost in the Machine by Patrick Carman
The Ghost in the Swing by Jannet Patton Smith
The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman: The Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

Favorites for this challenge include the Sandman books, my childhood favorite (and best of all, sharing it with my children), The Ghost in the Swing, and The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney. But again, I enjoyed them all!

My Man Jeeves

This short story collection includes some of the earliest appearances of the brilliant Jeeves, the most famous valet in English literature. I have been reading through the novels featuring Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, but thought it would be fun to take a break and listen to some short stories for a change. These stories very much lend themselves to being read aloud, and while some narrators are better than others, they are always smart and funny tales.

This collection contains four stories featuring Bertie and Jeeves, and they are all set in New York City, which was a fun change from the others I've read. Bertie is on an extended visit there and, as always, complex and ridiculous problems arise, requiring Jeeves' intellectual prowess to solve them.

"Leave it to Jeeves" features a friend of Bertie's, who is an artist. This friend's uncle commissions him to paint a portrait, the subject of which is a baby who has replaced the artist as heir to a considerable fortune. The portrait, when it is finally finished, is not quite what the uncle had in mind. When the uncle sees it, the artist is sure to lose every last penny of his allowance - but luckily there is Jeeves to help sort everything out. Other problems Bertie faces include an unwanted guest for whom he must assume responsibility and a friend with an uncle who is a "hard-boiled egg" - so opinionated and stubborn that even Jeeves might not be able to crack him.

There are also four stories featuring another English gentleman named Reggie Pepper, similar in tone and humor to the Jeeves tales, and very entertaining as well. I did prefer those featuring Jeeves, however, because his presence always takes the stories up a notch. So much of the humor from the Jeeves stories comes from the voice of Bertie, the narrator, who is so very clueless that the reader is able to understand certain things that fly right over his head. He is often taken by a whim that gives him the always unfortunate idea to go against Jeeves' wishes, such as insisting on wearing a particularly fashionable (to him) but repugnant (to Jeeves) tie, or growing a moustache. It is clear that things will end badly for Bertie, and it is such fun to watch the consequences unfold.

Project Gutenburg offers a free copy of this work for you to read. Enjoy!

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse; narrated by Simon Prebble (Blackstone Audio, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Book Psmith: "This is an interesting collection in that the majority of these stories are reworked and published later in other collections.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sourcery

This installment in the Discworld series returns its attention to Rincewind, the wizard/reluctant hero of the first two books of the series. The book opens with a scene in which a disgruntled wizard, the eighth son of an eighth son, who left Unseen University in a huff because he did not wish to follow the Lore of Magic, which dictates that magicians remain celibate. Instead, he fell in love and married, and in turn he had children. His eighth child, was, of course, a son - and as everyone on the Discworld knows, the eighth son of an eighth son is a "wizard squared. A source of magic. A Sourcerer."

The father of this child, in the opening scene, manages to thwart death by transferring his spirit to a wizard's staff - the staff that his son, the sourcerer, will wield. The wizard is determined that his son will grow up to humiliate all the useless wizards at Unseen University who ridiculed him and turned him out. His son will have enormous power, and all the wizards will bow down to him, and he will rule the world. YOU'RE ONLY PUTTING OFF THE INEVITABLE, says Death in his voice that is "as hollow as a cave, as dense as a neutron star."

Death is patient - he knows he has only to wait. But in the meantime, the sourcerer is growing up under the baneful influence of the staff, and when he shows up at Unseen University years later, Rincewind is the Discworld's only hope for saving them all. And to look at Rincewind, who's never actually successfully used a spell, ever, even though his hat does bear the word "Wizzard" on it, it doesn't seem as though he's going to be a whole lot of help.

It was fun to see Rincewind again - I thought we'd left him behind - and to spend some time in the company of his magical luggage, a trunk made of sapient pearwood that has hundreds of little feet that transport it wherever its master goes. And also I loved seeing my favorite librarian again - the Unseen University librarian, who was transformed into an orangutan during an earlier adventure, and he won't allow the wizards to change him back. I loved the way he acted to protect his beloved books.

The story is full of Pratchett's usual witty humor and memorable characters, and although I can't say this one was my favorite in the series so far, it is still always such a pleasure to enter Pratchett's fantastical worlds, not to mention a delight to experience his masterful use of language. I also enjoy seeing how much fun he has poking affectionate fun at the many cliches that abound in fantasy fiction.

Here are a couple of my favorite, non-spoilery passages, in the hope that those of you who haven't done so yet will be inspired to give his books a try.

Nijel was one of those people who, if you say, "don't look now", would
immediately swivel his head like an owl on a turntable. These are the same
people who, when you point out, say, an unusual crocus just beside them, turn
around aimlessly and put their foot down with a sad little squashy noise. If
they were lost in a trackless desert you could find them by putting down,
somewhere on the sand, something small and fragile like a valuable old mug that
had been in your family for generations, and then hurrying back as soon as you
heard the crash.


* * *
Rincewind was used to the dressy ways of wizards, but this one was really impressive, his robe so padded and crenellated and buttressed in fantastic folds and creases that it had probably been designed by an architect. The matching hat looked like a wedding cake that had collided intimately with a Christmas tree.

The actual face, peering through the small gap between the baroque collar and the filigreed fringe of the brim, was a bit of a disappointment. At some time in the past it had thought its appearance would be improved by a thin, scruffy moustache. It had been wrong.

Books in the Disworld 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
33. Unseen Academicals

Sourcery (#5 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett (Signet, 1989)

Also reviewed at:
A Book a Week: "But what did I love? The Librarian. The books. I don't want to give too much away, but the Librarian was almost my favourite character, intelligent, quick thinking, and surprisingly sympathetic for an orangutan."
5-Squared: "This was kind of a "transition" book for Pratchett- the tone is just a tad bit more serious than his earlier works, and the book loosely examines the themes of Power, Ambition, and Self-Sacrifice. With time, Pratchett's Discworld books get longer, a smidgen less zany, and a dab more insightful as his writing style evolves."
Just a Weblog: "Overall the book is fairly decent, but I feel that I've probably read too many of his books too quickly or something, because I just wasn't pulled into the story one bit."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sir Thursday

This is the fourth installment in the children's fantasy/adventure series Keys to the Kingdom, in which twelve-year-old Arthur Penhaligon becomes the unwilling rightful Heir to the keys of the kingdom. These keys are found in the House, which is the second creation of the Architect who created the universe, and its role is to record the events that take place in the Secondary Realms. When the Architect left, she left a Will in her place to carry out her wishes. But the Trustees, called the Morrow Days (one named for each day of the week, divided up the Will into seven parts, weakening it so they could pursue their own ends.

When Arthur is brought into the picture in the first book, he is not thrilled about his new role. He just wants to live a normal life with his family, but now all the Morrow Days are trying to remove him from the picture any way they can. So far he has come up against Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday and Drowned Wednesday, and while Arthur just wants to go home, each successive Morrow Day seems determined to attack him. The opening of this book finds an identical version of Arthur, created from Nothing, sent into Arthur's world. Arthur cannot go home now - the presence of the two of them in the Secondary Realms could rip apart the fabric of the universe. Arthur's friend Leaf agrees to go back to try to neutralize his double, known as the Skinless Boy. Her mission is incredibly dangerous, because if the boy manages to touch her, he will transmit a kind of mold spore that will infect her brain, enabling him to experience and control her thoughts.

Meanwhile, Arthur is tricked into being drafted into the army, and he has no choice but to join as a recruit. He faces dangers there, as well, and worst of all he is completely on his own. The Nithlings that have invaded are like nothing anyone has seen before in the House, and the army is up against a force much more powerful and unified than they could have imagined. To add to Arthur's troubles, it seems that the more he uses magic in the House, the more he is becoming a Denizen - a being who will eventually be unable to leave the House - and see his family again.

This book got off to a rather slow start, but once it got rolling it was very exciting and, I think, is one of my favorites so far. I enjoyed the sections from Leaf's point of view, getting to know her better, and Arthur grows up a bit in this book. He is still upset about his responsibilities as the rightful Heir, but he is coming to understand their importance.

The series is exciting and full of fantastical adventures that fans of books such Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the Unfortunate Events would be sure to enjoy. I particularly appreciate the mythological elements of the series. Kids won't need to understand that each of the Morrow Days represents one of the seven deadly sins (in this one Sir Thursday is definitely wrath), nor that each part of the Will represents a virtue (prudence, temperance, faith, hope, etc.) in order to enjoy the books, but the symbolism adds resonance either way. I was also reminded of Joseph Campbell's books about heroes, as Arthur's journey is the prototypical hero's path. Aside from the symbolism, the books are so creative and offer settings full of fantastical imagery that create a constant sense of wonder.

The book ends with a teaser glimpse of Arthur's next foe, Lady Friday, and it appears she will be a most wily and sinister opponent. The audio versions are an excellent way to experience these books, and the narrator, Allan Corduner, is a skillful storyteller, giving each character a unique voice.

Books in the Keys to the Kingdom series:
1. Mister Monday
3. Drowned Wednesday
4. Sir Thursday
5. Lady Friday
6. Superior Saturday
7. Lord Sunday (forthcoming March 2010)

Sir Thursday (#4 in the Keys to the Kingdom Series) by Garth Nix; narrated by Allan Corduner (Listening Library, 2007)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kith: The Good Neighbors, Book Two

I was excited to see this second installment in writer Holly Black and illustrator Ted Naifeh's collaborative Good Neighbors teen graphic novel series. The first volume, Kin, was an intriguing start to the series, and I've been wondering what was going to happen to Rue, our heroine, who discovered some disturbing truths about her life in the first book.

I have to mention how delighted I was to open this book and find a one-page synopsis titled "What Has Come Before." It gives a summary of the first book, which I appreciated because with all the books I read, a refresher comes in handy and gives me a framework for the current story. Thank you, Holly Black!

At any rate, the story picks up where the first book left off. At the end of the first book, Rue discovers that her mother is not, in fact, dead, and that the body that had been buried in her grave is just a mass of twigs and leaves. She travels to faerie to confront her mother, only to discover that her grandfather has some disturbing plans for her hometown, plans that will change it irrevocably. However, it seems that even without her grandfather's nefarious plans hanging over her head, Rue's world has already changed. Her friends are behaving strangely, her boyfriend in particular, and her father is someone she hardly recognizes. She learns, also, that the land of faerie is not without its own insidious temptations. Rue's half human, half faerie heritage pulls her in two different directions, and Rue will need to be strong in order to prevent herself from being pulled apart.

The first book in this series set the stage and introduced the characters. This second book sees events swing into full motion. Rue is having a difficult time of it all around, and her struggles make for a compelling tale. Naifeh's stark and shadowy black-and-white illustrations combine perfectly with the text to create an atmospheric depiction of the story. Once again, the book ends at a crucial moment in Rue's life, leaving me waiting impatiently for the next installment in the series.

Books in The Good Neighbors series:
1. Kin
2. Kith

Kith
(#2 in The Good Neighbors series) by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh (Graphix, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Books Gardens & Dogs: "If you have never thought about reading a graphic novel, think again. The story is very captivating, although I do recommend that you start with Kin, the first book in the series."
Book Reviews and More: "The story that started strong and compelling in book one, becomes even better in this follow-up story. The characters are enticing and draw the readers in, and the artwork is incredible."
The Ninja Librarian: "
Its a quick book, but it's chock full of interesting twists and turns. The art is always cool as well - seems very much like a sketchbook of ink drawings."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fire

I was so excited when this book came in for me at the library, but I found myself a little reluctant to pick it up after I'd brought it home. I loved Cashore's first book, Graceling, and I was a little bit worried that my expectations for this second one might be a little too high. Also, I had learned that this book is a prequel and does not feature any of the characters I'd come to adore in the first novel. I am happy to say that my worries were completely unfounded.

This fantasy novel is set in the same world as Graceling, quite a few years before that story takes place; and with one notable exception, the characters are completely different. The setting is the Dells, a country on the edge of the impassable mountains that separate it from Katsa's Seven Kingdoms. The Dells are beset by peculiar creatures called, simply, monsters. They are dangerous because they possess a mesmerizing beauty that bespells people, leaving them at their mercy - and many of the monsters are carnivorous. Some are relatively harmless, thought, and some are human in appearance and able to produce offspring with humans.

Fire, our heroine, is one such being. Her father was a monster, a glorious one, companion to a king, and he nearly destroyed the kingdom with his sociopathic, self-serving ways. Her mother was human, but as Fire was taken from her as an infant and raised far from the castle, she never knew her. Having witnessed firsthand the damage that her powerful father wrought, Fire is unwilling to use her powers, which enable her to control people's minds and read their thoughts. Humans find her irresistible, particularly when they see her glorious, fire-red hair, which she tends to keep covered in order to minimize her impact on them.


The Dells are beset by political upheaval, which eventually reaches Fire's remote home in the form of mysterious assassination attempts. She agrees to travel to the capital with the inscrutable Prince Brigan, angeringher childhood friend and sometime lover Archer, who knows she will be in even more danger there. The royal family wishes her to use her talents to obtain intelligence from prisoners - but that goes against everything she believes, and she fears the doing so will make her become like her father. As she grows to understand the political situation and to care about the royal family, she comes to realize exactly how important her abilities are, and that her talents might help the kingdom avoid a bloody civil war.

It is safe to say that I loved this one every bit as much as the first. I was immediately drawn into the story and came to care a great deal about Fire and her companions, as well as the fate of the Dells. Cashore is brilliant with her characterization - she creates real, believable, lovable (and hate-able) characters that I become very attached to. The pacing is tight, the plot complex, and Cashore is amazingly skillful at creating not just a good romance, with just-right romantic tension, but characters who are clearly so very perfect for each other that the reader has no choice but to root for them every step of the way.

I'm very much looking forward to the next installment in this magical series, Bitterblue, which is currently in progress and will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers. Cashore has a wonderful blog and website, too - be sure to check them out for more information on her books, her writing process, and all kinds of other interesting things.

Books in the Graceling series:
1. Graceling
2. Fire


Fire
(#2 in the Graceling series)
by Kristin Cashore (Dial Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Angieville: "This book made short work of me. There was just so much hope inside me wrapped around how good it would be and when it turned out to be approximately ten times better than all that wrapped up hope....well....I was a goner."
At Home with Books: "Fortunately, once I got used to the idea of this book being almost entirely unrelated to Graceling, I was already captivated by the story of Fire, her life, and her desire to rise above the legacy of her evil father."
The Book Nest: "An excellent fantasy, full of all the good stuff: magical creatures, magical abilities, battles with handsome soldiers and enough of a gray area between "right" and "wrong" to keep it from being trite."
Em's Bookshelf: "Cashore deftly blends heart stopping action with multi-faceted characters and the result is some of the best fantasy being written today."
Sleep. Eat. Read:  "Cashore's writing, for me, is the perfect balance between plot and character driven. Fire is both lovely and heart wrenching at times, but always captivating."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Hotel Under the Sand

I've long been a fan of Kage Baker's science-fictional time-traveling cyborg series for adults, the Company novels. So when I heard she'd written a book for younger readers, I was excited to read it. This one is a fantasy story with an atmosphere of magical realism and elements reminiscent of traditional tall tales.

The story opens with a young girl named Emma. She is the sole survivor of a storm that has taken away absolutely everything - her family, her house, everything she owns except the clothing she wears. She fights for survival and ends up on the shore of a deserted, sandy island called, simply, the Dunes. Emma shows admirable grit and determination, as despite her intense sense of isolation and loss, she focuses on doing what she must in order to survive. We as readers do not witness the storm or ever hear details of the extent of her loss; it is left for the reader to imagine.

Her very first night on the island, she encounters a ghost - but he's such a nice, polite ghost that she finds it impossible to fear him. His name is Winston, and he tells her an incredible tale about a fancy hotel that had been built right there in the Dunes, an amazing hotel that, before it could even open, was struck by the Storm of the Equinox and buried completely under the sand many years ago. Unfortunately Winston, the Bell Captain, died in the storm, and his ghost remains in the Dunes, unable to leave his beloved hotel.

When Emma realizes the Dunes are about to be hit by another Storm of the Equinox, her fast thinking to save herself has the accidental benefit of uncovering the hotel. Her adventures that follow involve a mysterious treasure hunt, pirates,a friendly dog, a cook with an eye patch, a rather bratty orphan and the appearance of some highly unusual hotel guests.
The story has an old-fashioned feeling to it, and while many interesting and exciting things happen, there is also a quietness to the book that I found to be refreshing as well as captivating. I read this aloud to my 8- and 10-year-old daughters, and they enjoyed it thoroughly. It's an odd, sweet, unpredictable book with characters we grew to care about, particularly Emma, who is a plucky, resourceful girl. She carries on admirably despite the terrible loss she has suffered and makes a place for herself in the world. The lovely illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, effectively conveying its tone and atmosphere. The Hotel Under the Sand is touching, exciting, and funny, and we were all sorry when it ended.

The Hotel under the Sand by Kage Baker; illustrated by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law (Tachyon Publications, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Charlotte's Library: "If you like slightly old-fashioned feeling stories, far removed from reality, with brave girls overcoming calamity, wondrous hotels and very strange hotel guests, and if you don't require lots of Dramatic Action Packed Adventure, and are able to tolerate a bit of pirate, you will probably like The Hotel Under the Sand a lot."
The Fantasy Book Critic: " The younger kids will have a great time exploring and learning, and Baker does a great job of writing at a level that most kids will understand and love, and not feel talked down to. While older readers, will find a charming and very heart grabbing story with this book, and also a very quick satisfying read"

Friday, November 20, 2009

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Let me begin by saying that I love food. Eating it, cooking it, talking about it - it's all good. So it stands to reason I'd be pretty fascinated by a book like this, even though much of it I already knew and agreed with. Still, I learned a lot as I read, and I found reading it to be a surprisingly emotional experience (but then again, I really like food, so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised).

Basically the book talks about the history of food in America, and how we as a society have gone from eating our traditional foods from our various cultural backgrounds to eating a diet that, for many of us, is made up of things that, when you think about it, can't really be called food at all. They are a concoction of broken-down nutrients, artificial colors and flavors, and unpronounceable chemicals. Our own government, under the thumb of major players from the food industry, has allowed them to remove the once required "artificial" label from their products, and people are confused about what to eat because of so much conflicting advice from "experts." Don't eat butter, eat margarine. Wait, no, don't eat margarine - it turns out partially hydrogenated oils are way worse for you than butter ever was! And that fat we told you to avoid? Looks like there's no connection between saturated fats and heart disease after all...

So what is a poor eater to do? After discussing the food industry, its history, and "nutritionism," as well as the way our agricultural methods are harming the earth and rendering our food less nutritious than it was fifty years ago, Pollan offers some simple tips about what to eat and why. For example, it turns out that organic produce actually contains more nutrients than commercially grown produce. Some of his tips are kind of funny, but sad at the same time - like don't eat food that doesn't rot. Has anyone else seen the footage from the extras in Supersize Me, in which the filmmakers take various kinds of food and put them in glass canisters to see how long it takes them to rot? The restaurant hamburger was pretty nasty in a few days, but that McDonald's burger took much longer to start decomposing - and the fries still looked pretty fresh after over a month! Ick. I wonder how long it would take an Oreo to start to rot? A Ritz cracker? A Dorito?

The book takes a fascinating look at American culture and food, and Pollan examines questions such as why do Americans obsess so much about their food yet are still, as a whole, so overweight - not to mention unhealthy? Why do Americans consume so many more calories than other cultures? It was particularly disturbing to hear about children seen in health clinics who are overweight yet malnourished.

I feel so grateful for the years I spent in Italy, because not only did I learn a beautiful language and get to know an amazing country and some wonderful people, but I was introduced to a way of eating that I brought back home with me when I returned almost a decade later. Before I lived in Italy, I had no idea which foods were ripe in any particular season. At the supermarket in America, I could always find oranges and berries and squash, no matter the season. I loved my corner fruit and vegetable shop in Bologna. They were always a bit amused by ignorance, but they were happy to tell me all about anything I wanted to know - how to prepare certain vegetables, what herbs went with which dish (and they usually threw those in for free). And the flavor of that produce was unforgettable. I remember when the cherries came ripe, I was there almost every day to buy a huge bag of them - I'd never tasted anything like it. Then there was the fresh bread at the bakery around the corner - and don't even get me started about the cheese....

In Italy, I learned not just how to prepare food, but I learned how rewarding time spent in the kitchen can be - not just to the palate, but to the spirit. Time spent with good food - and wine - in the company of friends is time well spent, in my book. The memory of those meals and that amazing produce is what has spurred me on to prowl through farmers markets when I returned to America, where I search for the perfect ingredients, the ones to build a delicious meal around.

So Pollan's advice to buy locally, stick to the perimeter of the supermarket, to avoid food with health claims, to spend more, if possible, for quality food, was really preaching to the choir. But this was still an inspiring, fascinating book, and it's been fun to share what I learned with my children (who are, admittedly, less than thrilled these days when they ask me to buy a particular a snack food, and I ask them, "How many ingredients are in that?"). Pollan suggests no more than five - if there are more, be suspicious that it's not actually food.

At any rate, I listened to the audio version of this one, and I thought it was fascinating. It might be a bit too detailed for anyone who is not as interested in health and nutrition research as I am, particularly with the audio version, which is more difficult to skim. It is an important book, though, and it should be required reading in high school science classes, to make kids think about their own assumptions about food. Pollan mentions that the kind of people who take vitamins are generally healthier than those who don't, but it is likely not the vitamins that are making them healthier - it might just be the fact that they are focusing on taking care of themselves. The same might be said about this book - those who most need the information contained in its pages are probably not nearly as likely to pick it up, and that is unfortunate.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan; narrated by Scott Brick (Books on Tape, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Books I Done Read: "Michael Pollan makes sense of complicated things. Well, maybe he isn't making sense, but he's simplifying things enough that I feel like I get it."
DogEar Diary: "The strongest impression I came away with after reading this book was: less is more (you feel more satiated eating better quality food), and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (additives will never make up for what processing has removed from foods)."
Shelf Love: "Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I did Pollan’s previous book. There was some fascinating information about why nutrition research tells us to avoid fat one year and carbs the next. But there was more information here than I wanted."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

So this is what a total book geek I am...

I'm a little worried about even writing this post, because this is a bit embarrassing. I guess I'm hoping I'm not the only one out there who thinks like this...

Do you ever see people - I mean, actual, real-life people - and immediately you get the feeling they have stepped from the pages of a book by a particular author? There is a beautiful young woman who works at a sandwich shop near my house. Every time I see her can't help but thing she looks exactly like a protagonist from an Isabel Allende novel. I'd take her picture and post it here for your input, but like I said, she's an actual real person and might find that a tiny bit invasive of her privacy.

And then there's this tall, handsome young man with a sensitive, broody look to him, who works at a restaurant I sometimes go to. The moment I saw him, I thought Charles de Lint. Not the writer, but definitely one of his characters. And there's a lovely little girl who comes into my library from time to time. Her hair is in two long, shiny inky braids, and she has wide dark eyes that see right through you, and I can't help but think she might have stepped from the pages of an as-yet unwritten Neil Gaiman novel.

I could go on, but I imagine that most of you are quietly backing away, shaking your heads. I suppose I can count myself lucky that I haven't seen anyone who looks remotely Clive Barkerish lately....

The above image is from the Neiman Marcus Pop-Up Book

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

Mary lives in a remote, fenced-in village in the middle of a forest they call the Forest of Hands and Teeth. The fences keep out the Unconsecrated: flesh-eating humans infected with a highly contagious virus (the word "zombie" is never mentioned in the book, but that is clearly what they are). The Sisterhood are the only form of government the village has; they are responsible for the education of the children and the safety of the residents.

Mary's mother often tells her stories about the time Before, about the ocean and the tall buildings that reached far up into the sky. She has never been the same since her husband disappeared. She refuses to believe he is among the Unconsecrated, yet she is continually drawn to the fence, dreading to see him there, moaning with hunger, trying to get through to the village. One day Mary lingers a little too long, talking with a friend, and when the sirens sound she knows something horrible has happened to her mother. From that moment on, Mary finds herself moving a world that she once thought she understood but now is full of secrets and lies, of unpleasant and unpalatable truths. People she thought she knew behave in hurtful, unexpected ways, and Mary finds that the only one she can rely on is herself.

This is a novel that should appeal to those who enjoy dark, harrowing post-apocalyptic novels, as well as survival stories. It is a fairly introspective tale, despite the action and adventure aspect, told through first-person narration from Mary's point of view. Mary is a compelling character, and I felt immediate sympathy for her, but she was the only character I felt a strong connection with. I felt occasionally frustrated by her inability - or unwillingness - to communicate with certain characters, and at times it felt as though the lack of information passing from her to other characters was more a convenience to the plot direction than a believable action (or inaction) on her part.

The story is bleak and would probably be difficult for more sensitive readers, and I'd recommend this to high school ages and up (although there are always a few younger readers who thrive on this sort of dark tale). I found the story to be riveting - it was had to put the book down, and there was a definite creep factor that eased its way under my skin. I did, however, find the ending disappointingly inconclusive. Admittedly that is a personal bias of mine (I've always hated those open ended, you-decide-for-yourself kind of stories, feeling that it's a total cop-out on the part of the writer. If you're to going to write it, I've always thought, then tell the whole story!). Don't get me wrong - the book has a conclusion; it doesn't end with a cliff-hanger. But it leaves scads of unanswered questions that left me feeling very dissatisfied and a teensy bit annoyed, particularly as I'd been so attached to the story throughout. But I have learned that there are going to be two more books in this series, so I'm feeling much better about things now. For more information on the series, check out Carrie Ryan's website.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (Delacorte Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Zombie: "Being the huge zombie fan that I am, I was a little skeptical of how a young adult novel would pull off a serious zombie story. But I was more than satisfied, the undead action is excellent."
Bookshelves of Doom: "The lack of answers totally makes sense considering the knowledge/background of the narrator and the storyline, but that logic isn't going to stop some readers from wanting to throw things when they reach the end of the book."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "If you’re a fan of YA books, zombie novels, philosophical novels or all of the above, this is definitely one to pick up."
The Written World: "To sum it all up, I should say that this is probably one of my favourite reads from 2009 and it will likely make my best of lists at the end of the year!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rapture of the Deep

When a new Bloody Jack novel comes out, I do the happy dance around the library (quietly, of course). This is one of my hands-down favorite series, combining evocative historical settings, a strong and clever heroine, unforgettable characters, swashbuckling action and adventure, and a touch of romance - not to mention a healthy dash of humor. I started writing this blog when I was midway through the series, so unfortunately I only have reviews from books five on. But I have heard from many a book blogger that the audio versions of these books are excellent, so one of these days I may go back and start all over again.

This installment of the series, set in 1806, sees Jacky whisked away very rudely from a most important personal moment in her life. She has become, it seems, a pawn at the mercy of British Naval Intelligence, and they have a job for her to do. Jacky is none too pleased until she hears her mission involves a sunken Spanish ship carrying a whole lot of treasure - something that is sure to warm the cockles of this former pirate-maiden's heart.

Jacky's mission takes her to the balmy waters off the coast of Havana, where she poses as a member of a fake scientific expedition as they search for the sunken ship, while coming up against a particularly nasty Spanish naval officer, some pirates, and a very fast and hungry alligator.

This novel lacked some of the breakneck pace of previous books, but I enjoyed it all the same. I was pleased to see that Jacky finally got to spend some time with her beloved Jaimy, instead of never being in the same place at the same time, as has happened so often in previous books. I could have done without the cockfighting scenes; it seemed rather out of character for Jacky, who has always had such a soft heart for animals, to train up a bird to fight, and I didn't find her justification terribly convincing. Still, it is always a pleasure to spend some time in the company of the feisty, quick-witted Jacky, and I hope to follow many, many more of her adventures.

Books in the Bloody Jack series:
1. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy
2. Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady
3. Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber 4. In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber
5. Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and the Lily of the West
6. My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War
7.
Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy

Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy (#7 in the Bloody Jack series) by L.A. Meyer (Harcourt, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
WORD for Teens: "The series is quite character driven - if Jacky was anything less what who she is, the plot lines and all the crazy stunts just wouldn't work. However, Jacky being Jacky, it works wonderfully and makes for a fantastically fun tale."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dark Lord of Derkholm

Diana Wynne Jones is one of my hands-down favorite writers. Her books are consistently surprising, creative, intelligent, compassionate, and often very, very funny. I read this one when it was first published, but there is a sequel called Year of the Griffin that I've never read, and as I'm always delighted to have an excuse to reread one of her books, I brought this one home from the library to refresh my memory. And what a rollicking good time I had!

This book was written after her hilarious "nonfiction" book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which is a must-read for all lovers of high fantasy. It is written in the form of a guidebook, as though the reader were about to embark on a journey to a fantasy world, informing readers of such useful things as how to escape from goblins, the difference between an Amulet and a Talisman, and why high priests are always evil. It takes on all the stereotypes and cliches of fantasy fiction in an affectionate, hilarious way.

At any rate, this novel presents us with the actual fantasy world that a tourist might be visiting. And this fantasy world has had it with tourists! The premise is that Mr. Chesney, an incredibly rich and powerful (as in has-a-demon-to-do-his-bidding powerful) businessman from another world has set up a tourist industry on a planet that has magic. The inhabitants of the planet are fed up with the annual "pilgrim parties" of tourists who traipse through their world. Mr. Chesney has insisted they all play parts for the pilgrims, so every year one of the wizards has to be the Dark Lord and set up a creepy dark fortress, and there are battles to be fought (trampling the crops, of course), magical objects to be discovered, evil minions to "fight," and so on.

Desperate to change the situation, the High Chancellor consults the oracles. She is told that the first person she sees must be this year's Dark Lord. Unfortunately for the Wizard Derk, who would like nothing more than to putter about his peaceful domain, creating amazing magical animals such as griffins, flying pigs and winged horses, he is that person. Although no one tells him what the oracles have said. He is given a handbook on his responsibilities as Dark Lord that has instructions like "The Dark Lord's citadel must always be a black castle with a labyrinthine interior lit by baleful fire." Unfortunately, everything starts going wrong at once - and when Derk becomes wounded and is unable to continue with preparations, his family - including his griffin children - must step in to help out.

Aside from the constantly humorous inversion of fantasy stereotypes, the novel also tells an engaging and heartfelt story about family. It is a very complex novel, though, with an enormous cast of characters and a great many things happening at one, with much for a reader to keep track of as the plot unfolds. Although my library shelves this book in the teen section, I would say that it is equally appealing to adults, and perhaps even more appropriate for older readers - not because of any potentially objectionable content, but because it is so very complicated. I also find that it is easier to get teens to read books from the adult section than it is to get adults to read books from the YA shelves, and I'd hate for anyone to miss out on this funny, intelligent tale.

I leave you with a passage that had me grinning. Some quick background info: the Wizard Derk is having a tough time taking care of the many preparations for the pilgrims, and to top things off, the Emir has decided to be difficult:
The Emir was flatly refusing to be the puppet king the lists said he should be. "I'll be anything else you choose," he told Derk, "but I will not have my mind enslaved to this tiara. I have seen Sheik Detroy. He is still walking like a zombie after last year. He drools. His valet has to feed him. It's disgusting! These magic objects are not safe."

Derk had seen Sheik Detroy, too. He felt the Emir had a point. "Then could you perhaps get one of your most devoted servants to wear the tiara for you?"

"And have him usurp my throne?" the Emir said. "I hope you joke."

They argued for several hours. At length Derk said desperately, "Well, can't you wear a copy of the tiara and act being enslaved to it?"

"What a good idea!" said the Emir. "I rather fancy myself as an actor. Very well."

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 1998)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "I was also surprised with the depth of the story: hiding underneath the satire is actually a family story with a fair bit of heart."
Jenny's Books: "So it’s equal parts funny (because of all the tropes that the tourists (us, in a way) expect to see, and that the people have to work incredibly hard to give the tourists), and distressing, because here they all are, destroying their entire world year after year."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

School's Out -- Forever

This second book in the Maximum Ride series picks up where the first book left off. Therefore, there may be minor spoilers in this review, so if you are interested in reading this series, I suggest you check out my review of the first book - the series really requires reading the books in order, as there is no real conclusion to the first book. (Wasn't I just complaining about that?)

At any rate, the flock (a group of genetically engineered kids with avian DNA who have wings and can fly), in a raid on a lab in the previous book, has found out some information about themselves and the possible identity of their parents. The only problem is that it's written in some sort of code, which they need to decipher. As with the first book, they are attacked by Erasers, genetically engineered wolf-men - but there is a new, nasty surprise in store for the flock, because the Erasers have been genetically engineered with a new capability.

The flock ends up finding what appears to be a safe place to live for a while, and they stay with a high-ranking FBI agent in her spacious farmhouse in rural Virginia. She even sends them to school, and for the first time in ages, they have enough to eat, enough sleep, and are not on the run. Then, of course, matters come to a head, the the flock must once more take off, try to stay together, and pursue the mystery of who they are, where they came from, and what exactly Max's "destiny" of saving the world really means.

There are elements of this series that I very much enjoyed: Max is an admirable protagonist, strong and smart, struggling to do the right thing to protect her flock; the plot is full of twists, turns and surprises; one of the antagonists is developed so that the reader can understand his motives and even empathize with him, if not with his actions; the pacing is taut and relentless.

There are also elements that have me losing a bit of patience with the series, however, and most of these have to do with straining the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. I simply don't buy that the further modifications made to the Erasers could be possible, let alone work. A conspiracy involving thousands of people doesn't hold water. I accept that there might be a few sociopath scientists out there, but legions of them willing to put six-year-old children through excruciating medical tests and make them sleep in dog kennels? I don't think so. These are just a few of the issues I had with believability - there are dozens of them. It makes me wonder if there is going to be any true payoff for the many unanswered questions that are continually raised as the plot progresses - such as that voice in Max's head - that will not be addressed in a satisfying way. If I can't believe in the answers, it won't be satisfying. Also, while the plot is nonstop action, it has a directionless, episodic feel to it.

Still, the books are intriguing, and while I plan to take a break for now, I believe I will be curious enough to find out what will happen next to Max and her flock to pick up the third book in the series. I enjoyed Nancy Wu's narration of Max's part of the tale in the Recorded Books audio version that I downloaded through my library's website, although I've heard other versions aren't so great.

Books in the Maximum Ride series:
1. The Angel Experiment
2. School's Out -- Forever
3. Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports
4. The Final Warning
5. Max
6. Fang (Forthcoming March 2010)

School's Out -- Forever
(#2 in the Maximum Ride series) by James Patterson; narrated by Nancy Wu and James Jenner (Recorded Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
All Five Stars: "A high point of the book is the constant theme of morality. It takes the current world issues about cloning and commercialization to a whole new extreme level."
Bart's Bookshelf: "In all it’s another great page-turning story, just don’t expect any resolution at the end. Stand alone books these are not!"
Book Dweeb: "This book has everything I generally require in a good sci fi/fantasy: a strong heroine, action, intriguing premise. A few caveats: a) too many characters, b) some cliched/old-fashioned dialogue, c) an interesting premise, but does Patterson take it too far?"
Katie's Bookshelf: "Some mind-boggling new developments and tough situations will leave readers breathless and wanting more. I found it hard to put this book down. It's addicting, I tell ya!"

Monday, November 9, 2009

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians

It seems like I've been reading a lot of books lately in which certain characters possess singular magical talents. There's Ingrid Laws's Savvy, with its storm-makers and perfect mothers; Graceling, with its phenomenally skilled warrior maiden; and Bones of Faerie, with various kinds of faerie magic suddenly appearing in different characters. And now there's thirteen-year-old Alcatraz, an orphan who's been bumped around from one foster home to another, due to his peculiar yet powerful talent for breaking things.

He's just accidentally set his current home on fire, which is, of course, the last straw for this set of foster parents. He's waiting for the social worker to come pick him up, and the day is ironically his birthday. He is astounded to receive a mysterious package in the mail from his parents that bears stamps from thirteen years earlier. "Here is your inheritance, as promised," reads the note inside. He opens the paper bag, only to find it contains nothing but sand.

Funny that the sand should suddenly disappear from his room. When an old man shows up claiming to be Alcatraz's grandfather and saves him from a man holding him at gunpoint, Alcatraz's life will never be the same. He discovers that he is an oculator (you'll have to read the book to find out exactly what that is), and that his talent for breaking things is actually not such a bad thing to have. Grandpa Smedry drags him into a world in which librarians are evil and menacing (who, me?) and Alcatraz finds himself on a mission with his grandfather, his cousins Quentin and Sing Sing and a fierce (and grumpy) warrior girl named Bastille. Together they must breach the spookiest and most dangerous librarian stronghold around: the downtown library. Action, excitement, adventure and mayhem ensue.

This book is such a lot of fun, from the outrageous premise to the humorous opinions and comments voiced by its outspoken narrator. He says things like,

Perhaps you think that my habit of using sarcasm is simply a method of hiding my insecurity. Perhaps you've decided that I wasn't a cruel boy, just a very confused one. Perhaps you've decided, despite my feigned indifference, I didn't like breaking things.

Obviously, you are a person of very poor judgment. I would ask you to kindly refrain from drawing conclusions that I don't explicitly tell you to make. That's a very bad habit, and it makes authors grumpy.

This is one of those books that would make an excellent read-aloud, not only for the strong voice and humorous asides of the narrator, but because Sanderson is obviously having great fun lampooning everything in sight, and much of the humor will be equally appealing to adults as well as children. I handed this one to my ten-year-old as soon as I finished it. It's in her book pile, waiting for her to finish up her current Percy Jackson novel. I'm very much looking forward to the further adventures of Alcatraz Smedry and his colorful friends.

Here is an interesting interview with Brandon Sanderson from the Fantasy Book Critic's blog.

Books in the Alcatraz series:
1. Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians
2. Alcatraz versus the Scrivener's Bones
3. Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians (#1 in the Alcatraz series) by Brian Sanderson (Scholastic, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "I think everyone should read this book. Seriously."
Bookshelves of Doom: "It was funny. There are cracks about everything from the Newbery Award to Harry Potter to Michael Crichton -- and while it's geared towards the middle-school boy crowd, I think there are a lot of adults who'll get a huge kick out of it."
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "...while Sanderson’s outsized imagination and skill at creating unique, internally consistent magical systems is intact, Alcatraz has a completely different tone than Sanderson’s adult books, and has both the action and the goofiness turned up to 11."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Awakening

This second novel in the Darkest Powers trilogy picks up where the first book left off, with Chloe on the run from the scientists at the Lyle House, where she'd been taken following an "episode" at school in which it appeared she was having a mental breakdown.

In reality, however, Chloe is able to see ghosts. More specifically, they can see her, too, and she has powers to control the dead. The problem is, she has no training, no idea how to use them. If she isn't careful, she can actually call back the spirits of the dead into their decaying or skeletal bodies, which is a generally unpleasant experience for everyone involved. This installment is action packed from beginning to end, and there while the book does not end with the cliffhanger of the first book, there is no real resolution. Readers will have to wait for the final volume, due to be published next year.

Some trilogies have single story arcs within each volume, and a larger story arc that carries through all the books. This is not one of those trilogies. This one is more in the vein of a book that is divided into three parts, each published separately. For that reason I would have preferred waiting to read them until they were all published, because while I've enjoyed them both thoroughly, I have closed each book with a feeling of frustration. If there had been a minor, satisfying conclusion of some sort, I would have been happier.

Still, the author has done an excellent job of creating a world in which the supernatural is believable and the characters have depth. The tension and pace will keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Kelley Armstrong has set up a special website for the trilogy at http://www.chloesaunders.com/, which is a lot of fun. Chloe is the "author" of the site, and Armstrong is posting a serial novella prequel there featuring characters from the trilogy.

Books in the Darkest Powers trilogy:
1. The Summoning
2. The Awakening
3. The Reckoning (forthcoming - 2010)

The Awakening (#2 in the Darkest Powers trilogy) by Kelley Armstrong (HarperCollins, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Obsession: "Everyone has fangirled over The Awakening but for some reason I'm not. I thought it was really good but not OH MY GOSH if that makes any sense. I just was not very excited about it."
The Story Siren: "The plot was even more fast paced than the Awakening, there is a lot more action and adventure in the sequel. Which makes for a very exciting read, but also a very quick one."
Today's Adventure: "The Awakening continues the fantastic characters, expands the concept, and has an ever-twisting storyline that kept me riveted."
YAReads.com: "I like the characters and the world a lot: I’m looking forward to the third book not only so I can find out what happens next, but just because I really enjoy being with these fictional people and seeing how things play out for them. I recommend both books a LOT."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Rebecca

After hearing so many people rave last year about their wonderful R.I.P. Challenge reads of the classic suspense novel Rebecca, I added it to my list of books to read for this year's challenge. I hadn't read it in years, and this time I opted for the audio version. It turned out to be a good choice; the narrator was very good (she reminded me a bit of one of the women who read the audio version of The Thirteenth Tale, another great "listen"), and between each chapter there was some intensely melodramatic violin music which really added to the spooky mood.

The premise, for the three of you out there who have yet to read this wonderful book, is that a young, unnamed woman with no family, working as a "companion" for an unpleasant, wealthy woman, has a whirlwind romance with an older man named Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter. The heroine is besotted with him, and they have a lovely honeymoon. But when they return to his home in Cornwall, Manderley, everything changes. For one thing, everywhere she looks she sees reminders of his first wife, a beautiful, vivacious woman who drowned less than a year earlier. The heroine is intelligent but timid and self-effacing, and everywhere she looks she sees reminders of the amazing, wonderful Rebecca, a woman it seems she can never live up to. Complicating matters is the presence of the malicious, dour housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Manderley is a place of secrets and darkness, and the heroine is ill equipped to meet the challenges it presents. Despite her timidity, she is determined to be a good wife to Maxim, even though she believes he'll never love her the way he did Rebecca. As time goes on, however, a very different picture of Maxim's first wife emerges...

This is an atmospheric, exciting, character-driven suspense novel, and it is the perfect read for a dark and windy October - or November - evening. It is not a romance novel in the genre sense, but there is romance in it, and also mystery and plenty of tension. I remembered identifying very much with the heroine when I first read this novel, and that's not surprising, as I was probably a teenager then. I was surprised to find myself growing a bit impatient with her this time around, as she hides behind doors to avoid having to meet visitors to the house and allows herself to be so bullied by the horrible Mrs. Danvers. Still, she does grow and change, and it is entirely believable that she'd behave the way she does, given her personality and social position. Maxim's carelessness of her irritated me, and I did not find him to be as compelling a character as I did so many years ago. It's funny how experience, age and perspective can make a reading experience a little bit different with each reread.

At any rate, I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a bit of creepy suspense and Gothic atmosphere - maybe for next year's R.I.P. reading challenge!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier; narrated by Emma Fielding (Naxos Audiobooks, 2004); originally published 1938)

Also reviewed at:
Here, There and Everywhere: "There's love, there's deception, there's mystery...and then there's Mrs Danvers, making sure Rebecca remains in every room on every chair in the house..... it just has it all, and I believe you will find that once you begin to read this book, that you will not want to put it down."
My Friend Amy: "It's a delightful exploration of self, perception, and truth. It's beautifully written and though once or twice it felt too long, I felt such affection for the characters, that I didn't mind."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "This book reminded me so much of The Thirteenth Tale and The Historian. If you liked the atmosphere of those books, I think you’d enjoy this one. Like those two, this one does a wonderful job of telling its reader a riveting story.
Things Mean a Lot: "The mood couldn’t have been more perfect. I also loved the pacing, and I found the story suspenseful even though I already knew what happened at the ending."
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops: "What I loved most about Rebecca is the language, Du Maurier's innate ability to write beautifully yet in a way that does not age nor seem dated, and the tension, the suspense."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Something I've been wondering about...

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and as often happens when we get together, the conversation turned to books. She's in a book group with women from her neighborhood, and one woman happened to mention that her 12-year-old daughter had expressed a desire to read Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella, which her mother had recently read and enjoyed. I have not read that book, but I've heard it's clever and funny, and at some point I'd like to check it out.

The woman was concerned about the swear words that are in the book, so she decided that she would let her daughter read it, but only after she inked out all the bad words with a black marker.

What do you think of that? Is that a reasonable compromise?

I keep thinking about it. I have to say that while I understand the woman's desire to protect her daughter from crude, objectionable language, it seems that if the mother thinks she isn't old enough to handle the language, maybe she's not old enough for that book yet. I also have to laugh, thinking that if my mom had done that when I was twelve, I'd have run straight to the library to see exactly what all those blacked-out words were!

A discussion between this parent and child about unacceptable language and why the parent believes it is not a good idea for her daughter to use those words might be more productive than expurgating the text. The child may well be familiar with many or most of those words already - so instead of sidestepping this issue, confronting it together might enable the child to ask questions and get straight answers, not to mention establish some trust. If a child feels comfortable talking with her parents about things her family disapproves of, she might be more likely to come to them later with other difficult questions.

So anyway, I've been thinking about that for a while, and I'm wondering if anyone else is as startled to hear of this expurgation strategy as I was. Any thoughts on the matter?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Speak of the Devil

Morgan Kingsley is an exorcist in a world in which demons can legally possess human hosts. No one but a select few know that she is secretly hosting an exiled demon king. In this installment of the series, everything that can go wrong in Morgan's life is going wrong. She's being sued for malpractice, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, and it appears that someone is out to destroy everything she values in her life.

This is the fourth book in a series that, when it comes down to it, I'm not entirely sure why I keep reading. The concept - that demons are beings from another dimension that can inhabit, legally or illegally, depending on the situation, human "hosts," giving them exceptional strength and healing abilities - is an interesting one, it is true. The fact that the heroine, Morgan Kingsley, is an exorcist, yet she is also hosting the king of the demons, is also interesting.

And I guess that's why I've kept reading - even though I haven't been pulled into this world as I have into, say, the fictional worlds of Mercy Thompson and Cassandra Palmer, I can't help but wonder what's going to happen next. I like that Morgan is the kind of character that wants to remain in control, and not just react to the things that happen to her. I don't like that she constantly runs off impulsively and puts herself and others into unnecessary danger. She is tough, which is good, but in this book she comes close to turning into a quivering blob of jelly when her relationship goes south. She tells us that this guy is the love of her life, etc., but I'm just not seeing why he's all that important to her. I don't feel that her life will be the worse without him, so the tension about their relationship just wasn't there for me.

I have come to like several of the secondary characters during the course of these four books - particularly Adam, the demon-hosting cop, and his lover, the former demon host but now just regularly old human (and superb cook), Dominic. Raphael and some of the other demons are developing into intriguing characters. In fact, as the plot develops it leaves me wondering what role Morgan really has to play. After all, the demon king she is hosting can move on to any other human simply through skin-to-skin contact, which would have the added bonus of giving him a host he can control 100% - which he doesn't have with Morgan - so why is he still there? Why bother involving humans in a political demon issue anyway? Why does Morgan feel bound to keep secret the fact that, when demons are exorcised, they aren't actually destroyed, as everyone thinks? I guess I thought these questions would be addressed - and maybe they will, eventually - but I find that I'm losing a bit of patience. I think if such issues were successfully addressed, I'd believe more in this world and Morgan's predicament.

These are just a few small issues I had, personally, with the series, which makes me doubt whether I'll carry on with it. There is a huge following of fans of these books, however, so the series might well become one of your favorites, too, if you give it a try. I'd love to hear what you think.

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

4. Speak of the Devil

Speak of the Devil
(#4 in the Morgan Kingsley series) by Jenna Black (Dell, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Literary Escapism: "Yes, there’s not a lot of action since the plot takes a break from the Dougal storyline and focuses on a demon with a vendetta, but we get a lot of character interactions that tells us more about each character."
Lurv a la Mode: "The last book was a bit slow for me due to a downplay in action, and this one didn’t really improve on that. However, I felt that what we get in character development kind of offset that, too, balancing it all out."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Once Dead, Twice Shy

Madison, the 17-year-old protagonist of Once Dead, Twice Shy, informs us in the first paragraph of the book that she died in a freak car accident - on her birthday, no less - on prom night. That kind of set-up left me expecting the story to backtrack, then lead up to that moment; but no, Madison is dead, yet she's still around, thanks to a magical amulet she somehow managed to snatch from a mysterious stranger after she woke up in the morgue.

She shouldn't have been able to take the amulet, much less use it to stay around and appear to be alive. She did it in moment of reflexive self-defense, as the dark reaper who was attacking her was bent on destroying her soul. Now she is being tutored by a light reaper named Barnabas, a sort of angelic being who attempts to thwart the destructive plans of the dark reapers. But Madison just can't seem to learn the most basic skills of being a light reaper. She is being chased by the dark reapers, who are determined to finish the job they started, and she is desperate to learn the skills to protect herself.

It seems that Madison can't manage to follow even the simplest rules, and she not only puts herself in danger, but she ends up putting one of her classmates in danger, too. He happens to be the guy she walked away from at the prom, the night she'd been killed in the accident, and the more she gets to know him, the more she realizes what a mistake it had been to walk away like that. She has to tell him the truth about herself, in order to keep him safe, at the risk of him thinking she's an utter lunatic - and that sets in motion a chain of events that unfold at a hair-raising, breakneck pace.

First of all, can I say how annoying it is to read a book and then discover that the first part of that book was actually a short story in an anthology somewhere, and there is no mention made of that fact anywhere on the book itself? I was able to figure out what was happening as the pieces of back story came together, but the opening of this book made me feel I was missing important information. I realize I am on the fanatical end of the spectrum when it comes to reading series books in order, so take it with a grain of salt when I say you might want to read the short story that introduces Madison, which is in the anthology Prom Nights from Hell (edited by Meg Cabot). Also it bugged me that the book repeatedly refers to the purple streaks in Madison's hair, but the cover image shows a blonde, no streaks, like it's some other girl who's on the cover.

That said, I did enjoy the novel. It introduced an interesting supernatural element that posed a lot of questions, which, as the plot twisted and turned, were answered in surprising ways. There is a nice romantic touch, and it was bittersweet to watch Madison realizing truths that might have helped her be happier when she was still alive. Her pleasure in photography gave her added depth, particularly as she discussed the details that inspired her attempts to capture specific images. Apparently there always has to be an over-the-top bitchy girl in YA novels these days, and I didn't think this particular girl added a whole lot - but it may be that I've just been reading too many similar teen novels lately.

I liked that the book has a satisfying conclusion, while leaving plenty of loose ends and unresolved issues that can be explored in future books. I did find that the conclusion cast into doubt much of what was told to us throughout the earlier parts of the novel, and the way it ended left me a bit confused as far as what was true and what wasn't. It did set up a most interesting dynamic, however, and I'm looking forward to further exploration of that in future books.

Once Dead, Twice Shy by Kim Harrison (HarperCollins, 2009)

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Beyond Books: "I loved Madison and I was amused by Barnabas. I have to admit that I couldn’t stand the guardian angel at first, but then she grew on me. I liked her by the end of the story. The book was shorter than I would have liked (especially for the price of the book)."
The Story Siren: "Madison’s character as well as her thoughts seemed uneven at times. Adding another complication to the story. The plot was steady throughout the novel until the very fast and anticlimactic ending."
Writer's Block Reviews: "I adored Madison, she is a very feisty girl that will make you smile. If you are a paranormal junkie, you truly have to read this book!"