Saturday, January 30, 2010

Gone skiing...

I'm not sure if I'll have connectivity and time (not to mention the energy!) to post, but I'll try to check in (and keep up with all your furious posting!). In the meantime, I'm hoping to read lots of the books you all have added to my pile these past months! See you soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Sandman: A Game of You

Reading the Sandman books in their collected form, rather than as they originally appeared (in comic-book-size installments), makes me wonder how my experience differs from that of the readers who read them one at a time as they were released. This volume collects stories that form a single narrative arc, rather than separate stand-alone stories, and I honestly cannot say which I prefer. The stand-alones are fun, intriguing glimpses into Dream's world and workings. The longer stories are gripping and connect more intimately and at greater length with the various characters. Being able to read them all at once, rather than serially, as they were published, must make for a less frustrating experience for the longer stories!

This volume features Barbie, a character who was originally introduced as a secondary character in The Doll's House (Volume 2). Barbie had a very intricate dream world when she was a little girl, and it seems that this world is very real - in Dream's realm. An evil force known as the Cuckoo has taken over and is harming all her beloved old friends. One of them, an enormous dog-like creature, breaks through into the real world where Barbie lives, trying to get her help. Barbie lives in an old apartment building, and one of her neighbors is aligned with the cuckoo and launches an attack on Barbie - as well as the other residents of the building. Her other neighbors include a lesbian couple, a transgender friend named Wanda, and a quiet, intellectual young woman no one seems to know very well. These people are not the usual companions a dream princess might expect to go on a quest to help her, but they are all she's got. My favorite character of them all is Wanda, who is strong and complicated, definitely unforgettable.

This tale is dark and fantastical, with an interesting combination of the magical as well as the bleaker, more violent elements of fairytales and fantasy quests. I am always amazed that the artwork, while created by so many different artists, maintains such a consistent feel throughout. At the same time, each artist's style contributes in its own unique way to each particular story. I continue to enjoy the Sandman series, and I'm looking forward to reading the next volume soon.

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: A Game of You (#5 in the Sandman series) by Neil Gaiman; illustraed by Shawn McManus, Colleen Doran, Bryan Talbot, George Pratt, Stan Woch and Dick Giordano (Vertigo, 1993)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "Whereas the first volume of the Sandman collection interested me but didn’t bowl me over, this one drew me in, rolled me around in a stew of mythology and pathos and poignancy, and spat me out a Fan."
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: "The author's hybrid of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia was quite a treat!"
The Wertzone: "Gaiman again gives us an interesting, intricately-crafted story featuring some very well-realised characters and some fascinating fantasy concepts."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Muse and Reverie

This latest short story collection by Charles de Lint contains stories set in his fictional Canadian town of Newford. Readers of his Newford books will be pleased to see old favorite characters appear in these pages, including Jilly Coppercorn, the Crow Girls and Meran, as well as new characters who are also residents of Newford.

There are thirteen tales of varying lengths, and the themes prevalent in so much of de Lint's work are all present: the importance of music and arts, the mysteries of life and death, the crucial choices we make in our lives that take them irrevocably in a specific direction, and, of course, the wonder of the world that is there, if only we will pause for a moment to take a look around us.

One need not be a regular reader of de Lint's work to appreciate these tales. Although there is one, "A Crow Girls' Christmas," that may puzzle those who are unfamiliar with those two irrepressible characters. That story was one of my favorites, a whimsical look at Christmas in Newford, and what happens when the two girls take jobs as Santa's elves at the mall. It is a delightful tale that just tickled me to pieces.

I also enjoyed "Somewhere in My Mind There Is a Painting Box," which I'd actually read previously but enjoyed just as much the second time around. It features Lily, who is also the protagonist of one of de Lint's children's books (A Circle of Cats - a lovely book lavishly illustrated by Charles Vess). Lily, an aspiring artist, discovers an abandoned box of paints in the forest and realizes it belonged to a famous painter who disappeared years earlier. Magic and the mists of faerie are tangled up in the mystery of his absence.

"Da Slockit Light" is another engaging story, in which another mysterious absence is central. The apparently ageless musician Cerin Kellady has disappeared into the forgotten city under Newford. His wife Meran wouldn't be so worried if his harp, which normally murmurs to itself even when the musician isn't around, hadn't suddenly gone silent. She turns to the boy who tried to pick her pocket earlier in the day, knowing that his sharp eyes and quick reflexes might be able to bring back information that she, because of her nature, wouldn't be able to find out for himself. The young thief isn't sure what to expect - nor why he's keeping his word to Meran - and what he finds beneath the city is beyond his wildest imagining. A story that could have been a simple good vs. evil tale becomes something more interesting and complex when de Lint is spinning it.

One final story I'll mention is "Newford Spook Squad," which involves a tough, cynical cop who finds himself heading Newford's latest task force, responsible for investigating the increasingly bizarre occurrences that are reported in and around Newford. He feels ridiculous about the whole thing, but his first assignment soon reveals that he's going to have his hands full. This one was funny and action packed, and I would love to hear more about the Spook Squad's adventures, and more about the narrator himself.

The other stories are wonderful, too, touching, funny, surprising and full of a very real sense of wonder that I've come to expect from de Lint, one of my very favorite authors. I am always delighted to take a walk through the various neighborhoods of Newford, and this collection of stories is an excellent addition to the other collected tales.

B&OT Reviews of other books by Charles de Lint:
Angel of Darkness
A Circle of Cats
Little (Grrl) Lost
Waifs and Strays
Wolf Moon

Muse and Reverie by Charles de Lint (Tor, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review: "De Lint looks at old fairy tale themes of redemption, courage and honour (love as well, there’s always love...) and effortlessly brings them into a modern setting by introducing us to well drawn characters facing dilemmas that only a brush with the otherworld can cure."
Ms. B's Book Extravaganza: "Never frivolous with words, de Lint focuses on the characters, and how they learn and grow after interacting with these mystical beings. In his world, fantasy and reality coexist, and somehow, it makes perfect sense."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!

Brother and sister Benny and Penny, two little mice, return in their second book, another of the excellent Toon Book easy readers. In this story, the mice learn that a new family has moved next door, and that they have a child. The two are dying to get a glimpse of the new kid through the fence, but they can't see anything. They know that it's a "big no-no" to climb over the fence and sneak into someone's yard, but when Benny discovers that his pail is missing, and Penny wonders aloud if the new kid took it, Benny is over the fence and into the yard in a flash.

Misunderstandings, false accusations, hurt feelings and a mud fight ensue, and as events play out, it becomes clear that friendship can spring up in the most unexpected ways.

I adored the first Benny and Penny book, Benny and Penny in Just Pretend, and I love the concept of the easy reader Toon Book series. The books are very well made, with thick pages and sturdy spines, and the illustrations are colorful and appealing. The Toon Books at my library are incredibly popular, rarely staying on the shelf for more than a day or two before they're snatched up by another interested reader.
This particular book tells a story that children will easily relate to. Older and younger siblings alike will identify with the relationship between Benny and Penny, who are friends and playmates but do not always see eye to eye. They will get caught up in the story, which is told in simple, readable words for emerging readers - and has all the visual cues to explain those words that any new reader could desire - because it is not just a series of words from a word list arranged in a "kind of" story, like so many beginning readers are. It is exciting, funny, and even involves a little mystery - just what did happen to Benny's pail?

I brought this book home from the library yesterday (it won this year's Geisel Award, and I hadn't read it yet!), and I happened to set it down on the kitchen table. Both my children (in the third and fifth grades) are well past easy readers at this point, but each one picked it up and read it through without any prompting on my part - and both said how cute and fun it is. That is the magic of graphic novels - kids pick them up willingly (as do many adults) - and what's better than graphic novels targeted at the younger set, to make the books even more appealing? Another thing I like about these books is that for kids who are behind their peers in reading skill development, it is less off-putting or embarrassing to read this kind of book around their friends than something clearly targeted at much younger children - their friends will want to read this too, just as my kids did, simply because it's such a good book. Hooray for Toon Books!

Benny and Penny in The Big No-No by Geoffrey Hayes (RAW Junior, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Booking Mama: There are few words on each page so the early reader won't get easily frustrated; and there is also lots of word repetition -- perfect for a young one who is learning to read."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The London Eye Mystery

Set in London, this engaging mystery features brother-and-sister sleuths Ted and Kat. Ted is the younger of the siblings, and he lays out the mystery when the book opens. Their Aunt Gloria and teenaged cousin Salim have come to visit them on their way to New York City, where they are moving from the north of England. During their visit, they decide to do some sightseeing around London, and Salim expresses a wish to ride on the London Eye, an enormous Ferris wheel that is located near the river Thames.

The line is incredibly long because it is a beautiful day, when everyone wants to ride on the Eyel. On clear days, Ted tells us, you can see for miles and miles. Ted and Kat have been up several times before, so when a man from the front of the line approaches them, offering them his ticket for free because he's lost his nerve to ride it, Kat and Ted agree that Salim should take the ticket. They watch him get into the passenger capsule, and they watch his capsule slowly rise to the top. But when the wheel finishes its rotation, Salim does not come out with the rest of the passengers. Salim has vanished.

The police are called, and an investigation ensues. Ted and Kat are extremely worried, and they want to do everything they can to help. They don't usually get along terribly well - Kat is older than Ted, and Ted gets on her nerves a bit because he has a "syndrome" (presumably Asperger, a form of autism, but it is never specifically called that) that gives him some quirky habits. He explains that it's like his brain works on a different operating system, which makes him see things in a different way. It turns out that Ted's different operating system, combined with his sister's own unique perspective, make for an excellent investigative team. Even when the adults pay no mind to their theories and thoughts, Ted and Kat pursue every lead they can think of and turn up some interesting clues.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and the narrator, Alex Kalajzic, did an excellent job reading with Ted's voice, his precise way of talking and explaining things. The clues are all there for the careful reader, and it was fun to see my suspicions confirmed as I followed Ted and Kat's investigation. I did feel a bit concerned that they were withholding potentially important information from the police (they develop the roll of film that was on Salim's camera so they can see the pictures, for example, instead of handing it immediately to the police).

I loved that Ted's syndrome was an intrinsic part of the story, because of course it's an intrinsic part of who he is, how he perceives things, but the book is in no way preachy or heavy-handed about it. He aspires to become a meteorologist, and he uses weather images as effective metaphors throughout his narration of the book. The characters are presented vividly through Ted's eyes as well as through lively dialogue, and make for engaging subject matter even without Salim's disappearance to mix things up. London comes to life through Dowd's descriptions, and it makes for an evocative backdrop for this gripping mystery. Mystery lovers of all ages, from the book's targeted age group of 10- to 12-year-olds to teens and adults, will be sure to enjoy this intriguing tale.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd; narrated by Alex Kalajzic (Brilliance Audio, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Book Nut: "I was fascinated by this book. I'm still trying to decide if "fascinated" translates into "good" and "liked it" -- I think it does -- but I do think fascinated is an accurate way to describe my response."
Inkweaver Review: "The mystery's small, thick format is a little strange at first, but after you get into the storyline you forget the book itself, and are carried away by Ted, the unique main character."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "I like the fact that his syndrome is not cosmetic. It's not tacked on to make the character interesting. His particular thought patterns are essential to the evolution of the story and the solution of the mystery."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tales from Outer Suburbia

I adored this book. So much, in fact, that it's taken me forever to get around to writing a review of it because I am certain there is no chance that I'll be able to to it justice. Therefore I've included more images than usual, because as far as I'm concerned, all I'd have to see is one of these pictures, and I'd be off to find the book for myself.

It would be well worth the price of the book if it only included the illustrations. But with the stories, it is simply amazing. They are intensely atmospheric, unexpected, puzzling, whimsical, and moving. I love it when a book completely runs against any possible expectations and defies predictability - I am so happy to reach out and grab Shaun Tan's hand as he pulls me into a world that is very much yet nothing like my own...or is it?

"The Water Buffalo," the first story, is just a single page, a few paragraphs. It begins:
"When I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed."
And here is the accompanying illustration:

Can you resist reading further to hear the rest of the story? I couldn't.

The following tale, which I also loved, is simply called "Eric." It's about a foreign exchange student (the diminutive fellow pictured below - note the peanut to get an idea of his actual size) who visits the narrator's family. He is an odd little guy, but they chalk it up to his being foreign and having foreign ways. When Eric decides to sleep in the kitchen pantry, they are a bit puzzled, but they don't think too much about it. "It must be a cultural thing," said Mum. "As long as he's happy." They never really do feel that they understand Eric, but when the time comes for him to go back home, he leaves behind a delightful surprise for his host family.Another story that really tickled me is "Alert but Not Alarmed," in which the government, years earlier, decided to issue ballistic missiles to citizens, who could feel proud that they were doing their part, by being custodians of the missile, to protect their way of life "in an increasingly dangerous climate." The commitment, we learn, is "modest:"
"We only have to wash and wax our missile on the first Sunday of every month and occasionally pull a dipstick out the side to check the oil level. Every couple of years a tin of paint appears in a cardboard box on the doorstep, which means it's time to remove any rust and give the missile a fresh coat of gunmetal gray."
But soon the missiles are painted other colors, and take on an entirely different purpose in the lives of their custodians...

There are many wonderful stories in this collection, but I'll only mention one more: "Grandpa's Story," which might be my favorite if I could bring myself to choose from among them. The tale is narrated by a grandfather to his grandchildren, and he tells them the story of his wedding to their grandmother.
"Of course, weddings were more complicated in those days, not the short'n' sweet kind you see today."
And Grandpa is not joking. The day of the wedding is an adventure fraught with peril and full of puzzling clues and riddles. If he and the bride-t0-be cannot solve them, there will be no wedding. They start out full of confidence and optimism, sure that if they stick together, nothing can stop them. But their troubles are only beginning. Above is a depiction of one of their adventures, which are depicted as a sequence of several such images, each one more perilous than the last. How can the couple ever hope to make it safely back to their wedding ceremony? I couldn't help but wonder how such a tradition might affect the divorce rate - it would be an excellent way of weeding out the incompatible couples before the wedding!

My library shelves this book in the young adult section, but it certainly holds plenty of appeal for adults - and younger children as well. Not all the stories are necessarily a good fit for younger readers, I would say - best to read through them yourself and choose from among them. I plan to read this to my nine- and eleven-year-0lds, skipping a few here and there that I think they will better appreciate when they are older. The illustrations are a feast to the eyes, and the stories themselves are bound to remain with you for a long time after you've closed the book. I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to those who enjoy the fantastical and the odd, and who enjoy being left with a little something to ponder when the story comes to a close.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009

Also reviewed at:
Books of Mee: "I love love love these stories! Or should I say the illustrations. I’m not sure which I like more: the artwork or the stories. They’re both amazing. I often feel that the stories illustrate the pictures than the usual other way around."

Library Queue: "This book definitely gets bonus points for creativity, gorgeous illustrations and word choice that gave me chills."

Stainless Steel Droppings: "Some of the stories featured here have a deep melancholy, others are poignant, still others are quite funny. Without a doubt, each and every story is worth reading again and again and each and every illustration fires the imagination.”

Peeking Between the Pages: "It's almost like walking through a dream filled night when the pictures are changing on you quickly. It's very outside the box and would appeal to teens with great imaginations as most of the stories leave you with pieces to figure out on your own."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

xxxHolic, Volume 4

Book 4 of the contemporary fantasy xxxHolic series opens just before Valentine's Day, and Watanuki is a bit annoyed that his friend/nemesis Domeki is inundated with chocolates and cards from the girls at their school, but Watanuku doesn't receive any. That is, not until his huge crush Himawari presents him with some - but she gives some to Domeki, too, which sucks the joy right out of it. But then Watanuki is given chocolate in a bizarre, dreamlike scene, and the giver is not exactly human - which sets in motion an unexpected chain of events.

The other storyline in this volume concerns two sisters, twins, who have a rather unhealthy relationship. Yuko remarks to Watanuki, when the twins pass by them on the street, that there are chains that only humans can use to bind others. The more Watanuki sees the sisters together and witnesses the dynamics of their relationship, the more he understands what Yuko meant. But as much as he'd like to help, he's not sure if he should interfere - or whether or not his actions can make a bit of difference.

I continue to enjoy rereading this manga series, for the arresting artwork, the fascinating characters, the intriguing stories, and the elements from Japanese folklore and mythology. Unlike so many books that I read, the stories are never predictable, and I love that they can surprise me every time. I'm hoping to catch up soon with this side of the story, so that when I return to reading the Tsubasa volumes, I'll have fun with the way events and characters in both stories intersect from time to time.

xxxHolic, Volume 4 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2004)

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

Monday, January 18, 2010

Abandon Ship!

Occasionally I play a new game with my family, and we enjoy it so much that I just have to share it here. This is one I got them for Christmas. My daughters are proud owners of two pet rats, and when I read the premise for this game, I ordered it for them immediately. And I need to give a quick shout out to Boulder Games, who carry a marvelous assortment of unusual and interesting games for all ages (not the kinds of things you'd typically find at Toys R Us or Target, etc.). They ship quickly and are very responsive if there are ever any issues at all. If you enjoy games, please check them out (I have no relationship with them beyond that of happy customer - honest!) .

Abandon Ship was made by AEG and designed by Reiner Knizia. It's is for 3-7 players. The box says ages 10 and up, but my 9-year-old picked it up with no problem. The game involves a long board that is shaped like a cruise ship, and the object is to get your rats off the ship before it sinks. There are bits of cheese for the rats to gobble up as they made their way to the higher decks, which adds points to the players' final score. Complicating matters is the fact that while you have three rats you are trying to save, others may share the same rat as you - or decide to move your rat in a way that makes things harder for you. Periodically, the ship sinks a random number of levels, and occasionally a poor little ratty gets wet. My daughters set up an island nearby, and as rats can swim, they head there and have a little vacation, so no worries!

The board is well made and is colorful and appealing. I wish the rat tokens were a little more stable, as they tend to fall over if the board is bumped, but they are made of wood and - as long as we keep them away from the real rats (who were gracious enough to model the game for me, at the instigation of my daughters) - they should last a good long time. Abandon Ship takes about 30 minutes at the most to play, which makes it a great choice for a school night after homework is all done! It's a fun family game, with enough luck to make it possible for the youngest players to win, and enough strategy to keep the older players (aka me) interested.

Other games I've reviewed:
Hogwarts House Cup Challenge
Sleeping Queens

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ottoline Goes to School

I had such a fabulous time reading the first Ottoline book, Ottoline and the Yellow Cat, to my girls last year, so when this one arrived at my library, I was very excited to take it home. The girls were so excited to see it that they ran off to read it without me, so I was left, sadly, to read it to myself. I have a feeling that is going to be happening more and more often as they get older, which is a bittersweet feeling. I'm so glad that they are book lovers, but I do enjoy sharing books with them, and I'll be sad when they no longer wish to be read to. At any rate, this second book in the Ottoline series was just as whimsical and creative as the first one, and it cheered me right up.

Ottoline lives alone with her best friend, the strange but very cute little bog man, Mr. Monroe (her parents are collectors and travel around the world most of the time). She makes a friend at the park one day. Cecily and Ottoline spend a lot of time together, as Cecily's parents are very busy, and Cecily is on her own much of the time. Ottoline is sad when Cecily tells her that her holidays are over, and it is time for her to return to her boarding school, The Alice B. Smith School for the Differently Gifted.

Ottoline immediately writes to her parents, asking if she can go to school there, too, and soon she and Mr. Monroe are packing up their things and heading off to a most unusual school. Ottoline is so wrapped up in her new friends and studies that she neglects Mr. Monroe, who is sent to the stables to sleep with the student's "other pets." All the students at the school possess different "gifts," including spinning plates on very tall poles, aerial flower arranging and curtain origami. Ottoline shows no skill at all in any of these areas, and she becomes worried that she'll never find her different gift. But when it appears that the school is haunted, Ottoline forgets about her troubles and focuses instead on unraveling a most intriguing series of clues.

The illustrations are delightful, the perfect accompaniment to the humorous yet touching story of Ottoline, Cecily, and the unusual students of The Alice B. Smith School for the Differently Gifted. Ottoline is in fine sleuthing form, and her different gifts are apparent to the reader long before they are to Ottoline herself, which makes things all just a little more fun.

Books in the Ottoline series:
2. Ottoline Goes to School
3. Ottoline at Sea (forthcoming)

Ottoline Goes to School (#2 in the Ottoline series) by Chris Riddell (Harper, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Eva's Book Addiction: "Light on text and and liberally sprinkled with Riddell's intricate and piquant drawings, this airy, funny book will work well with readers ready for their first chapter books and as a one-on-one read-aloud. And here's a secret - my 15-year-old daughter is simply mad about the Ottoline books, so I know this one spans a great many grade levels."
Kinnie's Korner: " Is it or is it not haunted? I really like this book because He put a lot of animals in it.So if you like unusual books then you will love this book."
Tripping Toward Lucidity: "A potentially haunted boarding school! The results are hilarious and adorable. So adorable, in fact, that if this book had cheeks, I would pinch 'em."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lucky Breaks

Lucky, heroine of Newbery-Award-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, returns in this, her second book. She is nearing the end of her tenth year, and the amazing and alluring possibilities of being eleven are on the horizon. Her best friend Lincoln is entering a knot-tying competition, and if he wins, he'll get to go to England for the entire summer - and Lucky feels pretty bleak inside when she thinks of an entire summer without Link.
Then something wonderful happens. Lucky meets Paloma, a girl just her age, who has traveled to the tiny desert town of Hard Pan (population 43) with her uncle and a bunch of other geologists. Paloma makes Lucky laugh, and each immediately understands what the other is thinking just by looking at each other. Lucky's never had a girl best friend before, and she loves it. The only problem is that Paloma's parents don't think the desert is a suitable place for Paloma to visit - and heaven knows what they'd think if they met Lincoln, with his bizarre knot-tying obsession, not to mention Lucky's other friend, precocious Miles (whose favorite book, which he carries everywhere, is Brain Surgery for Beginners). Best to keep them as far away from Paloma's parents as possible, thinks Lucky. But plans and intentions are often changed by unforeseen events, and Lucky has a few things to learn about friendship before she'll be able to figure things out.

I waited a long time to read this one, mostly because I loved the first one so much, and I was worried I might be disappointed by the sequel. Happily, I found that I may even like this one more than the first - but I'm so happy there are both! My favorite thing about these books is most definitely the characters. Lucky shines, but I adore Lincoln, with his honesty, intelligence and sense of humor - and Brigitte, Lucky's French stepmother, is amazing. I would consider moving out to the middle of the desert myself if I could have these people as neighbors- not to mention Brigitte's wonderful cafe to have lunch at on the weekends.

The writing is simple and lyrical, and the descriptions create vivid pictures and sensory images. Lucky's character comes through so clearly as the narrator describes her thoughts. Here, Lucky is dealing with the tomato worms that are chomping away at Brigitte's tomato plants:

Lucky spotted a worm, a big soft fat one. The word for not wanting to touch a big soft fat worm is squeamish, which has a built-in sound of exactly the feeling in your fingers as they reach for that worm. Being, like Charles Darwin, a scientist, Lucky un-squeamished her fingers. Worms grasp their branch strongly, so you have to get a really firm grip on their bodies in order to pry them off.
Can't you just feel those worms in your hands? Patron's descriptions of characters make me feel as though I'd recognize them if I met them on the street - and they reflect the kinds of things a child tends to notice about people. Here is one of the geologists:
Pete was tall, with big arm muscles and an energetic face. When he spoke, his eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and even his ears moved a great deal; they were acrobatic. Although he was clean shaven, his beard was the type to already be growing out again the minute he finished shaving. It was an enthusiastic beard. Lucky often had an urge to touch his cheeks, which looked scratchy in a handsome way, but instead she stared at them quite hard. When she did this, Pete himself would rub his cheek, as if he were feeling it for her.
The illustrations are perfectly suited to the story - they evoke the dry-as-dust atmosphere of Hard Pan and the characters are exactly as described by the author. I just wish they had been reproduced in a larger size. Here is an interview with illustrator Matt Phelan.

The Higher Power of Lucky caused a bit of a stir among those people who hear a book contains a single, potentially objectionable (for whatever reason) word and decide that the book must therefore be kept from the hands of impressionable children at all costs. The word in question here is "scrotum," and Lucky hears it mentioned in passing when someone says their dog was bit by a snake on that particular part of the anatomy. I was pleased to see that Patron stuck to her guns and made mention of the same detail (as it applied to the story, once again). I'm glad she didn't back down.

There is mention in the acknowledgments at the back of the book of future events that are to befall Lucky and her companions, which was great news. I can't wait to revisit the wonderful town of Hard Pan and its eccentric, endearing residents.

Lucky Breaks (#2 in the Lucky series) by Susan Patron; illustrated by Matt Phelan (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "What did I enjoy most about this one? Mostly Lincoln. Sure, I enjoyed Lucky. At times. But Lincoln is such an amazing person--an amazingly patient person--to care for her as he does. To be her friend through thick and thin."
Musings of a Book Addict: "There are a lot of lessons to be learned here about friendship and growing up. It wasn’t preachy about these topics in any way."
Readingjunky's Reading Roost: "She keeps Lucky true to her original character and adds just the right combination of adventure and new intrigue to keep readers waiting anxiously for the final episode."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Vögelein is a most unusual creature: she is a faerie, a tiny, beautiful person with functioning wings, yet she was constructed by a human and is made of clockwork. She thinks, talks, and experiences emotions - and as the story opens, she is frightened.

Vögelein's mechanism runs down periodically, and she needs to be wound, or she will stop working - and even if she is wound up again, she will lose memories. And as those she loves most are dead and gone, that is a horrifying thought to her: losing her memories means losing her identity. The man who has been winding her - she can't do it herself, because the key fits into her back - has died. It isn't an easy thing, finding a trustworthy human to do the one thing that keeps her from being independent. To make matters even more complicated, Vögelein runs afoul of a nasty faerie - who hates her for being what he once was, before the metal and pollution of humans warped him into a different sort of being altogether.

This is a charming story with a dark underbelly, an urban fairytale with substance and a sense of wonder. Vögelein is an admirable heroine, trying to find her place in the world, strong yet vulnerable. This story should appeal to fans of Charles de Lint, and while my library shelves it in the YA section, adult fans of graphic novels are sure to enjoy its compelling story and evocative artwork as well.

For more information about this graphic novel and its sequel (Vögelein: Old Ghosts), check out the Vögelein website. This is my first book read for this year's Graphic Novels Challenge, and I feel I'm off to a great start!

Vögelein: Clockwork Faerie by Jane Irwin and Jeff Berndt (Fiery Studios, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Biblio File: "Lovely. I especially liked Midhir, and how much our modern world has corrupted him. The line, "even the iron doesn't hurt me the way it once did" broke my heart."
Comics Worth Reading: "The beautifully moody, painted greyscale art is well-suited to the subject matter. There’s a lack of typical comic tricks, like sound effects or motion lines. The influences here are clearly books like Sandman and Watchmen: thoughtful, artistic comics with literary antecedents."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Graphic Novels Challenge 2010

I had great fun with the Graphic Novels Challenge last year, although I must sheepishly admit that I neglected to post quite a few of my graphic novels reviews. So I'm excited to be joining it again - and even more excited that Chris (of Stuff As Dreams) and Nymeth (of Things Mean a Lot), two of my very favorite people in the book-blogiverse, are hosting it this year. Three cheers for Chris and Nymeth! I'm glad we're going to Mr. Linky this time, because it will be faster and easier to put my reviews up, and I will be better about doing it, I hope!

I am also going to join Rhinoa's Manga Challenge this year, and since I do read so many of each, I've decided to keep the mangas separate from the other graphic novels, just to make it more of a personal challenge - and to keep myself from becoming stuck in a rut - those manga series can be addictive!

As far as reading lists go, I do not like to post them as a general rule, because then I feel obligated to read from the list, which sucks the fun out of it, making it feel like an assignment. But I do have a few I'm planning on reading, including the next Lunch Lady book and an interesting looking one I found on the shelf at my library called Vogelein. I'll post the others as I go.

If you are wondering what all the graphic novel hype is about but haven't taken the plunge yet, this is a great way to give this format a try - and you will get all kinds of great ideas from other participants. Remember that graphic novels are not a genre, they are a format. They offer the same substance (or lack thereof) and variety of regular printed books, but with the added benefit of illustrations, many of which are a feast to the eyes. It may take you a while to get yourself to slow down, pull away from the text, and enjoy the interaction between the images and the words, which can convey things with a subtlety that is impossible with only text. There are so many wonderful things out there - historical fiction, biography, humor, fantasy, nonfiction, retellings of classics, mysteries - move beyond your preconceived notions and give them a try - you won't be sorry!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Fall of Light

This standalone novel, set in the same world as Hoffman's A Fistful of Sky, features that novel's main character's sibling, Opal. Opal is a makeup artist for Hollywood films, and her specialty is special effects makeup. Her current film is a horror movie that is being filmed in a remote town in Oregon, and her job is to transform Corvus, the tall, sexy actor she secretly fell in love with during a previous film, into an otherworldly forest deity.

Opal's skills with makeup are enhanced by her own magical talents - her abilities enable her to transform things that the light falls upon, so Corvus's complex makeup is a bit easier for her than it would be for most makeup artists. But it isn't long before she realizes that there is something odd happening on the set. The story was written by a local writer, who was inspired by an urban legend surrounding the clearing in the forest where so much of the film takes place. When Corvus is in his makeup, something odd happens - something else speaks from inside him, and there is an eerie light in his eyes. Those horns that suddenly sprout from his head are not of Opal's making - although she has to admit, they make him look even better than her original design.

The strange events may or may not be a threat - but as Opal sees Corvus disappearing as a powerful being takes over his consciousness, she becomes alarmed. As she marshals her resources to protect herself and those she cares about, she is forced to confront the darker parts of herself, parts that she sealed off years earlier, when she was prone to a careless misuse of her powers.

I have enjoyed every book I've read so far by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and this one is certainly no exception. The magic is an integral part of the story, and it feels real and believable, as do the characters, who are complicated, multidimensional people. Opal is strong and fragile at the same time, and I enjoyed watching her come to terms with her past, as well as those parts of herself that she has kept so carefully shut away. The plot veers in surprising directions, and while the ending came a little too quickly, with not enough denouement for my taste, it was a satisfying conclusion all the same. I hope Hoffman will write more stories about Opal and her fascinating family.

Reading this one has made me want to go back and reread some of her older books. They are the sort of books that have such a strong sense of place, and the place is a comforting place to return to. Fans of Tanya Huff in particular would be likely to enjoy these books, too.

Other reviews of books by Nina Kiriki Hoffman:
A Stir of Bones
Spirits That Walk in Shadow

Fall of Light by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Ace Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Bitten by Books: "Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a masterful storyteller, and her characters are well-developed and likable. Opal is not entirely good or evil, and the struggle that she goes through to achieve a balance between the two is completely realistic."
I Read What??: "It’s not your standard cookie cutter magic user universe, there are facets that are beautiful and awful. The reader’s exploration of these facets is the enjoyable part of the experience."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Garden Spells

This novel tells the story of two estranged sisters, Claire Waverly, a caterer who puts an extra magical something into the foods she prepares, and Sydney Waverly, who left her small North Carolina town as a teenager, where she was defined by her last name as one of those weird Waverlys. But now Sydney, on the run from a disastrous marriage to an abusive, controlling man, is coming home. Having a child has changed things for her, and she needs to give her daughter peace and security.

The narrative switches points of view, alternating between Claire's and Sydney's, and including snippets from minor characters' points of view. Depending on the book, this technique can feel artificial to me and push me out of a story, but in this case it worked well, giving me valuable insight into the characters that would not have been achieved through a single point of view. The characters are the spotlight of this story - not since The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society have I felt so reluctant to let the characters walk out of my life at the end of the final chapter.

There's Claire, of course, with her resistance to any sort of change in her life - or risk to her emotions. There's Sydney, facing everything she left back in her despised hometown - as well as her sister's disapproval - all for the sake of her little daughter, Bay. And Bay - only five or six years old, is charming and wise, and has quite a bit to teach her aunt and mother. Then there's Tyler, the handsome artist who has moved into the house next door to Claire and is searching for a way to get beyond her prickly exterior. And the old apple tree in the Waverly garden has mystical apples and a penchant for involving itself in the affairs of the Waverly family...

Allen brings a small town in North Carolina to life - and it's a magical place, literally and figuratively. I was sorry when the story came to a close, and I will definitely be on the lookout for other books by this author. The audio book was a perfect way to experience this novel, which lends itself well to being read aloud. Fans of the J.D. Robb audiobooks will recognize the narrator, Susan Ericksen, who does such an excellent job with those books, and made this one a real treat.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen; narrated by Susan Ericksen (Brilliance Audio, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Angieville: "I loved this book. I loved the heady descriptions of baking and gardening and the many unexpected intersections between the two art forms."
Beyond Books: "Finishing this book made me feel like something was missing inside me. How pathetic is that? I was so charmed by the characters and the writing I felt content and comforted every time I picked up the book to read before bed."
Bookfoolery and Babble: "If I felt there was anything at all to complain about, it might be the fact that most of the characters' flaws are very mild. But, I just don't feel like complaining. I liked the book too much."
Books on the Brain: "I was captivated by Garden Spells. It is romantic and sweet and the story flows nicely. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or magical fiction."