Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Crow

One way in which blogging about books has changed the way I read is that occasionally, when I'm very behind in my book reviews, I look on my bookshelf for a nice big chunkster that will give me time to catch up! I have been loving the Pellinor series by Alison Croggon, ever since I read Mariel's wonderful review of the first book a year or so ago. These books are targeted at teens, probably because of the age of the protagonists, but the tale is complex and lyrical, and would definitely appeal to high fantasy fans of all ages. I have been taking my time reading through this series because I know I'll be so sad when it's over.

This book shifts the focus from Maerad, the heroine of the first two books, to her younger brother, Hem, who has been separated from her and is living in a different part of the world. As usual, I was a bit resistant to letting a beloved character go and allowing myself to become attached to a new one, whom I did not initially find as interesting. But Croggon's storytelling is so skillful that it didn't take long for me to become engrossed in Hem's story.

Hem is having a difficult time of things, particularly when he's not with his friend and mentor, Saliman, who brought the boy to his beautiful native land of Turbansk. Hem is lonely and feels ridiculed by the students with whom he is studying, as the orphanage where he spent his previous years did not offer much of an education. War is coming, it is clear, and Saliman is often absent. One day Hem saves a young white crow that is being attacked by its siblings, and he finds that he's discovered a true friend and companion.

When Turbansk is attacked by the forces of the Dark, Hem finds himself in a city under siege. Saliman believes the boy has an important role to play in the coming confrontation, but no one is clear as to what that role will be. Hem befriends a fellow orphan, a girl named Zelika who is determined to fight against those who killed her family, and together they flee the falling city in search of a way to combat the Dark forces.

I enjoyed this third installment in this wonderful series, with its action-packed storyline that was punctuated by thoughtful interludes and tantalizing wisps of mysteries yet to be revealed. As a rule, I'm not a huge fan of books about warfare, fantasy or otherwise, but my emotions were invested in these characters, as well as in the welfare of a land that is described in such loving detail. I enjoyed spending time in Hem's company, and his part of the story is a powerful contribution to the overall tale of the fate of Pellinor, but I'm very much looking forward to catching up with Maerad - and seeing the two siblings finally reunited, which of course has to happen in the final volume. This is the best high fantasy series I've read in ages, and I recommend it to all those who love fantasy - and to those who are willing try out something new.

Books in the Pellinor series:
1. The Naming
2. The Riddle
3. The Crow
4. The Singing

The Crow (Book 3 of the Pellinor series) by Alison Croggon (Candlewick Press, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
The Curious Reader: "The characters do not always make the right choices, and their failures are hard to read, but necessary. They grow and learn from their mistakes, and create a bond between reader and character that make the books hard to put down."
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops: "Alison Croggon's story-telling continues to mature throughout the saga, with this being the darkest installment yet."
Working Title: "One thing this book has that I've really enjoyed in the previous two books is the Appendix notes, set up as if this were a true translation of a lost work only recently discovered."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Major movie disappointment

My eleven-year-old daughter had been immensely excited -- jump-up-and-down excited -- to see the film version of The Lightning Thief, because she adores the Percy Jackson series. Ever since we saw the first teaser trailer months ago, she was talking about how she couldn't wait for the movie to come out. So her expectations were fairly high.

Well, we finally went to see it last weekend. I read the book some time ago, but even though it wasn't terribly fresh in my mind, I could see there were some fairly enormous differences between the book and the movie. I wasn't particularly thrilled with some of the changes I noticed. But I've been through this so many times - only rarely does a movie hold up well to the book in my experience, so I guess I'm used to it. But this feeling of betrayal and disappointment is new to my daughter, and I guess she wasn't expecting it. She wasn't just disappointed. She was furious.

"They cut out Mr. D! Mr. D! What is Camp Halfblood without Mr. D?" she exclaimed. They also cut out Percy's nemesis, Ares' daughter Clarisse and her cronies, which meant no toilet water scene, something I gather she'd been looking forward to seeing on the big screen.

"They cut out all the best parts!" she said with disgust as we were walking back to the car. "And they put in their own blabber. It was awful!" I am still laughing inside about that - she hit the nail on the head. How many movies based on books would be vastly improved had they not added their "own blabber"?

When we got home, she started telling her father, who had wisely opted out of this experience, all about the movie. Tears actually came to her eyes as she tried to describe the breadth and depth of her disappointment in the movie. How wonderful, I thought, that she loves a book so very much that she feels this passionate about the way the movie tells the story. But I also felt so sorry for her disappointment.

I know it's unreasonable to expect that a film recreate exactly the story told in the book - but it certainly can recreate the spirit of the book, which I felt the Lord of the Rings movies as well as the Harry Potter movies and, most recently, The Fantastic Mr. Fox honestly attempted to do. I didn't hate the film - it was quite entertaining. Uma Thurman made a very charming Medusa, for one thing. Some departures from the plot of the novel are baffling to me. For example (minor spoiler), the big showdown at the end of the book is between Percy and Ares, the god of war. So naturally the reader is alarmed for Percy's welfare - he's going up against a god, after all, who specializes in combat. In the movie, though, he's up against the son of Hermes. Hmmm...son of Poseidon, one of the three most powerful Greek gods, against the son of Hermes, a minor deity in comparison? Should we even bother to watch this? Not quite the same, is it?

What about you? Have you seen the movie? Did you applaud the action/adventure fun or, like my daughter, were you disgusted with the added blabber? Do you have a favorite film adaptation of a favorite book? Or one that left you feeling angry and betrayed? Or maybe even a film that you enjoyed more than the book? I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dead to the World

It is New Year's Eve, and cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse has one major resolution for the upcoming New Year: not to get beat up. But when, on her way home from work that night, she sees a naked man running down the side of the road, her impulse to stop and help him leads her straight down a path that she suspects is going to throw that resolution straight out the window.

It turns out that the naked man is ultra-sexy vampire Eric - only he's not quite himself. He's been cursed by a witch and has no memory of who he is. Sookie is shocked and a bit fascinated by the change in his personality - the uber-confident, high-handed, self-satisfied Eric has been replaced by someone who is sweet, vulnerable and gallant. Sookie finds herself falling for this new Eric, even though she knows it's foolish.

The witches are on the hunt for Eric, and Sookie soon learns they are a force to be reckoned with. To complicate matters, Sookie's brother Jason disappears, after having last been seen with a young woman Sookie knows is a shape-shifter of some sort. When the police find a smear of blood on the dock behind Jason's house, Sookie fears the worst.

I enjoyed this installment in the Southern Vampire series, having reread the first three so I could continue on with the series. I like that, unlike so many heroines in this genre, Sookie is not a vengeful kick-ass heroine - she's more a polite, reluctant oops-I-just-kicked-ass, but-only-because-I-had-no-other-choice kind of heroine. She is kind and gracious, and when she finds herself having less than kind thoughts about truly odious people, she takes herself to task for it. I might not have noticed this so much had I not been reading Death's Mistress at about the same time I was listening to this one, and while the two heroines are equally likable, they are extremely different!

There were a few things that didn't quite gel for me (possible spoilers here - be warned), such as why, in the witch-house melee, the people she's gone in to save end up being escorted from the building by her nemesis while she stays inside - why? Made no sense. Also, why would the blood on her jacket be proof of anything untoward, as far as Eric is concerned, when she was wearing it at the witch house, which was the scene of an enormous, bloody fight? Of course her clothes would have been bloody.

Still, this was an engaging installment in the series, and once again I found Johanna Parker's narration to really bring the story to life. I enjoy the story arcs that move across books in the series, and the way in which events continually shape and change the course of Sookie's life. Things are not easy for her, but she does her best to live according to the values she's been brought up with - despite the fact that the world has changed to include vampires, werewolves, witches and other strange and unusual creatures. This installment has a bittersweetness to it, and it takes Sookie to some surprising places - I look forward to seeing what happens next.

Books in the Southern Vampire (Sookie Stackhouse) series:
1. Dead Until Dark
2. Living Dead in Dallas
3. Club Dead
4. Dead to the World
5. Dead as a Doornail
6. Definitely Dead
7. Altogether Dead
8. From Dead to Worse
9. Dead and Gone
10. A Touch of Dead
(short stories)
11. Dead in the Family

Dead to the World (# in the Southern Vampire series) by Charlaine Harris; read by Johanna Parker (Recorded Books, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Avidbookreader: "While Dead to the World is not my favorite of the series, it was still a good, quick read. My favorite is still Dead Until Dark and I pre­fer Bill Comp­ton, no mat­ter how bor­ing he may be to some of you (and you know who you are)."
Confessions of a Bibliophile: "I liked how there are some events that happen here that will definitely change Sookie’s future — I can’t wait to see where the story’s going!"
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "Oh, this one was really, really good. It’s the same fun mixture of romance and fantasy and mystery and chick-lit as the rest of the series, but it comes together much more smoothly here."

Monday, February 22, 2010

Minerva Clark Gives up the Ghost

Minerva Clark, teenage sleuth, is back in her third mystery. In the opening book of the series, Minerva Clark Gets a Clue, our heroine suffers an accident that leaves her brain a bit changed. Now, unlike every other teen (and probably grownup) on the planet, Minerva actually is quite satisfied with herself exactly the way she is. No longer obsessing on her appearance, or on what others might be thinking about her, is incredibly freeing. So much so that she finds a lot of brain power left over for solving a few mysteries here and there.

Unfortunately, even her supreme confidence isn't much help when her mother returns from the Southwest, after having dropped out of Minerva's life when she decided to run off with her yoga teacher. Now she's married to him, and while Minerva secretly thinks he's actually not so bad - and occasionally wonders how on earth he puts up with her mother - she's not exactly thrilled to have her mother around, telling her what to do (i.e. stop wearing her beloved high-top sneakers and to do something with her frizzy hair). When she is contacted by a strange but charismatic teenager asking her to help him solve the mystery of who burned down his parents' grocery store, Minerva is intrigued. Then her mother tells her she should stop poking her nose into other people's business, that it's dangerous and she could get hurt. After that, Minerva finds the mystery to be irresistible.

Minerva learns a lot about secrets in this book, things she'd never really thought much about before. The young man who appeals to her for help continually forces her to revise her assumptions about him. It is Minerva herself, though, her way of seeing things - and describing them - not to mention her sense of humor and feisty attitude, that has me loving these books. She is smart, and she has that added benefit of immense self-confidence, but she is inexperienced and still has a lot to learn. This mystery explores the darker side of human nature, and as Miranda learns more about the kind of disturbed person who sets fires that put others in danger, she finds herself gaining insight about the other people around her, too. I am very much looking forward to the next book in this series, but this is the most recent one, even though it was published three years ago. I do hope there will be a new one soon!

Books in the Minerva Clark series:
1. Minerva Clark Gets a Clue
2. Minerva Clark Goes to the Dogs
3. Minerva Clark Gives up the Ghost

Minerva Clark Gives up the Ghost (#3 in the Minerva Clark series) by Karen Karbo (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Bookshelves of Doom: "Just... awesome. Fans of Sammy Keyes will want to check this out."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

xxxHolic, Vol. 5

Kimihiro Watanuki continues his work at the strange, magical shop owned by Yuko, the space-time witch. He has agreed to work for her in exchange for Yuko making it so he can no longer see ghosts, which have been plaguing him his entire life. Watanuki is continually being surprised and confused by Yuki's demands, though - she often neglects to fill him in on important details until after the fact, which causes her no end of amusement and him no end of frustration.

Each of these manga volumes contains several story arcs. In the first part of Volume 5, Watanuki is approached by an Ame-Warashi, a rain or water spirit. She has an issue that she'd like some help with, and Yuko sends Watanuki with Domeki, a classmate with whom he has a sort of love/hate relationship. It turns out that Yuko's apparently whimsical actions are made with insight and wisdom, and Domeki's presence there is crucial.

In the second story, Watanuki notices a girl at school who appears to have wings growing from her back. No one else can see the wings, though, but at this point Watanuki is used to being able to see things nobody else can. What catches his attention is the vast amount of rage the girl carries with her - that, and the fact the every time he encounters her, the wings have become bigger. These are clearly not angel wings - they are something else entirely.

Watanuki also has a personal problem in this installment. In the previous volume, he had been given a gift of chocolate on Valentine's Day by a Zashiki-Warashi - a kind of spirit being who seems to have a crush on him. In Japan, there is a tradition that on White Day, a holiday a month after Valentine's Day, all those who received chocolate reciprocate with a gift to their Valentine's Day giver. Watanuki has no idea how or where to find the Zashiki-Warashi - and he really doesn't want to hurt a powerful spirit's feelings - not just because he's a nice guy, which he is, but also because he suspects the consequences would not be conducive to his continuing good health. But how to find someone who doesn't exist on the same plane as he does? The answer is surprising and wondrous.

The stories in this series range from amusing, to slightly creepy, to poignant. Watanuki is highly emotional, which allows the writers to inject a lot of humor into the tales. Yuko is a fascinating character, capricious and apparently self-involved, yet wise and deadly serious when events demand her attention. I continue to enjoy my reread of this series, and I recommend it to those who enjoy fantasy with folkloric elements - or to anyone just looking for a good manga series that's entertaining but with substance.

xxxHOLIC, Vol. 5 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2005)

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

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Charmed Life

Cat Chant's life has revolved around his magically talented older sister, Gwendolyn, ever since their parents died in a ferryboat accident. She is all he has left, and because she is an impressively powerful witch, despite her youth, Cat feels safe around her. He and Gwendolyn live with Mrs. Sharp, a kind but unscrupulous witch, until the day a powerful wizard who knew their parents shows up and takes them off to his spacious, lovely castle to live. Cat is so sorry to leave Mrs. Sharp behind - Gwendolyn may be his sister, but she is capricious, thoughtless, and often unkind to him. Mrs. Sharp seems to feel genuine affection for Cat, unimpressive as he is compared with his talented sister.

Gwendolyn has ambitions, and she is excited to be taken to live at Chrestomanci Castle, where she is sure she will be honored and celebrated for her unusually strong abilities. Instead, she is treated like a child and is mostly ignored. She looks down her nose at everyone, particularly Chrestomanci, a handsome, elegant wizard who just looks vaguely in her direction as if he can't quite remember what she and Cat are doing there. Gwendolyn decides she'll show them a thing or two, and she unleashes her powers on them in astonishing - and often hilarious - ways. But she never gets the reaction she is hoping for. Matters escalate, and Cat begins to find his loyalties torn between the other children who live at the castle, who actually seem quite nice, and his sister. It won't be long before Cat is going to be faced with some serious choices - and some most surprising - and upsetting - truths.

This first book in the Chrestomanci series embodies the many reasons why I have adored books by Diana Wynne Jones since I was a child. It has a strong fantasy element that is central to the plot - and that element is surprising and immensely fun. For example, Cat when the sound of Cat's violin practicing annoys Gwendolyn, she turns his violin into a cat - because his playing, according to his sister, sounds like a cat yowling anyway, so what's the difference? Yet Jones's books are always so much more than a magic-filled story. Her books make readers think - as with the concept of parallel worlds that are separated by events that may have veered in a different directions, each world containing one of a series of people who may look identical but be very different, as they've been shaped by the culture and events of their own world. (If that makes no sense, don't worry - Jones explains it much better than I did!) I loved that sort of thing as child, and I still do so many years later. And the characters are complex, with issues - in this case the relationship between a brother and sister is examined, with all its emotional baggage, which in this case is fairly massive.

I read this one aloud to my children, (nine and eleven years old), and it was a huge hit. We'd read Witch Week some time ago, and they clamored to read all of the Chrestomanci books in order, so off we go. They loved this one, and we had some fascinating discussions about siblings and relationships, and the responsibilities that siblings should have towards each other. Plus the universe in which these books are set is just plain fun! I highly recommend Diana Wynne Jones's books to all lovers of fantasy (and to those who are wondering what all the fuss is about), and this series is a great place to start.

Books in the Chrestomanci series:
1. Charmed Life
2. Magicians of Caprona
3. Witch Week
4. The Lives of Christopher Chant
5. Mixed Magic
6. Conrad's Fate
7. The Pinhoe Egg

Charmed Life (#1 in the Chrestomanci series) by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 1977)

Also reviewed at:
Here, There and Everywhere: "I can surely see why this would be a popular series with the young people, and would be a book I would read to my kids ..well if they were kids, and if they didn't like reading it for themselves."
MindsBase: "It’s a gentle story, in the emotions. It’s a fantastical story, in the actions. And who doesn’t love a good battle of witches (or any crazy creature, for that matter!)"

Reviews of other books by Diana Wynne Jones:
The Game
Dark Lord of Derkholm
Deep Secret
House of Many Ways
The Merlin Conspiracy

Friday, February 19, 2010

Polly and the Pirates

As I have enjoyed Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin series immensely, I was excited to read this first book of a new series, Polly and the Pirates. Although I received it as a birthday present, my eleven-year-old daughter swiped it and read it before I had a chance to, and she gave it glowing reviews. This is definitely a departure from the dark and otherworldly atmosphere of Courtney Crumrin and The Good Neighbors, as it is a swashbuckling historical sea adventure - but Polly, while very different from Courtney on the surface, does share her grit, determination and self-reliance.

The story opens with Polly at boarding school, where it appears she is an intelligent conscientious, rule-abiding student. But when she is abducted in the middle of the night (in her bed) and awakens on board a ship, her life as she knows it has irrevocably changed. She is told that she is the daughter of the Pirate Queen, not the cultured young woman her father has described all these years, but of course she can't believe that. She has always striven to be prim and proper, someone her mother would be proud of. But as events unfold, it seems that the salty sea dog may be telling the truth - and Polly surprises herself with her unexpected swashbuckling skills.

What a fun story! Polly seems at first timid and easily frightened, but we quickly learn that there is much more to her than meets the eye. She is strong and thinks quickly and creatively. She learns a lot about herself in the course of the story, and comes to reevaluate the things she has believed to hold the most importance, coming to some startling conclusions.

There is action and adventure, characters who at first may seem stereotypical but reveal themselves to be anything but, and the unexpected flashes of humor one expects from a Ted Naifeh tale. Polly is a likable heroine, completely different from but no less sympathetic than Courtney, and her salty sea dog companions are a lot of fun. Her adversary, the handsome but nefarious illegitimate son of the legendary Pirate King, surely has more tricks up his sleeve, but sadly we'll have to wait for the next installment. The artwork is whimsical, evocative, and - particularly in the intricately depicted scenes of the town, with its docks and many buildings, very atmospheric. It worries me that there have been no more books published since this one came out in 2006 - I hope he'll write more in the series! Still, this one does end with a satisfying conclusion, so it's definitely worth reading all the same.

Polly and the Pirates, Vol. 1 by Ted Naifeh (Oni Press, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Girl Wonder: "The art is clean and the layouts are intuitive to follow. Polly is sure to charm adults and children alike."
Read About Comics: "Fans of Courtney Crumrin shouldn’t be disappointed that Naifeh took a detour into Polly and the Pirates; rather, they should be excited that now they have a second Naifeh-created series to fall in love with."
Yet Another Comics Blog: It's standard hero journey stuff, but Naifeh really makes the story come alive with wit and adventure and interesting characters."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Divine Misdemeanors

Following the events that dramatically concluded the previous book in the ongoing Merry Gentry series, Merry, half-human, half-faerie princess of the fae, has returned to Los Angeles with her entourage. She has stepped back from the political turmoil that has had such a devastating effect on her life, and now she's trying for happily-ever-after with the fathers of the twins she is carrying.

She has resumed working for the detective agency that employed her back when she was living incognito in L.A., hiding from the faerie courts. . Now, however, there is no more hiding. Paparazzi are perpetually gathered outside the gates of her residence, and without faerie glamour she can't go anywhere without crowds forming. She is called in to advise the police on a murder case that involves demi-fey, the smallest denizens of faerie, who may be small but pack some very powerful abilities.

The mystery is peripheral, however. The true focus is on Merry's coming to terms with her new situation, out in the human world, and the role that she is going to play. It is evident that despite having left the seelie and unseelie courts to their own devices, Meredith will have to establish her own power base, not to mention her own authority within it - which will not be a simple matter. The Goddess has made it clear that, as most of the sidhe appear unwilling to accept Merry, half-human as she is, as Her avatar for restoring Faerie to power, She is going to expand her powers to the human world. This is an intriguing new development that is sure to have unexpected ramifications.

At times I found myself wondering why the mystery had been included in the plot - as Meredith and her men seemed to dedicate very little time to the solving of it, beyond saying how horrible the deaths are. When the only witness, a demi-fey, runs off, everyone seems to shrug and go about their business until the next murder happens. But I didn't really mind, as I was far more interested to see how Merry was going to juggle the men in her life and establish herself effectively in Los Angeles.

Hamilton's characters are as complex and compelling as ever, and while I didn't find this one quite as compulsively riveting as some of the others, it was still a highly enjoyable read. Readers unfamiliar with this series should be aware that it is best read in order, and that it is meant for an adult audience, as it contains explicit sexuality and not a little violence. Hamilton's world, in which humans and faeries coexist, is rich and sensual, and intricately built. The sidhe have their own distinct culture and morality and are definitely not just humans with a few extra magical things thrown in. As always, I anxiously await the further adventures of Meredith Gentry and her band of "Merry" men.

Books in the Meredith Gentry series:
1. A Kiss of Shadows
2. A Caress of Twilight
3. Seduced by Moonlight

4. A Stroke of Midnight

5. Mistral's Kiss
6. A Lick of Frost
7. Swallowing Darkness
8. Divine Misdemeanors

Divine Misdemeanors (#8 in the Meredith Gentry series) by Laurell K. Hamilton (Ballantine Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Book Series Reviews: "There are so many things that can happen next, and while I admit I'm a bit disappointed that we didn't see some of that in this book, I'm perfectly happy with the things that did happen in this book, and with the plot arcs that I saw starting."
The Good, the Bad and the Unread: "Even with the flaws, this is a very readable book and an interesting entry in the Merry Gentry world."
Tez Says: "The storybook serial kills are fascinating, but they barely get a look in here. Don’t bother buying the hardcover – wait for the paperback, or just borrow the hardcover from the library.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children

This homage to the Hansel and Gretel story concerns a brother and sister, eleven-year-old inventor Sol and eight-year-old Connie, have just moved to a new town with their father and new stepmother. Their stepmother is not a big hit with the kids - she's made Connie get rid of her beloved cat (Connie's sure her stepmother was lying when she said she was allergic), and she threw out Connie's bedroom furniture so that Connie now must share a bunk-bed with her brother. Their father isn't terribly affectionate, either, and since his new wife has been around, things have gotten worse.

When Connie and Sol take a walk and stop to pet a neighbor's friendly dog, Sol is disturbed by the bone that the dog is carrying in its mouth. He can't stop thinking about it, and when they pass the library, they go inside to do a little research. What he discovers confirms his suspicions - the dog had been gnawing on a human bone. But there must be a logical explanation, right? Maybe there is, but it's not going to be - pardon the pun - very palatable.

Parallels to the Hansel and Gretel story are immediately apparent, but there is more to the tale than that. There are actual characters - and descendants of the characters - from the story, and the reader learns chilling facts about the children that the witch who lives next door finds so very tasty. Parents are actually willingly handing their children to her for various reasons - she cannot take them otherwise; it's against the rules. Of course, Sol and Connie have no reason to suspect their parents might be considering handing them over to a child-eating witch. But if they don't figure out what's going on , they may soon find themselves served up with gravy and a curly parsley garnish.

I read this book aloud to my children (nine and eleven years old), and they definitely got a kick out of the combination of ghoulish humor and horror, similar in tone to Roald Dahl's The Witches, which I read to them several years ago. We all enjoyed the fact that Sol and Connie acted like children, and had a believable relationship. Sol is clearly a very bright boy, academically, but he has a few things to learn about human nature. Connie is impulsive and dishonest when it serves her ends, but she does love her big brother, and sometimes it's not a bad thing to be feisty and rash.

My children enjoyed this, and I did, too, although I found it left us with many unanswered questions. Some of the loose strings were more annoying than others, because when they were left unaddressed, they appeared to simply be contrived plot devices. Others made me wonder if, perhaps, there is a sequel in the works. My children, however, were perfectly satisfied with the ending, which I have to admit was immensely entertaining. Kids with a taste for the gruesome should have fun with this one, as well as those who enjoy a creative, fantastical tale.

The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan; illustrated by Yoko Tanaka (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy: "The Witch's Guide is full of risks. It's not just the jokes for the grownups, the eating children, the satire of parenting where it's better to get rid of the child than to parent; but also in giving Sol and Connie depth of character."
Killin' Time Reading: "This book starts out so promisingly, but by the end it's just lost it."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians

This second installment in Jarrett Krosoczka's fun new graphic novel series about a superhero lunch lady who works in an elementary school cafeteria continues with the same goofy humor and action-packed adventure of the initial book. In this episode, a group of librarians is concocting a nefarious plot through the school's book fair, and Lunch Lady becomes suspicious because of their unusually secretive behavior. But not even she can imagine the extent to which these librarians are willing to go to achieve their goals - nor the powerful, ingenious weapon they've developed.

I particularly enjoyed the collaboration among the school's librarian, the high school library media specialist, and the the public librarian - of course when librarians come together, they can think up pretty amazing (if dastardly, in this case) things. :-)

Lunch Lady's assistant Betty is back with some cool new food-related gadgetry, such as taco-shaped night-vision goggles, but will they be a match for the librarians' dastardly weapon? The three friends from the previous book, the only kids who are aware of Lunch Lady's superhero-ness, join in the fight. I did have to shudder at the thought of books being thrown into the water in order to save the day, but I reminded myself it was only pretend, and managed to get through that part without too many shudders of horror. All in all, Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians is a fun sequel to the first book, and should have a wide appeal to elementary-age children of all kinds, particularly those who enjoy a hearty dose of laughter and excitement in their books.

Books in the Lunch Lady series:
1. Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute
2. Lunch Lady and League of Librarians
3. Lunch Lady and the Author Visit Vendetta
4. Lunch Lady and the Summer Camp Shakedown
(forthcoming spring 2010)

Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians (#2 in the Lunch Lady graphic novel series) by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "It was fun. It was clever. And I really really liked the 'weapons' these librarians used to carry out their 'evil' plan."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "These books are pure fun, perfect for both new readers and older reluctant readers. I would classify them as a must-purchase for elementary school libraries."
Mama Librarian: "There's plenty of POW, SMACK and WHAMMO, but also some creative plotting and fun dialogue. Lunch Lady's whimsical, food-inspired epithets add a dash of spice -- pun definitely intended."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Death's Mistress

It often happens that when a writer of a favorite series starts a new one, I feel a bit grumpy and reluctant to allow the new protagonist to worm her or his way into my affections. I felt a little bit like that when Karen Chance put her Cassie Palmer series on hold in order to focus on this new character, a resident of the same world, Dory Basarab. After a few chapters, though, Dory had firmly won me over, and with this, the second book in the series, I can honestly say that it would be tough for me to choose from between the two series. Chance's action-packed, convoluted and immensely entertaining plots, her very real and complex characters, her believable and well-constructed world, not to mention her fantastic sense of humor that has me laughing out loud in unexpected places - all of these elements combine in both series. So from here on out, I'll happily pick up whatever she decides to write.

This second installment in Dory's series builds very much on the previous one. I will try, as always to avoid spoilers, but those who are interested in reading this might want to take a look at my review of the first book, Midnight's Daughter, instead. Better yet, start with her Cassandra Palmer series (first book is Touch the Dark), which not only introduces readers to Chance's compelling urban fantasy world but also includes characters who appear in both series, which allows the reader to see them from entirely different points of view.

When I mention Chance's sense of humor, which tickles me to no end, I should probably say that my own sense of humor does tend toward the ghoulish at times. When, at the beginning of the book, Dory is sent to bring a vampire back to her father, the very powerful vampire Mircea, for questioning regarding some illegal activities he's been involved in, I found it immensely humorous when she ends up with his head in her duffel bag (vampires are quite resilient that way - if he cooperates, his head can be reattached to his body with little harm done). She doesn't expect to be involved in a bang-up action/adventure chase scene, so is stuck with the vamp's head, snarking at her the entire time, with his headless body lumbering around after them, as she is involved in progressively more dangerous situations. There were shades of Stephanie Plum that had me rolling on the floor. Don't get me wrong - there is much more here than a bit of slapstick humor - Dory has some serious emotional issues to deal with, and her own personal demons to fight.

Dorina's best friend Claire returns unexpectedly to their shared house - time passes differently in faerie, and she has some surprising news for Dory. She's also in a precarious situation, and Dorina of course promises to help her. If only people wouldn't keep trying to kill her so she could get something done! I was very happy to have read Chance's short story "Buying Trouble" in the anthology On the Prowl, which describes the events that have happened in Dory's friend Claire's life, which added greatly to my enjoyment of her role in this book. If you are a fan of this series and haven't read that short story, I'd recommend reading it before you start this book.

There is a also murder mystery to solve here, and it seems no one can be trusted - and Dory has yet to get her father to tell her the entire truth about things. She is furious because she ends up in hot water because she is kept in the dark, and she can't tell if he's trying to keep her safe or just doesn't trust her. She gains some surprising insight into his character in this book, and she learns a lot more about the devastatingly sexy vampire Louis-Cesare and his past, and things that happened centuries before Dorina was born. All in all, this is an excellent addition to this series, and as I said earlier, I'll be looking forward to whatever Chance decides to write next, with whatever protagonists she wants to include. Bring it on - and soon, please!

Books in the Dorina Basarab series:
1. Midnight's Daughter
2. Death's Mistress

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

4. Curse the Dawn

Death's Mistress (#2 in the Dorina Basarab series) by Karen Chance (Onyx, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Lush: "Death's Mistress is a must read for anyone looking for an urban fantasy story that's explosive, fast paced with wonderful characters and a plot that will keep you guessing until the very end! Really! I did not see it coming one bit."
Welcome to Larissa's Life: "
The plot in this book was awesome and it was so action packed that I could not put it down for a second. The balance between romance and action is spot on and leaves nothing to be desired."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ill Wind

Joanne Baldwin is a Weather Warden - one of only a few people with an innate ability to control the elements (air, water, earth, fire) and, therefore, the weather. The rest of us mundane folk go around thinking that we are at the mercy of the weather (silly us, particularly those of us who've been buried under several feet of snow this past week!), when in reality there is a secret group of people managing things behind the scenes, making storms that seem powerful and destructive less powerful and destructive than they might be, otherwise.

As the book opens, Joanne is in trouble. She has had a run-in (referred to in an intriguing series of flashbacks) with a Warden in Florida, and killed him in self defense, but now she has a serious issue that she cannot confide in any of the other Wardens. They are chasing after her, and she is trying to get to the one person she thinks might be able to help her. Unfortunately, someone very powerful is seriously out to get her - as evidenced by a near-miss lightning strike aimed at her. A mysterious, handsome man she meets along the way helps her out of a scrape - but she hesitates to further involve him, because doesn't want to endanger him. If only he weren't so amazingly attractive...and perhaps there is more to him than meets the eye?

This novel is a combination of cross-country road-trip chase adventure, romance, and fantasy thriller. The supernatural premise is certainly an interesting, fresh one - although it does involve the traditional element of djinni, who are used, glass containers and all, to augment the Weather Wardens' powers.

I enjoyed this book, mainly for the pleasure of Joanne's company. She has an engaging voice and an enjoyable way of describing things that really gets her point across. The structure of the novel, with its alternating flashbacks that describe the events in Florida as well as Joanne's childhood, and the ramifications of growing up with burgeoning Weather Warden power, is very effective. The characters are complex and interesting and pack some surprises along the way. I do have some unanswered questions, though. I am wondering how the most powerful of these Wardens accrue the funds to be so fabulously wealthy - if no one knows what important work the Wardens are doing, how is it remunerated? I'm also curious why no one seems remotely concerned by the moral ramifications of enslaving djinni - which leads to some additional questions regarding Joanna's attitude about one djiinn in particular. Perhaps we shall see in future books of the series, which I'm looking forward to reading. Interesting premise, engaging characters, exciting plot, tight writing - what's not to like? It is good to see that there are a whole lot of books already written in this series, so it will be some time before I'll be forced to play the waiting game. I like that!

Books in the Weather Warden series:
1. Ill Wind
2. Heat Stroke
3. Chill Factor
4. Windfall
5. Firestorm
6. Thin Air
7. Gale Force
8. Cape Storm
9. Total Eclipse

Ill Wind (#1 in the Weather Warden series) by Rachel Caine (Roc, 2003)

Also reviewed at:
Angieville: "It's always fun sinking into a new world, particularly one like Caine's--that rare urban fantasy sans vampire, shape shifter, or other furry beastie."
Beyond Books: "The entire series it seems as though Joanne is always on the run from someone or something and she really is. But she is so captivating, sarcastic and funny that her dire situations seem a little less dire as she keeps her wits about her and a cool head under pressure." Tez Says: "But while I wholeheartedly enjoyed reading about the whether, the paranormal elements just didn’t grab me. Oversight seemed very convenient, as did having a Djinn to intensify one’s powers."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mistress of the Art of Death

In the town of Cambridge during the reign of King Henry II, a child is murdered. The manner of his murder - crucifixion - brings suspicion immediately to the Jewish members of the community, who are subsequently removed from their homes and incarcerated - every single one of them. Even when further children are killed while they are locked up, the Jews are still believed to be responsible. King Henry is interested in determining the true killer, not from an altruistic desire to exonerate the Jews, but because they are crucial contributors to his tax funds - and the king also seems to wish for true justice to be served.

A young doctor (really a forensic specialist) from Italy finds herself being sent by the King of Sicily to Cambridge, where she is supposed to inspect the bodies of the children and try to determine as much about their death as possible. Her companion, Simon of Naples, will assist her in determining who murdered the children. Of course a young woman with such skill is unheard of in England during this time period, although some people have heard about the medical school in Italy that allows women to study there, but few of them actually believe it. Therefore Adelia is at risk of being called a witch, and of course no one takes her seriously. She must be sneaky and clever, and the more she and Simon discover, the more it becomes clear that the children of Cambridgeshire are in great danger. If they cannot find the perpetrator soon, further deaths are sure to follow.

This is the kind of book that, as I was reading it (listening to it, actually), I found myself wanting to tell everyone about it, and I wanted to put copies into everyone's hands. It is an excellent combination of so many things that I love to read - a gritty historical novel with many fascinating details of England in the early 1100s, combined with a story that features a strong, intelligent female protagonist, a murder mystery with tantalizing (and dark) clues, captivating, multidimensional characters, a bit of romance, and a relentless pace and tension that kept me thinking about the story and itching to get back to it whenever I had to set it down.

It is dark and at times gruesome, as it deals with the murder of young children in a truly horrific way, so be forewarned. But there is humor in unexpected places as well, as in this scene in which Adelia, who has set herself up in the town as a physician's assistant (who would ever believe that she is the actual physician?). The pretend doctor is Mansur, her traveling companion/bodyguard, who speaks Arabic. So Adelia pretends to translate for him, when in reality she is dispensing her own medical advice:

Adelia was in the hall, wrangling with Dr. Mansur's last patient of the day; she always kept Wulf to the end.

"Wulf, there is nothing wrong with you. Not the strangles, not ague, not the cough, not distemper, not diper bite, whatever that is, and you are certainly not lactating."

"Do the doctor say that?"

Adelia turned wearily to Mansur. "Say something, Doctor."

"Give the idle dog a kick up his arse."

"The doctor prescribes steady work in fresh air," Adelia said.

"With my back?"

"There is nothing wrong with your back." She regarded Wulf as a phenomenon. In a feudal society where everybody, except the growing mercantile class, owed work to somebody else for their existence, Wulf had escaped vassalage, probably by running away from his lord and certainly by marrying a Cambridge laundress who was prepared to labor for both of them. He was, quite literally, afraid of work; it made him ill. But in order to escape the derision of society, he needed to be adjudged ill in order to avoid becoming so.

Adelia was as gentle with him as with all her patients - she wondered if his brain could be pickled postmortem and sent to her so that she might examine it for some missing ingredient - but she refused to compromise her duty as a doctor by diagnosing or prescribing for a physical complaint where none existed.

"How about malingering? I'm still a-suffering from that, ain't I?"

"A bad case," she said and shut the door on him.

The only consolation to the feeling of loss I felt as the book ended was the knowledge that there are two other books featuring the inestimable Doctor Adelia that await me. The narration of the audiobook is excellent - Rosalyn Landor does a wonderful job. I heartily recommend this one to any who enjoys historical mysteries - I am certain it will be one of my favorites reads of this year.

Books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series:
1. Mistress of the Art of Death
2. The Serpent's Tale
(also published as The Death Maze)
3. Grave Goods (also published as Relics of the Dead)
4. A Murderous Procession (also published as The Assassin's Prayer)

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin; narrated by Rosalyn Landor (Books on Tape, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Lost in Books: "It’s hard to combine history with a mystery thriller – and, in fact, some people have taken issue with some of the historical details of this novel – but for my part, this was a gripping, entertaining read."
Reactions to Reading: "Although it runs to 502 pages I gobbled up this book in a couple of settings, wishing I had the patience to take things more slowly because I didn’t want it to end but being unable to resist the pull of just a few more pages."
The Written World: "This book has a lot going on in it. It has the mystery aspect of who is killing the children and why now after so many years with no apparent deaths. Romance even comes to call in this book, even though the majority of the people have sworn off relationships for religious and personal reasons, but are starting to wonder if they made the right choice."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blood Lines

When the Royal Ontario Museum's curator of Egyptology is reviewing an English estate's collection of Egyptian artifacts, he is fascinated by an unusual sarcophagus. Everything about it indicates that there is a mummy inside, and he brings it back to Canada full of triumphant joy. But then things start to go wrong. Mysterious murders occur in the museum - or are they murders? They seem to be deaths from natural causes, but when Mike Celluci is told by a police officer that a mummy was in the room with a victim - only to be told later that there is no mummy at all, he becomes suspicious. When told by his superiors to let the matter drop, he turns to his ex-partner Vicki Nelson, who is now a private investigator, for help.

The more they discover about the ancient Egyptian who has been brought to their city, as well as the cruel and powerful god he serves, the more they fear that there isn't much they can do to fight such power. Their adversary is skilled at manipulating minds, and savvy enough to target the minds of those who are in charge. Henry, a centuries-old vampire, joins in their fight, but compared to the Egyptian priest he is young and inexperienced. If they cannot stop the priest before he creates a new temple to his dark god, Toronto - not to mention the rest of the world - will be in dire straits indeed.

This is the third book in Tanya Huff's Vicki Nelson series, which I'm rereading before I start watching Blood Ties, the television show that is based on these books. These are among the first in a subcategory of fantasy that has exploded during this past decade, and if you are a fan of urban fantasy/paranormal romance, I urge you to give this series a try to see where it all began. The first in the series, Blood Price, involves ex-cop Vicki Nelson becoming acquainted with 450-year-old vampire/romance author Henry Fitzroy, and fighting some supernatural crime together. Blood Trail, second book, deals with werewolves, and this one deals with a very interesting mummy. The writing is tight and effective, the characters fresh and real, and I enjoy the suspense as well as the humor of the stories. The books are best read in order, as the events in the characters' lives, as well as their relationships, evolve from one book to the next. I continue to enjoy my reread of this series, and it remains amazingly current despite the fact that it was published nearly twenty years ago.

Books in the Vicki Nelson series:
1. Blood Price
2. Blood Trail

3. Blood Lines

4. Blood Pact

5. Blood Debt

Blood Lines
(#3 in the Vicki Nelson series) by Tanya Huff (DAW Books, 1993)

Also reviewed at:
Tez Says: "I particularly love the setting. So many books in the genre are American-based, which gets a bit same-old after a while, so Canada is a welcome change. From the Royal Ontario Museum to the CN Tower, Toronto is a city I’d love to read more about."
What Cheesy Reads: "Best book of the series so far."

B&OT reviews of other books by Tanya Huff:
The Enchantment Emporium

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Things you never want to hear your ski instructor say

"Uh-oh. The ski report said this one was groomed last night."

"I think we'd better take our skis off and walk over to that trail over there."

"Hmmm...there's not much snow on this trail. But it's the only way down." [N.B. It's a double diamond.]

"Looks like we're in for a little adventure here."

"Let's review what we do when we encounter icy patches."

"Try to avoid the rocks and grass that are sticking up."

We survived. I didn't even fall down! (Except mentally, every time I looked at what was coming up next.) But what a hair-raising experience. I'm starting to miss my nice, safe job at the library...