Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dead as a Doornail

This is the fourth in the supernatural mystery series featuring Sookie Stackhouse, telepathic waitress. The books are best read in order, starting with the first book, Dead Until Dark, and while I always try to avoid spoilers, as each book builds on the next, it is difficult to avoid them when reviewing this series.

The main mystery in this installment involves a sniper taking potshots at supernatural beings in Sookies' small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. The police are involved, but considering the fact that the police are unaware of the existence of shapeshifters and werewolves, they are missing a crucial part of the pattern. When Sookie's friend and boss, Sam, is injured by the sniper, Sookie starts using her telepathy - not to mention all the supernatural contacts she's made - to discover the culprit.

Sookie also becomes involved in some intricate and surprising aspects of the werewolf community, culminating with attending the contest of two wolves competing for the position of pack leader.

This was an engaging installment in this series, but the mystery element was fairly obvious and not all that interesting. What really held my attention was Sookie and the various relationships she has with the people around her. She has become something of a hot commodity among the supernatural men in her life, which is a huge change for the girl who had been accustomed to being thought of as the town nutcase. I like how strong and self-reliant Sookie is, and that she tries to do the right thing, even when it is inconvenient - or even dangerous - for her. I also enjoyed the cameo appearance of some characters from her Lily Bard mystery series! There are some intriguing issues that are raised in this book that I am curious to read more about in future volumes.

I have started watching season 1 of True Blood, the television series based on the Sookie books, and while there are some departures from the original storylines and characters, I'm finding it to be fascinating and surprisingly addictive. Although - and I'm curious to know if anyone else experiences this - since I've been watching the show, I find that my original mental image of the characters has been battling it out with the television characters - and I'm not sure which ones are going to win!

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 as a Doornail (#5 in the Southern Vampire series) by Charlaine Harris; narrated by Johanna Parker (Recorded Books, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Eclectic/Eccentric: "As always Sookie's love life is complicated and rather unbelievable. I've never met a woman so wanted by so many distinct men. Then again, good for her."
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "Sookie seems to be collecting hot supernatural men who are obsessed with getting into her pants at the rate of about one per book, and while I am okay with authors leaving some tangly unresolved emotional threads hanging from book to book, doing so with five (soon to be six) guys at once is getting to be a little excessive."
Rhinoa's Ramblings: " I like that there are still some humans in the mix and I hope it stays that way. It's interesting that Sookie straddles both worlds and we are still unsure exactly what she is."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

xxxHolic, Vol. 8

After rereading this series in order to read the Tsubasa series by the same authors, which is loosely connected to it, I am more firmly convinced than ever that this is my all-time favorite manga series. It contains all the elements that I find appealing in my favorite books - complex characters who change and grow from story to story, fascinating fantasy elements, themes from folklore and mythology, and evocative, skillful illustrations.

This volume continues the thread that began in Volume 7, in which Watanuki makes a sacrifice in order to help his friend Domeki, and in doing so he loses one of his eyes. (This loss of vision in one eye is a theme repeated in Tsubasa, with Syaoran's blindness in one eye - I wonder what 's going on with that?).

Watanuki does not realize that his eye has become a sought-after prize in the spirit realm, and when he discovers that the Zashiki-Warashi, a lovely spirit-girl who has a crush on him, has been captured by a malicious being, he is astonished to learn that his eye is the cause of her troubles. The being that holds her captive is a dangerous force, and Watanuki rushes in to save the Zashiki-Warashi with no real idea what he's up against. There also remains the debt that exists between Watanuki and Domeki, and they need to find a way to settle that matter, as well.

The following story in this same volume is a lighter, more humorous tale that recounts a shopping trip that Yuko, the space-time witch, takes, dragging Watanuki along as always, so he can carry everything back. He is dismayed to learn that they are shopping for a new refrigerator! He spies an unusual creature while they are in the store, and another strange adventure follows.

Once again there are interesting notes at the end of the story that explain cultural or historical references in the text. Here are some that I found particularly interesting this time, describing the background of some of the magical beings we meet in this volume:
Raiju: The name Raiju is made up of the kanji for "thunder" and "beast." In Japanese mythology, it usually appears in the form of living creatures such as cats or monkeys, but there are cases of it taking flight as a ball of lightning or fire. Raiju is the companion of Raiden, the Shinto god of lightning. Marks of lightning on a tree are said to be made by Raiju's claws.

Literally it means the Prostitute Spider. The Joro-Gumo as it exists today is an orb spider with the Latin name Nephila clavata. There are tales of a mystical Joro-Gumo from the Izu peninsula that depict her as the beautiful mistress of a waterfall who tries to ensnare a man in her webs and plunge him to his death. In another story, she takes fatal revenge for a broken promise.
What a fun series this is, always full of interesting twists and turns, and problematic situations that are never resolved by taking the easy way out. I continue to enjoy the rich folkloric and mythological elements that help shape the stories, as well as the lovely artwork.

Books in the xxxHOLIC series:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6
Volume 7
Volume 8
Volume 9
Volume 10
Volume 11
Volume 12
Volume 13
Volume 14

xxxHOLIC, Volume 8 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Read about Comics: "In an ongoing serial comic, it’s easy for creators to take the easy route, keeping the status quo from one installment to the next and no real lasting effects shaking out. In some ways that’s part of what helps xxxHOLiC stand out so much for me; not only are the individual stories that make up the book interesting, but the book’s characters continue to grow and change in interesting ways."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days

Oh, the cheering that went on in my household the day the latest Skulduggery Pleasant book arrived! I always listen to the audio versions of these books - I have since the very first one, which I originally listened to after it was nominated for an award for best children's audio production. And they are phenomenal. Rupert Degas does an amazing job narrating these stories, giving characters such distinctive voices, ratcheting up the tension with his reading style - and the chapters have music and sound effects that give the books an extra-spooky twist.

My children, ages 9 and 11, adore Skulduggery almost as much as I do. They love to listen to the books over and over again, particularly at bedtime, and while I think it's great, and I would have loved it when I was their age, when I step back I have to laugh at the idea of these books as bedtime material for children! They are dark and creepy, not a little violent, but there is also humor and the inspiring camaraderie of a few staunch companions standing firm against the rising tide of evil that threatens the world.

The previous book in this series ended with a merciless cliffhanger, so we were all relieved to finally continue the story. It is nearly impossible to review this book without giving away spoilers, so please, if you find the idea of dark humor, action-adventure, otherworldly intrigue and gripping mystery appealing, please start with the first book, Skulduggery Pleasant (the newer versions call it Scepter of the Ancients - it's the same book).

For those who are interested in the fourth one, I will say that the book opens with Valkyrie determined to rescue Skulduggery from the predicament that befell him at end of the previous book. She is aided by a necromancer, Solomon Wreath, who has taught her some of that dark art, and she has learned it because she knows that in order to get Skulduggery back, she needs more power than she currently has. Solomon appears to have his own agenda, but Valkyrie finds that she is beginning to trust him despite her earlier misgivings.

Trying to save Skulduggery is only one of Valkyrie's challenges. Ominous visions have assailed the psychic community, and several familiar villains have banded together with some new ones, forming a pernicious group that is determined to bring down the Dublin Sanctuary.

I enjoyed this fourth installment in the series. The plot was not as tight as previous books, and the pacing not quite as relentless, but the characters were explored in greater detail, and I liked that. I was massively disappointed, however, that the signature music and sound effects were lacking in this audio production. This audiobook came from the UK and has not yet been released in the U.S., as far as I can tell, so maybe those things will be added later? There was also a fairly long sequence in which the reader swapped the voices in a conversation (fairly devoid of dialog tags) between two characters, and I was surprised that wasn't caught before they released it - it was a bit disorienting to hear Springheeled Jack talk with Scapegrace's voice, and vice versa.

Many intriguing questions are finally answered in this volume, and many more are raised. Valkyrie is older now - she started out at 12 and ages one year with each book, which makes her 15 now. She has come a long way since those early days, but she is still young and still finds herself struggling to defend the validity of her choices. As Stephanie grows older, the books deal with more sophisticated and thought-provoking issues. The villains are certainly deliciously evil and fairly two-dimensional, but in this book we see their motivations examined more closely than before, and they offer a few surprises. The books seem to be veering toward progressively darker territory, and while the humor is still there, it does not appear to be as prevalent as in earlier books. It has become clear that there is much at stake, and as Valkyrie travels deeper into this magical, dangerous world, she is becoming ever more aware of exactly what she stands to lose.

I am anxious to see how the story continues and, with the next book slated to be published in the fall, I'm pleased that we won't have too terribly long to wait.

Books in the Skulduggery Pleasant series:
1. Skulduggery Pleasant
2. Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire
3. Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones
4. Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days
5. Skulduggery Pleasant: Mortal Coil

Skulduggery Pleasant: Dark Days
by Derek Landy (HarperCollins, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
The Book Zone (for Boys):
"It contains all of the Derek Landy trademarks that we have come to love so much - great characters, both good and evil; tense action scenes that will have your heart beating so fast you will think it is about to explode; great dialogue laced with the scintillating banter that we have to come love so much; and, of course, many many moments of spine-tingling horror."
Dead Possum Center: "Overall a fantastic book, and totally worth a detention, I have to thank my chemistry teacher, who helped me greatly to read this book by not showing up to classes."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tsubasa, Volume 8

So I'm finally caught up in my reread of the xxxHOLIC series by these same authors, and I am continuing on with Tsubasa, which "crosses over" with xxxHOLIC. The premise is that a group of friends are traveling from one world to the next in search of Princess Sakura's lost memories, which take the form of feathers and give their bearer power that manifests in various unusual ways. Yuko, the space-time witch who features prominently in xxxHOLIC, gave them the ability to travel from one dimension to the next, for a price.

This installment opens with an episode that is a change of pace, lighter and more whimsical than the previous stories. The travelers find themselves in a world populated with cute little rabbit-like critters. They turn out to be surprisingly ferocious, however, demanding a sacrifice in order to placate a frightening "thing" that has appeared in the area. Sakura, who is becoming more energetic and forceful as her memories return to her, insists on going with the hunting party to confront the mysterious beast.

The second story sees the friends moving on to a new dimension, but when they arrive they find they have been separated into two groups. They find themselves in the midst of a sort of feud involving a traveling group of female circus performers and the villagers who are convinced the performers' annual arrival bodes ill fortune for them. Sacred statues that cry tears of blood are at the heart of the matter, and the friends think that perhaps one of Sakura's feathers is involved as well. The story is not concluded in this book, however, so I'm anxious to read the subsequent volume to see how it all turns out.

It's good to be back to this series, although xxxHOLIC remains my favorite manga. It is interesting to see how the story changes shape and tone as Sakura gains memory feathers. She is becoming more of a participant in the adventures, which I enjoy, because she is a strong, feisty character, definitely not the sort of person to stand by while others take risks for her. She is instinctively kind and very intuitive, and it is bittersweet to see her gaining memories, but never the ones of how much Syaoran meant to her.

I enjoy the humor and the energetic artwork, as well as the element of mystery that surrounds each missing feather. And, as with the xxxHOLIC series, the notes at the end of each volume are interesting and informative. This time, among other things, I learned about Shimenawa:
Shimenawa is a rough rope decorated with strips of folded and cut white paper. It is usually place around holy sites, and especially on old or prominent parts of nature such as locally significant rocks or old trees. The shimenawa indicates that the locals respect that piece of nature as having a kami residing in it or connected to it. Shimenawa can also be used as wards or boundary markers for Shinto shrines and other religious observances.
I also appreciate the information that connects some of the countries the travelers visit with different historical time periods in Japan. So far they have traveled to places that are similar to the Japan of the early 20th century, present-day Osaka, feudal Japan, and Edo-period Japan. The stories in this series are interesting, and so are all the historical details.

Books reviewed in the Tsubasa series:
Volume 1
Volume 2
Volume 3
Volume 4
Volume 5
Volume 6
Volume 7

Tsubasa, Volume 8 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2006)

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Enchanted Glass

O frabjous day when Diana Wynne Jones publishes a new book! She is one of the few writers remaining (Zilpha Keatley Snyder and Richard Peck are the only others who come to mind) who published books when I was a kid and who is still writing today. And she is one of my absolute, tip-top favorites.

Despite the tingles of anticipation and the soaring expectations, I am never disappointed when I open one of her books, and this latest novel is certainly no exception. I would like to know, however, why the UK always scores the most appealing covers! I love the cover below. I don't mind the first one, but I find the second one more visually appealing - plus it illustrates an aspect of the book that only becomes clear as the story progresses. I like when book covers do that. When I canvased my daughters, though, one liked one cover, and one liked the other - typical!

At any rate, the book is about Andrew, a young man who inherits his grandfather's estate. His grandfather was apparently some sort of powerful wizard, and his property must be cared for in a particular way. Andrew, who spent wonderful summers at his grandfather's house when he was a child, has vague memories about it, but he can't quite remember exactly what his grandfather did. Along with the property, Andrew has inherited a gardener and a housekeeper (Mr. and Mrs. Stock - but they are unrelated and very much at odds with each other), and they do their best to keep Andrew in line. Andrew is an easygoing guy, but luckily, he is no pushover.

When an orphaned boy named Aiden shows up on his doorstep, Andrew isn't sure what to do. Aiden's grandmother, who recently died, had told him that, should he ever be in trouble, he should go to Andrew's grandfather for help. When Andrew hears that there are shadowy creatures who have been pursuing Aiden, he knows instinctively that the protections around his house will keep the boy safe, and Aiden is immensely relieved that he can stay there for a while.

Trouble is definitely brewing, however, and it soon becomes evident that Aiden has some powerful enemies indeed. Luckily Andrew has some staunch allies, including a one-legged former jockey; his daughter, a lovely young woman who is a computer whiz, and a rather slow-witted boy who is, somehow, a mechanical genius. With twists, turns, and delightful surprises, the narrative is captivating from beginning to end.

The story alternates between Andrew's and Aiden's points of view, which gives the reader a whole picture of the situation and increases the suspense of the story. There are so many magical and fascinating things about this world which is much like ours, except for the magical elements. I love how the magic is presented - there are no long, explanatory passages. It is presented as it is, and while we're never exactly clear how it works, it feels perfectly understandable and believable.

I find it interesting that a book for children should have an adult as a substantial point-of-view character - and it works incredibly well, for without Andrews thoughts and insights, the book would not be nearly as strong. I loved that the parts seen through Aiden's eyes were so authentically from a child's point of view, and that the way he describes things also tells us a lot about him. For example, here is when he meets Stashe for the first time:
Aiden was astonished a third time, by Tarquin O'Connor's daughter. She was beautiful. She had one of those faces with delicate high cheekbones and slightly slanting eyes that he had only seen before on the covers of glossy magazines. Her eyes were green, too, like someone's in a fairy story, and she really was as slender as a wand. Aiden wondered how someone as gnomelike as Tarquin could be the father of a lady so lovely. The only family likeness was that they were both small.

Stashe came striding in with her fair hair flopping on her shoulders and a smile for everyone - even for Aiden and Mrs. Stock - and a look at her father that said, Are you all right in that chair, Dad? She seemed to bring with her all the feelings that had to do with being human and warm-blooded. Her character was clearly not at all fairylike. She was in jeans and a body warmer and wellies. No,
not a fairytale person, Aiden thought.
Diana Wynne Jones writes books that are perpetually thrilling, full of a magical sense of wonder, that never fail to surprise me. She often draws from mythology and folklore for her stories, and she does for this one as well. I love the places she takes me in her books, her clever sense of humor, and the characters that are eccentric and quirky, yet somehow real, ordinary, believable people.

I can only hope for another book by Diana Wynne Jones to be published in a year or two - but in the meantime, I feel so blessed to already have a treasure trove of her books on my shelves. I've been having a lovely time reading them aloud to my children - although I must admit I could not wait to finish our current read-aloud (The Graveyard Book) and went ahead and read this one on my own. I know I'll be happy to reread it to them later on!

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 2010)

Source: public library

Also reviewed at:
Book Aunt: "While I have to admit that I've liked the plots of some of her previous titles better, I thoroughly enjoyed this new book by one of my three favorite children's fantasy writers. Anyone who's read the Chrestomanci books and other wonderful works by Jones will be glad to get their hands on Enchanted Glass."
Eva's Book Addiction: "Despite a plot that sounds rich with menace and thrills, this is more a pleasant and even relaxing stroll through a land imbued with magic, peopled by the kind of eccentric villagers that fans of British fiction relish - the stubborn and crotchety gardener, the opinionated and crotchety housekeeper, and so on."
Skunk Cat Book Reviews: "The story is fast-paced and fun, with Jones's trademark humor and interesting minor characters. Her descriptions of the countryside are masterful, and the climax of the book is satisfying."

Reviews of other books by Diana Wynne Jones:
Charmed Life
The Game
Dark Lord of Derkholm
Deep Secret
House of Many Ways
The Merlin Conspiracy
The Pinhoe Egg
Witch Week

Monday, May 10, 2010

Are you taking advantage of your library?

You should be! I am constantly dismayed by how many of the customers at my public library are unaware of the wide range of wonderful services we offer. I do my best to spread the word, but so many people tend to come in, get the books they're looking for or use the computers, and then leave. I can't imagine why they don't stop by the reference desk to chat with me so I can tell them about all these wonderful things. It's baffling.

Is it possible that your library offers services you don't know about or have never bothered to look into?

Let me tell you about one that I adore. I used it all the time, and I love it.

My library subscribes to a database called Overdrive. I can go to my library's website, click on the Overdrive link from the database section, and from there I'm taken to a site that looks a bit like a library catalog and a bit like an online bookstore. Overdrive offers ebooks to read on your computer, videos to watch on your computer (or transfer to your television, if you have that kind of setup), and, best of all (for me) downloadable audiobooks. And they are all free services that you, as a library card holder, can take advantage of. Free audiobooks!

My library may only buy one or two copies of a particular audio book, so if they are checked out, I'll have to put a copy on hold, the same way I do for a physical book. When my turn comes, I get an email, and I have three days to pop on over to the website and check out the title. I can check out a total of 10 audiobooks on my account, and I can determine the length of the checkout period (one, two, or three weeks). I download the titles to my computer, and then I transfer them to my iPod. The site has little icons that indicate which sort of device is compatible for each of their downloads, so it's easy to tell what will work and what won't.

Overdrive even allows you to compile a wishlist, which I love! That way I can space out the books I check out, and I always have some waiting in the wings. Audiobooks are a great way to liven up mindless chores like washing dishes or folding laundry, and I love having a book to listen to when I'm working out or walking the dog. I do use Audible for those audiobooks that are not available at my library or through Overdrive, but what a bargain to be able to get so many as part of my library's borrowing privileges.

You may be wondering what happens when the expiration date arrives. Well, if it's on my iPod already, it's not going to suddenly vanish or anything. It'll be there until the next time I sync my iPod. Then it will vanish. So the only downside is that if you are "overdue," you're not going to be able to update your podcasts or music until you finish your book - or check it out again.

So, what are you waiting for? Why not stop by your library's website to see what gems you might be missing out on? You might be in for a few surprises.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


In the year 1850 in Nova Scotia, a teen named Josey lives with her family on a farm. When Asa Curry, a mysterious young man from Australia, shows up on their doorstep, at first they think he is an itinerant salesman. Instead, he says he has found gold on their land, and he offers a mining proposition to her father. Josey's mother is immediately distrustful of Asa, but Josey finds him very attractive. Her father takes him up on the offer, and soon, to Josey's delight, Asa is spending a lot of time with her family.

In 2009, in the same location in Nova Scotia, a teen named Tara is trying to put her life back together. Her house has burned down; her mother had to move to a different town to find work; Tara is staying with her aunt, uncle and cousin and is just about to start attending a school she went to a few years earlier. She is humiliated when one of the kids at school mistakes her for one of the boys in their class (they do look remarkably similar, particularly from behind) - but in the end, she and her "twin" become friends. The potential for romance between the two of them develops. and Tara starts to make a new place for herself. But their financial situation is so shaky that it seems even this new life of hers is about to go up in flames.

The narrative shifts back and forth from past to present, and the reader becomes aware that Josey and Tara are connected by something more than geographical location. Could there be a connection from the past that might help Tara through this difficult time in her life?

This is a powerful story that, while targeted at teens, holds appeal for older readers as well. The time shifts are handled so well - black borders surround the 19th-century story, as an added tip-off - and the artwork is energetic and full of sensory details. I particularly loved the skillful way that Larson depicted the physical similarity between Tara and Ben, as well as their developing relationship. I also enjoyed the way in which the story made the past so relevant to the present, which can be something of a revelation for younger readers.

The more I read graphic novels, the more I come to appreciate them as a unique vehicle for storytelling. This story could certainly have been told through text alone, but so much would be missing from it! The subtext created by the artwork fills in gaps that add intriguing depth to the tale. For those of you still wavering on the brink of taking the plunge with graphic novels, this would be a great one to try.

And here are some interesting items I picked up when I was putting this review together: Hope Larson is married to Bryan Lee O'Malley of the Scott Pilgrim books. And she is going to be creating a graphic novelization of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I'll be very excited to read that when it's complete!

Mercury by Hope Larson (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Also reviewed at:

BSC Kids: "Even though the story flops back and forth between the two time periods, it doesn’t get confusing, and it’s still very engaging as the reader tries to figure out just exactly how the stories of Tara Fraser and Josey Fraser are going to intertwine."
Laughing Ogre Comics: "Larson's fluid lines are beautiful and easy for the eye to read. Also fun is her creative use of symbols to reinforce subtle moments, like a potato covered with human eyes, or the word "swelter" rising from the ground like a shimmering wave of heat."
Reading Rants!: "Combining fantasy, history, first love and revenge, Mercury is a one-of-a-kind story that you can’t afford to miss."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Cast in Shadow

This book is the first in the Chronicles of Elantra series, and it sat on my bookshelf for a long time before I finally picked it up to read, and I'm not sure why. Maybe because it is a fairly thick book, which would require a sizable time investment, or maybe because I couldn't remember where I'd heard of it or who'd recommended it to me. I was under the impression, based on the cover, that it was a paranormal urban fantasy, possibly romance, but when I started reading I found that it's a fantasy novel, with elements of dark fantasy, set in a richly depicted world.

Once I was a few pages into the book, I was kicking myself for having waited so long to start. Our heroine is Kaylin, and she is a Hawk, which is one of several groups of law enforcement in the city of Elantra. She grew up, however, in the streets of the fief known as Nightshade, a place that is dark, full of crime and illicit magic, not to mention shadowy carnivorous creatures that prey on the weak and helpless. She has left all that behind her now, and she is strong, a fierce fighter, and she has found a place for herself, a safe place with people she cares about.

Within the first few pages of the novel, however, she finds her world reeling when she is called in for a meeting with the Hawklord, one of the winged Aerians who populate Elantra (along with Dragon lords and the immortal Barrani - and of course regular humans like Kaylin). There have been children found murdered in the fief of Nightshade, where Kaylin grew up - murders that are connected to her past there, to something painful that she'd thought she left behind her. She is to go back into Nightshade to investigate - and she is to take with her someone she'd also believed she'd left safely in the past. Upon seeing him, the first things he does, reacting without thinking, is hurl a knife at his heart.

The plot thickens, and Kaylin is led back to things from her past that have haunted her for years - and this time, with each death, it becomes clear how very much is at stake - and how very little time she has.

The narrative structure is unexpectedly nonlinear, and aside from the characters, this structure is my favorite thing about the book. Kaylin has basically refused to dwell on the painful events from her past for so long that her mind veers from them even as current events force her to re-examine them. The reader is given information about those events piecemeal, through Kaylin's memories and conversations, and as Kaylin allows these memories to surface, the reader gains access to them as well.

Events from the present are puzzling until we realize what happened in the past, and there is a back-and-forth feeling to the narrative that gives the reader clues from the past to combine with clues from the present, as the characters and the reader attempt to solve the mystery. This unusual structure is a risky choice for an author to make, I think, particularly as it more commonly used in literary fiction than in genre fantasy, but I thought it was beautifully executed and very effective. I never felt as though I were being manipulated in order to heighten the suspense. It felt natural to me, and added a psychological element to the novel that gave it additional depth.

I absolutely adored the characters in this book - they come across so vividly that I felt very attached to them by the end of the story. The plot comes to a satisfying resolution, but there is a sense of further areas to explore, so I'm looking forward to starting the next book in the series soon. There's so much here to like - the humor, the emotional resonance, the intricate world-building, the characters, the sense of wonder. I'm delighted by how many books there are in the series - and by the fact that this author has written other series as well. I think this book would appeal to fans of C.J. Cherryh, Patricia Briggs (particularly those who enjoyed her early fantasy novels), Anne Bishop, J.D. Robb and Jacqueline Carey.

Books in the Chronicles of Elantra series:
1. Cast in Shadow
2. Cast in Courtlight
3. Cast in Secret
4. Cast in Fury
5. Cast in Silence
6. Cast in Chaos

Cast in Shadow (#1 in the Chronicles of Elantra series) by Michelle Sagara (Luna, 2005)

Source: public library

Also reviewed at:
Angieville: "...a mix of dark and high fantasy, peopled with a smattering of solid gold, humorous, and truly sinister characters living in a fully developed, layered, and fascinating world."
Ink and Paper: "If it hooked me, and things were explained in nice simple terms I think I'd probably love it, because even now, thinking over some of the twists and turns, it was a good story."
Today's Adventure: "Cast in Shadows is an interesting blend of a high fantasy novel and a crime procedural with a dry sense of humor that gives it a flavor all its own."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Books of Magic

One of the teenagers who works as a page (shelving books) at my library handed me this book ages ago. I am ashamed at how long it took me to read this - but I have the tendency to wait till I'm in just the right mood for a certain kind of book, which tends to make for a more positive reading experience. Although I have to say, even if I hadn't been in the mood for a fantasy graphic novel full of mythological and folkloric archetypes and other way cool stuff, I probably would have enjoyed this just as much.

Timothy Hunter is out skateboarding one day, minding his own business, thinking his own teenage thoughts. Several mysterious figures observe him from the shadows. Through their conversation we learn that Timothy, although he doesn't know it, has the potential to become an immensely powerful wizard. The men argue about becoming involved. One says they should leave well enough alone - that Timothy will come into his power without their interference. Another says Timothy needs their help to choose his path responsibly, that they must show him "enough about the labyrinth to walk a true path through it." And one says they should just kill him to ensure the power doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

In the end, though, they agree to show Timothy "what magic truly is, and what it was, and what it may become." Timothy is skeptical and a bit frightened of the men when they confront him. It isn't until the man calling himself Dr. Occult takes Timothy's yo-yo and turns it into a real, hooting and flapping owl, that Timothy begins to take them seriously. And from there Timothy travels into the past, present and future -- to a faery market, to mysterious places with mysterious creatures, into the very cosmos -- each time with a different guide. With every vision, every encounter, Timothy learns something about magic: its history, its power, its manifestation, its cost. And with each new thing he learns, he comes closer to the momentous decision he must make about himself and his own life.

Fans of the Sandman books are sure to enjoy this one - and as a delightful, added bonus, characters from those books have cameos in this one. This is a great choice for younger teens who are aren't quite ready for the darkness and violence of the Sandman books but find the meticulous worldbuilding and sense of wonder of those - as well as Gaiman's other fiction - appealing. Roger Zelazny has written an excellent introduction in which he notes the parallels between this work and the archetypes of the hero detailed in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces - for any lit students out there who love fantastic fiction, there is an interesting paper to be written right there! The artwork is arresting and powerful and, as always, I am amazed by the way different artists illustrating parts of the same story can bring so much individuality to the tale while maintaining its sense of unity. This book would be worth reading even if it were just the artwork - and any fans of Charles Vess out there who haven't seen this should pick up a copy immediately!

This reminded me of Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, in which the boys travel through space and time, learning about the history of Halloween and the perception of death in different cultures and time periods around the world. My library shelves this in the YA section, but I think it would appeal to fantasy lovers of all ages. It lacks some of the complexity of the Sandman books, but it is a very engaging story all the same. Timothy is a very generic teen character, and everything around him is so amazing and awe-inspiring that he becomes almost a foil for the reader - we become Timothy; we see what he does and feel what he feels, and in the end, after experiencing what he has, we realize that we have formed our own decision as well. It's a very effective way of telling a story.

The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess and Paul Johnson (DC Comics, 1993)

Also reviewed at:
Burning Leaves: "The painterly style of the artwork recalls delicate watercolors and could easily stand on its own separate from the dialogue. It is so beautiful, in fact, that oftentimes it distracted me from reading."
Puss Reboots: "I chose to read only one book per day, thus spreading out the experience over four days. It's not my favorite graphic novel that I've read but it's certainly one that will stick with me."
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: "The story is wonderfully written by Neil Gaiman. I read all 190 pages of it in one sitting unable to put it down."

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Teppic (or Pteppic) is the son of a king who rules a kingdom called Djelibeybi, which is the closest thing to ancient Egypt as a place on the Discworld could be. Teppic has decided to travel to Ankh-Morpork to train to be an assassin.

The book opens as Teppic, having studied for several years in Ankh-Morpork, is in the process of taking his final exam. This exam is not a sit-safely-at-a-desk kind of thing; he must find his way to various places in the city, running across rooftops, climbing down walls, all the while being very, very careful of the many boobytraps in store for him. The narrative detailing his final exam is skillfully interspersed with flashbacks of Teppic's home, his student days, and his experiences at the Assassin's Guild, so that by the end of the test, the reader has gotten to know Teppec well enough to be rooting for him.

The day after the exam, however, Teppic learns that his father has died, and he hurries back to Djelibeybi like a man possessed. As he assumes his role as king, Teppic is assisted by Dios, the high priest who assisted his father, and his father before him, strictly adhering to the traditions of their country. It is a mystery how Dios has survived as long as he has, but everyone seems to take it for granted that he is and always has been the high priest.

Unfortunately for Dios, Teppic has returned with some newfangled ideas that are not welcome in his traditional kingdom, including plumbing and feather beds, which Teppic had come to appreciate during the days of his apprenticeship. Teppic also insists on talking to commoners, who are very put off by the king's conversational manner. When Teppic orders, against his own better judgment, that the largest pyramid ever be built for his father's tomb, little does he know that when it's built, it will have the capacity of warping time and space in interesting and hilarious ways. Aided by a lovely handmaiden named Ptraci as well as a genius mathematician (who also happens to be a camel) named You Bastard, Teppic tries to sort things out.

I have enjoyed all the Discworld novels that I've read so far, and this one is certainly no exception. I particularly liked the way in which the reader is given snippets from many characters' points of view, and therefore has more complete information than any single character - it makes the events that much funnier and more suspenseful. I also liked that the villain is not an evil character trying to do bad things just for the evil fun of it. He is trying to do what, in his mind, is the right thing for the kingdom, and makes sacrifices in order to do it. Pratchett has his usual fun lampooning all kinds of things, but never at the expense of the characters or the story - just enough to keep me grinning. There is so much to love about this book - and hearing it read aloud makes it even more fun. I'm loving my read through this series, and I'm very much looking forward to the next book.

Books in the Discworld series:
1. The Color of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort
5. Sourcery
6. Wyrd Sisters
7. Pyramids
8. Guards, Guards
9. Eric
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
18. Maskerade
19. Feet of Clay
20. Hogfather
21. Jingo
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. The Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. Nightwatch
29. Monstrous Regiment
30. Going Postal
31. Thud
32. Making Money

33. Unseen Academicals

Pyramids (#7 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett; narrated by Nigel Planer (Random House Audiobooks, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
A Book a Week: "We get several perspectives, all carefully coming together to create a creeping understanding of what is going on. Not one character ever really gets the full picture, but the reader does, and I am in awe of how well it all unfolds."
The Wertzone: "Pyramids...tends to slip beneath the radar, which is a shame as it is a very good book indeed."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Alison Dare

12-year-old Alison Dare is much like any other child her age - aside from the fact that her mother is a world-renowned archeologist, her father a librarian with a secret superhero identity, and her dashing uncle an international spy (and master of disguise). Is it any wonder that she finds herself in one exciting (and occasionally death-defying) situation after another? Despite the fact that her parents send her to a strict boarding school - and, when she is with them, they try to keep a sharp eye on her - Alison finds adventure wherever she goes. Even if she has to manufacture it herself.

In the first volume of her adventures, Alison is away on summer vacation. She is in Egypt with her mother, who is caught up in an archeological dig and leaves Alison all alone in the tent with a bunch of very interesting artifacts. Alison, bored to tears in the hot desert with nothing to do, immediately noses around in the artifacts and comes up with an item that bears a suspicious resemblance to Aladdin's lamp. She recites an incantation, and sure enough, a genie appears, and Alison is off and running with her first wish - for him to bring her two best friends to the desert to join her. The first shows up in a bathing suit, all posed for a dive into a swimming pool that is no longer there - and the adventure continues...

The second book focuses more on Alison's life at her boarding school, and even there she finds mysteries to solve and treasures to hunt. We also learn more about her parents. I particularly loved one story that focuses on Alison's relationship with her father; it was so sweet and funny.

Each book contains several stories, and with each the readers takes a step further into Alison's world, getting to know Alison a little better, as well as her friends and schoolmates, parents, teachers, and other people in her life. Some stories deal with Alison and her penchant for nosing into things, sometimes out of boredom and curiosity, and sometimes in order to set things right. Other stories deal with the past - one of my favorites details how her parents met each other. I love the fact that her father is a librarian - I admit to having a weak spot for librarian superheros (and I'm secretly waiting to get zapped by gamma rays and get my own superpowers, cape and tights so I can be one, too. Well, maybe not the tights. I'm sure Edna Mode could whip something up for me. But then I wouldn't be able to have a cape. Drat!).

There are many things to love about these books. First and foremost, Alison is a strong protagonist - who may be a bit self-involved at times, but what 12-year-old isn't? She may have a lot to learn, but she has a good heart and a generous spirit. Her buddies are strong girls, too, and make good sidekicks, as they have abilities that complement Alison's - and they are not shy about telling her when she's taking things too far. Not that she listens much. The stories are more than good vs. evil, superheroes vs. villains - there is actual characterization going on , which is not always a strong suit of graphic novels for elementary-age readers - and I really love the humor, some of which (in a good-spirited way) is at Alison's expense. I found myself laughing a lot as I read these, particularly the second book, which just tickled me.

I also love all the elements of superhero and adventure stories that combine in these stories - there is often an intriguing mystery to solve, in a setting that evokes Indiana Jones, the Arabian Nights, Lara Croft, Sherlock Holmes, and a wide range of superhero fiction. The artwork is bold and energetic, perfectly suited for the subject matter. It came as no surprise to me when I leaned that Alison Dare was nominated for the Eisner Award in the Best Title for Younger Audience category.

There is some cartoon-action violence, but not much, which makes these titles eminently suitable for young readers. At my public library, most of the graphic novels are in the YA section, and when the kids have run though the few graphic novels we have that are specifically written for their age group, they head on over to the teen section, where the books are not necessarily as appropriate.

Books like Alison Dare make an excellent addition to a middle grade collection - they are sure to fly of the shelf. Believe me, I could barely pry these away from my own kids (9 and 11 years old) in order to read them - they are just as captivated by them as I am. The books are sure to appeal to girls, but I'd venture to say there is enough action and adventure to keep boys happy as well - and it's always a good thing for them to read about girls who are strong, capable and adventurous.

Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures (#1 in the Alison Dare graphic novel series) by J. Torres and J. Bone (Tundra Books, 2010)

Alison Dare: The Heart of the Maiden (#2 in the Alison Dare graphic novel series) by J. Torres and J. Bone (Tundra Books, 2010)

Books received as review copies from Tundra Books.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Silver Borne

It is always challenging to review a book in a series, particularly in this, my favorite kind of series, in which each book contains a complete story, while the characters change and grow from book to book. Therefore, I will keep this review short and vague.

Mercy Thompson is an auto mechanic as well as a shapeshifter who can, thanks to the heritage of her native American father, change into a coyote. Unlike the werewolves, with whom she grew up, Mercy is herself when she's a coyote - it's just a different form that she can assume. The werewolves, however, are a more complex melding of two distinct creatures, which poses some fascinating questions and issues.

In this fifth installment of the series, Mercy gets a phone call about a book an acquaintance loaned her, a book that with information about the fae. She had been woefully unprepared for her encounters with the fae in a previous adventure, and she felt that learning all she could about the mysterious and powerful fae would be helpful. When the fae who loaned her the book mysteriously disappears, Mercy discovers that whoever is responsible for his disappearance is looking for the book - and will resort to any means possible to get to it.

Mercy's search for the missing fae is complicated by personal issues, one romantic, and one involving her very good friend Sam. The three storylines twine together into one action-packed, emotional plot that involves mystery, romance and adventure.

Mercy is one of my all-time favorite heroines of contemporary fiction, up there with Tiffany Aching, Jilly Coppercorn, Eve Dallas and Mary Russell. If you enjoy urban/paranormal fantasy or mysteries with fantastical elements, this is an excellent choice. And if you are curious about all the paranormal/urban fantasy hype but feel so inundated with choices that you don't know where to start, this series is a great starting point (but please, start with the first book, Moon Called).

These books combine so many of my favorite fictional elements: intriguing mystery, non-formulaic romance filled with sexual tension as well as humor, characters who are complex and believable, antagonists that are not just out to be "bad guys" but have actual (if not laudable) motives for their actions, skillful world-building, and endings that are satisfying but leave the reader very much looking forward to the next book in the series.

Books in the Mercy Thompson series:
1. Moon Called
2. Blood Bound

3. Iron Kissed

4. Bone Crossed
5. Silverborne

Silver Borne (#5 in the Mercy Thompson series) by Patricia Briggs (Ace Books 2010)

Also reviewed at:
All Booked Up: "I just couldn't put the book down. It certainly held up to the anticipation that waiting brought."
Angieville: "There are no stagnant elements, no pointless meanderings, no annoying red herrings. There is only adrenaline and affection and a burning desire to find out what happens."
The Book Smugglers: "What else can I say about Mercy Thompson? She remains my favorite Urban Fantasy heroine because of her savvy, her acceptance of her place in the power hierarchy of Tri-Cities, and her awesome, unparalleled level-headedness."
The Written World: "I consider Mercy Thompson one of my favourite literary characters, so I am sad that now that I have finished this book I have to wait a year for another one."