Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Revenge of the Witch

Thirteen-year-old Tom lives on a farm, and when it comes time for him to be apprenticed, it is only natural for him to become the Spook's apprentice, because Tom is the seventh son of a seventh son. He is ambivalent about this new development, particularly when the time comes for him to spend his last night in the comfort of his own bed, knowing that in the morning, the Spook will come to take him away. Yes, he'll have a profession when he grows up, and yes, the Spooks do important, necessary work. But still...Gregory, his new master, is so serious, and it gives Tom the creeps to think of all the boggarts and witches he must have dealt with in his travels from town to town.

Still, Tom leaves with him, wondering if he'll manage to pass his first month of apprenticeship and be taken on permanently. His first test comes soon - that very night, he must spend the night, all alone, in an old haunted house. From there, Tom's life becomes a routine of learning interesting but disturbing things, both from Gregory's teachings as well as personal experience. An encounter in the village leaves Tom beholden to a young girl named Alice, to whom he foolishly promises help in return, should she ever need it. One day when his master has gone away, Alice indeed asks him for help, and while Tom feels uneasy about her request, he also feels he should honor his promise. Little does he know the danger his actions may unleash.

This creepy YA novel does not pull any punches - it moves beyond dark fantasy into pure, bone-chilling horror, and it does a wonderfully creepy job of it, too. Tom makes some big mistakes, but he learns lessons that he will never forget - with consequences that are sure to haunt his nightmares. This is an excellent opening to a series, with characters who are complex and intriguing, and who appear to have secrets in their past that we have yet to discover. Tom is likable but naive and a bit wishywashy- he tends to be pushed around fairly easily - but he does seem to learn from his mistakes. I am pleased to see that there are many more books in this series, and I intend to listen to the audio versions, because this production, read by Christopher Evan Welch, was so very well done. This spine-tingling tale is particularly effective read aloud, as the skillful narration draws out the suspense and cranks up the spooky atmosphere. Teens who enjoy Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series would probably enjoy this series, as well as those kids who loved the Goosebumps series and the Scary Stories to Read in the Dark books and are ready to move on to something more substantial.

Books in The Last Apprentice series:
1. Revenge of the Witch
2. Curse of the Bane
3. Night of the Soul-Stealer
4. Attack of the Fiend
5. Wrath of the Bloodeye
6. Clash of the Demons
7. The Spook's Tale and Other Horrors


NOTE: These titles are U.S. titles; in the UK the series is called The Wardstone Chronicles and, and the titles are all different. Why do they do this? It is so confusing! For more information, check out the Joseph Delaney entry at fantasticfiction.co.uk.

Revenge of the Witch (#1 in the Last Apprentice series) by Joseph Delaney; narrated by Christopher Evan Welch (HarperAudio, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog: "Revenge of the Witch is a little darker than your typical YA fantasy book, and I really liked that. It makes it scarier and more exciting! Just be sure to, er, read the book in the daylight..."
A Garden Carried in the Pocket: "I think young people would love the book for all the deliciously frightening events and for the magical education Tom is receiving."
Read_Warbler: "The writing is pacey, spare, and to the point, not a lot of time wasted with inconsequentials... perfect for teenage boys I would imagine..."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Game of Sunken Places

Thirteen-year-old Gregory's eccentric Uncle Max has invited Gregory - and a friend of his choosing - for a visit during fall break. Gregory chooses his best friend, Brian, who joins him happily, hoping for an adventure.

From the time they arrive in Vermont, strange things happen. A spooky man stares at them, a shopkeeper tells them to turn around and go home. Uncle Max is bizarre - he secretly burns the boys' suitcases, and then gives them knickerbockers and tweed jackets to wear. The boys explore the house, and they come across an old board game. The game board shows a bird's-eye view of Uncle Max's mansion and the vast grounds around it, and the boys decide it might be fun to play it.

From there they embark upon a mysterious and exciting, often frightening, adventure, as they encounter axe-wielding trolls, riddles, hidden caverns, and a blind, bloodthirsty ogre with a disturbingly acute sense of smell. The game is confusing, the rules unclear, and the danger certain. While the boys do not entirely understand the point of the game, or even how to win it, it is clear that time is running out.

Despite the fact that this book possesses many fictional elements that I enjoy (a mysterious game, adventures in otherworldly places, kids risking their lives against incredible odds to achieve a goal), I found it was disjointed and never really held my attention for very long. There was very little character development, and I kept confusing which boy was which because, despite the fact that they are described as being polar opposites, they felt so much alike to me. And they exclaimed things like, "We may be being chased!" which didn't sound much like anything a teenage boy would say. The boys wear their knickerbockers and tweed without much complaint, and beyond a question or two about their belongings, they never make any fuss at all about everything disappearing.

There were long, tedious passages describing the various wonders the boys encounter during the game, but as they really didn't relate to matters at hand, I found my attention wandering again and again. I never really bought into the fact that the boys were risking their lives to play a game in which they really had no stake whatsoever. Who cared who won the game, when we knew so little about the two sides? I certainly didn't. Why would the boys risk their lives to try to win it? I listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I have never found my mind wandering off to other things as much as it did with this one.

M.T. Anderson's Feed is one of my favorite YA novels of all time, and perhaps I went into this one with unrealistically high expectations in the light of my fondness for that book. I do think this book would appeal to fans of The Spiderwick Chronicles and the 100 Cupboards series, but for older readers (teens and up), I recommend reading Feed instead.

The Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson; narrated by Mark Cashman (Listening Library, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
21 Pages: "The author mentioned in an interview that he didn’t plan for the story to be a mystery or have any big reveals - and that’s what it felt like."
365 Days of Books: "I would recommend this to middle school readers who like solving puzzles and don't mind the creepiness and tension of a knife wielding villain chasing you over the rain slicked roof of a mansion."
Things I Finished: "... this was charming and fun. And I'm pleased to say that the twist at the end caught me totally off guard"

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Orphan's Tales, Vol.1: In the Night Garden

In the gardens of the Sultan's palace, there lives a young outcast, an orphan thought to bring bad luck, or to be cursed, or to be a demon, because she was born with a dark birthmark across her eyes, like the mask of a raccoon. Whenever any of the other children encounter her in the gardens, they run away in terror - all except one boy, one of the many sons of the Sultan. He stands his ground and tells her he is not scared (although he is).

Because he does not run away, because he stays and talks with her, the girl tells him the truth about her birthmark - she was not born with it, but a spirit came into her cradle and touched her face when she was a baby:

"...and left there many tales and spells, like the tattoos of sailors. The verses and songs were so great in number and so closely written that they appeared as one long, unbroken streak of jet on my eyelids. But they are the words of the river and the marsh, the lake and the wind. Together they make a great magic, and when the tales are all read out, and heard end to shining end, to the last syllable, the spirit will return and judge me."

The boy begs her to tell him one of the stories, and she agrees. But they must hide from everyone, because it is forbidden for him to speak with the girl, and if his oldest sister finds out, she will be furious.

The tales of the orphan are fantastical and full of every fairytale trope that ever appeared in a volume of Grimm or Andersen, but with twists and distortions, shifts and surprises, and soaring flights of fancy. She layers tales within tales within tales, moving seamlessly from one level up to another and another, then back down again. The stories are interconnected, but it is not always immediately apparent precisely what the connection is.

I loved that the switches in point of view from one storyteller to another give additional perspective to the tale, so that I kept reinterpreting the events of the story in the light of the new information. There were also recurring characters from one story to the next, and when they appeared, suddenly certain events would shift into focus, as I realized that this story was set in the same country as a previous story, which meant that the king was the same king who did such-and-such, and so - oh, wow, the queen was actually the little girl we met in that other story, etc. It made my head spin sometimes, but most definitely in a good way.

Periodically the stories would surface back up to the original one, in which the orphan is telling stories to the boy in the garden. None of the tales were about either of the children - as far as I could tell - but I have a sense that some revelations about the two of them may be in store for us in the second, and final, volume of these stories.

I loved this book. I love Valente's evocative writing, the compelling characters and bizarre situations in which they find themselves. I love the resonant, mythological undertones that make the stories seem as though they've been passed down through the generations, and I love the way that the characters have much more depth than typical fairytale characters. I am very much looking forward to reading the second volume of The Orphan's Tales. I leave you with a passage from the book, chosen at random, simply to show the sense of wonder that permeates these pages:
There is nothing quite like the moment a sail clutches the wind and opens under it like the legs of a merry fishwife. The sound of it, the echoing billow as the air blows out the fabric, the surge forward and the spray in the teeth--it is the sound that heralds the beginning of new worlds, the birth of litters of wish-granting seals in a hundred secret grottos, the grinding of new rivers through mountains which witnessed the first flood and chuckled at their wet toes.

It filled Sigrid's heart like wine into an oak barrel.


The Orphan's Tales, Vol. 1: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente; illustrated by Michael Kaluta (Bantam Spectra, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
A Garden Carried in the Pocket: "Valente's writing pulls you in through the cycle of tales that circle around and back again, introducing new characters and new tales that all have interconnections; every apparent loose thread is deftly interwoven with a new story."
Fantasy Book Critic: "... a fascinating book that I believe any true lover of fantasy would cherish, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is eagerly anticipating the second part of the duology..."

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark

I am a big fan of the Disney parks, not to mention the films, cartoons and characters, and when I heard the premise for this book, I thought it sounded like great fun. Finn Whitman is a young teen living in Orlando, Florida, and his life is like most other teenagers, except for the fact that he is one of only five kids chosen to be the models for Disney World's holographic tour guides, guides that seem like normal humans but are actually holograms, projected images that people can walk right through.

What Finn and the other four kids do not realize, is that they are linked to their DHI (Disney Host Interactive) in a mysterious way, and when they are needed to help protect the park, they travel their, in their dreams, and wake up inside their DHI bodies. The magic of Disney, it turns out, is a powerful thing, and the villains of the park - the Overtakers - are hatching a plot to extend their reach out into the real world. Because the DHI teens are part human, part "character," they are able to see things and do things that regular humans cannot. Walt Disney envisioned the rise of the Overtakers as a possibility, and he left a quest, a puzzle, and some hints for solving it. The Imagineers have failed to solve that puzzle, but they hope that the teens, with their unique abilities, may be able to.

I really wanted to like this - and there were things about it that I did like; don't get me wrong. It is fun to imagine what happens in the Disney parks at night, and certainly to imagine being in the unique position of being able to protect the world from villains such as Maleficent. Finn is a likable guy, and the behind-the-scenes glimpses of the park, its secret tunnels, hidden passages and Escher staircase are very cool.

But there were aspects of the book that did not work so well for me. Wayne, the elderly Imagineer who recruits Finn, tells him that each of the DHIs were chosen to play their roles for their special abilities and gifts that would help them defeat the Overtakers. Of the five, there are three boys and two girls. One boy, Philby, is smart and pitches in right away, but the other characters, particularly the girls, are fairly weak and don't accomplish much. I was expecting a fun, Mission-Impossible type of team, but was disappointed. The puzzles are solved through convenient wild guesses that turn out to be right - one puzzle is even solved, not by the "clever" girl, but through total chance. I never really bought the premise that Disney Imagineers, unable to solve Walt's puzzle, would make DHIs of kids and expect them to do it. Why kids? Why not themselves? It's never addressed. I also kept wondering why, if the villains are coming to life through people's belief in them, there aren't any heroes to defend the park. We catch brief glimpses of Winnie-the-Pooh and Chip and Dale, but there's no Buzz Lightyear or Mulan anywhere in sight.

I had some issues with Finn and his mother, as well - she keeps accusing him of sneaking out of the house at night, and he insists he hasn't - can't the woman just open his bedroom door to see whether he's in bed? He tries telling her the truth, and we never really see the outcome of that scene - it's glossed over a little too conveniently. The bottom line is that I never felt that I was able to completely believe in the story - there were simply too many unaddressed issues and convenient coincidences, and that was disappointing.

I think this is the type of book that kids will enjoy for the fun of it, particularly the creepy but not-too-scary scenes with nasty pirates from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride,Maleficent, and a particularly memorable confrontation in It's a Small World. My library shelves this in the YA section, but aside from it being a little dark and creepy, I'd say this is appropriate for younger, interested readers as well. I've recommended it to my 11-year-old daughter, who is sure to enjoy it, but I'm not planning on continuing the series myself.

Books in the Kingdom Keepers series:
1. Disney after Dark
2. Disney at Dawn
3. Disney in Shadow

The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark
(#1 in the Kingdom Keepers series) by Ridley Pearson; narrated by Gary Littman (Brilliance Audio, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Big A little a: "Finn Whitman is a likeable character--a normal boy caught up in an abnormal situation. His mom is a riot too."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes Disney details of this book, and the likeability of the main character."
Words by Annie: "This story's plot was full of twists and turns. The characters were very well developed...and I wish I could be a Kingdom Keeper!"

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Carmilla

This classic vampire story, written twenty-five years before Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a must-read for lovers of Gothic fiction and vampire tales. I read this when I was in high school, after reading Interview with the Vampire and Dracula, finding myself hungry for other vampire stories. When I was browsing through my library's catalog of downloadable audiobooks, I came across Carmilla, and it felt like seeing an old friend. So I downloaded it to my iPod and had a great time revisiting it. As with most spooky tales, this one lends itself well to being read aloud; the narrator, Megan Follows, gives a delightfully creepy and emotional interpretation to the first-person narrative, and this audio production is a winner of the Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award.

The story is told by Laura, a young woman living in a castle in a remote country near Austria; her mother has died, and she lives with her father, her governesses, and other servants. As the book opens, we learn that she had been anticipating the visit of a family friend for a very long time - she'd been very much looking forward to the companionship of another girl her own age. But then she and her father receive the horrible news that the young woman has died, and Laura is devastated.

Not long after that, there is a carriage accident right near the castle. As Laura, her father, and her governesses run to see if they can help, they see a beautiful young woman, unconscious, being pulled from the overturned carriage. The girl's mother is hysterical - she is on an urgent trip, a matter of life and death, she says, and asks for the closest village, where she hopes to find an inn for her daughter. There is no such village, and Laura's father offers to have the girl stay with them for the three months the mother will be gone. Laura is delighted, but she and her father are puzzled by the injunction laid on them by the young woman's mother: they must not ask the girl, Carmilla, any questions about her past or her family. The mother promises to explain everything when she returns.

Carmilla is the perfect guest, it seems: a delightful companion for Laura, charming and intelligent, if rather weak and languorous - and definitely reticent about her past. There is something distinctly odd about her though, particularly her behavior when the two girls are alone together, which leaves Laura feeling equally attracted and repulsed by her friend, and very confused. As Laura succumbs to the mysterious illness that's been affecting young girls throughout the countryside, she is also afflicted by bizarre, upsetting dreams. The doctors are baffled, and her father grows increasingly worried about her delicate health...

The story may seem a bit obvious to those of us reading it today, who've read dozens of vampire tales and seen all the films, but for its time Carmilla must have been surprising and disturbing - and the lesbian undertones positively shocking. Yet there is a lot here to captivate the modern reader - the strong voice of the narrator, the eerie, atmospheric details, and the vivid imagery of Le Fanu's descriptive writing, among other things.

The story itself is much shorter than Dracula - it's really a novella, and it is a very quick read. I enjoyed my reread (or should I say, re-listen?) very much, although I did find its conclusion to be much less satisfying than I remembered. Potential spoilers follow, for those who have not read it - and for those who have, I'd love to hear what you thought of it.

I felt disappointed that Carmilla and Laura never confront each other, once Laura discovers the truth. Their relationship was so ambiguous, and I would have loved a clue about Carmilla's true feelings. Was Laura just prey? Was she something more? In a more modern telling of that book, such a scene would be indispensable! I felt cheated by the conclusion, also, as it was described in retrospect, which removed any sense of tension and much of the horror. I also felt that there were too many loose strings - what about the woman who claimed to be Carmilla's mother? What was their true relationship? Is she a vampire, too?

Aside from my minor quibbles (many of which stem from the fact that I'm reading it with 21st-century eyes, I'm sure), I very much enjoyed this book. It is fun to read these seminal works and see the original archetypes for many of the characters we've come to take for granted and view as simple stereotypes. It is interesting to think about the fact that sexual tension has permeated vampire fiction for well over a century. I wonder what Le Fanu would have thought about Lestat and Louis? Edward and Bella? Sookie Stackhouse? Queen Betsy? The mind boggles.

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu; narrated by Megan Follows (Audio Partners Publishing Corporation, 2006; originally published in 1872)

Also reviewed at:
Adventures in Reading: "Though LeFanu’s work is easily solved approximately half way through and there are some significant unanswered questions, Carmilla is both a curious and interesting look at vampirism."
Love Vampires: "I had difficulty in bonding with Laura as I read this story. I think it was because Laura herself is not much of a heroine. In fact she is classic vampire bait!"

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles: The First Escape

My daughter picked this book out (with a little urging from me, since I wanted to read it, too) when we were shopping at her school's book fair last month. She is a huge fan of all kinds of books, but she is particularly captivated by graphic novels, and this one looked like fun. It is what I call a graphic novel hybrid - part comic book panels, part straight text with illustrations, and this format lends itself nicely to the Gothic, atmospheric nature of this particular tale.

Fourteen-year-old identical twins Sadie and Saskia Dopple are residents of Isambard Dunstan's School for Wayward Children. Their mother dropped them off there years earlier, saying she'd be back to get them, but she has never returned. They are not happy there, as the school is run by an overbearing headmistress - but the girls are rather bratty themselves, constantly causing trouble in the school.

When one one of the twins is adopted by a strange but wealthy woman, but the other is left behind, the girls are heartbroken by the separation. Saskia is taken away to a spooky old mansion where odd things are happening. Sadie gets into trouble at school, and when matters come to a head she flees, aided by fellow teen Erik Morrissey Ganger (yes, he's named after the musician), who was abandoned by his father, a skilled thief, at the school years earlier. As Sadie and Erik, on the run from the school, stumble into one dangerous situation after another as they try to get to Saskia, Saskia discovers a truly heinous scheme afoot in her new home.

This action-packed adventure novel is packed with kid appeal, from the full-color illustrations of the comic book sections to the whimsical fonts and creative presentation of the text portions of the book. The story does not sacrifice form for content, however; the plot itself is compelling. At first the twins are not terribly sympathetic characters - but they certainly are interesting. And they are soon up to their necks in trouble, and they rise to the occasion, using the talents they've learned as troublemakers, in an attempt to foil a most dastardly plot.

There are lots of fun, Gothic touches along the way: a mysterious, forbidden portrait covered by a cloth so that no one can see it; a ghostly woman who teaches Saskia manners in her new home; a maniacal magician with a bizarre contraption in his basement - what's not to like? The story ends with a satisfying conclusion, but also leaves a few juicy loose ends so readers will be eager to move on to the next installment in the series, The Secret of Indigo Moon.

My only complaint about this book is that it is not bound very well. Already several pages have fallen out of my copy, which has been treated very gently. That is a shame, and unfortunately it is a situation that occurs more and more frequently with books these days. My library system does not own this series, and I hesitate to recommend that we purchase it, because it is hardly worth buying books that will have to be mended - or discarded - so quickly, particularly given our current budget crisis.


Also by G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi: The Midas Box

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles: The First Escape
(#1 in the Dopple Ganger Chronicles) by G.P. Taylor; illustrated by Daniel Boultwood, Joseph Sapulich and Stephen Vosloo (Tyndale House Publishers, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Becky's Book Reviews: "I thought it had a very promising start. The writing, the descriptions, the humor. But by the end of the book, I was finding it a bit tiresome"

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

xxxHolic, Vol. 7

Watanuki is an orphaned teen who, in the opening of this series, wandered into Yuko's shop. Yuko is a powerful witch, and her shop is an unusual place - only those who truly have a need that she can fulfill are able to enter it. Watanuki has been plagued his entire life with the ability to see spirits, and it is driving him crazy. In return for working as Yuko's shop assistant, Yuki will make it so that Watanuki will - at some point - no longer be able to see ghosts.

He has an unusual sort of relationship with his classmate, Domeki. Watanuki is envious of Domeki's skill at sports and popularity with the girls, and he is particularly jealous of his friendship with Himawari, a pretty classmate who appears to enjoy both their company but has not shown any indication of which boy she prefers. Watanuki constantly complains about Domeki - in over-the-top scenes that show him dancing around with frustration and annoyance - and Domeki certainly knows how to push his buttons. But when it comes down to it, the two boys have been through a lot together, and whether Watanuki likes it or not, they have become friends.

When Domeki inadvertently becomes afflicted with a curse because he is trying to help Watanuki, Watanuki feels terrible about it and turns to Yuko for help. The only way to help his friend, he learns, is to take the curse on himself - which involves being maimed for the rest of his life. He immediately decides to take on the curse - without consulting Watanuki, who is none too pleased to learn about Watanuki's choice. As the story plays out, it raises interesting questions about friendship, duty and choice, and whether or not it is acceptable to take on such a debt for someone else without their permission. The consequences of his choice are explored in this volume, which represents a turning point in the boys' relationship.

One thing I love about this series is the notes that are included at the end of the story. I learn all kinds of fascinating things about Japan and Japanese culture. For example, there is a reference to a food called ikameshi. In the notes section it tells us: "In 1941, Japan was in the midst of a rice shortage due to the war, so an enterprising food vendor started to stuff what little rice he had into squid. Then he seasoned it with soy sauce and other ingredients, slow cooked it, and sold it at Mori Starion near Hakodate on the Northern Island of Hokkaido. It as called "ikameshi" (squid-rice), and it became one of the most popular ekiben (train-station boxed lunches) in all of Japan." Fascinating, isn't it?!

I continue to enjoy my reread of this manga series, which is steeped in Japanese legend and folklore and also explores issues that are relevant to readers' lives. It always leaves me with some very interesting food for thought.

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 7 by Clamp (Del Rey, 2006)

Have you reviewed this volume? If so, please leave a link in the comments, and I'll add it here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kitty Raises Hell

Kitty Norville, talk show host and werewolf, returns in this sixth installment of her series. Fallout from events in the previous volume, which took place in Las Vegas, is affecting Kitty and the werewolves in Colorado. She is a new leader, and suddenly she finds herself in the position of having to prove her leadership - without resorting to the violent tactics of Denver's previous leader.

The wereleopards she confronted in Las Vegas want their revenge, and they have sent something mysterious and powerful to Denver, something that wreaks fiery destruction. She has no idea what it is, much less how to stop it, and as matters escalate and pack members start dying, Kitty becomes increasingly desperate.

When a mysterious stranger turns up, saying that he has the ability to fight the fiery being, Kitty's friend Rick, the master vampire of Denver, warns her against accepting the man's help. The man is a very old vampire, and his request for free passage in Denver in return for his help is suspicious - and Kitty agrees. But can she continue to refuse his help and risk further death to her friends and packmates? She turns to a group of paranormal investigators for help.

I continue to enjoy this series. Each volume stands alone as a story, but it builds on previous characters and events. This installment introduces a formidable foe, and it is clear that whether or not Kitty wishes to be involved, she has become a player in what the vampires call "the long game" - a game that, because the players are immortal, spans centuries and involves incalculable risks.

I love the members of the paranormal television crew - their skills are sure to be needed in further stories, and I look forward to getting to know them better. I also enjoy watching Kitty grow into her leadership role, taking on responsibilities not because she craves power, but because she wants to protect her people and give them the kind of lives she wished for when she'd first been changed - unwillingly - into a werewolf. The latest volume in this series was recently published, and I'll try to hold out as long as possible before reading it, because I hate playing the waiting game. This is among the best character-driven paranormal series out there, and I highly recommend it.

Books in the Kitty Norville series:
1. Kitty and the Midnight Hour
2. Kitty Goes to Washington
3. Kitty Takes a Holiday
4. Kitty and the Silver Bullet
5. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
6. Kitty Raises Hell

7. Kitty's House of Horrors

Kitty Raises Hell (#6 in the Kitty Norville series) by Carrie Vaughn (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Best Fantasy Stories: "I especially liked the author’s original telling of a werewolf tale; her ideas are fresh and I was able to understand what was going on in the book even though I had not read the first five books in the series."
Pat's Fantasy Hotlist: "Cool, hip, with more depth than meets the eye, and a genuine heroine you can really root for; there's never a dull moment in Kitty Raises Hell (or any of the other Kitty books!)."
SciFiGuy.ca: "Carrie Vaughn always manages to blend entertaining scenes and story arcs that emphasize her amazing cast of characters in a manner that strengthens the readers’ emotional connection to the story."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Avalon High

Ellie's parents, both college professors, are on sabbatical, which means Ellie has to leave her home and friends in Minnesota and spend the next year of her life in Annapolis, Maryland. She is less than thrilled with the situation, but the upside is that the house they're staying in has a pool, and she spends most of the summer floating in it on a very comfortable raft. Life becomes interesting when she goes for a run in a nearby park and sees a boy there, another teenager, and when their eyes meet, Ellie feels as if she's known him forever.

When school starts, Ellie sees the boy - Will - again, and they become friends. Ellie is smitten, but Will has been going out with drop-dead gorgeous Jennifer for years. The more Ellie gets to know Will and his friends, including his best buddy Lance and his stepbrother Marco, the more she feels that there is something brewing under the surface. Marco keeps referring to her, most annoyingly, as "Lily Maid," which drives her crazy. How could he know that her medievalist parents named her after Elaine of Astolat, made famous in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott"? Elaine can't stand being named after someone so weak-willed and fragile that she'd kill herself because Sir Lancelot fell for Guinevere instead of her.

Parallels between the King Arthur tales are everywhere in Elaine's current situation, but it isn't until one of their teachers tells her outright that the battle between good and evil is being fought again, right there in Annapolis, and that she and her friends are reincarnated versions of characters from folklore and legend. Of course, she doesn't believe him...but what it it is true? And what if, as the teacher believes, it really is too late to fight off the powers of darkness? Ellie, refusing to be the sit-down-and-die person like Elaine of Astolat, takes matters into her own hands, even as a storm of terrifying force zeroes in on her town...

This novel was a lot of fun, and it handled not only the King Arthur legends very well, skillfully weaving them into the modern-day events of Ellie's life, but it also depicted a sweet, if fantastical, coming-of-age story with characters who were much more than the embodiment of ancient characters of legend - and in fact, defied stereotype in fun and surprising ways. I did find Ellie's constant skepticism, coupled with her willingness to act on things she kept saying she did not believe in, a bit wearing after a while, but I loved that her feelings for Will did not turn her into a pliant, self-sacrificing girl. She was strong and loyal, and while she had his best interests at heart, she also looked out for herself. I enjoyed the depiction of the setting, as Annapolis is one of my favorite towns - although I had to smile when Will kept going on and on about the fact that his father, a navy admiral, would only pay for him to go to college at the Naval Academy (it is actually free to those who are accepted into the school).

I loved Ellie's relationship with her professor parents, and the fact that they are so supportive of her, as well as the sweet, skillful way Cabot handles Will and Ellie's developing relationship. I also enjoyed the snippets from Tennyson's poem that introduced each chapter. This is the kind of book that is sure to make readers who are unfamiliar with the King Arthur stories want to learn more about them. Ellie and Will's story is apparently continued in a series of graphic novels called Avalon High: Coronation, which I'm looking forward to reading soon.

Avalon High by Meg Cabot; narrated by Debra Wiseman (Listening Library, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Bookshelves of Doom: "There was a pretty awesome plot twist that I didn't see coming. Then I felt super-dumb for not seeing it coming. When I thought back, I realized that there had been lots of clues. But it was a good one."
My Favorite Author: "I thought this story was great. I rarely put it down because I was so curious how the King Arthur legend was going to unfold in modern day."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Weekly Geeks: National Poetry Month

Well, yes, I don't do poetry posts very often on this blog. Not that I don't like poetry; I do. I find that when I read it, I'm always glad I did - but it certainly doesn't happen as often as it should. I'm not sure why that is - mainly, I think, because right now my life is in a place in which I am juggling so many things that when I have time to read, I like to go to a place with a long, sustained story in it, something that will take me away and put me in someone else's shoes for a while. It gives me perspective on my own life, while also providing a welcome escape from some everyday stresses and responsibilities. Poetry can do that, too, if not in the same way a good novel can, and I really should make a point of reading it more often.

That's why National Poetry Month (in the U.S. - but hey, anyone can join in!) is such a good thing. It makes us slow down and, perhaps, read a poem or two. So, in celebration, I present to you one of my very favorites. It is by Mary Jo Salter and is from her wonderful poetry collection Sunday Skaters (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

Hilary in Her Glory

The first tooth has pushed up,
serrated on the top
like a tulip.

A row of bulbs to bloom!
Who knows who planted them?
All will find room.

And you shall rise up too.
Tall on your elbows, you
will take the view--

some inches from the floor--
that less is never more.
One day Come here

will send you clear across
the kitchen to applause.
Ah, but who knows

the farthest place you'll crawl?
(I do. To that time when
Mother no longer can

be all in all.)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bite Me: A Love Story

All the usual suspects from the first two books return in this, the third installment in Christopher Moore's Vampire Love Story series. This is an unusual series in that the first book was written in 1995, and the second book was not published until 2007. I read the first one when it was originally released, so I reread it last year in order to read the second one - and while I loved the first one, I found the sequel to be a bit disappointing. I guess it seemed as though the characters had been scooped up from the time period of the first book and plunked down in a San Francisco that was a decade older, and also that some of the humor and plot twists were taken at the expense of the characters, who I felt didn't have as much depth or emotional resonance as in the first book.

Still, a book by Christopher more that's slightly disappointing is head and shoulders above most other books, and perhaps my expectations were unrealistically high for that second book. I approached this one with tempered expectations, at any rate.

Abby Normal, "minion" of vampire couple Jody and Tommy, narrates much of this book through her diary. She is a perky goth girl who aspires to be, as she puts it, Nosferatu. There are frequent point of view switches throughout the novel, so we see things from Tommy and Jody's perspective (although not as frequently as I might have liked), as well as from the points of view of the police officers from the previous book, Abby's boyfriend, Chet the shaved vampire cat, and the Emperor of the City, among others.

Chet is turning the other cats of the city into vampires, which creates a public menace (particularly for homeless people). Foo Dog, Abby's boyfriend, who created UV-light jackets with destructive powers against vampires in the first book, is experimenting with vampire blood and rats, which creates some rather interesting (and hilarious) difficulties (involving a shop vac and the vampire rats' ability to turn to mist). Tommy, who was imprisoned with Jody in a bronze statue, becomes a raving lunatic because, unlike Jody, he is unable to turn to mist and spend his nights in a dreamlike state - he is trapped inside the statue for so long that, when he is inadvertently released, further mayhem ensues. Then a dark ship pulls up in the harbor: the old vampires are back to clean up the mess the old one left - and that means eliminating everyone involved. But not if Abby Normal can help it. And then there's a mysterious Japanese guy who wields an astonishingly effective sword against undead cats...

This book was a lot of fun, and the ending was unexpected and rather bittersweet - although it felt right, which made me think that this may be the final book in the series. I enjoyed the references to characters from other of Moore's books (particularly those from A Dirty Job, which is still my hands-down favorite of his books), as well as Moore's skillful use of language, which never fails to make me smile. I look forward to reading whatever he decides to set his pen (keyboard?) to next.

Books in the Vampire Love Story series:
1. Bloodsucking Fiends
2. You Suck
3. Bite Me


Bite Me: A Love Story (#3 in the Vampire Love Story series) by Christopher Moore (William Morrow, 2010) [Review copy received from publisher]

Other reviews of books by Christopher Moore:
Coyote Blue
A Dirty Job
Fool

Also reviewed at:
Back to Books: "In all, a whole lot of insane hilarity with vampyre cats, an old samurai Japanese guy, and the usual main crowd of eccentric characters. A definite read for Moore fans."
The Book Muncher: "...this novel is one twisted adventure of vampire and human misdeeds and sloppy solutions that manages to succeed in being both interesting and wickedly funny."
Sassymonkey Reads: "I really wish I could say that I loved it. I didn’t hate it but I’m afraid it’s not one of my favourite Christopher Moore novels."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Becoming Naomi León

This delightful coming-of-age novel features eleven-year-old Naomi León Outlaw, who lives in California, in a trailer known as Baby Beluga, with her great-grandmother and her little brother Owen. Things are going fairly well for Naomi as the book opens - her biggest problem is that the boys in her class make fun of her last name, asking if she's robbed any banks lately. Naomi is very shy and soft spoken, definitely not one for confrontations, and she deals with things in her life by making lists - it helps her to see things written down in a nice, neat column in her notebook.

When her mother appears unexpectedly at the door, bursting in on a cloud of exotic perfume and boasting an exotic new name, Naomi isn't sure what to think. She doesn't even recognize her, not having seen her since she was a toddler. Naomi longs to have the kind of relationship with her mother that the other girls in her class seem to have, but it seems that Skyla, her mother, isn't going to fit any expectations she might have. Part of Naomi loves having her mother back in her life - the new clothes her mother buys her, the way she braids her hair - but part of her is nervous about her mother. For one thing, Skyla pays much more attention to Naomi than she does to Owen, who is smart as a whip despite his physical disability, and when Skyla's boyfriend enters the picture - along with the announcement that they intend to take Naomi - just Naomi - to Las Vegas to live with them.

Just as custody issues start brewing, Naomi and Owen's great-grandmother whisks them off on a trip to Mexico. There, Naomi learns some surprising things about herself, her family, and the country where her father lives. She dreams of being able to find him after all these years, but in the meantime, she hopes to learn to live up to her name - the León part of her name - and become a lion instead of a mouse.

This is a delightful book that explores issues of family, friendship, and self-reliance. It's easy to relate to Naomi, and to sympathize with the problems she faces with the unexpected turns her life has taken. The reader discovers along with Naomi that people can be very complicated, likable and loving, but sometimes careless about feelings and even downright scary. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Mexico, with their vivid sensory details, as well as the focus on Naomi's artistic endeavors as a soap carver.

I have not read Esperanza Rising, another popular book by this same author, but I have heard very good things about it, and I'm looking forward to reading it soon.

Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan; narrated by Annie Kosuch (Listening Library, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
A Fondness for Reading: "This is a wonderful story of a young girl growing up, finding out what is really important in her own life, and learning that she has hidden strengths."
The Water Lily: "The experiences and visualizations the author can create in the reader's mind are very vivid and caused me to want to go there and see what Naomi was experiencing too!"
Young Adult Lit: "I loved this book! It was very well written and I loved all of the characters in it."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Palimpsest

This book had been on my radar ever since I read Nymeth's thoughtful review last summer (It went on my wishlist the moment I read that it reminded her of Mirrormask, which I adore). And then at WorldCon in Montreal, I attended a panel discussion in which Catherynne Valente participated. Her comments were insightful and very interesting, and they made me doubly interested to read Palimpsest, which was jokingly described as a novel about a sexually transmitted city. The library where I work had not ordered it, so I emailed collection management, but I was told that sadly, we did not have enough funding because of recent budget cuts. And even now that the novel has been nominated for a Hugo award, we still are unable to order it for my library system. So (shocking, I know) I bought myself a copy of the book!

And what an intriguing, lovely, bittersweet novel it is. The concept is that there is a mysterious, hidden city known as Palimpsest. In order to get there, you have to have a map - or a piece of one. The maps are tattoos, and only those with tattoos can travel there - and even then, only when they are asleep. In order to get a tattoo, you must have sex with someone who already has a map - and then you get your own, only it will be for a different part of the city. You can only go to those parts of the city that are on your map - or the maps of the people you sleep with. Yes, it is bizarre, bizarre and dreamlike - particularly the prose of the sections that are set in Palimpsest - but the ornate, baroque writing style suits those sections perfectly.

Our story focuses on four different people: a young Japanese girl who is obsessed with trains, a locksmith in New York City who is haunted by the ghost of his long-dead sister, a bookbinder whose marriage has unraveled, and a beekeeper who has withdrawn from the world. Each of these people is searching for something in their lives, but it is only when they discover Palimpsest that they gain a new perspective.

The plot focuses on each of these characters' points of view, alternating from one to the next in a nearly third-person narrative. I say "nearly" because the narrator has a voice of its own, referring to itself occasionally, and, through the course of the narrative, becomes a character in its own right. The story is skillfully woven through these various narratives, some set in the "real" world, others set in the dreamlike Palimpsest. The characters are gradually revealed in such complexity, with all their flaws, their hopes and dreams, that I came to care a great deal about every one of them as the story progressed. The book explores compelling themes and ideas: the nature of reality, relationships, death, power, solitude - even immigration.

It is fascinating to see how different characters react to the existence of such a city, and the way in which sex is often used as a means to an end - with varying results in the lives of those who long (or dread) to return there. Palimpsest is by no means a lovely fairytale world, though - there is sadness, violence and heartbreak, just as in our world, yet there is a vivid sense of wonder, despite the grotesqueness and cruelty of many of its inhabitants.

Here are some of my favorite passages, just to give an idea of Valente's impressive use of language to convey the dark, dreamlike world of Palmpsest.

One of the train stations:

The ceiling of Colophon Station is unpainted, for it was the desire of the architect, whose name was long ago buried under a black quoin, that passersby become aware in the most piquant way that they have passed underground. Therefore the roof of Colophon is planted over with flame-colored ginger flowers, whose thick golden roots reach down thirstily into the interior, and any traveler may look up and see only earth and straining roots, and the wonderful smell of it penetrates the skin for days afterward.
The traditions and culture of the city:

For obvious reasons, the manufacture of ladders is a highly prized skill in this part of Palimpsest. It is a holy profession, each rung is possessed of spiritual significance. The first is the Rung of Honest Labor, and the last is the Rung of the Salt of Heaven. Between, each ladderer may stack his own path. If a rung should break, then bad luck infects the household, and at least one child must be adopted out to avert disaster. These are called Little Rungs, and tend to be swapped from house to house in a rough circle through the Aviary, as the quality of local laddery is never so great that they will not eventually return home.
There was a great and terrible war in Palimpsest, and the veterans as well as the ill and infirm are taken to the sea in the hopes of improving their health:
Each evening the hopelessly ill are brought in gauzy palanquins to view the moonrise, and all applaud the appearance of its white disc over the water. The wind is considered to have such restorative power that surgery is performed on the each, anesthesia administered by waifish women with hair like spun sugar, who close their mouths over the ailing and breathe the vapors of their crystalline hearts into weakened lungs.

Ermenegilde has been a patient here since the war ended. She is a charity case; her reassignment went poorly and she was rendered useless for the field. She has bled from her wounds every day for twelve years. Bluebells drape her palanquin: the veteran-flower Medical gauze swathes her face in long bridal veils. All agree that if not for her mouth, she would be now a great dowager-beauty. But there is her mouth, it remains, and cannot be denied.
Palmipsest reminded me of Mirrormask, too (Dave McKean's art as well as Neil Gaiman's other works), and also, in various ways, of other writers and artists that I love: H.P. Lovecraft, Italo Calvino, Patricia McKillip, the artwork of Nicoletta Ceccoli, M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali - to name just a few. The novel offers much food for thought, and while the overt sexual nature of much of the book may not appeal to some readers, that is only a small part of the areas it explores. It challenges readers to view their world - and their conceptions of things - in new and different ways. I am not at all surprised that Palimpsest has been nominated for a Hugo award - it is an impressive, thought-provoking, moving novel, one of my favorite reads of this year - and definitely the most memorable.

Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Books, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Jenny's Books: "The history of Palimpsest unfolds slowly, with the stories coming to us from many different characters. I like how it begins to fit together carefully, like puzzle pieces..."
Things Mean a Lot: "But as much as I loved the world of this novel, it was the characters that sucked me in: their loneliness, their humanity, how much their stories made me feel."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dragonsinger

Often when I read series books to my children, they like to take a break and read something else before we pick back up and continue on with it. This, time, however, the moment we finished Dragonsong, the first book in the Harper Hall trilogy, they were both clamoring to find out what happened next. I was happy to spend some more time on Pern revisiting favorite characters from my childhood.

The story picks up right where the first book left off, as Menolly arrives on dragonback at Harper Hall with Masterharper Robinton. Whereas the first book was contained a strong survival story element, this one is more along the lines of a boarding school story. Menolly is strong and talented, but she is a timid soul, and thanks to her harsh upbringing by parents who held no respect for her musical talents, she has very little self-confidence. She is befriended by a young scamp named Piemur, and while she suspects that his friendship is inspired by an acute desire to get to know her fair of fire lizards, she quickly comes to appreciate his very real kindness.

The last thing that T'gellan, the dragonrider who accompanied her to Harper Hall, tells Menolly (upon seeing how terribly nervous she is), is that she has nothing to fear from harpers. As the young teen navigates her bewildering new environment, trying to figure out how things work, inadvertently making embarrassing mistakes, not to mention outright enemies of some of the students, his words repeat themselves in her mind. She keeps thinking how wrong he was.

Still, she comes to recognize the fact that she has unique gifts, and the more time she spends in the company of Masterharper Robinton and his journeyman Sebell, the more she realizes that the songs she used to get beaten for composing are actually something that people not only enjoy, but that can help the people of her planet better understand one another. And that, Robinton tells her, is something that is much more important than she realizes.

I discovered these books as a tween and fell in love with them. They were among those treasured books that I read again and again, and I was so excited when I saw that while the books from this trilogy were the only YA Pern books that McCaffrey wrote, there was a plethora of them for adults at my public library. This series also made me realize that, even though I considered myself a reader of fantasy, science fiction was a genre that I wanted to explore. And I'm so glad I did! I did warn my girls that the protagonist of the third book in the trilogy is Menolly's friend Piemur, because I didn't want them to suffer the letdown I did when I first opened the book. They still want to read it - but this book concluded Menolly's story so successfully that they don't mind taking a break between this and the final one.

McCaffrey creates in Pern a world that is real and appealing, full of that sense of wonder that permeates the very best speculative fiction, and her characters are complex and memorable. No wonder I enjoy rereading these books again and again. When I open one of McCaffrey's Pern books, it feels like coming home.

Books in the Harper Hall Trilogy:
1. Dragonsong
2. Dragonsinger
3. Dragondrums

Dragonsinger (#2 in the Harper Hall trilogy) by Anne McCaffrey (Bantam Spectra, 1977)

Also reviewed at:
Bogormen: "This is one of those books that would have been too short practically no matter how long it was. One of my very favourite books, and one of my introductions to the fantasy genre."
Bookshelves of Doom: "Harry Potter she is not -- she is eager to please and quick to assume that she is at fault, whereas he does a lot of "It's not fair" and blaming others. Interesting, because I like them both so much."

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Opal Deception

Artemis Fowl, boy genius, returns in this fourth action-packed installment of the series. While each book in this series contains a standalone story, each story builds on its predecessor, so it is worthwhile to start reading from the first book. As always, I do try to avoid spoilers of any kind in my reviews, but if you are interested in trying out this popular YA series, take a look at my review of the first book, Artemis Fowl.

Artemis has certainly come a long way from the egotistical, borderline sociopath of the first book in the series. However, everything he's experienced that has brought him along the path of becoming a decent human being have been erased in his mind, along with all his memories of his faerie pals and the adventures they had together. Clearly Artemis had a plan to recover these memories, or he would never have submitted to the mindwipe willingly. But he hadn't imagined that there would be a pressing time limit for the memory retrieval. His nemesis, Opal Koboi, a diabolically evil pixie, has successfully put in motion an ingenious escape plan from prison, and he and fairy captain Holly Short are at the top of her list of people on her revenge list.

Opal has had a long time in prison to hatch a truly horrible scheme to destroy the lives of Holly, Artemis, Foaly and Commander Root, and her plan is in motion before anyone even has an inkling that the pixie they believe to be safely behind bars has escaped. Holly knows that Artemis is in huge trouble - and he is incredibly vulnerable because he has no memory of Koboi, the fairies, or anything else.

As with the other books in this series, this one is an action-packed thrill ride, but it does not sacrifice characterization and depth in favor of the breakneck pace. It is touching, intelligent, at times humorous, and the plot will keep readers guessing all the way through to the end. Artemis is a complex and fascinating character, and it is always fun to watch his brain untangle the morass of difficulties thrown in his path. Nathaniel Parker, as always, does an excellent job of narrating the story - I enjoy his interpretation so much that I always check the audio versions out of my library. I often recommend this to boys and girls at my library when they are at a loss for what to read, and they invariably come back to me to request the next book in the series, which gives it high marks in my book.

Books in the Artemis Fowl series:
1. Artemis Fowl
2. Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident
3. Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code
4. Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception
5. Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony
6. Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox
7. Artemis Fowl: Atlantis Complex (to be published in the U.S. July 2010)

Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception (#4 in the Artemis Fowl series) by Eoin Colfer; narrated by Nathaniel Parker (Listening Library, 2005)

Also reviewed at:
Ace and Hoser Blook: "This is a light entertaining read. I love Mulch Diggums, the tunnel-making dwarf. He and Holly really banter back and forth."
Bookworms and Tea Lovers: "It is fast-paced, the suspense is built in masterfully, and you discover hidden depths in the familiar characters. It's a great read, and although it's technically a young adult novel, any adult could read it without finding it too childish."
Into the Wardrobe: " The Artemis Fowl books are like action movies in book form! I find the ideas in the books GENIUS. Plus I find the writing/prose really smart and witty."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Black Magic Sanction

Sadly, I am now at the stage in this series at which I must wait impatiently for the new books to be written and released. The anticipation can at times be too much for a poor book, but this time I have to say I was very satisfied with my fix.

In this, the eighth installment in the Hollows series, Rachel spends much of the book trying to deal with the fallout from the previous book. She has been shunned by the immensely powerful Coven, and they have nefarious plans for her indeed. Rachel deals with them in a more thoughtful, controlled way (for Rachel, anyway - probably not so much for anyone else) than in early books of the series. Instead of reacting - and overreacting - to the problems that beset her, she takes time and strategizes, uses her resources, and does not jump to conclusions. All these things were, for me, a welcome change for her, character-development-wise.

The cast of characters has grown exponentially with each of these books, and while the characters are vivid and memorable, there simply isn't time to focus on all of them in a single book anymore. This has happened with many of my favorite series, including those by Laurell K. Hamilton and J. D. Robb. This time I found myself wishing for more time with the demon Al, who is hilarious, disturbing, and very intriguing, as well as with Trent. There were some fascinating flashbacks to the summer days Rachel spent at camp with Trent and some of his cronies, which raised some interesting questions that I look forward to exploring in future books.

All in all, I enjoyed this one, and it was the perfect choice for an entertaining, exciting, and at times quite emotional spring break read.

Books in The Hollows series:
1. Dead Witch Walking
2. The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
3. Every Which Way but Dead
4. A Fistful of Charms
5. For a Few Demons More
6. The Outlaw Demon Wails
7. White Witch, Black Curse
8. Black Magic Sanction

Black Magic Sanction (#8 in The Hollows series) by Kim Harrison (Eos, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: " I am slightly frustrated with the repetitive nature of that plot line, but over-all the story was action packed right from the first pages."
Literary Escapism: "Overall I love the action in this series and how all of the characters are so well developed. The world is so amazingly written that I get lost in it when I am reading this series and even get attached to the characters enough to cry for them when they feel pain."
SciFiGuy: "The world of the Hollows continues to enrich and fascinate and there couldn't be any more exciting guide than Rachel Morgan and company."