Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Changeless

Alexia Tarabotti returns in the second installment of the Parasol Protectorate series, in which she, a woman without a soul, has power over supernatural creatures such as vampires and werewolves. Her touch effectively renders them human again - and therefore vulnerable.

Events in this book pick up fairly soon after the conclusion of the first novel, and potential spoilers await those who haven't read Soulless. I know I always say this, and I am admittedly pretty obsessive about reading books in order, but really, start with the first one or you'll be missing out on a lot!

Alexia, now Lady Woolsey (as she has married handsome werewolf leader Conall, with whom she fell head over heels in the previous book), is adjusting to married life. As she has been appointed to a special position by the Queen, and Conall is busy with pack business, she and Conall are still working out their relationship while continually distracted by their various responsibilities.

Her husband takes off for Scotland without informing her just as a mysterious event draws her attention - it appears that zones have been appearing in and around London, in which all excess soul magic is nullified - werewolves cannot change shape; vampires are turned mortal (with potentially disastrous results), and ghosts are immediately, irreparably exorcised. Accompanied by her friend Miss Hisselpenny (who has a fondness for bizarre hats) and her spoiled, ill-tempered sister, Alexia heads to Scotland herself, and has quite a few adventures - and mishaps - along the way.

I found myself enjoying this second installment even more than the first. Alexia has more confidence, power, and freedom, and she is enjoying her life. It is fun to see her deal with her irascible husband, her sharp-tongued sister, an intriguing inventor, and the wolves of her husband's pack - all of which forces her to use every bit of ingenuity, intelligence and resourcefulness she possesses.

The characters continue to develop in interesting ways, and a few new ones are introduced as well. The mystery is intriguing, and the magical rules of this alternate are fun and different. I enjoyed the conclusion of the book, which felt right and made sense, but I wasn't too thrilled with the additional element that was thrown in at the end, apparently to heighten suspense and make us anxious to get to the next book (which I would have been anyway). It seems to me that, without giving things away, the misunderstanding that arises could easily be cleared up with a few moments of reflection and conversation. Still, the series continues to be clever and enjoyable, and I look forward to the next book, Blameless, which will be released in the U.S. next month.

Books in the Parasol Protectorate series:
1. Soulless
2. Changeless
3. Blameless


Changeless (#2 in the Parasol Protectorate series) by Gail Carriger (Orbit, 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog: "Changeless doesn’t really fill in any of the gaps, but it does expand on some of the world’s details (like the technology!) and it was overall a so much more fun book that I’d say even if you didn’t particularly like Soulless you WOULD like Changeless."
I Read Good: "Alexia remains an unparalleled protagonist – brusque, intelligent, unfashionably frank (though slightly more fashionable in terms of wardrobe, thanks to her new maid Angelique) – and she’s joined by a wonderful group of supporting characters, including a couple new faces."
Today's Adventure: "I love just about everything about CHANGELESS. Carriger has upped the stakes for the series in a big way, and I have no doubt that she'll deliver."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Player's Ruse

I was excited to see this third installment of Hilari Bell's Knight and Rogue series show up at my library this summer - I always enjoy books that combine favorite genres, and this series definitely hits the spot with its enjoyable mix of fantasy, murder mystery, humor, and adventure. It is definitely worth your while to pick up the first book in this series, as events from earlier books influence events in subsequent ones.

In this installment, Michael, self-professed knight errant and his likable scoundrel pal Fisk find themselves with a group of traveling players. Michael has been in love with his distant cousin Rosamund, and when she shows up on their doorstep, having run away from home in order to avoid marrying any of the suitors her father has chosen for her, Michael gallantly promises to protect her and help her catch up with the man she adores - an actor. He hopes that once she experiences the difficult on-the-road lifestyle of the actors, she'll come to her senses and realize she really does love Michael instead.

Fisk wouldn't dream of telling Michael that he's too good for the beautiful but slightly vapid Rosamund - but he certainly thinks it. However, Michael's unrequited love becomes a secondary issue when sabotage, piracy and murder take center stage...

I continue to enjoy this series very much, and this third installment sees the Michael and Fisk growing and changing in believable and meaningful ways. They have always been such extreme opposites, and it is interesting to see them become slightly less extreme as they grow older and more experienced. The mystery is intriguing, and Michael's infatuation with Rosamund (and jealousy of her beloved) is handled with affectionate humor that had me smiling as I read. As with previous books, the narration alternates between Michael's and Fisk's points of view, and I enjoy the way in which the characters reveal certain things as they tell their side of the story - or try to hide things that often come to light when the other character takes his turn to narrate.

I look forward to reading the further adventures of these two friends, which are sure to be entertaining and full of intrigue - and the unexpected.

Books in the Knight and Rogue series:
1. The Last Knight
2. Rogue's Home
3. Player's Ruse

 

Player's Ruse (#3 in the Knight and Rogue series) by Hilari Bell (HarperTeen, 2010)

Source:  My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Reading Carpet: "I have nothing but praise for these books and Hilari Bell. I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves a good clean adventure."
What's Your Thought on That: " While the banter remains witty and the plot fast-paced, the situations have more depth making this book the best of the series"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye

This one sat on my shelf for quite a while after I brought it home from the library - knowing that it is the last book in this wonderful series made me reluctant to pick it up. I didn't want it to end! But of course I caved. After all, I needed to see what was going to happen to Enola next - and also, the mystery of her missing mother has been a major story arc through all the installments, and I wanted to know if we'd finally find out what happened to her. I'm happy to say that we do. But I'm not telling. You'll have to read it for yourself - and please, start from the beginning!

Enola is the much younger sister of Sherlock Holmes. In the first book, their mother disappears, and Sherlock and Mycroft, Enola's older brothers, now are her guardians. They decide she must be sent to a girls' boarding school, as she is socially awkward and, they think, sadly lacking in formal education. Enola runs off before they can implement their plan, and in each of the books she solves a mystery - and tries to learn what happened to their mother. She is very alone, and while she has occasional brushes the the famous detective brother she can't help but idolize, she never dares to approach him because of her (not unfounded) fears of the dreaded boarding school. Sherlock, in the meantime, is slowly discovering that his little sister is intelligent, resourceful, and full of ingenuity.

In this mystery, Enola searches for a wealthy missing woman who disappeared from beneath the noses of her two companions. At the same time Sherlock is searching for her - with news of their mother. Working together, the brother and sister use all their resources to discover the truth behind her disappearance. I loved finally seeing them move past their preconceptions and misunderstandings and finally see each other.

What a satisfying conclusion to this series! I love the characters - Springer's Holmes is spot-on, very believable - and I love that the novels expose young readers to the often harsh reality of life for women in Victorian England. I do hope Nancy Springer changes her mind and writes some more books in this series - I'd love to know how Enola fares as her life moves into a completely new direction.

Books in the Enola Holmes series
1. The Case of the Missing Marquess
2.
The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
3.
The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets
4. The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan

5. The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline
6. The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye


The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye (#6 in the Enola Holmes series) by Nancy Springer (Philomel Books, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Lady Scribble's Book Lounge: "The mystery wasn't quiet as sophisticated as the first and second novel's in this series, and I also am not a fan of returning bad guys, but other than those little critiques it was a fun, and interesting book."
Two and a Half Book Lovers: "A fitting end to the series., although it is a little disappointing that the series has ended as it has been a series that has maintained its quality and good plots through all of the books."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Foiled

Aliera Carstairs keeps to herself at school, for the most part, feeling ill at ease and a bit apart from everyone else there - a not uncommon feeling among many teens. But when she's fencing, everything changes: she is confident, poised, and very skillful.

When her mother buys her an old foil she found at a tag sale, everything changes - although she doesn't realize that until later. She narrates this story, telling it to us, the reader, in the format of a graphic novel. We see scenes as they happen, and are given her interpretation of them as she tells us the story.

Avery Castle, a new boy, shows up at school, and Aliera is immediately taken with his amazing good looks - as are all the other girls. She's not sure how she feels when she finds out he's to be her lab partner in science class. She is attracted to him, a little scared of him, definitely puzzled by certain things about him - but before too long he is definitely under her skin. When she finally agrees to go out on a date with him, and is waiting to meet him at Grand Central Station, unbelievable things start to happen.

I don't want to give too much away here - best to let Aliera tell you her story in her own way. This book appears to be mostly setup for future stories about Aliera, and as such it raises many questions, most of which remain unanswered. I liked Aliera's honesty, as well as her dedication and skill when it comes to fencing. When the fantastical elements are introduced, it did seem that she accepted their reality surprisingly easily, but I did enjoy the way in which the early panels, drawn in shades of gray to represent her color blindness, burst into rainbow hues when magical things start to happen. Many intriguing secondary characters are introduced, but they remain fairly undeveloped in this first book. I'm hoping to get to know them better in future volumes.

Fans of Jane Yolen will be delighted with her first foray into the realm of graphic novels, as will fans of graphic novels in general, not to mention fantasy stories. I look forward to reading more about Aliera and her destiny - soon, I hope!

Foiled by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Mike Cavallaro (First Second, 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Finding Wonderland: "This book has a great premise and story--one that I really wish had been fleshed out more, actually--and charming and fitting illustrations..."
Stuff as Dreams: "I see now why people enjoy Jane Yolen so much. She writes relateable stories that fully entertain and she puts fantastic spins on age old stories. Aliera was such a wonderful character and was developed so well in just these short 160 pages."
YA Booknerd: "I really like Aliera. I like how she's different. I love the fencing parts to the story and how she dominates in her sport."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Radiant Shadows

This fourth (and, according to my library catalog, penultimate) installment in the Wicked Lovely series focuses on two new characters. The first is a half-human, half faery girl named Ani. Her mother was human, and her father is the leader of the ferocious, feared Hellhounds. Ani is unusual in that she can feed both on blood and human emotion, and her uniqueness brings her to the attention of some of the most dangerous elements of Faerie.

Then there is Devlin, the High Queen's brother and assassin, who becomes involved, finding himself inexplicably drawn to the half-fae girl. He experiences a rare division in his loyalty to the queen. The queen, out of love for Seth (a main character in the previous book) is losing the cool, logical demeanor that has always been her primary characteristic, and her emotionalism seems to be throwing Faerie out of balance. Her twin sister, Bananach, the embodiment of chaos and war, is only two happy about the state of affairs and sees Ani as a means to achieve her ends. Ani is bound and determined to make her own choices and keep herself safe, but it seems matters are quickly escalating.

If it sounds complicated and confusing, that's because this is the fourth book of the series, and while each novel contains a single, complete story, these stories are woven together in a way that moves the overarching narrative toward a much larger conclusion. This novel certainly shakes things up, and while I am typically reluctant to get to know new characters when the focus shifts from previous ones that I've come to care about, with Marr's books it never takes me long to become wrapped up in the story and to care about the new characters as well.

I enjoyed the interplay of the various factions who are often at cross-purposes because their natures are so diametrically opposed, even though at times they seem to have similar goals. There were aspects of the plot (explanations of certain key elements) that remained a bit vague, which made the motives of certain characters a bit puzzling to me, but I am hopeful things will be explained in the next, and apparently final, book of the series. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, although Wicked Lovely and Ink Exchange remain my favorites, and I would recommend this to both teens and adults.

Books in the Wicked Lovely series:
1. Wicked Lovely
2. Ink Exchange
3. Fragile Eternity
4. Radiant Shadows

Radiant Shadows (#4 in the Wicked Lovely series) by Melissa Marr (Harper, 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "I particularly liked they way Marr used her characters to play with the idea of balance, of order and disorder, of containing two opposing truths within one person (or one faery)."
My Friend Amy: "I love the way [Marr] paints a scene, the way in which she allows us to experience her characters through their emotions and longing. I love this world so full of darkness and valiant struggle."
The Story Siren: "The plot is just so intricately woven... just wow. I was impressed by the entire novel... writing, plot, characters. Everything was right on."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Go, Mutants!

J!m is a fairly average teenager dealing with the usual perils of adolescence: unrequited love, bullying, interfering parents - oh, and the fact that he is the son of the villainous alien who nearly annihilated the earth.

While the setting is a future Earth that has barely survived the alien invasion and is now peopled with all sorts of interesting mutants and aliens, it bears an astonishing resemblance to the U.S. in the 1950s. There's hot rod racing, drive-in movies, dances and fights with school bullies. But it's a twisted sort of resemblance, in which the lyrics to songs are clearly from an alternate universe (while still being hilariously recognizable).

J!m is the quintessential alienated teen, but he has way more on his plate than any hero from a 1950s teen drama. He has a bulbous head and incredibly oily skin, which he occasionally sheds as he grows. He has an enormous crush on Marie, but he hasn't gotten up the nerve to ask her to the Harvest Hop yet. J!m is by no means unusual at his school: his best friends are Johnny, an overgrown mutant ape, and a gelatinous, girl-crazy blob known as Jelly.

I don't want to give too much away here, so let me tell you that this book continually had me laughing - and reading bits of it out loud to anyone who would listen. The pop culture references alone had me on the floor, from music and politics to the classic science fiction and horror novels and films, and I loved the way J!m (an aspiring filmmaker) tended to view things in terms of movie scripts and camera angles.

While at times I felt that the over-the-top approach and humor made J!m feel a bit less real to me, distancing me from the novel emotionally, I was having too much fun to mind. I leave you with a brief passage from the beginning of the novel that marked the point in my reading at which I sat back, smiled, and settled in to enjoy the ride. J!m's mother, Miw (a cat-like alien), is home alone after Jim (having shed his skin that morning) has headed off to school:
The sound she head, a papery creep, was J!m's ex-skin, making for the door. How many times she had told her son not to leave his sheddings lying around, where they could get into trouble, knocking over garbage cans and smothering dogs. Two years ago one of them had made it into Mrs. Porter's house next door and slipped itself on her while she slept. Mrs. Porter awoke to the horror that her latest whole body tuck had unraveled and gone to rot. Sheriff Ford was alerted, and Mrs. Porter pressed charges, assault by proxy and more sordid accusations the facts did not support, and fifteen-year-old J!m was required to spend two evenings a month at the Manhattan Juvenile Education Center, where he learned how to steal cars.

Miw grabbed the molt by the nape. It batted at her weakly as she stripped off the underwear, perfectly good, and fed it into the disinkerator.

It went down kicking, and silently screaming.
If you think don't think that is funny, you might want to give this one a pass. But if you do, well, you are in for a treat with this funny, intelligent novel. Go, Mutants!

Go, Mutants! by Larry Doyle (Ecco, 2010)

Source: review copy (uncorrected proof) from publisher

Also reviewed at:
The Crotchety Old Fan: "Go Mutants is not only destined to be appearing at a (drive in) theater near you, I expect it’s going to be nominated for not a few awards along the way."
Troll in the Corner: "...if you’re looking for a fun read this summer you’ve found it. You will enjoy Go Mutants! not just for the plot and characters which are both well put together, but also for the shear joy of hunting down references to movies, monsters and SciFi pop-culture."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Flora's Dare

I am so very behind in my book reviews, with my crazy kids-at-home, library-moving summer, and my strategy is to try to write shorter, succinct reviews so I can get through the backlog before I forget what these books were about. Yeah, I know, succinct, me? Doesn't happen often. But really, with a book like this, full of interesting backstory and a terrifically convoluted plot, fascinating characters and a complex alternate world? Not likely. But I'll try.

This is the second in the Flora Segunda series, and I adored this one just as much as the first. Flora is now fourteen, which is the age of majority in Califa, her home, but things haven't changed very much. Her father is no longer drunk and (very) crazy, which is a good thing, but the unfortunate side effect is that he now pays attention to where she goes and what she does, which is inconvenient, to say the least.

Flora's main ambition is to become a ranger - even though the ranger corps was disbanded years earlier. But she needs someone to teach her magic, and the only one she can think to turn to is the beguilingly attractive Lord Axacaya, who helped her out in the previous book - so she can't figure out why her parents seem to mistrust - hate, really - the man so much. Flora's plan seems simple and straightforward, but events are complicated when she becomes aware of a tentacled monster underground that is about to crush the city in its massive grip. And her best friend Udo gets in very big trouble. And her sister surprises her by not behaving like the responsible, predictable sibling she's always been. Oh, andWhen Flora finds herself flung years into the past, that's when things really get interesting.

Flora narrates these books herself, and her colorful, energetic prose is the real highlight here. She has such an engaging way of describing things that makes her immediately sympathetic. Here is one non-spoilery random excerpt:
"The door's locked," I said, rattling the handle.
"Ayah, so, but I have the key! See?"
After fishing in her cuff-pocket, Tiny Doom displayed a small porcelain jar, the kind that tooth powder comes in. In fact, it was a tooth-powder jar, MADAMA TWANKY'S OLD JUBILEE TOOTH POLISH, it said on the lid in black letters.
Give Your Teeth the Old Hurrah! Mamma's favorite brand, but I think it tastes like cod oil, plus it burns your gums.
There are so many things to love about these books - the fascinating alternate history setting, the complex and often surprising characters, the way in which magic works, and the very fun and effective writing style, just to name a few. In this installment Flora learns a whole bunch of unsettling things about her family and herself, and about life in general. I loved how carefully and inconspicuously things were set up for these revelations in the first book - it is fun to be surprised, and I definitely was. There's humor, adventure, romance, mystery and, as with the first book, that powerful sense of wonder that creeps in when speculative fiction is at its best. I highly recommend this one - I know it will be on my list of favorite reads at the end of the year.

Not a succinct review, I know, but I did my best. Just read the series - you won't regret it! But definitely start with the first one. I am waiting very impatiently for the next book - but meanwhile, it's comforting to know that I can return to Califa with either of the first two books any time I like. It's fast becoming one of my favorite fantasy settings.

Books in the Flora Segunda series:
1. Flora Segunda
2. Flora's Dare
3. Flora's Fury
(forthcoming)

Flora's Dare (#2 in the Flora Segunda series) by Ysabeau S. Wilce (Harcourt, Inc., 2008)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Eva's Book Addiction: "Endless excitement and boundless imagination, all centered in an exotic yet strangely familiar world and on the most exuberant of female characters."
Friend Mouse Speaks: "As a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, Flora is still trying to figure out who she really is and as such her struggles, both the realistic and the fantastic, are readily relatable to the reader."
Stella Matutina: "Imagine the nineteenth century with gender equality, magic and a healthy dose of punk sensibility, and you've got Califa. It's as dark and twisty as her prose, and I'm always eager to spend a little time there."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Middleworld

14-year-old Max Murphy's archeologist parents cancel their family vacation plans when they are given the opportunity to go on a dig in Central America. Max is not happy, particularly when they insist he remain behind. Some days later, he is surprised to receive plane tickets to join them, and is even more surprised to discover upon his arrival in Central America that his parents seem to have disappeared.

He is totally clueless when he arrives in San Xavier, and the more he learns about the country, its history, its gods and goddesses - not to mention his parents and their past - the more he realizes that nothing is as he thought. Soon Max, along with a feisty Mayan girl named Lola, becomes caught up in an adventure involving stolen artifacts, secret passages, vengeful gods, human sacrifice - and howler monkeys.

Elements of this book were highly enjoyable - the setting was an evocative backdrop for the adventure, and the mystery and fantastical elements worked well as part of that setting. And the action-packed pace is sure to appeal to young readers.

I did have a little trouble with the characters, though. In the beginning of the book, Max is depicted as a self-centered, sulking, video-game-obsessed teen, and he is fairly self-absorbed and often rude throughout much of the book; because of this I didn't care as much about him as I would have liked. His about-face toward the end of the book was abrupt and not quite believable to me. I did enjoy Lola, though - she is strong and resourceful, with a fun sense of humor. Her command of the English language was a bit too full of idioms and slang expressions to be fully believable, though. The other characters were not as developed as I would have liked, and they often seemed to serve mainly as mouthpieces for the authors to tell Max (and the reader) details about Mayan history and culture.

Still, this is a fun and exciting beginning to an adventure series that will appeal to readers who enjoy exotic backgrounds, fast-paced adventure, and an intriguing fantastical mystery.

Middleworld (#1 in The Jaguar Stones series) by J & P Voelkel (Egmont, 2007; revised edition 2010)

Source: Review copy from publisher

Also reviewed at:
Charlotte's Library: "The plot is light-hearted, but with scary bits. It was taken to very wild extremes, yet the fantastical, for the most part, avoided the twin traps of jungle-treasure-adventure-stereotype and farce."
The Discriminating Fangirl: " The basic plot shows real promise at being a spellbinding adventure story that would grip all ages. Sadly, the execution could have had a lot more trimming and polishing and the overall effect is a book with great potential that fell far short."
The Reading Zone: "Love, love, love this book! Like Riordan’s Percy Jackson, The Jaguar Stones is a rollicking adventure. Along the way the reader is immersed in Mayan culture."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

13 Treasures

Tanya is at the end of her rope - and so is her mother. As far as her mother is concerned, Tanya's behavior is destructive and irresponsible, and something must be done about it. Tanya is helpless to explain that the destruction is caused by fairies, nasty little creatures quite different from those in fairytale books, and only she can see them. When she breaks their rules - writing things down about them, for example - she wakes up stuck to the ceiling of her bedroom, at the fairies' mercy.

Her mother sends Tanya to stay with her grandmother, a cold woman who has never appeared very interested in Tanya. She lives in a secluded, rambling old house that is rumored to have secret passageways and hidden rooms, and there Tanya becomes involved in a mystery that full of twists and tangles and very real danger.

I read this aloud to my children, ages 9 and 11, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. Typically I read books to them that I've already read, ones either from my childhood that I adored, or others that I've read since and enjoyed so much that I want to share them. It was fun to explore this one for the first time together - and I have to say there were times I was tempted to read on after I'd sent the girls up to bed (but I knew I'd be in Big Trouble if I did, so I managed to resist the temptation). Tanya is a compelling heroine; she certainly has her faults, but she is resourceful and stubborn, learns from experience, and grows in positive ways. The plot is gripping and full of surprises. It has a satisfying conclusion but leaves enough open-ended details and unanswered questions that we are all anxiously awaiting the next installment. Many thanks to Cat at Beyond Books for her recommendation!

Books in the Thirteen Treasures series:
1. 13 Treasures
2. 13 Curses
3. 13 Secrets
(to be published in 2011)

13 Treasures (#1 in the Thirteen Treasures series) by Michelle Harrison (Little, Brown and Co., 2010)

Source: My local public library

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "Very well written, humourous and mysterious, this is one book that I will recommend to parents who are looking for something for their kids, or young readers who are looking for a magical and imaginative romp through a world sparkled with faeries – even if they aren’t all sunshine and puppies."
TinasBookReviews: "Balanced with the right amount of fairy tale and scary faeries, 13 Treasures delivered a magical story sure to please any reader who loves magic, faeries and a great mystery."
Valentina's Room: "A very enjoyable and entertaining story for anyone who loves fairy lore, Gothic novels and a bit of mystery."

And here is a link to an interesting interview with author Michelle Harrison over at Cat's blog, Beyond Books.