Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Nook! Merry Christmas to Me!

Yes!  It's my very first ebook reader.  I had considered asking Santa for a Kindle, but I really wanted something I could use to check out ebooks from my public library's ebook collection, and as of now the Kindle is not compatible. 

I love that it's in color, because I can view picture books with my kids and - I hope - graphic novels at some point, although I haven't seen any available at my library yet.  You can also read magazines, which is definitely better in color.  Barnes and Noble sells subscriptions, and books of course, and they also offer a bunch of public domain books that are free - for some reason Dracula and Pride and Prejudice uploaded themselves without any action on my part, which is fine with me.

So far (with a little frustration, but eventually I worked it out) I have managed to transfer a book from my library as well as a book from Google's e-book collection (It's a G. K. Chesterton book, the first of the Father Brown stories, which I've been meaning to try for ages).

The color Nook is a bit heavier than the black and white one, which is a down side, plus the battery doesn't work as long.  But color is fun!  And I love gadgetry, the more colorful, the better.

Can an e-book reader replace beloved ink-and-paper books?  Not at this point in my life!  But it's great to have this additional format, along with the fun stuff that comes with it.  For example, you can highlight passages and add notes - and if you lend the book to a friend, the friend can see your notes.  You can also highlight a word and look it up in dictionary or on Wikipedia, if you have a wireless connection. I love the fact that I can load a whole bunch of books on it before going on a trip - I tend to way over-pack books because I get book panic - that awful feeling when you're on a delayed flight and you worry that you're going to run out of books!  I hate that.

Have you made the switch to ebooks yet?  What do you think?  Or are you adamantly refusing to budge from ink and paper?  As much as I am enjoying my Nook so far, there is one thing it can't offer - that wonderful new-book smell!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Storm in the Barn


This graphic novel set in 1937 tells the story of 11-year-old Jack Clark, a boy growing up in Kansas during the Dust Bowl Era.  Aside from the horrific impact the draught has had on his and his surrounding neighbors' livelihoods, Jack is dealing with other difficult things in his life.  There are the bullies, not to mention the sickness that is spreading through his town.  One of his sisters has dust pneumonia, and his other sister, the one he's supposed to watch, is always getting into trouble.  Then there's his father, who seems constantly disappointed in Jack, no matter what he does.

Jack hears the doctor talking about a new illness that seems to be related to the constant dusty conditions in his town:  dust dementia.  When he sees a shadowy figure in the barn near his house, a bizarre, spooky creature with a face like rain, Jack wonders if he has fallen victim to dust dementia.  But what if the stories he's heard are true?  What if the creature in the barn is somehow connected to the draught?  Jack knows he has to find out, but it's going to take more courage than he thinks he actually has...

This atmospheric graphic novel brings 1940s Kansas to life with its muted colors and evocative, dusty-looking layouts.  Jack is a character that it's easy to empathize with, and readers will find themselves drawn quickly into his story.  A word of warning, though: there is a rather horrific scene involving the death of rabbits that might require some conversation with younger readers.  It's not depicted graphically, but it is clear what is happening - and the scene is intrinsic to the tale.  For that reason, I probably wouldn't recommend this to children under eleven, but I most definitely would to early teens - and to lovers of historical fiction and graphic novels of all ages.

The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (Candlewick Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Books Like Bread"While mostly wordless, this graphic novel does an amazing job conveying the barren, windy world that the Dust Bowlers were surviving in."
A Library School Journey:  "The use of color throughout the book is amazing. The greys and browns of the dust is the predominant feature, with colorful pastel memories of better times, the dark indigo of the brooding storm, and the vivid blood red of the rabbit drive."
Reading Rants:  "This is a great graphic read for all ages, with something for everyone within Phelan’s soft edged, sweeping panels."

Friday, December 17, 2010

No Rest for the Wicked

This is the second book in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series, which despite the steamy romance cover is a fast-paced paranormal mystery, infused with clever humor and, of course, some romance.  I am puzzled how publishers decide which of the paranormal series to market as romance, and which to market as action/adventure, because the covers seem to be the only thing that differentiates many of these books. 

At any rate, I was intrigued by the first book in this series, A Hunger Like No Other, mainly because of the fascinating - and whimsical - portrayal of the Valkyries, a motley group of warrior women who fight supernatural villains and often wreak madcap havoc along the way.  This series follows the trend of focusing on a different character in the same fictional world with each book, and this one features a half-Valkyrie, half-Fury known as Kaderin the Cold Hearted, who centuries earlier lost her beloved sisters to a ruthless vampire.  When she meets the vampire Sebastian, instead of dispatching him without a moment's reflection, she finds herself unaccountably attracted to him.  Such feelings are understandably taboo in her world, but Sebastian immediately realizes that she is the one woman destined to be with him.

Kaderin, being cold hearted, dismisses her unaccountable lust for the vampire (as much as she can, at any rate), as she has more important issues at hand - it is a supernatural scavenger hunt, a sort of magnificent race, and the prize is the most desirable, crucial prize that has ever been offered.  When Sebastian shows up, determined to woo Kaderin, or protect her, or get her to notice him, the hunt changes in a way Kaderin is ill-equipped to deal with.  What results is a screwball romantic comedy with supernatural elements, twists and turns, action and adventure - all in all, a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Books in the Immortals after Dark series:
1. A Hunger Like No Other
2. No Rest for the Wicked
3. Wicked Deeds on a Winter's Night
4. Dark Needs at Night's Edge
5. Dark Desires After Dusk
6. Kiss of a Demon King
7. Pleasure of a Dark Prince
8. Demon from the Dark


No Rest for the Wicked  (#2 in the Immortals After Dark series) by Kresley Cole (Pocket Star Books, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Obsessed!:  "No Rest for the Wicked (and what an appropriate title :o) is a little slower and somewhat less steamy than A Hunger Like No Other, but still worth reading."
Tynga's Reviews"Romantic, powerful and sensual, this series will sweep you off your feet for a paranormal ride, mature eyes only!"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Plain Kate

I picked up this book based on a brief description I read in my library's Wowbrary newsletter, followed by the glowing review I read about at Cat's book blog, Beyond Books.  (Thanks, Cat!) 

What an amazing experience this book is! I think it's my favorite fantasy novel that I've read since Kristen Cashore's Graceling.  It has an Eastern European, fairy-tale feel to it, with characters you will never forget, a fascinating magical system, and possibly the best cat ever to pad its way through a novel.  Taggle will steal your heart.

I hesitate to say too much about the plot, because it is definitely best to just jump in and go with it.  I will tell you that the heroine, Plain Kate, is an extraordinarily talented woodcarver, so skilled that, upon the death of her father, the townspeople find her carvings a little too uncanny.  When a plague befalls the town, she becomes an easy scapegoat to blame for the misfortune.  A stranger to the village singles her out, puts her in a position where she has no choice but to accept his help, paying a price for that help that turns out to have a greater impact than she could possibly imagine.  She and her beloved cat, Taggle, set forth on an unforgettable adventure, trying to set matters right.

Although this is marketed as a YA novel, it's one of those that will appeal to fantasy and fairytale lovers of all ages.  If you are in a reading slump, Plain Kate will set you back to rights, no doubt about it.  This is a powerful tale, beautifully written, and I highly recommend it.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Beyond Books: "I don’t know who has the power to get books nominated for fancy awards, but I want this book up on every book award nomination list in the world. I want this book to win copious amounts of awards for how brilliant it is."
Bookalicious:  "Sometimes it takes a simple fairy tale to show you what you have been missing in your reading for so long."
Lesley's Book Nook:   "It’s Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and Pinocchio and Little Red Riding-Hood as they were meant to be read, long before Disney got to them and wiped them clean of the grim horror that made them such powerful cautionary folk tales."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ring of Rocamadour

This middle-grade mystery novel sees a group of friends who attend a private Catholic school in New York City stumble upon an intriguing mystery.  Twenty years earlier, a father set up a sort of scavenger hunt for his daughter's birthday.  As the father was an eminent archaeologist, the prize is a priceless artifact, believed to be lost.  The scavenger hunt is a series of puzzles to be solved, but as it was all set into place so long ago, the girls don't know if their search is coming too late.  The friends work together, though, combining their strengths and various areas of expertise, and asking for help when they need it.  What ensues is an atmospheric adventure with an intriguing mystery, which also focuses on friendship and even a little romance.

There was a lot to like about this one.  I enjoyed a mystery featuring strong and smart characters who are not shy about their own skills and intelligence.  The puzzles were interesting, and while I enjoyed listening to the audio version, I think that kids would probably have more fun reading the book themselves, so they could take time out to try their own hand at the puzzles.  Character development among the friends was a little shaky at first, and the girls were fairly interchangeable throughout the first part of the book.  But by the end they were more clearly formed in my mind, which made me interested to continue with the next book of this promising new series.  I think that fans of the Blue Balliett books would particularly enjoy this, as well as mystery lovers in general, and those who like school-centered stories.

Books in the Red Blazer Girls series:
1. The Ring of Rocamadour 
2. The Vanishing Violin
3. The Mistaken Masterpiece (2011)

The Ring of Rocamadour (#1 in the Red Blazer Girls series) by Michael Beil; narrated by Tai Alexandra Ricci (Listening Library, 2009)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my absolute favorite books growing up.  I'm not sure how old I was when I first read it, but I was immediately captivated by the lush imagery of India, the harsh winter on the moors in northern England, the eerie sense of a lonely manor house with hundreds of unused, empty rooms - and most of all by the thoroughly unpleasant, unhappy little personage of mistress Mary Lenox herself.

The potential of spoilers to ruin this lovely book is so great that I will not say very much about the tale - only that a neglected but spoiled ten-year-old living in British colonial India finds herself orphaned following a cholera epidemic, and she is sent to Yorkshire to live with her uncle.  Her uncle, however, is rarely home, and no one besides a chambermaid and a grumpy gardener take any interest at all in the little girl, who is left to her own devices and told to stay out of everyone's way.  When Mary hears about a hidden garden, locked up tight, the key buried, it fires up her imagination in a way nothing ever has before.  She explores the extensive manor gardens, hoping for a clue about the garden that was locked up ten years earlier.  The garden is just the first clue in a larger mystery surrounding the estate, and Mary doesn't have much to do but wander and explore, and soon she is determined to discover as much as she possibly can.

One of the reasons I loved this book as a child was that Mary was such a nasty little girl who was ill tempered and self absorbed, unlike just about any other character I'd ever read about.  Listening to the audio book with my children, it struck me that the author was very skillful in maintaining the reader's sympathy for Mary despite the fact that she is an unlikable character.  The third-person narration, nearly a character in itself, is instrumental in maintaining the reader's sympathy, as it explains why Mary is the way she is, as she was always kept out of the way of her socialite mother and busy father, her every whim indulged by servants whose main goal was keeping her quiet and out of the way.  When Mary is being particularly unpleasant, the narrator unfailingly gives the reader a little insight into the reasons why, and so the reader begins to cheer for Mary as she begins her slow journey to becoming a more empathetic person. 

I believe this book is most likely the one that started my lifelong enjoyment of Gothic novels, and I do hope it does the same for my own children.  My older daughter (11 years old) did seem to enjoy this more than my 9-year-old did, but my younger daughter for some reason took a dislike to the narrator.  I quite liked the reader, whose voice reminded me a bit of Maggie Smith's, but unfortunately it prevented my younger one from enjoying the book as much as she might have otherwise.  I'm hoping that she might pick it up again in a year or two and try it for herself, but of course not every book is for every reader, and not all my beloved books will be as adored by my own children. Still, I enjoyed revisiting this one, and while not all of it held up to my fond memories, it still holds a very special place among my childhood favorites.

Here is a link to the free download of this book on the Project Gutenberg site.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; narrated by Wanda McCaddon (Audio Partners Publishing Corporation, 2006; originally published in 1911)

Also reviewed at:
Books I Done Read: "Actually, I think that aside from the whole secret-enclosed-massive-hide-out, one of my favorite things about The Secret Garden is how Mary Lennox is such a snot-nosed little bitch."
Things Mean a Lot"I enjoyed The Secret Garden quite a bit more than I thought I would. And it's not that I was expecting not to like it. It was charming, and I knew it would be, but I was pleasantly surprised that the tone wasn’t nearly as saccharin as I feared."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bullet

Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series is now nineteen books long and is still going strong, and the longer it gets, the harder I find it to write reviews because of what has become a tremendously complicated back story.  So I'll try to keep it simple!

Anita Blake has come a long way from her early vampire-slaying days.  She is now inextricably caught up a life that has few remaining connections with humans.  Part of a supernatural triad with the smolderingly sexy vampire Jean-Claude and the handsome, charismatic werewolf Richard, Anita also has ties to other shapeshifter groups within St. Louis.  The early novels in the series tended to focus more on separate murder cases, but as Anita's life has changed, and her necromancer powers have grown, the novels tend to focus more on the complex issues in her own life.

In the previous novel, she and her allies fought against - and subdued - a primeval force, the first-ever vampire known simply as the Mother of All Darkness.  Turns out she isn't completely gone - and she's gunning for Anita using every underhanded trick in the book.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit, as I do most books in this series.  Hamilton has created such a rich, dark world, full lush imagery, complicated characters and relationships, with a magical system that is consistent and makes sense.  The later books in the series veer into erotica territory, and this one is no exception, but here the scenes were more integral to the actual plot than in some previous books. There were some other, non-sexual scenes that seemed to have little if anything to do with the plot, such as the dance recital, exhaustively described at the beginning of the book, and I was left wondering if seeds were being sown for future plot lines, or if perhaps some more vigorous editing might have improved matters.  Still, I am always excited by a new chapter in Anita's saga, and this one was a page-turner once it got going, and there were some very interesting developments.  I look forward to seeing where the next installment takes this fascinating supernatural saga.


Books in theAnita Blake series:
1. Guilty Pleasures
2. The Laughing Corpse

3. Circus of the Damned

4. The Lunatic Cafe
5. Bloody Bones

6. The Killing Dance

7. Burnt Offerings

8. Blue Moon

9. Obsidian Butterfly

10. Narcissus in Chains

11. Cerulean Sins
12. Incubus Dreams

13. Micah
14. Danse Macabre

15.
The Harlequin
16. Blood Noir

17. Skin Trade
18. Flirt
19. Bullet

Bullet (#19 in the Anita Blake series) by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley Books, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Book Series Reviews"In some places it is great writing, but overall it's just good. There are parts in the book that shouldn't have made the cut, and there are things that are talked about where we really should be given the details and not just kind of loosely told that it happened."
Reading with Tequila"Bullet brings back everything we've been missing in the Anita Blake series. Lots of action, danger and plot progression here that will do much to woo back disenfranchised series fans disappointed by the erotica feel of many recent books"
Sidhe Vicious Reviews: "It seems to me that Ms. Hamilton has heard some of her fans and has taken it back a notch to be more like her 'old school' Anita Blake, though I found it to be a great mix of everything that makes Anita Blake and the rest of the darkly rich characters amazing."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Women of Nell Gwynne's

I have long enjoyed Kage Baker's books, and I was so saddened by her death several months ago.  When this novella was first published, it sounded like a lot of fun, but the library where I work didn't own it.  I put in a request that we purchase it, but was eventually told that the budget would not permit it (and I have to say, I felt my request was vindicated when this wonderful novella recently received a Nebula Award - I just wish Baker had been here to receive it herself).

Usually my library purchases award-winning books, and I was puzzled when this one was not on the to-be-ordered list.  I popped over to Amazon, and I was surprised to see that this is a difficult book to get these days - in fact, Amazon doesn't sell if for less than $100. What I thought was a sequel due to be released next month turns out to be a paperback reprint of the first book, with a new short story involving the same protagonist included at the end. 
At any rate, as much as I love Kage Baker's books, I wasn't able to fork out the $100+ to read this one, so I put in an interlibrary loan request, and I must thank the kind librarians of the Alachua County Library in Florida for graciously sending this book all the way to Virginia for me to read - and for not even charging a fee!  The book they sent is a signed copy, too, which was fun, and of course I took very good care of it.

The book follows the adventures of a young woman who calls herself the Lady Beatrice.  As a child growing up in British colonial India, Lady Beatrice is intelligent, bold and courageous, the daughter of a British Army Officer.  She shares a close bond with her father, but her mother disapproves of her unladylike ways.  Following a tragedy that occurs in her early teens, Lady Beatrice finds herself on her own in London, spurned by her family, and forced to turn to prostitution to survive.

A chance encounter with an old friend of her father's finds Beatrice invited to join a very special, exclusive brothel known as Nell Gwynne's, which trades in secrets.  It is the sister organization to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society (the predecessor to the Company, for those who have read Baker's books in that wonderful series) .  The lady Beatrice and her compatriot harlots soon find themselves sent on a dangerous mission to an old estate home in the English countryside, trying to unearth the secret behind the disappearance of an agent and the rumors of an amazing invention.  Armed with sophisticated gadgetry worthy of James Bond's Q, the girls feel well equipped to face whatever challenges await.  But nothing can prepare them for the bizarre goings on at Lord Rawdon's estate...

This novella is absolutely delightful.  It is exciting and surprising, with plenty of the tongue-in-cheek humor that often lurks in the pages of Baker's novels, and I enjoyed every single page and was so sorry when the book ended.  The Lady Beatrice is a wonderful heroine, brilliant and with an often comical detachment and pragmatism that have allowed her, against the odds, to get rise above the obstacles and tragedy in her life.  The women she works with are wonderful, too, unflappable and smart, and very willing to use all the hidden advantages of their social position when it comes to espionage.

I highly recommend this novella.  With its deft sense of humor, evocative illustrations, memorable characters, biting social commentary, clever plot twists and surprises - plus all the cool gadgetry (always a plus with me), the only negative thing I can say about this one is that it was simply too short. 

The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker; illustrated by J.K. Potter (Subterranean Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Book Gazing:  "I can’t talk this book up enough, it’s a little bit different, but not overly steeped in sci-fi for anyone unsure about that element of the steam punk genre. If you enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White or Sarah Water’s Victorian novels I think you could happily spend an entertaining afternoon with The Women of Nell Gwynne’s."
Writing Every Day: "When I got to the end, I smiled to myself and thought, This is absurd. The fun kind of absurd."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Early to Death, Early to Rise


This is the second book in Kim Harrison's YA series featuring Madison Avery, a dead girl who finds herself thrown into a strange world in which angels and reapers fight over souls.  Following events in the first novel, Madison has become the dark timekeeper, but she thinks that the way things have always been done isn't for her.  If reapers cut short a person's life before they can make the fateful choice that damns their soul, then, she thinks, they have never really had a chance to make the choice at all.  And that doesn't seem right.  Determined to change things, Madison and her skeptical companions see if they can change the way things are done - but if she fails, the consequences could be deadly.  This series continues to be fun even if it does strain my ability to suspend my disbelief nearly to its breaking point.  It is fun to go along for the ride, and the new developments in this second book have made me curious to see how things go in the third.  I like a YA novel that is entertaining and also raises some thought-provoking questions, and this one definitely does that.

Books in the Madison Avery series:
1. Once Dead, Twice Shy
2. Early to Death, Early to Rise
3. Something Deadly This Way Comes (June 2011)

Early to Death, Early to Rise  (#2 in the Madison Avery series) by Kim Harrison (Harper, 2010)