Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Anya's Ghost

When a book says "A masterpiece" --Neil Gaiman on the cover, there's enough reason for me to pick it up.  That does, however, set one's expectations rather high, but in this case, it wasn't a problem.  This is a delightfully creepy, funny, sweet story, told through expressive drawings in shades of gray that suit the tale much better than full-color illustrations ever could.

The story is about a young girl named Anya who moved to the U.S. from Russia when she was just old enough to have issues about her accent and different cultural ways.  She has managed to shake the accent and get the right clothes, although she feels insecure about her weight and looks, particularly when she compares herself to svelte blonde Elizabeth, who happens to be dating the boy Anya thinks is the hottest guy at school.

The opening sequences of the graphic novel depict a fairly rotten day for Anya, but all of that pales in comparison to the accident that befalls her after school.  She runs off through the woods, not paying any attention to where she is going because she is feeling overwhelmed and thoroughly sorry for herself, and she slips and falls down a well. 

She survives the fall, but now she is stuck.  She is in a secluded location, and no one is around to hear her cries for help.  To make things even more horrific, she discovers a skeleton at the bottom of the well, lying not far from where she has fallen.  A ghost appears.  It is the spirit of a girl just about Anya's age, who fell down the well many years earlier.  It is clearly not a comforting sight.

When Anya manages to get out of the well, she is followed home by the ghost, who tells Anya that she has been murdered.  But when Anya tries to find out more so she can help lay the girl's spirit to rest, the ghost seems more interested in Anya's social life rather than in finding a way to move on.   The ghost seems to mean well, but as time goes by Anya feels a sneaking suspicion that all is not as it seems.

I truly enjoyed this graphic novel, and I would recommend it to all those who enjoy a good ghost story, as well as to fans of Hope Larson and Raina Telgemeier.  It's a fun combination of horror, humor, school story and coming-of-age, and it's told in a subtle, clever way that will get readers really thinking about the story and the relationships among the characters. 

This is my first read for the R.I.P. Challenge.  I'm off to a great start!

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol (First Second, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
The Blue Bookcase"Something I love about this book is the character design. Having read a lot of comics all my life, I've ached for more variety in characters and their looks."
Finding Wonderland: "It struck just the right balance between funny, poignant and creepy—an odd combination, perhaps, but it worked for me."
Stainless Steel Droppings: "author/artist Vera Brosgol combines clean lines and subtle retro-styling with tight prose to tell a compelling and sometimes mysterious tale about a young girl’s journey towards becoming herself."

Monday, September 26, 2011

The SOS File

An extra credit assignment is offered to the kids in Mr. Magro's class.  A file box is placed in the classroom with the following sign on it:

Have you ever needed to call 911, but you didn't have a phone?  Have you ever needed to run, but your legs were like spaghetti?  Have you ever needed to yell "Help!" but your throat was dry with fear?  For fun and extra credit write your story and put it in this file.

Twelve students take the plunge and submit their "SOS" experiences in the file, and each story is humorously illustrated and presented as a chapter in this delightful book. There's the story of the Pink Panther, a go-cart that runs amok as Liz screams in terror.  There's "A Bear Tale," told by Augustus T. Breuwhiler III, who recounts how his life was saved from an angry bear by Abraham Lincoln.  There's also a story involving summer camp, poison ivy and the spooky legend of the Pumpkin Man.

This is an entertaining and funny book that will keep readers engaged and laughing.  The bold illustrations and large print, as well as the short-story format, make this one a perfect choice for readers who are transitioning from easy readers to chapter books.  (For other recommended transitional books, click on the "transitional books" label at the bottom of this post or in the sidebar.)  I think this book would also make a great read-aloud.  I would have tried it out on my kids, but they ran off and read it on their own before I got the chance.  It's definitely an all-around appealing book.

The SOS File  by Betsy Byars, Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers; illustrated by Arthur Howard (Henry Holt and Company, 2004)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

R.I.P. VI!

Better late than never, I suppose.  I look forward to this challenge all year long - it doesn't seem like autumn is here without it, actually.  Plus I always mourn the passing of the halcyon summer days, and knowing that Halloween is around the corner inevitably cheers me up.

If you enjoy reading horror and dark fantasy - or if you'd like to get your feet wet but aren't sure where to start, you absolutely must head over to supreme challenge host Carl's blog, Stainless Steel Droppings, to check it out.  And don't miss the review site, the place to go to check out reviews posted by challenge participants.  I can't tell you how many fantastic book recommendations I've picked up from the review site from this challenge as well as the other challenges hosted by Carl throughout the course of the year.

As always, Carl offers several categories of challenge that readers can sign up for, from novels to short stories, to films.  I plan to read as many creepy-themed tales as possible and post my reviews (maybe bypassing my backlog of reviews to get them up in a timely manner).  I always plan to post short story reviews as well, but of course this is such a busy time of year, so I rarely manage it.  Hope springs eternal, though!

Here are some of the possibilities for the challenge this fall.  If anyone loved (or was disappointed in) any of these, I'd sure love to hear about it!

Teeth (an anthology) edited by Datlow and Winling
Graveminder by Melissa Marr
Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore
Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Demonglass by Rachel Hawkins
Manifest by Artist Arthur
Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

I always do at least one spooky read-aloud for my kids, and this year I'm reading them Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which I read last summer and adored.  So far they love it, and are ever so slightly creeped out.  Heh, heh.

Bloody Jack

I've reviewed several books in this delightful series here on this blog, but I have not written about the earlier books because I read them before I started blogging.  Now that my girls are old enough to appreciate (and understand) this series, I checked the audiobook out from my library, and we listened to it this past summer while driving in the car.  They loved it - and so did my husband.  It is a rare and wonderful thing when an entire family is equally appreciative of the same book. 

This is the novel where the adventures begin, as Mary Faber, a young girl orphaned when her entire family is wiped out by disease, is left on the streets of London in the early 19th century.  She lives with a gang of other street kids, stealing and begging for food.  Her family was educated and Mary knows how to read, and she earns some money reading broadsides aloud for passersby.  When things become to terrible to bear, Mary disguises herself as a boy and, thanks to her literacy skills, manages to get herself signed on to a Royal Navy ship as ship's boy, calling herself Jack. 

Adventure, romance, pirates, naval battles, bullies, and other fun and exciting elements ensue, as Jacky, with her quick wits and impulsive but generous nature proceeds to turn her life (and the lives of those around her) upside down.  This is one of my very favorite historical series, and I recommend often to readers at my library.  They always come back to tell me how much they enjoyed the book and request the next one.  Happily there are quite a few in this series, with more to come.  I read the text version of this one initially, but now that I've discovered the audio books, I don't think I can go back.  Katherine Kellgren does a spectacular job of reading this series - aside from giving characters their own unique voices, accents, and manners of speaking, she also sings the songs, which makes the books even more fun.  It's almost like listening to a radio play.

My library shelves this in the teen section, because there are situations that are best appreciated by teens and preteens.  There are references to Jacky's attraction to one of the other ship's boys, and to her developing body (and how difficult it is to maintain the illusion of her masculinity aboard ship), but it was nothing I felt uncomfortable about my ten-year-old listening to.  In fact, listening to this book together sparked some interesting conversations about life in the past, and the politics of the time, and the complex social system aboard the ship.

We are now listening to the third one in this series (I'm SO behind on my reviews!), and now that school has started we are so busy, and it's become rare for the entire family to be in the car at the same time for more than a short ride, which makes it tough to continue with the book.  But we're not allowed to keep listening unless all four of us are in the car!  So the moment we are all together, there is inevitably a chorus from the back seat demanding "Bloody Jack!  Bloody Jack!"  and that's fine with my husband and me.

Books in the Bloody Jack series:
1. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy
2. Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady
3. Under the Jolly Roger: Being an Account of the Further Nautical Adventures of Jacky Faber 4. In the Belly of the Bloodhound: Being an Account of a Particularly Peculiar Adventure in the Life of Jacky Faber
5. Mississippi Jack: Being an Account of the Further Waterborne Adventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman, Fine Lady, and the Lily of the West6. My Bonny Light Horseman: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, in Love and War
7. Rapture of the Deep: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Soldier, Sailor, Mermaid, Spy
8. The Wake of the Lorelie Lee: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, on Her Way to Botany Bay
9. The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being an Account of the Continuing Adventures of Jacky Faber, Wending Her Way Back from Botany Bay  (October 2011)

Bloody Jack (#1 in the Bloody Jack series) by L.A. Meyer; narrated by Katherine Kellgren (Listen and Live Audio, 2007)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reaper Man

I've been making my leisurely way through the Discworld series, during the past year or two.  I'd read the first few books years ago when they were first published, and recently with my children I discovered the joys of listening to Pratchett's novels read aloud, particularly the Tiffany Aching books read by Stephen Briggs, who is a phenomenal narrator.  My library doesn't own the audiobook version for many of these earlier books, so I've been purchasing them from, and they are so worth it.  My kids have listened to the Tiffany Aching books so often that they've taken to quoting from them (mainly stuff the Feegles say, which nets them some odd looks from people but always makes me laugh), so I know that in a few years they'll be loving the audio library of Discworld books that I've been gradually amassing.

At any rate, this one, Reaper Man, is the eleventh book in the series, and it features Death, one of my favorite characters, as well as some of the wizards that were introduced in earlier books.  There are two main storylines. In the first, Death, it is decided, has served his time (and gained way too much personality), and it is time for him to die and be replaced by a new Death.  Off he goes to discover life in the short amount of time he has before he will die - and suddenly things that seemed foreign to him - in particular, the desire of humans to keep on living - take on a whole, new understandable meaning.  The second storyline features the elderly wizard Windle Poons, who knows (as all wizards do) when he is going to die.  Death comes in person to collect the souls of wizards, but when Death doesn't show up, Windle cannot move on, even though he's dead.  Soon it becomes apparent that nothing is dying, and the situation gradually escalates in all sorts of interesting and delightful ways.

I really enjoyed seeing Death out of his element, so to speak, and while (as usual) much of the book is hysterically funny, there is a depth to it as well, which is why I always enjoy Pratchett's books so much.  I was reminded of my other favorite Death character, from the Sandman comic books, and how she has to live a day as a mortal every century or so, in order to really bring home the value of each life that she takes.  Windle Poons is also a delightful character, as are the others he must deal with in his quest to move on to the next phase of his existence.  I particularly loved the Death of Rats - and although my children have yet to read the "grownup" Discword books, I had them listen to the section at the end of the book about the Death of Rats - and I was glad I did.  When one of their beloved ratties died of old age a few weeks ago, we were all comforted by the thought that the Death of Rats had come to usher her soul into the great beyond.

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

33. Unseen Academicals

Reaper Man (#11 in the Discworld series) by Terry Pratchett (ISIS Audiobooks, 1999)

Also reviewed at:
A Reader's Journal:  " I enjoyed it and found myself chuckling serveral times but it didn't enthrall me like Mort did."
The Wertzone:  "The book never really seems to come together and fire up like the best books in the series, despite many individually good moments and some funny lines."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Moon Over Manifest

I'm not sure I would have picked up this book had it not won last year's Newbery Award - not that it doesn't look appealing, but there are so many books on my reading list that I might not have gotten around to it, particularly as it's not in a genre that I typically gravitate to.  Knowing beforehand that it won, though, gave me heightened expectations, but I'm glad to say that these were not disappointed.  It is a charming novel, with engaging characters, and I particularly enjoyed the effectiveness of the book's structure.

Our heroine is a young girl named Abilene Tucker, who has been traveling from town to town in the company of her father.  But suddenly, following an accident that left Abilene in need of serious medical care, her father has decided that life on the road is not a good life for her.  He sends her, on her own, to the small town of Manifest, Kansas, to stay with a friend of his.  Abilene feels hurt and angry, and worried that her father will never come back to get her. 

She is determined to bide her time and keep to herself, but before she knows it she is drawn into life in Manifest.  She's given a school assignment to complete over the summer - even though she fully expects (hopes desperately) to be back with her father by then.  She hears old stories about life in Manifest when her father was young, and she and some friends are excited to hear about an actual spy known as the Rattler who lived in Manifest during World War I.  They decide to investigate and are a little scared (and a little thrilled) to receive an ominous warning telling them to stop nosing around in other people's business.  Little by little Abilene learns about the past events of Manifest, and as she comes to know the people who live there now, the past and present weave together in a story that might even show her her own place, right there, and how she's connected to everything else.

The story is told from Abilene's viewpoint, but there are sections told by other characters and through letters as well.  The reader is given clues from these stories and can try to unravel the mysteries along with Abilene, and the plot unfolds in bits and pieces that finally arrange themselves to form a large, interconnected picture - it is skillfully done.

I have read here and there that this is the sort of book that adults will enjoy, but young readers not so much; that the structure and point of view are too complicated, and the subject matter too inaccessible.  I disagree.  First of all, Abilene is an incredibly sympathetic character, and readers will identify with her immediately.  She has such an engaging voice, and she tells the story in a way that sucks the reader into the story.  And secondly, the story is a mystery, really, and there are so many unanswered questions that surround characters that readers will quickly come to care about, so readers will be eager to see what happens next.  Of course this book isn't for everyone - what book is?  But for kids who enjoy a rich book about complex people in an unforgettable setting?  This one will definitely be a hit.

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Delacorte Press, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves"I grew to like Abilene more and more throughout the book - her curiosity and sense of adventure, as well as her willingness to try to make the best out of a bad situation."
One Librarian's Book Reviews"The writing is quite beautiful and I was really transported back to the 1930s and to the first great war."
The Literate Mother:  "I laughed, cried and hoped through Moon Over Manifest, and I loved every page of it."

Friday, September 9, 2011


I am certainly glad that I waited to read The Sharing Knife series until four books were published.  This sequel to Beguilement picks up immediately where the first one ended, and while Bujold does her usual swift and skillful job of catching readers up and refreshing their memories, the story gets going right away.

This reads like the second half of the first book, so it is very important to read the books in order.  Not that you couldn't figure out what's going on by starting with the second book - but you'd miss out on so much of the fun.  Inevitable spoilers may follow, so be forewarned.

Fawn and Dag, a farmer and a Lakewalker, are from two different worlds, yet they have spurned tradition and managed to find a way to get married following both Lakewalker and Farmer customs.  Dag has, against all odds, manged to bring Fawn's farmer family around to accepting, even liking, him.  But now he and Fawn are traveling to Dag's Lakewalker camp, where Fawn will be introduced as Dag's farmer wife.  Fawn soon realizes that her family was an easy nut to crack compared with Dag's furious, spiteful mother and surly brother.  Her arrival sets the camp in an upheaval that she could not have foreseen, and in the midst of Fawn and Dag's personal problems comes a Malice attack that is more damaging than anyone has seen in years.  Dag, still a respected and effective Lakewalker patroller despite his negligence in falling in love with a farmer girl, is sent to deal with the Malice outbreak.  Fawn is left behind, on her own among people who are unsympathetic and unwelcoming. 

I enjoyed this installment in the Sharing Knife series very much.  While the first book took a close look at Fawn's cultural background and lifestyle as well as the relationship that develops between her and Dag, this one examines Dag's background and the Lakewalker culture and traditions.  We see why these traditions are so very important - they keep people alive in a land beset by horrific creatures that literally suck the life force from everything around them.  We also see why the very traditions that have helped farmers and Lakewalkers to survive in a hostile land are beginning to threaten their survival.  Dag and Fawn have gained a new perspective on things, but that perspective isn't well received by farmers or Lakewalkers, and they have a sizable challenge ahead of them, a challenge that will no doubt be explored in the follow-up to this book.

There's a lot to love here - complex, likable characters, fascinating fantasy elements, skillful pacing and a story that is intelligent and compelling.  Anyone who has read Bujold's books won't be at all surprised by these elements, of course.  I've come to expect them any time I open one of her novels, and because of it she is one of those authors, along with others like Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and Charles de Lint, whose books I turn to over and over again.  I look forward to reading (listening to, actually - Bernadette Dunne does a fantastic job narrating the audio version) the other books in this riveting series.

Books in The Sharing Knife series:
1. Beguilement
2. Legacy
3. Passage
4. Horizon  

Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold; narrated by Bernadette Dunne (Blackstone Audio, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Blog from the Windowsill:  "Sweet and dryly funny and scary and sad and ultimately hopeful. And full of interesting possibilities still to be explored."
Fyrefly's Book Blog:  " If you like original, well-built fantasy with great characters and a solid dose of romance, you should definitely pick up this series."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Magic Slays

In the wake of previous events in this action-packed urban fantasy series, our heroine Kate Daniels has quit her job with the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid and has broken off on her own, establishing her own supernatural detective agency.  But sadly she hasn't gotten many customers, especially with the Order (or certain unpleasant people there) constantly badmouthing her name.  Being the mate of Curran, alpha of the local were pack, only complicates matters.  She feels a need to succeed on her own - not because the pack could (and would) continue to fund her agency even if she never makes a cent.

She agrees to help with a vampire issue, even though she knows she may be getting over her head- but she has no idea that the ramifications will be so far reaching.  To complicate matters, her ward, Julie, has run away from boarding school again, and Curran is having some issues sharing power and responsibilities fair and square with her.  Their relationship has certainly progressed in many positive ways, but between Kate's reluctance to accept responsibility for others, loner that she's always been, and Curran's reluctance to share his power, or even delegate, fireworks tend to fly.

This series is an engaging mix of action and adventure, mystery, and romance, with a nice dash of humor thrown in along the way.  Each book continues to develop the characters and their relationships with each other, giving the series a welcome complexity that can sometimes be lacking in books of this genre.  I continue to enjoy this series, and I always look forward to each new book.  The Edge series is fun as well, but it does change focus from one character to another.  Sometimes that's fine with me, but I do enjoy coming back to characters I've come to love and seeing where life will take them next.

Books in the Kate Daniels series:
1. Magic Bites
2. Magic Burns
3. Magic Strikes

4. Magic Bleeds 
5. Magic Slays

Magic Slays (#5 in the Kate Daniels series) by Ilona Andrews (Ace Books, 2011)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Midnight Gate

This sequel to Spellbinder picks up two months after the events of the first book left off, with our heroine, Belladonna Johnson, living at home with her ghostly parents.  Things are back to normal - too back to normal, she thinks.  It's almost as though all the excitement (and fear) of the earlier events never happened.  Her friend Steve, who's been through everything with her, practically ignores her at school, and despite the fact that Belladonna is the Spellbinder, all the adults who are involved in the spirit world seem to think she must wait until she is older to learn more about her powers and responsibilities.

Then she goes on a class field trip to a haunted abbey, and she and Steve are given a strange map.  Ghosts disappear - including Belladonna's parents - and she is whisked off to live at an unsettling foster home with a couple who appear to have diabolical plans for Belladonna.  Once again she and Steve must work together, knowing very little about the otherworld and what they need to do to combat the powerful forces of the Queen of the Abyss.

Belladonna is a strong heroine, and readers will be sure to identify with her as she struggles to unravel the complex tangle of mysteries that her life has become.  The adults in her life appear to be a little too clueless and unwilling to share relevant information with her, though - they seem to be testing her, as she is very young for such responsibilities, but considering what is at stake I found it just a bit over the top for them to be so unhelpful.  But readers will be sure to appreciate the fact that despite their ignorance, Belladonna and Steve - as well as the feisty ghost Elsie - use their ingenuity and combine their various skills and talents to put up one heck of a fight.

Readers who enjoy action-packed fantasy such as the Sisters Grimm series, Percy Jackson or Diane Duane's Wizard series should find this one very appealing.  It combines mystery, action, and a dash of wry humor, and with its continual twists, turns, and revelations, it will keep readers guessing all along the way.

Books in the Spellbinder series:
1. Spellbinder
2. The Midnight Gate  

The Midnight Gate (#2 in the Spellbinder series) by Helen Stringer (Feiwel and Friends, 2011)

Source:  Review copy received from author

Also reviewed at:
Bookworming in the 21st Century:  "These are definitely great books that I will be putting in my elementary library for my students that love supernatural and adventure stories."

Charlotte's Library"Although it's the monstrous questy things that will doubtless please the young Percy fans referenced above, for me the appeal of this series is the quirky charm that can be found off to the sides of the main plot."
The Happy Nappy Bookseller:  "The elements I enjoyed in the first book are present again. Belladonna, Steve and the ghost Elsie still have good chemistry, making for some great dialogue."