Saturday, March 26, 2011

Once Upon a Time Challenge - it's back!

Once Upon a Time V
Now I know it's really spring (despite tomorrow's forecast for snow - in Virginia!).  I love the Once Upon a Time Challenge and its celebration of the many forms of fantastical fiction, so of course I'm in again this year.  I urge you, even if you've never done a challenge before, to head over to Carl's site at Stainless Steel Droppings and give it a go.  All you need to commit to is reading a single book, which is a great way to get your feet wet if you aren't too sure about reading fantasy.  Or, if you're feeling more ambitious, you can try one of the other "quests, "  including a short story and a film challenge.  Stop by his blog for more details.  Oh, and isn't the artwork for this year's challenge positively gorgeous? 

There are a few rules,as Carl writes on his challenge post:

Rule #1: Have fun.
Rule #2: Have fun.
Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge.”


I am planning to do "Quest the First" (five fantasy novels of any sort) along with "Quest the Second," which involves reading four books, each of which fit into one of four fantasy fiction categories: one fantasy, one folklore, one fairy tale, and one mythology.  I have not decided exactly which books I'll be reading, but here are some of the contenders.  If anyone has strong feelings about any of these as far as which ones I should choose, please let me know!  Or, if you have any other suggestions of books you think I'd like, I'd love to hear them.

Challenge possibilities:
  • Enchanted Ivy by Sarah Beth Durst
  • The Shadows by Jacqueline West
  • A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park
  • The Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Clocked in Red by Vivian Vande Velde
  • Darkest Mercy by Melissa Marr
  • A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
  • Foretelling by Alice Hoffman (not sure if this is actually fantasy, but thought it might be good for mythology - has anyone read this?)
I urge you to give this challenge a try.  Although beware:  at least half of the books on my embarrassingly long TBR list get there because of reviews posted by other bloggers at the Challenge Review Site.  Come on, you know you want to do it!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spellbinder

My twelve-year-old daughter came home from school one day and asked if I could order a book called Spellbinder from the library for her.  One of her friends was reading it, and had told her a little about it, and she thought it sounded like fun.  When it came in, I took one look at the cover and immediately saw the appeal.  She devoured the book in a few days, and enjoyed it so much that she urged me to read it when she had finished.  Usually this happens the other way around - I read a book I think she'll enjoy, and she ends up reading it.  It was fun to read one recommended by her, instead.

The protagonist is Belladonna Johnson, a twelve-year-old girl living in the north of England.  She can see ghosts - it's an ability that runs in the family.  This has its advantages and disadvantages.  For example, it's embarrassing to be seen talking to people no one else can see.  But it's good that she can see her parents, who died in an accident.  She still lives at home with them, and life has continued much as it did when they were alive.  So, full of secrets, Belladonna has kept to herself at school - until one day when she happens to touch another student when a ghost is nearby, and he can see the ghost as well. 

When ghosts start disappearing - including Belladonna's own parents - Belladonna goes on a quest into the afterworld in order to try to set things right.  There are Sybils with prophecies, hidden magic books, secret passages, graveyard sprites, mystical weapons, and mysteries to be solved.  The adults in Belladonna's life are uncommunicative and dismissive, and she has to figure things out on her own. 

There's a lot to like about this one.  First off, Belladonna is a strong protagonist, and while she behaves in a way that is believable for a twelve-year-old, and she's often confused and unsure, she is brave and keeps at it, never giving up, and she stays focused on her goal.  I enjoyed the way her relationship with Steve, her classmate who sees the ghosts, develops, as well as the minor characters along the way - particularly Elsie, the peppy ghost who died in a tennis-related accident (and who seems to enjoy relating all the gory details with gusto).  The plot is fairly simple and straightforward, and while it relies perhaps a little too much on coincidence, it is satisfying and full of fun and creative fantastical details.  It has a satisfying conclusion, but there are plenty of areas left unexplored, not to mention some intriguing unanswered questions, so that my daughter and I were very happy to learn that the sequel, Midnight Gate, is due to be published in the U.S. this coming May.

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

Spellbinder by Helen Stringer (Feiwel and Friends, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Book Addiction:  "Overall, Spellbinder was just okay for me.  While I loved the main character, the book has little else for me to really endorse.  I acknowledge that I am not the intended audience for this read, and so I would definitely be interested in hearing the perspective of a middle-schooler."
Book Aunt"I was pleased that it ended thoroughly, even while hinting at a sequel. For middle grade fantasy enthusiasts, Spellbinder is a real find."
Books and Movies:  "I read Spellbinder aloud to my four kids, and although it took a little bit for us to get into it, once the story grabbed us, we were hooked."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pale Demon

When I first started reading Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series, I enjoyed it, but didn't love it.  Part of that, I think, was all the hype - I think maybe my expectations were a little too high.  And part of it was that I found Rachel a bit exasperating.  She kept rushing into things without thinking or taking time to find out about the situation, and then when things fell apart, she'd try to fix it all, only to rush unthinkingly into a new situation, with the same result.  What kept me reading was that, despite my occasional exasperation with her, I liked her.  She tried to do the right thing, even when she was put (or put herself) in impossible situations - and she always took responsibility for the consequences of her actions.

I also liked the setting - this world in which the human population has been decimated by a disease that left the supernatural residents hale and healthy - and outed to the public.  I found her relationship with the vampire Ivy to be complicated and interesting, and Jenks, the sidekick pixie, can fit in Rachel's hand but plays an equal role on the team.  As the series progresses, the characters change and grow as a result of the action, and I like that.  After a few books, I was definitely hooked, so of course I was excited when my copy of this, the ninth book in the series, arrived for me at the library.

It is difficult to say too much about this one without revealing spoilers to earlier books, so if you are at all interested in an action-packed, fantastical adventure series, I advise you to check out my review of Dead Witch Walking, the first book in this series. 

This book opens with Rachel setting out for San Francisco, where she is going to the annual witches' conference.  As a result of a deal she made with one of the council members in the previous book, she is supposed to be exonerated for her alleged use of black magic, and the shunning the council placed on her is to be reversed.  Rachel, however, is the only one who actually believes this is going to happen.  Instead of a quick and easy plane ride to San Francisco, though, what she gets is a long, complicated and perilous road trip across the country - accompanied by Trent, who is on a mysterious mission.  The last thing she wants is to have to deal with Trent, who is undeniably attractive but definitely untrustworthy.  He doesn't seem too thrilled about her company, either, and when a day-walking demon gets loose and starts wreaking bloody havoc, it becomes doubtful whether they'll even make it to the conference at all.

This was a rip-roaring adventure ride from start to finish, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I loved that we finally get to know a little more about Trent, as well as the reality inhabited by the demons.  And I really loved that in this book Rachel is thinking and taking control of the situation, not hiding from unpleasant truths.  I did find myself wishing for further development of her relationship with Ivy, though, which seems to have fallen by the wayside a bit as the series has progressed.  As series become longer, I imagine it becomes difficult to focus on all the various elements of earlier books, but I do hope there will be some time spent on Ivy in the next installment. There is a satisfying conclusion to the book, but there are also so many open-ended plot strands that I will be impatiently waiting for the next installment of this highly entertaining series. 

Books in the Hollows/Rachel Morgan 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
9. Pale Demon 

Pale Demon (#9 in the Hollows/Rachel Morgan series) by Kim Harrison (Harper Voyager, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
A Book Blogger's Diary"Flat out, this is the best book I've read so far this year. Like fine wine, The Hollows is a series that has just grown better with time."
Beyond Books"I do hope that Ivy reappears in the next novel and actually has a role because I miss her.  Other than that, I had a great time reading this book."
I'd So Rather Be Reading"While nine books can sometimes be too long for some series, Kim Harrison's work just keeps getting better, and I hope we get at least three more."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Parent's Guide to Coaching Tennis

I love to play tennis.  I'm completely addicted, and I play outside the whole year round, as long as the temperature is above 40 degrees F.  (When it gets colder than that, the balls just bounce too weirdly to make it much fun.)  My older daughter, who's twelve now, has been enjoying playing for the past couple of years, and last year she was on the tennis team at our local swim club.  And this spring, my ten-year-old decided to give it a go, and she's enjoying it as well.

Now, I have to say, I'm not very experienced with the competitive side of tennis. While I've been hitting with friends for years, I only started playing with the women's tennis team (at our neighborhood swim club) last year, and playing matches is decidedly not my favorite part of tennis.  What I love is those long, hard sustained rallies at the baseline, where all you think about is hitting the heck out of that ball, wham!

So, when it comes to giving my kids a hand on the tennis court, particularly as they strive to develop the skills that will help them during matches, I thought I'd check out some books for some and inspiration.  After reading Bounce, I knew that hours of dedicated practice are essential to developing expertise at anything (and really, who doesn't know that?) - but the important thing I learned from that book is that you can practice all you want, but if it's not what Syed calls "purposeful practice," it's not going to be very helpful.  After all, when you think about all the hours of driving that people put in over a lifetime, the fact that most people drive terribly is a clue!  My goal for my kids (and let me say I'm not trying to create tennis champions or anything - I just want them to develop their skill set so they can have fun) is to create a supportive, enjoyable environment for them on the tennis court, and help them to practice purposefully. 

This book did offer some interesting pointers, but on the whole it was a bit disappointing.  I was looking for ideas to make playing with my kids fun and exciting, and while the book includes some "fun" drills, they weren't anything I couldn't have thought up on my own.  And the book's advice to reward children with candy and popsicles was definitely not helpful!  While the book does appear fairly dated (it is from 1995) with its black and white photos, the photos were definitely helpful, particularly to emphasize to my children what we talk about on the court, so they can see kids in the correct - or not-so-correct - positions for various strokes.  This book would be very helpful for parents who know little or nothing about tennis but who want to be helpful and supportive to children who are interested in playing.  If you already play tennis, there's nothing truly earthshattering here - but your children may find portions of it helpful. 

The Parent's Guide to Coaching Tennis by Pierce Kelley (Betterway Books, 1995)

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Grizzly Tales: Nasty Little Beasts

Oh, where to start with this hysterical collection of cautionary tales for children?  First off, it's narrated by Rupert Degas, my favorite audiobook narrator of all time (he reads the first four Skulduggery Pleasant audios), and here, he really cuts loose.  It is over-the-top, no-holds-barred reading, and he does all the voices so distinctly that it's like listening to a multicast version of a radio play - but it's all Degas.  He does the deranged innkeeper (of the Hothell Darkness, where the bad kids go), complete with maniacal laughter, the bratty children, the bewildered, ineffectual parents - it is too, too funny.  And then there are the stories themselves - cautionary tales about kids with such awful behavior that it is great fun to see them get their well-deserved comeuppance.

Listeners who possess a twisted sense of humor are sure to enjoy this collection of dreadfully delightful tales.  The premise is that bad children end up at the Hothell Darkness, and the reader is a visitor (or perhaps about to be a permanent resident) of that horrible place.  The innkeeper regales us with tales of the other children whose deeds were so awful as to consign them to the hotel...forever. 

There is the little boy who is so jealous of his baby sister that he wishes for the wolves to get her - all the while acting like a bratty baby in order to get as much attention as possible.  And there is the boy who delights in frightening his little sister, each fright more horrible than the last, culminating in the purchase of a snake to truly terrify her.  The new pet grows and grows and grows...with some very interesting results.  There's a little girl who refuses to eat fruit, and one day she finds herself in the body of a fruit bat.  And there is, perhaps, the brattiest child of all - a horrifically shrill little girl who always gets what she wants - until one day she finds that she really, really doesn't want what she gets.  The parents in these stories are rather dim-witted, for the most part, and I found myself wishing there were a special wing of the Hothell reserved just for them.

The publisher recommends this for ages four to eight, but I think that younger children might not really appreciate the humor here, and the voices are sometimes rather scary.  I think eight to twelve is a more appropriate age range, and my ten and twelve-year-olds enjoyed this immensely on a recent long car ride (as did my husband and I).  Fans of Hilaire Belloc's cautionary tales will doubtless enjoy this, and I highly recommend the audio version - the vivid narration made us all feel as though we'd seen a film, rather than listened to a book.  It would be fun to play a few of these stories for some children on a dark, Halloween night.  Heh heh heh.

Grizzly Tales: Nasty Little Beasts - "Cautionary Tales for Lovers of Squeam" (Parts 1 and 2) by Jamie Rix; narrated by Rupert Degas (Orion Audiobooks, 2007)

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

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crocodile on the Sandbank

I read the first few books in this beloved historical series years ago, when I was a teenager, and as it's been quite a long time, I thought I'd go back to the beginning before continuing with the Amelia Peabody books.  I've heard such great things about the audio book productions, so I checked this one out from my library and gave it a listen.  It was great fun!

The story opens in England in the late 19th century, as "spinster" Amelia Peabody inherits the bulk of her wealthy father's estate.  She is immediately beset with suitors, but she ignores them all, knowing full well they're after her money, and sets out to travel to ancient historical sites around the world.  She has always shared her father's avid interest in archaeology, and she longs to see in person all the things she's read about.

The woman she's been traveling with becomes ill in Italy, and through a stroke of good fortune, Amelia acquires the perfect traveling companion, an intelligent young woman named Evelyn, who is in a difficult situation.  Together, the two women head to Egypt, where they make the acquaintance of two archaeologist brothers.  After travelling down the Nile, the two women eventually find themselves at an archaeological dig, where they become involved in an intriguing mystery involving the nighttime apparition of a mummy in the ruins.

The plot is fairly straightforward and a bit predictable, but it is the interaction among the characters that brings this exciting historical mystery to life.  Amelia is an independent, strong, and very stubborn woman, definitely not one to shy away from confrontation, whose caustic comments and observations are often hilarious.  This is one of the series that I regularly recommend to teens who are transitioning from YA fiction to novels written for adults.  In fact, I read it as a young teen, and I have to say I found it pretty funny to compare my youthful experience with my current, not-so-youthful experience with this book.  It follows a fairly typical romance plotline - you know, where the protagonist and the romantic interest bicker and argue, but eventually must admit their mutual attraction for each other?  I clearly remember being absolutely as flabbergasted as Peabody by the romantic developments in the book.  I had to laugh at my younger self this time around.

At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this first book in the entertaining Amelia Peabody series, and Barbara Rosenblatt's narration was delightful.  I will continue with the audio versions, and I'm looking forward to making my way through the happily many books that await.

Books in the Amelia Peabody series:
1. Crocodile on the Sandbank
2. The Curse of the Pharaohs 

3. The Mummy Case 
4. Lion in the Valley 
5. The Deeds of the Disturber
6. The Last Camel Died at Noon 
7. The Snake, The Crocodile and the Dog 
8. The Hippopotamus Pool 
9. Seeing a Large Cat
10. The Ape Who Guards The Balance 
11. The Falcon at the Portal 
12. Thunder in the Sky 
13. Lord of the Silent 
14. The Golden One
15. Children of the Storm 
16. Guardian of the Horizon

17. The Serpent on the Crown
18. Tomb of the Golden Bird
19. A River in the Sky 



Crocodile on the Sandbank (#1 in the Amelia Peabody series) by Elizabeth Peters; narrated by Barbara Rosenblatt (Recorded Books, 2004 - novel originally published in 1975)

Also reviewed at:
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books:  "I loved the main character; Amelia’s sharp tongue and brusque manner are fabulous, as are her interactions with the other characters (especially Emerson)."
Angieville:  "This is a light and witty Victorian adventure mystery and it made me laugh several times. I have hopes for the rest of the series and will definitely be picking up the second book in the near future."
Things Mean a Lot"Peabody is clearly written in the tradition of the women travellers and science pioneers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, women about whom I’d love to read more."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bounce

What is is about the people who somehow manage to become the best of the best in their chosen field that enables them to get there?  There have been plenty of books written in the past few years about talent and excellence, and I've dipped into a few of them and found them fascinating.  A friend of mine, someone I've been playing tennis with for years, recommended this one (I know he read it because Federer is mentioned in the title!), even going so far as to give me the audio book to listen to, and I'm so glad I did.

The book talks about the idea that people are lucky, are somehow born with incredible talent, like Mozart and Picasso, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, and they achieve their excellence because they are born with a special skill that is nurtured along the way.  Syed, a world-champion table tennis player, uses his own experiences, the experiences of others who have achieved excellence in their fields, as well as scientific studies, research and expert opinions to break down excellence into its essential ingredients.  It makes a whole lot of sense, and it is utterly fascinating.

As a parent, I found the insights offered by this book to be particularly helpful, and I shared many of the things I read with my children and husband (and my husband is now listening to the audio book as well).  I have no particular ambition to raise world-class performers or champion sportswomen, but it is useful to be able to talk about the essential ingredients for success, so that if my children want to achieve in a particular area, they can approach their goal in an effective way.  I recommend this one to parents, coaches, teachers, aspiring athletes or performers - anyone who is interested in learning about the elements of being successful.  The lessons here are applicable to any area of life, not just sports, and readers are sure to walk away from this book with effective ideas for how to best approach their goals.

Bounce:  Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed; narrated by James Clamp (Harper Audio, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Andrew Rice Golf:  "A highly recommended read. So good in fact that I am paying my sons to read portions of it."
The Science Talent Project"Bounce is not the final book on talent, even not on sports talent, but as it contains scientifically based insights that even many professional coaches are only now beginning to understand, it is a very good beginning for anyone interested in how to get the best out of him/herself and his students."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

River Marked

I've been waiting for this book with such anticipation, and then when it finally came into the library, I was almost afraid to start it.  My hopes were so high!  I have come to adore this series with its smart and feisty heroine and cast of complex and engaging characters, and I was just a teensy bit afraid of being let down.  But I needn't have worried - the book was fantastic.  In fact, I think it might be my favorite one yet!

I know I always say this, but you really have to start with the first book, Moon Called, to fully enjoy this series.  Each book builds relationships and characters, as well as continuing narrative arcs from earlier books, and the stories gain a depth and complexity throughout the series that is best appreciated if you start at the beginning.  


In this installment, shapechanging coyote Mercy and sexy werewolf Adam go camping alone together.  What precedes their trip is a bang-up opening scene that had me grinning like a fool the whole time I was reading, but I won't ruin things by describing it.  I enjoyed the change in pace - after all, it was time for the two of them to finally have some alone time together, to sort out their complicated relationship without all the usual complications and distractions of living with a werewolf pack.  But of course, their serenity does not last long.  Something strange is happening in the area near their campsite, and when Mercy rescues a Native American man who has been attacked by some creature in the river, she and Adam become involved in a story that began thousands of years earlier.


Mercy has a deeper connection to the mystery than she at first realizes - but when she sees the ghost of a dancing Indian and recognizes him from the photo she has of the father who died before she was born, she realizes there is more to the situation than she expected.  She meets a Native American medicine man who immediately recognizes her for the shapechanger she is - and for the first time in her life she meets others who can change shapes.  She learns more about her past, and the situation proves to be an effective means of testing Mercy and Adam as they negotiate and strive for a balance in their own relationship.


I thoroughly enjoyed this installment to the Mercy Thompson series, particularly as it features my favorite character from folklore, who is portrayed just wonderfully, spot-on, which made me grin so many times as I read.  The story is at times dark and violent, but it contains those usual sparks of bright humor I've come to expect from Briggs' work, and, as always, I felt a deep emotional connection to the story.  This is a fantastic series, and I highly recommend it - even to readers who are normally not drawn by supernatural elements in their fiction.  Briggs is a master storyteller, and this reader, for one, is more than willing to follow wherever she decides to go next.


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

3. Iron Kissed

4. Bone Crossed
5. Silver Borne
6. River Marked


River Marked (#6 in the Mercy Thompson series) by Patricia Briggs (Ace Books, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Book Series Reviews"Character development was stellar, even for some of the minor characters. World-building continues to be top notch in this series."
Fiction Vixen"Patricia Briggs writes one of the best heroines in the urban fantasy genre today in Mercy Thompson. Mercy is not only strong and tough but she’s smart, loyal and genuinely good, making her a heroine that is so easy to love."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Not Simple

A teenager named Irene is anxious about her boyfriend's safety.  She wants to run away with him, but she fears her father will come after him - he has done it before.  She decides to run away with her boyfriend, but in order to trick her father - who has never actually seen her boyfriend and doesn't know what he looks like - she needs a decoy.  She invites Ian, a young man who appears homeless, to come to a diner with her - that way her father's thugs will target him instead of her boyfriend.  But when she starts talking to Ian, she discovers something astonishing.

It turns out that he is the same man her mother mentioned to her in a story about her aunt.  Her aunt's meeting with him had influenced a major decision in her life, and they had agreed to meet again at that same place three years later.  Three years have passed, and Ian has returned.  But Irene's father's thugs show up, and things head downhill rapidly.

The rest of this complex and heartbreaking story is told through a series of flashbacks that detail the events leading up to this point in Ian's life.  Ian's friend Jim, a reporter who has known him for years, is the narrator.  He has been intrigued by Ian's life ever since they first met, and has always said that one day he would write a novel about him.  This is that novel, a bleak and powerful graphic novel, illustrated with arresting black-and-white artwork.


The story is anything but simple.  Ian's life has been a difficult one, but he is one of those people who focuses on the good things, the positive things, and doesn't allow his negative experiences to twist or embitter him.  There are difficult themes here, including sexual abuse, incest and neglect, which make this a story that is appropriate for adults and older teens (and in fact, my library shelves this in the adult section).  None of it is graphic or gratuitous - it is handled in a sensitive manner that makes it all the more heart-wrenching.  It is a powerful story that will capture readers' attention and leave them with a lot to think about after they close the book.  This is the first book I've read by this author, and I am very much looking forward to reading more of her work.

Not Simple by Natsume Ono (Viz Media, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
Mama Reads Manga:  "What I liked about this book was its unpredictability. Although the reader knows how the story ends from the start, it drives you to read through the story to find out why it ended the way it did."
The Neon Panda:  " It can’t really be classed as a manga by the drawing style, which was something that almost put me off buying it, but I swear if you give it a go, you will love it."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Look at this!

 

I found this in the book donation bin today at the library where I work - seriously! I laughed so hard. Note the close-up with the teeth marks.


And here's a question for any of you with an iPhone - when I post photos on my blog, the vertical ones switch their orientation to horizontal (see first photo) and I can't get them to switch back.  Ack!  Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Unbound

 I don't usually read many short stores because I tend to prefer something longer to sink my teeth into.  But I have come to enjoy these anthologies that include work from some of my favorite authors (here, Kim Harrison and Melissa Marr) as well as some authors I am relatively unfamiliar with.  It's a great way to get a taste of a writer's style and possibly find new series to enjoy.  These stories tended to novella length, which I approve of - if I like the story, that is.

The anthology opens with Kim Harrison's "Ley Line Drifter."  It features the pixie Jenks from the Rachel Morgan series.  Rachel is not even in this story, but I didn't mind.  It was fascinating to see the world through Jenks's eyes, and while he can occasionally get on my nerves in the books, I found I liked him more in this story, which portrays him as a more complex character, particularly in his relationships with his wife and children.  The story here is a mystery - he is called upon to help a desperate pixie, whose children are being attacked by something that seems to be possessing a statue near their home.  The story was interesting and suspenseful, but the ending was less than satisfying.

"Reckoning" by Jeaniene Frost is a tale set in New Orleans, and is another supernatural mystery.  This time a hitman vampire named Bones is on the trail of two serial killers who are wreaking bloody havoc during Mardi Gras.  Vampire politics complicate matters, as someone is stalking Bones, and the more he investigates, the more he realizes that nothing is as it seems.  This one held my attention, and the setting was certainly atmospheric, but the characters weren't terribly compelling.  Perhaps if I had been more familiar with other works featuring these characters, I might have been drawn more into the story.

"Dark Matters" by Vicki Pettersson is a story set in the world of her Signs of the Zodiac series.  I have read another story by this author set in the same world, and neither of them has inspired me to run out and start reading the series.  The writing is a bit stilted, and the characters don't seem entirely real to me.  Characters who refer to themselves as superheroes - seriously - make it difficult to suspend my belief through a story.  I also found this one to be fairly predictable - I read through to the end, hoping to be proven wrong, but with no luck.

Jocelynne Drake's "The Dead, the Damned and the Forgotten" is another supernatural mystery.  A vampire named Mira is hunting for the murderer of another vampire - but further murders, some clearly by humans, others by vampires, ensue, muddying the waters.  Cleaning up the situation is paramount, or Mira may lose her territory and have to return to the dreaded Coven.  I found it difficult to care much for Mira's troubles, because her background (and her terror of the coven) were referred to obliquely, and she seemed more interested in solving the murders in order to maintain her control of the territory than for any other reason.  As I am unfamiliar with this author's fantasy setting and characters, I spent the entire story thinking that Mira was a man - I suppose from the way she interacted with the other characters.  It wasn't until the end of the story, when someone calls her a bitch, that I realized she was supposed to be female.  Not that it changed anything, really - but it certainly didn't make it feel like a well-formed story that stands on its own, separate from the series it is derived from.

"Two Lines" by Melissa Marr was my favorite tale in the book, and I'm glad it came at the end, because it was a treat.  This is a standalone story, not connected with her other books, and I think it was the strongest story in the anthology.  It features Eaven, who is a glaistig, a creature from Scottish mythology, but she is resisting the final steps toward becoming like the rest of the women in her family, who kill and feast on humans.  It will take sex or murder to complete the transformation from mortal to immortal, and Eaven is determined to stay human, no matter what sacrifices she must make.  Her life becomes complicated when she begins stalking a serial killer, finding him disturbingly compelling.  The addition of an unwelcome if attractive bodyguard to her life, foisted upon her by her grandmother, complicates matters further.  This one was an exciting tale with compelling characters that I quickly came to care about.

I liked the first and last story in this one, but I wasn't thrilled with the others.  I would recommend it to fans of the contributing authors, but for those looking for a more solid anthology of this kind, I'd recommend On the Prowl, Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, or Holidays are Hell.

Unbound by Kim Harrison, Melissa Marr, Jeaniene Frost, Vicki Pettersson and Jocelynn Drake (Eos ,2009)

Also reviewed at:
Alexia's Books and Such: "This book was a little different for me as I'm already a big fan of all of these ladies, so no new authors to sample. But it is a great selection of stories, so I highly recommend it to all fantasy lovers!"
Beyond Books:  "I suppose overall I was very disappointed in this anthology. How sad."
Bitten by Books:  "As a whole, I really enjoyed the book. As all but the Kim Harrison series is new to me, I was intrigued at the chance to glimpse into the lives of some other memorable characters."
Books and Quilts:  "If you enjoy mythic characters and strong moral characters, then you'll love this book. If you don't like vampires, well maybe not for you."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Thieves of Ostia

Flavia Gemina is a young girl growing up near Rome in the year A.D. 79.  She lives with her father, a sea captain, and several servants, as her mother died when Flavia was an infant.  Flavia is a quick-witted, curious girl, and as the book opens we see her using her powers of deduction to solve the mystery of her father's missing signet ring.  She wishes she could solve a real mystery, something important, and it isn't long before her wish comes true. 

Someone murders her neighbors' dog in a most gruesome way, and Flavia, along with her neighbor Benjamin (a Jewish boy close to her age who has recently moved next door), Nubia (a slave girl from Africa), and Lupus, a young beggar boy, work together to solve the mystery.  They are a diverse group of kids, and their differences make them an excellent investigative team, because having different backgrounds enables each child to contribute valuable insight that the others lack.

The investigation leads to all kinds of adventures, some of them truly terrifying to the children, such as being chased through the necropolis by ferocious wild dogs and being hunted through the town by slave traders.  The children's friendship develops nicely through the course of the novel, and there are wonderful sensory details along the way that make the historical setting vivid and colorful. 

I read this book when it first was published, and I enjoyed it immensely.  I hesitated to read it to my children for quite a while, though, because the mystery is so gruesome - it involves dogs being beheaded, and while the reader doesn't have a deep emotional attachment to any of the dogs involved, it is still violent and upsetting.  I warned my girls before we started, and while they found it disturbing, the violence isn't depicted too terribly graphically, and they were all right with it.  I'm glad I warned them ahead of time, though!  The time period is clearly one in which children faced all kinds of dangers that my own kids don't really have to think about (being chased by rabid dogs or slave traders, or being mutilated like Lupus, who has had his tongue cut out), which led to some interesting discussions about how people lived in ancient times.  I liked that the author included children with such different backgrounds, as it added additional perspective to the story.

We all enjoyed this one, and it was one of those books where they kept clamoring for more whenever our reading time came to a close.  I love when that happens!  They related to the characters, and they also enjoyed recollecting facts from when they studied ancient Rome.  I am glad there are so many books in this series.  I doubt we'll have time for me to read them all to them, but I expect they'll be inspired to move on with the rest of the books on their own.  Very sensitive young readers might want to steer clear until they're a bit older, but I'd recommend this in particular to lovers of mysteries, action and adventure, and historical settings.  It's a whole lot of fun.

Books in the Roman Mysteries series:
1. The Thieves of Ostia
2. The Secrets of Vesuvius
3. the Pirates of Pompeii
4. The Assassins of Rome
5. the Dolphins of Laurentum
6. The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
7. The Enemies of Jupiter
8. The Gladiators from Capua
9. The Colossus of Rhodes
10. The Fugitive from Corinth
11. The Sirens of Surrentum
12. The Charioteer of Delphi
13. The Slave Girl from Jerusalem
14. The Beggar of Volubilis
15. The Scribes from Alexandria
16. The Prophet from Ephesus
17. From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina
18. The Man from Pomegranate Street

The Thieves of Ostia (#1 in the Roman Mysteries series) by Caroline Lawrence (Roaring Brook Press, 2001)

Also reviewed at:
A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy:  "The kids take action; they do things, rather than having adults do things for them. They ask questions, get in trouble, and work things out." 
Kids Books That Rock:  "It’s a rare thing to find a book that captures the interest of an 11-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl and their (ahem)-year-old mother. These books are keepers for sure!"
The Scribbling SeaSerpent:  "This is a wonderful book that really brings Ancient Rome to life – you can almost taste the figs and smell the dusty streets."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Dramarama

Sadye is sick and tired of boring old Ohio, where everyone seems to effortlessly fit in - everyone but her.  When Demi moves to her school, she finds a kindred spirit who shares her love of musicals, theater, song and dance.  Finally she has a friend who understands her - and when they are both accepted into a rigorous summer theater program, Sadye feels as though her dreams have come true.

When she gets to camp, though, she finds that she is one among many supremely talented people - most of whom are much more experienced than she is.  She counts on her friendship with Demi to anchor her and give her confidence, but Demi - finally able to be himself, sheds his invisibility and shines as himself, gay and black and full of stage presence.  Sadye find herself loving camp, but also feeling that she doesn't quite measure up.  Despite making new friends and having the new experiences she's been craving, the summer isn't turning out to be at all like she'd expected.

This is the second book I've read by E. Lockhart - the first was The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which I adored.  So maybe my expectations were a little too high for this one, or maybe my experience might have been different had I read the book rather than listening to the audio version.  But I am sorry to say that I found it a bit disappointing.  I found myself losing sympathy for Sadye as the story went along - she whines so much, and while she is very honest in her narration, that honesty was distancing rather than endearing.  She is argumentative with the teachers, petty and jealous of her fellow campers, and her focus never seemed to be on how to apply herself and expand and develop her talent.  Yes, it is tough for her that Demi doesn't need her like he used to, and that she didn't have a very good audition - but after a while I felt like shaking her.  This camp was what she wanted, what she's been dreaming about for years, but she just doesn't get it - nor does she seem to want to get it.

Don't get me wrong - there a plenty of wonderful things about this novel - particularly the way it is so steeped in the trappings of theater and musicals in particular.  Teens who enjoy acting will love this - and it will definitely broaden their horizons and send them running to check out the many theater productions that are mentioned.  I loved that her mother is deaf, and that that is simply a part of Sadye's life - it's not the point of the book, but it's part of who she is.  I also enjoyed Sadye's relationships with her roommates, and how they developed.

Sadye does change and grow throughout this story, and the ending, while not entirely satisfying to me, was realistic and will definitely have readers stopping to think at the close of the story.  I will definitely be checking out more books by E. Lockhart, even though this one did not work as well for me as The Disreputable History.  It very well may work for you, though - and I'd love to know what you think if you've read it, too.

Dramarama by E. Lockhart; narrated by Kate Reinders (Brilliance Audio, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Bookshelves of Doom:  "Yes, it's a book that theater-mad teens will love.  But not just them -- because it is, at its heart, it is about the evolution of a friendship and about figuring out Who You Are."
A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy: "Sadye tells her story with an incredible amount of honesty about her own insecurities, fears, and jealousies which is so refreshing; she is a likable character who admits to bad and negative feelings."
Bildungsroman:  "In E. Lockhart's best novel to date, she delivers a solid, realistic storyline and peppers it with glorious lyrics, backstage rivalry, and plenty of play and film references."