Friday, July 29, 2011

Power of Three

I'm still reeling from the news of Diana Wynne Jones's death back in March.  It's a powerful relationship we readers have to our favorite writers, through their books.  Even though I've never met her, I've been reading her books since I picked up a library copy of Dogsbody when I was ten or eleven years old, and they have never failed to enlighten, entertain, surprise, and stretch my mind in some interesting directions. 

I haven't read Power of Three in so long that, happily, it was like getting to read a new book.  I must have read it back in the 70s, because there was a sense of familiarity to some of the elements, but mainly, it was like reading it fresh from the start.  And what a delightful reread it was.

The book is layers wrapped in layers, and there is periodically an unwrapping of one of the layers that comes with a revelation, and each revelation takes the book to a new level.  We start with the story of the curse that sets the entire chain of events in motion.  Then the story moves to the present, and we see how that curse has affected the characters introduced in the initial story, with a particular focus on the children of Adara, who is featured in the first section.  She has three children, two of whom have special abilities or Gifts, and one, Gair, who thinks he's ordinary (but of course the reader knows better!).  Gair and his siblings are one of three races that exist in their world.  The other two are Giants, who have amazing magical machines, and the Dorig, who can change shapes effortlessly.  These races fear and distrust each other intensely, particularly Gair's people and the Dorig, and there are often violent incidents among them.

The effects of the curse involve an upheaval in the lives of Gair and his brother and sister, which sends them out into the world, where they confront Giants as well as Dorig, with results that are surprising and astonishing.  The story took a little while to get going because the setup is crucial, but once it gained momentum I could not put it down.  I hesitate to say much more, because as with all of Diana Wynne Jones's books, they are best read with few preconceptions, and this one in particular is especially twisty and turny and surprising.  I prefer the above cover to the one below, which was on my library copy, because I think it coveys the atmosphere of the novel much more effectively.  This is a standalone book, so it's a great one to start with if you haven't read her books before.  Highly recommended!


Reviews of other books by DWJ:
Charmed Life
Dark Lord of Derkholm

Deep Secret
Enchanted Glass
House of Many Ways
The Game
The Merlin Conspiracy
The Pinhoe Egg
Witch Week
Year of the Griffin 


Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones (HarperCollins, 1976)

Also reviewed at:
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog:  "It’s lovely and it’s got funny bits in it (and some drama/tragedy) and adventure and action and broody heroes and strong females and it’s WONDERFUL."
Jenny's Books:  "...one of the very few books by Diana Wynne Jones that I truly loved the first time I read it."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Thread That Binds the Bones

There is something about Nina Kiriki Hoffman's books that sets them apart from the many other fantasy novels written for adults (and teens).  They are set in the modern world, yes, but they're not really urban fantasy.  They often contain elements of romance, but they certainly don't follow the typical romance novel formula.  While characters may appear in several books, they are not really a series - each book contains a single story that comes to a satisfying conclusion.  And they don't tend to be hair-raising adventure stories with unbelievably tough kick-ass heroines.  The heroines (and heroes) can certainly be tough and admirable, but they come across with subtlety, as complex, believable people with complicated pasts that have a lot of influence on the events of the stories. 

Most of all, with Hoffman's books, you can be sure that you are not going to get the same old, same old anything. There will be surprises.  You will find yourself imagining all kinds of unimaginable things, and you will find yourself nodding as you read, thinking, oh, yes, of course, that completely bizarre concept makes perfect sense.  I love that!

This story is about a man named Tom who has marginalized himself from society because of he possesses unusual abilities, such as talking with ghosts, that have made his life too awkward and painful to be around others.  He meets a woman named Laura, who comes from a family with unusual powers, too.  Her family has an odd relationship with the nearby town, to the extent that the town is terrified of her relatives yet is awed by them as well.  Laura has left, unwilling to be a part of that kind of situation, but she finds herself called back to attend a wedding.  Tom ends up driving the cab that takes her home, and the simple fact of setting off in that taxi together sets off a chain of events that has bizarre and highly entertaining results.

The beauty of this story is in the telling, the sensory details, the complex relationships between the characters, the amazing and unusual fantastical elements.  This is a gentle, subtle book.  There is no alarming or overbearing sense of peril, really, but the characters are so sympathetic that the reader will keep reading simply to find out what can possibly happen next. I enjoyed this one, possibly not as much as some of the other books I've read by this author (and that's not because this one isn't good, just that I love love love some of the others so very much), but enough that I'm glad I picked up a used copy.  I know I'll be giving it a reread some day.

If you enjoy the novels and stories of Charles de Lint and Patricia McKillip, you would probably love Nina Kiriki Hoffman's work.

The Thread That Binds the Bones by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Avon Books, 1993)

Reviews of other books by Nina Kiriki Hoffman:
A Stir of Bones
Fall of Light
Past the Size of Dreaming
Red Heart of Memories
Spirits That Walk in Shadow 


Also reviewed at:
Random Reading"The other thing I especially love about her writing, is her ability to tell a story in a single book. This is coming to be one of my favorite traits in a fantasy writer, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman has it in abundance."
A Wicked Convergence of Circumstances:  "The pacing is a little slow but it also manages to be engaging, unpredictable and interesting enough to make the reader want to stick with the story and find out what happens next."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Through No Fault of My Own

When retired newspaper reporter Peg Meier was digging through the Minnesota archives one day, she came across the diary of 12-year-old Clotilde "Coco" Irvine, which had been published in a limited edition for friends and family many years earlier.  As Peg read through it, she found herself having to stifle her giggles in the quiet historical society library.  Coco's irrepressible character shines through the pages of the diary as she recounts the trials and tribulations of growing up in Minnesota in the 1920s, and her words made me laugh out loud, too.

Peg Meier so loved the diary that she was able to get it republished, and now it is available to a whole new generation of readers.  Meier's introduction is helpful to setting the scene, particularly for younger readers who may be unfamiliar with the historic background, but those who want to skip right to the actual diary will be drawn immediately into her story and will likely be interested enough to go back and read the introduction once they've finished the book, just to find out more about the fascinating girl who received a diary for her birthday and started writing about her day-to-day life.  Coco is a wealthy girl growing up in beautiful home on Summit Avenue that today is the official Minnesota Governor's residence.  But her life is something that young readers today will easily identify with, particularly the crush she has on "Him," a boy who is never mentioned by name but is frequently written about, as Coco tries to figure out what his behavior means:
He danced with everyone but me.  That's a good sign because even tho he didn't dance with me He looked at me three times.
Coco gets into trouble constantly, though she often protests that it is "through no fault of" her own, such as the time she repeats a joke she doesn't quite understand when the family is having dinner, and is baffled when her father becomes angry.  Or she sneaks out of the house with her brother, dressed up in her mother's clothes, to go dancing one night.  Or she time she steals silverware from the school in an attempt to prevent them from serving dreadful meals - without silverware, she reasons, everyone will have to be sent home for lunch.  Coco has a way with words, although she is only twelve, and it is easy to see that she was well on her way to becoming a writer even then.  She is a sweet, precocious, funny child and her words, written so long ago, will resonate with young readers - and older ones, too.  Here is a passage taken at random just to show how charming and funny her words can be:
It was raining today so Dotty and I played paper dolls on our sleeping porch.  This sounds like a childish game but isn't.  Mother thinks it is.  She smiled benignly at us when she looked out to see we were not up to something.  If she only knew!  My Cassandra paper doll is pregnant tho not married.  Dotty got mad when I got her in this predicament because she is my best doll and as Dotty says we don't know how to get her out of this trouble and if we can't think of something I'll just have to tear her up.  I suggested pretending that it had never happened, but Dotty said that isn't fair.  Secretly she is jealous because my Cassandra is much prettier than her Isolde.
At the end of the diary is a section full of fascinating photos and anecdotes about the later life of Coco, including the identity of the man she finally ends up marrying (she writes about him in the diary, so it is fun to find out who it turns out to be).  Coco apparently edited the diary later before she published it for her family and friends, and I do wonder what she might have changed or cut out, but no matter - what remains is truly delightful. 

Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl's Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age by Coco Irvine (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Extended Shelf Life"The chosen book is so charming I laugh aloud, so charming I read parts aloud to my family at dinner last night."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bayou Moon

I started reading Ilona Andrews' books with her Kate Daniels series, which I started with that skepticism I bring to every new paranormal or urban fantasy series these days.  But I quickly came to enjoy the books and look forward to each new installment.  So I wasn't surprised to find the Edge series well written and gripping, with engaging characters and an interesting magical premise.  There is always a moment of reluctance for me when I find that a book in a series focuses on different characters than the previous book - but since the first book, On the Edge, had a very satisfying conclusion, I was a bit more open to the change.  And I think I enjoyed this one even more than the first.

The magical premise of this series is that there are two distinct areas in the world, the Weird, where magic exists, and the Broken, where technology does.  The zone between those two areas is called the Edge, and it is a rough place, populated mainly by those who are marginalized in some way.  This installment involves a tough young woman named Cassie, whose family is caught up in a deadly feud.  When her parents disappear, Cassie fears the worst.  In their absence she must take up leadership of the family.  William, a shape-changer who had thought to isolate himself in the Edge, is recruited to track down a dangerous spy, and he and Cassie find themselves working toward similar objectives.  Neither trusts the other, and both are tricky and dangerous - but they soon realize that working together is their best hope of survival.

I hesitate to say too much, because the way in which the story unfolds and the characters are revealed is delightful, and best for readers to experience on their own.  The characters shine in this one, particularly Cassie and her delightfully dysfunctional family as they interact with William.  The romantic element is woven into the story very well - it's not the entire point of the book, but it's an important part, and the relationship between William and Cassie is developed skilfully with a sense of humor that tickled me into laughing out loud.  The pacing is tight, the world-building is spot-on, and the book left me unsure which of the two series I'm most anxious for the next book to be published.  Either one will be most welcome, that's for sure!

Bayou Moon (#2 in the Edge series) by Ilona Andrews (Ace Books, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
An Abundance of Books:  "I liked Bayou Moon so much more than The Edge. The world was grittier, the bad guys were better and badder, the danger was more... dangerous, and the entire cast of characters were just great."
The Good, the Bad and the Unread:  "It’s a well told story of some very interesting characters in a very believable alternate reality.  It was easy to read it and forget where I was for a while (literally startled out of the “book trance” a couple of times)."
Scooper Speaks:  "The book is flooded with magic: good and bad. Twisted magic, tormented souls and the light of love. The ups and downs of putting two people in a dangerous situation and asking them to  find their happy ending."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ruined

Teenage Rebecca Brown feels completely out of her element when she leaves her home in New York City to live in New Orleans while her father is away on an extended business trip.  She's staying in a run-down old house in the Garden District with her Aunt Claudia, who reads tarot cards for a living, and her little cousin.  Her new school is an exclusive prep school, and the girls there are too caught up in the social hierarchy of the popular vs. the not-so-popular girls to want to spend time with someone who's not only an outsider, but also temporary.

Rebecca is trying her best to do her time, not get involved, and get back to New York as soon as she can.  But one night she follows some of the more popular kids when they are sneaking into the cemetery near her aunt's house.  There she finally makes a friend - not one of the popular kids, but a young African-American girl - who turns out to be a ghost.  From that moment Rebecca finds herself becoming more involved with life in New Orleans, as she comes to learn about a mystery involving a curse that reaches back through the years but is still very much connected to the present.

This is a fun ghost story, full of the atmosphere of New Orleans, with a dark and disturbing mystery as well as a dash of romance.  The secondary characters are a bit stereotypical, particularly the "bad guys," who are just a little too over-the-top evil and heartless.  Rebecca's dad never seemed quite believable in his actions, either - his behavior simply didn't make sense to me in the light of later revelations in the story.  Still, I did enjoy the evocative setting and the ghost story that stems from the fascinating history of lovely New Orleans. 

Ruined by Paula Morris (Point, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Books and Other Stuff:  "Ruined is categorized as a Young Adult novel, but as an oldster, I enjoyed it. It was well written and informative. Morris also captured the pettiness of teens, which made me squirm."
Carrie's YA Bookshelf:  "I love ghost stories, so this one was right up my alley. Morris' writing is eerie and suspenseful, which creates an atmosphere where you never really know which character is friend or foe."
Today I read...: "Overall, the book was a fun and quick read. There is a dark element, but nothing entirely frightening."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-king's Daughter

I checked out this mystery from the library after reading that it is recommended for fans of Jeeves and Wooster, and also because I seemed to remember having read and enjoyed something by this author in the past. 

The story is set in England in the 1920s or 30s, and opens as a body is discovered in the library of the elegant country estate of Tawster Towers.  Blotto (whose real name is Devereux Lyminster) discovers the body, but although Blotto is devilishly handsome, he's not terribly bright.  When he tells his mother, the duchess, about his gruesome discovery, she simply says, "Not now, Blotto. We have guests."  Blotto knows that his sister Twinks (the Lady Honoria Lyminster) will know what to do, as she is fiendishly clever and loves to solve mysteries. 

And Twinks, of course, does know what to do, although her mother the duchess is busily pulling strings to get the police detectives to drop their embarrassing investigation.  When a kidnapping takes place, Blotto finds himself sent across the continent, away from his beloved England (and without the council of his clever sister).  He's not thrilled about the matter, but he realizes it is his duty as an Englishman (particularly as the unfortunate young lady who has been kidnapped was staying as a guest at Tawster Towers).

I can see why this book is recommended to fans of Jeeves and Wooster.  It is set during the same time period, and it pokes fun at the aristocracy.  Blotto is not the brightest, and neither is Bertie Wooster.  Twinks plays a Jeeves-ish role, and the plot is fairly ridiculous.  But I have to say that although I adore Wodehouse, this one fell a bit flat for me.  I think my ambivalence is mainly due to the cardboard cutout nature of the characters.  They do say funny things, but each one is such a stereotype that I could never get past the cliche to see anything resembling an actual person.  So I didn't really care about anyone, and when I don't care about anyone, I don't really see the point of reading the book.  The plot was fairly predictable, and even though Wodehouse enjoys reprising plot points, there are always some delightfully funny surprises along the way, surprises that were sadly lacking in this book for this reader.

But I loaned this to my mother when I'd finished reading it, and she thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was hysterical.  If you are in the mood for a light and ridiculous mystery, you just might want to give this one a try!


Books in the Blotto, Twinks series:
1. Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King's Daughter
2. Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess
3. Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera




Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-king's Daughter by Simon Brett (Felony & Mayhem Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Books Please:  "It is indeed silly in the P G Wodehouse style of Jeeves and Wooster silly, full of slang and poking fun at the amateur detective who is an expert in identifying toxins, reading clues and being several steps ahead of the plodding police."
Lesa's Book Critiques: "Brett has done a masterful job poking fun at mysteries with amateur sleuths of the British nobility...So, although I can appreciate what Brett did, the humor isn't my style."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story


I love a good ghost story in the summertime.  It must be because as a child the summer was my time to read whatever I wanted, so as far as "beach reads" go, mine must include at least one spooky ghost story.  Mary Downing Hahn can always be counted on to deliver a spine-tingler, and while The Old Willis Place is one of the least conventional ghost stories I've ever read, it certainly delivers.

The story is about two children, Diana and her little brother Georgie, who live in the woods near a rambling old abandoned home.  Something has happened to scare them into the woods, where they've been living on their own for years.  Their one source of entertainment is spying on the succession of caretakers who periodically appear but are easily frightened away.  It is only when caretakers are in residence that the siblings can watch a little television, by peering through the window, although for the most part the caretakers are fairly uninteresting people.

But when the new caretaker pulls into the drive, a man with a daughter just about Diana's age, everything changes.  For one thing, the caretaker's daughter Lissa brings with her fascinating items such as a bicycle, and interesting books that Diana and Georgie have never read before.  And for another, Lissa actually seems to want to be friends with them.

But Diana and Georgie live by a mysterious set of rules, and Georgie wants nothing to do with Lissa.  After so many years with just her little brother for company, Diana can't help but be drawn to the other girl, even though she can tell that dark forces are stirring in the dreadful old house. 

I don't want to give too much away - astute readers will quickly guess the true state of affairs at the old Willis place, but even they will be in store for some twists, turns, and dark surprises.  This is a bittersweet tale, as all the best ghost stories are, with compelling characters and an unforgettable setting.  My ten-year-old picked it up after I finished reading it, and she enjoyed it immensely as well.

The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books, 2004)

Also reviewed at:
Book and a Garden:  "Author Mary Downing Hahn has redefined the words “ghost story.”  Her novel is peopled with believable characters readers will care about and remember long after they have read the last page."
Books We Love:  "This is a great ghost story that makes me happy that I don’t live in the woods, or near an abandoned mansion!"
It's All about Books:  "It's a ghost story, with lots of chilling parts, but not TOO chilling, perfect for kids I'd say. Lots of twists and turns and surprises."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hit List

I'm at the point in the Anita Blake series (which with this current book, Hit List, numbers 20 books) where I'm reading more for the characters than I am for the plot.  Which is a good thing, because the past few books have set up to be serial killer mysteries, but in the end, the solving of the mystery and the capture of the villains takes a backseat to the goings on in Anita's life. And that is okay with me, although I might feel differently if I'd come to this series later and read through all the books in quick succession.  I've been with this series since the first book came out back in 1993, and I've been reading each one as it has been published (with occasional rereads to refresh my memory) ever since.

In this installment the dreaded Harlequin of an earlier book are running amok killing people, and Anita and Edward are in the Pacific northwest trying to stop them.  It is difficult because she cannot discuss the Harliquin with the police who are working on the case, and the deaths keep piling up.  Anita is, for the most part in this book, away from her support structure in St. Louis, and that makes things feel all the more tense as the plot progresses.

There are things I love about this series.  I love the character development, particularly the depth of Anita's portrayal and the way her experiences have changed her throughout the course of these books.  I love how compassionate she is, despite the hardships she's endured, and the way she struggles so fiercely to find the right thing to do when there is no true right thing.  The world-building is skillful and thorough, the relationships between the characters are wonderfully portrayed, and the dialogue and pacing are always solid.  Sometimes Hamilton dwells on minute bits of description that leave me wondering what her fascination is with characters' heights or haircuts or clothes, and she has a way of replaying certain scenarios from book to book that make certain things a bit too repetitive.  For example, there is often a cop or someone with whom Anita must work professionally, and this person gives her no end of grief and makes her life difficult.  And there is always a needy, hurt, and sweet man who needs Anita to take him under her wing. She's accumulated quite a few of those, and I'm not complaining, really.  There's just a bit of an "oh, this again?" feeling as I read.

I'm a little tired of the big bad that Anita's been fighting these past several books, and I'm hoping that there will be new and interesting antagonists for her to come up against in future volumes.  It's strange that for a series with so many books, the new ones still manage to remain fresh, and they definitely hold my attention.  Anita is an admirable heroine, and I look forward to reading about more of her adventures.

Books in the Anita 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
20. Hit List 

Hit List (#20 in the Anita Blake series) by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley Books, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
Bitten by Books:  "I have to admit, even though the series is into book 20, I still never get tired of Anita Blake. I think the only disappointing thing to me in Hit List is that most of the regulars are missing."
Book Series Reviews:  "It was an enjoyable book, a nice change of pace, and I look forward to seeing Anita back in St Louis again for the next book."
Anastacia Knits Designs:  "I did enjoy the book, it was a light, fun, fast read. I give the book 3 stars because the book of course did have some problems/issues, but it was still worth reading..."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Sixteen-year-old Jacob suffers a harrowing experience on the day that his grandfather dies. Jacob has a mental breakdown, and his recovery involves intensive therapy.  When he decides to travel to Wales, the site of so many of his grandfather's stories about his childhood, his parents are skeptical.  But his therapist encourages the visit, and Jacob heads to Wales with his father, in search of the truth that must be buried there.

The stories involved his grandfather as a young boy being chased by monsters, horrible creatures with tentacles that emerged from their enormous mouths to snatch and devour their prey.  Jacob's grandfather had found sanctuary at an orphanage in Wales, a place that housed children with amazing and bizarre abilities.  There were even photographs that depicted some of these children - one is pictured on the book's cover, of the little girl who had to wear weighted shoes so she wouldn't float away.  There were other photos that Jacob had always looked at with amazement, of children hefting enormous rocks above their heads, or the invisible boy depicted by a suit of old-fashioned, empty clothing standing up by itself.

It wasn't until Jacob was older and learned that his grandfather was sent away from Poland during World War II by Jewish parents who later died, that he realized that the monsters his grandfather had always talked about were actually Nazis, and that all the stories were nothing more than metaphors for his grandfather's horrific childhood experiences.  The photos were clearly fakes, and Jacob resented his grandfather for fooling him for so long.


When Jacob travels to Wales, the site of the stories, he's not sure what he hopes to discover.  Something to reassure him that he hasn't lost his mind, perhaps.  But what he does find only leads to more questions, and the answers to those questions, discovered in the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine's orphanage, are stupefying.

What an amazing, creepy, fantastical book this is!  The atmospheric tale has shades of Poe and Lovecraft, but with an approachable teenage sensibility that is sure to draw both teen and adult readers in and keep them on the edge of their seats.  Jacob is a believable, likable hero, and the fantastical aspect of the book is skillfully handled.  It's one of those beautifully written stories that, while it includes supernatural elements, is much more than an entertaining genre read.  I particularly enjoyed the many compelling black-and-white photographs that are used as illustrations.  As I read I loved the fact that they fit the tale so perfectly.  I thought that they had been made to order for the book.  It wasn't until the afterword of the book that I learned that all the pictures are authentic vintage photographs, lent from the personal archives of ten collectors.  That made me appreciate the author's flexibility and creativity even more.

I enjoyed this one so much that I am planning it as this year's book to read aloud to my children as our annual Halloween read.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books, 2011)

Source: Review copy from the publisher

Also reviewed at:
Bloggers [heart] Books:  "I loved the writing, it was one of those books that had me putting little scraps of paper throughout the book to mark the pages with quotes that I liked."
The Crazy Bookworm:  "This is a book that should come to the big screen. It is loaded with Tim Burton-esque qualities that I would love to see come to life."
Stainless Steel Droppings: "...a genre-bending, genre-blending strange and wonderful novel built upon a foundation of the interpersonal relationships between children and adults. It is an accessible story with broad appeal."