Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

I immediately fell in love with the heroine of the first Flavia de Luce mystery (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), the brilliant 11-year-old chemistry whiz, Flavia de Luce.  The narrator of the audio books, Jane Entwistle, does such a marvelous job that I wouldn't consider actually reading the books myself - and she continues to dazzle with her narration of this second book.  This one is a bit darker than the first, and it gives the reader a good look at the seamy underbelly of what appears on the surface to be a peaceful and charming English village.

In this installment, Flavia makes friends with some traveling puppeteers.  Her father has refused to consider purchasing a pointless, newfangled television set, so Flavia is unaware of the fame surrounding the puppetters and their popular show, but when their vehicle breaks down in the village, and they must wait a day or two for it to be repaired, the vicar persuades them to stage a performance there, to the delight of Flavia and the other residents of Bishop's Lacey.  A rather gruesome death ensues, and Flavia, with her razor-sharp intellect and obsession with chemistry (particularly poisons), is in a unique position to discover whodunit.

I love that the narrator of this series is only eleven years old, yet the intended audience of these books is adults.  What a risky decision for an author to make - but how delightfully it all works!  Interesting and likable (and often eccentric) characters fill the pages, as well as characters who are truly disturbing.  Flavia's voice is the heart of these books, and she brings Bishop's Lacey and its inhabitants to life with her keen observations and over-the-top descriptions of things.  I continue to adore this series, and I look forward to the next installment of Flavia's adventures.

Books in the Flavia de Luce Mystery series:
1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag
3. A Red Herring without Mustard
4. I Am Half Sick of Shadows (November 2011)

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (#2 in the Flavia de Luce series) by Alan C. Bradley; narrated by Jane Entwistle (Random House Audio, 2010)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Beguilement

I have long been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorgkosigan books (science fiction/space opera with amazing characters and world-building).  I reluctantly moved from that beloved universe to try her Challion books, and I loved those, too.  So of course I went on to her Sharing Knife series with fairly high expectations, and, no surprise, I've been enjoying it as well.  I opted for the audio versions when I discovered that they are read by Bernadette Dunne, who narrates a lot of the Tamora Pierce novels.  I love the way she does all the different voices and expressions of the characters, so I popped over to my library's Overdrive site and checked this one out to download to my iPod.

The book is very much a romance, but unlike so many that have just the trappings of a fantasy world as a backdrop, this one is solidly rooted in the fantasy world to the extent that, without the magical elements, the story would completely fall apart.  I like that.

Fawn is a young woman who is running away from home because she is pregnant, the young man who is the father has refused to marry her, and she is unwilling to confess to her family what has happened.  Instead, she's decided to pass herself off as a widow and begin a new life elsewhere.  When she is abducted by a bandit and a nightmarish creature and, when things look grimmest, is rescued by a man from the mysterious Lakewalker people, Fawn is drawn into a world where things she'd only heard of as legend turn out to be real.  Dag, a patroller whose duty is to protect the land (and its people) from demon-like creatures known as malices, finds in Fawn anything but the ignorant, timid farmer girl he'd been expecting.  Her curiosity, intellect and bravery as they work together to fight the malice soon have Dag falling head over heels for someone young enough to be his daughter.

This is a charming romantic story that took its time in the telling but definitely held my attention throughout the course of the novel.  It was refreshing to have a tale unfold that did not rush from adventure to adventure, but instead left time to show the characters growing and changing from each encounter.  Bujold is a masterful storyteller in whatever genre she chooses, and I look forward to reading any and everything that she decides to write.  Fans of romantic fantasy will enjoy this one, and I wouldn't be surprised if romance fans will be willing to venture into uncharted territory with other books by Bujold after reading this series.

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

Beguilement (#1 in the Sharing Knife series) by Lois McMaster Bujold; narrated by Bernadette Dunne (Blackstone Audio, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Aneca's World:  "She is very good in the world building department. So good in fact that I did not feel this was romance but that it was fantasy with a romantic element and I still loved it."
Fyrefly's Book Blog"I think it’s worth a try for anyone who is looking for a light read with a solid love story, and doesn’t mind the fantasy trappings (or, alternately, anyone who’s looking for an interesting fantasy world and doesn’t mind a serious dose of romance)."
Romance Book Wyrm:  "I would definitely recommend this book to those that love a good fantasy romance. This is a five star book, in my opinion!"

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reunion

Sixteeen-year-old Suze Simon returns in this third installment of the Mediator series by Meg Cabot (originally published as Mean Spirits under the pseudonym Jenny Carroll).  Suze is a mediator, someone who can see spirits that linger on earth, and whose duty is to help them (or, in Suze's case, kick their backsides) into the next step of their journey to the afterlife.

She has accepted her role, but she's not exactly thrilled with it - particularly on beautiful California days at the beach when she just wants to spend some time with her friends, particularly her best friend Gina, who's finally come to visit her from New York.  Suze is excited for Gina to see her new new home and her new family (including the often annoying stepbrothers she has acquired).  Instead of the fun, relaxing time at the beach that she'd been hoping for, Suze sees the ghosts of teenagers who recently died in a horrible car accident.  They have evil intentions toward one of her classmates, and if Suze can't sort things out quickly, there are sure to be more accidents - and angry ghosts - for her to deal with.

I continue to enjoy this series immensely.  Cabot creates such engaging characters, and I enjoy the way she continues some storylines (such as the incredibly hot ghost haunting Suze's bedroom and his developing relationship with Suze, who realizes there can't be any future there, but still...) from book to book, but each installment in the series contains a gripping mystery of its own.  I have recommended the first book in this series to my twelve-year-old daughter, who loves it, as well as to many teens at my library, who inevitably come back for the rest of the series.

Books in the Mediator series:
1. Shadowland  (Love you to Death)
2. Ninth Key  (High Stakes)
3. Reunion  (Mean Spirits)
4. Darkest Hour  (Young Blood)
5. Haunted  (Grave Doubts)
6. Twilight  (Heaven Sent) 

Reunion (#3 in the Mediator series) by Meg Cabot (Pocket Books, 2001)

Also reviewed at:
Marjolein Book Blog:  "It is stunning, fast and again mysterious. I really liked how everything unraveled during the book, it kept me interested and it was a very light and fun read."
Vixen's Daily Reads:  "I am either really in touch with my inner YA or Meg Cabot just rocks as a writer. I go with a happy in between."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Three Musketeers


When I was about twelve years old, I happened to watch the movie version of The Three Musketeers, the one that starred Michael York as d'Artagnan, and featured a whole lot of famous actors including Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Lee, and Charlton Heston.  I'm not sure what it was about that story, but I just loved it!  The action, the romance, the adventure, the camaraderie, and especially the humor were all things that really appealed to me.  As this was in the days before quick and easy video rentals, I went to the library and checked out the book.  I loved it as well, particularly because as I read I had such vivid pictures of the characters in my head, thanks to having seen the movie.

I'd been meaning to reread this one for a while, although I was a little worried that it wouldn't hold up to my fond memories of it.  And as it turns out, I was right to be worried!  It was still a fun read, and parts of it had a surprisingly modern feel to them, but there is zero character development, and I had the feeling that the author was moving people around to suit the needs of the narrative, rather than the characters behaving in a believable way that followed the events of the story.  I guess I just didn't believe in them the way I did when I was twelve, and it made me realize how very much I brought to that earlier reading that just wasn't there this time around.

That is not to say that this one is not worth reading - it really is, particularly for the humor and the masterfully woven plot.  Complex characters are not its forte, but of course what seems completely two-dimensional and stereotypical to today's reader was probably much fresher in the 1800s.  There are some surprisingly interesting and strong women characters, although they are of course subject to disappointing literary conventions of the time.

The story is about a young man from the French countryside who travels to Paris in the hope of joining the famed musketeers, an elite military group that reports directly to the king (rather than to the cardinal).  D'Artagnan is naive but loyal, and he becomes involved in events that have dire political ramifications, and an action-packed narrative ensues, full of romance, derring-do and political scheming.  There are two additional novels in the cycle known as the d'Artagnan Romances: Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, which continue the story of d'Artagnan.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (Signet Classics, 1991; originally published in 1844 as a serial)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kitty's House of Horrors

When radio talk-show host Kitty Norville is invited to be on a reality television show, she is not interested.  Not, that is, until she finds out that other people she respects and likes have already agreed to be in the show, which is apparently going to be a showcase of several different supernatural types.  Kitty, a werewolf, is going to be spending time at an isolated country house along with other shapeshifters, vampires, psychics, and an adamant skeptic to liven things up.  She isn't sure what she thinks about the whole thing at first, but she figures it'll be nice to get away for a while and fun to spend some time with friends - and the boost to her show's publicity can't hurt.

But then people start dying, and it becomes clear that the reality show is nothing more than a set-up, a diabolical trap set for no purpose she can comprehend.  But the reality is that no one is safe, and Kitty has been thrown into a scenario straight out of a horror movie.

This was a fun change of pace from the previous books in this series, which focused on more personal issues and relationships in Kitty's life, as well as supernatural politics.  Not that those things aren't interesting - they are - it was just fun to see Kitty thrown into a slasher-flick situation along with radically different personality types.  She has changed from her early, submissive days when she was first changed into a werewolf against her will, and has become a charismatic pack leader - but now she is faced with the challenge of leading a disparate group of people with conflicting priorities and very different natures.

I always enjoy the Kitty novels.  She is a strong, believable heroine - tough, yes, but not over-the-top or unbelievably so.  She has come into her own throughout the course of the books, and I've enjoyed being along for the ride.  As always, the pacing is tight, the characters compelling, and the plot kept me guessing.  If you are looking for your next urban fantasy series and are baffled by the overwhelming number of choices that are available these days, you might want to give this series a try.  I've enjoyed it from the first book, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next one.

Books in the Kitty Norville series:
1. Kitty and the Midnight Hour
2. Kitty Goes to Washington
3. Kitty Takes a Holiday
4. Kitty and the Silver Bullet
5. Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
6. Kitty Raises Hell

7. Kitty's House of Horrors

8. Kitty Goes to War
9. Kitty's Greatest Hits (short stories)
10. Kitty's Big Trouble

Kitty's House of Horrors (#7 in the Kitty Norville series) by Carrie Vaughn (Grand Central Publishing, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Adventures in Reading:  "Carrie Vaughn does well with her entry into the survival horror genre. Kitty Norville brings humor and personality to a grim situation, but Vaughn doesn’t relent on the grim."
Book Series Reviews:  "Pacing was mostly good, dialogue was good, funny moments were great, horrific moments were suitably horrific."
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review:  "I got what I came for but I found the similarities to another book a little too much to get my head round..."