Monday, March 26, 2012

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

There isn't much about this dark but funny, quirky mystery series that I haven't said already in previous reviews.  Since I first read  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first installment in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, I have been hooked.  The books' redoubtable protagonist, the brilliant 11-year-old chemist, Flavia, has become one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, and the series is the best kind, in which the stories are compelling in and of themselves, but it is the characters in the books that keep me coming back for more.

In this installment, Flavia discovers that her father, beset by overwhelming debts, has had to rent their rambling estate, Buckshaw, to a film production company.  Instead of the traditional holiday season they had been expecting, Flavia and her family will be hosting an entire film crew, including a very famous actress.  Flavia is beside herself with excitement - and when a murder happens, she is in the thick of things and is determined to discover the culprit.

I recommended the series to a customer at my library a few years ago, even though he typically reads a lot of dense nonfiction books, because I thought the protagonist and the intelligence and humor of the books would appeal to him.  Don't get me wrong, though - while the books never fail to make me laugh out loud, they can also be dark and disturbing, and Flavia's situation is downright heartbreaking at times.  At any rate, he loves the books and periodically stops by the reference desk to see if another one is in the works.  He made a comment to me the other day that got me thinking, though.  He said, "It's hard to convince people to read these books."  And he's right.  Many people cannot get past the fact that the protagonist is a child, even though the books are targeted at adults.  I've recommended the series to people who immediately dismiss it out of hand, as soon as they hear the premise, and that's too bad.  Because I've never had anyone read it who hasn't enjoyed it.  I wish more people would give it a try.

And here is an example of Flavia's storytelling style.  I strongly recommend the audio versions of this series - Jayne Entwistle is Flavia de Luce's voice, as far as I'm concerned.  I wouldn't ever bother to read one of these books for myself.  That's how good she is.

"Most chemists, whether they admit it or not, have a favorite corner of their craft in which they are forever tinkering, and mine is poisons. While I could still become quite excited by recalling how I had dyed my sister Feely's knickers a distinctive Malay yellow by boiling them in a solution of lead acetate, followed by a jolly good stewing in a solution of potassium chromate, what really made my heart leap up with joy was my ability to produce a makeshift but handy poison by scraping the vivid green verdigris form the copper floatball of one of Buckshaw's Victorian toilet tanks."

Books in the Flavia de Luce series:

4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows  

 I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (#4 in the Flavia de Luce series) by Alan Bradley; narrated by Jayne Entwistle (Books on Tape, 2011)

Also reviewed at:
A Bookworm's World:   "Although the murder plot line is good, for this reader, it is the characters that Bradley has created that capture and hold my interest the most. I love the quirky inhabitants of the village, the sparring sisters and how we learn a little bit more with each book about some of them."
Becky's Book Reviews"I just LOVE this character. I am not sure this is the best Flavia de Luce novel in the series. But. It is so much fun to spend time with a character that you love."
Lesa's Book Critiques:  "... those of us who enjoy these mysteries return time and again for Flavia de Luce, the lonely eleven-year-old with a passion for poisons and a propensity for crime investigation."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Latest Gallagher Academy book is out!

This is one of my eleven-year-old daughter's very favorite series (along with Tiffany Aching, The Hunger Games, and Skulduggery Pleasant), which are among mine as well.  She has already read Out of Sight, Out of Time and loved it.  I've only read the first two, which I enjoyed, but it was a while ago and the events are a bit hazy in my mind.  So I may have to reread (or re-listen - the audio books are great) in order to continue.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the books, it's a YA series about girls who attend what appears to be a hoity-toity prep school for rich girls but is actually a school for spies.  There are fun spy gadgets and gizmos, interesting exams and projects, and exciting, dangerous fields trips. Cute boys, too, and issues like honesty in love vs. keeping classified information and cover stories secret. What's not to like?  Here is a drawing of the academy and the characters as envisioned by my daughter, who made it a few weeks ago, when she was waiting impatiently for the next installment in the series.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Night School, Volume 1: The Weirn Books

I've been hearing great things about this manga series, which my library, sadly, does not own. When the upgrade for my color Nook came out a few months ago, allowing me to read graphic novels on it for the first time, I thought it might be fun to try some. After enjoying my first experience (after an initial adjustment period) with Welcome to Lovecraft, I purchased and downloaded this one. I had read and very much enjoyed Chmakova's Dramacon series a few years ago, so this seemed like a good choice.

It is an intriguing story - just the setup for the rest of the series, really, but the brief look into the lives of these characters made me care about them and want to know the rest of the story.  The protagonists are two sisters.  Sarah, who is the older sister, is the new Night Guardian of a special kind of school - one where very unusual students attend at night.  Alexius, the younger sister, is a teenager and possesses some sort of supernatural abilities that aren't quite clear yet, but it seems to be because of these powers that she is home schooled.  Alexius becomes involved in a confusing but intriguing way with some hunters who are apparently chasing some supernatural baddies.  At the same time Sarah is pulled through some kind of portal, not only vanishing from the school, but also from the minds and memories of nearly everyone but her sister.

This first volume was a lot of fun, and I'm definitely committed to reading further in the series.  I enjoy Chmakova's storytelling style, as well as her artwork, which follows traditional manga conventions while having its own distinct style, giving the tale a quirky, subtle humor combined with a nicely creepy atmospheric feel. The images I've included with this review were taken with my iPhone camera of the book as it appears on my Nook screen.  They came out better than I expected.  At any rate, fans of manga with supernatural elements combined with intriguing mysteries will be sure to enjoy this one.

Books in the Nightschool: The Weirn Books series:

Nightschool: Volume 3
Nightschool: Volume 4
Nightschool: Volume 5

Also by Svetlana Chmakova:
Dramacon, Vol. 1

Night School, Volume 1: The Weirn Books by Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Press, 2009)

Also reviewed at:
Back to Books "I found the story very intriguing and am very interested in Alex's character and her secret."
Stella Matutina "It’s very good, but I fear I haven’t much more to say about it. It really does read like the first chapter of a larger work; intriguing and enjoyable, but by no means fully contained."
The Written World:  "I also enjoyed how she managed to take something that is maybe, possibly starting to get a bit overdone and make it her own. She has an original story here that I am looking forward to reading more of."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Bad luck seems to have followed Jean "Jinx" Honeychurch around her entire life, starting from the day she was born, when lightning struck the hospital and caused a massive power failure.  The book opens as Jinx arrives in New York City.  It isn't clear at first why she has left her family to come to the big city, but it seems that something bad happened there, and Jinx needs to get away for a while and make a fresh start.  She's very much looking forward to spending time with her cousins, particularly Tory, whom she hasn't seen in a few years, but remembers having tons of fun playing with her the last time her New York relatives visited Jinx's rural town.

Jinx is shocked when she sees how much Tory has changed.  She's vampy, super skinny, nasty, and into drinking and drugs.  She's spiteful and sneaky, and is not at all happy to have Jinx there, particularly when her handsome neighbor, the boy she's lived next door and has been crushing on for years, seems inordinately interested in Jinx.  When witchcraft enters into the mix, things take a decided turn for the worst.

Meg Cabot's Mediator books are one of my favorite YA series, so when I saw this audiobook offered for download in my library's digital collection, I snapped it up.  Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed.  I never really connected with Jean, who is sweet but so, so gullible - to the point that her gullibility seemed more a convenience for the sake of the plot than a real, believable personality trait.  The characters were fairly stereotypical, and Tory's parents were way too conveniently oblivious - even after the point when they believe their daughter has made a suicide attempt.  I also had issues with the book being written in the first person, but Jinx purposefully omits things to suit the needs of the story line.  It made me feel manipulated (although by the time the big reveal comes, I'd pretty much figured out what was going on).  Of course, this is a book by Meg Cabot, which means that the writing is tight, the pacing is good, and the dialog works well.  It was just not my favorite.  I am looking forward to continuing with the Mediator series, though - there's a heroine after my own heart!

Jinx by Meg Cabot; narrated by Amber Sealey (Listening Library, 2007)

Also reviewed at:
Book Dweeb: "It’s a quick read with relatable characters and just a touch of the witchy stuff. Readers who don’t dig chick lit, however, will find the story filled with too many cliches for comfort."
Em's Bookshelf "Cabot keeps up the suspense until the very end. The ending, by the way, is kinda spooky so I recommend reading it on a dark and stormy night."
Me, My Book and the Couch:  "Jean, the protagonist, came across as boring and naive. I often found myself wanting to shake her and say 'Can't you see what's going on here?'"

Monday, March 12, 2012


Ever since I read the first Mercy Thompson book, Moon Called, I knew I'd be reading everything by Patricia Briggs.  This one is a re-release of one of her very earliest books, and she was able to do some editing before it was republished, but in the introduction she says that she did her best to maintain the intent of original manuscript.

This is a fairly traditional fantasy novel, but of course, as I hoped and expected, it is character driven, with complex characters that I quickly came to care about.  The main protagonist is Aralorn, who is a master of weapons and of disguise.  She works for the kingdom's spymaster, who sends her on a mission in which she learns of an imminent threat to the kingdom's safety - only because of the nature of that threat, no one can believe her.  She and Wolf - a mysterious creature she once saved from a pit trap - work together to neutralize the threat, but they are grievously outnumbered.

This is a solid traditional fantasy novel that would appeal to fans of Mercedes Lackey and Robin Hobb.  I read When Demons Walkthe fourth book in this series, a few years ago, not realizing that it was part of a series.  It is set in the same world, but features completely different characters, so I don't feel I missed out on anything by reading it out of order.  I particularly enjoyed the introduction, in which Briggs discusses her writing in general as well as the experience of reworking this early novel.

Books in the Sianim series:
1. Masques
2. Wolfsbane
3. Steal the Dragon 
4. When Demons Walk

Masques (#1 in the Sianim series) by Patricia Briggs (Ace, 1993; revised 2000)

Reviews of other books by Patricia Briggs:

Also reviewed at:
Janicu's Book Blog:  "It reminds me of books about female heroines having adventures written by Robin McKinley and Mercedes Lackey that I read in my teens and still hold a fondness for today."
The Written World:  "A lot of the foundations of her later work were there - strong heroine, romantic tension without being overtly romantic, interesting and memorable supporting characters and a story with a clear ending that also leaves an opening for future adventures."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Borders of Infinity

Normally I'm a fanatic about reading series books in order, but as I've read and reread books in the Vorkosigan saga for years, I only felt a few qualms about going out of order as I re-experience these books via the audio versions. I've come to love Grover Gardner's narration of the series, so when I saw this listed as available for immediate checkout from my library's audio download site, I snapped it up.

This book is really three novellas tied together by the narrative device of Miles being interviewed regarding suspicious expenditures during several missions performed for Barrayar's Imperial Security department.  Miles defends the expenses he authorized by telling his superior officer exactly how each mission went down.

The first story, "Mountains of Mourning," is set in the countryside beyond the Vorkosigan's country estate.  A woman shows up asking for justice because she believes her husband has killed her baby - who had the "unacceptable" deformity of a cleft palate.  The planet of Barrayar, during the Time of Isolation, had such unvaried genetic stock that any deformities were immediately, brutally, stamped out, and although times have changed and such a minor defect as a cleft palate could easily be fixed surgically), infanticide is still a sadly common occurrence out in the country. Miles, who has suffered physical deformities because of a biological attack on his mother when she was pregnant with him, is quick to point out that he is not a genetic mutant.  But he still looks like one.  So when his father sends him out to the village to sort out the issue, his appearance is more than a legal formality. Miles must use his considerable ingenuity to unravel the complicated mystery.

In the second story, "Labyrinth," Miles goes undercover as a Dendarii mercenary to Jackson's Whole, a planet that is the equivalent of one of those wild, unlawful towns in old Western movies, but with illegal cloning and sexual slavery - a place where anything goes. His mission is to extract some valuable scientific research, but when he ends up as a prisoner in an underground maze with a ferocious laboratory experiment, he discovers that the description of his mission was missing some essential information.  Much entertaining action, adventure and mayhem ensues.

The third and final story is a harrowing tale in which Miles is imprisoned in a Cetagandan prison camp, and he must organize the former soldiers, who are living in a Hunger Games-type mentality, imposed upon them by the diabolical psychological tactics of the Cetagandans. When Miles is left naked and shivering, befriended only by a man with a scrap of paper in his pocket that he believes is a prophecy, his situation looks dreadfully hopeless.

As always, the writing is tight and skillful, the characters deftly portrayed, and the plots surprising and often moving. Bujold's Vorkosigan novels are character-driven science fiction at its very best, and even though I've read this book before, I was still on the edge of my seat listening to Grover Gardner's excellent narration. If you haven't read the Vorkosigan Saga yet, what are you waititng for?

Books in the Vorkosigan Saga:
1. Shards of Honor
2. Barrayar
3. The Warrior's Apprentice
4. The Vor Game
5. Cetaganda
6. Ethan of Athos 
(almost a spin-off) 
7. Brothers in Arms
8. Borders of Infinity
9. Mirror Dance
10. Memory
11. Komarr
12. A Civil Campaign
13. Diplomatic Immunity

14. Cryoburn

The Borders of Infinity (#8 in the Vorkosigan saga) by Lois McMaster Bujold; narrated by Grover Gardner (Blackstone Audio, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog:  "None of the stories has the same oomph as some of the full-length novels, but I certainly didn’t mind spending time with Miles on a few mini-adventures."

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Ghost and the Goth

We bought the girls Nooks for Christmas this year, and when I sat down to show them how to download library books onto their readers, we ran into a little problem: everyone else got e-readers for Christmas, and they had checked out everything we looked at on the Overdrive site.  So we narrowed our search by clicking "show only items with available copies" and "young adult/juvenile" - and guess how many hits came back?  Two!  One of them was this, the first book in a series that I'd never heard of, but we thought it looked like fun, particularly when we saw it was recommended to fans of the Gallagher Academy series, which is my daughter's favorite series.  She transferred it successfully to her reader, and was enjoying it so much that I put a copy on my Nook as well, and we both read it at the same time.  That's one huge advantage to e-readers!

It's a fun ghost story with a mystery element, and it's told in alternating viewpoints by the ghost and the goth respectively.  The ghost is Alona, a popular cheerleader who reminded me a lot of Cordelia in Buffy.  The goth is Will, an introspective teen whose main problem that he can communicate with ghosts, and if they find out he can, he'll be mobbed by them all asking him to fulfill various requests so they can find rest.  He wears a headset all the time, because the music helps keep the ghosts at bay, and he has told no one about his ability - his mother and his therapist are fairly close to having him committed.  So when Alona, who dies at the beginning of the book, notices that Will can see her, she immediately latches onto him.  She wants some answers, and he seems to be the only one who knows anything about her ghostly situation.

Will didn't like Alona when she was alive, and he certainly doesn't want to hang out with her now that she's dead.  But he has a problem, and Alona might be able to help him solve it.  So they decide to try to work together - not an easy feat.  But the situation is quickly growing to something that appears much too strong for them to handle...

The characters start out as fairly stock stereotypes, but as the story progresses, deeper aspects of their characters are revealed, so there turned out to be more substance than I expected.  The story is funny, has an intriguing supernatural element, a sweet romance, and a refreshing antagonist.  My eleven-year-old daughter enjoyed it even more than I did, and she's in the middle of the sequel right now.  While this book probably could have been a stand-alone, and it didn't end with a massive cliffhanger or anything, I'll be reading the sequel as well.

Books in the Ghost and the Goth series:
1. The Ghost and the Goth
2. Queen of the Dead
3. Body and Soul

The Ghost and the Goth (#1 in the Ghost and Goth series) by Stacey Kade (Disney Publishing Worldwide, 2010)

Also reviewed at:
Muggle-born "So while the romance captivated my interest, the actual paranormal aspect of the book did not. I cared about Alona and her past and future, but I couldn’t say the same about the other ghosts."
Small Review:  "The real accomplishment here is that the book never feels bogged down, depressing, or overly serious. Instead, the author manages to maintain a light and sweet tone throughout the book without diminishing the importance of these issues."
Truth, Beauty, Freedom & Books"Great characters, romance, fab storytelling--I actually bought a copy, that's how much I enjoyed it."