Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Awards 2009 and Coming Soon in 2010

Best Release of 2009 Award:


Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. The sequel to The Hunger Games is fast paced, filled with surprises and more shocking than its predecessor. I can’t count the number of times that I gasped “WHAT?!” out loud while reading it for the first time. Many of the twists were as surprising as being hit in the face with a fish. Throw out any preconceived notions about Panem and the Districts when reading Catching Fire; as Katniss finds out, anything goes as far as her government is concerned, and no one is safe. As soon as I finished Catching Fire, I immediately went back and reread The Hunger Games looking for clues I might have missed. They were there in abundance, seemingly innocent comments that were in truth doublespeak worthy of 1984. I heartily applaud Ms. Collins’ world building, gripping plot structures and amazing characterizations.

Honorable mention goes to “The Thirteenth Child” by Patricia C. Wrede, “Going Bovine” by Libba Bray and “The Singing” by Allison Croggon.

The “Meh” book of 2009 Award:


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Garahame-Smith. With an exciting twist to the classic work, I was expecting a great story that still incorporated what the world loved about the original. I was let down, like someone pulling the mattress out from under you in the middle of the night. The characters were flat and the romance between Lizzy and Darcy was as cold and lifeless as the zombies they’ve were trained to kill. If only they died and the book ended earlier, sparing everyone the lackluster finale. To make matters worse, P&P&Z will be coming to a theater near you in 2011 staring Ms. Natalie Portman as Lizzy Bennet. Do I hear a rounding “Huzzah”? No? Good.

Coming Soon in 2010:

March 2nd 2010-- Shadowrise (volume 3 of Shadowmarch) by Tad Williams. I haven’t read any of the Shadowmarch books yet because of Mr. Williams’ penchant for cliffhangers. I’m looking forward to being able to start the series as soon as the last book comes out.

March 16th 2010-- Lord Sunday (Book 7 of the Keys to the Kingdom) by Garth Nix. The conclusion to Mr. Nix’s stunning tale about the lackadaisical Trustees (Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, etc) and their battle for the House against the Rightful Heir of the Architect, asthmatic mortal Arthur Penhaligon will undoubtedly be as astounding and inventive as the first six.

September 28th, 2010-- The Fiend and the Forge (book 3 of the Tapestry) by Henry H. Neff. Max McDaniels sets off to retrieve the Book of Origins from archfiend Astaroth, who is busy wiping out all of mankind’s greatest discoveries

October 2010-- The Scorch Trials (sequel to The Maze Runner) by James Dashner. Thomas and his friends are up against the same enemy again, but this time out in the real world. (Thanks, Elysia, for pointing this one out to me. Review of Maze runner coming soon!)

Fall 2010-- Hunger Games book 3 (currently untitled) by Suzanne Collins. The conclusion to the Hunger Games and Catching Fire will (probably) set Katniss against her government. (Again, thanks to Elysia for recommending The Hunger Games!)

Fall 2010-- Pegasus by Robin McKinley. The princess of a kingdom shared jointly between humans and the Pegasai goes on an adventure.

TBD 2010-- Mastiff (Beka Cooper book 3) by Tamora Pierce. The conclusion to the Beka Cooper trilogy pits Beka against kidnappers who have abducted the heir to the realm.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Going Bovine


Title: Going Bovine
Author: Libba Bray
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2009

Review:
Cameron is a 16 year old high schooler who gets straight Cs when he doesn’t fail and smokes a lot of pot. It helps him keep his mind off of the fact that his family is falling apart, and that he doesn’t care. Or maybe he does care, but he can’t do anything about it. But recently his waking hours have become stranger than even the pot can account for, involving giant flame monsters controlled by an armed and armored wizard and a lady punk rocker angel. Of course only Cam sees any of these things. It comes to a head when he punches out an ex football star… during class. Even Cam has to admit something strange is happening. Turns out he has Mad Cow Disease. Oh, and it’s fatal. Bummer.

Cam is taken out of school and put into the hospital for testing, hoping that they’ll come up with a miracle fix before his brain turns into a sponge. That’s when his angel comes back and tells him he has two options: Stay in the hospital bed and die, or go on a quest reminiscent of Don Quixote to find Dr. X, the only man who can cure him.

Cameron chooses the quest and drags along his hospital roommate, an asthmatic Mexican-American dwarf video game aficionado (not named Sancho) he met once in the druggie bathroom at school, because the angel claims the dwarf has to come along if they’re going to succeed. Along the way they’ll play jazz with the greatest horn player in the Big Easy, assist a Norse God trapped in Lawn Gnome form who is tired of being urinated on, and countless other things as they learn what it really means to be alive.

The characters Libba Bray uses are some of the most interesting ones I’ve run across. Even if you’ve never been the high school druggie, even if your family is the most tight-knit happy-go-lucky group out there, you can relate to Cam’s existence and feel what it must be like to have everyone give up on you. To give up on yourself, as Cam has. But through it all, despite the despair of Cam’s situation, despite his family problems, his intense internal and personal issues and drug abuse, there’s always hope. And that’s one of Ms. Bray’s best talents, is the constant infusion of hope into her novels. The sense that “yeah, it sucks now, but things will get better if you just keep trying and wait” is enough to keep everyone going. And it’s an important life lesson to remember.

Libba Bray’s Going Bovine plays with a reader’s mind, constantly making one question whether any of it is really happening. Is it, perhaps, all in Cam’s mind? Is he on a fantastic journey or is he hallucinating in his hospital bed, doped up beyond belief? Playing with the idea of parallel universes and death, Ms. Bray sets her reader on a path of enlightenment and discovery, dragging them to the lowest points possible and then offering up the best that life can offer. In that, it is an honest reflection of high school and adolescence, where one second is the worst a person can imagine and then, with a pop of a mystical bubble, life is better than it’s ever going to get. She reminds everyone, as Cervantes says, “Take my advice and live for a long long time, because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”


Perspective:
Going Bovine is told in startling first person, dictated by Cameron as though you were sitting in a room with him as he told you his story. It’s masterfully done.

My Thoughts:
This book had me laughing from the acknowledgments that Ms. Bray writes at the beginning (because everyone should thank Pete Townshend and the makers of Rock Band®!) and crying (because no one should have a relationship with their father’s back, you know?) and everything in between. I was really hesitant going into the book because, well, it’s about a kid dying at 16. How fun can that be to read? But I was more than pleased with the way it all turned out. It was a book that made me think, made me reread things to see if I’d got them right, and made me look at the MTV world that is spoon-fed to our high schoolers (I should know, I was one) as what they should be doing/liking/etc in a new light. This book deals with a kid dying. Yes. But it’s about so much more. It’s about learning to live and making the best of the time you’re given.

Favorite Scene:
I love the conflict and eventual friendship that formed between Gonzo (the dwarf) and Balder (the Lawn Gnome) at the pancake restaurant. However, the first chapter, where Cam’s describing his best day ever (“happened when I was 5 ... I’m 16 now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.”) stands out even when you’ve finished the whole book.

Who this book is best for:
High School age kids will adore this story, if they can cope with some of the strange stuff that happens and I’d hazard that 7th and 8th graders would like it, too. Really though, adults can enjoy the book just as much if they don’t mind their main character being 16. There’re some references to sex later (but nothing gratuitous) so if you’re uncomfortable with your children reading about that, be aware.

Violence: 3 out of 5. The bad guy likes to blow things up and set things on fire. What do you expect when his henchmen are pillars of flame?

Stars: 4 of 5

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Hunger Games


Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 2008
Series: The Hunger Games
Next in Series: Catching Fire

Review:

Panem: a dystopia that rose from the ashes of what used to be the United States of America and Canada, formed by twelve districts which are completely subservient to their Capitol. One district reduced to ashes in a civil war 74 years ago. As retribution for that war each district is required to draw by lottery the names of one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to compete in the Hunger Games, the ultimate in reality TV, with all citizens required to watch. There the tributes must fight to the death, for there can only be one victor in the annual Hunger Games.

Katniss: cold and calculating, yet vulnerable and scared, sacrificed herself to save her twelve year old sister. The female tribute from district 12.

Peeta: son of the local baker, unused to finding his own food or being hungry, has loved Katniss since he was five. The male tribute from district 12.

Haymitch: drunk and vicious, victim of post traumatic stress, coach to the tributes from District 12. The only surviving victor from district 12.

Gripping to the point of obsession, The Hunger Games draws a reader in like a moth to a flame. From chapter one on, it’s near impossible to put down. Don’t think that getting to the end of a chapter will help, because it each one ends in such a way that it would be easier to rip out a tooth than to stop reading. Katniss does what she has to do to survive. But it’s Peeta who really stands out as the moral character, who does what he must to save those he cares for. Unheralded, but with the potential to be the next “Harry Potter”, The Hunger Games is unlike anything I’ve read, where no one is exactly what they seem and everyone has a deadly secret.

Perspective:
The Hunger Games is told from Katniss’s point of view, in first person.

My Thoughts:
This book literally blew me away. I stayed up reading until 2 am, which is a bad thing when you have work at 7AM, and couldn’t sleep after I put it down because I was still thinking about it. The Hunger Games will work themselves into your life and into your dreams. The fascinating world developed by Ms. Collins is as captivating as it is terrifying.

It is, hands-down, dominating the top five books I have ever read, and I couldn't wait to get the second one.

Favorite Scene:
This is a toss-up between Katniss and Peeta in the cave when they’re both wounded and Katniss’s response to Rue’s death. Both had me near tears, but for very different reasons.

Who this book is best for:
Teenagers will relate immediately to both Katniss and Peeta, but people of all ages can enjoy this book.

Violence: 4 of 5. The tributes are there to kill each other, and death happens in some extremely unpleasant ways.

Stars: 5 of 5. Outstanding.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Murder at Longbourn


Title: Murder at Longbourn
Author: Tracy Kiely
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2009

Review:
Elizabeth Parker isn’t sure what to do for New Year’s Eve. Her boyfriend turned out to be a cheating dirt bag, so that’s out. Her sister means well but likes to remind her that she isn’t getting any younger, so that’s out too. Her best friend Bridget and Bridget’s boyfriend Colin are going to NYC, but Colin is going to propose, so that’s three strikes. When Aunt Winnie’s invitation to her Cape Cod B&B for a Murder Mystery New Years comes in, it seems like a blessing.

Then Elizabeth gets there and finds out her school-hood nemesis, Peter, is helping run the B&B and things sort of take a turn downhill. This only continues to spiral down when someone actually does die during the Murder Mystery. Suddenly the party at her sister’s place doesn’t seem like it would have been so terrible after all. At least then she wouldn’t have been a suspect in a murder case. But on the other hand, she wouldn’t be there to help keep the police from arresting an innocent Aunt Winnie.

Filled with tons of Jane Austen allusions and other jokes for “well read” readers, this book was a page-turner from start to finish. Elizabeth was fun and easy to relate to. The descriptions are well done. (My favorite being the detective’s voice being similar to that of the chain-smoking aunts from the Simpsons.)

Perspective:
Murder at Longbourn is Elizabeth’s story and she’s the one who tells it. First person all the way.

My Thoughts:
Just as I was told I would, I loved this book. I enjoyed checking various characters to see if they’d be spoofs of Jane Austen’s characters or catch the lines from Pride and Prejudice before they told you where it was from.

Favorite Scene:
I really enjoyed Elizabeth’s chat with the Detective at the teashop. It was hilarious and disturbing at the same time.

Who this book is best for:
Any adult who enjoys mysteries would like this book, but it’s best for those who also enjoy Jane Austen and other classic literature.

Violence: 2 of 5. It’s a murder mystery, so there’s some death and violence.

Stars: 4.5 stars

His Majesty's Dragon


Title: His Majesty’s Dragon
Author: Naomi Novik
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007
Series: Temeraire
Next in Series: The Jade Throne

Review:
Captain Lawrence is a proud member of His Majesty’s Navy during the Napoleonic war. When we first join him he’s busy taking a French ship and is more than a little surprised at how vehemently they’re resisting falling into English hands. When one of his midshipmen tells him what’s in the hold, he suddenly understands. The French were carrying a dragon egg that is very close to hatching. Knowing that this beast is the exact boost the English Aerial Corps needs for its smaller and genetically weak fleet, Captain Lawrence has his officers draw straws to see who will attempt to harness the dragon when it hatches.

And then things begin to go awry. The beastie hatches and refuses to accept its harness from the chosen officer. Instead it walks right up to Captain Lawrence and asks him why he looks so sad, dragging Lawrence away from the life he chose and into the Aerial Corps. What’s he to do? He names the dragon Temeraire and abdicates the ship to his Second Lieutenant, since the First Lieutenant is already in charge of the prize vessel.

The Aerial Corps isn’t exactly thrilled to have a navy man, either. He’s not been indoctrinated into their ways. He doesn’t understand their tactics. He’s too ridged. He may not accept their instructions. And he has one of the best dragons in the Corps.

Overall though, Lawrence is well drawn. It’s easy to see where he’s coming from and relate to the displeasure and annoyance he feels with his sudden change in status. He’s no longer an eligible bachelor and he’s been taken away from the sea. Despite this, he is thankful for what he has and adapts quickly. Similarly, Temeraire stands apart from the other cast of characters. He’s intelligent and eagerly devours the books Lawrence reads to him. Unlike many other “smart” dragons in various series, he isn’t just a reflection of his rider. He has thoughts and ideas all his own, which at times conflict with things deemed important in Regency England.

Sadly, the wonderful characterization ends there. The other dragons and Captains that Temeraire and Lawrence serve with are hardly drawn at all. I had no feeling of who Captain Roland was, nor did it even seem to matter that she was a female. I felt no sting at a person’s betrayal because I didn’t know whom they were and didn’t care about their motives, nor could I feel sorrow for a comrade’s death because it was like reading an obituary from another country. “Pity Great Aunt Mildred’s third cousin twice removed husband’s mother’s college roommate died, isn’t it?” I just couldn’t work up any feelings either way.

Perspective:
Third person limited, sticking with Lawrence.

My Thoughts:
I love books with dragons and I love historical fiction books… but this one fell a little flat. Despite the obviously close relationship between Lawrence and Temeraire I found it out of character for Lawrence to call Temeraire “My Dear”. Also, too many sentences of dialogue started with “Pray.” While that was a common phrase in the Regency era, I don’t think it was used that often and it got on my nerves. In the end, it was decent but not stellar. I probably could have found a better use for those 6 or 7 hours.

Favorite Scene:
Lawrence’s conversation with Jane Roland made me laugh.

Who this book is best for:
Adults who are obsessively into alternate history or dragons may like it. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem worth it.

Violence: 1 of 5, for description of dragons eating, which apparently leaves them messy and entrails strewn about.

Stars: 2 of 5

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Hound of Rowan


Title: The Hound of Rowan
Author: Henry H. Neff
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2008
Series: Book One of the Tapestry
Next in Series: The Second Siege

Review:
Max McDaniels and his dad are visiting the Chicago Art Museum like they do every year on his mother’s birthday. It’s their way of remembering her. While sketching a suit of armor, 12 year old Max is chased by a stranger and finds himself in an off limits section of the museum. It contains an old, dull tapestry, and Max can’t quite tell what it represents until with a twang it springs into a full color depiction of the cattle raid of Cooley. Little does Max realize that this has sparked his entry into a secret world of mysticism and mayhem as he is granted admission to the Rowan Academy.

But Rowan isn’t the only group that is interested in Max and his unique abilities. A dark group, called only the Enemy, are out to steal him as they have kidnapped so many other adept children before Max. And even his arrival at Rowan doesn’t stop them, for there is a traitor in the school, bent on its destruction.

Harry Potter set the standard that all other boarding school novels will be set against for quite some time, but Hound of Rowan stands up to it nicely. Thankfully, other than the fact that they both involve magical boarding schools and a powerful enemy, the books have little in common. Max is an exemplary student, most of the time, and sufficiently creative to weasel out of trouble just often enough to make the reader respect his ingenuity. He and his classmates cooperate well, and provide a great example of how much can be achieved if you work together.

Rowan, on the Connecticut Seaboard, delightfully blends magic and technology into a cohesive and believable environment. The students’ rooms are a fantastically creative and school grounds are well planned. Max’s classes catch the reader’s attention but the magic is so different from that used in the Harry Potter world that it is difficult to even compare the two.

A few of the schools’ inhabitants (mostly Mum and Bob) are silly enough to entertain the kids the book is written for, but a bit aggravating to adults reading along with them. Thankfully, they are relatively minor characters. My main gripe was the magical companions the students receive. Max’s companion, the last of the Black Forrest Lymrills, Nick, didn’t add anything to the story or seem to serve any purpose other than being “cool” or to provide an excuse to go to the sanctuary.

Overall, the story moved along at a quick clip, delightfully blending the modern world with Celtic mythology and magic.

Perspective:
Hound of Rowan is told in third person limited.


My Thoughts:
Hound of Rowan is Mr. Neff’s first book, and was a lot of fun to read. Kids and parents will both enjoy the quirky sense of humor and the shivers of excitement (and occasionally fear) that he draws into his prose. The grammar was well done, and all the characters spoke in ways you would expect. Very enjoyable.

Favorite Scene:
I loved the unsanctioned class expedition to the Kestrel. It made my spine tingle with the fear of being caught.

Who this book is best for:
I would put the target audience at 10-13, but it’s so well written that anyone can enjoy the story.

Violence: 2 of 5

Stars: 4 of 5

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Graveyard Book


Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2008

Review:
The boy’s family was murdered when he was about eighteen months old. Just big enough to totter around, he wandered out of the house and up the hill into the nearby graveyard while the killer searched around for him. There he is taken in by unlikely pair named Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who were never able to have children. The only problem is that they’ve been dead for about two hundred years. The graveyard residents aren’t sure what to do with the boy, who has no name but what the Owens gave him, so they give him the Freedom of the Graveyard and name him Nobody.

Nobody Owens grows up very differently than most children. All of his best friends are dead. In fact, everyone he associates with has been dead since Victoria was Queen. His guardian is a vampire named Silas. He learns his letters and numbers from the fellow residents of his graveyard, and he thinks nothing of sleeping in a tomb every night. It’s all he’s ever known. The outside world isn’t safe for Nobody Owens, yet as he grows he dreams of meeting the living. But it isn’t safe, he’s told. The Man Jack is still looking for him.

And so Nobody Owens’ story is that of most people: that of self discovery. Nobody just does it better than everyone else, perhaps because Death isn’t something that frightens him. He lives in the world, and is more aware of his world, than anyone else because he learned from the dead that life is your chance to make your mark on the world, to go out and do what you can, to be who you can and to make the most of every moment.

We only follow Nobody for about thirteen years of his life, but he does more in those thirteen than most people accomplish in fifty, and for that he is a truly remarkable individual. But what is most charming about Nobody is his sweet naïveté. He can discuss for hours the uses of Ghoul Gates or who the Lady on the Grey is, but something as simple as “P is for Pig” delights him. He’ll anger fellow graveyard residents to borrow the books they have or find the deepest of the Tombs and confront those who live there. It’s Nobody’s character, delightful in al its angles, that kept me reading. And when it was over I wanted more but loved that that was all there was written down about Nobody. Gaiman’s ability to leave some adventures open to the reader’s imagination only adds to the joy his books bring.

Perspective:
The Graveyard book is told from third person limited, following Nobody Owens on his adventures.

My Thoughts:
This book was another one nominated by Jean-Luc, and it didn’t disappoint. At first I was reminded quite a lot of Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, but as the story progressed I found this was due only to the location at which the story takes place and the fact that many of the main characters are deceased. I almost cried at the end, because I was so happy for Bod, but so sad that it was over. I think it’s perhaps the best book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman, a prolific author with many wonderful works to his credit. I would recommend it to anyone and was a delight to read.

Favorite Scene:
My favorite scene was when Bod confronted the Sleer with Scarlett in tow. Fascinating, creepy, exciting and thought provoking. But then, I've always been fascinated with the Celts. The chapter titled “The Witch” was also great.

Who this book is best for:
Listed as suitable for 9-12 year olds on Amazon, I would disagree. I would keep this for kids 11 years or up, despite the easy writing style and age of the main character, because of what goes on during the story’s climax. 9 may be a little too young to deal with some of the themes explored in The Graveyard Book. However, it has won the Newbery Medal and completely deserved it.

Violence: 3 of 5 for the creepy Sleer and the Jacks of All Trades.

Stars: 5 of 5

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Title: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - The Classic Regency Romance Now with Ultra-violent Zombie Mayhem
Author: Jane Austen and Seth Garahame-Smith
Genre: Classic/Fantasy
Published: 2009

Review:
Mix these two lines: "...A single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife..." and "...A zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains..." and you'll have the mish-mash that is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The classic tale of the five Bennet sisters’ struggle to get some husbands, preferably rich ones, now has the added terror of the undead rampaging through Britain.

Don't let the title fool you: many of the characters bear little resemblance to those from the original. At first they're not such marked differences. Jane is still disgustingly sweet to everyone. Lydia is still a reptilian little wretch. Mrs. Bennet doesn’t care about anything but seeing her daughters well married. And so Elizabeth and her sisters routinely behead the undead, who always seem to arrive just in time to ruin a ball or party. So what? Mr. Darcy finally found a sense of humor? Good. Mr. Bennet took lovers when his daughters were training in the Orient? Who doesn't? And the disgusting plague explains some of what went unsaid in the original: Why is there a whole Army regiment stationed in Meryton? Well, if the place is overrun with unmentionables eating or inflicting their unfortunate plague on the general populace it makes total sense.

But over all, the story stalled. Seeing how the beloved characters would respond to the new threat only held my interest for about half of the book, and then it was a struggle to finish. The constant conflict between Shaolin training and what the higher class nobles receive in Kyoto aren’t differentiated. Not once does the reader see the difference between the two, but apparently it matters enough for Elizabeth to eat someone’s heart over it. The heat between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth seems forced and even unbelievable in certain instances. Mostly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a good idea that stagnated.

Perspective:
Third person limited, P&P&Z follows Elizabeth for most of the story, and Darcy a few times.

My Thoughts:
Maybe my expectations were too high for this book. I love the original, and at first the language and actions of the characters followed it very closely. Yet the further into the story I went, the less involved I felt and the more obtuse everyone grew. I think it lost me completely with Elizabeth calmly munching on someone’s heart after killing three ninjas blindfolded. Eating someone’s heart may have been fine in Last of the Mohicans, but it doesn’t fit with Regency England at all.

Favorite Scene:
Mr. Darcy sallying up and returning snide remarks for every compliment Ms. Bingley gave him while he wrote a letter was pretty funny. It seemed like the things he was always thinking but was too polite to ever say.

Who this book is best for:
I’d keep this for adults or mature high-schoolers. It gets pretty violent, ala Dawn of the Dead.

Violence: 5 of 5 for zombies eating living people, heart eating and random dismemberment. Besides, in the title it calls itself "ultra-violent".

Stars: 2 of 5

Beauty


Title: Beauty
Author: Robin McKinley
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1978

Review:
Grace, Hope and Honour - who as a child didn't understand her name and asked to be called Beauty, for all that it didn't and still doesn't suit her - are the daughters of the failed merchant, Roderick Huston. They live with Hope's fiancé, a blacksmith in the town of Blue Hill far to the north of the city they grew up in. One day, years after their relocation, word comes that one of their missing four ships has returned at last. Roderick sets out at once to meet up with his former employees, and perhaps discover the fate of the other three vessels, but before he leaves he asks his daughters what they would like from the city of their birth. Grace and Hope ask for jewels and gold. He knows they are joking, for they have no use for such things now. Beauty, always practical, asks for seeds. Rose seeds for their garden.

It is not to be. Rose bushes and rose cuttings can be found in abundance, but they would not survive the two month trip back to Blue Hill. The return journey is uneventful, and Roderick leaves the caravan he traveled with close to his home. This is when the story truly starts, for he is set upon by a blizzard. Lost and alone in the forest he stumbles into a castle where invisible servants provide everything he needs. On his way out the castle gates towards home, he snaps off a single red rose to take home to Beauty. The Beast appears, and after hearing Roderick's story demands he return in a month to die or let one of his daughters, who agrees to come of her own free will, come to spend the rest of her life at the castle.

What makes this version of Ms. McKinley's retelling so enthralling is Beauty herself and how she responds to the magic of the castle and to the Beast. She takes it all in stride, and makes it work for her as though magic were always part of her life, not something new and a little bit frightening. From books that don’t quite exist yet or convincing her placid horse that the Beast won’t eat him, Beauty wiggles her way into a stifled world, sending out ripples that change everything the Beast and we know about the classic story. Because Beauty is a strong character she creates strong situations around her. While she feels she isn’t physically beautiful, and is described as awkward and gawky, Beauty has enough intelligence that even a doctoral admissions board would have to pay attention to her, and that makes her shine.

Perspective:
Beauty is told from Beauty’s perspective, in first person.

My Thoughts:
I do prefer Rose’s Daughter of the two Beauty and the Beast retellings that Ms. McKinley has done because I love its’ ethereal quality, but if for nothing else I would adore Beauty for her brains. Young ladies need strong role models, and most of the “princess” types (Cinderella, Little Mermaid, etc) don’t usually fit into that category. Beauty has potency, passion, ideals and depth. Beauty accepts everyone for who they are, even if it means overcoming her own terror. She shines off the page as someone I wish I could be. This is a much more personal Beauty and the Beast than any other I’ve read. It draws you in. The flowers are fragrant, the people are full of personality, and even the animals show you that they’re cognizant of their world.

Favorite Scene:
I love when Beauty introduces Greatheart to the Beast. The scene is so tense and heartrending that it makes you wonder how this poor girl can ever make things work.

Who this book is best for:
Beauty is probably more of a book for girls than for boys, but it’s suitable for anyone over about 12.

Violence: 0 of 5. The worst thing that happens is a horse being spanked on the rump.

Stars: 3.5 of 5

Monday, May 11, 2009

The High King's Tomb


Title: The High King's Tomb
Author: Kristen Britain
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007
Series: The Green Rider Series (Book 3)

Review:
Karigan G'ladheon didn't want to be a Green Rider, one of the King's own messengers. She wanted to be a merchant, like her father, and take over the clan's textile empire when he died. But we've had two books since her inadvertent entry into the service, and she's learned to deal with it. Besides, being a Green Rider is far more interesting. Possessing small, but hidden, magical talents, the Riders carry the King's missives across Sacordia and deal with all manner of trouble along the way. And Karigan seems to run into more of it than all her fellow Riders combined.

Plagued by lingering romantic feelings towards her sovereign, unpleasant bouts of swordplay with her Armsmaster in full court regalia and the running of the Rider account books, Karigan is more than happy to set out on a message errand to the far corners of the kingdom... until she finds out she has to take a trainee along with her. They are off to find a book, that may or may not exist, which tells how the D'Yer Wall was created Ages ago to contain the evil within Blackveil Forest. Without it, they may not be able to repair the breach, and Sacordia may fall.

The High King's Tomb picks up where First Rider's Call left off, and fortunately there are many more Riders now that the extra broaches have been found. But hardly any of the main plot lines are moved forward in this installment. Karigan and King Zachary do not settle the feelings between them. The Wall doesn't get repaired. Alton is still mad at Karigan. Mornhavon the Black does not return. This entire book seems to exist only to add bunches of new characters to the playing field and to provide back story. (We do get to learn a lot more about the D'Yer wall, which I've always found fascinating.) Couple that with writing that was far below the standard set by the last book, and over all it was a downer for the series.

Perspective:
The Green Rider Series is told from third person omniscient and bounces back and forth between a number of important characters.

My Thoughts:
I was very excited for this book when it came out, but felt let down after I finished it. The writing didn't stand up to what I had come to expect after First Rider's Call, and the plot went almost nowhere. I felt many scenes could have used some heavy editing or even be cut altogether. Even scenes with the Wall, my favorite character other than Alton D'Yer (yes, his ancestors built the Wall), were repetitive. Karigan's troubles with her trainee take a lot more words to deal with than they should. Most of the scenes with Lady Estora and the Raven Mask were flat out dull and usually lost my attention entirely. Over all, this was a significant disappointment in the series, and I would recommend finding an abridged version or the cliffsnotes. I really hope that the next book is better, because the series has so much potential. Even if you don't pick up this one, do read the others in the series.

Favorite Scene:
I really enjoyed Karigan being solicited by a lady in the brothel "The Golden Rudder". It was pretty funny. It's a toss up between that and Alton reading his letter.

Who this book/series is best for:
Kids in high school or advanced readers in 7th or 8th grade could enjoy this series, despite it being shelved in the Adult section.

Violence: 3 of 5 for battle scenes and torture

Stars: 2 of 5

Friday, April 24, 2009

Thirteenth Child


Title: Thirteenth Child
Author: Patricia C. Wrede
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2009
Series: Frontier Magic (Book 1)

Review:
Francine, also called Eff, is the twin of a seventh son of a seventh son. The double seven, as they call him, is considered by one and all to be wildly lucky and effortlessly magical. Eff's the thirteenth child in her family. She's considered by most of her extended relations to be just plain bad luck, because everyone knows that the thirteenth child will invariably turn out evil. They're all just glad she came first so that the seventh son of the seventh son wouldn't have all the evil traits a thirteen always does.

After five years of continual praise for the double seven and continual torment for the thirteen, Eff's parents have had enough of their medlingly large extended family. They pack up the younger children (all of those who aren't married or at University) and move West to Mill City where Eff's father has been given a position as professor of magic at the new land-grant college. Mill City is just East of the Great Barrier Spell that keeps out all the terrifying animals that live across it - magical and otherwise - and sits on the Mammoth River (what we know as the Mississippi River). Eff and her family are on the very edge of the Columbian (American) Frontier, leading a life of exploration and misadventure.

An entirely new Frontier adventure, where humans never crossed the land bridge and dragons and mammoths and saber-tooth tigers still roam, emerges as a captivating and exciting world. Not only does the reader get to attend school with Eff and see our famous historical figures in her world (Lewis and Clark never returned from their trip West, and President Thomas Jefferson helped set up the Great Barrier Spell) but you can learn different magical theories and see how casting spells can go just as terribly wrong as science experiments do in our classrooms.

While subtle, since this is a book for children, the topic of racism is also dealt with. Eff is obviously from a very tolerant family, but others aren't always of the same mind frame. Miss Ochiba, the daughter of a former slave, is Eff's first magic teacher. The tones used when referring to her or when other characters are around her are always a little stand-offish or condescending. It’s subtle and I doubt most children would pick up on it, but unavoidable since this story is set shortly after the War of Succession (Civil War), which happened earlier in this alternate universe America.

Growing older with Eff it is easy to see the harm caused in her childhood by her meddling aunts and uncles in her personality. So fearful has Eff grown of becoming the evil thirteenth that she is almost afraid of her own small temper and her large abilities. How she grows enough to overcome them both make for a delightful read that is only enhanced by the surreal setting that is so deceptively so close to our own history.

Perspective:
Thirteenth Child is told in first person past tense. It’s so well written that I could almost hear Eff’s voice telling me the story as I read.

My Thoughts:
I haven’t read a new book by Patricia C. Wrede in quite a few years and was so thrilled to see this one promoted on Tamora Pierce’s livejournal that I went and bought it that day. Honestly, I found it difficult to put Eff’s story down. All the references to famous historical people drew me in and made me smile, especially the diatribe Lan (Eff’s twin) goes into about how well read Jefferson was and how he assumed everyone else would be also, which is true, and how Franklin made up a lot of what he did on the spot and wasn’t very clear about his procedures, which is also accurate. Plus it was a lot of fun to look at the names given places and figure out where they really were. The Mammoth River empties into the Gulf of Amerigo, one of the biggest cities on the East Coast is New Amsterdam, etc. But it would be just as easy to read the book, enjoy the story and completely ignore the new…old… names given to places familiar to us.

Eff and Lan were both very well developed characters, and I loved poor little Eff right off the bat. As she grew, I really felt the frontiersy vibe, with longer skirts for grownup ladies and pinned up hair. It was almost like reading a magical Little House on the Prairie. On the down side, I never really got to know most of Eff’s older siblings at all, even by the end of the book. I suppose that’s understandable considering that there are 12 of them.

Some people may be put off by the lack of any native presence in the Columbia described in the book, but I don’t think this was done as a slap in the face to any of the First Nation people. Rather, it’s an imaginary world where one can speculate what it would have been like to colonize the continent if humans hadn’t crossed the land bridge, if the megaflora and megafauna still rooted in or roamed the land and had a few magical beings interspersed with them.

Favorite Scene:
The scene with the Steam Dragon during the Aphrikan magic lessons really drew me in, but as I mentioned earlier the diatribe by Lan about Jefferson and Franklin was my favorite.

Who this book is best for:
Kids age 9 or 10 could read this and enjoy it just as well as an adult. The only thing to consider is the length.

Violence: 0 of 5. Unless killing bugs bothers your child, you should be fine.

Stars: 4 of 5

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fablehaven


Title: Fablehaven
Author: Brandon Mull
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2006
Series: Fablehaven (Book 1)

Review:
Kendra and Seth’s parents are going on a cruise, and they’re left with their odd grandpa on his large estate in Connecticut. He makes them promise to stay out of the woods and the barn because there are ticks with lime disease and leaves them to their own devices in a room of toys and books, with a pool tempting outside. As with all children, it isn’t long before curiosity gets the better of them and they break the rules.

First, Seth meets an odd old lady chewing on a rope in the forest. Then he and Kendra discover a beautiful pond complete with gazebos. Grandpa, being the adult that he is, finds out and punishes them, although not as strictly as he was going to after being argued down by his grandchildren for lying to them about his reasons. Now, apparently, the woods are dangerous because he runs a wild animal preserve. But then the kids drink some of the milk a helper leaves out for the bugs, and suddenly they can see fairies!

And that’s about where I got bored and stopped reading. I found the dialog (of which there is a lot) trite and uninspired. The interactions between the characters were physically painful to read. They rarely speak in complete sentences but use words that are completely out of what little character has been built for them or words that are overly complicated. It’s almost as though the author was using small words and then looking up ones that sounded smarter in a thesaurus to substitute. It completely distracted me, to the point that I was having to go back through and reread things just to be sure I had understood it properly.

Grandpa Sorenson isn’t a grownup to be respected and consistently lies to his grandchildren or ignores them. He sets the stage for all the other adults in the book, who by turns give lame excuses for their actions and take no notice of the children they’re supposed to be watching. A few times, they even advocate lying to the other adults, which is a terrible thing to teach kids.

The children are insipid and colorless. Kendra is annoying and self absorbed, but no where near as badly as Seth. Seth delights in breaking the rules just to break them, does belly flops and eats a lot of chocolate.

Perspective:
This book is told from third person omniscient, switching between Kendra’s point of view and Seth’s.

My Thoughts:
Well, we have our first “DID NOT FINISH” for the Book Dame Reviews. Even as just a bathroom book, I couldn’t get over the many issues I had with this story. While the blurbs on the front from authors I respect claim that it is like Harry Potter and good for the whole family and the fact that it’s a New York Times Bestseller made me think this would be a worthwhile little trip to fantasy land, it was terrible. I can’t recommend this to anyone I respect because I feel it is a waste of time. The storyline is bland and boring and the characters are worse.

Favorite Scene:
Honestly, I didn’t have one.

Who this book is best for:
Nobody. Go learn to knit or do some leatherworking rather than read this book.

Violence: 0 of 5, but I didn’t finish it, so there may be violence later that I didn’t see.

Stars: 0 of 5.

Silent in the Sanctuary


Title: Silent in the Sanctuary
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2008
Series: Lady Julia Grey Mysteries (Book 2)
Next in Series: Silent on the Moor (forthcoming, March 1, 2009)

Review:
Julia has recovered from her shocking investigation of her husband’s murder and is now relaxing in Italy with two of her many brothers. But when Lysander gets married to an Italian lady without his father’s permission they are all summoned home to England for Christmas. Upon arrival at their ancestral home of Bellmont Abbey they realize that Earl March has planned a large house party to celebrate the season.

Among the guests are Nicolas Brisbane and (most surprisingly) his fiancée. But it isn’t long before odd things start happening. There are many reports of a ghostly apparition floating around the old Abbey. Ancient relatives disappear in the middle of snowstorms. An expensive set of pearls vanish. And worst of all, one of the houseguests ends up dead during a game of Sardines!

A fun dash back in time to hobnob with the Victorians, the historical details of this book are very well done. The tension between Julia and Brisbane is palpable and helps keep the story moving the few times it might have stalled out. But as a mystery, it takes forever to get there. The murder doesn’t happen until halfway through the book, although many other odd things take place.

While it does take forever to get to the murder, there are plenty of other things to distract and fascinate the reader. First there’s Brisbane’s odd fiancée; the widowed Mrs. King. I sincerely disliked Mrs. King’s story line, but what she detracted from the book was more than made up for by Julia’s cousins Lucy and Emma and their Aunt Dorcas. They are the most fascinating new characters to the series. I hope we see more of them later, although I rather doubt that we will.

Perspective:
Lady Julia Grey Mysteries are told in first person from Lady Julia’s perspective in past tense.

My Thoughts:
While I didn’t like this installment quite a much as the first, it was a delightful read that had me glued to the page. On my first read through I didn’t even notice how long it took to get to the actual murder. Also, I love Ms. Raybourn’s attention to historical detail. As a historian, it just makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Again, don't let the new covers throw you off. This is a mystery novel, not a sordid romance.

Favorite Scene:
Julia’s confrontation of Brisbane at the riverside is all malice, hurt and jealousy. Quite a fun read!

Who this book is best for:
An adult mystery dealing with some adult topics, I’d keep these for either very advanced High Schoolers or those who have reached their Majority.

Violence: 3 of 5 for murder and a gristly review of the corpse.

Stars: 3.5 of 5

The High Lord



Title: The High Lord
Author: Trudi Canavan
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2003
Series: The Black Magician (book 3)

Review:
In the last installment of the Black Magician trilogy, all the pieces start to come together. Akkarin’s guardianship of Sonea turns into a mentorship. He gives her ancient volumes that tell a time when the Guild freely used Higher Magic as well as the terrifying reason it was banned forever on pain of death. And all the while, the murders in the city continue. This is what convinces Sonea, and changes her mind about the High Lord once and for all. For he is not the murder, but the one stopping each of the killers, these Black Magicians, infiltrating his city.

And so it seems the Guild is in far more peril than they could ever imagine. If Akkarin is correct, then the Sachakans are determined to gain revenge and destroy the Allied Lands. But when the Guild finds the books he has been giving to Sonea, they are both exiled and the Guild – and Imardin – is left defenseless.

In this stunning conclusion, prejudices are challenged, injustices halted and ways of life are threatened. Sonea grows into her powers and best of all learns to understand who she is and who she wants to be. No longer is she the fearful little street urchin that allowed others to push her around. Gone are the aggravatingly repetitive themes which held back the first two books in the series. This book moves along seamlessly, full of high emotions and fear. The history of Imardin and the Allied lands is deeply entwined with the fate of its current citizens. The High Lord leaves the reader with the wonderful concept that if old ideas are not confronted then a society becomes too hidebound to save itself from destruction.

Perspective:
The High Lord is told from third person omniscient, switching between many characters’ point of view.

My Thoughts:
This is easily the best book in the trilogy. It more than makes up for the inadequacies of the two previous and makes readers realize the complex planning that went into making this series.

Favorite Scene:
I loved the trial where Sonea finally does what she thinks is right.

Who this book is best for:
High school kids and adults will like this novel.

Violence: 3.5 of 5, for many death and battle scenes

Stars: 4 of 5

Silent in the Grave



Title: Silent in the Grave
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2007
Series: Lady Julia Grey Mysteries (Book 1)
Next in Series: Silent in the Sanctuary

Review:
The year is 1886. Lady Julia is the wife of Baronet Sir Edward Grey and daughter of the Earl of March. As far as she is concerned, they live an average life in their London townhouse. But Sir Edward has never been healthy. No one in his family is; his grandfather, father and cousin all either suffer from or have died of heart problems. Therefore, no one is really surprised when Edward collapses at one of their house parties and dies shortly thereafter. No one, that is, except one of their guests that evening: Mr. Nicolas Brisbane. Edward hired Brisbane to uncover who had been sending him threatening notes with frightening bible passages. Julia pays no attention to Brisbane’s warning and a year passes.

With her year of mourning almost complete Julia has changed. Having escaped her unknown imprisonment from under her husband’s thumb she has taken her sister Portia’s advice and changed everything from her hair cut to her wardrobe and is even considering taking a lover. But then Julia undertakes the unpleasant task of cleaning out Edward’s room. There she uncovers a note that is just as Brisbane described. “Let me be not ashamed, Oh Lord; for I have called upon Thee; let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.” With this startling evidence of her husband’s murder, Lady Julia enlists the assistance of Brisbane and the hunt ensues.

In this gripping first installment, Ms. Raybourn weaves a complex window into Victorian life, with all its restraints and formalities and disadvantages. The plot is gripping and moves along at a very smart clip. The method of death is ingenious, as is the murder weapon itself. Many times I was certain I had discovered the one piece of evidence that would damn a certain character or another, only to find I was mistaken.

Likewise, I felt a deep connection to Lady Julia. A trying time in her life is only made worse by the reopening of fresh wounds by the discoveries she makes on her investigation. What she turns up changes her life irrevocably, in ways that I myself fully relate to at times and at others are completely foreign. Lady Julia grows from a mousy woman who seeks only to please others and through her trials begins to transform a strong and confident woman.

Perspective:
Lady Julia Grey Mysteries are told in first person from Lady Julia’s perspective, and in past tense.

My Thoughts:
I first picked up this book on the recommendation of a store clerk as I browsed for Jane Austen Fan Fiction. I found myself enthralled with the story, much more enwrapped than I have ever been in any of Agatha Christie’s books. Each chapter begins with quotes from Shakespeare or other well known literary works, which once the full story is known make complete sense and until then just confuse a reader. Overall it’s a wonderful novel, and easily the best mystery I’ve read.

Oh, and don’t let the new covers, which make it look like a sordid romance novel, throw you. It really is a mystery.

Favorite Scene:
Julia’s walk with Portia in Hyde Park was great.

Who this book is best for:
An adult mystery dealing with some adult topics, I’d keep these for either very advanced High Schoolers or those who have reached their Majority.

Violence: 3 of 5, for murder, suicide and other such unpleasantness.

Stars: 4.5 of 5

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Novice



Title: The Novice
Author: Trudi Canavan
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2002
Series: The Black Magician Trilogy (Book 2)
Next in Series: The High Lord

Review:
Sonea has defied the odds and been accepted into the guild, but her troubles are hardly at an end. She’s been accepted as a member, but none of the other novices accept her as an equal. Putting up with bullies, endless studies and teachers who over look her, Sonea has a lot on her plate. But neither Sonea nor her guardian has felt safe since the guild Administrator preformed a truth read on her and discovered that the High Lord of the guild practices forbidden black magic. To make matters worse, there seems to be a serial murder running round Imardin. To the few who discovered the High Lord’s illegal knowledge, he is the main suspect due to the ritualistic nature of the murders. But what will Sonea do when the High Lord demands her as his novice?

The Magician’s Guild laid a great foundation for the rules of magic in the Kyralian society, the Novice really elaborates on it, making everything from light globes to force strikes seem plausible. While going to class with Sonea was fascinating from that standpoint, it was trying to constantly read about Regin’s consistent pranks on her. His bullying is creative, but after a while even his creativity makes me wish Sonea would fight back! Too often she passively takes it and says nothing. Strength and fighting your own battles is something, but not to the point of being a doormat.

For me, the real excitement of this book really Dannyl and his travels. We finally see the land around the city of Imardin and run around all the Allied Lands searching for ancient magic. Dannyl and his assistant’s experiences in the mountains between Elyne and Sachaka will thrill even the most tired reader. From ancient libraries to far off temples, his passages never fail to please, although occasionally the cultures he visits do cause you to shudder. I was also pleased to notice that Kyralia is in the southern hemisphere of its world. If you pay attention to the small details, Ms. Canavan will surprise you!

The murders are a great example of this, and add a delicious taste of mystery to a novel that would otherwise fall completely into the fantasy genre. Though they don’t seem to serve much purpose, all of the tiny facts of these crimes are incredibly vital to the story later, which really made me realize the complex scope of planning that had gone into these books long before any were published.

Perhaps the oddest thing about this novel, however, is how the High Lord, while only a minor character, really becomes the best fleshed out person in the trilogy. Everyone’s thoughts focus around him, his crimes and what could have motivated him to break his vows. Through their eyes, their thoughts and fears, the High Lord becomes at once a terrible figure; one of intrigue and cruelty but also of pity.

My Thoughts:
Again, I thought that there were parts of the novel which were dragged out longer than they needed to be, such as the bullying that Sonea goes through. However, the rest of it was so fascinating that I could easily overlook it. This book really left me wanting to know more and worried for the characters I had come to love.

Favorite Scene:
I liked Sonea’s wandering around the University, but the most interesting for me was Dannyl’s discovery of the Room of Ultimate Judgment.

Who this book is best for:
High schoolers or adults who want a nice romp through the dirty parts of the city and then an interesting bit of politics will enjoy this book.

Violence: 3 of 5, for descriptions of those murdered

Stars: 3 of 5

The Magician's Guild


Title: The Magician’s Guild
Author: Trudi Canavan
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2001
Series: The Black Magician Trilogy (Book 1)
Next in Series: The Novice

Review:
Sonea lived with her aunt and uncle in the slums for most of her life, and every year the King and his magicians purge the city of the low class. Inadvertently part of a protest, Sonea joined in and threw a rock. But nothing ever gets past the magic barriers, so the magicians were confident as they force the impoverished from the city. Their confidence lasted until Sonea’s rock hit one of them in the head.

With that one, tiny act Sonea changed her life forever. Now she is hunted by the guild, at the mercy of Thieves and cannot return to her family. And the guild is no better off; they fear a rogue magician out for their destruction, or worse, someone who cannot control her power and may destroy the city. But what do they do if they find her? No one from the lower class has ever been allowed to join the guild.

The world of the Magician’s Guild jumps off the page, and is rich in both dialog and description. Sonea is an intensely frightened girl being forced to choose between two options she detests. One can’t help but feel her regret for throwing that stone, and at the same time admire her for doing something no one thought possible. Her friend, Cery, is immediately likeable for his roguish tendencies, sheer determination and unflagging loyalty to Sonea.

But sadly, it isn’t all wonderful. There’s only so much running away and hiding that I really want to read about. The Thieves tunnels were interesting for about fifty pages, and after that I grew bored. It was the same for Sonea losing control of her powers. How many times do you think you need to tell me that things are exploding or catching on fire before I get it? Plus, the villain (who has no redeeming qualities) likes to sneer a great deal. I wonder if there are any other synonyms for “sneer”.

But aside from that, it’s an interesting book. The world is richly created. Nothing, not even mice or dogs, have names we’re used to. While confusing at first, the new names are added a few at a time and are fairly easy to digest, helping to create the illusion that is the world of Kyralia. The slums spin to life, and, given the vivid imagery, it isn’t difficult to smell them. The best part is that there are two more books in which a reader can fully immerse herself into the culture. And there are just enough loose threads hanging at the end of the book that you’ll want to read the next one, but won’t kill yourself for not having bought them at the same time.

Perspective:
The Magician’s guild is told from third person omniscient. Be ready to constantly switch between Sonea’s view point, Cery’s view point, and even a few of the magicians!

My Thoughts:
I hadn’t read this book in a long time, because I remembered it being rather dull in the beginning. And honestly, it was just how I remembered it. I found myself skipping over some of the “and then they ran down this street and hopped through this grate to hide from so-and-so”, and I didn’t really feel like I missed much there. But I really do like Sonea as a heroine. She’s not spunky, she’s not vivacious, but she catches your interest all the same. Perhaps it’s her ability to make tough choices or that she fights back when she thinks something is unfair. Maybe it's just her determination. I’m not entirely certain. Besides, the other books are good enough that this one is worth the read just to get the foundation laid for the others.

And completely random, but it's always bothered me that the covers of the books have nothing to do with what happens in the story. Not once.

Favorite Scene:
I enjoyed the scene where Lord Dannyl is being questioned by Lord Rothen (both magicians) about why he is pretending he still has a limp.

Who this book is best for:
High schoolers or adults who want a nice romp through the dirty parts of the city and then an interesting bit of politics will enjoy this book.

Violence: 1.5 out of 5 for buildings exploding and a few knifings

Stars: 3 of 5

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Calling on Dragons


Hello again, loyal Book Dame readers! I apologize for the prolonged gap in reviews. I promised Jefferson that I would read a book of his that was dull and long. But, since that’s finished, here we go!

Title: Calling on Dragons
Author: Patricia C. Wrede
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1994
Series: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Book 3)
Next in Series: Talking to Dragons

Review:
Morwen and her cats live a fairly quiet life in the Enchanted Forest. Sometimes odd things do occur, but who would have thought the cats would run into a seven foot eleven inch tall (including the ears) rabbit who is obviously enchanted? Morwen investigates. She discovers that the wizards have found a way to soak up the Enchanted Forest again. Heading off for the castle at once, Morwen informs King Mendanbar and Queen Cimorene. There they find that the wizards have stolen the sword that is linked to the magic of the Enchanted Forest. Since only a member of the King’s family can handle the sword (and Mendanbar can’t leave or the Forest will all be soaked up) pregnant Cimorene must go adventuring with her entourage: Kazul, Telemain, Killer the rabbit, Morwen and two of her cats.

While this book of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles is a little less exciting at first than the previous two, it has some really interesting points. Fire-witches, mentioned a few times in Searching for Dragons become far more involved in the series and I found them fascinating. The whole idea of a person who’s hair spontaneously combusts when they’re angry, is immune to fire and can learn any kind of magic is pretty cool. Also, there are talking cats. They're just as sarcastic and snide as cats would be if they could talk.

However, the rest of the book was dull and jumpy. Hopping from one place to another doesn’t move the story along, it just describes more scenery. That's not why I bought the book. From Morwen’s house to the Castle, and then with Telemain’s random transportation spells, shifting the setting needlessly ties up pages without moving the plot along. Also, the giant rabbit gets annoying very quickly. They bring him everywhere and he’s constantly eating things he shouldn’t so first he’s giant, then he turns in to a donkey, and well… it just keeps going to the point of nausea. There’s also a random encounter with Jack, a magic bean farmer, which is only in the story to give Killer another magic thing to eat.

And then there’s the hanging ending…

Perspective:
Calling on Dragons is told from third person limited.

My Thoughts:
This was always my least favorite book of the series when I was growing up, simply because of the hanging ending. I loved having a book from Morwen’s perspective and finally being able to know what her cats were saying. The basis of this story, though, is really just to set the stage for the next book (my favorite of the quartet). Really, Morwen is one of my favorite characters in the series. I just wish the book from her point of view was more interesting. It’s a decent read, but no where near up to par with the other three.

Favorite Scene:
I loved the floating laundry basket they use to get into the fire-witch’s tower.

Who this book is best for:
Middle school kids will like it, or anyone else who wants to finish the series. It’s worthwhile because it sets up the stage for the next book.

Violence: 1 of 5, because the dragons start eating people.

Stars: 2.5 of 5

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lirael


Title: Lirael
Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2001
Series: Abhorsen Trilogy (Book 2)
Next in Series: Abhorsen

Review:
Lirael is a Daughter of the Clayr, a large family gifted with future Sight. But Lirael is different. No one has ever Seen Lirael, she doesn’t look like her cousins, she doesn’t know who her father was and she doesn’t have the Sight. So Lirael is quiet, avoids her cousins, and eventually finds work in the Great Library of the Clayr. Years pass and Lirael meets (or makes) the Disreputable Dog. Together they explore the Library, but when they find an ancient tunnel ominously called “Lirael’s Path” things change. Suddenly she has been Seen: Lirael must leave the Glacier and attempt to defeat an ancient evil that has found its way to the surface once more.

Prince Sameth is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting to his mother, the Abhorsen Queen, Sabriel (heroine of the Abhorsen Trilogy Book 1). But Sameth is terrified of Death, the Abhorsen’s priority. They are the only necromancers who put the Dead back to rest, or bind those who will not rest deep within the river of Death. Sameth leaves the palace to look for a friend who is late in arriving, but really he’s fleeing his duties as the Abhorsen-in-Waiting. But the bells, unmistakable tools of the necromancer, and Mogget, unwilling servant of the Abhorsen, refuse to be left behind.

The fate of the Old Kingdom rests on the shoulders of these two young people and their assistants.

Lirael, while silent around her family, is anything but a timid heroine. She has large internal issues to overcome, but she doesn’t let them rule her. She stands out as one of the most complex fantasy characters I have ever read. Sameth annoys me as any fifteen year old boy does. He’s self centered, fearful, thoughtless, willful and aggravating. He’s a well drawn character and ends up a respectable hero, despite his beginnings.

The odd thing about this book is that both of the main human characters are surpassed by their assistants, and it’s not just that they seem to be talking animals. (Mogget is a cat, by the way.) There is an air of mystery around both the Disreputable Dog and Mogget that leaves you constantly wondering and wanting more from them. Mogget’s dry humor and sarcasm give tantalizing hints of his hidden past, while the Disreputable Dog has more knowledge than the best Charter Mage ever born. So who are these assistants, and are they really the assistants?

The Old Kingdom is realistic to the point that it throws itself off the page at you. I can almost convince myself that it exists somewhere in Europe and if I were lucky (or perhaps unlucky) enough, perhaps I could visit there. That is how well Mr. Nix has made his world, a major triumph for any author but one he consistently puts forth.

Perspective:
"Lirael" is told from third person omniscient. You will regularly change between Lirael and the Disreputable Dog’s story line and Sameth and Mogget’s story line until the two join up.

My Thoughts:
While I love the first book in the Abhorsen series, "Lirael" is really my favorite. Since this book takes place between fourteen and nineteen years after "Sabriel", Lirael’s story can stand alone. (So if you haven’t read "Sabriel" yet and want to pick up "Lirael", you’re in luck!) However, buy this book in conjunction with the next book in the series, "Abhorsen", since it is really just the ending of everything set forth in "Lirael". I can’t say how annoyed I was late one night when I was first finishing "Lirael" to realize that nothing was going to be wrapped up and I didn’t have the next one to start immediately! That’s the only thing that’s taking the last half star from this book.

(And for those of you who are already fans of the Old Kingdom, Garth Nix has another two books coming out based in there, the first will be “Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen” due out in 2010, which takes place about 200 years before "Lirael". In 2011 there will be an as yet untitled book set after the happenings in "Abhorsen".)

Favorite Scene:
Being a huge fan of libraries, I was in love with the Great Library of the Clayr from the start. My favorite scene by far was when Lirael and the Disreputable Dog explored the dark recesses of the Library on her nineteenth birthday.

Who this book is best for:
While Garth Nix is usually known for writing young adult fiction, this book deals with some rough stuff and a lot of death and dead things (think zombies and other nasties). Therefore, unless you don’t mind a lot of death in your kid books, I’d say this is for 11th graders or up.

Violence: 3.5 of 5 for many dead beings and death scenes

Stars: 4.5 of 5

Searching for Dragons



Title: Searching for Dragons
Author: Patricia C. Wrede
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1992
Series: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Book 2)
Next in Series: Calling on Dragons

Review:
Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest, has a bit of a problem on his hands. It seems as though someone decided to burn up a large chunk of his kingdom. All signs point to the Dragons when he finds a number of scales lying around. Convinced not to jump to conclusions by Morwen, he goes to talk to Kazul, King of the Dragons. There he meets Cimorene and learns they both have a problem: Kazul is missing and those pesky Society of Wizards are causing trouble again!

So what is a King to do? He and Cimorene set off to find Kazul and figure out what’s been burning up his kingdom. With rapid action and a ton of lovable characters, Searching for Dragons travels through the Mountains of Morning, the surrounding countryside and into the Enchanted Forest, expanding and enriching the world built in Dealing with Dragons.

Mendanbar is a charming person, witty and clever, easy-going and amenable to most things (unless his steward is trying to convince him to marry). One of my favorite things about Mendanbar is the way he works magic. Described as threads that run all throughout the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar manipulates the magic of his kingdom by judicious tweeking, pulling and yanking. His magic is so much a part of him that it is like missing an arm when he leaves the Forest and doesn’t have the floating strands at his beck and call.

The second book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles is just as enjoyable as the first, moves from one catastrophe to the next calamity with humor and promptness.

Perspective:
Searching for Dragons is told from third person limited.

My Thoughts:
It’s nice to see that there are at least some men in Cimorene’s world who aren’t completely stupid and can stand up to her!

Favorite Scene:
While this is a tough call, I’ll have to go with Mendanbar fixing the sink with a magic sword, and Cimorene’s shocked reaction.

Who this book is best for:
Kids in late elementary school who are good readers or those in middle school will surely enjoy the witty banter and references to other well known fairy tales.

Violence: 0 of 5. Like Dealing with Dragons, there really isn’t any violence in this book. The only time Mendanbar even draws his sword to do something other than magic is to kill some snakes.

Stars: 4 of 5

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Stardust


Title: Stardust
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1997

Review:
Tristran Thorn is not who he’s always thought he was: no, he’s the product of a one night stand between a fairy woman and his human father during a one-every-nine-years fair. Left next to the wall his father’s town was named for and raised in Victorian England, Tristran then goes off to the land of Fairy to fetch back a fallen star for the girl he loves. Tristran, however, isn’t the only person after that fallen star. A scary witch-woman wants it to regain her youth, and three brothers are after it to prove they are worthy of claiming the Lordship of their homeland.

Thus goes Stardust, which does at times feel a little like every other fairy tale you’ve read and falls easily into the “quest” category. Tristran is helped along his way by three mysterious strangers. The star is, of course, a glittery woman with a temper. It’s enjoyable and Tristran is a pleasant character to read about. He’s simple in an honest way and loyal.

There are the clearly defined “good guys” and the obvious “bad guys”. The three brothers took it upon themselves to bump off their other four male siblings, and so there is no clear person to win the Lordship. The witch is intent on harvesting organs from various other characters in the story, which only heightens the disgust you feel for her (unless you have hidden sentiments for Hannibal Lector).

And so the story moves along at a smart clip, entertaining and beautifully illustrated. While not fantastically surprising, it is fantastically comforting: a tale where the good guys win and the bad guys well… don’t.

Perspective:
Stardust is told from a third person limited sense, although you do get to see a few encounters from long before Tristran’s birth.

My Thoughts:
I read this book at the behest of a coworker of mine (code named Jean-Luc) and it was a great way to spend my Friday night. Yes, the story was a little predictable at times, but that may be because I’m overly familiar with the way fairy tales run. The writing was pleasant, if wordy, and the world beautifully described.

Favorite Scene:
I found the idea of cloud ships and a tree-harbor very pleasant and somewhat original. I wished it would go on longer, but I suppose the story wouldn’t have ended if they’d all stayed aboard.

Who this book is best for:
This book, while a standard fairy tale, has a few “adult” scenes and some swearing. Therefore, unless your child is of age or you don’t mind those things, keep it 18+.

Violence: 3.5 of 5 for a few bloody death scenes and a few more poisonings.

Stars: 3 of 5

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Endymion Spring


Title: Endymion Spring
Author: Matthew Skelton
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2006

Endymion Spring and Blake Winters are two boys separated by over 500 years of history and tied together by a book. Endymion finds the book in an odd chest he isn't supposed to be rummaging around in. The book finds Blake in the St. Jerome library at Oxford 500 years later. And so the two set out, each in their own time, to keep Endymion's book from those who would use it for evil.

Endymion Spring, a mute thief turned apprentice, works for and lives with Johannes Gutenberg. He helps create the beautiful type that will turn Gutenberg's bibles into a masterpiece of both printing and art, revered around the world. The Bible is nearing completion when Gutenberg's investor, Fust, arrives with his own apprentice, Peter, and a demonically carved chest. Terrified but curious, Endymion is drawn to the box and learns it holds a magic type of paper, paper which contains the answers to every mystery on earth. Fust, a thief himself and supremely evil, will stop at nothing to gain that wisdom.

Shift to modern day Oxford. Blake and his sister Duck have been uprooted by their studious mother who is doing research at the college. Quite a lot of time is spent following Blake as he wanders around various libraries, prosaically describing the smell of the books and the dust in the air. And this is where the story started to lose me. Not that it wasn't easy to follow, but because Blake moped around a little more than I wanted to put up with.

Blake is a troubled boy who can't see why Endymion's book chose him, and frankly I wondered the same thing. Empathizing with Blake is easy; he's going through some troubled times while his parents split up, but that happens to many kids these days. Believing he was somehow deemed worthy by a mysterious book due to these troubles was a bit hard to swallow. I also had issues with his sister's name being Duck. Just because your daughter refuses to take off a raincoat that looks like a duck doesn't mean you change her name to fit the jacket. That's as good as saying she is the jacket, or that the jacket is her. I carried a stuffed cat around as a child, but they don't call me Kitty.

What kept me reading was how engaging Endymion was. While Gutenberg never quite seemed real, his apprentice Endymion did. I felt for Endymion. His terror for Fust, his grudging respect for Peter and his adoration for Gutenberg were almost palpable. It's too bad that didn't transfer to Blake's sections of the story.

Perspective:
This book is interesting, and switches from first person past tense for Endymion to third person limited for Blake. It's as though Endymion knows what is happening 500 years later, and is telling you Blake's story.

My Thoughts:
I'm not sure why this was a New York Times bestseller, but I've wondered that about many other books as well. I wasn't really drawn into the story. I thought it a lot of it was sort of fusty, and there were many things that seemed like they were going somewhere, and it turned out they were only there to cause confusion and didn't add anything to the story in the end. I find that supremely aggravating. A number of the lose ends were wrapped up far too neatly, and others that seemed so important were never explained at all. It wasn't a bad read, and I'll probably go back through it, but I might skip over certain sections so as to spend my time with the characters I liked.

Favorite Scene:
The Dance of Death where Endymion flees from Fust was strangely (and almost disturbingly) intriguing. I'd say more, but I don't want to give this part away.

Who this book is best for:
Kids in early middle school will love the style and completely relate Endymion... perhaps even with Blake.

Violence: 2.5 of 5 for a descriptive beating during the climax.

Stars: 3 of 5

Monday, January 5, 2009

Dealing with Dragons


Title: Dealing with Dragons
Author: Patricia C. Wrede
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1990
Series: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Book 1)
Next in Series: Searching for Dragons

Summary:
Cimorene is not your average princess. She doesn’t like dancing, embroidery or etiquette, so she takes fencing, magic, Latin and cooking to make up for it (even though princesses don’t cook, conjugate Latin verbs or play with swords). Fed up with their daughter doing improper things, Cimorene’s parents arrange a marriage for her. Aghast at the prince they’ve chosen Cimorene runs away to be a dragon’s princess (which is sort of like being the maid). Now she must cope with a poorly provisioned kitchen, wizards, witches, stone princes, a jinn, knights and (of course) dragons. Life certainly picked up pace.

Review:
Ms. Wrede does an immaculate job of setting the stage for Dealing with Dragons. Even kingdoms where you don’t spend much time feel familiar: “Linderwall was a large kingdom just east of the Mountains of Morning where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished, mainly for show – it had been centuries since a dragon had come east…all in all, Linderwall was a prosperous and pleasant place.” It could be almost anywhere, and seems about as normal as can be. But when you move east from Linderwall, things change. Mostly because when there are dragons involved, nothing is ever easy.

Cimorene is the antithesis of most princesses in fairy tales. She’s not weak, she’s not helpless, she’s not a blond and she does NOT need to be rescued. She is incredibly witty and strong willed. Nothing seems to faze her, and ain’t nothing gonna slow her down. In one word, she is indefatigable. In a country as normal and commonplace as Linderwall, that makes her the black sheep and she never quite fits in. Besides, in a world where everything is right and proper, a person whose very personality sets others on their ears will always feel out of place.

The story, like its heroine, moves along at a smart clip where one chance encounter with a talking frog changes the fate of a numerous kingdoms. Cimorene takes the frog’s advice and flees from her arranged marriage and winds up (rather unexpectedly) in the Mountains of Morning where she is taken in by Kazul, a rather prominent dragon who likes cherries jubilee. The odd thing is, even though they are so far outside the reader’s realm of expertise, the Mountains of Morning and their inhabitants seem like they could be your neighbors. For example, Roxim may be a dragon but he sneezes a lot and is rather forgetful, sort of like the old man around the corner who’s lived there forever. It may take a lot to make a twenty foot long reptile seem loveable, yet somehow Roxim is exactly that. And maybe the Mountains of Morning grew up on their ears, because Cimorene fits right in. It’s a good thing that she does, too, once the Society of Wizards start their meddling.

But beware! Nothing small or unimportant happens in the world of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Make sure you’re paying attention, because every little detail counts (with the possible exception of the cauldron of plenty’s inability to make any dessert that isn’t burnt mint custard or sour-cream-and-onion ice cream).

The one problem with this book is that it relies so heavily on chance. Cimorene happens to run into that certain wizard in that particular herb patch. Kazul happens to know someone who has a copy of an extremely rare book. Cimorene happens to pick up a pebble in that particular cave. But really, life is based off of chance, right? So it shouldn’t be too surprising that it is used in books. And it doesn't stop the book from being amazingly funny.

Perspective:
This book is told in third person limited.

My Thoughts:
I’ve always enjoyed books that play off of other fairy tales, and this one was my first introduction to that genre. Ms. Wrede skillfully weaves in every tale from Rumpelstiltskin to the Wizard of Oz and gives us just a little twist that makes it so much more delightful. Plus, the idea of a heroine rebelling and doing something interesting for a change (ahem, not embroidery, ahem) really appealed to me when I was ten. Years later, it still does.

Favorite Scene:
I quite enjoyed Cimorene yelling at Morwen, whom she thought was another knight trying to rescue her (and thus interrupting her work).

Who this book is best for:
I recommend this book for young women in or near middle school.

Violence: 0 out of 5. The most violent thing in the whole book is when the Stone Prince gets bit by Woraug. It chips his shirt sleeve.

Stars: 4 out of 5

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Emerald House Rising



Title: Emerald House Rising
Author: Peg Kerr
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 1997

Summary:
Jenna never asked to be a wizard. She asked to be a gem cutter, just like her father. In fact, she’s his apprentice. But like so many things in life do, it was unexpected and sudden. Jenna finds herself whisked away to a castle far from home, amongst strangers and friendless. It is there that she learns her true strengths and uncovers the beginning of a plot which threatens the entire country.

Review:
A country with a nobility system built around the major precious stones… intriguing. But really, that doesn’t enter into the story until much later. This is mostly because while Jenna cuts gems: she’s only an apprentice and is more worried about earning her journeyman’s badge.

So at first I thought Jenna was wishy-washy and a bit of a bland character, but as the book progressed she really grew on me. Not only did she develop a backbone and a bit of sarcastic bite, but it turns out that she’s smart!

The magic system in this book is a little unspecific. Something about needing to see the different choices available to a person? But really that’s about as far as it’s developed. Makes it easy to fit the magic system into the plot, but it’s not too easy for the reader to envision. Perhaps that’s because we can’t see all the choices.

Overall, though, the plot is more than satisfying. The Diadem court and its’ leaders (most prominent to the story are the Ruby and the Diamond, despite the title) is a fascinating place of intrigue which Jenna and the reader are swept up into, and while the book revolves around a romance, it’s not really a romantic book. It’s more of a mystery, and very enjoyable!

Perspective:
Emerald House Rising is told from third person limited. You don’t ever see outside Jenna’s mind.

My Thoughts:
I really loved the description of the gemstones and gem cutting in this book. I can actually say I understand the lost wax method of casting jewelry thanks to Emerald House Rising. And it made me want to buy more bracelets and necklaces, which was bad for my bank account but great for the jewelry box.

Favorite Scene:
Jenna sneaking down the halls of Duone Keep in the dark, trying to find Lord Morgan’s room and running into Lady Kestrienne is my favorite scene. It takes the cake because of the ingenious reason for their being there that Lady Kestrienne gives Lord Duone. Absurd and reasonable at the same time.

Who this book is best for:
Anyone who likes fantasy novels will enjoy this one. It’s 325 pages, so if you’re shopping for Young Adults, make sure they have the staying power to finish it.

Violence: 2 of 5 for death by magic at the climax of the story.

Stars: 4.5 of 5