Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

I love this author! And I totally LOVED this book.

It is another fairy tale retelling--the flyleaf indicated it was a Grimm Brothers tale, but it was none that I recognized. Of course, Shannon Hale points out that she altered the tale quite a bit. In any case, it was new to me and I found it absolutely enchanting.

This story is set in Medieval Mongolia--wow! We meet a healer from the steppes as she is learning the duties of a maid to a well-born girl, both of them having just been sealed in a tower where they must stay for 7 years.

The book is told from the point of view of Dashti, the maid, and her voice is wise, humble and real. In fact, we are reading her journal, the record she has kept of her ordeal with her mistress.

A great deal of the charm of this book for me was that is was set in Mongolia, a country I was lucky enough to visit quite a few years ago. I learned a little about Mongolian customs then and what I know was beautifully enriched by what Shannon Hale included in her story. Make no mistake, this IS a fairy tale--the ending is perfect. I loved this book.

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

This is the book that precedes A Scholar of Magics and I liked it just as well as I liked the second. (I know, I know! I read them out of order. Sorry!).

In this one we meet for the first time Jane Brailsford. She accompanies her student (and best friend) Faris Nallaneen, Duchess of Galazon on her quest to fulfill her destiny. That sounds pretty majestic, doesn't it? Well. The story starts out at a women's school in France, Greenlaw college. This is where Jane and Faris meet as students. Adventures and conflict ensue.

I found the beginning of the book a wee bit muddled, but still entertaining. Things cleared up after about the first third and then I was completely engaged. I really like this little series. I really like Caroline Stevermer and I will be looking to read more from her. Highly recommended!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Archangel by Sharon Shinn

Amazing. I really, really liked this book. It was fantasy, philosophy, science fiction (just a touch) and romance all at once. And what an unusual premise!

The god hears the prayers of the angels best, the Samarians say. And the archangel is the ultimate conduit between the god and man. He leads the people in harmony and protects them from harm. Unless something's terribly wrong.

In this book we are introduced to Samaria and its theology, its social problems and its culture. We also come to know its soon-to-be archangel, Gabriel, and his wife, Rachel, about 6 months before they are to take over the main guardian roles of their world. Rachel is damaged and angry, Gabriel is burdened, a man of integrity, seemingly unbending.

This is the first in a series of 5, I believe. I'm eager to read them all. I LOVED the religious questions this asked. I really liked all the characters (got a little tired of Rachel's intractability). This was really a book all about religion, but it wasn't heavy handed. I found it fascinating. I loved recognizing all the veiled religious references from both Christian and non-Christian cultures. I loved the scholarly "oracles". I loved the doubt and faith expressed by so many of the people in this book. I loved the attempt to decipher between absolutes. I loved Gabriel (well, who wouldn't?). The book was engaging, clean, thoughtful, beautifully written... a great book. Highly recommended!

The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore

This is the sequel to I Am Number Four. Since there are a bunch of these Loriens on earth, I imagine there could be an equal number of sequels. I think the next one is coming out in August of this year. So.

Perhaps, if you have read any of my other reviews, you will have noticed that I don't like to summarize the plot. I personally don't like reading reviews that are 80% plot summary and 20% review. So here's my brief plot summary of The Power of Six. John, Sam and Six, who we met in the first book, are on the run and having adventures. We meet numbers seven and nine. And other cool people that I hesitate to mention for fear of giving stuff away. There are huge battles. We learn more about the Mogadorians. There is betrayal, death and capture. The ending is a total cliff-hanger.

It was another gripping book by "Pittacus Lore". Yes, there was a touch of teenage romance--but not nearly as much as in book 1. And there is a bit of swearing as well. Still, I enjoyed reading it and my 13- going-on-fourteen son LOVED it and can't wait for the next book. I look forward to it too!

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

Okay. I loved this book. It was written by the co-author of Sorcery and Cecelia, which I also loved. A Scholar of Magics was book two in this little series. The first book is A College of Magics and to those of you who read books in strict chronological order, I'm so sorry that I read #2 before I read #1. I can't wait to read that first book, though.

This book is about Glasscastle, a university of magic in Britain, and the intrigue that takes place there one summer in the early twentieth-century. We first meet Samuel Lambert, an American sharp-shooter who has been recruited by the faculty at Glasscastle to take part in research for one of their new inventions. Soon after we meet him, we meet our female protagonist, Jane Brailsford, a professor from an all-women's school of magic, come to spend some time with her brother, a faculty member at Glasscastle. Why has she come visiting at this time? We soon find out, as her visit is the beginning of some intrigue at Glasscastle that will ensnare Lambert as well.

This book started out a wee bit slowly but before very many pages I was totally engaged. I loved Lambert and Jane. I fell under the spell of Glasscastle. I was taken in by the mystery of the man with the bowler hat. I can't wait to read all the rest of Caroline Stevermer's books. Sigh.

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

This is very much a book written for teenage girls. It's about a 15-year-old girl who attends Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women. The town thinks that the school is for privileged young women. But the reality is that Gallagher teaches exceptional young women to be exceptional spies. Cammie, our 15-year-old protagonist, must figure out if she can have a "normal" relationship with a boy from the town and still be the spy that she is.

Along with the romance, though, there's plenty of interesting details about how an all-girl spy school runs. And there are plenty of extra complications for Cammie--her mom is the headmaster, her dad disappeared, she has a new teacher in co-ops (covert operations), there's a new girl at school that she doesn't like... all that kind of stuff.

It was a fun and fluffy book to read. It was recommended to me by another mom of girls as something that was harmless and entertaining. And it was. I almost want to read the next one. :) I think I've talked my daughter into checking this one out. I wonder if she'll like it or if she'll feel impatient with the little romance. We'll see!

Howl's Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones

This is one of my daughter's very favorite books. She loves the movie too.

It is the story of Sophie, who is the eldest daughter of a hatter. She knows she will eventually inherit the hat shop....until one day she is enchanted and she must leave her home to seek help to break the spell. It is then that she knows she must enter the castle of the Wizard Howl--the lecherous wizard she has always been warned away from. He eats the hearts of innocent young women, you know!

I found this story a little convoluted, but clever and fun all the same. My favorite character was the fire demon, Calcifer. And the book ended in my favorite way--all the loose ends tied up. It was very fun to read.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

This is Lauren Oliver's first children's book and she calls it the most personal book she's ever written. It came out of her feelings when her best friend died unexpectedly. It is a book about death and what comes after and what is left behind.

Liesl has been locked (by her step-mother) in an attic for almost as long as she can remember. When we meet her, her father has just died and she is feeling sad and very alone. Then, she meets Po, a ghost, and his companion Bundle. Po and Bundle used to be a human and a pet, but they've been ghosts so long that they do not know exactly what they are now. They live on the "Other Side", a grey and windy land.

Meanwhile, an orphan boy named Will watches every night. As Liesl sits in her window, drawing by the light of her lamp, Will stands on the sidewalk, watches her, and dreams of meeting her.

When Will (the alchemist's assistant, by the way) makes the biggest mistake of his short life, everyone's lives are changed.

This was a very sweet story. It goes from darkness everywhere, to healing and light--all conflicts resolved. It's a children's book so it's a quick read and it has some lovely black and white illustrations.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack by Rebecca Skloot

This is the story of the woman behind the famous HeLa cells that have been used in countless research projects and experiments since they were taken from her body in the 1950s. She died many years ago and not a whole lot is known about her, but Rebecca Skloot did a great job of making her come alive. The reader also meets many of the living members of Henrietta's large extended family and learns quite a lot about cellular research and the legal issues that surround scientific tissue use.

I found this book very interesting. At first I felt like the author had a definite agenda that she was pushing, but by the end of the book it seemed to me that Ms. Skloot had written a pretty balanced account of the big picture. And it is a very big picture.

There was A LOT written about the descendants of Henrietta Lacks. I wasn't expecting quite so much of their story--I was expecting to read a book largely about science. And there was a lot of science, but even more about Henrietta's family. It made me life seems hard to me sometimes, but reading about some of the struggles of the Lack family puts my trivial difficulties right into perspective. I have become so comfortable that I forget that others suffer. I thought Rebecca Skloot's portrayal of the Lack family was very good--real enough so you see the warts but also the hope and the faith and the striving for a more positive future. 

It was a fascinating book; I learned a lot. Highly recommended.

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

This is the first in a series. There's a movie of this book as well.

The story of an alien boy hiding on earth from the other aliens that have destroyed his planet and now seek to destroy him....was introduced in the front third of this book. And it's a good one. I was hooked from the beginning. John Smith, the current name of our alien 15-year-old, is hiding out with his guardian in the little town of Paradise, Ohio. He's number 4 on his hunters' hit list and numbers 1-3 are already dead. He's waiting for his supernatural powers to arrive.

The middle of this book was a little slow; the reader has to wade through a whole bunch of teenage drama and romance, etc etc. That part kind of turned me off. But then, finally, at the end of the book we have the tremendous battle that just gripped me until the book was finished. Wow. So now I am eager to read the next book in the series.

There IS a lot of teenage making out. That's my least favorite thing in these YA novels and it seemed a bit out of place in this book.  The story of John's relationship with his girlfriend really slowed down the action. I also felt it was just a little contrived. Here's our boy, hiding out to save his life and probably to save earth as well, and he's defying his guardian so that he can be with his girlfriend. Hm. There is also a moderate amount of swearing.

But! If you can make it through the hormone soaked middle, the end is exciting. This looks like it's going to be a very cool series of books. On to The Power of Six!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wisdom's Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This was a clever little book. Although the author makes it clear that Wisdom's Kiss is not to be considered a sequel to Princess Ben, Princess Ben is indeed an important character in this novel because one of the main characters is her granddaughter. Cool! This is a stand-alone book, though, because Princess Ben is a totally different person as a grandmother than she was as a young woman and no knowledge of her previous adventures is needed to understand what happens in this book.

One of the neatest things about this story is that it is told from several points of view--and none of them are exactly narrations. We read memoirs, journal entries, encyclopedia articles, personal letters.... each from a different character's point of view. So fun! This is the story of a conniving enemy, a romance (not the obvious one, either), a betrayal, an adventure, a circus, an emperor, magic, a cat, and a kiss.

This book was peopled with great characters. I found the "other woman" very likeable despite her self-centeredness. I loved hearing the grown-up voice of our Princess Ben. I enjoyed meeting a bunch of new folks. Overall, it was a fun, witty, adventurous and totally adorable book. Highly recommended.

Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Here is the third and final book in the Dairy Queen series. I liked this one too. It wasn't as solid as the second book (but how many crises can one family experience?), but it was interesting and, as I've said about every book, D.J.'s voice is so likeable!

In this book D.J. is making some big decisions about her future. She's playing basketball in school and touring colleges. She's dating someone new but still missing Brian (the old boyfriend). She's getting to know her little brother better and she's pushing her personal boundaries.

I really like D.J. She is what makes these books fun to read. I was sorry this was the end of her story because I found her so fun to listen to! This is a cool little series. Not what I regularly choose to read, but worth reading, I think. Still, though, I like Catherine Gilbert Murdock's fantasies much better.

The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This is book two in the Dairy Queen series. I liked this one better than the first.

Her best friend leaves home, her boyfriend seems to be embarrassed to be seen with if things aren't confusing enough already, D.J.'s life is turned upside down when her family experiences a major crisis and she's the one that is called to be on the spot.

This book had a lot more meat to it than the first one did. Much less soap opera and more serious family drama. I love D.J.'s voice. She's witty, wise and genuinely trying to do the right thing. A pretty good book.

Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This is another YA novel by the author that wrote Princess Ben (I SO liked that book!). This is a very different kind of book, though. For one thing it's not a fantasy--there's no magic and far, far less whimsy than there is in Princess Ben. But it has that quality that I like so much in books: the main character struggles and grows. I don't generally like the "teenage soap opera" kind of books that this could be seen as, but this one had some pretty solid life experiences in it and our main character, D.J. Schwenk, is completely likeable. I ended up liking this book more than I expected to--and enough to read the next 2 books in this series.

D.J. Schwenk is the only girl in a family of super-athletes. There isn't much talk in their family, but there is a LOT of hard work--they run a dairy farm--and there is commitment and drive. They are a family whose members are loyal to each other even though they don't communicate well and there are some conflicts. As the story opens, D.J. and her little brother are running the dairy farm on their own because of their dad's hip surgery. The plot thickens when a local football coach and family friend sends his star quarterback over to the Schwenk ranch to learn how to work and D.J.'s in charge of making sure that happens.

There was more going on in this book than a teenage romance and I guess that's why I liked it. D.J. learns how it good feels to talk to someone who really listens. She improves her relationship with her dad. She begins to understand her silent little brother a little better. She learns some stuff about herself. Would I recommend this to my daughters? Well, it's not really their thing--the whole teenage sports and romance thing. But I really liked D.J. I liked how hard she works at everything, I liked how she tries to be connected to her family  members. I liked her voice. I appreciated that, unlike many books written about teenagers, there was minimal (if any) bad language and not a lot of bad behavior. There were some brief references to underage drinking and there was also a homosexual relationship in the book--all talked about as though it were a regular part of any teen's life. If that's not your idea of reality, you might not like to read about it as part of D.J.'s reality. 

Overall, it was a smart book with a likeable cast of characters.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Replica by Lexi Revellian

This was a very engaging book.

Beth Chandler, smart, lovely and a little too nice, is accidentally replicated in an experiment at the government research facility where she works. Her replica, Beth 2, was supposed to be controlled by Beth (the original), but Beth 2 turns out to be completely autonomous--another Beth with all the memories, emotions--and everything about the life they share--in common with the original Beth. Of course the powers-that-be immediately determine that Beth 2 cannot be allowed to live. And thus starts our story.

I was engaged from the very beginning of the book. It was exciting and interesting all the way through. I found the narrator's point of view intriguing--Beth 2 speaks for herself, but Beth 1's story is told in the 3rd person. Very interesting. I loved the ending. In fact, this is one of my favorite books out of those that I've read in the last few months.

But. There is quite a lot of bad language sprinkled throughout the book. And there are some non-descriptive (unmarried) sex scenes as well. My general policy is not to have a book on my shelves that all my kids (and visiting nieces and nephews and other young guests) could not pick up and read. I also don't like all that bad language floating around in my own head (etc.). So this book will not be joining my collection (I checked it out from the Amazon Kindle library), despite how much I liked it.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen M. Beckett

This book promised a lot more than it delivered. The teaser on the back flap of the book says: ""What if there were a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë? Galen Beckett, ... began The Magicians and Mrs. Quent to answer that question ...."

Although the book is very much a "Pride and Prejudice"/"Jane Austen" type of story (with some Charles Dickens thrown in there too), it does not seem to address that particular question as promised. It also starts out very slow--I think it took me almost 100 pages (out of nearly 500) to really become engaged. It is very much a "Jonathan Strange and Mrs. Norrell"
kind of book--slow to start, lots of details--a book of manners and a limited amount of magic.

I did like the book. I think I liked what it promised to be rather more than what it ended up being, but when I finally did become engaged, I really felt captured by the story and by the characters. The Jane Eyre-esque romance is a little disappointing when the first part of the story is so Pride and Prejudice-y. But the Mr. Darcy character doesn't follow his model and so our Elizabeth character is left to play out the Jane Eyre scene with Mr. Quent. I like the additions of magick (although the spelling of that word in this book drives me batty) and I really like the alternative world that the characters live in--it's England but not England. All in all, I really enjoyed the book and can recommend it to fans of regency romances and magic who are willing to wade through the first part of the book in order to get to the interesting parts.

By the way, this is the first in a series of 3. I've started the second one but haven't liked it nearly as well as the first. I feel the long shadow of 21st century political correctness falling over the story. But! Perhaps it's like this book and will just take a little while for me to get into. I'll let you know.....

The Dark Secret of Weatherend by John Bellairs

John Bellairs has a bunch of "tween" novels--the ones I've read have been all of this mystery/adventure type. They are all fun books.

In this one 14-year-old Anthony Monday, and his 68-year-old best friend Miss Eells, 68--a librarian--team up to try to defeat the evil plans of the new inhabitant of the house called Weatherend.

Yes, it is kind of strange that a 14-year-old boy's best friend is an old lady. But it's also sweet and kind of cool and this IS fiction, after all.

I love the Bellairs books. They all have the perfect combination of creepiness, mystery, danger and adventure. Great for kids and for fans of the "tween"/YA genre as well.

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I really liked this book. It's YA--that great genre full of some of the best books ever. I am a little leery of YA books with the word "Princess" in the title--it so often seems a bit of an overdone concept. But this one was adorable.

Princess Ben--short for Benevolence--loses both parents (and her uncle the king) in what is suspected to be an assassination by a neighboring kingdom. She is now the heir to the throne and in the care of her aunt--a childless, less-than-nurturing woman. Ben is bitterly unhappy.

One of the reasons I like this book so much is that Ben transforms herself. There is magic in this book--and it's magic that begins Ben's transformation. But it's plain old regular tough times that make Ben into the responsible, balanced, wise, kind and happy girl that she eventually finds in herself.

In this book we find misjudgements, prejudice, sorrow, weight problems, power struggles, dragons, royalty, balls, prison, flying brooms, secret passages, political machinations, spies... yup, it's got it all! I really liked the book and highly recommend it.

Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Alan Milne

The first time I read this book I really liked it because it has two elements that I love to find in a book. One: all the ends are neatly tucked in--there are no loose ends, the plot is almost circular in design (think of "Holes" or "Edward Trencom's Nose"). Two: the main character experiences change and personal growth. I am a sucker for novels (or movies) with these two elements and this book has both.

However, upon a second reading, I didn't like it nearly as much--it seemed a little flat somehow. But I'm going to go with my initial impression--this book was a fun read with an uplifting conclusion.

The story is centered around Sophie Jones and the car accident that killed her parents when she was 10 years old. She's 29 now, with a rather dark outlook on life...until a series of events changes her perspective completely. I think it was that change in perspective that really "got" me in my first reading of the book.

There's a little romance in this book, and, although Sophie's growth is prompted by her relationship with her ex-fiancee, romance is by no means the big story here (and it's a good thing too, because there is very little chemistry between Sophie and her sweetheart). This is not a religious book, but it does have an uplifting message. There is no swearing and no sex. It's an engaging story with a satisfying ending. If it's a little pat and a little too sweet, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Lark and the Wren by Mercedes Lackey

This was the first in the "Bardic Voices" series. I have several more of this series that I will read....eventually.

This story reminded me quite a bit of the Anne McCaffrey "Dragonsinger" series, actually, except that the McCaffrey books were, well, better.

In this first book we meet Rune, an unhappy teenager who has a talent with the violin. She works and fiddles for room and board in a run-down inn while her selfish and promiscuous mother, also an employee there, schemes to wed the owner. When Rune is attacked by some local young men, she becomes desperate to leave and pursue her dreams of becoming a guild member--a paid and respected musician. She's broke, of course, and the way she finds the money to leave is the first of her adventures on the road.

The book was engaging and predictable--which are usually both just fine with me. It's nice when a book surprises you, though, and this one did not. I liked all the characters. One thing I didn't like: Rune--who is later called Lark--has a romance with the other titular character, Wren. This romance completely lacked chemistry. A very boring romance indeed. And one of the things I dislike most in a fictional romance is when the female cares not whether she marry her "true love" or merely live with him for evermore. Particularly in a novel with a historical setting. Ugh.

So. The book was fun to read, but it had no "teeth" (i.e. there was nothing exciting or unpredictable about it) and the romance was extremely lackluster. It certainly left me uneager to read the rest of "The Free Bards" (or "Bardic Voices") series. I will read them. Later.