Thursday, July 29, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones Week!!

Thanks to Misty's Book Mess, I found Jenny's Books' exciting challenge: a week of reading and reviewing Diana Wynne Jones books! My problem, I think, will be finding a book of hers that I haven't read yet. But I'm up for the challenge and hope to participate.

Here's the original post from Jenny's Books:

Diana Wynne Jones Week: 1 August – 7 August 2010

Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite authors in all the land. In her long career as a writer, she has written around forty books (novels and short stories), mainly for children and young adults, and each one is new and weird and wonderful in its own particular way.  She has been compared to J.K. Rowling, in that her books are set in fantasy worlds and are full of humor and charm; she has inspired many writers over the years, including two of my favorites, Neil Gaiman and Megan Whalen Turner. If you’ve been reading here for a while you’ll know that I love Diana Wynne Jones, and once I get started shrieking about how great she is, it’s difficult to make me stop. I want everyone to read her books, which have given me so much joy over the (something like) ten years that I’ve been reading her books.
To that end, I will be hosting a Diana Wynne Jones week from 1 – 7 August. To participate, just read one of her books and post a review during that week! I will be collecting links and writing my own reviews and remarks about her too (failing some sort of alarming computer failure, which (knock wood) I don’t anticipate). If you haven’t read anything by Diana Wynne Jones before, I will be only too happy to recommend a good book to start your Diana Wynne Jones fandom. There are many to choose from.
The button for this event uses a particularly beautiful illustration of Howl’s Moving Castle, one of my favorite Jones books, in three pleasing sizes. I’m using it here by kind permission of the artist, Finnish illustrator Sami Saramäki – feel free to add it to your sidebar!

 You can get the button for the challenge from Jenny's site, linked at the beginning of this post. Happy reading! And happy blogging!

Eyes Like Stars

Author: Lisa Mantchev
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan)
Copyright: 2009
Genre: YA Fantasy

The tagline of this book is "All her world's a stage." Beatrice Shakespeare Smith actually lives on a stage. In the Theatre Illuminata, the Players are not mere mortals who act the parts written by the Bard, they are manifestations of the characters in the plays and are called by the names given to them by the playwright. Scene changes occur on their own when the scripts call for them, and everything is controlled by The Book: The Complete Works of the Stage, which contains every play. Bertie lives in one of the sets, Bertie's Bedroom, and spends her time with various characters, mostly the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Nate the pirate. But she has a tendency to get into mischief, and finally it gets to be too much for the Theatre Manager, who plans to evict her from the Theatre. He gives Bertie one last chance to prove her worth, and Bertie sets out to make her mark in the Theatre.

The concept of the book was very appealing to me when I first picked it up, but the deeper I got into the book, the more dissatisfied I was. I pushed on, hoping things would get better, but here's what I had a problem with:

The idea of the Players being the actual characters from the play is the most intriguing hook of the story, and there are so many possibilities to explore in a situation like this, but it's not really developed. Then it was hard to figure out what the main part of the story was. I've read that the main character has to have a clear motivation early on in the story, and everything that happens has to be informed by his/her desire and attempts to get it. But Bertie's motivation is not very clear throughout the book, and in fact seems to change. At first, it seems very clear that her goal is to prove herself valuable by directing a new version of Hamlet, but when I expected to see her struggles in implementing this, I was disappointed since that's hardly discussed. The ending of the book, when Bertie finds out who her mother is, seems to point to her desire to find out who she is as her motivation - but that was a side point for most of the book.

Aside from those issues I had with the plot structure, though, the style of the book is quite good. (Not to sound presumptuous, but if I was an editor or agent, I wouldn't turn away this book even though I think there are major problems in the plot, because the author is without a doubt talented. I just think she could have cleaned up the plot a bit to strengthen the story.) As the jacket says, the characters are "irreverent," and it's really interesting how each of the Players takes on a little of his/her character from the plays. Not entirely, but a bit. There's a lot of humor because of this.

Bertie herself is great. I loved her character, and she is so real that she jumps off the page. The fairies are also very real, and unique - especially Peaseblossom. Really, all the characters are unique - and I think it's very hard to do that - to maintain so many characters' individual voices and styles for the full length of the book. And there's another book on the series, so the author committed to sustain these characters for at least another book! But everything each character says and does fits each one - they "stay in character" for the whole book.

So while I didn't love the book, I'm not writing off this author. She's got a great style and voice, and this is her first novel, so here's hoping the next book's plot is more consistent!

Monday, July 26, 2010

In My Mailbox

So I just found this great "meme" started by The Story Siren, which is that every Sunday, bloggers post the books that they got that week, whether they bought them, borrowed them from the library or got them for free. I mostly get my books from the library, so their condition is not always pristine, as you can see from the pictures. Since this is my first time doing In My Mailbox, I'm posting some books I've had on my shelf for a few weeks.

Insatiable by Meg Cabot. This was the book for the July book club. Unfortunately, since I rely on  my local library, I had to wait a while till I got the book, so I missed the book club discussion. But I'm looking forward to reading the book now!

We Think, Therefore We Are, edited by Peter Crowther. This is a book I've seen a million times in the library and have meant to read for a while. The idea of artificial intelligence is intriguing. Let's see if this time I actually get to reading it!

Anahita's Woven Riddle, by Meghan Nuttall Sayres. This looks interesting. It's set in Iran, and has the sort of anti-fairy-tale I loved in Never After, since Anahita devises a test to escape a suitor she doesn't want to marry. I love me a strong, willful heroine!

Ash, by Melinda Lo. This is apparently a retelling of the Cinderella story, with lots of new twists. Can't wait to read it!

Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. I actually have no idea what this book is about, I just heard it was good and took it out when I saw it. I have it for over a week now, and it keeps getting pushed to the bottom of the pile. Reading the jacket copy now, though, it sounds really good. Maybe this will be my next read!

Buckingham Palace Gardens, by Anne Perry. This is another book which I don't know what it's about. But of course I recognized the name Anne Perry, and this was just near the checkout station, so I just grabbed it.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi. I started reading this book a few days ago, although I got distracted and ended up reading a different book. From the first few pages, I'm intrigued enough to want to finish the rest of it.

The Chess Machine, by Robert Lohr. A friend recommended this one, so although I started it weeks ago and couldn't get past the first few pages, I'm holding onto it to give it a second chance. The writing was a bit too "tell-y" rather than "show-y," as in the opposite of the rule "show, don't tell." I think it may have something to do with the fact that the book is translated from German. I already have seen that books translated from Hebrew have a different overall style than books written in English, so maybe the same holds true for German books. It could be a cultural thing.

Eyes Like Stars, by Lisa Mantchev. I started this book this afternoon, and so far I'm really liking it! The setting is a theater where the Players are the actual characters from the scripts and where saying a simple "cue change" causes lights and curtains and sets and props to just move about... Not to mention a feisty heroine! Wait for the review of this one...

So that's what's on my shelf right now. Don't expect to see all these blogged about any time soon - if I've been putting off reading them, they're likely to be relegated to the bottom of the pile for a while! Maybe this will motivate me to be more on top of it... Yeah, right.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Never After

Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton, Yasmine Galenorn, Marjorie M. Liu, Sharon Shinn
Publisher: Berkley Publishing Group (Penguin)
Copyright: 2009
Genre: Short Stories, Fantasy

 Four stories about princesses and love - with a twist. I've been thinking of these stories as the "anti-fairy-tales." They're all stories of how a princess takes her destiny in her own hand and escapes from her betrothed, and how she eventually finds love or happiness in unexpected ways.

Here are the blurbs from the back cover:

Laurell K. Hamilton spins a story of a princess who decides to take her own destiny in hand and rescue a pampered Prince Charming from an evil sorceress in "Can He Bake A Cherry Pie?"

A selkie on the run from a century-old broken marriage arrangement has finally found true love - only to have the darkness from her past return to threaten both her and her dearly beloved in Yasmine Galenorn's "The Shadow of the Mist."

Marjorie M. Liu tells the tale of a young princess who escapes betrothal to a warlord by entering a magical forest. But when an evil queen sends her on a quest to "The Tangleroot Palace," she faces dangers more perilous than marriage.

When a princess refuses her boring betrothed, the king holds a competition to see who will win his daughter's hand. But in matters of the heart, is a winner truly worthy - or can a loser offer even more in Sharon Shinn's "The Wrong Bridegroom"?

I loved all four of these stories! They're sassy and witty and full of girl power. I think it's rare to find four stories with such similar styles, even though each style is unique in its own way (is that redundant? if it's unique, it's in its own way!). I liked "The Tangleroot Palace" the most, mostly because I was able to figure out what was going on early enough that I could wait eagerly for the events to play out the way I predicted. But all the stories are great, the writing is crisp and clear, and there's loads of laughs at every turn!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The School for Dangerous Girls

Author: Eliot Schrefer
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Copyright: 2009
Genre: YA

Angela's parents don't know what to do with her - and they want nothing to do with her. So they send her to Hidden Oak, the School for Dangerous Girls. But what goes on behind these very secluded walls is beyond anything they could have imagined. Along with her fellow inmates, Angela goes on a mission to find Hidden Oak's deepest secrets - and then to expose them and bring down the school.

Wow. Really wow. This book is totally crazy but compelling. The things that happen don't make sense, some parts don't fit together, but none of that really matters - it's just one crazy ride! Things get weirder and weirder, and it all feels like some alternate reality world - which is, I think, what the girls in this situation must feel like. In one of those interesting twists of life, I had just watched a few episodes of Solitary before I read this book. It certainly set the mood for this story, with crazy things happening, some of them making no sense at all!

Angela herself is a great character. For all that she's in a "school for dangerous girls," she's not all that dangerous - neither are the other girls for the most part, which lends more irony to the whole weird situation. But she is headstrong and proactive, and I loved her. The other characters round out the story with all their unique personalities, too. The dynamics between the girls and the various groups is real, and even the dynamics between the students and teachers makes sense in an exaggerated kind of way. I like such realness in relationships even when the whole story couldn't possibly be real.

I loved the book. I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting, without even changing position once - that's how caught up I was in the story!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Straw Into Gold

Author: Gary D. Schmidt
Publisher: Sandpiper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company)
Copyright: 2001
Genre: YA Fantasy

Straw Into Gold tells the story of what happens after the queen cannot guess the name of the little man who spun her straw into gold. I won't summarize the story here, because the story has so many surprises that if I write anything, I'll definitely give something away, and I don't want to ruin the story for anyone!

The story is intriguing and engaging, and the characters are likable. The stock characters of the fairy tale are slightly more developed so that you could connect with them and what's happening to them, but they retain a certain flatness that keeps the whole fairy-tale feeling. The mystery part of the story is extremely well done. As I said, there are lots of surprises, both as to what's happening and who's who. I felt involved in the story as I rooted for Tousle, the main character, and as I kept revising my guess as to what exactly is going on.

This short little book is full of adventure and suspense. A really great read!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Once Was Lost

Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)
Copyright: 2009
Genre: YA

As the pastor's daughter, Sam is expected to live up to certain expectations. But when her outward appearance is just a facade, hiding her family's secret, she finds it hard to keep up pretenses. When tragedy strikes the community, Sam's doubts and questions are brought to the forefront. In dealing with her family problems and the community's problem, Sam tries to find answers and meaning.

This is a really great book. The voice is fresh and honest, and I felt Sam's hurt and confusion on every page of the book. The plot is simple, without many twists and turns, leaving enough space and time to fully deal with the emotional and religious angles of the story - the main part of the book.

The one part I didn't like was how Sam's questions are resolved. Nothing happens to clear things up for her, she just suddenly begins to believe again after thinking a lot. In her words, "And then, something happens." After lying in bed and being surprised when her thoughts turn to prayer, she suddenly has clarity and believes that "By definition, a miracle doesn't make sense." I was a little disappointed by that. It's almost anticlimactic.

The story doesn't end there, however, and the ending is quite good. It's a little open-ended, which I like, since her family issues couldn't possibly be resolved within the space of one short book. But the tragedy in the community is over, her tragedy of faith is over, and she begins to get her life back on track.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Charmed and Enchanted

Author: Nora Roberts
Publisher: Harlequin Books
Copyright: 2004 (two-in-one edition)
Genre: Romance

The Donovans have a legacy that appears to be as much curse as blessing. Their magic is a gift, but with it come responsibilities and obligations, and obstacles unique to each witch.

Anastasia Donovan learned the hard way that her secret was best left that way - and she thought she learned that it's not possible for her to ever find real love. But when Boone Sawyer moves next door, along with his charming little girl, Ana can't control the way events unfold. Learning to trust Boone is hard, but when fate intervenes and she is outed as a witch in front of Boone, Ana learns the most important lesson - that "there is no greater magic than love."

Liam Donovan wants to be left alone. He doesn't want to deal with the responsibilities inherent to his family's position. But when Rowan Murray invades his space as she desperately tries to escape her suffocating, boring life, everything changes. As both find out things about themselves, each other, and fate, they are set on a sure path to love.

Again, I read the last two books of a quartet before reading the first two, but that doesn't matter. The characters from the first two books feature in the last two, but they are introduced well enough that there is no confusion.

I want to talk about things that are part of all of Nora Roberts's books, but I noticed them a lot in these two books, especially in Charmed.

The first thing that struck me as I started Charmed was that the tone of the book reflects the characters' personalities. In all her books, Nora lets the reader into both the guy's and the girl's minds. But what I noticed is that the entire book, whether we're actually seeing a character's thoughts at the time or not, stays in the tone that fits the characters. This is really amazing, considering that there are two characters involved, and they are not exactly the same in personality and temperament, so conveying both within the same text is genius.

I also noticed the imagery in these books. There is a lot of description, and aside from helping set the scene and establish character, the passages of description are beautiful in and of themselves. There's sometimes a lyrical quality to these passages, and I felt like I was in a fairy tale myself at some points.

The arc of the relationship is something that Nora Roberts tackles extremely well (in my humble opinion). In some romance novels, the whole story is about getting to the point where the two main characters sleep with each other, and shortly after that happens, the story ends. But in Nora's books, that's when the real intricacies of the relationship begin. I love it that her stories represent real relationships and follow real problems and issues that come up once the two people are serious about caring for each other/being in love. (Yes, even in a story where one of the lovers is a witch, reality shines through!)

It's a Nora Roberts book - do I really need to sum up what I thought of it?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Twenty Boy Summer

Author: Sarah Ockler
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group)
Copyright: 2009
Genre: YA

Anna is accompanying her friend Frankie and Frankie's parents on their annual summer trip to California. But this trip isn't all about fun and games, since Frankie's brother Matt died shortly before their scheduled trip the year before, and his family is still working through their grief. But what they don't know is that about a month before Matt died, he kissed his long-time friend Anna and they began a secret relationship. Though they had planned to tell Frankie, Matt died before he had a chance to, and now Anna carries the secret for herself. Frankie, having reacted to her grief by dressing and acting like a girl whose sole mission is to get boys' attention, proposes a mission - to get twenty boys to interact with them over the course of their month in California. Frankie lightheartedly agrees, but she knows that her memory of Matt will always get in the way. The vacation starts out fun, as planned, with plenty of nighttime sneaking out and lots of great beach and boy time. But Anna is conflicted because of her developing feelings for another boy, and Frankie's still-not-dealt-with grief pops up in frightening ways until she and Anna have a full-out fight.


Wow - writing that summary was really, really hard. The reason, I think, is that usually there is one plot line to follow and in the summary, I just pick points along that line to mention. In this book, there is no clear plot line, as there are many issues being dealt with. There's Anna's struggle over losing a boyfriend who no one knew was anything more than her friend, and helping his sister through her grief without being able to react as a family member would to his death. There's Frankie's acting out in reaction to her brother's death, and her parents' inability to deal with their own or their daughter's grief. There's Frankie's parents' complete lack of discipline that allows the girls to sneak out every night. There's Anna's conflict over getting a new boyfriend and feeling like she is betraying Matt by kissing another boy. And there's the issue of sex and virginity in regard to both Anna and Frankie.

All these points could make a great, complex story. In fact, while I was reading the book, I was drawn into the story and felt connected to the characters. But at the end, I felt like things were left hanging. Most of the issues are left unresolved - the question of whether Anna was getting in the way of Frankie's dealing with her grief is not answered, Frankie's parents are just as oblivious and nothing is done about it... The only storyline that is resolved is Anna's conflicted feelings about Matt and her new boyfriend.

So although the writing is great and moved me at times, on the whole the book fell kind of flat for me. It's a good book, but I think it would have been better if the author had focused on fewer issues and given those fewer points more attention and resolution.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vampire Kisses

Author: Ellen Schreiber
Publisher: HarperTrophy (HarperCollins)
Copyright: 2003
Genre: YA Fantasy

Raven has never fit in to her corporate, preppy community, with her black outfits and black makeup and her desire for vampires to be real. When a mysterious family moves into the long-abandoned creepy mansion, and Trevor, Raven's arch-enemy, spreads rumors about their activities making them out to be vampires, Raven is entranced by the idea that she may be living in the same town as real, live (well, undead, anyway) vampires. Her encounters with Alexander draw her in more and more as she tries to find evidence that he is a vampire. Meanwhile, Raven's run-ins with Trevor escalate and culminate in a confrontation between Trevor, Raven, and Alexander.

There are two really great aspects to this book: the writing style is fabulous, and the ideas in the story are thought-provoking and exciting.

Written in first-person point of view, the book almost sounds as if Raven is just standing there telling the story of what happened to her. At the same time, though, the writing is obviously crafted to flow so naturally and be so real. The snappy dialogue pulls you along and keeps the pace moving with wit and humor. Raven's nicknames for everything and everyone are really funny - we never even find out the real name of her town - she only calls it Dullsville!

But even though the book is written in a fun, rollicking way, the issue it deals with is serious, and I think is brought out all the more clearly because of the fun tone. The idea of accepting others even when they are different from you is addressed subtly on many levels, so it pervades the book without becoming obvious at any point. I liked that although there are stereotypes in the book, namely Trevor and his friends, Raven herself was also a victim of society's tendency not to accept people who are not exactly the same as everyone else, even with her major differences!

And then, of course, there's the vampire side to all this - is Alexander really a vampire? Will Raven get bitten and turn into a vampire? Every time Raven thinks she has the answer, something happens and she changes her mind again. She is kept guessing until the very end of the book - and even then - well, I won't ruin it here!

This is a fantastic book, for vampire-lovers, for those who like reading about social issues - really for everybody! It's a short book, but I read it really quickly, pulled along by the fast pace, and then went back and reread sections once I was done. I love Vampire Kisses!