Monday, October 31, 2011

Sir Gawain the True

I read Gerald Morris's The Squire's Tale a couple of years ago. While I didn't dislike the experience, I wasn't wowed by it either. I have recommended the series to others I thought might enjoy it but I haven't been inclined to continue it myself. When I heard Morris was writing another Arthurian series for younger readers I was interested to see how he would do writing for a younger audience. Sir Gawain the True is the most recent book in The Knights' Tales. I enjoyed quite a lot, far more than I did the book in the older series.

"Now everyone who knows anything at all about knights knows that they used to dress in metal suits and bash each other off their horses with pint sticks called lances. This only makes sense, of course. Anyone who happened to have a metal suit, a horse, and a pointy stick would do the same."

A brilliant way to begin and what I appreciate the most about the storytelling here. The words flow naturally from one to the next and Morris has a way of cleverly explaining elements that might be more unfamiliar to young readers in a way that fits into the narrative without interrupting it and manages to be witty at the same time. There is a clever commentary going on through the whole story that gives the book the feel of listening to a campfire story. 
"King Arthur's cooks were like kitchen magicians. It is said that Brussels sprouts prepared by King Arthur's chefs tasted better than custard pies prepared by anyone else. Their recipe for Brussels sprouts has, alas, been lost."

The story itself begins with Sir Gawain defeating a damsel, but behaving rudely to the damsel he rescued. The narrative then moves into the tale of the Green Knight and The Knightly tale of Gologras and Gawain. Morris weaves them together well and then cleverly links them to the opening scene with the dragon. Through all the quests, battles, and journeys Gawain's character undergoes a transformation. He begins as attention loving and self consumed, but the weight of his impending death at the hands of the Green Knight and the friendship of the people he meets along the way change him for the better. 

Sir Gawain the True is a delightful and fun read, one I will be definitely be recommending to friends looking for easy short chapter books for their boys.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Favorite Newbery Winners

I wasn't planning on doing a My Favorite Things post this week, but when given inspiration for a perfect topic I will take it. Plus I'm sick this week. Really sick. Going to bed at 8 every night sick. Not much reading has been happening and I'm running out of stockpiled reviews to post. So this was excellent timing. (I now have antibiotics and will hopefully be pulling out of this funk soon.)

In that article I linked to up there Jonathan at Heavy Medal makes some very interesting points. I like the points he is making and agree with them. I like the little exercise he provided for everyone more and that is what I'm running with, and for the purposes of this post will play by his rules (mostly). Meaning I will stick to the last 50 years of Newbery Winners. For the purposes of full disclosure I have only read 30 of the 50 titles.

Here are my Top 4 Picks (because I couldn't decide on which book to give the #5 slot) :

 Rounding out the Top 10 I would choose: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The High King, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, The View From Saturday, The Tale of Despereaux, The Graveyard Book

Here is where I blaze my own trail. Let's see how adding in the Honor books, still only looking at the last 50 years, shakes things up. Here are the top contenders (this time there are 5):

Adding the Honors changes the remaining Top 10 to:  From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The High King, Walk Two Moons, The View From Saturday, The Wednesday Wars, The Graveyard Book

That was a lot harder than I originally thought it would be. What are your top choices? Complete list of winners can be found here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Very Unfairytale Life

 In the acknowledgements for her book My Very UnFairytale Life Anna Staniszewski describes it as her "wacky little book". It is indeed a whacky little book but in a way that is fun and not too ridiculous especially if you are of the age of the intended audience. Elementary school me would have loved this book with a fervent and fierce devotion.

You know all those stories that have fairy godmothers coming into change the lives of ordinary girls? Well this is that in reverse. Jenny is an ordinary girl sent to help change the lives of magical creatures. Instead of being armed with a magic wand, Jenny relies on a repertoire of cheesy cliches to make a difference. Sure sometimes baby dragons try to burn her head off and unicorns charge after her, but that's all part of the fun. Except Jenny is not having much fun. She is in middle school and she wants a life and normal friends. Instead she gets a candy addict gnome guide and an old adventurer who keeps an eye on her. When faced with a saving a kingdom being terrorized by an evil magical clown who tortures prisoners by making them appear in his circus, Jenny decides she can't take it anymore. But normal is not what Jenny expected and she has to consider that maybe adventuring is what she was born to do.

Jenny is an engaging and witty narrator. She is imaginative and adventurous, the sort of girl who dresses up as Indiana Jones for Halloween and releases a jar of spiders into her Kindergarten class so she can "rescue" her classmates. While she does complain quite a bit about her lot in life you can't help but agree that she is being sorely used and mistreated by the mysterious committee who gives her assignments. And Anthony her guide does seem pretty heartless at times. Jenny's voice is pitched perfectly for the book's intended audience and her magical problems reflect the real world problems that 9-12 year olds face every day. There are couple of plot points that aren't really explained or wrapped up well (the disappearance of Jenny's parents, the mysterious committee) and this left me feeling like something was missing. 

If you have a young girl in your life who has a spirit of adventure, enjoys fantasy, plucky heroines, and a bit of silly this is the perfect book to put in their hands.

Note: I read a proof of this novel obtained from Netgalley. The book will be released on November 1.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesdays at the Castle

Anyone who is a fan of magical kingdoms and heroic princesses pay attention. Jessica Day George's new novel Tuesdays at the Castle is a must read. It is a story of peril, adventure, magic, and heroism that will greatly appeal to any young (or possibly not so young, as in  me) lover of fantasy.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Tuesdays at Castle Glower are Princess Celie's favorite days. That's because on Tuesdays the castle adds a new room, a turret, or sometimes even an entire wing. No one ever knows what the castle will do next, and no one-other than Celie, that is-takes the time to map out the new additions. But when King and Queen Glower are ambushed and their fate is unknown, it's up to Celie, with her secret knowledge of the castle's never-ending twists and turns, to protect their home and save their kingdom.

Celie is a great little heroine. The youngest of four children she is beloved by everyone in the kingdom, particularly the Castle. This has not made her spoiled though, she loves everyone in return, particularly the Castle. In the beginning Celie relies on her older brother, Rolf, and older sister, Lilah to come up with a solution to finding their parents and ousting the traitors trying to take over their kingdom. She relies on the Castle too. However, it soon becomes clear that the Castle for whatever reason can only do so much and Celie, who has taken the time to study the Castle, is the one with the required knowledge to help her siblings and saver her kingdom. The way she goes about this is inventive humorous. What the royal siblings do to try and scare off the interlopers are childish, one involves manure, but as their leader is a child it strikes exactly the right tone. 

The Castle is almost as delightful a character as Celie. And it is a character, not just a building. You have to give a Castle that chooses the next King, allows in flocks of sheep to chew the tapestries, lets undeserving captives out of prison cells, and gives nasty dank rooms to unwanted "guests" the status of character. The magic of Castle Glower isn't explained and doesn't need to be, it simply is. 

On top of being a book about magical kingdoms and princesses, this is also a sibling story. I always enjoy a good sibling story and this is certainly a good one. Celie, Rolph, and Lilah are all very different but they work together and care for each other. The other residents of the Castle all add to the delightful cast of characters that make the story as magical as it is. Some are quirky, but none so much that the story becomes eccentric. Everyone works together to bring about the resolution but it is Celie and Castle Glower who shine as the heroes.

According to Jessica Day George's website this is going to be the first in a new series (Bit is going to be so excited, she is already eagerly anticipating reading this one) and is available for purchase as of today!

The version I read for review was an ARC received via Netgalley.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Mostly True Story of Jack

If you are looking for a creepy sort of story that is not too dark or scary then The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill may be just what you want.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

When Jack is sent to Hazelwood, Iowa, to live with his crazy aunt and uncle, he expects a summer of boredom. Little does he know that the people of Hazelwood have been waiting for him for a long time. . . .
When he arrives, three astonishing things happen: First, he makes friends-not imaginary friends but actual friends. Second, he is beaten up by the town bully; the bullies at home always ignored him. Third, the richest man in town begins to plot Jack's imminent, and hopefully painful, demise. It's up to Jack to figure out why suddenly everyone cares so much about him. Back home he was practically, well, invisible.

The book is, for the most part, a mystery. Puzzle pieces are handed out one at a time and the reader has to put them together to see the big picture. How quickly this happens and how much enjoyment is to be gotten form it will depend on how much  experience the reader has with these types of stories. In the end the puzzle is complete but not perfect. Some of the pieces are a little warped and, while they fit, leave you wondering what they are doing in the final picture at all. (Such as the Portsmouth, it fit with the story and helped move the plot but what it was, how and why it was there, etc. were never really clear. Same with the character of Anders.)

The cast of characters is varied. Some of them are quirky, but most of them are not. I like how the author tried to show different sides to Clayton Avery, the bully. I found Frankie to be the most interesting character by far.  I would love to have had the whole story from his point of view. I may have gone from simply liking the story to loving it were that the case because I did feel like the other characterizations were a bit weak. Wendy was rather two dimensional and Anders seemed like he was there to move the plot more than anything. Jack was not as developed as I thought a main character should be. This may have been done on purpose as a way of emphasizing his otherness. For me the result was that I didn't care much what happened to him. Plus I knew where this was going long before it got there.

The mythos of the book is an interesting one. It includes Green Man legend and the idea of nature guardians and magical eruption points. None of that is original, but plopping it in the middle of an Iowa farm town is. The main magical being is a nature guardian who controls the movement of magic in the area of the town of Hazelwood. Due to evil greedy intentions the guardian has split into her dark side and her good side and is at war with herself. Balance can only be restored when she is whole again. Oh and her darker side likes to suck up the souls of children (herein lies the creepy factor). Overall interesting like I said but, to me, it wasn't captivating.

This was an enjoyable read but certainly not one of my favorites this year. This may just be me though as it has received several rave critical reviews.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Big Crunch

I have been wanting to read The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman ever since I read Kate's review of it at Book Aunt earlier this year. It is not often you find a book about ordinary every day teens in a typical relationship in YA books. No one here discovers their romantic interest is a vampire/werewolf/fallen angel/creature of Faerie. No one here turns out to have magical or supernatural powers or a hidden mythical heritage. There are no tragedies/disasters/psychological traumas in the characters past. It really is a book about two average kids who have a very typical relationship. If that wasn't attractive enough there is also the amazing cover which I just like to stare at.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

June and Wes do not "meet cute." They do not fall in love at first sight. They do not swoon with scorching desire. They do not believe that they are instant soul mates destined to be together forever.
This is not that kind of love story.
Instead, they just hang around in each other's orbits...until eventually they collide. And even after that happens, they're still not sure where it will go. Especially when June starts to pity-date one of Wes's friends, and Wes makes some choices that he immediately regrets.
From National Book Award winner Pete Hautman, this is a love story for people not particularly biased toward romance. But it is romantic, in the same way that truth can be romantic and uncertainty can be the biggest certainty of all.

That is not exactly true. There is a fair amount of swooning scorching desire, teenage hormones and all that, but not at the first meeting. They do have chemistry and a strong attraction but it is far more realistically portrayed. It is easy to put oneself in the place of Wes and June because most people reading this have experienced, are experiencing, or want to experience the same sort of relationship.

Wes and June are both great characters on their own as well. June has moved around a lot and developed a snarky yet accurate assessment of all high schools and teenagers everywhere. She is a little prickly because she is never in anyone place for very long and views all relationships as temporary. She dates a boy because she feels sorry for him. She creates drama between herself and Wes by yelling at him for things that are not is fault and beyond his control. Wes is just a regular guy who plays video games and poker with his friends. He does crazy things without thinking them through all the way and then wonders how it happened when he finds himself in more trouble than he imagined possible. Both characters find themselves receiving some swift and stern parental intervention at one point. Everything about this book is highly relateable to anyone who is or ever has been a teenager.

Note on Content: This is a book where the main characters are juniors in high school. There is a scene where they attend a party with underage drinking (though they do not partake). There are also some discussions o of sex and sexual desire.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Flint Heart

The Flint Heart is a "freely abridged" version of a story written by Eden Phillpotts. Katherine Paterson  and her husband, John Paterson, did the abridging. Katherine Paterson is a beloved by me (and many others) author so I was naturally intrigued. Add to that I had heard buzz long before the book came out that John Rocco's illustrations for it were beautiful. Rocco's illustrations are indeed beautiful and the best thing about the book. The best thing by far because they were they only thing about the book I actually enjoyed. (They are very beautiful color illustrations and I'm sad they were wasted on this story.)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
An ambitious Stone Age man demands a talisman that will harden his heart, allowing him to take control of his tribe. Against his better judgment, the tribe’s magic man creates the Flint Heart, but the cruelty of it causes the destruction of the tribe. Thousands of years later, the talisman reemerges to corrupt a kindly farmer, an innocent fairy creature, and a familial badger. Can Charles and his sister Unity, who have consulted with fairies such as the mysterious Zagabog, wisest creature in the universe, find a way to rescue humans, fairies, and animals alike from the dark influence of the Flint Heart? This humorous, hearty, utterly delightful fairy tale is the sort for an entire family to savor together or an adventurous youngster to devour.

Looking at that last sentence I have to say that the youngster in question would have to be very young indeed. Except the language of the story is rather prohibitive for the very young. I can see this best being enjoyed by adults who like Victorian fantasy. (But even then....)  I love Katherine Paterson to pieces but I really have to question why she wanted to abridge this story in the first place. I am not at all familiar with the source material so I went into this with nothing more than the information in the synopsis. This is one of those absurdly quirky fairy stories which is not my cup of tea. I don't like my fairies to frolic and flitter about. I may have been able to get past that as I really enjoyed the first two chapters and the idea of the flint heart. I may have even been able to get past how the story journeyed far far away meandered away from the point at times. Might have. If it had not been for the introduction on page 124 of the walking talking hot water bottle as a character. Yes, you read that correctly. A walking talking hot water bottle. Seriously. This hot water bottle is actually a rather important character too. That was it for me. I skimmed the rest of the book but there was no recovering any enjoyment at all from it for me after that.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson is a fantasy full of magic, myth, and intrigue. This is one of my favorite types of book but also the type of book that I have the highest standards for. I am happy to say that this one met them. I liked this book lots. Despite the fact that there are some flaws that I can see bugging some people, for me it worked and worked well. So well that I have lots to say about it. If you are interested in my thoughst read on or you could just stop now and go read the book.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.
But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.
Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.
And he’s not the only one who needs her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.
Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.
Most of the chosen do.

 Elisa is not a typical heroine. She is fat. She is clumsy. She is shy. She is reclusive. She is also highly intelligent and analytical even if she hasn't quite realized it yet at the book's opening. She is practical and quick thinking in a crisis too. When the party carrying her and her new husband to his home are attacked in the jungle she figures out how to rescue her ladies in waiting and herself from a burning carriage and then rescues her husband by jumping into a knife fight. Yet she underestimates and criticizes herself constantly until she is forced to tap into her core of inner strength and use it to survive. Elisa is a born leader and has qualities that many can see and appreciate but until she is forced to see them they do her no good. Elisa does lose a lot of weight over the course of the novel as well  but that is not the reason for her new found confidence. The catalyst for the weight loss and the strengthening of her character are the same. It causes both of them, one is not caused by the other. I really like how the author handled that and how the sudden decrease in size didn't make her any less clumsy. Or quick footed. Elisa's attitude toward the whole situation made me smile too. When someone (a completely awesome someone) tells her she is a beautiful queen she responds with, "A month or two of pastries will fix that." I also thought that Elisa's faith in her god and doubts about him and her chosen status was played well. It did not weigh down the story but filled out her character making her more realistic. The way the author played with the whole concept of the prophetic chosen one was interesting too. It is not a one time occurrence. There have been generations of chosen ones, some of them dying ignominious deaths without ever doing anything of seeming importance. Elisa is convinced she will fall into this category, but she rises to the occasion when presented with the opportunity to do more. I love Elisa's feminine strength. (I came across this at the Greenwillow blog written by the author that shows where Elisa's brand of girl power might have come from.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The National Book Award Nominees

For Young People's Literature. Because who cares about the grown up books? Well, some people. I just don't happen to be one of them. Here is a where you can find the complete list (grown up books and all). For purposes of the National Book Award "Young People's Literature" has a broad range, as you can see from the list of nominees.

And the nominees are:
Chime by Franny Billingsley (my review)
Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai (my review)
My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (my review)
Shine by Lauren Myracle

Let's break this down:
AGE: 3 2 YA, 3 MG
GENRE: 1 Fantasy; 1 Non Fiction, 1 Contemporary, 3 Historical Fiction

ETA: At the request of the NBF Lauren Myracle has withdrawn Shine. You can read more about that here.
The mock Newbery blog Heavy Medal has discussed 4 of these books as possible Newbery contenders.

I'm interested to see how this will play out. I have read 3 of the books and have Flesh and Blood So Cheap in my TBR pile right now. I'm working up the enthusiasm to read it. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is not something I really want to read more about but I shall. My Name is Not Easy isn't released until October 18 which might explain why I hadn't even heard of it prior to the nominees being released today. Now that it is on my radar I'm intrigued. I haven't read Shine because my library doesn't have copies of it yet. (I'm not holding my breath that will happen anytime soon. They are not so up to date on ordering things for the YA collection.)

Basically my main thought is: Wow, I am so glad not to be part of the panel that has to decide this. Two of my favorite reads of the year are on this list. I have great hopes that one (Chime) will win the Printz and that the other (Okay for Now) will win the Newbery. To have to choose between them?

I don't think I can.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Monster Calls

I can not remember the last time a book made me cry. Books often sadden me and leave me feeling verklempt, but I can't remember the last time a book caused streaming down my cheeks, concerning and then amusing my husband, tears. Patrick Ness did that with this book.

A Monster Calls is about a boy named Conor. Conor's mother is undergoing treatment for cancer. Instead of getting better though, she is getting worse. At school Conor has become nearly invisible. At home he is helpful but dreads the interference of his grandmother and the allusions to a time when Conor might be seeing her on a more regular basis. And Conor is having a recurring nightmare that is causing him to lose sleep. Then one night at 12:07 Conor gets a visit from a Monster. He is not the monster Conor fears, though he is certainly monstrous. The Monster has come to tell him stories. Three stories in fact. And then Conor must tell him a story containing the terrible truth that he fears more than anything.

This book is beautiful. Gut wrenchingly, soul shatteringly beautiful. The truth is nothing that can be said about this book will come close to the experience of it. Conor is the sort of character who does some unlikeable things while remaining incredibly likeable. The starkness of his pain and the expression of his emotions make him highly sympathetic. His story is stark in its dark reality but never melodramatically overdone. As for the Monster and his stories I think Charlotte worded my feelings perfectly in her review, "I don't know exactly what the monster's stories mean -- every time I've read them they speak differently to me. And I don't really know what the monster means either..." Here is what the  Monster has to say about himself  (this also demonstrates the beauty of the language of the novel), Who am I? the monster repeated still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse, and the fly that are eaten! I am the snak e of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O'Malley. The book is like that, intense and gripping, all the way through.

I'm not really sure how to categorize this book. It is not a "children's book", despite its child protagonist. It is a book about humanity that could be read and appreciated by any human, child or adult. If they are willing and can handle it. I would be careful who I recommended it to, no matter their age. All of us have witnessed the ravages of cancer in some way. It is too prevalent for anyone to miss. Everyone has not had the up close and personal horror of this story. For those who have reading it may be cathartic. I can see it having the opposite effect too though. Words are powerful and I am always very aware of that when recommending books like this, where they are wielded so well and  are so piercing.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fall Reading

Fall is my favorite time of year. The crisp air, the smell of the leaves, breaking out the comforter, bringing the sweaters out of hibernation, apples, pumpkins, the spices they both cook in, all of it make me gleeful and happy to be alive. It is also the only time of year that inspires me to read specific books. Why I don't know, especially as only one of the books can be considered a "Fall" book.

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope is the one that makes sense as it takes place during the Fall, with its climatic scene occurring on All Hallow's Eve. The scent of fallen leaves and woodsmoke in the air sets a perfect atmosphere for reading this one. I read this book around Halloween every year and this year I'm making my 4th-6th grade literature students read it too, so I'm going to be reading it more than once. I'm so excited.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is a favorite of mine that I read for the first time during the fall, and I think that is why the onset of the season always makes me yearn to return to the land of Ingary and the house of Howl Pendragon. Plus it has a bouncing scarecrow frightening the wits out of the heroine so it sort of fits the season. Right?

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers is another one that I read for the first time in the fall which is really the only explanation for why I would want to read it every year at this time. The best parts of this book take place during the summer and yet I never feel an urge to read it then. Funny how that works.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner is one I have no explanation for, but every year when the weather turns cold I want to read it. Of course as it is one of my all time favorite books ever I don't really need much provocation to pick it up. I just think it is funny that the first cold snap of the year always has me yearning for this book, not the whole series, just this one. I usually end up reading The King of Attolia too though. Just because you kind of have to read them together.

This year I'm also being visited by a powerful urge to reread The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman, which I will most likely give in to. I haven't read this one since the first time I read it back in February of this year. If I recall correctly it takes place in the winter,not the fall. I think it is the cover that is calling to me. It just looks like a Fall type book.

And do you know what goes really well with Fall type books? Hot tea and the perfect cookie for the season. So today I'm including a recipe for just such a cookie. Baking these will make your house really smell like fall is in the air.

I originally stumbled on this recipe here, but I have made a couple minor changes.
1/2 cup of butter, softened
1 1/3 cup brown sugar (I use light.)
1 egg
1/4 cup whole milk
2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1t baking soda
1t ground cinnamon
1/2t cloves
1/2t nutmeg
1/2t salt
2 cups of chopped unpeeled apple
1 to 1 1/2 cups caramel bits*

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Mix dry ingredients in small bowl.
3. Blend butter and brown sugar together thoroughly.
4. Add egg and milk to butter mix and combine completely.
5. Stir the dry ingredients into the creamy mix.
6. Add at apples and caramels.
7. Place on cookie sheet and bake for 12-14 minutes or until slightly browned around the edges.

*I found these at our Super Target. If you are not a fan of caramel I have also made these with Hershey cinnamon chips and they are amazing that way too. Or, if you feel you must, I'm sure some kind of nut would work. I haven't tried that as I don't like nuts in my cookies.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Somewhere this year I came across a mention of Bloodline Rising by Katy Moran and was intrigued. Then I discovered it was a sequel to her first work Bloodline and so decided to start there. I was looking forward to this as it takes place in Anglo-Saxon Britain and is all about the complexities of warring chieftains and complex bonds between people.

Summary (from Goodreads):
Warring kingdoms, bloody feuds and a battle for survival...Step back into the Dark Ages with this riveting, epic adventure from a debut writer."Set in Dark Ages Britain", this is the powerful story of Essa, whose father Cai, a travelling bard and occasional spy, leaves him behind one night at a settlement of the Wolf Clan. Essa is a survivor and forges new allegiances and even love, but never stops wondering why his father never came back. The settlement is under threat from cruel Mercian bands across the forests, and Essa is caught up in a heart-stopping journey to avert disaster. A battle is inevitable, but Essa finds he can influence its outcome in a way nobody but his father would understand...

This story begins when Essa is nine years old and has just been abandoned by his father. I felt an immediate liking and sympathy for Essa that never abated as the story moved forward. He has a short temper, and sometimes makes ridiculously stupid decisions, but I liked him all the more for those weaknesses. He finds himself caught up in a war he wants no part of and at the center of a political struggle he was not prepared to face. No matter what choices he makes he is going to have to betray someone he likes. The complexities involved in all of his decisions made for a riveting story. The setting is wonderful and the time period depicted exactly right. The author did a good job conveying the harsh realities and the simple joys the people would have experienced. The tension in the story between the old ways and the new Christianity was also pitch perfect.

I only had one issue with the book, which other people might not find as annoying. There was a supernatural element in the story that detracted from my enjoyment. Essa is able to commune with animal spirits. He can calm them, send them where he wants them to go, and see what they see. I am all for fantastical elements in stories, but here I felt that it detracted from, rather than added to the plot. It seemed like a convenient way of turning events in Essa's favor and nothing more. It is a major part of the story and plays a rather large role in the outcome so I was annoyed a great deal. Otherwise, this would have been a good solid work of historical fiction.

I can see fans of Rosemary Sutcliff enjoying this, particularly if they can overlook the issue I had. It's not as good as her stuff but will do if you are looking for something similar.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Chesire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of A Tale

I don't really do animal stories. There are only two that I have ever read and desired to reread or read aloud to my children. (Charlotte's Web and The Tale of Despereaux) Now a third book can be added to this collection. I saw enough reviews praising The Chesire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, some written by others also wary of animal stories, that I decided to give it a try. Really, the premise is hard to pass up even for someone like me who is jaded toward the genre. A cat who likes to eat cheese forms a partnership with an Inn full of mice, and then throw Charles Dickens in for good measure. I ask, who can resist that?

He was the Best of Toms. He was the worst of Toms. Fleet of foot, sleek and solitary, Skilley was a cat among cats. Or he would have been, but for a secret he had carried since his youth. A secret that caused him to live in hidden shame, avoiding even casual friendship lest anyone discover-
Skilley, a cat who hates the taste of mice and the feel of them going down, finds the perfect job as a mouser at the Ye Olde Chesire Cheese. He can appear to ferociously chase the mice and in reality eat the cheese. The problem is the cheese isn't so easy to get to for cat. When Skilley makes the acquaintance of an extraordinary mouse named Pip who figures out his secret they strike a deal. Skilley will protect the mice and the mice will provide him with the cheese they have ready access to. Simple enough until a mouse hating serving girl brings in another cat to help with the mouse problem, a vicious killer of a cat who is Skilley's arch nemesis. Then there is the Queen's injured raven being cared for by the mice that needs returning as well. Skilley and Pip have their work cut out for them, and not just when it comes to protecting the mice and helping the raven. They also must learn to confront the difficulties and obstacles they encounter in their most unlikely friendship.

There is lots to like here. The cast of characters is large and quirky, very fitting in a Victorian era novel that is a tribute to Dickens. The mice, the cats, the humans, and the raven are all brought to life vividly through the language of the story. I read an ARC of the book from NetGalley that did not contain the illustrations, and even without the pictures to help the words painted a clear picture of, not just the people, but also the time and place.

And this brings me to what I loved best about the book. The language. It is one of those books that would make a terrific read aloud, so you can savor every word. In fact it might actually work best as a read aloud. It is not just the words chosen but the rhythm of the sentences:
Then Maldwyn gathered himself and stood erect. Once more Skilley witnessed the rising majesty of a Tower raven. Even with his head averted, there was royalty in his form.
"You want the truth, Master Skilley? Find out what manner of cat you really are...and then brazenly, unabashedly, boldly, be that cat."
"You eat cheese." The words emerged from Pinch's clenched jaws with slow hiss.
So, he knows.
Skilley allowed himself an instant of surprise to savor how little he now cared. "Yes. I eat cheese. What's more, my truest friend in this friendless world is a mouse. And I would risk my life for him...

The way the theme of friendship is explored through all of the different relationships is another aspect of the book I quite enjoyed. Particularly when Skilley has hurt Pip and their friendship looks as though it might fall apart. Through the way these creatures interact with each other there are sage glimpses into human nature and relationships. The book is eminently quotable while not being preachy or becoming about any given message.

The average child who is reading this book is not going to get the Dickens references. But they don't have to. His character is portrayed in such a way that you don't have to know and understand his work to appreciate his role. For the adults who might read this book to and with children the allusions are an added amusement.

I very much enjoyed this and highly recommend it to anyone, not just lovers of animal tales. Clearly you don't have to be one of those to appreciate this book.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Demon King

Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms Series has been getting a lot of buzz recently due to the release of the third volume The Gray Wolf Throne, so I decided (with some encouragement from a reliable source) that maybe it was about time I read the first volume, The Demon King. This has everything a high fantasy novel should have Wizards, mountain clans that breed Warriors, a looming Peril, characters with hidden destinies, a ragamuffin type hero. It is predictable but well written. If you are a fan of High Fantasy with a good dose of court intrigue (I am) and enjoy books with well written characters and intricate plots (I do) then you may want to give this series a try.

Summary (from Goodreads):
This novel marks the first giant step in a momentous fantasy journey orchestrated by Cinda Williams Chima, the author of the popular Warrior Heir series. Its two chief protagonists are ex-thief Han Alister, an impoverished commoner, and Raisa ana'Marianna, the headstrong Princess Heir of the Fells. The Demon King brings them together, creating part of a volatile mix of action, magic, and danger. Empathetic characters; wizardly attacks.

I found Hans to be a sympathetic and likable character from the beginning. Even when he is getting himself into trouble (this happens a lot) I couldn't help but understand why he makes the choices he does. I was behind him 100% from the beginning. Raisa on the other hand...There was a lot I liked about her character too, like her determination and strong sense of duty. She makes a lot of decisions that land her in trouble as well and I was less sympathetic as I felt that many of them were due to her own pig headedness and refusal to see what was in front of her. By the end I was more content with the direction she was taking.

There are a lot of secondary characters in this novel. A lot. A lot. A lot. It is an epic fantasy.  Sometimes they blended together for me but a few of them are memorable. The villains behave in stereotypical ways yet show signs of having some depth other than pure evil. In addition to Hans and Raisa there are characters that stand out and are developed fully. I refuse to grow attached to any of them though because many of them have TRAGIC stamped on their foreheads already. Things will not go well for them. I am not entirely convinced things will go well for anyone. It made me feel rather removed from the story. If you like neat and tidy this might be a series you want to avoid.

I do have some quibbles. I feel like I am saying this a lot lately, but the book is too long. (I am saying it a lot lately because I think it has become a trend for authors to inflate their stories.) Epic fantasy is notoriously long and detailed (see The Lord of the Rings) but really it is not always necessary. In fact, I think it is usually not necessary. I prefer it when authors can convey worlds with few words and not all authors can do that. I did feel that there were some scenes that could have been shorter or removed completely. I found myself occasionally bored and skimming some parts. 

This is a good book to get if you love the genre and are looking for something new that comfortably fits your taste. I will be reading the next volume The Exiled Queen as soon as my library can get it to me.