Monday, April 30, 2012

Code Name Verity

Sometimes a book's praises are sung so loudly before it reaches my hands I wonder if it will have any impact on me at all. How could it possibly when my expectations for it are so high? Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein was such a book. I don't care how many reviews and bloggers say how amazing, how beautiful, how shattering it is. It is near impossible for it to not meet your expectations. I dare you to read it and not be gobsmacked by its brilliance.

You'll shoot me at the end no  matter what I do, because that's what you do to enemy agents. It's what we do to enemy agents. After I write the confession, if you don't shoot me and I ever make it home, I'll be tried and shot as a collaborator anyway. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and this is the easy one the obvious one. What's in my future-a tin  of kerosene poured down my throat and a match held to my lips? Scalpel and acid, like the Resistance boy who won't talk? My living skeleton packed up in a cattle wagon with two hundred desperate others, carted off God knows where to die of thirst before we get there? No. I'm not traveling those roads. This is the easiest. The others are too frightening even to look down.

I have so much I would like to say about this book, but so little I can say. It is a book one needs to experience. So go. Buy. Read. Experience. Bite your nails. Sit on the edge of your seat. Laugh. Cry. Let it break your heart and put it back together. That's what the best books do after all. And this most definitely falls into the best books category.

And if you still aren't convinced, also know:

This is a story about friendship, the true steadfast kind that can change people and the world around them.

It is a story about ordinary people who do extraordinary things in an exceptional time.

It is a story that captures the reality of war and the perseverance of the human spirit in remarkable ways.

It is a story that can be funny and sarcastic one minute and then slice open your gut with its razor sharpness the next.

This is a story that's characters become real. They will take up residence in your head. They will haunt you.

It is a story full of suspense, intrigue, and danger.

It is a story that simultaneously devastates and is hopeful.

It is surprising, shattering, brilliant in every way. And nothing I say about it is going to do it justice.

I read a copy received via NetGalley. The US release (with the top cover) is Tuesday, May 15. It is currently available in the UK (with bottom cover).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Magic Below Stairs

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stervermer is another one of those delightful books that exists in an alternate version of Regency history where there is magic, wizards and the like.

Synoposis (from Goodreads):
Young Frederick is plucked from an orphanage to be a footboy for a wizard named Lord Schofield in Victorian England. Is his uncanny ability to tie perfect knots and render boots spotless a sign of his own magical talent, or the work of Billy Bly, the brownie who has been secretly watching over him since he was little? No matter, for the wizard has banished all magical creatures from his holdings. But Billy Bly isn't going anywhere, and when he discovers a curse upon the manor house, it's up to Frederick and Billy Bly to keep the lord?s new baby safe and rid the Schofield family of the curse forever.

Frederick is a very likable character and the world he inhabits is interesting. Just enough details are given of day to day life without being overly descriptive. It is a short read and will definitely appeal to children who enjoy historical fiction or stories with magic. It is the perfect mix of both. This would be perfect for children who are interested in, but not quite  ready to tackle, Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books or Stephanie Burgis's Kat books. As an adult reader I found myself wanting Frederick to get out of the way so the story could focus on Lord Thomas and his wife Kate which is a clear indication I need to move Sorcery and Cecelia and The Grand Tour to the top of my TBR as those books do focus on them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Newes From the Dead

Newes From the Dead by Mary Hooper is a fictionalized account of an actual historical event. The nature of said event is so extremely interesting I couldn't help but want to read the book. In 1650 Oxford a young girl named Anne Green was hanged for infanticide (protesting her innocence). Her body was placed in a coffin and given to the University for dissection. Hours later while they were preparing to cut her up they realized she WASN'T DEAD. So they revived her instead.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Anne can't move a muscle, can't open her eyes, can't scream. She lies immobile in the darkness, unsure if she'd dead, terrified she's buried alive, haunted by her final memory—of being hanged. A maidservant falsely accused of infanticide in 1650 England and sent to the scaffold, Anne Green is trapped with her racing thoughts, her burning need to revisit the events—and the man—that led her to the gallows.
Meanwhile, a shy 18-year-old medical student attends his first dissection and notices something strange as the doctors prepare their tools . . . Did her eyelids just flutter? Could this corpse be alive?
Hooper did her research well. She talks in the afterward about it and the evidence she found of Anne's life. She filled in a lot of the holes with her imagination but there is certainly evidence to support her fictionalized account of what happened. The narrative alternates between Anne's first person account of what led her to be hanged and a third person narration, focusing on Robert the medical student, about what was going on around the dissection table at the time. I wasn't a big fan of Anne's characterization, but found it to be believable. The fascinating part of the story for me was in the history and details from the proceedings in the dissection room. This is a quick and short read. If  you are interested in history at all it might be one you want to check to out as it does an excellent job of detailing the time period in an informative and engrossing manner.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The False Prince

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen is one of those books that had me from page one and didn't let me go until the end, with the exception of the couple times I had to get up and walk around the room to let off some pent up energy caused by my intense involvement in the story.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king's long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner's motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword's point -- he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage's rivals have their own agendas as well.
As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner's sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.

If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life. Then again, I'm not sure I ever had a choice. These were my thoughts as I raced away from the market, with a stolen roast tucked under my arm. I'd never attempted roast thievery before, and I was already regretting it. It happens to be very difficult to hold a chunk of raw meat while running. More slippery than I'd anticipated. If the butcher didn't catch me with his cleaver first, and literally cut off my future plans, I vowed to remember to get the meat wrapped next time. Then steal it.

Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog will not find it surprising that with a beginning like that one I was caught. And all of it because of Sage. There is always room in the world for another clever, sarcastic, rash, thief and I will always enjoy reading about such characters. Sage is no exception. He was a very easy character for me to  engage with. As his story unfolds you get a picture of a boy who is torn by the decisions he is having to make. He is whiny, he is brash, he is cocky, and he is sarcastic. He is also honorable with feelings that run deep and is clearly torn up by what is going on around him. There were a lot of other characters I came to have strong feelings for, but don't want to give anything away so will not say anymore. Except there are three other characters I very much fell for as well. And I appreciated how Conner was sometimes likable despite his despicable actions. 

Sage is an unreliable narrator and the reader knows this from the beginning. The narrative reveals enough for the reader to get a sense of the internal struggle Sage is waging while still maintaining an air of suspense and mystery. The political intrigue in this is excellently done. Treason, half truths, all out lies, and backstabbing (literally) happening all over the place. It is action packed for sure.  The tension in some scenes had me bouncing in my seat. The ending definitely completed this story while leaving plenty of development available for the sequel. There was one chapter toward the end that suddenly pulled out of Sage's first person narration and that was a bit jarring. There was also a good bit of back story that needed explaining at one point that was a tad awkward and didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narrative. 

Being a book about a mouthy thief with a lot of political intrigue comparisons to Megan Whalen Turner are inevitable. Nielsen lists Turner as an influence on her Goodreads page and that influence is certainly obvious as one reads this book. If you have read The Thief you will be forced to make comparisons.  I believe that fans of Turner will enjoy this as long as they go into it remembering Sage is not Gen and his story is a different one and very much his own. For one he sounds younger and less sure of himself. His unreliability comes from being completely at sea, coming to terms with what he must do, and knowing there is no one he can fully trust (though he wants someone he can talk to). Personally, in a direct comparison I believe this book suffers. Others, such as Thea from The Book Smugglers, disagree.

This is a fantasy novel as it is about countries that don't exist and never had, however there is nothing overtly fantastical about the world. There is no magic or mythical creatures. There are still two more books to come so possibly more fantastical elements will be coming. Even if they don't the story is strong enough without them.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Diana Wynne Jones Tribute

This month marks one year since the death of the amazingly wonderful children's fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. There has been a site set up to Celebrate Diana Wynne Jones which contains quotes, pictures, comments, and links to various posts on her works. There has also been a blog tour going on for those in publishing and bloggers to share their feelings on her and her work. My favorites have been the posts on the Greenwillow blog, particularly the one Megan Whalen Turner wrote. You can also post to #DWJ2012 on Twitter. My love for DWJ can not be contained in 140 characters and so I wrote a whole post.  If you are at this point wondering, "Who is Diana Wynne Jones?", well you should definitely go find out. She was writing wonderfully magical British fantasy books decades before Harry Potter was even a germ of an idea. I am truly sad that I did not discover her work as a child. (I LIVED IN ENGLAND. How did that happen???) I have made up for it in recent years, but still haven't made it all the way through her large back list.

I wanted to write about my favorite of her books and then found that it was impossible to choose a favorite, at least for me. One of the amazing things about DWJ is that she was so versatile a fantasy author. She didn't just stick to one type or style of fantasy, but explored them all. Her books are very different and equally wonderful. Choosing a favorite would depend a great deal on what sort of mood I was in and I would probably change my mind the next day.

The first DWJ book I read was Howl's Moving Castle. Why? Because Megan Whalen Turner said to in the notes she wrote in the back of The Thief. (Turner actually has Gen quote Howl in her book.) I fell in love, not just with Howl, but with the creativity, wit, and style of Jones' writing. I was blown away by the complex intricacies of the world she created and then threw her readers into with little explanation. I found out as I continued reading her work this is a trademark quality of her writing. She trusts her readers to be smart enough to figure out what is going on and never condescends to them. Then there are her characters who are layered, quirky, and fascinating. The books I have read all have a rather large cast of characters and I always remember their names, even the more minor characters. Since reading Howl I have read its two companion novels, Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, both of which have the same feel and style as Howl while being their own stories.

My second (and most reread) experience with DWJ was Fire and Hemlock. It was out of print so I had to track down a used copy that wouldn't bankrupt me. I was oh so excited when I found one. This is, after all, a retelling of Tam Lin. Which is why I wanted to read it so badly. Fortunately, if you have never read it, it is back in print as of this month with a beautiful new cover. Am I buying another copy so I can have one with said pretty cover? Oh yes I am. I was completely taken by surprise when I read this one for the first time. It is an entirely different sort of book than Howl's Moving Castle. It is dark. It is complex. It is shadowed with multiple shades of gray. Nothing in it is clear. The characters are often unlikable and yet so easy to relate to.  The ending requires multiple rereadings and I have yet to run across a person who can actually explain it. The novel is grounded in the real world and explores harsh realities that are not always comfortable. Like the psychology of Polly's fascination with Tom, and his cautious reluctant relationship with her, which he fosters and yet tries to dampen at the same time. In many ways it is as dark as a Tam Lin story gets (which is saying something), mainly because it is so grounded in the real world. The dynamic between Polly and Tom would be disturbing (and sort of is anyways) minus the fantasy element.  It is a novel that never allows you to stop thinking. 

Even though I can't choose a favorite book, I can choose a favorite character. As much as I love Howl and Sophie and feel for Polly and Tom, I adore to the core of my being Christopher Chant. The Chrestomanci series may be the part of her work that fascinates me the most. It contains six books that were published over a period of 29 years, beginning with Charmed Life in 1977 and ending with The Pinhoe Egg in 2006. You would think that over that many years the series would read a tad disjointedly, but it doesn't. I read the series in the order they are in for the 3 volume set. When you read them that way an amazing contrast comes out between the first two (Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant) and the last two (Conrad's Fate and The Pinhoe Egg). It is from this that my love of Christopher springs. I always have a tendency to develop a tenderness for characters who have flirted with the dark side and ended on the good side, however reluctantly, only that much wiser for what they have done (particularly when they don't completely regret it). I was bound to fall for Christopher for this if nothing else. But there is more. In reading the books in that particular order you see Christopher as an adult mentor and guide to his young confused successor and you see him as a child always at odds with and misunderstood by his own predecessor. He is very clearly trying to not repeat old patterns, to be a different and better mentor than Gabriel, no matter how much Cat pushes back at him. Establishing and maintaining his character arc over 6 books and 29 years was an amazing feat. Add to that the Chrestomanci books are about magical education and traveling from world to world with different realities and you have an amazing set of books.

I also love the Dalemark Quartet, which is a mythopoeic, hero/quest story brilliant in its scope and history. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a hilarious guidebook to prepare you for any journey through fantasyland. It contains term definitions in alphabetical order and is set up like a tour guidebook. It is satire at its best and a must read for any fan of epic fantasy. Following along with the concept of tours through fantasyland, there is also The Dark Lord of Derkholm where tourists pay to go on a journey through an epic fantasy, confrontation with Dark Lord guaranteed. It is brilliant good fun. All of these books are amazing and only account for about half of the books Diana Wynne Jones wrote. I still have yet to read all of the other ones including her latest published posthumously, Earwig and the Witch. I'm so looking forward to continuing to enjoy the work of this amazing author and introducing my children to it.

Other DWJ fans out there: Can you choose a favorite?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Shadows on the Moon

One could label Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott as a Cinderella story. There is an evil step-parent, there is a ball, there is a prince, there is a benevolent helper (two actually), there is kitchen work, and there are even cinders. It is not your run of the mill Cinderella story though. Cinderella is not too terribly concerned in attending the ball to capture a prince. Well, she wants his attention but only so she can use it to vengefully wreak destruction on her enemies. It is complex and dark tale.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
"On my fourteenth birthday when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us. We saw them come, Aimi and me. We were excited, because we did not know how to be frightened. We had never seen soldiers before."
Suzume is a shadow-weaver. She can create mantles of darkness and light, walk unseen in the middle of the day, change her face. She can be anyone she wants to be. Except herself. 
Suzume died officially the day the Prince's men accused her father of treason. Now even she is no longer sure of her true identity.
Is she the girl of noble birth living under the tyranny of her mother’s new husband, Lord Terayama? A lowly drudge scraping a living in the ashes of Terayama’s kitchens? Or Yue, the most beautiful courtesan in the Moonlit Lands? 
Everyone knows Yue is destined to capture the heart of a prince. Only she knows that she is determined to use his power to destroy Terayama. 
And nothing will stop her. Not even love.

Zoe Marriott has taken the bones of the Cinderella story and built a different, but familiar, creature from it. Set in a country similar to feudal Japan with it's culture and traditions added with the magic of the shadow weaving and Suzume's power as an Akachi, the world created is rich in detail and evokes a true sense of place. The magic of the Akachi is never really explained or fully explored, but it doesn't need to be. The details given are enough to make it real for the reader and to serve its purpose in the story.

Suzume's character is complex. She is in the midst of a full on identity crisis. She spends so much time pretending to be what she is not that she has lost who she is entirely. She desires happiness and a future, but is so full of self loathing she refuses to believe she deserves either enough to work for them. Her mother and her have an unhealthy relationship, going back to before her father's death, that contributed much to this. Full of self hatred and the pain of the tragedy she has experienced, she is constantly forced by her mother to play nice and happy. All of this combined causes Suzume extreme psychological trauma and she ends up with the physical scars to prove it. Feeling she is not good enough for anything else she dedicates her whole life and self to seeking vengeance against her step-father.

Suzume does have people who love her and try to help her see her value. She has two trainers in the magic of her shadow weaving. Youta is her mentor in the first half of the book and helps her as a child. Akira is her mentor in her later years, the one who helps her with the skills necessary to gain entrance to the palace. Akira is a fascinating character in her own right as well.

Then there is the hero. Otieno. One might say he is just a little too perfect, but he is oh so swoon worthy. Part of a group of visiting dignitaries from a place similar to Africa, he also has the power of an Akachi . There was an instant attraction there, but Marriott developed it well and made their relationship believable.

This is an engrossing and beautifully written story. Novels based on fairy tales can often be tiresomely alike. This one stands out as different in so many wonderful ways. I will now most definitely be seeking out a copy of Marriott's earlier works.

Note For Concerned Parents on Content: This is a book with some harsh realities. It also contains allusions to adult relationships and one brief not at all descriptive love scene.

Shadows on the Moon is currently available in the UK and will be released in the US on April 24. I read a galley of the book received via NetGalley.

Monday, April 16, 2012


It is pretty near impossible to have anything at all to do with children's literature and not know about all the buzz surrounding Wonder by R.J. Palacio. There was a big part of me that was only reading it because I felt like I had to. Not always the best attitude to go into a book with, but this is a book that can't be tainted by one's bad attitude, partly because it is so well done, and partly because it is impossible to be negative and cynical while reading Auggie's story.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.
August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances? 

This is a school story.
It is a story about friendship.
It is a story about family. 
It is a story with a dog. (Yes, one of those kind.)
It is a story about empathy, kindness, compassion, and the amazing resilience of the human spirit.
It is a story with mean kids and the mean parents who are creating them. 

Now if you are anything like me you might be thinking you've read this before and don't have a need to read it again. You might be thinking, "Oh, this is one of those books. One of those books meant to teach an important lesson while accruing as many awards as possible." The awards shall be accrued I'm sure, but this novel doesn't read like so many problem stories do. That is because it has characters. This novel stands apart from so many that have come before it in that it focuses on the people not the problem. This isn't a book about acceptance, bravery, standing up for what is right when it is hard. Except it is. Because this is a book about humanity and all of those things are a part of it. It works because Palacio made her characters so real. She gave them distinct voices, personalities, fully rounded lives.

At the center of the story is Auggie, a boy with a facial abnormality so abnormal they don't even have a name for it. The story chronicles his first year at traditional school and is told from several points of view. It begins with his own and includes his sister, friends from school, and friends of his sister. Each person's part isn't just about Auggie though. It is about that person too. Through the changing points of view you get a varied and detailed account and the know that everything is not always as it seems. So much goes behind every action, every word a human being commits or speaks. What one person sees is never the entire story. Each person is their own story and together they all make a bigger one. This is where the power of the book lies, in the threads it shows that bind each individual together into a community.

I could talk about all the characters and what I loved about each of them, but they speak so marvelously for themselves (and for the story):
I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds.
  August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun...I'm used to the way this universe works. I've never minded it because it's all I've ever known I've always understood that August is special and has special needs...My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through. This isn't me being noble, by the way: it's just the way I know it is. And this is the way it's always been for me, for the little universe of us. But this year there seems to be a shift in the cosmos. The galaxy is changing. Planets are falling out of alignment.
  Some kids have actually come out and asked me why I hang out with "the freak" so much. These are kids that don't even know him well. If they knew him, they wouldn't call him that...Who knew that my sitting with August Pullman at lunch would be such a big deal? People act like it was the strangest thing in the world. It's weird how weird kids can be.
I'd been talking to Julian about August. Oh man. Now I understood! I was so mean. I don't even know why. I'm not even sure what I said, but it was bad. It was only a minute or two. It's just that I knew Julian and everybody thought I was so weird for hanging out with August all the time, and I felt stupid. And I don't know why I said that stuff. I just was going along. I was stupid. I am stupid. Oh God.
-Jack (my favorite)
it's funny how there's a word like overprotective to describe some parents, but no word that means the opposite what word do you use to describe parents who don't protect enough? underprotective? neglectful? self-involved? lame? all of the above. olivia's family tell each other "i love you" all the time. i can't remember the last time anyone in my family said that to me.
-Justin (It was very difficult not to correct the capitalization while typing this.) 
One of the things I miss the most about Via's friendship is her family. I loved her mom and dad. they were always so welcoming and nice to me. I knew they loved their kids more than anything. I always felt safe around them: safer than anywhere else in the world. How pathetic that I felt safer in someone else's house than in my own right? And, of course, I loved Auggie.

Are there some cliches used? Yes. Are there some rather over the top moments? Yes. Does it make a big difference? No. It is brilliant despite those things. The voices of the characters and the interconnectedness of  life that they demonstrate are well worth the rather minor plot flaws in my opinion. This is a wonderful book, one that should be read by everyone.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Renegade Magic

Stephanie Burgis has combined two of my favorite things with her Kat books. Magic and Regency England. I loved Kat Incorrigible (my review). Bit thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I was going to wait and review Renegade Magic with her too, but we are currently in the middle of a different trilogy so it will be a while before I can read it to her. I didn't want to wait that long. There is always some nervousness when reading a sequel to a book you really enjoyed. There is a chance it won't be as good. Renegade Magic does not suffer that fate. It is even better than its predecessor.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Kat Stephenson is back to cause more chaos! Stepmama drags the family to Bath to find Kat's sister a new suitor. But, unknown to most of its gossipy visitors, Bath is full of wild magic. When Kat uncovers a plot to harness this magic in the Roman Baths, she finds her brother Charles is unwittingly involved. Kat must risk her newfound magical powers as she defies the Order of the Guardians to foil the plot and clear her brother's name.

While I loved the house party setting and Kat's discoveries of her magical heritage in the first book, I enjoyed the setting and magic in this one even more. Renegade Magic takes place in Bath complete with trips to the Pump Room, Assemblies, and scandalous Rakes who prey on innocent young ladies. Burgis used the history and myths of the Baths and the spring from which they come to create all sorts of magical mystery and mayhem. The writing in this volume is even better than it was in the first and it was quite good to begin with. The dialogue flows well and is humorous. The mystery is set up perfectly, and even though I knew the who was behind the magical mischief  it was just as interesting to discover the whys and wherefores. 

Kat continues to be an extremely likable and engaging heroine. I found myself frustrated exceedingly at all of the people who wouldn't listen to her, wanting to shake them and yell at them. Much like Kat herself was probably feeling. I completely understood why Kat doesn't waste time trying to convince others of her rightness and instead acts on it. I liked the more thorough introduction we have to Charles, Kat's brother, in this story. I also enjoyed how one particular character I was frustrated with finally stepped up and did something. Lady Fotherington returns to continue to attempt to keep Kat from coming into her full magical abilities, but we also get a little more insight into her motivations and anger. There is a delightful new character, Lucy, who is introduced and it was nice to see how Kat interacted with someone closer to her own age and not in her own family.

This is a book you should block out time to red. Burgis is an evil author who ends her chapters in ways that will make you want to keep reading just one more until before you know it you are up way too late with a finished book. Even though I couldn't stop reading I was sad to reach the end. Burgis has created a world I just don't want to leave and it is mostly due to my wanting to spend more time with the characters. I was so disappointed when the story came to an end because it meant my time with them was over. I am very much looking forward to the third installment of Kat's adventures.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Wicked and the Just

We don't get nearly enough new historical fiction taking place in Britain during the middle ages. Why is that? Why does so much new historical fiction cover the 20th century? I get rather tired of it. Which is why I pounced on a chance to read The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coates. (Plus look at the cover. I like that cover.)

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Cecily’s father has ruined her life. He’s moving them to occupied Wales, where the king needs good strong Englishmen to keep down the vicious Welshmen. At least Cecily will finally be the lady of the house.
Gwenhwyfar knows all about that house. Once she dreamed of being the lady there herself, until the English destroyed the lives of everyone she knows. Now she must wait hand and foot on this bratty English girl.
While Cecily struggles to find her place amongst the snobby English landowners, Gwenhwyfar struggles just to survive. And outside the city walls, tensions are rising ever higher—until finally they must reach the breaking point.

The Wicked and the Just is a story about the town of Caernarvon, Wales from 1293-1294. It is also the story of two girls, one English and one Welsh, and through them the experience of this 13th century town comes to life. The narrative is first person and moves between Cecily and Gwenhyfar, concentrating mostly on Cecily at first. Gwenhyfar is a girl of few words. She says much with little. She has adjusted to a harsh reality and learned the futility of complaining. Cecily on the other hand is a spoiled indulged brat who has much to say and enjoys saying it. Cecily is extremely unlikable as the story begins. Extremely. Gwenhyfar is far more sympathetic.She is, after all, a member of the oppressed. Her land has been stolen, her father killed, her mother lies dying. She and her younger brother are barely surviving. And Cecily is a brat so the reader can't help but side with Gwenhyfar as she takes orders and abuse from the girl. The English are the occupiers, the oppressors. The Welsh are the occupied, the oppressed.

The Wicked and the Just

Except Coates does not, bless her, allow it to be so simple. As the story progresses Cecily begins to grow and change. She is, after all, growing up. She is leaving behind childhood for womanhood and her entire life has been upended. It is enough to make anyone a little bratty. Cecily is beginning to look at the world around her and question it. She is beginning to think of others beyond herself. It is not a quick change, it happens slowly, and bratty Cecily certainly dominates the majority of her narrative. There is more to her though and when her wrongs are pointed out to her she works hard to right them. At the same time Gwenhyfar is being eaten by resentment, hatred and a need for revenge. She is biding her time, waiting for the moment when the oppressed will rise up and crush their oppressors. And then it happens and it is Hell and it shows what both girls are made of.

It was impossible to choose a side and therein lies the brilliance of the novel. It is not about one or the other, but both. It is the complexity of this history. We are all capable of justice and equally capable of wickedness.

Coates did not sugarcoat anything here,nor did she feel the need to be graphic. She conveys the horror of what happens to the Welsh under English rule, and then the English when the Welsh rebel, with just enough details to get the point across. It is violent, but it was a violent time. I was also impressed with the historical details and how they accurately depicted 13th century life. 

I highly recommend this to anyone with a love of historical fiction or anyone who just enjoys a good portrayal of human nature. This is the author's debut novel and I am certainly looking forward to reading more from her.

I read an e-galley of this title made available from the publisher through NetGalley. It will be released Tuesday, April 17.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Listening For Lions

I first heard of Listening For Lions by Gloria Whelan from Kate at Book Aunt. It's been a while but I finally got around to it in the massive TBR. This is a quiet sort of book that tells an interesting story. It is not my typical sort of book but I know several people who would really love it.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Thirteen-year-old Rachel Sheridan is left an orphan after influenza takes the lives of her missionary parents in British East Africa in 1919. National Book Award-winning author Whelan crafts a wickedly delicious story of treachery and triumph, in which one young woman must claim her true identity in order to forge her own future and transform herself from victim to heroine.

I really enjoyed the first two thirds of the book and was fully engaged. Whelan did a beautiful job describing Africa. I really felt as though I could see the places, the land, the animals, the people. Rachel is in an interesting position as the daughter of English missionaries yet doesn't seem to appreciate how different she is until everything comes to an end. I continued to enjoy the book as Rachel was taken in by some unethical folk who ship her off to England to pretend to be somebody else. The book took on the feel of a Frances Hodgson Burnett book. Again, Whelan did a beautiful job describing the estate where Rachel was living and her relationship with "Grandfather". The constant battle her conscience was waging read realistically and waiting to see how it would all unfold was intriguing. The last third of the book my interest started to wane. This part felt more like a summary than a story. We quickly follow Rachel through years of schooling and working toward her dream to return to Africa with little character development or dialogue. There was some interesting glimpses into the prejudices and difficulties women wishing to become professionals had during the time, but overall it was disappointing as the first part of the book was extremely engaging. 

I think this book is a good selection for those who really enjoy quiet historical fiction.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson is not the type of book I normally read. I don't usually go in for ghost stories. This one is also a British boarding school story though. And a murder mystery involving murders that follow the exact same pattern as the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders. I do go in for British boarding school stories and murder mysteries. This combination had an irresistible pull on me despite the potential I knew it had to be a disastrous mix. It is not disastrous though, and this book was exactly what I needed to entertain me in the midst of a weekend of sick children.

Synopsis (from author's website):
The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion. For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school. But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper events of more than a century ago. Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man police believe to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him. Even her roommate, who was walking with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man. So why can only Rory see him? And more urgently, why has Rory become his next target? In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humor, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.

Rory is a likable heroine. She is smart, but not brilliant. She worked and studied hard to earn her position at her boarding school and she has to work and study hard in order to keep up once she gets there. I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing through her the excitement and fears of her situation. I sympathized with her utter lack of enthusiasm or coordination in sports. Her adjustment to living in a different country and, in her last year of high school, learning a completely different educational system are told in a honest, realistic, and sympathetic way. Rory has a wonderful sense of humor even when things don't work out the way she imagined them in her head. Going along with her on this adventure was not at all difficult.

In fact I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

The story is by turns funny (laugh out loud-earn strange looks from the family funny), creepy, and mysterious. Johnson did a splendid job conveying the mood of each scene and setting them  up. It is clear she put a lot of thought into the ghost police and the way they work. I really loved all three: Stephen, Boo, and Callum. The way in which Rory gains her ability is so absurd that it is easy to go along with. The book hits a fine balance between the subject matter and never taking itself too seriously. There is also an interesting underlying social commentary about our modern times.

But pretty much it is just good fun.

There were a couple of elements that bothered me. The villain is allowed to do quite a bit of monologuing at the end, which had me wanting to yell at the heroes to JUST DO SOMETHING. Although I can also see why they would want to hear what he had to say for himself. I could have done without the romantic interest. I felt the story was compelling enough without him,, and he was by far the least interesting character.

If you find yourself in the mood for an entertaining and mysterious read that is by turns funny and thrilling I highly recommend it.  I will most definitely be picking up the next book in the series when it comes out.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

I don't enjoy animal books. Occasionally a book will come along that causes me to eat these words (The Tale of Despereaux, The Cheshire Cheese Cat). Usually animal books simply remind me of all the reasons I don't enjoy animal books. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate  doesn't quite fall into the category of the former, but it is far removed from the latter.

Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.
Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.
Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better. 

What impressed me the most about this novel was the characterization, which says a lot considering I'm not easily impressed by animal characters. In the beginning of the story Ivan is  a pretty content gorilla. He is content because he lives in the  moment, not giving much consideration to the past or the future. He is a little snarky and doesn't give much thought to the world outside of Ivan. Much like the kids who will be reading his story. Once he begins to examine his life and see it through the eyes of young Ruby he begins to question things. The questioning leads to a desire to make a difference which leads to Ivan discovering the best way to use his own personal talents to make that difference. He has to face major changes to his life and environment. This is a coming of age story told from the point of view of a gorilla. Way to go Katerine Applegate! I had no idea that could be done, never mind done so well. The other animal characters are endearing, but not as interesting. Bob, the stray dog who is Ivan's best friend, provides comedy relief. Stella, the older elephant, provides the sadness and motivation for change. Ruby serves her purpose by being adorable and engendering sympathy.

I appreciated how the humans were characterized in the story. There are good humans, there are bad humans, but it is not as simple as good/bad. George is definitely one of the good guys. He cares for the animals. He wants what is best for them, but he also has a family and he needs his job, so doesn't work as quickly or effectively as he should to intervene on the animal's behalf. Mack is definitely one of the bad guys. What he has done to Ivan, Ruby, and Stella is inexcusable. Yet even he is shown as a person with complex feelings and motivations. He is not a mustache twirling villain with a evil laugh. He is human. 

This is a book about the ethical and  proper treatment of animals. By giving them personality and emotion, Applegate has given animals everywhere a voice. If your child reads this book, expect questions about the treatment of any animal you see in any type of captivity. This book is one that may lead to activism in young ones. Not a bad thing at all, especially when you consider the number of animals that are mistreated by their owners and handlers for the sake of profit. I liked how Applegate, while addressing zoos are not the best place for wild animals (the wild is), acknowledged the important and often life saving role they play. There were a couple of points where I felt I was being lectured, but this may be the adult in me.

The language of the story flows well and is to the point. The book doesn't waste words and is a quick and easy read. It is one of those books that make an ideal read aloud, particularly for younger elementary students.

While I think this book has plenty of child appeal, as well as being excellently written, I'm currently testing that theory. Bit saw the cute baby elephant and surly looking gorilla on the cover and immediately wanted to read it too.

Monday, April 2, 2012

And The Winner Is...

"They’re all first-rate, but for its humour, its poignancy, for its serious heart and lightness of touch, above all for the continual joy it gave me, my choice for this year’s winning book is Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now."

Long Live the Zombie!

You should really read Jonathan's Stroud's entire decision.  He did a beautiful job analyzing the strengths of all three books.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Ashbury Books

These four books were a delightful treat and reading them all back to back was so much fun. Feeling Sorry for Celia, The Year of Secret Assignments, The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, and The Ghosts of Ashbury High make up a quartet of books by Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty that cover four years of school at Ashbury High with some characters from the neighboring Brookfield High playing important roles as well.

Feeling Sorry for Celia
This is an epistolary book consisting of letters from Year 9 student Elizabeth Clarry of Ashbury High to her pen pal at  Brookfield High. There is an English teacher who believes this project will teach students the Joy of the Envelope and diminish the distrust and bad feelings between the two schools, one private and one public. There are also notes Elizabeth exchanges with her mother included to round out the story. Elizabeth is a great character to follow as she is an average girl, but has a distinct enough personality to make her more that a projection of the reader. Her developing relationship with Christina, the student from Brookfield, is interesting. Both girls are struggling with typical but very different teenage problems and the bond that forms between the two of them as the confess to and advise each other is strong. There is guy trouble, friend trouble, family trouble-all of it rendered in amusing and emotive ways.

The Year of Secret Assignments
This one follows a different group of students in the same year as Elizabeth (who is mentioned and makes a cameo). Lydia, Emily and Cassie have been friends since Primary school. Now in Year 10 they are participating in the second year of the famous Ashbury/Brookfield pen pal project. Each girl gets a different boy from Brookfield to correspond with. Lydia is writing to Seb-an artist and soccer fanatic. Emily is writing to Charlie-a car thief looking for advice about girls. Cassie is writing to Matthew-a mean mean boy. The letters flying back and forth cover the whole year and focus on the friendship between the girls and their blossoming romances. There are some deeper issues explored in this book but it still manages to keep the light tone. Some of the hijinks the characters get up to are borderline absurd, but that is part of what makes them  fun.

The Murder of Bindy of Mackenzie
This is my favorite one. It was also the most uncomfortable for me to read, and will be for anyone who has tendencies toward introverted over achieving perfectionism. Bindy is certainly an over the top version of the type, but Moriarty pretty much nailed the insecurities and massive fear of failure we of the type carry with us. The format of this book comes from Bindy's journal entries, memos and emails to and from people, and the running transcript she keeps on her laptop of her life.  What I loved best about this one is that it is a crime novel. Clues are dropped throughout the story, the plot builds toward the climatic moment when we know who the culprit is, the reveal is done in typical crime novel fashion. The difference here is instead of looking back, using clues discovered post crime, the reader is watching the crime unfold in present tense. It is brilliant how Moriarty played with the narrative and structure of the plot to pull that off.

The Ghosts of Ashbury High

I was almost afraid to pick this one up, especially after liking the previous one so much, thinking it might just really end up being a ghost story. I did read it though because by this point Moriarty had won my trust, and she didn't let me down. This book is told through essays the characters are writing for their High School Certificate. They have to tell of a real life incident from their own life using elements of gothic literature. The result is that none of the narrators are terribly reliable and as the reader you have to sift through all the narratives to figure out what is going on. This book introduces two new characters to the series, Amelia and Riley, but also has viewpoints from previous characters as well. Again, the way the clues and all the narrative threads come together in the end is impressive but I was halfway through the book before any of the characters made an impression on me, even Emily and Lydia who I was quite familiar with from book two.

I highly recommend  this series to anyone looking for contemporary fiction that is light but realistic at the same time.