Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Robe of Skulls (Book 1 of Tales of the Five Kingdoms) - Vivian French

I'm reading several things at once right now:

Pegasus by Robin McKinley

Of Love and Evil: The Songs of the Seraphim (Book 2) by Anne Rice

The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere, (Book 1) by Jacqueline West

The Maximum Ride series (read books 4&5 last week) by James Patterson

And I just read The Robe of Skulls (Book 1) by Vivian French.  This makes for a very jumbled brain, strange dreams, odd cravings and an itching in my fingers to write.  Side effects of reading so many stories, I suppose.

Vivian's book is both traditional (recalls to mind Scottish folklore) and original (quirky characters, great dialogue).  I enjoyed the mix -- I wouldn't mind reading the rest of the series just for the dialogue.  (I think for me, writing dialogue is the most intimidating part of crafting a story.  I usually have nothing witty to say or much of anything to say, really, so it is harder for me to imagine characters having something of import to impart)

The Robe of Skulls read like a delightful Highland yarn told to you by a grandparent while whittling the time away until your parents return.

Spunky main characters, funny sidekicks (bats!) and dreadfully evil villains (a werewolf and a sorceress in cahoots!) and one diabolical plot to gain the price for a new ballgown.

I could see this while I read it -- I think it would be a brilliant stop-motion film.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tale Collections

I've read a few books that I don't think require an opinion -- mostly because they just went through me like water, instead of hitting me over the head (like the Maximum Ride Series, which I will finish and then give a huge report on -- IT IS AWESOME!) or tripping me (like those pesky books I get so frustrated with because they COULD BE BETTER).

Here they are:

a children's book called "Three By the Sea" -- Mini Grey (yes, her name's spelled like that)

-- Basically a dog, a cat, and a mouse live together in harmony...until a foxy visitor turns them against one another.  (The illustrations are gorgeous, the story adorable -- just not really memorable.  If there had been a twist, it would have been more interesting and I would have felt something about it.  I guess that's my review.)

The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns -- Brian Jacques (whom I adored, may he rest in peace)

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick -- Various (original illustrations and 1 story by Chris Van Allsburg, who is spectacular -- he wrote and illustrated my favorite Christmas book, The Polar Express)

-- I don't know why I keep reading short stories.  I rarely like them.  The few exceptions seem to be from Anton Chekhov and Edgar Allen Poe.  I just...they're always so morbid.  Either the children are wretched and get their come-uppance, or the adults are wretched and get theirs.  Or, everbody's lives are miserable.

I just don't get it.

The Ribbajack was at least amusing -- but again, not memorable.  Just lots of nasty accidents (or fun ones).

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was very interesting because some of my favorite authors contributed -- Kate DiCamillo and Lois Lowry, among others.  And they were good stories...just...

I guess the word for today is memorable.

If you want to make something memorable, you have to turn things on their heads.  That's one thing I've learned from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, and Dollhouse.  Bring up a common storyline and then WHAM!  Bring out the unexpected.  Keeps your viewers (and readers) hooked!

That's all for now.

Do you enjoy short stories?  Which ones?  And do you ever find yourself reading a book you HATE but have to finish because, well...you just HAVE to know the ending?  What is UP with that??

Servant of the Bones -- Anne Rice

I feel as if I should preface this...review?  Commentary?  Opinion? with the note that I adore Anne Rice.  I think she has broken literary boundaries, created new, strange and beautiful worlds for her readers to explore, and is one of the top (tippy-top!) fantasy/horror authors writing today.

That being said, I usually stick to children's literature.  For a reason.

That reason is that I don't get anything out of reading steamy scenes.  Also, I hate the drama that accompanies the after-story.  Will they be killed by a jealous spouse?  Murder each other?  Drift apart?  Who knows?  We just know it's going to be either heaven or hell for the two characters.

I'm a child at heart and I would rather read about dragons, enchantments, a kiss, or buried treasure, and leave the adults to themselves.

So I should have done my research before picking up Servant of the Bones.

And THAT being said, I honestly did enjoy the book -- all but three or four pages.  (And that is not a value judgement on my part -- some people just enjoy more mature content)

Servant of the Bones was utterly fascinating.  It blended Ancient Near East history, culture, and religion with the modern world of business and science (and cults) to bring up questions concerning the afterlife, souls, redemption, and the problem of evil.  Such heavy subject material makes the book sound dense, or even too heady to enjoy.

Not so!

The way in which Anne tells the story lends to its charm -- The Servant sits down with a writer because he wants to tell his story -- he wants a human connection, someone who will listen, something we can all identify with, right?  While philosophical problems eventually arise, there is never a "Here is what I believe and I ram it down your throat" moment.  It's a pulsing question throughout.  And listening to the tale of the Servant of the Bones brings about feelings of pity, or even a sense of connectedness.

After all, who doesn't have questions about Afterwards?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

If you've read any of my other entries here, you know that I am a sucker for fairytale re-tellings*.

I decided to give Jessica Day George another try (see my lament concerning her story "Princess of the Midnight Ball" below), and picked up "Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow", a re-telling of that beautiful old story, East of the Sun and West of the Moon

I have read several versions of this story, including East by Edith Pattou, so I was interested in seeing where Jessica Day George would take the story.

What I did like:

Ms. George did a wonderful job of showing the main character's background in a way that wasn't forced.  You got to see her home life, and when she made certain decisions, you could back them up with what you knew about her.  It is REALLY hard to do this well, and it was great to see it in a fairy tale, which is usually devoid of complex characterizations (which is partially why I love re-tellings so much).

I also liked the 'new' world-building in this story -- more about the creatures IN the castle, the trolls, the winds and even the descriptions of things...I felt like the story was an extension off of our own world, not a completely different universe.  I like that feeling because it helps when relating to the character/situation.

What I didn't like:

Not much to say here, actually!  It was better than "Princess of the Midnight Ball" in several ways (see the things I did like) and while I do wish the hero/heroine relationship aspect was stronger, it was a great re-telling.  More depth than the original story, more characterization and background, all while retaining the magic of the original.

Looking forward to reading another of her books, "Tuesdays at the Castle," which I will probably be reviewing in the next few weeks.

What are you reading these days?  Do you like fairytale re-tellings?  If so, what's your favorite?

*Although I am merciless if I don't like the re-written version...!


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley is hit-or-miss for me (as are many authors -- Avi and Madeleine L'Engle come to mind.  I love them, and a lot of their stories, but some are just mind-numbingly boring.  What can I say, my heart is for fantasy).  My favorite Beauty & the Beast retelling is her story Beauty, which is beautiful and lovely and pretty near perfect.  But trying to read some of her other work was like pulling teeth.  Which is much more a reflection on me than it is on her, since most of my friends adore her other books.

That to say, I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Chalice from my library (I can't keep quiet about how much I LOVE that our public library lets me check out Kindle books via a Wi-Fi connection and Amazon account.  It's brilliant and I've read so much more than usual, and for a book addict, that's fan-freaking-tastic).  Luckily, reading Chalice was similar to my experience of reading Beauty -- I was hooked.

It drew me in from the start -- McKinley's done a wonderful job of world-building in this story, original and breath-taking. There's a bit of medieval with a lot more fantasy mixed in -- and it feels completely new.  The heroine is someone I can sympathize with -- she's unsure of herself (a by-product of being young, unfortunately), thrust into a position with huge responsibility, and left to her own devices.  It's the harrowing tale of growing into adulthood and learning to stand on your own two feet.  Excellent character development in that aspect, and much appreciated.

There's a bit of a romance angle also, which had me guessing at every turn -- which, in the end, was the only thing I was disappointed with -- McKinley developed it beautifully and then kind of dropped the ball right at the end. I wanted to see more of a build-up to the end and instead she just treated it like a given and didn't stop to acknowledge that it was actually a thing.

I really did love it, though -- so much that I'm going to be reading her book Pegasus -- the title alone excites me!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

This story brings to mind the works of Edgar Allen Poe (the creepy, yet ethereal beauty of the macabre), Tim Burton (more of the same but with a stronger love story) and a hint of Lemony Snicket (children must solve the riddle, because adults are mostly useless).

It is quirky and just a little bit terrifying.  

 It's a story about a young magical being (a changeling!) with a supportive family (original) who is trying to find his place in their/his world.  It's bittersweet with a hard edge about it -- the grit of real life, I think.

There is a lot of lore, explored very organically, which I appreciated.  It was a weird, fascinating tale that's just a little too creepy to be reading late at night.

The only thing I would say I wanted more of is characterization.  I wanted to explore more than one or two feelings from the main character, and I wanted to really understand his psyche.  I wanted to dig in and get to know the person the entire story revolved around. 

So I liked it, but I didn't love it.

That being said, I think it would make an excellent movie.  What the characters lacked in "real-ness" would be made up for in the actors' facial expressions and body language.

Bringing it to life on the big screen would, in a way, enable the story to realize its full potential.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Alchemy & Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman

I was first introduced to Ms. Cushman's thoroughly-researched, authentic Middle Age historical fiction novels with her book "Catherine, Called Birdy", a hilarious look at medieval courting and one girl's dream to choose her own mate. 

Ms. Cushman typically writes strong female protagonists who go against the grain in their medieval setting.

"Alchemy & Meggy Swann" is more of the same, but what I like about Ms. Cushman's writing is that each character is uniquely herself, even though the settings are similar.

Meggy is a grumpy, sour cripple who is unwanted by everyone.  (It sounds terrible, I know -- but Meggy's personality is so funny -- she has the best insults!)  She travels to London to live with her father, an alchemist who is trying (and failing) to produce the elixir of life -- a substance, Meggy hopes, that could cure her and allow her to dance.

There are actors (players), a cooper, a diabolical murder plot, poetry and a vision of Olde London interwoven with fantastic word play.

I've read just about every medieval historical fiction novel of Ms. Cushman's, and I continue to read them because they are, in a word, empowering.

Not the "I-don't-need-a-man-to-be-happy" sort of empowerment, but the "I-can-go-my-own-way" kind.  There's probably a fine line, but in Ms. Cushman's stories, there are elements of romance and love while at the same time, the characters are also aware that they can be independent, free thinkers while also connecting with those around them.

A healthy sense of identity.

And for those of us who struggle with that (I think of several people my age who are so used to connecting through media that they have fewer social skills and lowered sense of self), it's encouraging to be bolstered up by reading of someone who fights to be and remain who they are.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris

I'm into vampire lore.

Maybe not the sickly-sweet lovey-dovey/shmexy creep-fest that sometimes occurs, but the haunted anti-hero, wrestling with philosophical questions?  I'm totally down.

So it's no surprise that I keep picking up vampire books.  And I usually know what to expect.

A Taste for Red is surprising because it adds another element to the myth: there are creatures between humans and vampires (called Olfactores, known to be able to detect each other and the undead through their olfactories), who prefer eating food that is red (apples, red velvet cake, & twizzlers), but don't subsist on blood and oftentimes fight mano a mano with the local bloodsucker.

Intriguing, right?

It's a pretty neat little book, except that I keep wishing the story was told on a grander scale.  It's a very narrow slice in the character's life (Stephanie/Svetlana), during a crisis (moving to a new house/school).

The ending leaves me wondering if the story will continue, but everything was wrapped up so nicely that even the denouement left me thinking, "Well that's over."  Now what?

I liked this book -- it was fun, original, and very true to what it's like to have to move in middle/high school.  I can relate.  (Without the sleeping under my bed and eating red food parts)

But it didn't reach the depths I was hoping for (which may be my fault -- I'd just read Anne Rice's Angel Time) -- I wanted a deep conflict, strong emotion, and more action, more personality from the characters, and really just more (or deeper?) everything.

I don't expect that from every book, but I hope for it.  Even middle-grade books should have depth, and the quality of the work sometimes depends on it.

This book left me wanting more, but not in a great way.  I feel conflicted, going back and forth between being fascinated by the mythos created in the book, but being frustrated by the lack of character growth.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Angel Time (Song of the Seraphim, Book 1) by Anne Rice

I never read Anne Rice until I graduated from college and became curious about the lady who seemingly started the trend of moody, philosophical vampires (Joss Whedon continued the trend in his shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel).  I wanted to see what her first works were like in comparison with her newer books (before and after becoming a Christian), so I picked up a copy of Interview With a Vampire.

It enthralled me.  I devoured the book and was hooked on Anne Rice's prose style -- dreamy, meandering, huge...like a gigantic English garden with walkways twisting in on themselves.  I also fell in love with (some of) her characters, like Louis, the vampire who tried to be good.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel is from Louis, who is traveling on a boat to Europe:

"It seemed at moments, when I sat alone in the dark stateroom, that the sky had come down to meet the sea and that some great secret was to be revealed in that meeting, some great gulf miraculously closed forever. But who was to make this revelation when the sky and sea became indistinguishable and neither any longer was chaos? God? Or Satan? It struck me suddenly what consolation it would be to know Satan, to look upon his face, no matter how terrible that countenance was, to know that I belonged to him totally, and thus put to rest forever the torment of this ignorance. To step through some veil that would forever separate me from all that I called human nature.

I felt the ship moving closer and closer to this secret. There was no visible end to the firmament; it closed about us with breathtaking beauty and silence. But then the words 'put to rest' became horrible. Because there would be no rest in damnation, could be no rest; and what was this torment compared to the restless fires of hell? The sea rocking beneath those constant stars - those stars themselves - what had this to do with Satan? And those images which sound so static to us in childhood when we are all so taken up with mortal frenzy that we can scarce imagine them desirable: seraphim gazing forever upon the face of God - and the face of God itself - this was rest eternal, of which this gentle, cradling sea was only the faintest promise."

 Isn't that incredible? 

Funnily enough, I didn't pick up any of her "after" books (except maybe her memoir, "Called Out of Darkness"...I think I did read that, and it was good, but I can't ever remember for sure) until I saw "Angel Time" on the library list for the Kindle.  I decided to give it a try and once again, was blown away by the concept, the characters, and the grand scheme of things.

The story includes a hit man (present day), a guardian angel, time travel (into the Dark Ages), and religious history (Jews + Catholics in Dark Ages = Bad news).  I don't want to give the twist away but the story about one man's life and the second chance he receives is deep and hopeful.  It inspires and grips you, and makes you feel as if you've traversed time and space as well -- going deeper into the human existence, learning what it means to accept grace and forgiveness, and as for having to say goodbye to the characters?  It was dreadful.

I will be reading the second book in The Song of the Seraphim Series soon, and I am also looking forward to reading The Wolf Gift! (Coming out Valentine's Day)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Are People Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)? By Mindy Kaling

Here's an example of me trying to branch out -- I read Tina Fey's "Bossypants" last year, along with "Unbearable Lightness" (Portia di Rossi), and other memoirs by Carol Burnett, Steve Martin, and Molly Ringwald.  Tina's was hysterical (of course), Portia's was deep, Carol's was warm, Steve's was sad, and Molly's was not what I was expecting (more advice column than memoir).  So I decided to try one this year and read Mindy Kaling's "Are People Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns)?"

Mindy Kaling is a co-executive produce, writer and actress on The Office (Kelly Kapoor).  She also stars in the "Subtle Sexuality" web videos for The Office's girl band, which consists of Kelly & Erin.

I don't know what I was expecting to read from Mindy, but it was definitely not as good as what I was given.  Reading her book was like making a lunch date and going to some cozy little place and having a three-hour conversation with someone I've just met and want to get to know better.

It was funny, sweet, sly, and Mindy all the way.

Not sure if she's planning on writing other books, but if she does, I'll read them.  I want to hear if she ever found her best middle-school friend or if she's finally met the love of her life.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

Wildwood Dancing is another re-telling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

It reads more like historical fiction than fairy tale, but the tinge of darker magic makes it more mysterious than the original, and includes a love story, family back story, and is set in Romania (none of which is present in the original story). 

I deeply appreciate when a fairy tale is re-told but the author manages to bring up deeper issues and create a backdrop for the story.  Fairy tales are all very well when you're young, but as you get older you want to know the why behind the story, and Ms. Marillier brings that forward in spades.

This story revolves around sisters who are closely tied to their cousins' family.  There is a dark family secret holding the children together, and as the story progresses, it unfolds until you hold all the pieces in your hands.  The love stories (there are two) are deep, bittersweet, and one is dangerous.  This book is about how far someone would go for love, and how it affects those around you.

There is peril, despair, anger, sadness, every deep feeling that breathes truth and life into a book.

I liked this re-telling much better than Princess of the Midnight Ball because of that, and while I didn't dearly love this book (too dark and painful), it is beautiful and well done.  The characters are real people, the situations true to life (or as true to life as you can get with fairy tales), and the resolution is perfect.

I will be reading more from Juliet Marillier.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a re-telling of the fairy tale "The 12 Dancing Princesses," which isn't as familiar a fairy tale with Americans as, say, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.  I suppose Disney never found a way to include animal companions or a musical sequence.  Or, perhaps there are just too many characters -- I mean, twelve princesses??


Jessica Day George's version is interesting in that the princesses are forced to dance the night away in the magical kingdom because of a promise made to the ruler by their mother.  (in the original, they love going and dream about it all day long)  The soldier in the original story is still a soldier, coming home from the war, and he begins work in the king's garden.

From a literature standpoint, Jessica Day George's plotting is strong.  Solid.  It is never surprising, but it does lead you along quite happily, and twists a few of the old story's elements for a mildly pleasing experience.

But it was missing the spark.

When a book really comes to life, you know it.  You hold it close to you as you read, rushing through the pages, living and breathing alongside the characters.  The book has a soul, a spark of light that draws you in and keeps you thinking about it after you've read it.

Sadly, Princess of the Midnight Ball disappointed me in that aspect.  It was a perfect book -- well written, characters who stayed true to themselves with a balanced storyline.  But it was missing that vital element that makes the story come alive for the reader. 

We never feel for the characters -- even with the love story angle, the family angle, or the war angle.  It's dry.

Which was more disappointing because everything else was so perfect.