Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Came from the Stars

A distant planet, nearly overcome by evil forces, sends the best of its existence, forged into a chain, across the universe to Plymouth, Massachusetts, into the lunchbox of Tommy Pepper. Tommy and his family grieve for his dead mother, and resist the encroaching real estate development that threatens their ramshackle home. How can he deal with his own problems, and still protect this treasure from the dreadful foes who want it?

The best of fantasy/sci-fi for the chapter book crowd, written by Gary D Schmidt. What Came from the Stars won a Newbery Honor and was a National Book Award finalist, and for good reason. The storyline of high fantasy manages to pull off the other-world setting without getting too long-winded or high-vocabulary, despite the necessity of making up a lot of words. In contrast, Tommy's everyday world of school and bus, overladen with the pall of grief that renders his sister mute and his family emotionally paralyzed, is strikingly ordinary, despite the specifics of the beach and a nasty real-estate developer. When these worlds collide, the O'Mondim (made of sand), Ouslim the Liar, and Ealgar (one day known as The Bold) must deal with Tommy and his family, his friends, and the faculty of William Bradford Elementary School. 

As if that weren't enough, Schmidt mixes compassion and humor into a story that is both complex and happily-ever-after. A tour de force. 

Home from the Sea

An Elemental Masters novel

Mari Prothero's father is the luckiest fisherman in their little Welsh village. When Mari learns that she must marry a Selch (magical seal-person) to maintain the luck, she uses her strength of mind and her latent mastery of water magic to strike a bargain more to her liking. Can her new allies from London, and from a previous Elemental Masters story, help her keep her family together?

I am a big fan of Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series and Five Hundred Kingdoms series, and was excited to read Home from the Sea. I mostly enjoyed it, but not as much as I expected. 

Good things: I liked the Welsh setting and Mari Prothero. Welsh heritage is big at my house, and I found the milieu very enjoyable, from the village, the isolated cottage, to the Manor and environs. 

Starting now, huge spoiler alert:
Bad things: Ms. Lackey set me up for some great plot twists that never happened.

•First, what about all those dark magicky things with their eyes on her? (The constable doesn't count; he's merely annoying.) I thought the evil Mari Lwyd had some good potential, but alas, it was a non-starter.

•Second, the contract with the selches specifies one child goes with the selch parent and one stays with the human parent. Since Gethin snatched both children, Mari had a strong case for serious payback, especially after all the tit-for-tat business about dealing with magical folk. I was excited to see how that would play, but it never came up. This would have been a good time for Llyr to show up and wield some Oldest magic. 

•Third, with all the Selch cousins/kinfolk rallying around her in Selchland, where was Mari's mother & brother? Not so much as a nod? I was watching for some kind of reunion to warm the sea-chilled cockles of my heart, even though Mari no longer mourned her lost kin. But nothing. Another plot-strengthening device, wasted. 

•Fourth, Puck keeps hanging around, but won't interfere with his counterpart, Llyr. Kind of expected Llyr to make an appearance, even in passing (see Second), but no. 

I'm not sure how I feel about Nan and Sarah. My recollection of them is pretty dim, so I cannot rely on my previous reading of The Wizard of London to strengthen Home from the Sea. I find the girls less interesting, and don't feel their whole storyline did a whole lot to advance the plot, aside from tying it to the White Lodge thread of the series. Maybe if I remembered them more, it would help, but it's not my job to remember, it's Ms. Lackey's job to make the story stand on its own. 

In short, I almost loved it, but the disappointments are real.

Friday, August 17, 2012


Una Fairchild's only consolation for her grim life in a series of foster homes lies in the basement library of her school. Until one day she is pulled into a story, and must figure out why she is there and what she is going to do about it. 

Marissa Burt wrote an interesting mix of modern sensibilities and old-fashioned fairy tale, with a dash of mythology. My only complaint is a major one: To Be Continued is not an acceptable ending. This is not Lord of the Rings; this is a book written for a juvenile audience, and these kids deserve a real ending. Yes, we all know that Harry Potter took seven books to finish his story, but each story was self-contained, and tied up the pertinent loose ends, with only meta-plot points left hanging loose. At the end of Storybound, the only thing I know for sure is that most of the characters are still alive (some I am not so sure about). 

Stay tuned. This book may yet be recommended, depending on how sequel(s) turn(s) out. Meanwhile, this review is To Be Continued.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The City and the City

China Mieville has a formidable literary reputation, and when you apply this to a mystery flavored with a dash of fantasy, it sounds like just my cup of tea.

I did not finish this, though, and this review is not really a review, but a Note to Self.

The tone of this book is gritty realism. Not dark, but not cheerful or humorous, unless there's some dark humor lurking in the corners. Right now I need to focus on the sunny side, so one fine day I will return to this book and try again. I suspect it will be well worth it, when I am ready.

But if you are not me, note that this book begins in a city in Eastern Europe, and the discovery of a dead Jane Doe. The police investigator proceeds, and the story, I understand, takes a turn for the weird.

Enchantment, Inc.

Hex and the city

Shanna Swendson has combined urban chick-lit with magical fantasy in a delightful froth of a story. Katie Chandler, a Texas transplant, rooms in New York City with her best buds from back home, and struggles to adjust. Her boss is a nightmare, and she can't seem to adjust to the quirkiness of big-city life, until an out-of-the-blue job offer lands her in the offices of MSI, Inc, the premier purveyor of magical spells. Her quirks are now assets, and her coworkers include a handsome wizard, a flotilla of winged fairies, and a stone gargoyle that shows up all over town. Can she help MSI combat the competition? And can she choose between the handsome hunk and another attractive prospect?

The plot is fun and well-executed. Katie and the gang are solid, and there are several books more in the series. This is a solid G-rating, with some PG if you follow her thoughts, and plenty of room for romantic development. If you're looking for Literature, this is not it. If you are looking for a fun tale to while away an afternoon off, you could do much worse. A total comfort read.

This is How

Help for the self ; proven aid in overcoming shyness, molestation, fatness, spinsterhood, disease, lushery, decrepitude & more for young and old alike

Augusten Burroughs is not a soft-spoken psychologist, tenderly holding your hand through the recovery process. Nor is he a dry academic, citing statistics and studies with precise footnotes. He's not the celebrity who bottomed out and lived to write a memoir, nor the comedian who did the same, only with edgy humor.  He is your high-school buddy who dropped off the edge of the world, and resurfaced, considerably the worse for wear, and gives you the straight dope on how to handle all the worst life has to offer.

At least, it's his straight dope. You may not agree with Burroughs, and you certainly can't bring him to the ladies' book club to speak unless they're used to saltier language than the ladies I lunch with. But his perspective is unique--who else has ever recommended changing your name as an alternative to suicide? But I suspect I will read this again, the next time the dark underbelly of life comes to my attention.

Let's Bring Back

An encyclopedia of forgotten-yet-delightful, chic, useful, curious and otherwise commendable things from times long gone by

This is a charming premise--a reminiscence of appealing items or concepts that no longer are available. Unfortunately, Leslie M M Blume has the same problem that others have had with this type of niche concept: by the time she has collected enough of these to make a book, she must stretch her definition past rationality.

There are some true gems here. Who would not wish for the return of "at-home doctor visits" or "good Cracker Jack prizes?" I admit a soft spot for "jacks" and "middies" (sailor tops on little girls and toddler princes).  And I tragically missed the opportunity to dine at an "automat."

But some of these "bring-backs" aren't really gone. I like "kitten heels" and "handwritten thank-you notes" as much as the next nostalgic, but I still see kitten heels in the stores and fashion magazines, and handwritten notes arrive in my mailbox almost as often as they ought to. "Niagara Falls" is still available as a honeymoon destination, as is the "world-tour honeymoon," for those who can afford it, to whom that particular honeymoon has always been limited. "Fred Astaire" is still remembered for his elegance and his dancing.

And other listed items can hardly be missed. "Hired mourners" scarcely qualify as delightful, forgotten though they may be. The term "holiday" is not used to mean "vacation" for a good reason. "Attention spans"--OK, stop that right now, you're just being precious. And since the monthly names for the full "moon" were used by native Americans, who, exactly, is missing the everyday usage?

Can I just throw this book across the room over a few of these?
"Suits of armor?" Really? If you want one badly enough, surely one of those armorers who made chain mail for The Lord of the Rings movies can oblige you, for a price. But the justification being that it's "good for covering up 'fat' days" reinforces the notion that Blume is scraping the bottom of the barrel.
"Gold teeth?"
"The barter system?"

I have a "rubber-band ball" in my office, and a canister filled with "sugar."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

When Maggie Hope takes the position of typist in 10 Downing Street, she finds herself taking dictation for the prime minister himself: Winston Churchill. In May 1940, this means having an inside perspective on British government in World War II. But Maggie has problems as well. How will she and her roommates protect themselves from the bombings? Why was her predecessor murdered? And how will she deal with the chain of events that follow her enquiries into her dead father's mysterious past?

I wanted very much to like this first effort by Susan Elia MacNeal. And there is much to like. Maggie and her five/six roommates are easily distinguished--no small feat amongst roommates--as are the young men who squire them around town. The plot is interesting, with intertwining threads that tie up nicely in the end. Churchill is more of a cameo than a character; although he has his moments of engaging in the plot, there is little to develop his personality or his relationship with Maggie, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on what you are hoping for.

But there is much to indicate that this is a first novel. The plot takes a chapter or two to take off, and the love interest occurs in such fits and starts that it is nearly startling when it turns up. An old joke misses the point when the punch line is omitted--I hope that error exists only in the review copy that I had. But Mr. Churchill's Secretary loses a star over one more weakness.

It strains the believability of a historical novel when 21st-century ethics wreathe historic characters, imbuing them with anachronistic attitudes by which the characters (a) judge their contemporaries, and (b) blatantly reflect on societal trends that are current decades or centuries later. 1940 is close enough to 2012 that Maggie's frustration with the patronizing attitude of the men with whom she works is acceptable. After all, she is a brilliant mathematician, with the academic credentials to prove it, and women were stepping up to fill many formerly masculine roles while the men fought on the front. But a homily on gay rights stepped over the line into fantasyland. Ms. MacNeal paved her way well--Maggie's aunt/guardian is a lesbian professor at Wellesley, and one of her closest friends is gay. But brilliant Maggie cannot be unaware of societal norms in the 1940s, and homosexuality would have been condemned as a perversion in all but the most radically liberal fringes of society, especially in 1940s Britain, when a war-office staffer would have been carefully vetted for any behavior that would make him open to blackmail. I cannot imagine that their little social circle could have accepted him as anything other than "a confirmed bachelor" and "a perfect gentleman" in that historic milieu, with any suspicions otherwise remaining unspoken.

But there is potential. If you like the sound of this, go for it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Rook

She used to be Myvanwy Thomas, Rook of the Checquy, the super-secret agency that harnesses and manages those who have special abilities. Now her memory has been permanently erased, and she can only go by the letter in her pocket that begins: Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine... As she resumes the identity of Myvanwy, she rebuilds herself and forges alliances, never forgetting that whoever did this to her is still out there.

Tremendous fun, and a great first novel by Daniel O'Malley. Men in Black meets the X-Men, with a dollop of The Bourne Identity and a twist of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I look forward to the sequel.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Jane Austen Education

How six novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter.

The title is telling, but I was deceived by the playful jacket illustration. I believed I was going to read a trendy life-according-to-Jane-Austen confection, more sugar and air than substance. Instead, A Jane Austen Education allowed me to eavesdrop on a college course intended for English Lit majors.

William Deresiewicz was an English professor at Yale until recently, and his literary criticism cred shows. Each novel is treated carefully as a jewel: the critical overview of the story is interwoven with events from Jane Austen's life, and the meaning Deresiewicz took and applied to his own life. Each novel is credited with teaching him an essential life lesson, helping him mature from an angry young man to an adult who says, at the end, "Reader, I married her."

If an abbreviated course on the novels of Jane Austen sounds appealing, this is the book for you. I could see myself, in the right mood, reading this again.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Night Circus

I struggle with this sort of book, because usually they are disappointing. But Erin Morgenstern wove an exceptional tapestry of magic, character, and mystery as she unfolds the story of The Night Circus. The main characters, Celia and Marco, have been magically bound by dueling enchanters to a game that centers
on Le Cirque des Reves. Only gradually do they see how complicated the game has become, and what the stakes mean to them and to those they love.

How did I like it? Like the story itself, my opinion of it gradually unfolded.

On page 10, when Prospero swore, I had half a mind to stop reading, because books filled with swearing annoy me. On page 28, when Celia tries to heal her sliced fingers, I had 3/4 of a mind to stop reading, because books filled with pain and abuse hurt me. But Morgenstern's storytelling had already captivated me, and I persevered with the quarter-mind I had left. And before long, I was, like so many of the characters, enchanted.

Not-as-bad-as-they-might-be things:
The Night Circus is not filled with swearing. There is the one afore-mentioned f-bomb.
The overt pain and abuse end quickly, and...are like the brutality in fairy tales, demonstrative of villainy but not the stuff of monstrous nightmares and broken lives.
The single semi-explicit scene is short and near the end. But you can easily skip it altogether and not miss a thing. You can see it coming on page 295, and it ends on the next page, at the asterisk. Do read the part after the asterisk; there are plot points there.

Good things:
A plot that unfolds richly, beautifully, and subtly, much like Le Cirque des Reves. Characters that are likeable (mostly), multi-dimensional, and compelling. The imagery is stunning, with mesmerizing images that linger--a cauldron burning with white fire, spell-binding rings, red scarves, and an entrancing clock.

If this sounds like something you will like, read it. Because you will.