Thursday, October 25, 2007

Maybe October Isn't So Bad After All...

October really isn't my favorite month. I enjoyed it more when I lived in places that actually have seasons, but here in the Phoenix-area it's only a little cooler than it was in July. Plus, Halloween just isn't my thing. Even as a kid, I hated dressing up. Now, as a Mom, I have to go through the stress of decorating for Halloween ("Mom, are you EVER going to put up decorations? Everyone else has theirs up."), buying or (gulp) creating costumes for the kids, buying expensive bags of candy to give away (usually because we've eaten the bags I bought last week when they were on sale), taking the kids trick-or-treating, etc. etc. I know you're wondering what this has to do with books - trust me, this is leading somewhere. Anyway, the worst thing about October is that it signals the mad rush that begins with Halloween and doesn't end until the middle of January. This is when I have to worry about Christmas cards, holiday pictures, all of my kids' birthdays/parties, holiday get togethers, Christmas shopping, and so on. Not that I don't love the holidays, because I do, it just gets crazy.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank Amanda, Katrina and 3M for making my October a little brighter. I've won 3 books in the last two weeks from them, which has made me so happy. Thanks a bunch, ladies!

Now, I've really got to get back to my reading. I need to finish Lord of the Rings by Halloween so I can finish the R.I.P. II Challenge. I can't even LOOK at the books coming in the mail until I've got J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece crossed off my TBR list!

BTW: I stole the above picture off my mom's blog. It's from my parents' recent visit to Walden Pond.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Family Skeletons Ain't No Victory


After reading Family Skeletons by Rett MacPherson, I'm starting to realize the importance of bringing a list when I go to the library. This is one that I picked at random, because I liked the cover art (the library edition has a different cover) and the premise sounded interesting. I just wish the story had delivered.

This is the first book in a series featuring Victory "Torie" O'Shea, the resident historian of small town New Kassel, Missouri. When the story opens, she's busy working as a tour guide during the town's festival honoring its German roots. Although Torie has her hands full with her work at Gaheimer House, a historic home turned museum, she's intrigued when Norah Zumwalt comes to her asking for help. Norah, a local shop owner, asks Torie to trace her family tree. Specifically, she wants help finding her father, who left for WWII and never came home. Torie gets to work, discovering that not only is Norah's father alive, but also living in a nearby town. Armed with this information, Torie eagerly sets out to tell Norah, but the woman seems to have disappeared. When Torie drives to Norah's house, she finds the bloody corpse of her client.

The experience shakes Torie up, but also hardens her resolve. She must solve Norah's family mysteries and figure out what secrets were damning enough to cause the woman's death. Torie's nemesis, Sheriff Colin Brooke, is also on the case. Although Torie provides him with some useful information, the sheriff is not happy to have her as his unofficial assistant. Reluctantly, the two work together, digging up secrets someone doesn't want unearthed. Despite warnings to back off, Torie can't keep away from this intriguing case of mistaken identity, murder and family relationships that are, well, murder.

Like I said, I thought this book had a fun premise. I love the idea of a genealogist finding mysteries in people's family trees, and thought it would make a good story. And it would have in the hands of a better writer, or a more attentive editor. The writing is just clumsy, with awkward sentences and a sloppy plot. The characters in the novel are equally as weak. I found Torie downright unlikable. She is caustic, cold and not sympathetic in the least. The minor players were shadows and/or cliches. As for the mystery, I thought it was unimaginative and predictable - the murderer was so obvious that I dismissed the character outright, thinking there was no way he/she would turn out to be the villain. Of course, in the end, Torie walks right into the killer's trap, where she coerces the truth out of the bad guy (or girl) and solves the case.

I realize this is the first book in the series, and maybe the subsequent books are better than this one. Maybe I'll take the time to find out, maybe I won't.

GRADE: C

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sit Down, Relax, and let Susanna Clarke's Masterpiece Cast Its Spell

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

by Susanna Clarke is the kind of book that begs you to pull up a comfortable chair (preferably next to a nice, cozy fire), relax, and lose yourself in its pages. You may have guessed this simply by observing its bulk - 782 pages with microscopic type. And, it's true - this book is not a quick read. It's also not the type of novel you can carry around in your purse to read in spurts while waiting for appointments, slow traffic, etc. So, what is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and why should you wade through its mass of pages? Read on...

Clarke spins a rich, old-fashioned tale that begins with a meeting of "gentleman" magicians pondering this question: Why [is] there no more magic done in England? After all, magic was routinely performed in the past, but this is 1806 and no one has seen a spell cast in the present day. Of course, the meeting is filled with magicians, but they are theoretical, not practical wizards. To answer their intriguing inquiry, the group decides to seek instruction from a magician in Yorkshire, the reclusive Mr. Norrell. The gentlemen manage to persuade the old magician to move to London, where they promise to help him bring magic back into fashion. To attract attention to his cause, Mr. Norrell performs two incredible feats - he causes all the statues in York Cathedral to speak and he raises a young woman from the dead. Although he knows of their tricky nature, Mr. Norrell employs a Fairie to help with the latter deed. His actions have the desired effect. Suddenly, the old magician finds himself commissioned by the government to help battle Napoleon Bonaparte in a war with France that is causing England no end of frustrations. Satisfied, Mr. Norrell applies himself to his work, spending most of his time studying magic in the safety of his library. He considers the matter of his Fairie assistant not at all.

About this time, Jonathan Strange arrives in the city. Strange is a young gentleman with plenty of money and no career. He approaches the now-famous Mr. Norrell, seeking lessons in magic. The older man soon discovers that the younger has extraordinary natural talent. However, Strange seems restless with constant studying. He would rather be out performing magic, preferably to an admiring audience.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening in London. Lady Pole, the young woman helped by Mr. Norrell, has become withdrawn and morose. She complains that she is tired from dancing all night, even though she has attended no ball. Likewise, servants in her home complain of a bell that is constantly tolling. The master servant, Stephen Black, is having disconcerting experiences with a curious man who promises to make him a king. Both Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange are called on to explain these occurrences, but neither can deduce the real problem, although it smacks of Fairie magic. Mr. Norrell publicly rages against the wretched race and its Otherworlds, while Strange decides to pursue the matter more aggressively. When his own wife mysteriously disappears, Strange drives himself to madness trying to summon a Fairie to help him bring her back.

When Strange finally succeeds, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, England's entire landscape changes - roads and bridges appear where there were none before, thickets appear which are strewn with corpses and bones, and unrelenting Darkness descends. It is up to Norrell and Strange, who have long since parted ways, to banish the Fairie world and break the spells that bind Mrs. Strange and others to their terrible world. It is a showdown that will require all their magical skills and cost them everything, including their sanity and, indeed, their very lives.

Despite its subject matter, Clarke tells her story in a warm, engaging tone that sucks the reader slowly into the story. As I've said before, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is not a page turner, but the action is steady enough to keep the reader interested. The characters are unique and interesting, especially the colorful Jonathan Strange. I also loved that Clarke created a whole magical history, which she refers to constantly in lively footnotes, which are so convincing that I actually consulted Wikipedia to see if the books she cited ever existed (they didn't - she made them up). All of these things combine to make a rich, detailed story that kept me reading for days. To put it simply, this book cast a heavy spell on me - I simply couldn't put it down.

GRADE: A+

Friday, October 19, 2007

This & That

So, I'm still working my way through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but I am loving every page. It's an excellent book - look for my review sometime soon (hopefully). I'm trying to finish it quickly so I can go onto my last book for the R.I.P. II Challenge - Lord of the Rings. Definitely stay tuned! In the meantime, I wanted to mention a few things:



First, I was so inspired by (I was going to insert the name of the blogger here, but I can't remember who it was!) that I went to the library the other day WITHOUT a list. I never do that, but I thought I could benefit from a little spontaneity. So, I grabbed Garden Spells by Sarah Addison and The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle, both of which are on my TBR list. Then, I just went crazy and grabbed a couple more that I had never heard of. One is Family Skeletons by Rett MacPherson, which is the story of a historian/geneaologist who is hired to look into the disappearance of a friend's father, who left for WWII and never came home. I thought it looked fun. The other is Margaret's Peace by Linda Hall. It's about a woman who returns to her childhood home after her daughter's death only to find herself caught up in long-hidden family secrets. Love those family secrets! They make for such juicy books. So, anyway, we'll see what I think of this pile of novels.

Secondly, I wanted to give a shout out to Eva, for motivating me take my book list to a whole new level of OCD-driven organization. Just this morning, I was perusing it and realizing how many book suggestions I get from book blogs. So, thank you, book bloggers! I subscribe to the feeds of many of your blogs and read them religiously. It's so nice to have this wonderful book-minded community in the blogosphere.

Thirdly, I signed up for a new challenge. Read all about it on my companion blog, Up For A Challenge.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a magazine I enjoy called Bookmarks. It's a great magazine that features book reviews, author interviews and other bookish items. I mention it because the editor asked subscribers to spread the word via blogs and reviews, so that the magazine can stay in business, unlike my former fave Pages. The subscription is a bit pricey, but it's worth it. You can find this magazine at bookstores, but they receive more of your money if you purchase a subscription.

Okay, that's it. Back to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Have I mentioned how much I love this book??

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Classic Ghost Story Comes to Disappointing End

So, I had a book crisis as I was packing for Lake Powell: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would not fit into my suitcase. I even traded my husband suitcases, so I'd have more room. Nope. The novel was just too big. So, I ended up taking The Woman in Black by Susan Hill instead. I admit a Victorian ghost story is an odd thing to read at bright, sunny Lake Powell, but I enjoyed it.

This novel has all the elements of a classic ghost story - a lonely setting, a creaky old mansion, and a resident ghost. It also contains a young solicitor eager to advance in his law firm. The lawyer, Arthur Kipps, receives an assignment to travel from his home in London to the remote town of Crythin Gifford. There, he will settle the affairs of Mrs. Drablow, the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House. Flattered to be given such an important mission, Arthur heads off on his adventure. He finds the people in Crythin Gifford friendly enough, although no one will talk about Mrs. Drablow. Their reticence piques Arthur's curiosity. As he visits the spinster's home, goes through her papers and talks to her neighbors, he slowly pieces together her mysterious story. The clues appear to him in ghostly forms: a malevolent woman in black; the sounds of a child crying at night on the lonely marshes; and an eerily well-preserved nursery. Although the search for Mrs. Drablow's secrets haunts him, Arthur cannot keep himself away from the ghosts and the mystery. His obsession takes a toll on him physically, which is nothing compared to what the woman in black will eventually steal from him.

Despite the subject of this novel, I found the tone quite warm, especially at first. As Arthur travelled to Crythin Gifford, however, it got more sinister. The descriptions of the lonely little town and its haunted marshes made me shiver. Still, it seemed to be a pretty cozy, predictable ghost story. Except it wasn't. I predicted a typical happy end to the story, but it didn't happen. The book ends abruptly, in about the bleakest way possible. Although it makes sense, I really wanted a good, satisfying end to Arthur's story. So, since I really enjoyed the book, but didn't like the ending, I'm giving it a solid B.

Friday, October 12, 2007

M.I.A.

I have an excuse for being M.I.A. this week - I'm wading through Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a little slow for me at first, but now I'm loving it. The book is enormous, so I'll post a review when I finish it (around March, at this rate). I rarely read two
books at a time, but currently I'm also reading Woman in Black, a ghost story by Susan Hill. It was due at the library a week ago; I'm hoping I can renew it, since I'm enjoying it, too.
Last night, I set up a new blog - really a companion to this one. I shamelessly stole this idea from Chris: Since my sidebars were drooping under the weight of all my challenge lists, I decided to put them and all other challenge-related info on my new blog, Up For A Challenge. I haven't decided exactly how I will use it, but for now it contains all of my challenge lists with links to reviews on this site. I'll keep working on both of these, since blogging about books is just so much fun for me!
Last but certainly not least, I'm going to be even more M.I.A. this week as I am off to Lake Powell, for our family's bi-annual houseboat trip. I'm hoping to get some reading done, but I may be too busy jetskiing, hiking, boating, etc. Catch you later!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

What If Happily Ever After Wasn't All That Happy After All?

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella: a young peasant woman marries handsome Prince Charming after winning his hand with the help of her Fairy Godmother. The couple, of course, lives happily ever after. But, what if it didn't really happen that way? What if Cinderella earned the prince's attention through her own pluck and cleverness? And what if happily ever after wasn't all that happy after all? These questions form the backbone of Margaret Peterson Haddix's young adult novel, Just Ella.

Our heroine is Ella Brown, a 15-year-old girl who's engaged to marry handsome Prince Charming. Although she's thrilled to be luxuriating in the palace instead of waiting on the "Step Evils" (her stepmother and stepsisters, who made her their servant after the death of her father) hand and foot, she's beginning to realize that being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, she's confined to the castle where her every movement is dictated by what is appropriate for a princess (needlework; bridal gown fittings; and stiff, chaperoned conversations with the prince) and what is not (mingling with servants; watching sporting events; and lifting a finger to do servants' work). Under the critical eye of Madame Bisset, her decorum instructor, Ella tries to mold herself into a perfect princess, but the strain is killing her. In addition to the stress of adjusting to this new life, Ella finds herself at the center of the castle's juiciest morsel of gossip - everyone seems to be twittering about how she bamboozled the prince through the use of her Fairy Godmother's magic. Knowing it was her own cleverness that got her into the castle, Ella finds the rumor downright insulting. "I'd done something everybody told me I couldn't," she thinks, "I'd changed my life all by myself. Having a fairy godmother would have ruined everything" (56). All of this, however, pales in comparison to the prince himself. Sure, he's handsome, but he doesn't seem to have an original thought in his gorgeous head. Worst of all, he's attracted to Ella only for her beauty. With relief, Ella realizes that not only is he not in love with her, but she's not the least bit in love with him.

The solution to Ella's miserable situation seems simple: tell the prince how she feels, break the engagement, and get on with life. To her surprise, it's not that simple. The Charming Family does not look kindly on scandal, a fact Ella discovers when she wakes up in the castle's dungeon. Madame Bisset informs her that she will be released only when she is ready to face her duties as a princess. Knowing she can never live such a confined life, Ella resolves to find her way out of the castle the same way she got herself into it - through her own skill and cunning.

Although Just Ella isn't my most favorite story by Haddix, I enjoyed reading this re-telling of Cinderella. I loved the idea of this novel. It answers all the questions Disney glossed over: How does a girl who has been so abused live life in a constant state of happiness and optimism? (Answer: She doesn't. She resents her stepmother/sisters) How do two people fall madly in love after dancing for a couple of hours? (Answer: They don't - it's merely lust) How does a commoner adjust to a completely different life as a princess? (Answer: Blood, sweat and tears). As always with Haddix's books, I found the most interesting part of this novel to be the deeper issues she explores, like the true nature of love, the true nature of evil, and the laziness of the overindulged.

Don't fret if you're looking for a quick, exciting read, because this story has that, too. The plot is lively, if somewhat predictable. It also features a wonderful heroine who has a keen mind and the courage to use it. All I'm saying is that this is a multi-faceted book, with many layers of meaning ... see why Haddix is my new favorite young adult author?

Grade: B+ because it was good, but not so good that I have to shout it from the rooftops

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Elizabeth Swann's Got Nothin' on Charlotte Doyle

I'm not sure a better setting exists for an old-fashioned adventure tale than the high seas. Something about a creaking ship riding the endless, always fickle sea, makes for exciting scenes
and imaginative characters. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by prolific children's author Avi, is no exception.

The story takes place in 1832 and stars 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle. Charlotte is an American girl who has just completed her final term at Liverpool's Barrington School for Better Girls, and is returning home to her family in Rhode Island. Her gentleman father has arranged passage for her on the ship Seahawk. Although he planned to have her travel in the company of two other families, both have bowed out at the last minute, leaving Charlotte to cross the sea alone. The idea terrifies her, especially when she observes the rat-infested vessel with its menacing, all-male crew. Before the ship has even left port, Charlotte has received numerous ominous warnings to leave the Seahawk. Since her father has left her with no money, she has no choice but to follow his instruction and travel on the filthy ship.

Although Charlotte vows to lock herself in her room, it isn't long before hunger draws her out. It also draws her to the cook, Zachariah, who secretly gives her a dirk, urging her to take it and "Place it where it may be reached" (24). The old sailor then explains that a mutiny is in the works against cruel Captain Jaggery. Charlotte can't decide whom to trust - the weathered cook with his stories of the Captain's brutality or Captain Jaggery, a cultured gentleman, who warns her not to listen to the sailors' exaggerated stories. Caught in the middle, Charlotte rats out the crew, and soon finds herself a pariah among dangerous men. To redeem herself, she casts aside her white gloves and petticoats, and joins the crew. Although the act wins her some loyalty, it is not enough to save her from a later charge of murder, which demands death by hanging. With only 24 hours to prove her innocence, Charlotte must use all her strength and wits to save herself and the ship that has become her whole world.

I absolutely loved this swashbuckling story of high adventure on the open sea. The action never quit, which meant I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I also enjoyed the characters, although the sailors all kind of blended together. I guess that's appropriate since the real focus was Charlotte. Although she began as a pretentious snob, she turns into a heroine with enough pluck and compassion to win over any reader's heart. She reminded me a little of Elizabeth Swann, (Kiera Knightly's character on Pirates of the Caribbean), but Charlotte solved her problems almost entirely on her own, so I think she wins in the pluck department. Although I felt the story ended the way it should, it still bothered me a little as a parent. Besides that, though, it was a wonderful, thrilling adventure. I loved it. I'm giving it a solid A.

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