A Pearl in the Storm

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , | Posted on 11:39 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

For a little nonfiction blurb, we have Tori Murden McClure's A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. It's an account of McClure's attempts to become the first woman to row a boat across the Atlantic. Yes, row. Alone. Across the Atlantic.

This is more than slightly crazy.

But McClure comes off as a remarkably sensible individual; sharp, erudite, and no stranger to the harshness of life. She structures her narrative in the model of an epic quest, with the woman taking the role of knight-errant, off to slay her dragon -- which, in McClure's case, takes the unexpected form of helplessness, a feeling that has plagued her in various guises through her life. She sets her chapters as daily entries tracking her progress across the waves, while drifting back into reminiscing about the struggles and people who have shaped her up to that point.

The book has a lyrical, meditative feeling but with a hard-edged practicality and some riveting descriptions as McClure is caught up in tempests both physical and mental - think The Hatchet, not Eat, Pray, Love. Women can go on quests and conquer challenges just as ably as men, but McClure soon discovers that our own individual paths rarely fit the expected mold. Spinning out a journey of revelation, McClure has some beautiful insights to share along with her varied and impressive life experience, and she invites the reader along to join in the adventure.

Let It Snow

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 7:10 AM


Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances
By: John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I am not normally one for short story collections, but in the spirit of the holidays I picked up this ensemble piece, featuring three YA authors I've enjoyed. All three tales involve Christmas, romantic hijinks, and a huge blizzard, and are nicely interlinked -- the characters in each cross each others' paths in entertaining yet not-too-contrived ways.

Johnson kicks off the trilogy with Jubilee, a young lady who, in a series of unfortunate holiday
events, finds herself on a train to Graceland on Christmas Eve, with two parents in jail due to a Christmas toy village riot and no response from her busy boyfriend (and it happens to be their anniversary). And then the train gets stuck in a giant snowdrift, and Jubliee meets Jeb, and then the cheerleaders arrive...

The story was light and unpredictable and features a Waffle House (so I highly approved) -- and Jubilee handles the growing insanity with admirable aplomb.

The fun continues with John Green and Tobin, the Duke, and JP -- the Duke is actually a (totally amazing) girl, while Tobin narrates, explaining how all three of them are called to the Waffle House in the middle of the blizzard. You see, Tobin's friend Keun works at said Waffle House. And the above-mentioned plague of cheerleaders? Arrive at the WH. Obviously it is a boy's One True Dream to find himself snowed in at a Waffle House with an entire squad of bored cheerleaders. The only question is: who will supply the game of Twister?

This begins an epic race through the snowy streets and darn if this wasn't my favorite story; John Green beats all for smart, snappy teens (if a little too conscious of their own brainpower, sometimes), and his Wacky Happenings are lovingly described in hilarious detail.

Myracle brings us home with the magical story of Addie, who is most definitely not in the Christmas spirit, what with suffering a wrenching breakup that is pretty much totally her fault -- but she has her own adventure involving Starbucks, a teacup pig, and quite possibly a Christmas miracle. Not the strongest story of the bunch (Addie was self-absorbed to annoyance; a flaw that Myracle's characters often seem to struggle with) but it wrapped things up nicely, which is not an easy feat.

Overall: A light, frothy Christmas treat, tasty as sugar cookies and hot chocolate. This was my first seasonal short story piece, and I was pleasantly impressed -- do you have your own favorite holiday/cold-weather-warm-heart tales? I'd love to get more suggestions!

Wishing you all safety, warmth, family and fun for the holidays!

Immortal by Gillian Shields

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:51 PM



Rating: 2/5 stars.

When I set out to write this review, I had trouble remembering the title -- was it Eternal? Abiding? Undying? Something to do with lasting forever...

Sadly, the book was equally forgettable. Take every Gothic cliche you've ever stumbled across on a stormy night in the churchyard, toss in some diary entries from a Ghostly Presence and stir in all the angst-ridden spices of a Doomed Teen Love, and you end up with something pretty bland and predictable. After The Splendor Falls, it almost felt like an object lesson in all the ways a supernatural-digging-up-the-past while exiled-to-a-strange-place story can fall flat.

The heroine is banished to Wyldcliffe Abbey School for Young Girls after her grandmother and primary guardian suffers a stroke (her father is off on military duty). The school, an appropriately gloomy Castle On the Moors type, just seems to be haunted -- by a redheaded girl who strikingly resembles Evie herself.

Le gasp!
Of course, Evie doesn't even make it to the school ("That cursed place!" the cabdriver hilariously --er, ominously -- snarls) before having an Eerie Encounter, with a young man on a dark horse who knocks her down in the rain and is terribly rude and yet mysteriously appealing...

Oh, I can't go on.

I didn't hate the book. I was just totally indifferent. To pretty much everything, from the prose to the characters to the themes (women harnessing magic = girl power! Evil controlling man who wants the magic = thinly veiled metaphor for male oppression!).

If you want to be inundated with Gothic sensationalism, read a Wilkie Collins. If you want a Doomed Romance on the Moors, read Wuthering Heights. Even better, check out Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which takes all those stereotypes and gives them a firm tweak on the nose. Plus, you'll get a great romance with characters you'll care about (oh, Henry Tilney, please do smirk in my direction!). But unless you've never before encountered a Mystery on the Moors with a Young Girl and Shadowy Male Figure, you can give this book a pass on the shelves.

The Splendor Falls by Rosemary Clement-Moore

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 6:34 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars.

I had an inkling I'd enjoy this book, based on how much I've liked Clement-Moore's supernatural Nancy Drew-meets-Buffy Prom Dates from Hell series. And I wasn't disappointed.

Sylvie Davis is a ballerina; dancing is her entire life. She has worked tirelessly for years to build her career, to become the youngest prima ballerina in her company. Then, in a single freak moment, her entire future falls apart. After all, who ever heard of a ballerina with a broken leg?

And then her divorced mother remarries Sylvie's psychiatrist, and Sylvie gets shipped off to Alabama to spend some quality time with her deceased father's family.

Life sucks, no?

But thankfully we've got a heroine with chutzpah, who may not be underprivileged but who doesn't take herself too seriously -- not at all the snobby, stuck-up princess type you'd expect. Ballerinas work hard, and that means knowing your own limits as well as your abilities. Sylvie has a wry, clear-eyed view that makes her situation a lot more interesting than the typical 'rich girl shipped to Podunk, Nowhere.'

Plus, there are all those ghosts lurking around.

Bluestone Hill, the ancestral Davis mansion, has its share of secrets, and Sylvie finds herself caught up in disturbing visions of the family's past. Not to mention being unwillingly enlisted in the town's future --there are plans for development that threaten to destroy old historical sites like the Cahawba Old Town remains, and not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of turning into another tourist-trap for cityfolk.

The conflict is nicely personified in the form of two boys, of course -- the handsome but infuriating Rhys, an archaeology grad student from Wales who excels at getting under Sylvie's skin, and the charming Tom-Sawyer-Golden-Boy-of-the-South Shawn Maddox, who takes a marked interest in Sylvie's arrival (and for reasons beyond 'rich girl from NYC,' it seems). Of course, things aren't simple, as both boys seem to be hiding something. Rhys is decidedly cagey about his supposed 'research' in the area, while Shawn is head of the Teen Town Council, a youth group that seems to have the run of the town and gives off an eerie Leave It To Beaver vibe.

Tugged by these opposing attractions, tangled up in her own emotional turmoil over the loss of her dancing career and coming to terms with her father's death -- Sylvie has to wonder if she's cracking up when she starts seeing the woman running in the woods, or feeling the chill of an old Colonel's stare on the deserted landing. But then she finds the diary, and starts doing her own digging into Bluestone Hill's past...

Satisfyingly rich and well-paced, this book held up for its length and kept me caught up in Sylvie's story all the way through. Rhys and Shawn were excellent as well, and the supporting cast (Paula, the unofficial matriarch of Bluestone Hill; Addie, the snotty Girl Rival) were also well drawn. The only complaint I have is in the conclusion; after all that buildup, things were wrapped up a bit too quickly for my taste. But it didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book overall, and the characters and setting were so vibrant that when I turned the last page I was mostly just disappointed to be leaving Bluestone Hill and Clement-Moore's Haunted South.

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 7:49 AM


Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

I adore A.S. Byatt more than I can coherently explain. Or at least I've loved the two books of hers that I've read so far, Possession and The Children's Book. I picked up my copy of Possession in a creaky little used bookstore in Norwich, England, and my memory of that February will be forever tinged with the flavor of that particular story -- the delicious combination of scholarly mystery, intertwining histories and rich prose that kept me reading long into the cold English nights.

It's the language that does it for me; Byatt has a style that reads almost like poetry, and she can weave such an intricate tapestry that it reminds me of standing in a restored music room in the Victoria & Albert museum, transported by the gleaming surfaces as much as the weight of history beneath them. Incidentally, The Children's Book features the V&A almost as another character itself; it's set during the end of the nineteenth century, straddling the end of Victoria's reign and the transition to the Edwardian era.

The book begins in the museum, with two boys spying on another at work sketching an artifact -- but it rapidly expands to encompass the trials and drama of several large, interconnected families who are all caught up in the shifting social, artistic, political and religious currents of the times. Normally I don't like sprawling epic family works -- it's hard to keep the characters straight, for one thing -- but Byatt caught me in a web of fairy myth and secrets that kept me reading until far too late at night (again).

I can see where people could argue that the book is too long; there are many passages that feel like long, elaborate exercises in stage setting, more like a study of Victorian England than any plot development -- but since I've always been interested in this time period, it felt like a pleasant diversion instead of a chore. Plus, I was learning a lot -- I had no idea that the suffrage movements in England were so viciously, frantically violent. This wasn't a bunch of ladies in ruffles complaining over tea; marching down the street, smashing shop windows, and oh yes, blowing up houses all made the agenda. And the government response was no less extreme, force-feedings and brutal beatings...with the added strain of class conflict and the looming aggressions of World War I, it must have felt like the world was shaking apart.

Which is probably why children's stories and fairy tales suddenly became popular, as people took refuge from an increasingly chaotic world in creations of fantasy. Not that fairy tales were all fun and games; these are the ancient, shadowed myths that the Brothers Grimm found, not the sanitized pastel-colored romps on most children's shelves today. This world is disturbing and odd, but there are rules here, and something about the stories touches deeper in our consciousness -- Byatt's exploration of myth and fantasy seized my interest as much as her characters' struggles, if not more so.

I could go on (and on), but at some point the rambling must end, so I'll sign off for now with a sigh for my lost bed partner. Even if this means I should be getting more sleep.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 9:02 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars.

I'll admit it: I didn't want to like this book. It had a lot to do with the reviews -- one described it as a modern-day, slightly twisted Catcher in the Rye, which makes my list of 'Classic Books that I Hate With a Mixture of Defiance and Guilt' (you all have these lists, right?). Plus, all of the reviews were just glowing about this book that was:
  • 1/3 part fantasy-fest, with talking lawn gnomes/ancient Vikings in disguise, a hypochondriac dwarf, a punk-rock angel with spray-painted wings and giant, seven-foot tall fire demons;
  • 1/3 part philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, with a dying protagonist struggling to understand an impossibly random universe;
  • 1/3 part head-trip crazyfest, since our hero is actually dying of Mad Cow disease and has been entrusted with a mission/road trip to save the universe (our universe, at least). Oh, and find a mysterious Dr. X, a time-traveling figure who can supposedly cure him.

Kind of a lot to live up to.

So I approached with a hefty dose of skepticism and the tiniest nigglings of hope. And in the beginning, I Doth Doubteth Much. Cameron isn't an easy guy to like -- he's made it his mission to be pretty much invisible, coasting through high school and life with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of sarcasm. He's smart but apathetic, self-aware enough to be interesting but still grating -- he typecasts everyone, including himself (father = control freak; sister = perfectionist; mother = 'driftwood,' just like him). I could see the Holden comparison, and I wasn't charmed.

But then, once his life is ground up and mashed with the bovine death-sentence prognosis and the hallucinations and the sudden Quest to Save Everyone, and he stumbles off on the Road Trip of Cracktastic Events, something happened that pulled me in, despite myself -- Cameron begins to care.

And gosh darn it, I started to care with him. Curse you, Libba Bray.

This book isn't especially subtle -- some of the messages are pretty heavy-handed, with encounters that just scream 'metaphor' and 'allegory' and all that symbolic goodness. Plus, there are tons of references to the granddaddy of Crazy Random Journey with Deeper Societal/Philosophical Meanings, Don Quixote, the assigned book in Cameron's Spanglish class. It's also a pretty crowded work; Libba Bray is pulling on a lot of strings here, and if things feel a little disjointed or contrived, it's more impressive that it doesn't all fall apart. But I have to admit she's nailed some good satire on teen media/our media society, and hit the good ole points of identity, fate, and choice that gnaw on all of our toes at night.

And she's got a good sense of humor. Her writing style still doesn't thrill me, for some reason -- the action always seems a little rushed, and the description is too short-hand for my taste (but I'm a sucker for lush - maybe overly lush - prose). The most important thing is, despite myself, from being consciously set against it, I fell in like with this story. Not love, but like.

And for a modern-day, Holden Caulfield-meets-Geek-Fantasy-Crazyfest, that isn't half bad.

Devil's Kiss

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 9:53 PM


Rating: 3/5 stars

Okay, so it definitely starts well:

"Killing him should be easy; he's only six."

And we're off with a bang, plunged into the world of Billi SanGreal, 15-year old girl and initiate to the ancient order of the Knights of Templar -- not that she wants to be. A lifetime of killing demons, devils, and assorted nasty spirits only sounds glamorous to the ignorant and the idiotic. Billi knows the truth: to be a Knight is to face death every day, to train until your body collapses, and most of all, to devote yourself utterly to the holy mission. Which means hardening your soul against everything else, including all ties of love and compassion.

Including your own family.

Her father certainly doesn't have any difficulty with that -- Arthur SanGreal is said to terrify the devil himself, and his ruthlessness is equally legendary. Billi would never believe the gossip about her father being responsible for her mother's death -- she knows that ghuls were the culprits -- but he reveals precious little affection for his own daughter. Sometimes Billi thinks he only values her as a potential Knight, another soldier for the cause. And it makes her furious. And lonely. It doesn't help that Kay, her only friend among the Knights, has been sent off to Jerusalem to train his psychic abilities -- and hasn't sent her a word since.

So when Mike shows up, a charming, intriguing stranger who seems to understand about overbearing fathers, Billi is tempted to give up this life altogether. After all, who wants a life of constant fear and danger? Doesn't she have a right to choose her own path?

Billi is great, full of fury and angst and yet too responsible and aware of the stakes to slip into whiny bratdom. The action scenes are nicely paced, the mythology is well-executed, and there are some very atmospheric horror bits. The only problem? The bad guys. See, devils and demons, that's fine. But when your Big Bad includes the Angel of Death and Satan Himself, well -- I mean, how do you fight Death?

I was fine and dandy with everything till then -- but the idea of actually vanquishing God's Appointed Judge Upon Mankind seemed a) a bit overambitious and b) kind of blasphemous and ultimately pointless. If they win, does Death just stop? Is there a replacement angel waiting in the wings? Will it tick off God?

I won't spoil any more -- do they survive? Does the world end? Apocalypse looms --- so let's just call this an exciting supernatural/horror thrill ride with a sympathetic heroine and a couple of nice twists.

Shiver

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 7:35 PM


Rating: 5/5 stars

This is a story about a girl and her wolf.

Grace has always known him by his yellow eyes, every winter since the wolves pulled her from the tire swing in the backyard. Her wolf. After she was attacked, she remembered his eyes, the way he pushed at her hand -- pushed the other wolves away, rescued her. Every winter since then, she sees him in the woods outside their house. She feels his gaze.

In the winter, Sam knows only two things: the instincts of the wolf and the longing for the girl. Even as an animal, he feels drawn to her, pulled by vague whispers of memory and need -- an instinct to protect that drove him against his pack that awful, bare winter, when they were desperate enough to kill.

In the winter, he is the wolf. In the summer, he is Sam. But he always remembers the girl.

Once you're bitten, the change is triggered by cold -- when the temperature plummets, every winter Sam loses his skin to the wolf, but every summer he returns. Except that his years as human are ultimately numbered. Each year, the change to wolf comes sooner -- early fall -- while the change back slips further and further into summer. Until the year Sam won't change back. Until he stays a wolf.

But then the hunters come, and Sam is shot, and Grace rescues him - and they both discover what they have been missing in each other. And what neither of them can bear to live without.

This is a love story, and it is lyrical and beautiful and quietly sad -- think Twilight, only minus the overdone swooning and disturbingly controlling-boyfriend behavior. It helps that the story balances between Grace's and Sam's points of view, and also that a) Grace is a highly practical and levelheaded girl, described by her mother as an emotional 'tank' b) Sam is a sensitive, kind boy (to the point of emo stereotype) and c) both characters recognize and mock these traits in each other, as appropriate. It also really helps not to have the "love you/eat you" vibe going on -- yes, Sam is a wolf in the winter. No, Sam is not have to battle the Beast Raging Within as some symbolic struggle against the male urge to ravish the nubile female. Sam loves Grace. Sam wants Grace (yes, in that way). Grace wants Sam (oh yes). And they are actually able to talk about these things without the sex turning into some dark animal urge that MUST BE DENIED for the sake of your soul!

Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway: Compelling story with a gorgeous, autumnal atmosphere and excellent characters with real lives within a lush, believable setting, and of course werewolves. What more could you want?

Blood & Chocolate

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 7:36 PM


Rating: 1/5 stars. Only because of a promising title.

We'll keep this short and sweet. In Blood & Chocolate, we follow the story of Vivian Gandillon, young lycanthrope and smokin' hot babe. And boy, does she know it. Tall, leggy, with full breasts, a tiny waist, and "slim hips that curved enough to show she was female" -- plus the whole golden skin, thick, tawny hair, and -- yes, even golden eyes. Golden, captivating eyes.

Gag me with a spork.

I have no problem with attractive female characters, and confident ones who aren't afraid to show their sex appeal can be extremely refreshing (if done right) but Vivian is just wish-fulfillment all over. And shallow as all hell. When the pathetically human, vaguely hippie object of her desire doesn't immediately fall to his knees before here, this is how she reacts:

"She raged at herself and the boy, and cried hot tears. 'I am beautiful!' she screamed hoarsely. 'Why can't he see that?'"

Seriously? I lost all interest loong before this point, but that was the proverbial silver stake in the heart. What happens to Vivian? Does she get the boy and save her pack and stop the murders and keep being gorgeous? Who cares?

At least the end was fully appropriate for the characters -- V gets exactly what she deserves in this storyworld, and I get to escape the Land of the Whiny Bitch.

Magic or Madness

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 9:38 PM


Rating: 2/5 stars

This isn't great fun for me; I don't like writing less-than-raving reviews (then again, I don't like reading less-than-awesome books). But I couldn't get into Magic or Madness so much. Part of it maybe was the description; although there were some beautiful passages about winter in NYC, and I did get a nice sense of Sydney as a city-with-green, most of it felt like pretty standard placesetting.

Briefly:
Reason has been taught two very important things by her mother, Sarafina:
1) Magic isn't real
2) Don't let your grandmother catch you.

This is because Reason's grandmother is a witch. Or thinks she is. And so Reason grew up rambling the Australian outback with her mother, learning rational explanations of the world around her and carefully avoiding all contact with the occult. Until her mother goes insane, and her grandmother finally catches her.

Oops.

Once Reason is trapped in the Wicked Witch's house, she discovers that everything she's been taught just might be wrong. After all, how else could she open a back door in Sydney, Australia and end up in New York City? And why is there a girl waiting for her there? And if her own mother has been lying all this time, who exactly can she trust?

The characters were fair enough -- Reason had some lovely quirks due to an upbringing on the run (a nagging habit of cataloging all available escape routes, for instance), and her math-oriented view of the world was also neat to experience. But I wasn't so in love with the jumping around to other characters' POVs. Not only did it not seem to add much besides filling in The Things Reason Cannot Know But We As Readers Should, it also made the main heroine seem kind of...flat, seen through everyone else's eyes. Of course, it didn't help that one of the other characters thought Reason was a total dimwit.

There was way too much cutesy 'divided by a common language stuff,' in my opinion -- yes, the first few Aussie/American slang clashes were bound to happen, but eventually the characters should cotton on a bit and stop being so surprised at This Foreign Tongue They Speak There.

I was probably expecting too much, really. This book was a setup piece to a longer series, so it obviously needed to lay the groundwork for further - more interesting - developments. In the meantime, worldbuilding was the main agenda; spinning out the main questions and shaking up characters' preconceptions, rather than actually answering anything or getting big questy things done. Like when Harry finds out he's a wizard, but before he actually gets rolling at Hogwarts with all the killer trolls and killer professors and scary frizzy-haired girls.

So maybe I'll put a hold on any final verdict for the series. It definitely wasn't boring in terms of 'OMGs They're All Just Talking,' or 'Ooh What's Behind This Door,' and at least the main character isn't like the Gorgeous Bitch in Blood and Chocolate (more on that later). With hope for later installments featuring more action and less talking/confused looks all around.

Little Brother

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 8:45 PM


Rating: 4/5 stars

Marcus Yallow, aka w1n5t0n, lives in a world basically like ours. He goes to high school in San Fransisco's Mission district, at an institution with a broken PA system, a petty dictator of a vice-president...and gait-monitor cameras in the hallways, tracking each student as they walk to and from class. Everyone's got those free classroom laptops -- that are all equipped with spyware, automatically logging each keystroke and reporting it to the school administration. Marcus Yallow does not live in a trusting world. But it's an eerily familiar one, otherwise.

Despite the ubiquitous surveillance, Marcus has a pretty good life -- he's figured out how to circumvent the system and enjoys tweaking Big Brother's nose every once in a while. He skips class pretty regularly, too, in order to join his teammates on Harajuku Fun Madness missions. Harajuku Fun Madness is an ARG, or alternate reality game, where players run around in the real world following clues that can be anything from GPS coordinates to a picture of a popular anime character. The game is fun in itself, but of course Marcus wants to win. Which is why he and his friends cut class to track down the next clue, and are out on the streets when the terrorists attack. And suddenly, the Department of Homeland Security seems to think that Marcus is one of the bad guys...

A smart teen techno-thriller that is accessible to non-geeks, Little Brother creates a world that looks a lot like ours, and asks uncomfortable questions about privacy and freedom that are deeply relevant today. Marcus is a sympathetic protagonist, and while his ideas about government and human rights remain firmly in the black-and-white, he is confronted with some interesting shades of gray as he becomes a fugitive in his own country. A good book for provoking discussion about pretty heavy political issues; even if the villains are Evil Freedom-Hating Government Agents and Narrow-Minded School Administrators, there are some 'good' characters who are convincingly on the fence, as everyday citizens torn between a need for security and nagging doubts about where the lines of government control should end. Where they actually do end is another question, since this book also offers disturbing insights on just how much we're being monitored, studied, and managed as a population (for our own safety, of course). It focuses on the darker side of 'conveniently' automated transactions, since that nifty travelpass swipe card can easily be used to track your daily commute -- and send up a flag when your travel behavior deviates from the norm.

Satisfyingly fast-paced, this is not a good book for the paranoid, but an excellent one for a current-day adventure, with a little techno-whiz education mixed in.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:33 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

Tiffany isn't sure that she has the proper name for a witch, but there's no helping it -- she is determined to be one, despite all those stupid fairy tales with the old crone who gets shoved into ovens or tossed into lakes or set on fire (and no one really thinks about whether this actually helps matters). It probably has something to do with her grandmother, or the way the Achings have always been linked to the Chalklands, but when monstrous things start showing up on the wold, Tiffany knows she has to put a stop to it.

The only problem is, no one's actually taught her how to be a real witch. So Tiffany has to improvise with frying pans and bits of string instead of the traditional kit of cauldron, broomstick, and pointy hat. And she has to be creative in other ways, too -- after all, using one's little brother as monster-bait may not be strictly on the level in a moral sense, but if it gets the job done...

Then Tiffany discovers that help is available, only not in the form she expects. She meets the Nac Mac Feegle, a fierce tribe of blue-tattooed, red-haired warriors, who also happen to be about six inches high. And tend to be compulsive thieves. Which at least explains about the missing eggs and the disappearing sheep.

The Nac Mac Feegles seem to know what's going on, and if Tiffany could get them to stop drinking and fighting long enough to explain, she might be able to sort it all out -- except then some sort of evil Queen kidnaps her little brother, and she is suddenly very short on time...

I adore Terry Pratchett. I love his wry sense of humor and his sly little jokes, and the way he takes the expected and twists it into something fresh -- and especially the obvious joy that he takes in words themselves, their flavors and possibilities. Tiffany is a practical, stubborn nine-year-old girl whose initial self-assurance is really just a bit of common sense with a hefty dollop of pigheadedness and a dash of selfishness - the perfect traits for a witch, who needs to know far more about thinking and watching and understanding how people work than flashy incantations or curses.

This book is geared towards a younger audience, but it doesn't get overly cutesy or simplistic, and the characters are definitely complex enough to care about. The pacing is lively and the plot flows well, and things are wrapped up in a satisfying fashion that leaves plenty of room for more adventures. Maybe not as beloved as the Night Watch exploits, but Tiffany Aching's Chalklands are well worth revisiting.

If I Stay

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:38 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

It was probably because of the snow.

If it weren't for the light dusting of snowfall in Oregon, school wouldn't have been closed, and Mia's parents wouldn't have taken the day off for a family outing. They wouldn't have all piled into the minivan together, little Teddy clamoring for control of the radio, everyone looking forward to a relaxing break and maybe dinner at the grandparent's house later. And if they hadn't been on that road, going around that corner at the same time as the truck --

They would all still be alive.

Instead, Mia is left standing over her mangled body, watching the paramedics re-inflate her lungs and hustle her into a helicopter. Gradually realizing that her parents are both dead. That Teddy is hurt, off in another hospital. That she herself is only clinging to life. And she has to decide: should she let go and cross over to whatever comes next? Or should she stay?

Beautifully and quietly presented, this book brings up the problems of love and choice in graceful ways; Mia will suffer loss no matter what she decides, and maybe there is no right answer or even one that will cause less pain. She faces her dilemma in a believable way, not immune to panic or helplessness at her situation, overwhelmed by the utter isolation during the most important decision of her life.

Somehow, this novel avoids schmaltz territory, and it gracefully weaves between Mia watching the unfolding drama in the hospital and remembering her life up until this point. It's been a good life, and since this isn't a Scrooge story, Mia knows it -- but she also understands that everything has shattered with the accident. If she stays, would it be worth it to try to pick up the pieces? If she goes, what -- and who -- will she be leaving behind?

A quiet novel with unexpected strength and moments of poetic beauty, particularly in the descriptions of music, this is an affirming story of human will, love, and the burdens of choices that we feel unprepared to make. Vibrant and human and refreshingly schmaltz-free.

Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 8:38 AM


Rating: 3/5 stars

How do you create a character who's often irritatingly self-righteous, yet also funny, smart, interesting, and deep down kind? And then tell a story from her point of view, showing how she's not totally oblivious to her faults but just blind enough to get into huge trouble? Meet Carly.

Carly's coming back from a hippie-esque summer camp in the mountains, an experience that has provided her with a skinny new figure, some interesting fashion aesthetics, and a whole new attitude towards the superficial, money-obsessed culture of her high school -- that is, complete and utter rejection. Carly is out to be real, and if that means ruffling some hometown feathers by not shaving her legs or by listening to 60's music or even by wearing eye-searing tie-die outfits....well, tough. She's not afraid to be different; she refuses to follow the herd.

Her old friends, of course, don't understand Carly's change of heart, and neither really does her sister, Anna. Little ducky Anna, who is just starting high school and suddenly isn't so little anymore -- especially in the bosom department. Carly doesn't know how to deal with Anna's unexpected transformation into teen sexpot...it isn't exactly nice to be jealous of your little sister's huge (*ahem*) assets, not to mention the way the boys are all drooling after her. To be fair, Anna herself is struggling with all the not-entirely-welcome attention that her new shape is causing, and navigating high school is obviously proving more difficult than she expected. But when is Big Sister Carly supposed to rush to the rescue -- and when should be let her little sister try to paddle along on her own?

Besides, Carly has her own preoccupations - like Cole, the smoldering new boy who happens to play acoustic guitar and has soulful eyes and totally gets all of Carly's 60's band references. It's a match made in Heaven...except Cole oddly persists in not asking Carly out and hanging out with these trashy Barbie girls instead. The only person who seems to appreciate Carly is Roger, her Danish friend, with his wry sense of humor and calm, steady demeanor -- except that Roger has been seeming a little too appreciative recently, especially since Carly doesn't like him back in that way. Does she?

A quality teen novel not only for the character challenge mentioned above, this story also manages to cover most of the 'high school experience' territory while dodging the worst cliches -- or at least smoothing them over with enough genuine interest and emotion. Case in point: 'The Boy Who Is Totally Wrong For Her' theme does unfortunately dominate the novel, but there's enough humor and genuine confusion on Carly's part to give it a pass (especially since the wonderful Roger also exists on the scene. Oh, Roger, you Giant Danish Love Boodle). The body issues also fly fast and furious, with some really cringe-worthy episodes involving diet/fashion obsessed parents absently demolishing their daughters' self-esteem with a few offhand comments. Not to mention the rampant hypocrisy and ignorance of the wealthy high school crowd, absorbed in vacuous and endless debates about hair treatments and vacation plans. A few supporting characters with an actual pulse -- Vonzelle most especially -- provide some relief from this oppressive teen atmosphere, and also give Carly a much-needed kick in the pants about her own self-absorbed and self-righteous tendencies.

Entertaining and substantial enough for a YA high school production, with a heroine who's often a bit frustrating but at least avoids dullness/total cliche. Even if you do want to throttle her sometimes. ;)

Paper Towns

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:28 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

Who is Margo Roth Spiegelman? High school legend, escape artist, perpetual runaway, Avenging Angel of Suburbia...

Quentin Jacobsen (Q), high school senior, feels pretty content with his normal life. Being minivan-chauffeured into school (often late), hanging out with his friends in band, unwinding with video games and looking forward to college -- he may not be at the top of the social totem pole, but Q has a comfortable space and a reasonable plan for life (college, career, maybe kids).

Until one night Margo Roth Spiegelman, Q's childhood sweetheart and the untouchable, dazzling figure of his fantasies, shows up at his window.

Wearing black face paint.

With a list of Eleven Tasks to complete before sunrise -- and she wants his help.

She leads him on a mad caper through the night hours, in a merry whirlwind of minivans, blue spray paint, catfish, and lots of Vaseline. Q has never felt so alive; he has never felt so close to this impossible, fascinating girl.

The next day, Margo Roth Spiegelman disappears.

Q has to find her. But in the course of tracking her down, Q's sense of Margo increasingly unravels, and he begins to wonder who he's really chasing -- and why.

It seems like coming-of-age tales 'classically' consist of a movement from a sheltered, relatively ignorant childhood to the overwhelming complexities of the adult world. Paper Towns is a different sort of story, maybe set a little later on in the process -- there is no oasis of tranquil youth, only the pressures of being an overinformed teenager in a suburban cookie-cutter housing development. Green's main characters fiercely question -- the world around them, their place in society, their own aspirations and assumptions -- and while it doesn't ease the uncertainty, it's at least vastly superior to apathetic conformity. The book is impressive for being able to pull this off, creating characters who are engaged with the world without sounding insipidly idealistic or preachy, and a major part of that is how sympathetic Green makes them, especially through some excellent humor. Also magnificent is how they are all complete people; some play larger roles than others, but no one is reduced to cardboard for the sake of emotional scenery.

Q is smart and sardonic and slightly terrified much of the time, and it's wonderful to come with him on his quest, his private investigation into The Life and Times of Margo Roth Spiegelman. He doesn't know what the hell he's doing, most of the time -- which is the perfect expression of not only teenagedom but life overall, as Q increasingly realizes. You can get so caught up in Q's point of view that even the more 'cliched' revelations avoid triteness, and the plot is a beautifully absorbing mix of character-driven drama and whodunit mystery.

Not a book to skim, by any means; this is a pretty complex work for YA, with some refreshing new twists in looking at the world. It's definitely possible to overhype this novel, but as long as you don't expect anything to completely explode your mind, this is a scintillating read about finding out who you really are, what you need in life, and what to do about that beer-can sword superglued to your hand.

Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , , | Posted on 8:34 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

An absorbing adventure novel in the best sense, this book deftly weaves Chinese folktales and legends into a fascinating backdrop for a strong heroine. In her story, Pon acknowledges but doesn't exaggerate the 'traditional' draconian social codes for women, and she also avoids trying to awkwardly shove a 'modern' tale into the cultural framework. For Ai Ling, life as a young woman isn't fair -- the only thing worse than being given away in an arranged marriage is being refused by her suitors and causing her parents to lose face. She is caught in an impossible situation, longing for a love match like her parents' but knowing that, with her father's past disgrace, she would be lucky to secure any young man of decent reputation and income.

When Ai Ling's father is called to court and does not return, his disappearance puts his wife and daughter in dire straits, and Ai Ling sets alone out to find him. She soon discovers that she faces worse dangers than the customary threats to a lone woman traveler; dark spirits seem to be hunting her, creatures that seem to come straight from the pages of her father's forbidden text, The Book of the Dead. Further, Ai Ling herself seems to be changing -- she is caught up in odd trances where she seems to hear other people's thoughts, as if her spirit is sailing out of her body. Then there's the matter of the jade pendant her father gave her, a seemingly innocuous stone that begins to glow when the demons threaten...

When Ai Ling meets Chen Yong, a young man with half-foreign heritage, she wonders if their destinies are somehow intertwined. He is searching for his own father, and Ai Ling finds him both compelling and troubling with his strange, green-tinged eyes -- can she trust him with her quest?

Well-written and complex without being overly involved; Pon crafts a plot that's naturally integrated into the cultural background of ancient China. What I love most about this book is how the setting and characters are presented so...naturally (for lack of a better term). There isn't that weird, self-conscious foreignization/domestication dance that usually happens when presenting Chinese culture to an 'American' audience, because Pon focuses on the characters and the world as part of their story. Readers who don't know anything about China won't feel shut out, and I loved discovering creatures and legends I'd never heard of before.

Plus, I got to root for a female heroine who is both strong and yet also part of her own society -- she's not completely custom-bound, but she dearly loves and respects her parents to the point of making sacrifices. The supporting characters were also nicely drawn and the story was fantastical and even romantic without being overly sentimental...if that makes any sense. Overall, an excellent read with an infusion of rich mythology (and some mouth-watering descriptions of food. Yum!).

The Awakening

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:31 AM


Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Yet another second-book-in-series review, following Kelley Armstrong's YA debut with The Summoning. Mildly spoilerish below:

We pick up just about exactly where The Summoning left off in the Adventures of Chloe Saunders, a drama/film major in an artsy high school who discovers that a) she can see and talk to ghosts, so b) all her childhood 'nightmares' were actually real and c) this qualifies her as 'crazy teen' in the eyes of society and family alike. So she gets shipped off to Lyle House, a group home for troubled teens...but soon after arriving, Chloe discovers that her fellow housemates aren't so much troubled as -- well, disturbing. There's Liz, who claims to have a poltergeist problem; Tori, with serious anger issues; Rae, who is a bit too fond of pyrotechnics; Simon, who's charming and friendly and doesn't seem to belong there at all; and Derek. Oh, Derek... A hulking mass of a teenaged boy, Derek suffers from a lack of: hygiene, patience, and any social skills whatsoever. As the wonderful Maya sums up in her review, "Puberty has hit him like a meteor!"

Of course, our heroine must get into Dire Straits with the Severely Misunderstood Yet Still Awfully Snappish Derek, as she investigates Lyle House and uncovers its true sinister purposes.

I enjoyed the first installment greatly.

Sadly, The Awakening seemed to suffer from The Empire Strikes Back Syndrome, aka Second Book in a Trilogy -- that perilous section where, if not handled properly, the story arc falters since not much is happening besides a buildup to The Final Showdown in book three. I didn't lose interest, exactly, but I wasn't especially shocked by anything that happened in this book; it didn't help that the characters were on the run for most of the time, and there are only so many times a chase-and-barely-escape routine should play out in one book. You know how The Lord of the Rings could be sarcastically summed up with the phrase, "And then they walked some more..."*
Well, events in The Awakening could be roughly described as, "And then they were chased some more..."

The focus was more on internal and interpersonal development, as Chloe discovers more about the Edison Group's nefarious schemes and her own squirrely necromancing powers...but even the characters seemed to be in a holding pattern at this point, not quite reaching any firm conclusions or goals. I'm fine with Chloe not achieving instant Obi-Wan control over her powers, but she gets the Han Solo end of the stick here -- she's constantly getting chased, snarked at, beat up, and generally pushed around by the plot. While Han Solo would just shoot everyone in the face, Chloe grits her teeth and takes it. Admirable, but also tedious after a while.

It wasn't a bad book by any means -- and it's probably a necessary one for the trilogy -- but it still isn't my favorite. Hopefully the last installment will pick things up again with a satisfying finish, where Chloe masters her mojo and summons an entire army of dead squirrels to crush her enemies and take over the world. Or not.


*Btw, I love The Lord of the Rings, every page, ever since my loooong high school bus ride days. Therefore, I mock with love.

Hell Week

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 11:02 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a review of the second in a series, but I don't have time for a first-series-book review and wanted to gush a bit about Hell Week now. So, mild plot spoilers for Prom Dates from Hell (the first book of the series) to follow:

Maggie Quinn, intrepid girl reporter, is no stranger to the supernatural -- after sixteen years of repressing her own psychic abilities, she was forced to wake up and smell the brimstone after a demon-summoning almost massacred her senior class on Prom Night. She saved the day with some quick thinking, snarky comebacks, and the guidance of her no-nonesense Irish grandmother -- oh, plus the assistance of her professor father's handsome graduate student, Justin (who has a winning combination of Boy Scout dependability and Indiana Jones rakish good looks).

Now in her freshman year of college, Maggie faces a host of new challenges, including a tougher reporting scene, an oddly distant Justin, and the horrors of an 8 a.m. Calculus class -- not to mention the mystery of the Sigma Alpha Xis, a sorority whose sisters tend to experience uncanny amounts of good luck. Maggie initially goes undercover during Rush in order to expose the hypocrisy and injustice of the campus Greek system, but as she approaches Pledge Night and Initiation, she finds that there's more than frat parties and bragging rights at stake. Something demonic is brewing on Greek Row, and it's up to Maggie to put a stop to it -- that is, if she can maintain her cover without getting pulled into the SAXi's enticing web of power, success, and perfect fashion sense.

It's easy to bill this one as Buffy meets Nancy Drew in the best way -- Maggie is a sharp, smart heroine who can banter with the best of them while dodging jinxs and demons. She's got insecurities too, though, and still struggles with her psychic 'gifts,' in the form of disturbing dreams and visions that feel more like full-body assaults. Plus, her now-ambiguious relationship with Justin has Maggie stuck in a romantic holding pattern that's easy to sympathize with, even as she observes the Greek scene and wonders about the real factors of attraction and desire on campus. Excellent plot with some great twists and a satisfying pace that never lapses into and-then-this-happened monotony; I was always eager to pick up the book for the next development, and the conclusion was a satisfying reward. With her sharp, vivid characters, witty dialogue and creative story, Clement-Moore officially has me hooked on the adventures of Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil.

Little (Grrl) Lost

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 9:16 AM


Rating: 1.5/5 stars

This review will be fairly short, because I was disappointed in this book and don't feel like spending much time on it. The premise seemed promising: a young girl, displaced and resentful after her family moves from their farmhouse to an anonymous city suburb, discovers that there's someone living behind the walls -- someone small, but with a big attitude. The two unlikely friends -- Goody Two-Shoes T.J. and the punk-rock 'Little' (the term for the diminutive not-fairy people) Elizabeth find common ground in their frustrations and confused longings. Both girls learn from each other as well; T.J. is in awe of Elizabeth's fierce independence and adventurousness, while the rebel Little discovers that some of T.J.'s cautious planning is necessary in a world that's much larger and more dangerous than she realized.

I wanted to like this book -- I remembered reading The Blue Girl by de Lint and enjoying it quite a bit -- but Little (Grrl) Lost was just...boring. Not even in that nothing really happens, plot-wise, but the characters themselves are all horribly flat and dull. T.J. isn't just a Goody Two-Shoes -- she isn't interesting at all, even when she starts 'rebelling' and 'finding herself.' All of the characters are more or less one-dimensional, and Elizabeth's tough girl act is so transparent it's not even worth the effort. No one seems capable of emotional complexity or interest; a character is either happy or sad or angry and that's it -- no mixed feelings, contradictions, denial, etc -- and then they go ahead and tell other characters about their feelings and motivations like they're in a casting call or something. It's all so mundane and stereotypical and irritating, like listening to someone describe their dream about being back in high school and forgetting their locker combination -- and then expecting you to care about this for who knows what reason. It broke my heart, because how can you make a book with fairies and magical creatures this boring? How?

On the one hand, I can appreciate what de Lint was doing in creating a teenaged character who isn't totally angsty and dark, living in a broken home with a distant father and a neurotic mother and a brother who does drugs/joins a gang/plays gory video games all day. T.J.'s family is obviously grounded and loving and close, and even Elizabeth comes to realize that her parents aren't completely illogical pod people -- but there's a spectrum for all this, and de Lint avoids the Cyclonic Trauma Zone of Teenagedom by shoving everything into Stagnant Pond Land.

Supposedly the characters develop and grow and find new places in the world. I mostly stopped paying attention about halfway through -- honestly, Elizabeth could've gotten eaten by a cat and T.J. run over by a bus without causing a blip on my emotional radar. At least that might have been more interesting.

Diary of A Chav

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 8:26 AM


Rating: 2/5 stars

Shiraz Bailey Wood wants you to know that she's totally not a chav, alrigh'? Even though she goes to Mayflower, aka Superchav Academy, where their Christmas specials always tend to end up with the cops getting called, and yeah she wears hoodies but adults are just totally prejudicial and all, it's a fashion choice not a felony. Shiraz wants to set the story straight, see, and confides in her diary about the crazy antics of her friends and family in a working-class British suburban life -- trials that include dealing with an 'artistic' older sister who rails against commercial society, an obnoxious and smelly younger brother, a boy-crazy best friend and a morbidly obese dog with a passion for junk food. Not to mention her own mother, who's been getting into screaming matches with Cava-Sue about wasting her time at university when she should be getting a job and finding a nice rich bloke to settle down with...

Shiraz has her hands full, but she keeps a level head through these whole messed up mental situations -- until she meets Wesley Barrington Bains II and gets a bit unsettled (after all, guys aren't usually this fun to talk to and his eyes are so gorgeously green). Can she keep her cool and hold her family together? And how can she stop all these teachers from moaning at her about grades and applying herself and her career prospects?

A cute story, and Shiraz has character coming out of her ears, with a narrative voice that never falls flat. Her family is endearingly nuts, of course, and its clear that they love each other, shouting matches aside. I wanted to like this book more, because of a review that really praised the wacky hilarity -- it was amusing and light, but nothing laugh-out-loud for me. I almost found the mother depressing; her life is so shallow and narrow, and part of Shiraz's struggle is finding her own path instead of just going with the general flow. But this may have been personal -- I was having some flashbacks during Shiraz's factory work assignment that were highly unpleasant. I was invested enough in the story to care about what happened to Shiraz, but I'm not sure I'd pick up the sequel unless I had free time to kill. Still, it's a snappy story with a likeable narrator, finding and delighting in everyday absurdities and dancing on the edges of farce -- even if it doesn't exactly plumb the depths of meaning or character.

Shadowed Summer

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:01 PM


Rating: 3/5 stars

Iris grew up in Ondine, Louisiana, a little one-stoplight town where nothing ever happens, and she begins the sweltering summer by casting spells and raising ghosts in the graveyard with her friend Collette. Just like always -- except this time the ghost talks back.

It's Elijah Landry, the town's only mysterious incident: the story of the seventeen-year-old boy who disappeared one summer night, leaving only a few drops of blood on his pillow. Now Elijah seems to want Iris's attention, leading her on a chase to dig up his story -- but in the process, she stirs up her community too, raising long-buried prejudices and unspoken griefs, and unraveling a mystery that ties back to her own father's childhood secrets.

If you wanted to be snappy, you could call this a cross between To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sixth Sense -- but that only covers the superficial elements of small-town intrigue and dead people. This book feels like a coming-of-age tale, and it is, but it doesn't come near the classics in capturing the confusion, possibility, and bittersweet aching loss of growing up.

A lighter read, it does a good job of drawing sympathetic characters and sketching the scene of a tiny town during a humid, hectic summer. But I was disappointed in the ghost aspect of the story -- Elijah seemed too flat and distant to matter much, even with all the poltergeist-ey hijinks that he pulls. We hear about him only secondhand, through stories and old photographs. That's probably the point because the story is more about the community and how people cope with horror and tragedy, but Elijah just felt too dead to matter much. (Har har). Iris is a solid companion for the trip, at least, and keeps a firm backbone through her own personal haunting.

Good summer read for a lazy, hot afternoon.

The Forest of Hands & Teeth

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , , | Posted on 8:34 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

Mary lives in a village surrounded by the Forest of Hands and Teeth, and every day she hears the moaning of the Unconsecrated outside the fences. Her life is limited and isolated, hemmed in by the iron rule of the Sisters and the constant reality of death -- and yet Mary dreams of the ocean and other impossible stories that her mother has passed down to her, memories of life before the Return.

Before the dead began to rise up and consume the living, creating the world of survival and fear that is all Mary has ever known. She is safe within the fences -- as safe as anyone can be -- but Mary hungers for more. When her world crumbles, she must fight to survive in the midst of horror, and faces the hardest choice of all: whether to give up her dreams or push forward into the darkness. Into the Forest.

This story has beautiful prose that quietly snakes around you, then winds in tightly and traps you in Mary's world. Understated yet compelling, showing a dark mirrorglass world of death and yes, zombies, but in a way that totally avoids the cheap flatness of a splatterfest horror film.

Because this isn't really a story about zombies (they are important with the killing and Infecting and all, sure) -- it's a story about longing and desire and emptiness and hope. And though Mary, Carrie Ryan actually makes it all interesting and challenging, because her protagonist is complex and believable (even if she tends to overshadow the other characters by comparison -- and btw, love triangles pretty much always suck). Mary is flawed and furious and she wants so much, and even the parallels of zombie living-flesh-hunger and human love-safety-spirit hunger don't feel clunky in this context.

Not an upper by any means, but a gorgeous read that will guarantee you'll never look at zombies the same way again.

Howl's Moving Castle

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , , | Posted on 9:56 AM


Rating: 5/5 stars

Gorgeous tale of Sophie Hatter, the eldest of three daughters (and therefore destined to fail first and worst in fortune-seeking), who gets cursed by the Witch of the Waste after an altercation in a hat shop. The curse turns Sophie into an old woman and forces her into the very sort of fortune-seeking that she had been trying very hard to avoid, which in turn leads to her becoming a tenant in the moving castle of the Wizard Howl – a mysterious character infamous for seducing young girls and eating their hearts. Sophie soon discovers that things aren’t exactly what she thought they were through her encounters with the chatty and untrustworthy fire demon Calcifer, a menacing hopping scarecrow and the infuriatingly vain and self-absorbed Howl himself.

Liked: Absolutely spot-on tone, perfect mixture of magical whimsical and an incisive practicality that oddly reminds me of Jane Austen. Sophie is wonderfully strong-willed even as she struggles under a sense of perpetual failure that is all the more powerful for its muted presentation. Howl, of course, becomes totally delightful; I fell in love with him and the book itself at the line:

“On the other hand, it is quite a risk to spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair.”

Sophisticated and neat use of magic through interwoven threads of meaning that aren’t fully explained; curses through poetry, talking life into objects, and so on.

Setbacks: That there aren’t an infinite number of Diana Wynne Jones books. The ending was a bit abrupt in a sense, but it ties together quite neatly and there wasn’t any reason to dawdle. But now I need more Diana Wynne Jones. It is a tragic state I'm in, I tell you!

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