Review of Graceling, by Kristin Cashore


by Kristin Cashore

Harcourt, Orlando, 2008. 471 pages.
Starred review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Fantasy Teen Fiction

Katsa has a Grace. Like every child whose eyes settle into two different colors, Katsa has an extraordinary gift, and was sent to the court of the king, her uncle, until it became clear what her Grace would be and if it would be useful to him.

When she was only eight years old, it became clear that her Grace was killing. She can fight and defeat anyone, with weapons or not. The king did indeed find this gift useful, and from the time that she was ten, he ordered Katsa to do his bullying for him, to punish anyone who displeased him.

Now that she is eighteen, she is finding ways to rebel, ways to use her Grace to help people, to fight injustice instead of causing it. On one mission, she encounters a mystery. Why would anyone want to kidnap the kind old father of the king of Lienid?

Then she meets the old man’s grandson, a prince of Lienid, who is also apparently Graced with fighting, and the first real challenge she’s ever encountered. They begin practicing together, and Katsa is horrified to find herself beginning to trust this man. They decide to tackle the mystery together.

This book has a great story of adventure against impossible odds, with a tremendously likable heroine who can defeat almost anyone or anything. Woven into the story is Katsa’s struggle with who she is. Is she a killing machine for a bully of a king to use for his purposes, or can she choose to be something more?

I found the romance particularly wonderful, as we watch Katsa wrestling with her feelings and her habits of not trusting anyone. I thought that part especially well-written and delightful to read.

Parents, this book isn’t for young teens. Katsa is not interested in marriage, and she and the prince decide to be lovers. Their encounters are described tastefully, even beautifully, but they are described. You might want to discuss your opinion of Katsa’s choice not to marry. To me, it seems consistent with her character and her difficulties with trust. But on the other hand, it’s clear that either one of the lovers would be completely devastated if the other one were to take advantage of the “freedom” they’ve been granted. I like the way Kristin Cashore shows us Katsa talking about being free to leave her lover, but then having tremendous difficulty actually doing it, even when their lives depend on it.

All in all, I thought the romance, with all its ambivalence and wildly fluctuating new feelings for Katsa, was the most beautifully written part of this magnificent book. I’m amazed that it’s a first novel, and am now among those eagerly looking forward to the sequel, Fire, which comes out in October 2009.

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Review of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor



by Laini Taylor

Firebird (Penguin), 2007. 437 pages.
Starred review.

Magpie Windwitch is as different from the other fairies in her world as her world is different from your “typical” fantasy fairy kingdom.

Fairies have been in the world for eons longer than humans, and thousands of years ago, fairy champions had great battles and sealed all the devils into bottles. The sealing spell on the bottles ensured that nothing existing at that time could possibly break the seal. But humans showed up on earth some time after that, and the seals had no power against them.

“Magpie sighed. One devil, just one in all of devil history, had granted three wishes to the human who freed it. Magpie had caught that troublemaking snag five years ago and put him back, but the damage was already done. The mannies had a mania for it now, and every chance they got they freed some wicked thing back into the world, and they surely didn’t get wishes for their trouble.”

But the devil whose empty bottle Magpie finds at the start of this book is no ordinary devil. The fishermen are gone, but there is no blood. When Magpie reads their last memory, it is only of darkness. Most sinister of all, the bottle was sealed by the Magruwen himself, one of the great djinn who made the world, but is now sleeping. He wouldn’t normally bother with a mere devil.

Most fairies wouldn’t worry about it, either. But Magpie is different. She and her crow “family” can’t let it rest, and her attempts to set right this evil unloosed on the world bring her to terms with her own destiny. Ultimately, the very existence of the world rests in her hands.

Along the way, she meets some others her age who seem, like her, able to sense the Tapestry that makes up the world, each in a distinctive way.

Laini Taylor has constructed an intricate world with feisty, memorable characters. The different fairies and fairy clans have different types of magic, usually intriguing. I especially like the one who can knit himself a magical skin with wings that work. (It makes sense. Knitting is magical!) There’s even an imp with the gift of serendip that can find anything it seeks, wherever it may be.

Magpie is incredibly tough and loyal to her crow “brothers.” But she still has the vanity of a lass, hurt when an elegant lady turns up her nose at the dirt of battle sticking to Magpie and her unpolished manners. She’s a believable and lovable heroine.

I like fantasy books where the fantasy could really be happening, only we humans are oblivious. In that case, I’m mighty thankful to Magpie for saving the world!

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Review of His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik

his_majestys_dragonHis Majesty’s Dragon

by Naomi Novik

Read by Simon Vance

Books on Tape, Westminster, MD, 2007. 10 hours, 9 CDs.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #5 Fiction

His Majesty’s Dragon reminds me of a Patrick O’Brian naval adventure story — with dragons!

Set in an alternate world where dragons are used for aerial combat, the book opens as Captain Will Lawrence discovers a ready-to-hatch dragon egg on the French ship he has just captured. He orders all the officers to draw straws to decide who will have to give up their life on the navy, harness the dragon, and switch to the lonely life of an aviator. They all know that the new aviator will henceforth have mainly the dragon for company.

However, the newly hatched dragon has his own plans and chooses Lawrence himself. Without having given it thought ahead of time, he names the dragon Temeraire, after a ship he once served on. Then he must leave the Navy to train with Temeraire for the expected imminent invasion by Napoleon’s forces.

The facts of dragon training are presented matter-of-factly, as we learn along with Lawrence how it’s done. It’s all taken as seriously as if these were sailing ships of the time, and you find yourself completely believing in this world and coming to understand the strategies of dragon combat.

As you might expect, despite his youth and inexperience, Temeraire and his captain are drawn into a great battle at the climax. It’s all exciting and fascinating.

I listened to this book on my way to work, and found myself quickly drawn in. Simon Vance presents the different voices so you can recognize who is speaking. I found life in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps to be so intriguing, I quickly forgot it had never really happened.

Yes, an aviator’s life is limited in human companionship, but Lawrence quickly finds that Temeraire’s companionship more than makes up for it.

This is a brilliant book, and I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of the series.

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Review of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Press, New York, 2008. 374 pages.
Starred Review.

When this book first came out, I wasn’t interested. I don’t like reality shows, and I don’t like reading about violence. This book is about reality shows taken to the extreme in a future society where two young people from each district participate in the annual Hunger Games, with only one survivor at the end.

However, the book kept getting rave reviews. When it won School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books, I decided I definitely should read it, and the commentators convinced me it would be worth my time. The final straw, which made me decide to read it right away, was when bloggers began bragging about getting advance readers’ copies of the sequel, Catching Fire. It felt funny to not even want the sequel because I’d never read the first book. So I finally remedied that situation.

The book definitely captured my interest and concern, and kept me reading far into the night. Suzanne Collins does a good job making you care about Katniss, who at the beginning of the book spends time hunting illegally outside the fence, in order to provide for her family.

We’re quickly presented with a world where life is hard and life isn’t fair. When Katniss’s young sister’s name is called to be the district’s tribute to the Hunger Games, we have no trouble believing that Katniss would volunteer to go in her place. We know that Katniss has survival skills to cope, and understand her unwillingness to trust Peeta, the other representative from District 12. After all, even in the very best result, only one of them can survive.

The games are brutal, but the author finds ways for Katniss to show compassion and humanity, as well as courage and resourcefulness. The games are more of a survival contest than a gladiator combat, as the contestants are in an enormous arena with a landscape prepared with challenges. They must find food and water, and evade natural predators as well as each other.

This book is exciting and compelling. Now I find myself as eager as everyone else to get my hands on a copy of the sequel.

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Review of The Queen of Attolia audiobook, by Megan Whalen Turner


The Queen of Attolia

by Megan Whalen Turner

performed by Jeff Woodman

Recorded Books, 2007.  8 CDs.  9 hours.

Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: Wonderful Rereads

This is approximately the fourth time I’ve read The Queen of Attolia, and like the rest of the books in the series, I like it better every time.  With its beautifully orchestrated touch of romance, this is my favorite of Megan Whalen Turner’s books, and indeed one of my favorite books of all time.

Jeff Woodman does an excellent job of bringing the book to life.  The advantage to listening the book instead of reading it was that I was forced not to gobble the whole thing down in one night, and got to draw out the experience.  The disadvantage was that I was very unhappy to arrive at work each morning while I was listening to it.  Of course, this was the perfect audiobook to be listening to just after moving.  My new commute is quite a bit longer than I thought it was going to be — but because it gave me more time to spend with Eugenides, I was glad!

Megan Whalen Turner creates rich and complex characters.  This book more thoroughly explores the character and background of the Queen of Attolia, and we learn that her apparent ruthlessness has reasons behind it.  We find ourselves actually liking someone who seems capable of atrocities. — Is that not the work of a master author?

I also love the way Megan Whalen Turner explores the question of why God (only in the book it is gods she invented) allows bad things to happen.  Eugenides has a Job-like moment that gives Eugenides — and the reader — a perspective on how God transcends human comprehension, but also works for our good, even when we don’t understand.

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Review of Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom, by Tim Byrd


Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom

by Tim Byrd

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009.  186 pages.

Okay, I admit.  When I read the first chapter of this book, it reminded me way too much of the Spy Kids movie that my children watched until it nauseated me.  I wasn’t at all sure I could finish the book.

However, I found that, at least in small portions at a time, I began to be intrigued to learn in what over-the-top way Doc Wilde and his children Brian and Wren would get the better of the sinister amazonian frogs of doom.  The less I took it seriously, the more fun I had reading it.  For me, this did require only a few chapters at a time, but once I got in the habit, I did find myself coming back for more each night.

The book is described as a tribute to the old pulp adventure novels.  That is perhaps my problem — I never was a fan of those books.  But I am looking forward to having this book on the library shelves.  I think it will be a natural choice for young comic book fans ready for a little more text and a lot of rollicking adventure.

The story is indeed over-the-top.  Brian and Wren take after their father — tanned, golden-haired, strong, agile, good-looking, and incredibly smart.  Throw in being magnificently wealthy with all kinds of high-tech gadgets invented by Doc Wilde himself, and you won’t be surprised when they get out of every life-threatening situation thrown at them.  The fun comes in at how they get out of it this time.

I like the villains — sinister mutant frogs of various shapes and sizes, some with razor-sharp teeth.  There’s something simply inherently silly about Frogs of Doom.

Again, I think this might be a great pick for reluctant readers, especially young boys who like adventure.  It’s just silly enough and adventurous enough to provide heroic escape.

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Review of The Graveyard Book audiobook, by Neil Gaiman


The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman

Narrated by the author.

Recorded Books, New York, 2008.  7 compact discs.  7.75 hours.

Starred review.

2009 Newbery Award winner.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #2 Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction

When The Graveyard Book came out, I checked it out for my 14-year-old son to read, knowing he’d want to read anything by Neil Gaiman.  He told me I should read it, but after listening to Coraline, which was very good but exceedingly creepy, I decided that a book by Neil Gaiman with “graveyard” in the title was bound to be too creepy for me.

However, when The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Award, I decided that as a responsible children’s librarian, I really should read it, and I was completely delighted with it.  There’s a little bit of creepiness, but not nearly so much as Coraline.  In fact, I think The Graveyard Book would make fantastic listening for an entire family on a car trip, because it appeals to a wide range of ages.  (If your kids are old enough to handle the fact that the family is murdered at the beginning, they will be able to handle anything else in the book.)

The premise, and the reason for the name, is the same idea as The Jungle Book, except instead of a baby being adopted by the dwellers of the jungle, a baby is adopted by the dwellers of a graveyard.

The book does begin as a family has just been murdered.  The killer is looking to finish the job, but the baby has toddled off.  In the graveyard, a loving woman who always wanted to be a mother convinces her husband to take pity on the baby and take him in.  As Mowgli’s parents needed the approval of the pack, so this baby needs the approval of the inhabitants of the graveyard.  He’s named Nobody Owens, Bod for short.

There are some fun parallels between Bod’s story and The Jungle Book.  For example, instead of getting kidnapped by apes, Bod gets kidnapped by ghouls.  At first the book seems very episodic (with extremely interesting episodes), but by the end, all the adventures tie together into Bod’s need to avenge his family, escape their fate, and live a life outside the graveyard.

Neil Gaiman’s narration is simply awesome.  He now lives in America, but he has a wonderful voice and just enough British accent to sound incredibly cultured.  He gives the different characters different voices, with accents as appropriate.  I found his reading of the chapter with the ghouls especially delightful.

Although I’m sure this book makes great reading on your own, hearing Neil Gaiman read it makes for an incredible listening experience.  I found myself lingering in the car more than once because I got to work too quickly.

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Review of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons



by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

DC Comics, 1986. 

Winner of the Hugo Award.

Starred review.

I finally read Watchmen this week, since I definitely have to take my teenage son to see the movie the day it comes out.  Watchmen is acclaimed by many as the greatest graphic novel of all time, and I can see why.  This book has layers upon layers upon layers of meaning.  You definitely only scratch the surface of all that’s going on the first time you read it.

Set in an alternate 1985, the story begins with the death of costumed hero The Comedian.  Rorschach, another masked hero, thinks there may be a plot against masked vigilantes.  Someone with great power must be behind it, because who else could have thrown The Comedian out a window?

My son is rereading the book in the Absolute Watchmen edition.  The pages and pictures are larger, so it’s easier to see the many important details all lurking in the pages before you even notice them.  As I was writing this, my son noticed another one — that Rorschach didn’t have the distinctive speech bubbles until he really “became” Rorschach.  (I hadn’t noticed that he even had distinctive speech bubbles.)  There are thousands of details planted like that.  This is a graphic novel where you would still notice new details on the twentieth reading that fit perfectly and provide clues to what’s really going on.

This book is a mystery, a social commentary, a science fiction adventure, an alternate history, and so much more.  Mind you, it is a dark story, with lots of sex and violence.  If you wouldn’t be comfortable watching an R rated movie, then you won’t want to read this book.

At first, I thought I just enjoyed it as a work of art.  There’s no question that the book is superbly executed, thought-provoking, and interesting.  However, on reflection, now that I’ve finished it, I find I really did care about the characters.  They grew on me.  I did like them, and they seem like real people, with real concerns and complexities.  For example, I found myself annoyed right along with Laurie when Jon starts talking about what’s going to happen in a few minutes.  Each character is distinctive, with their own hang-ups and desires, and the authors portray that skillfully, and make you care.

Definitely worth the hype.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.  And I’m sure I’ll come back to the book some day, and try to pick up a few hundred more details that I missed the first time.

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Review of You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons, by Mo Willems


You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons

The World on One Cartoon a Day

by Mo Willems

with a foreword by Dave Barry

Hyperion Paperbacks, New York, 2006.  396 pages.

Back in 1990, when the brilliant cartoonist Mo Willems was young and fresh out of college and not ready to leap into the grown-up world of work, he was fortunate enough to take a trip around the world.

We are fortunate that he recorded his experiences in the form of one cartoon drawn each day of his journey.

He wrote a caption and date for each cartoon, and the modern author has filled in some details that inspired the drawing.

The result is a delightful and quirky window on the world, from the eyes of one of those scruffy backpackers.  I lived in Europe for ten years, so even though I was there after Mo Willems had already left, I felt like I had seen him!

On top of the interesting way of looking at the world, his gifts as a brilliant cartoonist were already showing.  He expresses the people of the world, and the experiences of travel with a few lines.  Yet the result is instantly recognizable.

Take an amusing armchair journey around the world with this book.

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Review of One False Note, by Gordon Korman


One False Note

The 39 Clues, Book Two

by Gordon Korman

Scholastic, 2008.  174 pages.

Like the first book in The 39 Clues, The Maze of Bones, One False Note is more than a book.  It’s also a media event, an online game, a collectible card game, and a contest with real prizes.  They’ve gotten outstanding children’s authors to write the books — Rick Riordan wrote the first one, and now Gordon Korman.

Dan and Amy Cahill are travelling the world, trying to find clues to something that has the potential to make them the most powerful people in the world.

They have learned that their Cahill family is responsible for almost all the accomplishments of mankind.  In the first book, they were on the trail of Benjamin Franklin (a Cahill, of course), and in this book they follow the path of Mozart and his sister, Nannerl.

I find I’m not quite buying it.  Yeah, other books tell me that all these significant figures of history were masons, or part of some other big conspiracy.  But all family members?  Benjamin Franklin and Mozart and Marie Antoinette were all supposed to be related?  I can’t quite suspend disbelief so far.

And I’m sorry, I just can’t begin to bring myself to believe in a huge underground complex in Venice, storing the greatest art treasures of the world.  Even with really big pumps, I simply don’t believe that you could find that much solid ground to tunnel in, and who would risk the likelihood of flooding, even if you could?

I was delighted when they went to Venice, but I didn’t believe that part, and I didn’t believe that they would steal a boat to get away.  It’s so easy to get lost on the streets of Venice, why on earth would you use a boat where you’re so easy to spot?

On top of that, the clues don’t seem too tremendously important, since so many sinister family members are still on their tail.  Why don’t Amy and Dan just do what the other teams are doing:  follow the person who seems to have the latest lead.  Why should they break into their cousin Jonah Wizard’s hotel room, when they could just follow the news about Jonah and see where he goes next?

Okay, you get the idea — I have quibbles about the whole book!  But it is still a fun adventure story, and I doubt kids will be bothered by those things that bothered me.  Amy and Dan are growing on me, kids loose in Europe with only the help of a resourceful and multilingual au pair.  And by the end of the book, they’re on their way to Asia.

I do still plan to keep reading and find out what happens next.  Episode Three is slated to appear in March 2009.

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