Review of The Empty Kingdom, by Elizabeth E. Wein


The Empty Kingdom

The Mark of Solomon, Book Two

by Elizabeth E. Wein

Viking, 2008.  215 pages.

The Empty Kingdom is a sequel to The Lion Hunter, which follows The Sunbird.  In The Empty Kingdom, Telemakos, grandson of Artos of Britain, begins to grow into his heritage.

He is still living in Himyar, still knowing the state secrets he discovered in the last book.  How can he warn the emperor of Aksum?  And if he is caught, what terrible things would happen to him?

The Empty Kingdom includes more intrigue, more danger, and more exploits by Telemakos’ feisty little sister Athena.

The books Elizabeth Wein writes began with The Winter Prince, a story of King Arthur’s sons.  The rest are set in old Ethiopia and south Arabia, where one of those sons, and his sister, ended up.

Telemakos, the hero of these last three books, has the light hair of his British father but the dark skin of his Aksumite mother.  He has an amazing talent for learning secrets, and seems to be drawn to a fateful destiny.

Elizabeth Wein’s characters have amazing depth.  At the end of the book, I caught myself wondering who was good and who was bad.  How like life that is.

I hope there will be more stories of Telemakos and his sister Athena, as well as the lands of Aksum, Himyar, and post-Arthurian Britain.

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Review of A Death in Vienna, by Frank Tallis


A Death in Vienna

by Frank Tallis

Grove Press, New York, 2005.  458 pages. 

Here’s a murder mystery with a fascinating historical setting.  The hero of the book is Max Liebermann, a doctor proficient in the new science of psychoanalysis at the turn of the twentieth century, a friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud.

Liebermann’s friend Oskar Rheinhardt, a police detective, is presented with an especially perplexing case.  A woman is found dead in a locked room, clearly dead by a bullet wound, yet there is no bullet found in her body.  The woman was a practitioner of the occult and a regular leader of seances.  Could she have offended the spirits?

Max Liebermann reads people well, understanding Freudian slips at a time before the general populace knew about them.  His perceptive analysis of people makes him an ideal assistant to his friend the detective.

This book was a perfect break for me in between volumes of the much more emotional Twilight series.  A Death in Vienna appeals on a more cerebral level, with a challenging puzzle and an intriguing historical background, when the practice of treating psychological ailments was far different than it is today.

A big thank you to the library customer who told me about this book!

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Review of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi


Persepolis:  The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

Pantheon, New York, 2003.  Orginally published in France in 2000.  153 pages.

Here is a biography told in comic book form.  The story is absorbing, and the black and white illustrations convey much emotion.

Marjane Satrapi was ten years old in 1980 in Iran, when girls at her school were required to wear the veil.  I love the picture of all the little girls horsing around with the veils they did not want to wear.

The book outlines a difficult period of upheaval, from her perspective as a girl just wanting to enjoy life.  We see the rise and fall of political heroes as well as the rise and fall of the family’s hopes.

At the Fairfax County Library, the book is shelved as an adult biography, but it’s also recommended for older teens.  There are some heavy themes of war and death and even bargaining with God.

This book holds a powerful story that will stick with you.

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Review of Laika, by Nick Abadzis


Laika, by Nick Abadzis

First Second, New York, 2007.  205 pages.

This acclaimed graphic novel tells the story of Laika, a special little dog chosen to be the first living creature in space.

Laika’s life intertwines with many people — A former prisoner of the gulag who was promoted to Chief Designer in the space program, a little girl who loved the dog with the curly tail at birth, a boy who didn’t want responsibility for a puppy, a dogcatcher who resented the dog’s independent spirit, and an animal trainer who talked to the dogs at night before she went home.

The book tells a sad story.  It also makes you think.  When is it right to sacrifice the life of a dog — for science, for country, for glory?

I’m beginning to get used to graphic novels.  This is a high-quality one and is a nice choice to begin learning the form and how it can tell a story.

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Review of The Silver Donkey, by Sonya Hartnett


The Silver Donkey, by Sonya Hartnett

Candlewick Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006.  First published in Australia in 2004.  266 pages.

“One cool spring morning in the woods close to the sea, two girls found a man curled up in the shade and, immediately guessing he must be dead, ran away shrieking delightedly, clutching each other’s hands.”

In fact, it turns out the man is not dead.  He is an enemy soldier, having run away from the war.  He cannot see.  His eyes got tired of seeing the horrors of war, and his vision clouded over.

He tells the girls not to tell anyone he is there.  But how can they help him find his way home, across the Channel?  His younger brother is very ill.  “The doctors don’t think he has long to live.  My mother wrote saying that he wakes at night with a fever, calling out for me.  She wrote that I should hurry home.”

Marcelle and Coco want to help their soldier.  But how can two girls help a blind soldier?  They start by bringing him food. 

The soldier has a good-luck charm, a small shining silver donkey.  He repays their kindness by telling them stories, stories of donkeys, which, though humble, turn out to be surprisingly noble.

This book is mythic and powerful.  It tells of the horrors of war, but also of the nobility that shines through in difficult times.  And the wonder of friendship, across cultures.

The library copy is in a wonderful binding with high-quality pages, silver decoration on the cover, and a silver ribbon bookmark.  Illustrations by Don Powers grace its pages, with a special border on the pages of the stories the soldier tells.

A simple and beautiful tale.

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Review of Before Green Gables, by Budge Wilson


Before Green Gables:  The Prequel to Anne of Green Gables, by Budge Wilson

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2008.  389 pages.

ISBN: 978-0-399-15468-3 

Before Anne Shirley, the red-headed orphan, came to Green Gables, no one wanted her.  She helped Mrs. Thomas, with all her children and a drunken husband, and then Mrs. Hammond, who had twins three times in succession, before she ended up in an orphanage.

Before Green Gables tells the story of Anne’s first eleven years.  I knew they were hard years, so I thought it would be a depressing book, but of course a hard-core fan of L. M. Montgomery can’t resist reading it.

Although the book didn’t quite reach L. M. Montgomery’s genius, there were moments when I did feel the author had captured Anne’s soul and given us insight into how she might have become the jewel we see in Anne of Green Gables.

I loved the picture Budge Wilson gives us of Anne’s parents, Bertha and Walter Shirley, two schoolteachers, very much in love with each other and with their new baby daughter.  She portrays how the cleaning lady was touched by their lives — enough to take in their baby even when her own house was full.

I like the side characters the author portrayed in Anne’s life, especially the Egg Man, who taught her to love words.  I like the teachers she encounters who feed her soul, so hungry for beauty.

Most of all, this book gave me a story of a girl who cherished transcendent moments and refused bitterness, in spite of a life of drudgery and hardship.  Anne relished beauty and found friendship, even if only in a reflection and an echo.

My own hardships seem small in comparison.  Oh, to be like Anne, finding moments of beauty even when doing so takes great imagination.

This book is a worthy addition to Anne’s legacy.

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Review of Madman, by Tracy Groot

by Tracy Groot

Reviewed February 14, 2008.
2007 Christy Award Winner, Best Historical Novel
Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2006. 316 pages.

Cal, I don’t know how to say it, so I’ll say it. The League of Ten Friends is no more; the Decaphiloi have vanished, and the Academy of Socrates in Palestine is dissolved. Our little school has ceased to exist. Callimachus—it’s as if it never was….

Of the Decaphiloi, I give this present accounting—accurate or inaccurate as it may be, it is all I have, and that from the riffraff. Six members—whereabouts unknown. One member was murdered in a most horrifying manner; I shall not put it on parchment. One is allegedly a priestess in a temple of Dionysus—you read right, Dionysus. Don’t be alarmed: I’ve forsworn all things Dionysiac, you know that, Cal. Anyway, one member committed suicide.

And one . . . one is a madman.

This is what Tallis writes back from Palestine to Callimachus, his employer in Athens.

Madman is a historical novel based on an incident mentioned in three of the Gospels, where Jesus casts demons out of a man possessed by a legion of demons.

I’m not generally a fan of historical novels based on Biblical characters, but this was a perfect topic. There’s not a lot said about the demon-possessed man in the Bible, so there was plenty of room for the author to create his life story and a plausible, interesting background as to how he wound up in the tombs, out of his mind. The author worked in all the details, including explaining the second demon-possessed man of one account, the chains the man would break, and his fame throughout the region.

In all of the Gospel accounts, Jesus calmed the storm—a “furious squall”—just before healing the demon-possessed man. I thought the author was insightful in writing that squall as a demonic attack—the demons knew Jesus was coming and tried to stop him. The author helped me realize that Jesus cared enough to go across the lake to deliver that man—and indeed the whole region—from the evil that had overtaken him.

But that story is not the bulk of the book. Most of the story is about Tallis’s investigation of what became of the Socratic school his employer founded in Palestine. The answers are bound up in the horrible rituals of the Dionysian cult of the day. The author draws you in to the story about Tallis, as he discovers great evil, and tries to do his part to try to stop it.

A big thank you to Bethany for loaning this book to me.

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Review of The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner

The King of Attolia
by Megan Whalen Turner

Reviewed March 5, 2006.
Green Willow Books, New York, 2006. 387 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2007: #1, Teen Fiction

The King of Attolia is a sequel to Newbery honor winner The Thief and its follow-up, The Queen of Attolia. All three of the books have surprises and reversals toward the ends of the books. So I’m afraid I can’t even tell you the situation at the beginning of this book—since it will give away surprises in The Thief and especially in The Queen of Attolia. I definitely recommend reading these books in order, since that will give you the fun of the surprises.

As soon as I learned from our library book rental brochure that this book was out, I ordered a copy for myself. The books are so good, I knew I’d want to own it and read it many times. When it arrived, I read through it, and then I began reading the first book to my son at bedtimes. Much to my delight, he doesn’t remember the plot from the time quite a few years ago when I read it to him before.

I have to say that in some ways these books are even more fun to read the second or third time. You can see all the places the author planted clues of what will be revealed later. You appreciate her genius all the more.

My favorite of the three books is still The Queen of Attolia. But this follow-up was also truly wonderful. There were a few plot threads left hanging—I very much hope this means she’s planning to write more about the adventures of Eugenides. I would definitely love to read more.

To quote my son, as we were reading this book, “Eugenides rocks!”

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Review of The Canterbury Papers, by Judith Koll Healey

The Canterbury Papers 

A Novel of Suspense

by Judith Koll Healey

Reviewed December 17, 2006.
William Morrow, New York, 2004. 353 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2007: #1, Romance Fiction

I loved this book! The subtitle says it’s a novel of suspense, but it’s also a historical mystery tale with romance, intrigue, and a smart, capable heroine.

The book features an actual historical character, Alaïs Capet, the daughter of Louis VII and his second wife, Constance of Castile. At a very young age, Alaïs and her sister Marguerite were sent to England to live with the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first wife of Louis VII.

Alaïs and Marguerite were betrothed to Henry II’s sons, Alaïs to Richard the Lionheart, and Marguerite to Henry Court Mantel. However, when Eleanor lost favor with Henry for plotting with her sons against him, he had her imprisoned in a tower and took Alaïs as his mistress. She never married Richard.

The book opens many years later. Richard and Henry are both dead and the younger brother John is ruling England, but doesn’t have a firm hold on the throne. Eleanor sends Alaïs to Canterbury to recover some letters which might hurt John’s power. Eleanor hints that she can give Alaïs information about a secret near to her heart, a secret she long thought was dead and buried.

The person in charge of Canterbury, William of Caen, once also lived in the court of Henry and Eleanor. He took his lessons with the royal children, including Alaïs, and was tormented by the princes, because he was their father’s favorite. Alaïs finds him quite changed since she last saw him. He also seems to know more than he lets on.

Alaïs is kidnapped just before she is able to recover the letters. She’s held in the same tower where Eleanor was once imprisoned. Now King John wants information from her—information she doesn’t have.

This story is full of action, suspense, and romance, and is highly enjoyable reading. I wouldn’t call it chick lit, because the historical background and political intrigue give it more weight than your typical light mystery. This is Judith Koll Healey’s first novel, but I hope there will be many, many more to follow!

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