Review of Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

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Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

Performed by Rupert Degas

Harper Audio, 2007.  7 1/2 hours.  6 compact discs.

I would love to meet a well-dressed detective with a voice like Skulduggery Pleasant.  The narrator does a magnificent job of making him sound tough and reliable and a hero to turn to when young Stephanie Edgely needs saving from deathly peril.  His Irish accent is irresistible.  When he turns out to be a living skeleton, we find we still want him on our side.

Stephanie is plunged into a world of magic and ancient evil after her uncle’s death.  She comes close to death countless times as she finds herself working with Skulduggery to try to save the world.

This book is full of action and narrow escapes.  The banter between Stephanie and Skulduggery is full of fun, wit, and affection.

The magic world Derek Landy creates — the one that ordinary people don’t know about but goes on around us — is much darker and more sinister than Harry Potter’s.  The villains here are truly evil, and there are some gruesome deaths.

But most of all, this is a fun and captivating adventure yarn.  The narration is completely magnificent, and found me wanting to linger in my car even after I’d reached my destination.

The things that happen to people (in the past of the story and its present) are horrible and gruesome enough that I would save this book for teens and up.  But for those who don’t mind a little grit in the story, I highly recommend this book.  Better yet, listen to the audio version and enjoy the Irish accents!

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/skulduggery_pleasant.html

Review of Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card

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Enchantment
by Orson Scott Card

Reviewed January 10, 2008.
Del Rey Books (Random House), New York, 1999. 419 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008: #1, Fantasy Fiction

I didn’t have to consider for a second how highly to rate this book. Enchantment was the best book I had read in a very long time.

What if Sleeping Beauty woke up today? Orson Scott Card gives a possible answer to that question. He weaves in Russian fairy tales, a Russian Jewish family coming to America, and ancient local gods of Russia. In the process, he crafts a beautiful love story which is at once thought-provoking, suspenseful, and utterly captivating.

The book opens when Ivan Smetski’s parents tell him that he is really a Jew named Itzak Shlomo. The time is right for the family to declare who they are and leave Russia. Before they leave, Ivan discovers a strange place in the woods. He thinks he sees the face of a beautiful woman, asleep, covered with leaves. Then something moves in the leaves near her and comes straight toward him. He runs in terror.

As an adult, Ivan goes back to Russia. He thinks that memory must have just been his vivid imagination. Nonetheless, he feels compelled to visit the place. When the monster moves in the leaves, this time he stands his ground.

The story that follows is as beautiful as the fairy tales it calls to mind, but gives us more details. He shows us that it’s not so easy to deal with a Princess when you’re only a common young man. He comes up against such formidable figures as Baba Yaga and the Bear god of Russia. I especially enjoy learning the reason why Baba Yaga has a house on chicken legs that can move around the country.

One reason I love this story is that I once tried to write a book based on the same idea—Sleeping Beauty waking up today. The idea seemed good, but the logistics bogged me down. How would she get papers to deal with the modern world? How would she cope with the sheer weight of all her family and friends being dead? How would she deal with modern life? How would she handle the language?

Orson Scott Card takes care of every obstacle I found and makes it look easy. Ivan is uniquely prepared to deal with a girl from old Russia. Like his father, he is a student of ancient Russian languages. Instead of treating this like a coincidence, we feel that Ivan was specially chosen for this task.

I won’t give away the other ways the author turns obstacles into features of the story. His love story is also wonderful. The two don’t like each other at first, but we can see their attitudes gradually changing, as each discovers the other’s true worth.

This is the sort of book I will want to read again every few years. A real treasure.

This review is posted on the main site at

www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/enchantment.html

Review of The Magic and the Healing, by Nick O’Donohoe

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The Magic and the Healing, by Nick O’Donohoe

Firebird, 2006.  First published in 1994.  324 pages.

Reviewed January 14, 2008.

BJ Vaughan is packing up her stuff, ready to leave vet school forever.  Her mother committed suicide before she could be overcome by the symptoms of a genetic disease she might have passed to BJ.  Unable to focus, BJ failed her small animal rotation, and figures she might as well call it quits.

Then Dr. Dobbs calls her into his office and asks her to work on a special rotation he’s supervising.  He shows her a horn.

She barely noticed; the horn had taken her over.  “A land animal.  Antelope have two like this, generally darker.  Goats have two, but they curve more in any of the goats I know–“

She had her first suspicion of what it was.  She shivered, and the shiver turned into cold certainty.  Of course.  She should have guessed it long ago.  It was obvious, except–

Except that there weren’t any.

BJ accepts Dr. Dobbs’ assignment and finds herself traveling with a group of veterinary students into Crossroads, a place between worlds, where impossible creatures exist and need their help.

Here’s a fantasy book with a twist of James Herriot.  There’s a dark side to this book, as someone has sinister plans for Crossroads, and the students get in the way.  You can’t help liking BJ and her companions– her consistent reaction is to help ease suffering, with no thought to her own safety.

This book has more of a feel of fantasy for adults, though it’s published by a Young Adult imprint.  This isn’t fairy tale fantasy, but a somewhat grittier look at what it would be like to practice veterinary medicine on creatures like griffins and werewolves.

An absorbing and intriguing story.

This review is posted on the main site at

http://www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/magic_and_the_healing.html

Review of Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale

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Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale

Reviewed January 8, 2008.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2007. 306 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008: #1, Teen Fiction

I picked up many Advanced Reading Copies of books at the ALA Conference last June, but the one I was by far the most excited about was Shannon Hale’s new book, Book of a Thousand Days.

Mucker maid Dashti lost everything when her mother died, so she went to the city to learn to be a lady’s maid. When she comes to the palace, the princess needs a maid–because her father is sealing her into a tower for a thousand days because she has refused to marry the powerful ruler of the neighboring land.

Dashti is willing to be shut up in the tower with the princess and food for a thousand days. But when rival suitors show up outside the tower, events don’t turn out as expected. Can Dashti help her lady survive?

In many ways, Book of a Thousand Days reminds me of The Goose Girl, the book that made me fall in love with Shannon’s writing. Both books are lovely retellings of Grimm fairy tales. Both are phenomenal–wonderfully romantic, with a touch of politics and intrigue. In both, the fantasy is done with a light touch.

Both books also involve a servant passing herself off as her Princess mistress. However, the two situations are complete opposites. In The Goose Girl, the lady-in-waiting usurps her mistress’s place. In Book of a Thousand Days, the humble servant only carries out the deception because of the orders of the fear-filled princess.

In both books, we see character growth that rings true, and beautifully blossoming love, along with the forming of deep friendships during adversity.

I’m afraid I’m starting to get skeptical about the romantic heroes in Shannon’s books. They are too wonderful! I’m starting to think they are a woman’s idea of the perfect man (They certainly fit my idea of the perfect man!), and a real living breathing man could never come close.

But so what?! The magic in the book is done with a light touch, so it doesn’t hurt a bit to add another element of fantasy!

This story is simple, and so beautifully told. Why does it strike me as one of the best books I’ve ever read? I don’t think I can put my finger on the external ingredients that make it so. All I know is that it touches my heart.

This review is posted on the main site at www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/book_of_a_thousand_days.html

 

Review of The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner

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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!”

You can find this review on the main site at:  www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/kingofattolia.html

 

Review of Hannah’s Garden, by Midori Snyder

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Hannah’s garden
by Midori Snyder

Reviewed September 7, 2007.
Firebird (Penguin), New York, 2002. 247 pages.

If a book is put out by Firebird, it’s a good bet that I will like it. I hadn’t heard of this author before, but if Firebird’s editor, Sharon November, thought it good enough young adult fantasy to reprint, I knew I would probably enjoy it. I was not disappointed.

Cassie’s grandfather has been put in the hospital, and her mother expects Cassie to come along and take care of him, even though he didn’t recognize Cassie on her last visit. It would mean that Cassie would have to miss the violin recital she’s long been working toward, but as usual she gives in to her mother.

It doesn’t take Cassie long to figure out that something strange and sinister is going on. For starters, her grandfather’s house is filthy and someone has broken things to pieces. But it somehow involves that strangely attractive man on the motorcycle, whom Cassie met before she left. And the kind fiddler who sent him away. And the odious neighbor whom everyone at the hospital thinks is wonderful and helpful to her grandfather.

The struggle ends up being nothing short of war between fairy clans—including one that is hostile to humans.

This book reminded me very strongly of Patricia McKillip’s Solstice Wood, with the wayward child (Cassie’s mom) coming back at the death of the owner of the house with a connection to fairyland. I found Hannah’s Garden captured my heart more than Solstice Wood did. Perhaps the younger protagonist caught up in these things helped, but Midori Snyder’s writing style also drew me in.

The review is posted on Sonderbooks here: http://www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/hannahs_garden.html

The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde

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The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde

Reviewed August 7, 2007.
Viking, New York, 2006. 378 pages.

Jasper Fforde’s books are impossible to satisfactorily classify. Perhaps I should start a new category for his books only. Let’s see—I could call it “humor for clever readers” or “fantasy-sci-fi-mystery-humor-with literary allusions.” I took the easy way out by calling the Thursday Next books “science fiction,” since they do involve alternate universes, and I called the first of the Nursery Crime series “mystery,” since it is a detective story. However, the fact that the detective is a character in a nursery rhyme investigating such people as the Gingerbreadman and Goldilocks and the Quangle-Wangle, does make it an extremely atypical detective story.

I could call this fantasy, but it’s very different from what people expect from that category. So I’ll stick with “mystery,” which scratches the surface of what this book is about.

In The Fourth Bear, the second book in the Nursery Crime series, Jack Spratt investigates the disappearance of Goldilocks. He’s currently in trouble for letting the wolf eat Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Although they were saved by a woodsman, they’re traumatized and won’t speak.

Jack’s boss is after him to get a psychiatric evaluation and some time resting. What Jack’s critics don’t realize is that the wolf also ate Jack. He puts his life on the line, but doesn’t think he needs therapy. He’s used to such bizarre circumstances—They’re all in a day’s work. Besides, how can he rest when that homicidal maniac, the Gingerbreadman, has escaped from the asylum?

There’s great fun in this book, though you do have to tolerate a few groaners, like a waiter who seems familiar in the Déjà vu Hotel. In the Thursday Next books, we saw what it’s like to be in books from the characters’ perspectives, so that prepared me for passages like this one:

Jack and his partner Mary Mary had just been discussing at great length and alliteration the fact that “Pippa Piper picked Peck over Pickle or Pepper.” The text reads:

There was a pause.

“It seems a very laborious setup for a pretty lame joke, doesn’t it?” mused Jack.

“Yes,” agreed Mary, shaking her head sadly. “I really don’t know how he gets away with it.”

Well, Jasper Fforde, the man who successfully used eleven hads in a row in The Well of Lost Plots, has gotten away with it again!

Review of Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

Fairest

by Gail Carson Levine


Reviewed July 9, 2007.
HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2006. 326 pages.
Starred Review.

Fans of Ella Enchanted, of which I am one, will love Gail Carson Levine’s latest book, loosely based on the fairy tale of Snow White. In fact, the story involves the king who married Ella’s stepsister, Ivi. It turns out he was king of neighboring Ayortha, the home country of Ella’s roommate, where everyone loves to sing and those with beautiful voices are honored.

Aza has one of the most beautiful voices of all, and she finds she can do amazing things with her voice. Unfortunately, she’s terribly ugly.

When Aza gets a chance to go to the king’s castle, the new queen takes special notice of her. Then the king gets injured, and the queen is in charge. She seems only concerned that people think her beautiful. The queen has a mirror. When Aza sees her own reflection in the mirror, she is changed, astonishingly beautiful.

This book doesn’t follow the fairy tale it’s based on as closely as Ella Enchanted does. But the elements of Snow White are there, woven into a story of beauty and power and love and deception. Gail Carson Levine has done it again!

Review of River Secrets, by Shannon Hale

by Shannon Hale


Reviewed 7/7/07.
Bloomsbury, New York, 2006. 369 pages.
Starred Review. I never missed working at the library more than the day my writing buddies told me that Shannon Hale had a new book out. That meant it was already published, and I hadn’t bought it yet! I was appalled.

River Secrets is Shannon Hale’s third book about the kingdom of Bayern. They are written so that you can read each one without reading the previous ones, but my reaction is: Why would you want to? All of the books are fabulous and pull the reader into a fantasy world—but a fantasy world that deals with real issues like war and peace, love and hatred.

River Secrets focuses on Razo, who seemed something of a clown figure in the other books. Now he’s been chosen as part of the King’s Own to escort a new ambassador to the enemy city of Tira.

Bayern has conquered Tira, but can the peace hold? And can Enna keep from using her power of fire to kill? But if she does keep from it, then who is burning these bodies that the soldiers keep finding? Most of all, can Razo trust the beautiful Tiran who seems to have a special relationship with the river?

Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy won a well-deserved Newbery Honor Award last year. If you liked that book, I highly recommend the three books about Bayern: The Goose Girl, Enna Burning, and River Secrets. You won’t be able to get enough of Shannon Hale’s beautiful writing.