Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds is historical fiction, with a fair amount of action and adventure. Note: I'm going to describe the whole plot here -- I don't think this story would be diminished by reading a spoilery review, but if you're sensitive about that sort of thing, you may want to skip to the final paragraph. I won't be offended.

Unfortunately, Luc is born with only one ear. He grows up as the son of a cruel and bitter olive grower. Fortunately, Luc finds his way to the home of Pons, Mattie, and the lovely Beatrice, who welcome him with warmth and kindness. Unfortunately, Luc is captured by Saracen pirates one day, and is taken as a slave to northern Africa. Fortunately, he catches the eye of a scholarly gentleman, who takes him in and treats him well, even teaching him to read. Unfortunately, the old gentleman is nearing the end of his life. Fortunately, Beatrice is determined never to give up hope of Luc's return. Unfortunately, she is the daughter of a disgraced nobleman who was killed before her very eyes by Count de Muguet. Fortunately, the old count is now dead, and his son is a more kind and just man. He takes an interest in Beatrice, restoring her to her father's lands when he discovers that her father was killed unjustly -- and he takes up the search for Luc, since it means so much to her. Unfortunately, it's not an easy thing to find a slave in northern Africa, even one with just one ear . . . especially if the slave's master does not want the slave to be found. Fortunately, Luc eventually hears of the search for him. He has promised to stay with his master until the end of the master's life, but when the man dies, Luc returns to Beatrice, Pons, and Mattie. There, he discovers that the cruel olive grower was not his biological father: Luc was the second son of Count Muguet, sent away because the count could not bear to raise a son with such an obvious physical imperfection. Now Luc and Beatrice are together once again, both returned to their proper positions. Luc's life has been full of ups and downs . . . but does that really make him The Unfortunate Son?

I liked this book, but I didn't love it. The dialogue seemed a little stilted, to me -- a stylistic choice that might not bother other readers. There is also some ambiguity at the story's end, and I found myself wishing for more concrete answers about certain characters and relationships. I also felt a sense of distance between myself as the reader, and the characters in the story. I never really connected emotionally with any of them. Again, this could be more my fault than the fault of the book . . . so if the plot sounds intriguing, I would encourage you to pick it up and give it a try!

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale

Palace of Stone, sequel to Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, does not disappoint.

When Britta invites Miri and the other girls from the Princess Academy to the capital city to help prepare for the royal wedding, the girls find that the lessons they learned at the Princess Academy may not be enough to help them fit in to court life. Moreover, revolution is simmering beneath the surface, and palace residents -- even poor ones from the mountains -- may find themselves in danger. Miri loves some parts of city life, especially since she is now a scholar at the academy. Plus, romance seems to be just around the corner: a charming young revolutionary acts like he wants to be more than friends -- but what about Miri's feelings for Peder, who is also in the city as a stonemason's apprentice?

This sequel is just as well-told as its predecessor. It took me a few pages to remember who everyone was, as it's been a few years since I read Princess Academy, but once I did, I found it completely engrossing.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, September 17, 2012


I'm excited to announce that I'll be one of the CYBILS judges this year -- poetry, round 1! 

If you're not familiar with the Cybils, you can read all about them on their website.  I've kept an eye out for the results over the past few years, but this is the first year that I've participated on as a panelist.  I'm looking forward to it . . . and I imagine you will be seeing a higher-than-average amount of poetry reviews here over the next few months!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Mark of the Golden Dragon by L.A. Meyer

I read The Mark of the Golden Dragon: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of Jacky Faber, Jewel of the East, Vexation of the West, and Pearl of the South China Sea by L.A. Meyer just last year.  Here's what I wrote about it then:

The future looks bright for Jacky and her beloved Jaimy -- against all odds, they are free, reunited, and on their way back to Boston . . . when Jacky is swept overboard in a typhoon.  Her faithful crew (and a distraught Jaimy) search the surrounding area for Jacky or her remains, but eventually give up and head back to British waters.  Jaimy, pushed to the brink of insanity over the loss of his girl, swears vengeance on Bliffil and Flashby, the villains he holds responsible for Jacky's exile and subsequent demise.

Of course, a little thing like a typhoon couldn't actually kill the indomitable Jacky Faber.  She and Ravi, her young Indian ward, wash up on a deserted stretch of the Burmese coast and begin making their way back to civilization (and from there, back to England).  This involves some fighting, some singing, some sailing, a bit of piracy, and some very smooth talking -- all things that Jacky excels at.  Will she be able to return to England in time to save Jaimy from himself . . . or will she be distracted by the charms of various pretty young men along the way?

Full of fun, adventure, and excitement, this book is just as delightfully over-the-top as its predecessors.  Jacky's fans will not be disappointed!  (Readers new to the series, of course, should start with Bloody Jack -- they won't be disappointed, either!)

This time through, I listened to the audiobook. Katherine Kellgren did a fantastic job, as always -- she really shines in this series. I'm looking forward to reading (and listening to) the next installment in the Bloody Jack series, which was released earlier this month.

(Reviewed from an audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The House on Durrow Street by Galen Beckett

I found The House on Durrow Street by Galen Beckett, sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, nearly as enjoyable as its predecessor.

In this book, all three of the main characters experience a change in status. Mr. Quent is granted a title, raising Ivy's social status and expanding her sphere of influence. She is soon befriended by an extremely fashionable and influential woman, and readers may find themselves wondering if the lady has a secret motive. Rafferdy begins attending the Assembly of Magnates since his father's health no longer permits him to do so, and finds it indescribably dull. He does meet a group of young lords who are, like himself, magicians. Willing or not, Rafferdy is gaining power in both the political and magical spheres. Eldyn finds himself leading a double life -- clerking for the Church by day, while working illusions in the Theatre of the Moon by night. He's determined to earn enough money for his sister's dowry, and for his own fee to enter the church as a priest, and the pay he earns at the theatre makes this possible (for reference, in the eyes of the Church this is a bit like a woman taking up prostitution in order to earn enough money to enter a convent). Each of the three characters is ignorant of a few key details of their situation, and though they rarely meet over the course of the novel, the three storylines converge at the end of the book.

Each of the three main characters managed to do things that I found extremely stupid over the course of the book, though it all worked out in the end. While the first book made several direct references to classic literature, I found less of those in this story, though of course the setting still evokes those works. There were a few stylistic quirks that grated -- for instance, multiple occurrences of the phrase "a grin split his beard" drove me up the wall, as the mental image that phrase conjures up in me is certainly not what the author had in mind. All in all, though, I really enjoyed this novel, and look forward to reading the next book in the series.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is like Austen or Trollope . . . but with dragons!

When Bon Agornin dies, it means change is coming for every member of his family. His two unmarried daughters are sent to live with their more established siblings, but not before there is the most frightful row over Bon Agornin's final wishes. Lawsuits, proposals, and dinner parties ensue as the two younger daughters navigate the perilous waters of courtship while the rest of the family deals with the fallout from Agornin's death.

I just loved this book. The world is well-described without being over-explained, and the fact that all of the characters are dragons is not in any way superfluous. I am impressed at the author's range, as well as her ability to meld the style of the nineteenth-century novel with the trappings of high fantasy. This is the second book I've read by Jo Walton, but I'm sure it will not be the last.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman is one of the best historical novels for teens that I have read in quite a while.

It's 1960, and thirteen-year-old Sophie is having a hard time living up to her mama's expectations. Sophie's mother is a Southern socialite, though recently divorced and now contemplating entering the workforce. While her mother attends school, Sophie is to be left at Oak Cottage with her aunt and grandmother. Oak Cottage is all that remains of the once-proud plantation that Sophie's mother's family has owned since the antebellum era. And, though Sophie's aunt is brusque and her grandmother imperious, Sophie enjoys the freedom of summertime, exploring the hedge maze and swimming in the bayou . . . until she meets an extremely strange little creature who whisks her through the hedge maze and back 100 years. Barefoot, sun-tanned, bedraggled, and strangely dressed, Sophie is taken for a slave by the 1860 residents of Oak River Plantation. It's assumed that a relative in New Orleans sent her to Oak River, and she is given a place as a house slave. At first Sophie hopes for a quick return to 1960, but as the days turn into weeks and then months, her life in the twentieth century fades in her memory, and she is caught up in the stories that unfold around her as she gets to know her ancestors from the perspective of the slaves who serve them. When a young slave woman is threatened by a young man who is courting the daughter of the family, will Sophie risk everything to help her escape? And will her efforts be enough?

I was completely wrapped up in this story. Sherman does a good job of creating nuanced characters, both in the slave quarters and in the big house. Both the 1860 story and the 1960 frame story are well-researched and have a ring of authenticity. The plot moves at the speed of a lazy Louisiana summer afternoon, but I felt that was all right for this book. Readers who enjoy historical fiction such as that written by Ann Rinaldi should give this story a try.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander had lots of elements that I usually love, but they never came together in a cohesive manner.

Rownie is a street urchin, one of several adopted "grandchildren" of Graba, a Fagin-like old woman who unofficially rules the southside of Zombay. Ever since Rownie's big brother Rowan disappeared, he's been sticking with Graba in hopes that she will be able to locate Rowan. Rownie eventually falls in with a group of goblins who run a traveling theatrical troupe -- Rowan was an aspiring actor, even though acting is illegal in Zombay, so perhaps Rownie will be able to locate his brother in that world. Many adventures ensue as Rownie tries to evade Graba's clutches and locate his brother, all in the face of rising floods that threaten to destroy Zombay and all who live there.

So, this book has magic, goblins, theatre, steampunk (some characters have gearwork limbs or organs), and adventure. It sounds like just my sort of thing, but none of it is ever described fully, and some elements just don't make a lot of sense. There's plenty of action, but the backstory suffers in favor of chase scenes and confrontations. This may make it more appealing to reluctant readers, but I felt like there wasn't anything there to sink my teeth into, though with a little more space devoted to description, there could have been.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker is a sweet summertime story -- if you can suspend disbelief about one major plot point.

After Stella's flighty mother abandons her, Stella is sent to live on Cape Cod with Great-Aunt Louise, a stern but loving woman who is determined to do the best she can for Stella. Unfortunately (from Stella's perspective), one of the things she does is take in a foster child, Angel, so Stella will have a companion her own age. Angel and Stella have little in common and do not get along. Stella is looking forward to the end of school, when she plans to have as little to do with Angel as possible. Then, a week before school lets out, Stella comes home to find Great-Aunt Louise dead in her recliner. She knows she should call 911, but a 911 call was what landed her at Great-Aunt Louise's house in the first place, and she dreads the upheaval of being moved on to another new place. Then Angel comes home. When she learns of the situation, she is determined not to be moved to another foster home, and plans to run away. Neither girl really wants to leave . . . so, eventually, they hit upon a temporary solution: they will bury Louise in the vegetable garden and carry on as if she is still alive. Together, they help run the vacation cottages that Louise managed, run interference with concerned neighbor George, and tend to Louise's prized blueberry bushes -- with a little help from Heloise's ever-practical household hints, with which Stella is slightly obsessed. Over the course of the summer, Stella and Angel learn that, though they may not have much in common, they need each other. Together, they are stronger than either of them could be alone.

So, there's one big problem with this book, and I'll bet you've already spotted it. The sheer wackiness of burying the old lady in the backyard is a weird contrast to the sweetness and innocence of the two girls -- which makes it sound like this book should either be slapstick or creepy, and it's not either of those things. They dynamic between Stella and Angel is so well-done, with the two of them arguing and making decisions and having ideas in such a natural way. Stella is truly winsome, without being too good to be true, and her longing for a stable home is palpable. So, I wanted to love this book, but all the time, in the back of my head, a little voice kept saying, but they buried the old lady in the backyard! If you can get beyond that detail, this is a great little book -- and maybe the kids who are its natural audience will have no trouble doing that. As for me, it was a bit of a stretch.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett

Before reading The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, I hadn't realized that there is a term for this subgenre of fantasy literature, even though it's one I find highly enjoyable. Mannerpunk, or Fantasy of Manners, applies to many of my favorite reads that employ magic in an historical (often Regency or Victorian) setting. Though The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is set in an alternate universe, the societal rules in the book feel very much like Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters.

Ivy Lockwell is the daughter of a magician, but it's been several years since her father was well enough to practice magic. He now lives mostly in the attic of their house, occasionally throwing books in a fit of silent rage. Ivy, her mother, and her two sisters subside on the income from some of Mr. Lockwell's old investments, but it's a pinched and economical lifestyle that they are forced to adopt. When Ivy and her sisters gain a chance introduction to a handsome young lord who appears to be paying Ivy special attention, their future looks bright -- but a sudden tragedy causes Ivy to instead take a position as a governess to the wards of one of her father's friends, the gruff and solemn Mr. Quent. At Heathcrest, Mr. Quent's foreboding home, Ivy learns that there is more to magic than she had previously supposed. . . .

I thought this was an excellent read, full of intricate detail and strong characters, and a plot that moved just fast enough but not too fast. It felt a lot like a cross between Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, but well-done enough that I felt the similarities added to, rather than detracted from, the book's appeal. I'll be reading the next book in the series, The House on Durrow Street, soon.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead isn't quite what I was expecting from the Newbery Medal-winning author of When You Reach Me, but it is an engaging read, nonetheless.

Seventh grade is not turning out to be the best year for Georges. He's dealing with bullies at school, plus his dad lost his job and they have to move out of their house and into an apartment a few blocks away. His mom is a nurse and is always at the hospital. And he has no friends. That changes when he meets Safer, an eccentric loner kid who drinks coffee out of a hip flask and runs an elite spying operation out of his bedroom. Safer is determined to discover what nefarious secrets Mr. X, a fourth-floor resident, is hiding, and he recruits Georges to help with the mission. Of course, Safer is hiding some secrets himself -- as are a few other people in the story.

The main thing that strikes me about this book is that it feels so true. Georges' feelings, his interactions with parents, teachers, and friends, his reactions to certain revelations at the end of the story -- all of them just seem right and possible. This book doesn't have the sci-fi oomph of When You Reach Me, but it has all of the good qualities that I'm coming to expect from Rebecca Stead's writing. Fans of the middle-grade chapter book, don't miss this one!

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)