Monday, December 31, 2012

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings by Helene Boudreau

I almost forgot that I read Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings by Helene Boudreau several days ago, trying out a (relatively) new ebook lending service available through my library.

Jade is dealing with plenty of typical teenage issues -- finding a bathing suit that fits her full figure, shopping for feminine hygiene products with her dad (her mother died about a year ago in a boating accident), tongue-tied conversations with cute boys, and her legs transforming into a tail when she takes a bath. (Okay, so that last one? Not so typical.) Jade is discovering that she didn't know as much as she thought she did about her mother, and about her mother's death. Can Jade learn to control her new abilities, or are pool parties going to be off-limits for the rest of her life?

This was a fun light read. I appreciate reading about a heroine who is overweight and generally okay with that (swimsuit shopping drama aside). I'm not sure if I will continue with the series, but I'd certainly recommend it to teens who like mermaids and chick lit.

(Reviewed from an electronic copy borrowed through my library system.)

Gaudy Night & Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers are notable mysteries, but fans of the series generally cherish them even more for the relationship dynamics at play.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane returns to her college at Oxford for a reunion. She does this with some trepidation -- after all, she has not been to Oxford since she was a dewy-eyed undergraduate, and the intervening years have been marred with, among other things, a notorious murder trial and a career as a successful mystery novelist. Harriet dreads the whispers and insinuations that are sure to follow her, as well as the persistent, irritating questions about her relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey -- a relationship that Harriet herself has a hard time defining. Harriet finds that the hall of academe are still the same sanctuary that she remembers . . . until a nasty note is stuffed in the pocket of her academic gown, and she picks up a smutty drawing blowing across the quad at night. She shrugs off the incidents, but at the start of the next term, the dean calls her up asking for help. It seems that a vicious poison pen is at work, intent upon disgracing the college and distressing its staff and students. Perhaps most upsetting is the fact that it appears to be one of the staff who is sending the notes. Has a life of academic celibacy driven one of the women mad -- or is there something else at work?

Gaudy Night focuses mostly on Harriet -- indeed, Lord Peter is abroad for most of the story. He does return towards the end of the book, but while he is away and Harriet is puzzling out the mystery on her own, we get to see a lot of character growth on Harriet's part. She's been resisting Lord Peter's gentlemanly advances for years -- will this be the book where she finally puts the ghost of Philip Boyes to rest and accepts the inevitable? (Hint: the summary of the next book -- or, in fact, the title -- pretty much gives away the answer that that question!)

Busman's Honeymoon finds Lord Peter and Harriet entering into a life of wedded bliss, and evading the press as much as possible as they honeymoon in a picturesque old house in Hertfordshire. This proves impossible, however, when the body of their landlord is found in the coal cellar. It seems that Lord Peter cannot escape his calling -- but can even Lord Peter solve a case where the evidence has been almost completely obliterated by his own presence in the house where the crime took place?

These two books are a strong conclusion to the series, and I'm glad to have thought of rereading them. Perhaps in another ten or fifteen years, I'll have forgotten the plots again and will be able to enjoy another read through!

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer

The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer is a fun, somewhat Sherlockian story featuring a feisty female protagonist.

It hasn't escaped the notice of Enola Holmes that her first name spelled backwards is "Alone." As the much younger daughter of the great Sherlock Holmes, Enola has grown up on the run-down family estate in the care of her eccentric mother, left often to her own devices. When her mother disappears, Enola sends for Sherlock and Mycroft, hoping that they will be able to solve the mystery of their mother's disappearance. Sherlock soon returns to London, promising to work on locating their mother, but not giving Enola much hope. Mycroft, bemoaning the condition of the estate and Enola's breeding and education (or lack thereof), determines to send Enola off to boarding school -- whereupon Enola runs away and sets out on her own to solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance. On the way to London, Enola stumbles upon another mysterious disappearance, and she just can't help but get involved. Perhaps a talent for detection runs in the family . . .

While I am not as much of a Sherlock Holmes aficionado as some I could mention, I did think this book was fairly well done. I liked the way Enola chose methods of escape and disguise that she felt Sherlock would not expect, and used the trimmings and trappings of a "proper young lady" to her advantage. The author obviously did her homework on the period, but she incorporated period details into the story seamlessly, without info-dumping.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the fabulous Katherine Kellgren. I first discovered her work by listening to the Bloody Jack series, which I have mentioned before on this year's threads. Kellgren does a great job of differentiating her characters, and really has a feel for light historical fiction such as this. I'll certainly be listening to more books in this series in the future.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

Timeless by Alexandra Monir

Timeless by Alexandra Monir is the first book in a new series about a young woman who discovers that she has the power to travel through time.

 Michele loves her laid-back California lifestyle, just her and her mother in a home as far removed from her mother's upper-class New York childhood as possible. When tragedy strikes and Michele must live with her grandparents in their New York City mansion, she wonders how she will be able to cope with her restrictive new lifestyle, snobbish school, and lack of close friendships. When Michele discovers an old diary, she finds that she has the ability to travel back in time. In the New york City of the early twentieth century, she meets Philip, the boy who has haunted her dreams for as long as she can remember. Michele and Philip can't deny their instant connection, but there are numerous roadblocks before them, not the least of which being the fact that they are from two different times, and Michele can't always control when she will be pulled back to the present day.

This is Monir's first novel, and there are some rough corners on this generally enjoyable story. While the writing is not as polished as it could have been, the plot is strong. Character development is minimal, and Michele and Philip's romance follows the love-at-first-sight pattern so prevalent in young adult literature right now. The ending does consititute a cliffhanger, but the sequel will be available in January 2013.

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke

Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke is the most charming early chapter book I've read since Clementine. Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa -- amazing Africa! -- with her extended family, including her African father, her Canadian mother, twin baby brothers Double and Trouble, and a host of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The plot is episodic, so I can't really do this book justice with a plot summary. Though each chapter stands alone, the chapters flow nicely together. This would make a fantastic classroom readaloud, teachers! I just love Anna Hibiscus. I'll be trying hard to get my hands on the rest of the series -- which is not as easy as you might think, since the series is published by Kane Miller, an imprint of Usborne, which is basically sold like Tupperware by independent sales reps, so not available through the usual channels. This is one book that's definitely worth the effort, though!

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler

Princess of the Wild Swans by Diane Zahler is a retelling of the "Six Swans" fairy tale.

Headstrong Princess Meriel spends most of her time escaping from her governess and attempting to emulate her beloved older brothers -- but when her father brings home a new wife, Meriel's life changes, and not for the better. Meriel's stepmother sends the boys away to school -- or so she says. When Meriel discovers six swans swimming on a nearby lake, though, she realizes the truth. With the help of a local family of witches, Meriel learns that she must sew shirts for each of her brothers from nettles -- and she must do so without speaking. In the meantime, her stepmother's cruel magic threatens everyone in the vicinity, and winter is fast approaching. Will Meriel be able to rescue her brothers in time?

I've always loved fairy tales and fairy tale retellings, but not all of them are created equal. This particular retelling is enjoyable enough, but does not stand out in what has become a rather crowded genre. I have a few issues with the plot (note to the squeamish: these could be considered spoilers), and they all come down to the ability of various magic-users to read minds. Meriel's ability to mind-speak with her magic-wielding friends undercuts the drama of her not being able to speak aloud while making the shirts (it feels like cheating, to be frank); and the stepmother's ability to read minds, but inability to learn about Meriel's brothers because Meriel's father thought only of his daughter . . . well, I just didn't buy it.

I'd recommend this to children who are discovering the fairy tale retelling genre for the first time, as it is a less frequently told tale (and the other retellings that I can think of are for older readers), and to fans of this fairy tale in general. Adult readers looking for a retelling of this tale, though, should look first at Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest.

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle by John Stevens

The Emerald Atlas and The Fire Chronicle are the first two books in a juvenile fantasy series by John Stevens. I originally read The Emerald Atlas over a year ago, pre-publication, from an advance copy. Here's a link to my full review of that book. Basically, I liked it, but acknowledged that it has a few issues.

Which is pretty much how I feel about The Fire Chronicle. In this book, Kate, Michael, and Emma find themselves in danger once again from the Dire Magus. Early in the story, Kate is separated from her two younger siblings. She spends most of the book trapped in another time, and there she learns more about the Dire Magus in her quest to return to her family. Meanwhile, Michael is feeling the pressure of being the oldest sibling, especially since Emma feels no compunction about ignoring his opnion and doing her own thing when it suits her. Michael and Emma, along with Dr. Pym, set out on a quest to find another of the Books of Beginning, and of course they will meet up with dangers that they couldn't have imagined as they follow a trail of clues to South America and Antarctica.

I enjoyed this book about as much as the first one. It's not particularly distinguished, but it certainly fills a niche in a popular market, and kids who love fantasy will devour this series. Its adherence to the tropes of the genre is, in some cases, its downfall. For instance, even more in this book than in the first book, Dr. Pym upholds the Wise Old Wizard stereotype. In another recent read, "Who Could That Be at This Hour?", Lemony Snicket remarks that books like this one always have a wizard who is less helpful than he could be, and that is certainly the case here. It's obvious to the reader that Pym knows a great deal about the childrens' destiny, but for some reason he's dispensing that information on a need-to-know basis, and he's the one who gets to decide who needs to know what.

On the other hand, the kids' characters are well-written, and Michael, in particular, got some good character development in this book. I can't help liking feisty Emma, and one particular part of Kate's storyline sets up interesting possibilities for the third book. Readers may want to know that The Fire Chronicle does end with a cliffhanger, so if that bothers you, hold off until the third book is published.

(The Emerald Atlas reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher; The Fire Chronicle reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima is the fourth (and probably final) book in the Seven Realms series. This review may contain spoilers for earlier books in the series.

Raisa is now Queen of the Fells, and Han is her bodyguard and her appointee to the Wizard Council -- but neither of them are out of danger. The question of Raisa's marriage is fraught with tension, as both the Clans and the Wizards put forth candidates . . . and there are some who feel that they could do without Raisa at all. Meanwhile, Han's position gives him no protection from the other wizards, particularly the powerful Bayars, who would like nothing better than to have Han permanently removed from the picture. As war continues to rage in the kingdoms to the south, it appears that the Fells may fall to internal conflict rather than to invasion, though with the ambitious and ruthless Gerard Montaigne on the Ardenine throne, the southern kingdoms still pose a definite threat.

This book was a gripping conclusion to the series -- I read it quickly, finding it extremely difficult to put down. The characters and worldbuilding are strong, and the plot and pacing keep the reader engaged, to say the least. My only small complaint is that Chima occasionally used the particularly modern convention of breaking up an emphatically delivered sentence with periods. After. Every. Word. -- and, while I can accept that usage in a modern setting, I found it completely out of place in high fantasy. Other than that minor syntactical quibble, I really enjoyed this book, and will, I'm sure, reread the series in the future. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys high fantasy. Of course, if you are unfamiliar with the series, start with The Demon King -- this book definitely needs the context provided in earlier volumes.

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

Monday, December 3, 2012

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket

"Who Could That Be at This Hour?" by Lemony Snicket is the first book in a new series, All the Wrong Questions.

13-year-old Lemony Snicket is apprenticed to S. Theodora Markson, and together they travel to the little town of Stain'd-By-The-Sea for an assignment: to steal a certain object and make sure it is returned to its rightful owner. The job is not as straightforward as it sounds, though, and Lemony may be caught up in a bigger mystery than he had anticipated.

This book has the same feel as the Series of Unfortunate Events, though in this case Snicket is telling his own story, rather than that of the Baudelaire orphans. He still enjoys throwing in the definitions of some of the more complicated words that he comes across, and he makes veiled references to quite a few works of literature that some of his readers may recognize. (I think I got most of them, though one or two had me stumped. To tell the truth, figuring out which titles he was referring to was probably my favorite part of this book.)

The plot is weird and wacky and even less straightforward than the plots of his earlier books. Too few of the mysteries we encountered were resolved for my taste, and the end of the book left me feeling frustrated rather than satisfied. I also found that it took me longer to read the book than I expected, as I kept putting it down and going off to do other things. However, I fully admit that it might just be me, in this case -- so if you are a big fan of the Series of Unfortunate Events, you will almost certainly want to pick this book up and judge its merits for yourself.

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

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin is another fun and fluffy teen read.

Lizzie Summers isn't famous . . . but her mother sure is! As daughter of supermodel Katia Summers, Lizzie learned red carpet etiquette and how to deal with the media from a young age. The problem is, Lizzie doesn't take after her mother much at all, and as an awkward teenager, those red-carpet photo sessions with her mom are misery. When Lizzie accidentally lets slip to a reporter her real opinion of her mother's new lingerie line ("a little slutty"), she becomes the kind of YouTube sensation that nobody wants to be. While she's dealing with her parents' reaction to her faux pas and the usual pressures of school, friends, and boys, she is contacted by a photographer who is interested in using her as a model -- the photographer works with real people, not supermodels, and she says that Lizzie is "the new pretty." But if Lizzie agrees to model, what will her mother think?

Though this is definitely aimed at teens who are interested in stories of the rich and famous, it is refreshingly low on Mean Girls. In terms of content, this reads closer to The Clique than Gossip Girl -- there's a little boy drama, but nothing that should make younger teens too uncomfortable. I liked that the story focused mostly on Lizzie's potential modeling career, and though she made some cringe-worthy bad decisions, I felt that they were generally in character. While the plot is a little predictable, it's no worse than most of the popular books in this genre, and I would recommend it to teens who can't get enough of this sort of thing -- though I probably won't read any more of the series.

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

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Main Street series, books 1-3 by Ann M. Martin

I picked up secondhand copies of Welcome to Camden Falls, Needle and Thread, and 'Tis the Season by Ann M. Martin for my young cousin (the one I've been reading Narnia with), and decided to read them before passing them along. I was a big fan of the Baby-Sitters Club books when I was a pre-teen, so I was interested to see what this new series was like.

When Flora and Ruby's parents die in a car accident, the girls have no choice but to move to Camden Falls to live with their grandmother. They're not excited about leaving their home and friends, but they soon embrace small-town life, with the help of a couple of new friends.

This series doesn't have the structure and focus of the BSC series -- though the girls do embark on projects, often involving their grandmother's sewing and crafting store, the stories meander a bit more. That's not a criticism, just a comparison. Martin does tackle some heavier issues than one might expect for a middle-grade series by including a character whose parents are alcoholics, and whose father is verbally, and possibly physically, abusive. To an adult reader, the series seems almost too neat in its construction -- the prefect small-town business district with its collection of unique shops, the carefully balanced neighborhood diversity, the range of issues encountered by the girls, through which they learn the appropriate lessons . . . it's remarkably tidy, and feels almost sanitized. The characters are a little flat: Flora is the arts-and-crafts loving homemaker type, Ruby is a performer, Olivia is smart, Nikki is an artistic animal-lover . . . and that's about all there is to say about them.

Will I still pass these books on to my cousin? Of course. The issues I've mentioned are ones unlikely to bother the young readers for whom the series is written. So, while I feel no desire to read more in the series, I can still appreciate that it will hold some attraction to young readers. I can also see why it has not been as wildly successful as its predecessor.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copies.)