March 27, 2008

The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

I finally got around to reading this one after reading review after glowing review by a host of well-known authors, among them Tamora Pierce, Neil Gaiman, and Holly Black. The Privilege of the Sword is indeed high, swashbuckling fantasy that reads like a cross between Georgette Heyer and Guy Gavriel Kay. And for the first half of the book, I really enjoyed it.

Katherine is a very nice young noblewoman from the country. When her uncle, the Mad Duke, offers to raise her family out of impending poverty in exchange for Katherine coming to live with him in the city and training as a swordswoman, she doesn't even think about it twice. To save her family (and perhaps make a good marriage in town), Katherine jumps at the chance. Trouble is, her uncle really does appear to be "mad" and, in lieu of joining him in his bouts of debauchery and midnight carousing, Katherine is left to fend for herself. After her initial horror at wearing men's clothes, she surprises herself by taking to the art of sword fighting quite quickly. The duke's faithful servant Marcus takes her under his wing as well. The two of them quickly become friends and partners in their secret quest to find out just what the devil the duke and his secret, highborn visitors are up to.

Its rich, heady atmosphere and fast pace are the story's strong points. And the Mad Duke Tremontaine is priceless. I never did grow very close to Katherine, though. And her developing relationship with Marcus seemed forced, as though they got together for lack of having anyone better around. I didn't buy that they really cared that much for each other. I did buy that they both cared about the duke, and with good reason. I wanted more on his character and the machinations of his Hamlet-style, mad north-north-west mind. The story felt like it wanted to go in so many different directions, and explore so many characters at once, but didn't have the necessary space nor sanity to do so, that it was hard to care about the characters you wanted to. I enjoyed it for the most part. I just wish it had stayed in one place long enough for me to really fall in love.

Links
Bookshelves of Doom Review
Bookslut Review
Emerald City Review
Strange Horizons Review

March 26, 2008

Tamar by Mal Peet

This one's been sitting on my TBR shelf for awhile now, waiting for me to work my way around to the right mood. When I finally did, I was sucked in by the first line.
In the end, it was her grandfather, William Hyde, who gave the unborn child her name. He was serious about names; he'd had several himself.
One day, out of the blue, William Hyde asks his son to name his daughter Tamar. He explains that when he was a Dutch resistance fighter working for the British during WWII, their code names were taken from rivers in England. His son assumes it was his father's code name and agrees to name her Tamar.

After this brief introduction, the story jumps back in time to follow two young Dutch secret agents, code names Dart and Tamar. The two friends parachute into the occupied Netherlands in the dead of night. Tamar is charged with organizing the fragmented resistance efforts. Dart is his wireless operator. When they arrive, Tamar finds he is based out of the farm where a young woman named Marijke lives. It turns out the two met and fell in love a year ago but never thought they'd see each other again after Tamar was sent back to England. As they rekindle their romance amid the terror and starvation gripping the country, Dart is not so lucky. Based out of an insane asylum, he poses as a doctor, making trip after treacherous trip into town to relay encrypted messages and receive directions from headquarters in England. The events that overtake these two friends combine to create a web of deception and anger that reaches out to cover three generations.

This story is bleak. The focus is on the horrors of war and what they do to the men and women involved, the indelible mark left on their lives long after the guns are silenced and the violence is over. In the WWII chapters, the writing is coolly objective. It is impossible not to sympathize with Dart and Tamar and Marijke, though it is difficult to really feel like you know them. The war obscures everything. However, their story is broken up periodically by excerpts from the future. A future in which William Hyde dies suddenly, leaving a box of strange items to his granddaughter Tamar. Tamar's father disappeared years ago, her grandmother is in a home for the elderly, and her mother knows next to nothing about the family history. With the help of her quirky "cousin" (but not really) Yoyo, Tamar sets out on a journey to the river that shares her name to discover why and what her grandfather left her. These chapters are told in first person and come across a bit warmer than the rest of the tale. They show up more frequently as the novel comes closer to its conclusion and, I admit, I would have liked a few more of these present-day chapters throughout the book. Nevertheless, it is a harrowing and fascinating read. I wanted to understand the characters and their motives. I wanted Tamar to understand. In the end, Mal Peet leaves it up to the reader to determine which of them deserves forgiveness and which of them achieve peace.

Links
Bookgoddess Review
The Guardian Review
New York Times Review

March 24, 2008

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

Once again Ibbotson shows how apt she is at expressing just how her character is feeling, in such a way that the reader sets the book down in her lap and sighs, "Yes. That is exactly how it feels."
She stood for a long time looking at the verses in which Emily Dickinson had chronicled her heartbreak. Loneliness had taught Harriet that there was always someone who understood--it was just that so very often they were dead, and in a book.
I remember feeling that way when I was a teenager. The first time I read Middlemarch, passages from A Tale of Two Cities, most of Shakespeare. Certainly Dickinson. The feeling of making contact on the page with someone long gone, at a time when it is so difficult making any contact at all in real life.

When we first meet Harriet, it is indeed difficult to find an aspect of her life that is not dreary and isolated. Kept on an unbelievably tight rein by her scholar father and spinster aunt, her only outlet is the weekly ballet lessons that have somehow slipped under the radar. When a talent scout offers her the chance to join a touring ballet company on its way to Brazil, Harriet can't sit back and watch life pass her by once more. Escaping from her father, her insect-obsessed intended, and England in general, she sails to the Amazon and into another life.

In Manaus, Harriet finds friendship, hard work, inspiration, and Rom--the mysterious and wealthy expat who owns the Teatro Amazonas where the company performs. Ibbotson's novels are all about home. About finding it somewhere you least expected it, about returning to it again after you thought all was lost. Harriet is, without a doubt, the most beleaguered of all her heroines, and this tale is a particularly sweet one because it is about a young woman trying so hard to do the right thing and keep a grasp on happiness at the same time, and a man who is afraid to hold onto hope when it is offered him for what, he is certain, is the last time.

Links
Bookshelves of Doom Review
Jennie's B(ook)log Review
The Ravenous Reader Review

March 20, 2008

An Announcement

It's a girl!

A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

What wordy, frothy fun Ibbotson's books are. Perfect going on a trip books. In fact, reading them makes me wish I was going somewhere, as her heroines always seem to be off somewhere new and exciting and exotic. But since I am not going anywhere (exotic or otherwise) in the near future, getting lost in them has proved a wonderful balm for my It's mid-March and Still Snowing blues.

Anna is a Russian countess whose family is forced to flee their wealth and their home after her father is killed in the Russian Revolution. Completely displaced, living in a flat in London with her former governess, she determines to support her ailing mother and younger brother by taking a job as a maid at the country estate of the Earl of Westerholme. Rupert, the young Earl, is recently home from the war, wounded and desperately trying to save the destitute estate he didn't want to inherit in the first place. You see, he promised his older brother just before he died that he would do anything in his power to keep the old place afloat. Ah, those pesky deathbed promises. They always come back to haunt you...

To avoid selling, Rupert proposes to a beautiful, very wealthy nurse he meets while recovering in hospital. Muriel is gorgeous, rich, and oh, just by the way, a passionate believer in eugenics--the philosophy of selective breeding in order to achieve a master race. That's right. The woman is Evil Incarnate and Poor Rupert doesn't know! As Muriel sinks her claws deeper and deeper into Westerholme, attempting to dispose of all of its lovely, offbeat, misfit inhabitants, Rupert and Anna strike up a friendship. Not fooled for a second by her maid disguise, Rupert is struck by how much Anna seems to love his home and family, how different it all looks when seen through her eyes. And, indeed, everyone from the other servants to the Earl's giant hound is enamored of Anna. But the path gets thornier and thornier as the wedding draws closer and pride and honor get in the way of everyone's happiness.

Ibbotson's books remind me of a cross between Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre, with a dash of Mary Stewart thrown in for good measure. A Countess Below Stairs has a wedding scene that had me laughing out loud. Best of all, though, it contains a truly wonderful rant delivered by the leading lady whilst standing in front of a formal dinner party, clutching a basket of rolls to her chest. Brilliant.

It also contains the best last line of Ibbotson's books yet.

Links
Books and Other Thoughts Review
Bookshelves of Doom Review
Bookwyrm Chrysalis Review

March 19, 2008

Chalice Flap Copy

To celebrate the six month anniversary of her blog (and to just set our little hearts a-twitter), Robin McKinley has posted the flap copy for Chalice, her upcoming September release. The main character is a beekeeper! And there's a dude who, with a touch of his hand, can burn human flesh to the bone! Oh, my....

Enjoy here.

March 18, 2008

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

Set in Austria and London just before and during World War II, A Song for Summer follows a young woman named Ellen Carr who takes a job as a housekeeper at an unusual private school in the Austrian Alps. I knew this book and I would get on when Ellen first arrived at Schloss Hallendorf to find a tortoise on wheels speeding across the lawn.
It looked much as tortoises do, its neck extended, its demeanor purposeful--but fastened to its back end was a small platform with two wheels on which it scooted as if on roller skates.

"It's Achilles," said Sophie. "His back legs were paralyzed and he was dragging himself along. We thought we'd have to have him destroyed and then Marek came and made him those wheels."
Soon after the well-equipped tortoise, Ellen encounters Professor Chomsky who teaches metalwork and swims naked in the lake at all hours, Professor Ritter who teaches drama and encourages the children to be kitchen utensils and to give birth to themselves, and a cabbage-person from an English mining village masquerading as a Russian ballerina. These delightful, at time hilarious, side characters bring a wonderful flavor and variety to the novel as, one by one, they are drawn into the bright circle of Ellen's influence. There is humor, danger, romance, and a beautiful longing for the world as it was and as it should be among the pages of this book. Ibbotson's light, lyrical writing flowed through each chapter, like the glissandi and grace notes of the music that is so central to its theme. And at is core is Ellen, a girl who is both strong and domestically inclined. The daughter and niece of dyed in the wool suffragettes, she is independent and smart and firmly chooses baking over marching. And, as so many of the characters do, reading this book means falling in love with her.

This was my first Eva Ibbotson book and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. I have to say, finding a fabulous debut author is a delightful experience. But is there anything that compares with the tingle of discovering a wonderful established author, who already has six or seven books out there ready and waiting and in paperback? Nope, nothing comes to mind.

Links
BookMoot Review
Bookshelves of Doom Review

March 12, 2008

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost

I came across a mention of Halfway to the Grave on Rachel Vincent's blog and decided to give it a try because the notion of a main character who is a half-vampire intrigued me. How does one become half a vampire, and what wicked cool/unbelievably lame attributes come with the package?

Cat Crawfield's mother had an unfortunate encounter with a vampire and five months later Cat was born. Her reclusive mother raised her to hate the darker half of herself, encouraging her to actively hunt the undead as a way of atoning for the fact of her existence. Being the good egg that she is, Cat obeys her mother and spends her youth isolated and alone, always in pursuit of her next victim.

Now 22 and about to start college, Cat firmly believes her mom's mantra: all vampires are evil and must be destroyed. Then one night a routine hunt goes bad when the vampire in question manages to take her prisoner, threatening to kill her unless she reveals who she is working for. Turns out this vampire, aka Bones, also kills other vampires for a living. And he suspects Cat of working for his enemy. The two strike up an uneasy alliance with Bones determined to train Cat as the ultimate vampire slayer and Cat determined to use the training to kill Bones the first chance she gets. Humor, mayhem, romance (not for the faint of heart...ahem), and lots and lots of slaying ensue. I really liked prickly Cat and the hilarious Bones. This book is funny and fun and the gangbusters ending left me very excited about book two, One Foot in the Grave, due out April 29.

Links
Darque Reviews
Jeaniene Frost's Website
Love Vampires Review

March 11, 2008

A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce

I've been savoring this one. I mean, I read a chunk every day, don't get me wrong. But if something happened to come up at night during my normal reading time, instead of muttering, "Vital point," like I usually do, I was up for it.

Watch a movie? Sure.

Clean out a few more boxes from the study? Let's do it!

Because I just didn't want this book to end. It more than lived up to the expectations I had, having heard such wonderful early reviews. And I was so pleased that it did because the initial prospect of a Rumpelstiltskin retelling was not all that attractive.

Let's face it, in its original form it's an awful fairy tale. Awful Dad sells his nameless daughter to Awful King in exchange for money. Awful King threatens nameless daughter with death unless she is able to spin straw into gold. Otherwise he'll marry her. Then to top it all off, creepily Awful Dwarf appears and saves nameless daughter's bacon....in exchange for her potential first-born child. And she's willing to make this Awful Bargain because she really doesn't want to die and can see no other way out. So she marries Awful King, makes a baby with him (shocker!), and, when Awful Dwarf comes to claim his due, is only able to save her baby by guessing his Awful Name. Yeah. Not my favorite fairy tale.

Turns out it wasn't Elizabeth C. Bunce's favorite either. I love that she rewrote it because it bothered her. And she did such a splendid job filling in the cracks, reworking the plot, carefully shaping it into a lovely tale of courage and ill luck, curses and redemption. The setting was a perfect choice: eighteenth century England, just on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. And the beautiful names. Charlotte Miller, Randall Woodstone, Shearing, Stirwaters, Jack Spinner. The names truly belong to their characters and places. I could tell each one was carefully chosen for effect, like a Dickens cast. And I was drawn to them, the animate and inanimate alike. For the mill, the mansion, and the curse itself are characters in their own right. Bunce's beautiful, unselfconscious writing propels the story forward to its climactic conclusion. This is a dark, drafty, remarkably real tale and, like Jack Spinner, it will spin its golden thread around you.

Links
Bookshelves of Doom Review
Look Books Review
Miss Erin Review, Miss Erin Interview
Sarah Miller Review

March 3, 2008

Rose Daughter--le Livre d'Artist

Last year my fabulous mother-in-law gave me this book for my birthday. Only 1,000 gorgeous limited edition copies were created and one of them resides in my home. It is, hands down, the most beautiful book I own and the truth is I don't have an appropriately lovely manner in which to display it. So it sits on my dresser where I can gaze at it daily and trail my fingertips across the rose brocade. I first saw it when I came across the CMF Gallery website and fell in love with Anne Bachelier's beautiful, haunting illustrations.

They seemed to perfectly capture Rose Daughter's illusory quality. The uncertainty as to what kind of a beast he truly was. The allegorical character names. The inescapable feeling that it could all have happened somewhere. And perhaps did. That Beauty could have been anyone. Your own sister. A close friend.

Thumbing through the heavy linen pages, it is clear this extraordinary book is a labor of love that could only have been created by someone who truly loved the story and wanted to share the author's and artist's unique vision with others who feel the same way. Remarkable, really.