September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week

It's Banned Books Week again and time to celebrate your freedom to read. As freedoms go...it's sort of right at the top of my list. Not to be taken for granted. To be defended at all cost. According to the American Library Association, more than 400 books were challenged in 2007. The 10 most challenged titles were: 

1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
2. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
3. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes
4. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
7. TTYL by Lauren Myracle
8. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
9. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I've read half of the top ten. Go Mark Twain! I love this week as librarians and booksellers all around the nation get together in support of free speech. So get out there and join the fight against the powers of darkness.

September 29, 2008

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

When someone states that a book is their favorite book of all, especially when that someone is Jen Robinson, I am so gonna pick up that book. I mean, I have trouble even thinking about making a top ten list of favorite books of all. Break it down into different genres, and perhaps I could start whittling it down. Maybe. In the meantime, I truly would like to have read as many of the important-to-people, comfort-read books as I can. I like the fellow feeling it engenders. Plus, it makes me branch out and I invariably find little gems I otherwise would not have.

Listening Valley takes place in Scotland just prior to World War II. Tonia and her sister Lou grow up thick as thieves in a world apart from their extremely detached parents and the other kids in town. Tonia particularly is dreamier and more sensitive than the gregarious Lou. Whenever things become too much, she retreats to that quiet and calm place in her mind she dubs Listening Valley. There she can suss things out on her own time and make sense of them. When Lou runs off to get married at 18, Tonia is left alone, unhappy, and unsure of who she is and what she wants to be. When offered independence and the opportunity to leave her parents' home, she makes a difficult command decision and accepts an offer of marriage from a wealthy, but kindly older man. Soon Tonia finds herself in London amidst bombings and rationing and her life is suddenly filled with purpose as it had never been before. This time is not to last, however, and Tonia eventually finds herself back in Scotland attempting to refashion her life once more.

Above all, this is a sweet story about life and growing up, leaving home, and finding it again. I enjoyed watching Tonia become more at ease in her own skin over the years, so much so that she is able to not only take care of herself but others as well. These others include the funny and endearing inhabitants of Ryddelton as well as the boys of the RAF who congregate at Tonia's. Tonia herself is so very fragile in the beginning, but by the end I felt like she would be quite all right, come what may. That she was, indeed, someone who would "go out with you in any weather." That kind of transformation was gratifying to watch and the story as a whole both pleasant and touching. Thanks for the recommendation, Jen. This book is easy to love.

September 26, 2008

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley knows first lines. You read just the first sentence and immediately feel like you've entered a world entirely complete and utterly its own. And you want to sit down and stay awhile. Chalice is no exception to the rule. The world reminded me a bit of the kingdom in Spindle's Endboth of them deeply entrenched in a sticky sort of magic with a heritage and weight to it. The characters reminded me a bit of those in Rose Daughter, purposefully a bit vague and left up to your imagination to carve out clearly. All of them living their lives as best they can with a sure but undefinable sense of doom hanging over their heads. 

Mirasol occupies a position known simply as Chalice. She is the second-highest ranking individual in the Willowlands and it is her job to bind relationships and ties within her domain, between the people and the land they both live on and belong to. At the opening of the story, a new Master (the highest-ranking individual in the land) is coming home to take control of the Willowlands and try to restore some order and peace after the debaucheries and mistakes of his older brother, the previous Master. Mirasol and the new Master have their work cut out for them as she is brand new to the position with no idea how to do what she must, and he is a third-level priest of Fire who is no longer quite human and must tread with extreme care so as not to burn everything (and everyone) he touches to ash. 

Sigh. Chalice is a bit of the loveliness, to be sure. It is short and as sweet as the honey that pervades the story's every pore. In fact, just as Sunshine left me with a killer craving for cinnamon rolls, Chalice made me wish I was five years old again and sitting in the kitchen with my Grandpa sucking fresh honey straight off the comb. There are only a few characters in this story and so it seemed that much more important that the ones I had make it through their challenges well and whole. I liked how they seemed to gain additional form and substance as they grew closer and closer to the final test. Until, at the end, they seemed like friends. Full of familiar light and color. 

September 25, 2008

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

This one came with such glowing recommendations that I was delighted to see it sitting there on the shelf all shiny and mysterious and earlier than expected on my last trip to the bookstore. Seriously, it seemed to glow at me from within. It could have just been the flourescent light glancing off the cover but, either way, it was a pretty promising start to a great read by debut author Kristin Cashore.

Graceling is the story of a young woman named Katsa. Katsa's life is made difficult by the fact that she is a member of an unwelcome minority known as the Graced. The Graced possess certain enhanced natural abilites such as the ability to swim like a fish or sing like a bird and no two Gracelings have the same ability. These almost superhuman traits set them apart from the whole of society and they are viewed in a highly negative light. Unknown quantities. Not to be trusted. Too make it worse, Katsa has a killing Grace. She can dispatch bad guys like nobody's business. Trouble is she's in servitude to her uncle, a rather nasty bit of work who trots her out to do his dirty work anytime he feels one of his underlings isn't performing up to snuff. Katsa hates her Grace, despises her uncle, and lives in fear of losing her temper one day and unleashing an absolute massacre. 

Katsa is a steely young woman who has few friends and fewer joys in her life. Graceling follows her struggles to control her Grace, define its boundaries, and find purpose in a world that does not seem to want her in it. Kristin Cashore excels at the storytelling, wrapping her hardened heroine in a cloak of beautifully urgent language. She knows how to pace her plot and particularly how to end a chapter in just such a way so the reader is both satisfied and eager for more. No easy task, that. The climax of this book ran shivers down my spine and the choices the characters were forced to make both broke my heart and made me proud of them. If you are a fan of Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley, this one is pretty much a guaranteed home run. Graceling is also the first in a trilogy, although it sounds like the second installment, Fire, is actually a prequel. 

September 24, 2008

Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

Somewhere in between the release of Girl at Sea and Suite Scarlett, I'm embarrassed to admit that I think I may actually have forgotten, for just a second, how funny Maureen Johnson is. I mean the hunching your shoulders, tongue caught between your teeth, giggling kind of funny. I read her blog regularly, so I shouldn't be a bit surprised. But Suite Scarlett was even funnier than her previous books. It was like concentrated Essence of Johnson: charmingly and unrepentantly hilarious. They really should bottle it somehow. I also have to say how much I like the cover. This is just how I pictured Scarlett, right down to the platinum curls, red lipstick, and Lola's little black dress. 

Scarlett Martin's life is slightly different from most 15-year-old New Yorkers' lives. She lives in the Hopewell--an old Art Deco hotel her family has run for generations. On the morning the book opens, Scarlett celebrates her birthday and learns that they've had to let go the last employees they had. She, along with her three siblings and two parents, will now be expected to keep the mouldering old place running on their own. Good thing the Martins are good at keeping up appearances. Oldest daughter Lola works at the makeup counter at an upscale department store and maintains a relationship with boyfriend Chip, otherwise known to the family as "#98" for his inclusion at the bottom of the top 100 happening bachelors in the city. Grin. Brother Spencer is a desperately aspiring actor gifted in physical comedy. Spencer is always mock falling down stairs and into doors. He is on a deadline to acquire a "real" acting job within the next week or his parents are shipping him off to culinary school so he can be the hotel cook upon graduation. With Scarlett's help, however, Spencer is determined to avoid this fate worse than death. 

The genius of this book is the Martin siblings. The four of them are utterly believable, sympathetic, and charming. And five pages in, it is absolutely impossible not to like them. Not to cross your fingers and hope for them. Not to wish they were yours. Add to this charming foursome an unadulterated dose of Johnson's sparkling humor and you've got a winner. One of my favorite passages early on in the book when Scarlett is looking out her window: 
In a city with so many different types of people and so much competition, mornings were an even playing field where no one looked good or knew where anything was. There was the woman who changed her outfit four times each morning and practiced different poses in the mirror. Two windows over, the obsessive-compulsive guy was cleaning all the burners on his stove. A flight down, there was Anything for Breakfast guy who would (as his name implied) eat anything for breakfast. Today he was pouring melted ice cream over cereal. Another neighbor, a woman of about seventy, was completely nude on the rooftop patio of the adjacent apartment building. She was reading The New York Times and carefully balancing a cup of coffee by squeezing it between her thighs, which was a completely unacceptable sight at this time in the morning. Or really, any time.
Lol. So if you're a devoted follower or if you've never read a Maureen Johnson book before, this is definitely the one that you want.

September 16, 2008

Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier

Cybele's Secret is the sequel to Wildwood Dancing--Juliet Marillier's first young adult novel. I have been a huge Marillier fan ever since picking up her first novel, Daughter of the Forest, to take with me on a trip to Italy. The wonderful thing about Marillier is that her sequels are always as good as, if not better than, her first books. So even though I liked Wildwood Dancing well enough (it didn't wow me), I was really looking forward to Cybele's Secret to see where she took her characters and what peril they got themselves into. 

The story follows Paula, the next to youngest of the five Brasov girls, and the one most noted for her scholarly bent and lack of interest in pretty much all things mundane. Fluent in both Greek and Latin, Paula accompanies her merchant father on a trip to Istanbul to serve as his assistant in his attempt to acquire a most unusual, legendary artifact known as Cybele's Gift. The artifact is a remnant of a long dead pagan cult and is said to bestow upon its owner fortune and blessings untold. Once in Istanbul, Paula's father finds he is just one of several merchants set on purchasing Cybele's Gift. Shadowed closely by her Bulgar bodyguard Stoyan, Paula puts her wits to work ferreting out the history behind the artifact and just why potential buyers keep turning up dead or fleeing town without explanation. Oh, and there's also a dashing pirate and adventure on the high seas. 

I enjoyed this sequel quite a bit more than its predecessor. That may have been because I related more to Paula and her struggle to stretch beyond the comfortable boundaries of her introverted nature. I also loved the setting in Istanbul. Marillier's research and immersion in her chosen locale is always evident in her stories and it particularly shone in this one. The twisty markets, the call to prayer, the artfully layered clothing swept me up along with Paula, Duarte, and Stoyan. Though some outcomes were fairly predictable, I always appreciate the loyalty Marillier's characters show one another. Even in the face of extreme doubt and fear. The good, the bad, the gray in between characters are each depicted with their individual virtues and vices and forced to move outside their accustomed circles. No one is perfect and everyone has their less-than-admirable moments as well as their moments when they prove themselves more than they seem. In short, they are all so human. And that's what brings me back to her books over and over again. 

September 15, 2008

A Heritage of Shadows by Madeleine Brent

Awhile back, Rachel over at Rachel Reads mentioned Madeleine Brent--an author I'd never heard of before. I read Rachel's reviewof Moonraker's Bride and decided to go find it based on her 9.5/10 rating and the fact that the cover image she posted reminded me of several of my more beloved Mary Stewart paperbacks.Moonraker's Bride was checked out, but my library did have a copy of A Heritage of Shadows which looked intriguing enough for me. 

The story follows young Hannah MacLeod who has lived more life in her eighteen years than most have by the time they're fifty. When the tale opens she is working twelve hours a day at a small bistro in Montmartre, living in a one-room apartment that ranks just above a garret, and is pleased as punch to be doing so. Her perplexing attitude is explained through the hinting of some horror in her past which led to her fleeing her native England for Paris and the comforting anonymity of her current life. She has no family and only one friend, one Toby Kent, a boisterous sailor/impressionist painter who is gone for months at a time but when he's in town provides some companionship and a nice dinner or two. In return for this, Hannah cleans his clothes and sits for the occasional portrait.

Unfortunately for Hannah and, as any suspense novel reader knows, self possessed but mysteriously haunted young women of independent means can never outrun their past for long. Events overtake Hannah and she is forced to return to England in an attempt to avoid disaster. She takes refuge teaching French to a rich merchant's two teenage children. The rich merchant, however, seems to know of her past and soon Hannah is caught up in a play for power and revenge that stretches back for decades and somehow involves her. Eventually we learn just exactly how heavily Hannah paid for her self possession and how much more she is forced to pay the demons that haunt her. 

This book was like popping a particularly fine piece of foreign chocolate in your mouth. The layers that emerge, one on top of another, alternately surprise and delight you. I felt very protective of and close to Hannah and any scene Toby was in made me laugh. Which was a good thing because Hannah's story ended up being much darker than I was expecting and the moments of humor were much appreciated. A sweet, enjoyable read. I went back to the library today and got two more Brent books. 

September 12, 2008

Mine

I love it when people post pictures of their bookshelves on their blogs. The glimpse I get into other booklovers' homes is a bit of the delightful as I see books on their shelves that rest on mine as well, how worn (read: loved) each book is, the multiple editions of the same book side by side, and the different ways in which they are stacked. So when DH took these pix tonight, I figured I'd go ahead and show you mine. I have to mention that the shelves themselves were a "housewarming" gift from my mother-in-law when we moved into this house. Yeah. I still haven't found a way to thank her. Not sure if I ever will.

September 8, 2008

The Hunger Games Giveaway

Cheryl Rainfield is giving away three copies of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I've been looking forward to reading this one ever since I saw Stephen King's review as well as Jen Robinson's excellent review. If you're interested leave a comment on Cheryl's post. Good luck!

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Several of my favorite blogs are up for awards during the 2008 Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Head on over to My Friend Amy to check out the nominees and cast your vote for your favorites. I love the Best Name for a Blog category!

September 1, 2008

Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

Given how much I loved Silent in the Grave, I felt a tingle of thrill and anxiety as I cracked open the sequel. The first book had what I consider to be a "perfect" ending. I couldn't have asked for more and wouldn't have wished it different in any way. Such endings are rare and to find one at the end of the first book in a series is rarer still. So, could Silent in the Sanctuary live up to its predecessor? I really, really hoped it could.

The second volume picks up several months after the end of the first. Lady Julia is on vacation in Italy, attempting to recover from the traumatic events of her investigation into her husband's death by basking in the Tuscan sun. Her recuperation is cut short, however, when she and her brothers (the delightfully named Plum and Lysander) receive a summons home to England for the Christmas holidays. At the last minute, they decide to take along a young Italian count who has become a friend to all three, but who also seems to have formed a rather strong attachment to Julia. Hmm. Back in England, all of Julia's hilarious and quirky family members are present and accounted for while a few unexpected Christmas guests round out the mix, including a few cousins, an uncle, a dubious clergyman, and one Mr. Nicholas Brisbane.

What follows reminded me of a wonderfully late night game of Clue. All the players are charming and suspect in turn and the murder even takes place in the sanctuary with the candlestick! And it remains Julia's and Brisbane's task to ferret out the identity of the killer. May I just say, I continue to love these two reluctant partners. Julia, in all her incorrigible intrepidity, serves as the perfect foil for Brisbane and his ruthless pursuit of the murderer. This second volume includes a few more tantalizing insights into the darkness that is Brisbane, as well as some cracking good repartee between our two lead characters. I went in with the highest of expectations and Silent in the Sanctuary more than lived up to them. This series is right on track to become an all-time favorite. Seriously, it has everything you could ask for. Charmingly dry-humored heroine? Check. Tortured and broody hero? Check. Humor, danger, genuine creepiness? Check, check, check. I'm recommending them left and right and can't wait to get my hands on the third installment, Silent on the Moor, due out in March.

Links
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore Review
Bell Literary Reflections Review
Dear Author Review
Material Witness Review
Tempting Persephone Review