November 30, 2009

Shadow Kiss by Richelle Mead

It's one roller coaster ride reading all these Vampire Academy books back to back like this. I'm actually starting to have trouble keeping the events separate and compartmentalized in my head. It all feels like one headlong rush to me. I maintain that the world itself is the real draw. I like how cold it feels, how dangerous and yet limned with the hint of hope and possibilities. The characters are full of potential and somehow keep their hooks in me despite the fact that I still feel parched in the depth department. Shadow Kiss is the third installment in Richelle Mead's very popular Vampire Academy series and, though it's taken me awhile to get around to reading them, I have blown through them without a backward glance.

Rose isn't the same girl anymore. Having bagged her first Strigoi and watched her friend die at their hands, she endures the ceremonial tattooing process with an almost detached stoicism. The moment was in no way, shape, or form the way she imagined it would be. Dogged as ever, she presses forward with her studies, her training, and her dedication to her friend and charge Lissa. Despite the fact that she's now regularly encountering the shade of her dead friend around every corner. And having trouble controlling unusual mood swings. And not assigned to Lissa for her Guardian practical training. Instead she gets Christian and her friend Eddie gets Lissa. Having bonded with Eddie (and Christian to a degree) through the events at the end of Frostbite, Rose manages to keep her lashing out to a barely contained level and directs her rapidly disintegrating attention to keeping Christian safe. As her anger rises, her last shreds of composure are shot to hell by regular contact with both doomed flame Dimitri and new St. Vlad's resident Adrian Ivashkov.

This is the thickest Vampire Academy book yet, and I was pleased with that fact initially. I've been wanting "more" and hoped this third volume with come through for me. In some respects it does. I like how Rose finally turns her attention inward and, when pressed, pays some attention to what's going on inside. I'm also glad she's making a few friends other than limpid Lissa and dour Dimitri. Though I never really bought the whole Mason thing, I thoroughly enjoyed watching her interact with Christian, Mia, Adrian, and particularly Eddie. The mutual respect and willingness to work together to protect their assigned Moroi lent a nice maturity to their actions and the calling and burden of the Guardians. I've enjoyed the history of St. Vladimir and his shadow kissed partner Anna from the very beginning and I liked how that played out in this more modern story as well. However, I have to say it was mostly a slog getting through Shadow Kiss. Those interesting bits were overshadowed by so much telling, so little showing, and a healthy dose of predictability. These drawbacks kept me from fully engaging. I kept wishing book two had been the longer one and that there were more scenes with Adrian in them. I saw the end coming a mile away and, as it mirrors a certain event in a certain TV series I followed religiously, I threw back my head and groaned when the fateful moment finally came. I was so not okay with it. So. I know this was everyone's favorite, but for me that spot is still held by book two. Will I be picking up the fourth book? Yes. Why? Because I am an Adrian junkie. And, yeah, I want to find out what happens to Rose. You'll be hearing from me soon.

November 27, 2009

Frostbite by Richelle Mead

I'm really not sure about these two on the cover. The only conclusion I can come to is that it's Christian and Lissa, though I'm sure it's supposed to be Rose and Dimitri. And while I can buy that that girl could be Lissa, the dude is definitely not Christian. Or Dimitri. Ah, well. So I picked up the second Vampire Academy book hoping for more standout world building and perhaps a little more in-depth character development. I finished Vampire Academy enthused about the series' possibilities, but a little disenchanted with the characters as well as the info-dump climax. The villain starts monologuing and I'm rolling my eyes. I do enjoy Richelle Mead's smooth writing and the upfront approach she takes to running her characters through the mill and seeing what comes out on the other side. So I went into Frostbite with an open mind.

Life at St. Vlad's has entered a sort of holding pattern. Rose and Dimitri have agreed to stay away from each other "socially." You know, in the interest of putting their duty as dhampir above the desires of their hearts. Dimitri is thinking of moving on, both professionally and emotionally, while Rose's friend Mason would give his right arm for a few quality minutes alone with Dimitri's girl. Christian and Lissa, on the other hand, have decided to make a go of it and their open affection is grating like fingernails on a chalkboard on Rose's nerves. Her little psychic connection with Lissa makes romantic encounters more than a little uncomfortable. So when a proposed Christmas vacation trip to a resort and ski lodge comes up, Rose jumps at the chance, eager to escape even for a little while. Add in a Strigoi attack on some veteran guardians, and an unexpected visit from Rose's mother, and the beginnings of a potentially enormous power shift, and you've got quite the little powder keg. While hobnobbing among the Moiroi elite, Rose encounters well-known bad boy Adrian Ivashkov. Adrian has his own demons and they may have connections with Lissa, and hence with Rose.

This installment was a decided improvement on the first book. I enjoyed taking everyone out of their usual haunts and setting them down in a new environment to see how nicely they play. Trust Rose to make it not very nicely at all. Her face-offs with her mother were especially enjoyable, one workout scene in particular had me grinning. This scene in particular served to place me firmly on Rose's side. I understood her anger and outrage and considered it perfectly justified. When it comes to Dimitri I fear I'm a little bit through. Rose's love and longing and general forlorn-ness I totally get. Hell, I remember feeling precisely that way at her age. But Dimitri's 24. I'm somehow a little less sympathetic with his plight and wish he would just man up and decide. My opinion here is no doubt influenced by Adrian. True to form, I'm a fan of the bad boy. Clove cigarettes and constant self-medicating aside, the boy is mysterious and funny and interesting and I am a fan of whatever will bring he and Rose a little closer together. There. I've said it. You can sign me up for Team Adrian from here on out. Frostbite has the deeper development of Rose's character that I was hoping for and it builds up to a genuine nail-biter of a climax. I throughly enjoyed it. Point to you, Ms. Mead. On to book three.

November 26, 2009

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

You know how if you don't start a series it can never let you down? I'd been avoiding Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy books for that very reason. I kept reading encouraging reviews from reliable sources and just not following through on picking up the first book. Then the Cybils rolled around and Blood Promise, the fourth Vampire Academy book, was nominated. And since it's almost physically impossible for me to read a series out of order, I decided it was time to jump in. I'd managed to avoid knowing much of anything about the series, so it was quite fun to be immersed in a completely new world. This was also my first Richelle Mead book and I was interested to get a feel for her style.

Rose and her best friend Lissa are on the run. For two years they've been traveling from city to city, posing as college freshman. Rose is determined to fulfill her duty and protect Lissa at all cost from the danger pursuing them. Lissa is a vampire princess and Rose is a half-human, half-vampire guardian known as a dhampir. In their world, there are two kinds of vampires--the Moroi and the Strigoi. The Moroi are mortal vampires. They're the "good" kind. They only feed on willing donors and they have magical capabilities they develop and train at academies such as St. Vladimir's. The Strigoi, on the other hand, are immortal. They're the "bad" kind. They feed on who and what they will and they are impossibly fast and terrifyingly violent. With the Strigoi on their tail, half-trained Rose is forced to relent when a force of fully-trained dhampir show up to drag them back to St. Vlad's. Having burned her last bridge, Rose agrees to submit to one-on-one training with dhampir legend Dimitri Belikov in lieu of being kicked out for good.

I was immediately involved in this world Richelle Mead has created. Honestly, I've had a string of lame reads lately and have been seriously craving some solid world building, some characters to sink my teeth into. And on the world building front, Vampire Academy comes through. It starts right in the middle of the action and doesn't let up. The notion of good and bad vampires is not a new one, but Mead makes it her own by crafting the long history of opposition and war between the gifted Moroi and the damned Strigoi. And then there are the dhampir--the guardians of the Moroi. Neither human nor vampire, the dhampir straddle both worlds and were easily my favorite aspect of the story. I enjoyed Rose's resistance against conforming to expectations. I enjoyed her sparring lessons with tall, dark, and massive Dimitri. And I enjoyed the politics that come into play between the three different classes of creature. The character development didn't feel as strong, unfortunately. I could have done with a little more depth to Rose, a little walk to match her talk if you will. She's appreciatively smart-mouth and full of vituperative angst but it began to wear on me after awhile as I wished she would think a bit before acting on her assumptions or whims. I liked Dimitri all right and I particularly liked Christian--the outcast Moroi royalty who makes it his mission to give Lissa a hard time. I wanted more from them. Still, I liked it enough to pick up the next installment in the series. More to come on that soon.

November 23, 2009

The Dead Travel Fast Cover

Hold the phone. I just now came across the cover for Deanna Raybourn's upcoming standalone novel--The Dead Travel Fast. They've clearly designed this cover to match up well with Mira's re-issues of Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey novels. What do you think? I love the title, which is a line from Bram Stoker's Dracula. Interestingly, when he says it, Jonathan Harker is actually quoting an even older source--a poem by Gottfried Burger entitled "Lenore." I am such a huge fan of Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey mysteries and I'm very excited to see what happens when she ventures into all new territory. All I know is that it follows a British woman, takes place in the 1850s, and is set in Transylvania. Those three things, combined with the fact that it's written by Ms. Raybourn, mean I absolutely cannot wait to read it! The Dead Travel Fast is due out March 1st.

November 20, 2009

Retro Friday Review: Kingmaker's Sword by Ann Marston

Several years ago, while wandering through the science fiction and fantasy section of the local Media Play, I crouched down to see what was on the bottom shelf in the M section. My eyes caught on a book that was faced out and that featured two warriors, one red-headed and one blonde, both of them sporting copious amounts of cloudy hair and swooping kilts, clutching swords in their hands. I'd never heard of Kingmaker's Sword or author Ann Marston before, but I decided to pick it up based on the fact that it was a mass market paperback (and thus inexpensive) and that I liked the colors and the soft, matte finish to the cover. I noted that it was the first in a trilogy--the Rune Blade trilogy--and that the other two books were on the shelf so I could easily come back for them if the first book entertained.

Mouse is a slave. Dubbed Foxmouse because of his flaming red hair, he is now known as just Mouse and he is about to make his escape. Two nights ago his sole friend in the world was savagely assaulted and murdered while he watched and that horrific act simultaneously crushed Mouse and did away with any reason he had to stay in the filthy hole he has lived in for as long as he could remember. While on his headlong flight to freedom, Mouse runs into his past in the form of a hulking Tyran clansman on a journey to find his long-lost nephew. Suspecting Mouse may just be that boy, Cullin dav Medroch dubs the boy Kian and takes him under his wing. On their way back to Tyra, Cullin and Kian encounter a determined swordswoman by the name of Kerridwen who is on a quest of her own. When Kerridwen and Kian accidentally cross blades a bond is forged that takes them both unpleasantly by surprise and shapes the direction their paths will take from that point on.

I was pleasantly surprised by Kingmaker's Sword. Judging by the kilts on the cover, I should have known to expect a rollicking Celtic-inspired sword-and-sorcery adventure, and that's exactly what it was. Tyra is essentially a slightly altered Scotland, along with the island of Celi and the province of Skai, where Kerri hails from. The book opens with a breakdown of the different seasons in this world, a pronunciation guide, and a map--sort of the holy triumverate of opening pages when it comes to pulpy sword-and-sorcery novels. There is nothing earth-shatteringly new in these books, but they are undeniably fun, smoothly written, and peopled with enjoyably heroic characters pitted against dastardly evil sorcerers against a suitably epic backdrop. I ate them up with a spoon and they have worn rather well over the years. This trilogy follows three generations of Kian's family, including his children and grandchildren. And while I'm usually dismayed when a series jumps generations like that, I have to say that is not the case here as the second novel, The Western King, is definitely the finest installment. Marston follows this trilogy up with another, the Sword in Exile trilogy, which continues the story of the rune blades and the line of the princes of Skai. It, too, is worth a read. Both series are now out of print, but if you can find a copy I do recommend them, particularly for fans of Jennifer Roberson, Susan Dexter, and Moira J. Moore.

November 18, 2009

Top Ten TV Couples

This meme's been floating around for ages now and it's very simple. Compile a list of your top 10 favorite television couples and pass it on. I have to say this was one of the funnest memes I've filled out if just for all the memories it dredged up. I find the breakdown interesting: four sitcoms, four dramas, one supernatural drama, and one science fiction/space western. Hehe. These aren't in order of favorites, but rather in the rough order in which the series came out.
Angela and Jordan
I knew right away these two would be on my list as they've got to be the first TV couple that really captured my attention as a teen. I mean I was just a little younger than Angela when I discovered My So-Called Life. We shared a name, a penchant for slumping, and an intense longing for something--we weren't even sure what it was. Maybe it wasn't really Jordan Catalano after all, but he sure was worth hanging around to find out.
I'm in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. He was let back, twice. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz. He's always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things.
Monica and Chandler
I've always been a fan of the ensemble cast, in books and television, and that's the main reason I loved Friends. Episodes like "The One Where No One's Ready," where they were all six in the same room for the majority of the show were awesome. And I know everyone was all about Ross and Rachel. Together, broken up, on a break, lol! But for me it was all about Monica and Chandler. They were just so cute, such real friends, and they were meant to be together.
Buffy and Spike
It's hard to describe just how in love I was with Buffy and Spike. They were the first TV couple I was up at night thinking about. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that DH and I watched almost the entire Buffy series while up in the wee hours with baby boy. Watching Spike realize he was in love with his nemesis was like opening a giant present. Sorry, emoAngel. It's all about the Spike.
A hundred plus years, only one thing I've ever been sure of. You. Look at me. I'm not asking you for anything. When I tell you that I love you, it's not because I want you, or 'cause I can't have you, it has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try . . . I've seen your strength, and your kindness, I've seen the best and the worst of you and I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You are a hell of a woman. You're the one, Buffy.
*swoon*
Josh and Donna
It's to do with the constant bickering and years of tension between these two. Josh Lyman and Donnatella Moss of The West Wing fame hit all of my buttons and they did it just so charmingly. I mean Josh was a dolt--a brilliant dolt--but a dolt, nonetheless, when it came to his loyal assistant Donna and how they were obviously Meant To Be. But it was exquisite watching them circle each other for so long, laugh, tease, and always, always have each other's back.
Turk and J.D.
Scrubs never fails to make me laugh. I love Elliot and Carla and Dr. Cox and Janitor. But I laugh the hardest when Turk and J.D. are deep in the throes of their hilariously co-dependent best friendship. These two are incorrigible. Their friendship is as close as any I've seen or experienced and it really made the series for me. These two sappy geeks were without a doubt my favorite "couple" on the show.
"It's guy love, between two guys..."
Logan and Veronica
Aaaand right up there with Buffy and Spike for your bad boys and kick-a** girls, we have Logan Echolls and Veronica Mars. Duncan, Leo, and Piz, you were all lovely (well, not so much you, Duncan) and I'm sure you'll make some other girls deliriously happy. But you're no match for Veronica Mars. Three seasons and no one ever compares to Logan. He's volatile and damaged and can take a baseball bat to a cop car like nobody's business. Logan+Veronica4eva.
I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me . . . Spanning years, and continents. Lives ruined and blood shed. Epic.
It was, Logan. It was.
Jim and Pam
Awww. Enough said.
House and Cuddy
Because he's scruffy and cantankerous and she's svelte and so the boss of him. I thought House and Cameron were cute. I hated House and Stacy with a fiery passion. And I waited patiently for House and Cuddy to get down to brass tacks. She's known him the longest and, as his boss, she can tell him where to shove it. And how. I love the flirting and the acrimony and the wit. If House can make a go of it with anyone, it's Cuddy.
Kaylee and Simon
I know when it comes to Firefly, Mal and Inara are the real stars and I wanted them to get together as much as anyone. But I just have this big, mushy soft spot for Kaylee and the Doc. She's the ever-chipper ship's mechanic and just as sweet as they come. He's the always-somber trauma surgeon and is wound as tightly as they come. At first it seems as though they'll never get together, but Kaylee's honesty and kindness loosen him up and win the stuffy doc's heart.
Liz and Jack
And last but not least--my favorite not actually a couple, couple. Both married to their jobs, the relationship between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy absolutely makes this show. He's determined to help her get a life. She's determined not to turn into him. I love their scenes together and I secretly never want Liz to actually find someone because it would change the dynamic with Jack and I couldn't bear that.
Jack: Lemon, I'm impressed. You're beginning to think like a businessman.
Liz: Businesswoman.
Jack: I don't think that's a word.
And that's it for me. What about you? Which couples make it onto your list?

November 17, 2009

I Dare You

Today I would like to direct your attention over to The Book Smugglers site, where Thea and Ana have posted their joint review of The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White. Awhile back the Smugglers dared me to read Mr. Impossible--my first romance novel--and, since turnabout's fair play, I decided to dare them back. I went with one of my all-time favorite authors and books and hoped for the best. So head on over and see what they thought of it!

November 16, 2009

Epic Pretties

These three make me rather weak in the knees. You can just tell by looking at the covers that these pretties pack a punch when it comes to fantasy and epic tasks/quests/journeys, etc. I'm looking forward to each one with incredible amounts of anticipation and I've only read one of these authors before!

Ever since coming up for air after finishing Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road, I have been impatiently waiting for Finnikin of the Rock to be released. Already published in Australia, *pout* it's taken its sweet time making its U.S. debut. But I have it on good authority it is going to be well worth the wait. In a world of fever camps, wandering exiles, and cursed kingdoms, young Finnikin joins forces with the reckless Evanjalin in a bid to save the land of Lumatere from the evil that threatens to swallow it. This could be a novel about paint drying and, after the wonder that was Jellicoe Road, I would read it in a heartbeat. Due out February 9th.

Leah Cypess makes her debut with the intriguing fantasy Mistwood. A young girl has lost her memory. A desperate prince risks everything on the mere hope she is who he believes her to be. In the land of Samorna the monarchs have always been protected by an ancient shape-shifter with supernatural abilities. Forced to return to a place she once fled, amid scheming and lies, Isabel struggles to determine who she used to be and what she must become. I love brand new authors with all their possibilities and promise. I've got a seriously good feeling about this one, guys. Due out April 27th.

The first in the Griffin Mage trilogy, Lord of the Changing Winds looks like a promising new series to follow. The griffins are coming, bringing fire and desert in their wake. The king prepares for battle to protect his land from this menace. Meanwhile a young girl is summoned to heal the Griffin King and her awakening abilities lead her to understand the truth behind the sudden flight of these mystical creatures. I really love this cover and am looking forward to diving into a new world full of fire and danger. Even better, the first two books are releasing back to back in April and May. I love it when they do that!

November 13, 2009

Retro Friday Review: The Lily Bard "Shakespeare" Series by Charlaine Harris


A few years ago I was twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the new Sookie Stackhouse book to come out, when I decided to see what else Charlaine Harris had written. Turned out she'd written a lot of other books, including three other mystery series featuring similarly intrepid heroines. My eye immediately settled on the Lily Bard series of mysteries also known as the "Shakespeare" mysteries because main character Lily lives in the small town of Shakespeare, Arkansas, and because each book has the word Shakespeare in the title. Up until recently all five of the Lily Bard mysteries were out of print, but then Berkeley Prime Crime re-released the entire series in very attractive mass market editions. My mom gave me the first one, Shakespeare's Landlord, as a Christmas present and I started tracking down the other four before I was even twenty pages in. A big fan of the Sookie books, I was instantly drawn to this darker, less humorous but no less compelling series. Since I reviewed Harris' most recent novel, Grave Secret, earlier this week, I figured this edition of Retro Fridays would be the perfect time to talk about this wonderful lesser known series in Harris' large body of work.

Lily Bard isn't precisely in hiding, but she's flying as far below the radar as is humanly possible. After chopping her hair off, toning her body into lean, mean fighting machine, and then hiding it all under the baggiest and blandest of clothes, Lily decides to settle in the sleepy, little town of Shakespeare, Arkansas in an attempt to disappear. She chose Shakespeare at random off the map because she thought it was rather poetic given her last name. During the day Lily works as a cleaning lady, while at night she trains hard at bodybuilding and karate at the local gym. Every night she hopes it'll be hard enough to allow her to sleep. In her line of work, Lily is in and out of homes, apartments, and office buildings all across town. She sees and hears a lot more than she'd like. Most of it is just your usual small town gossip. But one night, while out on one of her frequent restless midnight walks, Lily sees something unusual. Someone pushing a cart filled with a large, lumpy something wrapped up in black plastic garbage bags. When Lily finds out just what is inside those garbage bags, she becomes inextricably immersed in exactly the kind of gruesome crime she's worked so hard to avoid.

And that is how the series kicks off. Lily, herself, is an extremely tough, conflicted character. I took to her at once. She lives an incredibly regimented, perfectly calculated life and it's almost painful to watch this thread of dark chaos worm its way into her peace and order. And while she is about as alone as a person can get, Harris peoples Shakespeare with a whole town's worth of kooky, creepy, and funny characters. All of whom Lily attempts to sidestep with varying degrees of success. With each book in this series, we learn more about Lily and her nightmarish past as she learns more about herself and those around her. In the second book she is joined by a character who is a particular favorite of mine and the two of them together form one of the most well-suited pairs I've ever come across. A glimpse of Lily:
Once upon a time, years ago, I thought I was pretty. My sister, Varena, and I had the usual rivalry going, and I remember deciding my eyes were bigger and a lighter blue than hers, my nose was straighter and thinner, and my lips were fuller. Her chin was better--neat and determined. Mine is round. I haven't seen Varena in three years now. Probably she is the pretty one. Though my face hasn't changed, my mind has. The workings of the mind look out through the face and alter it.
Sometimes, some mornings--the ones after the really bad nights--I look in the mirror and do not recognize the woman I see there.
This was going to be one of those really bad nights (though I had no idea how bad it was going to get). But I could tell there was no point in going to bed. My feet itched to be moving.
I dressed again, throwing my sweaty workout clothes into the hamper and pulling on blue jeans and a T-shirt, tucking in the T-shirt and pulling a belt through the belt loops. My hair was only a little damp; the blow-dryer finished the job. I pulled on a dark windbreaker.
Front door, back door, kitchen door? Some nights it takes me awhile to decide.
I worked my way through this series with palpable pleasure and it was a sad day indeed when I closed the fifth one knowing there would be no more. These are straight up mysteries with a Southern flavor, a fair bit of violence, intense encounters of all varieties, and a lot of grit. There isn't even a hint of the paranormal and all the energy goes into the character development and an honest depiction of a strong woman working hard to stay true to herself and keep the ghosts at bay. Like Harris' more recent Harper Connelly series, I think the Lily Bard mysteries deserve a good deal more attention and I hope those looking to branch out on the Sookie series will find a good home in Shakespeare. I certainly did.
Retro Friday Roundup

November 11, 2009

Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines

So I'm working my way through all the Cybils YA Fantasy/Science Fiction nominees, when Girl in the Arena shows up on my doorstep (thank you, Bloomsbury!). Truthfully, I'm a little supernatural creatured out just about now and so this dystopian, neo-gladiator, fight to the death novel seemed made to order. I remember seeing it at BEA and somehow not snagging a copy. I'd read a few reviews here and there, some favorable, some middling, and I knew I loved the cover. I mean, look at that. It's awesome. Admittedly, I could do without the cheesy tagline and the "Fight to the Death!" sign in the background. And, having read the book, a certain aspect of the cover is sort of glaringly inaccurate. But somehow I was able to overlook these minor quibbles, because that's simply one sweet cover. In retrospect, I think it's a good choice as that particular inaccuracy should be part of the reading experience and not ruined by the cover art.

Lyn is known as the Daughter of Seven Gladiators. Her mother, Allison, has made a career of marrying gladiators and perfecting the persona of the perfect Glad wife. The seventh (and current) husband, Tommy G., is Lyn's favorite by far. He actually spends time with her and her little brother Thad. He's stuck by her manic mother, when no one else can stand her. He even supports Lyn's growing interest in nonviolence and listens to her read from the book she is writing--A History of the Gladiator Sports Association. But their time together is growing short as Tommy stares down the bullet of what he fears will be his last match. His next opponent, Uber, is said to be the real deal. And Thad's eerie, erratic predictions don't bode well for Tommy surviving his next episode in the arena. But when Uber stands over Tommy's body and scoops up the bracelet her stepfather wore for good luck, Lyn's world unexpectedly fragments into more pieces than she can piece together again. For it's her bracelet Uber scoops up. And Lyn knows the GSA bylaws better than anyone. The only gladiator allowed to wear that bracelet is her father . . . or her husband.

I could not put this book down. I mean it was physically difficult to tear my eyes away from the page. Yes, it's a dystopian novel about gladiators fighting to the death while thousands, millions of desensitized viewers watch live and on TV. And, yes, it features a young woman who is determined to protect her family at all cost. But there the similarities to The Hunger Games end. Where Suzanne Collins' book takes place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic chunk of North America, Lise Haines' novel is set in an all-too-familiar present-day America. I spent the entire time feeling like this kind of ultra-violent, death-as-entertainment society could be just around the corner, that today's reality shows are one step away from the bizarre rituals Lyn is privy to. Interestingly, growing up in the military, I felt a surprising kinship with Lyn, Mark, and Uber's experiences growing up in the Glad culture. I've had countless conversations over the years with other military brats who echoed my thoughts. It's simply a culture of its own, separate and unique from others and only those who are "born in," as Lyn would say, can fully understand what it's like and what it means. The writing was abrupt and choppy in just the right way, dashes in place of quotes, etc. It reminded me at times of Robin McKinley's Sunshine. A favorite passage:
--Lyn, how did you get injured?
This from a tall male reporter with chopped blond hair.
--People were cheering wildly for Tommy at the stadium, I say. --I think a bottle flew out of someone's hands in the excitement.
--Do you think it's possible that someone aimed it at your head intentionally?
I look up at the house again. Thad is pacing back and forth in front of his bedroom window now. He waves. I wave back. He motions frantically for me to come into the house.
--Glad fans everywhere have shown enormous respect for my family and thought Tommy G. fought heroically. Their loyalty is helping my family through this loss. It is, however, a rough sport. People do get killed. Though I should add that Caesar's Inc. works very hard to ensure maximum safety to those who attend the competitions.
Mark whispers in my ear, --You're good.
--Have you met with Uber? another reporter asks.
--No. Not yet.
--So you plan to?
--There are no plans at this time, I say.
--Do you dream of becoming a Glad wife?
Up in the house, Thad pleads with me to come inside. Cameramen and photographers push their equipment as close as possible now, closer. The soggy summer air presses in. And I realize that I'm right there, at the end of a perfect media moment. All I have to do is come up with something that rings with warmth, something that conveys hope to a million girls about the life of the GSA wife. Then I'll be out of here, released into our home, into Allison's mind, my brother's predictions. But there's something about this particular question. I think of the number of times Allison has been asked about any plans to become a Glad wife again. And suddenly my mind is thrown into reverse and I just toss off an answer, the first thing that comes to mind.
--Sometimes I dream of becoming a gladiator.
And that's Lyn. Completely and firmly incapable of spouting crap to the media, to her family, or to herself. It's so much of why I loved her. She doesn't prevaricate, she doesn't hedge, she tells the truth. She takes her responsibilities and her heritage beyond seriously, yet she is true to herself and her growing understanding of the horrors of the society she has grown up in. She refuses to perpetuate the system that has entrapped her mother and held their lives hostage for so many years. I had waffled back and forth on whether or not to read this one, going from eager excitement to fearing it was merely a cheap Hunger Games knockoff and not wanting to risk the disappointment. I'm so glad I did because, like its protagonist, Girl in the Arena stands completely on its own feet. It's dystopian storytelling at its most honest, urgent, and very best. It's bleakness tempered by true friendships and honest interactions between human beings shoved into conditions they were never meant to withstand. The few quiet scenes between Lyn and her brother Thad, her best friend Mark, and particularly her opponent/intended Uber rang with authenticity. I freaking loved this book and it has instantly earned a spot on my Best Books of 2009 list.

November 10, 2009

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris

So ever since my decadent little re-read of Fire I've been in a reading slump. One foul doozy of a slump. I restlessly picked up and put down a handful of books, all of them full of potential, none of them able to hold my attention. Fortunately I'm still thinking clearly enough at this point to know it's me with the problem, not them. And I carefully set them aside on the nightstand to be picked up in a later, more amenable mood. But desperation was setting in and my family was starting to feel the effects. And then a friend saved the day by reminding me the new Harper Connelly book was out! The fourth installment in Charlaine Harris' "other" series, I'd been looking forward to the release of Grave Secret ever since finishing the excellent An Ice Cold Grave two years ago. Entirely different from her Sookie Stackhouse series, the Harper books are gritty mysteries with just a hint of the paranormal. I absolutely love them.

Harper and her stepbrother (and manager) Tolliver are on the road again. Having left the horrors of North Carolina behind them once and for all, they're headed to Texas to check in with their little sisters. With the disappearance of her sister Cameron eight years ago, their family dissolved. Harper went into foster care, Tolliver to live with his older brother Mark, and the little girls went to their Aunt Iona and Uncle Hank's in Texas. Over the years Harper and Tolliver made it a point to stay in touch with their siblings, despite their aunt and uncle's deep disapproval of their lifestyle and Harper's way of earning a living. This particular visit is unexpectedly prolonged when Tolliver's jailbird father is released from prison and shows up full of remorse and wanting to reconnect with his children. At the same time, Harper finds a few more dead people than she bargained for on her latest case, sending shock waves through the family of the deceased. As old memories threaten to overtake the careful peace these two have constructed, Harper and Tolliver find themselves caught between family, clients, and the law.

I sank back into this world as if no time at all had passed since my last visit. There's something about these two characters and the mature way they've gone about reclaiming their lives after the horror of their childhoods that just fills my empty spaces. Harper and Tolliver accept that they are all each other has in such a matter-of-fact way, with such stoic integrity, it pulls at my heartstrings. I read each book hoping nothing happens to them they won't be able to recover from, looking forward to each interaction, enjoying that tense, dark reality with which Harris surrounds her characters. Grave Secret lived up to expectations on more than one level. Harper and Tolliver's relationship never falters even as they find the truth about their past is even more heinous than they believed it to be. I found myself chanting, "Don't trust him, don't trust him" over and over throughout the book, on the edge of my seat worrying about them. I liked how Harper was forced to deal with some things alone in this one. I liked that Harris didn't ease up at all when it came to what actually went down in that trailer in Texarkana. This series has remained refreshingly consistent over the course of four books. And, despite the fact that several overarching plot threads are wrapped up in this volume, I would happily read as many books as she'd like to write about Harper and Tolliver. Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series is by far the more famous of the two, and I love it, but I find myself gravitating toward these more serious, quietly compelling mysteries. Highly recommended.

November 9, 2009

Blogiversary Giveaway Winner!

And the winner is . . . Jessie Sams!

Please contact me with your mailing address and I'll get your prize pack mailed out shortly. Thanks to all of you who shared such fun (and often quite hilarious) anniversary memories in the comments. Some of them were hysterical, some sad, some embarrassing, some touching, and not a few of them involved kidnappings and police! Why don't I have an anniversary that exciting? You guys rock. Thanks for making my blogiversary a hoot. Don't be strangers.

November 6, 2009

Retro Friday Review: The Grey King by Susan Cooper

Seeing as how I've already written Retro Friday reviews of both my favorite Robin Hood retellings, it was really only a matter of time before I started in on my favorite Arthurian novels. Somehow the two have always gone together in my head--Robin Hood and King Arthur--the best of the best when it came to British mythology and lore. Truth be told, I've been mildly obsessed with both ever since I was a girl and I have a soft spot in my heart for the first encounter I had with each in novelized form. As far as Robin Hood goes, that was Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood. With Arthurian lore, it was Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence. The sequence is actually a five-book series following two groups of people embroiled in the centuries-old conflict between the Light and the Dark. The first group are the three Drew children--Simon, Jane, and Barney--who become involved through their connections with their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. The second is a long line of warriors for the Light known as the Old Ones. They culminate in the last (and youngest) of the Old Ones--a deceptively ordinary boy by the name of Will Stanton. The books weave back and forth between these two groups, sometimes crossing paths, sometimes flying solo, until they all join forces in the final volume. For the purposes of this post, I decided to focus on the fourth (and my favorite) book--The Grey King.

The Grey King opens with Will Stanton delirious with fever. He is certain he has forgotten something vitally important, but cannot for the life of him remember what it was. Having contracted hepatitis, he is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle in Wales for his convalescence. Slowly, as he begins to regain his strength, his memory returns and it becomes clear why he has been sent to an all-but-forgotten valley in Wales at this particular moment in time. The key is in these lines from prophecy:
On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze
breaks.
There fire shall fly from the raven boy,
And the silver eyes that see the wind,
And the Light shall have the harp of gold.

By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie,
On Cadfan's Way where the kestrels call;
Though grim from the Grey King shadows fall,
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon's sword the Dark shall fall.

Y maent yr mynyddoedd yn canu,
ac y mae'r arglwyddes yn dod.
Will soon encounters an unhappy young boy named Bran who lives with his father on a neighboring farm. With his white dog Cafall at his side, Bran introduces Will to the mist-shrouded land he calls home and, bit by bit, the lines of the prophecy begin to take shape. Together these two lost boys must join forces to defeat the Dark that is on the rise.

This book is hauntingly beautiful and redolent with the lyrical Welsh language and an atmosphere as thick and rich as the fog surrounding the peak of Cader Idris. I love this entire series, but The Grey King is where it all comes together for me. And the character of Bran Davies is one of the main reasons why. What a compulsively sympathetic character Cooper created in Bran! Somehow she crafted a young boy with a heart full of pain and confusion, slammed on his head a powerful legacy, and managed to keep him so real it's breathtaking. My heart went out to him when I met him at 11 years old and it does the same today so many years later. The friendship between the two boys is tenuous and riveting to watch unfold as they both embody that incongruous and contradictory blend of youthful anguish and wisdom beyond their years. The supporting cast of characters is just as wonderful and varied, none of them fully good or evil, but inhabiting the many margins in between those absolutes. This is the most moving and heart wrenching of the books in the series and it is where the Arthurian legend comes into play most strongly as the identities of the raven boy, the eyes that see the wind, and the Sleepers themselves are revealed. The results are stunning and spur the reader on to read the next and final volume in the sequence. This, my friends, is a book of the finest kind. Winner of the 1976 Newbery Medal, and fully deserving of that honor, I recommend it (and the whole series) for fans of Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle, and anyone with a penchant for Arthurian tales.

November 4, 2009

Wednesday Giggles: Storm Trooper Version

I don't know why it's so funny. But it really is. Enjoy.

(Thanks to DH for the link. You take care of me, baby.)

November 3, 2009

Linger Cover + First Paragraph

Maggie Stiefvater has revealed the cover for her upcoming Wolves of Mercy Falls novel, Linger, along with the first paragraph as a teaser! As you probably know, this is the sequel to Shiver and it follows Sam, Grace, and the whole crew as they find out what happens after. And here it is:
grace
This is the story of a boy who used to be a wolf and a girl who was becoming one.
Just a few months ago, it was Sam who was the mythical creature. His was the disease we couldn't cure. His was the good-bye that meant the most. He had the body that was a mystery, too strange and wonderful and terrifying to comprehend.
But now it is spring. With the heat, the remaining wolves will soon be falling out of their wolf pelts and back into their human bodies. Sam stays Sam, and Cole stays Cole, and it's only me who's not firmly in my own skin.
So what do you think? I love the first paragraph and like the consistency of the covers. I confess to being pretty intrigued to find out where she's going to take these characters after the end of Shiver, which, for the record, I thought would have worked perfectly well as a final ending. No idea where this one's gonna go, but definitely interested to see.