Shadow of Night

by Deborah Harkness
ages: adult
First sentence: “We arrived in an undignified heap of witch and vampire.”
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Others in the series: Discovery of Witches

How about this for a brief teaser: if you liked Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, you’ll probably really like this one.

The long explanation is a lot more complicated, however. There were elements of Shadow of Night that I really liked. And there were some that I didn’t. But my major problem with the book — and this is one I have with many works of “adult” fiction — is that I thought a good third to half of this book was wholly unnecessary.

Because of the conflicts set up in Discovery of Witches (which I won’t go into, but partially are caused by the love Matthew and Diana have for each other; witches and vampires aren’t supposed to mate.), and because Diana needs help figuring out what kind of witch she is (and to control her magic), they end up in the past. In England, circa 1590, to be exact. Which brings me (so soon?) to problem number one: too often, I felt Harkness was using her status as a historian to show off. I got the sense that she set the book in the past not because it best served the story (though in some ways, it did), but because she KNOWS STUFF and wanted to share. Too often I was pulled out of the story because of some name dropping (though Diana has a moment of exasperation, wondering out of all the people in England in the past, how come Matthew knows all the famous ones. That kind of helped.) and historical elements. It was hard for me to enjoy the past because she kept pulling me out of it with details about clothes, food, the weather, and blasted Christopher Marlow.

Anyway. Matthew and Diana aren’t in England very long before they cause a ruckus and get sent to Sept Tours, Matthew’s ancestral home. Where his dead father is still very much alive. And who forces them to get married. (In way too many pages. Followed by many, many more pages of [not graphic, or even titillating] married sex.) Back to England they go, where (in some of the best passages) Diana begins to figure out that she’s a unique sort of witch, and gets a handle on her magic. Oh, and manages to get pregnant by the vampire.

Before you think that Harkness went all Breaking Dawn on us, she didn’t. Oh, sure, there are influences there: Matthew is just as protective and oppressive as Edward; apparently it’s in a vampire’s “nature”. The difference is that rather than being pushed around, Diana takes him on. Thank heavens for that; in many, many ways, Diana as a character is the best part of this novel. She’s strong, interesting, clever, inquisitive, and plain fun to be around as a character.

There’s more, of course: It’s a nearly 600 page book, and Harkness finds ways to fill them out. And it’s not a bad book, per se: I did finish it. Because even with all the extra historical stuff, and the poor plotting (for my YA-saturated brain), I am invested in Matthew and Diana’s story. Which means, I’m already asking when the next one will be out.

If you’re still interested in this one after all that, I’m offering a giveaway of this book. I’ll even throw in a set of five pins, and a temporary tattoo. Maybe you’ll like it more than I did. You have until Friday, July 13th (ooooh, auspicious) to enter.

A Discovery of Witches

by Deborah Harkness
ages: adult
First sentence: “The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable.”
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Although I liked this one quite a bit — more than I was expecting, actually — by the end of it, I was quite torn. So, let’s just say, up front, that my enjoyment of this one was tempered by some hangups.

The good:
I loved the world that Harkness created. It’s basically our world, except it’s inhabited by vampires, witches, and daemons. They’re generally brilliant, generally long-lived, and generally go unnoticed by humans. Our main character, Diana, is a witch who, ever since her parents’ deaths when she was 7, has shunned her magic. She’s a historian of 17th-century science, which means she dabbles in Alchemy. She’s pretty content with her life. Until she meets Matthew. Who is a vampire.

Which brings me to good point number 2: Harkness has a debt to owe to Stephenie Meyer, but she one-ups her. Matthew is 1500 years old, which makes him incredibly fascinating. (And I suppose it’s kind of creepy that a 1500 year old would fall in love with a 37 year old?) There’s a lot of history in this book, and no accident that Diana, as a historian, is fascinated by Matthew.

The bad:
It’s still True Love, and while it’s not as stifling as Edward and Bella’s love, it’s still pretty sappy. (What is it with vampires and a reluctance to have sex?) There’s also that element of over-protectiveness that drove me batty in the Twilight series. The only difference is that Diana can — and does — hold her own as a witch, though it takes her most of the book to do so. She also struggles against Matthew’s edicts, which helps with the whole damsel-in-distress thing. That, and the fact that she’s in REAL danger as opposed to supposed danger helps temper Matthew’s irritating behavior.

The good:
The plot is intriguing and complex: there’s a lost manuscript that all the “creatures” (as they call themselves) are longing to get their hands on. But, more importantly, there’s the forbidden love (really?) between Diana and Matthew: it seems the creatures aren’t suppose to cross-mate because of an age old (like centuries) covenant that the creatures made with each other. This leads to a lot of things, the most important being an impending “war” between the creatures who are okay with Diana and Matthew’s love and those who are not.

The bad:
On some levels, the idea of anyone being able to love anyone they want is a good story. But my main complaint with this book is that it’s 576 pages, and they don’t get to the point until the last 1/4. The plot pacing is bad as well: it’ll be interesting, then Harkness will divert into pages and pages of wine, food and romancing (M contended that if she cut out all the bits about wine, she would have lost about 75 pages…), none of which had anything to do with the plot. More than once, I nearly lost patience with the book.

That said, I’m invested now, and I’m interested in where Harkness is going to go with the sequel. Hopefully, it won’t be nearly as long. (Then again, she’s a historian, so I’m not really expecting a more tightly written book. Just hoping.)

Drink, Slay, Love

by Sarah Beth Durst
ages: 13+
First sentence: “‘One hour until dawn,’ Pearl said.”
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Pearl is a vampire. And she is completely happy. She’s strong, she’s awesome, she’s got a super-hot (immortal) boyfriend, a favorite snack (in the form of a loser boy who works at the local all-night ice cream joint), the approval of her Family, and she’s about to go through the Fealty Ceremony for vampires. Life is perfect.

And then Pearl is stabbed by a unicorn, which completely throws her for a loop: unicorns are supposed to be mythical, unicorns are NOT supposed to stab vampires, and — most importantly — vampires are not supposed to survive the stabbing. And be able to withstand daylight afterward.

Rather than let it be a deterrent to their plans, Pearl’s Family decides that what she needs to do is go to high school, and lure all those lovely, tasty humans to their doom in order to supply the feast for the King of New England at the Fealty Ceremony.

So, Pearl broaches the world of Daylight, of High School drama and dynamics, and finds herself, well, moved. Which completely throws her for a loop: vampires aren’t supposed to be moved. They aren’t supposed to have a conscience. Humans aren’t supposed to be interesting. And yet…

One of the best things about this book — aside from the swoonworthiness of Evan, a human guy whom Pearl falls in with (though I called the ending about halfway through) — is that Durst is plainly making fun of all the vampire books out there, even as she’s telling a vampire story. There are laugh-out-loud moments, moments in which you have to grin as she pokes fun at vampires, Twilight, and girls who swoon over the whole vampire thing. But, even aside from that, Durst’s telling an interesting story here, exploring ideas of change and reform and self-identity, as well as interfering in people’s lives (or whatever passes for a life if you’re undead). Sure, it’s a romance, and it’s fun, but at it’s core, it’s telling a story of a girl trying to figure out who she is in the face of a drastic change.

And that’s someone everyone can relate to.

The Name of the Star

by Maureen Johnson
ages: 13+
First sentence: “The eyes of London were watching Claire Jenkins.”
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I can sum this up in one sentence: the goodness of Maureen Johnson with ghosts. Awesome creepy ghosts that kill people.

Rory Deveaux has decided, thanks to her parents being university professors and getting a year abroad in England, to spend her senior year at Wexford in London. It’s a boarding school, not exactly posh, but nothing to sneeze at either. The only damper on the whole England school experience is that there’s a copycat Jack the Ripper killer on the loose.

Everything is going fine, there’s even a bit of a love interest with the prefect Jerome, but then a murder happens on campus. And Rory is the only witness the police have got.

There are so many little ways in which I love Maureen’s writing: the fact that she can make you laugh (“action butts”) and then turn around and scare the pants off you, for one. Granted, I’m easily scared, so you might want take that with a grain of salt. However, for her first foray into paranormal fiction (another aside: “If there are ghosts, does that mean there are… vampires? And werewolves?” “Don’t be stupid.”), she grasps the fine art of tension amazingly well. It helps that while it’s a gory book, it’s not a graphic one. (Thankfully.)

But it’s also the little descriptions that make her books so enjoyable. Like:

Jerome started violently slicing apart his fried eggs. It was fascinating to watch him eat. He chowed down with the speed and force of a well-organized military campaign. He didn’t so much have breakfast as defeat it.

Seriously. How can you not love someone who can come up with a paragraph like that?

While I thoroughly enjoyed this one, I did feel the last little bit was a little abrupt, and I wish Rory had played more of a part in it. Granted, the part she did play was completely true to her character, so I’m just quibbling. That said, the last chapter was brilliant: and it sets up some intriguing things for the next book.

Which means: I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Reread: Wildwood Dancing

by Juliette Marillier
ages: 13+
First sentence: “I’ve heard it said that girls can’t keep secrets.”
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When I last visited the book, I had issues with it. Specifically, I had issues with a subplot wherein a character, a woman, wasting away pining for her True Love. It soured the book for me, and even though M really liked it, I didn’t change my opinion.

But my in-person book group chose it for their book for August, and I had time and figured it was a light vacation read, so I thought I’d give it another try.

It’s a clever twist on a couple of fairy tales, deftly combining vampires with The Frog Prince and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. The Transylvanian setting was lush and Marillier knows how to spin a story. One of the comments I remembered people saying in favor of the book was the relationship between Jena and Gogu, her frog. It’s a good relationship, fun and witty. But, even with that, I had issues.

I really disliked the treatment of the sisters by Cezar. I know you’re not supposed to like it; he’s the “bad guy” after all. But, it was really unsettling to me this time around. I had to put the book down several times, and found myself desperately loathing having him around. I almost didn’t finish the book because of him, this time. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I had such a violent reaction to him: it means, to a large extent, that Marillier did her job well.

And as for Tati and Sorrow, the pair that soured the book for me the first time around? Yep, still didn’t like them. Still became impatient with Tati and her wasting away for True Love. Still impatient with the idea of True Love, and how worthless an idea it is. I do prefer Jena and Gogu’s relationship; at least there’s mutual trust and understanding there. Perhaps Marillier meant Tati’s to be a counterbalance to the more down-to-earth Jena? I don’t know. But Jena, as spunky and brave and cool as she was, wasn’t enough to save the novel for me.

Shiver

by Maggie Stiefvater
ages: 13+
First sentence: “I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy won from Scholastic

First off: okay, okay, okay. I should have read it sooner. I should have listened to all you fans of Maggie Stiefvater out there. But better late than never. Right?

For the five of you out there who haven’t read this: think Twilight, but better written and with werewolves instead of vampires. It’s still the same story: human girl falls in love with paranormal boy, but it’s got so much more depth than Bella and Edward.

Grace is eleven when she’s attacked by wolves. She figures she’s going to die, but something – someone — saves her. She just knows it’s the wolf with the yellow eyes, her wolf. In the six years that follow, every winter, she looks for the wolf, only satisfied when she knows he’s near.

Sam, hates his life: wolf when it’s cold, human when it’s warm. And he knows his time is growing short. So when he’s shot — on purpose; the wolves have bitten and killed another resident of their small Minnesota town, and so the men take to the forest with guns to “solve” the problem — and turns back into a human, he turns to Grace. It’s only then that they realize how much they care for and need each other — and yes, love each other — and the cruel fate that awaits them unless they can figure out a way to stop Sam from changing back.

That’s obviously not enough to hold a book of this size, and so Stiefvater gives us the background story. But, unfolds it slowly, a piece here, a nibble there. And then there’s Grace’s friend Olivia, who’s almost as obsessed with the wolves as Grace is. Or Isabel, the sister of the unfortunate boy who was killed. There’s a lot of balls to be juggled in this book, aside from the love story, but Stiefvater manages to juggle them quite admirably. More than admirably: the writing was lyrical, evocative, sensuous. Almost poetic. And the chemistry: oh, the chemistry.

Which means: I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book.

Lips Touch Three Times

by Laini Taylor/Illus. by Jim Di Bartolo
ages: 12+
First sentence: “There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.”
Review copy picked up from the ARC exchange table at KidlitCon 09.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!

Wow.

Oh, I knew Laini Taylor had a fabulous imagination, having adored both Blackbringer and Silksinger, but, really: wow.

This one is three short stories in which the only connection is the act of kissing. Taylor explores what that “means”, but because it’s Laini Taylor, the exploration is not what you’d expect. Or maybe you would, if you’d read her other stuff. In short, it’s weird, wild, entrancing and just plain fabulous. Without giving too much away…

The first story, “Goblin Fruit”, takes something that every girl wants — to be noticed by the popular, cute boy — and turns it ever-so-slightly sinister. Kizzy has a weird immigrant family, one that she’s embarrassed about. It’s all she can do to avoid their practices, beliefs, superstitions, especially those of her (now-dead) grandmother, who believed quite strongly that there are goblins out there waiting to capture your soul. Kizzy tries to live a normal life, even from the sidelines of her high school, but she wants. Wants — to be popular, to be in the arms of the cute boy — so badly it’s palpable. So, when Jack Husk — beautiful, amazing, wonderful Jack Husk — shows up and pays attention to her, she goes with it. It’s got a bit of an open ending: what really does happen to Kizzy, but it doesn’t really matter. In this story, it’s the getting there that counts.

The second story, “Spicy Little Curses”, was my favorite. Taylor played off of Hindu religion and myth on this one, not only setting the story in Imperialist India, but giving us a devil in Hell who thrives off of making life (and death) miserable for humans. There’s a human liaison to Hell who tries to temper what this devil does, but one day — in exchange for twenty two souls — she allows the devil to curse the daughter of the Political Agent. The curse: if she ever speaks, she’ll kill everyone in the sound of her voice. She manages never to speak, but of course, she grows up into a lovely young woman and a soldier falls in love with her. There is not a happy outcome (again, of course), but the twists and turns and the language (oh, the language!) make it simply a joy to read.

And, finally, “Hatchling”. It’s the longest of the three stories, the most developed, the most interesting world-building that I’ve read in a while. Taylor takes were-lore and vampire-lore and develops it in a new and fascinating way in giving us the Druj. Not quite werewolves (and yet they shape shift), not quite vampires (and yet they use and abuse humans for their own pleasure), they terrorize and terrify humans. Mab was one of those, and for some reason, she managed to escape from the Queen. She was pregnant at the time and with her daughter, Esme, she has been in hiding ever since. Fourteen years later, Esme wakes up one morning with one blue eye and one brown eye. This not only terrifies Mab, but leads Emse to the destiny that she never knew she had, changing the way the Druj interact with each other and the world in the process.

I know I didn’t quite capture the wonderfulness that is this book. But it truly is amazing.

Eighth Grade Bites

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, #1
by Heather Brewer
ages: 11+
First sentence: “A tree branch slapped John Craig across the face, scraping his skin, but he kept on running and ignored the stabbing of pine needles on his bare feet.”
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Vlad is not your typical eighth grader. Well, he is in many ways: he’s got a massive crush on Meredith, who seems to like his best friend, Henry. He doesn’t do spectacularly well in school, but manages okay. His parents died in a freak accident three years ago, and so he has that to deal with.

Oh, and did I mention? He’s a vampire.

His mom was human, and his dad was a vampire and (without all that messy Twilighty swoony vampirey stuff) Vlad’s been raised as a vampire. Granted, he’s a humane one: aside from biting Henry when they were eight, he’s never actually fed upon a human, but rather eating donated blood (in very creative forms) or raw meat. (This book was written in 2007, before the Twilight phenomenon, so no unfair Breaking Dawn comparisons, please.) As if his life wasn’t complicated enough — it’s no fun being a creature of the night when you’re forced to go to school during the day! — it looks like his substitute English teacher — brought in after his teacher, the Mr. Craig of the opening sentence, disappears — is figuring out Vlad’s secret.

It was billed as “ghoulishly funny”, but I didn’t really find it that. I did find it fascinating, and I liked Brewer’s take on the vampire world from the get-go. But, I guess I wanted more than a sullen eighth-grade boy (do all vampires need to be sullen?) trying to get over his dad’s death. Stick with the book, though: the ending few chapters are quite exciting. Enough so that I’m willing to give the other books in the series a try. Maybe Vlad will perk up a bit.

I do have to note that the library copy I read had pages with dried blood on them. Creepy, yes, but also very annoying. Can we make it a policy to not bleed on vampire books. Please?

Supernatural Graphic Novels

I’m not sure if that’s the right description, but “fantasy” and “paranormal” didn’t quite work for this pairing either.

First up:
Kin (The Good Neighbors, Book 1)
by HollyBlack and Ted Naifeh
ages: 14+
First sentence: “West City, Thursday evening.”
(First sentences in a graphic novel is almost self-defeating…)

I’m conflicted about this one. I liked it well enough: the basic story is a girl, Rue, whose mother has disappeared after a fight with her father. Soon afterward, Rue starts seeing things she’s not supposed to. Turns out her mother was a faerie, and is slowly dying because Rue’s father had betrayed her. The art was a lush black and white (I think color would have overwhelmed the book, so I appreciated that choice), and I liked the characters okay (especially Tam; even though he doesn’t have a large role, I appreciated that nod). However, while I think it’s a good beginning to a series, it doesn’t really hold up as a stand-alone. It’s all set-up, no action, no resolution. And just leaves you feeling weird. However, I’m going to have to get the next volume, if only because I’m curious what happens to Rue.

Up next:

Life Sucks
by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria, and Warren Pleece
ages: 16+
First sentence: doesn’t really have one. As I said, that’s pretty self-defeating when you’re dealing with a graphic novel.

This one has a fantastic premise: the undead are alive and among us. Dave, a college schlep who needs a job, applies for one at a 24 hour convenience store called Last Stop. Little did he know that applying for the job comes with a catch: being turned into a vampire. Stuck in a dead-end job (ha, no pun intended) working for a vampire master he loathes, Dave figures there’s nothing worth living (ha, again) for. So far, so good. Dave making his way as a vampire is pretty funny, the fact that he’s got a human roommate, and undead friends. His boss, Lord Radu is a great parody of the immigrant entrepreneur.

Then Dave sees Rosa, that is. A goth girl with an obsession with vampires, she would die (ooh, I’m killing myself… whoops, did it again.) to actually know (or be) one. He musters up some courage and strikes up a friendship with Rosa, not revealing that he’s a vampire. Then things start to go south, at least for me. Wes — the evil undead surfer dude (such an oxymoron) — decides Rosa is hot, and he decides that what he really wants to do is bite and bag her. (He’s got three vampire brides and could use one more.) Dave makes a valiant attempt to stop Wes, making in the end a dare out of seeing who Rosa would go for. And that’s when the book tanks. It gets all sex-obsessed (big-boobed, scantily-clad bimbos anyone?), and violent, and just plain weird. It wraps up badly — could they not think of anything better? — and leaves us hanging.

Sigh. I had such hopes for both of these.

The Adventures of Boone Barnaby

by Joe Cottonwood
ages: 9+
First sentence: “I live in San Puerco, California.”

I picked up this book because the author was so kind to email me, praising my blog (and my “shoot-from-the-hip style” — my immediate was: “Okay? Not something I would think of myself…”) and announcing that he’s re-released his title as a podcast. Here’s what he wrote:

I’ve just re-released my novel Boone Barnaby. What’s new is that this time, it’s a podcast. Scholastic in 1990 published The Adventures of Boone Barnaby as a middle grade novel (for a podcast, I had to shorten the title so it would show up on tiny ipod screens).

Maybe I’m breaking new ground here. Does a podcast qualify for a review? (And if not, shouldn’t we catch up with what kids already accept as normal?) It’s a way to engage kids, especially boys, in a literary story. No vampires, no superheroes. I was going to bring out a new print edition, too, but as long as Amazon is selling old copies for a penny, I can’t compete – and there are probably ten thousand copies still out there in garage sale land. Meanwhile, I’ve made it available as a PDF for a free download.

There’s no money in this for me. The podcast is free (dowloadable from iTunes), the PDF is free (from my website), even the one-penny copies on Amazon earn me no royalties. I’m just reviving a good book – and enjoying the new world of podcasting.

We went back and forth a bit about podcasts… here’s where I confess that we’re a (teeny) bit behind the times around here: when I asked M if she would listen to a podcast of this book, she asked, “What’s a podcast?” Obviously, that wouldn’t work. We don’t have iPods, and as I have mentioned before, listening to a book (if it’s outside of a car during a long drive) just doesn’t work with my lifestyle. So, the compromise I came to was read the book (my library is awesome) and review it, and mention that you can get it as a podcast. (I’ve already done that part.)

It’s a very good book. Boone is a 12ish (I’m not sure if we ever got his age; if we did, it’s not sticking in my brain) kid, living in a small town in California (northern, I guess, because of references to Redwoods). He’s a pretty low-key kid, not really great but not bad either. Then one fall, everything seems to change (it’s called the “Banana Effect”: bad — or good — things always come in bunches). Some of it’s for the better: Babcock moves in, the town’s pathetic soccer team begins winning games, Boone outsmarts the local miser in the Trashathon: an event to raise money for the soccer team to go to Australia for a tournament. But some of it’s for the worse: Boone’s father is arrested on suspicion for arson (the pub is burned down, and his father just happens to have been walking around late at night with a can of gasoline), his friend Danny’s family is going to be evicted, and he has a run-in with the town’s homeless man, Damon Goodey. Sure, everything works out in the end, but it’s not the end that matters in this book, but rather the journey. It’s a coming of age story, where Boone realizes that growing up doesn’t hold all the answers as well as figuring out a few of his own rules. Not to mention how he fits into the grander (well, maybe not grander, but at least larger) scheme of things. It’s a straightforward story; Cottonwood doesn’t write down to his readers, instead just laying out the “facts” and letting the story, and characters, speak for themselves. And although there’s some thoughtful themes in it (segregation, racism, drug use — in the parents’ past — and honesty, among others), it doesn’t harp on them, or beat them into the reader.

So. Find the book (buy it for a penny plus shipping at Amazon!), or download it on your iPod (because I’m assuming that most of you have one…). It really is worth the time.