Monday, May 31, 2010

If There Weren't So Many Murders, I'd Move There

A Fatal Grace
by Louise Penny
New York: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2007, 2006.

If it weren't for the murders, I'd move to Three Pines. I want to be Myrna and own the bookshop. Ahem...

Nobody particularly liked CC de Poitiers and no one, even in idyllic Three Pines, is particularly torn up now that she's been murdered. Even so, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache investigates, using his trademark respect and ability to read people.

The second in the Three Pines series, A Fatal Grace could be read before as a standalone; however, readers familiar with the inhabitants of Three Pines - such as Peter and Clara Morrow, Gabri, Olivier, Ruth, Myrna and, of course, Inspector Gamache himself - will appreciate the return of beloved characters and probably best be able to keep track of them all. Personally, I loved the first book, Still Life, and was a little afraid I had unreachable expectations for A Fatal Grace as a result, but the book delivers in spades. This is a really delightful mystery series with a little bit of everything, including a smattering of human emotion and psychology, poetry, and hints of the past affecting the present for Inspector Gamache and his team. I really look forward to seeing how this series continues to develop.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

New-to-me Manga Titles

My local library just got in a few new manga titles, so I had to check them out. I started reading manga in earnest in 2008, when I gave myself the challenge of reading 100 volumes to learn about it - before that I had only read Fruits Basket, a series which remains a favorite.

Mixed Vegetables by Ayumi Komura introduces us to Hanayu Ashitaba, a high school student who is focusing on culinary arts. She's the daughter of a baker, but what she really wants to do is become a sushi chef. Her master plan: to marry the only son of the sushi shop owner so that she can inherit that business instead. This is a humorous, light story that incorporates the more serious theme of balancing your parents' expectations with your own desires, something most high school students can relate to. The line drawings of food are guaranteed to make you hungry.

Sand Chronicles by Hinako Ashihara focuses on Ann Uekusa, a girl whose parents divorce and whose mother moves from Tokyo to the small town where she grew up. At first, Ann is unsure about the people who disconcertingly seem to know all about her, but when family tragedy strikes, she depends on her friends to get her through. Each chapter is a different season in her life, starting from when she was twelve. In volume 3 (as far as I've read), it's up to the autumn she's 16. The drama inherent in high school friendship makes this have a more serious tone and older audience than Mixed Vegetables, but between the two I like this one better so far.

Both are entertaining reads, however, and I'm planning on reading more in both series as I can.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Mystery My Mother Might Love

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey
New York: The MacMillan Company, 1952.

Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital after a fall through a trap door, and incredibly bored as a result. Best-sellers brought by well-meaning friends do not help his situation, but when Marta brings him some historical photographs, he suddenly takes an interest. Grant studies faces, and he comes across a photograph of a man he would have guessed to be a leader and a good man - only to find out it is Richard III. Surprised at his uncharacteristically wrong guess, he embarks on a research project to find more about the last Plantaganet king and the mystery of the murder of his nephews.

This is the type of mystery my mom might like - because it's a historical mystery, there's no violence or gore or really any immediacy, but even so the mystery is quite intriguing. I enjoyed Tey's dry sense of humor from the beginning, and once Grant started sending people off to research Richard III and continuing with historical tidbits, I was pretty well hooked. I would have followed Grant and his friends' research better had I been better versed in the history of the British monarchy, but I can't really say I wanted more inserted in the story itself. As it was, there was one chapter thick with historical summary that bored me incredibly. I also wished for a bibliography or author's note or something as an endnote to tell me where to look up more information about Richard II or Henry VII or the Princes in the Tower. I was intrigued enough, however, to want to follow up with a nonfiction title, and will certainly read more by this author in the future.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


by Catherine Fisher
New York: Dial Books, 2010.

Finn is a prisoner in Incarceron, the sentient prison originally intended as a utopia, but truly a savage place with Scum and outlaws and all-seeing eyes. Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. As the betrothed of the Prince, Claudia may apparently have an idyllic life, but she's in a prison of her own.

The world imaged in Incarceron is apparently sometime in the future. Huge scientific discoveries were made and a lot of technology could be available, but the people have purposely turned their backs on it, instead following a Protocol much like the Victorian Era. Both those inside and outside Incarceron still seemed imprisoned by Protocol and by the royal family - what Claudia's father refers to as "the game." The world-building is complex and sometimes confused me, but it builds up the tension and suspense in reading. Finn and Claudia are sympathetic characters, and I want to know more about each of them. I hope future titles in the series further explore their backgrounds, and I'll be waiting impatiently for book 2 (due out December of this year).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Expectations vs. Reality

Raising Bookworms: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment
by Emma Walton Hamilton
Sag Harbor, NY: Beach Tree Books, 2009.

My Children's Literature teacher taught me to review a book for what it is rather than what I want it to be. I'm trying to separate my expectations of what I wanted Raising Bookworms to be from my reactions to what it is, but it's really hard to distance myself from the experience of reading a book in order to look at it more analytically than emotionally, especially when the subject matter is one near and dear to my heart: getting kids to read. I should be up front about what I expected. I was hoping for a list of resources and suggestions that either might be handy in recommending books to children and teens in my capacity as reference librarian or that I could use to subtly encourage my younger sister to read.

The suggestions in the book, however, are of much more use to parents. Hamilton's main premise is that we should connect reading with joy, and many of her techniques such as reading aloud, creating a book nook, keeping books in every room, and modeling a love of reading yourself, hearken back to this main theme. Each chapter focuses on one age group - baby and toddler, preschool, elementary school, and middle school. She warns in the introduction that a lot of the techniques carry over into other age groups, so reading from cover to cover can be repetitive. Most of her suggestions are common sense; perhaps because I took so many courses in children's services, I didn't find a lot that I had not already known. Despite the introduction, I found myself quickly getting annoyed with the repetitive structure of the book and the frequent use of italics. At the end of each chapter, she includes a list of some of her "Family Favorites" as suggestions. I did enjoy the chapter of various resources - recommended books, awards, and websites - which again, was more along the lines of what I had expected from this read.

I was often bored or frustrated in the reading of the book, basically because it was not the book I wanted nor do I find it extremely useful right now, with no children and no real capability of putting her suggestions into practice either at home or at work. But what I did find was a handy resource to suggest to parents who want to interest their kids in reading from a young age and don't know where to start. The repetitive nature of her suggestions would probably be less obvious if you were to hone in on the applicable chapters for your children's ages. While the italics are still annoying (probably an editorial choice, but I felt like I was being talked down to) and the book suggestions put series titles out of order, it's generally a good resource and starting point for parents who want to positively reinforce reading in their homes.

For a completely different take on this book, check out this review from Reader's Advisor Online, which is also the blog that brought it to my attention in the first place.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Baby Names + Twilight = ?

The New York Times recently had an article in which they suggested some of the popular baby names from 2009 were influenced by Twilight.* (Thanks to bookshelves of doom and Fuse #8 for the links).

It's an interesting article, but as a bit of a name geek myself (I collected baby names books as a teenager and watched for the new Top 100 names list every year), I question whether the books really made that much of a difference when discussing the most popular names of 2009. As the spokesperson from the Social Security Administration points out in the article, Jacob has been the #1 most popular boy's name since 1999. Isabella, the most popular girl's name in 2009, has been hanging in the top ten since 2004, ever since it first made the top 1000 names in 1990.

The names that might have a little credence are Bella (#58) and Cullen (#485 for boys). Bella didn't make the top 100 in 2008. Cullen jumped in popularity the most of any boy's name - but we're still talking only 555 kids, or about 273 more than last year. And I'm surprised there's no mention of Emmett, which had a similar rise in popularity from #547 in 2008 to #332 last year.

If you're interested in names, definitely check out Social Security's popular baby names site. You can do all kinds of fun stuff tracking the popularity of names over the years (mine is about as unpopular as it's ever been, at least since these statistics were kept) and paging through really long lists of the 1000 most popular names in the U.S. And hey, maybe you'll notice other trends due to popular culture.

*Works cited:
McKinley, Jesse. "A Name for Newborns Thanks to Vampires." The New York Times. May 7, 2010. Accessed from on May 15, 2010.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Her Mother's Hope

by Francine Rivers
Illinois: Tyndale House, 2010.

At age twelve, Marta knows what she wants out of life - she wants to continue learning, leave her family home behind, and own her own boarding house or hotel. Her abusive father takes her out of school and makes her work for families in their hometown of Steffisburg, Switzerland, but Marta makes the most of all she learns so that she can attain her dream. Family ties back home threaten to break her, however, for her sick mother and her gentle sister Elise stay behind. Her mother encourages her to fly, and Marta determines to do so regardless of her father's plans for her.

Covering about 50 years from 1901 to 1951, this is the story of Marta and her oldest daughter, Hildemara, and how their relationship is shaped by Marta's past. The two of them have very different temperaments, and their points of view dominate the story, but I connected and sympathized with both women. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are as fleshed out as Marta or Hildie. Time moves by fast, too, so that I was left wanting more information, though the story covers nearly 500 pages. Maybe I'm just not cut out for family sagas - I wanted Marta to have a story of her own, with more details instead of the broad brush strokes required to cover so much time in a short space.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The City of Dreaming Books

by Walter Moers, translated by John Brownjohn
New York: Overlood Press, 2007.

Optimus Yarnspinner is an aspiring author and a dinosaur living in Zamonia. As an inhabitant of Lindworm castle, he has had the best training under the tutelage of his authorial godfather, Dancelot Wordwright. On his deathbed, Dancelot bequeaths a manuscript to Optimus, a brilliant short story by an unknown author, and commissions his godson to go to Bookholm to discover the writer.

This is an endlessly inventive tale that mixes the ridiculous (literary dinosaurs) with smart bookish humor (author names that Optimus lists are anagrams of famous authors in our world). The odd mixture puts me in mind of the Thursday Next series, though in many ways the stories themselves are completely different. But if you have a good imagination, enjoy discovering literary references in unexpected places, and didn't mind the footnoterphone or the Cheshire Cat as librarian in The Well of Lost Plots, then I would recommend Moers' creative yarn. Though the fourth in a series, The City of Dreaming Books was the first that I read and I had no trouble reading it as a standalone. It runs a little long towards the end, but it was such a fun ride that I want to check out the rest of the series.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Still Life

by Louise Penny
New York: St. Martin's Minotaur, 2006.

"Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around. Miss Neal's was not a natural death, unless you're of the belief everything happens as it's supposed to" (1).
So begins Still Life, a mystery set in the small town of Three Pines, Quebec, where everyone knows everyone and life goes by at a slightly slower pace. Jane Neal was a bit eccentric - not letting anyone beyond her kitchen, for example - but well-liked and about to enter a painting into an art show for the first time. When she is found dead in the woods, apparently the victim of a hunting accident, Inspector Armand Gamache is called in from the big city to piece together the events. He relies on intuition and good people skills in his investigation.

So many people have recommended this book to me that I feel a little late to the party. It's one of those stories that I loved so much by the time I finished I felt tongue-tied, unable to tell you exactly why I liked it. All I can say is its one of those stories that gripped me from the first sentences. The blend of humor and seriousness, wonderfully vibrant characters and compelling mystery made this an incredibly difficult book to put down. To try to classify the book is difficult, too - it feels like a cozy because of the characters, small town, and lack of descriptive violence, yet the detective is a member of the police force rather than an amateur. The philosophical discussions remind me a little of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, while Inspector Gamache's methods remind me a little of Maisie Dobbs, but this story doesn't really have the same feel as either.

What else can I say? I'm glad it's the first in a series, because I don't want to leave Three Pines behind. Still Life is definitely on my list of favorites for the month, and will probably make my list of top reads for the year.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Childhood Favorites Through Adult Eyes

It's always a little nerve-wracking to decide to reread childhood favorites. Will I still like the book this time? Will I shake my head at my younger self for enjoying such trash? Will it measure up to my memory? But I still revisit them from time to time, because there's always the chance that I'll still love the story and have a grown-up appreciation for details of plot, characterization, or theme that I missed the first time around.

I've been thinking of this tension lately because I recently finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the second time. The first time I read it, I was probably in 5th or 6th grade. The book made enough of an impression on me that I still remember the joy I felt as a reader figuring out that Tom was tricking his friends into whitewashing the fence for him - and the narrator didn't even have to tell me! I remembered other details of the plot, too, though I was a little fuzzy on the exact order of events.

My adult eyes saw a different story from what I remembered. Yes, it was still funny and enjoyable, though more episodic than the cohesive story my memory conjured. Most notably, I realized how incredibly racist the characters were. I mean, even as a child I knew better than to use the n-word, but a lot of the statements regarding African Americans and American Indians really shocked me as an adult. I still enjoyed the adventure, especially the shenanigans that Tom and Huck get into, and I was able to laugh more at their superstitions.

Did it stand the test of time? It's hard to say. I can't say Tom Sawyer disappointed me, but reading it now I definitely have a more complex relationship with the story now as a result of my reread.

What are some childhood favorites that have had a different impact on you as an adult?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Player's Ruse

by Hilari Bell
New York: HarperTeen, 2010.

*If you haven't read the first two books in the Knight and Rogue series, The Last Knight and Rogue's Home, this is a **spoiler warning** for those titles*

Over a year has passed since Fisk and Michael left Fisk's family. They have made a bit of a life for themselves - Michael working as a bouncer and Fisk copying and sewing. Then Rosamund, Michael's cousin and the girl he's in love with, shows up and asks for their help in finding her love, a traveling player named Rudy. When they travel to the town in which the players are working, Michael and Fisk manage to catch the eye of the sheriff by seeing a signal fire used by wreckers. Instead of asking them to leave when he finds out Michael's status as an unredeemed man, the sheriff requests that they stay while he conducts his investigations. Of course, a knight errant and his squire can't help but get involved.

This story took a little longer than the others to get going but once it did, I loved it. Though the wreckers and the mysterious enemy of the players gives the story a hint of mystery, there is not as much adventure and some elements of the story seem a little forced in comparison to the earlier titles. Still, I enjoyed seeing Michael and Fisk's friendship and characters develop further. Their personalities really come through the narration, even given small details such as the dog that Michael calls True and Fisk calls Trouble. I didn't like it quite as well as the first two in the series, but it's a book I would definitely reread, and I felt sorry to leave this world and these characters behind.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Rogue's Home

by Hilari bell
New York: Eos, 2008.

*If you haven't already read the first in the series, The Last Knight, this is a spoiler warning for that title.*

Returning from their adventures attempting to recapture Lady Ceciel, Sir Michael knows that returning without the lady will mean he is declared unredeemed. He will be marked with a tattoo and forever considered outside the law - he can claim no redress should another man swindle or harm him. But this is the only way he can see of avoiding his father's requirement for him to work as a steward, and Michael is nothing if not stubborn. Meanwhile, a messenger finds Fisk and gives him a message he's been carrying for months. The contents are vague, but clear - his sisters need his help.

This time around, we meet Fisk's family and get more of his back story, which was only hinted at in The Last Knight. As before, the chapters alternate between Fisk's and Michael's points of view so we can get a really good sense of their character development, as idealistic Michael learns just how hard life can be as an unredeemed man and Fisk tries to return Michael's dignity in a characteristic if somewhat backhanded manner. Instead of a journey, this story is more of a mystery that close readers may be able to put together a little before the characters do, but what really makes these stories fun is spending time with Michael and Fisk.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Last Knight

by Hilari Bell
New York: Eos, 2007.

Fisk is a squire - at least, he is as of a week ago when he met Michael, an eighteen-year-old knight errant about 200 years after that was a fashionable trade. Michael wants to travel, so he chose this life of working hard and helping out his fellow man over his father's chosen profession for him: steward to his oldest brother. But when the boys are tricked into freeing a murderess, Michael's father Baron Seven Oaks redeems them. In order for Michael to be a free man again, they have to recapture Lady Ceciel and bring her for trial.

Much of this story is told over the course of a journey, so the plot feels meandering at times while Michael and Fisk try to track down Lady Ceciel or her steward all along the countryside. The story is much more focused, however, when it is read as the story of two young men becoming friends and learning to trust each other. Each chapter is told alternating between Fisk's and Michael's points of view, which can be difficult to pull off but works really well to give readers insight into both of their characters, not only by what they reveal about themselves, but what they say about each other. Fisk is funny and sarcastic, protesting just a bit too much that he wants to leave Michael the first chance he gets. Michael's narrative is sprinkled with "tis" and "mayhap," marking him as a nobleman's son, and his descriptions of others show how idealistic he is. This first in the "Knight and Rogue" series is recommended for teen readers (and adults, too, of course!) who enjoyed The Lightning Thief or Howl's Moving Castle.