I'm a big fan of fairy tale retellings.  One of the first young adult fantasies I ever fell in love with was Robin McKinley's Beauty, a classic reimagining of the story of Beauty and the Beast.  I know there's some fairy tale fatigue within YA circles, but as long as publishers release books that might have the potential to enchant me the way McKinley's did, I'll keep on reading new fairy tales.  Lili St. Crow's Nameless is an inventive take on Snow White, and the first standalone in the new series Tales of Beauty and Madness.

nameless by lili st. crow book cover
When Camille was six years old, she was discovered alone in the snow by Enrico Vultusino, godfather of the Seven—the powerful Families that rule magic-ridden New Haven. Papa Vultusino adopted the mute, scarred child, naming her after his dead wife and raising her in luxury on Haven Hill alongside his own son, Nico.

Now Cami is turning sixteen. She’s no longer mute, though she keeps her faded scars hidden under her school uniform, and though she opens up only to her two best friends, Ruby and Ellie, and to Nico, who has become more than a brother to her. But even though Cami is a pampered Vultusino heiress, she knows that she is not really Family. Unlike them, she is a mortal with a past that lies buried in trauma. And it’s not until she meets the mysterious Tor, who reveals scars of his own, that Cami begins to uncover the secrets of her birth…to find out where she comes from and why her past is threatening her now.

Camille Vultusino mysteriously appeared in the snow ten years ago, and ever since she’s been both blessed by those who found her and wary of accepting that she truly belongs.  The Vultusinos are one of the Seven ruling Families of New Haven, and as the adopted Vultusino daughter Cami could take whatever her world has to offer – if she could forget the unknowns in her past or the fact that she’s full-human. Cami’s identity crisis comes to a head when a growing number of mysterious disappearances, family change and the appearance of a gardener named Tor (with scars like her own) converge during the darkest season of the year.  This is Snow White, with a bloody bite.

Cami is a privileged girl with a charmed life – if you don’t count the missing memory from her early years, a pronounced stutter, feeling like an outsider, and the unsettled state of her adopted family.  Still, she has friends, supporters, and Nico, her brother-who-has-become-something-more.  It might be enough, if sudden changes and dangers didn’t upset the careful balance.  When they do, Cami’s constant brushes with sinister magic build tension and mystery.  These, cut together with memories resurfacing as dreams, engender an overall sense of all things horrifying and compelling in Nameless

The best part of the story is the world-building.  Families who aren’t just families, but actually inhuman.  Fausts, twists, minotaurs, St. Juno girls, prep boys, the rotten Core of New Haven – these are all cornerstones of a world that is fully realized and incredibly interesting.  I kept thinking that the setting deserved more time on stage, but I understand why it wasn’t granted that – this is a young adult novel with a VILLAIN, and there had to be time to set up and introduce characters to care about, as well.

St. Crow’s fresh take on fairy tale blends stories and myths in a fascinating concept followed up with good execution.  Cami’s life among the Seven Families is suitably messed-up, leading to believable tension between characters and in the world overall; these issues then translate into problems that must be solved.  Cami creates some of her own roadblocks through sheer voicelessness (her stutter and general difficulty speaking), and that can read as passivity.  But in the setting, with this character, it makes perfect sense. That’s not to say that I as a reader didn’t want to shake some sense into her head.  I did.  However the characterization (in Cami’s case) was spot-on.

Add a creepy, mounting sense of doom to all of the above, and you have perfect reading material for Halloween.  The only thing that spoiled it was a too-tidy ending.  But then, I like a bit of open-endedness in my stories.  One more minor nitpick I had was with the character Tor.  His part is obvious, and his involvement rushed.  I have hopes that he’ll return in a future installment, complete with a full backstory.  I was also wary of the Cami/Nico dynamic suggested in the summary, but it mostly worked, given their intense history together (it didn’t make me cringe, as I feared it would).

Recommended for: fans of fairy tale retellings (the darker ones like Kill Me Softly or Jack of Kinrowan), and those who like young adult fantasy with a contemporary urban flavor, a la Holly Black's White Cat.

waiting on wednesday (65)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Dear Everyone: Sci-Fi Dystopia/Western with Aliens and Mystery is my jam.  I mean, I saw Cowboys & Aliens in the theater on opening weekend.  And not just because of Harrison Ford and/or Daniel Craig, either.  I've never heard of a premise quite like this one in young adult lit, and I'm unbelievably excited to see what it looks like.  How will the author play with a landscape outside the laws of nature, with an 'infinite sunset?'  Just how terrifying is the alien going to be?  Plagues of fishes and ravenous bears, oh my!  Philip Webb’s Where the Rock Splits the Sky will be released by Chicken House on March 25, 2014.

where the rock splits the sky by philip webb book cover
The moon has been split, and the Visitors have Earth in their alien grip, but Megan just might be able to free the planet--if only she can survive the deadliest desert crossing. 

The world stopped turning long before Megan was born. Ever since the Visitors split the moon and stilled the Earth, infinite sunset is all anyone has known. But now, riding her trusty steed Cisco, accompanied by her posse, Kelly and Luis, Megan ventures out of her Texas hometown and sets off on a journey across the vast, dystopic American West in search of her father. To find him, she must face the Zone. Laws of nature do not apply to the notorious landscape. Flying towns, rivers of dirt, plagues of fishes, ravenous bears: The desert can play deadly tricks on the mind, and the quest will push Megan past her limits. But to solve the mystery of not just her missing father but of the paralyzed planet itself, she must survive it--and a showdown with an alien.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten scariest book covers

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 | | 15 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I don’t do horror, either in book or film form.  But.  I have a weird thing about zombies – I’ll try them out.  And if there’s a little bit of humor involved (like in Zombies vs. Unicorns or Zombieland, for example), I’ll make an exception.  Still, I was surprised to see so many books I recognized on the ‘horror’ shelves over at Goodreads.  I guess I’ve been exposed to a lot of creepy books, even if I choose not to read them.  Yikes.

Top Ten Scariest Book Covers

1. The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by Susan Bernofsky – I saw this cover in a publisher’s promotional email last week and was horrified to imagine that it will exist in hard copy form.  Stuff of nightmares.

2. Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1: Professor Gargoyle by Charles Gilman – Okay, so it’s not run-away-screaming scary, but it’s pretty freaky.  Not a book I’d ever leave around, lest I scare myself when walking by.

3. Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry – Arresting and alarming.  Also a really great book, but that cover!  Eeek.

4. The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle – If you ever want to freak yourself out completely, do a Google image search for ‘black eyed children.’ 

5. Scowler by Daniel Kraus – I feel like I don’t even need to read the book, because I know already that it’d be too scary for me.

6. Execution (Escape from Furnace #5) by Alexander Gordon Smith – My brother loves this series, and while I was happy to give him books 1-3 for Christmas a couple of years ago, this cover gives me pause.  Extremely sinister things seem to be going on.

7. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith – There’s something spooky about certain small children anyway, and then when you mesh that with zombification…

8. Zom-B by Darren Shan – UGH get it away from me right now!

9. Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #4: Substitute Creature by Charles Gilman – Another entry in the Lovecraft Middle School series (is it cheating to put in two?).  That face is the kind of thing that gives me chills.

10. The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey – Tell me I am not the only person who thinks that a bit of organic matter in a pickling jar isn’t freaky beyond belief?!  Or maybe I just have an overactive imagination.  Okay, turning away now.

Which one of these book covers is the scariest?

the dark lord of derkholm

In the dark ages (aka life before blogging), I was still an inveterate bookworm, still a book collector, and I was less afraid of Friends of the Library book sales.  What was that I just said?!  Yes, I’m afraid of used book sales.  It’s a cheap opportunity to add to my TBR (to be read) stack, and therefore too much temptation to handle.  But in the days before that TBR pile grew out of control, I loved going to sales.  My justification?  I’d send my sister boxes of young adult and classic titles for her classroom library. 

One of the used paperbacks I remember sending was Diana Wynne Jones' The Dark Lord of Derkholm.  I didn’t know if it would work.  I didn’t know Diana Wynne Jones then like I do now.  BUT.  When I visited Ginny’s classroom one summer to help set up for the school year, she remarked that The Dark Lord was one of the best-loved books of her collection.  I kept that filed away in the back of my mind, and when I saw it (with a pretty cover!) on sale in a book shop on my Irish vacation, I purchased it and read it on the flight home.

the dark lord of derkholm by diana wynne jones book cover
Everyone—wizards, soldiers, farmers, elves, dragons, kings and queens alike—is fed up with Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Parties: groups of tourists from the world next door who descend en masse every year to take the Grand Tour. What they expect are all the trappings of a grand fantasy adventure, including the Evil Enchantress, Wizard Guides, the Dark Lord, Winged Minions, and all. And every year different people are chosen to play these parts. But now they've had enough: Mr. Chesney may be backed by a very powerful demon, but the Oracles have spoken.

It's up to the Wizard Derk and his son Blade, this year's Dark Lord and Wizard Guide, not to mention Blade's griffin brothers and sisters, to save the world from Mr. Chesney's depredations.

Tour groups organized by a certain Mr. Chesney pop through demon-controlled portals each year  to experience fantasy tourism and wreak havoc on Derk's world.  So far his unusual interests and magic have kept him (and his family) somewhat safe from the whole mess, but this year he's been dragooned by the Wizard Council into acting as the Dark Lord, and all tour groups must 'defeat' him as their last act before being shuttled safely back home.  The trouble is that nothing seems to want to go right, and as trouble multiplies and true meltdown approaches, it becomes clear that something must be done about Mr. Chesney's tour group.  If only all of the players had coordinated their efforts...

I thought this book had a very clever concept: What would happen to a fantasy world exploited by tourism? Of course the immediate thought that comes to any fan is, 'How can I book this vacation?!'  But The Dark Lord also tackles side issues of letting children find their place in life and the economics and ethics of fantasy worlds (yes, there are such things!).  This is no Disneyland vacation, and people die (and do not regenerate).  In that respect, it feels like a more grown-up book than some of Diana Wynne Jones' other works, and it lacks the laugh-out-loud ridiculousness that lightens the mood of Enchanted Glass or Howl's Moving Castle, for instance.  It's still her signature, inventive fantasy, with exceptional world-building and the added bonus of a complex, nuanced commentary on imperialism and tourism-forced cultural change.

While not as character-driven as some of her other works, The Dark Lord excels at describing Derk and his family: his wife, an extremely talented magic-user herself, and a mix of human and griffin children, animals, neighbors, and work associates (wizards, naturally).  It's a good choice for lovers of magical beasts (think dragons, griffins, and so on), and it's the sort of story where the narrative arc may be obvious, but the setting, characters and journey are worth the ride.

Recommended for: fans of fantasy (the longer-standing the better, I think), those who enjoyed Garth Nix's Abhorsen series, Robin McKinley's Pegasus, or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and adventurous adults and children alike (ages ten and up).

mortal fire

Thursday, October 24, 2013 | | 1 comments
I paid a hefty reading tax (aka library fine) for the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire in my own good time.  And I’ll tell you – I don’t mind the fine, because the extra time allowed me to find a day when my mind was clear, my stress levels low, and my imagination ready for a fantastical mystery unlike any I’d read before.  Mortal Fire is a brilliant book, and certainly one of the best I have read this year.

mortal fire by elizabeth knox book cover
Sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie's parents go away on a vacation, so they send her off on a trip of her own with her step-brother Sholto and his opinionated girlfriend Susan, who are interviewing the survivors of a strange coal mine disaster and researching local folklore in 1959 Southland, New Zealand. Canny is left to herself to wander in a mysterious and enchanting nearby valley, occupied almost entirely by children who all have the last name Zarene and can perform a special type of magic that tells things how to be stronger and better than they already are. With the help of a seventeen-year-old boy who is held hostage in a hidden away house by a spell that is now more powerful than the people who first placed it, Canny figures out why she, too, can use this special magic that only Zarenes should know, and where she really came from.

Canny Mochrie is one person, but she’s got more layers of identity than anyone else her age.  She’s a mathematical genius, the daughter of two (separately) famous people, the loyal friend of polio-stricken Marli, and the sister of poetic Sholto, the descendant of a Shackle Islander.  And aside from all of that, there’s her Extra, a sort of ‘sense’ that may mean something, or may be an imagining – simply one more thing setting her apart in a way that does not bode well for her future.  When she’s sent away for the summer and ends up exploring a strangely serene valley, bits of her past begin to reveal themselves, and Canny’s mysterious Extra may hold the key to breaking a curse.

When I finish a great book, I usually have some very definite thoughts about what made it so wonderful – well-written boxes ticked, favorite story tropes recreated, or a character I connected deeply with.  When I finished Mortal Fire, I felt as though I had finally stepped into the center of a maze, but I didn’t know why I felt so relieved and awed.  I couldn’t see the inner workings of the story – I could only tell that I had lived in a fantastic world for the duration. 

The very mystery that made the story work, the history and the world-building – these are things I don’t want to spoil, so I won’t patter on any more about them.  I will say that part of the richness of Knox’s writing is in describing Canny (and her experiences) superbly.  Canny isn’t simply a preternaturally intelligent teenager – she has always been a loner, has missed or simply not cared to see social cues, and her logic and detachment necessarily distanced her from her peers.  Canny’s summer away takes her from comfortable routine and ‘forces’ curiosity and observance.  Now that I am several days removed from finishing Mortal Fire, I can identify Knox’s description of Canny’s puzzle-solving, exploration and pattern-finding as the ineffable thing that drew me into the magic of the story.  It took waiting for a calm day, a different day, to find the mood that would let me into the story, but once there I was completely swept away.

I don’t feel that all of the above tells you very much about the book.  Let me try again.  Mortal Fire is an onion of a story, and you must peel its layers in the proper order.  It’s also a mystery wrapped in mysteries: some historical, some magical, some genetic.  It is a story that centers on a beautiful, pristine valley, a mining disaster, language and math, and an extraordinary legacy.  It deals with ethnic and family identity, and all of its tiny details add up to beauty. 

Recommended for: fans of fantasy (especially nuanced, multicultural fantasy), those who enjoy intricately-layered mysteries, and anyone swayed by the beautiful cover art – the book lives up to it!

Fine print: I received permission to view an e-ARC from NetGalley, but didn’t start the book in time to take advantage of that.  The review refers to the final text, obtained from the local library.

waiting on wednesday (64)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

One of the stubborn holdovers from my days of reading almost solely historical fiction (if I ventured into the young adult section at all) is a fascination with World War I stories.  Mix WWI with sci-fi or fantasy, and I cannot help myself.  No, really.  For example: Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series, or Suzanne Weyn's Water Song.  If you can think of more titles in this vein, BY ALL MEANS tell me in the comments!!! I will devour them.  Oh, and yes, this forthcoming middle grade novel fits the bill (fairy tales + World War I), so I'm (of course!) very excited. Sonya Hartnett's The Silver Donkey was released in Australia in 2004, but it's just making its way to the USA.  It will be released by Candlewick on February 11, 2014.

the silver donkey by sonya hartnett book cover
One morning in the woods of World War I France, two young sisters stumble upon an astonishing find - a soldier, temporarily blinded by war, who has walked away from battle longing to see his gravely ill younger brother. Soon the care of the soldier becomes the girls' preoccupation, but it's not just the secret they share that emboldens them to steal food and other comforting items for the man. They are fascinated by what he holds in his hand - a tiny silver donkey. As the girls and their brother devise a plan for the soldier's safe passage home, he repays them by telling four wondrous tales about the humble donkey - from the legend of Bethlehem to a myth of India, from a story of rescue in war to a tale of family close to the soldier's heart.

Sonya Hartnett explores rich new territory in this inspiring tale of kindness, loyalty, and courage.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten favorite (or unusual) character names

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | | 18 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I have a great head for ridiculous facts, but names are a whole different ballgame.  I try to place them with faces, but half the time that doesn’t work.  When I’m reading, I don’t have the visual element to help out.  Even if I’m IN LOVE with a story, if I don’t reread it often, the names seem to go in and right back out.  So.  These are names I remember, from stories I love.

Top Ten Favorite (or Unusual) Character Names

1. Angharad Crewe, or Harry, in The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – Harry is one of my most favorite characters ever, and she also has one of the most unique names… ever. I still am not sure how to pronounce the mouthful that is her proper moniker.  If anyone has an idea, let me know in the comments.

2. Suzy Turquoise-Blue in The Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix – Suzy is an energy-filled ball of loyalty, mischief, and good (sometimes misguided!) fun.  And she has a pretty sweet surname.

3. Virginia, or Ginny, in The Only Alien on the Planet by Kristen D. Randle – I love this book, and I love the bravery and bullheadedness that Ginny displays.  Also, I love her name... it is my only sister’s as well.  And yes, she loves this book too.  I forced it on her many years ago.

4. Door in Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – What a lovely, brief, literal name!  Actually, one of the reasons I love Gaiman so much is his genius in naming his characters.  It always is JUST RIGHT for whatever purpose or world he fashions.

5. Akanesi Afa, or Canny, or Agnes Mochrie from Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox – The power of names and in knowing your heritage is one of the themes of this beautiful, layered fantasy, and main character Canny’s multiple identities are its best mystery.

6. Puddleglum in The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis – Well, I think I’ve waxed nostalgic about Puddleglum before, but it’s such an obvious, literal fit that it just works.

7. September in the Fairyland books by Catherynne M. Valente – Ah, September’s adventures in Fairyland wouldn’t be half the fun if she had an ordinary name, would they?  I do love the idea of naming a child something out of the ordinary – something that doesn’t have gender associations but is at the same time classic and easy-to-spell.

8. Marigold in Magic for Marigold by L.M. Montgomery – This peach of a book opens with an entire clan in uproar over the naming of a baby girl.  What shall she be called?!  In the end, she’s named after the doctor (a lady doctor, no less!), and she grows into the loveliness that is Marigold.

9. Elnora Comstock in A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter – This is one of my favorite books.  I have spent so much time with Elnora over the years, and shed many tears and smiled many smiles with her.  I can’t forget her in this roll call, especially when one of the pivotal scenes makes a play on her name!  Oh, she is magnificent.

10. Victoria Wright in The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand – Another name that seems to fit its character to a T.  Especially the last name.  Actually it might count as obvious.  But we’ve already established that I love obvious.  So: Victoria Wright doesn’t like messes or anything out of place, but she loves her friend, and NOTHING, not even dirt, will keep her from finding him.

What is one of your favorite character names from a book?

the model bakery cookbook

I won a Facebook contest for a dozen English Muffins.  I know this sounds completely batty, and in a way, it is.  Chronicle Books is a savvy company, and they know that if they put a photo of delicious food in their feed and tell you that you can win it by entering the contest… someone will enter.  I am that someone, and also lucky.  One dozen English Muffins from the Model Bakery showed up on my doorstep this Monday, and a copy of The Model Bakery Cookbook by Karen Mitchell, Sarah Mitchell Hansen and Rick Rodgers followed yesterday.  I didn’t realize the cookbook was coming too, but I’m glad it did.  I am not the sort of person who turns down cookbooks.  Especially ones that focus on baking.

the model bakery cookbook by karen mitchell, sarah mitchell hansen and rick rodgers book cover
This definitive baking guide is the much-anticipated cookbook from the Model Bakery, a mother-daughter-run baking destination with a huge local following that's been wowing the Wine Country for years. And this book of sensational artisan baked goods makes clear why there are lines out the door! Featuring 75 recipes and 60 photos, it's as luscious to look at as their most-requested breads, classic desserts, and fresh pastries--all arrayed here--are to eat. Pain au Levain, Sticky Buns, Peach Streusel Pie, Ginger Molasses Cookies, and many more glorious recipes make this a mouthwatering read and a reference gem for lovers of bread and pastry, cakes and cookies, and, of course, the Model Bakery!

The Model Bakery Cookbook begins with the story of how Karen Mitchell took over the bakery in St. Helena in the middle of California Wine Country, and with her daughter transformed it into what it is today – a two-location baking supplier for the local area, including businesses and restaurants in addition to their retail locations.  The photos by Frankie Frankeny are mouth-wateringly beautiful, and the mix of history and baking guide make this cookbook a must-see for the serious home baker.

The book is divided into several sections, according to what the bakery produces (recipes reduced to home baking proportions, of course).  There are several recipes listed under each section: breads, yeasted sweets, breakfast favorites, cakes, pies and tarts, and cookies.  The recipes are a mix of traditional American favorites and European-influenced imports, but all should be familiar to an American audience – they’re the kind of thing you find in your local bakery.  I, for instance, made the Irish Soda Bread to test the recipe, and I can report that it’s a solid, no frills approach to the seasonal favorite.

The best things about the cookbook are the great ingredient & equipment advice (I’ll be taking notes when pie-season arrives… basically, in a week or two!), an array of delicious recipes ranging from simple to difficult-to-replicate-at-home, lovely photos – some offering step-by-step visuals for the items requiring assembly, local and historical anecdotes of both the Hansens’ story and the location in St. Helena, and classic recipes done to perfection.

I had few quibbles with the cookbook, and they are minor.  The first is the small type used for instructions portion of each page.  I have good eyes, but if I didn’t it would require bending very close to the page, which is not necessarily something you want to be doing with floured hands.  The tips on the ingredients and tools also make it clear that this is not a cookbook for the frugal baker.  While I agree with the writers that the best food comes from the best ingredients, it isn’t an inexpensive proposition, especially if you count some of the specialty flour and chocolate mentioned.  Finally, you won’t find any truly unique items (so don’t go in expecting them!).  This baking book is about the classics, and they done very well.

In all, I’m glad to have this cookbook – it’ll work perfectly as a reference guide alongside my Joy of Cooking, and I intend to dip into it for holiday baking ideas as well.  And if I scrape up the cash to get a stand mixer in the near future, I know I’ll be consulting these recipes again and again.

Recommended for: the intermediate home baker, anyone who enjoys playing in the kitchen and is planning a trip to Napa in the future, and as a primer for favorite/standard American baked goods.

Interested in other food-related recipes?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

Fine print: I received a finished copy of The Model Bakery Cookbook from Chronicle Books as a contest prize.  I didn’t get paid for this post, and I chose to write the review of my own volition (it was not required or suggested).

the spindlers

Saturday, October 19, 2013 | | 1 comments
Lauren Oliver's The Spindlers, a middle grade fantasy, is currently available as a free, full-length read on the HarperCollins Children's Books site.  That’s where I read it – as part of the Browse Inside feature!  I liked Oliver’s first middle grade fantasy, Liesl & Po, so I had been meaning to give The Spindlers a try.  Add to that Iacopo Bruno’s cover art (he’s the Italian artist behind the cover for Iron Hearted Violet, as well!), and I was determined to read the book.  Yes, my head was turned again by a pretty cover – and I’m not sorry.

the spindlers by lauren oliver book cover
Evocative of Alice in Wonderland, this novel from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver is a bewitching story about the reaches of loyalty and the enduring power of hope.

Looking across the breakfast table one morning, twelve-year-old Liza feels dread wash over her. Although her younger brother, Patrick, appears the same, Liza knows that he is actually quite different. She is certain that the spindlers—evil, spiderlike beings—came during the night and stole his soul. And Liza is also certain that she is the only one who can rescue him.

Armed with little more than her wits and a huge talking rat for a guide, Liza descends into the dark and ominous underground to save Patrick's soul. Her quest is far from easy: she must brave tree-snakes, the Court of Stones, and shape-shifting scawgs before facing her greatest challenge in the spindlers' lair, where more than just Patrick's soul is at stake.

Liza is sure that her younger brother Patrick’s soul has been stolen away by the spindlers, spider-like creatures that live Below.  She’s sure because her one-time babysitter Anna told Liza and Patrick all about the creatures that live Below, and introduced them to Pinecone Bowling and other games before she went off to college.  Liza knows the signs, and she knows that the Patrick living in her house is not the real one.  The only thing she can do is to set off on a quest Below to find Patrick’s soul and bring it back Above.  On the way she’ll meet an enormous talking rat, and she’ll have to trust, negotiate, and listen in order to make her way to Patrick.  And then face the spindlers, of course.

I have complicated feelings about The Spindlers.  On one hand, the final chapters of the book were fantastic, and the suspense and resolution were perfectly modulated.  There were also gorgeous passages that spoke right to my story-loving soul, such as this one from page 109:

“[H]er parents did not understand—and had never understood—about stories.  Liza told herself stories as though she was weaving and knotting an endless rope.  Then, no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories.”

On the other hand, many of the adventures before the final showdown were derivative, slow-moving and boring.  Mix the awkward pacing in with overly elaborate prose (turns out there’s a fine line between something beautiful and something overwrought!), and what results is a book that is just okay and leaning-toward-mediocre.

That said, I am an adult reading a book meant for children, so I asked myself if I would feel the same way if I picked up this book as a child, if I hadn’t already read Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potters, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, or any of the other books that I am quite sure were used to inspire various scenes and creatures.  And honestly, I think most of the frustration I felt with the book would go away, except for one thing: the pacing.  The middle chapters, while each describing glorious or terrible scenes on Liza’s journey below, are still just scenes.  There’s an absence of building tension, and they drag.  And I think, unfortunately, that they drag enough that most kids would put the book down.

As I said, I felt a lot of different things about this book: frustration, interrupted occasionally by pockets of appreciation and wonder, and then unbridled enjoyment at the very end.  It was a mixed bag, reflecting my overall experience with Oliver’s writing: sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it.  In all, an interesting read.

Recommended for: fans of Lauren Oliver and young readers who like adventures, fantasy and talking animals.

Fine print: I read this book for free via the HarperCollins website.  I did not receive any compensation for this review.

vicious by v.e. schwab - blog tour giveaway!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 | | 1 comments
Today's post is part of the blog tour for V.E. (Victoria) Schwab's new release, Vicious.  It's a dark, supervillain-filled tale with mayhem and fantastic surprises.  Vicious was released by Tor (Macmillan) on September 24, 2013.

vicious by v.e. schwab blog tour

I don't know how she does it (okay, I have an idea, and I will expound on that below...), but Victoria Schwab, or V.E. SCHWAB as she's known for the adult audience, has the best fans.  And when I say best, I mean most fun.  The people I want to go to happy hour with after work, rather than my actual coworkers.  I know this because I stood in line at Book Expo America 2013 to get a signed advanced reader copy of Vicious, and that crowd was full of jokes, happy chatter, and smart people being extremely pleased and nice.  Maybe you've heard that people elbow each other in the throat to get sought-after books at BEA?  I've seen evidence of violence first-hand.  BUT.  Victoria Schwab's fans are seriously fun, and I think that bodes extremely well for her books.

If genuinely cool people get excited about a book, I need to know what's up.  Don't you?  In Vicious, Schwab's evil-genius of a novel, what's happening is AWESOME STORY.  Stay tuned to the end of the post for a chance to win one of three copies of the book!  Along the same line, Victoria has created Vicious trading cards, and you can check out her post to win a set for yourself.

vicious by v.e. schwab book cover
Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

If the book sounds interesting, please enter the giveaway!  Three entrants will each receive a finished copy of Vicious.  To enter, simply fill out the FORM.  Giveaway open to US/Canadian addresses, will end October 31st at 11:59pm EST.  Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Giveaway prize provided/mailed by the publisher.  Good luck!

Oh, and one last thing... the Vicious book trailer.  Because: reasons.  *evil grin*

Fine print: I picked up an ARC of Vicious at BEA 2013.  Giveaway prizes will be provided by Tor (Macmillan)   I did not receive any compensation for this blog tour post.

waiting on wednesday (63)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 | | 2 comments
Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

In the lead-up to my trip last month I had a great time finding (and reading!) children's and young adult fantasy set in Ireland or by Irish authors.  And actually, now that I've started looking for Irish books, it's hard to stop... it might develop into a side-obsession!  Che Golden's fairy tale title has been out for a while in the the UK, but arrives in the United States next summer.  Middle grade fantasy The Feral Child will be released by Quercus on June 3, 2014.

the feral child by che golden book cover
"They take human children and leave changelings in their place…stolen children go into the mound and we can't follow."

Her parents dead, Maddy is sick of living in Ireland, sick of Blarney and sick of her cousin Danny, one of the nastiest people you could meet this side of an Asbo. Mad as hell one evening, she crawls inside the grounds of the castle, the one place she has always been forbidden to go. Once inside, she is chased by a strange feral boy, who she suspects is one of the faerie: cruel, fantastical people who live among humans and exchange local children for their own.

When the boy returns to steal her neighbour Stephen into his world, Maddy and her cousins set off on a terrifying journey into a magical wilderness, determined to bring him back home. To do so, they must face an evil as old as the earth itself…

What books are you waiting on?

top ten best/worst series enders

Tuesday, October 8, 2013 | | 14 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

As I was putting this week’s list together it became clear that I don’t often FINISH series all the way to the bitter (or delightful!) end.  I could think of several series I had started with the best of intentions, but for whatever reason I never picked up the final few books (*cough*TheWheelofTime*cough*).  In the past couple of years this effect has been compounded by what I call ‘series fatigue.’  What’s that about?  I don’t want to read too many series at one time, so instead I opt to read a lot stand-alones.  Which is fine.  But it made today’s post a little more difficult to construct.

Top Ten Best/Worst Series Enders

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – Now these first five are the BEST series-ending books, in my opinion.  I’m not saying I loved Harry Potter book seven with a passion, but I felt it was a fitting conclusion and it made me weep into my quilt…

2. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery – Rilla’s story was actually my favorite out of all of the ‘Anne’ books, and that’s a bit funny because it’s about Anne’s daughter, and not Anne.  But the story itself is all bitter/sweet.  Tragic and romantic in one tidy, book-sized bundle.

3. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien – I’ve heard the arguments that this ‘trilogy’ was actually one large book, blahblahblah.  Look, everyone.  It came in three volumes when I was a teen, and I read this one last.  I thought it was great.  Elves, hobbits, magic, good triumphing in the end… you know, the best sort of story!

4. Abhorsen by Garth Nix – All of the entries in The Old Kingdom series rocked my face off, but I think Nix amped up the suspense and stakes for this series-ender.

5. Extras by Scott Westerfeld – Again, in this case the final book was my favorite of the entire series. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Tally, and once we got to follow another heroine in the same world it all came together for me.

6. Dragondrums by Anne McCaffrey – And now we’re onto the WORST side of the list.  I enjoyed McCaffrey’s trilogy of Pern stories for younger readers, but this final one took a rather interesting direction, plot-wise.  It wasn’t terrible, just my least favorite of the Harper Hall books.

7. The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis – Now, this is a Lewis book I didn’t like much or understand as a child.  I get it NOW, but back in the days when my mother was reading it aloud bit by bit, the symbolism and metaphor were lost on me.  Plus, what happened to Susan?!

8. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman – In the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman re-imagined familiar tales and myths, and at the same time took the story into new, sometimes disturbing territory.  The final book in the series was the most problematic for me as a reader, though I appreciated Pullman’s ingenuity the whole while.

9. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – Did not like.  Shouldn’t have read it.  I KNEW it was going to disappoint me (honestly, I thought each successive book in the series got worse).

10.  Lord Sunday by Garth Nix – After enjoying all six previous books in The Keys to the Kingdom series, Nix stumped me with this one.  I realize that the narrative had to end, but Nix took a story shortcut that annoyed me, if anything.  Ah well, I’ll always have books 1-6! 

Would any of these books make your list?

sweet and simple strawberry cupcakes

Marian Keyes’ baking book Saved by Cake has been an inspiration these past few months.  Between the beautiful photos and hilarious commentary, it’s difficult to decide what exactly I’ll make next (I’ve made Barmbrack more than once!).  One thing I remember puzzling over the first time I read through the book was an instruction to add canned berries.  Perhaps I have lived a lovely, FRESH berry-filled life to this point, but I had never encountered canned berries, aside from inside a boxed blueberry muffin mix.  So I read ‘canned strawberries,’ wondered for a half moment, and then passed on to the next scrumptious photo. 

strawberry cupcake

I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but when I was in Ireland, in a convenience store, no less, I found a whole array of canned berries, mango, and so on.  I snagged a can of strawberries and brought it home with me (not sure it was worth its weight in my suitcase, but… what can you do?).  So.  I used a can of strawberries in this recipe.  But rest assured, you can make it without, and I myself used half canned, half frozen, and it turned out lovely all the same.

Sweet and Simple Strawberry Cupcakes (from Marian Keyes’ recipe)


1 1/2 cups strawberries (thawed, if frozen)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line a cupcake pan with paper or silicone liners.  Wash and hull (if fresh!) the strawberries and mash until they’re pulpy.

Beat the oil, sugar and eggs together for a few minutes until the mixture starts to look caramelly.  Add the pulped strawberries, sift in the flour and baking soda, and fold through.

Pour the batter into the liners and bake for about 20 minutes (23, in my case).  Cool on a wire rack and decorate pinkly.  Makes 12 cupcakes.

This is the kind of recipe that you can pass off as muffins for breakfast in a pinch (without icing & sprinkles, of course), but it really does have more of a cupcake consistency and flavor.  The cakes are light and sweet, and look even more fabulous topped with whatever you have on hand (umm, plain icing… from a can?).

Recommended for: a simple, delightful dessert with a pop of strawberry flavor, and the perfect treat to surprise your girlfriends or coworkers with for a special occasion.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

eight days of luke

I love visiting bookstores when I’m on vacation.  First of all: books!  And second, I’ve already given myself permission to relax, eat, drink and be merry, and reading for fun and on a whim is certainly part of the process.  So when I went to Ireland for ten days with my friends last month, I did a little advance research and found some bookshops in my path.  The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin is a delightful, airy place, and while I was perusing the children’s and YA section there I came across a staff recommendation slip for Diana Wynne Jones' Eight Days of Luke.  I bought it immediately and read it the same evening.  It added such fun to one of the last days of my trip!

eight days of luke by diana wynne jones book cover
"Just kindle a flame and I'll be with you."

It's summer vacation, but David's miserably stuck with his unpleasant relatives. Then a strange boy named Luke turns up, charming and fun, joking that David has released him from a prison. Or is he joking? He certainly seems to have strange powers, and control over fire...

Luke has family problems of his own, and some very dark secrets. And when David agrees to a bargain with the mysterious Mr. Wedding, he finds himself in a dangerous hunt for a lost treasure, one that will determine Luke's fate!

David is a young man with a horrid family.  His parents are dead, and most of the time he’s at school, which is alright because he’s rather good at cricket.  It’s the breaks from school, when he’s shunted off somewhere away from his relations, Great Uncle Bernard and Great Aunt Dot (and Cousin Ronald and his whiny wife Astrid), that are a reminder of his orphan status.  On this occasion, they haven’t arranged anything at all and are very put out by that fact.  David can’t help thinking that it’s bound to be the worst school vacation ever.   But then an odd, charming young man named Luke appears, and interesting things start to happen.  David is in for an adventure and a half!

The setting is a house in some undetermined part of England.  David is sports-mad, grubby, hungry and, his older relatives think, ungrateful.  The thing is that he IS grateful, but living with a passel of adults is quite a lot to put up with for a boy, especially as he’s growing out of all of his clothes and would just like to be off with some other kids his age.  Just when things seem as if they’re about to spiral out of control into unmitigated boredom and misery, a likeable, clever sort of boy named Luke joins the scene.  It all gets even more complicated when a Mr. Wedding begins asking pointed questions about Luke.  David is in for an unforgettable and life-changing vacation.

I’ve begun to think that the best way to start a Diana Wynne Jones book is with no pre-conceived ideas or introduction at all.  Her writing always moves you – to laughter, or tears, or some other profound feeling – but part of the fun is the mystery of ‘what will it be this time?’  With Eight Days of Luke Diana has written middle grade fantasy with an inspired and Puck-ish character in Luke, and gobs of mischief and mayhem.  It’s funny and brief, with just the right amount of depth to round out the adventures.  I’d recommend it to anyone.

In all, Eight Days of Luke is full of both overt and subtle fun, literary allusions that fit seamlessly in with the narrative, and a mix of characters that transform in various ways throughout the tale.

Recommended for: readers of all shapes and sizes, fans of light fantasy, those who liked Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and anyone who enjoys humor, mischief and myth.
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