Monthly Archives: February 2012

Review #22 – Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling is the last of the novels that I picked up last fall at a Scholastic Book Fair.  When I complained to my oldest child that I didn’t know what to devour next, she pulled it off her shelf.  I was a bit skeptical as I started into the story by debut author Kristin Cashore.  Fantasy writing seems to divide itself into one of 2 categories, stories where the characters drag you in to a world that just happens to be made up and stories where the author takes a bit too much of a reader’s time to describe the details and setting of the marvelous and unique world they’ve created.  I was a bit afraid that Graceling would fall into this “map-based” category.

Graceling’s heroine, Katsa, lives in a world with seven kingdoms, where sometimes people are born with eyes that are two different colours.  This visible physical feature indicates the inner presence an extreme degree of talent, known as a Grace, that gifts such people.  Sometimes, it can be as simple as an extreme skill at baking or healing… but in other cases, it can herald a much darker purpose.  Katsa is Graced at killing, so she is feared by almost everyone as she does the bidding of her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns kingdom.  When she meets another Graceling with skills that seem to almost match her own, she is both challenged and unsettled, especially as they are both caught up in a deepening mystery that could threaten all of  the Seven Kingdoms.

Graceling caught me by surprise and drew me into the story far deeper than I expected.  The plot twisted in ways that I couldn’t predict, which I am often able to do with beginner novels.  The main characters grew and developed as the pages turned until I came to care deeply for what happened to them.  Though the ending was not what I expected, it was still  one that I could live with and add to in my own mind.  I far prefer this to the current marketing trend of leaving everything hanging to sell the next book.  In other online reviews for Graceling or her second novel, Fire, Kristen Cashore  seems to draw criticism for a radical feminist viewpoint.  I’m not sure that refusing to wrap up a tale with a Disney-like Happy Ending necessarily makes her a feminist… I just thinks it make her a writer that lets both her characters and the readers decide their futures for themselves.

Hardcover format, 471 pages, published in 2008 by Harcourt Books

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Review #21- Long Hot Summoning

Long Hot Summoning is the third book in Tanya Huff’s series about a group of magical protectors known as Keepers.  This time, it is Claire’s younger sister Diana who receives her first official “Summons” once she graduates from high school and becomes a full-fledged Keeper in her own right.  The only problem is that Diana is the most powerful Keeper ever recorded with a long history of accidentally using her gift in less than orthodox ways to try to help.  Her older sister Claire and partner Dean are soon drawn into the plot and chaos as well when they must return to Kingston, Ontario where their relationship first began.

Despite the switch in focus that puts DIana center stage rather than her older sister, this novel is full of mayhem, humour and witty cultural references that can make readers giggle out loud unexpectedly.  How can you not be enchanted an captivated by a story that contains a suburban shopping mall becoming the nexus for a doorway to the Otherworld, teenage elves that evolved from missing street kids, a Manga style King Arthur and a mummy trying to make mischief in our world while 2 powerful Keeper siblings are stuck slightly out of our own reality.

Long Hot Summoning is the perfect choice for a fun romp into the improbable, especially for those who prefer cats over dogs!

Paperback format, 413 pages, published in 2003 by Daw Books

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Review #20- The Second Summoning by Tanya Huff

The Second Summoning is the second book in Tanya Huff’s trilogy about a group of magical protectors known as Keepers.  The heroine of the first novel and her Bystander companion, Dean, are trying to come to terms with the boundaries of their relationship. Bystanders’ memories are always supposed to be altered after something happens so that they don’t have to cope with the reality that our world does contain magic and wonder but also things that go bump in the night.

The Second Summoning contains the trademark humour and wit that makes any Tanya Huff novel fun to read, but of the 3 books in thie trilogy, it is perhaps the one I like the least.  Perhaps it is the self-doubt and angst that seems to hinder the forward progress of the main plot line.  Perhaps I just have too many memories of how the old TV series Doctor Quinn changed when the main characters consummated their love at last…  Whatever the reason, I find that parts of this story drag slightly.  The subject matter is interesting and the story contains enough plot twists to entertain, but like some fast food meals… once you are done, it leaves you feeling somehow less than fully satisfied.

Paperback format, 416 pages, published in 2001 by Daw Books

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Review #19 – Summon the Keeper

Summon The Keeper by Tanya Huff

After reading Mercedes Lackey’s two Diana Tregarde novels, I had the urge to revisit Tanya Huff’s trilogy about her magical protectors known as Keepers.  The first in the series is called Summon the Keeper, published in the late 90s.  Claire Hansen is a slightly overconfident young woman who is Summoned (the term for when a Keeper is called to where they need to be to help) to the Elysian Fields Guest House in Kingston, Ontario.  When she wakes up the next morning, she discovers that she is now the owner of the Bed & Breakfast, complete with an annoying neighbour, a hunky Newfie housekeeper, a evil Keeper spelled into a trance in Room 6 and a hole to Hell in the furnace room!

Canadian author, Tanya Huff writes with such humour and wit that you often find yourself chuckling aloud as you read her stories, especially this series.  Intricate plot twists, hilarious cultural references, wonderful characters and the smugness of a talking cat all add to the reader’s enjoyment.  When you need a romp into an imaginary world when Good and Evil duke it out until the very end, you can’t do any better than this series!  Unlike many recent trilogies, designed to leave the reader hanging and force the sale of the next book, Summon the Keeper can stand on its own as a story.  The best gift is that when you are left wanting to read more about the main characters, despite a very funny and satisfying ending, there are other books to devour after this one.

Paperback format, 331 pages, published in 1998 by Daw Books

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Review #18 – Jinx High

Jinx High by  Mercedes Lackey

Diana Tregarde, writer of Romance novels, Wiccan and undercover Paranormal Investigator returns for another adventure in this entertaining and thought-provoking novel by Mercedes Lackey.  Larry Kestrel, another of Diana’s former Spook Squad members needs help  in Tulsa, Oklahoma where  someone or something seems to be trying to get its claws into his teenage son, Deke.

Like Burning Water, this novel is packed with suspense, action, magic and mayhem. Having visited the Tulsa area a few times before and after this novel was written, it was interesting to see how well Mercedes integrated her home town into this novel when she is so well known for writing about other worlds and other eras.

Jinx High also deals with sensitive issues such as AIDS, teenage promiscuity, drinking and drug abuse in a very compassionate and realistic way.  Some of the teenagers in this novel are like many I see in the high schools here… far more curious than their parents realize, far more worldly that we think and just as confused as some adults about what to do with their lives.

When Diana Tregarde agrees to help out with an advanced writing class at the local high school, as a cover for her investigation into the paranormal happenings, Lackey has fun creating a semi “Mise-en-abyme” (story within a story) where her main character describes what it takes to be  writer and what their day truly looks like.  As someone else who has experienced the “I have a great idea for a story.. why don’t I share it with you and then we can split the profits when you turn it into a book” meeting, I laughed until I cried when I got to that section of her narrative.

Jinx High contains more sexual nuances and descriptions that horror this time, although there are a few gruesome deaths.  What stands out, above all else, is the sense of courage with which some of the characters face almost impossible odds. The plot twists are masterfully crafted and the ending leaves you satisfied, but wishing there were more Diana Tregarde novels to enjoy.

Paperback format, 314 pages, published in 1991 by Tor Books

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Review #17 Burning Water

Burning Water by  Mercedes Lackey

While Mercedes Lackey may be best known for her Heralds of Valdemar Fantasy series, this prolific American author has a wealth of other books including two that border on the Suspense/Horror realm of fiction.  Burning Water is the first novel about Diana Tregarde, writer of Romance novels, Wiccan and undercover Paranormal Investigator.  When strange deaths begin occurring in Dallas, Texas,  Diana’s former college friend and police detective, Mark Valdez, calls her in to help.  It has been years since Mark was part of Tregarde’s Spook Squad, but both of them are soon embroiled in a tangled web of Occult powers, sinister attacks and grizzly death scenes as they race to uncover who or what is behind all these crimes.

The strength of Lackey’s stories lies in the richness of her characters.  They feel like real people, with all their virtues and failings.  Diana Tregarde is an intriguing, powerful female character who has a strong sense of self and a confidence with her life choices.  This book great reading for anyone who has ever wondered if they will ever fit in to “normal” society or anyone who has dreamed of something just beyond the ordinary.

Burning Water does contain fairly graphic descriptions of crime scenes and mutilations, which earned it the Tor Horror category designation, but it is no worse than any episode of CSI or crime show on television right now.  We’ve become a little less sensitive to violence in the last 23 years… which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Paperback format, 314 pages, published in 1989 by Tor Books

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Review #16 Matched

Matched by  Ally Condie

Matched  was another book that I picked up as a Christmas present during the fall Scholastic Book Fair. I heard students raving about the story and thought it might be a good addition to our family library, even though I doubted that anything could rival the Hunger Games  or Uglies series.

There have been many other famous dystopian stories, including Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run or even George Lucas’s THX-1138.  Though Matched also portrays a Society which appears to be perfect on the surface, Ally Condie manages to add her own twists and unique touches to a futuristic Society which sets her story apart and makes it memorable.

Matched portrays a Society in which couples are chosen for each other at the age of 17 though an elaborate evening ceremony after a careful screening process to determine the person’s best partner on an emotional and genetic level.  The story begins as the main character, Cassia, heads off to her Match Banquet with her parents, her best friend Xander and his family.  After a delicious meal, wearing her beautiful green silk gown, Cassia stands when her name is called.  For  endless moments the screen goes blank and remains blank until a Society Official announces that her match is actually present at the same banquet.  Xander’s name is called and Cassie suddenly discovers that her perfect Match is none other than the boy she’s been friends with all her life.

The problem with perfect Utopian Societies, is that they seldom stay that way… revealing themselves to be full of problems, errors or corruption.  When Cassia enters her microcard into the portscreen, the face that appears is not Xander’s.  It is the face of another boy in her neighbourhood, a boy named Ky with a dubious background.  An Official visits Cassia to explain the error and forbid her to tell anyone about having a second Match, which only causes her to wonder more about the two boys she’s been paired with.  Will she remain faithful to her childhood friend or explore the new feelings that seem to be growing within her every time she is thrown together with Ky?  Are the double match, the strange news from other provinces and her grandfather’s message hidden in an Artifact symptoms of a bigger problem or the seeds of rebellion being planted?

The best stories always have strong, believable characters and vivid prose.  Ally Condie  does a beautiful job in portraying the struggles of a young girl coming of age and learning to make her own decisions.  Thinking for yourself is never encouraged in a controlled Society and yet the more events unfold, the more we share in Cassia’s struggle to figure out what is right, even when the Powers That Be tell her these things are wrong.  Matched is a must-read for teens and adults alike!

Paperback format, 366 pages, published in 2010 by Scholastic

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Review #15 The Marrow of the World

The Marrow of the World by Ruth Nichols

I first read The Marrow of the World a few years after it was published when I was 8, but it is probably best suited to readers in middle school and beyond. This chapter book, by Canadian author Ruth Nichols, received a Canada Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award in 1973 and it came highly recommended from a beloved teacher.  The Marrow of the World also contains early illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman and every time I pick the book up to read the story, I am reminded how powerful a combination words and pictures can be.

Hyman’s pen and ink illustrations bring the adventure to life as Philip and his adopted cousin Linda are suddenly pulled into a strange world of sorcery and adventure. Nichols weaves a captivating story, rich in vocabulary that has sadly faded from many YA novels.  As the pages turn, the reader is swept along when Linda learns of her true heritage. She is the child of a dreaded sorceress and a captured woodsman, the father of their new friend Herne.  Her dying sister Ygerna has drawn them into the land to complete an epic quest for a magical powder, The Marrow of the World, which will extend a witch’s life and powers forever.  Ygerna followed in her mother’s footsteps and reveals Linda’s heritage to her, gleefully describing how being a witch carries a death sentence in most of the kingdom.  Philip protects his cousin along the way, just as he has always defended her in his own world, even though her growing powers frighten him.  Will she become a witch like her sister and be hunted by the King’s men or will they even survive the quest?

Tightly and beautifully written, The Marrow of the World would be well worth hunting down through used book stores or websites.  I know that this copy will remain on my bookshelves to be read aloud to grandchildren many, MANY years from now.

Paperback format, 168 pages, published in 1972 by Macmillan Company

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Review #14 The Truth of Valor

The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff

Tanya Huff is one of my favourite Canadian authors.  The sheer versatility and variety of her subjects is impressive; from the vampire bastard son of King Henry VIII or bards who can control the elements to a B&B with a gateway to Hell in its basement or an almost indestructible Space Marine.  Her characters are strong, witty, complex and appealing.  Her stories contain more plot twists that a theme park roller coaster and her sense of humour has caused me to almost snort liquids out my nose on several occasions.

The Truth of Valor was a Christmas present and is the 5th book of Huff’s Confederation Novels.  The previous 4 tales follow the adventures of Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr through her adventures as a Confederation Marine in a hostile Universe of mixed sentient races who have banded together against common enemies.  This tough-as-nails heroine has survived more near death encounters than should be possible in the Corps and unraveled conspiracies upon which the very politics of the known Universe hinged.  In this exciting 5th novel, Torin has retired from her military career to team up with Salvage Operator Craig Ryder.  Despite the end to the War, Space is still a hostile environment and her new career choice no less risky.  Pirates have decided to move in on Salvage Operators out in the more remote sectors of space.  When her partner is kidnapped and she is left for dead, Torin not only survives, she decided to take on the pirate menace with the same ruthlessness that kept her alive as a Marine.

When I first began The Truth of Valor, I wondered how life outside the military was going to suit Torin Kerr. Huff’s ability to make her characters so engaging and the action so tightly written, that I was lost in the story before I knew it.  I finished the novel while doing Free Step on the Wii Fit and the last page was so brilliant that I actually stumbled and missed a step as I read the closing lines!  Whether you love hardcore science fiction stories or amazing stories with great characters (regardless of setting), I hearty recommend this book or any other written by Tanya Huff.

Paperback format, 404 pages, published in 2010 by Daw Books

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Review #13 – Still Alice

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice had been sitting on my bedside table for a few weeks, loaned to me by a friend.  Last night I was restless, so I decided to settle down and open its pages at last.  This haunting first novel is both beautiful and tragic.  It describes a fictional Harvard psychology professor’s discovery that she has early onset Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 50 and the terrifying deterioration of her memory as this incurable illness takes hold.

While Lisa Genova was a first-time novelist when she wrote this book, she holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard and writes online columns for the National Alzheimer’s Association.  Her prose is evocative, descriptive and informative as well as compassionate.  The gripping story, while told in the third person through the eyes of the main character, Alice Howland, is so powerful and intimate that I almost felt that I was living the story along with her in a first person narrative.  Sometimes, through truly brilliant repetition of text or dialogue, I had a glimmer of what it might actually be like to live with the disease as a portion repeated itself.  So vivid are the descriptions in some scenes, I actually lived Alice’s confusion along with her until she figured out what she was looking for or how to spatially interpret data.  I could literally feel my stomach clenching with anxiety as I tried to figure out what was going on, just like the main character.

Still Alice was not a comfortable book to read.  I am only a few years younger than the main character and have had those moments of sheer panic as I hunt for misplaced keys, glasses, cellphone or iPod touch.  I’ve had to retrace steps to figure out what I was going to do next.  Each time, I wonder if it is a sign of something serious, but so far it has turned out to be nothing more than my brain and body telling me I’ve taken on too much.

This book portrays Alice’s attempt to cope with the disease with beauty, dignity and even gentle humour.  The story also deals with the struggles and challenges of the people around her as well as other difficult issues faced by those challenged by Alzheimer’s, without ever giving in to total despair.  The uplifting chapters at the end of the book are a true triumph of sorts, even though the progression of Alice’s disease remains unchecked.  Even if you’ve never known anyone with Alzheimer’s, this brilliantly crafted tale is worth reading in a book club for discussion or on your own.

Paperback format, 292 pages, Self-Published in 2007,  published in 2009 by Gallery Books (a division of Simon and Schuster)

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