Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Princess and the Hound Review (Mette Ivie Harrison)

Prince George, heir to the kingdom of Kendel, was born with the gift of animal-magic - being able to speak with animals in their own language. It is a gift that he inherited from his mother. But animal-magic is feared and those with its gift are guaranteed to face a cruel fate if anyone finds out. Even the prince. So George has had to keep it secret his entire life, and when the queen's animal-magic ultimately leads to her own death, George comes to fear his gift. He grows up as a prince ought, but his fear has made him shy away from other people - and love. Betrayal is a bittersweet drink - one he never wants to experience again.

But when George travels to the neighboring kingdom of Sarrey to meet his fiancee, the Princess Beatrice, he discovers that perhaps love isn't a thing to fear. And maybe he can trust someone with his secret. After all, it is clear that Beatrice has her own secrets. Anyone could guess that with her hound . . .

It took me a while to become interested in the story. The first few chapters mainly focus on George's childhood, and while I first disliked these chapters, I now realize that perhaps I would not have come to care for George as I do if the Author hadn't put them in. Besides, certain events in his childhood are very important to the story's plot. What ranks this book as being higher up on my list than I thought it would be was the fact that I was stumped for quite some time as to what the plot-twist would turn out to be. I only figured out maybe two pages away from when it is revealed.

I have nothing negative to say about the characters. Beatrice is a strong-willed young woman whose pride and coldness sometimes got on my nerves, but I could not help but like her. She had a reason for being so cold and I'm not one to chide anyone's pride, having that fault myself. I certainly thought her treatment towards George sometimes unwarranted, but that was only because I, as the Reader, knew him, whereas Beatrice, another character, hadn't a clue that George was someone she could trust.

The writing itself is very Mette Ivie Harrison. Rich and vivid, without being too movie-ish. Actually, I don't think this book would translate into a very good movie. It would certainly be an odd one. And it is my opinion that if writing doesn't translate into a good movie without making major changes, chances are the Author did a good job writing it.

The romantic aspect of the story is perhaps a little disappointing. It doesn't take George long to decide that his feelings for Beatrice extend beyond friendship. However, Beatrice is much more guarded with her feelings and rather than saying, "I love you, George," she says, "I believe that I can learn to love you." Definitely a more realistic reaction, considering they hardly know each other, but somehow disappointing nonetheless, and the Reader is left feeling very sorry for George, who so obviously does love her. Still, Beatrice is not cruel and comes to no longer view their marriage as merely an alliance between the two kingdoms. And she does make an effort to learn to love him, and it is left to the Reader to assume that she comes to love him deeply. Her unwillingness to simply fall in love with someone she hardly knows certainly shows intelligence on her part. ;)

I don't think The Princess and the Hound needs a sequel, but I'll read it anyway. From what I have heard of The Princess and Bear, it isn't exactly a sequel. The series may someday find its way into my collection.

Star Rating: 3/5 (liked it)

Others in This Trilogy:
1)The Princess and the Hound
2)The Princess and the Bear
3)The Princess and the Snowbird

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Silver Blade Review (Sally Gardner)

As the French Revolution descends into nightmare, Yann Margoza, a mysterious and extraordinary practitioner of magic, uses his skills to confound his enemies and help spirit refugees out of France. If he fails, their fates lie under the blade of the guillotine. But the question of Yann's true identity and the kidnapping of his true love, Sido, expose him to dangers that threaten to destroy him. With Paris on the verge of collapse, Yann must summon all his strength and courage to rescue his beloved Sido and outwit the devil's own - this time for good.

I will start off by saying that I like The Red Necklace better than its sequel. Sally Gardner likes weird in her stories, and The Silver Blade is certainly no exception. I thought the first one was weird! Well, the weirdness factor is vamped up for this two-book series's finale. While the weirdness in The Red Necklace didn't detract from the story, it did in this one because it was so embedded in the storyline.

Kalliovski isn't dead, naturally. The devil has claimed his soul and brought him to life. Whether or not that is literal, I am still not entirely certain, but judging by how Kalliovski meets his demise in The Silver Blade, I am thinking that it is meant literally. I mean, Kalliovski can't go out in the daylight (no, he isn't a vampire), he lives in the catacombs, and he has one skeletal hand. And I don't mean a hand so withered it looks skeletal - it really is just bone. At least, I think . . .

That is one problem - and appeal - to Sally Gardner's stories. You are never certain whether something is meant to be taken literally or if it just figurative; if it is the character's way of expressing how they viewed something, or if that is really what they saw. It is hard to put into words what exactly I mean. It is like there is a sheer screen laid over the true image, and if you look closely you can see a ghastly rendition of what is being said. It can be very frustrating in her stories, but it is also, oddly enough, what I like about them.

That said, I must reassure you that all of the characters are just as likable, sensible, and good as they are in The Red Necklace. Yann and Sido's love for each other is given more of a forefront, but it isn't at all annoying. Not a slushy young romance that is common among Young Adult authors. Yann does react violently and irrationally to the news that he is Kalliovski's son, and I was worried that Sally Gardner would pull in the annoyingly common theme of the hero fighting against his becoming like his father. Give that twist a rest already!! But that didn't happen, and I was immensely pleased. Yann took a week to recover from the shock of it, which is covered in one swift chapter. He forgives and moves on, though isn't quite as rational in his escapades as he once was. Still, Yann does in the end act rationally. And I cannot sing Sido's praises enough. What an intelligent girl! She has a good, strong head on her shoulders.

I wish Sally Gardner had laid off on the weirdness. I absolutely loved Kalliovski as a villain in The Red Necklace. He was creepy, he was intelligent, he was completely cloaked in mystery, and he had things in control. But the magic and supernatural aspects of The Silver Blade really take away from Kalliovski. I could no long respect him as an intelligent villain. He was no more scary than your common bad wizard sitting in a tower all day. About the only thing that kept him even a little bit on the creepy villain side was his flair for the rich and immaculate dress. I was sorely disappointed in the sort of villain Kalliovski had sunk to. Really, dear Count, I expected much better of you!

The Silver Blade by Sally Gardner will find its way into my collection, if only because I liked The Red Necklace and don't like having incomplete series.
Star Rating: 3/4 (liked it)

Others in This Series:
1)The Red Necklace
2)The Silver Blade

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Crocodile Tears Review (Anthony Horowitz)

For a year of Alex Rider's young fourteen-year-old life, he has more or less unwillingly worked for MI6. He's been shot, nearly drowned, and almost met an untimely demise in more ways than can be counted. He's had seven successful missions. But now he's turned his back on MI6. All Alex wants is to return to a normal teenage life.

But danger just finds Alex, and when a New Year celebration ends in a car crash, Alex starts to suspect that his normal life is going to have to wait. One thing leads to another when a journalist appears on Alex's front doorstep, and he soon finds himself on another mission for MI6: break into the computer of one Leonard Straik of Greenfields bio research center and download its contents. But things are far deeper than even Alan Blunt - head of MI6 - could have guessed, and Alex is right in the middle of it.

I've looked for a good spy series and I was simply delighted when I finally picked up the Alex Rider series. Seven books later and I was dearly wishing that poor Alex would get a break from everything. I was glad when Anthony Horowitz ended the series with Snakehead.

But then this one came out and I was a little worried. Series, even good ones, can carry on only for so long! From the very beginning, Crocodile Tears was not my favorite, but I wasn't disappointed, either. The very first page contained the action and sinisterness that is so trademark of Alex Rider, and it didn't stop. I wouldn't say that I was ever held in suspense (because the books are pretty predictable), but I was certainly interested.

Alex himself is a good character. I don't say that often about teenage boy characters - they are almost always as annoying as real-life adolescent males. But I liked Alex from the start and still do. I felt terrible that Alex was once more wrenched from his life. And while I was never in alarm for his life, I felt sorry every time he was injured.

This wasn't Anthony Horowitz's masterpiece. Those dealing with Scorpia are my favorites. But after a rest, this was a good comeback. His writing style was still very much the same - movie-ish. Normally I don't like that, but for a series like Alex Rider, it works. He still went into great mechanical detail, showing off the research he did, knowing full well that his Readers don't know what he's talking about, but hey! It sounds cool and we Readers get the general gist of it, right?

There was one scene, though, that sent chills up my spine: Chapter 9 - Invisible Man. When MI6 deals with the journalist. It did creep me out and it was my favorite chapter. I re-read it when I finished the book. It is like a nightmare. What would it be like if it happened to you?? Creepy!!

Two thumbs up for Crocodile Tears. Normally the 8th book in a series doesn't turn out well, but Anthony Horowitz was successful in his comeback. However, I do hope he gives poor Alex a rest sometime soon in the future.

Star Rating: 4/5 (really liked it)

Others in the Alex Rider Series:
2)Point Blank
3)Skeleton Key
4)Eagle Strike
6)Ark Angel
8)Crocodile Tears
9)Scorpia Rising

Friday, August 13, 2010

Princess of the Midnight Ball Review (Jessica Day George)

Princess Rose is the eldest of twelve sisters condemned to dance each night for the wicked King Under Stone in his palace deep within the earth. It is a curse that has haunted the girls since their birth - and only death will set them free.

Then Rose meets Galen, a young soldier-turned-gardener with an eye for adventure and a resolve that matches her own, and freedom suddenly begins to seem a little less impossible. To defeat the king and his dark court, they will need one invisibility cloak, a black wool chain knit with enchanted silver needles, and that most critical ingredient of all - true love.

I've read a lot of renditions of The Twelve Dancing Princess. Some of them have been good, some of them have been bad. I was expecting this one to be just as moderately-good as the rest. I was very pleasantly surprised. I know I have said this in previous reviews: I tip my hat to authors who can make me fall in love with their characters. Orchid, Poppy, Lily - all twelve princesses I quickly began to regard as my own sisters, the younger ones especially. And Galen is the exact sort of brother I would love to have. I cared about Rose and Galen's fate more than I have cared about characters in a long time.

Aside from the characters, Jessica Day George's setting for the story was brilliant. What I love second to stories based in the actual world? Stories that are based in a world that is heavily based off of our world and a specific time period. In this case, early nineteenth-century Germany. I loved it. I also loved her "spins" on the other countries - Spania (Spain), Roma (presumably Italy, since Rome is, in Italian, called Roma), etcetera. She even went so far as to put the Catholic church into the story, though never addressed it as such. Had it not been for the names of places, I might have thought I was reading one of those "historical fantasy" books. You know - that new genre for writers to take a historical era from the real world and throw in magic.

I was completely swept away by Princess of the Midnight Ball.
I knew how the story would end - goodness, how many times have I read The Twelve Dancing Princesses?? But I still found myself in complete suspense, gasping out loud and biting my nails in concern. And of course, when the end came, I gave a huge sigh of relief and closed the cover with a contented smile. After reading Mira, Mirror, which had a thoroughly unsatisfying ending, this book was perfect.

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George will definitely be added to my shelves.

Star Rating: 5/5 (this book was amazing)

Read Hazel West's review here!

Others in This Series:
1)Princess of the Midnight Ball
2)Princess of Glass
3)Princess of the Silver Woods

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mira, Mirror Review (Mette Ivie Harrison)

Abandoned by her parents, then apprenticed to a witch, Mira is captivated by the witch's other young apprentice, who adopts her as a sister. Mira would do anything for this beautiful girl - and that's just what her sister bargains for. With the utterance of a simple spell, Mira's body is turned to wood, her face to glass. Her only power is the magic her sister gives her, the power to make her sister a queen.

But one day the sister disappears, and where one fairy tale ends, another begins. Mira is left to gather dust until a new hope arrives - a peasant girl with troubles of her own. Soon the two are on their way to find a new kind of magic, a magic that gives life instead of taking it.

Mira, Mirror wasn't as good as I was anticipating. I expected a comedy, but it is actually pretty dark. It took me a little while to get used to it, and in the end I cannot entirely say that I liked it. Mira is very hard to like. The Reader isn't given much of an opportunity in the beginning to "connect" with Mira before she is turned into a mirror, and therefore it is hard to appreciate and sympathize with her new hardened personality that is almost as uncaring as her sister's.

But the story isn't really about Mira. It is more about the two girls - Ivana and Talia - whom Mira more or less inadvertently unites. Ivana, at first, got a little on my nerves, though I think it was mostly because I was already tired of Mira and took some of that frustration out on Ivana. I felt bad about it later. But Talia is completely likable, and though a little foolish in some of her choices, she quickly learns her lessons and moves on.

The ending was a great disappointment. It felt like it was lacking. If Mette Ivie Harrison had included an epilogue, I would have been satisfied. But the way it ended left questions. What happens to Mira now; to the Duke and Ivana? Does Talia convince her father that her plans for the future are good ones? None of that is answered, and I was very disappointed, because the book really does keep the Reader in suspense.

Mira, Mirror by Mette Ivie Harrison, while mostly an interesting and enjoyable read, won't be added to my collection.
Star Rating: 3/5 (liked it)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Red Necklace Review (Sally Gardner)

The winds of change are blowing through Paris in 1789, both for France and a mysterious Gypsy boy named Yann Margoza. He was born with a gift for knowing what people are thinking and an uncanny ability to throw his voice, skills he uses while working for a foolish magician. On the night of a special performance, he meets shy Sido, a lonely heiress with a cold-hearted father. Though they have the shortest of conversations, an attachment is born that will influence both of their paths. While revolution is afoot in France, Sido is being used as the pawn of the fearful villain Count Kalliovski. Some have instead called him the devil; and only Yann, for Sido's sake, will dare to oppose him.

I had my doubts about this book when I first picked it up. I saw it as one that could have the potential of swinging in either direction - and violently. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was absolutely captivated by it. Sally Gardner's style of writing for this particular book struck an immediate interest in me. It was very quaint and classic, but hilarious. I laughed myself silly over the passages concerning the Marquis de Villeduval and his extravagances.

Concerning the characters themselves, I have little negative comments. I was concerned that Sido would be like every other aristocratic-bred heroine out there - hard to like and stubborn to an annoying degree. Sido wasn't. She was intelligent, stubborn to a good degree, and trusting of those who ought to be trusted. What bad circumstances happened to her were not brought on by her own stupidity, but simply bad circumstances. My heart went out to her completely. Yann, too, is a very likable character, and not the typical modern adolescent hero who cannot stop thinking about the heroine. Yann does think about Sido, but in terms of rescuing her, not how smooth her skin is. Those sort of thoughts are always covered in the quickest and most fleeting manner, which is pleasing. And Count Kalliovski gave me tingles up my spine, which usually means that he is an excellent villain.

However, Sally Gardner likes to dabble in the strange. Her stories can seem very normal, but then there will be an element that will make you pause and wonder, "Where did she get that?!" Yann reading minds and Tetu the dwarf being able to move objects without touching them were acceptable. Strange, but acceptable. But then things became stranger when Yann visits a group of Gypsies in London, and then later breaks into Kalliovski's townhouse. That is when it got really strange. It didn't entirely ruin my high opinion of the story itself, but it certainly puzzled me. It wasn't entirely out of place, but then again, it didn't fit in. It was just strange. Thankfully, such parts are not common in The Red Necklace.

I look forward to reading its sequel - The Silver Blade.

Star Rating: 4/5 (really liked it)

Others in This Series:
1)The Red Necklace
2)The Silver Blade

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye Review (Nancy Springer)

Synopsis: As Enola Holmes - much younger sister of Sherlock Holmes - searches for the missing Lady Blanchefleur del Campo, she discovers that Sherlock is just as diligently searching for Enola herself - and this time he really needs to catch her! He is in possession of a most peculiar package, a message from their long-lost mother that only Enola can decipher. Sherlock, along with their fastidious brother Mycroft, must follow Enola into the reeking tunnels of London's dark underbelly as they solve a triple mystery: What had happened to their mother? And to Lady Blanchefleur? And what does either have to do with Mycroft, who holds Enola's future in his ever-so-proper hands?

Review: I have been an avid reader of Nancy Springer's Enola Holmes series, and I have enjoyed every single one of them - even if her rendition of Watson and Holmes are not entirely accurate. Enola is a hilarious and quite engaging character - one that is easily liked. She is a bit naive and follows her instincts often without prior planning, but she is able to scrape her way out of predicaments that keep the Reader from getting frustrated with her. I've found Nancy Springer's series to be full of rich Victorian-England facts that - thanks to research on my own part - I feel that I can trust entirely to being accurate.

That said, I hate to confess that The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye was not my favorite. It wasn't necessarily a disappointing ending, and everything wrapped itself up well. But it was lacking in the general feel of the rest of the books. The codes, clues, chases, disguises . . . I liked that Nancy Springer revisited characters and Enola's roles - sort of like a trip down Memory Lane. It made me feel content. But all of the other books have held a sort of darkness to them. The Reader could feel the cold, clammy streets of the East End, the panic and heartthrob as the garrotter tightened the cord about one's neck. I didn't get that feeling at all in this one. Dark London was not made present, and that has partly been the very essence of Enola Holmes. Nancy Springer has presented the beautiful and the dark of London in every story in new and interesting ways, but the series's conclusion . . .

Still, Nancy Springer could have given a very unsatisfactory ending, and if all I have to complain about is that, then I am satisfied. I wish the series weren't done, but at least it went out well.

Overall Rating: |||||

Sherlockian Rating: |||||

Others in the Enola Holmes Mystery Series:
1)The Case of the Missing Marquess
2)The Case of the Left-Handed Lady
3)The Case of the Bizarre Bouquet
4)The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan
5)The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline
6)The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sphinx's Princess Review (Esther Friesner)

Nefertiti is a dutiful, docile child, whose only interests, aside from the normal pursuits of a commoner's daughter, are music and dance. But an encounter with a scribe arouses secret lessons in the arts of reading and writing. As she enters her teen years, her growing beauty and her developing singing and dancing skills attract attention near and far. And when her aunt, Queen Tiye, summons Nefertiti's family, her life takes an unexpected turn. The strong-willed queen plans to use Nefertiti as a pawn in her desire for power. Even though she must obey the queen and live in the royal palace at Thebes, Nefertiti's spirit and mind will not rest. She continues to challenge herself, learning how to drive a chariot and hunt with a bow. With control of a kingdom at stake and threats at every turn, Nefertiti is forced to make choices and stand up for her beliefs in ways she never imagined.

I absolutely love stories about Ancient Egypt. At the age of seven, I gobbled up every book the local library afforded on Egyptian history. I became an expert on the Egyptian mummification process at ten years of age - that is still an accomplishment that I am especially proud of, though I confess that I am a tad bit rusty on the process now; it's been years since I have reviewed. When I went to the Field Museum in Chicago many years back, I only cared about the Egyptian display and practically went bonkers when my friend's mom surprised us with tickets to the King Tut exhibit that was visiting then. I cannot describe the untold joy I had rushing from one display case to the other, babbling on and on about the artifact therein and the theories surrounding this city and that pharaoh. I had employees asking me if I would care to come work there someday (my reply was a yearning yes, but sadly I don't think I could live in Chicago even for my beloved mummies). I am not entirely certain why Ancient Egypt held such allurement for me, but I was fascinated by them even more than the Romans - which is saying a lot for me. I wanted to be a professional Egyptologist, until I found out that being one mostly meant teaching at a university, rather than gallivanting off to Egypt to visit the pyramids and Giza Plateau. I ought to have been born in a year that would have permitted me to be in my early 20s when King Tut was discovered.

That said, let me now review this book. Nefertiti is one of the royal Egyptian figures that I used to read about the most, but I have regrettably forgotten most of what I read about her over the years. Nevertheless, I found Esther Friesner's take on how Nefertiti came to power fairly compelling. Her writing style captured the richness of Egypt in a way that I have not encountered in fiction for a while. I cared for Nefertiti, her little slave girl Berett, and Henenu - who was my favorite. At times, I even found myself caring for the minor characters just as much as for the major - sometimes even more so. What an accomplishment when an author can do that!!

The story itself is intriguing. At first, I found that to get to the actual storyline took a little while, and I was slightly bored in the beginning. I wouldn't ask nor advise Esther Friesner to cut out these passages, because they were certainly important for laying out the groundwork for the story. I imagine that when I go back to read Sphinx's Princess again, I won't find the passages so boring. Sometimes it's just the mood I am in.

I especially liked how Esther Friesner blended in Egyptian beliefs without giving the story a supernatural or fantastical feeling to it. The only thing that approaches fantasy is the dreams Nefertiti sometimes has. The way she included the Egyptian religion felt very authentic, unlike most authors, who somehow end up muddling the whole affair. I have always had trouble keeping the different Egyptian gods and goddesses straight in my head, but Ms. Friesner actually helped me remember who was who and what they were in control of. I am glad that I am not Catholic, for it must be just as confusing keeping all of the saints in order. ;)

I enjoyed Sphinx's Princess and look forward to reading the sequel - Sphinx's Queen. I also need to read Esther Friesner's two books about Helen of Troy - Nobody's Princess and Nobody's Prize. Unfortunately, the library doesn't have them . . .

Star Rating: 4/5 (really liked it)

Others in This Series:
1)Sphinx's Princess
2)Sphinx's Queen