The Golden City

This is historical fantasy set in Portugal, a rare enough setting that I couldn’t resist it.

The Golden CityThe Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney. ROC Penguin Group, 2013.
Oriana Paredes is a sereia, a sea person, undercover in the Golden City, where all magical beings are illegal. She’s there as a spy, and her cover is working as a companion to the high-born Isabel Amaral. But Isabel’s romantic plans of elopement turn to tragedy when she and Oriana, dressed in servants’ clothes, are kidnapped. Both are chained under water and left to drown, but Oriana is unable to break free in time to get Isabel to the surface. Desperate for vengeance, she turns to police consultant Duilio Ferrera, who has his own secrets to keep and his own mystery to solve: finding his selkie mother’s stolen pelt. Duilio has been looking into pairs of missing servants from the great houses; Oriana knows first-hand that there are corpses inside the much-admired City under the Sea art installation with replicas of famous houses floating in the water. Together, they must try to uncover the necromancy behind the art, a dark corruption reaching to the highest levels of government. They do so fighting their growing attraction to each other, with class differences, magical race conflicts, and the duty at hand all keeping the action to a lot of smolder and very little action.

I’d really put my name on the list once I saw mermaids and Portugal (late 19th to early 20th century by feel), but now this put together with my reading of Beka Cooper is starting to look like a fantasy mystery trend. My mother got to it before me, and also enjoyed it, but was a little concerned about the content until I told her that it is an adult novel. I don’t think most teens would have an issue with the content, though: some nudity, discussions of sexuality and several violent incidents. My only real issue is a scene where Duilio deliberately breaks in on Oriana in the bathtub, unacceptable by both modern standards and the much stricter standards of modesty in the time period in the book. Though Oriana does call him out on it, and sereia aren’t as modest as humans, this reinforces uncomfortable gender patterns, and he got off with it much too easily. Epic Quests for Vengeance rarely work well for me, but while Oriana says she’s looking for vengeance, her efforts are important to prevent future deaths as well. Here, the lovingly described setting, magical elements, mystery, and buried passion all work together to make a captivating story. I’ll definitely be looking for the sequel coming out in July.

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CressCress. Lunar Chronicles Book 3. by Marissa Meyer. Feiwel and Friends, 2014.
In this third book in the Lunar Chronicles, we finally meet Cress, short for Crescent Moon, the girl who risked so much to warn Cinder about the Lunar Queen’s threat against Kai in the first book. Now we see her true, dire situation – she’s trapped in a satellite orbiting Earth, her only contact the previously introduced Head Evil Thaumaturge, passing her time singing old Earth operas and dreaming about bad boy Thorne. In a thrilling action sequence, Cinder and company attempt to rescue her – but things go pretty badly. Now Cress and a blinded Thorne are trekking across the African desert, while Cinder tries to… well, never mind. You get the idea. Things aren’t going well, our gang is split into pieces, and Scarlet is missing in action (literally.) The promise of romance between Cress and Thorne is never quite fulfilled, as Thorne seems to have his bad boy spark removed by being blinded, and is uncharacteristically conscious of the impropriety of a relationship with a girl who’s been isolated for so many years. He’s right, of course, but where’s the fun in caution?

I found myself really conflicted about this book. This series as a whole has always given me a little bit of a trashy feeling, though it’s taking me a while to articulate why. Now (helped by reading Angie of Angieville’s review at Dear Author and the comments), I think I’ve figured out the problem with the series as a whole: the world-building doesn’t really make sense – not the new larger countries that have formed, not the Lunar powers, nor the prejudice against cyborgs. Cinder and Kai, while believable teens, don’t really work well as the leaders they’re supposed to be. I really liked Cinder anyway (even if the slowness of the romance was exacerbated by listening to it rather than reading it in print) and Scarlet was even better, with a phenomenal romance between Scarlet and Wolf. I really enjoy the characters and their relationships, and the action is fast enough to keep me turning the pages at a very fast rate, looking for the ways Meyer chooses to reinterpret the original fairy tale in her world rather than the flaws in the world.

In this book, Cress and Thorne are not as compelling characters, so there’s less character interest. The plot is fragmented across a bunch of different story lines, and the most compelling ones are those we spend the least time with. Scaling back two of my three favorite aspects of the book leaves a lot more room to focus on the inadequacies that have always been there. Even though I still read it quickly, even begging my kids for ten minutes of peace to finish the last chapter instead of waiting for them to be in bed, the last couple of chapters were the best part of the book. Scarlet meets Levana’s mad stepdaughter, Winter; and Cinder and Kai finally meet in person again, for the first time since midway through book 1. In retrospect, that’s not much payoff for a very long book, and it’s left a sour taste behind. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that fans of the book skip this entry – but I very much hope that book 4 is more on par with Scarlet than Cress. Your thoughts on this are very welcome!

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The Carpet People

The Carpet PeopleThe Carpet People by Terry Pratchett. Clarion Books, 2013. Originally published in the UK by Colin Smythe, 1971.

Terry Pratchett charmingly says in the introduction that his first book was finally reissued because the publisher got tired of telling people that it was out of print because there was no interest in it. The story involves warring tribes of microscopic people for whom the carpet is the entire universe. Individual fibers are the size of trees (and often bear fruit); there is a whole industry built around the mining of varnish from a nearby chair leg to be made into all sorts of products.

As the story opens, the Munrung Tribe has just learned that the dreaded Fray is making inroads into the Carpet. Our guy Snibril, younger brother to the clan leader, Glurk, and their shaman Pismire, lead the tribe off to the great empire city of Ware to see what can be done about this. Along the way they find villages and cities under attack from fearsome creatures, the mouls, who seem to want to take over the entire Carpet. There are also meetings with the mysterious and elusive tribe who always know what’s going to happen before it does. Pratchett’s original line drawings are both very funny, and helpful for illustrating the bizarre creatures and things that make up the Carpet.

It’s a cute concept made into a fairly standard quest narrative, with thoughts on free will and empire that show the beginnings of that depth-behind-humor that we know and love Pratchett for. Maybe it was just me, but the cast was large enough that I had trouble keeping track of everyone. I still prefer The Wee Free Men as a kid’s first introduction to Pratchett, but Pratchett not quite grown into his full writing strength is still worth reading.

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Beka Cooper

It’s Kid Lit Blog Hop Day (with a spiffy new logo) – take a look around and see what everyone has found this Wednesday!

Kid Lit Blog Hop

It’s funny how I can have piles and piles of print books to read and then suddenly find myself with a glaring hold in my listening needs, in this case for a book on CD for the car. Thus it was that I found myself wandering the teen audiobook section and decided, somewhat at random, that I should listen to more Tamora Pierce, and picked the unfamiliar series with the first book checked in. Please share your favorite Tamora Pierce or fantasy mystery series in the comments!

[Edited to add:] I’m also sharing this post with the April Sound Bytes linky over at Devourer of Books

TerrierTerrier. Beka Cooper Book 1. by Tamora Pierce. Read by Susan Denaker. Listening Library, 2006. Print Random House Children’s, 2006.
The Beka Cooper books are set in the kingdom of Tortall, like her Alanna books, which I read in German when I was studying abroad and have largely forgotten. Please feel free to fill me in on any nifty connections between the books – I’m sure I missed some! They are fantasy mysteries, where Beka uses a combination of police/detective skills and communicating with ghosts and other magical voices to solve the mystery.

Beka started life in the very rough Lower City, but was, with her family, taken in by the Provost when she was around eight and was able to lead him to the secret hideout of a gang, one of whose members had robbed her seriously ill mother. Beka has gone through training to be an official Dog, as the city’s police officers are called, and now she needs to beat the high odds and survive her puppy year, during which she will shadow a pair of experience Dogs. In her case, she’s shadowing the best – Tunstall and Goodwin, a mixed-gender partnership that’s lasted for years, so good they’ve never been bothered with a puppy before. Soon Beka uncovers two separate strings of murders – missing diggers, and kidnapped and murdered children, all of whose parents are left notes from the Shadow Snake.

Murdered children is a lot darker than I’m usually willing to go in my reading these days, though I remember being much tougher in this regard before I had children of my own. None of the murders are graphically described, though – only Beka’s hand-to-hand fighting gets a graphic treatment – so that I think that the teens the book is written for will do much better with this than I did. In any case, there’s plenty to balance out the murders: humor (especially involving Beka’s magical talking cat), as well as friendship, a would-be suitor (the hopeful new city Rogue), and lots of adventure.

There’s lots of local slang, which comes out nicely in Susan Denaker’s reading. I liked her accents for most of the other characters, though I thought that Beka herself sounded too innocent and proper American in her accent for a streetwise Lower City Girl. I still went right on to the next book, and plan to go on to the last as soon as I finish the books my love was so anxious for me to hear.

bloodhoundBloodhound. Beka Cooper Book 2 by Tamora Pierce. Read by Susan Denaker. Random House/Listening Library 2009.
In this second book of the series, Beka is a new, full guard, now looking for a partner. Unfortunately, she can’t find one to keep up with her. After both of Tunstall’s legs are broken during a riot, Beka and Clary Goodwin are sent to a nearby port city to investigate the dangerous problem of counterfeit coins, or coals, that have been showing up with alarmingly increasing frequency. Her magical cat is busy with his own things, but Beka has recently come into caring for Achoo, a talented scent hound recovering from an abusive handler. Beka and Goodwin meet a whole new cast of colorful characters as they infiltrate the city’s underlife to find the source of the coals. As they’re pretending to be corrupt dogs, there’s even an excuse for Beka to start a romance with a handsome young man, Dale, whom she’d first met during the riots. (The reader is not permitted into the bedchamber, but we do come along with Beka on the somewhat embarrassing mission to buy a good child-preventing charm.)

On the whole, I enjoyed this second outing with Beka even more than the first, though that’s probably me personally liking less violent crimes and more romance in my reading. Even more than the first one, this focuses more on how to prove guilt and catch the guilty party – it’s pretty clear from early on who the villain is. I’m finding this another solidly enjoyable series from the reliable Pierce.

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The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Did I really need an excuse to read the latest Holly Black (White Cat, Doll Bones, etc.) teen book? Not really, even if it took me a while to get to it.

Coldest Girl in ColdtownThe Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Since the recent widespread outbreak of vampirism, vampires are supposed to stay in Coldtowns, safely locked away from regular humans who don’t want to be bitten. But when Tana wakes up in a bathtub the morning after a house party, she finds the rest of the house full of the drained corpses of her high school classmates. The only exceptions are her double-timing ex-boyfriend, Aiden, tied to a bed, and a vampire chained to the bed next to him. With more vampires in hearing, clearly out for them all, Tana does her best to help everyone escape. And since Aiden has been bitten and Gavriel is already a vampire, the nearest Coldtown is the logical destination, even though there’s no way out once she goes in. As they meet up with teen blogging star twins Midnight and Winter on the way, Tana realizes how different she is from the other not-Cold people headed to Coldtown: she doesn’t believe in the romance of vampirism and really hopes to stay human. If she has been bitten and can resist the urge to drink human blood for 88 days, she should be safe. That’s easier said than done when she arrives in a place where all of the humans are eager to poke tubing into themselves for vampire snacking in hopes of proving themselves worthy to be turned. She’s also fighting her attraction to Gavriel – which worked even though he is clearly a monster – and Gavriel turns out to be involved in high-level vampire politics. Soon the stakes are higher than she could have imagined, and her ideas of staying low-profile are impossible.

I’m not really into vampires, but this is one well-told, compelling story, one that questions the cultural romanticizing of vampires. Tana and Gavriel are complex characters, and even Aiden refuses to stay characterized as the low-life boy scum he first appears to be. There are a whole host of interesting side characters, from the roof-dwelling human who grew up in Coldtown to the beautiful pawn shop clerk, Valentina, who loves him. Bill Willingham, of Fables, makes a cameo as Bill Story, the graphic novel-writer turned journalist investigating the vampire phenomenon. He – and the book – are asking the question: is the monster of vampirism added with a bite, or is it already there inside everyone and released? Tana struggles to find a way to be honorable and kind in the midst of betrayal and cruelty. Once again, Black combines an edge-of-the-seat story with great characters and serious moral dilemmas into a book neither my love nor I could put down.

Read other takes on The Coldest Girl in Coldtown:
Book Nut
The Book Smugglers
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

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The Martian

My brother-in-law recommended this to my love, who then insisted that I listen to it as well. It was also (at least in print) also a Library Reads pick for February.

MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir. Narrated by R.C. Bray. Brilliance Audio, 2014. Print Crown, 2014.
Mark Watney’s fellow Ares 3 astronauts didn’t abandon him on Mars on purpose. There was a dust storm; they saw the huge antenna spear into his space suit and saw his communication go flat. Naturally, they thought he was dead, and they had to take off to get safely off planet before it was too late for them, as well. He survived, though. Now the question is how to survive until the next scheduled Ares Mission, five years away, on food that was meant to last a crew of six for a month with no way to communicate with NASA. Luckily, he was both the crew’s botanist and its engineer, so if anyone could do it, it’s Mark. He might just die of disco and bad 70s sitcom re-runs first, though, as that seems to be all his teammates left on their personal data drives.

This goes deep into the technical details of survival and (theoretical) space travel, and listening to my love describe the details of trying to make potatoes grow on Mars, I wasn’t sure it would work for me. Mark, though, is an interesting person, and there was enough character interest and humor to keep me going, even though I’m not usually a technical details kind of reader, at least in my fiction). Weir does a great job with the pacing, doling out successes and failures at a rate that kept me eagerly listening, anxious to find out what would happen next. There’s no real sex (see: main character stranded alone on Mars), though he does think about it from time to time. The language is quite foul, which is not inappropriate in an adult novel, but made my love and I sigh regretfully, as the boy would likely love it otherwise. R.C. Bray does a great job with the narration, being possessed of a tough guy voice that still conveys the humor perfectly and also does quite well with the accents of the highly multiethnic team back at NASA and onboard the Ares 3.

Mars fiction is popular right now, and while I admit that I haven’t read any of the other new Mars books, I really enjoyed The Martian. The setting is just close enough to the present to make the survival story appealing to people who don’t normally do science fiction, as well as established fans.

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A Dozen Fairy Tale Retellings

Today I’m over at Tales of the Marvelous, with a dozen of my favorite fairy tale novels, written for children, teens and adults.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time

This is one that I’d checked out for my own Cybils reading towards the end of last year. It fell off my list for a while as I had so much else to read, and my son appropriated it for his own reading.

chittyraceChitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Illustrated by Joe Berger. Candlewick Press 2013. UK edition 2012.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again had included, close to the beginning, a list of places that the Tooting family wanted to go. The magical flying car, of course, has her own agenda, which sometimes aligns with the Tootings’, and sometimes not. The trips this time involve a lot of time travel, including visiting dinosaurs for Little Harry, El Dorado for Jem, and an unplanned meeting with former owner Count Zborowski in New York during the roaring 20s. There, a shady woman declares her intention to marry Count Zborowski, and the Tooting family befriends a young orphan boy, Red. Scarily enough, the jelly baby phones they were given in the first book still work, even across time, and they get alarming messages from Nanny and Little Jack. It looks like only Chitty’s last owners, the Potts family, will be able to give them the help they need to defeat Little Jack forever.

This is just a whole lot of fun. There are car races, swanky dances, hidden treasure, and the magical powers of chocolate fudge. The adventures are madcap, just the right amount of exciting and funny. It might be unrealistic, but I love how reliable the characters are: the parents are loving, not necessarily clueful. Teenaged Lucy always turns out to be an expert in whatever obscure subject they happen to need, most often languages. Jem can figure out how to fix Chitty, and pays attention to the rest of his family. And Little Harry, the baby, notices significant things that the other family members usually think are too large or small to really think about. Sadly, at 234 pages, it was a little too long for my nine-year-old, but I think it would be perfect for a more confident reader of the same age and up, or for reading aloud.

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Rapunzel Round-Up

Trina Schart Hyman's RapunzelI mentioned recently that my daughter has been into Rapunzel. Nearly every day when she comes home, the first thing she does is take off her regular clothes and put on her Rapunzel costume. I think that an obsession like this is the perfect opportunity to explore how stories can be told many different ways, so I have (over time) checked out just about every Rapunzel picture book I could find at the library. Here they are, with lots of variations in illustration style, details in the retelling, ethnicity, and more.

rapunzelberenzy Rapunzel Retold and illustrated by Alix Berenzy. Henry Holt, 1995.
This book opens with a page that looks like it’s taken out of a medieval book of hours, with close-up drawings of the rapunzel plant and a description: “Rapunzel… will grow and bloom in the most desolate wastelands.” Otherwise, the retelling is pretty standard Grimm. The pictures are beautiful, glowing pastels on black paper, with a strong (if perhaps mixed) medieval/renaissance style. It was a little weird to me that the children appear about five by the time the prince finds them – that’s one long hunt!

rapunzelgibbRapunzel Retold by Allison Sage. Illustrated by Sarah Gibb. HarperCollins Childrens, 2010 (UK) and Albert Whitman & Co, 2011 (US).
Oddly enough, only Gibb and Grimm are credited on the cover. The art feels like it could easily be an animated feature film, up-to-date, crisp outlines, a princessy palette and lots of scherenschnitte-style. In this story, Rapunzel is so charming that even the beasts fall in love with her, thus saving both her and the prince. She also gets the tallest tower ever, looking bigger than a modern skyscraper in some spreads.

reallyrapunzelReally, Rapunzel Needed a Haircut! by Jessica Gunderson. Illustrated by Denis Alonso. Picture Window Books, 2014.
This is a made-for-Common Core retelling from Dame Gothel’s point of view. It’s clear that while Gothel has made some mistakes, she really loves Rapunzel and is trying her best. Mostly, anyway. The caricature-like illustrations set the whole story at some indeterminate time closer to the present – Dame Gothel looks to be wearing clothes about a century old, but Rapunzel looks like she’s wearing t-shirt dresses.

rapunzelisadoraRapunzel by Rachel Isadora. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.
Rapunzel set in Africa, still told with the traditional Grimm words. The cut-out illustrations are beautiful, if stiff. This is one of the better ones for younger readers, as it’s a bit shorter and with more pictures than many.

rapunzelrogaskyRapunzel retold by Barbara Rogasky. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Holiday House, 1982.
Did I ever mention how much I love Trina Schart Hyman? This is maybe not quite as polished as Little Red Riding Hood or Saint George, but still amazing. The story is straight Grimm, with intricately-detailed German renaissance illustrations. I loved the pictures of the trusting child Rapunzel, the bright birch trees in the dark forest as Rapunzel is taken to the tower, and the passionate kiss even before the prince makes it through the window.

petrosinellaPetrosinella by Diane Stanley Dial Books, 1995.
It turns out that the Brother Grimm weren’t the first to tell the story. Here, Stanley goes back to a much older Neapolitan story from which the Grimms borrowed. Petrosinella is kidnapped at age 7 by an ogress, but steals her magic items and defeats her head-on during her escape with the prince. The illustrations are quite nice as well.

sugarcaneSugar Cane: a Caribbean Rapunzel by Patricia Storace. Pictures by Raul Colon. Jump at the Sun, Hyperion, 2007.
This much longer version spends a lot of time weaving in more character information and culture. It was way too long for the four-year-old, but she still loved to go back and look at the textured pastel drawings.

fallingFalling for Rapunzel by Leah Wilcox. Illsutrated by Lydia Monks. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003.
This is a comic version with silly rhymes and misunderstandings as the prince tries to rescue Rapunzel, who doesn’t need or want it. “’Rapunzel, Rapunzel, throw down your hair!’ She thought he said, ‘Your underwear.’ The story ends up with her throwing down the none-to-displeased maid, who rides off with the prince while Rapunzel walks out the back door.

rapnzelzelinskyRapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky. Dutton Children’s Books, 1997.
This is the Caldecott winner, and one I bought for myself when it first came out. Zelinsky’s retelling mixes in details from different retellings, such as having Rapunzel betrayed by her dress not fitting rather than a slip of the tongue. The illustrations, as you’d expect, are breathtaking, succeeding admirably at recreating the art of the Italian Renaissance.

What’s your favorite Rapunzel?

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Jinx’s Magic

Jinx was one of my favorite books last year, so naturally I wanted to read the sequel.

Jinx's magicJinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood. HarperCollins, 2014.
Back in the Urwald, Jinx is still trying to figure out how his magic works. Using magic the way Simon wants him to is still tricky, but Simon can’t help him with the abilities that come more easily, talking to the trees of the Urwald and seeing the colors and shapes of people’s thoughts. What the Urwald is telling him is that Jinx’s friend Reven is the Destroyer, and it wants Reven out of the Urwald. And Elfwyn’s thoughts about Reven have turned distressingly pink and fluffy. Jinx’s plate is getting increasingly full, what with escorting Reven out of the Urwald and figuring out why the Urwald is worried about him to Simon’s worry about a possible return of the Bonemaster. Eventually, Simon sends Jinx through his magic door to the country of Samara to learn about their magic system, KnIP, and to talk to his wife, Sophie. Things go downhill (as they are wont to do), and soon Jinx is left with no adults to rely on, trying to figure out how to save them and his beloved Urwald.

Like Jinx, Jinx’s Magic is divided into distinct sections, happening in different places with different characters. Jinx, travelling around himself, holds the story together. As before, the characters are genuinely interesting, and there are some nice thinky thoughts, both on the lines of growing up and learning how people work in general, to the problem of how to get individualistic people to work together at need and lots of learning about magic. The action felt a bit steadier to me than in Jinx, which had a quiet first half followed by an action-packed second half. I’m just as happy with the quiet sections, but my experience is that most people like action. I feel like there’s enough going on that I’d recommend it for ten and up generally, though that of course can vary individually. My only real complaint about Jinx’s Magic was that the ending, instead of wrapping up the threads of this story, instead introduced the challenges of the next book and then ended quite abruptly. I’m still waiting anxiously for the sequel.

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