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The Muse, Amused
07 July 2009 @ 10:07 am

Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell

Iris Rhame and her best friend Collette are hunkering down for a long summer of more of the same--hot, sweaty days, ducking out on chores at the diner where Collette's mother works, and spending time in the cemetary, playing at being psychic and summoning the dead. They aren't expecting any surprises, because nothing ever happens in their small town of Ondine, Louisiana.

But this summer, things are different. This summer, Iris and Collette are fourteen, which shouldn't mean anything's changing, but somehow, things are. Collette is suddenly very interested in boys, and has started bringing her new boyfriend Ben into her and Iris's private games of make-believe. But even more unsettling is the fact that make-believe has suddenly gotten very real. Because Iris has contacted a ghost. A real ghost.

It seems to be the ghost of Elijah Landry, who disappeared years earlier. At first, Iris is thrilled by the adventure, but she soon decides that ghost-hunting, when it's real, is a lot scarier and a lot less exciting than she had always thought it would be. But it's too late to back out, because now she has Elijah's attention--and she won't be able to rest until Elijah can, too.

From the flap copy and the awful cover, I assumed this would be a supernatural gothic like the Betty Ren Wright books I read when I was younger, and it certainly started out that way. Two kids, a quiet town, a lazy summer, nothing much to do, and then a haunting.

But it became much more than that. A ghost story became the backdrop for a coming of age story that feels so honest and real it's heartbreaking. Watching your best friend grow into boys when you're still comfortable with everything staying the same. The thrill of make-believe, and the embarassment of having your games shared with an outsider, even if he's someone you've known your entire life. And the moment where you realize that everything can't stay the same, that you're growing up and that's as it should be, and that sometimes that means leaving parts of yourself in the past.

The plot of this book is a ghost story, but the heart is a moving story about the pangs of growing up and struggling to understand your way from childhood to teenagerhood.

And I have to say--the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of Elijah Landry is resolved in a way I never would have guessed or expected. It's a quiet thing, but it shows how far the world of junior supernatural gothics has come--or maybe just that this one is a standout.
The Muse, Amused
18 June 2009 @ 05:21 pm

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

Dashti has only just started her service as Lady Saren's lady's maid when Lady Saren is condemned to seven years bricked up in a tower for her refusal to marry a man she despises. Seven years shut in away from the sky and fresh air, seven years of rationing food and fighting off rats and cold and loneliness, is more than Dashti signed up for. But she is determined to keep her oath and remain at her lady's side.

But life in the tower soon turns from miserable to life-threatening, and it is up to Dashti to make the choices that will save or damn her and Lady Saren both. And before she knows it, it seems her choices will not only determine the fate of herself and Lady Saren, but that of everyone in her country as well.

I really loved this book, and it's all because of Dashti. She is just one of those characters you want to hold onto tight and tell her that things will be okay, even when there is no logical reason that they will. She is brave in the face of odds. She is determined and loyal and clever very human and so very brave and I adore her.

The bits in the tower are okay, but it really gets good in the second half of the book. This is one of those rare books where the romance really really works for me and makes sense, and every time a niggling objection arose in my head, it was dealt with and answered in a really satisfying way.

Also, the ending made me cry. In a good way.
The Muse, Amused
15 June 2009 @ 09:14 am

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

Samara Taylor is the daughter of popular, charismatic Pastor Charlie. Everyone loves Pastor Charlie, who always knows the right thing to say and always has time for everyone. Everyone except his family. Everyone except Sam, who is alone after her mother's quiet drinking problem resulted in a DUI which landed her in rehab. Sam, who is not even sure if she believes in the God she always took for granted anymore.

And that's when tragedy strikes. A girl goes missing from their small town, and suddenly, nothing is the same. Things that Sam took for granted as safe suddenly seem threatening. And her father--and her faith--feel more distant than ever.

Sara Zarr is a master at the quiet novel that grips your heart. Even in this book, where the plot revolves around a sensational story of a missing girl, the heart of the book is still Sam's very personal and very real struggle with her faith, her family and herself.

The realistic portrait of a small town marred by tragedy--the way it changes everything, makes you mistrust things you once took for granted--it comes alive in this book. More importantly, while the central mystery never loses its hold on the reader, it also never overshadows the more interesting story--Samara's crisis of faith. It takes a very skilled writer to weave a novel that has room for both plotlines and lets the much quieter story be the more significant one.

I devoured this book in a few hours. It's a very quick, compulsive read, and Sam's honest voice pulls you in and doesn't let go. This is one of the more honest teen novels I've read in a long time--I can't recall another novel that dealt so frankly with a genuine crisis of faith. I think this is going to be a book teens come back to.
The Muse, Amused
14 May 2009 @ 09:21 am

Deadly Little Secret by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Camelia (sounds like Chameleon) almost died three months ago, when she bent down to pick up her earring in the parking lot and nearly got hit by a car. Before she knew what was happening, a mysterious hot guy had shoved her out of the way, saving her life, before running off when she tried to thank him.

She is, of course, determined to find out more about Ben, the mystery guy. But when she confronts him in the hall and tries to thank him, he pretends he doesn't know what she's talking about.

Camelia's chemistry teacher has an annoying practise of decreeing that whoever you're sitting next to on your first day will be your lab partner for the rest of the year. As luck would have it, the last empty seat in the room is next to Camelia--and then Ben walks in. At first, he acts like he can barely sit next to her. But then he starts to warm to her--even though he warns her that she shouldn't be friends with him, it's too dangerous.

Sound familiar?

Yeah. The plot diverges after this little bit of prettied-up plagiarism, and turns into a Mysterious Stalker novel (Camelia has a stalker. Ben wants to help her) but still--did it seriously have to rip off the most famous crappy YA novel of our time?

Camelia and Ben's relationship is hot, I'll give you that much, but seems to be based on nothing more than his looks (she describes him looking yummy and delicious and hot hot hot as often as Bella described Edward as a marble statue of a Greek god) and her fascination with his bad boy reputation (he reportedly killed his girlfriend back at his old school.)

The writing is not amazing--I get the sense that we're supposed to care about and like Camelia's neglected best friends (she ignores them in her fascination with Ben) but they're really not that interesting--they're actually kind of annoying. And Camelia's family drama is contrived.

This book would be a mild "pass" for me if it didn't rip off Twilight in an unbelievably derivative way. That elevates it to a "can you believe this book?"

Sigh. I feel like I've been disappointed by every book I've read recently. I'd really like to read a good book again.
The Muse, Amused
02 May 2009 @ 09:47 pm

A Drowned Maiden's Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz

At the Barbary Asylum, every child was strictly classified: a girl was pretty or plain, clever or stupid, good or bad. Maud knew quite well that she was plain, clever and bad.

Maud Flynn, growing up in the Barbary Asylum, knows exactly how much she's worth: not much. She's willful and plain, and gets into too much trouble to be ever considered for adoption. So when Hyacinth and Judith Hawthorne waltz into Barbary Asylum looking for a child and insist on leaving with Maud, it's hard to tell who is more surprised--the headmistress or Maud herself.

At first, life with the Hawthorne sisters is a dream come true. They buy her new clothes and books, and feed her delicious food. But after the novelty of life outside the Asylum wears off, Maud begins to question the strangeness of her situation--because she is a secret child. The Hawthornes keep her confined to the third floor, and don't let anyone know that they had adopted a child.

Soon, Maud discovers the truth. The Hawthornes are mediums, and they need a child in order to bilk a wealthy woman out of her money as she tries to contact her dead daughter. Maud is willing to do anything to keep her new home and make the Hawthornes love her--but how far is too far?

There is a great idea for a story here, but the thing that really makes this book is Maud. She is just so genuine--she leaps off the page and feels like a real little girl. She's tough and proud and fiesty, but also broken inside. She rarely lets it show, but there are moments when I just wanted to wrap her in my arms and hold her. Maud broke my heart into teeny tiny pieces.

This book also has a chillingly deceptive villain, and what's so impressive is that you only see her through Maud's adoring eyes. Maud is not stupid, but she is desperate for love and desperate to be wanted, so the picture we see of the Hawthornes is colored by what she wants so badly--and yet we still have a very complete, well-rounded picture of the Hawthornes.

That's another thing I love about this book. No one--including Maud's enemies in the Barbary Asylum--is one dimensional. They are all so well-rounded and three dimensional--the villainous characters have their good moments, and the good characters sometimes have a temper and make hasty unfortunate decisions. Everyone is real.

This is the second time I'm reading this book, and the second time it has made me tear up at the end. It's a quiet book, but it's the kind of book that burrows into your heart and finds a permanent home there.
The Muse, Amused
22 April 2009 @ 11:57 am

The Season by Sarah MacLean

Alexandra Stafford and her best friends, Vivi and Ella, are seventeen, beautiful, and experiencing their first Season in Regency London. They are also willful and independent and have absolutely no interest in being on the marriage mart. They have no patience for men who think women should be seen and not heard, and Alex takes great pleasure at shocking men with her entirely unladylike opinions on politics (much to her mother’s dismay.)

When the Earl of Blackmoor dies in a mysterious accident, Alex finds herself helping his son, the handsome Gavin, in investigating his death. Alex has known Gavin for years, and he has always been like another brother to her. But as the plot thickens, so does their relationship—until Alex can hardly be sure what she wants. But there is more at stake than the danger to Alex’s reputation. Someone has murdered the Earl of Blackmoor to protect deadly secrets—and he is willing to kill again.

I was totally on board with this book from the description. It reminded me of a less magical Sorcery and Cecilia or Maerlon the Magician, and I was excited. Fiesty heroines who have no patience for fancy dresses, and who have minds of their own? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, Alex and her friends are independent-minded only in the author’s imagination. Though the narrative describes them as independent thinkers with “personalities,” we never actually see them exhibit any of those traits. Aside from the fact that Alex is the protagonist, all three of them could be completely interchangeable.

Alex claims to be an independent woman who has no interest in being married off, who is looking for depth and a relationship, but that lasts exactly as long as it takes her to get to her first ball and see Gavin looking all spiffy in his formalwear, and suddenly she realizes new feelings for him she never knew she had. They fight a little, and just like that, bam! they're in love. Gavin claims that no other woman can measure up to Alex, and her humor and beauty and spunk and etc etc etc make Alex such a delicate and special flower. But the second she says something he disagrees with, or does something he doesn’t like, he completely shuts her out and treats her like a child.

And guess what Alex does? She flounces off to sulk. Like a child. And then throws herself at him again a few pages later.

The mystery is entirely predictable—from the first time we meet the murderer, it’s quite obvious that it’s him—but it’s not that the writer meant for it to be obvious. It just is.

I almost put this book down and didn’t finish it, but then I decided to give it another try to see if it improved.

It didn’t.


The Angel of Death by Alane Ferguson

Cameryn Mahoney has an unusual side job--she's assistant to the county coroner--who happens to be her father. But she didn't get the job through nepotism--Cammie is good at death.

But this time, the case may be too gruesome for even Cammie to handle. When her teacher is found dead in his bed, discovered by Kyle O'Neil, one of his Eagle Scouts, Cammie is horrified to discover that his eyes are burned out--indeed, Mr. Oaks has been cooked from the inside out.

The case is mysterious, and the trail is full of dead ends. It deserves her full attention, but Cammie is distracted--by the secret she's keeping about her estranged mother, and by a budding relationship with the ultrapopular Kyle. She may be too distracted to pick up on the clues to the identity of the killer before it's too late.

I didn't like the first book featuring Cammie, The Christopher Killer at all, so I'm not really sure why I read this one. I don't think the writing was strong at all. Cammie is not a compelling, interesting or likeable character in the least. She is a classic Mary-Sue--and the fact that Ferguson needs to keep reminding us that Cammie's best friend Lyric is both fat and weird is very off-putting.

If all that weren't enough, I knew who the killer was from reading the cover copy--and if I hadn't figured it out then, I would have picked it up the first time we met him. From the way the book was written, it was somewhat clear why Cammie et al didn't pick up on it--but that's still sloppy writing. If the reader knows whodunit light years before the crack girl detective forensic pathologist, it makes for an utterly boring read.
The Muse, Amused
06 April 2009 @ 03:27 pm

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Rose is the oldest of the twelve princesses of Westfalin. She and her eleven younger sisters and the beloveds of their father and kingdom, but they don’t live a charmed life. Instead, they are cursed to spend their nights dancing at the Midnight Ball of the evil King Under Stone. Galen is a young soldier-turned-gardener, returned from the front after a long war to live with the only family he has—and to work as a gardener in the king’s garden. It is there that he meets Rose and her sisters—and there that he begins to see the dark cloud hanging over the princesses. And while the king and his court try in vain to discover why the princesses’ dancing shoes are worn out night after night, and why the girls are always so exhausted, Galen may be the only one who can learn their secret—and the only one who can save them.

This is a really engaging retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” fairy tale. The burning question in that story is always, why? Why do the princesses dance? It always bothered me that the soldier revealed and stole away their secret paradise, and in exchange got to marry one of the girls. How dare he!

So I liked the curse twist in this retelling. Here, the princesses are trapped in a truly horrific curse. Early in the book, when Rose has to go dance when she’s sick, I really felt sick to my stomach for them—I felt the awfulness of their curse in my bones. So Galen’s finding their secret is a good thing—a very good thing.

Things I didn’t like: it always bothers me a little bit when an author co-opts real geography and gives in a slightly different-sounding name. Espana for Spain. Breton for Britain. Etc. And Westfalin was clearly Germany, or at the very least Germanic. If you’re going for a fantasy world, make up your own country names and geography and religion. If you’re placing your fairy tale retelling in a real time and place, then use the real names. I don’t like the wishy-washy, can’t make up her mind version of places.

Also, I know it’s a fairy tale, but the ending felt a little too happily-ever-after for me. Really? Galen the solder/gardener gets to be the king? I would even be okay with Galen getting to marry one of the princesses, but not getting the throne, but politically—he gets to be king? Really? How does that even make sense?

Maybe I am too much of a realist. Don’t get me wrong, I like happy endings just fine—but I think this ties in to my previous complaint. If you are going to model your kingdom on real places and cultures from our history, then follow through. I can’t imagine any king willingly handing over his thrown to a commoner, no matter how grateful he was. It just feels too tidy and Disney.

I think it’s very interesting to compare this retelling with another I recently read, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Mariller. In that story, the dancing was a wonderful thing, something to look forward to, and the danger came not from the fae but from fellow men.

Wildwood avoids the major pitfall of Princess--it is solidly based in time and place, in a Transylvania that feels real and right. The gender politics in that book made me bristle, but for the characters, not against the illogic of it. There, control over the business is wrested from Jena by her domineering cousin who thinks girls are not capable of a business mind. Here, Rose and her sisters are treated like full-fledged people by their father, the king.

Overall, I think Wildwood Dancing is the better book. The details hold together better—it feels more researched, more nuanced, more anchored in place and time—-more real. And the lush writing is gorgeous and captivating. That said, I enjoyed reading Princess of the Midnight Ball a little bit more—-probably entirely because Rose and Galen both were more likeable characters, and I didn’t want to shake either of them.
The Muse, Amused
23 March 2009 @ 11:59 am

Fall of Light by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Opal LaZelle is a makeup artist, specializing in monsters and the grotesque. She’s excellent at what she does—partially because she applies more than makeup to her creations. Because Opal comes from a magical family, where every member has magical gifts and abilities—and Opal can change someone’s face with a touch and a thought.

On the set of the horror movie Forest of the Night, Opal is in charge of Corvus Weather, the Dark God of the movie. But it soon becomes apparent that Corvus is sinking too deeply into the role, and Opal realizes that something is possessing him. There is an ancient power in this town, a power that wants to rise again and is using Corvus—and the movie—as its vehicle. And while Opal may be the only person on the set who realizes the enormity of the danger, she may not be strong enough to stop it.

A Fistful of Sky is my favorite Nina Kiriki Hoffman book, and one of my favorite books in general, so I had high hopes for Fall of Light. Unfortunately, I really didn’t like it very much at all. I think it was missing a lot of what I loved about the LaZelles in Fistful—the introspect of the way their family magic works, and the interplay of the family and magical people and magic being common and accepted. It DID have the other trademark of Nina Hoffman’s work that I love so much—the way normal, nonmagical people accept magical events pretty easily.

I know it’s not fair to expect it to be the same book as Fistful, especially because Hoffman, maybe more than any other writer, never writes the same book twice. But I felt like it was missing some of the elements that made me love Fistful so much.

Cut for spoilers...Collapse )

I don’t need every question answered in my fiction—sometimes you just don’t get to know the answer, and I like that. Not every loose end is tied up—that feels honest and real, even when it’s frustrating. It’s just when NONE of the loose ends are tied up that I’m left feeling out of sorts.

I will definitely keep eagerly devouring Nina Hoffman’s new books as quickly as she can write them, but I think she really missed the mark with this one. Hopefully there will be more books with the LaZelle family to make up for it. Dare I hope for a book featuring Flint?
The Muse, Amused
20 March 2009 @ 03:15 pm
You still have a few more days to comment to win a signed copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honor book!


Girl of the Moment by Lizabeth Zindel

Lily Miles thinks her life is over when her prestigious internship at MOMA falls through. She was banking on the internship to help her stand out on her Brown application. Then, Lily is offered the chance of a lifetime—an internship with Sabrina Snow, hottest starlet in Hollywood.

But life among stars isn’t as amazing as Lily had hoped. Sabrina is selfish and spoiled, full of outrageous demands and totally fickle. Lily has her hands full walking Sabrina’s pampered dog, finagling tickets to a sold-out Yankees game, and trying not to fall for Sabrina’s gorgeous boyfriend—who seems to be falling for her, too.

Can Lily juggle the pressures of Sabrina’s life and her own? Or will she let star fever lead her into disaster?

The first two thirds of this book are great. Lily is a fun character, and there’s something undeniably appealing and having a front row seat into the life of a Hollywood starlet. There’s a hugely entertaining sense of voyeurism and getting the inner track. And I like that Lily doesn’t have it too easy—she screws up, she makes dumb mistakes, and she struggles.

But in the last third, the plot gets a little clichéd. Lily’s fight with her father is straight out of cliché city—and there’s no real buildup to it. It just kind of erupts, as if Zindel figured, “okay, now’s the time to insert some external conflict.” And the plotline about Lily’s mom’s pie business, which is given so much attention and is dragged in to Lily’s fight with her father, is never resolved. Is the business successful? Does it fail? Does it eat all the money in Lily’s college fund, or does it replenish it? It’s a minor plot point, but it seems to me that if you’re going to introduce it, you should resolve it.

Finally, Sabrina never really gelled for me. Her actions in the end of the book made her seem much more like a caricature than a real person.

And the prologue page at the beginning made me think that Lily had done something awful to Sabrina—had violated her privacy, or something. I was waiting the whole book for Lily’s awful crime to be revealed, and then…nothing.

I read Zindel’s other book, The Secret Rites of Social Butterflies, and she seems to be following the same pattern: great concept, great start, and then it all falls apart towards the end. She has these great concepts and ideas, but doesn’t seem capable of seeing them through to an equally satisfying conclusion.


Shift by Charlotte Agell

Adrian Havoc is tired of toeing the line. He is sick of following the rules, sick of being indoctrinated with Rapture propaganda, sick of not knowing what happened to his father who went to the moon and stopped writing to him. When his mother, a prominent scientist, goes off on a mysterious government mission, Adrian is tired of sitting around. One thing leads to another, and he finds himself on a mission to rescue an aged penguin, along with a very attractive zookeeper and his somewhat psychic little sister.

But what they find in the North is far more dangerous and shocking than any of them were expecting. Before he knows what's happening, Adrian finds himself involved in a dangerous mission that might be the key to saving his family and the world--or destroying it.

What a strange little book. I'm not sure what it was attempting to do, but I certainly don't think it accomplished it. Was this a post-apocalyptic novel about a world ravage by nuclear accident? A dystopian novel about a society ruled by a strict Christian government? An buddy novel about three kids and a penguin traveling across and nuclear wasteland to find a better life? An action-adventure story full of disguises and heart-pounding moments? It was all those things in part, but none of them really successfully. It seemed to changed tones every thirty pages or so.
The Muse, Amused
05 March 2009 @ 09:51 am

The Red Queen's Daughter by Jacqueline Kolosov

Mary Seymour, daughter of Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, is determined never to be bound by love and marriage. With the example of her mother—a woman who was queen, who then was brought low when she fell in love with Thomas Seymour, who was executed a traitor—Mary is determined to keep herself free of love’s dangerous influences.

So when her new guardian, the mysterious Lady Strange, tells Mary of her destiny—to serve as a white magician in Queen Elizabeth’s court—Mary is determined that it is the right course for her. But although she spends her formative years training in the art of magic with Lady Strange, nothing could prepare her for the intrigues and dangers of Elizabeth’s court—or for the temptations of the heart. Despite Mary’s ideals and her vow to serve and protect Elizabeth, she can’t deny the way she feels around one Edmund Seymour. Edmund is Mary’s cousin, but he is also her opposite—he is a black magician who stands to use magic for his own gain and against the Queen. It will take all of Mary’s determination to find her way through the intrigues of court and the temptations of the heart.

The writing in this book is just lovely. Mary’s an engaging protagonist—one who so clearly belongs and lives in this tumultuous Elizabethan time period, but who has slightly modern feminist ideals. But unlike some feminist novels that take place during this time period, they feel rooted in reality and history.

I love the historical detail, the way Elizabeth’s court really comes alive around Mary. Reading this book felt like stowing away in a time machine—I felt completely immersed in the past.

I was so immersed in the details of Elizabeth’s court and Mary’s training as a white magician that I barely realized that it takes nearly three quarters of the book for the plot to get moving, and once it does, it barely feels complete. I am wondering if there is going to be a sequel, and that’s why things are left so up in the air. Almost nothing is concluded with any amount of satisfaction. And Mary, despite all her protestations against love, seems to topple to it without any resistance or reason at all.

Despite these flaws, the writing is so good that I really did enjoy reading it. It’s only when I think about it objectively that I realize that the conclusion didn’t really conclude, the enemies set up in the book still feel like a threat, and the budding romance that seemed on the verge of coming to a head still feels—unfinished.

I really hope that there’s more in store for us from Jacqueline Kolosov and Mary Seymour. I want to know what happens next.