Thursday, March 29, 2007

'City of Bones - Book One of The Mortal Instruments' by Cassandra Clare

ISBN: 1416914285
Format: Hardcover, 496pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's
Price: $17.99

I spend a lot of time in the young adult section at my local bookstore. I will be the first one to admit to a fantasy addiction - all kinds of fantasy but lately I’ve become rather partial to the urban fantasy that has made such a splash with teens across the United States.

There are many names out there producing some great fairy adventure at the moment. And a new name has joined the ranks - Cassandra Clare, author of City of Bones, her first book as well as being the first in The Mortal Instruments trilogy.

A blurb on the back of the book from Justine Larbalestier, Magic of Maddness, claims that City of Bones has it all. While Holly Black, Valiant, says this book is ‘Funny. Dark. And sexy.’ Can one book live up to all this great press? Yes it can.

Clary Fray, short for Clarissa, is a normal girl in a normal world. When she sees a blue-haired boy in a night club attacked and killed by a group of three strange-looking teenagers, things change. But when a bouncer is called and no one can see the three but her, Clary starts to wonder what exactly is happening.

When Clary receives a strange phone call from her mom she rushes home to make sure that everything is alright. What she finds is an apartment in ruins and a demon waiting to eat her. But Clary isn’t a normal girl and she is able to, barely, hold her own against the demon. Soon enough she is rescued by one of the strange teenagers. Jace takes her to the Institute, a place of safety for his kind.

What is happening is that Clary is starting to regain her ‘Sight’, the power that enables her to see the world, and the things in the world, as it really is. Soon she learns that the three teenagers are Shadowhunters: men, women, and teenagers created by mixing the blood of angels with that of men so that they can hunt and kill demons. Alec and Isabelle, the other two strangers from the club, are brother and sister, and Jace came to live with their family when he was ten years old, after the horrific death of his father.

There is a lot happening in City of Bones. Featuring a full cast of characters, twists jump out with every turn of the page as Clary moves through the discovery of herself and the truth that is locked in her memories. Clary’s best friend Simon is one of the more human and believable characters in this novel; his awkwardness is easily recognized from any boy you went to high school with, making him even more lovable.

The Shadowhunters and their world is fantastic. Clear and all too believable, next time I go to a club I know I will be searching the dark corners for the things that go bump in the night. I might even find them.

If any of you are fans of the Modern Faerie Tales of Holly Black, Cassandra Clare’s writing group buddy, you will instantly recognize the small cameo some of her characters have in chapter ten of City of Bones.

'Clary saw a girl about her own age with a smoothly shaved head leaning against a brown-skinned boy with dreadlocks, his face adorned with a dozen piercings. He turned his head as the carriage rolled by as if he could see it, and she caught the gleam of his eyes. One of them was clouded, as though it had no pupil.' (page 174)

The appearance was totally unexpected and completely wonderful. I was thrilled to come across this small bit that ties a world of several authors I love into one.

But there are many things to love about City of Bones, including a cat by the name of Chairman Meow. The adventure can only get better as this trilogy progresses and I will be waiting eagerly for the next installment.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

'Riddled With Life - Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are' by Marlene Zuk

ISBN: 0151012253
Format: Hardcover, 328pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Price: $25.00

Riddled With Life is full of answers. Ever wonder why some kids develop allergies and some don’t? Can intestinal worms be your friend as well as your foe? And did you know that all animals, including insects, get STDs? It tells you all of that.

Some of those questions I’ve wondered about, if not so much the bug STDs, but even this is interesting thanks to Professor Zuk’s lively and humorous writing style. I have to admit that some of these issues would never have crossed my mind but once brought to my attention provides some fascinating reading. This is the kind of book you read and turn to a friend to ask ‘Did you know?’

Marlene Zuk is an evolutionary biologist at the University of California where she studies parasites and the behavior in a variety of animals. Some of her favorites just happen to be jungle fowl, distant relatives of the commercial chicken, which as noted in chapter seven, ‘Parasites and Picking the Perfect Partner,' play a big part. Professor Zuk was part of a group that studied the effect of parasites and the roles they play between the male and female of a species.

In chapter four ‘The Race with Sex That’s Never Won,’ she talks about the mortality difference between the sexes. Namely that males die much earlier than females in many species, including human beings. Professor Zuk discusses the fact that testosterone plays a huge role because it affects how effective a male’s immune system is.

The STD’s I mentioned? Well in chapter four, ‘When Sex Makes You Sick,’ Professor Zuk talks about how evolution has played a role in the sexual transmitted diseases and parasites in animals. Sometimes being at the top of the food chain limits your views of things and this book definitely broadens those horizons.

Riddled With Life is riddled with wonderful bits of humor, intriguing facts, and some of the best scientific writing. I have to admit that the biology was a struggle for me but that didn’t take away from the reading experience. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and will not hesitate to recommend reading about bugs, parasites, and jungle fowl.

Friday, March 23, 2007

'Ask Again Later' by Jill A. Davis

ISBN: 0060875968
Format: Hardcover, 256pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

What would you expect from a novel written by a woman who had received five Emmy nominations as a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman? A lot, and Jill Davis delivers. Ask Again Later is her second novel and while I have not read her first, Girls’ Poker Night, I am sure to now.

“Ask again later” is Emily Rhode’s favorite answer to a question. A girl with commitment phobia, she even hates to commit herself to hard answers. But there are lots of reasons to love this girl, besides the fact that some of the situations she finds herself in might be similar to your own.

Emily’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and she drops everything - quits her job as a successful lawyer in a big firm, walks out on her almost-boyfriend Sam, and moves in with her mother. Emily is good at running away; she seems to live her life with one foot out the door. But there are some things you just can’t run away from.

Emily’s father shows up for the first time since she was five, answering her mother’s phone call for sympathy. Suddenly Emily and her father have a relationship again. There is a scene of Emily and dad in the hospital waiting room while her mother is in surgery that just makes the book.

They sit side by side without looking at each other and her father says ‘I’m going on a trip. The first thing I’m going to pack in my suitcase is a bowling ball.’ And so it goes back and forth, a game of remembrance. In later chapters the thread is picked up in an elevator. It’s a small touch that takes this book from being just another good book to being a great book.

Emily ends up working as a receptionist for her father in his law firm. She spies on him to learn small details about him, things that she never got a chance to learn growing up. But Ask Again Later isn’t just about her relationship with her father. Emily’s relationship with her mother, her friend Perry, her physiatrist Paul, her sort-of boyfriend Sam, her grandmother, and her sister Marjorie all change.

Written in short three to eight-page chapters, with headings taken from an action in the chapter, this is an easy book to read. You tell yourself just one more chapter and by the time you’re done its 3am and you are almost done with the book.

While you wouldn't expect cancer and being reunited with a lost father funny, Mrs. Davis brings the humor out of all situations. Light and funny but still carrying genuine emotion, I laughed as well as cried. This is one of the best books I have read so far this year. Beautifully written, Ask Again Later isn’t easy to forget.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

'Black Dragon River' by Ben Whately

ISBN: 1411671465
Format: Paperback, 184pp
Price: $13.90

Author Ben Whately tells you right away that Black Dragon River this isn’t a travel book. Instead, it is a "journal of changing thoughts and opinions as I tried to accustom myself to living in a single, very strange, and not especially nice, place."

Whately goes to the city of Qiqihaer China to learn Chinese and to make sense of the "mystery of China." He is one of six native English speakers in a city of five million people. He starts out not even able to hold a conversation in Chinese, but by the end is conversing, if not easily then much less painfully. The change that happens in the book, as he becomes more comfortable with the things around him, is wonderful to read.

In chapter three Ben relates the story of finally meeting in person an American couple who teach English at the University he is studying Chinese at. He had found their home page while researching Qiqihaer and e-mailed them. Over time he had come to think of them as a "celebrity couple," having read all about their exploits in China.

When he finally introduced himself to Heather, one half of the American couple, she said "So you came? Why?" He would soon find that she wouldn’t be the only one to ask that question, to which he didn’t seem to have much of an answer beside mumbling "purity of the Mandarin accent."

While most of the book does take place in the city of Qiqihaer, the author does take weekend jaunts out into the more remote parts of Heilongjiang province, as well as Mongolia. The Heilongjiang province is named for the river that runs through the region. Translated it means "Black Dragon River."

In a town called Tazi, marketed as a tourist town in a 1989 guidebook for a wall from the Liao Dynasty that surrounds the city, Ben discovers that he is the first foreigner that many have ever seen. Brutally honest about China and his experiences, as well as being humorous, thoughtful, and ever hopeful, the author relates all his stories with a certain charm. Highly entertaining, you read from one chapter to the next picking up interesting facts about China that you might not find anywhere else.

My one complaint is that Black Dragon River was too short at only 180 pages. I feel as if there must be more to the story and I would love to know the rest. In that respect Ben Whately has achieved what every author should: he has left his audience wanting more.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

'Rogue Angel - Forbidden City' by Alex Archer

ISBN: 037362123X
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 352pp
Publisher: Harlequin
Price: $6.50

There are lots of reasons I love the Rogue Angel series. There are great characters, lots of great action, and each time I pick up one of the books I learn something I didn’t know before. Not every book you pick up can educate you as well as entertain you.

In Forbidden City
Annja Creed, archeologist-adventurer and wielder of Joan of Arc’s sword, gets involved with a cursed Chinese belt plaque. Following a lead, Annja hikes into an old gold mining town in California with Huangfu Cao, a man who contacted her about finding the bones of his Chinese ancestor.

They uncover Huangfu’s ancestor. Just as Annja comes across the belt plaque, they are attacked by a group of marijuana-growers. Huangfu (who had seemed to be, if not an average man, was at least harmless) proves himself to be very dangerous. Out of nowhere Huangfu pulls out a gun and quickly kills the three men. Annja is forced to flee for her life with the belt plaque as Huangfu turns his guns on her.

Haungfu isn’t going to let her escape with the plaque. He does eventually steal it from her, but not before she kicks his butt several times and begins to discover why the plaque is so important. The inscription on the back turns out to be the key to a forgotten city in China where a vast treasure is buried.

Everyone is interested the city and what it contains: Professor Hu, an archeologist working the dig in search of the city; Ngai Kuan-Yin, a greedy Chinese business man obsessed with the treasure, who also has gagsters working for him including Huangfu Cao; Kelly Swan, a trained assassin hell bent on avenging the death of her father; and Garin Braden, Roux’s apprentice of sorts for the last several hundred years, as well as his enemy. Roux himself calls Annja and offers to pay her way to China in order to discover the lost city.

How the puzzle is solved and these very different people come to meet is what I enjoyed most about this story. We see a little bit more of Roux, getting a peak behind the front he puts up for Annja constantly.

This is a fun, fast read with a lot of great detail. Thoroughly researched, it creates a solid footing for the action and adventure that propels you forward. While this book could stand alone, you might miss a few details and I would recommend you start with the first book in the series, Destiny.

Monday, March 12, 2007

'Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress - Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless' by Susan Jane Gilman

In a book about 'growing up ambitious and engaging in some spectacularly imbecilic behavior,' Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, a follow-up to Kiss My Tiara, takes you from the very start of a wacky life to adulthood. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another book because it has been a long time since I laughed so hard while reading.

As Gilman further attests in the 'Author’s Soapbox' of a preface, this collection of names-have-been-changed true stories -- 'or at least, I’ve recounted them as honestly as I can remember them' — serves more than a single purpose:

I’ve written this book, in part, because it seems that all of us could use a good laugh these days. Yet I’ve also written it because so many stories women are currently telling are all about getting a man. Or getting over a man. Or about getting laid. Or about not getting laid. Or about not getting laid and not getting a man, but deciding we’re ok with it. While a few stories do involve a boy, a bra, and a booty call, mostly their focus is elsewhere - on other passions and delusions that we all experience in one form or another.

The stories that you find within this book are everything the author promises and more. Each one is something that any girl, or guy for that matter, can relate to.

Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress is separated into three sections. Part One, entitled 'Grape Juice and Humiliation' contains, among others, ‘Nudie Hippie Kiddie Star’ and ‘A Girl's Guide to Bragging and Lying.' Part Two, ‘Not Just Horny, But Obnoxious, Too’ contains my favorite, ‘Mick Jagger Wants Me.’ And Part Three -- ‘Reality Says, “Hello”’ -- contains, among others, ‘I was a Professional Lesbian,’ ‘My Father the Park Ranger, My Mother the Nun’ and the title essay.

In ‘Mick Jagger Wants Me’ Gilman talks about how she fantasized as a teenager about Mick Jagger not only being her boyfriend but pulling up in front of her school in a black stretch limo. But he didn’t stop there; he would walk inside, come into her classroom and get down on one knee to tell her how much he has missed her for the last three hours that they have been apart. Of course the whole classroom would be staring opened-mouthed and some of the girls would have fainted between the desks.

I have to admit to having spent criminal amounts of time myself dreaming of my crush sweeping me out of school like in the movie Officer and a Gentleman. I also fantasized that I was taller with perfect skin and in a tight sparkly ball gown. If I’m dreaming I might as well dream big, right? Well Susan Jane Gilman thinks so and that is exactly how her life reads.

Not only will you laugh but you will cry as well. Susan Gilman takes everything that life has to offer and brings out the hilarious, sad, beautiful, and slightly odd things that all of us have experienced. Hypocrite is now one of my favorite books and whenever I have a chance this will be the book I tell my friends to read

Monday, March 5, 2007

'Abhorsen' by Garth Nix

ISBN: 0060594985
Format: Paperback, 340pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $12.99

I don’t know about you but when I reach the end of a trilogy I get a little sad. I know that all good things must come to an end but I always hate to see it happen. You want the conclusion, you want all those little loose ends tied up, but at the same time you want the adventure to continue.

Abhorsen is the third and final book of The Abhorsen Trilogy and I am sad to see it end. This is an amazing series, with great characters, a fully realized world, and more than enough adventure to keep you turning pages.

Lirael, Sam, Mogget, and the Disreputable Dog have set off to rescue Nick, Sam’s school friend from Ancelstierre. Nick, who does not believe in magic and thinks that everything can be explained by science, has had a fragment of the Destroyer placed in his heart by Hedge the evil necromancer who Sam barely escaped from in Lirael.

Lirael has come to terms with the fact that she is the Abhorsen-in-waiting, with the Abhorsen Sabriel and Kind Touchstone missing it is up to her and Sam to save humankind from the Destroyer. As they travel closer to where Hedge is keeping Nick they fight off the Dead Hands and Gore Crows, each character facing trials of their own.

Meanwhile Nick or rather the fragment of the Destroyer in him is over seeing the excavation of two silver hemispheres that each contain a portion of the Destroyer. Hedge’s plan is to make them whole and release the ancient evil within.

At one point Lirael almost rescues Nick but the fragment of the Destroyer in him prevents it. Lirael is forced to let him go and watch as Hedge takes Nick and the hemispheres from the Old Kingdom across the Wall and into Ancelstierre.

The final stand is made there, in Ancelstierre, with the whole cast of characters. The ending is anything but anticlimactic. You know that the good will triumph over evil but there is always a price and by the last page of the book I was in tears.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is an original and solid fantasy. Each book has something different to recommend it, and Sabriel could stand on it’s own, but they are strongest as a whole. This is a great trilogy well worth the shelf space and I know that I will read these again.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

'Lirael' by Garth Nix

ISBN: 0060590165
Format: Paperback, 464pp
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Edition Description: First Eos Edition
Price: $12.99

Lirael, published in 2001, is the continuation of The Abhorsen Trilogy that was started by Sabriel in 1995. Sometimes books suffer from being the middle in a trilogy, the bridge that links the very exciting beginning with the hopefully dramatic end. But Garth Nix solves that problem by picking up with a new character and choosing an even larger enemy to defeat.

The story starts in the Old Kingdom with Lirael, a Daughter of the Clayr, 14 years after Sabriel. The Clayrs are able to see the future or the possible future, but Lirael has never felt that she belonged. With each birthday she expects to gain the Sight that would mark her as an adult Clayr, but each birthday comes and goes without the gift. Lirael is given the chance to leave the blue tunic of children behind to take up the yellow of a third assistant librarian until her Sight awakens.

For the first part of the book we see Lirael come to terms with what she feels makes her an outsider. But as she becomes more comfortable with the Library and its contents she begins to explore. When she accidentally lets a dangerous Free Magic creature out of its bindings, the book really picks up the pace.

Meanwhile, across the Wall in Ancelstierre, Prince Sameth, Sabriel and Touchstone’s son, is finishing his last term at school. When his cricket team is attacked by a group of Dead Hands and the necromancer that made them, Sam is the only person who can do anything. He goes into Death to find the necromancer and barely escapes with his life.

Sam comes away scared but alive to make his way home and find out that there are Dead causing problems. His mother, Sabriel, is gone constantly dealing with the Dead and his father, Touchstone, spends his time dealing with Ancelstierre and their radical politics.

When Nick, a friend from school in Ancelstierre, decides to come for a visit, Sam is thrilled. But when Nick crosses across the Wall early with the help of a suspicious guide named Hedge, Sam realizes that something must have gone wrong.

Lirael and Sam both go through many trials before they finally meet. Picking up Mogget from Sabriel, and a new character, the Disreputable Dog, they realize together they must save the Kingdom.

The action in this book is great and you are able to identify with the characters. It was also nice to be able to see some of the changes that Sabriel had brought about in the Old Kingdom. Where once it was a place of fear and decay it has shed the past to move into a bright future. Although there isn’t much of Sabriel in Lirael, and I missed her, it’s a natural progression forward.

The ending however is a cliffhanger. We leave Lirael and Sam on the brink of a darkness, preparing to step up and face an ancient unknown evil. When you finish Lirael you will want the third book, Abhorsen, on hand to continue the story.