BookScapes

by Helen McIver
bookpile2Last night we had a fun WWW (Wit, Wisdom and Wine) fundraiser event for the Library. I probably donated half of the books that went with the silent auction items as I am radically cleaning my bookshelves and downsizing. It hurts. But it has reacquainted me with so many books and authors and as always the desire to share the next good read. It’s a new book if you haven’t read it. I am also exploring my Kindle options, ebook reader (the library is a wonderful source for borrowing), and book reviewing online. As such, I am attempting to write a regular Sunday column on this blog.

Shadow of the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
This is her debut historical novel, in a planned Medieval trilogy about Queen Emma. At 400+ pages is it a richly detailed, well written account of a relatively unknown period of English history. The author has thoroughly researched Emma, although some of the characters are rather loosely involved in events in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (891 to 1154). (NB several of the unexpected events in this novel didn’t actually happen. Also, I was surprised by the love interest as well as the guilt/haunting episodes.) The author was intrigued by the silence of 15 years in the Queen’s autobiography (Encomium Emmae Reginae 1040) which triggered this novel. I did find it engaging reading, with accurate family history and political intrigue although the use of four voices often interrupted the flow. She includes glossary, map, and a chart of names which are quite useful to keep everyone straight. It is evident that Bracewell has done research on everything from swordplay to parchment, clothes to loos, and reveled in every minute of it (the detail, but also well written).
Emma was the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, essentially sold in a treaty to provide allies to protect the shores of England against the marauding Danes. She married King AEthelred II (the Unready) in 1002 when she was 16 and he was 35 (considered old, but he had been reigning for 20+years by then, in turbulent times.) His nickname was given 150 years after his death and is a pun on his name (noble counsel) which would have been better translated as “ill advised or evil counsel”, referring to his royal Council the Witan. History has accorded him a powerful king, one of the most forceful kings of the 10th century who created the Kingdom, ending individual control of all the magnate families. The author, however, depicts AEthelred as cruel, old, haunted, although most of the story is told from Emma’s viewpoint. She matures and becomes one of the most powerful women of the 11th century, 40 years behind the throne. Her story is fascinating, as she leaves the innocence of childhood, navigates court intrigue, falls in love, endures and creates political rivals and generally survives a rather brutal world. Given how little we know of women in history, she is a fascinating character.
Her son, Edward (who becomes King, the Confessor, d. Jan 1066) is born at the end of this book (1006). Her story will continue with additional portrayals of a life in which two of her sons (by each husband), two stepsons (by each husband) and a great nephew (William the Conqueror Oct 1066) became kings of England. Her life story as detailed here, is an enjoyable, interesting, historical read.

3 stars a lot of detail, but editing would help.
If you like Phillippa Gregory, Alison Weir, Jean Plaidy or Elizabeth Chadwick you will enjoy these novels. I also recommend Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series, and Edward Rutherford’s Sarum.
Shadow on the Crown is due to be published February 2013.
Read as an ARC

Book of the MomentCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Five Stars!
I read books for a variety of reasons. I could have read this because Nancy Pearl highly recommended it, because it was one of the top ten YA books of the year, or because it is an interesting historical genre that I like. But I started it because the author is a writer living in Scotland and a Pilot. And she has a Phd (in Folklore from UPenn). These days I am astonished that most of the authors I love have Phds. I love them for the sentence structure, the plot, the research, and the storytelling. And the experience upon closing the book that I must share it, immediately.
Quite simply, Code Name Verity is one of the best books of the year – this year, last year, whatever. Don’t be put off by the YA classification, this is a great book in any genre. It is stunning, breathtaking, horrifying, thrilling, terrifying, heartbreaking, and absolutely breathtaking. You can not remain unmoved during this story, and the last two chapter might rip out your heart (especially as an adult). It has several very important messages for teens too. It won’t hurt adults to remember the fragility of love, the meaning of hope, the power of courage, and the grace of true friendships.

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Book Review and Contest Announcement – The Unearthly Series

    

“I’ve learned that a storm isn’t always just bad weather, and a fire can be the start of something. I’ve found out that there are a lot more shades of gray in this world than I ever knew about. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you´re afraid but you keep on moving forward, that’s the biggest kind of courage there is. And finally, I’ve learned that life isn’t really about failure and success. It’s about being present, in the moment when big things happen, when everything changes, including myself.” ~ Clara

(Excerpt from the Unearthly series by Cynthia Hand)

Being 16 and navigating through high school is hard enough, but can you imagine learning that you’re only “part human” and that you are put on this earth to complete a mission or a “purpose”?  Such is the premise of the Unearthly series of books by Cynthia Hand.

Clara Gardiner thinks she’s a typical teenager until the day her mother reveals to her that she’s part angel, complete with wings that can be summoned on command and the ability to fly.  Furthermore, she’s been put on this earth to fulfill a purpose which will be sent to her in the form of visions or dreams, and her one goal in life – the reason she was born – is to fulfill that purpose.

Shortly after her 16th birthday, Clara’s visions begin.  In a recurring daydream, Clara is transported to a forest fire where she sees in the distance a boy she feels destined to save.  The visions continue until she and her mother are able to conclude that her purpose is connected to this boy and  the forest fire, and the family uproots and leaves everything they’ve known to begin the quest to fulfill Clara’s purpose.

What happens, however, when Clara gets thrown a curve ball and the purpose she feels meant to fulfill seems less important than the direction that her own free-will wants her to go?  Will she follow her purpose, or will she choose a different path?  And what happens if she doesn’t fulfill her purpose?

Cynthia Hand has created wonderful page-turners in her first two books in the Unearthly Series, Unearthly and Hallowed.  In Unearthly, we’re introduced to Clara and her family, and Clara’s friends in her new school.  Strangely, this new town where her family has moved to seems to be a hotspot for “angel-bloods” – those who are part human and part angel.  For the first time, Clara can freely discuss with her close friends her visions and challenges, and she quickly learns that her new friends and their own purposes are deeply intertwined with her own.

Unearthly and Hallowed are an outstanding beginning to a new series of books target toward young adult readers, but the storyline is interesting and mature enough to appeal to even adult readers.  And, they’re this week’s FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY!  This week, we are giving away gently-used copies of BOTH BOOKS to one lucky winner.  Simply complete the entry form below and click “submit” to enter.

This contest begins today and will end on midnight on Friday, June 15th.  The contest winner will be announced on Monday, June 18th.  Please remember that this contest is open only to Rochester-area residents, and you must be able to pick up your winning copies within 10 business days of winning notification.  Please note that no copies will be mailed.

For more information about this series of books, visit the author’s website at http://www.cynthiahandbooks.com.

CONTEST ENTRY FORM

Book Review – BitterBlue

BitterBlue
A Review by Helen McIver

Kristin Cashore’s first two YA novels,  Graceling and Fire, were wonderful books and I was eagerly anticipating this third novel in the series. Although reviewers say you don’t need to read the first two to love this book, I highly recommend doing so as there is good character development and interesting plot interactions. The cast remains exceptional.

This is the story of BitterBlue, whose mother was killed trying to save her from her evil, sociopath father. He in turn was killed by Katsa in Graceling to save the Kingdom. BitterBlue takes place in Monsea, one of the Seven Kingdoms, with magic and nonstop action. In these books a few people have extreme skills known as “Graces” that develop as they mature. Some of the more interesting ones are assassin, herbalist, fearlessness, mind reading, and telling lies which are perceived as true.

At the end of the previous book, Graceling, BitterBlue becomes Queen at the age of 10. As BitterBlue opens, she has matured to the age of 18 and is becoming unsettled in her rule. She has begun to question her advisors and rebel at the mounds of paperwork (we can relate!); and she is intent on unraveling and uncovering her father’s horrific legacy.

BitterBlue is a strong female heroine: curious and extremely intelligent, though extremely sheltered (and at times seeming far younger than 18). In her restlessness she sneaks outside the castle and discovers an entirely different world.

BitterBlue was classified as YA science fiction, but it could equally qualify as adult fiction, romance and political thriller. It is a detailed book of vivid descriptions, though some are horrific and gritty and include details of abuse, corrupt power and betrayal. These are tough issues and difficult questions, but we live in a world with Serbia, Rwanda, Bosnia, North Korea and Iraq. While the characters deal with pain, sorrow, loneliness, depression and heartache, they also experience joy, love and developing friendships.

I sincerely hope the Graceling books continue with these developing characters, especially Bitterblue, Katsa, Po and Sky. My favorite character in this book was Death (pronounced Deeth), the Royal Librarian who is graced with speed reading and possesses a photographic memory for everything he reads.

This book is filled with interesting illustrations which serve to clarify locations.  The romance is perhaps “young and scared,” but it is not the focus of the plot and I, personally, like that her characters don’t fit the “happily ever after” mode.

The first two novels in this series won several awards and were selected for a variety of reading lists, including the ALA Best Book for Young Adults and SLJ Best Book of the Year. I have no doubt this story will follow its predecessors.

To learn more about Kristin Cashore or her series of wonderful books, visit the author’s blog at http://www.kristencashore.blogspot.com or http://www.gracelingrealm.com.

Book Review – The River Between Us

The River Between Us
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

It’s the eve of the American Civil War, and tensions are high in the sleepy town of Grand Tower, Illinois, as the country comes to terms with the fact that the world as they know it is about to change.  Families are preparing to send their husbands and sons off to war, and sometimes to fight against each other or their own neighbors.  Then one day, a beautiful young southern woman and her companion arrive by steamboat in the small town, en route to St. Louis.  They decide to travel no further, and instead request lodging within the town.  With no “appropriate” hotel, they soon find lodging as boarders with the Pruitt family – Tilly, Noah, Cass and their mother.

Who is this young woman and her companion?  Is her companion a slave?  The town is abuzz with the notion that the  young woman, Delphine, and her companion, Calinda, are southern spies sent to Grand Tower to gather information and send it to the enemy.  Much intrigue and mystery surround the arrival of these woman, and discovering the truth behind their many stories is at the heart of this spellbinding story.

Richard Peck has written a riveting young-adult novel about the early days of the American Civil War and the young men and women caught in the crossfire.   Young Noah Pruitt will hear the call to battle and feel compelled to don the blue uniform of the North, leaving behind his mother and sisters, together with their two house guests, to survive on their own.  But can he survive without them?

The River Between Us is the YA selection for Rochester Reads 2012.  It is a novel written for YA readers, but with enough history, suspense and mystery to attract older readers.  It was a truly enjoyable read on every level.

This book is available at the Rochester Public Library; however as part of this blog’s FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY, you can win a FREE, gently used, paperback copy of The River Between Us just for having read this review.  Simply enter your name, address, e-mail address and phone number in the entry form below and your name may be chosen at random to receive this free gift.  This contest is open until this Friday, May 18th, at midnight.  Contest winner will be announced on Monday morning, May 21st.

Please note:  This contest is open to Rochester, MN-area residents only.  Winners must be available to pick up your prize at the Friends of the Library Bookstore, located next door to the Rochester Public Library, within 10 days of your winning notification.  Please note that no copies will be mailed.

Good luck!

Contest Entry

Book Review – Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

As an avid reader, it’s been with no small amount of embarrassment that I’ve been forced to admit – until recent years – that I’d never read Jane Austen’s classic love story, Pride and Prejudice.  To be completely honest, it didn’t appeal to me.  First, it was written in the 19th century, so I knew I’d have to get past the barrier of the writing style and speech.  Then, to be honest, it just didn’t sound that interesting to me.  Admittedly, I didn’t really know the whole premise of the story, but some guy named “Mr. Darcy” didn’t sound all that romantically appealing.  But, after a series of other books wherein “Mr. Darcy” or “Elizabeth Bennet” were repeatedly referenced, I figured I better just bite the bullet so that I can at least feel a little bit intelligent.  And so I sat down to read an old, dusty copy of Pride and Prejudice that had been in our family since what felt like the beginning of time.

The first few pages were a slow-go.  It took me several pages to get the rhythm of the writing style but, after about ten pages, I was hooked.  I quickly became immersed in the life of the Bennet sisters and felt the pain of their long-suffering father as he tolerated the drama of his hypochondriac wife.

Pride and Prejudice is really what every good novel should be.  It’s humor intertwined with drama, a bit of suspense, a little bit of sorrow and a whole lot of fun.  Take for example, the egotistical, self-important Mr. Collins.  He’s the distant cousin to Mr. Bennet and the next in line to inherit the Bennet properties.  He has money – which is something the Bennet sisters will be without once their father passes – so “out of the kindness of his heart” he proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet.  From this proposal ensues one of the most amusing misunderstandings in this book.  Mr. Collins simply cannot believe that Ms. Bennet would turn him down and so simply chooses to ignore her repeated replies of “no” to his proposal.  All young women must marry; Elizabeth Bennnet will be poor and presumably destitute upon the passing of her father, so why wouldn’t she want to marry Mr. Collins?  For the answer to that, you’ll need to read the book.

Jane Austen

Next you have the youngest Bennet sisters, Kitty and Lydia, whose behavior is so absurd for the time period that you can’t help but feel empathy for the two older sisters who must endure the embarrassment of their unrestrained behavior.  Rather than correct their behavior and rein them in, their mother dotes on them and their father just chuckles at their antics.

Then of course there’s the oldest sister:  sweet, simple Jane.  She’s in love with Mr. Bingley, and this is an obvious match made in heaven since they’re both bitten so strongly by the love bug that there can be no other match for either…though you will wonder for a while whether that match will ever solidify.

And finally – and most importantly – you have Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.  I have no idea what Mr. Darcy’s first name is.  I’m not sure the author ever gives it; or, if she does, it’s just not important.  He’s Mr. Darcy.  A seemingly arrogant and snobbish gentleman and the best friend to Mr. Bingley.  Clearly from the beginning, the reader knows there’s some type of chemistry between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, but how they go from the platform of contempt and dislike of each other is a roller coaster ride involving a whole lot of pride and more than a little bit of prejudice.  Hence the title, Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice is a truly great read and one that would appeal to both young and mature adults.  Surprisingly to me, it is at the top of my list of favorite books of all time.  And to think that I was reluctant to read it!

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy - BBC Version

Since reading this book, I’ve had the opportunity to see both movie adaptations; the Kiera Knightly version, as well as the incredibly well-done BBC version.  For those who wish to see a screen version as part of the experience, I strongly recommend the BBC version starring Colin Firth.  It is the truest book to movie adaptation I’ve ever seen and is well worth the time to watch.  It brings the book to life and does so without changing the heart of the story even a fraction.  Check it out!

YouTube Video:  Mr. Collins Proposes Marriage

Book Review – The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Brian Selznick
A Review by Helen McIver

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a marvelous debut novel by illustrator Brian Selznick.  So good, in fact, that it won the 2008 Caldecott medal. It was absolutely magical and another “first” for me as a reader.

What a brilliant concept:  making pictures tell long stories!  How we view those pictures and details also tells us different dimensions of the story. Included are black and white charcoal drawings, sequences,  and scenes to closeups.  The use of these dimensions allows the reader to see a variety of stories such as how the clocks work, dream sequences, silent movies, and even what Paris is like.

School children loved the mulit-layered story of this book, as much for the story itself as for the fact it was a BIG book (more than 500 pages!).  Older kids had Harry Potter; now the younger kids have Hugo..

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of  a 12-year old orphan who lives in a busy Paris train station. He hides in plain sight, keeping the clocks running and staying out of the way of the authorities (and the orphanage/workhouse). It is also an homage to the French pioneer silent filmmaker, Georges Melies.

This is a captivating book full of wonder; a magical blend of graphic novel and historical fiction for the young adult audience. The movie is every bit as magical and should be on everyone’s list to see. Perfect to share with your grandchildren!!

View the trailer for the Oscar award-winning movie, Hugo, based upon the David Selnick novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.


Book Review – Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment

Book Review

Maximum Ride:  
The Angel Experiment
James Patterson
With 13 days remaining until Christmas, I’m getting a littlestressed out.  I’ve done all of myshopping with one exception:  Istill have to buy for the readers on my list.  And I can’t just buy any book and hope it’s good.  Nope…not me.  I can’t give a book unless I both know it’s a good book, ANDknow that the intended reader will identify with it in some way.  So I’ve been doing a lot of reading!
One of the recipients on my list is a 14-year-old girl whois a voracious reader.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read any YA novels, so I honestly didn’t know where tostart.  And then someone suggestedJames Patterson’s Maximum Ride series. I was familiar with Patterson and I’d read several of his novels, but –though I was aware the series existed – I wasn’t aware that the target audiencewas young adult readers.  With my 14-year old friend in mind, I picked up Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment.
Had a I realized in advance that this series was stronglybased in science fiction, I can assure you I would never have even consideredreading it, even as an advance screening for a gift.  After all, I’ve often proclaimed that I’ll read anythingexcept science fiction.  It’s justnot a genre I enjoy…or so I thought. It would seem that I should rethink my aversion to science fiction,because I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading theremainder of the series.
Maximum Ride is a 14-year-old girl who isn’t your normalteenager.  She and her friends havebeen experimentally mutated by “The School” and have an avian bone structureand wings like a bird.  At firstglance, they look like any other group of kids…except for the 13-foot wingspanthey keep carefully concealed under a windbreaker to avoid notice.
Four years before the opening of this book, Max and her friendswere secretly liberated from “The School” and have been hiding from the Erasers– creatures genetically mutated into wolf-like half-humans, created for the purposeof hunting them down and either killing them or returning them to “The School.”  Max and her friends have been locatedby the Erasers, and now they’re onthe run for their lives.  Whetherthey escape unscathed is something you’ll have to discover for yourself byreading the book.
As an adult, I must admit I was surprised at how much Ienjoyed this book.  While thetarget audience is young adults (probably grade 5 and above) I found that thetwists and turns made it completely enjoyable for adults to read as well.  The short chapters would be especiallyattractive for young readers or busy adults, as they allow the reader to pickthe book up for a quick read and then put it down without investing a full halfhour on a chapter.
Maximum Ride was a truly outstanding read and willdefinitely be in the “to open” pile for my young friend on Christmas morning.  I may even consider it for one or moreof my adult reading friends.
For more information about the Maximum Ride series of books,visit the author’s website dedicated to this series byfollowing this link.
~ Catherine H. Armstrong