Review: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, IncorrigibleStephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible

“In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson knows she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society—if she can find true acceptance in the secret order that expelled her mother. She’s ready to upend the rigid Order of the Guardians, whether the older members like it or not. And in a Society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use her powers to help her two older sisters find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way! History seamlessly merges with fantasy in this humorous and lively novel.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As you know, I’m a sucker for anything that can be described as “Jane Austen plus magic,” and this book delivers on that premise with a fun middle-grade adventure. There are two plots, each in a different genre. Oddly, the Regency romance plot, in which Elissa and Angeline both encounter obstacles on their way to marital bliss, gets most of the emphasis. The fantasy plot, in which Kat discovers her magical abilities and has to figure out what they mean, is somewhat underdeveloped by comparison. But there are (at least) two more books in the series, so hopefully the magical system and Kat’s role in it will become clearer as the series progresses. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the relationship among the three sisters; although they often squabble, they always have each other’s backs when things get tough. All in all, I found this novel charming and look forward to reading the sequels.

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Review: The Star of Kazan

star of kazanEva Ibbotson, The Star of Kazan

Twelve-year-old Annika has never known her parents, but she has grown up surrounded by the love of her kind guardians. Her childhood has been largely carefree: she helps with the cooking and household chores, goes to school, and plays with her friends and neighbors in the little square in Vienna where she lives. But she still dreams of the day when her long-lost mother — who will naturally be beautiful, elegant, and kind — will come looking for her. One day the dream comes true, and Annika is overjoyed when her mother whisks her away to live with her “real” family. But as she spends more time with her biological relatives, she is confused and hurt by their indifference, and she eventually learns that their interest in her may have an ulterior motive.

Ibbotson’s books are the ultimate comfort reads, in my opinion — they’re so sweet and old-fashioned, extolling the virtues of community, kindness, and generosity. This one is geared toward younger readers, which makes some aspects of the plot a little simplistic, particularly the “mystery” of Annika’s newfound relatives and their inconsistent treatment of her. But the book is still very charming, and it paints an absolutely beautiful picture of both Vienna and the Austrian countryside. I’m not normally into books with lots of descriptive details, but this novel really makes me want to visit Austria! I also enjoyed the characters, particularly Annika’s friends Pauline (who is afraid of everything but eventually conquers her fears to help Annika) and Zed (a servant who has a way with horses). Overall, this book hit that happy comfort spot for me, and I would recommend it, along with any of Ibbotson’s other books.

Review: Frogkisser!

Frogkisser!Garth Nix, Frogkisser!

Princess Anya of Trallonia just wants to live peacefully at home, mingling with the Royal Dogs and studying a bit of sorcery in the palace library. But her wicked step-stepfather, the powerful sorcerer Duke Rikard, wants the throne of Trallonia for himself, and he’ll stop at nothing to get it. He’s already eliminated several threats to his power by transforming them into frogs—including Prince Denholm from a neighborhing kingdom, who is smitten with Anya’s sister Morven. Anya promises the distraught Morven that she’ll transform Prince Denholm back into a human, but she’ll need to leave the palace to acquire the proper magical ingredients to reverse the spell. She sets forth on her quest with Ardent, one of the most loyal and intelligent Royal Dogs, only to discover that Duke Rikard has sent spies and assassins after her. As Anya and Ardent race against time to complete their quest, Anya meets many new friends and foes, including a thief in the body of a newt, an angry giant, a good wizard, and even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She also finds that the people of her kingdom are depending on her to defeat Duke Rikard and reestablish the ancient Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But are Anya and her allies strong enough to survive against Duke Rikard and his band of evil sorcerers?

I enjoyed this charming middle-grade fantasy adventure. I found Anya to be a very appealing heroine, especially because she grows as a character throughout the novel. At the outset she is practical and kind, but she’s also a little bit selfish and ignorant about what’s going on in her kingdom. Initially she thinks her quest is limited to transforming Prince Denholm back into a man; she doesn’t want to fight Duke Rikard, and she’s not particularly interested in the Bill of Rights and Wrongs. But the more she learns about the people around her, the more she realizes that she has a responsibility to step up and be the leader they need. I also enjoyed the little flashes of humor throughout the story; at times I was reminded of Terry Pratchett. I absolutely loved the good wizard and the subversive take on Snow White! My only quibble with the book is that the tone is a bit inconsistent. At its core it’s a story for children, complete with talking dogs and the heroine learning a valuable lesson, but there are occasional sly jokes that seem intended for an adult audience. The narrative isn’t played entirely straight, but it’s not exactly a spoof or parody either. Still, there’s a lot to like in this book, and I’d recommend it for people who enjoy a light fantasy frolic.

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

Mini-Reviews: Geekerella, Eight, Only, Herrings

GeekerellaEight Days of Luke

Ashley Poston, Geekerella — This is a cute YA take on the Cinderella story, where the protagonist is a teen who’s obsessed with the sci-fi TV show “Starfield,” and her Prince Charming is the lead actor in the upcoming “Starfield” movie. It’s an entertaining bit of fluff, but not something I’ll ever reread. I was also slightly annoyed with the main character because she mocks her “wicked stepsisters” for wearing makeup and caring about their looks, as if there’s something morally wrong with those things. Still, it’s a cute read, and you’ll probably enjoy it if the premise appeals to you.

Diana Wynne Jones, Eight Days of Luke — This may be a children’s book, but I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in Norse mythology. It’s the story of a boy named David who lives with his odious family and has no escape — until he meets the charming Luke, who takes him on several adventures. But it turns out that Luke is actually the Norse god Loki, and he’s in a lot of trouble with the other gods. This probably isn’t one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best books, but it’s still worth a read, in my opinion!

If You Only KnewFive Red Herrings, The

Kristan Higgins, If You Only Knew — Kristan Higgins is one of my auto-buy romance authors, but I’m really enjoying her forays into women’s fiction as well. This book still has a romance or two, but it also focuses on the personal journeys of Jenny, a wedding dress designer who’s struggling to get over her ex-husband, and her sister Rachel, who has just discovered her husband’s infidelity. Definitely recommended for fans of chick lit.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings — I’m a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but I have to admit that this wasn’t one of my favorites. First of all, there’s no Harriet Vane, and I was really looking forward to seeing more of her after Strong Poison! Second, this is Sayers’s “alibi” mystery, where the solution involves railroad timetables and the like. I have to admit, I kind of skimmed over most of the in-depth alibi stuff, trusting that the denouement would give me all the information I really needed. So this wasn’t really the book for me, but I still found a lot to enjoy in Lord Peter’s antics and look forward to the next book in the series.

Mini-Reviews #9: Readathon reviews

With this batch of mini-reviews, I’m once again caught up with my backlog. I read three of the four books during the October 24-hour readathon, hence the title of this post. 🙂

we-have-always-lived-in-the-castlewhich-witch

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle — Merricat Blackwood, her sister Constance, and her Uncle Julian are the last remnant of a once-prominent family. They live in a decrepit, isolated old house, and they don’t associate with any of the people in the nearby town. The novel’s sinister atmosphere is augmented by the suspicion that seven years ago, Constance deliberately poisoned the rest of her family. I’m no fan of horror, but I found this to be a very well-written, creepy but not too scary book. I may even read some more Shirley Jackson in the future.

Eva Ibbotson, Which Witch? — I’ve been a fan of Ibbotson’s YA/adult novels for years now, but this was my first experience reading one of her books for children. It was just as delightful as I expected it to be, telling the story of a dark wizard who holds a competition to determine which witch will be his bride. Beautiful and kind Belladonna would love to be the winner, but her magic is inescapably good. How will she convince Arriman the Awful that she’s his perfect match?

goodnight-tweetheartcrooked-kingdom

Teresa Medeiros, Goodnight Tweetheart — The plot of this romance novel is essentially “Boy meets girl on Twitter.” As such, the book is inescapably dated, but I must admit I enjoyed it anyway! It had some good banter and some sweet moments…overall, a pleasant escapist read. It’s not a new favorite or anything, but it’s definitely a fun way to spend an evening (or, in my case, the middle of the night!).

Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom — If you loved Six of Crows, which I didCrooked Kingdom will not disappoint! The twists and turns of the plot kept me hooked, and I loved the fact that Kaz was always one step ahead of his enemies. And as with the previous book, I was completely invested in these characters and rooting for them all to achieve their goals. I especially liked that this book gave more attention to Jesper and Wylan, the two characters who were least fleshed out in Six of Crows. There was also a very welcome appearance by Nikolai, my favorite character in the Grisha trilogy, which leads me to believe that Bardugo isn’t done with this world yet!

Review: The Little Prince

Little Prince, TheAntoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (trans. Katherine Woods)

After trying to review this book in my usual way, I’ve given it up as a lost cause. So I will just say that this classic children’s fable about a stranded pilot and a little boy from another planet is a wonderful read, for adults as well as for children. It’s full of allegories and lessons for attentive readers, from the folly of greed to the power of friendship. I’m sorry I never read this as a child, but I still found it incredibly touching and moving — the perfect book for a winter’s evening!

Review: The Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth, TheNorton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

This classic children’s book tells the story of a bored little boy named Milo who comes home one day to find a mysterious package in his bedroom. The package turns out to be a toy tollbooth, and when he assembles it and drives through in his little electric car, he is transported to a new world. Milo visits a variety of unusual places, including the hostile cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis and the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping). He also receives an important mission: to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from where they are imprisoned in a castle in the air. Along the way, Milo encounters many dangers, including the land of Illusion, the Doldrums, and the demons of Ignorance. Luckily, with the help of his friends Tock and Humbug, he is finally able to rescue the princesses and restore them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. Ultimately, he learns that his “boring” life is actually more interesting than he ever imagined.

For some reason, I never read this beloved children’s classic when I was growing up. If I had read it around age 7 or 8, it probably would have been one of my favorite books. But even as an adult reading it for the first time, I found a lot to enjoy and admire. I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay, and this book is chock-full of it, from the watchdog with a clock for a body to King Azaz of Dictionopolis. There’s also a hint of satire, as when the Humbug explains that several family members have occupied prominent positions in history; for example, many kings have been Humbugs. The book is quite didactic, though, which I wasn’t expecting. Nearly every creature and situation Milo encounters is designed to teach him (and the book’s young readers) a lesson. I did find these constant “teaching moments” a little tedious, but luckily the book has a lot of whimsy to make up for them. Overall, I definitely think this is a great book for children, but if you missed it as a kid, it’s not too late to enjoy it as an adult!

Review: The Giver

Giver, TheLois Lowry, The Giver

Eleven-year-old Jonas lives with his parents and sister in an idyllic place called simply the Community. The Community is governed by a set of Rules covering all aspects of life, which results in a peaceful, orderly society. Everyone has a specific role to play in the Community, with the Elders evaluating the children on their twelfth birthday in order to determine how they will serve the Community as adults. Jonas is looking forward to his Ceremony of Twelve with great excitement, wondering which job he’ll be assigned to perform. But when the fateful day finally arrives, Jonas is stunned to learn that he’s been chosen for the most prestigious and mysterious job of all: he will be the Community’s new Receiver. At first Jonas doesn’t even know what being the Receiver entails, but he soon learns that it will isolate him from everyone he knows, even his family. And as his training with the former Receiver (now called the Giver) continues, Jonas realizes that the supposedly benevolent Community is hiding some very dark secrets.

Despite the fact that this book came out during my childhood, I somehow never read it before. So I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t enjoy it, reading it for the first time as an adult. Fortunately, my fear was groundless — I thought this was an absolutely fantastic book! Of course, some of the more sinister aspects of the Community will be unsurprising to adult readers, who have presumably encountered other dystopian novels and can guess what’s coming. But Lowry does such an amazing job of peeling back the seemingly perfect facade of the Community bit by bit, slowly revealing surprising tidbits of this allegedly ideal world. I also really loved the character of Jonas, who reacts to his new discoveries in such an understandable way. I practically got chills at the scene where he gets his list of Rules for how to be the Receiver — it perfectly encapsulates the confusing new world he’s been thrust into. Finally, I liked the ambiguity of the ending; Jonas decides to take a stand, but the outcome of this decision remains uncertain. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels!