Friday, February 26, 2010

Flower Friday: Marianne

(a Hybrid Gallica rose)

Today's featured flower is my favorite rose in our garden: Marianne!  This once-blooming rose is fast-growing and absolutely covered in blooms year after year.  It has a strong peachy Damask fragrance and is truly bursting with petals.  We started this rose from a tiny twelve inch plant grown on its own roots (not grafted), and within two years it had grown into a sprawling eight foot bush covered in flowers each May and June.  Marianne has a vigorous growth habit that reminds me of a wild rose, and we have never had issues with leaf fungus or rust, even in our relatively damp climate.  It will definitely ramble if given the space.  Ours is leaning on a nearby mimosa tree for support, and it made its way at least eight feet up the tree trunk last spring.  The foliage is a bright, glossy green, and although the flowers only last two or three months, the plant remains green and lovely throughout the spring and summer (and well into autumn, in our zone).  This rose was bred by Paul Barden, and we purchased it from The Uncommon Rose shortly after it was first made available for sale.  The Uncommon Rose has since closed their retail shop, but Paul Barden's roses are now available through Rogue Valley Roses, a nursery that specializes in rare and exceptional roses.  Marianne's parent roses are the Duchesse de Montebello and Abraham Darby, and it is a beautiful hybrid of the two, bursting with petals in a gorgeous peachy pink color that fades to a warm, creamy yellow as the flowers age.  You can learn more about this rose by following the breeder & shop links above or by visiting HelpMeFind's Marianne page.

Book note:
This week I am reading The Pace by Shelena Shorts, Truly, Madly by Heather 
Webber, and Nightlight: a Parody by The Harvard Lampoon.  I am also looking 
forward to picking up Forget-Her-Nots by Amy Brecount White and Hex Hall by 
Rachel Hawkins when they are released next Tuesday.  Fun!  

Happy reading!  :)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Review: The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

The Changeover:  A Supernatural Romance
Title:  The Changeover : A Supernatural Romance
Author:  Margaret Mahy
Publisher:  Margaret K. McElderry
Genre: YA
ISBN:  0689503032
From Goodreads: "When her little brother seems to become possessed by an evil spirit, fourteen-year-old Laura seeks the help of the strangely compelling older boy at school who she is convinced has supernatural powers."
From The Book Depository:  
"Carnegie medal-winning supernatural romance from Margaret Mahy. The face in the mirror. From the moment she saw it, Laura Chant knew that something dreadful was going to happen. It wasn't the first time she'd been forewarned. But never before had anything so terrible happened. The horrifyingly evil Carmody Braque touched and branded her little brother -- and now Jacko was very ill, getting steadily worse. There was only one way to save him. Laura had to change over: had to release her supernatural powers. And that meant joining forces with the extraordinary and enigmatic Sorenson Carlisle!"

Overall rating:  10/10 flowers
Buy this book:  The Book Depository | IndieBound | Amazon | AbeBooks
Add this book to your:  Goodreads Shelfari | LibraryThing | Visual Bookshelf

How did it take me until 2010 to discover this wonderful book?!  Margaret Mahy's The Changeover was originally published in 1984, and somehow it did not appear on my book radar until twenty-six years later.  If you find yourself in a similar position, I'd highly recommend that you rectify the situation as soon as possible.  This book is overflowing with excellence.  From the perfectly described details of Laura Chant's everyday family life to her charmingly atypical romantic suitor to the threat of a truly sinister villain, The Changeover is a terrific coming-of-age story with a paranormal twist.  This book does not feel dated, and it quickly found its way onto my favorites shelf to be read again and again.  I am thankful to Kristin Cashore, Justine Larbalestier, and Sarah Rees Brennan for bringing Margaret Mahy to my attention when they each praised her books and/or characters on their blogs.  I don't know how Margaret Mahy remained under my radar for so long, but I am thrilled to have discovered her now, and I look forward to reading more of her books. 

What I Liked:
  • The beautiful and precise prose.  Even the mundane details of Laura's life are fascinating and lovely because every description is infused with personality.  From the teapot that screams as if it wishes to be put out of its misery to the suburban tract houses that all look as though they are cousins, if not siblings.  I read this book aloud to my husband & found myself stopping to re-read many passages just to enjoy the imagery.  This book is not bogged down by lengthy descriptive passages or filler.  Every word on the page is there to move the story forward or to actively enhance the atmosphere of a scene, and not a single word is wasted.
  • Everything about the characters feels authentic.  From the way Laura feels about her parents' divorce  to the way she interacts with her mother and younger brother.  There is nothing forced or contrived about a single line of dialogue, and the emotional undercurrent running between each of the characters feels absolutely genuine from start to finish.  It is difficult to describe how much I adored that.
  • Sorry.  He is not your standard romantic hero, but he has a quirky, self-assured charm that is all his own.  Socially awkward and notably conflicted, Sorenson Carlisle is a male witch who reads romance novels and somehow manages to be both overly confident and surprisingly vulnerable.  He is honest but not necessarily safe.  And he may have an impressive school transcript, but he still has a lot to learn when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  I've enjoyed a lot of 'broken boy' romantic heroes in various books over the years, but Sorry jumps off the page as completely unique.  I was thoroughly impressed by the way Margaret Mahy brought him to life with such an original voice, and I loved Sorry for his unfiltered honesty and his oddities.  He is not quite sure who he wants to become or how comfortable he is embracing his own humanity, but the closer he gets to Laura & the more he sees the possible consequences of losing touch with your humanity, the more he begins to open himself up to some new opportunities (even if those bring new frustrations along with them).
  • Laura!  As much as I adored Sorry for his flaws, I loved Laura even more for consistently calling him out on them!  She is both an "every-girl" character with many of the standard worries and insecurities of a typical fourteen year old, and a strong, confident young woman who boldly sets out to take her fate (and her brother's fate) into her own hands.  Laura grows up a lot over the course of the novel, taking several risks and making a number of difficult decisions.  Her motivations and choices never feel artificial or unrealistic, and even the paranormal changes are used to such excellent metaphorical effect that they feel totally natural & believable.  You'll find yourself relating to her and rooting for her from the very first page to the very last.
  • There is nothing fluffy about the romance in this book.  Laura and Sorry are frustrated & challenged by each other more than they swoon and sigh over each other, and that fits the characters and their situation perfectly.  I don't mean to imply that I dislike sigh-worthy, epically romantic love scenes in books.  In fact, I adore those scenes when they suit a particular story & set of characters.  In this case that wouldn't have suited the characters well at all, and I strongly respected the author's choice not to toss in a nonsensical fluff-fest.  Even Laura's mother's romantic entanglement has a decidedly practical & realistic nature to it.  And despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of fluff, I still found both relationships endearingly romantic and moving.  
  • The dark & remorseless villain, Carmody Braque. (<-- How great is that name?!)  Not only is he sly and frightening in the spookiest of ways, but he appears in a very commonplace setting, making him twice as terrifying.  His particular style of magical wickedness is definitely the stuff of nightmares as he literally devours Laura's young brother from afar.  Creepy with a capital "C"!
What I Wished:
  • I wish I'd stumbled across this book twenty years ago!  I would have loved this book as a tween/teen & it may have led me to discover the paranormal & urban fantasy sub-genre within YA literature long before I managed to find that section on my own.  
  • I don't think the subtitle: "A Supernatural Romance" is entirely accurate.  In my opinion, the romance, while lovely and an enjoyable subplot, is not the main theme of this novel.  This book is about a girl transitioning into young adult territory & evolving into a new version of herself.  Yes, there is a boy who helps that change along, but he is not the primary reason for the important choices Laura makes.  He is a fairly important companion along this part of her journey, but he is not the most compelling motivation propelling her forward.  So I think the subtitle is slightly misleading and may give readers expectations for this book that they will not find fulfilled.  However, the romantic elements of The Changeover are memorable and hopeful (in a very realistic way), so perhaps readers won't feel misled by the subtitle after all. 
I would highly recommend this book to all readers, and I would particularly recommend it to anyone who enjoys paranormal, fantasy, or urban fantasy novels set in a realistic, non-fantastical world.  Fans of Richard Peck's Blossom Culp books may like the way Margaret Mahy mixes magic with the common, no-frills world of an intelligent teenage girl.  Fans of Meghan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief series, may like Margaret Mahy's precise prose that is not at all condescending to its target audience of YA readers.  And fans of Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night may enjoy Margaret Mahy's imaginative imagery.  I was surprised and pleased by how much I loved this book, and I will be bumping Margaret Mahy's other novels up several notches on my "To-read" list because I enjoyed The Changeover so much. 

If you would like to learn more about Margaret Mahy and her books, please check out the Christchurch City Libraries' Margaret Mahy website or Fantastic Fiction's Margaret Mahy page.  

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

Title:  The Iron King
Author: Julie Kagawa
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Genre: YA
Paperback: 363 pages
ISBN: 0373210086
Summary: Meghan Chase has never fit in at her small-town high school, and now, on the eve of her 16th birthday, she discovers why. When her half brother is kidnapped, Meghan is drawn into a fantastical world she never imagined--the world of Faery, where anything you see may try to eat you, and Meghan is the daughter of the summer faery king. Now she will journey into the depths of Faery to face an unknown enemy . . . and beg the help of a winter prince who might as soon kill her as let her touch his icy heart. The Iron King is the first book in the Iron Fey series. (cover photo & summary from

Overall rating: 9/10 flowers 
To buy this book:  Powell's | The Book Depository | IndieBound | Amazon
Add this book to your:  Goodreads | Shelfari | LibraryThing | Visual Bookshelf

Urban fantasy blends deliciously with a spooky fairytale ambiance in Julie Kagawa's debut novel, The Iron King.   This book was much creepier than I expected it to be, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I love reading about brave heroines who are thrust into challenging circumstances.  I am also a fan of excellent world-building, particularly when that world happens to include a beautiful boy, a clever illusionist, and old grudges colliding with new rivalries.  This book was a lot of fun!

What I Liked:
  • The dark fairytale world.  From the eerily hazardous Nevernever to the dangerous fey-filled streets of New Orleans, it was easy to get caught up in the fabulously spooky atmosphere of The Iron King.
  • Ash!  Who doesn't love a dangerous ice prince?  Beneath his cold, handsome exterior lies an honorable and surprisingly gentle heart.  Plus, the boy can dance and is exceptionally handy with a sword.  ;)
  • Puck.  He is more than just a playful trickster.  It is impossible not to be charmed and amused by Meghan's devoted friend and protector.
  • The creepy creatures.  From nixies to gremlins to chimeras and goblins, this book is brimming with mysterious fey creatures & many of them are seriously scary.  There are several nightmare-worthy moments & characters to be found within the pages of The Iron King.
  • Grimalkin, a clever & snarky cat with his own agenda.  He reminded me of a cross between Lewis Carroll's mischievous Cheshire Cat and Tamora Pierce's intelligent constellation cat. 
  • The blending of traditional fey mythology (Seelie Court, Unseelie Court, Shakespearian fairies - Oberon, Titania, Puck, and Queen Mab) with totally new & intriguing elements like the Iron fey.  
  • The conflict that has been brewing between Ash and Puck since long before Meghan entered their lives, which is only made more complicated by their newfound rivalry & desire to help Meghan.
  • Lines that made me laugh in the midst of tense scenes.  For example, when Megan thinks "Good God, the Ice Prince was making jokes now; the world must be ending."
  • The first book, while leaving much to be explored in the rest of the series, is still conclusive enough not to be frustrating. 
What I Wished:
  • More Ash!  More Puck!  Okay, I suppose those two characters probably could not logically have been on all 363 pages, so I know this is a slightly unfair request.  But a girl can dream, right?  Luckily, there are two more books to come, so there should be plenty of time for Meghan to find herself dealing with forbidden romance & unrequited love (aka shirtless winter prince Ash & devoted 'I would've given everything for you' Puck).
  • I wanted Meghan to experiment with her abilities a little more.  Hopefully, more time will be devoted to that in books two and three.
  • A few of the human characters leaned toward cliches (the obnoxious jock & the snotty cheerleader), and they probably could have been reworked or developed a little further.
  • Occasionally, I wanted Meghan to be a little less naive or ready to jump into fairy bargains, but she'd generally redeem herself with her unflinching determination so I never held that character trait against her for too long. 
If you enjoy modern faery stories or traditional fairytales, I would highly recommend this book.  Fans of Neil Gaiman, Melissa Marr, or Holly Black should definitely check out The Iron King.  This book also has elements that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, The Neverending Story, and Labyrinth, so if you enjoyed any of those stories, you will want to pick up this book.  I am looking forward to reading the next two books in The Iron Fey series - The Iron Daughter (August 2010) & The Iron Queen (February 2011).  For more information about this series, follow the links below & watch the lovely Iron King trailer.  You can read the first three chapters of The Iron King online at The Iron Fey website.

Julie Kagawa's:  website | blog | LJ | twitter 

March update:   Blog with Bite is featuring reviews of The Iron King this month.  Click the banner above to read other bloggers reviews or to submit your own.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Flower Friday: Columbine


When we are not reading, you will often find us playing in our yard & garden.  As the weather begins to warm up, I find myself excitedly looking through last year's garden photos and beginning to anticipate the joys of spring and summer.  I thought it might be fun to share one of our flower photos here each Friday.  Today's featured flower: columbine!  This particular variety is commonly called Colorado Blue or Rocky Mountain Columbine, and it is one of my favorite perennials.  To learn more about this type of flower, check out the US Forest Service's columbine page or this Garden Guide video.

*Side note:  My apologies for the long break between book reviews lately!  I finished reading several books this week, including Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, Julie Kagawa's The Iron King, L.M. Preston's Explorer X-Alpha, and Margaret Mahy's The Changeover, so there will be many reviews coming up very soon.  Somehow I've spent a lot of time reading & not nearly enough time posting recently, but I plan to have at least four new reviews posted soon & hope to find a better reading/reviewing balance in the weeks to come.  Thanks for your patience as I work my way through this novice blogger phase.  :) 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Question Sunday: What do you look for in a book? Do you prefer one genre over another?

Are you a classics fanatic?  A sci-fi junkie?  A romance addict?  Do you love to read page-turners brimming with action and adventure, or are you partial to tragic love stories?  My friend Jenni Elyse recently blogged about 'Prose vs. Story', asking whether her readers prefer fast, easy reads or books with superior prose.  Her question intrigued me & made me want to ask the following questions: What do you look for in a book?  Is there a specific genre or a character archetype that you find most appealing?  Do you love a book with a captivating setting?  Is it all about the plot for you?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

My personal tastes are fairly eclectic, but I find that memorable characters tend to be the common thread uniting all of my favorite books.  I'd say that compelling characters are key to my overall enjoyment of a book, so the story, genre, and style often take a backseat to characters for me.  This does not mean that the characters always have to be likable, but they do need to have their own unique voices & something that sets them apart from the seven million generic characters I've read about before.  It definitely helps if they are at least somewhat relatable, and it helps even more if they remain consistent to themselves throughout the story (i.e., don't suddenly begin making totally illogical choices that seem way out of line with their individual personalities & back-stories halfway through the book or series).  Great, believable dialogue can also go a long way toward building awesome characters.  If the characters and their relationships with one another are compelling and interesting, I will follow them through virtually any type of story, setting, or genre.

I'm a fan of the 'classics' and nothing makes me happier than immersing myself in another time and place within the beautiful, absorbing prose of a classic novel.  Classics tend to provide memorable reading experiences because immersing myself in something challenging & unfamiliar is more of a multi-sensory experience than reading simple or straightforward text.  If I have to think critically in order to understand each passage, that experience tends to leave a distinctive mark on my memory long after I've placed the book back upon its shelf.   And there is nothing quite like diving into heavily stylized prose when you have the time to get lost within a book's atmosphere and era.

That being said, the classics do not make up the bulk of my reading material these days, and I am perfectly happy with that.  Recently, I've been reading a ton of young adult (YA) literature.  As a mom with two young children, YA novels suit my reading needs particularly well by giving me a fantastic sampling of all the genres I love in a very accessible format.  If you are not already a fan of YA literature, I would strongly encourage you to venture into your local bookstore's YA section sometime soon.  There you will find a delicious dash of romance, a tantalizing taste of high fantasy, a seductive selection of clever mysteries, an intense dose of urban fantasy, a intriguing spin into sci-fi & steampunk territory, an impressive variety of contemporary coming-of-age stories, and a wonderful assortment of historical fiction.  The online community of YA authors is filled with friendly and accessible individuals, and the genre is truly overflowing with original voices and stories.  Seriously, what is not to love about YA?

So, what genre do you read most?  What makes or breaks a book for you?  If you are a YA fanatic like I am, what do you love most about YA?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Children's Book Review: The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Title:  The Magician's Elephant
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Yoko Tanaka
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: children's / middle-grade
Hardback: 208 pages
ISBN: 0763644102
Summary:  In her eagerly awaited new novel, Kate DiCamillo conjures a haunting fable about trusting the unexpected — and making the extraordinary come true.
What if? Why not? Could it be?  When a fortuneteller's tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller's mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. With atmospheric illustrations by fine artist Yoko Tanaka, here is a dreamlike and captivating tale that could only be narrated by Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo. In this timeless fable, she evokes the largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

Overall rating: 7/10
To buy this book:  Powell's | Amazon | The Book Depository | IndieBound
Add this book to your:  Goodreads | Shelfari | LibraryThing | Visual Bookshelf

The Magician's Elephant is a sweet tale of hope set in a world colored by grief and monotony.  Yoko Tanaka's bleak black and white illustrations are quiet and expressive and seem well-suited to the cold and wintry atmosphere of the story.  Readers who liked The Tale of Despereaux may find this book a slower, more-predictable adventure, but they will still enjoy Kate DiCamillo's fable-like prose & her characters filled with heart and hopefulness.
What I liked:
  • The quirky cast of characters.  Kate DiCamillo has a knack for revealing her character's dreams and fears in a straightforward and touching way, and she succeeds in sharing the key experiences that shaped their personalities & attitudes.
  • The idea of an elephant inexplicably crashing through the ceiling of an opera house is explored in a way that reflects both the sadness and the heartfelt wish that precipitated her arrival.  That side of the storyline also touches on the lack of compassion in keeping a wild animal in captivity for human entertainment, which I really appreciated.
  • Virtually all of the main & supporting character's are compelling in some way & you'll want to see each of their dreams realized and their hopes validated.
  • Some of the bit players with the tiniest of rolls were very entertaining.  For example, the captain of police and the Countess Quintet play very small rolls, but they are both memorable and amusing.
What I wished:
  • The story had been less predictable.  Even our five year old was certain about the story's eventual outcome after reading the first couple of chapters.  And predictability can be a deal-breaker in our household.  Even if the characters are charming or pitiable  &  the initial concept is unusual, predictability can make a short & relatively entertaining book seem too long.  Predictability can also lead us to be overly critical of minor characters who seem unnecessary to the plot as well as any scenes that do not actively drive the plot forward.    
  • Peter is a tender-hearted young boy who is used to being lonely & quietly grieving for the family he has lost.  Those qualities define him & as readers we long for him to find both his sister & a real family, but I wanted to see more layers of Peter's personality explored and more changes becoming evident in him as the story progressed.
I liked The Magician's Elephant and would recommend it to young and old readers alike.  It will particularly appeal to readers with a fondness for reaffirming tales of hope and faith.  It is populated by characters who have each seen their share of heartbreak and live in a fairly monotonous, gloomy world.  But despite their disappointments, many of these individuals maintain a spark of hope and a longing for the seemingly impossible, which ultimately brings them together to explore "What if?" instead of settling for what is.  

To read more about The Magician's Elephant visit the book's official website.
Author links: Kate DiCamillo's website | journal 
Illustrator links: Yoko Tanaka's website