Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Darren Shan's Trials of Death & The Vampire Prince (Books 5 & 6 of Cirque du Freak series)

Darren Shan's book came as a complete surprise to me. I have not read a vampire book since a condensed version of Darcula in the 1950s, although I did enjoy Buffy... and Charmed when they were on TV. Consequently, I did not know what to expect.

This version of Shan's writing included "Trials of Death" and "The Vampire Prince", books 5 and 6 of the Cirque du Freak series. "Trials of Death" in particular, reminded me somewhat of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire". These books are aimed at older children/young adults and as such I found them very entertaining, vastly different from my previous impressions of vampire stories. Putting these two books together was a good move as they can be read as one story. There are, as far as I know, 12 books in the series. I think Shan (who writes the stories with himself as the main character and in the first person) has a wonderful understanding of what young people like in a story. There is a lot of action, interaction, communication, and relationships. Putting the book down was very difficult, I kept coming back for more. I certainly recommend the series to young people who enjoy fantasy books.

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman

Mystery, History, and Love Story during the Ottoman Empire

Haunting & refreshingly different, the story begins when a small scrap of old manuscript, dating to 1599, is accidentally discovered among the texts of Elizabeth’s studies. Elizabeth feels she must learn the fate of Celia, the betrothed daughter of the ship’s captain after his ship has floundered & Celia has been captured & brought to the Sultan’s harem. So begins our student’s research, delving into the realm of the Sultans and Harems of the old Ottoman empire in her search for what became of Celia, whose life was obviously the focus of the original manuscript.

This book is an easy and fascinating read, hard to put down. The chapters are well-defined so that switching over the 400 years from the happenings of the past to current times is as smooth as one could wish for. Rather than distracting, this shift makes the story more powerful and flowing.

The book is well-written, great continuity in both centuries and very informative as well. Katie Hickman’s research is very well done and there are many real people represented in the book as well as the fictional characters. This is no over-the-top sensationalized piece of fiction. I will not give away the main thrust of the story, but definitely recommend the book as a well-painted portrait of a different life. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be watching for future books from this author.

The Laughter of Dead Kings by Elizabeth Peters

Enjoyable romp of a mystery

Another enjoyable romp in the life of Vicky Bliss, assistant curator of Munich’s National Museum, art historian, antiquities expert and amateur sleuth. Elizabeth Peters has a long history of writing wonderfully strong, humorous and intelligent female characters, and in all her series her characters endear themselves to her faithful readers. The Vicky Bliss series takes place in current times rather than the Victorian era of Amelia Peabody and the early Egyptian tomb discoveries in the pyramids, her longest running series. The Laughter of Dead Kings is the sixth book in the series.

That said, this book is a joy to read, mostly conversational as plans are hatched and theories discussed. It is humorous, mysterious, and just good lighthearted reading. The perfect foil to a siege of heavy reading. The characters are so intensely drawn, funny and intelligent, including John, a once notorious thief of antiquities turned antiquities dealer and Vicky’s lover (Is he honest? Maybe, maybe not!). Their escapades, though dangerous, are thoroughly entertaining. Vicky’s boss, known mostly as Schmidt, who fancies himself as a Sherlock Holmes, always manages to find them wherever a “case” is happening and in this book his appearance is very fortuitous and surprising. The character of Schmidt is charming, funny, generous; he pictures himself as Vicky’s protector. I am reminded of an old (black & white) film actor, S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall.

This time out a body has gone missing; not an ordinary body but one that has been dead for thousands of years, and the race is on. Not only must they find the body in extremely limited time, but they must prove that John is innocent of masterminding the theft. The question is, how could it be done and where would such a thing be hidden? Theories abound and are eliminated, delicate political and archaeological balance is threatened. The suspect list is large and complicated. I recommend this book to anyone who likes to enjoy the action and humour, a light but interesting read. I always learn something new in Elizabeth Peters’ books and this book did not disappoint.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Out Backward by Ross Raisin

A strange and unusual book, written in the broad Yorkshire dialect, easy enough to pick up as you go along. The author has certainly done his research. A young boy is accused of something he didn’t actually do and is kicked out of school. He must work at the home farm and forget about education. When we come into his story he is about 19 years old. Downtrodden and a town misfit, he lives an eventful life within his own mind. The story is sometimes humorous, often deceptive, and somewhat depressing. He has separated himself from everyone in the village and when not working on the sheep farm, is wandering his beloved moors with his favorite dog..

One day a “townie” family moves in next door, with a 15 year old daughter who doesn’t appear to have any qualms about being with or being seen with Sam, in fact she encourages that they be seen together. The book is written mostly from the imagination of the boy. He “talks” mostly in his mind to objects animate and inanimate and his mind contrives stories and make-believe conversations. The concept is interesting, a little hard to grasp at times but usually becomes clear as time goes on. The reader gets a feeling for the boy, and it seems he is often accused of things he has not necessarily done. A row between the girl next door and her mother leads to a mad dash across the moors for both Sam and Josephine where Sam feels entirely at home. Though the town believes him to be backward, he is knowledgeable on a number of planes and I feel that his life could easily have been very different which is disconcerting and depressing to realize. Reading this book I felt a sense of person and place which took on a life of its own. Interesting, sometimes brooding, occasionally humorous, often deceptive, and definitely not boring though a little slow to read, an unusual subject for a debut novel. I would not recommend this book to someone who likes their books cut and dried, but I would recommend it to anyone who likes to delve into the whys and wherefores of life and the mind of the unusual.