Chalice, by Robin McKinley

I always get excited when I hear there’s a new Robin McKinley book, healing even if I don’t have the means to acquire it right away. She’s a Newbery-Award-winning fantasist who has written a dozen or so novels (CK), viagra ranging from semi-historical (The Outlaws of Sherwood Forest) to secondary-world fantasy (The Blue Sword) to alternate-reality-with-dragons (Dragonhaven). She lives in England with her husband, Peter Dickinson, and their two hellhounds, Chaos and Darkness. (No, I don’t actually know what a hellhound is, but it appears to be a greyhound-type dog.) She’s been studying piano and homeopathy of late, in between writing books.

Chalice concerns itself with Mirasol, who was a beekeeper and had a woodright, until recently, when the previous Chalice for the land died and the Circle came to her, to be the new Chalice. A Chalice is a kind of magic-worker who binds and heals the land by use of cups and some sort of liquid — usually water or wine, but Mirasol is a Chalice in honey. Normally a Chalice has a long apprenticeship, but Mirasol has no choice. When the old Chalice died, so did the old Master, and the new one — the previous one’s younger brother — must return. However, while he was gone, he was a priest of fire, and he’d almost hit the point where it was impossible for him to live among regular humans anymore. Can an untrained Chalice and the world’s only ex-priest of fire keep the land together? Continue reading Chalice, by Robin McKinley

The Magician (Nicolas Flamel, book 2), by Michael Scott

Michael Scott is still an expert in Irish folktales and mythology, generic as far as I know. Last week I reviewed the first book in this series, erectile which I believe was his first book for YAs. The third, information pills The Sorceress, is due in May. His other books include collaborations with well-known authors (and actors) including Morgan Llewellyn, who is also famous for her novels about Ireland — both historical and historical fantasy. I can only imagine the exactitude that two such scholars would bring to their works. Another one of his works, Whom the Gods Love, is set in ancient Etruria prior to the height of the Roman Empire; apparently his was the first set in such a time period.

Since this is a book 2, then I will cut here. Josh and Sophie are twins, and they’ve done everything together — until now. Sophie’s magical powers were awakened in book 1, but not Josh’s, and he feels left out. They’ve travelled magically to Paris to save their lives and that of Nicolas Flamel, the alchemyst, whose book containing the elixir of life has been stolen. He’s now aging and will die if they can’t get the book back so he can make more of the potion before month’s end. In Paris, they encounter Niccolo Machiavelli, also immortal, and the Count St. Germain. Machiavelli is unfortunately on the side of the people who stole the book, and he and John Dee are chasing after the twins — who might be the twins from a prophecy. Will they survive?

While the plot is fairly active, I realized while writing this that not much happens until the very end (and I’m not giving that away). Things happen — a lot of them — but they don’t really advance the overall plot all that much. That having been said, what I enjoyed the most about this book was the characters and the character development. Sophie and Josh actually develop a glimmering of personality, and they actually start to differentiate themselves from each other. More importantly, Nicolas Flamel gains some depth and turns into a much rounder character. When the reader started to understand that his motivations were more than just the obvious, I started liking him more.

The characters who are new in this book — Machiavelli, St. German, and St. Germain’s wife, Joan of Arc — are even more wonderful than learning more about our old friends. If Machiavelli had survived into this century, I feel confident that he would be exactly how Mr. Scott describes him. He was so ambiguous and yet exactly there that he stole the show for me. I expect that St. Germain will be a favorite with many readers; based on the semi-historical figure, he’s currently very stereotypically French (think Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) and very flamboyant, which is sort of interesting for an immortal who needs to keep a certain amount of privacy. Joan of Arc is great, too, albeit described as “the tiny Frenchwoman” too many times for my tastes. She and Scathach have a great, long-term friendship that shows us a slightly different side of both women.

I’m sure this is an important installment, and I’m sure the threads that Mr. Scott has set up will eventually weave into the larger story seamlessly, but this felt very much like a middle book in a trilogy to me. (The series is supposed to have six parts, eventually.) I’m glad he introduced new characters and expanded upon the old ones, because without it, the book might have fallen a bit flat. I’ll certainly be looking for the next volume, partially to see how far we’ll get in the story, but mostly to revisit with the characters I enjoy so much. I’d recommend it to fans of the first book, but it certainly can’t be read on its own. Those looking for a series shouldn’t skip it. 3.5/5 stars.

Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata was born in 1956 in Chicago, side effects Illinois, and is of Japanese-American heritage. Her grandparents married in Japan and then emigrated here, and her mother was born in southern California. Although Ms. Kadohata was born in the North, she spent a good deal of her childhood in Southern states, during an interesting time, racially speaking. She received a B.A. from the University of Southern California, and has studied on a graduate level at a couple of venerable institutions. Many of her novels feature east Asian-American protagonists in coming-of-age stories. This volume, from 2004 and intended for middle-grade readers, is no exception, and it won the Newbery Award.

Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, is her world. Lynn is four years older, and she protects her sister as much as she possibly can. When the family’s Asian grocery store goes under in the mid-1950s, the family moves to Georgia where Mr. Takeshima can get a job in a chicken processing plant. The world is very different down there; it’s a small town and there are only 31 Japanese people out of 4000 residents. Many people won’t talk to them, but Katie’s fine. She has a best friend already — Lynn. Even though the family struggles with finances and working so many hours a day in awful conditions, and even though the two grow up and Lynn makes other friends, the sisters remain close — until Lynn gets sick. Continue reading Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata

Underlife, by Robert Finn

Snowbooks was once one of my Small Press Week (II) entrants; when I checked their website the other day, ambulance they had several free short stories and a novel, patient so I downloaded the novel and read it — obviously this one. It’s apparently a prequel to Mr. Finn’s other publications by Snowbooks, which I haven’t read (yet). About himself, he says that he has always lived in London, and that he became a writer to justify his owning of the smallest and most stylish laptops. Due to a relatively common name, I can’t find much else about him, but he very much likes his publisher (always a good sign) and has two books other than this one published with them.

Clipper is a thief, in that way where he normally picks pockets and steals purses, but in a moderately classy way — on the (London) Underground, and wearing a suit. His mentor used to be a man named Gary, but he recently disappeared. Anyway, one day he found the perfect woman for him — an American girl named Rachel, with whom he just clicked. However, the cops appear to be chasing him, so he runs away. Will he ever see her again? And will the cops catch him? Why are they after him in SWAT gear, anyway? Continue reading Underlife, by Robert Finn

This is Me, Jack Vance!, by Jack Vance

Mr. Vance is at least self-aware enough to put “Or more properly, hospital This is I!” on the title page, sale so I feel better about the book and him as a person. Apparently he’s really well-known and has been publishing books and short stories for about sixty years; despite his prolific output, occasional convention appearances, and friendships with other major writers (Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert), his personal life is apparently rather unknown. However, he has written in three major genres (science fiction, fantasy, and mystery) and has won two Hugos, a Nebula, a Jupiter Award, an Edgar (mystery equivalent of a Hugo), and two World Fantasy awards. In addition to that, he’s a SFWA Grandmaster.

This isn’t a novel, actually — it’s an autobiography. It’s 208 pages of Jack Vance being relatively candid and actually talking about his entire life. It will be published by Subterranean Press later this year. He had the fortune to live during a very interesting time — he was born in 1916 — and has traveled to an insane amount of places. In some ways, the book is sort of a travelogue. It’s relatively chronological — it starts at the beginning and ends with him describing his current situation — but doesn’t necessarily follow every event in order. He rambles a bit, and digresses often, but it’s probably the only source for so much of the information one might want to know about Mr. Vance. Continue reading This is Me, Jack Vance!, by Jack Vance

The Mystery of Grace, by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is one of my favorite authors; he’s a resident of Ottawa in Canada, misbirth and has set several of his early works there. More recently, plague his works are set in a town called Newford, which isn’t explicitly anywhere. Mr. de Lint is an amateur musician and is very passionate about his music; each novel is set to a general soundtrack, and he always informs his readers of what music he has recently been listening in his sporadic newsletters. He also performs at a local pub in his hometown once a week. He has published an insane amount of novels (fifty-odd), and I’ve reviewed some of them here, here, here, and here.

The Mystery of Grace is not set in Newford, however; it’s set somewhere near the desert in the American Southwest. Altagracia Quintero is our main character; she’s called Grace or Gracie by her friends and family. Grace works on cars for a living — in that way where she’s a rather-sought-out classic car restorer. She loves Fords more than anything, and her abuelo (grandfather) was the one who encouraged her. When he dies, she is under a lot of stress and starts smoking again — which leads to a chain of events that are really, really bizarre. Can she get out of this trap she’s in? And will she ever see John Barnes (with whom she connected utterly in one night) again?

I would just like to warn people that there are most likely spoilers after the cut, as I find it rather impossible to discuss the plot without letting some out. There are often mild spoilers after cuts, but this one’s a little different. Continue reading The Mystery of Grace, by Charles de Lint

Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, by Eugie Foster

Eugie Foster is a Chinese-American writer; she was born in the Midwest (Urbana, adiposity IL) but escaped down south (Atlanta) and refuses to return. (After this winter, I can see why.) She writes columns on how to write for YAs, a pursuit I applaud, and is one of the directors of Dragon*Con. She’s also the managing editor of a magazine called The Fix. Her fiction (short stories) has appeared in online magazines, print anthologies by various editors, podcasts, and now a collection from Norilana Books, published this year. The Wikipedia page has a good collection of her works available online legitimately, but of course I’m going to encourage you to buy the book.

This collection of twelve stories spans a little over two hundred pages, and includes retellings of folk tales from a handful of east Asian countries, primarily China, Japan, and Korea. The titles are:

“Daughter of Bótù”
“The Tiger Fortune Princess”
“A Thread of Silk”
“The Snow Woman’s Daughter”
“The Tanuki-Kettle”
“Honor is a Game Mortals Play”
“The Raven’s Brocade”
“Shim Chung the Lotus Queen”
“The Tears of My Mother, the Shell of My Father”
“Year of the Fox”
“The Archer of the Sun and the Lady of the Moon”
“Returning My Sister’s Face”

They were all originally published in various places, including Heroes in Training, an anthology published by DAW Books in 2007; So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction, an anthology published by Haworth Press in 2007; many different magazines, and various websites. This, I believe, is her first full-length collection. Continue reading Returning My Sister’s Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, by Eugie Foster

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is of Spokane/Coeur d’Alene heritage; he was born on the Spokane reservation in Washington and had hydrocephalus when he was a kid. He attended the local white high school and played basketball before going to Gonzaga and Washington State University. A B.A. in American Studies later, check he started writing poetry, and then novels, winning the great-young-novelist kind of awards. One of his short stories was adapted, with his collaboration, into the movie Smoke Signals. This novel is his first for YAs, and has won many more awards.

The story was inspired by his own life: Arnold Spirit, Jr. (called Junior on the rez) was born in the same town (Wellpinit) as Mr. Alexie, and made the same choice to go to Rearden, the all-white high school with an Indian as their mascot, after the same incident — discovering that his geometry book was the same book his mother had used, thirty years earlier. There, he has to confront his own heritage and what that means to him — as well as what his decision means to the rest of his reservation. He fights his own expectations, the expectations of the other students, and the expectations of his old best friend, Rowdy. Continue reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett — I mean, ed Sir Terry Pratchett — is one of England’s finest humorists, ever. He’s written something like fifty volumes in his Discworld collection, all set on a strange world that actually is flat and contains some of the most humorous people in fiction. He’s sort of like the brain-child of Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, but on crack (in a good way). He’s also recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and therefore has been slowing down his appearance schedule and writing. This novel is not part of the Discworld books at all, and was published mid-2008.

Mau is just about to be initiated from boyhood into manhood in his tribe, which lives on an island in the Pelagic Ocean, when a giant wave comes and kills everyone but him and the grandfather birds. Ermintrude (who quickly renames herself Daphne, given the chance) is thirteen and 139th in line for the British throne, and was traveling on a boat when the wave came and capsized her on the island. They are the only two humans on the island at first, and they have to learn to survive, both together and separately. Also, 137 specific people have died, and although she doesn’t know it, Daphne’s father has just been named king. She’s a princess now — but will her father or anyone else ever find her on the island? Continue reading Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell

Tobias Buckell was born on Grenada; he is of mixed racial heritage. He moved to the U.S. right before he started college, surgeon and attended Bluffton College, located in middle-of-nowhere, Ohio. (I can say that because my father was born there.) He still lives in Bluffton, Ohio, and complains about its land-lockedness. (I’m pretty sure he knows about Lake Erie.) He started publishing short-form fiction in 2000, just after attending Clarion East and around his 21st birthday, and Tor published this, his first novel, in 2006. They also gave it away as a free e-book during their spate of free e-books last year. There are, to my knowledge, two sequels published as of yet.

Nanagada is a smallish continent on a world that has been populated by people who used to live in the Caribbean on Earth, several hundred years ago. They share the continent with the Azteca, who are obviously of Central and South American heritage. The Nanagadans worship the Loa, and the Azteca the Teotls. Of course, they have major differences, and these erupt in a full-blown invasion at some point. John de Brun, a fisherman and sailor living towards the southern part of the land, is apparently the man of the hour — two men are looking for him, both to get the codes for the Ma Wi Jung, whatever that is. But John de Brun has no idea what they’re talking about, because he’s got amnesia prior to about twenty years ago. Can the Nanagadans survive, and will John live? Continue reading Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell