Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Medieval Mystery

The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman
3Q 3P M/J

Ah, what fools these mortals be! If only Silvano hadn't fallen in love (well, lust) with Angelica. If only Angelica hadn't been flattered by his attentions. But he did, and she was, and that's a problem, since Angelica is married (unhappily) to a wealthy merchant much older than she is. Now Angelica's husband is dead, Silvano's dagger is found buried in his chest, and Silvano has blood on his hands. Yes, the blood is Angelica's husband's. But Silvano is innocent of the murder. He merely found the man and tried to help him. But will anyone believe that, when it's known that Silvano was courting the man's wife? Not likely! Before anyone has a chance to arrest him, Silvano is shipped off in secret to take sanctuary in the Franciscan monastery in a city miles away.

Chiara is newly arrived at the convent of the Poor Clares. She has no vocation for such a life, but she also has no father and no dowry. What she does have is a brother who has no wish to share his life and goods with his sister. The sooner he can wash his hands of her, the better. And where else can he send her but to a convent? Chiara is miserable, but has no say in the matter. It is the fourteenth century, and women do as the men in the lives say they must.

As it happens, the convent is next door to the monastery. Chiara is outside when Silvano arrives. Her curiosity is instantly aroused. Who is this novice who arrives on a fine horse with a peregrine falcon on its saddle? He has neither the clothing nor the look of a true novice. But then again, she is hardly a true novice herself. She looks and she wonders, but she has little reason to expect that any of her questions will be answered.

But God does work in mysterious ways. Perhaps it is His hand that directs them both to the color rooms in their respective new homes, where they help make the colors used by some of the master artists of Renaissance Italy. Once made, these colors need to be delivered to the artists. As novices, both Silvano and Chiara are allowed off the grounds, and they are both selected to accompany the brother (friar) and sister (nun) making those deliveries. Of course, the proprieties must be observed. They should not speak to each other. In fact, they should not even look at each other. But of course they do. And they like what they see.

Much to the surprise of both, each is settling into their new lives with comparative ease. Both the brothers and the sisters are strict, but kind. And there is some comfort to be had in the order of the days, though there is also always a desire for freedom to live the lives they wish to live. But soon Silvano's newly calm and supposedly safe life is shattered by murder once again. A merchant visiting the monastery is found dead in his bed, also killed by a dagger to his chest. The monks begin to cast a wary eye on Silvano, for word of his true reason for being there has leaked out. Is Silvano a murderer after all?

But Silvano is not the only one at the monastery with a secret, and the murders don't stop at two. Silvano's sanctuary is no longer safe, for him or for anyone else. Silvano is determined to prove his innocence and discover who is defiling this sacred place, and Chiana is equally determined to help him.

This is an enjoyable blend of mystery and historical fiction, with just enough romance to satisfy those who yearn for it but not so much that it'll turn off those who just want the mystery. Though this book has garnered some excellent reviews, my reaction is a little less enthusiastic. At times, the writing pulled me out of the story, usually because of a sudden change in tone, less than graceful phrasing, or because I had a "told, not shown" feeling. I also felt two characters who fit quite well elsewhere in the story seemed forced into the mystery aspect of it. Some parts of the mystery are more satisfying than others. On the plus side, I thought Hoffman developed situations for her characters that were involving and intriguing. I couldn't help but feel for the plight of Chiara, Angelica, and Isabella, all of whom are at the mercy of the men in their lives, as well as for the falsely-accused Silvano. And Silvano is an appealing character who is worth rooting for. Information about medieval art was smoothly integrated into the story and quite interesting. And even given that the needs of fiction sometimes overtook historical accuracy, I enjoyed immersing myself in fourteenth century life and learning things about it I never knew.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Life as you really, really don't want to know it

the dead & the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
5Q 3P J/S

You've got to love Bolivian hats. When they belong to Susan Beth Pfeffer, they hold the key to treasures. See, I'm one of the lucky few who have gotten their hands on an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) of Susan Beth Pfeffer's next book, the dead & the gone, which will be available in June 2008, all because my email address (and a bunch of other people's) were tucked into that Bolivian hat. It wasn't pulled on the first round. It wasn't pulled on the second round (I pouted!). But it was pulled in the third round. Yay! Once it arrived, I had to wait until the moon was no longer full to start reading it. (If you've already read the companion novel, Life As We Knew It, you'll understand why.) Then I started to read the book. I have two prime reading times in my day: at lunch and just before bed. I soon realized this was not a book to read at either of those times. So I carved out some reading time this past Sunday morning and read the rest of the book straight through. When I finished, I could only say, "Whew!"

I'll say straight out that this is not an easy read. As tough as LAWKI was to read, at least Miranda has her mother with her. She's not in charge of keeping her family together, and she's got someone older to turn to for comfort (or to blame, as she sometimes does). In d&g, Alex has none of that, and because of that, this is an even more chilling read. (Yes, I use that word advisedly.)

Both LAWKI and d&g take place after an asteroid hits the moon, knocking it out of orbit and much closer to the Earth. The result: high tides, tsunamis, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes. Huge chunks of continents are washed away. Communications are disrupted, electricity is spotty at best, and food is scarce and getting scarcer. The sky is so full of ash that the sun's rays can't get through, so the temperatures keep falling and falling.

How do you stay alive in such a situation? Alex is only seventeen years old. His sisters, Brianna and Julie, are only fifteen and twelve. Their father is in Puerto Rico for a funeral, their mother was called in to work at the hospital, and their brother Carlos is with the Marines. At first he thinks he only has to hold things together for a couple of days. But that's before they learn that Puerto Rico was hit hard by the high tides. That's before days go by without hearing from Mami. That's before Carlos calls to tell them that the Marines are being deployed to help with the recovery effort. Soon Alex has to admit to himself that he's in charge, and likely to be so for a long time.

Alex is a scholarship student at St. Vincent dePaul Academy. He's the vice president of his class, president of the debate squad, and he has his eye on the editorship of the school newspaper. In other words, he doesn't shy away from responsibility. But being in charge of his two sisters and running the household is more than he bargained for. Bri isn't so bad. As long as she has her rosary beads and a Bible, she's happy. But Julie is a different story entirely. She's a whiny baby who drives Alex nuts. She fights with him about everything. Most of the time he wants to throttle her. But somehow, these three are going to have to work things out, because they're going to need each other. They don't have anyone else to count on.

At first, their situation doesn't seem so dire. New York City has powerful people who make sure that as many services as possible stay intact. Even the schools stay open. That's a mercy, since they also provide lunch for their students. That's one meal that Alex doesn't have to worry about. But how long can that relative safety last? Not nearly long enough. Brianna gets sick. The food shortages get worse. How do you stay warm when the temperature never gets above ten or twenty degrees? How do you keep your sisters safe when even people become commodities for trade?

What really got to me about this book was how callous Alex, his friends, and Julie have to become. One person's death is another's salvation. As the sense of impending doom got stronger and stronger, it was sometimes hard to keep reading. But what gave me hope was seeing how Alex shoulders his responsibilities and becomes a man. (It speaks volumes about Alex that people he thinks hardly know him reach out to him to offer the kind of help and support that truly means the difference between life and death.) And like Miranda in LAWKI, Julie also grows when the occasion demands it of her. As hard as they may be to deal with, her stubbornness and feistiness prove to be invaluable qualities. This is not a girl who is going to give up.

Faith plays such an important role in this book that it's practically another character. The Catholic church (in particular) is a source of strength, sustenance, and support. It's very fitting that Susan Beth Pfeffer is autographing these books with the words "Never lose faith." When all else fails, having faith in something or Someone may be the one thing that makes the difference between living and becoming one of the dead and the gone.

This is not a comfortable book to read. It's not for those who like cozy reads where everything turns out okay in the end. It's a book for those who want to see people rise up to meet challenges. It's a book for those who know that hard times can bring out the worst in people, but have faith that it can also bring out the best in them. When you finish this book and come up for air (and it will feel just like that), you will not leave this book thoughtlessly behind you. You will live with it, and it will live with you, for days and weeks and months. Like Life as We Knew It before it, the dead & the gone is a life-changing, perspective-altering book.

If you have not already found it, check out Susan Beth Pfeffer's blog. She may write about grim topics (see also The Year Without Michael, but she has a wonderful sense of humor. She has posted both a preview of a truly harrowing chapter of this book and a peek into the mind of an author as she plans her next (this) book.

Here's what I had to say about Life as We Knew It and my booktalk on it.

Edited on 5/2/08 to add a link to my dead & the gone booktalk.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

It's a Runescape Kind of World

EPIC by Conor Kostick
4Q 5P J/M

The teens here are Runescape fanatics. Battleon used to be really popular too. I've been known to play both. When I was younger, I loved the Zork games (boy, does that date me!) and any other adventure game that centered around solving puzzles (as opposed to the ones that feature endless battles). There's something about these games that's addicting and exciting. But what if you had to play? And what if everything you did in the game affected your real life? If you are a sixtieth level warrior with +20 magical weapons and armor, you're golden. In the real world, you'd have enough points to have a pretty good life. But what if you meet a stronger foe with better weapons and more magic? Well, then you die and wind up back as a level one character with maybe a rusty dagger and a leather arm guard to protect you as you scramble to kill anything weaker than you are just to gain a paltry coin or two. Now real life's not nearly such a picnic, because you've lost all your assets there, too. Welcome to Erik's world.

In Erik's world, everything depends on how well you play the virtual reality game called Epic. As the book begins, Erik is supposed to be preparing for what seems to be the equivalent of his final exams. But that doesn't mean cracking the books. It means he has to get online and play Epic to hone his skills and improve his stats. That may sound like fun to us, but to Erik, it's no fun at all, particularly because he knows it's an exercise in frustration. The game is stacked against them. Erik, his mother, and his father are, like everyone else in their village, struggling to meet their quotas and fill their duties in the real world. But in order to do that, they need things they can only get by winning in Epic. And that just isn't going to happen. In fact, it's so impossible that they're about to be reallocated and sent to work in the mines. So instead of preparing for the graduation tournament, Erik is trying to find a way to challenge Central Allocations, the governing body that decides who gets what. A successful challenge is the only way the family will be able to stay where they are. Unfortunately, his characters keep dying.

This last death is the final straw. He has to play, yes. But he's through with playing the game by the rules; he's through with playing strategically. His new character will be different from anything he's ever created before. For one thing, she'll be female. And instead of maximizing all the typical skills, such as fighting or crafts, and instead of trying to get as much magic and the best weapons he can afford, in a moment of whimsy he decides to throw all his attribute points into his character's physical features. She's beautiful. In a game where all the players are gray, angular blobs, Cindella the swashbuckler is going to really stand out.

Stand out she does. The very first time Erik plays Epic as Cindella, he realizes that everything has changed. For the first time ever, the NPCs (the characters controlled by the game, not other players) interact meaningfully with him. In fact, sometimes they even initiate conversations, which is unheard of. But what they tell him is even more amazing. It seems that there's a treasure to be found. If Cindella can find the treasure, she'll be rich. And if she's rich, then Erik is, too.

Erik soon realizes that this is the character that just might survive long enough to be able to mount that challenge against Central Allocations. But if Cindella wants to find that treasure, she's going to need some help. And Erik is going to need help, too. Fortunately, Erik has four very good friends in Bjorn, Injeborg, Big Erik, and Sigrid. Together, they make a formidable team, becoming famous throughout Epic and in the real world. But are they good enough and strong enough to beat Central Allocations, the most powerful people/players in both worlds? They had better be, because Central Allocations doesn't like its power threatened, and the council members are prepared to take whatever steps necessary to make sure that Erik and his friends are put in their proper place. In a world where even the merest hint of violence is outlawed, all disputes are supposed to be solved inside the game of Epic and only through tournament combat. But certain members of Central Allocations think rules are for other people. Erik might not know it yet, but his life is in danger, and not just in the game.

Epic has all the elements of a great role-playing game adventure: a quest, villains, vampires, ogres, trolls, a truly fearsome dragon, treachery, magic, and ::ahem:: epic battles. Some characters turn out to have secrets that have a huge impact in the way the story (book and Epic) turn out. In a sense, this is two treats in one. It's a great read, and at the same time, there are sections when it manages to make you feel as though you truly are participating in the virtual reality world.

I highly recommend this book to teens who like action and adventure. Even kids who are more interested in playing on their computers than in reading will enjoy this one. And when teachers assign their students to read a science fiction novel, this will be one of my first suggestions to the kids who hate science fiction. I think they'll be pleasantly surprised.

The author is planning to write at least one sequel/companion novel to Epic. In fact, I see that it's already been published in the United Kingdom and Germany. I'm glad to see that it doesn't seem to be precisely a sequel, because I don't really think it needs one. (But it does seem as though at least 80% of J/YA fantasies and a significant percentage of J/YA science fiction come with "sequel" or "trilogy" written into the contract!). But sequel, companion novel, or stand-alone novel, I will be buying it for my library.

No quotes this time, because it's not a book that particularly lends itself to that. But here are a few links that might be worth checking out:

Bible Grrrl says Jesus and Darwin Agree

Evolution, Me, & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande
4Q 3P J/S

"...I hoped my first day of school -- of high school, thank you, which I've only been looking forward to my entire life -- might turn out to be at least slightly better than eating live bugs. But I guess I was wrong."

So says Mena Reece, who might have had the first day of high school she'd been dreaming of if she only hadn't written that letter. If she hadn't written that letter, then her friends might be talking to her now. If she hadn't written that letter, her parents would be speaking to her. Her parents would look at her. But she did write that letter, and now she's been kicked out of her church, her parents are being sued, and she's being harassed at school. Mena and her family belong to a strict fundamentalist church. They believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, that homosexuality is a sin, and that anything that involves magic and wizards is of the devil. None of this is negotiable. If you stray from the church’s teachings or question the pastor, you are asking for trouble. Mena “asked” for trouble when she wrote that letter. Is she sorry she wrote it? Not really. It was the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy with the result. She never imagines her salvation will come at the hands of an evolution-teaching biology teacher and a science-loving lab partner.

Biology is not Mena's thing, but her lab partner is Casey Connor, who sweeps her along in his enthusiasm for science and admiration for Ms. Shepherd, a dynamic teacher who teaches her students how to think and observe. Mena can’t help but get interested. Each year, Ms. Shepherd gives her students the opportunity to earn extra credit by creating their own special project. Casey is determined to do the best project Ms. Shepherd has ever seen. Unfortunately, his idea requires going to his house after school almost every day. Mena knows that that just won’t fly with her parents (#1, she’s grounded; #2, she’s not allowed to be alone with a boy for any reason), but she goes anyway. She’ll figure out how to do deal with her parents later. In the meantime, she's trying to deny the obvious: Casey's a pretty cool guy. In fact, Casey's whole family is pretty cool, and very different from her own.

Casey’s sister Kayla is just about everything that Mena is not: excitable, strong, loud, and opinionated. While Mena wishes she'd never called attention to herself, Kayla relishes making waves. As editor of the school paper, she’s about to make a big one: Pastor Wells and his church’s youth group are protesting the teaching of evolution in Ms. Shepherd’s biology class. He wants creationism taught instead. It’s their own Scopes Monkey Trial, and Kayla is thrilled that Mena and Casey are right in the middle of it. They can be her sources on the scene while she blows this story wide open. Casey, Kayla, and Ms. Shepherd know exactly how they feel about evolution vs creationism. But Mena is torn. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant scientist, and her lectures are very convincing. Still, Mena’s not used to questioning her church’s teachings. And the last thing she needs to do is get everyone in the congregation and her parents even angrier with her than they are now, if that’s even possible. No, she’s not going to take a stand on this one. But Kayla has other plans for her, and almost before she knows what’s happened, Mena has a piece in the school newspaper and her own blog. She’s Bible Grrrl, and what she has to say about the Bible and evolution gets her more attention than she ever dreamed of. Suddenly, people want to know what she has to say.

Just by being who they are, the Connors and Ms. Shepherd make Mena think about things in a new way and question things she's always accepted without much thought. Will having a boy friend (not even a boyfriend!) really inevitably lead to having sex? Can you really be corrupted just by reading a book or watching a movie? How do faith and facts interact? Can you believe in evolution and still believe in God? Can you disagree with your parents and still have them love and respect you and love and respect them in return? Is it wrong to stand up for the things you believe in, even when your stand isn’t a popular one? Is it time she thought for herself?


If I were creating a Best Books List of 2007, this book would be on it. I like books that make me care and make me think. This one did that. I think Brande did a fine job making Mena a well-rounded character. She's not a perfect girl, and she doesn't pretend that she is. Watching her grow and figure out what she believes is as empowering to the reader as it is for Mena to actually do. It's also fun to watch her struggle with admitting that she's not as impervious to Casey's charms as she'd like to think, and I could empathize with her having a hard time believing that he might actually feel the same way about her. Casey and Kayla are great characters, and if Josh's t-shirts ever go on sale for real, I'm there. I do think that Brande does make Pastor Wells too one-dimensional and stereotypical, but on the other hand, his daughter is portrayed as equally sincere in her beliefs, but far more nuanced as a character.

This book has a lot going for it. I suspect that firm creationists won't be happy/satisfied with it, but those wondering how or if faith and science can coexist are likely to find that this book provides them food for thought.

I'm not going to quote anything because
  • I have lost page one of my notes. This proves that 1) sticky notes aren't always the best things to use and 2) reading in bed is not conducive to good organization.
  • Page two of my notes is full of things that are too close to the end of the book to quote.
  • It's already taken me three weeks to get this post up, and it's high time I stopped agonizing and posted it already. Yeah, I know. It doesn't read like something that took three weeks to write (okay, not twenty-one days of writing, but definitely more than one session of "why won't the words I want come?!" frustration). But I tried.

I was going to point to the URL listed in the back of the book, but when I tried to visit it, I discovered that it doesn't really go to anything about Robin Brande specifically. Random House has turned it into a page to promote several authors. You also need a user name and password. Boo! hiss!

Edited on Jan. 11, 2008 to add Robin's web site, thanks to the comment below. This one actually does work! Check out Robin Brande's web site at

Edited on August 30, 2008 to add a couple of missing words. I hope I caught them all, but no guarantees.