Friday, June 22, 2012


Sparks is the stunning sequel to Laura Bickle's Embers, an urban fantasy duology (which I hope will turn into a full-on series).  By day, Anya Kalinczyk is an arson investigator for the Detroit Fire Department; by night, she investigates the paranormal with the Detroit Area Ghost Researchers.  Anya is somewhat reluctant to associate herself with the DAGR, partly because she's unsure whether she would still have a job if word got out, but also because she struggles with her role in the group:  disposal.  If DAGR were the Ghostbusters, Anya would be their Proton Pack.

Anya is a Lantern - a kind of medium who has a special connection with the element of fire and control of sorts over its destructive powers.  As a medium, she can see and interact with ghosts, but as a Lantern, she also has the ability to destroy them by essentially sucking them into herself like some kind of heartburn-inducing ectoplasm smoothie.  It isn't something she enjoys doing.  You can imagine this Lantern business can get pretty dangerous, but that ain't nothin' but a thang when you've also got the companionship and protection of an elemental familiar; Sparky, Anya's salamander, has been with her ever since she can remember.  He might be mischievous like a puppy who enjoys making "short" (heh) work of various electrical devices, but he's also a fierce and loyal guardian.

In Sparks, the DFD is confronted with a series of puzzling cases of what appears to be spontaneous combustion.  What's especially troubling about these cases is that Anya can sense old magick at each of the scenes; she suspects they are linked to Hope Solomon, who heads a shady organization in the city called "Miracles for the Masses."  Trying to get enough evidence that isn't paranormal in nature could be a problem, however, and the body count is rising.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (sometimes published with the shorter title The Wizard of Oz) is regarded as the first American fairy tale, and it is one of those stories that every American child would be familiar with, even if they haven't read the book themselves.  This is a story of self discovery:  young Dorothy lives on a farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry; one day, a cyclone comes and picks up their house, with Dorothy and her dog Toto inside (she didn't make it into the storm cellar with her aunt and uncle).  Fortunately, she isn't hurt - rather, she gets bored or something after a while, goes to her bed, and falls asleep.  She wakes up when the house is set down none too gently in a strange and very colorful land full of strange little people.

The Good Witch of the North informs Dorothy that she is in the land of the Munchkins, and points out that Dorothy's house has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her.  Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas, and since with the death of the witch comes the munchkins' freedom, they are more than happy to help her.  They set her up with some provisions and the Witch of the North kisses Dorothy, leaving a mark of protection, then points her in the direction of the Land of Oz.  Dorothy decides her practical and worn-in boots are no good for a long journey on foot, and since the Witch of the East is dead and so will not be walking anywhere anytime soon, Dorothy loots the witch's pretty silver and (unbeknownst to her at the time) magic shoes.

As she travels along the yellow brick road, Dorothy makes a few friends who each desire something for themselves, and Dorothy assures each one that there is no reason this wizard of Oz shouldn't be able to give them what they want, even though she only just heard of the guy and knows nothing about this place.  She's very young, though, so I guess she can't really be blamed for making promises of other people.  The party gets into all kinds of trouble along the way, but miraculously, they make it through every danger completely unscathed.  Eventually, they reach the Emerald City and meet with the wizard, who says sure, he'll grant them each their respective wishes, but only if they go and kill the Wicked Witch of the West first.  She's the last wicked witch left, after all, and since Dorothy downed the other one, this one should be no problem, right?

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Puppet by Eva Wiseman is a young adult novel based on actual events and a real trial.  In a small Hungarian village in 1882, 14-year-old Julie's friend Esther goes missing.  She was last seen when on an errand for her cruel mistress, and blame is quick to be placed on the community's Jewish population.  Fear and hatred run wild as accusations are made:  it is believed that some of the Jewish men lured Esther into the synagogue and murdered her, slitting her throat and collecting her blood to be used in a Passover ritual.  This awful lie was firmly believed, and is known as the Blood Libel.  The accusations are taken very seriously, and some of the Jews are arrested.  Among them, two children, the Scharf brothers.  Sam is too young to be taken seriously as a material witness in court, so pressure is placed on his older brother Morris to confess (I'm sure you can guess the physical nature of this pressure) and he is coached to testify against the accused.

Julie is swept up in the arrests and the trial when she is sent by her abusive father to work as housekeeper at the jail, then is given a position as the scullery maid at the prison in the city.  She used to play with Morris as a child, and she isn't so sure the Jews are as evil and murderous as everyone says they are; but if they didn't kill her friend, what did happen to Esther?  As the trial progresses, Julie is pulled in deeper, and must make a choice between doing what she feels is right and doing what is safe.

When I read The Last Song by Wiseman, I was impressed with her ability to fictionalize such awful and tragic historical events in a way that is engrossing without trivializing them.  I was just as captivated with Puppet.  This book won multiple awards, and it's not hard to see why; I read the majority of this book in one night.  I've always had a sort of morbid fascination with the historical persecution of the Jewish people (you can probably blame my fifth grade teacher for assigning Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, which quickly became one of my all-time favorite books).  So for me, knowing that the events and the people in this book are very real (with the exception, I believe, of Julie and her family) really made Puppet that much more interesting, and that much more impossible to put down once I'd gotten into it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Invasion

The Invasion is the first book in K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series.  Jake and his friends Cassie, Marco, Rachel, and Tobias are cutting through an abandoned construction site on their way home from the mall one evening when they see a bright light in the sky that appears to be getting doesn't take long for them to realize that the light is actually a spaceship.  The ship lands and the kids get a message of warning from the dying alien who was piloting it; the people of Earth are in danger.  Another alien race is working on enslaving people by controlling their minds and bodies.  Until help comes, Jake and his friends may have to try and fight the invasion.  To help them, the alien gives them all a gift:  the ability to morph into any animal after acquiring its DNA sequence by touching it.  When the kids start realizing just how many people are already under the alien control, it hits them just how in over their heads they might be.

These books were right up there with Baby-Sitters Club and Goosebumps when I was a kid; come Book Fair time, Animorphs were certainly at the top of the Want List.  There is something very appealing about having the power to change into any animal at will, and to do so in order to fight for the human race would be pretty awesome.  Reading it again as an adult, I realize how cheesy the writing is, but I imagine it isn't so easy to write in the voice of a pre-teen or teenager in a way that might be believable enough to keep the target audience invested in the characters - especially when the way kids talk changes so much over the years.  

The characters so far are pretty one-dimensional, but there are a lot of books in the series, so there is plenty of room for development where that is concerned.  There are things these kids deal with, though, that are definitely not fluffy and childish.  Marco and Tobias don't have the easiest home lives, and the rest of them are about to have to grow up a lot more pretty soon here if they plan to survive the coming war until the Andalites arrive to fight the Controllers.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

True Women

True Women by Janice Woods Windle is a semi-biographical novel of the lives of her own ancestors.  Growing up with stories passed down through the generations in her family, Windle went on to do serious genealogical research, leading to this novel.  True Women takes us through the lives of specifically three women in the author's family tree (which is diagrammed at the beginning of the book):  Euphemia Texas Asby King, Georgia Virginia Lawshe Woods, and Bettie Moss King.  Their stories span from the time of the Republic of Texas, through what seems like war after war after war, up until the present day, when the author is learning more about these women from Idella, an old woman with an intuitive gift.

I was born in East Texas, and I currently live in the area schoolchildren learn as the "prairies and lakes" region of Texas.  We moved around a lot during my childhood, though, and I don't self-identify as Texan.  But while I've personally never felt any real connection with the state, I think it's no secret how proud others are to call themselves Texan.  Some (many) of them, obnoxiously so.  I never much understood it.

This book, however, is about generations of people who have every reason to be proud of being Texan.  Euphemia, her sisters, and many hundreds of other women and children fled from Santa Anna's army in what became known as the Runaway Scrape.  They helped to make Texas the Republic it once was, and  managed not only to just survive in the harsh environments they chose to call home, but they worked hard and came to thrive in what I feel is a nearly impossible place to live.  This is the part of the book that really sets it apart from others for me.  Other states have a lot of history from the scars left by the many wars this country has seen, but the time of the Texas Republic is something else.  I've always thought the obnoxious and blind state pride I've seen in Texas was silly, but for those whose roots go as deep as this, I can certainly see what there is to be proud of.  As for myself, I can't say I have any more pride in being born in Texas after having read this book, but I have a much greater respect for the history and the people who struggled through and fought for its beginnings.