Friday, March 11, 2011

The Spirit Thief Legend of Eli Monpress

I stumbled across a series of audiobooks a few months ago that looked intriguing so I put them on the-to-be-listened-to shelf and forgot about them. I was still immersed in a history audiobook at the time and couldn’t think about listening to anything else because it was so damn good.

When that tale was told I was left somewhat bereft, because when a story that good ends, one that had captured my attention and imagination for so many days, there’s a sense of loss when it’s over. Isn’t there supposed to be more? Why isn’t there more? I want more.

So in want of something more I sifted through the waiting pile and decided to jump genres and head back into some fantasy. I can’t help it, I geek out on a good epic fantasy, because hey. DRAGONS. ‘Nuff said.

The Spirit Thief captured my attention by mentioning that the main character, Eli Monpress, was a thief and a wizard in the description. And he’s decided to kidnap a king. Good start.

And it was.

The Spirit Thief, The Legend of Eli Monpress, by Rachel Aaron, is a fun, quick witted, clever fantasy with plenty of adventure.

The type of magic Ms. Aaron has crafted is one I’ve not encountered before in all the years I’ve been reading/listening to fantasy and it’s a wonderful concept. The interaction with the Spirit world is well thought out and, in keeping with the rest of the book, fun. Especially Miranda’s relationship with Gin, her Spirit Hound. I wonder how I can get one of those because he would be one cool pet!

The world is credible and doesn’t stray much from the high fantasy renaissance type expected but that certainly doesn’t detract from the antics of Eli and his companions.

I like that the language is current and does not get all Middle Ages formal. Some may find that a little out of synch with the world, but it fits the characters and story.

So here's what you get when dive into the tale with Eli Monpress, The Spirit Thief.

Eli Monpress wants to become the most wanted thief in the Council of Thrones. Or at least he wants his bounty to be the highest one possible, his goal of one million gold standards, a pretty high price for his handsome head indeed.

To this end, Eli decides to kidnap the King of Mellinor and ransom him for some gold and the promise of a large bounty. Eli lets himself get captured and then escapes his dungeon cell by convincing the door spirit to let go of the iron holding onto the door. Right there I was hooked. He talked the door into letting him go! Eli, while not a Spiritualist, is a skilled and clever wizard, who finds that he can coax and cajole the spirits to do his bidding with guile, charm and some slick conversation. It helps that the spirits see something bright and shiny within Eli that draw them to him and being the thief he is, Eli takes full advantage of it.

Along with him for this adventure, are his companions Josef, a taciturn master swordsman who is in possession of the greatest awakened blade in the land, The Heart of War. Josef has a conflicted relationship with this great sword and wants to earn the title of greatest swordsman without relying on the magic that thrums through the Heart of War, even as it is his to utilize. This predilection to go it alone almost gets our earnest swordsman killed.

Nico is not without her own brand of magic, even if she is mysterious and a little dark. She can flit through shadows at will and for a tiny young woman, she has supernatural strength. She is Josef’s shadow in all things and seems to require his guidance and protection despite her talents. Her devotion to Josef is evident and his faith in her complete which makes this the deepest relationship in the series of books so far.

Heading to Mellinor to capture the errant wizard for crimes against the Spirit Court is Miranda Lyonette. The Spirit Court cannot tolerate Eli’s blatant disregard for the rules of conduct between human and spirit and he defies those rules with every action, not to mention his penchant for stealing whatever captures his fancy. Miranda is a strong Spiritualist, guided by her utter commitment to her spirit oaths and determined to bring Eli to justice for his crimes.

Things get a little complicated when Eli and team kidnap Henrith the King and his exiled brother comes back to claim his rightful place, while professing the desire to save King and Kingdom from the hands of Eli Monpress.

Except this Pretender King is a Spirit Enslaver, who was banished from Mellinor for being a wizard in a land where wizards are unwanted and the only thing he really desires is finding ancient artifact within the families treasury to dominate Mellinor and rule over it with an iron fist. He’s a little bitter about his banishment.

Miranda and Eli, along with Gin the spirit hound, Josef and Nico, end up in a reluctant partnership to take back Mellinor from the Pretender King and manage to wreak some havoc in the process of cleaning up the situation.

All in all, it’s a wickedly fun romp of a tale, either in paper form, or in the audiobook version, which I enjoyed immensely.

Luke Daniels does an excellent job narrating, mixing up the accents and vocal arrangements for the different characters. He brings Eli, as well as the rest of the crew, alive in such an amazing manner that it’s hard to turn off the car when I get home.

The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater are just as wonderful, with new secrets revealed and a gathering darkness on the horizon for the Council of Thrones, and Eli no doubt, as the stories progress.

After the enjoyable hours listening to all three books, back to back, I'm really anticipating the next two in the series as they become available.

Monday, February 7, 2011

To be or not to be...A Witch

I always wanted to have magic powers and spent a considerable amount of time during my early adolescence imagining that my mother’s New England lineage included some connection to the Salem Witch trials and that deeply buried family secrets kept me from my true calling as a witch. My imagination has always been my very best friend.

Alas, there were no hidden witches in my family tree nor latent talent to shoot a spell from my fingers tips, but that wish for magic still hovers in the back of my head. Maybe someday…

In the meantime, I immerse myself in well written stories about witches and magic and what it might be like be so equipped.

None of the scenarios that were concocted in my brain ever included being a member of a family of powerful hereditary witches and NOT having Talent myself. This is exactly the situation that Tamsin Greene finds herself in in Once a Witch by by Carolyn MacCullough. Tamsin is a high school student, whose family of witches has command of innumerable Talents yet she herself lacks a Talent of her own. It’s hard being the family outcast, looked on as odd and pitied, and Tamsin tries to escape it by heading off to boarding school, where she is able to live apart from her Talent heavy family, most specifically her sister Rowena, whose upcoming wedding is sending the family into a tailspin.

One night, while working at the used bookstore, a strange man arrives seeking Rowena's help in locating a family heirloom. One of Rowena's talents it Finding and Tamsin lets him believe she is the witch he came seeking. She thinks she can help this man, Alistair, find what he is looking for and show her family what she can do without any Talent to call her own.

With the help of an old childhood friend, Gabriel, who lends his own Talents to Tamsin's subterfuge, Tamsin and Gabriel embarks on a whirlwind adventure of time travel, magic potions, a long held family secret and a shocking discovery that causes Tamsin to reevaluate herself and her family.

This story picks right back up again in the second book, Always a Witch, and immediately plunges Tamsin into a series of challenges that threaten the very fabric of the Greene family. Finding that the sinister Alistair had been in her home and taken possession of one of her relatives in an effort to unearth knowledge that will help him bring about the ruin of the Greene family, Tamsin realizes that she can’t sit idly by and let the Knight family threaten her family’s survival any longer and must do something drastic against the wishes of her family.

With her Grandmother’s dark warning casting a pall over her efforts– that Tamsin will have to make a crucial decision that could destroy her family- Tamsin embarks on dangerous time travel to Victorian-era New York. Once there Tamsin manages to spy on the Knight family by posing as a maid in their creepy and horrifying mansion, where she learns that they will do whatever they feel is necessary, including torture and killing, to escalate their family power base. Knowing that she has to stop them somehow, and get her family-in-the-past to heed her very important warning, Tamsin, along with Gabriel at her side, faces monumental obstacles and life changing action.

Once a Witch and Always a Witch are excellent middle grade books or for anyone who truly enjoys a tightly plotted story line that moves along with adventure and suspense, strong lead characters and a little romance that does not detract from the main arc of the tale. Tamsin is a likeable and scrappy heroine who is not afraid to kick some butt and maybe ask questions later. Tamsin has a slightly skewed sense of humor and a cynical bent but for all that she’s an engaging lead for this story over the two books. The sweetly developing romance she has with Gabriel is nice part of the books and offers insights about acceptance and expectations. Her relationship with her family undergoes significant changes in the two stories and shows a great depth of character growth for Tamsin and her relationship with her sister Rowena. There are a number of secondary characters to keep track of which causes some confusion at first, but many of them slide into the background by the second book.

The action moves at a brisk clip and transitions nicely from moment to moment. Tamsin’s big decision was shocking for me as it came at great cost to herself and the vision she had of herself and her place in the family.

And the books the physical books? They sure are pretty.

All in all I really enjoyed Always a Witch and will definitely pick up a copy when it is available for sale in August. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bookish Things for Christmas Gifting

We’re big readers in our house, doesn’t matter if the book is paper or an audio MP3 file. Our house has variations of books in every room. Yes, including the bathroom, because sometimes that’s the only place Mom gets five minutes to herself. If the dog would stop shoving the door open EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Nothing pleased me more than walking into the house a few weeks ago to find the television dark & silent, the dog snoozing on the floor, and my husband, son and daughter sprawled across the sofas with their noses stuffed in books. This is not such an uncommon sight thankfully and books and audiobooks are often on our wish lists when gift giving days roll around.

The wonderful moment of reading togetherness made me think that maybe you would love that sight and I could help give it to you as a gift by offering up some holiday gifting idea’s for the teenage and middle grade set. And books are always a good option in a gifting hurdle, are they not?

Let’s get started, shall we?

For the teenage boy set, Ace first recommends audiobook Carter Finally Gets It & Carter’s Big Break by Brent Crawford. These books are windows into the teenage boy mind and daily travails, and once you’ve looked in, there’s no turning back. Ace is an enthusiastic advocate for the Carter books, especially Carter Finally Gets It, and says listening to this audiobook was like walking down the halls of his own high school with friends. Can’t get a better recommendation than that, I think.

Next up on his list is Swim the Fly by Don Calame, a book that first caught his attention because he listened to the audio version during his first season on the swim team and completely loved the age appropriate gross-out boy humor and the swimming theme. It's another favorite that he goes back to for repeated listening. Beat the Band is the follow up book with the same characters facing a new High School challenge with raucous humor and teenage antics.

Chris Kuzneski is a major favorite of Ace’s and he’s continually urging his father to pick them up and dive in. His stories revolve around the recurrent characters, Jonathan Payne & D.J. Jones, ex-special forces guys who find themselves entangled in international intrigues that usually involve lots of explosions, gun battles and esoteric historical mysteries that add depth to the stories and trivia to your brain.  Along the lines of Clive Cussler and James Rollins books but stand out stories that keep you on the edge of your seat until the last thrilling page. I’m a big fan too. Ace and I suggest starting the series with Sign of the Cross.

If there's one book that Ace continues to nag me to listen to, it's Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey. Ace found this book to be enormously entertaining, with a dark humor that suits the gritty world of the story. He listened to it on audio twice before moving to another book, which means he really really enjoyed it. He’s threatened to remove my current drive-to-work audio from the car and replace it with Sandman Slim so I will listen to it now because it is just that good and I have to listen to it. His words.

The kick your ass attitude of the main character is sure to appeal to the teenage boy and given the number of zombies that gets killed, it’s just gruesome enough to be fun.

Some of what I get from the list above is that the recurrence of characters is an appealing aspect for boys, or at least for my boy because as soon as he finishes a book, or audiobook, by the authors above, he’s asking me when the next one is available. Explosions and girls are certainly part of the appeal, I imagine.

Giggles now, she goes in a completely different direction and her top recommendations right now are The Kingdom Keeper books by Ridley Pearson. Disney is her favorite place in the whole world so the appeal of the setting and mysteries in the books keeps her reading, or listening, for hours at a stretch. Ridley Pearson does the reading for the audiobooks and that, to my mind, makes the narration more exciting. 
Next up on Giggles' list are some of the American Girl books in the Body & Mind selection aimed at the tween age. She has practically worn out her copy of Spa Fun, Skin  Nails and The Feelings Book. The Feelings Book has definitely given her insight into her own emotions and allowed us to have some wonderful conversations. This is definitely one I recommend right along with my girl. She’s also very big on trying out the many do-it-yourself home beauty tips found in the Skin & Nails book. These books are great just for a young girl and for some fun Mother-Daughter time.

During a recent bookfair, Giggles picked up Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez and has raved about it and when asked for her top book picks, this was on right inthe top five. I think it was the green socks on the cover that first got her attention but Lina's story kept her turning pages.
This book, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera is a top ten choice and she wishes frequently that Ms. Primavera would write a second book as she swears the first one ended with a perfect follow up opportunity. Heavily influenced by the Wizard of Oz world, this story is enchanting and fun for the middle graders. Giggles listened to this as an audiobook only and pops it into her CD player regularly to revisit the characters while waiting for that second book.

Because she loves and tolerates her Mother, who wanted to push share her obsession love of all things Berkeley Breathed, Giggles willingly agreed to read Flawed Dogs:The Shocking Raid of Westminster. She was skeptical at first but to her surprise, and her Mother’s giddy delight, she laughed her way through it and hugged her dog all the tighter as she did. This one is for all the dog lovers who have a special place in their hearts for the “special” dogs. And now Giggles keeps this book on her special book shelf where it always belonged. (Did you know that the upcoming movie Mars Needs Moms is based on a Berkeley Breathed book of the same name? Now do you do. Go read it.)

Since I will read just about any book here’s a few suggestions that I enjoyed.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield was a surprise enjoyment for me. I don’t usually delve into the steam punk/alternate history space, but I kept hearing good things about this book and well, those good things were right on target. Set in the pre-WWI time frame, the story is constant action, well constructed characters and the world filled with strange yet believable beasts and creatures. Well worth the suspension of disbelief. Good for guy or girl. Imma gonna get me a copy of Behemoth soon.

Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series is well done, with just enough dreamy gothic tones, and full up with spoiled fairies bent of screwing things up and strong female characters trying to fix things, with plenty of sizzling romance in the mix.

While not a young adult novel, any true fantasy will love to curl up over winter break and read The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. And then read it again over spring break. Because it is a wonderful fantasy epic that begins the legend of Kvothe, he of many names. And just look at that cover. Trust me, this book is a fantastical fantasy that gently pulls you in and never lets go. The next in the series, The Wise Man's Fear, will be available in March and I will be marking off my calendar and pre-ordering it. Because I want.
Happy Holiday Reading, or listening, because audiobooks are fun to read!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Plantation by Chris Kuzneski

When I find an author I like to read, I will systematically get every title they have written until I catch up. I'm weird like that. This strategy usually keeps my Need-to-Read list quite full, usually overflowing with possibilities.

I'm listening to The Plantation by Chris Kuzneski right now and so far it delivers on the promise his other books did for me. Action right from the start by way of a heart thumping night time forest chase followed by a sinister abduction of a pregnant woman as she leaves her doctor's office. Enter Jonathan Payne and David Jones, friends, wise asses and ex-military powerhouses. Because another abductee is the girlfriend of Jonathan Payne, and he's not one to let the bad guys get pull that kind of crap.

Payne and Jones share a strong friendship through the bond of shared military experience, by way of the elite M.A.N.I.A.C. team, their dialogue is full of zings at each other with sarcasm to spare for anyone who gets in the way of their latest escapade. The action is constant and the plot twists and turns back on itself until the very last sentence and I'm usually surprised by how it all wraps up.

For me, the best elements of a Chris Kuzneski book, beside the snappy dialogue between Payne & Jones, are the facts and historical tidbits that enfuse each story. There is always something fascinating to be gleaned from the entertaining tale, as you are hauled, wide eyed, along for the adventure.

I've listened to each and every one of Mr. Kuzneski's books, so far all have been narrated by Dick Hill, who is one of the best audiobook narrators by far.