The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud

whisperingLast year brought us Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase, which was a 99.9% enjoyable book for me, and one that left me wanting the sequel now.

The sequel has now arrived and I’m happy to report that I found it as engaging and entirely readable as the first book. Lockwood, George, and Lucy find themselves going head to head with their archrivals, the Fittes Agency, and attempting to battle the ghost of a Victorian doctor and possible black magician. Plus, there is a skull in a jar whose whispers only Lucy can hear.

At first the different strands of the plot seem a bit disparate. There’s the Source that they have to deal with, the bet with the Fittes agents, the skull and its suggestive comments, and Lockwood’s secrets which he keeps even from George and Lucy. But by the middle of the book, Stroud pulls them together in a fairly masterful (if slightly coincidental) way.

For me, Lucy’s voice and the interaction between the three main characters is a large part of the appeal. Lucy is loyal, sarcastic, a bit self-centered (or at least, unable to see people entirely clearly). I had some issues with the way George was described in the first book, and while that didn’t exactly go away, I can see the dynamic becoming more complicated in ways that make me feel like Stroud may ultimately do some interesting things with the questions of heroes and so on.

I also noticed that, like E.K. Johnston’s Story of Owen, the narrator is a young girl who is telling a story she is involved in but which she normally wouldn’t be considered the protagonist of. In most stories of this type, Lockwood would be firmly at the center of the narrative. Instead, he remains a bit of an enigma, his charisma described by the other characters but never entirely felt. For the most part, this works for me, because Lucy herself is quite delightful and doesn’t come across as simply a storytelling device. But I did find myself a bit hung up on why Lockwood wouldn’t tell George and Lucy anything.

And it’s also true that, because of the way the world of this book works, there’s an interesting sense of time passing, of growing inevitably older and losing something as well as gaining it, which is fairly striking. Lockwood & Co are growing up and as they grow they will lose their powers. I wonder if this is partly what makes it specifically a middle grade book: poised at the tipping point between childhood and young adulthood, when you want the next thing but fear losing what you already have.

Of course, Stroud has decided to leave us with a Big Revelation which makes me wish it was next year already. However, the main strands of the narrative are nicely tied up, with a few lingering questions to tease us all along.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Disney Hyperion; upper middle grade/younger YA

I read this book for the 2014 Cybils. You’ll be able to see all of my Cybils reviews by clicking here.

(True fact: I almost said this book was written by Jonathan Strange, not Jonathan Stroud. How surprised Strange would be!)


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Top Ten Tuesday: Series I want to start

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

There are SO MANY series I have yet to read. These are just a few from my TBR spreadsheet of doom/list:

1. Still Life with Shapeshifter by Sharon Shinn
2. The Thousand Names by Django Wexler
3. The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda
4. Jaran by Kate Elliott
5. A Free Man of Color by Barbara Hambly
6. Libriomancer by Jim C Hines
7. Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Host
8. The Valor Series by Tanya Huff
9. The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice by Laurie Russell King
10. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

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Recent reading: Non-Cybils edition

I decided that during this Cybils season, I will try to read all Cybils books all the time during the week and then let myself read other stuff on the weekends. We’ll see how that works. At any rate, here’s what I read this weekend:

Deceiver by CJ Cherryh: I was engaged by this, because Cherryh, and then I hit a certain point and I was reading frantically and stayed up way too late because I had to know what happened. Which is to say, this is one of the more gripping installments at this end of the series.

Dark Metropolis by Jaclyn Dolamore: Historical fantasy set in a city based on Weimar Berlin. I liked this one quite a bit, although I never completely bought the romance. But it’s an unusual and intriguing setting and Dolamore is very good at little bits of description that really set the scene.

Lulu and the Hedghog in the Rain by Hilary McKay: I’ve been going on about how wonderful Hilary McKay is, and how wonderful her Lulu books in particular are. But they really make me quite happy! I enjoyed the neighbors in this one, and Lulu’s absolute conviction that everyone should love animals as much as she does.

Perfect Scoundrels
by Ally Carter: I’ve been meaning to read this one since it first came out and actually had it checked out at one point. I did enjoy it, but found myself a little less invested in Kat’s adventures. Is it the book? Too much distance from the last story? Not sure.

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September 2014 round-up

I’m trying a slightly different format for this post, including some other media I’ve enjoyed and things I’ve posted recently. Let me know what you think!

Books I’ve already talked about
West of the Moon by Margi Preus
My Real Children by Jo Walton
Unmade by Sarah Rees Brennan
Lock In by John Scalzi
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Lab Rat One by Andrea K Host
The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
All Clear by Connie Willis
The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Other books
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers: I didn’t connect with this one quite as much as I did with Cracked Up to Be, and I’m not 100% sure why. Nevertheless, I really like Summers’ writing and will continue my read through her backlist.

A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery: This one was reissued recently and since I haven’t read it in years, I checked it out in a fit of LMM nostalgia. For the most part I enjoyed it, although it’s not one of the strongest of her books. But eek, I had forgotten about the really awful racism at the end! It left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

Conspirator by C.J. Cherryh: This is another strong one in the Foreigner series. I like the continuing development of Cajieri and his place in the world of the atevi. It also helps to give the reader an actual atevi pov, rather than just Bren trying to feel his way through an alien culture.

Araminta Spookie: My Haunted House by Angie Sage: I’m trying to beef up my juvenile fiction reading because of the New Job. I wasn’t sure what I’d think of this one, but I ended up finding it funny and rather charming.

Junonia by Kevin Henkes: Another J FIC read; I didn’t love it as much as some of Henkes’s other books. There’s the sense of respect for the interior life of a child, but it just didn’t click with me the way his books usually do.

Babymouse: Queen of the World by Jennifer Holm: Not my cup of tea, although I can see why it’s popular with kids.

True Pretenses by Rose Lerner: I’m saving my thoughts on this one for an actual review closer to the release date, but I will say that Rose Lerner is an excellent writer.

Other posts
R.J. Anderson is one of my favorite authors!
Noor Inayat Khan and the SOE
Made and Making: September 2014

TV & Movies
Orphan Black season 1: I wasn’t sure what I’d think of this one, but I ended up loving it. Tatiana Maslasny is fantastic (sometimes I legitimately forget it’s one woman playing all the characters), and I so appreciate how focused the show is on the relationship between the clones. This is probably a show for adults or older teens, but it’s a hugely engrossing and thought provoking one.

Person of Interest season 2: I really enjoy Person of Interest. It’s interesting that by the end of the second season it’s morphed from its fairly simple original setup (two guys saving people via a Machine that knows everything) into a science-fictiony exploration of free will and choices and artificial intelligence. Where some shows get too hung up on their own mythology, Person of Interest somehow manages to do this in a surprisingly graceful way.

The Musketeers season 1: I JUST started watching this, but it looks like it’ll be campy fun. It’s best to separate it from Dumas’s book, since otherwise everything is just annoying. And I already know that Luke Pasqualino can definitely play Gen anytime he wants. Plus, I appreciate that Porthos is black since, well, Dumas!

You have about five days left to get your nominations in! Here are a few that are eligible in my category and haven’t been nominated yet. I haven’t read any of them, so this is not an endorsement:
Terror of the Southlands
Children of the King
Rose and the Magician’s Mask
The Misshapes: The Coming Storm
The Voyage of Lucy P. Simmons: The Emerald Shore
Flights and Chimes and Mysterious Times

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Top Ten Tuesday: Character-driven books

This is a post for Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. You can find out more and follow along there!

Character-driven books are BY FAR my favorites. I require very little plot; as long as a book doesn’t actively break my windshield and has excellent characters and worldbuilding, I’M THERE.

1. The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold: This series does not exist without Miles Vorkosigan and the labyrinthine pathways of his brain. Also, a wonderful supporting cast: Cordelia Naismith, Ekaterin, Ivan, Aral, Gregor (I kind of have a book crush on Gregor). There’s plenty of excitement, but when it comes down to it, half of the plot is because of Miles.

2. House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier: Jumping from space opera to quiet, lush fantasy. At its heart, this is a story about sisters, especially Nemienne. Neumeier tends to be a very character-centric writer anyway, but this one is especially focused on this main characters and the interactions between them.

3. The Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells: Let me just quote my review: “Plus there’s Maskelle, who is not your typical fantasy heroine, who is smart and gutsy and damaged in a way that doesn’t lead to endless angst but a quiet determination to put things right. I can’t think of another character that’s quite like her, because her vibrant personality leaps off the page. No cookie-cutter heroine here, just a flawed but also awesome human being.”

4. Anything by Laura Florand: One of the reasons I love Laura Florand’s books so much is how well she writes characters. In an HEA romance, plot is not so much a factor, so a lot rests on whether the characters and their budding relationship work. Here they do, every time.

5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: I mean, when the title is the main character’s name…No, but really. This is a quietish fantasy, and so much relies on Seraphina and her journey. It’s so good, and I love her prickly, uncomfortable self.

6. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge: This one isn’t out in the US yet (next year!), but believe me: it’s spectacular. And Triss drives the whole story. Like several of the other characters on this list, she’s flawed and yet completely sympathetic.

7. The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein: I mean, I could have gone with Code Name Verity or Rose Under Fire easily, but I still love Wein’s debut so much. I’m not always a fan of retellings that cast the villains as heroes, but Medraut is so much more complicated than that.

8. The Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers, especially Gaudy Night: BECAUSE HARRIET IS THE BEST.* Also, Lord Peter turns into a real person when she shows up (and Sayers agreed!) and Gaudy Night is one of the best love stories ever.

9. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: Here’s another book that simply doesn’t exist without Cassandra Mortmain’s voice. She makes the story, in her awkward, passionate growing-up.

10. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner: I mean, you start with Gen, and you add Helen Eddis and Irene Attolia and the magus, and Relius, and the minister of war, and Costis and Aris, and Sophos, and yeah. Character driven is one way to put it.

* I have a tag on Tumblr which says exactly that, and I’m always quite pleased when I get to use it.


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Libraries and life preservers

This is a story I have never told before. It’s about libraries and me, and how I ended up as a library person.

Middle school was a pretty terrible time for me. It is for most people, but I had the special awfulness of having been homeschooled until fifth grade, having no fashion sense, and being awkward in my own skin. I was book smart and smug about it. I was convinced that everyone hated me, based on the constant teasing and the paranoia that constant teasing produces. To be honest, I simply don’t remember large swaths of my middle school years.

English class was its own misery. I was reading at a college level and devouring books. And I didn’t have the patience or grace to see that for some people reading is not a joy. I suspect that I could easily have ended up hating reading, hating school even more than I already did.

And then one day Mrs. Hughes, the school librarian, came down and asked my English teacher if there was someone who could come up regularly during class to help her, and my English teacher said I could. I still don’t know if the librarian genuinely needed someone to help out or if she and the teacher had cooked this up between them.

I still had to read the books and take the tests and quizzes but most days, instead of sitting in class and hating everything, I went up to the library and helped check in books and shelve them. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was helping with processing (sticking the labels and card pockets on the books, anyway). I had a job. I had a place.

At this same time, I was just discovering fantasy. Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Nancy Bond, Elizabeth Marie Pope, Robin McKinley, JRR Tolkien–I drank them in, like a thirsty plant. The rule at this school was that you could check out two books at a time. At some point, Mrs. Hughes said, “Maureen, you can check out as many books as you’d like.” And I did. I would check out three or four books every day and sneak them home (yes, sneak, which is another story) and read them and return them the next day and get three or four more. Everything was terrible at that point: at school, at home, in the world. But in books I found hope that things would not always be this bad, that good would win in the end.

Years later I would read Tolkien and LeGuin on the kind of escape that stories offer, and I would cry because that’s why I read. That’s why I checked The Perilous Gard and The Blue Sword out over and over again, clinging to them like life preservers, because that’s what they were.

In my memory, that library is always full of golden light. There’s some actual truth to this–it was a long room on the second floor of the building and it had lots of windows. But I’m also investing it with my remembered emotions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the library was my haven. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it saved me.

There was one librarian at this school, and one assistant and what I remember about them is a vague sense of what they looked like, and their kindness. I was weird and bookish and awkward and out of place. They made a place for me and I am convinced to this day that Mrs. Hughes bought the rest of the Dark is Rising sequence because she saw I was reading them and realized I couldn’t get them any other way. At some point, I was talking with some other students and they said how mean Mrs. Hughes was and I didn’t know what to say because she never had been that way to me.

I don’t know if I ever really thanked her for everything she did for me. But in a very real way, I am where I am today because of her. Not only in the sense of making it through middle school without completely collapsing into misery and depression, although that’s true. It’s also because of her that I first thought, “Hey. Maybe I could be a librarian.” I spent some of high school thinking I should be an English teacher, but in the end I came back to libraries. I came home.


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The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

iron trialThe Iron Trial, by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, is a book that I found myself somewhat surprised and delighted by. On the surface, it looks quite a bit like the standard Young Hero Learns Magic and Finds Friendship and Enemies story. But it’s doing some interesting things with that story, in ways I wasn’t expecting.

The story starts off with one of those differences. Unlike most young heroes, Callum Hunt knows about magic and the existence of the mage’s school, the Magisterium. And he doesn’t want to go. His father has taught him that magic is dangerous, that the mages are cruel, using their students for experiments and not caring about their safety. But Callum has to go to the Iron Trials anyway, so he goes intending to make sure he doesn’t get in.

That doesn’t work so well, and he ends up chosen by Master Rufus, along with two other students, Aaron and Tamara. They quickly form a threesome, the first friends that Callum has ever had. I found this friendship to be really the heart of the book–the way the three interacted, sometimes warmly and sometimes slightly at odds, was nice. And I appreciated the way they stood up for each other in various ways.

I also appreciated that Black and Clare have clearly made an effort to include diverse characters. Callum himself is disabled–his leg was shattered as a baby and he is permanently affected by this. There are students from several other minorities, including Tamara. I can’t speak to the accuracy or respectfulness of any of these portrayals, but it is refreshing to see a fantasy world that doesn’t default to white able-bodied kids. In fact, even Aaron who is sometimes set up as the stereotypical Hero, is also shown to be much more complicated than that.

Then there are some severely spoilery things that I can’t talk about, but which set up some intriguing questions about identity and family. I really want to know how these will be resolved, but we’ve got four more books to find out.

I did find that the story was oddly paced in a few places, especially towards the beginning. Oddly, given that I often like shorter books, I wished that a little more time had been spent on the details of magic and learning magic, to giving the texture of the world. And there were a few points where I really wished that the characters would just talk to each other–plots centering on characters keeping secrets when that doesn’t entirely make sense are not my favorite. On the other hand, I do think the characters were written in a way that attempted to help the reader understand why they might keep those secrets. And in thinking about young readers, I suspect this might not be as much of an issue as it is for me.

All in all, this is a book which is doing some fresh, interesting things that I appreciated a lot. I will definitely be reading the next one.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2014, Scholastic; middle grade fantasy
Holly Black is one of my favorite authors
All of my Holly Black reviews
All of my Cassandra Clare reviews

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