Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Three More Book Reviews

The Tree Shepherd's Daughter
by Gillian Summers
Recommended Ages: 14+

Keelie Heartwood wants her mother. But it's no good. Mom has died in a plane crash, leaving her to be raised by her estranged father Zeke. It's a confusing change. Brought up exclusively by her ambitious, Los Angeles lawyer mom, Keelie is used to a privileged urban life, plans of going to law school, and being careful around trees - due to a rare allergy to wood, which since her childhood has caused her to hallucinate about seeing fairies. Now she is expected to live in the middle of a forest with the dad she barely knows, moving from one Renaissance Faire to another while he sells handcrafted furniture and attracts women like nobody's business.

Keelie doesn't plan to stay long. She has a plan to get back to L.A. and stay with her fashionable, preppie friends. But first she has to deal with one disaster after another, while her weird hallucinations resurface. Maybe the hardest part is coming to grips with the fact that they aren't hallucinations: Keelie can actually see fairies, tree spirits, and other magical things. She can sense the history of a piece of wood, work earth magic, and talk with trees. She has all these powers because she is half-elven; she will need them because an evil force prowls the woods around the High Mountain Renaissance Faire, a force that even her tree-shepherd father can't fight alone.

This first book in the Faire Folk Trilogy introduces us to the present-day heirs of Tolkien's elves. Evidently when they sailed west from Middle-Earth, they arrived in North America; and there they live to this day, masquerading as itinerant actors in period costumes. Not all of them are good, however. Some of them have unleashed a creature that may have sounded cute when you read about it in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but which proves decidedly nasty here.

But Keelie doesn't face it alone. She is strengthened by her growing acceptance of her father's love, her healing sorrow for her mother, the watchful eye of a too-smart-by-half cat named Knot, the friendship of a goth girl and a dwarf, a romance with an elf prince named Sean o' the Wood, and the faith of the trees. Meanwhile, your reading pleasure will be heightened by Keelie's growth as a character, her eye-opening experiences behind the scenes of a Ren Faire, and her fun sense of wit and irony. Things don't go smoothly for her; she even has some rough spots to work out of herself. But her sudden immersion in a pool of timeless magic within the modern world is as bracing for her as delightful to us.

Into the Wildewood
by Gillian Summers
Recommended Ages: 14+

Keelie and her father Zeke Heartwood have moved on to the Wildewood Renaissance Faire in upstate New York, but the magical world of elves, fairies, and tree spirits has moved with them. In this second book of the Faire Folk Trilogy, today's descendants of Tolkien's elves find themselves posing as jousters, princesses, and tradesmen for the entertainment of paying guests. But Keelie is something in between: half-human, half-elven, just beginning to come into her magical powers and learning how to use them. And when she overdoes it as a paying guest - making a thoughtlessly extravagant purchase - she is also forced to become a Rennie, donning a succession of costumes and ill-starred roles as this year's Jill of the Faire.

While her trials and failures as a faire worker are amusing, her lastest challenge as a tree shepherdess isn't. The trees surrounding the Faire are sick and angry. A nearby power plant is poisoning them, and someone is using dark magic to harm them even more. The unicorn guardian of these woods is dying. And now the other elven Rennies are getting sick, including Zeke. It's going to be up to Keelie to save everybody again, but she doesn't know what to do. Plus, she has to balance all this with the arrival of her two best friends - friends from entirely different worlds, but who for better or worse will be caught up in the adventure with her.

Here is a fantasy for your imagination to dwell on the next time you visit a Renaissance Faire. Suppose some of the actors aren't acting; suppose there is real intrigue and magic between them; suppose the drama that you don't see, playing out behind the scenes, is even better than the public show. There may be something to the hippie earth-magic and Luddite tree-hugging seemingly espoused by some Rennies... there may even be something beyond that, as distinct as the magic of Harry Potter's world from that practiced by Wiccans and pagans.

In this book you meet both kinds - human and elven magic users - and some are good, others evil. You witness the gradual transformation of an already compelling character as she grows into her powers and purpose, and as it begins to look like she may change the magical world: a world that only half accepts her because she is also half-human. You will enjoy the human side of her, and see how far she has grown since she discovered her elven side. And you will squirm like a worm on a hook as she makes every possible mistake leading up to the book's powerful climax. Then you'll squirm some more, since you'll have to wait until June for the final book of the trilogy, The Dread Forest's Secret. Visit the author's website for more information - though it may or may not mention that "Gillian Summers" is really the writing team of Berta Platas and Michelle Roper.

The Secret Country
by Pamela Dean
Recommended Ages: 12+

By page 10, I realized that I loved the characters in this book. By page 65, I thought it might be one of my favorite books ever. And though, further on, I felt it might have moved at a brisker pace and involved less quarrelsome chatter between its five young heroes, I never lost the sense that I had stumbled upon a truly fabulous story. This is a book young book lovers will love, a fantasy about a fantasy that comes to life, a mystery about a murder that hasn't happened yet - we already know who does it, but hope that he doesn't. It is a book that, according to its author, has the ambitious mission of reminding grown-ups of the pleasure they took from the books they loved best as children, while leading young readers to still more exciting discoveries.

Can one book do all that? Not likely. It takes a trilogy at least! So it's nice to know that The Secret Country is also the title of the trilogy that begins with this book. What's nice about that becomes increasingly clear as this book nears its end, with lots of mysteries yet to be cleared up, dangers to be faced, and magical tasks to be completed before the children can go home.

Who are these children? They are cousins who have spent every summer, until now, playing make-believe together on a Pennsylvania farm. This summer, though, Ruth, Patrick, and Ellen have moved to Australia. Meanwhile Ted and Laura are stuck in Illinois, visiting another set of cousins with whom they do not agree.

Nothing suits them quite like the Secret they used to share, the game in which they invented a whole medieval world stocked with pageantry, courtly language, palace intrigue, magic, assassination, and war. How convenient it is when each group of siblings finds a magic sword that brings them to the very same, and very real, Secret Country!

Or perhaps it isn't so convenient. Now that the kids find themselves forced into the roles they created for themselves, surrounded by not-so-imaginary folks they really care about, it isn't so easy to follow through on the script they wrote. Princess Laura is supposed to be an excellent rider and dancer, but the real Laura is afraid of horses and falls down a lot. Lady Ruth is supposed to be a journeyman sorcerer, but the real Ruth knows no more magic than you or I. Prince Edward isn't supposed to know what happens in advance, but Ted knows too well - and he doesn't want it to happen.

Even while the children bicker about whether or not the world they find themselves in is real, events are marching toward foreseen and unforeseen dangers. Nobody seems to notice that the kids really aren't who they're supposed to be, but keeping up the charade is exhausting. Is it all real? Does magic exist or not? Can they change what's going to happen? And why are things happening that they didn't plan on? These mysteries are enough to keep five ordinary kids tied in knots. Throw in a couple of scheming villains, the brewing threat of another war with the fabled Dragon King of the south, the discovery of rings of power and other magical items, an unforgettable encounter with unicorns, and other surprises, and you have an adventure with as many thrilling facets as you can desire.

Wrap yourself in this book, and it will close around you and make the outside world disappear. Better could not be said of any young-adult fantasy novel - except, perhaps, that there is more to come. The trilogy continues with The Hidden Land and The Whim of the Dragon. After reading this first book, I have upgraded my plans to read the others to "Top Priority." Other titles by this Minneapolis-based author include Tam Lin; Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary; and The Dubious Hills, which seems somehow related to this trilogy. You can find out more about Pamela Dean, a.k.a. Pamela Dyer-Bennet, at her website.

Evil Ads

Everywhere you look on the internet, you'll probably see an ad. That's all right. People want to make money somehow. What stinks is when an advertisement gets in the way of your enjoyment of a website. Or, worse, when it forces you to do something that risks exposing your computer to malware.

Two of these eeevil types of ad have come to my attention in the last few weeks.

First there's the one that pops up in the middle of your screen, flogging I-care-not-what product or service. When you do the little right-click/"close" maneuver to get rid of it, it gives you a pop-up message asking you to confirm, yes or no, whether you're absolutely sure you want to close this life-changing commercial message. Now you are in a quandary. Do you click OK or not? Will clicking OK have hidden consequences, like exposing your computer to a security risk or consenting to an unspecified offer? Why must it be so hard to make the lousy thing go away?

Then there's the ad that comes up instead of the page you intended to navigate to. You just clicked a link, and suddenly you're looking at an ad with animation and sound. And you have to keep looking at it, because there's no way to move on to the page you were aiming for until the "Skip this ad" link appears, around 15 seconds later. And again, you're wondering: "What really happens when I click this link?" Because we've all had the experience of discovering that what appeared to be a button to close something was actually the button to open something else.

These noxious ads join the ranks of numerous marketing gimmicks that make the internet an irritating and scary place. They're right up there with the screen-hogging pop-ups that force you to look very carefully for the "X" that marks the close button; the jittery, repetitively animated banner ads that make you want to surf somewhere else before you barf; and the embedded ad buried 85% of the way down of a long scroll-down, that starts talking or playing obnoxious music over your speakers when you'd just as soon not have everyone looking over the top of his or her cubicle at you.

I can't believe site owners would knowingly sell advertising space to such jerks. I can only assume these advertisers are stealing what they can't buy. The burden then falls to site owners and their programmers to stamp out these commercial squatters, so that their viewers and legitimate advertisers can have a more enjoyable experience.

The last ad in the "real world" that made me this cranky was the one that appeared on my windshield while my car was parked in a public lot. At first glance it appeared to be a citation for illegal parking. Only, where there was supposed to be a list of possible violations, the one with a check-mark turned out to be something like "missing the big sale at Snidely & Twerp's." By the time I had read that far, I was already ticked off by the very idea of getting a ticket for parking in a perfectly legal spot. I wasn't in any mood to think positively about Snidely & Twerp's.

I wonder how many people laughed off their initial shock and anger, and followed through on the store's invitation? Evidently some advertisers are banking on the theory that irritating people is as good away as any of getting their attention. I, for one, think there are better ways.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Loaded Question

I recently filled out an employment application that included a True-False questionnaire. The instructions said to go with your gut and assign a T or F to each statement based on your first reaction. How unrealistic! When you're aware that someone is going to evaluate you, and your prospects for employment, based on these answers, you're going to give each one a moment of careful thought!

Well, careful as my moments of thought were, some of those questions really had me stumped. Several of them left me shaking my head, wondering what the questionnaire was getting at. For example, "True or False: I've gotten into my share of trouble in the past."

Is that a loaded question, or what? How are you supposed to make a good impression either way? If you say "True," then you've admitted being a troublemaker. How much trouble, and what kind of trouble, are up to your prospective employer's imagination. Did you TP a few houses? Did you get a girl pregnant? Did you get caught cheating on an exam? Did you knock over a convenience store and do a stint in juvie? Were drugs and alcohol involved? How many people did you kill?

On the other hand, suppose you answer "False." What does that tell the examiner? Maybe you think you're still entitled to a bit more hellraising? You expect to wreak more havoc and mayhem? Or maybe you're saying you've never been in trouble in your life? Yeah, right...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Two Book Reviews

by Stephenie Meyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book 3 in the Twilight Series brings the hottest undead teen love triangle of this moment to an emotionally explosive climax. Judging by the success of this book and film franchise, this book is being clutched by more white-knuckled 16-year-old girls than all the student-driver vehicles in the U.S.A. put together. But that's all right. The pages keep turning even for 36-year-old Hagrid-lookalike bachelors, who desperately want to know whether Bella Swan chooses the gorgeous vampire or the studly werewolf.

They both love her madly and fight for her survival - though they all know that Bella becoming a vampire will be the end of her natural life. In fact, Bella's survival is the only thing that brings her two mortal-enemy beaux together. In this book we see an unlikely pact forged between the bloodsucking Cullen family and the shapechanging wolfmen of the Quileute tribe. The bridge between them is a common enemy: a huge coven of ravening, savage, newborn vampires that has been growing and terrorizing the Seattle area. And now they are coming for Bella.

Bella: hard-headed, soft-hearted, determined to be with Edward Cullen forever, yet equally determined not to break the heart of alpha male Jacob Black - who would have been her alpha male if Edward hadn't come along. Bella: who hurts most deeply when she can't help hurting the ones she loves. Bella: who would rather give up her own life than let her friends and family risk theirs for her. Bella: who grapples with an aversion to marriage even while she plans to give herself to Edward for all eternity.

I know you're supposed to be turned on by Edward's tragic ardor and Jacob's testosterone-rich sizzle. I know you're supposed to hate Bella for not being able to choose between them, just as Bella hates Cathy from Wuthering Heights. But for my money, Bella is Stephenie Meyer's most magical creation: a young woman who hardly understands how special she is to the men who know her, and who deeply cares about the pain she cannot help putting them through. Bella's vulnerability is - can I say this without being scary? - delicious. And the fact that 20-odd evil vampires agree is enough to set your hair on end over the suspenseful and increasingly action-filled last third of this book.

In New Moon, Jacob pledged to fight for Bella. He does in this book, though not always in ways you will sympathize with. Nevertheless, you have to be moved by his heartbreak, his inevitable heartbreak, at the end of this book. If you want to know more about the background of many of the vampire characters you met in the previous books, check out Eclipse. If you want to relish the provocative concept of imprinting on a mate, and the bittersweet results for teen lycanthropes, check out Eclipse. If you can handle an undead teen love triangle with a wide streak of danger and foreboding, check out Eclipse. Then prepare to wonder what happens in the fourth book of the series, Breaking Dawn.

The Secret Hour
by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 14+

Jessica Day has just moved from Chicago to the small town of Bixby, Oklahoma. On her first day at Bixby High School, she attracts the notice of three weird kids who dress in goth clothing. They call themselves the Midnighters, and they have spotted Jessica as one of their own. Even before she knows it herself, this normal, bright, vivacious girl has a destiny in a strange, dark world known only by a handful of teenagers.

Rex, Melissa, and Dess share a spooky secret. Every night at precisely midnight, time stops in Bixby, Oklahoma. For one hour, the world is filled with an eerie blue light and ancient, evil creatures stir: an hour that passes like an instant for the rest of the world. Except for the Midnighters. The blue hour has opened up for them.

Not coincidentally, they have other powers as well. Rex is a seer who can spot anyone and anything touched by the midnight hour; he reads the ancient lore left behind by the seers of yore. Melissa is a mindcaster who can taste the thoughts and feelings of everyone around her; she finds it hard to function in crowds, and cannot bear to be touched. Dess is a polymath who specializes in crafting weapons to guard against the shape-changing slithers and darklings that lurk in the blue time, weapons based on the old ones' terror of steel and the number 13.

There is another Midnighter in town who doesn't hang out with this trio. Handsome, acrobatic Jonathan Martinez could be Jessica's favorite, but he could also get her into the most trouble. Meanwhile, this troubled, conflict-torn little group of teen superheroes has to find out what Jessica's special talent is, and fast. Because the darklings already seem to know...and they won't rest until they have destroyed her.

This book opens the Midnighters series, which continues in Touching Darkness and Blue Noon. It is a promising first volume, to say the least. It introduces a totally unique, knock-out spooky fantasy world and a group of characters entangled in a complex web of motives and conflicts. Once you start reading it, you won't want to quit. Texas-born Scott Westerfeld, the author of the Uglies and Peeps series and other sci-fi/fantasy novels, is married to Australian author Justine Larbalestier.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Inkheart & Paul Blart

My Wehrenberg Theatres frequent-flyer card finally came through with a free movie ticket, so this afternoon I treated myself to two flicks for the price of one.

The first movie was Inkheart, based on the young-adult fantasy novel by Cornelia Funke. It's a fantasy about people with the power to read literary characters out of their books and into the real world. This causes problems when: (a) real people disappear back into book-world; (b) some fictional people want to go back; and (c) other, really nasty characters decide to stay and set up a real-world criminal empire.

I went to Inkheart with a little trepidation, having read some discouraging reviews: chiefly by curmudgeonly critics who hadn't read the book. Roger Ebert actually claimed that a child having seen this film might never read a book again. This just shows what a colossal shmuck he is. Kids have been crazy about this book (and its two sequels) for years, judging by the feedback I have received from my review and the bestseller status of the whole series. If reading the book hasn't stopped them wanting to read, certainly seeing the movie won't do it. I mean, kids deserve a little respect. Their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality is stronger than some adults realize.

Another criticism leveled at this movie was that it didn't have any magic in it. If that's true, I don't know what magic is. It absolutely bursts with magic, humor, action, and warmth towards its main characters, even the particularly flawed ones. It strains at the seams, so loaded with fairy-tale and storybook imagery is it, from the tornado that swept Dorothy into Oz to the raft that carried Huck Finn down the Mississippi. Up to a certain point, it seems to follow the plot of Inkheart as faithfully as could be expected while necessarily pressing it into a cinematic mold. My only quibble is the very weak ending, which I'll wager was the result of an eleventh-hour decision to put the kibosh on any possibility of a sequel. It does suffer a bit from wrapping-up-too-neatly-itis and, again, from "when the #$%& is this movie going to end" syndrome.

But it fares very well in the special effects department, and the actors are all up to the job. Brendan Fraser was chosen to play Mo, the "silvertongue" whose reading ability started the whole adventure, not because he is typecast as a "hero dad" (cf. Journey to the Center of the Earth and the whole Mummy series), but because Cornelia Funke had him in mind when she wrote the books, and even dedicated one of them to him. Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany, Sienna Guillory, and young Eliza Bennett are only some of the talent that fills this film with enjoyable faces and memorable characters. And if the story seemed to tie itself up too easily, well...that would be the fault of whoever decided to end it just when it was beginning. Look out for my reviews of the subsequent books, Inkspell and Inkdeath, coming soon.

My second feature was a freebie. Even so, I was loath to walk out of it before the movie ended. It seems I always pick a movie I hate when I have a free pass. This time my regrettable choice was Paul Blart: Mall Cop. I assumed it would be good for two reasons. First: because it got decent reviews (compared to Inkheart, anyway). Second: because the showing I tried to see last weekend was sold out. It was so sold out, in fact, that there was a huge queue pouring out of the building (which has room inside it for a rope line of considerable length), even longer than the line for Christmas Day. I gathered it must have been a smash hit. So I went to see it and spent the first half-hour struggling with an urge to get up and leave.

Eventually, the movie settled into a semi-enjoyable spoof of Die Hard, featuring a gang of nasties dressed as Santa's Helpers who take over a New Jersey mall on Black Friday, and Kevin James as the lone, lonely, sad-sack mall cop who battles hypoglycemia, an inferiority complex, and his own crushing mediocrity while trying to save his daughter, a girl he likes, and other hostages from the robbers.

Yes, there is a certain cleverness to the way Paul Blart uses everyday items that you can buy at the mall to thwart a team of extreme-sport thugs and their ludicrous plan. There are a few laughs - you have to appreciate the filmmakers' flair for absurdity - but even as it consciously razzes the eminently razzable Die Hard formula, it follows said formula to the last jot and tittle. The result is that you feel more like squirming than laughing most of the time. You may even get one of those crawly feelings Andy Kaufman specialized in giving, the feeling that the joke is on you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Tackiness

Apropos yesterday's inauguration of President Obama, the ever-opportunistic Tacky Church Sign at the neighborhood ELCA edifice says:


...which is a very timely sentiment, but not a Lutheran one. As sinners, we'd better hope not to be judged by the content of our character. At least, not when God is doing the judging.

But I guess religious tackiness is the theme of the week. I watched the inauguration, and took particular note of the benediction. Now the red man can get ahead, man; etc. Yes, indeed: now that Obama's president, there are finally going to be opportunities for people of color! If only it had happened earlier, why, our nation might have had a holiday devoted the memory of a black leader... Oh, wait. We did. This Monday.

Well, anyway, now that Obama is here, we might one day even have a black president! ...Er... So what was that guy saying about minorities finally having a chance thanks to Obama? Hmmmm....

Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Interview with P. W. Catanese

A lot of exciting perks come with writing the reviews on MuggleNet's Book Trolley. I love being able to share the joy of books with people, especially hungry young readers who are just starting to appreciate how much fun the world of literature holds for them. I appreciate their feedback and suggestions. It makes my day when authors let me know they appreciated my review of their books. And of course, I don't mind getting a free book now and then - though I only accept offers of books that I would have read regardless.

But when an author whose work I respect and enjoy grants me an interview, my excitement overflows the boundaries of verbal description. It's only happened once before now. This time it is P. W. Catanese, answering my questions about his latest book, Happenstance Found, book one of "The Books of Umber." Thanks again, Paul! And now for the Q&A...

RF: How far ahead have you planned the "Books of Umber"?
PWC: All the way to the very end, including the last scene. (I can vividly recall walking down a street in New York City when the final twist popped into my head.) I had to provide a synopsis for the entire series to my publisher, Simon and Schuster, as part of the process of selling the idea. It was for my own good, too, since I really wanted to be sure I knew where the story was going. This series is very tightly plotted with a lot of threads coming together and resolving. So, while I don’t always outline my novels, I did outline all the books in this series.

Is the series open-ended, or do you have a certain number of books in mind? How many?
Right now the plan is for three books. There will be a very definitive end.

Can you identify any stories or people who inspired you or served as models for the people and events in this book?
For me, the inspiration really came from the stories I had already written, and then adding the unique twist of another genre that sets the Books of Umber apart. I tend not to use real people as models for my characters – bits and pieces of people, but rarely an actual person that I know. For me, characters start with a distinguishing trait – shy, exuberant, cranky, things like that – and then other more complex layers of personality are added the more I think about them.

What specific idea led you to tell this story?
When I was writing The Brave Apprentice, probably around 2004, I included a scene where someone refers to a historian named Umber who has written about monstrous creatures. I just pulled that name out of nowhere. But the name, and more importantly the idea of a sort of ‘paranormal investigator’ in a fairy tale world, stuck with me. That was five years ago, and the story has been growing in my head ever since, even while I was writing books like The Mirror’s Tale.

What was the last piece that clicked into place before you knew this story was going to "work"?
It was not enough for Umber to run around investigating the weird and monstrous – he needed a quest of his own. That arrived in the form of the young hero Happenstance, who is just as important to the story as Umber. Once I figured out the back story and destiny of Hap, and how that intersected with Umber’s past, I had my story arc.

What rules did you set for yourself to guide your decision-making as the story unfolded? For example: This character must never be allowed to ____, etc.
I don’t know that I think of it this way as I write, but certainly there are certain traits that particular characters will exhibit. Keeping characters true to themselves is crucial – if everyone is working toward their own goal, the story can almost write itself. But there are other ‘rules’ at play I suppose – for example, the kind of knowledge that the amnesiac Hap exhibits is a very specific type of knowledge, as readers of the book will discover. And there are limits to his powers, which are specific in my mind.

Have you given a detailed backstory to many of your characters, including information the books may never reveal?
For certain characters, I definitely conceive a backstory. But it’s a fluid, unofficial thing, which I will revise internally as needed to suit the evolving story. Those things are revealed as needed. And if the character’s personal history isn’t essential to the story, I don’t bring it up.

How important will the background of characters such as Sophie and Oates be in upcoming books?
I don’t want to say too much but I will say this: In the second book, Sophie’s background – where she came from and why her hand is missing – will be revealed, and are very important to the plot.

Is it my imagination, or does the scene at the palace (with all the tension between Umber and the three princes) foreshadow troubles to come?
The first book is an adventure unto itself but it also introduces the players and sets the table for the rest of the story. A lot happens in book two, and the princes play a large part. So that’s not your imagination, lots of trouble ahead.

What is your general theory of magic as it operates in Umber's world?
There is no magic where Umber comes from. In the world where this story takes place, magic is just like technology. It can be used to improve the world and make lives better, or it can be used by wicked people for wicked reasons. But while technology is scientific and predictable, magic is mysterious and unpredictable.

Where would Umber draw the line between what technologies he can and cannot reveal to the people of Kurahaven?
Umber is extremely cautious about his inventions – for obvious reasons, given where he came from. He wants to uplift, enlighten and improve.

Will the elopement of Smudge's brother Caspar become more important in later books?
Caspar took off with all of the information about the Meddlers – you will meet him before long and find out where he’s been. (And just wait until you do!)

Was the storm that hit Kurahaven in this book entirely natural, or was there some magic behind it?
That was Mother Nature at her worst, and not a magical occurrence.

What can you tell us about the kingdom of Kurahaven - its extent, what else it contains besides the port city, etc.?
Kurahaven is the chief city of the kingdom of Celador. It’s the true source of the kingdom’s wealth, and it sits at the northernmost point of the kingdom on the Rulian Sea. Aside from a few islands and ports near and far, the rest of the kingdom sprawls south. The great forest, which provides lumber for its vast shipbuilding enterprises, lies at the heart of the kingdom. By the way, that forest is the same scary place where my story The Eye of the Warlock took place. Farther south, the borders are defined by mountains and other natural features – but it hardly matters in those sparsely populated hinterlands.

Will we see more creatures like the Tyrant Worm?
Lots of creatures ahead! There are more beasties in Book Two than in any story I’ve written – including some really creepy ones.

Where does Hoyle live, and will we see more of her?
Hoyle, who presides over Umber’s business interests and is the ultimate capitalist, would certainly have a home in the residential area, but knowing her often sleeps on a cot right at the Umber Shipping Company offices.

Besides Umber and Hap, who is your favorite character in this book?
This story is chock full of characters that I really enjoy depicting. Oates is great fun though, with his uncompromising honesty.

How did you dream up the Creep?
The creative process is often unexplainable. Without revealing too much: There’s something very distinctive about the Creep that makes him, for me, an especially horrible villain. That unique trait is born out of necessity, since I wanted to avoid comparisons to other cloaked figures that appear in other works of fantasy. So I ask myself, ‘What can I do with this guy that’s different?’ and wait for inspiration to strike.

What part of this book was the most fun to write?
The action scenes are always the easiest and most fun for me. The words fly fast and furious.

What part of this book was the most difficult to write?
Exposition is the hardest for me – when a couple of characters have a conversation that will deliver crucial information to the reader. It takes extra work to do that in an economical and interesting way.

While you were writing this book, what were you most tempted to do instead of writing?
So many answers to this question! Free time is the hardest thing to come by for me. I was most tempted to sleep, watch a great movie, or get some fresh air.

Do you ever have dreams or odd incidents in real life that your mind connects with this book?
No dreams that connected with this particular book. A dramatic event that happened in my childhood works its way into the story, mostly the second book. When I’m writing a story, I’m very tuned into everything I see, hear and learn, and little bits and pieces can find their way into the story.

Is there an idea you would like thoughtful young readers to take away from this book?
What you do with your abilities really matters.

IMAGES: Illustrations from Happenstance Found, courtesy of P. W. Catanese; a photo of the author. Check out the Books of Umber website and the author's website for more information.

Horror Dream

I watched a gruesome horror movie last night... in my sleep. I'm not sure it was a nightmare; I can't recall feeling like the scary stuff was happening to me, or (worse) that I was the one doing it. It was more like watching a really nasty program on the inner TV.

The topic of the program was unnecessary surgery. We're talking really, truly uncalled-for operations, in which the patients were left disfigured, disabled, and in excruciating pain. I remember seeing horrible, badly-sutured wounds; a guy who'd had both kidneys removed for no reason, and must somehow get by without them; and even an operation transplanting somebody's brain into somebody else's skull. Most dreadful of all, I overheard the surgeon remarking that the new skull wasn't quite big enough, so the recipient was going to lose a goodly amount of brain tissue.

Why did I have such a cruel and disgusting dream? The first person I told about the dream asked, "What have you been reading lately?" There's someone who knows how I tick. Among the last half-dozen books I have read, one depicted a battle in which vampires and werewolves vivisected each other. Another featured a monster who collected eyeballs from other creatures (and people), fitting them into the surplus eye sockets on its horrid face. Still another book subjected its hero to a wasting disease in which maggots were erupting from sores all over his body. There was a bit of torture, a threat of subjecting an unwilling patient to a frontal lobotomy, and some distressingly unnatural body changes - and that only takes me back a couple of weeks.

I've been accumulating some pretty grisly material for my subconscious to mull over. Even re-reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - a bit of homework I've started, to get ready for the sixth Harry Potter movie this summer - involves a certain amount of unpleasant imagery. In my last reading session before bed last night, Harry got his nose stomped on and broken. Perhaps some of the blood that flowed over my bad dream was his.

So I guess the next book I read should give me a break from heavy-usage body parts. I'm planning to focus on The Little Grey Men by B. B., a book enthusiastically recommended by Julie Andrews. Since I know that her taste runs toward light-hearted fantasy, I reckon it's just about dream-safe.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Three More Book Reviews

Happenstance Found
by P. W. Catanese
Recommended Ages: 12+

I had enjoyed reading all of his Further Tales. So when P. W. Catanese sent me his latest book, I was thrilled. Even more exciting, however, was finding out that this first book in his new Books of Umber series moves his unique world of magic into a realm of deeper, richer fantasy. It is still a world where fairy tales are woven into the fabric of history; but now it is so much more.

There is a series called The Books of Umber within this book, as well. Those books are studies of the history, magic, and monsters of his adopted world, written by a explorer, inventor, shipping tycoon, and polymath named Lord Umber. Here is a fascinating man, whose appearance in the city of Kurahaven signaled a revolution in medicine, technology, and the arts - not to mention liberation from an evil witch. Umber surrounds himself with unusual people, copes with the conflicts that daily arise between them, and gleefully faces danger that would make other men cringe and cower. But he is also a flawed man with dark secrets, a curious history, and a form of bipolar disorder that occasionally drops him into a deep depression.

Umber's latest discovery is a boy named Happenstance, who has been left expressly for Umber to find, alone in a ruined city with no memory of his own past. Hap is an extraordinary person himself. His weird-looking, green eyes can see great distances and in total darkness. He can jump amazingly high. He never sleeps. And as his story moves forward from its blank first page, he discovers other powers, as well as ominous hints about where he comes from.

Somehow Umber thinks Hap is going to be important. He arrives at what may be a critical point in Kurahaven's history, as an old king lies sick in bed, watched by three princes of widely different character. Plus, Hap has a stalker: a horrible creature dubbed the Creep, who has strange powers and gruesome plans of his own.

Protecting Hap while searching for answers about who or what he is will be a fulltime job, even for a sharp file like Umber. It will call for the best talents of the remarkable people Umber has gathered around himself. Soon there are mysteries within mysteries: Who are the people known as Meddlers? Why did an archivist abscond with all Lord Umber's books about them? What is in the letter Hap passed along to Umber at the moment they met, a letter Umber is in no hurry to share? What secret does Umber keep in his study? What guest does he keep in his dungeon?

Hap will have to wait until another book for answers to some of these questions. For others, he will have to prove himself worthy of Lord Umber's confidence. You'll squirm with the lad as he tries to fit in with the prickly members of Umber's household. You'll grin as you start to understand the strange world Umber comes from. You'll shiver at the grandeur of the canvas the story is drawn on, and the amazing things drawn on it, from the Leviathan Barge to the royal palace, where grim forebodings might make you shiver again. And you'll hold your breath as Hap faces his worst fears, and things he ought to fear even more, on the stormy night when the Creep reappears.

These days, new fantasy series for young readers are coming out thick and fast. With so many fantasy worlds beckoning, it may seem next to impossible to choose your next destination. To make its way among all the others, a new series has to have a distinct, original idea behind it, and it has move toward something exciting. The characters in it need to be well-rounded people, complete with flaws and problems that make them interesting and that keep the story spinning in unexpected directions. Some wit and humor, a touch of romance, a wistful shade of tragedy, a quirky glimmer of the real world, and the promise of strange and urgent undertakings in the fantasy world, would be helpful. P. W. Catanese brings all of these things together. So if you're ready for the next head trip after Harry Potter, this book may be your ticket.

An Ocean of Magic
by Stephen Elboz
Recommended Ages: 11+

Here is the fourth of the Kit Stixby adventures, featuring a boy wizard whose best friends are a flying carpet (named Carpet) and Queen Victoria's favorite grandson (named Henry).

Kit's father, the Witch Doctor Royal, has been sent to Brazil to collect specimens of rare plants and animals. Kit flies to meet him for the trip home, but terrible news awaits him when he steps off the airship. Dr. Stixby and his meek assistant have gone missing in the Sargasso sea, a place where ships, zeppelins, and even whole islands have been known to disappear.

Fiercely determined to find his Dad, Kit joins another old friend - Mr. Skinner of Scotland Yard - to search the sea. Soon enough the mystery is solved when a monstrous pirate ship literally swallows the ship the boys were on. They come ashore on an island stocked with bakelite trees, fierce mechanimals, and rowdy pirates: a mechanical island, a ship really, created by the very same Stafford Sparks whose evil plans Kit has thwarted one after another.

This time it will take more than one boy wizard's reckless power and half-baked plans to thwart that criminal genius. For Sparks has invented a terrifying weapon, and he plans to use it to hold the British government to ransom. His first target: a luxury liner containing Dr. Stixby's priceless botanical specimens and a hold crowded with shipwreck survivors.

Once again, fans of J. K. Rowling will get a kick out of this very different boy wizard. Passionate, volatile, frequently in very high spirits, Kit is a little devil and no mistake. He mangles grammar, neglects his manners, flies fearlessly into danger, and makes it his business to save everybody he can while staying a step or two behind one of the nastiest non-magical villains ever to plague the magical world. Along the way he befriends a nereid, plans a jailbreak and a pirate battle, engineers a novel way to survive a plane crash at sea, and solicits the prayers of a cigar-chomping nun (whose whole convent prays full-time for the safety of pasengers on Catholic Airways, ecclesiastical class). For sheer funniness, it's hard to beat this fast-paced, eventful tale of magic and adventure.

Alfred Kropp: The Seal of Solomon
by Rick Yancey
Recommended Ages: 14+

How do you top a novel in which your teenage narrator dies and rises again to save the world? The author of The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp attempts it, at least. His answer involves a 3,000-year-old brass urn in which a bazillion demons have been sealed since the reign of King Solomon. They can only get out with the aid of a ring - the Seal of Solomon - whose wearer commands an army powerful enough to destroy the world. And the only person with a chance of stopping it is, you guessed it, 15-year-old Alfred Kropp.

Kropp isn't just any 15-year-old. He is a big, strong lad with a habit of honesty that some people (including himself) confuse with being simpleminded. He chatters nonstop when nervous, which leads him to make some very clever and funny remarks and shows that he isn't so simple after all. He also happens to be a billionaire, the last living descendant of Sir Lancelot, and a hero whose blood heals wounds. Nevertheless, by the same cruel logic that finds Harry Potter living with the Dursleys, this young paladin is stuck in a crummy foster home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Just as Kropp is about to run away, he gets captured instead. Captured by a rogue agent of OIPEP (don't ask), who has stolen the seal and plans to unleash a demonic reign of terror on the world. Why does he need Kropp for this? It has something to do with the boy's blood, which has other properties OIPEP is interested in. Anyway, as soon as ex-Agent Mike Arnold smashes through his bedroom window, Kropp embarks on a non-stop journey full of murder attempts (mostly against himself), daring escapes, colossal battles, and all his worst fears. He nearly drowns, falls out of the sky, drives a very fast car through a hailstorm of fire and brimstone, and bonds with an agent whose very name - Operative Nine - means that, for the sake of his mission, everyone and everything is expendable.

If Kropp went through death in his first adventure, he goes through hell in this one. There aren't very many young-adult adventures whose heroes face the kind of danger Kropp faces. He's not an everyday hero. And this is not an everyday adventure. In spite of being something like a teenaged cross between Sir Galahad and James Bond, Kropp is also a thoughtful hero whose thoughts are worth knowing. For a hero who doesn't believe in God, Kropp packs some amazing spiritual experiences into his young life. And for a high-paced thriller, this book also packs some surprisingly penetrating insights into the nature of heaven and hell. I'm not saying it will make a believer out of you; but if you believe how much Kropp grows during this adventure, you'll have to see the third book in this series, Alfred Kropp: The Thirteenth Skull.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What If Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?

Someone sent this to me and I just HAD to pass it on!

EDIT: In discussing this video, a fellow blogger pointed out that what the church needs to do is market itself like Starbucks: i.e., it displays its brand prominently on the building. People know what that brand means, and if they want what it has to offer, they sell come to get it. Period!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fire Your Programmers!

Today's cheerful bulletin concerns two pieces of software that totally stink.

First, I would like to draw your attention to the "Quikorder" system at Pizza Hut dot Com. It does not compare favorably with Papa John's online ordering system. PJ's website is a fast-uploading, easy-to-use, friendly online alternative to ordering by phone. PH's, on the other hand, requires you to wait through numerous slow downloads. Its "store finder" feature doesn't work properly, forcing you to go in endless circles if you're trying to order for carry-out (which is $2.50 cheaper than ordering for delivery, by the way). And it is very difficult to do "price shopping" on a menu that hides the price tag on what you are ordering; trial and error is the only way to hit a target dollar amount.

One one page, if you leave out one vital piece of information while ordering, Quikorder arbitrarily deletes several of your entries before it sends you back to fill in what you missed - so that you tend to keep being sent back to fix something, over and over. The order form forces you to register at the end of placing your order, if you didn't log in to start with; which creates another endless cycle, until you realize that you're trying to use your existing username and password not to log in, but to create a new membership. If you try to go back and log in after starting to place an order, it erases your order and you have to start all over.

What with one glitch or another, I had to start over a good half-dozen times the other night - and finally I had to negotiate a special dispensation with the store where I picked up my order. Pizza Hut's IT people really need to work on this. As it currently functions, the Quikorder system seems custom-designed to discourage people from using it. That can't be good for business.

Another program I just tried to use today seems designed on similar principles. I attempted to use OpenOffice to create a database table. The process was so ridiculously complex, the user interface so hard to figure out, and troubleshooting was so completely out the window, that I eventually gave up and started my project over in Excel. I only regret the time I wasted before I came to that decision. I got so little done for the time I put into it, and even that had to be entirely done over because there did not seem to be a way to copy the contents of my table.

OpenOffice's "Help," typically, required you to know the precise way the programmer's mind was mapped. If I had known that, I wouldn't have needed the help. I was reduced to struggling with pointless little experiments as I tried to figure out how to do each little thing - any of which I could have done without a moment's thought in Excel. I never did find out how to make it possible to type a decimal, such as 3.14, into a record without having every single record showing two decimal places. Don't tell me if you know. I no longer care. I eventually got the message OpenOffice had been trying to send me all along: "Buzz off."

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Minnesota Is...

The news on Minnesota's Senate race is really discouraging. I'm not saying this as a Republican. Heck, I voted as an independent in Minnesota's 1998 gubernatorial election. Yep. Li'l ole me. I helped put Jesse "the Mouth" Ventura in the governor's mansion, though thank God it was as an absentee voter and I never actually had to live in the state during his term. It was painful enough watching my ex-home state become a national joke.

I didn't really vote for Jesse, technically. I voted against Republican Norm Coleman (because I thought he was an aisle-jumping traitor) and Democrat Skip Humphrey (because I thought he was a washed-up, entitled scumbag). I really only meant to throw my vote away because I despised the choices both major parties were offering. The embarrassing results taught me a lesson, a lesson that helped me overcome my gag reflex when I voted for Hillary in last year's presidental primary and for McCain in the election. The lesson: Always vote for the person you would be least disappointed to see win.

Minnesota, on the other hand, hasn't learned its lesson. They kicked out their incumbent senator (Norm Coleman again, poor sap) and replaced him with Al Franken. I kid you not. Another second-class celebrity who should have been laughed off the ballot for sheer hubris gets elected because, by golly, it's a great wheeze. It just goes to show that, although the people there may be "nice," Minnesota is a big fat idiot. Which seems to be the national average these days.

Gran Torino

Yesterday, I took advantage of having my car back and went to look at a movie. The matinee of the week was Gran Torino, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.

At his time of life, Eastwood is perfect for the role of a grumpy, war-hero widower glowering at the ethnic gangs increasingly ruling his Detroit neighborhood. The result is a near-perfect film, replete with suspense, brooding anger, grudging respect, witty banter, politically incorrect humor, and sacrificial love.

The best slice of the celluloid cake has to do with an old, Polish-American curmudgeon teaching a rudderless Hmong youth how to be a man. It starts when the Hmong boy next door tries to steal Walt Kowalski's 1972 Ford, which he helped build when he worked at the plant, as a gang initiation. Thao Vang Lor is basically a good kid. So, with good material to start with, Kowalski makes a surprisingly successful project out of him: teaching him to use tools, talk to grown-ups, pick up a girl, and do paying work. But in spite of Walt's uniquely-flavored TLC, Thao will never be free of the Hmong gang that pursues him - never without blood being spilled.

Where the film hits the skids (just slightly) is in its casting. There aren't very many big, Hollywood films featuring Hmong actors. Because many of the key characters in this film are Hmong, Eastwood had to fall back on an amateur talent search. Heroic as their efforts were, these untried actors never seemed quite up to the job of carrying a big Hollywood film. Nevertheless I wouldn't be surprised to see Bee Vang, and perhaps also Ahney Her, build a film career - and the skills to go with it - from this start.

This movie may also boost the career of Christopher Carley, who plays the babyfaced priest who makes saving old Walt his personal mission. When Eastwood, to his face, calls him an "overeducated, 27-year-old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies" and who knows nothing about life and death, it was a moment I recognized after locking horns with some of my first parishioners. Evidently Father Janovich makes a better comeback than I did, because he (sort of) makes a convert... while I'm here, writing movie reviews when I should be out looking for a job. Heigh-ho.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Sisters Grimm

The Fairy-Tale Detectives
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 1 of The Sisters Grimm introduces us to Sabrina and Daphne, sisters age 11 and 7, who have been at the mercy of New York City's Child Welfare program since their parents disappeared 18 months ago. They have moved from one cruelly inappropriate foster home to another, Sabrina protecting her younger sister but growing increasingly cynical in the process. And now, a grandmother they were told was dead has come forward, offering them a home.

Sabrina doesn't care to be taken in - in any sense of the term - by someone she regards as an imposter, if not a certifiable loony. Granny Relda lives in a bizarre house in the small, upstate town of Ferryport Landing. There are too many locks on the doors, too many books with weird titles, too many impossible colors and flavors in the food -- plus, the old biddy claims they are descendants of the Brothers Grimm, who wrote not fairy tales but histories. And so the Sisters Grimm are hereditary guardians, problem-solvers, and detectives serving the many characters from those histories who live in Ferryport Landing.

Yes, clearly, Granny Relda is crackers. Sabrina decides to escape as soon as possible. The ridiculous thing is that her first chance comes when an actual giant kidnaps Granny Relda and her friend Mr. Canis, right in front of the girls. Sabrina's life is suddenly changed by the realization that all the old lady's outrageous stories were true. And now it's up to her and Daphne to save their family.

It won't be easy, given that many of the Everafters - as the fairy-tale denizens call themselves - are hostile to the Grimm family. It's hard to tell whom to trust; and Sabrina isn't a naturally trusting girl. Can they rely on Mayor Charming, who is quite honest about wanting to get rid of the Grimms? How about the local sheriff and his deputies, who (most appropriately) are the Three Little Pigs? Can they trust Jack the Giant Killer to help them stave off an invasion of giants? The ever-youthful Puck, king of mischief-makers, doesn't think so - but he's not so reliable himself.

This is only the beginning of a terrific series that blends characters from folklore with modern-day mystery and family drama. It's full of humor, thrills, plot twists, and snarky satire targeting people (from social workers to law enforcement personnel) who aren't cut out for their jobs. And given the adorable openness of little Daphne, combined with the closed-up shrewdness of Sabrina, there seems to be plenty of room for family conflict and character growth in the books to follow.

The Unusual Suspects
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

First, before I discuss this second book in The Sisters Grimm series, I want to defend myself against any possibility of being charged with plagiarism. My Magic Quill column has a chapter, originally posted in March 2007, titled "The Unusual Suspects." I didn't get the idea for that title from this book, which was published at about that time and which I only got around to reading at the tail-end of 2008. I suspect that this book, along with several similarly-titled books and stories by various authors, took its name by a twist on "the usual suspects," a phrase first popularized by Claude Rains' character in Casablanca. That's certainly what I was thinking in March '07. Great minds think alike. Lots of them, evidently.

As for author Buckley, any charge of plagiarism would be futile. He has stolen his characters from a wide range of folklore and fantasy classics, from the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen to the works of Baum and Carroll. He has cast his net so widely that one could accuse him of nothing worse than what Clive James said of J. K. Rowling: "ransacking a sorcerers' warehouse stocked with all the magic gear since Grimm's first fairy tales."

Most of that gear seems to be stored behind the magic mirror that lives in Granny Relda's spare bedroom. Also living under her roof are the last descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sabrina (11) and Daphne (7), who are both trying in their own way to adjust to their new living situation; and let's not forget Puck, an eternally-boyish fairy prince with an impish sense of humor and, when he chooses to reveal them, a pair of huge pink insect wings.

When Sabrina and Puck lock horns, you can often spot the spectre of puberty hovering nearby: some of it has to do with being at the age when girls and boys start to pay attention to each other. Which makes for a nice distraction, now and then, from the grim urgency of the case they are working on. As fairy-tale detectives, it's up to the Grimm family to police the Everafter population of Ferryport Landing, New York. And it's never needed more policing than now, what with a teacher at the local elementary school being eaten by a monster. Somehow this is connected with the way all the kids keep falling asleep in school, the discovery that several Everafter couples sold their babies, and the principal's peculiar power to control people and animals -- he is the Pied Piper of Hamelin, after all.

Throw in appearances by seemingly every fairy-tale character from Baba Yaga to Snow White - don't worry; I haven't mentioned the one that really matters - and you've got a comedy crossed with a mystery, seasoned with a dash of horror, a pinch of romance, and a generous dollop of subversive irony. I mean, who is ever going to see fairy tales the same way after seeing a pig (a literal pig) in a sheriff's uniform, a charging swarm of carnivorous rabbits, and a shrewish social worker making cow-eyes at a school guidance counselor? If you find these images provocative, you will find more and more of them as the series continues.

Besides the big case, this story also finds our main heroine dealing with a more personal problem. Since her parents disappeared, Sabrina has compensated for her harsh circumstances by developing a habit of distrust. Now that her world has been turned upside down, now that she knows fairy tales are real and that her parents were involved in them, now that she knows Everafters are behind her parents' disappearance, and many more despise the Grimm family - well, can you guess where this is going? Sabrina begins to have a little problem spelled H-A-T-E. And dealing with that problem raises this story from frivolous entertainment to the level of well-rounded, human storytelling a child can learn from and love.

The Problem Child
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

When Wilhelm Grimm emigrated to upstate New York with a shipload of Everafters - the real, live characters from his histories-cum-fairy tales - not everyone made a smooth transition. A few, in fact, became dangerously disturbed. In this third installment in The Sisters Grimm, these fiendishly insane Everafters break loose and begin terrorizing the population of Ferryport Landing.

This outbreak of trouble just happens to coincide with the return of Sabrina and Daphne Grimm's Uncle Jake, a man whose very existence has been erased from the memories of most people in town. Why? Because his rash arrogance led to the escape of the very bad-guys who have now wreaking havoc again - to say nothing of Grandpa Grimm's death.

The villains in this case are somehow involved with the Scarlet Hand, the shadowy group of anti-Grimm Everafters who kidnapped the girls' parents. So they are doubly motivated, as fairy-tale detectives, to get to the bottom of this case. Solving it may help them find their parents.

Once again, the bad guys aren't the only problem Sabrina and her family have to contend with. Uncle Jake has to work through his guilt to feel worthy of his mother's forgiveness. Both he and Sabrina struggle with an addiction to magical objects - being "touched," as Baba Yaga calls it. And what happens to Puck leads directly to another family crisis, and the succeeding adventure titled Once Upon a Crime.

What makes this series of fairy-tale mysteries work so well? Perhaps it is the author's precise sense of balance. Somehow he keeps brewing these rich concoctions, with chilling mystery, family drama, rib-tickling spoof and eye-popping magic all at their proper strength. If it was any more serious, it wouldn't be so much fun for kids of all ages. If it was any less, it wouldn't make you care so much about its characters - even the off-center ones. Buckley writes with wit and compassion, but above all he spins a yarn in which one can easily get caught up.

Once Upon a Crime
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm finally have their parents back - in body, at least. No one knows quite how to wake them from their magical sleep. But the Grimm family of fairy-tale detectives has a more urgent problem. The fairy prince Puck - sort of an adopted member of the family - has been gravely injured and needs the attention of others of his kind. This means that Granny and the girls must take him out of the safe haven of Ferryport Landing, which for hundreds of years has been home to many of the Everafters (fairy tale folk) who came to America with Wilhelm Grimm. They must take him to the land of faerie, or what's left of it. Oddly enough, it turns out to be a restaurant in New York City.

Now if you thought characters from Grimm's Fairy Tales were trouble, wait till the fairies from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream get involved. These days, the Everafters outside of Ferryport Landing have grown increasingly scattered, and Faerie has all but disappeared. What remains of it is a mafia-style empire, topped by King Oberon and his embittered wife Titania. This is why ex-sheriff Hamstead's romance with a fairy's main squeeze reads like the plot of a verismo opera. It also means trouble for Sabrina, when Puck's levitating coccoon chooses her, rather than his long-ditched fiancee, to be his guardian while he heals. (If you've missed the hints of a developing romance here, you may also have missed the Ron/Hermione ship. Ooh! Low blow!)

Things get serious when Oberon is fatally poisoned. Suddenly Puck is the King of Faerie, when he is least able to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Sabrina is struggling to understand new discoveries about her mother, who turns out not to have had such a fairy-tale-free lifestyle after all. Does she really know the people closest to her? Long reluctant to accept her calling as a fairy-tale detective, Sabrina wrestles with this question while searching for clues in dwarf-infested subway tunnels, Scrooge's psychic seance parlor, and Macy's Department store, where the robotic Christmas displays are supervised by... ha, ha, you'll have to find out for yourself!

In spite of all the suspects and clues, you may be amazed to find out whodunit. In fact, part of what gives the climax of this book its punch is the fact that there are really two crimes in it, and two bad-guys afoot, each promising Sabrina a chance to apply her growing skills as a detective, and her already considerable powers as a swashbuckling girl-hero. Cringe at the spectacular dangers involved in multiple climaxes, including (but not limited to) a scene that poses the question: What if King Kong was a giant robot? But don't worry. Sabrina lives to fight crime another day!

Magic and Other Misdemeanors
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Here is the fifth book in the captivating fairy-tale/mystery series titled The Sisters Grimm. This one finds Sabrina (11) and Daphne (7) still trying to figure out how to waken their parents from a nearly two-year-long magical sleep. But the mysterious society known as Scarlet Hand, which kidnapped Henry and Veronica Grimm in the first place, is not yet finished making trouble. In fact, the girls hardly seem to have any time to work on the problem of their parents, now that a new crime wave has broken out in the Everafter sanctuary of Ferryport Landing, New York.

Certain Everafters - the real, living, immortal people whose life stories inspired the great fairy tales - are stealing magical items from others. A wand, a clock, and a vial of water from the Fountain of Youth have been stolen, and whoever has them is using them for some unknown purpose. As a side effect of this ill-gotten magic, rifts are opening in the fabric of time. The past and the future are getting mixed up, giving the girls a glimpse of an awful future when the Scarlet Hand is running rampant and only a few hopeless defenders are left... and, in a blast from the past, putting an ancestor of the Grimm sisters in jeopardy, and all his descendants with him. With an avaricious new sheriff and a loathesome new mayor breathing down their necks, it looks as if there may be no future for the Grimms -- or for the many Everafters helped by their detective work.

So this series comes to its daring and thrilling treatment of Time Travel. Hearts, homes, and lives are at stake. But in spite of the big fantasy concept and the serious stakes involved, it remains a kid-friendly mystery with lots of humor and a good deal of romance (some of the tragic variety). We find out something new about the seemingly ageless fairies. We encounter dragons, witches, talking mirrors, diabolical villains (notably including tax collectors), and even a feline exterminator who is terrified of mice. And at the end, we experience the shock of seeing a character switch sides. More on that is sure to come in Book 6, titled Tales from the Hood.

Prayers Answered

I will now sing the praises of Marty's Auto Shop. I pass on only what was passed to me: word-of-mouth praise for a repair shop that does good work at a fair price. A co-worker told me that her family has all their auto repair done by Marty's, at 9700 Gravois in Affton, right next to the viaduct a block west of MacKenzie. So when my car needed a new timing belt put in, I did some price-shopping and Marty's came in with the best quote. Today I picked my car up. It was done on time; it's in fabulous condition; and the price was what they quoted to me. An awesome job!

I am so thankful not to have to put up with the MetroBus system any more. I think a few more days of that would have finished me off. MetroBus, I'm sorry to say, is not a good deal. For $2.75 you can get a ride anywhere in the bi-state metro area, plus a multi-use transfer good for about 3 hours, but this deal doesn't seem so hot when you're standing at the corner of Lindell and Grand at 11:05 p.m. waiting for a 10:45 bus in bitterly cold wind.

It took me two and a quarter hours to get home from Grand Center on Tuesday night, thanks to a combination of no-shows, schedule-bendingly late buses, friendly MetroLink light rail personnel having no knowledge of bus schedules, and one uncommonly friendly bus driver who went the extra mile (or 5 or 6) to accommodate the only other passenger, who was in a hurry to go back in the direction I was coming from. 2.25 hours to cover a distance my car can handle in under 20 minutes. That's just sad. And much of it (the waiting-in-the-wind bits especially) was uncomfortable, tedious, and scary.

Tuesday was my big bus day. I made 2 and a half round trips by MetroBus that day, which kept me out of the house for all but about one hour between 9-ish in the morning and a quarter past midnight. Some of the buses did not follow the route advertised on the TripFinder website. Some of the stops were not located where TripFinder said to look for them. And none of the buses after about 5 p.m. were less than 15 minutes late. I waited 25 minutes for one bus before giving it up as a bad job and walking several blocks to try to catch a different bus (whose route I had noted as a fallback), only to find that one running 20 minutes late as well.

Wednesday, while waiting for one particular bus, I discovered a bus-related corollary to Murphy's Law: If you're waiting for a particular bus, two other buses will pass in each direction, possibly more than once, before your bus appears. I bummed rides when I could. I walked my cat to the vet (!) for her vaccination appointment. Any trip I couldn't make on foot, I made by bus - often spending more time at the bus stop than actually riding a bus. I couldn't live that way if my time was actually valuable.

So today, I took my last bus rides (for now) to Marty's to pick up my car. I am so glad it's back. It purrs like a kitten. It runs better than it has since before the first time I had the belts replaced back at 50,000 miles -- which is one of the reasons Marty's one the bidding war against the repair shop I used the last time (they also quoted $50 higher than Marty's did). And so I hand over to you what was handed to me: the praises of Marty's, who have so marvelously delivered me from the long cold hello of public transit.