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Hood by Stephen R. Lawhead (2006)

HoodThis engaging surprisingly erudite retelling of the Robin Hood myth - relocated to Wales in the 11th century – is the first in the Raven King trilogy. Bran is a young prince whose mother dies when he is just a boy. His father, no longer tempered by his wife, becomes harsh with Bran, creating a rift between the two.

When the Normans invade England and attempt to subdue the Welsh, Bran’s father and his war host are struck down. Bran and his people flee. Having never wanted the crown, Bran attempts to flee north to his kin, only to be hunted and severely wounded. This first book takes us through Bran’s transformation from handsome, disaffected and naïve youth to scarred, informed and compassionate man.

Slowly but surely familiar names appear in surprising roles. A slight magical element runs through the whole, tantalizing the reader and giving the story the little umph it needs just when the narrative starts to drag. I look forward to starting the next, Scarlet.

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The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones (2014)

He wasn’t able to meet her eyes — he’d been gazing at her waistband when he’s inadvertently proposed in a shame-faced way. It wasn’t that he had intended to get down on one knee — he hadn’t intended anything at all. What he had meant, if only he could have said it, was, ‘How do you get out of your dress?‘ (p 16)

Wilfred PriceWilfred Price and the Welsh town of Narberth are deceptively innocent looking. It’s 1924 and Wilfred’s funeral business is finally established and gaining capital. On the advice of his trade’s teacher, Wilfred contemplates taking a wife. Befuddled by Grace’s loveliness in a yellow dress, he blurts out a proposal. Grace accepts and, before Wilfred can retract his offer, the whole town knows they are engaged. Add to the scenario a young lady with whom Wilfred is truly falling in love with and the young man is in quite a pickle.

But lurking under this innocent dilemma is a horrific betrayal and violent crime. In disarming prose, the story unfolds.

I recommend this to historical fiction fans and those who enjoy Downton Abby.

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Weasels by Elys Dolan (2014)

Weasels. What do you think they do all day? Eat nuts and berries? Frolic in the leaves? Lurk in the dark? … What they really do is plot world domination!

WeaselsI love this hilarious book about a group of weasels who plan to rule the world with the help of a big machine and a little white mouse. When their big machine breaks, various strategies are employed to fix it but some weasels have divergent ideas while others are easily distracted. Chaos ensues until one curious weasel solves the mystery. Brilliant.

Here is a clip from inside the book. As you can see, one little weasel’s attempt to improve the tense work atmosphere goes awry.WeaselsFire

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The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman (2014)

One bleak morning in the eye of winter, five horses and five riders thundered into the remote mountain village of Nag’s End. Without ceremony or respect for local custom, they charged through the square and up the steep alpine trail that lay just beyond (p 1).

Glass CasketThe arrival and quick deaths of the king’s men set off a series of disturbing deaths. Add to this the arrival of a group of strangers (a couple and their daughter) with whom Rowan is forbidden from approaching and a Duke who visits Rowan’s father and Rowan’s world is turned up-side-down.

First, the beautiful young woman named Fiona is revealed to be her relation. Then Tom, Rowan’s best friend, falls completely in love with Fiona. But death toll rises and each gruesome body suggests a protean and impossible murderer. Then, the ever friendly Tom becomes truculent and crazed and the villagers become suspicious.

This atmospheric tale has a touch of mystery, fantasy, romance and fairy tale all mixed together. Though it could have benefited from a tighter telling, I recommend it to fans of Marcus Sedgwick and Chris Wooding.

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Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin (2013)

When I first heard Gayle, I couldn’t tell if she was a bird or a girl. All I knew for sure was that the music she made wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before. It was magic.
Even a kid like me could recognize that (p 1).

NightingaleLittle John first hears Gayle, an orphan being fostered by the town’s poor widow and her bully son, singing as he and his father are pruning pecan trees for the richest man in town. He finds her perched in a nest snug in the branches of a sycamore tree that abuts the Emperor’s property. Gayle, who reminds John of his deceased younger sister, becomes the catalyst to John’s much needed healing.

With an undercurrent of subtle magic that harkens to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale, this is an enchanting and thoroughly delightful story with deftly drawn characters and sparse, lyrical language. Highly recommended.

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013)

I was horrified by the use of the word fault, with its negative connotations, especially as it was being employed by someone in authority. I abandoned my decision not to deviate from the genetic issues. The matter had doubtless been brewing in my unconscious, and the volume of my voice may have increased as a result.

“Fault! Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s a variant. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s syndrome is associated with organization, innovative thinking, and ration detachment.”

A woman at the rear of the room raised her hand. I was focused on the argument now and made a minor social error, which I quickly corrected.

“The fat women – overweight woman — at the back? (p 10)”

Rosie ProjectWhat can I say? I was charmed by this book from the beginning. I could not pull myself away from Don’s voice and perspective. I was immediately and hopelessly enthralled.

Don is a professor of genetics in Melbourne, Australia. As he nears his 40th birthday, he attempts to find a wife via questionnaire. He has specific requirements that a prospective mate must satisfy. Then Rosie walks into his office and disrupts his well-constructed life, simultaneously inconveniencing Don and delighting him.

Reading this as I am also listening to Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, I applauded Simsion’s perspective on Asperger’s syndrome and his treatment of it as a matter of identity rather than illness.

My only qualm with the book come in the last quarter when the narrative meandered and took on a cinematic (read: wild goose chase) quality. Otherwise, it was a complete delight and I look forward to a sequel.

Library copy | Simon & Schuster | 292 pages | ISBN 9781476729084 | Ages 16+

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are many days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more number for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for all the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful (p 260).

Fault in Our StarsJohn Green’s most recent best seller is a tear-jerker that has found it’s way to a big screen adaptation (surprisingly, faster than his superior novel, the Printz Award winning Looking for Alaska). In Stars, we meet Hazel Grace, a teen with terminal cancer who meets the deceptively healthy looking and handsome Augustus at Support Group. The two connect, stories and experiences are shared and, predictably, someone dies. Everyone dies, sooner or later… but reading about it makes it feel real. But this is just a book and characters do not have lives outside of the book, as the fictional alcoholic author, Peter Van Houten, brutally informs the pair. Or do they?

Green is most successful when exploring truths about relationships – not through precocious teenage dialogue – but through the genuine reactions his characters have to the suffering of their loved ones and their struggle to find words to describe their myriad (and sometime conflicting) feelings.

In Hazel Grace’s pre-death eulogy to Augustus Waters, she speaks poignantly. Her comments during his actual eulogy are more mundane and rote, a dichotomy I fear will play out in the film adaptation. Will a Hollywood movie capture the unpretty reality of death Green explores or will the movie soften these truths, glamorizing the characters and dumbing it down for a wider audience? If the trailer is anything to judge by, we’re going to get a mundane film with all the components of the book but little truth.

Library copy | Dutton Books | 313 pages | ISBN 9780525478812 | Ages 13+