Be wary of lidded teacups

Cover artwork for Vodník.Title: Vodník

Author: Bryce Moore

Publisher & Release Date: Tu Books, 2012

The Hook: We Need Diverse Books rec’d this book as a read-alike for Lish McBride’s excellent “Hold Me Close, Necromancer.” Naturally, I went looking for “Vodník.”

The Lowdown (from Library of Congress summary): “Sixteen-year-old Tomas and his Roma family left Slovakia because of mysterious attacks on his life when he was a child, but when they return, the same creatures of folklore begin to strike again and Tomas, aided by his cousin, will have to bargain with Death herself to set things right.”

Overall Impressions:  I zipped through this engaging story.

Moving back to his mother’s hometown in Slovakia after their house burns down was supposed to make things easier for Tomas’ financially-strapped family. This does not exactly work out. It’s a familiar story: Awkward teen, kind of a loner, gets caught up in something bigger than himself, in over his head, finds out he has some special abilities. And it works. It works in some interesting ways, partially because I enjoyed my introduction to Slovakian fairy tales, and a lot because Tomas is so far out of his depth but does not give up despite all his very believable fears. And he’s got a little bit of snark, which is always fun.

Tomas has to adjust to living in a country he barely remembers, making Slovakian his primary language, and realizing that his olive skin, mostly unremarkable in the United States, identifies him as a mostly unwanted Roma in Slovakia.

He also has to adjust to the fact that he can see creatures other people can’t, and they all seem to want something from him. Maybe his help. Maybe his death. It’s a tough call.

Knowing who to trust was bewildering, as Tomas received conflicting and/or oblique warnings and information from several supernatural creatures. “The vodník is trying to kill you.” “We were friends – the fire witch lies.” “Don’t mess with my deaths.” His cousin Katka is his one consistent ally, but she also has a brain tumor – one with a nearing expiration date, according to Death. I really felt all his frustration, confusion, fears and increasing desperation.

I expect at least one sequel – and I look forward to reading it.

The Highs: How the family really comes together as a team as the story goes on.

The descriptions of Trenčín Castle.

I really enjoyed the relationship Tomas developed with his uncle and how it complemented his relationship with his father.

Tomas first thinking “friendly attractive girl not repulsed by my burned arm” when he first meets Katka and then making the mental switch to “awesome cousin” and the friendship they develop.

The conversational tone of the excerpts from “Death in the Modern Day” at the beginning of each chapter. For example, from chapter 14: “Humans like to make deals with Death. It comes with the territory. And while you might be tempted, we discourage you from entering into such pacts. Unless they involve really good dark chocolate. Because some deals are just too good to pass up.”

Tomas’ dad is a librarian and his awesome librarian skillset plays an important role near the end of the book.

Buzzkills:  I wish Tomas’ mother played a more proactive role. She has a number of traumatic experiences in her life -particularly the mysterious disappearance/death of her mother- but her refusal to talk about (or let other adults do so) or even acknowledge various things proves dangerous for Tomas and Katka. She and Tomas love each other but her role sometimes seemed peripheral (other than silence) where Tomas’ father and uncle play larger roles in supporting him. Possibly I’m over-reacting?

The Source: Bought the e-book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a trip to Slovakia was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Read-a-like gift recommendations

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Books are one of our favorite gifts to give or receive….. looking for that perfect “next read” for the book lover in your life? Check out these suggestions, and then hit your local bookstore with confidence.

“The Book Thief” is in theaters now – and remember, the book is always better than the movie, and Markus Zusak’s story about a foster girl growing up outside 1939 Munich is powerful and heart-wrenching. For another tale of amazing young women during wartime, head immediately to “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein. A spy being flown into Occupied France during World War II is captured after being shot down and interrogated by Nazis; she’s writing her confession, remembering and mourning her friend who was piloting the plane. Wein has also written a stunning companion novel, “Rose Under Fire,” telling of a female American pilot and poet captured and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. A streetboy in Nazi-occupied Warsaw is fascinated by the soldiers with their shiny boots and tanks until, as someone small enough to sneak into the Jewish Ghetto, he realizes the implications of their presence in Jerry Spinelli’s “Milkweed.” For slightly younger readers, consider Jane Yolen’s “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” wherein a girl travels back in time to when her grandmother was in a concentration camp.

Two other authors making less-known parts of 20th century history come to vivid life are Patricia McCormick and Ruta Sepetys. Based on the true story of Cambodian advocate Arn Chorn-Pond, McCormick takes readers on a harrowing journey into the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s in “Never Fall Down.” Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” immerses readers in a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl’s heart-breaking struggle to survive Soviet labor camps and Siberia following World War II. Sepetys’ second novel, “Out of the Easy,” captures a slice of American history – sweltering 1950s New Orleans, class, race, and Josie’s dream of escaping the box she feels locked into.

If you know a reader who likes unusual narrators or storytelling styles – check out Zusak’s earlier book, “I Am the Messenger,” which also received a Printz Honor. A slacker unintentionally foils a bank robbery and then starts getting mysterious instructions in the mail. Daniel Handler teamed up with Maira Kalman for “Why We Broke Up,” wherein a young woman relates the tale of how a relationship grew and ended through the various mementos she tucked away and now is returning to her former boyfriend.

I can almost guarantee that you know at least one person who’s in love with True Blood, even if you’re not yet aware of it. Beyond the reigning queens of teen vampire lit (you probably know who I’m talking about), there are some excellent reads out there to (ahem) slake their thirst. My personal favorite is “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” by Holly Black, for a story that treats vampires with that sort of simultaneous awe and disgust, with a strong-willed female protagonist who can hold her own against the truly nasty tricks of the undead (plus a little romance). “Shadows” by Robin McKinley is another book with that beautiful chemistry of rogue magic, dire peril, and unexpected romance. Gail Garriger’s latest, “Curtsies and Conspiracies”, is the second of a series set in a supernatural Victorian London starring young spy Sophronia; humor and hijinks interweave the mission to save humans and undead alike. Though a few years old now, “Bloodshot” and “Hellbent” by Cherie Priest star a vampire thief in Seattle with a motley crew of misfits, again a funny and action-packed choice.

And if you follow the ins and outs of Young Adult literature at all, you probably know that John Green is one of the hottest contemporary YA authors on the planet. The film adaptation of his amazing 2012 novel “The Fault in Our Stars” is on track to be one of the must-see films of 2014. If you’re shopping for a John Green fan, you can pretty well assume that they’ve read all of his books already, but you have the unique opportunity to introduce them to their next favorite author. May I suggest the inestimable Rainbow Rowell as a starting point? I’ve been calling her “the girl John Green” since I devoured her YA debut, “Eleanor and Park”, and the follow-up, “Fangirl” was equally appealing. She follows the John Green template of writing about teens who are intelligent, funny, troubled and complex, switching easily between gut-busting humor and absolutely devastating poignancy. Incidentally, Green himself is a fan of her writing, so there’s an even better recommendation than my own. Another delightful choice for the John Green reader on your list is “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks”, by E. Lockhart. I adored this story of an ugly-duckling-turned-swan who is determined to shift the power at her posh private school by pranking her way into an all-male secret society. Sharp, witty, and just a little bit zany, this is a sleeper that hasn’t gotten the attention that it deserves.  My last recommendation, slightly out of left field, is “Going Bovine”, by Libba Bray. This Printz Medal-winning novel is a bizarre retelling of Don Quixote, recounting the adventures of Cameron, a 16-year-old suffering a nasty case of mad cow disease. With the help of an angel, a dwarf and a yard gnome, he sets off on a wild road trip with the hope of finding a cure for what ails him. Again, the mixture of humor and poignancy, not to mention the madcap journey with its colorful cast of supporting characters, will charm your John Green fan.

And remember, books are always in season!

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Looking for that one good man…

Cover art for Charming by Elliott JamesTitle: Charming

Author: Elliott James

Publisher & Release Date: Orbit, September 2013

The Hook: An order of Charmings -how could so many princes have the same name?- protecting the world from paranormal and supernatural danger.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “John Charming isn’t your average Prince…

 “He comes from a line of Charmings — an illustrious family of dragon slayers, witch-finders and killers dating back to before the fall of Rome. Trained by a modern day version of the Knights Templar, monster hunters who have updated their methods from chain mail and crossbows to Kevlar and shotguns, John Charming was one of the best–until a curse made him one of the abominations the Knights were sworn to hunt.
“That was a lifetime ago. Now, John tends bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia and leads a peaceful, quiet life. That is, until a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar…”
Overall Impressions: Awesome premise, fast-paced and interesting plot, unexpected twists, compelling world-building and main character, but the in-your-faceness of the love interest got on my nerves.
The world-building is fascinating – all the pieces of different mythologies getting pulled together under the umbrella of the Pax Arcana. In a nutshell, elves and fairies are/were real, and when they decided to leave this world, they made a superspell (the Pax Arcana) that makes it very, very, very hard for normal people to notice supernatural things (such as their descendants) and strong-armed a bunch of secret organizations (such as the Charmings) with a geas to keep supernatural beings from doing anything that pushed past the notice of the spell. And if death is required to stop said supernatural beings, so be it.

John’s a likable character and enjoyable narrator, with a layer of snark covering his inner pain, as per urban fantasy rules. He definitely has reasons for that pain – he’s been marked for death by his speciest knight family because he’s part werewolf and in their pursuit they killed the woman he loved. He’s been on the run and laying low when he gets inadvertently pulled into an unofficial investigation: Some vampires are up to something *very* bad, and really, rather clever.

Sig (the “blonde” from the jacket copy) is portrayed as a smart, strong, extremely capable individual with her own issues but she’s put together an eclectic team to deal with certain supernatural threats and she’s very obviously a good leader who sees people’s potential and directs them well. She has strong beliefs about men taking advantage of women and acts on them. But she’s also very obviously the love interest, to the extent that practically every member of the team tells John he should pursue her because her current long-term lover (decades) is no-good and she’ll never leave him on her own because loyalty, but she is interested in John. Balancing the Sig as person and Sig as love interest is tricky, and I don’t know that’s always achieved. At times I was tempted to just walk away.

But then I’d get sucked back into the story, and the ending is earned. Not a happily ever after, but honest and a good set-up for the series.

I think this would appeal to fans of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs’ books. I’d like to read the sequel and see how the balance and pacing matures.

The Highs: These are not undeniably attractive and sexually magnetic vampires. Well, there’s a glamour but since John sees through it, and he’s telling the story, so do we. And the book has some fun poking at the trope. However, they are darn effective vampires as bad guys and some of them as smart bad guys.

Molly, Molly, Molly. She was the reason I kept reading when I got annoyed. Her worldview got turned on her head when she accompanied Chauncey (another team member, originally an exterminator) to a haunted house for an exorcism and she struggled with that before coming to the decision to express her faith in a different way. She’s reasonably terrified by things such as vampires and has her own ways of coping. Including playing Christmas music in April because Christmas makes her happy. She instantly became my favorite with that scene.

Sig wears practical clothing for fighting! Who knows how she would be rendered on the cover, but in the first fight with vampires she’s described as wearing cargo pants and a military commando-style dark sweater. That paragraph is my favorite description of her physical appearance in the book.

That the characters respect what each other bring to the battlefield. Even when they don’t like each other.

Buzzkills:  There were a lot of fighting scenes, which I often skim. (Did a major character die / suffer great injury / reveal new power and/or ability? Okay, moving on.)  One sequence in particular seemed unnecessary other than to have an action scene before important exposition.

In John’s second meeting with Sig, he strips naked after the fight so she can burn his blood from the scene and his clothing. Parts of the discussion felt as it their purpose was to say “Look! Sexual attraction! Notice it! Don’t you want them to get together?”

The Source: e-galley from publisher through NetGalley

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a hand-crafted sword was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.