Sunday, October 22, 2006

Enchanted, Inc. by Shanna Swendson

Shanna Swendson
ISBN: 0-345-48125-9
Book #06-146

Katie Chandler is a Texas belle living in New York City. Her small-town sensibilities are baffled by New Yorkers' blase response to things that seem totally bizarre to her, like why everyone is ogling the ugliest guy in the bar as if he were Johnny Depp, or cute young women wearing fairy wings on the subway. It doesn't help that her boss is straight out of The Devil Wears Prada, nice one minute, and demon spawn from hell the next. Just when Katie has begun to think about going back to her family's seed and feed business in Texas, she gets a job offer online. With nothing to lose, she takes a meeting and ends up becoming the new go-to girl at Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc.

Much to Katie's surprise, all the weird things she thought she was seeing are real. Her very ordinary view of life is a valuable asset to her new boss, because she sees through spells and illusions to the way things actually are. Suddenly, Katie is a key player in the battle against an evil merchandiser bent on putting black magic in stores everywhere. Her shy, cute co-worker is one of the most powerful magic-wielders, and together, they must come up with a plan to save the world.

Swendson's secondary characters are just as interesting as Katie, Owen, and the magical Mr. Mervyn. Anyone who's ever suffered through a bad fit on a blind date will appreciate Katie's married friend's attempts to find the perfect men for her former roommates. Swendson keeps the whimsy front and center, with a boss who really is an ogre, subway trains that arrive on request, and mundane reactions to magical events.

Sex and the City meets Ella Enchanted in this sweetly hilarious book from author Shanna Swendson. The good news is, the sequel is already in stores, and a third volume is due out next year. Paranormal lovers who need a break from the sturm und drang of the more intense stories currently available will almost certainly enjoy Swendson's amusing take on the magic of modern Manhattan.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Great Little Madison, by Jean Fritz

Jean Fritz
ISBN: 0-590-43749-6
Book #06-144

James Madison is perhaps best known for being the fourth President of the United States, but this biography, published by Scholastic, brings Madison's many other achievements to light. Small in stature and in voice, yet in possession of a formidable intelligence, Madison was an unlikely figure to shape the Constitution. He hated public speaking, mostly because he could rarely be heard beyond his immediate circle of listeners. If it were not for his passionate dedication to the Constitution as the ultimate law of the land, America might have taken on a very different national identity. In the years leading up to the War of 1812, with New England threatening to secede from the Union and the battle between political parties roiling at its vituperative worst, the nation seemed to be holding its collective breath, waiting to see if the fledgling country would stand on its own or collapse like a house of cards.

This slim book is packed with loads of interesting information. Many readers may be unaware of what a spoiled twit Dolley Madison's son (by her first husband) was. Many of the stories students learn about American history are fleshed out in Fritz's book, including the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the squabbles over where the nation's capital should be located, and the bitter struggle between two major political parties for control of the nation. Fritz's kamikaze approach to writing is a bit confusing at first: his account of Madison's life begins almost in mid-thought, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear and engaging. Young readers with a love of history will enjoy the appearances by many of the glitterati of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially since most of the leading figures of the day are portrayed as normal people (with normal flaws) who did extraordinary things when the occasion called for them. THE GREAT LITTLE MADISON is a great little book about a truly remarkable figure in early American history.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Pretend Engagement, by Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele
ISBN: 0-373-03824-0
Harlequin Romance #3824
Book #06-143

Distraught to discover that the man she loves is married with children, Varnie Sutton retreats to her country house to lick her wounds. Unfortunately, healing her heartache will have to wait, because it turns out that Varnie's scapegrace stepbrother has granted use of the house to his boss. Leon Beaumont is dodging the media, and if Varnie gives Leon the boot, it will likely cost her brother his job. In an attempt to help Johnny keep his job, Varnie goes further and pretends to be the hired help. Naturally, sparks fly as Leon objects to Varnie's tendency to be "lippy," and Varnie resents Leon's arrogance. When a married admirer discovers Leon's hiding place, Varnie claims to be Leon's fiancee to get rid of the woman, but the news leaks to the press, and suddenly Leon is splashed across the headlines.

I generally like Jessica Steele's writing, but A PRETEND ENGAGEMENT had all the lapses of logic that prejudice non-readers against romance novels. The setup for the pretend engagement was overly long and hinged on a succession of actions on Varnie's part that Ms. Steele repeatedly points out as uncharacteristic of her heroine (not taking her customary shower before bed, walking naked to the bathroom in the master bedroom, etc.). By the time Varnie leaps to Leon's defense and establishes the faux relationship, the plot had lost all credibility. I wasn't willing to suspend disbelief because I wasn't invested in the characters enough to forgive them their lapses. The bickering between Leon and Varnie settled into one note, hit hard and often. Leon's constant use of the word "lippy" to describe Varnie got old quickly. The scene where Leon begins to make love to Varnie only to have her call it off was awkward and uncomfortable--far better to forego such a scene than try to titillate readers without giving them a payoff they don't want in a sweet romance, anyway.

The last few chapters were markedly better, but the improvement was too little, too late. With so much having gone wrong early in the book, Ms. Steele was not able to redeem her plot enough to win me over. A PRETEND ENGAGEMENT was a disappointing effort from an author who can do much better.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Where Mercy Flows, by Karen Harter

Karen Harter
ISBN: 0-7862-8616-4
Book # 06-145

Samantha Dodd left home with her boyfriend right out of high school, yet another bad decision in a young life filled with them. Fast forward seven years, and Samantha is on her way back home to Washington state. Sick in body and spirit, and with a young son to care for, Samantha has no choice but to turn to her parents and the younger sister she's never measured up to. TJ's appearance is proof of Samantha's irresponsibility, but she hopes that her parents will accept their grandson and love him despite his parentage.

Not much has changed in Samantha's hometown. Some people are thinner, some aren't; some remember her hellion ways fondly, and others resent her reappearance. None of that matters when Samantha realizes her husband is back in town, too. Sammy has spent five years looking for Tim, hoping to mend her fences with him, or, if that's not possible, to receive his forgiveness for wronging him. Meanwhile, Donnie, the best friend of Samantha's childhood, has made it clear that he's been waiting for Sam to see him as other than her youthful playmate. Worse yet, the Judge, Sam's stern, unforgiving father, still disapproves of Samantha and her reckless past. As Samantha's medical condition deteriorates, her personal life disintegrates exponentially, while the people who love her search for a way to motivate Sam to fight for her life.

Karen Harter has written an inspirational novel that is eminently readable, with a likable heroine and hero and a worthy supporting cast. Sam's struggle to earn her father's love is clearly a metaphor for her spiritual floundering. As we get to know the Judge better, his harsh, black and white view of the world seems to mellow and make more sense in an admirably uncompromising way. TJ is adorable, and Harter hits just the right tone for this young character, making him emiently believable. Readers will smile through their tears as Donnie tries shock therapy to get through to Samantha, and the Judge gradually breaks down the wall between himself and his errant daughter. Ultimately, WHERE MERCY FLOWS is touching and triumphant, although not, perhaps, in a way readers will expect.