Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Review For The Cat Who Sang for the Birds by Lilian Jackson Braun

I've got my review for the last of my Four-Legged Friends Reading Challenge on the very last day. Just squeaking it in there.

As I've mentioned before, I read mainly on the bus to and from work - and that's it. And I read while waiting for said bus, and of course including the ferry with the public transportation. Actually, I got used to writing my own book during this commute, because that gives me two extra hours of writing per day. But when I decided to take up Kailana's challenge, I had to give some of my writing time over to reading.

And then I was part of Christine's Mid-Winter Kick in the Pants writing challenge, so I was pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But I breezed through Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Sang For the Birds. I borrowed it from my sister, who is a big fan of The Cat Who... series. It felt wonderful to settle into a literary world where I know my sister enjoys spending time. She's told me about the two main cats before, Siamese crime solvers Koko and Yum Yum. They're not magical creatures like the Firebird from my last reading challenge book. Nor can the main human character suddenly hear them speak to him in his mind, like magically-gifted Ilya.

These two cats are just cats, with in-depth cat behaviour in a contemporary mystery set in a small town in Moose County, '400 miles north of everywhere.' I had to look Ms. Braun up in Wikipedia to see if she ever states where Moose County is, in any of her other books, but apparently she never does. But it seems she's modelled Moose County after towns in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, since she once wrote for the Detroit Free Press. Being a former resident of Michigan myself, that just makes her all the more appealing.

The main character is Jim Qwilleran, former journalist and current columnist for the local Moose County paper. Generally, I shy away from contemporary novels, but this book follows the quirky-small-town feel of some of my favorite indie films. Like Local Hero, or TV series like Twin Peaks or 90's Scottish series Hamish MacBeth with Robert Carlyle.

Through Qwilleran, who knows a whole host of residents in Moose County, we're introduced to Polly, his lady friend; Celia, his neighbor who always makes extra when she cooks for herself and delivers it to his freezer, while squeezing juicy gossip from townsfolk when he needs clandestine information; Rollo, farmer and fire fighter whose 9-yr-old son out-spells the city in a spelling bee; Beverly, the manager of the new art center; and Phoebe, the young artist who paints butterflies.

I really enjoyed the local uproar in their city of Pickax between the art center and the farmers over the mud tracked onto the art center parking lot. There was a lot of plot that centered around art, and what could be better than that if I'm reading a contemporary?

The cats are wonderful characters. Koko especially has a sixth sense which he uses to let Qwilleran know important details whenever he's trying to get to the bottom of something. Being very in tune with my own dog, who lets me in on secret doggy info, I really relate to their relationship.

Here's an excerpt. Enjoy!

"In what remained of the evening, Qwilleran read aloud to the Siamese, one of their favorite pastimes, especially before bedtime. It was Koko's responsibility to make the literary selection. They never read one title from cover to cover but sampled a chapter of this book or that. Qwilleran suspected they all sounded alike to his listeners, and he himself liked dipping into books he had read before. It was like running into an old friend on a streetcorner.

On this occasion Koko sensed new acquisitions from Eddington's bookshop. After serious sniffing of the three World War II titles, he dislodged Fire Over London, and Qwilleran caught it before it landed on the floor. As usual he stretched out in his lounge chair with his feet on the ottoman and Yum Yum on his lap, while Koko sat attentively on the wide arm of the chair. It was a toss-up whether the familiarity of this ritual was more comforting to the cats or the man.

After the reading session the Siamese had their usual nightly snack and then went up the ramp to their room on the third balcony. Their door was left open, since the addition of the bird garden, to accommodate their early-morning bird-watching through the foyer windows. The door to his suite was closed to prevent furry bodies from crawling under his blankets.

It was a clear night. The weather was calm. The stars were bright. Sometime during the small hours Qwilleran was jolted awake by a thumping against his door, followed by unearthly howling. He jumped out of bed and yanked open the door.

'Oh, my God!' he yelled, dashing to the phone.

The large windows on the east side of the barn framed a horrifying sight: a night sky turned brilliant orange! He punched 911."

Lilian Jackson Braun, The Cat Who Sang for the Birds, 1998

Friday, February 8, 2008

Review for Firebird by Mercedes Lackey

This is my second review for Kailana's Four-Legged Friends Reading Challenge.

I just finished Mercedes Lackey's Firebird, which I absolutely adored. She's a fantasy author I've often heard about but hadn't yet had the pleasure of discovering. Now I'm a big fan.

Kailana's challenge required books that featured animals as main characters, so I'd asked my husband to scour our immense hoard of books for a few that fit her criteria. My first book was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman - you can read that review here.

Firebird features many animals whose language is understood by Ilya, the main character, once he sees the fabled Firebird in his father's cherry orchard. I knew I'd love this book when I turned the first pages to the dedication and found this:

"To Natalia Makarova
Always, for me, the Firebird"

In fact, I have to admit I suddenly got a bit teary as I realized I'd picked up a book written by a kindred spirit.

For those who don't recognize the name, Natalia Makarova is a former Russian prima ballerina whom I had the privilege of seeing in performance when I first moved to Toronto in the late 80's and she guest starred with The National Ballet of Canada in Onegin. Here is a photo of Ms. Makarova taken by Dina Makarova (no relation.) And here's a clip of her when she danced in a 1981 performance of Swan Lake with The Royal Ballet in England.

Here is another dancer, Diana Vishneva, Principal Dancer of the Kirov Ballet, dancing the role of the Firebird. She also dances with the American Ballet Theatre.

Getting back to the book review - I was immediately predisposed to like it because of her dedication, and to my delight Ms. Lackey delivered. The story follows young Ilya Ivanovitch, one of a number of strapping sons of a medieval Russian boyar or nobleman. Living by the divide-and-conquer creed, his father Ivan pits his sons against one another rather than foster any family togetherness. Ilya wishes it were not so, but he is forced to live his days looking over his shoulder, constantly on guard against his brothers. They recognize that Ilya is the most clever of Ivan's heirs, and several times they gang up on him, leaving him to nurse his wounds in the company of several servants.

When a mysterious thief steals Ivan's prized cherries from his orchard, Ilya will not stop until he discovers who has outfoxed his wiley old father. Even as his brothers fail to stop the thief night after night, Ilya watches as the Firebird arrives in the orchard, singing her irresistable lullaby.

From that point on, Ilya discovers he can understand and converse with the household dogs, horses and anything else he meets with feathers or fur. I really enjoyed Ms. Lackey's characterizations of the different animals. She has a wonderful sense of what would take up the thoughts of four-legged characters.

Ilya then embarks on a journey which takes him far from his miserable homelife and into a more sinister palace ruled by a Kastchei, an evil magician. There he vows to save Tatiana, the most beautiful of the maidens held captive in the palace within the maze. Ilya must use all of his wits, the help offered by his animal friends, and most of all the magical feather of the Firebird to save himself from becoming another living statue in the Kastchei's garden of warriors.

I really loved this book, especially how it still wasn't resolved at only two pages from the end. I could not predict what was going to happen, when all of a sudden the most amazing ending unfolded. I can only hope to end my own books like she did.

Here's an excerpt - enjoy!

" 'I should have known you were too foolish to be true,' the Kastchei said, and the bored resignation in his voice did not hide the undertones of cold rage.

Ilya could not actually see the sorcerer; his wrists had been bound behind his back, and he had been forced into a kneeling position with his head down, staring at the inlaid floor of the Kastchei's throne room. Up above him on the dais, the Kastchei lounged, surrounded by the twelve maidens. That much Ilya had seen before the Kastchei's monsters threw him to the floor and one of them put his boot in the small of Ilya's back to keep him bent over.

'I should have guessed that it simply wasn't possible for anyone as monumentally stupid as you appeared, to be able to penetrate my maze, much less survive for an instant among my minions,' the Kastchei continued into the otherwise silent throne room. 'And now what am I going to do with you?'

Ilya did not reply; he merely licked blood off his split lip and remained silent. The less he said, the more he might learn - and at the moment, he would take anything that would give him a moment more of survival.

'Please.' Ilya recognized the voice of the Arab maid, soft and exotically accented. She sounded frantic, which was flattering, at least. 'For once, for the love of Allah, be merciful...'

Ilya wished he could see what was going on up on the dais, but he didn't dare raise his head. If he did, he'd be kissing the floor again. 'I do not care what Allah thinks of me, dear child,' the Kastchei replied, with a sardonic chuckle. 'And it would be far too risky to be merciful to this one. He's too clever. And, I suspect, too persistent. No matter what I did to him, short of death, he would find a way out of it.'

At this pronouncement, the other eleven joined the Arab maiden in pleading for his life, their voices mingling in a clamor of shrill intensity, Tatiana's voice ringing above the others. 'Has he not proved a worthier foe than all the rest?' she said in clear and ringing tones. 'Surely you cannot merely execute such a foe! Should he not be exalted above the others? Given a special place among your trophies?'

'Oh, a special fate, surely,' the Kastchei responded, his voice utterly cold and expressionless. 'One who had my own - fate - in his hands, oh, he surely deserves a special fate. And it is well for you, my beauties, that you could not be the source of his oh-so-accurate information.' By now that voice was so full of deadly promise that it sent ice down Ilya's spine. 'And I would like, very much, to know who told him what he knows. I intend to find it out before he dies.'

Silence fell again, and then he was gazing at a pair of shoes. Not boots before his eyes this time, but soft black slippers. The Kastchei grabbed him by the hair and wrenched his head up so that he was looking into the sorcerer's eyes.

The eyes of someone with no soul, he thought."

- Mercedes Lackey, Firebird, 1996