Thursday, March 31, 2011

PsyCop: Partners / Jordan Castillo Price

PsyCop: Partners by Jordan Castillo Price. 276 p.

This is an omnibus of two short novels, originally published as Among the Living and Criss Cross. (Obviously very short novels, given the page count.) Vic, the narrator, is a psychic who can hear ghosts. He works for the Chicago police department as a PsyCop, part of a two-man team where his partner is someone with no psychic talent whatsoever--that way, if some freaky psychic mojo incapacitates the psychic half of the team, the other person will be immune. Vic, who's gay but not out at work, meets Jacob, a really hot (and out) cop who's the non-psychic half of a different PsyCop team. Vic and Jacob start a personal relationship, and Vic ends up working with Jacob and his partner to track down a serial killer. In the second book, Vic starts seeing ghosts as well as hearing them, plus he starts attacking Jacob in his sleep.

These stories are awfully short. The setting is mildly intriguing, but it's not fleshed out at all; I don't think we even find out that they're set in Chicago until the second story. Vic pretty much says "I'm a cop" and the reader has to fill in everything else, based on every generic cop show you've ever seen. The psychic bits get more attention, of course, but even the background for that is left really fuzzy. I'm not advocating paragraphs of infodump about the worldbuilding, but a little more detail would have been a very good thing. I believe the book is marketed as romance, not mystery, so I wasn't expecting a police procedural, but even the sex scenes are pretty perfunctory. Vic's internal monologue about Jacob is mostly about how he doesn't know what Jacob thinks about the relationship, and how they haven't talked about this thing or that thing. And then they continue to not talk.

The Lost Hero

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan, 384 pages

The Lost Hero is a new mythology series for Rick Riordan, whose better known for his Percy Jackson and the Olympians books. The Lost Hero returns to Percy's Camp Half-Blood, but follows three new demigods — Jason, Piper and Leo — as they embark on a mysterious quest (really, is there any other kind in Riordan's books?) and run into a myriad of mythological baddies. Meanwhile, Percy's missing and another war between the Olympian gods and those who came before them is looming.

I like the way Riordan incorporates ancient mythology into his thoroughly modern stories (shh... don't tell the kids reading these books that they're learning something) and I think his heroes and heroines are complex enough to carry their storylines. The Lost Hero is different from the Percy Jackson books in that each chapter focuses on one of the three new demigods' points of view. It was a bit confusing at first, but once you get in the swing of it, it works out well. I did find myself looking forward to the next Leo chapter though; he's the sidekick in the trio, and easily my favorite.

The full title of this book is technically The Heroes of Olympus: Book 1: The Lost Hero. I can't wait to see what book two brings.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, 256 pages

This book with an inordinately long title is about a time-machine repairman who is stuck in his own time loop. The book is borderline stream-of-consciousness, peppered with entries from a time-machine/time-travel handbook. The repairman, whose name is the same as the author's, spends a lot of the time in his loop mulling over his past, his relationships with his parents and doing a lot of self-reflection. I suppose there's not a lot else to do in a shower-stall-sized machine, but it didn't exactly make for an engaging story. I wasn't too impressed with this book — didn't love it, didn't hate it — although I kind of feel like my own stubbornness is all that made me finish it. Meh.

The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life

The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life, by Ann Vanderhoof, 459 pgs

What a great book! The author Ann and her husband Steve put their careers on hold, rent out their home, and sail the Caribbean on a food and cultural adventure. They visit many islands including Trinidad, St. Lucia, Grenada, Guadeloupe, and Dominica. This is the second book she has written, and it was truly a delight to read just as the first book (An Embarrassment of Mangoes). This book, page after page lets you experience the Caribbean as if you were a passenger on the boat sailing right along with them. It's a wonderful travel book to read, and I would recommend it if you love travel reads or not. It also has more than 70 recipes of the different food they experienced on their voyage. Yum!

Bystander, by James Preller 226 pages

When Eric and his mom move to a new town he is not sure that he will be able to make new friends easily. One day while shooting hoops before school starts, he meets a bully terrorizing a smaller boy. Griffin threatens to steel Eric's ball, but Eric is able to persuade him not to take it. At school, he discovers the school and adults seem to let Griffin do whatever he wants to. At first, Griffin seems to accept Eric and encourages him to join his lunch table. Griffin betrays his trust when he steals money and a cd when he visits Eric at home. Eric decides that he will not remain a bystander, and will stand up to Griffin and his group of thugs. Preller is the author of the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series for younger readers. This book for older readers has a depth to it as well as a valuable message. Eric learns to deal with a variety of problems and also realizes the importance of communication. The ending is not sugar coated and one can see that Eric will find the right way to solve whatever problems may come his way.

The last leopard by Lauren St. John 199 pages

Marine, an 11 year old South African girl, experiences a third vision involving a legendary giant leopard. An accident to her grandmother's friend interrupts her vacation. The friend runs a hotel in a remote part of Zimbabwe and desperately needs help. Marine is reluctant to leave her beloved white giraffe but is allowed to bring her best friend, Ben on the trip with her grandmother. Ben also has a vision and he becomes her ally. They have a great adventure preventing treasure seekers from illegal poaching. St. John vividly describes the exotic location. This is a companion book to The White Giraffe and Dolphin Song. These books are delightful read alouds for bedtime, car trips or the classroom.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo, 560 p. What a man book. Thank goodness for audio and for the image of Paul Newman playing the part of Sully. The elements of fiction that I enjoy most are language well-crafted and those little glimpses of humanity that remind us of how much we are all the same. There is plenty of that in Russo's novel, but so much of it in the form of vomit, boogers, bad smells, bad food, and "busted" things, that at times it was a real struggle for me to stay with it. I'm glad I did though. I came to Russo's novels late in his career, starting from the newer ones and working my way back. I have been enjoying the landscape (upstate N.Y. and the Northeast), his artfully drawn characters, and yes, those glimpses into the human condition. And what, in the end, I probably enjoyed the most about Nobody's Fool was the quality of sweetness that Russo manages to etch out of the busted, smelly, hardness of Sully. Plus it's ultimately a good Christmas story, complete with a ton of allusions to Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and I'm a sucker for a good Christmas story.

Unaccustomed Earth / Jhumpa Lahiri 333 p.

This is a collection of long-ish short stories by the author of The Namesake. In many of the stories, very little appears to happen, but they are completely engrossing all the same. For much of the book, I had the feeling that Lahiri was writing about me personally, so accurate (for me) were her psychological insights. My favorite was the title story, about a young mother visiting with her widowed father, and trying to determine the new boundaries of their relationship.

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned/Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan; graphic novel, science fiction, dystopia; 128 pages

This is another comic series I've been meaning to pick up for a while. Fortunately, the intrepid shelvers located the missing volumes, so I can finally get started! (P.S.: You all are my heroes)

The premise of this story is pretty simple: one day, all the men in the world die. The death is sudden and unexplained, and it's not just people that are affected: any male, be it beast, bird, or bug, dies. But Yorick Brown, and his pet monkey Ampersand, are unaffected. No one knows why, least of all Yorick. What follows is Yorick trying to survive in a world gone mad, and trying to track down his fiancee, who was on the other side of the world at the time of the attack (or whatever). In this volume, he gets recruited by what's left of the U.S. government to help figure out why he's immune, but he also has to avoid contact with the Amazons, a group of militant feminists who see the extinction of men as a blessing (and who won't think twice about finishing the job if they find Yorick).

I loved this first collection. It's a big change from Lucifer, which threw a lot of Deep Thoughts at the reader. Y asks a lot of "what-if" questions, but keeps moving quickly, which made it a fast read. Can't wait to start volume 2.

The Mind's Eye / Oliver Sacks 263 p.

This was March's Monday Matters book group selection. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I have everything else I've read by Dr. Sacks. We meet here patients who through disease or accident have lost some part of their vision, although their eyes still function normally. They adjust to greater or lesser degrees, depending on their brain's plasticity and, it seems to me, important external circumstances such as therapists, supportive family, and let's face it, money. The latter part of the book deals with Sacks' own bout with ocular melanoma. It's interesting and powerful, but feels like 2 separate books with one cover.

The Promise / Mary Ryan 279 p.

Another Irish romance, mercifully short on misogyny. Set in contemporary Ireland and Italy, this is a sort of 'Affair to Remember' scenario in which a middle-aged man returns to a fixed meeting point in Florence, hoping to find a woman he knew there nearly 30 years earlier. Sounds hokey, and mostly it is, but much of the writing is insightful.

Case Histories

Case Histories/Kate Atkinson 320 pgs.

Atkinson's newest book was featured in Time Magazine which is probably why the holds on it jumped up recently. I had never read one of hers so figured I would start with the first in the series. Time described her current book as "literary mystery" which you don't see too often. I can only is very well written and so enjoyable. The "cases" are told in flashback and even these short chapters make you feel like you know the characters contained in them. Little by little you figure out some of the clues but there are several things here that you don't really figure out and that makes it great. I'm looking forward to the next book in this series...private investigator (and former cop) Jackson Brody is a gem and I look forward to learning more about him.

The Ground She Walks Upon / Meagan McKinney 409 p.

So it was St. Patrick's Day and I thought an Irish-themed romance might be nice...and I would have been better off with a bottle of Jameson's. Ravenna, a village outcast of mysterious origins holds the fate of her neighbors in her hands, as her falling in love with the local Nobility is the only thing that will avert the tide of famine, at least according to an ancient geis (spell, I guess). Ravenna is beautiful and spunky and our lord Snot appears cold-hearted. Veers into serious misogyny. Yuck.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett, fiction, 451 pages.
I re-read this for our January book discussion. I was more comfortable with the book, knowing how it ended, knowing that everything turned out as it did, but still . . .

The book, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 follows Skeeter, a 22 year-old white woman, as she develops a heightened social conscience and starts writing about the plight of black domestic help in Jackson. She can only do this with the help of Aibileen, who works as a maid for one of Skeeter's friends, and Minnie, who has been fired by another of Skeeter's friends, Hilly. Hilly is at the root of all the town's problems with her inhumanity and her obsession with toilets.

It has become a much beloved book, striking a chord with many readers, and we had a very good discussion about it, but I found it a bit off somehow, like it would have been a great book back in the 1960s, or more righteous if the author's brother's housekeeper wasn't suing over her alleged portrayal as one of the book's characters. Not one of my favorites, but a huge seller nonetheless.
I did enjoy the narration of the downloadable audio when I listened to it last year.

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At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, 497 pages, Downloadable Audio-16 hours 32 minutes

Bryson, famed author of such works as A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid considers the country parsonage that he and his family live in, he takes us on an illuminating tour of the house, de-constructing it and explaining it room-by-room as he leads us through it. Starting with the hall, now merely an entranceway, but once the main part of the house, he leads us through the dwelling and through the changes seen in the last couple of hundred years, with many meanderings through the history of food, communicable disease, sex, toxic wall-covering and our relationship with rats (I can no longer comfortably use the garbage disposal). Informative and enjoyable.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, 485 pages

The Mysterious Benedict Society tells the tale of four intelligent, rebellious kids who are enlisted to be undercover spies on behalf of the mysterious Mr. Benedict, who is attempting to stop a mind-control plot by the evil Mr. Curtain. According to the School Library Journal, this book is intended for fifth- to ninth-graders, although the inclusion of any high schoolers at all seems a bit of a stretch to me. The story's fun for the intended audience, and some of the puzzles the main characters face are clever, but it seems like Stewart was simplifying things too much for his readers and, while wrapping things up a little too well at the end, still left some huge questions. I can only hope they're answered in the rest of the series, although it's not at the top of my to-read list.


Stitches by David Small, 329 pages

This is an autobiographical graphic novel detailing the author/illustrator's experience throat cancer and losing his ability to speak as a teenager, as well as the horrors of family life. The illustrations bring to mind a silent movie, complete with a mad scientist doctor (in the form Small's father, who gave him cancer by subjecting him to a ridiculous amount of x-rays as a child) and a mean spiteful witch of a mother (yup, Small's mom). Even though Small is an illustrator of children's books, this is definitely not a kid-friendly graphic novel. It's a compelling story, yes, but not for the kiddos.


Matched by Ally Condie, 369 pages

This is yet another futuristic young adult novel featuring a heroine trapped in a love triangle. Cassia's life is monitored and regulated beyond comprehension, down to how many calories she eats each day and who she'll marry. When she's matched to marry her best friend Xander (who I kept picturing as the character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), she's convinced that the system works…until a different name and face pops up on the info card about her future mate. The whole story revolves around Cassia's internal fight: does she stick with the system or risk being ostracized or banished by bucking the rules?

Cassia comes down on the midpoint on the Katniss-Bella scale of YA heroines. She seems a bit too gun-shy to pull off something worthy of even one of Katniss' milder moments, but she isn't quite as much of a pansy as Bella. Condie left this book ripe for a sequel and I can only hope she'll let Cassia become more of a rebel as the series progresses.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde, 359 pages

This is the latest installment in Fforde's Thursday Next series, which is, in a word, weird. Thursday is a woman living in an alternate-universe 1980s England in which dodos are popular re-engineered pets, Name That Fruit! is a popular TV game show and there's a whole police division devoted to solving literary crime. Thursday's one of those LiteraTecs, as they're called, but she has the ability to read herself into books, solve crime within the even weirder world of fiction and, since she has fictional books written about her, interact with the written Thursday.

All that said, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing is the first of the TN books that follows written Thursday instead of the "real" Thursday. Mainly because the "real" Thursday is the one referred to in the title. Maybe it's because the heroine of this book is not the Thursday I've grown to love, but I found One of Our Thursdays Is Missing to be even more confusing than your average Fforde book (which is saying something).

As usual, Fforde's writing is peppered with geeky clever humor and so much creativity that my mind is still trying to figure it all out. As a long-time fan of Fforde's writing, I know I'll read this one again. And I'm sure that next time it will make a tad bit more sense and I'll catch even more of Fforde's silly jokes.

The Enemy at the Gateby Andrew Wheatcroft

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft
384 pages

This is, without question, a groundbreaking work: it opens up new dimensions in the world of tedious literature. When you've finished reading this lumbering history of the Siege of Vienna, you'll be amazed that it was only 384 pages. You will, however, have come away with a lot: an intimate knowledge of the topography in and around Vienna (circa 1683), the travel habits of Ottoman sultans, and...Well, nothing else really worth mentioning. This book is a dull recitation of historical details with little in the way of broader historical ideas. In short: yawn.

Manoleria-Danny Khalastchi

So living in Iowa City has perks, and one of those perks is getting to see your old poetry teacher give a reading at the local bookstore. That said, I purchased Khalastchi's book and after a careful and contemplative reading can say I truly liked his work. Manoleria is incredibly disturbing. Most of the poems include torture, if not spontaneous agony. Lots of play with syntax. Lots of horse imagery. I don't know that this book is available in St. Louis, and certainly not at your local Barnes & Noble (though perhaps I am wrong?). If you ever get your hands on it, I don't think you'd be disappointed.

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, 266 pages

This is the first Agatha Christie book I've read, and the first mystery I've read in a good long while. There's probably something wrong with the fact that I was inspired to read it by a 30 Rock episode in which Liz Lemon comes to the conclusion that she'll be a spinster forever and joins an old lady book club that's reading the large print edition of Murder on the Orient Express. But with that seed planted in my head, I chose to check this book out rather than shelve it. Eh, why not, right?

With the old lady book club image firmly in my head, I didn't particularly expect this to be a quick, fun read. But you know what they say about assumptions... (you don't? Well, ask me later.) I enjoyed the way this mystery was structured, laying out all of the facts of the crime, the evidence, the interviews so that I could try to solve the murder myself. I liked the fact that I had no idea what Poirot was thinking. And I really really liked the fact that I had no idea who the murderer was until the very end. I love books that can surprise me like that.

So if Agatha Christie is on the old lady book club reading list, I guess I should buy a walker, shove some Kleenex up my sleeve and start eating dinner at 4 p.m.

The Devil's Company by Davis Liss

The Devil's Company by David Liss
703 pages

Liss's novel is richly evocative, capturing life in early 18th century England with remarkable clarity. Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish ex-boxer turned 'thief-taker' (an 18th century private investigator, basically) who is hired to investigate the doings of the East India Company. The mystery plot isn't nearly as interesting as the immersive quality of the writing. Highly recommended for history buffs, but not mystery buffs.

Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett

Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett

Contained within are the following novels:

Xenos, Malleus, and Hereticus

786 pages

Eisenhorn is an omnibus compilation of three novels and two short stories set in Games Workshop's popular Warhammer 40,000 universe. It traces the investigations Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn in the 4th century of the 41st millennium. Eisenhorn serves the Holy Inquisition of the Imperium of Mankind, seeking out the and destroying the Heretic, the Alien, and the Daemon. The setting intentionally turns normal assumptions about the future on their heads: instead of a progressive, enlightened technological utopia, humanity inhabits a hostile universe, beset my threats from within and without, where oppression, intolerance and dogmatism are necessary to prevent the utter annhilation of the human species.

The Liveship Traders (Series) by Robin Hobb

The Liveship Traders Books by Robin Hobb
Book 1: Ship of Magic, 667 pages
Book 2: Mad Ship, 656 pages
Book 3: Ship of Destiny, 592 pages

The Liveship Traders is a trilogy of novels tracing the trials of the Vestrit trader family in Robin Hobb's Farseer fantasy universe. The title of the series comes from one of the setting's unique features: Liveships, living vessels with sapient, animate figureheads. Think Pirates of the Caribbean meets Herbie Goes Bananas. A great cross between fantasy and nautical fiction, though some of the family dynamics that make the first book compelling come through somewhat muted in the last.

No True Glory by Bing West

No True Glory by Bing West
400 pages

A visceral and overly detailed account of the First and Second Battles of Fallujah, No True Glory is tightly focused on the experiences of front line Marines and soldiers. The street-by-street account of the battles should be entertaining for a true warfare enthusiast, but most others will probably find it a little tedious.

Psychiatric Tales-Darryl Cunningham (139 pages)

This is an amazing book. Written by Cunningham, a former nurses aid in a psychiatric ward and himself a sufferer of depression, Psychiatric Tales is a "stigma-busting" book about the ins and outs of mental illness. It is also a graphic novel, and the art that accompanies the text both increases one's understanding of various illnesses as well as being itself completely breath-taking. For anyone who knows someone mentally ill, is interested in mental illness, or needs a companion for their own craziness, a great read. I highly suggest the UCPL get this into its YA and Adult Graphic Novel sections. I think it could help a lot of people and is very accessible, to boot.

And Furthermore

And Furthermore by Judi Dench  268 pp.

I've been a fan of Judi Dench since her days in various Britcoms--"As Time Goes By" being a favorite. In this book Dame Judi shares anecdotes about her life as an actor--a life that included working with such greats as Sir John Gielgud, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, John Mills, Trevor Nunn, and spanned roles as varied as Shakespeare heroines, Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Iris Murdoch, "M" in the recent James Bond films, and Aereon in "Chronicles of Riddick." It's not a biography because, as she says in the preface, that's already been done. She chose, instead, to tell stories about her life that were not included in the two previous volumes by John Miller. It's definitely not a "tell all" with lurid tales of racy escapades. The most "shocking" thing in it are the practical jokes she and other actors played on each other. Instead it's a chronicle of the work she has done on the stage, on television, and in the movies in a career that began in the late 1950s. One of the most amusing parts was her rant on "Merchant of Venice." It's not often you hear a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company dissing one of his most famous plays. Those not familiar with her body of work may find her tales uninteresting but I enjoyed it. Now I guess I should read the actual biographies.

Wait: poems

Wait: poems by C. K. Williams 125 pgs.

Well I've done it! I read all (ok both) of the ALA notable books of poetry and earned myself .8 participation points! You will never catch up with me now!

Ok, enough of the gloating. I've already confessed my poetry idiocy but I'm smart enough to realize that this collection does not use humor to convey it's point. The topics here are death, war, grief, & decay...not the lightest of topics. C. K. Williams is a Pulitzer prize and National Book Award winning poet and many of these selections warranted several readings. The language is amazing and interesting and I'm my appreciation for poetry is growing. Since April is National Poetry Month, I resolve to read at least 2 more.

Crave by J. R. Ward 464 pages

“Crave” is the second book in the Fallen Angels series by Ward. Jim Heron has been chosen by the archangels and the devil to save seven souls from the seven deadly sins. It is a contest between good and evil where the winner’s “side” will determine the fate of humanity for all time. Jim has to save at least 4 out of 7 souls while Devina (the Devil) works against him. The suspense of not knowing for sure whose soul has to be saved is always uppermost in Jim’s mind. In Crave, he thinks that Isaac Rothe is the person to save. Rothe left a military team that was tasked to travel the world and neutralize potential threats to the country. Rothe’s old boss, Mathias, is trying to kill him and he is trying to stay under the radar while earning money in illegal fights. He is caught by the police and his public defender becomes his champion. Jim comes to the rescue to ward off Mathias while trying to keep Devina from taking Isaac’s soul. As usual, there is more than one story twisted together in Ward’s usual flair for storytelling. Which side wins? Which soul are they really fighting for?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Eric Shanower and L. Frank Baum and illustrated by Skottie Young, 192 pages

This is Marvel's graphic interpretation of L. Frank Baum's classic children's story. The graphic novel follows the plot of the book, rather than the better-known movie, which may throw readers off a bit. I'd read the original book about six or seven years ago, so a few of the elements surprised me (the village made of porcelain people and houses, for example) before recognition came creeping back in.

Young's illustrations are simply gorgeous. They're full of whimsy and so seem approachable to a wide range of readers. I particularly liked the Cowardly Lion, which looks like a giant poofball. I was also enamored with an appendix describing the adaptation process; apparently the Tin Man was visually modeled after Baum himself.

All in all, this was a great way to present the story: faithful to the source material, but technicolor and fanciful like the movie.

The Hunger Games trilogy

The Hunger Games (374 pages), Catching Fire (391 pages) and Mockingjay (398 pages) by Suzanne Collins

This trilogy has already been blogged about on a few occasions on this blog (like here, here and here, for example), so I won't go into plot descriptions here. Let's just say it's a young adult trilogy set in a dystopian future society that has an annual battle royale tradition for its teens, and features one of the best YA heroines I've come across. Katniss is heroic but not superhuman, which I find really refreshing and realistic.

And that is what I most enjoy about the series. This series could have been so two-dimensional and contrived, but Collins made some surprising choices in her characterizations and plot that, I think, is what makes it so believable. I can understand Katniss' simultaneous disgust and delight at her beautification team; a lot of authors would have taken that opportunity to make the heroine simply fawn over the attention and pretty dresses without the element of discomfort. Also, a lot of attention has been paid to the ending of the series, with people either loving it or hating it. I loved it, in part because it was so realistic.

As I read it, the series reminded me a lot of Orson Scott Card's Ender and Shadow series. In those books (which are some of my favorites) he made complex characters who were dealing with complex political or martial situations. Anybody who liked one would probably like the other.

Luficer: Evensong/Mike Carey

Lucifer: Evensong by Mike Carey (Lucifer vol 11), graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 216 pages

And this is the end. This volume ties up (most) of the remaining loose ends from this series, and closes down the story. Elaine comes to terms with her new role, and our title character makes the decision to leave this creation forever. It's a quieter story than the last volume, but it feels very final, and appropriately sober.

The only incongruous thing here is the inclusion of a stand-alone story at the end of this volume, which actually takes place at the beginning of the series. It's an odd choice to finish off the series, and while I enjoyed that story, I think I might have preferred for my last image of Lucifer to be the one at the end of his arc, fading into the nothingness beyond creation. That said, I think I need to go back and reread this with fresh eyes, and stop comparing it to Sandman when I should be reading it for itself.

The Kind of Friends We Used To Be by Frances O'Roark Dowell 234 pages

This sequel to The Secret Language of Girls is an insightful look at the nature of middle-school friendships. Marylin, the fashionable, has just become a cheerleader and seems to have been adopted as a new best friend by the meanest of cheerleaders, Mazie. Kate, has no interest in girly stuff, and has just discovered an interest in learning the guitar with the hope of starting a female band. Is there any way that they can communicate again? They each make new friends, learn a lot about themselves and grow up a little in this charming story. Recommended for middle grade girls.

Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl 503 pages

Do not read this book unless you have already read Beautiful Creatures (2009). This continues the saga about the relationship of Lena, a Caster girl, and mortal, Ethan Wate. After the dramatic conclusion to the first book, Lena seems to have undergone a major change in personality. She feels responsible for the death of Uncle Macon and doomed to accept the Dark and reject the Light. She feels the family curse will destroy all who she loves. Ethan refuses to give her up and travels the Caster Tunnels with his friend Link. He discovers new information about his family and their ties to her family.Hope, despair and possiblity are emotions raised by this Southern Gothic tale. Stay tuned for book 3.

Bruiser by Neal Shusterman 328 pages

Neal Shusterman has written over thirty books for teens and understands his audience. In his latest book, he writes about the relationship between two twins, Tennyson and Bronte and what happens when one of them Bronte becomes involved with "Bruiser" a kid that has a bad rep. Brother Tennyson wants to protect her and follows Brewster home from school. It turns out that Brewster is quite different from his appearance. He has a gift or rather a curse. If he cares for anyone, he will take on every ache and pain that person has. His cruel uncle (and guardian) manipulates him and treats both him and his young brother, Cody as emotional hostages. The story unfolds in each of their voices. Ironically, Brewster ("Bruiser") has the most poetic voice -- he speaks in prose. So obviously, you have to accept the premise -- I mean, would English teachers actually name their kids Bronte and Tennyson?, and the magical power bit, but once you climb aboard, this is a great ride.

I Kissed a Zombie and I liked it by Adam Selzer 177 pages

Why do zombies have such a bad rep? This light, somewhat frothy story is a bit of a relief from all those other books about vampires. Ally is a bit of a dimwit and it takes a while for her to realize that her new squeeze is a zombie, not a goth -- hey, there is that unusual odor and strange skin color and he never changes clothes, but this could be love. Her parents try to be accepting and she is committed to taking him to the school dance. However, the vampire clique want to take her down. Yeah, it is not great lit but it does have its own somewhat dark charm.

The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade 278 pages

This atmospheric novel is set in Victorian London, but the hero is nothing like Victor Hugo's hunchback. While they are both very sympathetic characters, Modo has unusual talents. He is able to temporarily change his appearance. This skill was discovered when he was quite small. He has been raised as a virtual prisoner, but taught to become a secret agent to bring down the evil Clockwork Guild. He meets and is romantically attracted to another young agent, Octavia. Together they are a successful team. Looks like this could be the beginning of a new Steampunk series.

Wish You Were Dead by Todd Strasser 236 pages

Popular teen author, Strasser has written a timely mystery. Popular students from Madison's wealthy suburban New York high school begin disappearing. Clues are scattered via mysterious blogs. It looks like it is payback for their mean behavior to some of their less popular classmates. I guarantee that you won't guess the villain until the end of the book and the conclusion does hold together.

Watch out, World Rosy Cole is Going Green! by Sheila Greenwald

In the newest episode of the Rosy Cole series, Rosy's school is trying to raise money to go green by planting trees an buying energy saving light bulbs. Rosy's imagination explodes with ideas when her Nature's Gift theme is approved by her teacher, Mrs. Oliphant. Little did her teacher know that their booth will be featuring living and recently departed cockroaches, worms and flying pests such as fruit flies and wool moths. Rosy is a generous big thinker who is prone to blazing ahead without getting permission and thinking things through. She would be a great best friend -- but you probably wouldn't want her as a sister. (She "borrows" her sisters drawers to use as a home for composting worms! Humor and green ideas make this a good read for second - fourth graders.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Medicine, 571 pages.
Mukherjee is a deft writer, and he gives us this huge, yet readable account of Cancer, presenting the evolution of our knowledge of the disease, and of its treatment, spanning(mostly) the last one-hundred years. We see the rise of the "Radical Surgery" school, and the carnage it caused, for its attendant lack of results. The "Laskerites" bring us the War on Cancer, sponsored by the Nixon administration and slow steps they made toward understanding the disease and the possibilities of meaningful treatment. Throughout the book, someone in the medical community is always sure that the cure for cancer is right around the corner, but it isn't until researchers begin to understand how cancer works inside the cell, that it is our own cells run amok, our own genes turned on or turned off that a true difference is made for the patients suffering from some cancers. An incredible book, packed full of information, yet accessible.

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Versed by Rae Armantrout

Versed by Rae Armantrout, 121 pages, Poetry.
The poems in Versed run nimbly and unhindered across the wide array of thoughts contained in every thought, they track the way the mind wanders from even the most serious of subjects. Ranging from the minutia of daily life, to her own cancer, Armantrout can be playful and deadly serious in the same poem. Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer prize, and finalist for the 2009 National Book Award. This is a great book of poetry, and fun to read.

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Entries: Poems by Wendell Berry

Entries: Poems by Wendell Berry, 80 pages, Poetry.
Wendell Berry's 1994 book, his tenth collection of poems, strikes notes similar to those in his earlier works. His poems inhabit the rural Kentucky landscape, rooted there, alive, and brooding. There are some of his more political poems here as well, and a very strong section of poems about his father.

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Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan, 361 pages, Juvenile fiction, Fantasy.
In the fourth installment of the Percy Jackson books Camp Half-Blood is at risk from attack by Lord Kronos's Titan army. Part of the problem is that Kronos appears to have a spy among the demi-gods, and the other part is that the Labyrinth of Daedalus has been growing over the millenia, and now provides and entrance into the camp for Kronos and his forces. In order to stop the invasion from happening, Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson must descend into the Labyrinth and find a way to stop Kronos. They battle Empousa (weird vampire cheerleaders), Dracanae, rebel demi-gods, and another son of Poseidon along the way.

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Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan, 312 pages, Juvenile fiction, Fantasy.

We finished reading this, the third volume in the Percy Jackson series, back in January. They're all good, and my two sons really like them. In this installment Percy and Annabeth team up with the daughter of Zeus, Thalia, who had formerly been a tree. The three of them rush to rescue two young half-bloods, who are living in Bar Harbor, Maine. Kronos, the Titan Lord of time, has a trap waiting for them and the young heroes must battle giant scorpions, they suffer a grievous loss and they must seek to destroy the Titan general. They join forces with Artemis, goddess of the Hunt, and are helped along the way by Apollo. Fun and filled with action, without being too scary. I don't know how children's librarians judge age appropriateness, but my seven-year-old loves these.

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I Remember Nothing-Nora Ephron (135 pages)

This is just a great book. Not that long, and a page-turner at that. So authentic and true to life, Ephron's essays and anecdotes read like they're your own life. Also, the last two lists, "Things I Won't Miss" and "Things I Will Miss" made me choke up. Just beautiful.

Siddhartha-Herman Hesse (122 pages)

I felt so intellectual reading this. Basically, the main character Siddhartha goes on an epic spiritual journey, from the home of his Brahman father to the city where he indulges in every lustful activity. In the end, he ends up listening to the voice of the river, rejecting all doctrines and teachers, and becoming one with the universe. Having taken a couple classes about Buddhism, I found this book interesting, respectful, and thought-provoking. Kind of dry, but a philosophical text, and a short one at that. A must-read, because, as I've heard, it's a must-read.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun by Geoffrey Canada p. 181

Canada was brought up in violence on the streets of the South Bronx. He has not only seen violence played out first hand, he has been involved in it. He has seen how violence has evolved: fist, stick, knife, gun. African American children feel as though adults can not protect them from the streets. The streets have their own codes and if you don't abide by these codes there will be consequences. Canada is calling for help from across America to save these children, to let them know violence will not prevail, and that there is someone there willing to fight for their lives. He has figured out how to save these children, their families, and their communities. This book is a must read. It makes you want to take action. There should be more people like him everywhere.

Lucifer: Morningstar/Mike Carey

Lucifer: Morningstar by Mike Carey (Lucifer, vol 10); graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 192 pages

This is the culmination of the last few volumes: Lilith and her army of demonspawn make their move on Heaven, while Fenris the Wolf aims to end creation once and for all by destroying God's recently vacated throne. Lucifer, Elaine, and Mazikeen, former war leader of Lilith's brood, fight to stop them and save creation.

This has a more coherent story than the last few volumes I've read, but I have to wonder where Carey is going to take things in the final volume. This seemed to tie up a lot of loose ends, kill off a lot of characters, and pretty much wrap up the series. We'll see where we go from here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Podkayne of Mars

Podkayne of Mars / Robert Heinlein 191 pgs. about 7 hours listening

Podkayne is a young woman of almost 9 (Mars years) and is moving right along in her plans to become a space captain. She has a 6 year old (Mars years) genius brother and in an accidental "thawing", her parents have 3 frozen embryos that become triplets added to the family. The triplets ruin the family vacation plan of visiting earth and Podkayne and her brother Clark end up complaining to their Uncle Tom who agrees to take them on the trip. There is more to this family vacation than meets the eye because Uncle Tom is Senator Tom Fries, a respected elder statesman on Mars and he has a diplomatic mission up his sleeve to take place during this family vacation. Not surprisingly, trouble ensues and Podkayne, Clark and Tom are kidnapped, the kids are threatened to force Tom into changing his political position. Clark hatches an escape plan and, well, I won't spoil the ending.

I really enjoyed learning about life on Mars and Venus but there is a bit of the 60's mentality about Podkayne like when she meets and dates a man and considers ending her dream of becoming a captain because being a stewardess might be just as good and so much easier. Of course she doesn't make that decision and also fights with her beau about Tom's beliefs so she certainly demonstrates plenty of pluck. - Christa

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, 199 pages

When You Reach Me won the 2010 Newbery Medal and after devouring it in just two sittings, I've come to believe that those librarians on the Newbery selection committee just might have some idea what they're doing.

When You Reach Me is a time-travel book that doesn't feel like one, kind of like The Time Traveler's Wife for kids. The story follows Miranda, a sixth-grader living in New York in the late '70s, who starts finding cryptic tiny notes from an unknown visitor from the future (it sounds so much cheesier when I write it, mainly because I'm not as cool as Stead). The notes tell her that she needs to painstakingly write down everything she can remember from "when it started" so that this mysterious visitor from the future can save her friend's life. Aside from the time-travel element (which, while always present, manages to percolate in the back-story while Miranda lives her 12-year-old life) When You Reach Me seems incredibly realistic and unassuming.

I read this book probably six weeks ago and I'm still mulling over the plot, turning the elements over and over in my head to see how Stead created the story. I love it when books make me do that and I know that I'll be reading this one again.

I Love You, Beth Cooper

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle, 253 pages

The story starts during graduation, when dork-with-a-sweating-problem Denis Cooverman throws caution (and tradition) to the wind and uses his valedictorian speech to declare his love for head cheerleader Beth Cooper. Seems like a monumental escape until Beth and a couple of her cheerleading pals show up at Denis' house that evening. The rest of the book follows the escapades of Denis, his possibly gay best friend Rich and the trio of cheerleaders as Beth's homicidal military boyfriend Kevin tries to kill Denis. Much like so many teen movies, the entire book takes place on graduation night.

I bring up teen movies because I Love You, Beth Cooper reads just like one, and nearly goes as quickly. The characters are pretty two-dimensional and all of the stereotypes are there: ditzy cheerleaders, nerdy guys who lust after the aforementioned cheerleaders, the annoying best friend, parents who only appear long enough to establish that no, the main character wasn't raised by wolves. And the plot, well, let's just say that Doyle borrows liberally from John Hughes.

What makes this a fun book is that Doyle is conscious about his theft and embraces the stereotype. Each chapter starts with a quote from a different teen movie from the last, say, 30 years. Doyle attributes them to the character who said them, leaving out the movie, which makes for a fun (well, for me anyway) game of trying to guess the movie by the quote. His writing is very self-aware — a few times he refers to characters "processing the contents of the previous paragraph" and makes cracks about the large-print readers of the book — and intelligent.

It doesn't surprise me that they made a teen movie out of this. I haven't seen it, but I can't imagine it would be nearly as smart and clever as the book. If you're forced to choose between book and movie, go for the book — reading it won't take much longer than watching it.

How I became a famous novelist

How I became a famous novelist / Steve Hely 322 pg.

This book is a hilarious send up of novels and writing with a little saved for publishers and movie makers. Our hero Pete Tarslaw gets laid off from his job and an announcement that his college girl friend is engaged. To say Pete has not set the world on fire sort of understates the magnitude of his laziness but now jobless and jealous, he sets out to write a novel and meet his goals of 1. Fame, 2. Financial comfort 3. Own a stately home by the ocean 4. Humiliate Polly (ex girlfriend) at her wedding. I don't think I spoil anything by saying that Pete writes his novel and maybe meets at least parts of his 4 goal plan.

The blurb on the cover says "I was turning the pages so fast they nearly burst into flames" - The Brooklyn Alternative. I didn't turn them quite that fast but that is because I was savoring them a little more than that speed would allow. - Christa

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eldest/ Christopher Paolini

Eldest by Christopher Paolini. adventure, YA fiction, dragons, fantasy, series. 999 pages

After rereading the second installment of Christopher Paolini's inheritance cycle, I have a new appreciation for how important this volume is in the spectrum of the whole series. This was a perfect example of a book that is much better on the second read-through because you will understand things that were otherwise shrugged off as cryptic during the first reading. Since Paolini wrote Eldest after his first book, Eragon, had already become a bestseller, he felt free to make the story much more his own instead of borrowing pre-existing events from Star Wars, which is obviously Paolini's most powerful influence. Yes, there are still a few things straight out of Star Wars including Eragon's training under Oromis, an old and crippled dragon rider who lives in isolation to carry on the ancient teachings of the riders, which is almost a carbon copy of Luke Skywalker's training under Yoda in Star Wars. Eledest also features an "I am your father" moment when his mysterious lineage is finally revealed. Besides those and a few other token quotes that Paolini pilfers verbatim from the Star Wars script (ex an ominous villain stating: "Look inside yourself, you know it to be true..."), he really begins to make the story his own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about Eldest is that Paolini manages to get readers deeply invested in the world he showed us in the first book. Eldest is a lot less about creating a world and a lot more about looking at the world from different perspectives. Eragon's experiences with dwarves, elves, and even other humans show the reader a plethora of differing (and even conflicting) perspectives on life, death, destiny, magic, responsibility, friendship, and other important themes. We learn a lot more about the clan structure and religious dogma of the dwarves as well as the hobbies and diets of the elves and other things that a bare-bones fantasy writer would probably ignore.

I also enjoyed that Paolini decided to flesh out some characters I thought would remain minor characters such as Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad, leader of the Varden, the human resistance, and Roran, Eragon's cousin who was not really mentioned after chapter 5 of the first book. By giving us interesting storylines to follow with these characters, I actually found myself wanted to hurry through portions of Eragon's training in the woods so I could hear more about what was going on with Roran. Eragon's storyline is obviously the most important, but any author who can get the reader to actually WANT the main storyline to pause in order to explore a sideplot deserves applause.

Furthermore, Eldest expresses even better than the first volume the theme that becomes the focus of the whole series: INHERITANCE. This story, although it focuses on Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, is about a new generation of younger heroes inheriting the world from an older generation. We see this in many different characters and their storylines. I think the actual word "inheritance" is used like 25 times during the book; enough to keep drilling this theme into my head without seeming hokey and mainstreamed.

I do have one criticism about this book. Just one. This may be me splitting hairs, too, but I have to mention it. Perhaps the biggest OMG moment that Paolini expects to give the reader is the emergence of a red dragon and his rider in this story. I won't ruin the story by saying who it is, but they don't appear (actually, come to think of it...they aren't even MENTIONED) until the 2nd to last chapter of the book. This wouldn't be a big deal except the cover of this book is a FREAKING MENACING LOOKING RED DRAGON!!!! I mean, yes, the identity of the dragon's rider is kind of a surprise, but the fact is that it's distracting to the reader to be taunted with this evil looking dragon only to have to wait until the second to last chapter to find out who he is. Now, it must be noted that Paolini puts a dragon on every one of his covers, but it would've made more sense for Glaedr, Oromis' gold dragon who appears about 1/3 of the way through the book, to grace the cover, but instead, Paolini decided to put Glaedr on the cover of Brisingr, the third installment. I know this may not seem like much of a big deal, but it is...Can I get over it? Yes. Easily? No.

All-in-all though, this is an awesome book. If you decide to read Eragon, you won't need this blog entry to convince you to read Eldest, though. You'll just want to read it because Paolini makes readers want to always know what's going on next. I almost want to start reading book 3- Brisingr, tonight, but finishing Eldest took a lot out of me.

Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan  185 pp.

This is a typical love story in atypical circumstances. Boy meets boy. Boy loses boy. Boy's ex-boyfriend wants to get back together. Boy has giant fight with best friend over her obnoxious boyfriend. Boy reunites with boy and all of them join together to help out a classmate. Sounds simple but there's a little more to it. All of these kids live in a place and attend a high school where just about everyone is open and accepting of everyone. The star quarterback on the football team is a drag queen named Infinite Darlene. The GLBT students are all out and there a few problems with this. Most with the exception of Tony who has parents who are not accepting of his sexuality and try to keep him away from his friends. Paul (the boy) meets Noah, the new boy in town, at a bookstore and is immediately smitten. Their relationship barely buds when Paul's ex, Kyle, causes complications. In the mean time, Paul's best friend, Joanie, has begun dating Chuck, an arrogant jerk and Infinite Darlene's ex. With the help of his friends, Paul woos back Noah. In the end the entire group and a few more help Tony stand up to his parents.

I like Levithan's books but wouldn't call this his best. He has a wonderful grasp of teens and the way they talk and relate to each other. And I wish there really was a town and high school that were as open and accepting as this one. Maybe someday (sigh).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ruthless Game by Christine Feehan 376 pages

GhostWalker Team 3 is sent into Mexico to rescue the kidnapped relatives of the President of Mexico. Well trained, the GhostWalkers possesses psychic abilities and extraordinary physical abilities that allow them to move unseen in enemy territory. Kane is in the lead checking for traps and watching the guards when he finds Rose, the woman he has been “paired” with by an unscrupulous scientist. Rose is eight months pregnant with their child and Kane hasn’t seen her since he slept with her. There are a few rescues, several battles, slow acceptance of the team by Rose and a building trust between Rose and Kane. Christine Feehan once again weaves a story of intrigue, love and trust in the ninth of her GhostWalker series.

The sun also rises, by Ernest Hemingway

The Paris Wife, the recently published fictionalized account of Hemingway's early years as a writer as told through the eyes of his first wife, Hadley, made me want to go back and read Hemingway's work. I was really only familiar with his short stories and novellas. The sun also rises drew heavily on his experiences and acquaintances in Paris during the twenties when the expatriates who clustered there were called "the lost generation" by Gertrude Stein. Most probably know the plot of the book -- its depiction of the hard-drinking, creative, and amoral world of artists and authors in Paris, many damaged by World War I, and the famous scenes of the fiesta, bull-running, and bullfights in Pamploma, before it became famous (probably because of Hemingway's work) and visited by tourists. Even though it has been 85 years since The sun also rises was published, the style Hemingway made famous in this novel is still modern and startling. One can understand why it has often been imitated, and parodied, in later years, but also be astonished at how fresh it seems. And he is sometimes very funny as well. I'm glad I went back to the original. On to For whom the bell tolls! 251 pp.

The Paris wife, by Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway had a thing for St. Louis women - he married three of them in succession and Hadley Richardson was Wife Number One. In The Paris Wife, McLain has written a fictionalized account of their lives together in the Paris of the "Lost Generation." Friends and associates there included Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Ezra Pound, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald amongst others. This book has been highly praised. I found it absorbing but not all that special, although the device of telling it from Hadley's vantage point made it unique. The author could hardly improve on the other fictionalized version of this tale, which is Hemingway's first great success, The sun also rises. Into Hadley and Ernest's relatively happy life with baby "Bumby" (nicknames abound), comes the fashionable and fascinating Pauline Pfeiffer, destined to become Wife Number Two. Her duplicity at befriending the somewhat isolated Hadley (who is neither an artist nor an author, or even fashionable and is often left home alone with Bumby) then ultimately stealing her husband is one of the more interesting parts of the story. What the book did do for me was make me actually read Hemingway's version, which I had never done. 336 pp.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lucifer: Crux/Mike Carey

Lucifer: Crux by Mike Carey (Lucifer vol 9); graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 168 pages

I think the appeal of this series is starting to wane. I'm still enjoying it, and I love the writing, but the story at this point is rather choppy. I initially compared this series to Neil Gaiman's Sandman (of which it is a spin-off, so I feel like that's fair). I'm cutting it some slack, because Sandman is one of my favorite comics, but even so, I'm starting to loose patience with Lucifer. Instead of larger arcs that would give the story a more epic feeling, we've been getting shorter arcs (two to three issues) and on-shots for the past few volumes. That trend continues here, with two small arcs, and a stand-alone issue in between. All three stories were excellent, but taken all together, they didn't add up to a real "graphic novel" feeling. I'm still going to keep going--after all, I'm only two volumes away from the end!

As an aside: one of the most annoying things in the world for me is when I'm reading a graphic novel, and realize that someone has torn out a page, or in this case, a single panel. Why? WHY???? People like that are the reason I don't know what happens at the end of Batman: Hush, why my recent reread of Kingdom Come had to be aborted, and why there was a giant hole in the page where the second panel of page 62 should have been in this volume. Show your graphic novels some love! Readers of comics unite!

The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean

The Secret Lives of Dresses by Erin McKean, 290 p.
I thought my favortie thing about this book would be lots and lots of details about fabric, buttons, style, and all things vintage. In that regard I was slightly disappointed. More couture detail, please! My actual favorite things about this book were the secret lives of the dresses, little stories within the story--tiny glimpses into a day or evening or event in the past of nameless people who previously wore the dresses, narrated by the dresses themselves. Erin McKean is a lexicographer, founder of, essayist, and blogger of A Dress a Day (, on which there are volumes of secret lives of dresses. The main narrative features Dora, whose grandmother Mimi raised her from infancy while running a vintage clothing store. Mimi suffers a stroke as Dora is about to embark on graduate school, leaving Dora to run the shop and discover not only the "secret lives" Mimi has been writing about the dresses, but also the path her own life is meant to take. Loved it!

Teh Itteh Bitteh Book of Kittehs

Teh Itteh Bitteh Book of Kittehs/Professor Happycat & 192 pgs.

A book so nice I read it twice. Kitties are so cute! (I get credit for this, right?) - Christa

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lucifer: The Wolf beneath the Tree/Mike Carey

Lucifer: The Wolf beneath the Tree by Mike Carey; graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 160 pages

The end is near. Or at least, that seems to be the theme of this book, despite the fact that we're still several volumes away from the end of this series. God has abandoned creation, and now other pantheons are starting to feel His absence. Fenris, of Norse mythology, makes his move in this volume, vowing to bring about the end of the world on his terms. That means pitting brother against brother--in this case, Lucifer, and his brother Michael. I think we've safely left behind the volumes that can be read as stand-alones; don't try this without reading the previous books in this series!

Cleaning Nabokov's House

Cleaning Nabokov's House / Leslie Daniels 322 pgs.

Barb Barrett wakes up one day and realizes she can't stay in her marriage partly because her husband instructs her how to load the dishwasher. One thing leads to another and she takes her kids "camping" intending to never return. Instead, her husband ends up with custody of the kids and pretty much everything else and she is trying to find a way to survive on her own in the small town in upstate New York that is her husband's home town. It takes her awhile to get on her feet, find some friends, and develop her self confidence. In the meantime, the house that she is staying had previously been the home to a more famous tenet, Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera. Barb finds part of a book that she believes was written by Nabokov and that starts her on a path of redemption and taking control of her life. This is a fun and sexy little book about creatively making a living and just learning to live again after losing almost everything. Barb's relationships with her kids, her mother, and the locals are warm and funny and seem mostly possible. An enjoyable read. - Christa

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray  285 pp.

Janisse Ray is a naturalist and environmental activist. She grew up in a junkyard...literally. Her family owned a junkyard in south Georgia on U.S 1. She lived there with her parents and siblings, surrounded by derelict cars, broken washing machines, tractors, and a miscellany of other detritus her father accumulated to repair or sell as salvage parts. In alternating chapters Ray reminices about her childhood and details the destruction of the old growth longleaf pine forests in the south. She includes in family memories her father's care for injured animals, wild and domestic, his bouts of mental illness which required hospitalization, and his talent for recycling junk into usable items. The environmental chapters cover the rapid destruction of the forests and the subsequent and heartbreaking endangerment and extinction of species that relied on the very specific ecology of those forests.  I ran across this book when searching for recommendations for our April "Staff Picks." Since it was about a part of Georgia where I have family, I thought I'd give it a look. I'm glad I did. The biography parts are interesting and I learned a lot about the unique ecology of the longleaf pine forests that sadly have dwindled to just a few areas of the south. I wish I could have seen them as they were when this country began.

The Half-Made World/ Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman fantasy, western, steampunk, adventure 480 pages

I have never found a title more appropriate for a book than Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World. Not only does this express the themes and setting of the story, but also manages to describe my overall opinion of Gilman's novel as a whole. Although there is some extremely interesting potential in Gilman's world, all the potential it carries falls out when Gilman fails to do anything with it.

Before tearing everything else about this book a new one, I must applaud Gilman on creating a world that is both diverse and fascinating. Gilman's world is split into thirds with the first third being a land that is only represented in the first few chapters of the book: the East. The East is a civilized and tamed land filled with academics and doctors seeking only to expand on their endless knowledge with further scientific research. This is the area where the story's protagonist, Dr. Liv Alverhuysen, is from. The East is mostly untouched by the violence typical of the rest of the world although we know that evil still exists because it is revealed that Liv's mother, a criminal psychologist, was murdered by one of her patients. Upon leaving the East, Gilman paints a picture of his most intriguing location: the West (ironically enough, however, it is actually the central location). The West is a mixture of traditional western and steampunk elements that is also the battleground of a war between two factions- the overwhelmingly industrial, technology-based forces of the Line and the ruthless, guerrilla agents of the Gun. The Gun and the Line are interesting because none of the people in the West are self-governed but instead governed either by the sentient train-esque demon leaders of the Line known as the Engines or the demonic beings that possess Gun agents through their weapons. Gilman had a lot of potential with the conflict between these factions but abandoned it halfway through the book to enter the final setting, the FAR West. The whole time the story is in the Far West, the storytelling gets annoying because it's clear that Gilman wants to express that nothing in the Far West is definable or similar to what the characters have seen before, so instead of saying "the characters saw a deer", Gilman writes "the characters saw a creature that resembled a deer yet was clearly not a deer for reasons that are unable to be identified." This gets annoying quickly and also, when the characters enter the Far West, the story loses its direction and becomes aimless and hard to finish.

When criticism even leaks out of my compliment section, you can begin to understand my beef with this book. It's clear Gilman wanted to focus not on the external conflicts between Line and Gun but instead on the internal conflicts between those caught in the larger war. While this is both ambitious and interesting, Gilman does it wrong which leads to a bunch of unnecessary psycho-babble about characters who the reader frankly doesn't give a crap about. Furthermore, when the major conflict of the story finally reveals itself, it ends up being something that is almost entirely disconnected from the stuff that drew in the readers to begin with. Gilman has this excellent world in the West with seemingly limitless potential but chooses to leave it halfway through the book to have her characters stomp through the mud in solitary contemplation.

It must also be noted that none of Gilman's characters are likable. Liv, the story's protagonist, is an indecisive, whiny, opium-addict who fails to get any sympathy from readers due to her endless complaining. Creedmoor, a reluctant agent of the Gun and the closest thing the story has to a male protagonist, tries to hard to be an antihero and ends up looking like a 1-dimensional shadow of a Clint Eastwood character with a few lame one-liners thrown in. Every other character in the book has more flaws than redeemable qualities, leaving any reasonable reader to think that this world would be better off if all the characters killed each other off and left some Deus Ex Machina god character to repopulate the world with more interesting characters.

While the Epilogue at the end of the book makes me assume that Gilman is prepping for a sequel, I would only pick that sequel up so that I could get disappointing answers to all of the questions Gilman poses in Half-Made World. Regardless of how intriguing the fictional world sounds, give this one a pass because the frustration it will force on you will not be worth the minuscule amount of interest the book producers.

Barney's Version

Barney's Version/Mordecai Richler 355 pgs.

Barney Panofsky is a romantic who met his third (and most perfect) wife at a wedding. Unfortunately, it was HIS wedding wherein he was marrying his second wife. Barney's trashy TV company, Totally Useless Productions, has made him a small fortune without having to work too hard thus he has had plenty of time to drink and carouse. He maintains several life long relationships with various "frenemies" that he would do anything for but also may be the number one suspect when they are murdered. But lets get back to the third and perfect wife...Miriam, the mother of his children and the only woman he has truly loved...oh yea, Barney ends up messing that up too and she marries another man. This is a comic novel about a guy who has some pretty amazing luck mixed in with some pretty hard luck too. Mostly, he makes his own luck and that is when things get a little crazy. - Christa

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Eragon/ Christopher Paolini

Eragon by Christopher Paolini. fantasy, adventure, war, young adult fiction. 509 pages

If you've never heard of Christopher Paolini's "Inheritance Cycle", and are remotely interested in YA fantasy novels, then I definitely suggest picking this book up. This is the second time i've read it and I have decided to resurrect my interest in the series because I'm egotistical and superstitious enough to believe that maybe if I re-read the first three books in this series, the author will finally get a move on and publish the fourth and final hopes are most likely for naught but I am certainly reminded of why I have been anticipating the 4th installment for almost two years now.

I should say before I delve too far into anything else that the story isn't the most original piece of fantasy literature. A lot of the themes and fantasy conventions utilized by Paolini are recycled from more mainstream stories (although this can be forgiven somewhat when one learns that Paolini wrote the first draft of Eragon when he was 15 years old how's that for making you feel incredibly lazy?). It's the basic tale of an innocent farmboy with a mysterious past being raised by his uncle who stumbles upon a dragon egg that will change his life forever. After the servants of the evil emperor Galbatorix (now if that's not a name designed by a 15 year old, I don't know what is) destroy his home, Eragon, the aforementioned farmboy, runs off on an adventure with an old hermit who doubles as the last of an ancient order (starting to sound like a story you heard a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away yet?) to learn how to become a dragon rider and the eventual savior of the whole kingdom.

Obviously there's a lot more to it than that, but I don't want to ruin the story for those who actually plan on picking this up. One of the things that Paolini does incredibly well is molding extremely deep and involved mythology for his world. The origins of the different races that populate the magical realm of Alagesia and the extremely complicated presence of magic are particularly interesting.

Even though I mentioned that the story isn't going to be the most original thing you've read, I still want to applaud Paolini on his construction of chapters. The chapters are short enough that you can usually find a good stopping place if you need one but riveting enough that a well-placed cliffhanger (something Paolini does extremely well, arguably as well as Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy) will keep you reading for hours.

I would recommend this read to anyone who's looking for a new series to pick up and isn't afraid to dive head-first into the fantastic creation of a 15 year old won't be disappointed

Lucifer: Exodus/Mike Carey

Lucifer: Exodus by Mike Carey (Lucifer, vol 7); graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 169 pages

This seventh volume picks up right where the sixth left off: God has left His creation, and placed his sons Lucifer and Michael in charge. Neither wants that kind of responsibility (or, in Lucifer's case, not on top of the other creation he already oversees). This volume deals with the aftermath of God's departure, and the changes to Lucifer's own creation as a result. Those changes aren't explained very clearly, but I got the distinct impression that Carey is leaving something to be revealed later, rather than just leaving loose ends.

Monsters of Men/Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking, book 3); young adult, science fiction; 603 pages (about 13 hours, listening)

"War makes monsters of men."

That's what Todd's adopted father told him in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Now, Todd is experiencing that adage first-hand. The war with the Spackle (the indigenous species that occupies the world which humans have colonized) has brought a truce to the internal conflicts of the humans of New World, but it has also given dangerous amounts of power to President Prentiss. Todd remains by his side, but this time as a means of keeping the president's power in check. But the longer Todd is near him, the more Prentiss seems to be rubbing off on him.

I took a lot longer to listen to this than the previous books. I think that was largely because this is a war novel, plain and simple, and I have trouble reading those. It's not until the end of the book that we return to the character-driven story I loved so much. That's not to say I'm not happy I read this; the conclusion was nothing like what I expected, but I was investing enough in the story at to be shouting at my CD player as I drove down the road--but, you know, in a good way. A great end to a gripping series. I look forward to Ness's next project. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 390 pages

While I raced through the first two books in The Hunger Games trilogy, I waited a long time to experience the final book probably because I wanted to listen to it as an audio book and savor the conclusion of this adventure. While some series can be read interchangeably, do NOT read Mockingjay until you have read the first two books, in sequence.
In this dystopian universe, the survivors of the earlier "hunger games" are trying to overthrow the cruel government. Katniss becomes the reluctant face of the revolution. While the rebels conspire to use Katniss on frequent video spots, the Capitol has Peeta, and are obviously torturing him as their attempt to destroy Katniss. Katniss is torn in many directions as the ones she loves: Gale, her sister, and fellow rebels are manipulated by evil forces. Collins has created a fascinating universe. All of the characters are unique individuals. The battle scenes are intense. Do read this before it hits the big screen. I feel certain that Hollywood will not do justice to Katniss and friends.
Carolyn McCormack is the narrator of the audiobook. I found her voice to be a bit too mature for Katniss, although she did a fine job with the male characters.

Stitches by David Small 329 pages

Caldecott award winning illustrator, David Small uses black and white pen and ink drawings to tell the story of his traumatic childhood growing up in a loveless home with a cruel and selfish mother, unforgivable father and distant older brother. As a sickly young boy, his father subjects David to frequent x-rays to monitor his sinus problems. As a result of this treatment he develops cancer. His mother refuses to get him a diagnosis for the growth on his neck for two years. The subsequent surgeries removes one of his vocal chords and leaves a disfiguring scar on his throat. He stops talking until he meets a sympathetic psychiatrist advises him to leave home (at age 16!) Through art, he finds his voice and acceptance. This has to be one of the most moving graphic novels that I have experienced.

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce 324 pages

Fairy tales have taken a twist to the macabre in this variant of Little Red Riding Hood. This tale told alternately by two sisters, Scarlett and Rose has tension tightened exponentially when it is not just a wolf knocking at the door but Fenris clans (werewolf like creatures). Scarlett has been literally scarred by a previous meeting with a Fenris and has become a Buffie-like slayer, consumed with the need to hunt down these creatures. Rose is more timid and not sure she wants to make this her career. Enter the woodsman, Silas, a friend from their past. Rose finds herself drawn to this hunk, but is reluctant to ditch her needy sister.

Lucifer: Mansions of Silence/Mike Carey

Lucifer: Mansions of Silence by Mike Carey (Lucifer, vol 6); graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 144 pages

If the last volume as a little lackluster, this one brings the story back to coherence in a big way. Desperate to do right by Elaine, who gave her life to save his, Lucifer assembles a crew what he terms "loose ends" to go to the dreaded Mansions of Silence and free her spirit. The group undertakes a dangerous voyage into unknown lands, while at home Lucifer confronts his brother Michael over their role in God's creation.

This made for some riveting reading, even if the story did seem rushed in a few places. While I still wouldn't recommend picking up this volume cold, it gave a lot more backstory than other story arcs have, and even tied up a few unfinished tales. Now, on to the next volume...

Lucifer: Inferno/Mike Carey

Lucifer: Inferno by Mike Carey (Lucifer, vol 5); graphic novel, horror, fantasy; 168 pages

Lucifer's rise to power takes a dramatic turn in this volume, where he finally faces off against the unfallen angel who leads gods armies. Our protagonist still isn't fully recovered from his last battle, and he is forced to rely on trickery to find victory--but of course, trickery is what he does best.

I enjoyed this as much as the other volumes, but it didn't feel like a standalone story as much as the others did. There are some good smaller stories here, but most of them rely pretty heavily on previous volumes to make sense of them, so I strongly recommend reading this series in order.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Running the Books

Running the Books by Avi Steinberg  399 pp.

How does a nice, Harvard educated, Jewish boy end up working in a library that only serves drug dealers, pimps, murderers, and other violent criminals? The subtitle, "The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian," pretty much answers that question. Avi Steinberg earned a Harvard degree and found himself writing obituaries for a Boston newspapers. He was looking for something different when he landed the job in a Boston prison. In his brief time there he learned to supervise a staff of prisoners, search for contraband, survive battles with resentful guards, and bend some the rules for certain prisoners in small or potentially large ways. Some of his prison stories are amusing, some heartbreaking, and others angering. It's an interesting book.

Even if you don't plan on reading it, you should at least have a look at the picture on the dust-jacket. The picture of the author created from "due date" stamps is impressive especially when compared to the author's photo.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Surrendered: Chang-Rae Lee (484 pages)

What's that? I get extra participation points for this post? Score :D

Ok, so not only did I read this book BUT I GOT TO GO TO A READING AND HEAR CHANG-RAE LEE HIMSELF READ FROM THIS BOOK. Oh my was amazing.

This story is absolutely beautiful. It follows the lives of June Singer and Hector Brennan, both of whom fall in love with a missionary named Sylvie Tanner during the Korean War. Nearly thirty years later, they reunite to remember their past and find June's son who has disappeared after traveling to Europe. Beautiful writing, seriously some of the most carefully crafted prose you'll ever read.

The Archer's Tale by Bernard Cornwell

The Archer's Tale by Bernard Cornwell, Historical fiction, 370 pages.
In the mid-1300s, Thomas Hookton, son of the local priest, has his life changed forever when French marauders sail in, and loot his small village. Hookton discovers the names of those responsible for the raid and for the death of his father, and vows revenge. Seeking that revenge, information concerning who he really is, and the religious relic taken from his father's chruch, Hookton ranges far and wide over the French countryside, raiding with Edward III's English army. The book reaches its climax at the battle of Crecy, where English bowmen turn the tide. The first in Cornwell's "Grail Quest" series. Historically accurate and well told.

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