Saturday, April 30, 2011

Heads You Lose / Lisa Lutz and David Hayward

Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward. 300 p.

This is a book where the story about the book--in this case, how it was written--is almost more interesting than the story in the book. Lutz is the author of the Spellman Files books, which I recommend. Hayward is a poet, and Lutz's ex-boyfriend. She wrote the first chapter of this book and invited him to collaborate: she would write all of the odd-numbered chapters, and he the even-numbered ones. The published book includes their notes back and forth to each other, and I frankly enjoyed those at least as much as the actual mystery, because I never became invested in caring about any of the characters. A fun, breezy read.

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Present at the creation / Amir Aczel

Present at the Creation : the story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider by Amir Aczel. 271 p.

This ended up being more about physics and less about CERN than I'd have liked. Of course I expected some physics--it's hard to discuss the search for the Higgs boson without explaining what it is and why it's important--but I was hoping for more details about CERN and its history. (The physics explanations are pretty clear, though.) On the other hand, if you want a pretty thorough explanation of how the LHC is constructed, along with diagrams, you'll get that here. I also found some things about the author's writing style rather annoying. For instance, he uses the term "non-Abelian" and says that it "refers to Niels Henrik Abel." Well, no--it's named after Niels Henrik Abel, but it refers to the non-commutativity of the group.

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Kitchen Confidential/ Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. cooking, biography, restaurants, humor, 312 pages.

Anthony Bourdain, the chain-smoking, take-no-prisoners, bastard of a chef that has taken both the book and television mediums by storm, is a hero of mine. I started cooking about a year and a half ago and have since picked up a few culinary idols, but Bourdain will always sit near the top of that list. His record of his journey through the culinary underbelly and his no-bullshit account of the restaurant business in "Kitchen Confidential" certainly doesn't hurt my opinion of him in the slightest.

Bourdain spends a majority of the chapters reminiscing on his early years as a dishwasher, bus boy, and line cook in Provincetown, where he learned his trade from the pirate crew of mercenary seafood chefs that summered there. Similarly, we learn of his many restaurant ventures in New York including a brief stint in a mafia run restaurant that led to some entertaining anecdotes. Bourdain also spends his time describing a few of the fully functional degenerates he has met during his career in the business which are some of the most entertaining portions of the book.

I must warn you, however, that this is not for the faint of stomach. Bourdain explains early on that the filth and moral depravity that he witnessed while working in a seafood shack in Provincetown was just as present in the three-star joints where he cooked in NYC. Drug use, violence, sex, alcoholism, language that will make you never want to open your mouth again-- all are present in Bourdain's stories and if that ain't your cup of tea, then you should definitely pass this one up.

Besides providing a number of clever anecdotes, Bourdain provides advice to budding chefs, would-be restaurateurs, and casual diners alike. Some of this advice is useful only to those who are familiar with a kitchen, while some advice is universal (my personal favorite: "don't EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER order fish on a Monday"). Bourdain presents himself as someone who has succeeded in this dangerous business through a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, a little bit of skill, and a whole lot of luck. He manages to be both confident and humble and is an extremely interesting narrator. Occasionally he expects a little more background knowledge from the reader concerning gourmet food than I would've expected, but it's his book and he can write it however he wants.

I'd recommend this one to anyone who enjoys reading about food but who isn't too grossed out to find out what goes on between the people who make yours at a restaurant. I plan on reading another of Bourdain's books as soon as I get a chance. Bravo, chef!

Bookhunter/ Jason Shiga

Bookhunter by Jason Shiga. graphic novel, adventure, libraries, 70's cop shows, humor. 144 pages

I need to give a shout out to Cindy on this one, because after I confessed my inability to remember books that people recommend to me in a previous post this month, Cindy made sure to hand this book to me instead of just telling me about it. Apparently it's a popular one among the staff so I'm glad that after two years, I've been deemed "library" enough to read this gem of a graphic novel.

Shiga's "Bookhunter" draws from the tradition of 70's cop shows a la Starsky and Hutch, SWAT, Charlie's Angels et al, except instead of occurring solely on the mean streets of some geographically neutral metropolis, the story takes place mostly in a library as well as a few scenes at patron homes. Special Agent Bay is a field agent of the Library Police, whose job it is to protect and serve the books of the public library. Bay's assignment over the course of this book is to locate a missing rare bible that has been replaced with a replica.

What makes Bookhunter so great is that the stuff that Agent Bay and his cohorts do in the course of keeping the library safe for people and books alike are things that I've always daydreamed about doing while at work. Having a problem with a certain book getting stolen over and over again? No problem! Just replace it with a copy that has radioactive tracing on it and follow the trace once the book is lifted! This solution and others make for some entertaining reading.

The book also features some excellent throwbacks to the now all-but-forgotten aspects of the library including card catalogs, those nifty bookshelves that can be compressed through the spinning of a wheel on the side of the shelving unit, and of course, the bookmobile. Agent Bay utilizes these and more in his action-packed, high flying chase scenes that certainly liven up the fictional library atmosphere. I also enjoy the risky, are-you-kidding-me action moves that Bay uses reminiscent of his TV predecessors.

For those that haven't picked this one up yet, do yourself a favor. I promise it will not disappoint.

Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories/ Zack Whedon

Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories by Zack Whedon. graphic novel, superheroes, film-to-book adaptations, humor 80 pages

Considering how tiny this book is, I'm not gonna church it up and continuously call it a graphic novel. Zack Whedon's "Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories" is a comic book. While the book is short (even among comic book standards), this isn't what makes it suck. This book sucks because it fails to follow the hype of an entertaining potential franchise by boring the audience with lame back story. Those familiar with the internet sensation, Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog, had a lot to look forward to with promises of sequels and/or prequels coming about every once in a while. What is delivered to readers is this pathetic attempt at satiation.

The story (if one can even call it that) is a series of 5-8 page minor arcs featuring every character from the popular web-movie. Readers will quickly be reminded of Dr. Horrible, Captain Hammer, Penny, and Moist, although each of their individual stories falls flat and fails to entertain. Anyone who's seen the movie recognizes that prequel stories about some of these characters would seem unnecessary considering their fates in the movie, but the fact that Whedon couldn't even come up with a somewhat entertaining plot for the MAIN CHARACTER is ridiculous.

I will concede that there were a few entertaining moments in the book, but they were definitely few and far between. The best parts came from the revelation of characters not seen in the movie, notably the barely-mentioned Johnny Snow and the members of the elite super villain collective known as the Evil League of Evil. All of these characters are present in only one story but this story manages to be the only entertaining one of the bunch. From what little mythology is provided from this book, readers learn that there are more superheroes and villains than just Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer, and we get to actually see the Evil League of Evil's members (in the movie, this view was limited to Bad Horse, the equine leader of the League). Some of the League's members are especially entertaining: Tie Die, an evil Hippie-Controlling flowerchild with a desire to destroy and Fake Thomas Jefferson, a Thomas Jefferson look-a-like whose powers are unknown but has somehow been granted membership to the League.

That being said, this book was, for the most part, as horrible as promised in the title. I expected a lot more out of an otherwise entertaining franchise, but I have been severely disappointed. Luckily, at 80 pages, if you waste your time with this, you won't be wasting MUCH time.

Crewel World

Crewel World by Monica Ferris 243 pgs

This is the first book in the series of this needlecraft mystery. It's a really great read especially if you like to cross stitch. The main character Betsy Devonshire wants a new start in life and travels to a small town named Excelsior, Minnesota to live with her sister Margo. Not only does her sister let her move in with her, but she also gives Betsy a job at her needlework shop which is downstairs in the same building. Soon as Betsy begins to fit in, and become comfortable working in the shop, her sister Margo is murdered unexpectedly. Now Betsy is faced with inheriting and running a needlework shop, which she has no experience in. She relies on Margo's close friends for help with the shop, and she is determined to find out her sister's murderer. I will not spoil the mystery by revealing the ending. You'll have to read it to find out who murdered Margo. Also, there is a free cross stitch pattern at the end of the book. I look forward to the next book in this series.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Instructions

The Instructions/Adam Levin 1030 pages.

I've risked personal injury carting this book back and forth to try to finish it before the end of the month and despite all of trouble I've received from certain co-workers, I want to clearly state that I like this book. HOWEVER, and lets face it, any 1030 pg. book is going to have a "however" pretty early in the review. What the heck Adam need to make friends with an editor who lives by the "less is more" credo.

Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee may be the messiah and/or he may be a violent sociopath. I'm not sure that we really find out what makes Gurion tick but we do know he is relegated to the CAGE program at Aptakisic Jr. High, a program that seems to leave no alternative to the students but to nurse their rage and hatred against the system and the evil monitor. Like prisoners of war, they develop a communication system and partake in acts of civil disobedience. The good news is that conditions like this can lead to strong relationships being forged, so much so, you can unite together and start a war. I would say that things get a little out of hand but no one in the book seems to think so, not Gurion or his rag-tag group.

Glad I read it but also glad that I'm done with it. This book has dominated my reading for a is difficult to hold while petting your cat and my cat doesn't take no for an answer.

Dark Prince - Author's cut special edition by Christine Feehan 484 pages

Dark Prince is the first of the Dark Series rewritten and enhanced by Christine Feehan. The prince of the Carpathian race has lived for centuries and is almost to the end of his lonely dark endurance. The Carpathians are immortals with special skills able to dissolve into mist or shape shift into any animal. Mikhail, the prince, is on the brink of walking into the sun to end his life when his path crosses with Raven. Raven is human with psychic abilities and is Mikhail’s lifemate. She is able to link with Mikhail and becomes his salvation. Vampire hunters try to kill them and a true vampire abducts Raven and tries to kill Mikhail. The Dark series follow the plights of several Carpathian males through countries around the world as they fight vampires and search for their true “lifemate”

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fables. Rose Red / Bill Willingham et al.

Fables. Vol. 15, Rose Red by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, et al.

(This summary won't make much sense if you're not already familiar with the comic series.) I found this to be one of the more satisfying Fables collections, even though a lot of it dealt with the character of Rose Red (as the title makes clear). I've never liked her, and still don't, really, but her backstory was deftly handled and involved variations of some traditional fairy tales, which is always fun to see. Plus Rose finally becomes an actor in the present-day story again. The plot advances on several fronts: the political situation involving the Fabletown and Farm Fables evolves; someone fights a duel against the current Big Bad, Mr. Dark; and the status quo shifts again at the end of the book. It'll be interesting to see how Willingham plots the next book without repeating what he's done already.

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The Arctic Marauder / Jacques Tardi

The Arctic Marauder by Jacques Tardi. 63 p.

Tardi is a big name in Eurocomics, but only a handful of his titles have been translated into English. This one is described by the American publisher as "icepunk." In 1889, a cruise ship discovers an iceberg with a frozen wreck of another ship embedded in it. When some sailors go to investigate, they discover the ship's crew frozen in position as if they'd died with no warning and instantly froze. Then things get weird....

The black-and-white scratchboard art is striking. The plotting and pacing is...odd. I'm sure it's mostly due to differing cultural expectations and conventions, but some of it is probably related to translation issues. (Twice the narration refers to something very specific that one character said, but he doesn't actually say it in his dialogue.) It's pretty clear that this was planned as the first installment of a series, but I believe it was never continued after this volume, so the story just kind of stops rather than wrapping up. Worth it for the art, though.

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To Get Here

To Get Here/ Wendy Mnookin 81 pgs.

To complete my April Poetry Month reading, I chose this book by Wendy Mnookin in the random fashion of grabbing something off the shelf in the poetry section. I've already admitted I'm a poetry book boob and even though I've read a few, I'm in no position yet to have a real direction or opinion. I really lucked out. This book is beautiful and lovely in the way that I can understand most of the poems and appreciate them. Many are about family and every day happenings with many references to the author's son. Later in the book, it seems like the son has grown up to have a bit of a substance abuse problem and the poems become much less "light" but still amazing in how so much emotion is conveyed with very few words. Overall this book is a winner and is making me think I need to continue with more poetry.

Minding Frankie

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy  381 pp.

I think I've only read one of Binchy's books before and it was probably better than this one. All the way through the book I kept thinking it would be great material for a soap like East Enders or Coronation Street. Alcoholic A dying young woman contacts alcoholic Noel to tell him he is the father of her soon to be born daughter. Noel, his parents, friends and neighbors all become an extended family to little Frankie while conspiring to keep the evil social worker, Moira, from taking her away from him. There are plenty of side stories involving a visiting American cousin, a womanizing restauranteur, Noel's religious fanatic parents, and more. I listened to the audiobook of this. If I had been reading the book I probably wouldn't have finished it.

Silent Mercy by Linda Faristein 384 pages

“Silent Mercy” is the next installment in the story of Alex Cooper, a New York ADA in the Special Victims division. Alex and her police sidekicks are called to the horrific scene of a decapitated body on the steps of a very old church on the edge of Harlem. Strangely, all gates into church property are barred and rescue workers are unable to get to the body. So, how did the murderer get the body over the tall fence to the steps and back over again to make his escape? As usual, Fairstein’s story begins with the unusual and, as Alex and the police begin to try to unravel the mystery, they find connections to churches, religions, and leprosy with city politics mixed in to cause roadblocks and confusion. I like Linda Fairstein’s books because they grab your interest from the beginning and they are not easy to solve ahead of the writer. “Silent Mercy” is one of the best.

The Finder Library by Carla Speed McNeil

The Finder Library: volume 1 by Carla Speed McNeil, graphic novel, 630 pages
A collection of the first 22 of McNeil's classic "Finder" series, which I had not heard of, or seen until Cindy ordered this one for the library. I read through it thinking it took place on another world. It doesn't matter to me though. The stories are good and the art is fantastic. There always seems to be something going on in the background of the drawings, important details and odd bits of other stories. Jaeger is a Finder, a scout of the Ascian people, though he is only half Ascian, or at least thinks he is. His father, a member of one of the homogeneous clans, never talked to Jaeger about his mother, but Jaeger has Ascian features so everyone is willing to give him the sort of disdain and scorn one gives to someone without a clan. Jaeger is also a sin-eater, and that is something else entirely. He is a complicated character with conflicting motives for the strange things he does. I read somewhere these stories take place in a far-future post-apocalyptic earth, but I don't think that is ever mentioned in the book. This combined volume also contains notes about the art and where some of the odd details comes from and the original cover art. My favorite graphic novel since The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius.

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Beat the Reaper/ Joshua Bazell

Beat the Reaper by Joshua Bazell. action-adventure, mafia, medicine, crime. 332 pages

This book was brought to my attention by Christa, who told me that she wanted me to check out this book because 1. I have the magical ability to force authors to announce sequels when I blog about their books (see my example on my review of Christopher Paolini's "Eragon") and 2. because she thought the book was right up my alley. Normally when people recommend a book to me, I smile, nod, and say something along the lines of "yeah, definitely! Thanks for the recommendation! I've been looking for something good!" only to have forgotten anything they said after about five minutes. For some reason, maybe it was the book's intriguing title, this book stuck in my mind. I need to thank Christa and my strange selective memory, because without either of them, I would have missed out on a real gem.

This story tells the tale (or tales, depending on how you look at the narrative) of Dr. Peter Brown, a New York doctor with a bad attitude and a serious need of some sleep and Pietro Brwna, a contract killer for the mafia. You find out relatively early that these two people are actually the same guy, and that Dr. Brown is simply Pietro after he has been relocated through the Witness Protection Program (PS- I realize this is fiction, but my biggest problem with this story as a whole is that anybody, I don't care HOW smart they are, would be allowed to become a doctor through WitSec...totally unbelievable, but makes for one hell of a story). To those of you that aren't convinced by this premise, think of it as the Showtime TV show "Dexter"---except kind of in reverse. While Dexter is a normal citizen who moonlights as a serial killer, Pietro Brwna/Peter Brown is a cold-blooded killer forced to shift gears and save lives as a doctor regardless of his bloody past.

The shifting narrative style is awesome because Bazell, the author manages to leave every chapter with a perfect cliffhanger that finds you wanting to get back to the other half of the story no matter which half you are currently on, while simultaneously allowing you to enjoy the half you have just re-entered. Bazell's characters, while gritty, sarcastic, and in some cases, downright disgusting, are interesting and leave you wanting to learn more about them. Brwna/Brown himself is the most interesting and his "no bullshit. This is my story and fuck you if you don't like it" attitude makes him one of the more entertaining narrators I've read recently.

What also makes this story so great is that besides all of the interesting tidbits the reader learns about both mafia and medicine, two areas that would seem relatively disconnected, one is also entertained by the fact that Pietro Brwna is a total badass. He manages to slaughter massive groups of guys while sustaining minor injuries as well as think of creative ways to kill people (he actually stabs a guy with a section of his tibia that he removes himself...if that's not the toughest thing you've heard in recent history, then I want you to have my back in a barfight because you've been through some stuff).

Bazell leaves some room for a sequel, although from what I've heard from Christa, there's been no news concerning a second book yet (although that may change upon my posting of this entry...we can dream, right?). Pick this one up if you're looking for a quick, energetic, adrenaline-fueled thrillride...and even if you're not, it certainly won't hurt to try it out (and if it does hurt, it won't hurt as much as removing your own tibia and then getting up and stabbing someone with it).

PS- I listened to this one on audiobook, and it included cool sound effects such as the sound of an EKG machine when one is mentioned in the story, or an echo-effect when characters are in a room with an echo. This may be annoying to some, but I enjoyed it. I'd be interested in hearing if anybody else has encountered audiobooks like this and whether or not they enjoyed the extra sound.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies/ Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. Romance, adventure, zombies, satire, humor 320 pages.

Where do I even begin on this one? I stayed away from this series for a long time, because even though I thoroughly enjoy zombies (as one can see by my oh-so-meticulous analysis of Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead" graphic novel series) I have believed, like every other dude with a desire to keep his machismo intact, that I had to steer clear of Jane Austen books as if they were the carrier of the very zombie plague discussed in this creative re imagining of the classic Austen novel. However, I was in a hurry before work to load something onto my mp3 player and it was the first thing I saw that remotely struck my interest. I expected that within an hour, I would've gotten sick of all the British aristocracy and lame aspects of polite society and abandoned the book entirely. Fortunately for me, this was not the case.

I'm not going to spend the time retelling what most people already know about Pride and Prejudice. That would be a colossal waste of time for all of us. What I will waste your time with is an explanation of how artfully Seth Grahame-Smith intermingles this classic tale with brain-devouring zombies. The amount of humor that one already finds in the Austen novel (humor that I must admit appeals even to a modern reader) is increased exponentially as you watch the bumbling Mr. Collins marry Charlotte Lucas, a close friend of the story's protagonist, being aware the fact that Charlotte has been bitten by a zombie and is slowly degenerating into a member of the brain-craving, slow-moaning, class of people regardless of her advantageous marriage. The fact that these English fancies spend their time playing cards and discussing the marriageable qualities of the many female characters of the story would seem out of place under constant threat of a zombie assault, but it just seems funny that after slaughtering the collective zombie-plagued work staff of a country manner, the characters would sigh about the fact that there is nobody left to make them tea.

One other thing that I must note is that even if you're not the biggest zombie fan, Smith does not make his additions merely of the undead sort. The story includes a huge influx of ninja/samurai fighting that adds a unique flair to the story. All of the Bennett sisters, who would seem physically helpless from the purely Austen version of the novel, have been remade as masters of the deadly arts-- including karate, sword fighting, knife-throwing, and marksmanship. These combat additions make up some of the most interesting portions of the story because it's fun to imagine the already mentally-tough Elizabeth Bennett laying a phatty katana smackdown on one of the most easily loatheable characters I've read in recent fiction, Lady Catherine DuBourghe.

I can't speak as an Austen fan, but as a zombie fan, I found that the Austen parts were not entirely unenjoyable ( I utilize the double-negative in the hope that someone with my excellent grammar would never have done so and therefore can always claim that someone else wrote this entry if anyone ever asks me how I could ever like something remotely concerning Jane Austen). I actually found myself wanting to know how that whole debacle between Elizabeth's youngest sister Lydia and the sly soldier, Wickham, turned out. I think that Grahame-Smith does an excellent job of making the zombie parts interesting for Austen fans while making the Austen parts interesting for zombie fans. If you're remotely interested by either, this one is a must-read.

Wait by C. K. Williams

Wait by C. K. Williams, poetry, 125 pages.
I found Williams' poems the most cerebral and difficult of any that I have recently read. It wasn't until the second section, beginning with the poem "Light" that I felt that not all of it was passing over head, some of it was sinking in. I enjoyed several of the poems later in the collection, the Maritn Luther King poems, and the last poem "Jew on Bridge" about Dostoyevsky and anti-semitism, but mostly they are a fierce and angry lot, and not read for the joy they bring.

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Lighthead by Terrance Hayes

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes, poetry, 95 pages.
Hayes' National Book Award winning book of poems runs a wonderful course from the deadly serious, to the slightly less serious while being very funny. "All the Way Live" falls into the latter category, and opens the book well. The beautiful, small poems found in several places throughout the collection, the Pecha Kuchas, come with both an explanatory note and an explanatory website. There is also a poem that alludes to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and that is something to find in such a weighty work. Hayes is a poet to enjoy. His work is intelligent and accessible at the same time, and fun to read.

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A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, Fantasy, 509 pages.
I read this one based on Nancy Pearl's review. I do try to follow her blindly when I can, and it is usually worth the effort, since I am seldom disappointed.
I read Kay's Under Heaven from last year and really enjoyed that (it made this year's American Library Association Reading List as best fantasy novel), and I enjoyed this one as well, but for different reasons or at least in a different way. There was a richness of place in Under Heaven, that this book lacks, but I did not mind. I enjoyed this one quite enough to forgive it for not being as good as one of the author's later works. Arbonne, has a great faux medieval feel, with complicated cultures reminiscent of those found in George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, Martha Well's Wheel of the Infinite (with a thinner religious layer) or Megan Whelan Turner's Atollia books.
Arbonne is a land ruled by women. The goddess Rian shares the stage with the god Corranos, the queen of the court of love has a share of temporal power, and the countess of Arbonne rules in her late husband's stead. Troubadours and courtly love play a great role in society there, as well. All of this leads their neighbors in the more warlike, macho, and Rian-despising Gorhaut to believe that Arbonne land would be easily acquired for expansion. The characters are well drawn and the plot twists are intricate and compelling. A very good read.

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Y: The Last Man, volumes 1-4

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
Volume 1, Unmanned, 127 pages; Volume 2, Cycles, 118 pages; Volume 3, One Small Step, 167 pages; Volume 4, Safeword, 142 pages.

I would love to blog about these all separately, but there are several reasons why that won't work. 1. I don't want to rewrite what others (AKA Annie) have written; 2. I'm a bit pressed for time; and, most importantly, 3. I devoured all four of these in about 24 hours and so can't quite remember where one ends and the next begins.

The premise of all the world's men (and male animals) dying off simultaneously is a bit hard to buy at first. The characters keep referring to a "plague" that may have caused the y-chromosome wipeout, but that really doesn't explain how the pilots of planes around the world all simultaneously died with the guys who were on land. Once accepted, however, the premise presents some interesting challenges that I'll admit had never crossed my mind. For example, I never really thought about the fact that, without men, the world would be pretty free of electricity, thanks to the fact that most of those who work in coal mines, man the power grids, etc. are men.

Aside from that though, I really like the humor that Yorick (the titular last man) manages to bring to his situation. I'm really curious to see how this all turns out for him.

How they croaked

How they croaked: The awful ends of the awfully famous by Georgia Bragg & Illustrated by Kevin O'Malley 178 pg.

Another great book that I found by reading our Missouri Book Challenge blogs. A great little gross summary of the death causes and conditions for 19 famous people. Each story also includes some additional information about the affliction or living conditions of the people featured. I rationed my reading so I could laugh and get a little grossed out over several days.

Monday, April 25, 2011

How I Nicky Flynn Finally Get a Life and a Dog by Art Corriveau 250 pages

This is not your formulaic mystery with stock characters and stock plot. Nicky is a boy with a lot of problems. First and foremost, his parents are going through a messy divorce. Because of the divorce, Nicky and his mom move from their home to a crummy apartment and he has to go to a new school. And then his mom picks up a dog, a German Shepherd, at the pound to be his new, first pet. Nicky has a lot of fear and to tell the truth he is more than a little afraid of the new dog. It turns out that he was a former seeing-eye dog. Nicky wants to find out why Reggie was taken to the pound. So, he assumes the persona of the former owner's out of town grandson. It gets kind of complicated when he meets several people who recognize the dog and ask him questions about his "grandfather". Meanwhile, Nicky is also trying to reconnect with his Dad and avoid getting beat up at his new school. Nicky is a good kid; this is a good book.

Broken Soup by Jenny Valentine 216 pages

A touching story brimming with sadness, chance meetings, a damaged family and an unlikely romance is crafted for the female teen reader. Rowan may only be fifteen, but she is the chief caretaker of her family after her beloved brother's accidental death, which has fractured the once happy family. Dad is gone. Mom is still at home but is totally not functioning as a parent. So Rowan tries to care for her young sister. One day, a strange boy forces a photograph negative on her insisting that she had dropped it. Magically this causes a chain of reactions -- mostly good ones. Rowan makes a new best friend, gains a mysterious boy friend and learns about her brother's secrets. The ending promises hope for all and new definitions of the word "family".

A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz 256 pages

A teacher from Brooklyn spins a macabre variant of several Brother Grimms' fairy tales patched together. A very present narrator "louder" than Lemony Snicket interrupts this rendition of Hansel and Gretel to share information on all manner of things with the audience. Very droll, and definitely not for tender young reader, this un-Disneys Grimm with tidbits from The seven ravens, The robber bridegroom, The devil and three golden hairs and Hansel and Gretel.

The Junk-Drawer Corner-Store Front-Porch Blues

The Junk-Drawer Corner-Store Front Porch Blues by John R. Powers  210 pp.

Years ago I read The Last Catholic in America, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, and The Unoriginal Sinner and the Ice-Cream God by this same author. Even though I wasn't a Catholic school kid, enough of my friends were, and I found those books very funny. I was in search of those in our catalog when I discovered this book. (I loaned out my copies of the others years ago and they were never returned..) This is not in the same vein as Powers other books which mainly involve growing up and going to Catholic schools. In this story Donald Cooper returns to his hometown because his elderly mother has broken her hip. She sends him on an errand to retrieve items from the family home which he has not been to in years, having left after a family tragedy. Visiting his old neighborhood and home brings up memories, both good and bad, and he comes to terms with what had happened so many years ago. It's a nice book and a good story.

Twilight's Dawn/Anne Bishop

Twilight's Dawn by Anne Bishop (Black Jewels series); fantasy, romance; 448 pages

While the first three books of this series are some of my favorite reads ever, I admit I've been less than impressed with recent additions to this world. So I was surprised to enjoy these short stories (more novellas, really) as much as I did. They still weren't the same caliber as the earlier books, but they were enjoyable. I can't go into too much of the plot without spoiling the Big Story that is the beginning of this series, but I can say that these stories ran the gamut from heartwarming to heartbreaking and back again, without ever really hitting on the dark tone of the rest of the series. This book also had a feeling of finality about it, so maybe this was Bishop's farewell to this universe. If so, it's a good way to go out. Now, I need to go reread some of the earlier books.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Shortcut Man

Shortcut Man: a novel/P.G. Sturges 209 pgs.

I ended up liking Dick Henry, the shortcut man from the title. He is a guy who likes to "help" people like when your contractor messes up the repairs, he will wade through the problem without resulting in a lawsuit...he'll just go beat the contractors ass for you until he pays up. Simple really. Nobody has anything to fear unless they are out ripping people off or taking advantage of someone. Of course, a guy like Dick Henry has a few foibles of his own. A former public servant, he has a lot of contacts and resources. He also might get involved with some less than upstanding citizens. When he gets hired by a movie maker who wants to know if his wife is cheating on him, he is surprised to find that the "wife" is his current girlfriend, a beautiful woman who claims to be a flight attendant. Things get kind of interesting from there. The ending is a little too much like "Get Shorty" but overall an entertaining tale.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes/Haruki Murakami 327 pgs.

This collection of Murakami's short stories is impressive. I listened to this in audio and a different voice reads each story which helped me differentiate and remember them more easily. Many of the stories have a surreal quality and even though some of them feel very mundane...for example the story about the college kid who mows lawns, others are more fantastic...for example the story the book is named for about a town's elephant that disappears and maybe because it has shrunk. There is also another elephant themed story that includes a dancing dwarf so quite a few interesting items. Oh yes, also a story about a married couple who wake up hungry in the middle of the night and decide to rob a bakery...when they can't find one, they end up robbing a MacDonald's instead insisting on a take of 30 prepared Big Macs. Quite funny. Murakami is widely considered a "great" and this collection gives you a good idea why.

Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores/Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores, by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man vol 10); graphic novel, science fiction; 168 pages

Really, Mr. Vaughan? That's how you want to end it? Seriously?? You've pretty much just invalidated all the awesome points you'd been building up over the course of this series. I don't even have words.

That's fine. Just fine. I'll be on my couch, binging on chocolate and Haagen-Dazs.

Started Early, Took My Dog / Kate Atkinson 371 p.

This was not at all what I expected, but I liked it. A retired Leeds police detective, Tracy Waterhouse makes an abrupt decision involving an abused child which sets in motion a series of strange consequences. At the same time, private detective Jackson Brodie investigates a decades-old adoption case to which Tracy is connected. Atkinson has an unusual, very witty style, a bit like Elizabeth George, with more bite. The characters are all entangled in crazy ways but I didn't mind - the writing was so interesting, and the personal/social obversations so deadpan funny, that plausibility didn't matter much. Brodie is the repeat character for this writer, and I will definitely be reading more.

Minding Frankie / Maeve Binchy 381 p.

I know a woman whose sister went to school with Maeve Binchy, so, yeah. Lately I've been searching for a sweet, cozy, non-stressful romance which is also intellectually stimulating, and I'm still looking. There was plenty of sweet and cozy here, but effectively no romance. Dubliner Noel has just begun to get sober with AA when he finds out that he's going to be a father, and that his baby's mother is terminally ill. He turns to an implausibly extensive network of family and friends for help in caring for the baby and keeping an oddly villainous social worker from getting too involved. Are you annoyed when books or movies have loads of characters who appear to have all the time in the world to garden, cook, babysit, etc., no evident financial concerns, and no job? If so, give this a miss.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden/Helen Grant

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant; mystery, suspense, magical realism; 304 pages (about 7.5 hours on CD)

In the past week, I've book talked this novel to just about anyone who will listen, and forced our copy onto one of my coworkers. This is a great book, and while I don't think I can do it justice here, I'm gonna try.

This story is set in 1998 in the small German town of Bad Munstereifel, where the most exciting thing to happen in the last decade was a fight between the local tom cat and an overfed dachshund. But in the spring of that year, during the annual Carnival festival, 10-year-old Katharina Linden disappears. To Pia, a girl in Katharina's class, it seems like something out of a fairy tale: there one minute, and gone the next; but as time passes, Katharina is not found, and other girls start to go missing as well. Pia and her friend Stefan are convinced something supernatural is at work, and they take it upon themselves to investigate.

While this isn't a true "magical realist" novel, it definitely has the feel of one: Pia and Stefan have been raised on local legends and ghost stories (all real stories about the (also real) town, according to the author), so it only seems logical to them that one of the local boogeymen must be responsible. Several of those stories are retold in this book, and are done so well as to seriously scare me one night while I was driving home. To two imaginative children, even mundane things can start to take on supernatural qualities, and that's much of what happens in the book. Combined with the setting, and timeless feel (there are no computers or cell phones, and few mentions of cars or even land line phones), this could have been a fairy tale in and of itself (albeit one of the original Grimm stories, not the bowdlerized versions we tell today). The ending is bittersweet and all too real, but for all that it was sad, it was the right ending for this story.

As a final note, the audio edition of this book was wonderful. The British narrator captures both the English and German sides of Pia's family, and handles the German words and phrases throughout the book particularly well (better than I would have, had I been reading it). Highly recommended to readers who enjoy folklore and strong settings.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Ascent of George Washington

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American icon by John Ferling 438 pgs.

Loved this book that talked about politics...anyone who thinks political life has hit a new low lately might do well to reacquaint themselves with our history ;-). Somehow the mythology of Washington has become that he was not political and was pressed into service and patriotically agreed to serve. Well, that is a little bit naive and this book discusses the truth of how things ended up happening for Washington. He was a master manipulator and very much knew what he was doing politically and aligned himself with other very smart and political people. I've been reading about Washington for the last year or so and this is one of the best books at revealing some of his not-too-flattering weaknesses. He was slow to make decisions and also frequently looking for a scapegoat when things didn't go his way. Not a stranger to throwing his underlings under the bus, so to speak. Still, a very fascinating look at the father of our country who wouldn't have minded an American monarchy...maybe it is our good luck that he fathered no children.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, 336 p.
Part of the pull of this novel is a setting and cast I can never see in too many ways: Paris in the 1920s among expatriate writers and artists whose works are so familiar to us. You too? What works best for me in McLain's novel is that the perspective is largely a woman's (always a plus in my book) and that of a relative outsider on the inside, since Hadley Richardson, the "Paris Wife" of Ernest Hemingway wasn't herself an artist or author. Hadley's story unveils a tender side of Hemingway and the sweet sadness of their love story. It also provides a sense of just how young and vulnerable ("lost") some of these folks really were. I love the tidbits of St Louis, Hadley's hometown, early in the story, and I love how the best parts of the young Hemingways' life together were the parts they (esp. Hadley) tired to carve out just for themselves, away from the cafes and crowds, away in the Alps, etc. But of course there wasn't enough of that to sustain them ...or this would have been a different story, with an altogether different title.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Treachery in Death by J. D. Robb 375 pages

J.D. Robb does it again in “Treachery in Death”. Late one evening, Lieutenant Eve Dallas receives a disturbing call from her partner. Peabody and McNabb arrive at the home of Dallas and Roark with an unbelievable tale of murder, corruption and theft involving a squad at “cop central”. Eve and Roark find the body which verifies the murder. She takes the information to her commander and after Peabody reports a converstion she had overheard, the commander approves a plan to form a team that will work behind the scenes and determine the depth of corrution in the police department. Eve, Roark, Peabody and McNabb put together a team to investigate the corruption while keeping all queries under the radar. As usual, Robb’s style draws the reader into the story and keeps the mystery fresh. Eve Dallas fans will notice a slight softening of her character attributed to her relationship to husband Roark and her strong sense of honor and duty.

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

Y: The Last Man: Motherland by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man vol 9); graphic novel, science fiction, dystopia; 144 pages

The second to last volume in this series does not disappoint. There a whole lot revealed in this story--so much so that I'm having trouble discussing the plot without dropping major spoilers. Suffice it to say that a lot of major questions are answered, and while some things are resolved, there's plenty left open for the grand finale in book 10. On a related note, I was sad to see some of the relationships we've been following come to an end. I knew some of these were inevitable, but in actually reading about it...well, I'm finding myself already missing some of the supporting cast.

Y: The Last Man: Kimono Dragons/Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man: Kimono Dragons by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man vol 8); graphic novel, science fiction, dystopia; 144 pages

This volume finds our intrepid travelers in Japan, searching for Yorick's pet monkey, who may hold the key to human survival. The party splits up for much of this volume, as Dr. Mann goes off to check on her mother, while Yorick and 355 track the monkey. It's interesting to see what's going on politically and socially in Japan here; reading this series all at once, I tend to forget just how much time has passed, and was shocked to realize that it's been almost three years in book-time, and much of the world has started to go back to normal (or, you know, as normal as things can be when all the men have died). As is standard, there's lots of action, but Vaughan still manages to get some really good character development in as well. This was another quick read, before moving on to the second to last volume.

Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan  136 pp.

In April 2003 during the bombing of Baghdad a pride of starving lions escaped from the bombed out Baghdad zoo. This is a graphic novel telling the story from the lions' point of view. Once they realize they are free they start prowling in search of food to eat. As lions who are used to having food handed to them, their new life in a bombed out city is difficult. Since this is fictionalized there is much that could not have happened. The ending is startling and upsetting but based in truth. It's very well done. Just don't read it while having dinner like I did.

Midnight Riot / Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch. 298 p.

Peter Grant is a probationary police officer in London. Now that he's finished his 2 years of training, he'll be assigned to a division. He's pretty sure he's going to get stuck in the boring paperwork-oriented end of things, but then he interviews a witness to a bizarre murder--and it turns out his witness is a ghost. So instead he gets assigned to be the apprentice of a cop named Thomas Nightingale, who's also the last wizard left in England, and learn magic. Unfortunately, learning magic takes a long time, but the bizarre murders aren't waiting for Peter to get up to speed. Plus he has to figure out how to negotiate a truce between the factions of the spirits of each of the rivers of London.

I liked this book a lot. Peter's a fun and snarky narrator. He's often criticized by other cops for losing focus, but he wonders about the same stuff that I'm wondering about as I read. Plus, London itself is very much a character; Aaronovitch provides great sense of place throughout the book. I look forward to more books in this series, and will be ordering the second book (Moon Over Soho) ASAP.

Unfortunately, this book suffers from an ugly trend in American publishing: "whitewashing" the cover art. Peter Grant describes himself as mixed race--white father, African mother. You can't tell that by the cover because the image is just a silhouette. However, the original cover art looked like this. It's not as bad as having a white cover model represent a character of color, but it's still obnoxious.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

The Informationist

The Informationist/Taylor Stevens 307 pg.

The blurb on the inside cover of this book mentions the queen in all thrillers...Lisbeth Salander...but that did not do this book any expectations where too high and it just didn't deliver. It was good but it could have been better. Our heroine Vanessa "Michael" Munroe is tough enough and hard enough but we just hear too much of what she thinks and if you are going to throw around Lisbeth's name, you really need to have a character that is a little more mysterious. Or you see some of her history but don't necessarily hear all of her thoughts. Vanessa is just too open and then the author throws in something more akin to a romance and here Vanessa's emotions are too obvious and worn on her sleeve. Taylor Stevens does a good job with the thriller aspects to the book but we need to know LESS about the main character. A little mystery needs to be included for this book to be great.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins 272 pages

In this culturally rich coming-of-age story, two teens on the opposite side of an ethnic conflict in modern day Burma learn to survive by trusting each other. Facing life and death decisions they must strive to do what is morally right rather than making the quick and cruel choices. Chiko is a quiet, studious student whose father, a doctor has been arrested. Tu Reh, an angry Karenni, rebel soldier lost his home to Burmese soldiers. This thought provoking book looks at universal themes, reasons for ethnic conflicts and the effects of war. A powerful look at a far corner of the world.

The Adventures of Nanny Piggins written by Spratt 239 pages

This should not replace Mary Poppins, but it is a jolly companion story about another unconventional caretaker of children. Their father is too cheap to advertise when they are left by their last nanny. While he is not immediately smitten with her, his kids are waiting, breathless to find out what will happen next. She is piggishly devoted to chocolate; her culinary talents are not really up to mark, because she is actually on the run from a circus owner. This would make a marvelous read aloud at bedtime or in the classroom.

Big Nate Strikes Again by Lincoln Pierce 215 pages

On the top of the front cover is the reassurance that Jeff Kinney, author of the Wimpy Kid books says "BIG NATE is funny, big time". To tell the absolute truth, those legion of Wimpy Kid fans and Dave Pilkey Capt Underpants fans will be embracing this book. Well, I guess that might be a bit "girly". So, let's just say any dude that gets caught with this book in his back pack or under his bed, won't be the least bit embarrassed. Told in half text, half graphic cartoons reluctant readers will pick this up like candy. Nate gets stuck with Gina, his arch enemy on the science project. So this is not really "rocket science"; it will be laughed at by many guys.

Justin Case: School, Drool, and other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail 246 pages

Rachel Vail has written several memorable books for middle school girls; here is one for the guys. It is fresh, funny and should be enjoyed by pre- Wimpy Kid lovers. This is the saga of Justin's third grade -- from the first to the last day. It starts bad; he gets the "wrong" teacher; all his friends have the other, fun teacher.But the biggest crisis -- and there are a lot is not that his parents are splitting up, and he never gets to see his dad, but his favorite stuffed animal has gone AWOL. He has a realistic relationship with his only sister. He wants to step out of his shell; it is just SO hard. He has so many fears -- especially the new dog that his mom got for him. It seems like just about everyone misunderstand anything he does. Some of the journal days are quite brief and black and white illustrations dot the text make it very friendly to third grade readers. Highly recommended.

No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve is the author of the popular Mortal Engines series. This is quite different. Ansel is a mute apprentice to Brock, a dragon slayer who is looking for a dragon to slay. His father sold him to Brock just wants to be rid of him. Ansel wants to be brave, but finds it difficult to do his job for Brock, a lowly scam artist who fakes his kills for coins from gullible villagers. His life takes a turn when they find a real dragon and Else, a friend worth having. This is an easy read for middle graders who want to go on a dragon hunt.

The Elephant's Tale by Lauren St. John 221 pages

This conclusion to the Legend of the Animal Healer series features the same juvenile heroes, who set about solve a mystery to prevent evil, greedy outsiders from stealing the game reserve from Martine's grandmother. As in the other episodes, the two youngsters rely on each other. They have to this time because Martine's grandmother leaves them to fly to London and try to find a way out of her predicament. For it looks like her deceased husband might have signed the rights to her land to greedy developers. Not only is "the ranch" in trouble, but 20 elephants have disappeared and David Copperfield is not around anywhere! Like the other books, this is a gentle read starring spunky kids who don't give up and persevere to solve their problems.

Reckless by Cornelia Funke 394 pages

I was told at a publisher's event that Cornelia Funke was more popular in Europe than JK Rowling. Time magazine listed her on its TIME 100 list of most influential people in the world. I have read a couple of her books and did kind of enjoy The Thief Lord. I really forced myself to finish this book. Silly me, I thought that the main characters, the brothers, Jacob and Will Reckless were supposed to be the "Brothers Grimm" disguised. They meet a wide assortment of fantastical characters -- rather DARK fairy tale characters (some easily recognized as variants of famous characters, others were totally new). Will is suffering from a curse that is slowly turning him into green stone. Jacob is trying to save him and the journey is a skewed "through the looking glass" adventure. Perhaps I am reaching my limit of fantasy novels.

Moscow Rules

Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva  430 pp.

I'm almost done with this series until the new one comes out in July. This time Gabriel Allon is spending a quiet honeymoon in Italy with Chiarra and a painting from the Vatican to restore. His idyllic break is interrupted by a message from a Russian journalist demanding a meeting. The journalist dies in Allon's arms, the victim of a Russian assassin. What begins as a brief meeting ultimately takes Allon to Russia, England, France, and Russia gain in order to find the missile launchers sold by former KGB agent, millionaire arms dealer, Ivan Kharkov. His informant is the highly guarded wife of the arms dealer. Allon uses his artistic talents to forge a painting by Mary Cassatt in order to make contact with Kharkov's wife.

While not my favorite in this series, Silva does a great job of portraying the self-centered, overbearing, pure evil of Ivan Kharkov. And Allon's possibly career ending injuries at the end left me worried even though I know there are Allon books that follow this one. (Maybe I like this character a little too much.)  The inclusion of Allon's cohorts, Uzi Navot, Eli Lavon, Sarah Bancroft, and the inimitable Ari Shamron always adds to the story.

The 14th Dalai Lama Manga Style

The 14th Dalai Lama: a manga biography by Tetsu Saiwai   208 pp.

This book is exactly what it says it is, a biography of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama. It begins with the death of the previous Dalai Lama and the search for his successor, his reincarnation. At just two years old, he was able to answer the questions that proved he was to be the next one. The book covers the frequent conflicts between China & Tibet which led to the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, the Dalai Lama's escape to India and the establishment of the Government of Tibet in Exile. He also established educational facilities for the nearly 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India to keep the Tibetan culture alive in hopes that they one day would be able to return to their homeland. This book is simple but well done. It presents the story clearly, with good illustrations. It is a very good introductory biography to the Dalai Lama.

All New Square Foot Gardening

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew  271 pp.

Somewhere in my basement is a copy of the original version of this book. I was a big fan of the television show that aired on PBS in the '80s and even tried my hand at some of the methods with moderate success with tomatoes, carrots, & radishes. The point of this is that in a 4x4 foot garden you can grow a lot more food that you would imagine with much less work, watering, etc. In this new edition Bartholomew has made lots of revisions to his methods based on years of trial and error. It is definitely more 'user friendly' with many of his old 'rules' modified or relaxed. It inspired me enough to want to plant some things I haven't attempted before. Time will tell how that works out.

The Lost Hero/ Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. YA fantasy, adventure, greco-roman mythology. 576 pages

Rick Riordan has always been one of my guilty pleasure authors. Even though I am FAR too old for his books, I still find myself clandestinely checking them out because I enjoy his writing style. I read his best-selling "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series as a quick, low-stress read after finishing the lengthy thrill ride that was Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" trilogy. I obviously had to read them only at home because I couldn't even bring them to work or school with me to risk the powerful blow to my rep that would occur if I was seen reading one of them. What was great about this was that I returned to my childhood and found myself reading my flashlight under the covers like when I was a kid (Riordan's target audience in case you haven't figured it out). After finishing the first installment of Riordan's new semi-interconnected series "The Heroes of Olympus," I must say that while I am still embarrassed to bring a book like this to school, I know that my fellow library bloggers understand the magic that can occur when a book brings you back to your childhood like this one did for me.

The story itself is about three demigods, children of one mortal parent and one parent from the Greek (or Roman as it turns out) pantheon of gods. There are many children like this during the time of the story and all demigod children are retrieved and brought to Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp for demigods by the time they are 13 in order to protect them from the monsters lurking around the country. This concept may seem reminiscent of Harry Potter, and to be perfectly honest, it kind of is, but that doesn't take away from the strength of the series.

The mythology of the story is excellent because it draws from pre-existing mythology. Anyone who is remotely familiar with ancient Greek mythology will find a plethora of references that they will enjoy. Riordan does an excellent job of inserting all of this wonderful pre-existing mythology into modern-day America in order to create a brand new view of the world that will intrigue and entertain readers (just think: the abandoned auto plants in Detroit are now home to a clan of angry cyclops). This being said, Riordan also comes up with plenty of his own wonderful mythology and many of the characters/monsters that were featured during the "Percy Jackson" series play minor roles in this story.

One thing that is new to this series is the choice to follow 3 narrators instead of just one like in his Percy Jackson series. While this style may seem strange at first, it quickly becomes a necessary plot element because although the three narrators are traveling together, each has secrets that can be shared with the reader but not with the other characters. Such insight into the characters creates a relationship between reader and character that would normally not exist until after a long franchise is underway.

If you enjoy YA fantasy and aren't afraid of looking like a total dork, I'd pick this one up. If this series does intrigue you, though, I'd recommend starting with "The Lightning Thief" the first volume of the Percy Jackson series, because while most of the Camp Half-Blood universe is explained in "the Lost Hero" it definitely rewards faithful readers of the Percy Jackson series by leaving a few important details out.

Autobiograpy of Red-Anne Carson (149 pages)

So, this is like only one of the most important books of poetry I've ever read. Jeez louise. Carson takes the story of Hercules and Geryon and turns it into this poetry-novel about Geryon, his life and challenges. So. Amazingly. Beautiful. Every single image she creates rings so true and is so original it breaks my heart. Read this. Even if you're not a poet. For realsies.

Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life-Jane Tollifson (239 pages)

Omigoodness, this book could have been a bit shorter and no one would have missed out on anything. I really liked this book, but it definitely has bad moments, which is not surprising considering the fact that it is based mostly on journals. Tollifson voices many of the thoughts that we have, and by we, I mean New-Agey folk who are constantly thinking about enlightenment and stuff like that. Still...I rushed to finish the book and at the end, I felt the the kind of love and repulsion that I reserve for my own journals. So I guess you could say I identified with it. Tollifson, a New-Age, one-handed lesbian goes back and forth between California and New York, between Zen and "bare-bones meditation." Her challenges and her thoughts are illuminating, but probably only because we've had them all before. It's like, "Wow, someone else has all my thoughts!" All in all, a good book, but it gets a bit old after awhile.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

American Rose

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott, 349 pages (or 397 if you count the bibliography)

American Rose is a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, arguably the best-known stripteaser of all time and she of Gypsy fame. While it is factual, the book reads like a novel set simultaneously in the golden days of vaudeville, in Depression-era New York and at the 1940 World's Fair. The characters seem larger than life (which, after reading the book, seems to be how Gypsy would have preferred it). Rather than taking a chronological approach to Gypsy Rose Lee's life, Abbott alternates chapters focusing on Gypsy as a child (back when she was plain-jane Louise Hovick, who played second fiddle to her younger sister while performing on the vaudeville circuit), on Gypsy as a star trying to make a comeback in the '40s and on the Minsky brothers, who were largely responsible for creating the New York burlesque scene and giving Gypsy her big break. It took a few chapters to get used to, but reflecting on it, the approach makes sense.

Before I read this book, I knew next to nothing about burlesque, the art of the striptease or Gypsy Rose Lee. I have no idea why this book piqued my interest, but I'm glad it did. I came away from it with a much greater knowledge of vaudeville, the politics of burlesque and the woman who Abbott, in an interview on NPR, likened to "a cross between Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker."

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Fantasy, 326 pages.
In a bleak future world, Nailer and his crew scavenge whatever they can find from grounded oil tankers. They dread the day when they outgrow access to the smallest of spaces, when they are no longer able to work "light crew" and their choices are limited to "heavy crew"-good if you have muscle and no morals, like Nailer's dad, or selling body parts. When Nailer and crew-mate Pima find a "lucky-strike," a clipper-ship run aground in a storm, he must decide if his future lies with this potentially rich salvage, or with the girl aboard the ship who needs his help. A little grim and scary for younger kids, but not too scary for those of us in our late forties.
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Y: The Last Man: Volumes I through IV by Brian Vaughn,

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned, 126 pages

Y: The Last Man: Cycles, 117 pages

Y: The Last Man: One Small Step, 165 pages

Y: The Last Man: Safeword, 142 pages
The first four volumes of this graphic novel series follow Yorick, the only man to survive a plague of unknown origins. Women were unaffected by the plague, but every man, with the exception of this Yorick, is killed. I don't like that math. That's a 99.99999997% kill rate, and that is a bit absurd (sure, there are a few other absurd graphic novels and I enjoy those). I also don't get why the "Amazons" would wait until all of the men were dead to engage in a self-mutilating, armed revolt against the patriarchy.
All my complaining aside, I do like the main characters, Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann. And I do like a lot of the stories. See Annie's posts to hear a more balanced review. She gives great reviews of the actual stories. Fans of action packed graphic novels will enjoy.

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Anthem for Doomed Youth / Carola Dunn

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Carola Dunn (a Daisy Dalrymple mystery, #19). 289 p.

Daisy and her husband Alec, a Detective Chief Inspector with Scotland Yard, are supposed to spend the weekend visiting Alec's daughter Belinda at her boarding school. However, Alec catches a case, so Daisy travels with a couple of her friends whose daughters attend school with Bel, and Alec and his team try to figure out who has murdered three men and buried them in Epping Forest. The mystery ends up relating back to WWI, and so does a situation amongst Bel's teachers at the school. I like this series for the post-WWI setting, so the war bits made this an enjoyable entry in the series. Unusually for these characters, Daisy and Alec are separated for almost the entire book, but it works pretty well in the context of the story. Plus we get to see more than usual of a couple of supporting characters, which was fun.

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The Magnetic North / Sara Wheeler

The Magnetic North: notes from the Arctic Circle by Sara Wheeler. 315 p.

Wheeler visits scientific outposts, Soviet cities, reindeer herders and tour boats all around the Arctic. As always, any native peoples had their ways of life destroyed in the 20th century--nomads forced to live in cities, that sort of thing. It doesn't matter which country they were in; Soviets and Canadians handled native matters in much the same way, with much the same result. Reading about scientific outposts was the most interesting part for me. The Soviet history of various places was really depressing, as were most of the Arctic exploration stories--too many of which ended in with people barely surviving horrible conditions for which they were unprepared. Of course, many more didn't survive those conditions.

One thing I found incredibly annoying about this book is that photos are used throughout, but all of the photo captions are listed on a couple of pages right after the table of contents. So if you want to know who's in the photo, or what exactly it's a photo of, you have to flip back to the beginning of the book. That made it much easier for the publisher to lay out the book, I'm sure, but it's very frustrating for the reader.

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Agatha H and the Airship City / Phil and Kaja Foglio

Agatha H and the Airship City by Phil and Kaja Foglio. 258 p.

It's increasing common for popular fiction books to be adapted as graphic novels--heck, even Janet Evanovich has done it. Much less common is for a graphic novel series to be turned into prose novels, but that's what the Foglios are doing with their Girl Genius books. A lot of humor in the graphic novels is visual, and I feel most of it doesn't come across as well in prose. On the other hand, we get additional background worldbuilding information in prose. Some of it's quite, quite interesting, particularly the prologue featuring Barry & Bill Heterodyne, which helps nail down a couple of dates that I'm sure will be critical later. I prefer Girl Genius in its visual form--I love Phil Foglio's art--but the prose novels are a welcome addition to the canon, and I'll certainly continue to follow them.

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The King's Speech / Mark Logue and Peter Conradi

The King's Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi. 242 p.

This is both a biography of Lionel Logue, the speech coach who helped George VI of England overcome his stutter, and a history of that king's life. "Bertie" was Duke of York when he began treatment with Logue, and they continued their association once he became king. Logue was present for most of the big speeches that the king had to make; they would practice beforehand, but Logue's presence (he would be in the room during radio speeches) gave Bertie confidence. The view the book gives us of Bertie's reign is interesting, because it mostly revolves around major speeches--much of the book is based on Logue's diaries, so of course that affects the viewpoint. We're shown Christmas with the king's family, for instance, because during the war the king always made a radio address on Christmas, so Logue would be present.

As usual, reading about 20th century history always makes me feel like an idiot when I run into stuff I don't know. I knew Wallis Simpson had been divorced twice, but I didn't realize that at the time Edward VIII took the throne, she was still married to her second husband.

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The Tin Star / J.L. Langley

The Tin Star by J.L. Langley. 290 p.

Ethan's best friend John comes over to Ethan's ranch, The Tin Star, with news that Jamie, John's little brother, has been kicked off their father's ranch because he told his father he was gay. Ethan, who's gay but not out except to his close friends (like John), thinks Jamie was foolish to come out because life will be tough in ranch country and their small Texas town for an openly gay cowboy. He offers Jamie a job at the Tin Star. Once Jamie arrives, Ethan realizes that he's very attracted to Jamie, and they start up a romance. In between sex scenes they try to figure out who's harassing them, damaging property and eventually shooting Ethan.

This is pretty much pure fluff--not that there's anything wrong with that. I had a terrible time taking the dialogue seriously; I don't have the book here to quote from, but there's lots of "boy howdy" cowboy-isms sprinkled throughout. Then again, I've never met a cowboy in person; it's possible that the speech patterns are accurate, and they just sound like a goofy cliche to me because of my ignorance. I was a bit more thrown by the plot; at the beginning of the book Ethan strongly believes that coming out in his situation would just be foolish and make managing his ranch more difficult, so I would expect it to be a bigger deal when he decides to do it later in the book. Yet it reads almost like an afterthought. Similarly, the harassment that Jamie and Ethan undergo didn't really seem menacing; it was just plot to fill the space between love scenes. I didn't expect serious realism or anything, but the tone seemed a little too facile to suit me.

Overall, my dabbling in the male/male romance arena wasn't terribly successful--the first (Lovers' Knot) didn't have enough romance and the second (PsyCop: Partners) didn't have enough detail about the plot or the romance. This one was closest to what I'd consider a good romance in the erotica category, but it was a bit too goofy for me. Then again, if I picked three random titles off a list of ten het romances, I'm not sure I'd have any better odds of finding on that I really liked.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Y: The Last Man: Paper Dolls/Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man: Paper Dolls by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, vol 7); graphic novel, science fiction, dystopia; 144 pages

While trying to get to Tokyo, Yorick, Agent 355, and Dr. Mann inadvertently find themselves in Australia, Yorick's original destination. They may only be there for a day, but Yorick plans to use every minute to track down his girlfriend, Beth, who was studying abroad in Australia when the plague hit. This story (or rather, collection of stories, because the Australia plot only takes up part of the book) is more about character development: we get to see 355's history in flashbacks, Dr. Mann starts to open up to another character, and we even get to see a little personality from Ampersand, who's off on a journey of his own.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, biography, 766 pages.
The third volume in Morris's massive biography of our twenty-sixth president is a wonderful book. Following The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize back in 1980, and 2002's Theodore Rex, the third volume begins as Roosevelt embarks 1909 expedition to Africa, after Taft has taken office, and follows TR through the end of his life, in 1919. These ten years were full of adventure, foreign and domestic, and each chapter of this book, concerning his political endeavors, the activities of his friends, his acquaintances, and the members of his family, is worthy of its own book-length treatment. A great many of these adventures and adventurers do have books written about them, by Roosevelt himself, by one of his contemporaries, or by historians through these last hundred years. Chronicled here: Roosevelt hunting, Roosevelt's falling out with Taft for Taft's failing to remain true to the progressive cause, and TR's subsequent campaign against him for the 1912 nomination. There are political back-stabbings (not by Roosevelt, at least not as he sees it), political beat-downs, actual beat-downs (again not by Roosevelt), and Roosevelt being shot in the chest by a madman, and then giving a ninety-minute speech before allowing his aides to take him to the hospital.

The rest of the world also played a large part in Roosevelt's life, and he played a large part almost everywhere he went. TR's pre-war European travels had him hob-nobbing with various heads of state. He was close enough to all them to see war coming, and he was not one to shy away from war. He was no fan of Wilson's League of Nations, "why can't we all get along," philosophy and once the election was over and Wilson had settled into the Oval Office, TR proceeded to let everyone know, through speeches and his voluminous writings, precisely how he felt. The war years were hard on the Roosevelt family. Teddy himself was not allowed to serve, though he desperately wanted to. Sons Ted, Archie, Quentin, and Kermit all served. Archie and Ted were wounded. Quentin never came back. His plane was shot down, and he was buried in France.
Teddy Roosevelt was a great man, with big ideas, enormous energy and huge flaws. This is a big book, readable and enjoyable. The pace never flags as it tries to cover all of the details of ten years of a very large life.

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