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December 2012

Rating System

5 stars: Completely enjoyable or compelling
4 stars: Good but flawed
3 stars: Average
2 stars: OK
1 star: Did not finish

Reading Challenges

My Kind of Mystery Reading Challenge 2017 February - January 2017-8



 

The Rules for Hearts: 12/31/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)The Rules for Hearts by Sara Ryan is the sequel to Empress of the World. It's not, though, a continuation of the summer romance between Nic and Battle. Rather, this is Battle's story of reuniting with her brother.

Battle has moved to Oregon to attend college. She has moved in with her brother and his thespian roommates. As the youngest and newest house member, she is the third wheel.

Like Empress of the World, the chapters are rather episodic — one challenge after another for Battle to face as she learns how to live on her own, tries to fit in with the household and discovers her brother's dark secrets.

If there is an over reaching plot arc, it's the presentation of a play put on by the housemates, and run by Meryl. It's a rather quiet and short novel — something to linger over.

Four stars

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Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite: 12/30/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite by Barry Deutsch is the sequel to Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Mirka craves more adventure but is stuck knitting.

Mirka though finds more adventures, again by harassing the troll, who in turn sends a meteorite hurdling towards the witch's house. Mirka has to save the witch to save her town.

Mirka's dilemma ends up being an interesting reinvention of changeling lore. Mirka's own worst enemy ends up being herself! She might lose her family and friends if she can't find a different solution for the meteorite it.

Mirka's current adventure brings to mind Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh.

Read via NetGalley

Five stars

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The Princess of the Silver Woods: 12/29/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)The Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George is the third and final of the Dancing Princess books. I haven't read the previous two. Nominally, Silver Woods is also a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood with a smattering of the Robin Hood legends.

Petunia, the youngest of the nine dancing princesses is the lead in this book. She is kidnapped by Oliver — the Robin Hood of the book. Oliver has a tale of stolen lands and Petunia, as a daughter of the king, can help him set things to rights, if he's telling the truth.

Originally told from Petunia's point of view, the book later adds long passages from Oliver's point of view. Although his plight as an earl without lands was certainly compelling, he wasn't strong enough of a personality to hold his end of the story telling. Whenever I came to hone of his parts, I usually ended up skimming so I could get back to Petunia.

There's enough hints at the previous two books to help the uninitiated reader piece together how the sisters got to this point in their stories. The finally third of the book wraps in the loose ends of books one and two into a tidy conclusion. For someone not invested in the previous two, it's a bit long winded, but I suspect for fans of the series, it will be more riveting.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars

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No and Me: 12/28/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)No and Me is the first Delphine de Vigan to be translated into English from French. Lou is a highly intelligent but somewhat broken Parisian teenager. Her whole family is still reeling from the death of her infant sister some years prior.

Prompted by a homework assignment, Lou begins a friendship with a homeless girl named No. Things start slowly with drinks at a cafe to later No being invited into the home.

At the point that No is invited home and begins to thrive under the family's care I began to see parallels with Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

Just as the homeless lady in The Dancing Pancake (link) by Eileen Spinelli ultimately needs something other than the help Bindi offers, No slowly slides back into her old ways. In No's case the problems seem to stem from a faulty social services system and a lack of a good family foundation. The reasons are of course complex and heart breaking but Lou and her family do grow from the experience.

Four stars

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The Cereal Murders: 12/27/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)The Cereal Murders by Diane Mott Davidson is the third of the Goldy Bear Culinary mysteries. As with the other books in the series, I chose to listen to the audio, performed by Barbara Rosenblat.

Goldy's son Arch is still attending Elk Park Prep. As Goldy can't afford to give huge financial gifts to the school like other parents can, she is expected / coerced / guilt-tripped into catering school events. Her latest one: the College Advisory Dinner for seniors and parents. That's all well and good until the school's valedictorian is found beaten to death and buried in the snow.

He is but the first body in this book as tension mounts over college applications and acceptance letters. This is a school that prides itself on getting its students into the very best and the pressure placed on students, parents and teachers results in a collective insanity.

As I have family members who are teachers, I hear the horror stories. Thankfully for my relatives, nothing they've experienced comes close to violence Goldy faces: poisonous spiders in kitchen drawers, a stopped up chimney and a near strangulation.

Five stars

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What's a Ghoul to Do? 12/26/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)What's a Ghoul to Do? by Victoria Laurie is is the first of the Ghost Hunter series and was spun off from the Psychic Eye series (which I have not read). M.J. is a psychic would specializes in helping ghosts cross over. When they don't want to and are causing trouble for the living, she busts them.

Her business partners are a parrot named Doc, and Gilley Gillespie — whose main character trait boils down "flamboyantly gay." Business isn't going so well (is it ever in these cozies?) and they desperately need a gig to keep the lights on. Enter Dr. Steven Sable of Argentina. His grandfather has fallen (or jumped) off the roof of his estate and now the place appears to be haunted. Sable wants M.J. to stop the hauntings and prove that his grandfather didn't jump.

Every starting series has a bunch of hurdles to get over — introducing the characters, the setting, the basic tone of the series. It also has to have a plot and be entertaining enough to make the reader want to continue with the second book. On the creation of characters and setting, What's a Ghoul to Do? gets a C. M.J. is interesting and well rounded but her supporting cast are trite. Gilley and Sable are both unconvincing and are built up of too many cliches to be interesting or believable.

That leaves the plot — the mystery of the death of grandpa Sable. Stripping away the annoying lack of proper character development and Sable's inconsistent handle of the English language (goofy idiom usage for humor — meh), there's actually a decent horror/mystery. The mystery was good enough to make me willing to try the second book.

Three stars

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Incarceron: 12/25/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Incarceron by Catherine Fisher is about a missing prince and his betrothed, Claudia, trying to find him. She happens to be the Warden's daughter. The Warden runs the legendary prison — a well-hidden world within a world.

As there are two worlds: that of the prison (Incarceron) and that of the outside (Realm), there are parallel stories. In Realm, there is Claudia trying to do anything to avoid marrying a man she doesn't love while trying to rescue the man she does. Inside there is Finn who has gotten tired of just surviving and wants to follow the legend of Sapphique and escape the prison.

The mystery though of what Incareron is and where it is, gets in the way of Claudia and Finn's stories. The most frustrating aspect of this mystery is that it becomes obvious to the reader long before either of the two put the pieces together. By keeping the mystery a mystery to them, Fisher is prevented from expanding her world building.

That said, it's still a page turner. Although it's over 400 pages, those pages go quickly. It can easily be read in a weekend.

Four stars

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Evernight: 12/24/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Evernight by Claudia Gray has once again reaffirmed my realization that I am not a fan of vampire romances. It opens as a fairly typical Gothic boarding school horror, with a new girl moving to the school and being a complete fish out of water. The students are richer and are aggressively cliquish.

As this is also a romance, there's of course, the mysterious, potentially dangerous, bad-boy. In a chance meeting before the school year starts, the girl (Bianca) and the boy (Lucas) meet and seem to have a connection. Except later, Lucas is cold to her and later is possessive of her — basically a soon to be abusive boyfriend.

Their dysfunctional relationship is played against the background of long, boring descriptions of Bianca's class schedule. I know, she's a teenager and she's at a boarding school — there's just not that much to talk about. That doesn't mean though, that I want to read 100 pages of her going to class. I just don't.

But what really did me in on this book — and the series as a whole — was Biaca's status as an unreliable narrator. As everything is told in first person, the fact that she neglects to tell some key facts about herself until she can no longer control her urges was just too much.

As soon as she finally drops that key piece of information, the whole conceit of the book falls apart. She does belong at the school and it's Lucas who doesn't. The main problem, though, is that the school doesn't make sense. Sure, many of these students have been in teenage bodies for decades, if not centuries, but why oh why do they willingly subject themselves to boarding school?

Three stars

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Perfect Shot: 12/23/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Perfect Shot by Debbie Rigaud part of Simon and Schuster's Romantic Comedy series of novels. London Abrams loves volley ball and wants nothing more than to attend a volley ball summer camp. It's unfortunately a bit pricey and her parents have said no. She's decided she'll do what it takes to earn the money herself — even if it means entering a local modeling contest!

Mixed into this equation is a cute boy, Brent St. John, who is an amateur photographer and part of the contest. Part of her inspiration to enter the contest is her crush on Brent.

The plot is a bit formulaic — more so than I found Animal Attraction by Jamie Ponti. The situation — working in a boutique / modeling is a bit of a cliché. As it's been done so many times, Perfect Shot has to work a lot harder to stand out.

Three stars

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Of All the Stupid Things: 12/22/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Though presented as a teen LGBT romance, Of All the Stupid Things by Alexandra Diaz is a story of the long term friendship of three girls, nearly torn apart by rumor and the entry of a new girl into the mix. The three friends are Tara — the popular girl and health nut, Whitney Blaire — the wealthy snob, and Pinkie — the girl who keeps everyone together.

The book opens with the same shocker as Tips on Having a Gay (ex) Boyfriend by Carrie Jones — Tara's popular, jock boyfriend is said to have been seen making out in his car with another boy. Whether or not the rumor is true is inconsequential to the book — it's all about the reaction to the rumor.

In Jones's book, her boyfriend really does come out of the closet and the remainder of the book is her very personal coming to terms with his outing. In Of All the Stupid Things, the arrival of Riley (the new girl) in the middle of the drama, stirs up feelings in Tara that she's never had before. In this regards, the book reads like Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters (link to review) with the negative reaction being more from Tara's friends than from her family.

The thing, though, that prevented the book from working for me was the reliance on three points of view. Each of the three main characters — the original friends — gets her own chapters. The points of view cycle through from Tara to her friends and back. These alternating chapters hinder the development of any one protagonist as a fully realized character and doesn't give enough time for Tara and Riley's relationship to grow.

After all the drama circling around the rumor and Tara realizing she has feelings for Riley, the book's conclusion focuses on a completely insignificant plot thread. Having read the book cover to cover I hoped all the threads would come together in some sort of satisfying conclusion. But it doesn't. It just sort of stops with Tara reaching one of her goals.

Two stars

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Blackout: 12/21/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Blackout by John Rocco is about a boy who wants to spend some quality time with his parents but doesn't get the chance until the lights go out in the city. When things go black and he can no longer play his video games, his parents are also unable to follow their nightly routine. So they grab some flash lights and head up to the roof to see the stars — something not usually possible in big cities because of light pollution.

The story takes a similar premise as Under the Night Sky by Amy Lundebrek — an unusual night time event bringing a community together. In the case of Under the Night Sky, it's a rare display of the aurora borealis, and here it's the more humble night sky, something that inner city children might not normally see if they don't have a chance to leave the city.

I mostly know Rocco's work through his illustrations of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Here he uses saturated colors, simple shapes and strong lines to create an urban landscape and a stunning night sky. As the story is so basic, chronicling the events of a blackout and how it changed a family for the better, the strength of the book is in the illustrations. They though, as lovely as they are, leave me wanting more from the story.

Three stars

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The Shocking Pink Hat: 12/20/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)The Shocking Pink Hat by Frances Crane is the ninth of the Jean and Pat Abbott mysteries. It's set in San Francisco, on Jones Street and surrounding blocks. Not all books, though, in the series are set in the City. It's also, the only one I've read so far, but I plan to track down others in the series as time and resources permit.

Jean and Pat are currently living in San Francisco. They've been out to dinner. On the way home, a car comes rolling down the hill and crashing. Pat sees a man running away from the scene. Inside the car is the body of a man who has been given a lethal injection.

Jean, as a friend of one of the women under investigation does her best to investigate through her circle of friends while Pat handles the nuts and bolts aspects of it. They make a good pair of investigators, and I'd recommend the series to anyone who likes to read mysteries that star a couple (Tommy and Tuppence, Goldy and Tom, Nick and Nora, etc).

Although this particular mystery is set in San Francisco and is written by an American born author, oddities in the choice of language reveal that spent much of her early adult life in Europe. The oddest things I found was the misspelling of place names like the Fairmont hotel (Fairmount in the book) and Tijuana, Mexico as Tia Juana, Mexico. These are fairly well known locations that editors at Random House could have checked and fixed even in the days before the internet.

Copy editing goofiness aside, it's an interesting mystery very much in the same vein as Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Bear mysteries. Having read only descriptions of the other mysteries, I can only guess that Crane's series is a prototype of the present day cozy genre.

Three stars

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Monoculture: 12/19/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Monoculture by F.S. Michaels looks at how the unwritten and unspoken dominant culture of an area can shape the lives of the people within that culture. She argues that the current monoculture of the developed world is money — or more broadly the worth of things and actions.

Michaels outlines her argument around these key areas: work, relationship with others, relationships with the world, education, physical health, mental health, communities, and creativity. Against each of these areas of the human condition she tests her thesis.

A monoculture, as it is unwritten, doesn't mean the same thing for everyone. It doesn't turn people into sheep or lemmings, but it can affect lives through government policies and personal choices. Enlightenment, though, can help a person or an entire community break free from the invisible, assumed bonds of the monoculture.

It's a short, quick and fascinating book. I've since passed along my review copy to my friends to read.

I received a copy from the author for review.

Four stars

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The Golden Gate: 12/18/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Vikram Seth is best known for A Suitable Boy but seven years earlier he wrote, The Golden Gate, a novel about life in and around San Francisco, done as more than one hundred sonnets. I read the book for its location and it's unusual narrative approach.

As poetry, each sonnet stands along fine. Each one is a snippet, a little window into life in San Francisco from the turbulent 1970s midway through the consumer driven 1980s. As a slice of Americana, the book is feeling dated. It relies too heavily on popular culture that has since moved in other directions.

Setting the poetry aside to look at the characters and situations, there's not a lot there. The numerous characters all blend together to the point that names no longer really matter. There is a recurring theme of loss and disappointment but without a strong character foundation, these themes don't hit their mark.

Three stars

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The Namesake: 12/17/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)The Namesake is Jhumpa Lahiri's second novel and was adapted for film in 2006. It's about the Ganguli family, newly wed immigrants from India. They settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts and begin the slow, painful process of adjusting to their new home with the birth of their son, Gogol.

It doesn't take thousands of miles to isolate a family. Even a hundred or so miles can be enough to cut off children from their parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. Toss in new customs, new laws and things become even more frustrating and depressing.

Most of the book, though, is about Gogol Ganguli coming to terms with his name and eventually learning about his namesake. His parents, hoping for enough time to hear from India to help with naming him rang true to me.

Although the plot felt real, the narration has a detachment to it that made it hard to get into any of the characters' heads. There was no major emotional investment by Gogol or anyone else. Things happen. Time passes. The book eventually ends.

Recommended by Color Online

Three stars

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Paranormalcy: 12/16/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Evie is a teen who both works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency and is in a weird way a ward of the IPCA. She can see through paranormal glamours and that gives her an advantage but she still sees herself as normal. A recent set of deaths among the paranormals, though, forces Evie to rethink her place in life.

I can't remember who recommended Paranormalcy by Kiersten White to me but I resisted for a long time. I was put off by the pretty girl in the flowing dress on the cover. Turns out the cover has nothing to do with the plot. Evie is a strong, modern and independent teen. She is probably less girly than Buffy and she's not wasting her time with love triangles.

My favorite part of the book was how clearly White outlined the rules of dealing with Faeries. While the IPAC thinks they have everything sorted out and can safely take advantage of Faerie powers, Evie knows otherwise. Her wariness makes her interesting and helps build suspense as she is forced from time to time to work with Faeries.

The plot itself is a good mix of mystery and fantasy. The mystery part of it had me guessing in some parts. The fantasy was blended well with the contemporary elements to not be jarring or tacked on.

I have the second book, Supernaturally on my wishlist. There's also a third book, Endlessly which came out this year.

Four stars

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The Technologists: 12/15/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)The Technologists by Matthew Pearl is about a group of friends in the first graduating class of the yet-to-be-accredited Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) trying to solve the mystery behind some strange incidents in Boston. The first of these is the dissolving of the glass in a city block. The other is a ship running aground because its compass was way off.

At the head of the group is Marcos Mansfield, the school's charity case. He's a Civil War vet and he's on a full scholarship. His name right away is a clue to one of the one of the book's biggest flaws: a fully fictional lead cast written by an author who up until now has specialized in placing historical figures in fictional situations. The hokey but symbolic names (Mansfield, being for instance the "Fanny Price" of this novel), were a huge distraction for me.

The next problem is the age of the characters. In his previous books, Pearl's protagonists are older — midlife — and well established in their careers. They therefore have believable means and knowledge to accomplish the tasks at hand. Here though, we have college students. Yes, they're about to graduate, and yes, they're described as being the best of the best but that still doesn't give them the same level of on-hand expertise that Dicken's American publisher would have in The Last Dickens.

Since Mansfield and his buddies don't come preloaded with the credibility needed to jump into the investigation, the book spends an unfortunate hundred and fifty pages or so building their characters up to the point that they seem plausible as investigators for these tech crimes.

Read via NetGalley

Three stars

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Are You Ready to Play Outside? 12/14/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Are You Ready to Play Outside? by Mo Willems won the Theodore Geisel award in 2009. Piggie and Gerald want to play outside but the weather isn't cooperating. It's pouring outside and Piggie hates the rain!

The book has the usual back and forth's so popular in the Elephant and Piggie books. Piggie can't contain her energy and Gerald suggests caution when it comes to playing. The rain, though, is something that Gerald can handle better than his friend.

It's a cute book but not as memorable as others in the series are. The one scene that sticks with me is Gerald helping Piggie play in the rain without getting wet.

Four stars

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There Is a Bird on Your Head! 12/13/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)There Is a Bird on Your Head! by Mo Willems was the perfect springtime book for Harriet to read. At the time we had lots of birds making nests around our home, including a pair of mourning doves in the eaves above our front door.

In the Mo Willems book, a pair of birds fall in love, make a nest and raise chicks, all on Gerald's head. Each new thing the birds do results in Piggie pointing out what they've done in deadpan fashion. Gerald, then reacts in sheer panic but doesn't actually do anything to stop them. It's funny because it's so absurd.

The book encourages young readers to yell, shout and scream. It's a fun book to read aloud. It's also a fun one to listen to, which is how I spent most of my time taking in the story.

Five stars

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Sweet Revenge: 12/12/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Sweet Revenge by Diane Mott Davidson is the fourteenth of the Goldy Bear mysteries. As with all of the others I've read, I listened to an unabridged audio performed by Barbara Rosenblat. I'm not being particularly careful about reading these books in order. Sweet Revenge comes immediately before Fatally Flaky.

Sweet Revenge takes place in those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Goldy is completely booked with catering gigs, enough, to leave her extra through the post holiday slump. Things go awry, though, when a rather surly map collector is found dead at the public library.

Goldy is further distracted from her obligations by the potential reappearance of another of her ex-husband's exes. This character's role Sweet Revenge is by far the most spoilery piece of the mystery. Thankfully, though, Goldy in her internal monologues provide enough background to follow along.

Although I do enjoy these Goldy Bear mysteries, I know a big part of that enjoyment falls to Barbara Rosenblat's performance. Without her somewhat askew take on Goldy, I would be questioning the character's motivation — especially when she is dropping her work to recklessly put herself in danger in the hope of solving the mystery. Rosenblat, though, just plays Goldy as crazy and it makes these otherwise unbelievable scenes, fun.

As with some of the other books in the series, I figured out the gist of the mystery long before Goldy did. Some of the clues this time seemed rather basic — details that one would expect to find in a Scooby Do, rather than an adult mystery (even a cozy). How though everything is tied together was something I couldn't quite get. Having a surprising end made of a satisfying audio book.

Five stars

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Museum Trip: 12/11/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman is a wordless picture book about a boy who is separated from his class turning a field trip to an art museum.

Like her book The Secret Box, the main character leads the reader through the illustrations. Here they are a series of mazes that start as artwork hung at the museum and end up being a short cut through the museum.

As other reviewers have mentioned, the mazes are fun to solve. This book needs at least two reads: once to follow the boy and once to explore the mazes he goes through.

I would recommend this book to fans of David Wiesner and Mark Teague.

Four stars.

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Danny and the Dinosaur: 12/10/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)My husband had a copy of Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff as a child. His parents still have his old collection of picture books by the bedroom the grandkids use when visiting. On our last night of a recent visit, I read the book to Sean and Harriet. What I didn't realize, was that it's one of my son's favorite "I Can Read Books."

Danny goes to the library and sees a dinosaur on display. It makes him wish that he could have a pet dinosaur. The dinosaur comes alive and offers to spend the day with Danny, saying he needs a break after so many thousands of years!

The rest of the book is all about the dinosaur's adventures in and around town with Danny. Lots of the jokes involve the dinosaur's height: he becomes a walking bridge across a busy street, a walking bus for impatient commuters, and a barge in the bay.

As the dinosaur is a friendly and intelligent creature, he quickly becomes friends with adults and children alike. The end of the book centers on him and Danny playing with neighborhood children. A game of hide and seek is rather one-sided but the children eventually find a way to make it work.

It's a cute book. I can see why my husband and son like it.

Four stars.

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E-mergency!: 12/09/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)E-mergency! by Tom Lichtenheld follows the trials and tribulations of the alphabet after letter e is injured. Like Charlie's alphabet in the series by Audrey and Bruce Wood, the letters all live together. In such close quarters, an accident is sure to happen.

After a lot talking and a bit of panic, it's decided that letter o should stand in for e. So from then on, all the words that would normally go. It makes for a tongue twister of a read-aloud.

For fans of visual humor, the book is full of intricate illustrations. Every letter has a part to play and together they can be rather snarky.

The book was a hit with both of my children — one a kindergartner and the other a fourth grader.

Recommended by the1stdaughter

Five stars

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Press Here: 12/08/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Press Here by Hervé Tullet was originally published as Un Livre. It gives children the fun of a book app without the need for hardware or software. All the interactivity is built right into the pages of this clever and entertaining book.

The book begins with simple instructions: press the yellow dot. A turn of the page results in two dots and more instructions. Each action results in changes on the next page and further things to do.

Press Here is one of the most entertaining books I've read with my children in a long time. We all took turns following the instructions and by the time we were done with the book we were laughing hard.

There's also now a book app version of the book but I haven't tried it. The book by itself is so perfect... I just don't see the need to do the electronic version.

Five stars

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Wyrd Sisters: 12/07/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchet is the sixth Discworld book. It's the second appearance of Granny Weatherwax, who made a brief but important appearance in Equal Rites. Here, though, she is presented as she should be, with the rest of her coven — Nanny Ogg and Magrat. Together they are the crone (though one would never dare call Granny Weatherwax that), the mother (Nanny Ogg who is mother, aunt or grandmother to most of Lancre) and the maiden (Magrat).

These three witches will be instrumental in setting to rights the kingdom of Lancre after the death of the king by natural causes. Because of course, murder is a natural death for a monarch. The king's infant son, though, is squirreled away and the witches buy him a home (as well as a hiding place for the crown of Lancre).

The death of a king, his haunting ghost, the meddling witches, the smart ass Fool — these are all elements of a Shakespearian drama. Whilst you will find jabs at many of his plays, the dominating one is the Scottish play, but there's a jab or two at Hamlet, King Lear too.

My favorite characters, though, in this book are Magrat and the Fool. The Fool has more wits about him than the new Duke and Duchess of Lancre. Whenever I read this book, I wish that Christopher Moore's Fool had been more like Pratchett's fool.

Five stars

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The Night Circus: 12/06/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)I'm skittish of overly popular books. I'm usually the one who doesn't like the book that everyone else is praising. So I steered clear of The Night Circus by Erin Morgensternuntil I could no longer give in to lure of the beautiful cover art. I opted for the audio version as I often do with longer books because I can listen a little bit at a time without ticking clock of the due date.

The Night Circus opens with a tour. It arrives without warning and is open only at night. It's only colors are black and white. Fans of the circus, some who travel around the world to follow it, dress the part but add a bit of red. Though none of them expect it, they hold the key to the circus's continued existence.

Morgenstern presents the chronology of the Cirque des Rêves out of order. Listening on audio, I had to keep track of the dates mentioned at the start of each chapter. At first I missed a few things but once I noticed that things weren't in order, I paid better attention. As a fan of logic puzzles, I enjoyed trying to piece the story back together.

The heart of the book, though, and the part that will either make it or break it for you, is the competition between two aged magicians through their student proxies, Celia and Marcus. They are bound to each other and the only way to win the game is to kill the other. Caught up in the middle of this battle to the death is the circus itself.

The problem with complex projects is that they take on a life of their own. The Cirque des Rêves is no exception. That the resolution of the novel hinges more on the continuation of the circus over Celia and Marcus's competition and ill fated romance is a bone of contention for many reviewers. I liked it. No, I loved that all that dramatic build up (so common in fantasy) ended up being a few nights of closure for the circus. There was no threat to the world or the universe — just a magical but still petty competition resulting in a personal tragedy.

For me, therefore, the true protagonists of this complex fantasy are Bailey — a boy who doesn't want to inherit the family farm — and the twins born at the start of the circus, Poppet and Widget. It's their story that caused me to make excuses to sit in my car for a few minutes longer.

I have also gotten a copy in tradepaper to re-read the book in print form, just as I did The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.

Recommended by Devourer of Books

Five stars

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Three Black Swans: 12/05/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Three Black Swans by Caroline B Reiner takes its title from The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Basically, a black swan is a highly improbably event that actually has happened. Taleb describes these events as: unpredictable, with a massive impact, and something we want to explain to make them seem less random or unpredictable.

In the case of Three Black Swans, the title is a spoiler unto itself — three identical sisters separated at birth with shenanigans involved in their adoptions. The revelation of this long kept secret starts when Missy, the runt of the litter, uses her "cousin" Claire as part of a science class project (create a hoax and report on it).

Now here is where I step aside from the book to explain why I wasn't as impressed with the story as I might have been. The problem is this: it's a cut and dry twins separated at birth (except its triplets) story and it follows all the twists and turns this sort of story usually takes. Here, too, since Missy and her siblings are underage, Cooney has to pull some strings to make their coming together at all plausible. She begins, of course, by stacking the deck by making two of the sisters "cousins."

I hadn't really thought about how formulaic this type of story is until I listened to Carl Reiner's NNNNN which lampoons the twins separated at birth story to epic proportions. Ultimately the problem with Three Black Swans is that it takes this trite plot line completely seriously, whereas Reiner takes it to the most outlandish of extremes — well beyond even the most melodramatic telenovela, and then adds in a healthy serving of blasphemy.

Two stars

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Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 19: 12/04/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 19 by Hiromu Arakawa forces new alliances and puts the characters in new dangers. As the endgame is nigh, these dangers will only increase.

Ed goes against Kimblee's men and nearly loses his life in the process. He also though earns their respect in the process. The opposition isn't as cut and dry as humans vs. non humans and more and more of these unconventional alliances will be made as everyone scrambles to stop Father and his family of homunculi.

My favorite piece of the book though was the figuring out of the brother's notes. Scar has been carrying his brother's notes from the very beginning of the series. Through all these unusual alliances, Scar manages to put together a team able to understand the importance of his brother's research.

Five stars

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NNNNN: 12/03/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)NNNNN by Carl Reiner is a short piece of metafiction that in audio form, is read by the author. My friend Ken, who also got me addicted to audio books, and chick lit, loaned me his copy.

Ned Nolan is working on his fifth book. As a good luck charm, he always titles his books in progress with an N. As this is his fifth one and he's stuck for a working title, he just types out five Ns.

As the book is metafiction, it draws attention to the methods behind the story telling. I cringed on hearing the flowery music, combined with a rather humdrum re-imagining of the early bits of Genesis. But a big part of it, is the book within the book — Ned Nolan's piece — and the fact that it and the book as a whole share the same title.

Ned's book opens the novel and in the audio form, it comes with an annoying pastoral piece. My first thought on hearing the flowery music, combined with a rather humdrum re-imagining of the early bits of Genesis. Ned worries his newest piece is too shocking and blasphemous but frankly I found it an annoying piece of filler. Later in the book I mostly skipped over these tracks.

Ignoring (as I chose to do) Ned's novel, the rest of this book (novella, really) is about a man who has anger management issues and has started to talk to himself without realizing he's doing it. In seeking help for his problem he begins therapy with the aptly named Dr. Frucht. But more importantly his therapy sessions lead him to discovering the truth behind his birth and adoption.

It was the introduction of the adoption plot that finally got me hooked (at least on Ned's personal story) on the audio. There are so many bizarre coincidences and twists and turns that Ned uncovers. It's truly memorable and oddly charming.

Four stars

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Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword: 12/02/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch is a graphic novel that features another strong female lead in the role of the unlikely but willing hero. Of all the recent books, I've read, Mirka reminds me most of September from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Mirka lives in an Orthodox Jewish community. She wants to learn sword fighting but is stuck learning knitting instead. Just like September and her mother's wrench, she learns how to wield the weaponry she is given. Here, the threat is a troll and the battle takes place in the nearby forest, rather than far away fairyland. The need for wits and unusual weaponry, though, is the same.

The artwork is done in a sepia scheme with strong lines. Stylistically it's somewhere between Hope Larson and Marjane Satrapi.

The one distraction, for me, were all the asides explaining either Jewish culture or the Yiddish and Hebrew words being used by the characters. A simple glossary or appendix for those who need it would have sufficed.

Recommended by everead

Four stars

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From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: 12/01/12

 cover art (Link goes to Powells)From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by EL Konigsburg won the 1968 Newbery medal. Claudia Kincaid decides she's had enough of her routine filled life and decides to runaway to a museum. She enlists the aid of her brother Jamie, mostly because he's good with money and has more than any of her other brothers.

After settling in to their new routine of living in the museum and taking tours with different school groups, the children begin to feel the need for something more. The museum obliges their wish with a beautiful and mysterious angel statue. The museum believes it to be the work of Michelangelo but as it was bought at auction without papers, they can't be completely sure. Claudia decides it is her calling to learn the truth of Angel's provenance.

All the while, there is Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler who is explaining and commenting on the Kincaids' adventures. How she relates to the adventure in the museum and the mystery of Angel is a big part of the fun of this novel.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler often elicits exclamations of fond memories from many of my friends. I have to admit that my recent car trip where I listened to the book on CD was my first time. I'm sorry I waited so long.

I probably would have read it in my childhood except for a well meaning but misguided school librarian. My best friend's sister who was briefly in the same elementary school as us (before she moved onto junior high) checked out the book. The librarian knowing full well that she had two young taggers along (in the form of her sister and me) warned her not to let either of us read the book until we were old enough. She gave this warning in a whisper which I suspect was purposely loud enough for us to hear. Now maybe she was trying reverse psychology on us — and I know my best friend promptly read the book right after her sister finished with it.

But I took her warning as being deadly serious. I didn't read the book even when I was in the upper grades. I was afraid of getting in trouble — which strikes me as odd since I found plenty of other ways to get in trouble at school back then. But somehow pissing off the librarian had put the fear of I don't know what into me.

What changed? Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick — that's what. In the afterword, he explains that he put a bunch of homages to the book in his novel. I decided it was time to rectify my ignorance of the book and read it.

As I listened, I tried to figure out what had caused the librarian to warn against first or second graders reading the book. I think it was Claudia's rant about doped up chocolate bars. Of course just as her concerns went right over Jamie's head, so did the whole thing go over my kids' heads. It probably would have gone over my head too back then. In other words, I should have read the book as a kid.

Five stars

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