Saturday, December 28, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I finally read it!  This has been on my short list since before I purchased it.

The book starts with the memories of Jacob Portman, the narrator, and the stories his grandfather told him when he was younger.  Jacob is now a teenager, 15 going on 16, and, struggling with missing his grandfather, sets out on a journey to discovery his grandfather, himself, and his future.  It's a quirky little coming of age story with just the right amounts of creepy and intrigue to liven it all up.

I enjoyed Riggs' characterization and character development, though it's just a little bit more 2-dimensional than I would have liked -- I am very much looking forward to the second book and I expect that the characters will develop further and we might find some more dimension to them. :)

I loved the pictures Riggs used and was even happier to discover that they were not pictures created for this book but, rather, vintage photographs already owned by Riggs and people he knows.  HOW COOL!

All in all, a fun read, well-paced, and interesting, and I'm looking forward to Book 2!
Recommend for anyone who enjoys the unusual, the disturbing, the fantastical.

This and other reviews can be found at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

I'm sure I cannot add much to the plethora of reviews already existing. However, I will say that Allie Brosh has the potential for a long career in comedic writing/drawing. I love her characters' facial expressions, her dry sense of humor, her self-deprecating perspective, and her use of color. Adventures in Depression remains one of her best pieces, but they are all wonderful little sardonic takes on life. Can't wait to read more!

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games ...
it might be better than the Potters.  Maybe not!  I don't know.  They're so different, but what I can say is that they are the first YA fantasy books I've read that even competed.  They have the drive, the intrigue, the right characters, the right amount of the various elements...
Well done, kudos, I'm so excited for the movies!

I didn't review the 1st, but here're the 2nd two "reviews"

My "Review" on the 2nd:
Excellent follow up to the 1st book. Not much I can say that will be original. I read this very quickly, of course. Am very much looking forward to seeing the 2nd movie. And I'm gearing up for Book 3!

My "Review" on the 3rd:
Fantastic. I am so excited to see the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movies now! I can't say much... it's not worth it to ruin this series for anyone. But it was truly well done. I'm impressed with Collins and her ability to write such a mature story in the young adult genre, without crossing unnecessary lines. I did not LOVE all of her final choices... in particular 1 made me mad (no spoiler), but on the whole, it was great!!

(Note: reviews is in quotes because, as HIGHLY read series, these books don't require full reviews and I'm merely providing a quick snapshot into my reactions!)

Harry Potters Books 1-5 by J.K. Rowling

I'm re-reading the series and making a few comments/notes as I go.  Here're my "reviews" for Books 1-5

Book 1

Just re-read for the 9th time... After a long hiatus. Wonderful. Was almost like reading again for the first time, though I knew more about everything... Looking forward to reading the rest of the series again!

Book 2

Interestingly, the second book was not as good as the first (on a re-read, years later). The first book introduces the reader and Harry to a whole new world at the same time; the second book has frustrating moments where the characters aren't doing the smart and logical thing (no more details... still won't spoil!).  It wasn't terribly surprising that the first book, written so many years ago, was weak, or even that the first two were weaker than the rest of the series... what was surprising was that the 2nd was so much weaker than the 1st. Fortunately for me then and now, and fortunately for all the other HP readers, the 3rd is right there at your fingertips, so no need to dwell on the weaknesses of the 2nd (despite the fact that I just have in this review).

Don't get me wrong. I love these books. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading 1 and 2, but I was reminded why this is, to me, the weakest book in the series. Still, a 4 star, but not magically delicious like the rest of 'em

Book 3

Yes. Yes. Still wonderful. Massively better than the last.

Book 4

Yep, still 5 stars. Life got a little busy as I was reading this one, so it took me a little longer.. And consequently, some of the more draggy parts ... Well, dragged. Specifically, the spew (aka house elf liberation front) bit and some of the more.. sentimental bits. But! The book's still good in those parts, and then completely overridden by the excellent climax and end. Just keeps you absolutely glued to the pages, especially once the third tri-wizard task starts!

Though during the slower parts I was starting to think I'd be glad to take another break to read a library book or an early reviewer, now that I've finished book four, I wish I didn't have to take the break! Ah well, only 4 interim books and then right back to it ;)

Book 5


As I've often said, reading the series through the 1st time, Book 5 was my least favorite. I didn't like the teenage angst and the yelling and the whining... but reading it again now (and this was ... perhaps my 3rd time on this book? 4th?), it was quite good.

Yes, there is teenage angst and whining and yelling.. but actually, taking it a little slower and reading what is there and not just trying to tear through the book as fast as humanly possible, I realize that Rowling really did an excellent job of showing 15-year-old proclivities and mentality while also subtly introducing (Spoiler)  Lord Voldemort's own personality. It was subtle and, on this slower, more involved and in-depth read, quite nicely done.

Not only was I able to get past my original dislike for the UNNECESSARY YELLING ;), but the book is MEATY. mmmm, meaty. There's so much in this book. It moves just fast enough and just slow enough to wrap you nicely up inside that cozy little harry potter blanket.

Very much looking forward to reading Book 6 (which I've only read twice!) and 7 (which I've only read once, at lightning speed!) 

And then.... I will watch the entire set of movies, front to back. It's gonna be a good winter...

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Contaminated by Em Garner

Review based on ARC

I was looking forward to the gritty aftermath... the trouble starting all over again... the zombie book with a new spin.  Aaaaand... maybe the series as a whole will offer that.  But this book itself didn't quite live up to what I was expecting based on the book's description.

In Contaminated, Velvet, the main character, is a 17-yr-old dystopian heroine with missing parents and a somewhat typical 10-year old-sister to talk care of.  The "zombies" are people who drank a diet drink that was poorly made, causing people to become mindless raging ... well, zombies.  And Velvet's mom was one of the "connie's" who will be released back to her family if her family claims her.  Velvet finds her and brings her home.  What follows is a difficult life, discrimination, and challenges that the strong heroine faces with gusto.

I'm cool with the backdrop - I like new spins on old tales.  I liked how I Am Legend spun with science.  LOVE that kind of stuff, actually.  So I was really looking forward to this.

But most of the novel was day-to-day.. memories.. stories.  It wasn't the adrenaline-laced "oh no! it's happening again?!" novel that I was expecting, so much as a narrative of life after all the excitement happened two years ago...  The cover and the title lead the reader to think that this is action, gore, guts, and CONTAMINATED zombie-like humans!  But perhaps "My mom is a Connie" would have been a better title, to give the potential-reader more of a sense that the book is almost more of a lesson-book.  A book on discrimination, on governmental reaction and politics.  A book on family ties and strength of character.  All fine and dandy, but just fell a little flat for me.  It was somewhat interesting and well-written, but not an attention-grabber or a sleep-stealer.

Garner has set this up to be the first in a series.  Like many series, the first book may be more introductory, and the second and others following may have the action that I was expecting in this one.   I hope so..  And, indeed, the end of this book was where it started to really pick up and become intriguing.

So I recommend the book to young adults -- teens.  I liked the strong and fairly realistic protagonist.  I liked the potential that was laid with this book, and I liked the backdrop.  I am definitely curious about the 2nd book, but I may not be there on opening night....

THREE out of five stars.

Substitute Creature (Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #4) by Charles Gilman

Review based on ARC.

Yes, best yet.  I know I said that about the last one, but *fortunately* they keep getting better!  I'm ever impressed with Gilman's ability to creep in so few pages.  This is, as with the others in the series, a book aimed at a 7/8-12 year old audience.  And definitely kids with a stronger stomach and a penchant for the creepy.

This one is creepiest yet.  Robert and Glenn continue their adventures with the Tillinghast mansion and the Lovecraft middle school which they both attend.  They find a new portal to the mansion that... lands them in a difficult situation.  Caught by the janitor after their near escape, Robert and Glenn find themselves making up stories to avoid having to explain the truth, which adults clearly never believe in these stories.  The janitor, however, tells Robert he will tell his mother (now the nurse at the school), and Robert sees problems on the horizon.  Before Maniac Mac has a chance to tell Robert's mother, however, there is declared a weather emergency as a blizzard finds itself centered over Lovecraft and the school is sent home.

Robert and his mother are, of course, last to leave since she is seeing to the well-being of the kids, and they ultimately find themselves caught in a place they'd rather not be, joined by Karina, Miss Carcasse (heh heh) the substitute librarian, Maniac Mac, and other creatures from ... other places.

And that is saying enough!  The story is creepy enough, Miss Carcasse is creepy enough, and we meet an individual who has heretofore been only discussed in the 3rd person!  I like that Gilman continues his overall plot with each book.

My only complaint is really that the book is REALLY aimed at a younger audience.  It's a simple book with a simple plot and simple prose.  Although the story is something that could be made into a young adult or adult novel with some real bite, Gilman is writing for the younger audience.  Yeah, that's not really a criticism of the book, just a complaint in my favor. ;)

I have sent, given, and recommended this book to many kids in my life.
FOUR AND A HALF out of five stars.

Anarchy by James Treadwell

Review based on ARC

((bounced excitedly in her seat))

I IMpatiently awaited the arrival of Treadwell's second novel, Anarchy.  I mean.  Impatiently.  I regularly google searched and scoured websites looking for a hidden contest to get an early copy.  And my efforts were rewarded!  Thank you NetGalley!

I have often thought about Advent since I finished reading it and reviewed it.  It was a chance finding... a book I picked up from the library on a whim.  And I loved it.  And I gave it 4 stars and I've often wondered if... perhaps I shouldn't have rated it higher?  Any book that makes me think so much about it.... but I haven't changed that review because, well, because I believe the review that lands on my review is the best review from me - contemporaneous and not hindsight-affected.

Nevertheless, I looked for Anarchy with eagerness.  And it did not disappoint.  Treadwell just writes a beautiful story - it feels like actual literature - but then there's the fantastical element.  This is where we broach my actual favorite genre... magical realism.  (well, okay, it's tied with gothic literature).  And Treadwell does it well.

Here is an author who does the interweaving of three stories - a type of story-telling that seems to be heavily used of late.  But he did it well.  He does it all well.  He sets up a story that is foggy and etherial and forces its reader to be patient... and forces its reader to slow down and enjoy it.

And I did.  I'm just not going to say more about the actual plot and goings on.  I will say, read Advent first.  If you HATE advent, I highly doubt you'll like Anarchy.  If you HATE magical realism and fantasy, just don't try it.  But if you're willing to give it a shot, these are the books that deserve your efforts.

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Review based on ARC.

Perhaps my expectations have risen too high.  Or perhaps this is just another book that... had so much potential but just did not meet it.

As you'll read in every other blurb or review, Jess is an anthropology student with a bright career ahead of her.  She has an affair with her married professor and "finds herself" pregnant... er, I mean, she got pregnant.  Although that's not an altogether surprising result of having an affair with a member of the opposite gender.... I'll at least give them that this was in the 60s.. in London.  So, okay, she finds herself a single mom and .. I guess it makes sense to become a free-lance writer to keep her kid fed rather than continue on an anthropology career.  Sorry, I'm just a bit confused because I know actual free-lance writers and on the whole their money situation is neither good nor steady.  But they do it because they love the writing and there's potential for the future.  Conversely, staying in a career-oriented educational program seems like a smart decision.  I have friends who went to law school w/ little babies and kids (and, yes, no dads). and sure it's hard but.... anyway, I digress.

Jess' baby Anna is the pure gold baby.  Sunny, happy, and developmentally delayed.  And so dubbed the Pure Gold Baby.  The book spans 50 years, to the present, and we get to watch as Jess and Anna struggle (well, Jess struggles...) with every day life -- jobs, friends, men.  So yeah, it's one of those kind of books that just goes on, without a plot per se -- no real climax -- just character development and ongoing life.

And as I've said before, in order for those books to really impress me, they have to ... well... really impress me.  They have to be really well done (e.g., Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart).  And Drabble's was fine, it was good, the writing was good, but it wasn't great.  So it got kind of boring... and kind of directionless.  And while I did keep reading and I was glad to have read it... and I thought that Drabble added some interesting perspectives and history about women's libbing... it didn't blow me away.

I'll agree with some of the other reviewers that perhaps the narration from Jess's friend was just a bit too detached.  She was privy to more, er, inside-knowledge than you might expect (thoughts and emotions) for a non-omniscient 3rd person perspective, but it was still just a little too cold, unemotional, and.. well, detached, for my tastes.

So overall, a good book.  If you're looking for something that has some history, some women's strength undertones, some discussion on developmentally disabled ... pick it up.  But it's not a blow-me-away book.

THREE AND A HALF of 5 stars..

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Nicholson: A Biography by Marc Eliot

Review based on ARC.

Sigh.  I really like Jack Nicholson.  At least, I really like what I think I know about him.  I think he's a great actor and he seems really interesting.  I knew someone who was at a fancy resort'y island restaurant that Jack was dining at, and she said he was a complete A**.  This didn't shake my interest in the man or alter my favor of his acting.  Nor was it really surprising.  But then again, we all have bad days, and maybe that was just one of his.

I'm not a big tabloid girl (anymore) and I don't particularly love gossip.  I'm happy to watch actors on TV/movies and then maybe some day I'll read a biography or an autobiography.  Preferably authorized.

But, then again, this is Jack Nicholson, so I eagerly signed up for the advanced readers copy and I even more eagerly awaited my copy once I was informed that I'd won one!

So the "sigh."  Sigh.  This was not what I was hoping it would be.  And, from reading other reviews of other disappointed readers, I'm not alone.  The so-called biography felt more like an article in US Weekly than a biography.  I don't deny that Eliot did research, and I'm sure that he spoke with many "close friends" of Nicholson.  But the book took the tone of a gossip column... "hey, psst, READ IT HERE FIRST! Nicholson has problems 'down there'!"  It just felt kind of sad.

Who knows, maybe Eliot was on the receiving end of one of Nicholson's bad days.  But his tone was petty.  I'm not saying lift the man (Nicholson) up as a god and ignore his faults.  He has faults.  Great.  Show them.  But there are ways to show a man's fault (see, e.g., Walk the Line re Johnny Cash) without being petty and gossipy about it.  And, in this book, Eliot missed the boat.

So.  it's not a terrible thing -- there's a lot of good information in there, and I appreciated the time that Eliot spent seeking to learn more about a man that so much of the world finds fascinating.  So it gets a couple stars.  But the tone, the lack of real depth, the lack of a greater understanding of what really drives Nicholson, those things make the biography a bit of a disappointment.

Overall, TWO AND A HALF of 5 stars -- a middle-of-the-road rating for a book with a lot of potential and some noteworthy disappointments.

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall

Review based on ARC.

This is the third mystery by Tarquin Hall involving the endearing Vish Puri, India's "Most Private" Investigator.  I have not read the other two books but, after having read this one, am definitely interested in seeking them out!

Vish Puri a/k/a Chubby is a detective with an addiction to the flavorful and savory foods of India.  I can relate.  Butter Chicken, or what I have called Chicken Tikka Makhani, is one of my favorite dishes, and I can understand the obsession.  However, Puri is more than just a stomach with good taste.  Puri is a detective who can and will handle all manner of cases, even that as bizarre as a missing mustache.

The thrust of this book revolves around the murder mystery of the father of a Pakistani cricket hero while eating at a post-match dinner.  In order to solve the mystery of who has poisoned the victim, Puri investigates various dark underbellies -- gambling, smuggling, and match-fixing.  Puri even takes the investigation into history, and we lean about the blood and horror of the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan.  In doing so, Puri is eventually led a lot closer to home then he ever hoped to be:  he must work with his mother, Mummy-ji, who has herself sworn off investigation.

Throughout the food and the mystery, there is humor.  The book is endearing, entertaining, and satisfying.  Recommended to readers who like mysteries, who have a sense of humor, and who at least understand why Makhani is so good.....

FOUR of five stars.

All is Fair by Emma Newman

Review based on ARC.

I received this review from NetGalley dot com; thanks to Angry Robot Ltd for the opportunity to read and review this book!

I requested this book because the cover is engaging and reminded me of another book I wanted to read, though I couldn't quite place what it was.  It soon became apparent -- I have the first book in this series on my bookshelf.  Nevertheless, with early reviewers, time is limited, so I read the third without having read the first (or the second).

Fortunately, it is an interesting enough book, with a background that is not overly complicated, so I was able to read this third without ever really feeling lost in the plot.   True, I did not know who Max or his Gargoyle already were; true, I did not know who Cathy was or how William got to his place of power by trickery; true, I did not know who had already died or how, but the information was presented to me, a new reader of the series, without an overly simplistic "here's what's already happened" backdrop or an overly complicated or presumptuous inside-references.

Instead, it was as though I were dropped into the middle of a mystery, and through conversation and memory, was able to piece the rest together.  Each of the stories were interesting and, rather than leave me with the sense that I'd already gleaned all from the series that I needed to by reading the third book, it made me want to go back and read the first two, to get that more in depth experience of the events that I now undertand have already occurred.   In other words, well done!  I liked this third enough to want to read more Newman -- whether something already published, or something yet to be published.

A quick synopsis:
This story takes place in the Nether (a faerie-run world otherwise like ours) and in Mundanus (it's like muggles... the non-magic people or people not in the nether live in the "mundane" world -- i.e., mundanus).  William has taken the throne of Londinium (the Nether-London), which makes Cathy the Duchess.  What we gleaned from the prior books is that William seems to be a pretty good guy, but controlled by a pretty evil faerie, and that Cathy is a headstrong girl who wants to change the corruption and evil in the Nether.  Cathy was attacked in book 2 (presumably), and William is told it is one household who has done so.  William therefore wins the seat of Duke in a duel that he wins by murdering someone who had previously  believed to be his friend.  Cathy attempts to feel nothing romantic toward William, her husband, at the beginning of the book, but begins to realize as the book progresses that she needs his support to accomplish what she wants to accomplish.

Max the arbiter and his gargoyle (where his soul is housed) continue to investigate who or what is behind the murder of a series of wizards and the corruption in London.  Max and the gargoyle work with Cathy, who is an insider now given her new position as Duchess to attempt to discover the truth.

Cathy's friend Sam, from Mundanus, has lost his wife and finds himself in the care of Lord Iron, which unsurprisingly puts Sam in the position of accepting an offer from Lord Iron which ends up being more than Sam himself anticipated.

With a quick plot, interesting characters, and an element of mystery, Newman brings the reader fully into her tale, and eager to find out, "what next!"

Recommended for readers looking for a quick urban fantasy read with dark intentions, a touch of insanity, and a subtle love story.  FOUR of five stars.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wow.  Now this was a fantastic book.  From the beginning, I could not wait to get back to the book, from whatever it was that was tearing me away from it--friends, family, vacation... Must... Read... Book....

I keep picking up books hoping that they'll actually transport me elsewhere -- take me to the land of the book and not left on my couch reading a book.  Where others have failed, Cline succeeded.

This book takes place in the the not-too-distant future, after the "Great Recession" has left the world a bleeding dump of what it was in the (now) past.  Trailer Parks have been built up into stacks, with RVs and mobile homes being stacked 15-20 homes high, most people have abandoned their vehicles because of the prohibitive cost of gasoline, food is a scarce resource, and fossil fuels have been burned up, leaving energy itself endangered.

Yet, there is OASIS.  Originally designed as an "MMA" (multiple player video game), the OASIS quickly became a virtual reality for almost everyone in the world, with people "plugging in" as often and for as long as they could.  The creator of the OASIS - Jim Halliday - dies, leaving behind his fortune to whoever wins "the game" -- whoever collects the 3 keys and passes the 3 gates first.  For the next five years, no one finds even the first key... but then, it's on....

Yeah it's hard to describe.  I'm not a gamer and didn't play most of the games mentioned in the book (of course I played pac man).  Halliday was born almost a decade before I was, so all of his nostalgia kind of just missed me.  I have seen several of the movies mentioned... but then again, there were a slew that I had not.  This book is not just nostalgia-crack and it's definitely not just for gamers.

The brilliance of this book is that it's set in the not-too-distant future, realistic in many ways, with a quality of virtual reality that is probably just around the corner from today... so it's almost not even sci-fi or fantasy.  Yet through OASIS, the participant can do just about anything--visit planets described in books, be a wizard or a fairy, actually play a character in a movie, even go to school--anything someone can think of aside from the necessary bodily functions... of course, all for a cost (actual money).  So, at the beginning of the book, the main character, Wade Watts, doesn't have access to anything.  Essentially, just some kiddie video games, the public library, and school.  But he's smart, resourceful, and willing to devote serious amounts of time to the game.

But the brilliance of this book is the relatability -- Wade Watts is some shy, dorky kid, who is insecure and only able to come out of his shell behind the safety of the virtual reality lens.  But somehow this shy, dorky, insecure kid is the hero of the book, and somehow you believe it and root for it.  And somehow maybe it feels a little bit like you.

But the brilliance of this book is that it abounds with descriptions of games and movies that at least some of its readers (e.g., me) have never played, seen, or even heard of, and yet it's so. freaking. fascinating.  I just ate it all up.

But the brilliance of this book is that, when I wasn't reading... I started to almost believe that some of what was happening in the book (the "future" stuff) was possible, happening, present.

So yeah, I absolutely loved this book.  I always hope to read a book that takes me there and makes me believe that it's real, and makes me feel connected to the characters, and makes me actually care about the outcome.  And here it was.  Willy Wonka really did meet the Matrix here.

I *really* hope there's a movie someday!
FIVE out of five stars.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

Review based on ARC.

This is one of those books that was entertaining, informative, and infuriating.  Piper Kerman wrote a memoir that reads almost like a diary.  This is both a compliment and a criticism.  The problem with the non-diary-diary format is that it was scattered, unfocused, and anecdotal.  The good thing about the non-diary-diary format, however, is that it was interesting, personal, and present.

So, the story.  Kerman makes massively stupid and selfish decisions in her young life, as young ladies are wont to do, and years later, she begins to pay for it.  a little.  Her involvement in large-scale drug trafficking ultimately lands her in inside a minimum security federal prison, which she proceeds to detail in a manner that is, at turns, entertaining and lecturing.  There's not really much more to the plot:  she learns about being in prison, she learns about the people there, she learns about the impact of her actions.  Thus, a memoir.

What works is Kerman's tone, most of the time.  She takes an equally amusing and reverent tone in describing her prison-mates and describes heartbreaking, enraging, and amusing stories alike.  Kerman's own appearance and naivety land her, fortunately, friends with some of the more powerful women in the prison and, to hear Kerman tell it, she herself ends up being one of the most popular prisoners to ever grace Danbury's walls (this is a literal exaggeration of the tone that many of the anecdotes presented -- she never, of course, ever states anything quite so ludicrous).

Kerman flits between anecdotes, grant philosophical rants, political lectures, and summaries, which unorganized presentation was, at many points, annoying and disrupted the flow of the tale.  However, Kerman's voice was consistent throughout these variances, making the sudden switches more tolerable to read.

Kerman mentions in passing that her year had its rough moments... but aside from dealing with her Grandmother's illness, stays far on the surface of these times.  Which leads the reader to believe that her time in Danbury wasn't so bad--that maybe she was just a "whiney privileged white girl."  In reality, there were probably times when it was terrible for *her* (and not just one of the other girls there), and maybe she didn't want to relive those in her memoir.  Or maybe she didn't want to be too depressing for her readers.  Or maybe just being incapable of leaving the walls for such an extended period of time was rough.  She managed to remain a picky eater, looked years younger after LEAVING prison, worked out, got a lot of daytime, watched movies, had friends.... yeah, I know a lot of girls who'd kill for her crappy year.   But, as I say, maybe there was some stuff under the surface that she didn't divulge.

All in all, the book gets THREE AND A HALF stars (bumped to 4 on non-half-star sites for its importance) because Kerman tells a good story and creates a few vivid characters (though a few others are glaringly 2-dimensional), and because the story she is telling and the impact it has had and can have is important.  Important!  For any person who knows no-one who has been to jail or prison (even a "swanky" minimum security prison like Danbury), or anyone who thinks that prisoners cannot be rehabilitated and/or do not have any good in them, this book is a MUST.

For the rest of us who've had harder lives, I say go ahead and read it if it sounds interesting.  It certainly is not a bad book and, even though it's a bit disorganized, it tells an interesting story.

**side note: I am both interested in watching the tv show to see some of the characters come to life, and adamantly opposed in case my fears that it has created caricatures of very real people's lives, pain, and struggles are justified.

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

I was more than 2/3 done with this book, when I sat down at the dining room table and described the whole thing to my sister.  In about 10 minutes.  The way I described it, both of us agreed that it sounded very interesting.  And it was.  interesting. but it wasn't thrilling. exciting. moving.

I tend to stay away from spoilers in reviews because I feel like... reviews with spoilers (or comprised largely of spoilers and not much else) are only devices to, effectually, "preach to the choir" (or find out if the choir agrees with you).  So with that in mind, let me tell you what I liked, with an understanding that I'm treading delicately so as not to spoil the many twists and turns and discoveries that make this book worth reading.

The book is well written, there's no question about that.  Palma managed to write an essentially historical fiction, that just happened to include discussions about and discoveries involving time travel.  Sort of.  And it's that "sort of" that was probably most frustrating to me.  The novel was more historical fiction (i.e., more history) than I had really signed up for, and is probably more time travel than the typical historical fiction reader signs up for.  Don't get me wrong, I can get behind a good historical fiction novel with the best of 'em, it just wasn't what I was expecting with a book called the Map of Time, described as this one was, and reviewed as this one was.  I wanted to travel through time... and quickly!  Alas, that is not the path of this book.

And yet.  As I said, Palma wrote a good book.  There is a lot of setting, character development, and background.  And not as much action and plot-movement.  But the setting, the character development, and the background were very well crafted.  Palma made me not only purchase several HG Wells books after I finished the Map of Time, but I also researched Wells a bit and even continued to look into certain aspects of his life/works weeks after having finished the Map of Time.  I also found myself researching the existence of other characters or events described in the book, to find out how much of what Palma wrote about was accurate, based in history, or just completely made up.  Any book that makes me do extra research is an interesting book.

So it's worth reading.  But the plot? let's see, how to describe without spoiling.... There are two primary stories that are told, largely separately, that are connected by the famous Mr. Wells, and perhaps by other, tenuous threads that are interesting but not the meat of the sandwich.  In the first, an incredibly depressed young man sets about to end his life, much to the dismay of his nearly identical cousin.  Palma starts there, but then backtracks to provide the reason, the characters, the emotion behind such a decision.  And, ultimately, of course, H.G. Wells becomes involved.  But to say more about that line is to spoil some of the many surprises.  The Second story centers around an allegedly charming, but notably disgruntled young lady who wants more out of life than just falling in love with one of the duds available to her.  Needless to say, H.G. Wells also becomes enmeshed in her story.  Then there are the many side stories, back stories, and peripheral stories, each of which is complete and satisfying, yet not so plentiful or involved so as to detract from the main stories.  I know.  Not as much "so what's it about" as you'd like.  But, as I said above, I cannot spoil a good story.

At the end of the day, the book was really good, but not great.  It was very well written, intriguing, and well told.  But I didn't escape completely into it.  I didn't forget who I was while I was reading it.  I just read it.  Enjoyed it.  And passed it on.

Overall, FOUR out of five stars.
Recommended for people who like historical fiction w/ a touch of time travel... or time travel, supported by a heavy base of historical fiction.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Review based on ARC

I've started this review, scratched it, thought about it, re-started...

It's a difficult review for me because I felt so strongly about the mediocrity of the book.  It's definitely not bad.  It's not badly written, it's not badly plotted, it's not badly character driven... but it's not good either.  I was very disappointed only because what I had read going in led me to believe this would be something special.  I was very excited to be picked for this book, but unfortunately the excitement ended then.

What's good:  the book is a very quick read, and there are characters or moments where you really care.  The mystery-aspect of the book is intriguing and I definitely needed to know "what next."  It was easy to read the prose, and I flew through the pages quickly.

What's not:  the book is altogether unconvincing.  It is unconvincing as a history novel, it is unconvincing as a love story, and it is unconvincing as a tale about the bonds of family.  The book is written in letters primarily between "Sue" and Davey and between Margaret and Mother.  The "voices" of each of the characters, however, were not distinct from each other (or, not enough to matter).  The only way you got a sense of things was in the narrators' description of someone else -- i.e., I didn't learn as much about _____'s personality from their OWN letter as I did from a letter by someone else writing about _____.  It was only by descriptions of others that personalities emerged.

Also, the letters employed overly-obvious and unrealistic conversation -- i.e., if my sister were to call me and I said "oh! hello big sister who lives in Chicago! It's so nice to hear from you again after just a week!"  No one talks like that.  There were several moments like that in the book, where there was over-explanation and no subtlety.

Additionally, the complete lack of self-awareness of ALL of the writers, combined with the complete obliviousness of each of the characters was infuriating and not particularly believable.  Perhaps a character or two in a situation would have that complete lack of self-awareness or awareness of others... but every single character? Oh, of course with the exception of the all-wise grandmother/mother or the good-for-nuthin' brother, who play disappointingly minor roles.

What I disliked the most, however, is something that probably won't bother as many people as it did me.  [SPOILER (highlight)] The infidelity with no apologies, excusing the behavior with self-righteous, childish "I want it" mentality.  It felt like the author was living out an internal fantasy.  [END SPOILER]

All in all... it was disappointing, but it had a bit of intrigue.  As I said, there were aspects of the book that I cared about; it was a quick read; there were minor portions of the familial relationships that were interesting; and it was not a flop.

So, THREE of five stars.  Recommended for people who particularly enjoy long-distance romances and historical romances.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Divergent by Veronica Roth?

I have been staying a bit away from books that are alleged to be the "NEXT_______!!!!!" (fill in with Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.)

But I just read a little blurb on a BuzzFeed Article that made me raise my eyebrows:  "This will be the next Hunger Games, mark my words. A dystopian society with five factions and a courageous teen ready to change the future. Tris is the kind of protagonist you really want to root for, and there are no love triangles! You will not be able to put this trilogy down."


no love triangle?

Sign me up!

Just added to my library hold list :)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When I read something like "A literary miracle" on the front cover of a book, I'm both intrigued and wary.  Like, what does that even mean?  Literary miracle.  Well, after having read Beautiful Ruins, I understand.

It seems something of a miracle that the Jess Walter was able to create such depth in his stories and his characters in a single book and even in single chapters.  The book starts in a tiny village in Italy in 1962, from the perspective of a young hotelier who inherited the hotel when his father passed away.  Pasquale, the young hotelier, is excited when his friend Orenzio brings a beautiful young American actress, Dee Moray, to his hotel, for whom Pasquale quickly falls.  It was well written and believable.

However, after reading the chapter, I was worried that I was not going to really enjoy this one because I was not really in the mood to read another foreign literary masterpiece that is dry and boring and too dense to really care.  Not that the first chapter was those things -- I was just concerned that it was going to be given the high praise and where the book started.

After another day or two, I picked up the book again and started reading the second chapter.  The second chapter is in Hollywood, "recently" (say, around 2010), from the perspective of a young girl (late-20s) who is disillusioned about life, hollywood, and her future.  It was fresh and modern and believable.  It was not dry, boring, or too dense to really care.  Claire is trying to find herself in Hollywood, after landing her dream job as assistnat to the legendary but somewhat washed up Michael Deane, and after landing her dream boyfriend - the gorgeous but stripper-obsessed idiot in her bed, she's realized that the glitter and the glamour are not all they're cracked up to be.  With a new job prospect from a small new museum, Clair is considering whether it's time to throw in the towel on film production and cut her losses.  When the new museum happens to be primarily funded by the church of scientology, it gives Clair just enough pause to give herself an ultimatum:  Either she finds the one film she's been dreaming she would make on Wild Pitch Friday (where the pitches are unlikely to be for glorious masterpieces), or she quits both her job and her boyfriend and takes up the job building the new museum.

And then I lost track of the chapters and time as I tore through the rest of the book.
The various chapters are told interchangeably from the perspectives of Claire, Pasquale, Michael Deane (even through the memoir his agent told him they could never publish, but which Deane gives to Claire to read), Dee Moray and her son Pat Bender.  Each perspective is believable -- the view from a 1962 Italian Pasquale's eyes is just as convincing as the view from a 2010-ish Hollywood Claire's eyes, is just as convincing as the memoir written from Michael Deane explaining the whole "mess."  Walter even incorporates famous people and movies -- Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatria -- to add to the realism of the tale, without ever crossing lines into the impossibility (i.e., he did not change any known facts, he just added in details into the pockets and unknowns that could be... who knows... feasible).

The perspectives are all over the place, the times are all over the place, the stories are all over the place, -- front to back and back to front, and yet it is a cohesive, believable, perfectly timed story.  A miracle.  Even more.... he managed to actually tie together all of the characters from the 1940s to 2010, from all over the world, without it being "too convenient."  I was so impressed with Walter.  It felt like just a series of life events that ultimately brought all of the characters together within one story.  But it did not feel forced or contrived.  It just felt... natural.  Like yeah, that's what happened.

And then you find yourself nearing the end of the book.  But, oh no, there are too many strings to tie up!!  He's going to leave me hanging, I just know it.... ahhh, i hope he at least wraps up ____, and ____.  And ___.  But how can he!  Too few pages....  You keep reading.

And he does it.  and it feels a little bit like a miracle.  Not everything is neat and bowtied, but it's all done just enough to leave the reader at peace.  With all of the stories, and all of the different lines, and all of the different characters, resolved just enough to close the book and go to sleep.  All is well.

A literary miracle.  Now I understand...

(this and other reviews at
(see also book group review at Desert Girls Blog)

Modern Grimmoire: A Contemporary Anthology of Fairy Tales, Fables & Folklore from 36 authors and artists

Review based on ARC.

I love Grimm and I was very excited to win a copy of Modern Grimmoire.  Not really sure what to expect -- would these be new takes on old stories? new stories?  It was a combination.  A very dark, very angry combination of, as the subtitle states, fairy tales, fables and folklore.

Overall, I was very happy with the anthology.  It was a quick read, and each story very comfortably stands on its own.  I would recommend to anyone who has a penchant for all things Grimm, for people who are interested in dark fairy tales, folklore, and fables, and for those with a stomach for the, well, grim.  In other words, if the title is appealing to you, go ahead and pick it up.  The book does the title and the cover justice.

Again, overall, FOUR of five stars.

The anthology is comprised of mostly stories, a few poems, and a handful of pictures, each of the stories I review below (reviews, not synopses.. they are short so summarizing practically retells the story, which is unfair and unnecessary):

- The Ex-Court Painter, Goya, and the Princess was one of the highlights of the anthology.  It tells teh story of an ex-royal painter, who is called into court to do a particularly sensitive and confidential job for the King.  The painter is shuffled down to the basement, and is locked in a room to do his work.  I will not spoil what the painting is of or how the story progresses, but the story had the flavor of classic Grimm, with its own dark twists.  The characters were well portrayed, even in the few pages, and the story was intriguing and complete.

- Night People, in Summer.  I think this was my favorite.  I loved the magical realism aspect of this one, and I thought the tone was just right for a slightly creepy, slightly nostalgic Grimm.  The author took the ordinary life and added not only magic and supernatural intrigue, but also a light element of danger. I wouldn't mind seeing this "ghost" story in longer form some day.

 - The Black Widow.  This one was incredibly creepy, very well written, very creepy.  Did I say creepy twice?  I talked about this one to everyone who would listen while I was reading it.  It stayed with me while I was hiking a beautiful trail in Taos NM.  It was very well written, and completely brought the reader into the folds (or, should I say, web?) of the story effortlessly.

- Isle in Man: This was interesting and, again, really well done.  This is the kind of story that could be blossomed into a novel or even a movie.  It's kind of super-hero'y and kind of X-Men'y, with a lot of heart.  It leaves the reader with a lot of questions, and with a desire to know what happend NEXT? and BEFORE?  The title didn't really do the tale justice... not that I can think of a better one, I just didn't like it as a match to the story.

- Something Gold: Oh this was very well done.  I love how the author started each new phase with the same phrase.  I love how the tale was unsettling and squirmy.  I love the quick but not choppy progression from one phase to the next.  I didn't love the end as much, but I appreciated that there WAS an end... some sense of closure (without actual closure... just the prediction of one).

- Gourmaundeth:  I am not sure why the typefont was formatted the way it was.  This was almost more poem than it was story.  I think the formatting was to show the disjointed, choppy thinking of the narrator.  Which worked.  It gave the story a lack of direction and a confusion that worked for the ultimate story.  While I didn't love this one, it definitely did fit in the anthology and did not detract from the mood.

- The Mirror Child: this is another story with great ambiance and tone.  I loved the fairy tale'ness of this story.  It had a classic feel to it, while adding the new twist.  Although I felt that the ending was a little convenient, I also appreciated it.  Overall, a great story with a neat little "package" epilogue at the end.

- The Music Box:  Fun.  This one was a fun tale - I loved the light heartedness aspect, the modern-day relatability to dating. and the cute twist at the end.

- Fish: This was an interesting concept -- take the marriage of a mermaid to a human, and tell it from the mermaid's perspective.  I thought it was just heartbreaking enough, and just hopeful enough.  Another one that I would enjoy seeing developed into a novella or even a novel.

- Bury me in Faerie:  This story was a sad story, but, again, had a hopeful air to it.  Throughout the story and even at the end, there is the air of possibility.  And although the characters are grieving and their lives seem difficult and sad, there is hope.  It was a nice little story.  Not my favorite, but sweet.

- Arowana: I felt that this was a story with a lot of promise, a lot of interesting and intriguing concepts, and I just did not love the direction it ultimately took.  This one probably falls more squarely under "Fable" than the others, so the path makes sense. It just fell a little for me, turning from a story with great promise, to a lesson, perhaps well learned.

- Starlight!:  This story was flippant and had an undertone of cruel to it.  The characters are almost completely non-endearing, but intentionally so.  The perspective is almost that of making the exalted humdrum.  I guess I did not love this one because I felt that perhaps it went just a little too humdrum.  No point to the story other than to say, hey, maybe these kings and queens, they're just like us.  Interesting concept, but I would like liked even a little bit of a plot.

Detours: A Suburban Fairy Tale:  I really enjoyed this one.  It had questions that were raised throughout.  Some of the questions were kind of answered, but the mystery of the characters was kept and relished.  I really enjoyed how this one "ended" - I am impressed with an author who can end a short story well, and this one accomplished it.

Catspaw:  I enjoyed this tale and the overall story that was told.  It is another that felt more classic in tone.  I was a little annoyed while reading it, even though I both appreciated the possible alternative paths and even though I completely understood what the author was doing and why.  I just like reading stories.  Ultimately, after I had read the whole story, however, it WAS complete, a story well told, and an ending that I could appreciate.

- The Wolfman's New Gig:  Cute.  At first I was confused about what was happening, which was intentional and well done.  The progression of the story, the very modern and very real elements of marriage and relationship that were interjected, and the conclusion that took it right back to Grimm were all very well coordinated.  The building up of the characters was expertly done, with every new action taken both a complete surprise and completely expected.  This is another one of the standouts in the anthology.

- Persuasion:  very disturbing.  Definitely a modern, dark twist on the classic tale.  It was well done, but I did not love it.

- Henry's Tale:  I liked this slightly feminist twist on the classic Hansel & Gretel.  It was almost like reading a "this is what REALLY happened" of the story, which seemed to explain the motivations, actions, and perspectives of the original tale even better.  I really liked his Gerta.

- The Storyteller's Jig:  This felt like an intro to a story.  A very interesting story, but just an intro.  At the end of the tale, I was just left wanting to know something, ANYTHING, about what supposedly happened next.  Is the man safe? is he human? is the story good? do kids die? does anything happen???? I felt like there were TOO many questions left unanswered -- to the extent that it just wasn't a story.  As I said, just an intro.  But the writing style was good... otherwise, I wouldn't have any questions, would I...

- Through the Diamond Blues:  This story was a very innocent simple tale.  The "villain" is sweet and innocent, the protagonists are sweet and innocent, and even the "villains" "henchmen" are kind of sweet and innocent.  The complications are easily resolved, and the lessons are easily learned.  I felt that the ending was just a little *too* convenient (can ONE wish include the word "and" in it?), but it was sweet and fine.

- Bring It, Bernadette: Loved it.  At just over a page, this story packed a lot of punch and a lot of twisted psyche in.

- The Library:  Ooh, yes, I also loved this one.  This was another good ambiant, creepy story with lots of questions and few answers.  Although the tale is left incomplete, it is done so at the right time and in the right way so as to leave the reader still thinking about the story, but satisfied.  It was confusing, and weird, and just perfectly intriguing.

- Misery and Blue: eh. This was definitely a modern take on the origin of words.  But it felt a little juvenile.  When I was in elementary school, I was assigned a project to write a fable, and I wrote one that explained the origin of the oceans of the earth, which included crying... This felt a lot like that.  The story was more mature of course, particularly since it involved infidelity and abuse, but I expected something a little more unique.  It was cute, it was fine, just did not really impress.

With regard to the pictures, they were fine - lending some ambiance to the stories.  My favorite by a lot was They Say Once the Trees Begin to Tremble It Is Too Late by Steven Ehret, on page 180.

With regard to the poems, they were also fine - lending some ambiance to the stories.  They were little views into the life of a Grimm character, or a brief explanation, or a slight twist on perspective.  I will add that I particularly liked the snark in Colleen Michaels' The Pea Defends His Position.  I will also add that the Four Grimm Tales, Revisited, by Erin Virgil, was a well-done, interesting twist on the four tales.  Enough said in these four little mini-poems to twist the original stories completely around.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L. Allen

Review based on ARC.

As a start, the title is misleading. The book implies that every human boy should have a human man, but the book is, in fact, about every "oaf" boy having a human man (which is sometimes a human female man) as a pet. And I think that that statement is incomplete and unfair to the book as well.

In 164 pages, Preston Allen manages to craft a story with depth, emotions, and morals. No words are wasted and no story line drags. Allen interweaves multi-generational stories and breaks off into almost-subplots, and he impressively gives the reader a real sense of the personality and the character of the individuals in the book.

It is an almost everyman kind of story, that is simultaneously a fantasy and a serious, dramatic, "life lesson" kind of book. It is interesting and intriguing. It is almost, but not quite, preachy. It conveys a message firmly and intensely, but inoffensive and loving. 

You get the sense that the author has a great care for humans and their follies, earth and its weaknesses, and the interplay between the two. And yet it is a fantasy, in which giants have humans for pets. And even more, there is a twist.

I cannot say more because at 164 pages, there is too much to ruin. But I greatly enjoyed reading this book (in one sitting), and I would recommend it to ... I think anyone I know. 

For me, while the book was indeed great, it wasn't a 5-star book that blew me away only because it wasn't. It was great. Impressive. Enjoyable. Enlightening. But it did not make me feel like squeezing the book because I was so pleased with it, and it did not make me insist that every single person I know read it. So a VERY strong Four out of 5 stars.

A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon

Review based on ARC.

Like many other readers of this book, I really did want to love it.  I have recently been through Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and Rules of Civility, both of which I thought were really quite great.  And coming away from those and into another book introduced in the same vein -- the glamorization of historical wealth and/or the striving of characters to reach it and the pitfalls along the way -- this one just fell short.

The characters are interesting *enough,* the plot is interesting *enough,* and the writing is certainly good *enough,* it just didn't wrap me up into the stories the way other recently read books did.

So, about this one... The main characters are poor jewish ambitious materially minded Ed Cantowitz and rich disillusioned laid back save-the-world Hugh Shipley.  And of course they become best friends.  And of course they fall for the same girl.  And of course their lives are intertwined, even in ways that are not expected.  And none of that was particularly ground-breaking, nor did I need it to be.  But the story of it all.... well, I need more than just interesting facts and interesting characters.  The story needs to come alive.  And for me, with this one, it had a difficult time of it.  There were moments, certainly, but in the end I didn't really feel for the characters.

The first portion of the book covers Ed and Hugh's first few years as friends at Harvard in the 60s, and it is interesting enough.  The 60s and 70s are such an interesting timeframe.  But Ed and Hugh's differences seem to be at the forefront of Hershon's focus, rather than their friendship and the interesting conversations they could have had, the interesting perspectives they could have gained from one another, or the interesting experiences they could have gained from their friendship.  As someone who has had friends just about as polar opposite from myself as you can get--I know that the relationships have the potential to have depth and interest.

And yes, I know that the times, they were a-different back then, but some things are true about friendships: the differences fade away.  And yes, they resurface from time to time, sometimes in very painful ways, but I felt like Hershon just couldn't get *past* the differences.  I get it, Ed was poor and unprivileged, and Hugh was rich and privileged.  I get it, Hugh was attractive and soft-spoken and Ed was short, stocky, and aggressive.  But they both had a hopeful outlook on life and they both had a love of the "new" and I felt like not enough was done to play up these similarities.

Overall, it was a fine book, and I really enjoyed the story after it changed perspectives to Ed and Hugh's daughters, years later, best friends in boarding school.  Although the transition felt disjointed and awkward, the relationships and their evolution were interesting to me.

In the end, I felt that the book made a great effort, but that the payoff was not as rewarding as I had hoped.  It was a little depressing, a little agressive, and dragged a little at times.  Having it compared to Rules of Civility does Dual Inheritance a disservice.  They have different energies, different focuses, and different purposes.  But I would recommend the book -- to people who want to read something more dense, who are interested in the more depressing sides of lives, and who have the time and energy to devote to a book that covers 5 decades and many characters' lives in about 500 pages.

THREE of five stars.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler

Review based on ARC.

I was so excited when I won this book.  And then I was even more excited when I read the first 10 pages and realized it.  was gonna be.  awesome.

I was so excited, in fact, that I told anyone who would listen what I was reading, what it was about, and what I thought about it.

Many of my friends said they couldn't wait to read it, and a fair number of those even finished first.
That was the worst part about my experience with this book -- I got SO busy between reading those first 10 pages and reading the last 10 pages that I couldn't just SIT and absorb it all at once.

But that's also one of the things that was so impressive about the book.  During my absences, Zelda and Scott's lives would merely pause, waiting for me to return.  And upon my return, we picked right back up, as if we had not lost any time.. just as you would with an old friend.

This is an impressive historical fiction piece.  Fowler clearly did her research, but so much more impressive is the absolutely believable, perfectly flawed, larger than life and exactly every day life, enraging and endearing characters that Fowler lifted out of the pages of history and put to life, dancing and fighting, drinking and arguing, laughing and crying, right on the pages in front of you.

Not only were the characters fresh and alive and warm and cold and just so tangible, but the writing was insightful as well.  Perhaps Fowler got it wrong.  Maybe Z was more casebook schizophrenic.  Maybe she was straight-up crazy.  Maybe Scott was brilliant and Z just brought him down.  But it didn't matter.  Fowler's story is believable and complete.  Maybe it's not 100% accurate -- I don't believe any of us knows.  But Fowler's story is one that I can accept, that I can believe.  And it certainly felt more likely, more feasible, and more real than other renditions I've heard or read over the years.  In the end, Fowler admits that it's a novelization, but as I walked away from the book, I thought that just maybe, Fowler did actually get it 100% right.  Just maybe...

The only reason this book isn't a 5 star is that there were a few places that dragged.  The story slowed down, and it felt more biographical in a few places than like the telling of a great story.  But overall, I highly recommend. I recommend to people interested in history, in biography, in drama, in Gatsby, in crazy, in feminism, in masochism, in love, in tragedy, and in wonder.  This book has it all.

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

An Evil Eye by Jason Goodwin

I purchased this book and recommended it to my book group based on the recommendation of a highly respected, interesting, cultured, intelligent friend.  I'm not sure if I needed to have read the first three in this "set" to really appreciate the book, or if it just wasn't my style, or what, but I thought it was good!  But just that:  good!

This "set" is not so much a series of books that must be read in order -- I understand it is more like a set of mystery novels, that can certainly be read out of order.  Inspector Yashim is a Eunuch in Istanbul with connections to the Sultan and other high ranking politicos, who is permitted to live outside of the castle, and who ends up being the man called in to solve the most bizarre or intricate of crimes.  He also happens to stumble upon others, in light of his life and connections.  In this book, Yashim is called in to see about a body in a monastery that has mysteriously appeared.

The unfamiliarity with the subject matter and even the most basic of things such as a persons title make the beginning of the book difficult to wade through.  Efendi appears to be a sort of casual title -- perhaps akin to "sir" or "friend" and is often used in connection with the proper name for an individual, and occasionally on its own.  Such as:  Efendi Yashim or just Efendi.  Pasha is another title... and Valide I believe is a title and not a proper name.  Goodwin uses these words as if they are every day words to his readers.  And perhaps they are to some; and perhaps readers of the first three found these words familiar.  But as for my friends, co book group readers, and myself: a glossary would have been helpful to refer to for reminders and a brief explanation or background.  I can understand not weighing down the story w/ these definitions, but as I say, a glossary of some sort would have been helpful.

The other frustrating/annoying bit about the book is the author's gratuitous food scenes.  I understand that some of these mystery-type authors want their theme, but this one already has one -- exotic locations, foreign involvement, and history!  No need to bring in how that onion was cut, how the parsley was sprinkled, etc.

On the plus side, however, it was an entertaining story and somewhat rewarding in the end.  For me, once I passed the halfway point, it became a quick read, and I wanted to know what happened next.  I began to read much more quickly, and even found myself wanting to turn the page rather than obey my bed time.  I also liked some of the side characters quite a bit (particularly Palewski), and I imagine that having read the first 3 books would have assisted more in caring about Yashim's own backstory.

There appears to be a story of revenge lurking in the background, and once the "big reveal" was made at the end of An Evil Eye, I imagined that I might have cared more if I knew why it was such a big reveal.

Overall, I enjoyed the scenery, I enjoyed the familiarity with the unusual (to us here in America, anyway), and I enjoyed the mystery.  As I said, it was good!  But not great.  I would recommend to someone who is a big mystery fan, a fan of Istanbul and/or harems and/or sultans and/or historical politics.  I would recommend to someone looking for a meatier book, a denser book.

THREE AND A HALF of five stars.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Teacher's Pest (Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #3) by Charles Gilman

Review based on ARC.

The best part about reading a good series is when the books get better as they progress.  This one does not disappoint.

Teacher's Pest is the best yet in the series of the Tales From Lovecraft Middle School.  The book begins with Robert and Glenn beginning a day like any other day in the life of a middle schooler.  Unlike the first two books in the series, however, a sudden twist in the beginning of the story leaves you questioning the allegiances of even the most faithful of Robert's friends.

Glenn is bitten by an unusual looking, purple-bellied wasp, and his behavior suddenly and dramatically changes.  Not only is Robert left wondering if his friend is ok and what it will take to bring him back around, but he is also left largely alone to deal with the new plot of Tillinghast to take over the school and the world.

At the end of Book 2 (Slither Sisters), Howard Mergler has been named Student Council President as a result of Robert's gracious actions.  As we learn at the end of Book 2, however, Howard is yet another demon-in-disguise and part of Tillinghast's plan.  In addition to the purple wasp that Glenn was subject to, the entire school is overrun with creepy crawlers of all varieties.  Howard Mergler promises the school that the creepy crawlers will all be gone by the end of the day, but in Robert's investigations, a more sinister plot is discovered.

Teacher's Pest is not only an entertaining story and a quick read, but it also contains morals and friend-lessons and is, overall, promising to be an excellent series.

I highly recommend for 8+ readers with a penchant for the unusual!
FIVE of five stars.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Slither Sisters (Tales from Lovecraft Middle School Book 2) by Charles Gilman

Fun, fast, and great.

Again, this series is aimed at a younger audience.  Unsurprisingly, middle school would be the perfect age range -- although the writing may be too simple for many middle-schoolers, it will be perfect for others and it has the added benefit of having middle-school protagonists.  But I would recommend as young as 7/8.  Although the topic is monsters and beasts, it's a mildly presented form of monsters and beasts and (I don't think I'm spoiling anything here) the hero always wins. (highlight over if you want to see the not-too-spoiling spoiler).

Robert, his best friend Glenn, and his best ghost friend Karina delve deeper into the mystery of the school and the Tillinghast Mansion in the crossover dimension.

The characters encounter monsters, as expected, and must run from a fate-worse-than-death, as expected.  But this second book offers more background into the story, the mansion, and various characters. Robert, Glenn, and Karina get to know each other and their classmates better, as well as seemingly minor characters who ultimately prove to have a much stronger roles to play.

The Price twins have returned from being missing and, as revealed in the first book, have done so as monsters from Tillinghast, albeit in human form. The heroes never know who to trust - and they must resolve how to save the school despite the fact that any of its teachers, parents, or students could be involved in the Tillinghast plot.  As expected, this book satisfying closes the "chapter," but leaves a solid cliff-hanger for the next book.  (Eagerly awaiting!)

An excellent new series and I highly recommend (particularly so to the appropriate age range).

FOUR and a HALF of five stars.

(note: read on Kindle)
(note2: I found this awesome GIF on

Monday, April 1, 2013

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

Review based on ARC.

Where to begin...
This is a cross between sci-fi, fantasy, and "lite" horror, with some conspiracy, mystery, and supernatural thriller thrown in.  It was a fun book, a quick read, and satisfying in the end.  Mona Bright's father dies at the beginning of the book and, as a consequence, Mona discover that she has inherited a house she never knew existed, in a town she has never heard of, from a mother she never really knew and who died when Mona was about five.  Mona is unable to find Wink, NM on any maps and, only as she actually draws close to where Wink appears to be located, based on its proximity to a mesa, has anyone even heard of the town.

Mona finally finds idyllic Wink, with its perfect lawns and perfect small-town folk, and begins the process of discovering who she is and, much more importantly to Mona, who her mother is.  The existence of Mona's mother appears to be wrapped in secrecy and top-governmental confidentiality.  No one remembers her mother, even those who have lived in Wink their whole lives.  But the longer Mona hangs around and the deeper she digs, the more she uncovers about not only her mother, but about the town and all of its inhabitants.

Bennett explores science-fiction and dips into fantasy in the discussions about pan-dimensional reality, the ability of dimensions to "bruise" each other and permit cross-over, and even touches on theories of alternate realities.  There is also "lite-Horror" and supernatural thriller in the inhabitants of Wink, their "monsters" who rule the nights, and the monsters who plague the monsters.  The story progresses not only through the single narrative of Mona attempting to discern the mystery of Wink and her own past, but also incorporates the perspectives of other more peripheral characters, those who do not even live in Wink, those who are merely doing as they're told, and those who suffer at the hands of the "monsters" and the monsters' monsters.

The story is ultimately about discovery of self and the exploration of familial relations, and Bennett does a nice job of weaving something of a moral into the backdrop of a small town mystery-horror.  ... This review may seem a little dry, and that's because (1) trying to summarize a 600-page novel must omit all of the interesting little details, and (2) more importantly, none of this novel should be ruined ahead of time.  Each discovery is worth the discovery.

The book didn't blow my mind.  It didn't make me think that maybe, just maybe.... maybe this could happen.  It didn't floor me with a baffling skill of writing or cause me to completely surrender all notions of reality.  But I really enjoyed American Elsewhere and highly recommend.  Although it was a longer novel, and my life is incredibly busy these days, I stayed up long past bedtime and ignored other necessary tasks in order to read just a little bit more, just a little bit more.... just a little bit more of this novel.

I easily red a couple hundred pages in one sitting, and that, if nothing else makes it a worth-reading book.  Fortunately, there is more to this book than its simply being a quick read.  Bennett's interesting theories on dimension-bruising and his willingness to explore some of the more extreme science-fiction and supernatural areas are impressive amidst a story that takes place in the present world "as we know it," managing to present a sort of magical realism that pushes the boundaries of "reality."

Overall, I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys sci-fi, fantasy, lite-horror, supernatural thrillers, and the like.
FOUR of five stars.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This is another book that we read for book group, but which I also feel inclined to personally review.

This is a great debut.  While reading this book, I have told many who will listen that this is what I wanted The Great Gatsby to be, but wasn't.  I know, blasphemy.  But I had heard so much about The Great Gatsby before reading it, and I really really built it up in my head.  I don't know that anything could have lived up to what I was expecting.  And along came Rules of Civility.

Set in 1938 in Manhattan, the book explores the "life and times" of a young girl (late 20s), finding her way.  The book is told from the perspective of Katya a/k/a Kate a/k/a Katherine a/k/a Katey, with brief and infrequent deviations from her perspective to Tinker Grey (Teddy/Theodore).  Many authors try to garner familiarity with their characters by the forced imposition of nicknames... Towles' use flowed off the proverbial tongue.  I never felt as if my feelings about the characters were being forced upon me or manufactured by clever tricks--whether that was in fact happening or not ;)  Instead, I felt that there was a natural, organic discovery of the various individuals in the story, and I was able to come to my own conclusions about them as "time" (the pages of the novel) passed.

I truly enjoyed Rules of Civility.  I loved reading about Kate's job as a paralegal, and then as an assistant (however briefly) in the literary world, and best of all, her role as co-executive assistant of the classed-up gossip magazine.  I loved reading about Kate's various friends and acquaintances.  I loved Anne Grandyn.  I loved Wallace.  I didn't particularly love a couple of the other characters -- including Tinker himself, but they were still intriguing ... and I'm not so sure I was meant to love them.  There was depth to the story and dynamics to the characters, and I appreciated that not everyone was the 150% version of what a real person would have been at that time.

The primary thing I did not love about the book:  There was a bit of time, in the middle to 2/3 point of the book, where it felt likt it was dragging just a little, where Kate's love life seemed to take on a depressing-romantic weighed down feel.  But Towles moves past that point and brings the reader back into activity and movement without straying too long in the "drama" side of Kate's year.

Overall, an excellent debut that definitely made me want to read more.  Definitely recommend to all readers, men and women alike.  Towles did an impressive job writing from the perspective of a woman, but there's still a gentleman's touch that I think will appeal to both genders alike.

FOUR of five stars.

Monday, February 25, 2013

White Mountain by Sophie Tallis

Review based on ARC.

In the end, it fell at three.
While I read this book, my feelings toward it changed often and dramatically.  I felt that the beginning warranted closer to four stars, portions of the middle were great, portions were good, and portions were frustrating.  And the end redeemed itself a little.

This book falls squarely in the "fantasy" camp.  Three friends a/k/a companions find themselves on a Lord of the Rings -esque trek across a large version of our world (or else the dragon flies remarkably slow).  Wizard Marval/Marvalla/M Agyk (a-hem) a/k/a the Green Wizard, dragon Gralen, and witch Wendya encounter incredibly extreme situation after incredibly extreme scenario, fighting for their lives at every turn, eventually leading to a fifty-or-so page "climactic" fight for the known universe.  In between each of these incredibly extreme situations falls lengthy and involved descriptions of scenery with spatterings of "normal" conversation among(st) the friends.

The book includes "dworlls" (dwarfs), ellfrn (elves), dragons/draken (dragons/baby dragons), dwelf (cross-elves and dwarfs), wizards and witches, and various dark creatures/spirits/monsters such as dark mytes (demonic/spirit-like giant beetles), wargols (troll-like entities), and, Morreck/m'Sorreck himself.

Right.  That's one of the major issues I had with this book... not the various creatures. Like I said, I'm a fantasy-girl.  The issue is that it felt like a regurgitated LOTR w/ some Harry Potter thrown in.  Except with HP5-level immaturity and tantrums.  M Agyk (I cringed every time I read it) was Gandalf (with some Dumbledore thrown in) .. except instead of being the "Grey" Wizard, he was Green.  Wendya was the generic protagonist/Harry Potter (does not yet know (a) how strong she is or (b) about her twisted past).  Gralen was Samwise/Ronald Weasley/Hagrid.  Of course there are great differences, of course they are not actually the same characters.. but there were SO many times that I thought "uh-huh, LOTR" or "oh, there's HP!"

Additionally, M Agyk's thousand, Gralen's many hundreds, and even "young" Wendya's several hundred years on this planet have not stopped them from making amateur/adolescent mistakes.  There were essentially tantrums, pouts, and clumsy dealings with the challenges, rather than the maturity and broad vision that would be expected from someone with at the least several hundred years of life on them.  Indeed, the whole book might have been less frustrating to read if the three leads were in the late teens or early twenties. Just that -- and publishing as a YA -- would make the book seem "appropriate."

Nevertheless, there is promise with the author and the series.  The descriptions, while long and sometimes gratuitous, DID bring the landscape to life and created a colorful and three-dimensional picture in my head.  The loooong battle at the climax of the tale was surprisingly well done - moving between the different locations of the fighters somewhat effortlessly and mostly convincingly.  Certain of the characters were even endearing and all of the characters were well-described, if not very well developed.  It was easy to turn the page.  I did want to know what happened next.  I did  tense up during the battle scenes.

Moreover, I felt that Tallis nailed the oracle scene and Agyk's first interaction with Morreck.  Those scenes fall into "great."  If she had limited the sheer number of life-threatening situations in one book to just a couple, if she had limited her descriptions (or, really, the need for such descriptions) to just a few (no need to cover the whole world in book 1 of a trilogy), if she had been just a little more realistic with the whole love-triangle bit (what works in a cartoon does not necessarily work in a novel), and if she had instead taken that space to develop the characters' characters (heh heh) a little more, I think the book could easily jump a star.

As is often the case w/ new fantasy writers, the second book may be leagues ahead of the 1st.  I would recommend the book to YA-fantasy readers looking for something to bring back thoughts of HP and LOTR, and I would recommend to die-hard fantasy fans who aren't particular about polished writing.
Overall, THREE of five stars.