Monday, June 30, 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Review based on ARC.

I really enjoy Bennett's imagination and creativity.  He creates whole new types of people and creatures and worlds, but still manages to make the whole story accessible and interesting.

In City of Stairs, we join Bulikov (aka City of Stairs) in the "present," after it has been conquered and re-established as an outpost of the now-powerful Saypur. Bulikov, formerly run by and taken care of by the Divinities, is now a relative wasteland, barely limping along. Somehow, historical hero The Kaj managed to kill the Divinities, free the Saypuri (Shalies) from their cruel slavery, and establish a government.

However, the Saypuri government forbids any worship or or even mention of the former Divinities, and so the story begins with the murder of a Saypuri historian who was studying the forbidden Bulikov history and Divinities.

Enter Shara Thivani, cultural ambassador from Saypur, who sets forth to investigate the murder. However, it is very quickly apparent (immediately to the reader) that Ms. Thivani is not actually Ms. Thivani at all, but rather one of the Saypuri ministry's top spies and perhaps much more well connected than initially divulged.

So yeah, it's a sophisticated murder mystery and a fantasy (think: American Gods) rolled into one. But then add the Romeo & Juliet love story, the Dreyling "man" who murders as a matter of course (and also, of course, works for the ministry), a local Saypuri "governor" with a snarky sense of humor, and a whole lot of anger and intrigue, and you've got City of Stairs.

It was complex and involved and thorough and satisfying. It drew me in right from the beginning, and I confess I was up well past "my bedtime" finishing the book. Although the first half takes a little while to really pick up pace, the character, plot, and scenic development is worth the pace. Then, when it starts to move, it MOVES.

The only real critique I have is that I wasn't ever really surprised or ... substantially moved. There is dark humor and dark romance and dark mystery, all my kind of thing and definitely done well, but those moments where you "A-Ha!" or "No!" or "Yes!!".... I don't remember having them. So it wasn't a book where I found myself attached to it, but it is one that I truly enjoyed, am glad I read, and definitely recommend.

Recommend to anyone who enjoys the meatier mysteries/fantasies, something a little smarter. Do not recommend to those who are queasy around fantasy.

FOUR of five stars.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Four Reviews... Quesadillas, Casual Vacancy, Smekday, and 84 Charing Cross Road...

 1. Quesadillas by Juan Pablos Villalobos

I really enjoyed this quick little angry rant. Juan Pablo Villalobos is brilliant, witty, and dark. Quesadillas is a novella taking place in a small town in Mexico, featuring a 13-year-old boy that feels very much like the author's young self. This may be due in large part to the fact that the novel is supposed to be written by the boy, but 20'ish years later.  Consequently, the narrator has the vocabulary and awareness of someone in their 30s, but the telling of the story itself has the maturity of a teen.

It's fun, funny (laugh-out-loud funny), smart, dark, and thought provoking. While poking at his own country of origin, Villalobos also opens the window into the inner-workings, thought processes, and difficulties of the poor/middle-class-poor of Mexico's rural communities.

Villalobos plays around with the magical realism that his country is known for, while still keeping his head above waters with a psychological smirk on his face.  It was a pleasure reading Quesadillas.

Definitely recommend, but with the "warning" that the narrator is dark and crass. Very crass. But funny. FOUR of five stars.

2. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Ahh, I think I've been avoiding this review.

In two words, I would say this book is "Devastating Masterpiece." It's devastating. It's brilliant. And, oh, by the way, it is NOTHING like Harry Potter.

As I've said to many people since finishing the book, it's best to think about this as by a different author altogether. Trying to put the Rowling-you-know into this book just creates a disjointedness that is hard to reconcile. Take it separately.

Rowling has a knack for characters. I really don't know how she does it. She has created a world of peoples inside this tiny English village abutting a city that you feel like you know. The "main characters" range in age from their mid-teens to their mid-sixties or seventies... And they're all just as believable as the next. And they are all so very very flawed.

Superficially, this book is about someone dying in this small town in England, leaving open a vacancy in the town government. What happens next is a whirlwind of activity as the two "sides" in the town vie for the open seat.

In this book, you name it and Rowling's probably covered it.  Assuming what you're naming is dark and desperate. While I disagree that she felt the need to "prove herself" by covering so much hard and gritty ground, as some reviewers had suggested, it did almost feel at times as if the darker side of life was fighting to get out, and it all landed in this book.  I mean, seriously: drugs, sex, rape, adultery, jealousy, hatred, fear, abuse, etc. It's there.

Nevertheless, somehow Rowing creates a story about the human condition of hope. With peoples you know. And in this normal, run-of-the-mill life story, extraordinary circumstances occur. Brilliant. Devastating. Hopeful.

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars (but inching toward 5, so 5 on those sites w/o half stars :))

3. The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Wonderful elementary and middle-school level book. Highly recommended.

The protagonist is an eighth grader who has lost her mother to an alien invasion.
The book takes the form of an essay being written by the girl to explain what Smekday really means to her... The winner will have their essay included in a time capsule to be opened 100 years in the future.

So Gratuity ("Tip") Tucci begins her story.  She's funny, witty, and mature, while still having the light-heartedness and hopefulness of a, well, a middle-schooler.

She first goes into the "what happened"... then the "what next" when her teacher urges her to include more personal reflection.

Tip, her alien (Boov) compadre "J-Lo," and her cat all set out to first save themselves and then to save the world.

It's light, fun, quick, and cute. It's original, thoughtful, and funny. Well-populated by a wide variety of characters with their own personalities, this book is a gem that I'm glad I've discovered!

Definitely recommend for elementary (high level) and middle school readers looking for something new...

FOUR of five stars.

4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

I am so glad this was recommended to me. What an absolutely lovely collection of letters.

I had no idea what this was about when I started reading it. I did not know that it was an actual series of correspondence (or, portions of it) between two actual people in an actual life.

Helene Hanff, a write in New York, begins her correspondence to the bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road in London in 1949, seeking a better set and quality of books than what she has been able to find locally.

Frank Doel takes on the task of fulfilling Helene's requests and corresponding with her.

What develops, however, is a real 20-year friendship between not only Frank and Helene, but several other bookstore employees and their family members.

It is at times funny, at times moving, and always just lovely.  I loved this book. I highly recommend to anyone who loves books!

FIVE of five stars.

**Note: I was so eager to see the movie (made in the late 70s) after reading this book.... Ultimately, it was also lovely, but it took more than half the movie for me to adjust my expectations of who the characters were... In my mind, there was more of a playfulness to the people than the movie portrayed. Although I don't recommend against the movie, perhaps following up with the movie right after finishing the book wasn't my best move...

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Black Book of Secrets by F.E. Higgins

Ludlow Fitch, a young boy (somewhere around 11-14) lives a hard life in the City, where his parents have taught him to pick-pocket for his and their livelihoods. When his parents and the dentist, Barton Gumbroot, try to pull his teeth out, one by one, for a small profit to his parents, Ludlow escapes his parents and the City and finds himself in the small town of Pagus Parvus.

There, he meets local tyrant Jeremiah Ratchet and the new secret pawnbroker, Joe Zabbidou. Zabbidou takes on Ludlow as his assistant and Ludlow begins to learn what a secret pawnbroker really does, why, and how the people of the world are impacted by it.

Zabbidou and his Black Book of Secrets, of which Ludlow becomes secretary and keeper, infuriate Ratchet, who sees his power slipping from him in an intolerable manner. Ratchet and his efforts to undermine and undo all the work that Zabbidou has done with his secret pawnbroking ultimately culminate in a town-wide confrontation, from which all the involved players will learn something.

Higgins creates a fast-paced, interesting, original, and fun tale. The story is subtly dark and subtly fantastic. This would be a great book (reading level) for older elementary school kids and younger middle schoolers. Of course Higgins' story can appeal to all levels, and I quite enjoyed my read!

FOUR of five stars.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Hungry Girl Diet by Lisa Lillien

I'm behind.. I owe reviews on Rowling's The Casual Vacancy , Villalobos' Quesadillas , Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday , AND Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road ... but, first... The Hungry Girl Diet, which I just finished last night...

The diet portion of this book is closer to 5 stars, but the book is a bit... cheesy and
cliched for my preferences, so overall it lands at a solid 4 stars.

Lillien's book persona is over-the-top cheerleader "DO IT!" "Try It!" "I'm obsessed!" "Amazing!" about a lot of things.  Also, she likes fake sugar a lot... more than I'm personally comfortable with (i.e., a lot of her recipes include 1 to 2 packets of no-calorie sweetener, like Stevia or Splenda), BUT a lot of her recipes are sans-fake sugar and/or can just be made w/o the added sugar (e.g., the oatmeal may taste sweeter w/ the packet, but it's just fine w/o it!)..

Overall, I was impressed with:
- Her thorough guide to eating better in the real world.
- Her variety of options. She includes a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables (as expected), with enough of the "other stuff" to make you feel like you don't hate yourself for dieting. She does have some processed options in there (e.g., Fiber One brownie bars), but you could totally do the diet w/o ever using those options.
- The size of portions, as promised. You do get a lot of food. Real food. My breakfast actually fills up a full normal size (i.e., not appetizer sized) plate. The oatmeal is a big serving that is actually filling. You get to eat fruits in nice big quantities.
- My success so far! (it's only been 3 days of being ON the plan, but I have already lost 2 pounds :))
- Ohmygosh the App. The App is brilliant. Not because it's a great app (see below), but because of what it DOES do. So there are 3 sections -- 2 of which you'll use. My Meal Calendar, you can add your meals a  day at a time... you pick from a list of the options WITH pictures and create your day. When you're done you can go to the Shopping List and the app will CREATE the shopping list that you need for the meals you picked on the days you've selected. BRILLIANT. Additionally, your shopping list will have extra notes and comments where relevant (e.g., if you need to put 1 cup of strawberries, she tells you that 8 large strawberries is usually 1 cup; or, if you need to buy 2 cups of big-fiber vegetables, she lists your options! but this is all in "notes" so that it doesn't muddy the list itself). AND the list is organized by section of the grocery. But..... (see 3rd "complaint" below)

Overall, I was not as impressed with:
- as mentioned above, she's a bit over-the-top with some things, though I imagine this sort of cheerleader attitude does over very WELL with many people :)
- I'd have appreciated a "if you don't eat fake sugar, try ____" options. Like, in her oatmeal, could I add a packet of real sugar? would the 20 extra calories really be problematic? or would the fact that I'm eating "sugar" be problematic? As I said above, it's fine w/o the sugar at all, but a little sweeter might also be nice ;)  I *am* going to try a packet of stevia this weekend and I'll see how I like that...
- The only thing I'd change w/ the App is adding the recipes for the options... THAT would be perfect. Then I wouldn't have to lug around my phone AND the book whenever I want to make something (including at work). I understand that perhaps she needs to make money, so maybe the FREE app would include what it currently has, and you'd PAY for the app w/ the recipes, except for people who have bought the book, who should get a code to buy the pay-app, so they can have it for free

Overall, I was neutral about:
Her organization. On one hand, I liked the color-coordinated pages (helps you find your section quickly!) and that the recipes were all in one section, etc. But it was weird having more discussion at the end of the book, the color pictures should have come all before or all after the recipes, and some of the interspersed discussion I feel could have been better placed. In particular, if you read the book AS you were doing the plan (as most people would), you might not realize there are some really good tips and discussion points interspersed throughout weeks 2-4, when you are only in week 1.  So. I guess maybe that's a publisher issue, but it was noticeable to me.

So, overall 4 very solid stars.
And I'm excited about this whole plan.