Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Void of Mist and Thunder (13th Reality #4) by James Dashner

And so, I finally finished this series. The 13th Reality series started with The Journal of Curious Letters, which... well, I couldn't pass that name up. So I picked it up. And though it is definitely in the younger group of YA (or the older group of kids), it was entertaining with a good plot and some very interesting characters.  This series is probably best for kids in the 8-13 age range.

So what's it about? Well, the series is about Atticus "Tick" Higgenbottom (14), who is recruited to become a "realitant," which sort of means, person who knows that there are multiple realities, that there are sometimes issues with and among the realities, and who is tasked with the job of protecting those realities when and how he can, along with the other realitants.

Tick is in Reality Prime, the strongest and most stable of realities, but there are thirteen other known realities that the realitants can travel through and protect. The thirteenth reality is Mistress Jane's domain, and has some weird properties that seem to heighten the "chi'kaarda" levels. So, what are Chi'kaarda levels? Well, it's sort of the juice that allows the realitants to travel between realities, but also much more, allowing people to harness its strength to accomplish great feats. And Tick and Mistress Jane are two such individuals who, for differing reasons, have the ability to harness great amounts of chi'kaarda.

And at the end of book 3, they have done so to such a degree (in a fight against each other) that they have found themselves in the Nonex, along with Reginalt Chu from the 4th Reality, who found himself there by coming into interaction with his "alterant" -- i.e., another version of himself from another reality (in this case, Reality Prime). So, the Nonex is a place where .... well there's just a whole lot of unknown about the Nonex, but what is known is that people don't escape from there. At least, not ever before. So, can Tick, Mistress Jane, and Chu work together to escape the Nonex?

On top of that, resulting from the climactic fight at the end of book 3, there appears to be a rift in the realities, through which the Fourth Dimension seems to be trying to leak in. The Fourth Dimension may or may not have consciousness, may or may not be evil, but is definitely wreaking havoc in the realities and the realitants must work together to try and salvage the worlds.

So the book has a lot going on. And even though it'd been a while since I'd read the 3rd book and had forgotten most of what had happened, this 4th and final book in the series is written in such a way so as to remind me of everything without simply repeating it (which would be rather dull for those who did remember what happened in the prior 3 books). In other words, it all came back to me rather quickly and seamlessly.  The book is quickly paced and suspenseful, leaving you constantly wondering how Tick will react and how Jane will react.

And although you suspect that it will somehow work itself out in the end, you don't know how it can do so, and you definitely don't know who will make it to the end (not everyone does).

I thought Dashner was creative in his approach, and I didn't mind the introduction of new major elements in this final installment. I did think it was a little convenient at times, but then I think Dashner took a rather inconvenient sharp turn--to his credit. Keeping the reader guessing and keeping everything up in the air made the final installment read just like a final installment should -- like a final, grand climax, where everything comes to a head.

And it's wrapped up well enough. I like neat little packages and it was good enough for me; for those who like it a little less neat, I think it's also good enough for them. There's still a future on the horizon, but you're okay that you're not going to read about it.

Overall, definitely recommended. Certainly for those who've started the series, but also for those who haven't, it's a younger and sweeter series than HP, but it hits the right notes and is satisfying in the end.

People I Want to Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann

Review based on ARC.

I really really enjoyed the first few chapters of Jen Mann's snarky take on the world of suburbia. And I should have read the subtitle more closely to really understand that the whole book was going to be about suburbia, but I didn't realize that. And why is that relevant? Well, after about half the book, it started to just feel like a singularly focused rant, with examples of how horrible her co-moms are. Which, yes, is definitely entertaining! But also gets to be a little draggy at times.

So yes, this is I think what people call humor essays. You know, sort of like what David Sedaris does. But focused on, as I said, suburbia and the horrible people who live there who are raising their horrible children. At least, to hear Mann talk of it. And not that I doubt her, but she seems almost to have a vendetta against these horribly misdirected moms.

But she's funny. Definitely witty and smart and funny... and biting and at times cruel. She's dealing with a segment of the population who seems to just not "get it" when it comes to well-roundedness or alternative approaches to child-rearing or... well, a lot of things.

And you can see by this review that I just sort of had a hard time figuring out how to review it because she's funny. But it gets tiring after a while. And as quickly as I read the first half, I slowed down and dragged a bit on the second half.

So my recommendation? Read the first half for sure. And if you're not tired at that point, keep reading. She'll make you laugh and probably make you question a few things about how you do things. And she may annoy you just a little (for me, her constant referral to "the Hubs" was distracting and kind of lame, but I accept that that's probably what she actually calls him in real life? er.....), but she'll entertain you while she's doing it.

So yeah, I recommend it. For sure. But know that you might not finish it. But it's okay because it's just essays and when you're done, you can be done. :)

It's a high three-and-a-half stars, so earning 4 on sites w/o halves.

About that Night by Norah McClintock

Review based on ARC.

I'd never heard of Norah McClintock, but I should have. She writes YA mysteries and, if this one is any indication, they're fast, fun, and surprising!

About that Night is a book that mostly focuses on the disappearance of a popular teenage boy one cold night after Christmas. However, the same night that Derek disappears, a popular high school teacher Elise also disappears. Is it just an unlucky night, or are the two related? Elise is found relative quickly and her disappearance is explained relatively quickly. But Derek's lingering disappearance becomes the mystery of the story.

Jordie, Derek's girlfriend, and the reader know more than the cops for a majority of the story. There are little details to which we are privy, and yet it's not obvious. While Jordie is trying to solve the mystery and save the lives (or quality of lives) of the potentially innocent, so is the reader.

The pacing of the book is fast and energetic, constantly presenting a new theory, hitch, or clue for the reader to chew on. The characters, while not particularly likable, are relatable and feel like normal people in extraordinary circumstances.

The ultimate resolution.... well, you'll have to read it to find out. But I will say I ended the book and my first thought was "whoa." So I recommend to anyone looking for a quick mystery to pass a few hours. (And I note that I didn't think the fact that it's a YA detracted at all from the mystery.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Reading this book was a long time coming. I finally picked it up because I was going to Savannah and, well, yes, of course, read "The Book."
So I did.

I enjoyed the first half, but felt like the author's journalist background was coming out more than a cohesive story. It was more like a series of mini-biographies on various interesting people in Savannah. Like those long articles where a magazine writer meets with someone of interest over an extended period of time and talks about their interactions (there was a fascinating one with Fiona Appel in the past couple years...). I.e., it was very interesting and definitely put you in the mood of Savannah, but it wasn't exactly a story. There didn't appear to be a fluid tale coming out. It was more like "oh this person! Oh and that thing! oo, and then there was this one time... And oh yeah, she was interesting too!" And it was. Interesting. But not, as I say, a story. So the first half I'd give about 3 1/2 stars.

Except for the Jim Williams stuff which is the beginning, occasionally throughout, and most of the latter half of the book. And I'd give all that 5 stars. Berendt truly brings to life Jim Williams and his house (Mercer House), his experiences, his trade, his peoples, his parties, his personalities... I loved reading all of that. And Berendt did a fantastic job bringing to life the trialS related to Jim Williams.... without being boring or repetitive or, frankly, overly legalistic. It was just interesting and endearing and wonderful.

And what's it about? It's about Savannah. It's about the people in Savannah and the nature of Savannah and what makes Savannah, Savannah. This is apparently why the people in Savannah simply refer to this as "The Book." Because it did its job well. And it's also about a murder trial. And about big personalities. And about a journalist's discovery of a city, its people, and even himself.

And I recommend it. Just to everyone. It's a pleasure reading and a good one to have read.

Note: This book is true... mostly. As Berendt explains, not only have many of the names been changed, but the timeframe has also been changed, and perhaps small other details, to provide a story that's truer in "feel" than perhaps in explicit detail.

The Stone Boy by Sophie Loubiere

Review based on ARC.


I started this book with high hopes for the French thriller that it claimed to be... So, around page 60, I was disappointed. I took time away from reading to explain to my sister what the book was about, what was happening, and what was bound to happen.

And I love that I was all wrong. And all right. And kind of nowhere in between.

I love that Sophie Loubiere was so deep in her plunge into the psyche of a declining intelligent woman. With a questionable past and an even more questionable present.

So, the book is "about" an elderly woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that things have changed. The neighborhood is not quite the same---but that is a trueism, as time has passed. But what concerns Madame Preau is the child in her neighbor's yard who appears to be neglected, abused, and crying out for help. And what concerns Madame Preau more is that no one seems to have any record of the child. Not his siblings' school, not child services, not the police.

And what concerns Madame Preau's doctor-son and psychiatrist, is that this all seems unsettlingly familiar... as Madame Preau has in her past made claims about the abuse of another child. And it is concerning to Madame Preau's son that Madame Preau claims that this neighbor-child---this "stone boy"---resembles her own grandson. Who she has not been permitted to see in over a decade.

So the question is... is the stone boy real? a hallucination? can Madame Preau be trusted? to what degree? What is happening next door? What happened in Madame Preau's past?

Although the pace of this psychological thriller seemed to be slower than I would have expected for a "thriller".... It appears as if it was just right. I really had a hard time putting the book down, even after I thought the whole thing seemed inevitable and unsophisticated (and there, I was wrong). It read quickly and smartly. It answered questions while fluidly raising others.

I admit that I did not adore the ending as much as the rest of the book.  It was a little bit of a let down after the expert weaving that had just taken place. It wasn't bad... it just wasn't perfect, in the end. But still, a highly recommended book for anyone looking for an intelligent thriller, a moving examination of an imperfect mind, an easy way to spend an afternoon.

I think this is really 4.25 of 5 stars...

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Review based on ARC.

This one was very hard to rate. I fell at 3 1/2 because it purports to be a big novel and in that, it falls flat. In comparison, I confess it is better than Asylum, which I read at the same time. But it receives a slightly lower review because Asylum is, frankly, a kid's book, whereas, as I say, this purports to be more.

This is also a hard book to review because it seems that there are many out there who think it would be a terrible thing to SPOIL the.... well, what I would call the plot. So how are you to discuss it then?

About the plot, I can say these things: It is a book about many. It starts as if it is a book about a brother and sister; it continues as if it is a book about just the brother and the difficulties and crazy insurmountable challenges he will face; it further continues as if it is a book about just the sister and the difficulties and crazy insurmountable challenges she will face; it is throughout a book about love.

So, a little more practically, James Norbury and his sister Charlotte are all-but abandoned by their father in their childhood. Their mother having passed away, they are much left to themselves to grow up and attempt to learn about life. They have their private trials and tribulations, and ultimately, they seem to grow from them. And then fast forward. James is now a young man who has graduated from Oxford and is looking for a life in London. He must room with a young aristocrat who seems James' opposite in many ways. James and his aristocrat roommate make remarkable discoveries together and James finds love. (and this is one of the spoilers.... he finds love in "an unexpected quarter" is how the back puts it...)

Then tragedy strikes and James must continue his learning and life under difficult circumstances. (yes, another spoiler) And this is around where Charlotte revisits us as she attempts to assist James in his difficulties (spoiler, spoiler) and she meets someone who also is going through great difficulties (spoiler of course). They all work toward ... er, spoiler. And then spoiler, spoiler.

So yeah. JUST PURE SPOILERS. But that's ok.  Do I recommend the book anyway? I do. See below...

In review, I will say these things: It's a quick read. This 500+ page victorian-esque novel reads quickly, and you must turn the page to see what next! and how! Although I was not actually shocked by any of the so-called spoilers (it wasn't that I expected it; it's that it wasn't shocking to me), I can see why some wouldn't want it "ruined" for them. So I refrain. But Owen has written one of those dark, gritty, victorian-underworld, mystery-fantasy novels that is very satisfying to read.

Where it fails? It was scattered and choppy and overly ambitious. It was like reading the Meaning of Night... but not as good. It was like reading The Passage, but not as good. It was like reading The Map of Time (Palma), but not as good.  And it was all those "but not as good"'s that just kept adding up.  The Quick is fun, it's fast, it's interesting, but it's not great.

There's a lot of promise in Owen's writing, and I will DEFINITELY read something else by her. This being her debut novel, she starts strong and I'm excited for her additions to the world of literature.

Overall, THREE AND A HALF of 5 stars.

Oh, and for those who really want to know?  Spoiler 1: (highlight to see) In this victorian timed tale, James' "unexpected" love is another man and Spoiler 2: (highlight to see) and yeah, we're talking vampires here. But good vampires, like in The Passage, not like in Twilight. ;) 

Asylum by Madeleine Roux

I really enjoyed reading this book. The pictures weren't always overly realistic (as compared with, e.g., Miss Peregrine's Home...), the story had all kinds of holes, and the characters were weak and flat, but the story was quickly paced and creepily presented, and overall, I was very pleased to have read it.  In fact, I immediately put the sequel on my wish list.

So, the story: Dan Crawford is a 16-year-old gifted student on his way to spend several weeks in the New Hampshire College Prep program (located in an old insane asylum). where he expects to finally be surrounded by other overly-smart kids, like himself.  In fact, when he arrives, he is confronted with an overly-overly smart roommate, who is odd and off-putting. Dan finds an old photo in his desk with what appears to be a doctor whose eyes had been scribbled out, and Dan's odd roommate tells him there are plenty more in the "off-limits" portion of the college, where the asylum has not been renovated or even made safe for students.

Dan is curious about the photo and, after meeting hew new friends Abby and Jordan, he sets forward on a plan to discover what he can about the asylum, its doctor, and hopefully anything else that will explain the odd visions and experiences Dan begins to have.

Of course Abby is this perfect little quirky beautiful teen who is (of course) drawn to Dan (who kind of loves her), and Jordan is your somewhat standard genius gay kid who's just looking for a break from the oppression that is his parents. Abby, Dan, and Jordan have a fun relationship that is immediately tested and challenged, and they struggle with loyalties and suspicion when a murderer appears to be on the loose in the asylum.

So yeah, you can probably see from that brief description that there are already some holes that are bound to appear in the plot. But for me, I read through them all very quickly and got myself all nice and creeped out. I think if you read this one too carefully or too slowly (or on too bright of a day ;)), you might find it hard to ignore the flaws, but if you allow yourself the indulgence on a stormy night, you might enjoy the book anyway.

As I said, notwithstanding some of the issues, I *really* enjoyed reading this and I am definitely looking forward to the  sequel. There were definitely some questions left unanswered, which I expect to be addressed in the sequel.

And for it all, I'm intrigued by Roux and will keep an eye on other books she publishes.
FOUR of five stars.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

I finally sat down with Clarke's second, the Ladies of Grace Adieu. I'm fairly certain I waited as long as I did because I was afraid I'd be disappointed. Because Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of my favorites.

And I kind of was and kind of was not.  The short story collection definitely did not blow me away. But it was also really well done, really well written, well imagined. Each of the stories advances the world Clarke's created, or a version of the world. It feels almost like anecdotes that you might have heard told by characters from Jonathan Strange's world... fables, tales, stories.

The writing is, of course, immaculate. The story-telling is good.. great, even. The collection read quickly, and each story felt complete in its own right. I'm not sure what more I wanted, but it seems that I did want something more. When I was done, I felt it was sort of anti-climactic.

So, I would definitely recommend to Clarke fans and people who would be Clarke fans (but who just haven't had the good sense to read her yet ;)), but with the note that it is good, really good, great, but not as satisfying and fulfilling as Strange & Norrell...

Overall, FOUR of five stars.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin

It took me about 20 pages to settle into her "voice"... the result of which was, unfortunately, about 20 pages until I decided I did, after all, like the narrator.  At first, I thought she was a kind of snarky know-it-all. But once I settled in, I realized she was a self-deprecating, well-experienced, down-to-earth cook from the mid-80s, with a very dry sense of humor. And I quite liked her sense of humor.

At the beginning, Colwin says that she reads cookbooks like novels.  This is perhaps why she's written this book the way she has... it reads like a sort of series of short stories, anecdotal short stories, but it's also a cookbook. She manages to pull off jumping around from subject to subject, from story to story, and from recipe to recipe, in a way that makes the reader want to read more, know more, eat more, and COOK more!

Some review I read said that this book is like having a telephone conversation with your best friend. I would agree with that. The way Colwin approaches not only her stories, but also the recipes, is familiar, close, intimate.

Overall, this was a lovely book that I intend to re-index (because there already IS a useful index at the end!) for my own purposes so I can use and re-use and hopefully impress dinner parties full of people...

Highly recommended for people who want to cook, who are good at cooking, who are bad at cooking, or who just like food. or who just like to eat. ;)